I tried to avoid being shoved out of the way and lost as I worked my way through a jam of people. A counter stood before me, and I worked to hold on, periodically driving an elbow or shoulder into the side or hip of someone beside me. I smelled food, but it was nearly drowned out by the smell of smoke.
“Here,” I heard. “For the little one.”
I pushed forward, reaching up over the counter. The man at the counter handed me sacks, low quality cloth with steam pouring out through the weave.
“Get some money back if you bring the bags and plates on your next visit!” he called out, but I was already leaving, pushing to exit as the crowd pressed forward to the counter.
The agitation and frustration I’d felt earlier was lingering. I’d been acting on it as I made the plan with Ratface, but it hadn’t helped. Instead, the knowledge that a situation was imminent was maintaining the feeling and feeding that fire.
I made it through the worst of the crowd. Jamie and our recruited family of helpers were waiting, sitting on a set of stairs at the side of a shack. I deposited the sacks on a stair, and then started opening one up while Jamie handled another.
The plates and forks were frail enough to break in half with my raw strength, stacked three high in each sack, with the food on one plate sticking to the bottom of the plate above it. It made for delicate, difficult handling as we distributed the plates around the group.
I ended up with a plate with a clean bottom by serving myself last. Questionable and hard-to-identify meat was drizzled in an unidentifiable sauce. The vegetables had probably been bought from a vendor, too bruised or manhandled to sell, cut up and grilled until the damage wasn’t visible.
I grabbed the bone and raised the meat to my mouth, biting in.
It was far from being terrible.
I was still chewing when I saw the others. They were looking at the plates with skepticism, Jamie included.
“What is it?” Jamie asked. “What animal?”
I shrugged. I put the plate in my lap and forked some vegetables. Those, I winced as I put them in my mouth and chewed.
Heapings of salt, but not bad otherwise.
Jamie gave the meat a try, starting with a nibble.
Question. I gestured. I pointed at the food.
His reply wasn’t a gesture, but the so-so wavy motion of the hand.
Sitting still was hard, even if it was for something as necessary as eating and taking in that necessary fuel. I’d volunteered to grab some food to get away and try to find some space to think.
Finding that I could communicate effectively with Jamie, even if it was through gestures, was the first thing to ease that feeling, like I was some warbeast in a cage that was too small, throwing myself against the bars.
Not to say it was easy.
My eyes went to the ground. I was willing to take a minor upturn in our interaction for what it was. Just focus, don’t get distracted, don’t make this messy.
“Sy,” Jamie said. “How much do you have on hand?”
He indicated the family that was standing off to one side. “We should get them food. Food they’re willing to eat.”
“It’s doable,” I said.
“You’re saying that, but you can endure poisons that would put down a horse, your body is actively hostile to parasites, and most diseases won’t get traction in you either. You could eat pretty much anything and not worry. Don’t blame others if they’re a little more picky.”
I looked at the father and his two daughters. They hadn’t touched the food.
I quieted that angry, restless part of me that wanted to make comments.
My finger touched the ring at my thumb. I fished in a pocket and came out with cash.
“Littlest one stays with us,” I said.
The father accepted too quickly, taking the money. It wasn’t much – not enough to buy a meal in Radham, but enough to buy a meal here in Lugh.
Jamie spoke, “There was a bakery just down the street. It’s hard to screw up bread, and their sandwiches were decent enough, but you should expect a long wait time. Don’t come back here. Go to the rendezvous point.”
The man nodded.
I watched him go, one hand between his eldest daughter’s shoulders.
“Sy,” Jamie said. “Before we move forward with this plan, you should tell Lil.”
“I was thinking about that.”
“You should tell her what she’s getting herself into.”
Was there a way we could just communicate in gestures? The simplest, most bare-bones method of exchanging information, a methodology mostly focused on exchanging basic ideas and communicating actions? On coordination?
Could we do that for a few months, and see if the talking thing became easier?
