I exited the bathroom, a towel wrapped around me, a bag of the more expensive products in one hand. I was scrubbed pink, my hair was oiled back and away from my face, left unparted, though the ends of my hair were already pricking up and curling away. Any adolescent boy given access to the products that smelled ‘manly’ tended to overdo it, much as the girls went over the top with makeup, but I knew enough to go light. It was a good smell, and one that would complement the smell of shoe polish.
The hand that wasn’t holding the bag held a fresh bandage over the ruin of my eye. It put me in an awkward spot when it came to the towel around my middle.
“I’m guessing you don’t need to borrow any clothes?” Jamie asked me. He was lying in his bed, reading by the dim light that came through the window. That, or he’d been napping. I wasn’t sure which.
I shook my head. “I’m still waiting on the big growth spurt that’s supposed to come. I could complain all day about it, honest, but for right now, I’m not complaining. If I’m not growing, then that’s one less person to buy a wardrobe for, more money for the Lambs.”
I regretted the line as soon as it was out of my mouth, for my sake as well as Jamie’s. The ‘one less person’ thing stung on too many levels. Losing Gordon, for one thing. His room, next to ours, now had a vacant bed. There were other rooms with three or four boys crammed in them, but nobody had yet raised the subject of who would use the bed and stay with Ashton.
That, in turn, led to my other source of guilt. I knew I was leaving, and saying what I’d said had left Jamie an awkward sort of opening.
I jumped to thinking about how to respond to him, and about the things I needed to say and do to manage this whole situation, but those thoughts were obstructed by a complicated tangle of thinking and emotion. Ashton would move into this room with Jamie, wouldn’t he? But that was only if they both stayed. Did that mean I would be alone? Why did I tell myself that Jamie wouldn’t come with? Was it because I’d noticed some clue and hadn’t fully processed it, or because I didn’t want him to?
Jamie was putting his book aside. I pretended not to notice him as I took care to set the bag of oils, soap and scents in my closet, out of reach of the littler Lambsbridge kids who would wreak mad havoc with the little glass bottles. I fixed my gaze on the mirror that hung on the inside of the closet door.
“Sy,” he said. “Earlier, when the others were out of earshot-”
I looked over at him, shooting him a look.
“We need to talk about it,” he said, in response to everything I’d attempted to convey with the look.
“I need to get ready,” I said. “Do you mind? A little privacy?”
It was his turn to shoot me a look, irritated, even disappointed. He raised his feet and spun himself around. Now sitting with his back to me, he pulled his legs into a cross-legged position. Putting all of the repressed frustration into the tone of his voice, he repeated himself, “We need to talk about it.”
“It’s a dangerous mission, but it’s doable, especially if I have Helen, you, or Mary with me. I’m going to leave out Ashton and Lillian for obvious reasons.”
“I’m not concerned with the mission. I’m concerned with what you’re doing and what you told Duncan.”
“Are you going to tell on me?” I asked.
“Let me know sooner than later. It’ll change how I interact with the others.”
“Do you really see me doing that, Sy?”
“I don’t know what anyone is going to do,” I said. I peeled the bandage away from my eye. I blinked a few times. The orb was gone, a placeholder was set into the ruin, but the flesh around it was swollen, ragged, and red, with a cut at one eyelid stitched up where the sword’s edge had parted flesh. “And it’s not knowing what anyone is going to do that really eats me up inside.”
“Yet you don’t want to talk about it, clearly.”
“Right now, I want to have a nice night with Lillian,” I said. “I wanted the whole Lugh thing to be a nice thing we did for her, and I wasn’t able to give her that. It became something bad, and taking the Baron down, rescuing Emily, that’s how I’m going to make up for that. But I still want to do something nice for her. That’s what tonight is.”
“And tomorrow?” Jamie asked. “Or the day after? Whenever you decide you’re going on the mission? How do you see that unfolding, Sy?”
“I don’t know, Jamie.”
“You said ‘I don’t have another mission in me’. Your words. That wasn’t you laying groundwork for a scheme. You’re setting something up, getting ready to leave.”
I pulled clothes on. Slacks, a belt. Every time I looked in the mirror, I saw the ruin of my eye. Beyond it, I saw the Lambs dead in their individual, detailed ways, Lambsbridge’s staff and occupants maimed or altered.
