Four nobles. Augmented physiology, augmented minds. They were, as Mr. Percy would have said, ‘top notch‘. Absolute monsters. Depending on what unfolded, the Lambs might find themselves in a fight by the day’s end.
It wasn’t a situation the Lambs would survive.
She had to trust Sy and Gordon to figure out if there was a way out, and handle her part of the questioning as well as she could. What she could figure out was a way to make things easier. If they were called in, the girls were likely to be called in first. Helen first of all, the appointment was already made, then Mary herself, very possibly, or Lillian or maybe Sylvester, but Mary was likely.
The professors and assistants in the hallway were blocking Mary’s view of the rest of the group, while Gordon was inside, giving his answers. She could only stare out the window, at the people, or gaze at the floor while she worked out a strategy.
Mr. Percy had always encouraged ‘mental practice’. Picturing where her body would be, the motions she would make, the weight of things, and all the details, sometimes over and over, before she acted. Then she would act, perform more mental practices, adjusting for how things had felt, and the loop would continue until the actions and process were distilled in her mind’s eye.
Helen would probably die, if she was first. If Sylvester or Lillian were second, then they would die next. That would hurt more. She cared about Helen, but Lillian was her best friend, worth killing Percy for. Sylvester was important to her for different reasons.
She had to steel herself for that. Prepare herself by putting the emotions aside, lock them away. If she was going to use them, it had to be in rage or in desperation, a forward push to get past any pain or bodily harm she might feel, past poisons or drugs or whatever else they might do to her.
The Twins were torturers with a retinue of doctors and madmen who catered to their whims. The bodies might well be on display. What was left of them, if they were lucky enough to be dead.
Mary felt cold inside, hollowed out, but she was able to drive out the feelings of fear and panic. Those were useless, dangerous feelings, ones that robbed her of precision and control.
She had to prepare, be ready.
The Nobles were tall. They liked that, being above the common people. Mary was far from full grown, with a three-quarter foot to grow, if she compared herself to the woman who was supposed to be her mother. The legs would be her best target.
But that wasn’t the whole story. The jackets the Duke and Baron had been wearing were heavy, and they flowed oddly as they walked. There was something in them, armor.
She had to attack from the front, knowing that the one she chose as her target was quicker, faster, and very aware of what was going on around them.
Best to attack while her back was turned. Use her head to distract and drive one foot back and up, to target the knee. If she could topple one, then she could target the neck.
Easiest to do if she had a knife, but she suspected she would be searched. They knew her methods too well.
There was a disposable scalpel razor in the lining of her coat, and another blade in the tongue of her shoe. Small enough she could put them up her nasal cavity or in her mouth. The nose meant a risk of bleeding if she slipped, but she’d done it before. The mouth, hm, they would search her mouth if they had any sense at all, but she suspected she could embed the blade in the flesh behind the last molar, pointing toward her throat. Easy to miss if the lighting was wrong, and she could swallow the blood. If she threw up from that, then so much the better, it only gave her more opportunities.
Topple her enemy, target the spine. She tried to picture the scenarios unfolding.
Not the throat or the jugular, unless she could do that as part of something else. The spine was a better target. Cervical four, third bundle was a likely target, but would only shut off breathing, freezing the diaphragm. She would get pulled away, the doctors would swoop in. They would fix the noble in the time it took them to die from a lack of breath. Depending on how their bodies had been changed, that could be a very long time.
Thoracics one through four had places she could drive a blade in to shut off the heart, lungs, and larynx. Drive in the blade, do as much damage as possible, shut off heart function or ability to breathe. Hard to do if the back was armored and protected, if the twins might have open backed dresses, or she could reach in past the collar. It was worth keeping in mind, reciting that play in her head as a possibility.
If she could drive the blade in, knowing how small it was, then it would be harder to fix, the damage more severe. It would require something harder than any one part of her body. Something from the environment.
She could do it if her hands were bound, it would be harder but possible. But being restrained was the least of her concerns, as she imagined different factors. They might not fall, even as she leveraged a kick that could break ordinary bone into one of the more vulnerable parts of the human body. Their spine might be protected. She might not be able to access and keep a blade. Her hands might even be bound, which wouldn’t stop her, but it could cost her the time she needed to grab the blade and follow through.
She would die. That bothered her less than the cold hollow emptiness that Helen had articulated so well, the loneliness that took hold inside her even now at imagining Helen’s dead eyes staring off into space, or Lillian in horrible pain.
She would die, but even if she tried, if she was clever about it, the nobles who remained might think twice about giving personal attention to the Lambs who remained. If they deferred to another method of execution or torture, then the remaining Lambs might have a chance to escape that they wouldn’t have with the nobles.
It was a chance, however slim.
Hope for the best, trust the Lambs, anticipate the worst. She and her knives as the final measure to turn to when the talking and strategy drew to a close.
So often, her way of showing her affection for others meant killing people. For Percy, it was always the plan. For Lillian, she’d killed Percy. Now she might have to kill a noble, a possibility few even dared to contemplate.
The Lambs were too important to her.
She could see glimpses of Helen through the crowd. Helen seemed utterly at ease, but she didn’t broadcast her feelings like others did. She could see the sort of situation that Mary had imagined earlier, the Lambs dead or mutilated, and smile and act like nothing was wrong.