Just a few sentences in, and he was pressing me, challenging me, putting me in a no-win situation. Tell Lil, screw up the group dynamic, push, shove, do this, do that, you’re wrong, Sy. Not that he was saying it outright, but it felt like he was on me like a dog on this haunch of mystery meat, biting deep, hurting, always seeming to communicate, ‘you’re wrong and your way of doing things is wrong.’
That restlessness was growing. I felt much like I did after a dose of the formula, in the days after my appointments.
I chewed, while thoughts simmered and burned in my head.
I swallowed before answering, “Maybe.”
“You have to think about things from her perspective. Even for a moment, if you pull this false betrayal, she’s going to believe it. It will do irreparable damage, Sy.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Does that mean you’re going to tell her?”
“Maybe,” I said, again. “She’s a bad actor. It might do more damage if she gives away the show and the Lambs get killed and she gets sold into slavery, doing Academy stuff until the day she gets worked to death. I’ll consider all of the options and make an informed decision. Trust me.”
An imaginary warbeast within me slammed into the cage. Onlookers wondered if the door would hold.
“Sy,” Jamie said. “You-”
“Jamie,” I cut him off. The word was angry and sharp enough that he stopped dead in his tracks. “Stop. Please.”
He drew in a deep breath and sighed. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, then. Do I keep my mouth shut when it comes to the team, the strategy?”
“Lillian did. She hung back, observed, learned how the team works, and she’s an honorary Lamb now,” I said. My emotions were coloring my tone, but I felt like the words were pretty dang reasonable.
“I know about Lillian, I’ve read the books,” he said. “Why even say that? Are you implying I’m not a Lamb? That I haven’t gone through similar experiences, or that I’m somehow less?”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” I said. “Not in the slightest.”
“From what I’ve seen, in how the group interacts with Ashton and how the group interacts with me, in how you interact with Ashton and how you interact with me, there are a hell of a lot more accommodations being made for him than for me, Sy.”
My mind was on five tracks at once, playing into the conversation from various angles, figuring out what I needed to say to get through to him, and four of those five tracks were dangerous ones. Ones where I’d say something and immediately regret saying it. No sooner did I banish one than the next popped up.
I was practically speaking through grit teeth now, as I tried to stay diplomatic, “There’s an adjustment period, Jamie. Yes, it’s a bigger adjustment with you than with Ashton. He’s still a puppy. You’re-”
“Whatever the dog equivalent of spoiled goods are?” Jamie asked. “A bad memory?”
“No,” I said. “Yes, but not- that’s not the problem, Jamie. The problem- the times when it’s hardest to accommodate, it’s when you act like you know us.”
“When I know you, you mean.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I’ve read the books, Sy. I’ve read about the Lambs, I’ve read about the past jobs. I’m in a weird, freaky place where I’m new but not new. I’m like him but not like him. I rationally know what it is I’m supposed to be and do and the role I’m supposed to fill, and somehow that ends up being wrong. It’s as if it’s impossible to do anything right in your eyes.”
Our food had been forgotten. The restlessness inside me was too great, and I knew if I got emotive or started gesturing, the plate might fall to the ground. I put it aside.
There were any number of escape routes, any number of ways I could just end this conversation. Stalk off, cool my head, say something, do something. But I felt cornered. If I walked away I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to come back in a timeframe that counted. If I said anything more, I wasn’t sure there was a way of coming back from that.
Out of the six or seven answers that sprung to mind, ways I might answer him, every single one felt like one I might regret.
If I couldn’t pick the right words, I had to at least say it calmly.
“Okay,” I said, “That’s a starting point.”
Speaking slowly. Trying to pace myself.
He nodded. He didn’t cut in.
“I know it’s hard for you,” I said. My voice didn’t have any strength in it as I said, “It’s hard for me.”
“I want this to work, I want the team dynamic to be good. I want us to remember his memory in a good way, in a way he’d want to be remembered. Including that part of him that lives on through- as you.”
