I stirred in response to a knock on my door.
“Nn,” I managed.
I heard the door open, and pulled the covers down from over my head.
“Sylvester,” Mrs. Earles said, “Breakfast. Lillian’s here, too, so don’t think you can skip eating this morning.”
“Mm,” I said. “Isn’t she up and at ’em early in the day. Obligations?”
“I think so, yes.”
I sat up, rubbing at my eyes, then ran my fingers through my hair. It was long, it was shaggy, and I had the worst bed-hair of anyone I knew. I had no illusions about my ability to keep the hair tamed.
Mrs. Earles cleared her throat.
I looked up, looked at her, and saw her pointed look, just behind me.
I twisted around, and saw Mary lying there, head on a second pillow.
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah.”
“Hi, Mrs. Earles,” Mary said.
Behind her, some of the other children had already woken up. I saw Rick step into view, glance at the scene, and smirk. Mrs. Earles saw and shooed him off.
I reached under Mary’s pillow, she smacked my arm, and I withdrew it.
Fine, I thought. But that’s going to be a thing.
Mrs. Earles positioned herself so that she filled the space between the door and the frame, with little chance of someone peeking or seeing past. “It’s my habit to avoid asking questions,” she said. “That said, given the situation, given that Sy is twelve at most, and you’re thirteen-”
“I think of myself as a small fourteen,” I said.
Mrs. Earles gave me a withering look.
“You don’t have to ask,” Mary said. “Really.”
Mrs. Earles took that in, then nodded. “I won’t, then. I was looking for you, Mary, I was worried you’d gone out earlier than usual to practice your throwing. It’s good that you’re here if Lillian needs you. Don’t take too long getting ready.”
“Okay,” Mary said. I nodded.
The door shut, the latch clicking.
“I like how she takes you at your word,” I said. “But when I say something, oh, no. I could tell her the sky is blue and she’d double-check.”
“The sky isn’t usually blue in Radham. It’s gray at best.”
“You know what I mean.”
Mary swung her feet out from under the covers, standing up from bed, stretching. I hurried to pat down the covers so there were no gaps for the cool air to leak through.
I looked past her to Jamie’s bed. A large notebook sat on the bed, the weight of it messing up what had been a perfectly made, entirely neat bed.
“I missed my morning exercises,” Mary said. “I’m so used to the way the sun comes into my room in the morning. Moment it slips over the top of the window and hits my eyes, I’m out of bed.”
“That sounds like the worst thing ever,” I said. “Why would you wake up early on purpose?”
“I like it. It’s a good start to the day, keeps me sharp.”
“You’re sharp enough,” I said, reaching under her pillow for the knife she kept there, holding it up for demonstration.
Mary smiled. She reached over, touching my chin to turn my head away. I could still sort of see her in my peripheral vision.
“Lillian does it too. The lunatic,” I said. “If it wasn’t for Helen, I’d think all girls were screwed up somehow. She appreciates a good night’s sleep.”
Mary was pulling off her night clothes. I fixed my eyes on the ceiling.
“She sleeps with her eyes open sometimes, you know?” Mary said.
“I know. I’ve done stakeouts with her.”
“It’s not the only weird sleep thing. The first night I slept here, she climbed into bed with me. Curled up beside me like a cat, no covers, no pillow, fell straight asleep. One-time thing. I don’t know if it’s about affection, or about dominance, or-”
“Insecurity,” I said.
“Insecurity. More rational than emotional. ‘Keep your enemies closer’ is a very good tactic when you’re a Helen.”
“Ha,” Mary said.
“I’m not joking.”
“No, I know you’re not joking, but that’s clever.”
“Someone should probably mention it to Ibott, but then he’d want to keep Helen over in his labs so he can observe and train her sleep and blah to that.”
“Blah,” Mary agreed. She stepped closer to the bed, dressed enough to be decent. I reluctantly sat up, taking a second to rearrange the covers before I took the offered wires and knives. I set to arranging them, with only minimal help from her, while she brushed her hair.
A minute passed like that as I set everything up. Mary made only small readjustments.
“Gotta ask, Sy,” Mary said, as I wrapped up. She walked over to the rest of her clothes, folded neatly on Jamie’s chair, pulling on a skirt over her hose-covered legs, “Why is this now?”
“Mmf,” I said, letting myself topple over, head hitting pillow.
“It’s been nine months.”
“Why the change? Why now?”
“That’s a topic best saved for a group discussion,” I said, looking over at Jamie’s bed.