Mary liked to think that even if Helen smiled and acted normal, she would seek revenge if it came down to it. She had spent a lot of time stressing out about Helen, until months of close proximity and sharing a room had forced her to come to terms with her feelings. Helen was a lot easier to understand as a creature when Mary stopped looking at her as a human, and more as a reptile or a cat.
Even cats and snakes had a measure of loyalty.
That made her think of Lillian.
Mary had never had a friend. The depth of her feelings for Lillian spooked her, sometimes, sometimes on par with her early feelings for Sylvester, in a very different way. Sylvester had been like a leap over a gap between rooftops, dangerous, uncertain even when she was fully aware of her own ability. She knew he was a manipulator and liar, and that had made him interesting.
It still did. More than any of the Lambs, the little things and the patterns of Sylvester promised to complete her. They were in step, he could carry out a plan and she didn’t feel uncertain. When she faltered, he was there. When he faltered, she knew she had the opportunity to shine. It was rare for her to experience the concern about Sylvester’s plans that Gordon so often commented on.
She had spent a long time feeling very incomplete, as if she was working hard to fill a void with Percy’s approval, and someone who conformed to her as easily as Sylvester seemed to do was tempting.
But it had always felt dangerous. Always promised betrayal down the line. Idly, she had sometimes wondered how she would kill him if it came down to it, because she couldn’t entirely convince herself that it wouldn’t. Even as her trust in him approached that ninety-nine point seven or ninety-nine point eight percent, she had harbored faint doubts. That was who he was.
Lillian was a better, safer match. They were similar, the academic and the assassin, both dedicated to their individual crafts. With Lillian, she didn’t feel that heady sense of invincibility. With Lillian, she felt like a girl.
Whatever that was.
And to Lillian, she imagined, she was a girl, a friend. Lillian lacked guile enough to lie about that. She could share everything with Lillian. Even talk about Percy without feeling like she was betraying the Lambs.
Hearing Lillian speak about Percy and Lillian’s horror over what Percy had been doing had scared Mary more than any number of monsters or guns. It had led her to make a decision.
And Gordon. Gordon was the best of both worlds. She knew it, she just wasn’t sure if she felt it. Imagining kissing him made her heart pound, as did thoughts of feeling his hands around hers. She’d drawn nearer and nearer to him, testing the waters, waiting for him to reject her, waiting for the feelings she had to clarify. She just wasn’t sure if she truly liked him, or if it was only that her feelings for the other Lambs were so poignant and confused by other things going on in her head and her heart that he paled a shade in comparison.
Lillian was her only friend ever, and filled that hole in Mary’s breast that even Percy hadn’t been able to promise to fill. Sylvester was Mary’s counterpart.
Gordon was… what? He promised to be the only thing that wasn’t mixed in with those complicated other thoughts. He understood her, he was a little bit dangerous, he made her feel like a proper girl. The thought of him dying made her think in all seriousness that she might react like Sy had to Jamie, and that somehow made her more anxious than the idea of losing all of the Lambs together, or any of the Lambs individually.
Because it felt most real and imminent, she told herself.
Was that love, fledgling love or otherwise?
The door opened. Mary looked up, just in time to see Hubris running ahead, zig-zagging.
“Hubris!” Gordon called. He changed the pitch of his voice, apparently annoyed, “Hubris!”
Hubris made his way across the hallway, in Sylvester’s direction.
Hubris looked back, pausing, then changed direction. The dog moved through the crowd of doctors and guards, making a beeline toward Mary. Sitting on the floor with her back to the wall, she couldn’t get up and move in time to get out of Hubris’ way. He pressed his face against hers, licking.
“Good boy,” Mary said, “It’s okay.”
“Get your dog under control,” one of the doctors said. “No tricks.”
Gordon sounded exasperated as he explained, “He’s worried. The people inside can tell you, I informed them at the start of the questioning, and several times throughout, my heart is acting up. He’s trained to tell me when there are problems, which is why he kept nudging me, and when I won’t or can’t listen, he’s trained to tell the other Lambs. My doctors are here. They can tell you.”
“We didn’t train him for that last part.”
“You didn’t, I did. It’s what he’s for,” Gordon said, patiently.
“Enough,” another doctor said. “Who’s next?”
A man Mary couldn’t see spoke. “Mary Cobourn.”
Mary didn’t move at first, and Hubris leaned forward to lick her again. She imagined the actions she would need to take to attack the key targets here. Soldiers, key doctors, and people that stood in the way. It wasn’t as simple as it might have seemed on the surface. Crossing the hallway to get to Gordon or Sylvester could open up possibilities, in having more fighting strength and having more problem solving ability, but it was more distance to cover, and the Lambs needed to get to the other end of the hallway.
Her hands gripped Hubris’ collar, and she found a roll of paper slipped into the fold of the collar. Moving her hands suggested there were two more.
No time to read it.
She pushed Hubris off her, and stood.
Mary offered Lillian a reassuring smile. Head up, chin high, back straight. Hubris hadn’t made it to Lillian, so Lillian lacked the small reassurance the piece of paper provided.
