“Here we go again,” Sylvester said.
Ashton stared at the boy, uncomprehending. Here we go again? What did he mean?
He said a lot of things that were hard to puzzle out.
Understanding was important, the people back home kept saying. Had to learn, had to study. Ashton was here to study by experiencing. But Ashton had more questions than there was time to ask. If he started asking then he might never stop. Jamie didn’t mind, but Jamie wasn’t the only person here. The train car was packed with people, and people that listened to Ashton speak for too long had a way of acting funny and getting concerned.
Then he had to make them less concerned.
But that was a problem too, Jamie said.
Click click click click. Hard shoes tapped the floor of the train car.
Here we go again, Ashton realized. It was the woman again. He turned his head, looking up, just as she came into view. She was tall and pale and had dark hair. She was more like the pictures of pretty ladies they had shown Ashton than the pictures of the ugly people. That was a hard thing to figure out. If he paid too much attention to what made people pretty, the parts of the face, then he still made mistakes.
Jamie had figured that out first, after watching Ashton’s class on people, faces, and acting. Jamie had found a medical textbook and showed it to Ashton, and Ashton had called the woman in that book pretty. That upset a lot of people. They asked him questions and Jamie said that the way her face was shaped, the shape of her eye, the look of her eyebrows, nose and mouth all seemed right.
But the drawing of the woman in the book had a problem with the eye. The woman here had no scar on her face, no missing parts, no pocks or poxes. She looked young and smooth and wore makeup with a uniform that meant she was a member of the staff.
She put a hand on Ashton’s head as she leaned in between the two benches the Lambs sat on. “Can I get you anything?”
“No,” Gordon said, sounding tired.
“We have biscuits in the staff’s car.”
“You’ve mentioned the biscuits,” Gordon said. “No thank you.”
“Something to drink?”
“No,” Gordon said, firmly. “Thank you. We need some privacy, please.”
“The train arrives shortly.”
“Thank you,” he said, for the hundredth time.”
“I’ll give you a hand when you step off the train.”
“No need. Thank you.”
“No need,” Ashton echoed Gordon, voice soft. He was bad at controlling his volume for different situations, so he spoke quietly just to be sure. Most people listened when he talked.
The woman walked away. Ashton stared at her, watching her go.
“What’s that,” Sylvester asked. “Thirty times?”
“Thirty-one. Close,” Jamie said.
“Bully for me,” Sylvester said.
“You need to learn some control, Ash,” Gordon said.
“Okay,” Ashton said. “It’s a problem?”
“It’s annoying,” Mary said. “We’re supposed to be covert. Having people flocking to us? Not covert.”
“I could push her away.”
“Don’t,” Jamie said.
“I think that would be a horrible idea,” Jamie said. “Look.”
Ashton stared at the point of Jamie’s finger.
“No,” Jamie said. His expression and tone were patient. Ashton remembered that lesson. “Imagine a line, drawn along my arm and out past the point my finger extends, where does that line go?”
Ashton knew his brain didn’t work like a human’s did. When he imagined something new, he had to work to do it, and the things he imagined overwrote the things he saw. The line appeared, red because Ashton preferred the color red. He followed it, head turning, and had to work to correct it so it was mostly straight.
Sitting across the aisle was a family. The two younger children and the mom were staring at the Lambs. The mom raised her hand in a small wave, smiling. Behind the family was a window, looking out on fields and trees. An orchard.
“I’m pointing at the family.”
Ashton nodded. Nodding was the thing people did when they wanted to say ‘yes’ or to agree, but didn’t want to say something. He was supposed to nod if he would say yes more than twice in a very short time, which was often when he was getting a lot of instructions. He wasn’t supposed to talk too much until he learned how conversations worked, so he’d chosen to nod.
“If you try to make people go away, it makes them feel uneasy, scared, sick, or angry,” Jamie said, his voice quieter than before. Jamie’s hand had gone back to his lap, and the red line that stretched out from his fingertip was pointed at the train car wall under the window. “If you do that in this train car, where people have been breathing you in for a long time…?”
Ashton looked around.
“Chaos and panic?” Sylvester suggested.
“Yes,” Jamie said. “I was asking Ashton, though, because it was a teachable moment.”
Chaos and panic.