“I can recall at least three times where you’ve said something like that, and then you didn’t bring it up again.”
“Can you? My memory isn’t that good.”
She gave me a look, finishing buttoning a blouse over her camisole.
“Okay,” she said, pulling on a sweater. She bounced on the spot, making skirt and hair move and sweater settle into place, then turned to me, “You don’t have a mirror, so I have to ask you for the verdict.”
“Very pretty,” I said.
“Good answer,” she said, seeming satisfied. She smoothed out a wrinkle. “I should go wake up Helen.”
“Here, you’ll need this,” she said, tossing the brush at me. I let it fall against the covers. “If you’re not out of bed by the time I come back down the hall with her, I’m going to have her wake you up.”
“I could give her suggestions on what to do to you,” she said, as she opened the door, peeking out. “What’s the most humiliating hold?”
“I’ll be out of bed, don’t worry.”
“Or maybe I’ll get her to chew on you?”
“I’ll be out of bed!”
“And dressed! Go away!”
Mary smiled and closed the door behind her.
I climbed out of bed, stretching. I shivered a little at the cold, then pulled some clothes out of my dresser. Some shirts were Jamie’s. I hadn’t grown nearly as much as I’d have liked over nine months, but it was enough to need a different set of clothes, and Jamie had been a bit taller than I was.
Button-up shirt, pants, suspenders, jacket. I used Mary’s brush to try and fix my hair, gave up, and pulled a boy’s cap over it. I emerged just in time to run into Mary and a dressed-and-combed Helen. Helen had her head on Mary’s shoulder. As she saw me, Mary gave Helen a light push. Helen staggered my way like a bad stitched.
“Ahh,” I said, monotone, a mock cry as Helen draped herself over my back, arms over my shoulders. She swiped my cap off the top fo my head, then lightly bit my scalp.
“Arr,” she said.
“I told her,” Mary said.
“Mmf, arr,” Helen said. She adjusted position, mock-biting the top of my head a few more times.
“Don’t bite too deep. Sy-meat is poisonous.”
“That’s totally not true,” Mary said.
“We don’t know it’s not true,” I said. “I know my blood is poisonous, chemicals floating in it. Stands to reason the rest of me is a little poisonous.”
Helen stopped biting me, resting her chin on top of my head instead. “You smell like Mary.”
“Probably, but could you not mention that in front of others?” Mary asked.
“M’kay,” Helen said. Then she made a snoring sound.
More than half-asleep.
We made our way down the stairs. Helen synchronized her steps with mine, so she wouldn’t come down a step a half-second after I did and end up driving the hard point of her chin into my skull.
As we rounded the corner, making our way down the last leg of the stairs, she pulled away, straightening. She transferred the hat back from her head to mine.
“Good morning, Helen!” Eliza, Fran and Iris called out in sync.
“Good morning!” Helen said, bright, cheery, without a hint of sleepiness.
I rolled my eyes. I rounded the dining table to collect my plate of breakfast, putting a hand on Lillian’s head to rock it left and right until she knocked my hand away in annoyance.
“Sy,” Gordon said, looking up from his plate. “Sit here.”
I gave him a suspicious look, then gave a more suspicious look to the rugrat sitting beside him. Albert. “Why?”
“Because Al here keeps feeding Hubris.”
I bent down to peek under the table, at the mutt, then stepped over the bench, interjecting myself between the kid and the beast.
Mary and Helen found their seats as well. With Lillian present for this morning’s breakfast, we naturally filled the empty spot on the bench.
Just let this meal go by without incident, I thought, staring down at the plate, methodically shoveling food into my mouth. Sausage & mashed potato with onion and boiled vegetables of some sort I’d never seen before. Don’t let this be a bad day.
With last of us served, Mrs. Earles headed off to start getting the little ones ready. I saw her leave, and I saw Rick watch her leave.
I sighed a little.
“So, Sy,” Rick said.
Smug bastard. Smug, round face, smug hair, smug fat ass.
“Rick, no,” Gordon said. “Whatever it is, no.”
“You’ve been on my case for the last year, practically,” Rick said.
“Nine months,” I said.
“Sy, don’t respond. Rick, shut the hell up, or I will beat you,” Gordon said.
“Jamie’s in the hospital, fine, but you keep making me out to be the bad guy, and I’ve done and said nothing wrong.”
“Even if we agree that’s the case-”
“It is, unless you can tell me what I’ve said that’s so awfully bad,” Rick said.
