In Sheep’s Clothing – 10.2

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“She got frustrated, I think,” Helen confided.  “Duncan got the worst of it.”

“Frustrated how?” I asked.

“She decided she was leader, which makes sense, right?”

“Right,” I said.  I thought about it for a second.

“She-” Helen said, in the same moment I said, “Oh.”

She smiled wide.  “Yeah.”

“She led you like you were Bad Seeds?”  I asked.

“She tried.  She got frustrated, like I said.  So she paired me with Ashton and she tormented poor Duncan, demanding he keep up.”

“Poor Duncan?” I asked.

“Poor Duncan,” Ashton echoed me.

Helen’s cheeks were rosy from the colder weather, and seemed rosier still with her apparent merry mood.  Her scarf, not one of the nicer ones, but a ratty one covered in balls of lint, was wound around her neck, trapping golden curls beneath it.  Her jacket was a boy’s jacket that had been blue once, but a bad wash had bled some of the color out in such a way that it transitioned from pale green to dark blue, with the more worn patches appearing all the more visible where the color had faded.

Helen had reached the point where I doubted it was possible to make her look bad, whatever clothes were draped on her.

Ashton, too, seemed to be getting more of an eye for it.  I’d had to dig up a more convincing shirt for him, but his jacket and pants were spot on.  Quiet as he was, often so still I had to check he was still breathing, his eyes remained alert, taking everything in.  His hair needed work, though.  Too tidy.

I didn’t correct it.  I wanted to see how Ashton operated without prompts and prodding.

The city was waking up, the early bird students stepping outside, business owners turning on the lights, and a two-to-one ratio of wagons to cars taking to the streets.  Traffic was being held up as a pair of shepherds guided a flock of sheep down the street, up the back road that would lead around to the side of the Academy.

Helen talked, “I think if you put Mary in charge of some very disciplined, committed people, then she would do well.  Test their limits, organize them, orchestrate.  But I get tired too fast, Ashton doesn’t really get tired now at all, I’m not good at being fast, and neither is Ashton.”

“Uh huh.”

“We’re different, and she couldn’t figure out how to push us or test our limits.”

“She likes Lillian because, even if it’s not physical, Lillian works at what she does,” I said.  “It reassures her, in a way, knowing that Lillian is trying.  It’s synonymous with being focused.  Faced with you two, well, she’s wondering in the back of her mind, are you listening, watching, are you ready to move when something happens?  Or are you dealing with a shift of hormones, adjustments Ibott made, or staring off into space, dreaming of how you’re going to break whoever your target is?”

“Yes,” Helen said.  “I think she missed all of you.  Gordon, Lillian, you.”

“I get last place?” I asked.

“You get last place,” Helen said.

I pressed a hand to my heart.  “Ow.”

“Just because you aren’t the first or the second person she thinks of when she’s lonely doesn’t mean you’re the least important person to her.”

I raised my eyebrow.  “That sounds positively brilliant.  Or like utter bullshit.”

She smiled at me.

The sheep were out of the way, traffic moved.  We had to wait for the more impatient carts and cars to move out of the way before someone stopped and let us go.

She said, “I think if you want to sound smart, you have to straddle the line.  If you only sound smart, then you-”

“Sound like Ibott,” I said.

That gave her pause.  I watched as she considered the idea.

“Yes,” she said, very definitively.  “Like Professor Ibott.”

I wanted to ask, to poke, to pry.  What did she think about Ibott?  If things changed, what would she think about leaving Ibott?  But the way she’d said that last bit made me feel as though she’d terminated that branch of the conversation there, and pushing the subject further wouldn’t be smooth or natural.

Mary was attached to Lillian and to me.  Lillian was attached to Mary, me, and the school.  Helen was… always just Helen.  She was fond of Ashton, but the relationship didn’t alter her focus or her course.  She was attached to the rest of us, and we were reflected in her in varying ways, but Ibott was a part of that.

Was she more attached to us than to Ibott?  I was willing to say so, but I couldn’t say it with confidence.  Was Ibott the first priority and first thought when it came to her continuing to exist for the immediate future, even if he wasn’t the most important person?  Probably.

Helen was ever the person that was hardest to grasp and to pin down, on so many levels.

“Your hair is too tidy,” she told Ashton.

“I like my hair like this.”

“Why?” she asked.  “It’s not right.  You’re wearing the wrong face, except it’s your hair, and your hair is so much easier to fix than your face.”

“Because I like it,” Ashton said, looking straight ahead as we walked. “If it’s something I had to fix then I’d fix it, but I don’t have to fix it.”

Helen gave me a look.  Her hand went up above Ashton’s head, gesturing.  The first gesture was the sign for vile, toxic, evil, bad.  The second was the number two.

Bad two?  Polluted two?

Terrible two.  I smirked.

Ashton saw the shadow of her raised hand passing over his head and turned to look at her.  Helen, with her hands now clasped behind her back, gave him her best innocent smile.

“There are degrees of give and take,” I said.  “Baby steps on the path to playing a part, and we’re always playing a part.”

“Okay,” he said.  He made no effort to mess up his hair.

My hair had a way of going wild if I didn’t wash it or at least run my head under the tap, and I hadn’t stopped to shower before leaving with Helen and Ashton, instead pulling a flat cap on over my head, to keep at least the top of my head down and out of the way.  With luck, the pressure of the hat would pin my hair against my head and keep it it back and away from my face, even after the hat was removed.

“If I give you my hat,” I said, “Would you at least cover your hair?”

“I don’t like hats,” he said.  “I don’t like shirts or pants or shoes, either, but with those I don’t get a choice.”

“And you’re not going to change your hair.”

“Why?” he asked, conveying a glimmer of bewilderment at the fact that I’d even ask.