Ashton watched as people all around him started getting up from their seats, hitting each other, pushing, trying to get away. He could hear them as they made noise. They weren’t real people, only his imagination, and he wasn’t good at imagining people. The blood-stained pictures in his mind’s eye were distorted, the faces weren’t symmetrical – that was the part about the one-eyed woman’s face that the acting teacher had explained was important – and some had only one eye, or eyes in the wrong place, or stretched out black circles for mouths.
He’d seen a lot of blood spatters during and after the fighting in Brechwell. The organ structures in his head, described as coral-like in appearance by one of his doctors, were busy calling those images from his memories, painting them around the train car. Sometimes the scale was wrong, or it was the wrong angle, against the wrong surface.
But he was supposed to practice, and it was pretty enough to look at, so he let the images and the spatters and the dead bodies keep overlapping, even though none of it made sense anymore.
Jamie was talking, he realized. He made the imagined-hallucinated screams stop so he could understand.
“-when he gets more control.”
“Nuanced,” Sylvester said.
“We hope,” Jamie said.
Ashton nodded. He wasn’t wholly sure that he understood what they were saying, but sitting still and doing nothing bothered people sometimes. Jamie said he was supposed to practice when and how he spoke and participated, even if he got it wrong, but only with the Lambs.
“It’s interesting,” Sylvester said. “Figuring out how to move this particular game piece, with all of the inherent problems it brings to the picture.”
“Game pieces?” Lillian asked. “Is that how you see us?”
“Only when we’re playing a game, Lil,” Sylvester said. He looked to one side and then groaned.
Click click click click…
“I have mints in my purse, if you’d like-”
“No,” Gordon said. “Thank you, miss.”
“Okay, I just thought you should know the train is stopping now.”
“Thank you,” Gordon said.
“I’ll help you with your bags.”
“No need. Thank you.”
Ashton turned his head to look up at the woman. His imagination had the father from across the aisle swing the smallest of the children by one ankle, the head cracking open against the back of Ashton’s seat. Blood flew into the woman’s face. She didn’t move or flinch.
That was false.
He was supposed to practice. He imagined it happening again, her expression changing. What were the right emotions? Disgust and fear. The two put together, what was it? Horror.
He watched the scene replay, over and over, trying to piece it together until it looked like something that should happen.
“Ashton,” Gordon said. “Pay attention.”
Ashton realized the woman was gone. The scene broke down into constituent parts, those parts scattering. He turned back to Jamie.
“Don’t forget your umbrella,” Gordon said.
“Don’t open it until we’re out of the train car,” Jamie corrected.
Ashton bent down and picked up his umbrella. The others were getting their coats on. He didn’t have one, because using an umbrella was easier than remembering how to get dressed in a way that didn’t draw attention.
“Try to focus, okay? I know you and Jamie aren’t facing the same danger as the rest of us, but what comes next matters.”
Focus. He stopped practicing. The images went away, one by one. He looked across the aisle, and the images there went away too.
The train stopped before he was finished.
The Lambs made their way out, grabbing their bags from the compartment by the door. The man at the bottom of the stairs down to the train platform helped each of them, smiling at Ashton as Ashton stared up at him.
There was a group waiting for them. Ashton’s doctors were among them. The department heads, the new Academy Headmaster, Professor Hayle, Professor Ibott, and a number of others Ashton didn’t recognize stood at a point just past the exit from the station.
“Hoo boy,” Gordon said.
Ashton watched the family that had been across the aisle walk past. The youngest child’s head was imagined-hallucinated to be broken apart from when his head had been smashed against the back of the seat, contents leaking out. Brains were gray but they looked pink when seen fresh because of the blood in and on them. Ashton left the little boy like he was, because it was pretty, and because red was his favorite color.
Gordon’s hand reached down to find Hubris’ head. He gave it a pat and a scratch, more for his own security than for Hubris. Mary stood beside him. That was security of another sort.
Scares like this were bad for his heart.
“Lord Duke, Lord, Headmaster, esteemed professors,” Gordon greeted the committee in his best guess at order of hierarchy. There was a new noble as part of the group, and Gordon didn’t recognize the man.
The Duke and the new noble were wearing hunting clothes, pants clinging to their legs, long jackets. The noble in the Duke’s company was younger, no older than eighteen, as far as age could be estimated by appearance when a noble was concerned. He had a pointed, jutting chin, stood tall at seven feet, narrow and long-necked. A swan turned human. Graceful, imperious, and, Gordon knew, swans were absolute bastards when met face to face.