I worried he would buck, that he’d say something akin to, ‘That’s not my responsibility.’
“I wholly agree,” Jamie said.
I swallowed hard. I had to actually work to unclench my fist, my fingers trembling as I did it. Once I was done, I clasped my hands together, leaning forward, elbows on my knees as I sat on the stair.
“What you said, about the role you’re supposed to fill.”
“The part where I said ‘I know what it is I’m supposed to be and do and the role I’m supposed to fill, and somehow that ends up being wrong’?”
“That part, yeah. That’s old Jamie. We did without him for a while. You can’t be him. We adjusted, we adapted. I-”
“You tried to fill his shoes and you struggled,” Jamie said.
“No,” I said. “No, not that.”
I reached down, and I pulled the ring off my thumb.
“There’s a sketch of that in one of the volumes,” Jamie said.
“But you know that. It was one of the books you, uh, borrowed from the office and took to Brechwell.”
I nodded again. “Took it off of someone I killed. She had pictures, a history, an existence. It’s a reminder, that the people I’m dealing with… they have existences beyond this one moment we’re in. The one crisis we’re facing. It’s stupid and it’s incomplete, but it’s one piece of what I’ve been working on.”
“A piece of?”
“A conscience? Building a better Sy?” I asked. I shrugged and put the ring back on.
“I can remember exactly what you’ve said, the order where you’ve been saying it, but I can’t follow your thread of thought.”
I looked down at my hands, and moved the ring around my thumb. More resistance than there used to be. “Jamie used to always, I think of it as dancing. Sometimes in step, sometimes not, but complimentary. He would keep me in check, and he would back me up when I needed it. I get the feeling you’re trying to do the same things, following the cues from your books.”
“Sometimes. But I get the feeling you’re imagining me trying to do that when I’m just trying to be a member of this team.”
“I don’t need you to be my conscience, Jamie. I don’t need you to challenge me or check me or question me, okay?”
“What am I supposed to do, then? When it looks like you’re charging into a bad situation, or treating a teammate wrong, I can’t speak up? I have to keep my mouth closed, when everyone else is free to do what they want? I can’t be a shadow, Sy.”
“Not be a shadow, but shadow us. Get to know me before you make assumptions about what I’m doing or how I’m operating. I’ve changed from the person that appears in the books, and some of the stuff in there isn’t as accurate as you think it might be, okay? There are gaps. I know there are gaps, events he didn’t write down.”
Now I was thinking about the day I’d lost Jamie. Our last conversation. My face tried to screw itself up in emotion, I managed to fight it off. Deep breath.
He studied me. He was almost as incensed as I was, as his eyes scanned my face. He didn’t clench his fists or hold himself like he wanted to throw a punch, but he was tense in a different way.
“Sy, you tried to emulate Jamie. You tried to fill the gap, use improvisation and tricks to be him. You studied those books and tried to use your ability to learn to… I don’t know what you had planned, build up your memory retention, at the cost of something else?”
“I would just like you to consider for a moment, that maybe, taken as a whole, the books contain more information than you seem-”
“Fuck the books!” I said, lunging to my feet as I said it, bringing my hand down on the nearest available thing, the plate of cooling meat I’d set down on the stair, and sent it spinning skyward. Jamie flinched as it came down a foot behind him, cracking on the step.
Jamie set his jaw, clenching his teeth, but he didn’t stand.
“I have changed from the person you got to know from the books. I am changing. And maybe I’m changing slower or I’m more twisted in how I grow than some…” I gestured at myself, “But don’t assume you know me.”
“There’s a code,” he said.
Breathing hard, standing on the stair, I looked down at him.
“It’s not something you’d pick up on a hundred reads, unless you had a perfect memory and the ability to pull it all together, or if you were actively looking for it. A letter and number combination in a poem. Words scratched into that scratchy style of drawing he did, that you’d only see if you knew the right place to look. His words to me, spread out over pages, backward and forward. Private thoughts. Filling in details. He knew the Academy would read the texts and there were details he didn’t want them to know, about the Lambs, questions of loyalty here and there. About him. About you.”
