“I’m up, Gordon.”
“Oh, I couldn’t tell through the back of your head. Can you wake Sy up? Make sure he gets out of bed.”
I winced, but played at being asleep.
I peeked and saw the door starting to close. It stopped.
Lillian stirred, the arm and leg that were draped over me pulling away. As she turned over, she made the covers pull away from me. I tugged them sharply back into place, which inadvertently pulled her closer.
“Are you doing okay?”
“What do you mean?”
“I know we can get a little focused on the mission, on other things.”
“I know you’re pointing at me,” I mumbled.
“Ah, you’re awake. I don’t want to lose sight of the details, Lillian. I thought I’d ask.”
“I’m a detail?”
“You’re a Lamb. Details come part and parcel.”
There was a pause. Lillian shifted position, but didn’t get up.
“I’m okay. Thank you for asking, Gordon.”
“Alright. We’re eating downstairs. There are a lot of soldiers in the building, so you might want to get dressed before coming down. Are you good to wear yesterday’s clothes, or should I send Mary with-”
“I’m okay, Gordon. I brought clothes for today. Thank you.”
“Alright,” he said.
The door shut.
I turned over, until I was on my back. I looked at the back of Lillian’s head.
“He cares about you.”
“Like you’re a little sister, sort of. He likes Mary, or could like Mary if he let himself, but he thinks it’s wrong to do anything when he might not have much time left. Mary, meanwhile, isn’t making any direct moves.”
“Mary likes you.”
“Mary likes Gordon.”
Lillian turned over. “Maybe, but she likes you too.”
Her face was just a couple of inches from mine, one arm folded under her head. She was sharing the same pillow as me, and her arm being where it was meant her head didn’t slide off the end. Her hair wasn’t even shoulder length when left loose, but it was bound in a ponytail for sleeping, which made it seem shorter, and hairs had come free in the night, laying across her temple and cheek.
It reminded me of Jamie.
“I like Mary,” Lillian said. “If you and she did-”
I was already shaking my head.
“I think she was made to follow orders, she clung to someone and obeyed them and conformed herself to them,” I said, my voice quiet.
“Yeah. To Percy. I think… she’s courting herself, in a way, if that makes sense?”
Lillian shook her head, face pressing momentarily against the pillow, “I don’t get it.”
“She’s still figuring herself out, after, what, nearly two years?”
“Spring of the year before last. Yeah.”
“And when she first got here, she was insecure, she was dangerous, and I spent some time steering her in the right directions, watching her, coaxing her out of her shell. Controlling her.”
“You’re worried that if she gets close to you, it’s going to be moving backward?”
“I think Gordon is better for Mary and Mary is better for Gordon than I am for Mary or Mary for me.”
“That makes sense,” Lillian said.
“Yeah? Because I’m not sure I didn’t get words mixed around.”
“I’m a little worried about what happens when and if she talks with Percy.”
“I wouldn’t be,” Lillian said. “She’s my friend, she’s close to us. She understands.”
“I hope you’re right,” I said. I didn’t say it, but I suspected Lillian didn’t know just what Mary might find out if she talked to Percy.
Lillian gave me a half-smile. “If that’s your reasoning about them, and if it won’t bother you, I’m on your side. I’ll back you in this.”
“Alright,” I said.
I yawned, hand over my mouth, then settled my head back on the pillow.
It was cold outside, warm under the covers, and a part of me didn’t want to face what the day had in store. A second part of me was a little worried about how much the third part of me wanted to meet the day head on.
Mary had a way of looking imperious or hawkish, almost as if her expression was on the verge of being an angry one, but it never actually contorted with the actual emotion. When she felt the need to soften the expression, Mary had a way of becoming more ladylike. It was rare that her back wasn’t straight, her eyes focused forward. Wavy brown hair pulled back and tied into place with ribbons seemed somehow fitting. Something elemental and natural bound into a set form. Get too close, and it was starched collars, hems and lace that I’d joked could cut a man. Beneath that was razor wire and hidden blades.
Lillian was more of a mouse than a hawk in demeanor. Not as visually arresting, nervous, but warmer. When she had her hair cut, I suspected at least some thought went into what was easiest to manage, so she could spend less time getting up in the morning. She’d grown it longer in recent months, despite having more access to the hairdresser, and I imagined it was the influence of the other girls, a growing awareness of herself. Straight brown hair curled out at the end. She bloomed late, but where Helen was a flower tended by another, the inner workings almost entirely separate, and where Mary’s inner and outer self image were inexorably intertwined and carefully honed, I imagined that Lillian was becoming a real girl, but it was on her terms, only permitted when it didn’t interfere with other work. It would be a slow, halting progression.
