“Is this a joke?” Cynthia asked.
“No,” Fray said. Her eyes were fixed to mine. “Warren, would you do us a favor and bring Sylvester a chair?”
Warren approached with a chair. He extended an open palm at the end of the table closer to Percy and Mauer. I shook my head, indicating the middle of the long table, facing Fray, my back to the audience.
Part of it was that I didn’t feel comfortable sitting on one side or the other, for much the reason Fray couldn’t. Part of it was that I suspected a few of them might casually kill me if I got in arm’s reach. The final part of it was that I wanted the audience there so I was in front of them, facing the same direction, so that anyone who looked at me had to look at them.
Cynthia’s chair screeched as she stood from her end of the table. Two gloved hands pressed against the surface.
Case in point.
“Are you going somewhere?” Fray asked.
“I think I’m done here,” Cynthia said.
“The only reason I haven’t left the room yet is that I’m trying to gauge if I could get away with slitting his throat,” Cynthia said, raising her eyes from the table to look at Fray. She smiled in a way that made it clear her skin wasn’t proper skin. The creases were too ill-defined in places, too forced in others.
It might become more like ordinary skin in time, I mused.
It was reassuring to know that there were options like that available, when the fate of my own skin was up in the air. Warren set the chair down and I took my seat. It was a heavy wooden thing, likely grown into the shape of a chair by use of a mold, and I couldn’t sit in it easily. Either my legs stuck out directly in front of me, or my back wasn’t touching the back of the chair, even with my backpack, and I risked slouching. I pulled my feet up onto the seat.
“We have an audience,” Mauer told Cynthia. “People who matter, who have contributed or want to contribute to what we’re doing.”
“Fuck the audience,” Cynthia said.
Angry. Cynthia wasn’t nearly as composed as she had been the last time we’d crossed paths.
Mauer, however, seemed as cool as ice. He still had the reddish-bronze hair, the weary look in an otherwise young face, blemished only by a sharp nose, but he wore a long sleeved shirt that looked a little worn and faded, suggesting he’d spent a lot of time outdoors, and he had a long military coat draped over his shoulders, a fair share of it covering his bad hand. The hand was moving at his knee, fidgeting, and I imagined it was a tell, impossible to fully hide. Too much pain and emotion together put it in perpetual motion.
Percy sat beside him. I’d almost forgotten what he looked like, and might have forgotten entirely if it hadn’t been for the fact that I’d recently reread some of Jamie’s writings. He was taller than Mauer, and almost the opposite of Mauer in condition. Where the reverend’s physical condition was almost identical to what it had been, his clothes more worn, Percy’s clothes were finer than the ones I’d seen him in before. I could imagine an aristocrat wearing his outfit, but for the long coat that was so reminiscent of a doctor’s without quite being one. He still favored a style of clothes that accented his narrow frame. Physically, however, his graying hair was longer, he had a mustache now, and his beard needed a touch of a trim. The lines of his face were deeper, and deepened further by anxiety.
“To explain where Cynthia is coming from, so our audience doesn’t believe she or any of the rest of us crazed,” Mauer said, injecting a small barb into the phrase, “the little boy sitting here at the table is not a real child, nor is he human.”
“Your facts are wrong,” I said. “I’m human.”
“A modified human,” Fray said. “Calling you precocious would be understating things. The Lambs have come up during discussions on other nights, as some here might recall. This is one of them.”
Is this how it’s going to be? Even you’re going to gang up on me?
“Hmph,” one burly man on Cynthia’s end of the table grunted. He sized me up.
“A monster in the Crown’s employ,” Mauer said. His voice was carrying to the rest of the room. That hadn’t changed. “Cynthia’s reaction isn’t an unfair one, dramatic as it is. He has a body count, and if I understand it, Cynthia was one of his victims.”
“Almost,” Cynthia said. “Very nearly.” She had a knife drawn. It wasn’t pointed at me, but the end of the knife tapped now and again against the table.
“You killed my children,” Percy said.
“In a manner of speaking,” I said. Wasn’t worth arguing the particulars. “That was more the Lambs as a whole than me.”
“A plague of spiders and a spree of murders in Whitney, the systematic execution of independent doctors and researchers, enforcing the will of the Academy and the Crown,” Mauer said.