I’d been thrust into the world of adults, out-thinking grown men and women, facing mortal peril in a way that even soldiers didn’t necessarily have to deal with. At least they had moments of rest and moments of peace. I’d been faced with being on call, dealing with things on the spur of the moment, with regular situations and simple jobs becoming nightmares.
Even now, as I got dressed in a casual suit, like the preppier Mothmont or Academy kids might wear, all of the pressures and the confusion added up to make me feel far from ready to face the world of adults.
I’d been given a set of tools to help me adjust, to put me in the right frame of mind and give me the flexibility to deal. It wasn’t the wyvern formula. It was the Lambs, first and foremost. Now I faced losing them.
“Sy,” Jamie said, pulling me out of the deep well that was my thought process. “Are you still there?”
“I’m here,” I said.
“The others are dealing with their own issues. Mary’s still nursing the fresh wound that is losing Gordon, Lillian is preoccupied, Helen and Ashton are detached, though Helen is paying more attention than some, and Duncan, with all of his Academy know-how, can’t quite figure out how to extract his head from his own ass.”
I smiled despite myself.
“But I’m here, and I’m paying attention. I know you’re trying to make something happen, Sy, but as far as I can see the whole picture, it’s haphazard. I can’t figure out what you have going on in your head, and I’m scared things are going to move forward on this really unsteady foundation you’re building. What you said to Duncan, the timing, the high-risk mission, and the contingency plans you outlined to us.”
“I’m still finding my way to the answer,” I said. “Figuring out the key points, figuring out the key players… The mission will come together.”
“It’s not the damn miss-” he started. He stopped. “You’re doing that on purpose. Dodging me. Let’s talk about what happens if it doesn’t come together. What if your hand gets forced, or if you find compelling reasons to abort your plan and stay, Sy? You had a tone in your voice when you talked about wanting to make this mission against the Baron happen in the next few days. Knowing the patterns you fall into, I get the impression you’ve already started this ball rolling, probably to push yourself forward. Your desire to abort and return to the status quo is so strong you’re putting contingencies into place against yourself.”
Couldn’t argue that. This Jamie was becoming so different from the Jamie I knew, and it was irritating that he was getting to be so good at picking me to pieces. All of the things in the world that he was capable of, and he chose to analyze me.
I buttoned up my shirt, fixing the sleeves. I looked over to where he was sitting, his back to me.
“Still here. Focused on getting ready. I did warn you.”
“I’m worried,” he said. “This is major. There aren’t any second chances, and there’s a lot of room for collateral damage. I heard what the Baron said.”
I looked at my eye again.
“I’ll let you know what I’m doing as soon as I figure things out,” I said.
“Is that a promise?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess I should thank you for paying attention, for caring.”
“I guess,” Jamie said, in a funny tone. I’m going to remember that promise, Sy. Don’t get slippery, don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes, alright? With something this risky, knowing how the cards are stacked against you, you can’t mess around.”
If I did, what would happen? I wondered. I’d spent some time with Jamie, I’d learned how he operated and I’d learned to respect what he brought to the table, even if he wasn’t my Jamie. But there were so many question marks, blanks in my mental picture of who he was, that I couldn’t figure him out.
I couldn’t ask the question I’d just mused on, about what Jamie would do if I crossed the line and broke the promise. Instead, I asked him, “What do you think you’re going to do?”
“You’re worried I’m going to tell on you.”
“As far as I can figure, you want to secure things, keep the Lambs safe. The deaths don’t weigh on you the way they weigh on me, though I imagine you mourn and remember your predecessor in your own way,” I said, as I fixed my tie. “But there’s clearly another side to you that’s more caring. The way people operate, they’re all the protagonists of their own story. Everyone wants to be the hero, and for that to happen, the story needs to be tellable in a way that puts them in a good light.”
It was his turn to be silent.
“So I can’t help but imagine a scenario where you tell yourself I’ve gone off rails, the horse is running away with the cart, and in that scenario, you make the decision to put the bystanders first, the wrecked train or the runaway horse second. If I don’t sell you on this, or if I break the promise, now that I think about it, maybe you tell, because that way, the Academy can’t justify hurting the Lambs.”