“Even if we agree that’s the case,” Gordon said, “You and Sy don’t get along. Sy’s missing his best friend-”
I clutched my utensils tighter.
“-and the very best thing you can do is to ignore him.”
“I don’t think it’s fair that-”
“Ignore him,” Gordon said.
The little kids who hadn’t finished eating were staring, silent.
Talking very slowly, as if he was spelling things out to a small child, Rick said, “I don’t think it’s fair that I live in this house and there are people who also live here who I’m forbidden to talk to or talk about, through no fault of mine. I feel like I and others are kept in the dark sometimes.”
“Life isn’t fair,” I said. There were a hundred different things I wanted to tack on to the end of that sentence. There were statements about why Rick hadn’t been adopted yet that might have made the smaller children cry, and mentions of Jamie that might have made the smaller children cry. I figured it was better to leave things unsaid than to make Mrs. Earles mad at me.
“That’s well and good, but I want to know what the rules of the house are-”
Gordon rose from his seat. He stood there, hands on the table, staring Rick down.
Anyone else might have backed down, but Rick only smiled, playing at blithe ignorance.
“If you need to question the rules of the house, ask Mrs. Earles,” Gordon said.
“Okay,” Rick said. “Alright.”
“I don’t know what bug crawled up your rear end to make you this strange this morning-” Gordon said.
“Ew,” Frances said.
“-But nothing’s changed. Leave Sy alone. Leave the subject of Jamie alone.”
“Okay, alright,” Rick said, throwing his hands up in surrender.
The meal continued. I was making more progress than usual, just focusing on eating, eyes on the food.
“Are we traveling?” Mary asked, conversationally.
“Looks like,” Lillian said. “School project. We’re going to be gone for at least a week.”
“Which train?” Helen asked.
“It’s the train with the tea cart you like,” Lillian assured Helen.
“Been a while since we traveled,” Mary said.
“We’ve been busy enough,” Gordon said, as he settled back into his seat.
“But it’s been very low-key,” Mary observed. “If they’re sending you out to get us, that means early train…”
“Which means we’re rushing, but not so much we’re having to skip breakfast.”
“And we’re probably meeting someone?”
“Let’s hope,” Lillian said.
“Uh huh,” Rick said. I gripped my utensils tighter again. I could sense Gordon tensing beside me. Hubris, under the table, was reacting to Gordon’s body language. “It’s kind of rude to talk in code, with everyone else at the table.”
“Code?” Frances asked.
“There’s no code,” Gordon said. “Why don’t you mind your own business?”
“Why don’t you try carrying on a conversation that includes everyone else at the table?” Rick asked. I had the impression he was actually irritated enough to show it, for once. “Like, say, Mary, why weren’t you in your own bed last night? Do you have anything to tell us?”
I sighed. I could see the look of confusion on Lillian’s face. Mary was shaking her head. She signaled something at Gordon I didn’t catch. Unbeknownst to Rick, Gordon shifted position in his seat.
“Are you and Sy a thing now?”
The bench, complete with me and the other three people on it, scooted backward, as Gordon pushed it back from the table. I reached for and grabbed my bowl, holding it back out of the way as Gordon traveled around the length of the table to a wide-eyed Rick.
Rick was only half out of his seat when Gordon hauled him up and over, throwing him down against the ground. He let Rick get halfway to his feet, then threw the boy into the wall.
“Mrs. Earles!” Eliza screamed, shrill.
Rick was bigger, Gordon was stronger. Every time it looked like Rick was going to get his bearings, Gordon shoved him, or drove him back into the ground with the sole of one foot.
“If you do that again, I’m going to hit you back!” Rick called out.
“Step outside,” Gordon said.
Gordon shoved Rick again. Rick’s head cracked against the wall. I saw some of the girls wince. Helen was among them, but I knew it was for show.
Rick raised his hand, starting to throw a punch, and Hubris closed the distance, biting his sleeve, stopping him short. Gordon punched Rick in the collarbone, driving him down to the ground, then grabbed him, sliding him out and through the back door.
There were three stone stairs Rick had to roll down to reach the backyard, I knew, though I didn’t have an angle to see it happen.
I continued eating, polishing off my breakfast. Mrs. Earles came down the stairs, took in the situation, and then stepped outside.
I met Lillian’s eyes, measuring the confusion and the hurt, and shook my head.
She gestured under the guise of fixing her hair, lie?
I nodded a little.