I could see her as an adult woman, respectable, but not fashionable. Always a few steps behind the times, or too inclined to fall back on staples and safe bets, with only a few allowances to real femininity, like her hair was becoming now.
She had an expiry date too. Not an official one, not one that would see her dead before twenty-two, but there would be a time when her studies would take priority, and she would be yanked from us. That woman I was imagining would watch from a distance as the last of the Lambs died.
I pulled away, pinched the covers down between us to trap the air and warmth on her side, and slipped out from my side of the bed. I stretched.
My luggage was in the corner. I opened the clasps and hauled it open, before collecting the clothes for the day. I draped each article of clothing over the open top of the luggage as I picked it out.
Yesterday’s clothes had gone to pieces. I picked the long-sleeved shirt, green-and-black checkered vest, dark slacks and wool socks, picking each with the thickest fabric in mind, and pulled out boots with straps at the top. I pulled off my pyjama top.
“I’m not looking,” Lillian announced.
“Good. Because naughty girls who peek will find out I have no shame, and I’m not above wagging it in front of your face. You can live with that mental image every time you look at me for the next few weeks.”
“It- Sy, no!” she protested. She had her hands firmly over her eyes.
I dressed quickly, gathered my things, and made sure I had my pockets full of everything I might need. Badge, knife, pen, chalk, string, razor wire, knife and sheath for my boot, needles, and lockpicks. Not that I was very good with the picks.
Mary had influenced us too. Being prepared. Getting used to having everything we might need.
I hauled the window open, and looked out on the city.
Raining hard. I could see the hump of the Brechwell Beast’s back as it meandered down a street about a mile away. For it to be visible above the rooftops, it had either grown a size, or it was treading on rubble of a fallen structure.
Looking in the direction of Fray’s headquarters, I could see the irregular outlines of people or temporary constructions on the rooftops. Warbeasts, possibly sandbags, crowds.
The Beast hadn’t attacked Fray in the night.
I stuck my head out as far as I could manage, and let the runoff from the eaves above the window run over my head. I flipped over backward and let it spatter inconsistently across my face.
Climbing back inside, I shut the window and ran my fingers through my now-wet hair to comb out the worst of the tangles and pillow-hair. There was a tiny bit of grit from the runoff, but it hardly mattered. I pulled on a flat brimmed cap.
Lillian, lying there with hands over her eyes, looked so warm and dry, still covered by the blankets, enjoying exclusive use of the one pillow. The part of me that wanted to avoid the day called out, told me to cover my head so I didn’t soak the pillow and crawl beneath those covers once more.
But that part of me was getting smaller, my brain was starting to get up to speed with the challenges I was sure we were going to face, idle thoughts buzzing in the back of my mind, and I knew it wasn’t really an option.
Last night was the closest thing to a moment of weakness that I was allowed. I could have climbed under the covers and tried to hide from the world, I could have confessed insecurities and the others would probably have listened. We could have changed course or made excuses or delayed the day, and I might have been able to spend the day warm in bed, in the company of the Lambs. But the day after? The day after that? No.
It would weaken me, rather than strengthen me. Set me too far back. Set us too far back.
There was a mission. An enemy to be outsmarted, problems to solve, mysteries to see to their conclusion. It excited me.
A new Lamb to meet.
Not excitement as much as dread, there.
Lillian probably faced very similar dilemmas every single morning she was to accompany us, but I doubted the prospect of outsmarting someone like Fray or Mauer really drove her to get up and keep fighting forward.
“You should hurry, as soon as I’m out the door,” I told her. “You don’t want to be the one keeping the Lambs waiting.”
“I’m up earlier than any of you, every single day, Sy,” she told me, sounding annoyed. I was willing to bet the idea of being the slowpoke genuinely annoyed her.
“Gotta tell you, Lil, this is not the day to start being lazy, wow.”
“I’ll be ready! Just give me some privacy.”
“Because if you delay us, we’re totally going to secretly judge you, except for me, I’ll openly-”
She reached over to the nightstand, picked up the first available item, a candlestick holder sans candlestick, and threw it in my general direction. It banged against the door.