Gordon was being led the opposite way, leaving for his appointment. Mary watched him as they approached one another, each mostly surrounded by soldiers and scholars.
She met his eyes. They were warm, the colors not entirely matched between the two – something she had only noticed after over a year of paying attention to him. On a dark, gloomy day, there wasn’t enough light to distinguish between them, but on a brighter day, when the light filtered in through the window, one eye was more chestnut than hazel, with flecks of gold.
A nod would be a giveaway.
She looked away, and her hands smoothed down the front of her top and her skirt, then went up to her collar, fixing it. She resisted the urge to let the hands linger a moment too long. He would understand. He knew her habits and mannerisms.
He had managed to direct, even without obvious cues. She suspected a hand signal, then tones of voice to change Hubris’ direction. It was possible there was another mechanism. She would ask later, given the chance.
For now, knowing there were options if they needed to fight their way out was reassuring. Knowing Gordon was thinking and working to help was reassuring.
Sy had been silent since stepping out of the room. He wasn’t starting anything, hadn’t made any comments. It didn’t mean nothing was wrong. He could be biding his time, instead of working to signal the rest of the Lambs about the problems.
For now figuring out the right moment to read the note and answering the questions was the best thing she could do. If it went badly, she would turn her thoughts toward making sure the small blades were in place should she need them to kill a noble of the Crown.
One chair faced a table. Ten people sat around the sides and back of that table.
Headmaster Travers, Professor Hayle, Professor Ibott, and several other prominent professors sat around the table. So many had been pulled away during the war, and the table was mostly empty now.
The doors slammed shut behind her.
I have already figured out how to kill all of you if necessary, Mary told herself.
I am a young lady of Mothmont. I am a skilled killer. I am a step above. I can handle this, and with the Lambs at my back and sufficient preparation, I can handle anything this world might throw at me.
“Tell us,” Travers spoke, “What did the Lambs do wrong?”
She kept the smile from faltering.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“You failed in your duties, you let Genevieve Fray get away. Obviously the Lambs weren’t perfect. What happened?”
Mary estimated what the people of the room could see, and scooted her chair forward a fraction. They wouldn’t be able to see over the table.
“Stay right there, please. We know what you’re capable of-”
You don’t know the half of it.
“And we’d just as rather you stay where you are.”
“Okay. I’m sorry,” Mary said. With one hand, she unrolled the paper at her knee. She dropped her eyes.
‘Y syG Y gW Y’ The ‘y’ had a curve to the upper prongs. She wasn’t familiar with the shorthand.
Mary raised her head. She thought through the possibilities as her mouth opened, and said, “I don’t like to badmouth the other Lambs.”
“If you can’t critically assess their performance then there might be deeper problems,” one of the doctors said. “In which case we might want to consider sacrificing them for the greater good of Radham.”
“To save your own hide, you mean?” another Professor spoke.
“Calm down,” Hayle cut in. “You were saying, Mary?”
Mary remembered the hand sign for sacrifice. Thumb folded in, fingers curled forward. It was the thought that connected to the paper Gordon had given her. The letter G. It meant to sacrifice, a pawn, to put something at risk for greater reward, a gamble.
Y would be the hand signal with pinky and thumb extended. Cunning, trick.
The basic signs. W would be… had to be three fingers raised. Thought, plan, strategy.
Gordon’s plan. Scapegoat Sy? This is a trick.
“Sy was struggling,” Mary said.
“The thing with Jamie, it threw him off, emotionally. He was adapting how he operated, trying to compensate for the lack of Jamie, and he was stressing about Jamie coming. When Jamie did come, later on, it was a distraction.”
“Sending Jamie was our decision. If you’re trying to shift the blame-”
“No,” Mary hurried to answer. “No. Not at all. There were other problems. Sylvester made other mistakes. It stemmed from similar things, but also, you know he operates best when things are fresh in his mind, and if he picks up something new he forgets other things, or it slips away from him. We were months out of practice, the situation escalated too fast, and Sylvester was spread too thin to compensate.”
“I see,” the headmaster said. He looked frustrated.
It dawned on her why.
Sy had an excuse.
“Let’s talk about Percy…” another Doctor said. “How did you encounter him?”
“We got access to the building he and Fray were holed up in,” Mary said. Best to tell the truth when she wasn’t sure. Lie only when it counted. “Fray let us walk in. Sy said she would, we believed him. Percy was one reason it worked. He was attached to me, still, and didn’t want me to come to harm. If someone had, it would have hurt their alliance.”
“Tell us more about what you understood of Fray’s reasons.”
“Her reasons?” Helen asked.
“I look at faces,” Helen said, narrowing her eyes as she looked at the headmaster. “I’m a very good student of faces. I had to learn it all from the beginning, like Ashton is doing now.”
“We know this,” Professor Ibott said. His face was annoyed. She would probably get talked at in a mean way when this was over.
“This information might help for our replacement hires that aren’t familiar with the Lambs,” Hayle said. “Go on.”
“I saw things in her face. What Sy said, she wants to be right. She has a mission and nothing’s going to shake her from that mission. But she’s very insecure deep down. She was really insecure when we ran into her. Sy did a lot of that.”