“And Helen was saying that Mary had a hard time wrangling you two,” I said, under my breath.  “I can’t see it at all.”

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit,” Helen said.

“Puns are the lowest form of wit.  Sarcasm is a survival mechanism,” I said.

She reached out around Ashton’s head to give my cheek a pat.

Ashton must have seen someone or something in his environment and decided to model himself after them, which extended to keeping his hair parted and his appearance more neat than was necessary.  Helen was very much a creature of nurture, she had emerged from the vat that birthed her with one nature, one instinct, and every other urge and desire was sublimated into that instinct, the lines blurring and bleeding through one another.  The personality she had constructed and even the mask she wore from day to day was one that relied on external cues and feedback.

The newest, youngest Lamb was almost the inverse.  He didn’t seem to have any desires but the ones he was handed.  His personality, conversely, was wooden, stiff, wrought by instinct and a careful background process of observation and growth from that observation.  Teaching him was a slow, careful process, recognizing what he was doing and why, and guiding his growth with the right kinds of exposure.  At times it was like wrestling a headstrong goat.  At other times, though, when the baseline wasn’t even there, it seemed to go in one ear and out the other.  Worse, he didn’t have to change to get what he needed and wanted.  People catered to him.

In my little excursion with this pair, I had secondary goals.  Figuring out Ashton was one.  Figuring out where they stood in terms of my ability to get them on board and leave the Academy was another.

On this cold morning, as we walked down the main street, among student and scholar, business owners and homeowners who had stepped outside to take brooms and shovels to the light covering of wet snow, I was as spooked as I had been with the Baron’s sword impaling my eye.

I was spooked as I quietly observed and studied Ashton and realized that there was probably no way that he would pick up roots and leave the Academy.  He was a Lamb.  Not one I knew or loved in the same way I loved the others, but he was a Lamb.

I was more than spooked at the fact that I could look at Helen and imagine asking her the question, and I had no idea at all what her answer might be.

“Does it hurt?” Helen asked.

“Hm?” I asked.

“Your eye.  You were being quiet.”

My eye wasn’t why I was being quiet, but I don’t blame you for jumping to the obvious conclusion.

“Some.  The fact that it isn’t here, that I move my eye to look one way or the other, and there are parts that aren’t moving, parts that don’t have any feeling at all, it…”

I spread my hands.

“I’m interested,” Helen said.  “In how you feel.  And I want you to feel better.”

“Thank you.”

“And I want to know how the pain you and other people feels, compared to the pain I feel.  I asked Ibott if there was a way to attach my nerves to other people’s nerves to feel what they felt while I hurt them, so I could figure out the best kinds of hurt and the best ways to understand others when they hurt, but he said no, that was a whole different project.”

I have feedback mechanisms that would make that easier,” Ashton said.  “So I can understand the things people are feeling.  They could probably give me the ability to feel others’ pain.  But you need a secondary brain to process it, detached from the primary brain.  I think he’s right.  It would be complicated.”

“I’m envious,” Helen pouted.

“What I’m talking about,” I said.  “It’s not real pain.  It’s… more like it feels wrong, and if I sat down and focused on that wrongness for too long, I could get really depressed, and maybe even get a little bit mentally off?  As if I was looking too hard into the light and I scarred my retinas, but it’s not light, it’s wrongness and nothingness where there ought to be something.”

“I know exactly what you mean when you say that last part, about being mentally off,” Helen said, sagely.  “I feel a little bit like that all over after I get adjustments made.  That’s a good explanation.  Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome, madam.”

“It’s nice being with you,” she said.  “And it’s nice being with Lillian, and with Jamie.”

And Gordon?  Do you miss him?  How do you process that?

If I left and you stayed, how would you process that?

“It wasn’t all bad, being with Mary.  She likes being girly.  We went shopping.  And we infiltrated, all dressed up, and I think, thinking about what you said before, she liked that I tried and I could teach back, while she taught me things.  We were so coordinated, like we were dancing all night, every step in time.  It was a lovely evening.”

She looked up and away, as if struck by something.

“I don’t think Duncan will stay very long,” she said.

“Where did that come from?”

“There was a lot of blood, when we were done, that night.  For someone practicing to be a doctor, he doesn’t seem to like blood very much.”

I put out a hand to steer Ashton in the right direction as we took a side street.  The trip to the Shims was far faster without the checkpoints every step along the way.

I pointed out the carvings in the wood of buildings, doors, frames, and fences, for Ashton’s benefit, explaining each.  To his credit, as stubborn as he was in other things, he listened carefully.  He was quick to pick it up and to ask questions.

“And the triangles, three in a row?”

“Fangs.  Bad animal.  I think that one there was a cat?  Greeted anyone that approached or spoke to it by leaping onto their head and sinking four claws into scalp and neck.”

“Okay,” he said.  “I think I understand.  Then there’s one for bad people, one for good people, one for food, and for water.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Good observation.”

“It makes sense,” he said, while Helen nodded behind him.

He wasn’t hopeless after all.

“But-” he said, “Why not make them bigger?”

“Bigger, as in…”

“In the middle of the street, the street is so wide, and you can see it from a distance.  A picture of a wolf so big you could see it from two blocks away.”

“Um,” I said.

“It makes sense,” he said.  “Because it’s about communication, and big communication is better.  Something people won’t miss, that more people see, and it marks out territory, so people know, and they might change their behavior.”

“It kind of does make sense,” Helen said.

“No,” I said, gravely and fundamentally offended at the assertion.  “No, it really, really doesn’t.”

From there, I launched into particulars about how the mice wouldn’t want to broadcast their presence, that they were fundamentally prey for others, or parasites.  I went onto a tangent about subtlety, how, no, people wouldn’t always see the positive signs of ‘helpful person’ as positive reinforcement to continue being helpful.

