I gave Lillian’s hand a squeeze, turning my attention to her parents. The thing to do was to maintain a cool poker face. If I looked guilty, I would be hung as a guilty man.
“I live at the orphanage further down the road. Beautiful stone building with the stone fence around it? You would have seen it as you came up. Lots of kids, a number of girls, a number of us getting ready to go out? I couldn’t escape the haze of perfumes.”
“Perfumes?” Lillian asked. Then, without missing a beat, said, “Helen?”
“Helen and Fran,” I said. “Your dad saw a smudge of crimson on my ear.”
“You’re an orphan, then?” her dad asked, his voice low, his tone like that of a priest at a funeral, heavy and suggestive of doom and gloom.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Dad!” Lillian sounded positively horrified.
“If it was another boy, I’d ask him what his father does for a living. I’d want to know where he comes from, the values he was raised with. I can’t do that, obviously, so I’m inquiring about this.”
“And I’m saying no to this inqusition!” Lillian said. There as a fierceness in her eyes. “I am very fond of Sy. Sylvester. If you’re going to be a bully, then we’re going to leave you two to have dinner alone. I want tonight to be a nice night.”
“There’s no need for that,” her mother said. When she looked at her husband for clarification, however, it wasn’t to warn him, but out of hope.
“Dad?” Lillian asked. She was warning her dad where her mom seemed unwilling. “Try again. Let’s start with polite small talk. Please.”
Her dad wasn’t budging. He looked at his daughter for a long while, and then looked at me.
I didn’t let a glimmer of emotion show on my face. Casually, I said, “I don’t know where I came from. All I know is the orphanage. I was raised by an excellent staff and by the oldest children, and I now help where I can with the younger children.”
The look Lillian gave me suggested I’d failed her in a small way. She’d stood up to her dad and I had undercut her. But I knew that if I’d let her decide this, then I would never have won her dad over. The night would have been filled with him steadily beating me down with pressure and subtle digs. I could play that game, but I wanted to do better than that.
I’ll make it up to you later, I promised her.
“I have a few employees who have similar backgrounds,” her dad said. “They didn’t really have the benefit of a family, so they hashed together a replacement. Out of the, hm, about five of them I’m recalling right now, four ended up with broods by the time they were eighteen.”
The words were almost accusatory.
“I can’t comment on their desire for family,” I said, “But if they are your employees, then isn’t that what’s important? Hard work, ethic, focus?”
I was cheating there, a little bit. I had a general sense of who the man was, based on what Lillian had shared and what I had seen of Lillian.
“If you two are going to stand here and debate all evening, maybe mom and I can go to Claret Hall to eat,” Lillian said.
“We should probably walk over now,” I said, “Or we might not get a good table.”
“Good,” Lillian said. “That’s a good idea, thank you. It’s this way.”
She was tense, now. Not spooked or scared, but fully prepared to step in.
“Were you a Mothmont student?” her mother asked me.
“Only very briefly,” I said. “Then I found myself here.”
“Oh,” she said. She made a sound I could only call cooing. “Advanced?”
“You could say that and you wouldn’t be wrong,” I said, “Probably more accurate to say I walked a different path.”
Lillian jumped in, “Growing up at the foot of the Academy, Sylvester has been a part of it since before I was even at Mothmont. He’s been a big help, all the way through. Now we’re working on the same general project together.”
Her dad seemed as if he was going to remain dark and silent, like a stormcloud that hadn’t yet stormed. He surprised me by speaking. “I recall letters you wrote home where you damned the name of a boy named Sylvester.”
“Ah,” Lillian said. “Yes.”
“A different Sylvester, then?” her dad asked. “This boy bears a startling similarity to a drawing in the margins of one letter. Dark hair, triangular face? The boy you drew had knives and daggers sticking out of him, if I remember right, so perhaps I’m mistaken.”
“No, daddy. This is the same boy.”
“I think our differences in the beginning were a question of clashing methods,” I said. “Lillian is a builder. I prefer to shake things up, and shaking things up causes a lot of frustration for someone who is trying to build on a steady foundation. She’s brilliant, and she’s one of the brains I respect the most-”
That earned me a hand squeeze.
“-and she’s the person I have the highest expectations for, when it comes to the future. We’ve learned to work together remarkably well since that time.”
“Ah,” her dad said. “You think it’s a question of clashing ideologies, then.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“I’m more inclined to think it was about you repeatedly looking up her skirt, and dropping an eel down the front of her shirt?”
I’d forgotten about that second one. In my own defense, the eel had been dead, so the chance of biting was nonexistent, and it had also been very, very slimy.
Lillian’s face had gone stone still. Her gaze was fixed on the path ten feet ahead of us.
“Itching powder?” her father asked. “The fake dead rat attached to her textbook, that she pulled out in class? The butter?”
Lillian let go of my hand to raise both hands to her face. Fingernails momentarily dug in at the hairline.