“Sylvester,” Ibott said. “Use his full name like a grown up girl.”
“Sylvester,” Helen said.
“She lost Cynthia, that was because of us too, I think. Cynthia didn’t like us being there, and she wasn’t happy being there to start with. And there was something about her not liking not being on top if Fray’s plan works and the Crown loses their grip on the West Crown States. I’m not sure.”
“Be sure,” Ibott said. “This isn’t the time or place for suppositions.”
“I wasn’t listening,” Helen said. “The others can tell you. I was focused on the room, making sure to listen to other things that were being said. I’m still not used to my new ears, but I wanted to make sure we weren’t attacked. There were a lot of dangerous people there.”
“That’s not good enough,” Ibott said.
“It will have to be,” Helen said, firmly. “The Lambs work like a puzzle does. The pieces fit together one way. I’m a piece that does certain things. What I do is I watch. Especially when Jamie isn’t around. I wait, I look for opportunities to attack, and I use my ears better than anyone in the group. They all had their ears pointed one way, and I had my ears pointed the rest of the ways.”
“You need to keep track of what’s happening,” Ibott said.
“I did,” Helen said. “Like I said, I kept enough track to know that Cynthia didn’t like it if everyone got those books and she wasn’t special for knowing stuff anymore.”
He was upset. She knew that. She knew how to act to make him more upset, and she knew how to act to make him less upset. She was less certain about why he was upset.
She’d known him longer than she had known anyone, and she still didn’t understand him a lot of the time.
“Nothing she’s saying is contradicting what we heard from other Lambs,” Hayle said.
“It’s how she’s saying it,” Ibott said.
Helen knew how to fix that.
She straightened her back, folding her hands in her lap. All of the right expressions and postures were very well organized in her head. She put the other ones away and brought these ones out. The tones of voice, the ways it affected how people treated her, it was a big, elaborate, spider’s web of a puzzle she had long ago figured out.
The trick to that puzzle was that everyone wanted something. Sy was good at making people want different things, or taking what they wanted and using it to make them do what he wanted them to do. Gordon wasn’t as clever about it, but could figure out what people didn’t want and hammer at that weak point until they gave. Even if it meant being troublesome to the point that they just wanted him to go away or told him what he wanted to know just to make him stop.
He didn’t get to do it much.
Helen could figure out what people wanted and be that.
The doctors and professors were conferring among themselves in whispers. There were parts of their voices that sounded too sharp, where her ears hadn’t quite adjusted to the very high pitches that voices could reach, that normal ears didn’t always catch.
She couldn’t hear all of it, but she could put the pieces together from one word in five that was being said. They were talking about focus. Priority number one was to verify if the Lambs were traitors. For some, the word ‘if’ was replaced with ‘that’. Verifying that the Lambs were traitors, as if it had already been decided.
All of her attention was going towards the act, reading expressions, paying attention to the glances that were cast her way and the faces people wore both when they did the glancing and after the fact.
Many parts of her brain were built around this kind of thinking and attention-paying.
“Did the Lambs at any point split up?”
“Yes, sir,” Helen said, voice crisper than before, but musical enough to be pleasing.
“The night before last. Sylvester suggested we split up. Then he went after Fray. He was in there for a time, then he came out. That was how he knew we could get close enough to Fray to figure out what she was planning.”
“You’re talking differently,” Professor Ibott observed.
“Shh,” the Headmaster shushed the man. “Is it not possible that Sylvester could have acted against the Academy during this time, collaborating with Fray?”
“No, sir,” Helen said. “He was acting funny. We had an argument about it after. He was acting different, hurrying things along, and making small mistakes. I said, and I said this to everybody, he was trying to replace Jamie. Not on purpose, exactly, but subconsciously. He was too sloppy to do the sort of thing you were talking about.”
“This role you’re putting on,” Professor Ibott said. “It’s different from the infantile, ‘cute’ behavior before.”
“That was a role I put on for the Lambs, creator,” Helen said. “They were worried and anxious ever since our first meeting with Genevieve Fray. I tried to inject humor and positivity into things. I was more open about the thoughts that regularly cross my mind, but in a way I thought they could accept.”
“You’ll cease that immediately,” Professor Ibott told her.
Helen tilted her head a little to one side. “I already have. You said you didn’t like how I was talking before, Professor. I adjusted my behavior to match this room.”
“You’ll cease that too. Present yourself to the room as you are, without the act.”
All of the details went away, the facial expressions, the considerations, the balances and her judgments of people around her. Her expression faded, until she was only staring.
She looked at each of the people around the table, assessing them.
Ibott spoke, and he sounded a little smug, having shown off his control and his ability to make her go quiet, “Now, focusing on the matter at hand, tell us about the mental state of the others. You reported Sylvester was acting strange. None of the other Lambs stepped in, forcing him to hand over the reins?”
She didn’t have to make the mental adjustments to fit his feeling of superiority into her ‘act’, because there was no act.
Helen stood from her chair. In her assessments, she’d found and fixed her eyes on the man at the far left of the table. A young man in a military uniform with the Radham crest on it. A manager of the local armies, organizing and training the local troops, probably. He was, as she had things put in her head, outward facing, a book man, locked in, a decider. She couldn’t help but visualize the notecards that had taught her about faces and people as she deciphered him.