There was nuance and tangent enough in the explanation for me to talk all damn day.  Instead, I was cut short by our arrival at the hideout.  I felt a lingering, bittersweet feeling, combining with an entirely renewed experience of fear, about Ashton, about Helen, and now about the mice.

I banged my hand on the door, once, then waited.

It took almost a minute, but one of the few sets of windows that had glass in the pane swung open – all of the other windows had broken glass, the shutters closed.  A head peeked out, so fast I almost missed it, and then the window shut.

I could hear the calls within the house.  The door latch came open, and the door swung open.

“In, fast,” Craig said, from the top of the stairs.  “Don’t let the cold air in.”

We hurried to get in, stomping off the trace amounts of snow.  The door shut behind us.

The number of mice had increased.  Colder weather meant more children were scrambling for shelter.  Everyone was bundled up as if they expected to go outside, but it was because the interior wasn’t particularly warm.  ‘Bundled up’ in many cases meant wearing multiple shirts or two pairs of pants.

Helen roared, rushing at Alice, sweeping the girl up in her arms.  Alice, for her part, hugged Helen back.  Alice, at ten or so, looked closer to eight.  Stunted growth, which I could sympathize with, but for her it was a lack of nutrition.

Little details, parallels, and bits of common ground were why I so frequently enjoyed the company of the mice.

“What happened?” Craig asked, touching one eye.  Talking about my eye.

“Sword,” I said.

“You should have the money for a new eye, you dingleberry.”

“Yeah, I know.  I do.  I thought the eyepatch looked cool, thought I’d keep it for a while,” I said, my voice dry.

He seemed to take that as the signal it was, and he didn’t pry further.  He seemed so much thinner and more tired than I remembered him.  Of an age with Gordon or Rick, but he was a scarecrow of a person, his hair dark, his eyebrows thick, a dark look in his eye.  That look only softened when he looked at one of his mice, or at me.

“Hi Helen,” Craig said.  The poor bastard seemed to withhold the softest look for the prettiest girl in the room.

“Hi,” Helen said, beaming at him.

It physically hurt to see how he reacted to that.  He turned away, almost bashful.

The softer look didn’t extend to Ashton, though.

“New kid?” Craig asked.

“Ashton,” I said.  I gave Ashton a shove, putting him in the center of the front hallway, exposed.

“The hell is with that hair?” Craig asked.  “You look like a sissy Mothmont brat.”

Ashton turned, looking over his shoulder at me.  I gave him nothing, my expression still, my hands in my pockets.

Better to let him learn his lesson and adjust.

“You vouching for him, Sy?” Craig asked.

“He can vouch for himself if he needs to,” I said.

“He might need to.  Only so much space, you know,” Craig said.  All posturing.  He made his way down the stairs.  “Maybe he should wait outside.”

“I’d like to stay,” Ashton said.

Craig finished making his way down the stairs.  He stood a short distance from Ashton.  There was a one-foot height difference between the two.

“My house, my rules.”

“Our house,” another kid said.

“Same thing,” Craig said, without turning around.

There was no disagreement.

He and Ashton stared each other down for a moment.

Ashton could have decided this with the pheromones he could naturally shed.  He wasn’t, which was a point in my book.  I had about ten or twenty different questions about Ashton and what he was doing and why.  The list started with the parted hair and extended all the way to finer details of how he was developing himself, how he saw the world, all the way down to the subject of what his motivations were in the here and now.

“Why isn’t Sylvester vouching for you, red?”

“Because he didn’t like me parting my hair, and I wouldn’t change it.  He’s trying to teach me a lesson.”

Craig looked up and over at me.  I gave him a nod.

“He was right.  You should have changed your hair.”

Ashton didn’t respond.

“If you’re not going to listen to him, there’s a good chance you won’t listen to me, which is disrespectful.  I don’t want that kind of disrespect in my house.  Maybe you should sit this one out and go wait outside, keep yourself warm until Sylvester and I decide you can come in?  What do you say to that?”

“I’ll fight you for the right to stay,” Ashton said.

I cocked my head at that.  Helen ceased abusing Daisy to raise her head and turn to look, as well.

Fight?  Where the shit did that come from?

I wished I could see more than the back of Ashton’s head from my perspective.  His expression would have been interesting to read.

“You want to fight me?” Craig asked.  He looked at me, “Sy, is there anything I need to watch out for?  Hidden weapons or something?  He’s not going to sprout claws or extend some bladed tongue out of his mouth or anything?”

“No weapons, not in the way you’re thinking,” I said.  “I don’t think he’s ever actually been in a fight.”

Craig looked down at Ashton.  “You think you’re going to win?”

“I’m going to lose, but I’ll hit you a few times before I end up standing outside in the cold,” Ashton said.  “If I end up in the cold either way, at least I get to punch you a few times first, this way.”

Craig smirked.  He approached Ashton, then did the false-start-lunge thing, moving as if he was going to swing a punch, trying to get Ashton to flinch.

Ashton moved in that same moment, stepping to one side and coiling up as his foot reached the ground, like he was going to throw himself forward, fists flying-

And when Ashton stopped short, freezing in place, Craig was left taking a short step back, hands raised to strike back.

Craig relaxed, extending an arm to Ashton’s head, gently shoving Ashton and simultaneously messing up his hair.  Ashton had to take a step to catch his balance, and fell out of the fighting posture.

“Arright,” Craig said.  “Just stay out of the way.  There’s a hot stove upstairs to huddle around, if you need to warm up.”

Ashton glanced at me, waiting for my nod before going upstairs.

“Gordon teach him?” Craig asked me.

The name caught me off guard.  Something must have shown on my face.

No,” Craig said.  “What happened?”

“The dipstick went and died on us,” I said.  “I came to tell you.”

