Our ‘picnic’, as it turned out, was situated under a jutting roof, beside a storage bay that was intended to hold an assortment of wagons. Wagons and the stitched horses would be parked here outside the building in order to get cleaned or repaired, before being moved back to the bay. It was a nice building, all considered, one planted here in anticipation of the higher-end buildings appearing nearer the Academy, something that hadn’t yet happened. There were still lingering traces and some odds and ends from when the building had been used as a storehouse for military assets.
For our purposes, it worked nicely. The overhanging roof with only two adjoining walls -one to block the wind and another from the adjacent building- gave us cover from the falling snow. The open nature of it gave us a view of the hills and fields beyond Radham. We had a place to sit, complete with benches and crates to use as tables, and we had some privacy.
Jamie’s suggestion, of course. He’d noticed the place some time ago, made a mental note of it, and was able to point us over here when the subject of the picnic had come up.
I worked with Jamie as we laid out a blanket and pinned it down, in case the wind changed direction. Ashton was starting a fire on the paved floor, and Jamie was on the same page as me when it came to worrying about that particular detail. Actually getting Ashton to coordinate with us was often stiff and awkward, in a ‘move left, no not that far left’ way, so we had given him something he could do standalone. Now we regretted the decision, as the flames started to rise. From how close he hovered to his work, it looked very possible that he would set himself on fire.
Back at Craig’s, he hadn’t used his pheromones to win his exchange with the boy. His victory had been an earned one, and it had indicated that he was learning fast, even if it might take him a long time to get up to speed.
He was going to be a monster. He had the tools and he had the ability and willingness to learn to cover the gaps those tools didn’t provide for.
For now, though, I made a point of hurrying to set down the basket so it pinned down one corner of the blanket. That done, I rushed to Ashton’s side, putting one finger on his forehead to push his face away from smoke and fire.
I walked over to the railing that bordered the edge of the property and this little parking spot, looking out over the hills and distant farms. Jamie joined me, standing a short distance away.
“Mrs. Earles called the Academy. She’s more upset than I thought she’d be,” Jamie said. “But the Academy is sending someone down to pick up Rick.”
“I didn’t ask,” I said.
“But you were wondering,” Jamie said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess I was.”
“I can’t tell if you really just wanted him gone, and knew that that would do it, or if the feelings are that close to the surface,” Jamie said.
“If you figure it out, let me know?”
I wished that I could talk to my best friend again, much like Craig had wanted to talk to Gordon.
But, in this moment, I wasn’t sure if I actually minded his presence or the reminder. Not so much that I felt the need to say or do something to put distance between us.
Helen had finished shaking out the other blankets. She brought the folded stack over to the blanket we had already laid out and distributed the blankets, where they could act as seats.
Once she was done, she walked over to Ashton, grabbed him by the back of the collar, and hauled him about a foot away from the fire, pressing down on his shoulders as if to fix him to the location he was sitting.
“I’m itching to really start talking about particulars, and I don’t want to do that before Mary arrives. Lillian too, if possible,” I confessed, my voice quiet.
“Particulars? I was wondering why you wanted to do this,” Jamie said.
“I’m antsy,” I said. My finger tapped against the railing. “I didn’t think it would be this bad.”
“Ah,” Jamie said, and he gave that one-note utterance a lot of meaning, like he’d just realized what I was talking about. “Yeah.”
He didn’t push me, and he didn’t pry, and in that, I could see how much he had changed since the outset of the whole situation in Lugh.
The others arrived. My mood lifted considerably at the sight of Lillian and Mary, both girls dressed up just a bit. Lillian wore her academy-issue jacket and skirt, but her leggings had a raised pattern, and she wore a nice blouse under her jacket that I hadn’t seen her wear before. Mary wore a lacy dress and ribbons, with a fur-trimmed duffel coat.
My mood then plummeted twice as far as it had climbed at the thought of the bigger picture, the conversations that would need to be had. I hadn’t even been letting myself think about it, and now the conversations seemed so imminent.
Take it one step at a time, I told myself. I was able to wrangle the worst of the feelings, putting the nervousness and terror off until a discussion some other, later point in time… until I saw Duncan.
I hadn’t intended for Duncan to be invited, but now I could see why he would be. Frustration tore at me, made me want to scream, shout, throw something at him, and act very uncivilized. There were things I wanted to talk about, and how the hell was I supposed to bring them up with him here, listening and watching?
Helen joined the girls, giving each a tight, nonlethal hug and a kiss on each cheek, before giving Duncan a hug.
I saw the look that crossed Lillian’s face as she found me, and I put a smile on my face, despite everything else that I was feeling. That, at least, was something I had practice in.