He remained silent.
“If you do decide to tell, whatever your reason, I won’t blame you,” I said. I pulled on the jacket. There was a dried drop of blood on the inside lining. I picked at it with my thumbnail until it came free. “I’ve blamed you for an awful lot of stuff that wasn’t your fault. It makes sense if, should you decide to go to Hayle and tell him I’ve gone rogue, that I can’t hold it against you. It might even be an optimal way to go. It would tell the Baron that you serve him, first and foremost.”
“If you wanted to make amends, you could avoid putting me in that position entirely. That seems optimal.”
Socks on, feet slipped into shoes, I stepped back from the mirror, doing my best to look myself over.
It wasn’t me, but the suit had been bought with good money and tailored to fit my frame, the dark color intended to fit my complexion. It was as good as I was going to get when it came to ‘nice clothes’.
I could have trimmed my hair where it was getting longer across the back, but beyond that, and the ruin that was my left eye, I was pretty presentable.
I grabbed the eyepatch from my bedside table and pulled it on.
“No need for privacy,” I said.
Jamie turned around. He gave me a once-over.
I spread my arms.
“I think Lillian will be happy, seeing you put in the effort.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“I also think you’ve got too much going on in your head right now. I’m worried,” he said. “I don’t think you can just take it all and deliberately push it out of your head, and give Lillian the night you want to.”
“It’s what I do,” I said. “And besides… I have to.”
“You have to?”
“There are a lot of things I could say to that,” he said. “Points I could make. But I think I’ll settle with… have a good date, Sy.”
“I hope Lillian enjoys herself as well.”
I gave him a mock salute, and then opened the bedroom door.
Without Wyvern sharpening my wits and giving me an edge, I might have let one very muddy Kenneth run straight into my nice clothes. As it was, I stepped out of the way, letting him pass.
I navigated the demented hordes of Lambsbridge orphans. I passed Gordon and Ashton’s room, where Ashton sat at the window, staring out over the backyard. He’d been at it since before I’d even started my bath. Jamie read, I tormented people, Gordon had played or ran errands to keep busy, if he wasn’t practicing something or other. Helen primped or wandered without any particular aim until Mrs. Earles gave her something to do, Mary altered her clothes, spent time with one of the other Lambs, or she left the house to practice with her knives and wire.
And Ashton, in the idle hours, just sat. He liked to have a window, but he didn’t need one.
Whatever went on in his head was more colorful than what the rest of the world was doing, apparently.
Mary was coming up the stairs as I made my way down. It didn’t leave much room for us to squeeze past each other. She smiled as we both stopped, each figuring out how to navigate past the other.
“You’re seeing Lillian?” she asked.
“You look nice,” she said. “But you need to do something about that eye.”
“Soon,” I said. I thought about the Baron. “Soon.”
“In the meantime, can you do me a favor?” she asked, clasping her hands together. “It would simplify things.”
“Simplifying isn’t my usual agenda,” I said, playing up the hemming and hawing. “What do you need?”
“I’ve got a box of things. I’m going to be staying at Lillian’s, and instead of having to walk all the way back here, I was thinking… it would make things easier.”
I could understand her thought process, on quite a few levels. It wasn’t just that being here sucked, that it reminded her of Gordon, but having a portable box of things and making herself scarce were ways to prepare for the job we were pulling, targeting the Baron.
“I don’t know,” I said. “How big a box?”
“Portable,” she said. “It’s already in the front hall.”
I slid past her, walking down the stairs until I could look around the corner and see down the length of the front hall. A small luggage container sat by the chair in the entryway.
“You wouldn’t have to carry it far,” she said. “Just from the carriage to the dorm.”
“Carriage?” I asked her.
“They’re picking up Rick any minute now,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. I made a face. “That would be awkward. I’d prefer to walk.”
“Alright,” she said.
“It’s not heavy, is it? Because I can carry it.”
“Don’t,” she said. “You’ll get sweaty, and I don’t want to do that to my friend.”
“That’s all I am to you?” I asked. “Not a colleague? Not ‘practically family’? A mere friend?”