His voice was so rich, the nuance on every word perfectly chosen. I broke into a smile despite myself, glad that the audience behind us couldn’t see my face. “I seem to recall you putting a gun to the head of a little girl.”
“I recall that she was no more a human than you are,” Mauer said.
Point. Couldn’t argue that one. She wasn’t more human than I was.
“I’m human,” I said. “I haven’t taken any drugs that Genevieve Fray here hasn’t. I know you want to hammer in the ‘inhuman monster’ idea, and you’re going to keep saying it over and over until people start believing it, but people are here, they’re listening, they’re making choices. They’re smarter than you’re pretending they are.”
“Is this your plan?” Cynthia asked, “Invite yourself to the meeting and subvert us from within with wordplay? Address the audience and turn them against us? Genevieve, you invited him here for this?”
Before Fray could answer, Percy spoke, “You freed Avis with inside help. This wouldn’t be the help?”
I managed to keep my expression flat.
Fray shook her head. “I would be happy if it were, but no. And I think Sylvester should answer Cynthia’s question.”
As I opened my mouth to respond, she quickly added, “Keeping in mind that he is what he is, and every statement should be taken with a grain of salt. ”
Et tu, sister? I had to appreciate the word choice of ‘what’ I was versus ‘who’ I was. A subtle choice that I was sure Mauer had noticed and appreciated.
I was in an awkward position, because I’d had so many accusations thrown at me. It was an effective tactic in argument, throwing a dozen half-true statements at someone in short order. To answer every last one would have taken five times as long as it took to make the accusation, and left me with no time to argue my point. Even if I did argue against the worst offenders, I couldn’t change the fact that the first argument in my audience’s ears was that I was a monster.
Worse, my memory wasn’t quite at the point where I could pick out specific points to argue.
And I knew it was Mauer’s doing. An attack on me, surer than anything Cynthia was doing. He was the more dangerous one, even if she had a knife and the desire to use it.
Better to take a different tack.
“I thought you needed a, ah, you’ll have to remind me here, Mauer,” I said. I snapped my fingers. “Something something advocate?”
“Devil’s advocate,” Mauer said. “Promoter of the Faith. One who argues against.”
Cynthia stood straighter. Her knife seized firmly in one hand, an impressive length just shy of being a proper sword, she stalked the length of the table.
Might have to revise my opinion on how dangerous the woman with the knife is.
“Cynthia,” Mauer said, not rushing his words despite the fact she was seconds from stabbing me. “Don’t be barbaric.”
I saw Fray give a small shake of her head, but she wasn’t looking at me, Mauer, or Cynthia. It was Warren, questioning if he should intervene.
Fray wasn’t on my side as much as I’d hoped, if she was really saying no.
Cynthia reached out, seizing me by the hair. She pulled my head to one side. As the knife came down, I reached up to block it with one hand. It cut against the part of my wrist that was closest to bone, on one side. I could feel the blade against bone, too sharp and clean a slice to properly rasp.
Knives were the worst things to deal with in a fight. Guns were awful, a bullet hurt like the dickens, but thanks to the fact that they were meant to kill stitched, they tended to either miss or kill the target. Knives either killed or hospitalized the target. Short of being as trained as Gordon or Mary, there was no happy ending once the knife really came into play, and not always for them.
Worse, I was falling back into old habits. My mind was split three ways, caught between thinking of something to say that would make her hesitate, something that would bring another person to my aid, and how to actually defend myself.
She pulled her hand back, then stabbed for my throat. I twisted in my seat, moving as far away from the knife as I could-
“Cynthia,” Mauer said, more firmly.
She stopped. Her knife and I remained where we were, the knife pointed at my throat, me halfway in leaning over the armrest, neck and head pulled away from the blade.
“Whatever he is, there are people watching, they will judge what they see, and that will hold more sway than anything we might say to them.”
Cynthia didn’t respond, and she didn’t move. Her eyes didn’t move off me to look at the rows of people who were sitting in attendance.
I reached out slowly, and clasped my hand firmly against the slice on my wrist. Short cut, but the gap opened wide, and the cup of my palm was filling with blood.