I turned around, leaning back against the railing, while she strode toward me.
Was she going to hit me or hug me?
Lillian wrapped her arms around me, her cheek cold against my ear. The hug was soft, made softer by the layers of coat and clothing each of us wore, and the fierceness of the hug didn’t quite penetrate either.
“That was a lovely touch,” she whispered in my ear. Referring to the sign-off of my note, no doubt.
“I’m fond of all of you,” I said. “All the Lambs.”
“Don’t ruin it, Sy.”
“You in particular,” I said.
She nodded, then pulled back. Her arms went up to my throat, gripping me by the collar. “I was going to strangle you, you know. For the rest of the letter. You’re making it hard to follow through if you say that.”
“More of a note than a letter,” I said, grinning.
She shifted her grip, encircling my throat with gloved hands. Playful.
Her eyes were still more alive and alert than I was used to. The wyvern was in full sway, flying through her veins. But her face was pink, and she seemed to have found a balance between the Lil I knew and drunk Lillian.
“In case we don’t get the chance to talk one-on-one again, I want your company later,” she said.
My eyebrows went up. No, this is entirely drunk Lillian.
“My parents are visiting, you bonehead.”
I smiled, reaching up for her hands and pulling them away. I held one hand as I led her back to the picnic blanket. We sat on one folded blanket, me giving her the spot closer to the fire, and I grabbed another blanket, unfolding it and draping it over our laps.
The other Lambs found their seats, bundling up. I sort of wished Jamie had put himself between Ashton and the fire that seemed to have the boy fascinated, but it wasn’t too big a deal, and staring into the flames seemed to keep the newest Lamb occupied.
Duncan was tall for his age, and had been cursed with what I deemed a very punchable face, with too small a mouth and too much distance from his prominent chin to his high forehead. He looked like a character that had been drawn on the cover of a children’s book, and the confidence with which he held himself, combined with his very regimented style, shirt buttoned to the collar, academy jacket in the soldier’s style, and wavy black hair parted in the middle… I somehow imagined that his parents were the hoity-toity type that brought up their child’s accomplishments as if those accomplishments were their own, or, more generously, that his parents were the type that looked at their son and sighed in disappointment over how he’d turned out.
There was a small chance that my impressions of Duncan were colored by personal bias. Small. I really wished he wasn’t here, but I wasn’t about to tell him to go away.
“Hi Dunc, how are you doing?” I asked.
He was just getting seated. I didn’t miss the fact that he was sitting closer to Jamie and Ashton than to Helen and Mary, who were sitting closer together, each with their own blankets. He gave me a tight, small smile, “I’m quite alright, Sylvester. Nervous, I suppose.”
“You didn’t have to come,” I said.
Lillian, sitting right next to me, was in a good position to jab me with one elbow, subtly enough that Dunc wouldn’t notice. She spoke, “I invited him. Because he’s one of the Lambs, isn’t he?”
“He did his job,” Mary said, without warmth.
Between the short and unconvincing utterance, and the distance with which they had sat apart from each other, I couldn’t help but imagine that there had been a disagreement, probably in the middle to later stages of their job.
“I appreciate hearing that,” Duncan said, as if he was unaware that there was anything damning in the faint praise.
“I remember what it was like, when I started,” Lillian said. “It takes getting used to, after you first join.”
“Thank you,” Duncan said. “You’re right. I, haha, I really didn’t expect the kind of education I ended up getting, on our last job. Not until I joined the army, or visited a slaughterhouse for raw materials.”
“How did you two meet?” Jamie asked.
“We were both teacher’s pets,” Lillian said. “We talked between classes. Duncan got sick two years ago, and I saw how hard he worked to catch up. I thought maybe he would handle the stress better than some.”
“Ha,” Duncan said. I heard a note of nervousness there.
He was so uncomfortable he made me uncomfortable.
“They asked me if I knew anyone to recommend, and I thought Duncan would appreciate the leg up that the job gave him.”
“I do, I do! But we’ve had a bit of a setback in the project, haven’t we?” Duncan asked.
“A setback,” Mary said. Still quiet, still cold. “You must mean the war breaking out in Lugh, the lives lost.”
Those words seemed to get through to Duncan. He didn’t miss a beat, nodding his agreement, “It’s terrible. A tragedy.”
“Helen,” Duncan said, “What’s upsetting you?”
Helen was looking between Mary, Duncan, Lillian, Jamie and me with a kind of anxiety that seemed to be picking up by the moment. She stopped as she heard the question.
Five points to Duncan for noticing in the first place. Minus ten points for sounding like he was talking to a child.