I could see her relax a little at that. She had the best vantage point to see the fight, from the end of the other bench.
“I guess I need my luggage?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Lillian said.
“Be right back,” I said.
I took my dishes to the sink, rinsed them, and put them on the drying rack. I glanced at the trio of Mrs. Earles, Gordon, and a very sorry looking Rick before taking the stairs two at a time to go upstairs.
A set of luggage was always packed, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Still, I undid the clasps and opened it up, revealing a collection of clothes weighed down by two notebooks. If someone unpacked the clothes, they’d find the pistol and ammunition, vials of poison, and various small supplies and tools.
I walked over to Jamie’s bed, picked up the notebook there, and put it inside the luggage case, before closing it up again.
Heavy, but I didn’t mind.
“Next best thing to having you along with, huh?” I asked the empty side of the room.
I ran my hands down Jamie’s shirt, making sure I hadn’t been splashed with anything when Gordon pushed away from the table, or that little Albert hadn’t dripped on me. I ran my hands through my hair once more, found a tangle, and pulled through it.
“Yeah,” I said. “Next best is pretty fricking lousy.”
I closed the door behind me.
The train car rolled back into motion. People were mostly heading into the city, and those leaving were mostly made up of soldiers and stitched. Seven of the eight train cars were occupied with military forces, the eighth was made up of people.
We’d been placed in a military car, but even then, we’d kept conversation to milder things.
When the single squad of soldiers entered and found places to sit on the other end of the car, I said, “I think we’re good to have a proper discussion.”
“The Duke told Hayle the specifics of this job, and Hayle told me to tell you,” Lillian explained.
“Look who’s moving up in the world, lil’ miss Lillian, doing the briefing.”
Lillian kicked at me.
“What are we after?” Gordon asked.
“What we know is that some major players have disappeared from cities where they had bases of operations. Leadership for the firebrands and the spears, doctors working for either side, some experiments and projects they were keeping an eye on, most picked up and moved. Something about the timing of it, it raised eyebrows?”
From the way she phrased that last statement, I figured she wasn’t sure about her recall.
“You’re doing fine,” Mary said. “It makes sense.”
Lillian returned the praise with a smile that had little confidence. Or was it because it was Mary?
“Both groups up and leaving at the same time. They’re communicating,” I said.
“They are,” Lillian said. “Which is strange because the ideologies have been diverging. There’s even been skirmishes between the two groups, right?”
“Right,” Gordon said. He had a minor scuff mark on his nose, but it was his only wound from what had been a pretty thorough thrashing of Rick. I suspected it was from an unexpected swing of the arm as Rick flailed around, rather than anything intentional on Rick’s part.
Hubris was in the train car with us, draped over the seat next to Gordon, head in Gordon’s lap. The animal was a fighting breed, square-headed, eyes obscured by bushy brows. Even with the coarse, rust-colored fur that covered him, Hubris’ raw strength was apparent at a glance.
“Skirmishes between two groups, now sudden cooperation. The higher ups are pretty sure that someone’s stepping in. There’s some speculation that Cynthia is healed and ready to coordinate,” Lillian said, “But, well…”
“We know she’s been active on and off,” I said. “Working for the spears, focused on the Crown.”
“Could be a deception,” Gordon said.
“Could,” I admitted.
“Most of the people who’ve been paying attention agree it’s Fray,” Lillian said. “We have spies paying attention to the trains and roads, and we’re pretty clear about the city they’ve gone to, but we don’t know where.”
“A diplomatic meeting,” Mary said. “All of our enemies in one place?”
“That’s the expectation,” Lillian said. “If the Academy brings too much force to bear in advance, we might scare them off. If they move blind, they risk missing the window of opportunity when they can’t find the targets. We’re part of a limited scouting force, working with a few others. Dog and Catcher will be there, but it’ll mostly be groups from other Academies.”
“They spent the initial momentum,” Gordon said. “They needed victories to carry that momentum forward, and they didn’t have enough of those. Losing Cynthia for as long as they did, they took the only option they had, splitting up, narrowing focus, trying to reinvent themselves based on area and personalities, in order to revive things some.”
“Focus on anti-Crown sentiment in anti-Crown areas, anti-Academy sentiment in areas where people chafe most with the Academies,” Mary said.
“But that’s a hard fire to keep stoked without fresh fuel. It’s been a couple of months and people are tired of fighting,” Gordon said. “The anger is there, but it’s not fresh, hot anger.”