Like the Duke, the man’s hair was long and golden, but his hair was straight and flowed straight down his back, more supple than hair should be. He wore a checkered scarf in yellow and black. His teeth, as he smiled, seemed wrong somehow, too uniform and white, and his fingers were especially long, poking out of the embroidered sleeve of a hunting jacket. The nails were long and sharp, and the fingers were marked with jewelry.
He wore a sword, Gordon noted. Noble anatomy, modified to be stronger, faster, inhuman by most measures. Gordon couldn’t say why, but he had the vague sense that the man could and would draw and use that sword to dispatch anyone who insulted him.
Sylvester would be able to say why he gave off that impression, Gordon knew. All Gordon had in this situation were his instincts. He’d heard of the mad nobles, the dangerous ones, and this one felt more dangerous than even the Duke.
Please don’t talk, Sylvester. Don’t say anything.
“This is the Baron Richmond,” the Duke said. “A cousin. We were near Brechwell when we heard of the situation in Brechwell. Genevieve Fray spotted and effectively cornered.”
Lower in status than the Duke by six orders of nobility, Gordon estimated. He wouldn’t speak out of turn. That was good. Gordon could imagine the man establishing his presence through violence and the making of examples.
“Walk with us,” the Duke said. “Your bags will be looked after.”
Gordon’s, “Yes, my lord,” joined a number of others.
He didn’t even wait to see if the Lambs listened. The Baron fell in step beside the Duke with no trouble. The pair walked fast enough that their retinue and the other professors had to work to keep up. For the Lambs, especially the smaller ones, Ashton and Sylvester, that was doubly difficult.
The crowd parted, people already had their heads and eyes toward the ground. As the Duke advanced, people of all social classes dropped to their knees on the damp road. It was as though an invisible wave preceded him, knocking people down.
“Who have we lost to her side?” the Duke asked. He didn’t turn around.
The Baron was watching over one shoulder. Gordon felt uneasy.
“Out of the superweapons, Dog and Catcher, to be sure, my lord. Petey was confirmed. Most of the rest, but we can’t be sure who,” Gordon said.
“The Baron has been arguing that you’re more liability than asset,” the Duke said. “We don’t know where the Lambs stand.”
“The Baron is wrong,” Sylvester said, adding a belated, “My lord.”
Gordon momentarily closed his eyes. Hearing Sylvester speak, even before the sentence was finished, had Gordon’s heart skipping a beat. Cognitively, he knew Sylvester had gauged the situation and no doubt gauged it well. But there was no room for even small errors, not here.
The Baron had a dangerous look in his eye, but he hadn’t spoken.
“Do you think so?” the Duke asked.
“Yes, my lord,” Sylvester said.
“I said much the same thing.”
“Yes, my lord,” Sylvester said. Gordon could hear the note of smug satisfaction in Sylvester’s voice.
“Provided we decide you’re trustworthy,” the Duke said. “You’ll give your report to the professors, the Baron and I will look over the written transcripts, and we’ll give the final judgments.”
“Yes, my lord,” Gordon said, before Sylvester could speak. He couldn’t let Sylvester take command of this conversation.
“My sisters will want to participate as well,” the Baron said.
“Do you think so?” the Duke asked.
“They’ve been so bored, and have complained about being left out of the hunting trip.”
“Very well, the twins as well.”
The twins. The words were akin to a bell in Gordon’s memory.
Gordon had heard of the twins. To be exact, he’d heard about them in the context of the mad nobles. On the flip side, mention of mad nobles as a general topic invariably meant mention of the twins.
“Little Helen, I think the Baron, Baronets and I would enjoy your company after all is said and done, should you be cleared of wrongdoing or dissent. You and Professor Ibbot shall join us.”
“Yes, my lord,” Helen said, curtsying without slowing so much it mattered.
“I’m honored, my lord,” Ibott squawked.
“Yes, yes,” the Duke said, sounding annoyed the man had spoken.
“If they aren’t cleared of wrongdoing, we should have them join us for company all the same,” the Baron said, still staring at Sylvester. “As I said, my sisters have been bored.”