Bias might have impacted the scoring.
“I’m not upset,” she said, after a moment of processing. “I’m fine.”
“But you want food,” I said. “Open the basket, let’s eat.”
The anxiety disappeared. She beamed a smile as she moved the basket in front of her and opened it, distributing the contents that Mrs. Earles had boxed and wrapped.
Within a few moments, it was clear that she was getting the contents out of the way with the express intention of getting deeper into the basket. She found the stuff that Mrs. Earles had no doubt buried on purpose, opened a box, and pulled out a tart with a tuft of cream and a cherry on the top. She bit deep, her eyes rolled up into the back of her head, and she wiggled on the spot, her legs kicking beneath her blanket.
“Drinks?” I asked, struck by an idea.
“Dewar bottles,” Helen said. “Tea, I think. I smelled it.”
While Helen rummaged for the canisters of tea, I turned to Duncan. “I hope you’re a tea drinker.”
“I am! I’m a bit of a prude, even,” he said. Another small smile.
Helen handed me the first canister of tea. I rolled it in Duncan’s direction.
“I wanted to have this meal together for a reason,” I said, to the whole group. “For a few reasons.”
Lillian leaned closer to me.
“We had a bad time,” I said. “I don’t know about your group, I heard a bit from Helen, it sounded like you did better than we did.”
“We did okay!” Duncan said, with enthusiasm.
I could see the flicker of annoyance on Mary’s face.
“Mary?” I asked.
“That… it wasn’t why I joined the Lambs.”
“I was wondering,” I said.
“Helen is a dear,” Mary said. “And I don’t mind teaching Ashton the ropes, when he’s willing to listen and learn. I don’t even mind teaching Duncan, if it alleviates the burdens on Lillian and lets her focus on her studies. But-”
“But the Lambs aren’t meant to be split up,” I said.
I felt like the biggest, most manipulative scumbag, saying it, knowing the thoughts I had been entertaining, and my conversation with Craig.
“I don’t think so,” Mary said. “Maybe at a later point in time, it might make sense. Our numbers are going to dwindle, new Lambs may appear, or we might be used to teach other special projects, as they devise replacements for Dog and Catcher. I can understand the Lambs being used for that. But right now? So early?”
I could see some nods. Helen, who was halfway through her second tart, Lillian, and Jamie. Ashton wasn’t nodding, but he was paying attention. Duncan wasn’t nodding, and that bothered me, but it would have bothered me if he had been, because he didn’t know us. I was being unfair to him and I knew it.
“Lugh was a bad one,” I said. “And I don’t know if having the entire group there would have made a difference in terms of what we lost… I’m sorry to bring it up.”
“No,” Mary said. “Talking about Gordon is important. I want to talk about what the loss means, and I know he’d want us to.”
I nodded. I stared down at the center of the blanket. “I don’t think we could have saved him. But it would have been nice to save Hubris. There were other enemies…”
The Twins, the Baron, none of which I’m about to talk about in front of Duncan.
“…We should have been able to dispatch them all and walk away with our heads taller,” I said.
“Except,” Duncan said. He had removed the lid of the canister and was using it as a cup for his steaming tea. Jamie was pouring himself a cup with the removed bottom of the canister. “The Lambs are an Academy project. I’m not going to say you’re wrong, you know your group better than I do, but you don’t get to decide what the Lambs do.”
The last part agitated me more than I liked to admit. I knew full well that I didn’t get to decide. That I needed to make this decision for myself and there was no way to guarantee that Lillian’s warm, reassuring presence would be at my side, or that I could be there for Lillian, even that Jamie could be there, haunting the edges of my vision.
“Hayle is not an unreasonable man,” I said. “If we presented it in the right way, he might listen.”
“He might,” Jamie said. “But I have my doubts.”
I looked at Jamie.
“I got special treatment, last mission,” Jamie said. “From the higher-ups.”
From the nobles. I had mentioned it, Jamie had heard and we had both seen it in play, in how the Twins and the Baron acted in regard to Jamie. Even the speech of the surviving Richmond Twin, before she had fled, had referenced it. I nodded my acknowledgement of what Jamie was really saying.
“They want to work on Caterpillar further. The nobles are interested in the project as a process they might undergo for all nobles. It’s arguably one of the reasons the Lambs were started as a project, to put forward all of these unique ideas and things the nobles might be interested in, projects that could be stepped up and used as augmentations or novelties.”
“Novelties?” Lillian asked.