“War peters out, things mostly settle until the next big excuse, the next war, the next revolution, whatever,” I said. “Both sides know it, banding together is the only way to stay strong enough to stay in the fight, but ideologies have diverged too much, they’ve been competing with one another, they need someone very strong or very clever to unite the groups.”
“The person who started the war in the first place,” Lillian said. “Not that they know that.”
Mary leaned forward. “They’re not stupid. They’re going to be covering their asses seven ways from Sunday. Bodyguards, protection, counter-assassins…”
I nodded. “I guess they’ve decided we’re ready. No more soft-lobs to the Lambs. We tackle this one man down.”
“About that,” Lillian said.
“Ah,” I said. I brought my head back until it rested against the window. “I jinxed it.”
“Sorry, Sy,” Lillian said.
“Ashton?” I left the other half of the question unasked.
“I don’t know,” she said. There was a long, painful pause, then she said. “He’s been in classes with-”
“Okay,” I said, cutting her off.
Silence lingered among the Lambs.
“Okay,” I said, a little more brightly.
“You knew, didn’t you?” Mary asked. “This morning, when we were talking, you said there was something to discuss later.”
I spread my arms. “I’ve been peeking at files now and again. Keeping tabs. It doesn’t matter. I knew it was coming. They’re buffering our numbers.”
And I’m having trouble dealing, in little ways, while that weighs on me.
“How long until he shows?” I asked.
“If not tomorrow, then the day after,” Lillian said.
“We finish before then,” I said. “If he shows, he shows. But we’ll have this wrapped up.”
“Sy,” Gordon said.
“It’s going to be disruptive, okay?” I said. “Newbie joining the group? Because he will be new. There’s adjustment, any time we add someone. There’s emotional stuff to deal with, I admit it, I’m going to have to get a handle on it, and I’m probably going to suck at it. I know the rest of you will too, to varying degrees.”
I looked between each of the Lambs in turn.
“I’ve been upfront about how I’m doing and how I’m coping, so you aren’t surprised. What I’m saying there, it’s part of it. You know I’m right. Given what we’re up against, I don’t want any wrenches in the works to make it even harder, for you guys, for me, for our plans, for coordination. We do this clean, we do it in top form, and we do it fast. If he shows, he finds the job done.”
“You know you can’t run away from this forever,” Gordon said. “If we succeed, we might scatter them to the wind, and we’re going to get a half-dozen missions one after the other, chasing after the most dangerous and cunning of the survivors, cleaning up. If we fail and Fray comes out ahead, then we’re going to be asked to deal with whatever messes she concocts. There won’t be downtime like we’ve had.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Likely one or the other, Sy. If they think we’re ready to get back into the game, we’re going to have to be ready. You’re going to have to deal with the adjustments without breaking stride.”
He wasn’t talking about Ashton.
“Probably,” I said.
“Just making sure you know.”
“I know,” I said.
He reached over to give me a pat on the shoulder.
The train slowed. My eyebrows went up, and I twisted around a hundred and eighty degrees to look out the window.
I turned, asking Jamie, “Does the map-”
I finished turning, pausing as I looked at the pale white curtain beside the window, opposite me. It had looked different out of the corner of my eye.
“We’re there already?” I asked, barely missing a beat.
Nobody commented, except for Gordon to say, “We were on the outskirts of town. We’re heading into the city proper.”
“Alright,” I said. I managed a smile. “Good debrief, Lil.”
“Thank you,” she said. Then she kicked me, hard. “But don’t call me Lil.”
The train slowed to a halt. The soldiers in the car with us waited patiently as we collected our luggage.
We made our way out onto the platform, doing what we could to work through the crowd. It didn’t even need to be said, but if we could keep an eye on the train stations, they could as well.
Our quiet, careful movements were interrupted as we collectively came to a halt. The soldiers in front of us had, too, so it wasn’t too damning.
Heads craned, and we stared.
The city sprawled, a proper city, with several skyscrapers, trees growing freely, and other design touches. One building looked like half of it had been peeled away to reveal a great stone giant, flensed of flesh but not muscle or organ. An anatomical figure crossed with architecture.
A proper Academy city, as Radham was.
Except for the fact that the largest set of structures sitting atop the highest hill in the city were on fire. I was guessing from the look of it that it would be a lack of fuel rather than anything else that saw it go out. It looked pretty damn thorough.
“Don’t suppose that’s our rendezvous point?” I asked.
“It is,” Lillian said.
“Huh,” I said, brightly. “That’s inconvenient.”