“I was thinking about Lillian,” Mary said, giving me a light smile. “But now that I think about you-”
Ow, my heart.
“-You could use a bit more muscle on those bones.”
Ow, my pride.
“But tonight isn’t the time to work on it. Leave the luggage. I’ll send it up with Rick, with instructions for them to leave it at the gate, I’ll pick it up as I arrive. That was the original plan, anyway.”
“I’ll see you later tonight?” she asked. “Or should I be scarce?”
“Tonight is good,” I said. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
She smiled, and it seemed more honest a smile than the ones she’d forced earlier.
I had to check the time in the dining room, and immediately skipped to, grabbing my jacket and heading out the door at a good clip.
The snow was falling more heavily, and the days were short enough that it was already getting dark, before dinner.
There was some traffic to and from the Academy, and I walked well away from the road to avoid a stray wheel kicking up any mud or snow at me.
Jamie was right. I wasn’t focusing enough. It was a chronic problem of mine, that I could convince myself of nearly anything. It was one of the problems I ran into in fights, where I saw a course of action, a way to get great results in a clear, concrete way, and I ended up wanting my opponent to set themselves up so badly that I believed it would happen on an instinctual level.
Doing this, tonight, with Lillian, it was a mistake. I should have been showing off signs of instability, much as I’d done with Duncan, breaking further away from the team, so it would be easier for them to claim they had no connection to me, should I fail. I should have been picking my partner for the upcoming job, to give them a chance to do the same.
As it was, I was paying mind to team bonds, to helping and supporting Lillian, to giving her attention and showing her that I cared.
My legs were still sore from the incessant running around in Lugh, which felt like it had happened far longer ago than it had. Forcing a march-walk uphill on snow-layered, uneven ground was straining my legs and tiring me out with surprising speed.
I passed through the gates and past the area where carriages and other vehicles were arriving, bringing students and the ailing in from the city, and headed around the back paths. I made my way around to the back of Lillian’s dorm, checked my surroundings, and then quickly climbed the outside of the building, careful to avoid getting my clothes dirty.
I tapped on the window, keeping my head out of sight. Parents wouldn’t be allowed in the dorms, but I wasn’t ruling out the possibility that they could have been visiting the room that they paid for.
The window slid open. Lillian, her hair styled, earrings in her ears, poked her head out.
“There are people around,” she said. Her hand reached down for mine. I took it, and accepted her help in climbing through the window.
She smelled like women did, like hair products and flowers. The dress she wore was one I’d seen her in before, but it was a nice one, dark green. It went well with the intensity of her eyes.
“Remind me what our relationship is? I just want to make sure we have our stories straight,” I said.
“We’ve talked about this,” Lillian said, still very stern. I could identify the attitude as a very mocking sternness, now that I was observing her while not clinging to the outside of a cold brick building. “You’re a liason with the Academy. Like me, you’re an advanced student working on special projects.”
“Got it,” I said. “Well, I already had it. I just wanted an excuse to see you.”
She smiled, and she gave me a playful slap on the cheek, so light a mosquito would survive it.
“Button me up?” she asked, turning her back to me.
I touched her bra strap, tracing my finger along it.
I missed her so terribly already, and she was right here, in arm’s reach.
I began doing the buttons.
I stopped shy of doing the last one. I leaned down a bit and planted a kiss where the button was meant to meet the braided loop. That done, I slipped button through loop.
She turned, and her face was so close to mine. Her hand touched my cheek, fingertip touching the eyepatch.
“You’re quiet,” she said. “Are you okay? That thing you said earlier, to Duncan-”
I laughed, one note, working to keep my voice down. Students were going to be gathering for dinner in the main dining hall soon. The hallways would be crowded.
“I don’t think it’s funny,” Lillian said. “I’m worried.”
“Jamie asked me the same thing,” I said. “I think Mary was wondering too, but she’s… subdued.”
“Yeah,” Lillian said. She leaned close and gave me a kiss on the cheek, leaving her hand where it was until the last possible moment, as she stepped away to look for her shoes. “I know what you mean.”
I approached her desk, pulled the chair away, and picked up the shoes, holding them out for her, while she continued to turn her eyes elsewhere, searching.