“Remember the Duke’s attention to Helen?” Jamie asked. “The old Jamie wrote about it. The appeal is undeniable. Servitors or partners for the nobility, up to their standard of beauty, usable as bodyguards, personal doubles, or spies, with built-in weapons, like Helen’s. Ashton isn’t as pretty or refined, he was made by a team, not by a genius, but his weapon is more obvious, and it’s one that sells very well to the nobles. I think he breaks even with Helen.”
“I’m pretty,” Ashton muttered.
“And, in the end, someone expressed interest in you,” I said. “In caterpillar.”
“Hayle may be shifting his focus,” Jamie said. “They decided on Ashton over Evette, and Evette hasn’t had a serious mention. As far as I know, I don’t think there’s been any talk of a replacement for Gordon, or of starting a new Wyvern project, so that the child is of age by the time Sy retires. But I do know that they’ve doubled the size of my team, and I know that I got special attention. It’s something to keep in mind, when deciding if Hayle is going to be reasonable.”
Lillian’s hand gave my leg a rub, over the blanket.
The topic was a simple one, but my mind was whirling, anxiously poring over every possibility, every set of connections. I thought about every subject I had been dwelling over as of late, and in the moment, I stumbled onto one that seemed painfully obvious, and painful in a half-dozen other ways.
Manipulative, again, but in a much different way.
But if Duncan was here, then, well, I might as well use him, and then hope I could get rid of him somehow, so I could say what really needed to be said.
“I don’t know if I have another mission in me,” I said.
I let the words past my lips as easily and as thoughtlessly as I did, because I knew that if I stopped to weigh my words, to pick them to better sell them, then I wasn’t sure I would have had the courage to utter them.
I felt the weight of Lillian’s hand on my leg. I was very aware of everyone’s attention on me. Jamie’s in particular.
“Losing Gordon, losing Hubris, my eye… hearing that the Lambs might not continue as an ongoing project, it… I shouldn’t have said that. It’s not exactly right. I’ll do the next mission, and the next one. But it’s getting harder to convince myself to wake up, get dressed, and go to what might be another Lugh.”
“It’s work,” Duncan said. “I love what I learn in school, I love what it is. I was born to be an Academy professor, but sometimes I don’t want to go to school. Because school is work.”
“Yeah,” I said. I smiled, and I made the smile convincing. “It’s work. I’m feeling defeated. I’m just saying, maybe if I put it like that, Hayle will understand what I mean? He’s not heartless.”
Duncan smiled back at me.
He seemed to believe it. He didn’t know enough about the particulars, and he didn’t know me. He would go to Hayle and he would probably report my feelings. But hearsay was a horrible means of conveying tone, and when he gave the report and passed on what I had said, only the message should get through. There would be a note in people’s memories and in files, that Sylvester was exhausted, tired, less enthusiastic about his work.
If I was breaking away from the Lambs, and if any or all Lambs stayed, then that note could make the difference in there being any backlash. It would mean that my disappearance had precedent.
If Duncan didn’t report on my saying this until after, when they were looking for reasons for my doing this, then that was even better. It would be an answer, when they were asking the question.
That was done. I’d said it out loud, in earshot of the other Lambs, and I’d put myself on a clock of sorts. I had a narrower window to act, before that comment made its way into files and someone made the time to investigate that one data point. It wasn’t a guarantee that the follow-up would happen, but the chance it might happen was a reason to get going.
The other Lambs had heard me convince Duncan, and they had heard me explain away the thought, but they knew me. They would know there was more to it.
Jamie was still watching me, studying me. The question he’d asked last night now hung in the air.
“Helen mentioned that you two went shopping?” I asked Mary. It was a forced change of subject, awkward, but she handled with grace, as she did most things.
“We did,” she said. “New cities are so interesting for shopping, because every city is different.”
“And I imagine that when you shopped, you did it with an eye for which dresses could hide the most knives.”
“There’s more to me than knives, Sylvester,” Mary chided me. “Helen can testify, I was looking for a nice dress for a young woman that would work for upper-middle class settings, that would also hide a pistol at the upper thigh.”
“That reminds me,” Jamie said. “Mauer has new guns.”
“And we’re back to talking about work,” Lillian said, sighing.
“Are you complaining?” I asked.
“Yes! We were having a conversation about dresses. It’s nice to talk about girl things, sometimes, especially now that us girls are outnumbered as badly as we are.”
“I want to hear more about the guns,” Mary said.
I grinned while Lillian made a face. She let her head rest against my shoulder while she endured the conversation that followed, about primordials, the death of the Duke, and the guns Mauer had deployed.
Duncan did like his tea. I watched as he finished his second cup, started on his third, and then started getting uncomfortable.
I raised a hand, not to cut into the conversation, but to gesture at him.