“I wonder if I haven’t read a fairy tale about something like that,” the Duke said. “It seems unwise to invite a group of assassins over for company and amusement, especially if they’ve been proven as traitors.”
“One at a time, then. Or send their creators in with them.”
Gordon could see Ibott react to that.
Hubris touched his nose to Gordon’s hand.
Gordon’s heart was thumping. It was a limping struggle, one side stronger than the other.
By all rights, he should have stopped walking and let it calm down and find its rhythm again. He kept up the pace.
“That in mind, I would recommend we err on the more conservative side of things,” the Baron said.
The Duke, still leading the group as they walked up to the Academy, smiled at that. “I’d ask if you meant conservative in the sense of preserving more of our Academy’s hard work, or conservative in avoiding potential traitors in our midst, but it would be a rhetorical question, dear Richmond.”
“I’ll be paying close attention to the verdict,” the Baron said. “If I’m dissatisfied with the result, I’ll see that corrections are made.”
If he doesn’t get the guilty verdict, then heads roll. Or whatever he and his sisters do to amuse themselves. The Baron was a mad one too, then.
That would make for a fairly emotional discussion. Some of the people in the meeting that were discussing whether the Lambs were too dangerous or not were in danger regardless of what happened.
Jory, Gordon’s head doctor, glanced back, offering a worried look. He was one of them.
No trust. Mary got along with her doctors, at least to the point of being able to have conversations. Jamie did too. Had and still did, presumably. Sylvester… didn’t get along with most. But Gordon’s team was a big one. The conversations had been limited to small talk, a duty that seemed to be rotated between staff members to the point that little familiarity was established.
“Tell us,” the Duke said. “A prelude to the interrogations. What did you accomplish?”
“We know her plan, my Lord,” Sylvester said.
“The creator of the Ghosts is dead, my Lord,” Gordon said.
“That would be my creator,” Mary said.
“Mary had a strong hand in how that unfolded. We couldn’t have done it without her,” Gordon said. “With that settled, we can hope they don’t have the resources to keep developing and improving on that project, which we know was tying up our resources. With luck, the project might die altogether.”
“And Fray herself?” the Duke asked.
“We didn’t have the manpower to stop her ourselves, with our forces distracted and other experiments turning coat, but we were able to make a last minute maneuver and steer the city’s superweapon her way. A number of her people were injured.”
“Was Genevieve Fray?”
“No reports of such, Lord Duke. She has Avis, wearing wings, as well as a brute of a man in her company, they could have scaled to a safer height or forced their way through a set of doors or a window. We were talking about it earlier, but it didn’t sound as if she was successful in forming the alliance between the different factions,” Gordon said.
This was where he bent the truth. He didn’t have the deserved reputation of a liar that Sylvester did. He had the undeserved reputation as the honest one.
“Lord Duke,” Gordon said. “In part, our actions disrupted the already tenuous negotiations between Genevieve Fray and Cynthia. Cynthia split off to charge through the Academy’s lines. Mauer’s side was displeased with how things were going before that, we killed one of his lieutenants, something that wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t come to Fray’s meeting, and our final move, delivered with the Brechwell Beast, primarily hurt Mauer’s elite group of soldiers and may have even hurt Mauer himself.”
“You believe he’ll be at odds with her?”
“I believe, my lord,” Gordon said, “that he won’t be as sympathetic to her as he might be if things had played out otherwise.”
“And here I’d actually thought I had to invite my cousin to visit in order to hear someone tell me so very little of substance with so many words,” the Duke said.
“You wound me,” the Baron said. The Duke smiled, but it was faintly derisive. Gordon wondered if even close friendships in the Duke’s world were combative and bitter.
Hubris nudged Gordon’s hand again.
It’s okay, boy.
“I’m sorry to be vague, my lord,” Gordon said. His heart hitched, and he bit back a gasp. “I’m aware that if I’m too specific, and something contradicts the specifics, it will look bad.”
“Very true. I have missed the Lambs. I so often find I have to hunt for intellectual company, even among professors and supposed geniuses.”
“Yes, my lord,” Gordon said. “Thank you.”
They were approaching the Academy gates now. The armed guard at the gate parted, the gates opening as that invisible wave of presence extended out to touch it.