My eye scanned her desk. Papers, files. There were numerous drawings, many looked like tracings. Notes appeared in the Wollstone shorthand, filling the empty space around the tracings, with lines pointing to parts.
Lillian realized I had her shoes and plucked them from my hand.
“For my senior project,” she explained the drawings. “They only choose a few students and projects to pass, in the first grading. Half of the students are dropped, and have to try again next year. By the second pass, only a third of the students will be confirmed for the implementation phase. That’s when they put their project to work, with up to two assistants-”
“Chosen from the failures.”
“Yes. And you have to have a working project by the end. After that is the jury, where you have to justify your work to a committee, and then there’s the break. Summer or winter, depending on the project, the school, and the timelines imposed. Your work has to survive and operate for the two month break. If it breaks down during the second month, you lose a letter grade. If it dies before then, you lose two. If your project is something that isn’t alive in that sense, then they find other ways to test you or stress test the project in the meantime. The ‘break’ is what breaks a lot of students, that’s the joke.”
I looked over the papers and the sketches. A warbeast, bulky and stout, the measurements putting it at two feet at the shoulder, with organs on the outside. Another seemed reminiscent of the Twins, if rather bulkier and clumsy in shape. The skeletal structure was what made me think of the nobles. It was framed as if it was hollow inside. The third set of documents was more formula than sketch. A drug?
“Your projects?” I asked.
She approached me from behind, wrapping her arms around me, her chin on my shoulder. I could feel the heaviness of her sigh. “Proposals. I haven’t decided which one to go with. With all of the enemies we’ve fought with extraordinary senses, I thought Sparky there might work. Something like the stink-bomb I used against the Twins, but it also has the ability to produce explosive flashes of light. I don’t know if I can get it bright enough to blind or loud enough to deafen, but enhanced senses come with better sensitivity, so… I don’t know.”
“I can see them really liking that.”
“Mm hmm,” she said. “I figured most of it out on a purely theoretical, pen-on-paper level, and the smell is easy, but I can’t figure out the flash or the bang. I’m worried I’ll start this project, I’ll run into that dead end, and I’ll end up failing because of it.”
I touched the paper with the crude humanoid.
“I don’t think I can sell it to them,” she said. “So soon after wartime, with other wars possibly on the horizon… it’s not efficient for what they would want it to be efficient at.”
“What is it?”
“Dumb vessel for collecting the wounded. They get pulled inside, their legs inside its legs, their chest in its chest, their arms in its arms. It works as a weak exo-suit, added muscle, for when you need more heavy lifting, but the real purpose, what I’d really hope to pack it with, would be life support. Not a lot, but enough. Pressure on wounds, help with breathing, help with heart rate. If I did it in an advanced way, I’d have it recognize the need on its own. As it is, I think I’d have it respond to external cues. Taps.”
Her hand rubbed up my stomach and chest and down, flicking each button on my jacket in passing. “I thought, what did I want most, back in Lugh? For myself, or for Gordon? Or when I was working on Mary, here in Radham, and Jamie had to remind me the steps for surgery? Support.”
I stared at the page, trying to visualize it.
“The third project is a drug. I… I don’t know, Sy. It’s not fully thought through. I’m sure it’s been done before, but I thought I should have a third project. I admit I’m selfish in wanting it. Something to help suppress fear, to clarify the mind. A low-impact combat drug for soldiers.”
“Something you could take, so you didn’t need wyvern?”
“I don’t want to use wyvern ever again, Sy,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, but-”
“No,” I said. “I understand. Believe me.”
“I don’t know how long the effects will last, so I’ve been working so hard, using all of the time I’m not spending consoling Mary, or with you. They said they would be lenient, knowing I was working with the Lambs project and helping the Gages, but I’ve been fretting. Even with wyvern to help focus me, I’m worried. This is sort of major, and I haven’t even had time to think about it.”
“How long do you have to work it out?”
“Tomorrow. Part of tomorrow.”
I pulled my way out of her arms, turning around so I could face her. “What?”
“Tonight, after dinner, they’re holding a meeting. They’ve been having them all day. All of my teachers, and my parents, looking over my academic performance and reviewing my records. With that meeting fresh in their minds, I have to bring a project proposal forward tomorrow morning. They’ll decide, based on the meeting with my parents and teachers, if I’m capable. I’m not sure how they’re going to explain things to my parents, but I’ve been told my parents won’t hear the whole story, so I think they’ll say their piece and then leave. Which should suit them fine.”