He shook his head, looking confused, and the conversation naturally stumbled as I continued gesturing and he continued to fail to understand.
“If you head over that way,” I said, “You’ll have some privacy. Nobody’s going to yell at you if you use a bush.”
“Ah,” he said. “Thank you, Sylvester.”
The conversation picked up again, on the nature of the bullets, how they unfolded like tiny, strong, umbrellas, while Duncan made his way around a building to go relieve himself.
The moment he was out of sight, I raised a hand, signaling for silence. The conversation died.
“What are you up to, Sy?” Mary asked.
“We don’t have long, and I planned to discuss this in more depth, but Duncan being here makes it awkward,” I said.
“That thing you were talking about before? About retiring?”
“A cover story. One you guys can build on if things go wrong. Not the focus,” I said. I was lying. It was definitely a major focus. “But I made a promise to Lil, and to Emily, the girl we were rescuing, the new fiancee of the Baron of Richmond. I thought the rest of you should hear it.”
My mouth was dry.
“You’re doing something reckless,” Mary said.
“I’m doing something very reckless,” I said. “The Baron is a danger to us. We negotiated for some peace, and he’s leaving us alone, but he took my eye, he threatened Lil’s family, and he threatened the orphans at Lambsbridge. If you heard him, you’d agree with me, with us. The man needs to die.”
“He’s the worst sort of dangerous,” Lillian said.
“I need an alibi, cover. I think Jamie can provide most of it. If he puts down records that I was here, conversations we shared, everything else, and you guys get your stories straight, then it should work. The Lambs can be busy, even take on a minor mission in the area, and I slip away. I was talking to Craig about some parts, and there are others I still need to figure out. All you guys do is manage without me. If I fail, you’re going to need to run.”
How odd, that failure seemed to be the most romantic option of all of them. To get caught, tortured, and rescued by the other Lambs, a guarantee that all of the Lambs could be together…
But Lillian wouldn’t get to be professor, and she would worry about her family.
“If I succeed and get caught or killed, you’d need to disavow all knowledge. I disappeared, Duncan should be able to testify that I was already breaking away. I can drop another couple of hints that will paint a complete picture, over the next day or two. But I don’t want to waste any time in doing this, or we might get called away for a real mission, that would make this impossible.”
“A solo mission, Sy?” Mary asked. “Into the heart of Richmond house? Are you insane?”
“There has to be a better way to do this,” Lillian said.
“Leaving the situation alone would be more insane, and involving more Lambs in the job creates a larger gap in our numbers that’s harder to explain or justify,” I said. “I’m willing to put myself on the line for this, for my promise to them. But I can’t ask others to join.”
“One of us will join you,” Mary said, firmly. “You can’t do it alone. Honestly, I don’t trust you to deliver the killing blow.”
I sighed in admitted relief. “Okay. Maybe. We’ll see how the next couple of days play out, and what we can engineer. The person that comes with me may depend on who is where, or whatever else is going on in the background.”
Jamie kept staring at me. He was trying to figure out the nuances of what I was doing, here.
“Duncan is going to be back soon,” I said. “So this is all I’ll say for now. I’ll try to talk privately with each of you before we get underway. But this has to be done. That man needs to die.”
Lillian didn’t have room for fear in her eyes with the wyvern effect having a hold of her, but I could see the complicated emotions passing through her expression. Her hand slid down my forearm, her fingers intertwining with mine.
Ashton was just barely processing the idea. I well and truly believed that he would understand the necessity of this, for his own sake and for ours. There would be room to talk to him and convince him of it, and I was sure it wouldn’t be a cause for his notorious stubbornness. This wasn’t the sort of thing that really tripped him up.
Mary, I observed, seemed lost in thought. She was considering the mission, probably assuming I would bring her by default. On a level, it would be nice to have her along, but on another level, she was the most complicated person. Whether she left Radham depended on how many others were leaving. She was too firmly attached to Lillian, to having an actual place she belonged.
And this wasn’t a job I planned to return from. The alibi was only cover against the other Lambs, so they wouldn’t suspect what I was really doing. The Baron would die, and I would rendezvous with other Lambs, heading for the furthest territory from Radham I could get away with. If Mary was inclined to stay here, then she couldn’t come with. She would stop me.
I finished the last of my sandwich, eating with one hand. Duncan was making his way back, walking at a leisurely pace.
And then there was Helen… I took a moment to study her, while I squeezed Lillian’s hand. In this moment, Helen’s expression and behavior were the focus of my attention.
“Helen,” I said, sounding far more normal than I felt, “You damn well better not have finished off all the tarts.”