At a glance, she assessed him as the strongest person in the room. He could probably destroy her in a fight.
She felt her hearts beat a little faster and harder. She could feel spurting as chemicals flowed from glands in her body. A rush, adrenaline, as if she was about to pick a fight. It all built up to a warmth in her middle.
She imagined wrapping her arms around his chest until he stopped. Feeling her cheek against his chest as it went from warm to cool. Going to sleep like that. She wanted to put her thumbs on his eyes and press in until they gave away.
Her hands reached out, touching the table. She leaned forward, hair hanging in front of her face.
“Helen,” Ibott said, making it a reprimand. “What are you doing?”
“Thinking,” she said, her voice monotone, glancing only briefly at her creator.
“We’re asking you questions. Sit down,” Ibott said.
“What are you thinking?” Hayle asked, voice calm. He was gesturing to the men at the door. Helen remembered they had guns.
“About him,” Helen said, pointing at the man in the military uniform, and that rush she was feeling did change her voice slightly from the monotone. She could have controlled that if she had wanted to, but this still wasn’t an act. To the man, she said, “I’m very flexible.”
“Uh,” he said. “You’re-”
“I’m thinking,” Helen continued, “About if I can crawl into your open mouth. Things would tear apart , of course, but you’d be warm and you’d flop around and I want to see what it would feel like if you were doing that while I was most of the way inside you.”
The man’s hand went to his gun.
Ibott’s chair screeched on the floor as he stood.
“Enough of this,” he said.
“You told me to stop acting, I did. The acts were the only thing keeping me sitting still,” Helen said.
“Stop,” he ordered.
She went still.
“This is over,” Ibott said. “She’s having her appointment. I need to figure out what’s wrong.”
“We’re not done questioning. Helen, you can speak,” Hayle said. “Tell us-”
“I wanted to muck about in Fray’s insides too,” Helen said, interrupting him. “And Percy’s, and Mauer’s, and the others. That would have been lovely.”
She knew the cadence and even the fact that she’d chosen the word ‘lovely’ was very strange and offputting. She didn’t mind.
Hayle didn’t finish his sentence, only glancing at Ibott.
“Suggests she isn’t a traitor, unless she’s looking to do that with her friends, too,” one of Sylvester’s doctors spoke.
Ibott rounded the table. He comprehended the sentence just before grabbing Helen’s upper arm. “You don’t touch or attack me.”
“I would never,” Helen breathed. The rush was still coloring her words, maybe even her face. She felt like a coiled spring, a catapult ready to fire, a gun with the trigger cocked. But getting release meant feeling parts of someone break in her arms. It was the best feeling.
“Good,” Ibott said. He steered her around, marching her to the door.
“I would never,” she repeated herself.
“Do us both a favor and shut up,” Ibott said.
“Because,” Helen said, “I only feel this way about strong people, and powerful people.”
Ibott stopped in his tracks.
“Ibott?” Hayle asked, from the other end of the room. “Problem?”
“It wasn’t relevant to the topic at hand,” Ibott said.
His grip was tighter, the march more forceful than before, as the doors opened and he steered her past the Lambs.
Helen glanced at Gordon as she walked by, smiling, her eyes wide.
One hand went to her hair, tossing it back over one shoulder.
Her fingers lingered briefly at her collar, as she tugged on it.
Better to do this, than to let the questioning continue too long. The more questions she answered, the more chances there were of her giving the wrong answer.
“The problems only became apparent when the mission was underway,” Lillian answered.
She was sweating, she kept fidgeting and telling herself to stop, only to resume again without fully realizing it.
“High stress situation, and we knew Jamie was coming, and that added more stress to things? The Lambs are people, we- they had reasons and plans. Sylvester had something to prove to make up for losing to Fray last time, when the whole thing happened with the water supplies. Mary was fixated on Percy, but she saw that one through when she killed him. Then there was Jamie, and he was coming, but I said that part-”
“Shh, calm down,” Hayle said.
Lillian made a concerted effort.
“Have you reported on everything that’s been happening?” another Professor asked.
“Mental issues, health issues…”
“Yes, sir. Everything as it’s come up, even irrelevant things.”
“She’s been thorough,” Professor Hayle said. “Helen’s apparent… precociousness, and Sylvester’s failings during this mission, they raise concerns.”
“Yes, sir,” Lillian said.
“Start with Helen.”
“She’s been changing gradually for a very long time. She presents one face to us and there’s more going on beneath the surface, which we only glimpse. She has never indicated any problems. During the mission, she provided a good assessment of Sylvester and if I’m remembering right, helped us capture a Ghost for Petey, before we knew he was a problem. We later heard it inconvenienced him and Fray, because he had to lure off some Ghosts and take them out of play to keep up the undercover ruse.”
“Alright,” Hayle said. “Mary, and Percy?”
“I’m close to Mary, it feels lousy to say stuff when she shared some of it in confidence-”
“It’s your job,” the military man on the far left of the table said.
“I- it- I-” Lillian said. She couldn’t find it in her to put a coherent syllable together. She’d had nightmares about this sort of thing, being on trial when there was no right answer. Except usually it was an oral exam.