“That’s why your parents are in town,” I said, speaking the realization aloud.
Lillian nodded. Her eyes were filled with conflicting emotions.
I could imagine her crying if she didn’t have the wyvern formula, and I really wished she would, so I could better know how to console her. As it was, I looked at the papers, then at Lillian. My thoughts were a jumble, chaos.
Lillian was too important. She was the one person I could trust to remember the Lambs as we actually were. I’d been so preoccupied I hadn’t been able to see. I couldn’t abandon her, not at this critical juncture. I couldn’t stay, either. I would lose my mind and I would inevitably hurt her.
There was a word for the bitter feeling I was experiencing: torn. Pulled in multiple directions, agonized, knowing I was going to fail her somehow, no matter what happened.
Just leave, a little voice spoke in the back of my mind. Leave. Run away. Go, go, go. There are only bad things for you here.
It was a little voice that had been with me for years. Since well before my last attempt at running away.
Just leave. You know you have to. You’ll go mad if you don’t.
But, like I’d told Mauer, my whole life was here. Lillian, and everything Lillian represented. Mary, Jamie, Helen, Ashton. The people I knew in the city.
Pulling away meant putting every single one of those things in jeopardy.
Reaching forward, I put my arms around Lillian. It wasn’t on purpose, but I ended up pinning her arms against her sides, my arms around her upper arms and back, hugging her so tight it had to hurt.
Unable to hug me back, she planted a kiss on my ear.
It was more on an already full plate, but I knew I had to listen in on that meeting. I had to know Lillian’s fate. I couldn’t make any decisions until I did.
Dinner with her parents, and then finding a way into the meeting.
“Not that this isn’t the nicest thing, Sy,” she murmured in my ear, “But my parents are waiting, and you need to step out that window and go wait outside with them.”
I broke the hug. I couldn’t look at her smiling face, so I headed straight for the window. Let her think I was bashful or something.
“See you in a minute,” she said, as the window scraped open.
“Yeah,” I said, still thinking. “About the projects? I like the second one. The suit. I think it’s more ‘you’.”
She smiled wide. “Thank you, Sy. I think I needed someone to tell me that, to make the decision.”
I nodded, climbed out the window, and quickly made my way to the ground.
Warring emotions plagued me as I took the long way around. I had to stop for a moment as tears filled my one good eye.
I’d told Jamie that everyone needed to be the hero of their own story. That they needed a version of events that could paint them in the right.
I didn’t have that. Never really had.
She was the sweetest, bravest girl, and I couldn’t give her a happy ending. I was doomed to disappoint, no matter what I did.
I wiped away the moisture that had collected in the eye with my handkerchief, took a deep breath while I straightened myself out, and then rounded the corner. A steady stream of girls departing the dormitory gave me a moment’s respite, as I had to wait for them to clear out of the way.
Lillian’s father and mother were standing a short distance away from the gaggle of girls. Her father was a sturdy man, with brown and gray hair and permanent frown lines across his forehead. Her mother looked like a timid woman, her fashion and makeup aggressive to make up for what she lacked personally. They stood close together, and talked very easily with one another.
As the path cleared, I made my approach.
“Can I help you?” Lillian’s father asked me.
“I’m Sylvester, a friend of Lillian’s,” I said. “I believe we’re having dinner at Claret Hall?”
I extended my hand. The man shook it, his hand enveloping mine.
“We expected her friend Mary,” her mother said. “Lillian wrote so much about her in the letters.”
I’m so sorry to disappoint, I thought.
Lil’s father, meanwhile, released my hand. The frown lines in his forehead deepened.
“I believe you have lipstick on your ear,” he told me, staring me down.
“Ah,” I said. I pulled the handkerchief from my pocket, and rubbed at my ear.
“And you smell like perfume,” he added.
I didn’t even get a chance to get a word out before the door opened. Lillian must have run to get downstairs as fast as she did. She skipped down the path until she was at my side. She hugged my arm, smiling up at two very disapproving parents.