“He’ll have scars. Care for the worst wounds, but there will be scars,” Mauer said, quiet, his voice probably aimed at communicating to the people at the table and maybe the audience members in the front row. “I’m not going to say it is what we should do, but if you really wanted to kill him, the best way would be to strip him shirtless, make the war wounds clear, to erase some of the doubt from their minds. Communicate to the people there, with eye and ear.”
His voice was almost hypnotic. It nearly made this entire situation worth it, to have access to it.
“He’s stalling,” Cynthia said.
“Sort of, but it doesn’t matter,” I said.
She made a motion with the knife as if she was going to put it through my neck, but didn’t follow through.
“Why don’t you elaborate, Sylvester?” Fray suggested, her voice cutting through the tension.
I drew in a deep breath, then exhaled slowly.
“Instinct tells me to scare you, to drive in wedges, play up how you’re surrounded, the Brechwell Beast is loose, the help you’re expecting isn’t there anymore, and so on. A mix of lies and truth. But the reality is that Ms. Fray picked this location for a reason, she has plans, and there’s really no point in threatening you because she isn’t concerned, and she isn’t concerned for a reason. She has a way out.”
Eyes moved to Fray.
“I’ve been assuring everyone that is the case,” Fray said, “Having you say it does help them to believe it, I hope. Thank you.”
I nodded. “That way out comes with a caveat. I’m imagining that she’s holding onto it, a deal-sealer, a clincher. When the time is right, she aims to tell you that yes, there is a way out, there’s a way to tie this together, and there’s a greater plan. But, let’s not forget the caveat, the two groups need to work together, or at least swear off working against each other. This will only truly work with a concerted effort.”
“You’re close enough,” Fray said. “I’ve already told them what form our escape takes. The plays after the fact, I haven’t shared those.”
“I hate that phrasing,” Cynthia said. She still had the knife pointed at me. “The ‘plays’. As if this is a game.”
“It could be because you never experienced childhood,” Mauer said.
Cynthia stared daggers at him.
Because she’s an experiment?
No. Because of her background.
“Would you rather ‘maneuvers’?” Fray asked, gently. “Some time ago, your group asked me to join, and I refused. Now I’m here, as per your request, and I’m trying to give you what you asked for. The war isn’t sustainable, we can’t maintain conflict indefinitely and still muster what we need to change things the next time it counts.”
She was looking at each other person around the table as she talked. As she reached the end with Mauer, she turned her attention briefly to me.
I felt a chill.
It wasn’t a chill of surprise or horror, because neither was the case. I’d understood this was the case before I’d even sat down. It was a dopamine rush, the same flood of momentary pleasure and shivers that came with listening to really good music.
Where we are now, she planned it in some form. She may have even started the war to bring things to this point.
This table, with its interesting people, the danger, the strategy, it was where I belonged.
I spoke, because I wasn’t sure I’d get a chance again if I didn’t. “When I said I was here to play Promoter of the Faith, it wasn’t that I’m arguing in favor of the Academy. I’m genuinely curious what Fray is doing here, and I want the opportunity to hear it, knowing what I know…”
I met Fray’s eyes. She arched an eyebrow.
“…Coming from the background that I do,” I said. “If I’m advocating for anyone, it’s the rest of you. I’m joining my voice to yours, questioning what she’s doing from a more objective standpoint.”
“You weren’t invited,” Cynthia said.
I was caught for a moment, stuck between trying to interpret her statement. Was it that she was saying I wasn’t asked to argue on their behalf, or was she realizing Fray hadn’t invited me here?
“You’re my adversary, Sylvester?” Fray asked.
“No,” I said. “No, not at all.”
I leaned back a little, resting my hands on a damp pants leg. One hand was still clasped hard to the knife wound.
“I’m wondering whether, if what you’re offering and doing is good enough, you’re still open to having the Lambs join you.”
There was a hush, a bit of stillness. The audience behind me was making more noise, people making sense of the conversation, talking among themselves.
Mauer’s expression was hard to read, but his hand was fidgeting more than it had been. Percy was quiet, still, he’d barely spoken up, and I could see him analyzing me. His eye traveled to different points of the room. He’d been undercover for a long time, acting as a teacher while working to subvert the city through its youth, but I could almost read his mind as he looked to see if there was a physical sign of a trap.
Cynthia’s reaction was interesting, as the point of the knife dropped just a fraction. I let myself relax more.