I touched the brim of my cap, bowing a little, saw her reach for the next available object, and hurried through, closing the door behind me.
Gordon was right. Soldiers were swarming the place. Many were young men, and some who weren’t hurrying from one place to another were here, in earshot of Lillian’s shout, giving me knowing grins and quirked eyebrows. Except I wasn’t exactly sure what they were being so smug or knowing about.
I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of boys only three to five years older than me milling around and going about their business with Lillian alone in the other room.
I waited with my back to the door, both hands behind me on the knob and one foot tapping, for what must have been several minutes. I was about to poke my head inside and tell Lillian to hurry when the door opened, the doorknob slipping from my fingers.
“Oh!” she said, in surprise.
“Um. Bathroom,” she said, looking around the hallway. One of the young men across from us pointed. “Don’t- don’t wait outside the bathroom door, Sy.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so I didn’t. I gave one glance to the young soldiers and headed downstairs.
The group had collected in one corner of the already small kitchen, Gordon and Mary sitting side by side in the windowsill, and Helen standing in one corner beside them.
Before I was even halfway down the stairs, Gordon used one toe to nudge a plate of mystery meat, eggs, and green stuff across the table.
“You beat Lillian down here,” he commented.
“Lies and slander. Oh, you meant I’m first. Yeah.”
“You’re in a better mood than yesterday,” Mary said. “Keep that mood going. Eat.”
I gave her a mock salute, then grabbed a knife and fork and set to work on the plate, standing rather than sitting down. Soldiers were passing through behind me, and being on my feet made it easier to step out of the way.
Hubris put his paws up on the wall, head poking up between Mary and Gordon.
“Touch my right shoe, then Gordon’s left knee, then sniff the door, and bring me the umbrella,” Mary said.
Bemused, I watched as the dog went through the motions. Nose touched to Mary’s shoe, then Gordon’s knee, before it hopped down from the wall, rounded the table to touch nose to the door, pausing. It eased an umbrella out of the rack by the door and carried it over to Mary, being careful not to strike me in the back of the knees with the pointed end.
Mary took the umbrella, reached down to the windowsill beside her and picked up a bit of mystery meat, biting off a bit, then tossing the remainder to Hubris.
Lillian came downstairs, and before Gordon could toe the second plate in her direction, I reached out to pull it across the table.
“Sleep okay?” Gordon asked.
“Yes,” Lillian said, not making eye contact.
“I slept okay,” I said. “Woke up in the middle of the night, thought something was going on outside with the Brechwell Beast. Turned my thoughts over again and again and tried to figure out what I was hearing. Nope. Lillian snores.”
“As if,” Lillian said. “Try harder, Sy.”
“She does. You do,” Mary said, agreeing with me, then turning her focus to Lillian to restate it. “We’ve shared a room and had our sleepovers between missions. They’re little snores.”
I grinned. “But she snores.”
Lillian frowned, not sure how to process that. She turned and kicked me.
“Ow! Stop that, you brute. If you’re going to kick me, at least kick Mary too.”
“Mary is nice about things like that,” Lillian sniffed.
“Since we’re all obviously aware of what’s going on and you’ve all talked about it, I feel the need to chime in. I don’t know where you guys have gotten the idea I need this, but-”
“You mean where you start acting like you’ve just had an appointment but it’s only sleep deprivation?” Gordon asked.
“Ok, I’ll rephrase-”
“Are you saying you don’t like it?” Helen asked.
“Huh?” I asked. I put down my knife and fork, palms up, weighing, trying to find the words.
After a few seconds, I frowned and picked up the utensils, focusing on the food.
“He likes it,” Helen decided.
“It’s complicated,” I said.
“I think it’s very simple,” she told me.
“I think I liked it better when you talked less. It’s complicated.”
Gordon spoke up, “I’m more inclined to go with Sy than with Helen on this one. Complicated.”
“Thank you,” I said. I picked up my plate, three-quarters eaten, and carried it over to the sink. I stuck out my tongue at Helen, who was standing beside the sink, back to the wall.
She stuck out her tongue, kept it out, and moved her head closer to mine. I caught her tongue in between index finger and thumb.
“Saw that coming.”
“Mugh ah bahr,” Helen said.
Her tongue continued to extend. I held the tip, but the middle section reached out, looping over my bent finger. I twisted my hand out of the way, but she was persistent.