Among the twenty or so kids who were gathered across the room, the news hit approximately three-quarters of them like a ton of bricks.  It was like the wind had been knocked out of them, and the rest were at least respectful enough or aware enough to stay silent and avoid asking questions.

There was bad news, and there was news that you had to deliver that cracked the foundation of another person’s world.  This was the latter.  For so many of the people here, Gordon had been someone to look up to.  To them, on a level, he’d been one of them, but he’d gotten out of the ditches and alleys and made something of himself.

It wasn’t just the loss of Gordon that had people blinking tears out of their eyes, looking away, swallowing hard.  To them, it was like the world had turned around and told them ‘no’.  ‘No, it isn’t really possible.  You don’t really have a chance.’

“Who?” Craig asked, suddenly angry.

The Academy, I thought.  It was interesting to me that the ‘who’ was the first question out of his mouth.  Not how.  Not when, or anything else.

“Nobody,” I said.  “Bad ticker.”

“No,” Craig said.  “That’s not right.  Not with someone his age.  It doesn’t work like that.  Something had to cause it.  Was it poison?”

He didn’t quite mean something.  He meant someone.  He wanted that ‘who’ so badly, someone to blame.

That desire for someone to blame wasn’t fresh.  It had been simmering for a while.

“No poison,” I said.  I could see how wet Craig’s eyes were, even as he tried to put on a strong front for all the children who were looking to him for support, and that made my eyes wet too.  “Bad, dumb luck.”

“Fuck,” Craig said.  The word was out of his mouth the moment I finished saying ‘luck’.  Angry, frustrated.  “No.  Fuck.

He was getting more agitated as I watched.  That agitation would translate to all of the rest of the mice.  Helen lay on the ground, still, her arms around Alice, but that gesture was now a comforting hug.

“There’s stuff I need to talk to you about,” I said, working to keep my voice level, calm, confident, as if I could convey those things to him.  “In private?  About Gordon, in part.”

He took a long moment to take that in, seemed to step back mentally to take in the situation and the status of the mice, as he likely did each and every time he made a decision in their vicinity, and he seemed to realize where things stood, in terms of his emotions and the commotion that was soon to follow.

“Helen,” he said.  “Look after ’em?”

“I will,” she said.

Craig and I made our way through the kitchen, which had been gutted a long time before the mice moved in, past one of the many bedrooms, and out the back door.  The door shut heavily behind us.

The moment he was out of sight of the younger ones, he bent over, elbows on the railing, fingers in his hair and heels of his hands against his eyebrows.

I didn’t know if he was crying, but I didn’t think it was right to check one way or the other.

“You told me the truth, right, Sy?  Bad ticker?”

“Bad ticker.”

“Fuck, Sy.  There wasn’t a doctor nearby?  That girl you had with you?  Not Mary, but the one with the bag?”

“She tried.  But I don’t think there’s a professor in Radham who could’ve saved him, the way things were going.”


The outburst was loud enough that children inside were liable to have heard it.  He seemed to realize that, and visibly calmed himself down.

“Okay,” Craig said, still hunched over.  “Okay.  I’m done.  Shit.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I was, just last night, I was thinking I needed to talk to him.  Get some advice, figure out the direction things were going.”

“With the mice?” I asked.

Craig nodded.  He looked up at me, and his eyes were hollow.

Please tell me they’re ok.  That you’re going to cope if I leave.

I sat on the stair, my back to the railing opposite to the railing he was sitting against.

“Are they okay?” I asked.  “Managing?”

“No,” he said.  “No, not managing at all.”

I heaved out a heavy breath.

“We usually save up for winter, but the thing with the ghosts last year, we lost some old faces.  I’m- there’s new faces, and they weren’t on the ball with contributing to the penny jar.  I should’ve been on top of it, cracked heads together.  But I was preoccupied, and I-”

He kept stopping short of the same sentence or confession.

“You what, Craig?  What’s going on in your corner?”

“I’m getting older, Sy.  I’m almost not one of the kids anymore.”

“There’s no hard time limit,” I said.  “They won’t string you up or mutiny on you when the clock hits midnight and it’s your eighteenth birthday.”

“Seventeenth, and… fuck, it’s complicated, Sy.  Complicated in a way I’ve talked about with Gordon.  I way I really wanted to talk to him about.”

“I can try,” I said, and I dreaded the answer, felt doubly the traitor, because the odds were good that if he confided in me, and if he started to rely on my listening ear, I was going to disappoint him, leave him lacking.  “I’m not in a particular rush today.  My whole morning is yours, if you need to figure things out with me.”

He sighed, shifted position, and settled down to sit with his back to the railing that enclosed the steps.  He looked up at me, “This was never my thing.  I was never going to stick with it.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I sort of got that.”

“It’s hard living, a lot of missing meals, when it was your mistake as leader that leaves the penny jar empty and there’s a kid who is maybe one or two missed meals from seeing next week.  You know?”

I nodded.

“I’m old enough to fend for myself.  Told myself I’d always be there for them, but come a certain time and circumstance, I’d bail.  Every day now, every hour, I’ve been telling myself I’d join the Crown Military.  Because god damn, it would be nice to put bullets in the people who did what they did to our kids.  To the kids in other cities.”

“And it’s good money,” I said.  “Enough to get you on your feet, get a room somewhere, buy good clothes.”

“Yeah,” he said.  He hung his head.  “Yeah.  But there’s nobody to really hand things off to.  There’s no money to keep these kids going through the winter.  Food is more expensive.  They have farms and monster cattle that are bred to grow to four times the size, there’s food enough for a population ten times our size, and somehow in the midst of the fighting, warbeasts and soldiers end up getting the food and we get jack shit.”

“Something like that,” I said.