“Where are the other Lambs in this?” Percy asked, quiet.
“They don’t know I’m here. But if you can convince me, then I can probably convince them. Mary’s okay, by the way, Percy.”
The name was like a slap to his face. Had he known she was ours? They had so much information about us, but was he somehow in the dark?
“I see,” he said.
“She’s one of the Lambs. We’ve taken good care of her. If you asked her to come with you… I don’t know what her answer would be.”
The lines in his face hinted at emotion he was trying not to show. He clasped his hands together in front of him, forming a ball that bobbed up and down twice before he spoke again, “How many lies did you tell her?”
“A few,” I said.
He nodded, seeming to take the statement in stride. “I as well.”
I nodded, taking that in.
I hadn’t forgotten the mice, sacrificed to make the Ghosts. My finger touched Melancholy’s ring, and rotated it around my thumb.
I was forced to stop as I realized I wasn’t keeping enough pressure on the bleeding wound.
Avis surprised me by speaking, “You were such a staunch defender of the Academy.”
“No,” Fray and I spoke at the same time.
She indicated that I should speak. I did, saying only, “I wasn’t for the Academy. I was for the Lambs. The problem is and was that they are hard to separate.”
“That was my interpretation of it,” Fray said. “I made the invitation over a year ago, and you refused me.”
One of the men I didn’t know spoke, “What provoked this change of heart?”
I shook my head.
“A Lamb died,” Fray said.
I hesitated, then nodded.
I raised my eyebrows. “You don’t know?”
“They’re being more clever about who finds out about what. No, Sylvester, I admit I don’t know.”
“Is he dead, or…?”
“He’s dead,” I said.
Saying it aloud was hard. If I’d been anywhere else, anywhere at all, it might have been easier to handle. I could have done something, moved, turned to someone, and found a small bit of respite.
But looking one way and seeing enemies, and looking the other, seeing more, unable to really do more than squeeze my wounded wrist even harder, it was the first time in months I’d wanted to cry.
I smiled instead. It had done me okay so far.
Fray was nodding. She started to stand, and the stitched girl helped in pulling the chair away. Cynthia lowered the knife and stepped away from the chair to take a seat at one end of the table.
She’s from a rough background, and while Mauer fidgeted and Percy drew quiet, she reacted with anger. A rat that bites when backed into a corner.
Looking at her companions, and at the members of the audience sitting closer to her side of the room, I suspected she was a rat with connections.
“You’re not promising defection,” Fray said. “Whatever happens, whatever I say, you’ll want to go back to the Lambs to discuss the matter.”
“That would be ideal,” I said.
“Making this all a matter of nice sounding words, tempting us with added help and the information you’d be able to provide,” Mauer said.
“Less information, without the one with the memory,” Cynthia observed.
“True,” Mauer said.
The two sides were agreeing, now. Cynthia at one end, and Mauer at the other.
“I wish I’d known you were doing this,” Fray said. “I would have tailored my plan to suit the situation, and provide a tempting reason for the Lambs to defect.”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
“No, I’m not at all disappointed, Sylvester,” she said.
Fray stood hands on the backs of the chairs to either side of her, and she had the attention of the room. “For the past three days, I’ve been arguing for an end to the war. Not now, but soon. I’ve pointed out locations where key individuals can go, places they can work without being found, while still maintaining a reasonable standard of living. Believe me, I know how important that is. I’ve been on the run for a year and a half.”
Her finger tapped on the back of the chair to her right for a second.
“I’m proposing we take the war in a different direction. We leave them hurting, while helping everyone. Give them an enemy they can’t effectively fight.”
She reached back. Avis pulled something from a bag and handed it to Fray.
I almost flinched, seeing what she held. It wasn’t tailored to what I’d just been talking about? Bullshit.
It was a book. Thick, large, and heavy, with a nondescript cover. It made a sound as it was dropped onto the table.
“Don’t leave us in suspense,” the burly man spoke.
“The Academy’s knowledge, distilled. This particular volume isn’t complete, nor comprehensive, nor is it well suited for doing research. But it’s a starting point. The tools and guides necessary to walk someone through some basic experiments. There are other books, more complete ones for anyone who wants to advance their knowledge, and I have plans for yet more, simpler texts in simpler fields.”