“Aaggh,” she said, when we’d reached a stalemate. Her hand went up and pressed against my forehead, coming away with a bit of grit on one fingertip.
“Thank you,” I said, not letting go. “No more licking. I know you got a taste of me last night. But we don’t do that.”
She smiled and nodded.
I let her withdraw her tongue into her mouth and wiped my fingers off on my vest, heading back toward my seat.
“Wash. Hands,” Lillian ordered me.
I grimaced. I grimaced again as I noticed the soap was the gritty bar kind of soap. The kind that left skin raw.
“Getting back to the topic of the complicated, I don’t think we can put it off. We need to talk strategy.”
I was focused on the sink rather than the group behind me, but I could imagine the tone of the room changing, a shift in the gravity, the attitudes, even the thought processes.
My own thoughts began changing in direction and focus. Plans of attack, where things stood, who was involved…
“I took Hubris out first thing. Went by the train station. State of the city, the train schedules changed.”
My thoughts were momentarily derailed. I turned around, hands still soapy, and rather than rinse them, just wiped them on the dishcloth. “There’s a reason this is worth mentioning.”
“Early afternoon. From a strategic point of view, this is a good thing for the Academy, a bad thing for Fray. The weapons, soldiers, and reinforcements from Radham come en-masse.”
“What time is it now?” I asked.
“An hour before noon. I thought you needed the extra sleep, and I figured you’d be awake half the night anyway.”
“I did, and I would’ve been,” I said. Now that I had a timeline in my head, the world was starting to make sense. “Perimeter still stands, Brechwell Beast didn’t attack Fray’s area.”
“She’s pinned down. But you think a large body of the people who have her pinned down are traitors?”
I raised my hand, counting off on my fingers. “That’s the number one possibility. Number two is that she has someone pulling strings for her. She’s here because she’s working with whoever runs Brechwell. Who we suspect to be an incompetent ass.”
“Maybe say that a little quieter,” Mary suggested.
I looked back over my shoulder. The soldiers were talking to their captain. “Pshh. They know better than we do. But maybe we should talk outside, if Lillian’s done?”
It took us a minute to get our things together. Mary deposited the umbrella by the door, and Helen had boots to pull on, while Gordon was quick to get his things on, stepping into another room before returning with the rifles we’d claimed earlier.
“Feel confident?” he asked me.
“How many bullets?”
“My pockets are full.”
“Then gimme,” I said. “Give me a minute to practice shooting, I’ll be able to hit the mark every time.”
“That doesn’t inspire confidence,” he said.
But I still got the third rifle. Gordon took one, and Mary took another.
“They’re restricting travel through the city. Be prepared to get stopped,” he said.
I checked my pocket. I had the badge.
We stepped out into the rain. It was less crowded outdoors, the streets largely vacant.
“You were saying, Sy?”
“Point one, she’s confident because she has the strength on her side. Point two-”
“Connections. Hard to buy, knowing what I know. Third tool for major engagements is resources. Wealth? How much money do you need to buy your way out of that? Things others want that could earn leverage? I don’t see it.”
“Strength, connections, resources,” Gordon said. “Okay.”
“Four, devices. I’ve been thinking hard, trying not to overlook anything like we overlooked the water in, uh-”
“Kensford,” Gordon said.
“But I don’t think there’s a vector or a complication like that, not here. Which leads to devices part B. Weapons, chemicals, bombs, traps. Does she have a weapon so strong that it threatens to wipe out the opposition here?”
“It’s not impossible,” Gordon said.
“A weapon of her own? Not taken from either group? She needs to show strength to properly unite them under her banner. Keep in mind she’s only had about a year, she’s been focused on other things, setting this up, preparing the books she plans to distribute. Now it’s possible those books are an outright lie, but I don’t think they are. I don’t think she has a weapon, and I don’t think she’d be as confident as she is, because she knows about cockroaches and cats.”
“No weapon can guarantee a slaughter of every last enemy,” Lillian said. “The more varied the opposition, the more survivors you’ll see.”
“Cats?” Mary asked.
“You have to see the pictures. When they talk about it with the younger children, they use pictures of little cats, some black, some white, some calico…”
“Point being,” I interrupted, “we’ve got all sorts of super soldiers and regular soldiers and people in different positions around the city. There’s no device she can deploy or plague or parasite she could pack it with that is going to wipe us out so thoroughly that she’ll feel confident just strolling out of Brechwell. A weapon? No.”