“Yeah, well, fuck.  I figure I might as well be one of the soldiers that’s getting fed.  My conscience can live with that.  I know how to shoot a gun, I know how to fight.  Give me three meals and a cot in a warm room, I’ll put on some weight, some muscle, and I’ll be as good a soldier as any of them.  I can climb the rungs of the ladder, get a good position, get a girl…  It would be really nice to get a girl, Sy.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Can testify.  Girls, recommend.”

Lillian isn’t going to leave the Academy, a voice in the back of my mind told me.  The thought put a chill in the core of my body and left me feeling nauseous.

Oblivious, he continued, “I can give up the freedom and gun down enemies of the Crown, and I can live with knowing I’m supporting the same fucking bastards who are deciding the laws and deciding these kids starve.  But I can’t just up and abandon them, Sy.  I do that, and it’s going to eat me alive.  Drive me to drink.”

“Stick it out,” I said.  “You know what the answer is.  It’s not a good answer, but sometimes we don’t get any.”

He made a face.  “There’ll be reasons not to go next year.  And the year after.”

“Yep,” I said.  “Yeah.  There will always be reasons.”

I felt like such a hypocrite.

But to give any other advice, it would be doing like Helen had commented, putting others first.

I needed to know the mice were looked after.  I couldn’t take this on and free Craig of his burden.

But I’d anticipated this question.

“I brought money,” I said, reaching into my jacket.  I pulled out an envelope.  “No arguments.”

“Who’s going to argue?” he asked.  He took the envelope without a moment’s hesitation, opened it, and riffed through the bills within.  “This helps.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Shit, Sy,” he said, staring down at the envelope.  “Gordon?   Just like that?”

“It was slower than that.  Gradual.  We expected it.  It still sucks.”


We sat in silence.  The snow drifted around, and the wind that blew around the houses found a course that sent the snow into our faces.  Both of us had to angle our faces toward the ground to avoid the sting of a cold snowflake in the eye.

“Craig,” I said.  “If you repeat this to anyone, I’ll probably get killed or worse.”

He lifted his head, cupping one hand around the side of his face to look at me.

“I’m done.  I can’t do this anymore.  Losing Gordon, it might have been the last straw.”

“The eye?”

“Drop in the bucket,” I said.  “I’m going.  I’m going to try to wrangle the others, see if they’ll come, but…”

He drew in a deep breath, then huffed it out as a sigh, nodding.

“Do you know anyone?  In other cities.  I’ll need to put a bit of distance between myself and Radham.  It would help to have names and places.  If I decide to go.”

“I know people.  Not many, and they’re scattered, but you can give them my name, and they’ll help you or point you in the right directions.”

“Anyone near Richmond?” I asked.  “Warrick?”

“What the fuck are you doing around there, Sy?  There are more monsters than humans in that neck of the woods.”

“The less I say, the better,” I said.  “Do you know anyone?”

“I know of people, but you don’t stick your neck out, there, they might take badly to you even looking the wrong way at them.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding.  It was a better answer than I’d hoped for.

“Sy,” he said.

I looked up.

“Go.  Don’t worry about me.  Don’t worry about the fact you’re a fucking hypocrite.”

Oh, he’d drawn the connection.

“Go,” he said.  “Go get your friends.  Walk out that door.  If I see your face again, I’m going to hit you, and I’m going to keep hitting you until I can’t feel my hand anymore.  Understand?  You need to go.  For your sake.”

I climbed to my feet.

“I’ll send one of the kids to Lambsbridge with some names and places,” he said.  “I, uh, I’ll keep the details short and sweet.  Use the scratchings to let you know who’s who and what’s what?”

“That works,” I said.  My voice was hoarse.  I had a lump in my throat.  “Thanks.  I’d say we could meet up, if you wanted to leave Radham, but…”

“But there are too many kids here who can’t pull up stakes, because they spend half the time here and half with their shitty families, or for other reasons.  Because this is a place we know, and we’d get eaten alive in stranger territory.  Yeah, Sy.  Yeah.”

I nodded.

I opened the door and let myself back into the house, signaling Helen.  I didn’t have the voice to reach out to Ashton, so I let Helen do it, calling upstairs.

Craig remained sitting on the back step, probably for a long time after our trio had put the hideout behind us.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

78 thoughts on “In Sheep’s Clothing – 10.2

    • “Arright,” Craig
      -“Alright,” Craig

      kid who is maybe one or two missed meals from seeing next week.
      -Possibly “from not seeing next week.”

      and riffed through
      -and rifled through

      “Gordon? Just like
      -Triple space

    • Not quite a typo, but cars don’t seem prevalent enough for “dipstick” to be a common slang term in this setting. Google seems to suggest the word wasn’t used in any way, in writing at least, until the late 1920s, early 1930s.

      • Light novel story. Light novels are basically Eastern young adult novels, oftentimes written serially for magazines or cell phones. They’ll frequently have patterns or tropes that echo elements of anime or manga, translated to text. Most popular light novels in the west are translations of the ones in the east. In this case, by what I’ve been told, The Divine Elements popped up and was able to, through casual mention, divert/use the fanbases of other popular, almost professional-level translated works.

        TL;DR: Light novel fanbases stick with light novel fanbases.

        • I think the fact it strikes out compared to most web serials might have been a great part of it.

          The web serial world is almost entirely dominated by superhero or urban fantasy stories, it’s almost saturated. Works like Twig (beside the writing quality) and the Divine Elements seem like a breath of fresh air.

          • Fresh? Divine Element is a xianxia, an established narrow genre.
            I’ve read it through already, it’s quite canonic and generic, like a sitcom.

          • I never said it was good, just that it is another genre than the one that currently dominates the web serial scene. When 80 percent of stories are superheroes/urban fantasy, works from other genres stand out and tend to attract more attention, even if only briefly.