The anger was dying with every sentence. I felt tears welling up.
“You borrowed the last book. I know you read it, looking for insight or answers.”
I shook my head.
Read it over and over and over.
“There’s no entry just prior to his death, he didn’t have time to write,” Jamie said. “But I know what he was planning on telling you. I can connect the dots. What you’re saying, I understand it.”
I shook my head again. I wasn’t disagreeing, so I didn’t know why I was doing it.
“He wanted to equip me to be a real member of the Lambs. And that’s part of why it’s so monumentally frustrating that you’re holding me back, keeping me at arm’s length.”
I wanted to ask. I didn’t trust myself to speak.
“If the Academy found out, if you decided to use it against me, if something went wrong and anything slipped… it would end the Lambs project. The dirty secrets, the trials and tribulations. I thought I should keep it to myself, compartmentalize it, because it was and is such dangerous knowledge. Now you know. And so does she, I suppose.”
I turned my head. Down on the lowest step, trying to be as small as possible, was the youngest member of the family I’d sent off to the bakery.
Forgot, I thought.
“I spent months,” I said, my voice hollow. “Reading the books, studying how he described me, comparing how he wrote about me to how he wrote about the other Lambs. I’ve agonized over it.”
“Good,” Jamie said.
The word was like a solid punch to the ribs.
“You had the answers all along?”
“Since we left Brechwell and I read the books you had.”
I almost cussed at him right there.
“Like you said,” Jamie told me, “You’d changed. I had no way of knowing who you’d become in the months since. If I told you the wrong thing, you might have told the Academy. Or done something else.”
“What were you waiting for?” I asked.
“This, I suppose. This conversation. The point where I could be sure I was talking to the real Sylvester.”
I was still divided. A part of me was angry again, wanting to cuss at him and throw a punch for holding that back. Another part still wanted to cry. The final part was rational, collected if not calm, capable of putting on a mask. Clever Sy.
“I want you to understand, I have a greater understanding of what’s been going on-”
Angry Sy shook his head.
Jamie was silent for a moment. Then he said, “You want to talk about him. The old Jamie.”
There was nothing to ask. No entry to inquire about. We’d gone from my conversation with Jamie to hunting Avis, to a conversation with the Duke, straight to appointments.
“I wronged him,” I said. My voice sounded simultaneously too loud and very far away.
“I wronged him and then he went away. He had no reason to stay.”
“He had a lot of reasons to stay, Sylvester. But staying got very, very hard. All of the details and knowledge made for a big burden.”
“And a little push-”
The rain was starting to come down hard. Jamie reached over and put three of the untouched meals into a sack, tossed his remaining food into the heaped detritus at the side of the stairwell, and put the plate over top of the meals to cover them from the rain.
“It got very hard to stay. He stayed longer than he might have otherwise. It was time to pass the baton.”
I shook my head. Comforting lies.
“One of the last messages,” Jamie said. He stood from the stair, flipping up his hood, and walked down to the dirt at the side of the stairs. “Below the eye of a cat he’d drawn. Lines scratched out in a cross-hatch style to deepen the shadows in the eye socket. One of the more common forms of the code. Five…”
He drew a line in the dirt. Slanted.
Then another, different angle. “Seven…”
Then another. “…teen.”
Another, horizontal, “Nine.”
“What’s the message?” I asked, impatient.
“Book five. Page seventeen. Line nine. Word three. Help.”
“Book two. Page two. Line one, word three-”
“That would be the early days,” I interrupted. Interrupting because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
“Your first meeting,” he said.
Our first meeting? Then-
Jamie said, “It was one of the very few imperatives he gave me. I think he didn’t want to give me too many orders, in case I rebelled. ‘Help Sylvester’.”
I turned my head, staring out across the streets of Lugh. More lanterns and lights were being ignited, many set beneath covers and awnings to protect them from the rain.