“We’ll be taking our leave. I did promise Baron Richmond a hunt today, we’ll be visiting the underground labs to see what can be loosed. Keep the Lambs separate, watch for their hand-signs, see to their appointments after or during, so we can be sure they won’t coordinate or correct one another’s stories. Though I imagine they would have already, were they lying.”
“Yes, my lord,” Sylvester said.
Both the Duke and the Baron looked back at Sylvester. Most of the Professors did too, the ones with their lives on the line looking aghast.
“If we were lying, my lord,” Sy said. “We’re not.”
“You are very fortunate you amuse me, Sylvester,” the Duke said, sounding far from amused.
Then the Duke was gone, talking to the Baron as they walked. The group remained where it was, the crowd that had parted remained still, almost as if it was in shock, unsure if it was safe to resume going about their day.
“Indoors,” the new Headmaster spoke. “No talking. It’s bad enough some of my superweapons have turned, I’m not about to lose my head, or half of my staff. Radham Academy has to recover from this. We do this perfectly, giving the Baron no excuse to target us.”
It wouldn’t matter, Gordon knew.
Claret Hall wasn’t far from the entrance. Some staff broke away to look after other business. The Lambs weren’t among them.
Gordon’s left hand went to his chest, rubbing at the sternum, as if he could somehow massage what lay within. It wasn’t settling.
Beside him, Mary took his other hand. It was only when he felt the warmth of her hand that he realized how cold he’d gotten.
His interaction with her had happened so gradually he wasn’t sure when it had unfolded. She’d started expressing interest some time after he’d broken it off with Shipman, through little gestures, going out of her way to spend time with him, to practice, showing him her knife throwing so he could improve his own.
He’d stayed at arm’s length, because he knew Sylvester had feelings of his own for the girl, as well as a kind of possessive attachment. With anyone else, there might have been problems, but she’d kept him at arm’s length, too.
It had just been that. A pretty girl, regularly in his company.
But then Sy had started paying more attention to Lillian, and Gordon knew there was some manipulation there, Sy playing some matchmaking game, providing signals. Gordon had let it be what it was and stopped worrying about hurting their friendship.
Then this thing with Percy, and Mary had drawn close.
It was awfully easy to let her. All the rational reasons not to were suddenly very hard to bring up. She wasn’t some common girl, he could never stand the usual girls, not the ones nearer his own age at Lambsbridge, not the ones he’d seen associating with the mice, not the pretty ones at Mothmont.
He liked Mary like he still liked Shipman. Both were girls who demanded a special kind of respect, instead of being content to receive ordinary respect. Smart, dangerous, strong in their individual ways. But all of that was dressed up in girl. Not girlishness or femininity, but in the distilled reality of girl. He wanted to see more of them, hear them speak, touch them, taste them as he kissed them. The way Mary’s skirt moved as she walked made him feel like he’d just stepped outside to sun and fresh air, after years and years of rain and Radham air that smelled like smoke, blood, and manure.
Helen’s explanation of her own desires were scarily in line with his own when put forward as an allegory for how strong his own feelings sometimes were. What had she said? ‘Feel every part of them with every part of myself?’
He glanced at her. She gestured. Strength. Courage.
“None of that,” someone barked, behind them.”
Mary lowered her hand. She smiled at him.
They would get through this. Looking at her like this, he could appreciate why people drew together, formed pairs, even with all of the difficulties of being in a relationship.
He imagined her face, contorted with a special kind of grief as she looked down on his body.
His desires and the new feeling of guilt joined the anxiety of the moment, the imminent questioning. The feelings didn’t mingle or mix, but remained discrete. A jigsaw set of emotions for a jigsaw body made of individual pieces that just so happened to be put together.
The Lambs were so similar in that way. The distinctions between each were clear. Yet the Lambs were to be split up.
The symbolic parallel gave him an uneasy feeling, as the Lambs were invited to sit on either side of the hallway, more than ten feet of space separating one Lamb from the next. The doctors and groups of doctors positioned themselves to better block line of sight.
He spent so much of his time worrying, these days. It would be so nice to stop dreading what came next and just focus on the present. The closer Mary was to him at a given point in time, the more he felt like he could do that. Probably why he’d been dwelling on her so much in the last few minutes.
“Sylvester first,” Hayle suggested. “I somehow feel like we’ll want to take what he says and keep it in mind as each of the other Lambs speak.”
So much worrying.