        • As part of the LN fanbase, I can only say fuck that, I stand by your Serials. Not least because the majority of “translated” works in the LN scene are unfortunately not even close to professional level, although the ones that do certainly stand out, and most long time fans know the big names on the translation scene.

          • Taking a glance at the summary and part of the work I’d hazard a guess that TDE is actually getting most of its readership from Wuxia/Xianxia fanbase, rather than the LN fanbase, which may be slightly related, but not quite the same. Go china, I guess.

          • From what I’ve seen of the light novel scene, “run away screaming” doesn’t even begin to describe my sentiment towards them.

            It’s more like board up my windows and sit in my living room with a shotgun and cyanide tablets for me.

        • Strictly speaking Light Novels are Japanese and it’s a technical point about how they use the various character sets; they don’t use kanji as extensively and are easier for teenagers to read. They’re generally 100-200 pages and have maybe a dozen full-page illustrations, and tend to be published as paperbacks. Quite a lot of popular anime and manga are actually adaptions of popular Light Novel series, but the novels themselves rarely get official translations on account of being long.

          • It’s not really the kanji use, but the writing style that defines the difference between light novels and normal young adult stories. Novels tend to be written in a more casual style. Kanji use is not really that different, but as the style is more casual the kanji are the more commonly used ones. However, this is a little hard for non-Japanese speakers to understand, because kanji seems hard to them, but actually it’s harder reading complete hiragana books (for an adult). A good allegory would be comparing something like Twilight or Harry Potter to life of pi.

        • I couldn’t even get through the first chapter of it – some combination of writing, plot, dialog, and formatting just left me completely cold.

          • That’s because most of the “plot” are just wish fulfillment fantasies (Japanese) or re-skins of better older works (Chinese) with with Mary Sue MCs.

        • I checked it out, because its upsurge was so sudden I actually suspected votebotting. The dude posted it to a translation subreddit when it was written in English. He’s totally gunning for established fanbases. I tried it out for a couple of chapters, and the writing seemed kind of sophomoric, but it seemed like it was almost on purpose, like he was going for a style I didn’t quite get.

      • Um, I mentioned it when it came out, two Twig updates ago. Then we had a long discussion about it in the comments off the most recent Twig update before this one. Or maybe it’s one back before that. Anyway, it’s been mentioned before.

    • Shocking how fast they rise sometimes. It’s really hard to get on the list at all, then someone comes along and gets pushed all the way to the top. Must be good stuff.

    • why the hell is this listed in as fantasy on topwebfiction?
      it is CLEARLY sci-fi.
      the premise is a different path of scientific technology branched off of our timeline ~50 years ago. literally fiction about a different level of scientific knowledge.

      • Knowing Wilbow maybe it is fantasy…

        V xabj bs ng yrnfg bar bgure jbex bs gur fnzr nhgube gung frrzrq yvxr fhcreureb snagnfl, ohg jnf, va snpg, fpv-sv.

  1. Oh man, Sy was always questioning what Helen was thinking or what her intentions were. Now with Ashton, it’s like there are two of her for him to worry about!

    Awesome chapter! I’m really getting the feeling that this is going to lead up another one of those amazingly-poignant Cafeteria scenes 😉

  2. I think Sy might be overestimating Helen’s attachment to Ibott. Even IF he is correct about Helen putting her creator first and foremost, back in the enemy chapter of arc 7 (Girls) she was told by Ibott to cease ALL acts. Afterwards she proceded to tell him to the face (in front of a crowd, no less) that she sees him as a pathetic weakling. She wouldn’t even play around with his intestines. Now think about that. That’s the most devastating thing Helen could say to anyone! D:
    And either it was REALLY what she’s thinking because she really dropped all acts OR it was another act, meaning she went against a direct order from Ibott to help Sy and the Lambs.
    My conclusion: Sy is overthinking matters with Helen. She’ll probably join the mutiny, as long as Sy isn’t the only one defecting.

    And now for something completly different. Craig’s not going anywhere and he’s going to meet a terrible end for his troubles, isn’t he? And then Sy will beat himself up over it, because Gordon would have been able to make it work and find the right combination of manipulation and sincerity and… Ahhhh, damn it, I get all pessimistic with the people in twig-verse again…
    But: We finally get to see the Lambs going on their (probably not so) merry way. ^___^ Not now, but soon. About damn time!

    • It was part of an act. Helen disobeyed Ibott when he told her to act natural, and did it in a way that ensured she was brought out of the room before she could say anything compromising Gordon’s plan to scapegoat Sy. I think she just insulted him for fun.

      But yeah, in any case, that puts an upper bound o the respect she might have for him.

      • I think she’s had it up to her eyeballs for a while. The problem is, you can still stick with somebody, even if you don’t like them for a fair few reasons. And, Ibbott knows how to allow her to grow in a humanesque way: others may wind up guessing, should they try things that are even just basic maintenance. Noble-level biosurgeons do not grow on trees. :/

        • I feel like you are projecting a lot more person onto Helen than may actually exist. I had a lizard for a long time. Fed it every day. It couldn’t tell me from any other human. Helen is mostly a strangling monster that knows how to use words to make people hug her. I don’t think being bothered by stuff is useful enough for her to learn it.

          • alien=/= emotionless .

            She has emotions and stuff that work different than humans, but they are not uncomprohensible or anything. Just kinda alien.

          • I’ve know cuddle-bug boas who certainly played favourites and at least one gecko who could tell to avoid the guy who liked to microwave small critters and survived him being in the vicinity for over a year… your point?

          • My point is, if she is smart enough to communicate, its possible (not probable) to develop human empathy, or preferences, or likes, or maybe friends, or enemies, or emotions that more closely resemble human ones. She may be more human that she seems (note the may).