“He cared about you. Above all else, you were his best friend. That came first. Whatever you might have said, I think he knew you well enough to know your words or actions didn’t come from the heart.”
“They still hurt him.”
“Yep,” Jamie said. “And you deserve to feel bad about that. But I think you’ve agonized over it for long enough to do it penance. If my opinion counts for anything.”
“It counts,” I said. “I’m not convinced, but thank you.”
I watched as more lights went up around Lugh. Some clever dick had had the bright idea of putting a large lamp within the eye socket of the titanic warbeast that loomed over the southwest end of the city, so it glowed as it gazed out over us. The rain made the light form halos.
The tension was gone. Angry Sy, Crybaby Sy and Clever Sy didn’t feel like such different creatures, anymore.
The girl still sat on the steps, trying not to participate or get caught up in the discussion. She hunched forward, shoulders drawn forward, getting wet.
I pulled off my jacket, and I draped it over her.
Jamie reached out. He put a hand on my shoulder, and I didn’t flinch or pull away. I even found the courage to meet him in the eye. I felt the now-familiar pain at seeing Jamie’s ghost.
The pain and the anger were there, to be sure, the warbeast still in its cage.
Maybe it was a beast I could tame, now, and grow easy with.
“We should reunite with the others,” Jamie said. “It’s getting past time to rendezvous.”
I nodded. “Come on, kid. Let’s go find your dad and get you something to eat.”
She gave me a wary look.
All of that must have been so confusing, I thought. My thumb touched the ring, a reminder.
“Sorry,” I told her.
The wary look remained.
“You mentioned helping to kill someone,” Jamie murmured, as we walked. “She heard that.”
If the girl heard the murmur, she didn’t react. Her eyes were fixed forward, her profile still small.
“Oh,” I said. “They deserved it though. They always do.”
If she heard that, then she gave no sign.
The others were gathered as we got back to the rendezvous. They were warm and dry, sitting on the covered patio of a stout, sturdy building. A tiny fire blazed on a portable stove between them, little more than a can with firewood in it and a grate over the top. It looked like the others were finishing their meals.
The little girl I’d sniffed shucked off her coat, letting it fall to the ground, as she reunited with her sister. Not so much her dad.
“Luck?” Gordon asked.
“I have a plan,” I said.
“Good,” Gordon said. “Because we chased five different leads, and they didn’t turn up anything.”
“Sit down, Sy,” Lillian said, patting the seat on the bench next to her. “Warm up and dry off before you catch your death of cold.”
I did, crossing the distance and plopping myself down.
Lillian rested her head on my shoulder. The very top of her head pressed against my cheek.
“I’m wet,” I said. “You’re going to get wet by proxy, getting close like this.”
“I know,” she said. She dropped her voice. “But I thought you might need it.”
Her left hand found my right hand and held it.
“I’m supposed to look after the Lambs,” she said. “Keep ’em in the best shape possible. I’m expanding my repertoire, when it comes to you.”
I nodded. Jamie was taking the mystery meat and putting it at the stove’s edge to heat up again.
“You’re good at what you do,” I said, staring into the fire.
She made a happy sound.
Hubris was edging closer to the meat on the stove.
“I’ll give you some, Hubris,” Jamie said. “Don’t worry.”
“The plan,” I said. I immediately had the attention of the Lambs, minus Hubris, who was still keeping an eye on the meat. “It puts you at risk, Lillian, front and center.”
“Is it a good plan?”
“Not a polished one, but it’s the best one I can figure out to get results. If you don’t want to, we’ll figure something else out. This is your mission, you take point.”
She nodded, giving my leg a pat. “Okay, Sy. How long do we have to figure it out?”
“‘Til midnight,” I said. “We’re going to sell you into slavery, and I’m fairly sure the guy that’s buying has a small army of thugs under his control. But he’ll have answers we want.”
“That’ll do,” Gordon said. He reached forward to tear off a bit of meat and throw it to his dog.