“It is your job, Lillian, to look after the Lambs, to monitor their performance, and report anything the Academy needs to know,” Hayle said.
“As- as a friend,” Lillian said, “She told me things about Percy. About how it was hard to let go. He was like a dad to her. She was always worried he would show up again.”
“She told you she was considering betraying the team and you didn’t report it?” another Professor asked.
“No,” Lillian said. She was screwing this up. Everyone had been confident in leaving the room and she was saying all the wrong things. Half the words that left her mouth, she felt like it was the wrong answer before she’d even spoken and felt like it was a worse answer after she’d heard herself say it.
“No, she wasn’t considering betraying the team, or no, you didn’t report it?”
“I mean, she wasn’t. It never came up, not like that.”
“It sounds as if it was pertinent,” a professor jumped in.
“It wasn’t, not for the job, not for what she was doing,” Lillian said. “She- she just didn’t want it hanging over her head, I mean. I think, that was the reason, I think?”
A stutter of the brain had made her say ‘I think’ twice in the same sentence. She was pretty sure that was cruel irony.
They didn’t look happy, and they didn’t look convinced. Professor Hayle leaned closer to another professor so the man could whisper in his ear. People at the left end of the table were talking to each other in a babble of low voices.
Lillian had the slip of paper in her sock, she’d looked at it while she waited for her turn – second to last – and she had no idea what it meant, which terrified her.
She’d heard of the Twins. She’d seen pictures of the Twins’ victims. She’d seen their pet warbeasts and had heard about their Doctors, one had a name that recurred in urban legends and scary stories, told in candlelit dormitories after dark. She was pretty sure it was the same person, and all of the legends and stories weren’t necessarily just stories.
The stakes had never been higher, and in her attempt to give an explanation that should have sounded good, she’d fumbled and made it sound weak.
This wasn’t what she was good at.
She was good at studying, and she was good at putting people back together. Even if she needed help with some of the hard stuff. Most of the rest she did was try to keep up.
“That will be all, I think,” Headmaster Travers told her.
It sounded ominous.
She started to rise from her seat, then stopped. “Where am I going? The others went to their appointments, or other places, and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to go to the dorm room, or wait, or-”
“Sylvester and his doctor should be waiting outside,” Professor Hayle said. “We talked it over between questioning Ashton and questioning you. If Sylvester is performing badly, then I feel the most important thing is to maintain routine. We’ll wrap things up soon, but for the time being, I would like you to look after Sylvester for his appointment. We’ll need you to be able to administer doses in the field, for longer engagements.”
“Depending on how the last series of questions go, it might be helpful if we know exactly where to find you,” the Headmaster said. “It wouldn’t do if we had to scurry around to figure out where you’d gotten off to.”
For the nobles. He might as well have said it, it was clear as day. If this went badly, the Lambs would be handed over. Some or all.
Lillian turned and left the room, only belatedly realizing she hadn’t said farewell, or any pleasantries at all.
Sylvester was indeed waiting in the hall, talking to the thuggish man that was his doctor. She’d never liked the man, after seeing him cuff Sy far too hard for a smart-assed remark.
Sitting across the hall was Jamie, who had a book in his lap. He was writing, and didn’t even look up as she approached.
“I’m supposed to come with you,” she said.
“I know,” the doctor said. “Do you think I’d be waiting here for some other reason?”
“For good conversation with me?” Sylvester suggested.
“Mm,” the man made a noise. He looked at Lillian, his eyes traveling all the way up and down her body. “If you learn this, I have to deal with him less. I’m bad at judging ages. How long until I can buy you a drink as thanks?”
“Three years,” Lillian said.
“I’ll probably forget by then,” he said.
Lillian wondered if the man had been asking out of any interest, but the thought creeped her out, and her mind was frazzled from a full half-hour of questioning. She wanted to ask so many questions and get feedback, and she didn’t dare with the doctor in earshot.
“Bye, Jamie,” she said.
Jamie looked up from his book, silent, and raised a hand in a wave, giving a brief smile.
She’d liked the old Jamie more. He’d shared books with her and talked to her. They were both bookworms, happier in darkness and quiet than in noise and chaos. This Jamie made her uncomfortable for reasons she couldn’t put a finger on. It wasn’t entirely his fault. When he was around, everyone acted different, and she could see the pain on the faces of some of the people she cared about the most, Sy first among them.
The big man that was Sy’s doctor had an umbrella of matching size. The moment he was outdoors, he lit up a cigarette, then opened the umbrella, inviting the two children to stand beneath, Sy to his right and Lillian to his left.
Standing too close felt weird, especially when she wasn’t sure if he’d been offering the drink out of gratitude or as a roundabout way of asking her out, or if he’d genuinely wondered about her age. Keeping that invisible, wary wall between them meant standing so that one of her shoulders was out in the rain, the rest of her under the umbrella’s cover.
The walk to the Tower wasn’t fast enough.
Just before they reached the door, the doctor finished his cigarette and lit another.
“Are you going to expect us to stand around in the rain while you finish that?” Sylvester asked.
“Don’t care,” the man said.
“Can we wait inside?”