        • “Noble-level biosurgeons do not grow on trees.”

          Surely someone will make a noblegrade biosurgeon tree in the close future to fix that terrible oversight.

    • Helen may require constant maintenance while growing, and Ibott is apparently the only one in town with the skill to do it. They went through a lot of trouble to get him interested in making her in the first place.

  3. Jnvg, V guvax V’ir penpxrq gur pbqr bs gur Jvyqobj pbzcyrgr havirefr.

    Gjvt’f cevzbeqvnyf trg ybbfr naq pbafhzr rirelguvat. Guvf vf gur bevtva bs gur perngherf bs gur jbez havirefr, rkcnaqvat naq pbafhzvat, hagvy gurl pbaqrafr gb bar gur rkcybqrf vagb frrqf fpnggrevat npebff gur havirefr. Gur ribyirq cbjref gurl oevat jvgu gurz fgneg gur fhcrecbjref va Rnegu Nyrcu.

    Rnegu Nyrcu’f gvzryvar frrf vg svtug guebhtu vapernfvatyl cbjreshy raqoevatref hagvy Fpvba (erzrzore ur vf n cevzbeqvny, juvpu svgf gur gehr sbez bs uvf zngr gung jr frr) vf qrsrngrq. Gur funeqf, be frrqf bs gur cevzbeqvny entr ba rira nsgre vgf qrngu. Guvf cevzbeqvny hfrf gur fnzr frrq fgengrtl gb unez vgf xvyyref nsgre qrngu gung bhe erprag cevzbeqvny va Gjvt unf gubhtug hc. Fbzr hapbagebyyrq frrqf ghea crbcyr vagb zbafgref nf frra ol gur gne-crbcyr va gur rcvybthr bs Jbez.

    Nf gvzr tbrf ba, gur frrqf pbagvahr gb fcernq cbjre perngr arj oerrqf bs zbafgref. Guvf unf fcyvg uhznavgl vagb znal frrzvatyl qvssrerag fcrpvrf. Erthyne uhznaf snygre naq oraq gb gur raqyrff jnirf bs vauhzna zbafgref jvgu birejuryzvat cbjref. Riraghnyyl, n fgebat uhzna nevfrf gb pbzong gur zbafgref, sbepvat gurz nyy gb fvta ba n cnpg yvzvgvat gurve vasyhrapr ohg cebivqvat gurz fgnovyvgl va guvf jbeyq. Fbybzba hfrf uvf bja cevzbeqvny oerq cbjref gb fgnovyvmr bhg bs pbageby frrqf gb xrrc hc uvf raq bs gur onetnva sbe gur zbafgref naq tbqf gung fvta ba. Snfg sbejneq gb znal lrnef yngre, nf gur uvqqra jbeyq bs cevzbeqvny vasyhrapr vf orvat gnzrq ol n erfhetrag naq grpuabybtvpny uhznavgl. N lbhat zna trgf n yrggre sebz uvf rfgenatrq snzvyl ertneqvat uvf tenaqzbgure…

  4. Damn, poor Craig. I hope the next time we see him it doesn’t end in tragedy. I really liked this chapter, it gives us perspective on the people on the bottom of the social ladder in this universe.

  5. Is it only me that thinks that Helen has literally been watching and listening to Sy ATTENTIVELY from the time they were placed together?

    It seems like she didn’t just learn from the group, she internalized and set priorities… and Sy/Gordon would have been the absolute best models for understanding how people think. She’d have been listening to his every explanation of the internal models of the world which Sy extrapolates, learning where he looks to see what he sees, listening to every aspect and becoming a chameleon based on a chameleon.

    TLDR… Because of Sy, Helen has likely learned to People like few people ever do.

    And because of that it is likely that she’s learned how to Empathy as well. It might not run ‘naturally’ to her, but as something adopted which she runs ontop of her other ‘programs’ and as something which she has come to see as valuable all round to hold onto and use as a filter for her world.

  6. Nice to see that Ashton evolved a bit since his last appearance. It’s actually very interesting to see how this inhuman being develops, and I can say so far I actually like him.

    Poor Sy, I feel a mixture of pity and contempt for you. “It’s amazing how I can feel sorry for you and hate you at the same time. I’m sure there’s a german word for it.”

    • There actually is one. “Hassliebe”. Translates to “hate-love” and describes exactly that; for example, two people not being able to live with each other (constant quarrels, insults and hurt) and at the same time not being able to be apart without being deeply unhappy and missing the other one.

      • That was a Simpsons quote, and I’m aware of that word, but it doesn’t describe how I feel towards Sy. It’s that while I feel pity for him because of his horrible fate that I also condemn him for being the obnoxious jerk he is.

        • When’s the last time he was an obnoxious jerk? I don’t remember him going down that road for some time now… More or less since he started getting serious with Lill. Has he begun making what are more or less permanent personality changes? I don’t think anybody can argue it’s impossible.

  7. I’d really like to know where Ashton got the idea that fighting was the correct answer to that situation. From his Enemy bit, we know that he’s got those weird, bloody, violent fantasies in his head; I wonder if he has some sort of natural inclination to violence, that’s now manifesting itself?

    To echo the others, I do think Helen is more onboard than Sy thinks. Honestly, I think the original Lambs would be willing to cut and run more than Sy thinks. Lillian would need assurances for her family, but I think if she defected Fray could supplement her teachings. Of course, she’d be forever out of polite society, at least until the Crown is gone, but I wonder if she’s truly happy with her life as it is now. Jamie seems like he’d be willing to leave as well, if his actions in Lugh have any other motivation besides survival tactics.

    • I don’t think he thought that violence itself was the answer.