“You told him that stuff, huh?” I asked her.
“She did,” her father said, he appeared to loom over me like I was the convict and he was the guillotine.
“I did,” Lillian echoed him. “I was new to the Academy and to the project, I didn’t have many friends, and I had a lot of frustrations to express. I suppose that while I was writing letters home, I expressed.”
Her hands fell away from her face as she talked, and I could see the disappointment on her face. This wasn’t the evening she had wanted. Her hands went to her arms, briefly rubbing them.
“Are you cold, honey?” her mother asked. “I have-”
I’d unbuttoned my jacket before she was done asking the question, and the sudden movement as I threw my coat over Lillian’s shoulders interrupted her.
“I have a coat already,” Lillian told me, even as she pulled the jacket closer.
“You have a fall jacket. Or a spring jacket,” I retorted. “Now you have a coat.”
“I didn’t want something big and bulky I’d have to take to the coatroom at the hall,” she said.
“I would have taken your coat to the coatroom,” I said, just barely biting back a light insult, like calling her a dummy.
“Okay,” she said. “Thank you.”
I deliberately avoided looking at her father, knowing my action could so easily be interpreted as something calculated, and instead hugged Lillian at the shoulders, helping hold the jacket in place, while I returned a smile from her mother.
I was aware, however, watching her father in my peripheral vision, that the man’s body language had changed. His expression seemed even more dour than it had been. My action hadn’t won points. It had cost me. It might have even cost me a great deal, in his eyes.
So that’s how it is, you old bastard. She’s your daughter still, with the emphasis on the ‘your’, possession, belonging to. I’m just the bastard who’s taking her from you, or the kid who is threatening to ruin her. Anything I do that wins her over or takes her heart is going to put me at odds with you.
We’d reached Claret Hall, and we made our way inside. The hubub and need to navigate spared us a good minute of conversation, and put some distance between us and the prior, more embarrassing topic of conversation.
I’d only eaten here twice before, once with Hayle and once with the Lambs, during one of the quieter weeks. The place was lit by candles, with a beautiful silver fixture hanging from the ceiling, sporting no less than fifty candles. Fireproof branches around the light sources gave the light throughout the dining hall a dappled look, as if it was all dim light shining through a canopy. Radham Academy’s colors were crimson and silver, and the curtains and furniture sported these highlights, though it was primarily fashioned of dark wood. The tables and booths had been grown and upholstered, not handcrafted.
This was where the upper faculty and professors dined when they didn’t have food catered to their offices and labs, and also where the older students came on dates. It reeked of respectability. There was a bar, but this wasn’t the sort of place one got drunk, unless it was well after everyone had finished eating and vacated the dining area.
“Sylvester,” Lillian’s mother said, “Tell me, what are you studying?”
“My personal project is focused on poisons and cognition, ma’am,” I said. I helped Lillian remove both my coat and her jacket.
“Oh,” her mother said. She looked a little shocked. “That’s something.”
“Sylvester is sharp,” Lillian said. “A lot of people get caught off guard by how quick he is.”
I was surprised by a tap on my shoulder. Staff offered to take the coats from me, and I let them.
“Quick can be dangerous,” her father said.
“Do you know who seemed reliable, sensible, and promising?” he asked. “That Duncan boy we met last year.”
“He looked a bit like he’d just eaten a lemon, from the start of the conversation to the end,” Lillian’s mom remarked. “And he was trying so hard to please.”
“I imagine he likes Lillian,” Lillian’s dad said.
You introduced Duncan to your parents before you introduced me? I got Lillian’s chair for her before getting seated myself. I knew it would irritate her dad, and at this point I was happy to.
“Mom, daddy, final warning. If you insult Sylvester, directly or by trying to suggest a new boyfriend while he’s sitting here at the table, I’m going to leave, Sylvester and I will get dinner together at the regular cafeteria, and I will maybe have lunch with you tomorrow before you leave. If you decide to apologize.”
It was, if I was reading things right, one of the first times she’d stood up to her parents. Their reactions suggested this was unprecedented, and her dad seemed to very naturally hold the fierce intensity that I only saw in Lillian when she was deep in her work or under the influence of the Wyvern formula. He was a presence, someone used to being listened to, to the extent that his wife and daughter both were both very quiet types, used to holding their tongues and thinking carefully before they voiced an opinion. He wasn’t going to back down, which meant I had to undercut Lillian again.
“I’m not insulted,” I said. “And I’m not threatened by Duncan.”
I had their attention, now.
“I think Duncan can be hard to like, and I know I’m biased in saying it, but he could benefit from more exposure to different walks of life, but I know Lillian recommended him to the advanced program we’re in, and she calls him a friend, and I respect her judgment in that. Based on that, I think he would be a fine boyfriend for her. Comparing me to someone of that caliber isn’t an insult at all.”