“Don’t care,” the man said. “You finished answering their questions, so I figure my obligations about watching you are done. I spent forever standing around in there with nothing to do and nobody I wanted to talk to, craving a burn. I’m going to have two, maybe three.”
“Make it three, and I’ll make this one easy on you?” Sy suggested. “And to look good for her?”
“You mean you won’t be a baby and a little ass dribblet?” the man asked.
“Neither. I just want a chance to talk to her and get caught up on things.”
“Fine. But you’re owing me a few no-nonsense appointments,” the man said.”
“Three, then,” Sylvester said.
The man nodded.
Lillian’s heart jumped as Sylvester reached out to grab her wrist.
He tugged on her arm, pulling her inside.
Alone with Sy. Why did this make her anxious in a good way when she’d slept in the same bed as him the last two nights?
Her heart was already unsteady, she decided. She was in a shaky place and it didn’t take much to tip the scales. She looked at his wet hair and his narrow shoulders. His shirt clung to him, translucent where it touched the skin. He was about as tan as anyone could get in the rains of Radham and Brechwell, which wasn’t much at all, but it was something.
There were beads of water on the back of his neck.
“How did it go?” he asked.
She remembered how it had gone, and the emotional high became an emotional low.
“Bad,” she said. The low came with a feeling like she wanted to cry, and if she cried, then he would call her a crybaby.
“I panicked, I didn’t know what to say, I tried to defend you guys and make you out to be confident, like you knew what you were doing. But they kept attacking you, and I lost track of what I was saying, and-”
“You defended me?”
“Yes! Of course!”
“You got the paper from Hubris, right?”
“Yes, the paper. What did the paper mean?”
Sylvester half-turned, staring at her.
“It was important, wasn’t it?”
He held up his free hand, gesturing. He wasn’t halfway done before she realized what he’d meant.
“How the hell was I supposed to figure that out!? And why should we sacrifice you?”
“Because,” Sy said, “They’re not going to screw over the Lambs because bad science and logistics on their part made me sloppy. It would hurt them, they’d be hurting themselves if they went to the nobles about that. Especially when the Duke likes me.”
“And I didn’t expect you to figure it out. It was Gordon’s plan. A pretty good one. I hope you didn’t do too good a job of defending me.”
Lillian huffed out a short, one-note laugh. “I really didn’t.”
“Good. Helen made a play too, but I won’t know what it was for sure until I talk to her. I’m really interested.”
“Are we going to be okay?” Lillian asked.
“I don’t know. Probably. A very likely scenario is they target one or two of us, in some attempt to clean up the roster and make it look like they’re doing something effective. In which case I’m probably the sacrificial play. I get benched, not killed, and you guys actively suck at the job until I return to the picture.”
“That’s… not so bad.”
“Like I said, good plan,” Sylvester said. He stopped at a door, opening it. “My office.”
“The doctor’s office. You’re the patient.”
“I’m impatient,” Sylvester said. He let go of her wrist and hopped up onto the desk at one side of the narrow room. It was barely bigger than a closet, with lots of bookshelves and both preserved and living animals of various poisonous and venomous varieties. Jars lined shelves. “I want to hear how things went, and we won’t for a while.”
“I know,” Lillian said. “Was there more you wanted to ask?”
“About the questions?”
“Nope,” Sy said.
“But you asked him to stay for a while, and he was already going to finish a cigarette, and…”
“And I’m tired of being ferried around and told here to go and what to do and what questions to answer. I feel cornered.”
Lillian felt cornered in an office that was about two long paces long and an even shorter length wide, with furniture crammed in it. Murky light filtered in through a narrow, barred window, casting a raindrop-dappled light into the otherwise lightless room.
She had to admit she would have felt more cornered if the doctor was also present.
“That doctor of yours creeps me out,” Lillian said.
“Yep,” Sylvester said. “I’ll be sure to tell him that.”
“Don’t,” she said, punching his thigh. He was sitting on the desk with his legs dangling.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said.
She looked up at him.
He was so fine-boned, with high cheekbones, and a narrow chin. She could see the individual parts of his shoulders. His hair was wet and swept away from his face, wild and always looking like it was tangled, though it so rarely was. His eyes were an insane green color, very dark, framed by long lashes.
When he looked at her, she felt naked. Stripped bare. Not in terms of clothes, but in terms of what was going on in her head and her defenses.
It was ten times worse since she had shared a bed with him. She felt very aware of him, and doubly aware of his awareness of her.
He was glad she was here?
Words like that seemed so very meaningful, coming from someone who seemed to see her so clearly, understanding who she really was.
‘I know everything about you and I still enjoy your company’
Her face was hot, and she knew she was blushing. She turned to look out the window, and saw only a smirk on his face.
She would have hit him, but that would have meant admitting that she’d seen and facing the teasing that followed.
He stuck his feet out, one foot pressing against her belly, the other against the small of her back. She managed to make herself turn and give him a curious look. The feet dropped away.
“I’ve been feeling really lonely, since Jamie… went. And especially since this Jamie came back.”
She nodded. If he kept talking like this, she’d get a lump in her throat, or end up crying.
“It’s… nice that you’re here,” he said. “You do a good job of making me not feel lonely. You’re good company.”