“Is there an option after four?”
“Ideology. Change minds, you change the paradigm. She tried that on me last night.”
“Did it work?” Gordon asked. “I haven’t raised the subject, but you seemed to be considering it.”
“I was running away, not running to,” I said. “Now? I don’t know. Even with the horrors that might be perpetrated, the ones Lillian talked about, I think I might rather live in a world where Fray’s books got out and the Academy couldn’t quite stop it.”
That seemed to startle Lillian, who was walking to my left. “Why?”
“Because,” I said. “Like I told Fray, I’m not loyal to the Academy. I’m loyal to the Lambs. What the Academy is doing with us, it’s a lazy, unhurried approach. Raise a generation of brains and abilities, put them to use, figure out their limits, discard.”
“That’s a little harsh,” Lillian said.
“They didn’t save him,” I said.
I didn’t need to say who ‘him’ was.
As long as I kept my eyes on the ground, my hood blocked off my view of the other Lambs. “The key to a good con is to rush the victim. Deny them the ability to think clearly. Apply the right kind of pressure and deny a man a chance to truly think, and you can fleece the Lord King of the Crown Empire of his crown.”
“Hells bells, Sy,” Gordon said, lowering his voice. “Don’t say something like that in public. We can talk about betraying the Crown all you want, and we can explain our way out of that, but if you talk like that…”
“Yeah,” I said. “Right.”
“You want to con the Academy?” Mary asked. “Apply pressure?”
“It’s not just that. Pressure isn’t always bad. You know this, Mary, you live by it. In contests and records of strength, speed, in development of new and innovative biological sciences, we see accident, luck, or effort raise the bar. The rest of the world realizes that it’s possible to go that one step further. They work harder, they hone their ability, they study the particulars… and the rest of the world catches up. What was impossible or world news one year becomes the norm a few years later. The world moves, and people push themselves harder to keep up with that new normal.”
I paused, inviting question, response, commentary. The Lambs were quiet.
“The Academy is lazy, lackadaisical. It’s not really trying, so much as it’s maintaining a natural, lazy sort of momentum. Now imagine a world where the books are out there. What does the Academy do?”
“War, hunt for Fray,” Helen said.
“No, more basic. What behavior does it default to in a pinch? What does it crave?”
“Control,” Gordon said, “You’ve harped on it enough in the past.”
“They want control, but they’re dealing with something subtle. It’s all in the background, all indirect. The nature of war changes, and the books punctuate that,” I said. I was getting more excited and emphatic as I spoke. “How do you fight that threat? How have they been fighting it, with the Ghosts? Same sort of problem. Background, hard to nail down.”
“Badly?” Helen suggested.
“Not disagreeing,” Mary said. “But they’ve been keeping up.”
“The Academy doesn’t lose,” I said. “Remember? A perpetual stalemate is pretty good for the Academy’s enemies. You could even make the argument that it’s hurting the Academy over time, because of how those Ghosts are created.”
I’d reminded myself of the other side of the coin.
The mice. Not just the ones of Radham. The little ones who couldn’t fend for themselves. The survivors.
I kept talking anyway, “Think about it. How have they been fighting the Ghosts?”
“Petey,” Mary said. “The Engineer. The Wry Man. Dog, Catcher.”
“The talents they’re using, the tools. Tracking, talent, infiltration, versatility, they’re brain tools. Problem solving tools. Put the books out there for everyone to have,” I said, “and the world is plunged into a situation where wars aren’t won on battlefields so much as they’re won in shadows and behind closed doors. The Lambs stop being side projects that are kept on a shelf and brought out for special cases, we stop being secondary.”
“Is it worth the cost?” Lillian asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I really don’t. Makes me wonder if Fray doesn’t want to recruit us more than she’s letting on.”
“Something to think about when and if we go to see her,” Gordon said. “Which means we’ve got to decide on a plan of action, and we’re going to have to make our move, sometime in the next hour, if we’re going to do it before the rest of the forces approach and collapse on her. Before…”
He trailed off.
Before the new Lamb arrives.
I frowned. That little niggle about the time constraint had been sitting in the back of my mind. An echo of my recent argument about the value of pressure, and it was complicated further by-
“The problem,” Gordon said, “Is we’ve got to do it while that region of the city is surrounded by ‘allied’ forces.”