      Keep in mind that Ashton is designed to be a social manipulator. The pheromones are low-resolution. They get his targets — and anyone else nearby enough to smell them — in a state of mind that will be receptive to the outcome he wants, but he still has to use social tactics to direct them or else they’ll just go with primal reactions like unease, euphoria, rage, et cetera.

      So what we see here is Ashton cold-reading Craig and figuring out what to say and do that would provoke the reaction he wanted. I think he knew that Craig WOULDN’T actually respect the violent approach, but SUGGESTING the violent approach disrupted Craig’s mental image of him. Pulling the punch after that then disrupted THAT mental image. After two quick social feints, Craig was sufficiently off-balance to be forced to re-evaluate his position.

      It’s a mind-game power struggle, and that is PRECISELY what social manipulators have to be able to do.

    • What’s important isn’t whether or not Lil is happy, but whether or not she believes she is. I could see her mistaking comfort and familiarity with happiness. Or, perhaps she’d be too apprehensive to ever turn her back on the road leading to “Good,” even it’s the only way to switch to the roadleading to “Great.”

  8. The Sy and Lillian ship has, to be pun-y about it, has sailed, apparently.

    I think Lilian is too pragmatic about things. She has been part of the team that hunted down Crown traitors. Why would she rate their possibilities of survival any higher when she knows the types of things the Academy can send after them? She’d be living in terrified fear for the rest of her life, unless she started dosing herself on Wyvern regularly…

    • To be fair, the primordials were more terrifying than any warbeast. Being on the enemy side of a group willing to employ those would be a different kind of risky.

      But druggie Lillian would be the saddest thing ever…

  9. After nearly six months, I have finally caught up with all of Wildbow’s work, including Worm (twice), Pact, the entire WoG repository, and last but certainly not least, Twig.
    I’m both incredibly euphoric at finally reading all of it, and mildly depressed at not having anything else to read.
    Thank you, Wildbow, for providing me with half a year of wild plots, fascinating characters, and jaw-dropping plot twists. I look forward to seeing what you come up with in the future!

    • The great news is you’re NOT out if stuff to read! Pick other stories from toowebfiction!

      I recommend starting with Leigon of Nothing, which has some fun parallels to worm (IIRC it was something of an inspiration for Worm, even though the two stories are almost nothing alike). I hope Wildbiw corrects me if I have that wrong.

      My favorite non-Wildbow story now is The Gods are Bastards. The author, D.D. Webb, is the only other webserial jockey to update at anything near the prodigious rate and regularity seen here. Also like WB, the prolific quantity of Webb’s output doesn’t have any negative effect on its quality. TGAB is A+ work too.

      Other webserials worth catching uo with and following regularly include Super Powereds, and though not on TWF, a story called Mother of Learning by nobody103.

  10. I like this chapter for Ashton, I am interested how a normal boy like Craig dislike Ashton au naturel. Ashton is intelligent, but he seems to miss certains human sentiments, perhaps conducing to the reaction of Craig.

    I ‘d like to make a proposal : creation of a Wikia for Twig. I recently created one for another web serial The Gods Are Bastards, this weird western fantasy steampunk story. Wildbow, would you authorize this enterprise?

    • Not to step on toes here, but is permission really necessary to move forward? What about a wikia could you even object to anyway?

      That said, if at any point Wildbow does object and ask that you take it down, it seems to me you could do so at that point in the future without actually harming any persons, places, things, or ideas.

  11. A nice change of pace after the cascading climaxes of the previous arc.
    I don’t see how Sy can get the Lambs to defect. The antagonist in this arc is the plague. Presumably it will hit Radham or wherever the Lambs are sent.
    As long as Lillian’s parents are alive, I can’t see her leaving. She can learn to be a doctor from Frey, maybe. Does that mean that the plague has to kill either Lillian or her parents? If the Baron kills her parents, that might do it, too.

  12. – I really like the Arc title here.
    – I’m so glad that’s everything’s slowed down for now. I really needed this breather after the frantic doom and gloom of the last Arc or two.
    – On the other hand though, Gordon dying hasn’t been this bad since he, you know, actually /died/… and it’s been pretty bad.
    – Reading this, I was struck by how much older Sy sounds. I mean he’s been growing up and developing throughout the story in lots of little ways, but this chapter he suddenly seemed… more mature, maybe? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because he’s not running around while things are being set on fire at the moment, and he can be a bit more deliberate and reflective.
    – I wonder what’s going to happen this arc. The primordial’s plauge? A power vaccum in Radham after the Duke’s death? I kinda suspect something’s going to happen with Rick and Jaime.
    – And obviously I’m super curious about the longer term future too.

  13. Telling Craig seems… Reckless. Overly so.

    What’s the point? What’re the chances Craig has something to offer Sy? He literally has difficulty feeding himself, and is wanting to become a soldier for the crown.

    Helen almost certainly heard him.

    Craig is hard up and has children to look after. The possibility of a reward for turning in Sy would be sorely tempting. He’s got moral justification if he uses the money to help the other kids. It’d be hard to not trade in Sy when there’s kids a couple missed meals from dying in your custody. His strongest connection to the lambs has just died, and Sy is not planning on being around anymore. Further, he’s already thinking about jumping ship and working for the crown, people that Sy intends on making enemies out of. He’s got few reasons to be loyal to the lambs over the mice or himself.

    He’s not even sure the mice are squeaky clean (hurhur). The academy has their thumb in all sorts of pies. They’d know they go to see the mice. The technology to infiltrate the mice with super sensing spys is certainly there. This just seems remarkably stupid.

    That we weren’t really party to what Sy was thinking for the conversation makes me think it possible Sy is relying on the betrayal to bait something, or possibly even financially setting up the mice deliberately as he’s confident he won’t be caught regardless (and he wants to set Gordon’s affairs in order to make his life mean something).

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