Again, that look. She felt the heat rise to her face, more intense than before.
“I think I might go and see if I can get a bit of tea. Do you want some? I’ll bring some,” she said. She turned to go.
She felt a sharp tug at the side of her head.
She turned and saw that Sy had grabbed the length of hair that normally framed one side of her face.
“Stay,” he said.
She swallowed hard. Her heart drummed. She couldn’t find words.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Come here.”
She approached, and watched as he reached out to take hold of the other lock of hair.
“I’m going to kiss you,” he said, staring down at her with those penetrating eyes. “If that’s alright.”
Her lips moved but no air passed through them. She gave him a nod.
“Then stand on your tiptoes,” he said.
He tugged lightly on her hair, urging her up and forward, to meet him as he leaned down.
Somewhere, in her fantasies about kissing boys, she had most definitely thought about what kissing Sy would be like. A part of her had told her that no, it wouldn’t be great, first kisses never were, and Sy was usually terrible at something until he’d had a little practice.
He was a good kisser. His lips were cool to the touch, but he was gentle. His lips brushed hers, then pulled away. She raised herself up a bit further to kiss back, and he kissed her again as a reward. It wasn’t long until she was standing on the very tips of her boots, leaning forward, hands on his thighs, trying to meet him, only to experience feather touches of kisses.
Then, like he was hungry, a real kiss, full lipped instead of a simple touch, while her entire body was straining up and forward, as if everything led to that contact.
The knuckles of one hand that held her hair brushed against her cheek. It was so nice and she’d already been so close to crying earlier that she wondered if she might tear up.
If she dropped down, she knew, it would probably tug her hair against his hand, and it would hurt and it was probably the least of the reasons she didn’t want to stop straining up and forward, the least of the reasons she didn’t want this to end.
He pulled away, then kissed her, pulled away, and stopped.
“More,” she whispered.
Sylvester cleared his throat.
Lillian dropped down to the ground, spinning around.
It was worse than she’d thought.
Not just Sy’s doctor, but Hayle as well.
“Lillian,” Hayle said. “A word?”
Lillian remained frozen, a deer in the headlights.
Sy leaned down, his mouth by her ear.
“Tonight, if you come to my room, I’ll give you another.”
The worst. He was the absolute worst.
But it was reason enough to flee the room.
She knew she was blushing bright red for Professor Hayle. The professor closed the door.
He pointed, and the two of them walked a distance down the hall.
“Do I need to worry?” he asked.
Lillian shook her head.
Then she remembered the greater situation. “Do- do we need to worry? The Lambs?”
“We’re waiting to talk to Jamie tomorrow. He’s having an appointment now. The others want to talk and figure out what questions to ask, as he can provide us the clearest perspective, for what he’s seen, if nothing else.”
Lillian felt a sinking feeling in her gut.
“I know,” Hayle said. “I think things will be fine.”
Lillian didn’t feel convinced.
“I came to ask a question. Now I feel we might need to have a discussion.”
“Please no,” Lillian said.
“You’re a favorite student of mine, with all the promise in the world-”
“Okay,” Hayle said, raising his hands. “Alright. Just let this old man say his piece.”
Lillian couldn’t stop blushing.
“There was a time, not so long ago, where I worried about Sylvester. All of the Lambs, but Sylvester was among them. When it came to… interest in others.”
“What do you mean?”
“When a youth comes of age, it can be hard. Hormones surge, judgment isn’t always there, unfamiliar feelings… if you combine the intensity of feeling with the natural ability of the Lambs to get what they desire, through trickery, problem solving, or sheer charm, keeping in mind Sylvester meets all of the marks, that’s a difficult issue.”
“Yes sir. I don’t think he’s dangerous.”
“No, but he’s been retarded in physical and emotional growth by the chemicals we inject him with. He’s a late bloomer in everything but mental faculties. I worried that he would be a danger if he were to turn his attention toward someone in the public, but then he seemed to turn his sights to Mary, and if anyone can defend themselves, it’s her.”
“I don’t want to sound as though I don’t have faith in you, Lillian. But, the Lambs being what they are, it warps them in many ways, in growth and emotion and other things. The arena of love stands to be very dangerous ground. Enough that I considered chemically emasculating the boys and doing much the same for Mary.”
“I’m not going to do that. I won’t tell you not to do this. But I wanted you to know how, looking at the bigger picture, I was wary.”
“I would like you to be wary.”
“Yes sir. Um. The other question? That you came to ask?”
Professor Hayle sighed, as if she’d disappointed him somehow. She hated that.
“The Lambs will be splitting up, depending on how the verdict goes. We’ll find a way to broach the news to them tomorrow, but-”
Hayle paused. “I should have figured.”
“Yes sir. I mean, sir, I didn’t mean to sound like I was saying you should have, only that-”
“Yes, Lillian. I know. Do you have any recommendations, from students in your age group?”
“I don’t have many classes with students in my age group. But I could give you names.”
“Thank you, Lillian. Your parents are coming to visit in a month, I’m having them to my place. I expect you’ll come?”
“If there’s anything you need,” Hayle said, glancing in the direction of Sy, “You’ll let me know?”
“Yes, sir,” she lied.