“Giving the power to the people?” Mauer asked.
“Giving the Academy’s power to the people,” Fray said. She indicated Cynthia, “Godwin’s enclave had the books, but not the means to mass produce, and the knowledge was of limited use – they had to find doctors and ex-students to use it.”
She was indicating Percy now.
“We give everyone the ability to learn, we take away the exclusive access to Academy knowledge, and our individual groups, working together, can incentivize use of the knowledge. Novice doctors and students will come crawling from the woodwork with their experiments, farmers will be able to create their own help instead of buying it, and everyone else will compete with the Academy for the same resources.”
There were murmurs in the crowd now.
“Not a genie that can easily be put back in the bottle, is it Genevieve?” Mauer asked, with a note of humor.
“I did think you’d like this,” Fray said.
“The production?” one of the men at the table asked.
“Already set up. I’ll reserve further comment for when we don’t have listening ears,” Fray said, indicating me. “With a coordinated effort, they won’t be able to restrict the spread of the texts and deal with our final forays and efforts. We play all of the cards we’ve been holding in reserve, and by the time the dust clears, the world will be different. Humanity gets a fighting chance against the monolithic Academy.”
The words and voices blended in together.
I was disappointed.
Was it change? Yes. Undeniably. The knowledge wouldn’t be used by everyone. But enough people would pick it up. Back alley practices and independent experimenters would crop up. People like the snake charmer. Monsters would appear.
There would be good and bad in equal measure, and the Academy would hurt. It would be forced into a situation where it either had to take more control than it should, or lose control overall.
I suspected the former. I suspected it would backfire, that raids and searches for books would ensure that the fires of hatred against the Academy continued to burn. That the next war would be even more brutal, with the people on the ground having many more tools at their disposal.
She played the long game. Always the long game.
Was it a stride toward what I hoped for? No. I couldn’t believe that it was. Fray knew it wasn’t. She’d said as much when she talked about how she’d have tailored it.
“Sylvester,” Fray said, quieter.
The voice snapped me out of a train of thought. I realized that the groups on either side of me were talking.
“Is it what you expected?” she asked.
“In a way,” I said. I’d expected this scene, the groups talking, the note of hope.
“If you’d come to me when I first asked, Jamie would be alive, wouldn’t he?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I told you how things would play out. That a Lamb would die and you’d reconsider.”
“I know,” I said. “But I don’t know yet. I’m not sure.”
She nodded. “You hoped for a better brain, one that could pave the way to greater things. Did you hope it was Jamie?”
“I hoped it was me,” I said, quiet. “But Jamie was a close second.”
The conversations around us continued. Discussion, strategy.
“I need to talk to them about things you can’t hear,” Fray said. “I’m going to let you go.”
Letting me go. I’d expected to be taken prisoner, maybe even tortured in an edge case, but torture was something I could deal with, and had dealt with in the past. I waited for elaboration.
“On the condition that you leave that behind,” she said.
She was pointing.
I turned to look, and felt the tug against one shoulder before I realized.
“Ah,” I said. “No.”
“There’s no other way. I can convince them, but you need to convince me first. I figured out what was in that oddly shaped bag you refused to take off and place at your feet. I remember the last time I met the Lambs. I remember Jamie.”
I touched the strap of the backpack. The books were inside.
“If I’d rather be taken prisoner?”
“Then they’ll kill you,” Fray said. The word seemed to get attention, because one or two conversations stopped. “I know them better than you do, and they’ll kill you.”
Almost thirty seconds passed before I slipped my shoulders free of the straps. “You don’t read them. If you do-”
“I won’t,” she said. “None of us will. Hand them to me.”
I placed the bag on the table.
It was hard, seeing Fray take it, lifting it free of the table and handing it to the stitched girl.
“Nobody gets to take that bag, or touch or read the books inside except him,” Fray told the stitched girl. “Not even me. He gets it back when he comes tomorrow.”
My heart was pounding harder than it had all night.
“You’re staying?” I asked.
“So long as we don’t venture outside, the Beast poses little risk to us,” she said. “You have one night to decide. Go and sleep on it if you must. Next time you come, come with the rest of the Lambs.”
My heart felt cold in my chest as I said, “I don’t suppose I have much of a choice, do I?”