Her father seemed to take that as some small sort of victory. I imagined he was about to cut straight through the conversation to try and deliver the conversational equivalent of a knockout punch.
“But,” I said, not giving Daddy the chance, reaching for Lillian’s hand and intertwining her fingers with mine, “I’m not threatened at all. She’s not his girlfriend, and she’s not going to be. She’s mine.”
I was careful to phrase it so I could drop those last two words, and I was careful to look her dad in the eyes as I said it. Fingers still wound through hers, I lifted her hand to my mouth, kissing the back of it.
The thundercloud that was Mr. Garey seemed ready to break into full storm at that little gesture. Had we been standing outside instead of an establishment like this, he might have.
That in mind, I gave him my best sly smile.
Lillian squeezed my hand, and it was the painful sort of squeeze. She leaned close, and spoke with enough volume that her parents probably heard, “Please don’t provoke my father.”
“If he can deal it, he can take it,” I said. “But okay, if that’s what you want.”
“Thank you,” she said, pointedly. “Daddy, I already gave you my final warning. Please be good.”
“You’ve changed,” he said, so quick off the cuff of her request that it seemed like a retaliation or a rebuff.
“I’m stronger,” she said. “I’m confident. I’d like to think I’ve acquired some of your better traits.”
He seemed to speak very carefully, and that same care seemed to betray the sincerity of the words he spoke, “I’d like to think so too, Lillian.”
I knew right off that Lillian had seen it too. I had no idea what it meant or what history had really played into the sentiment the two of them seemed to be at odds over, but whatever it was, it cast a black cloud over the conversation.
I quickly began calculating a way forward. To salvage things and put a pleasant spin on things. Lillian’s mother was the best way to go about it, and the woman had hobbies. Horses seemed to be one, according to little clues I noted, and reading was a likely other, given her age and lifestyle. Jamie wasn’t as much of a reader as the old Jamie, but he’d mentioned some books recently. What were they? Damn my memory. I’d have to start with the horses.
We were, in a way, spared. A presence appeared at the side of the table, stepping neatly through a cluster of people who were leaving the dining hall. An old man, respectable in his black professor’s jacket. Hayle.
“Professor Hayle,” Lillian said.
“Lillian. I assume these are your parents? Mr. and Mrs. Garey?”
Handshakes went around.
“Lillian is a remarkable girl,” Hayle said. “She’s a pleasure to mentor, and she never fails to rise to our expectations, which are very high indeed. Eminently reliable and as well studied as girls three years her senior.”
“That is kind of you to say, professor,” Mr. Garey said. “Would you like to join us?”
“I can’t. We’re taking a short recess from discussing a student. I thought I would make sure you found your way alright, and make sure you knew which direction to go to meet us after you were done dining? No later than seven-thirty, if possible?”
“I can show them the way,” Lillian said. “Or Sylvester can.”
“It’s up one flight,” Mr. Hayle said, “if you stand at the top of the stairs and you don’t see the big portrait of the three brothers of Francis, you need to cross to the other hall. Once you’re facing the portrait, turn left. I’ll try to be waiting outside of the room for you.”
“Thank you, professor,” Lillian’s dad said. “I’m fairly good with directions, and I don’t expect that to be a problem.”
“Good, good. How are you, Sylvester?”
“I’m well, professor,” I said.
“And your eye?”
“It is what it is,” I said. “I look forward to taking this patch off.”
Before either of the parents could interject with a question, Hayle turned to them, a smile on his face, one hand falling on my shoulder, which was still a touch sore. “Sylvester is a fantastic young man. He picks up things with a remarkable speed. There have been problems that come across my desk that I have no earthly idea how to crack, I pit Sylvester against those puzzles and they have a way of…”
He paused, gesturing in a very indistinct way, before smiling an easy, genial smile.
“…No longer being problems.”
It was honest, and it was true, even if he was obfuscating the nature of that truth, but it surprised me more than anything to be sitting where I sat, and hear Hayle standing up for me, though he could hardly have known I needed him to.
“I have help, sir,” I said, squeezing Lillian’s hand under the table.
“Some of that help you personally found and recruited,” Hayle pointed out. “And you had a hand in shaping the team and training the other members.”
“I won’t deny that, sir.”
He gave my shoulder a pat, turning his attention to Lillian’s parents. “They make a good pair, I think. They complement each other’s strengths and cover one another’s weaknesses. Lillian benefits from the push and the challenges he gives her, and he benefits from the more moderate side of Lillian.”
There were better ways to phrase it than that. Still, I wasn’t about to object or tell him he was wrong.
“Do you think so?” Lillian’s dad asked. He glanced at me. He didn’t look any happier than he had before, but I suspected I saw a glimmer of respect, now.
“Treat him well,” Hayle said, giving me another shoulder pat. “I’ll see you at seven-thirty?”
“Yes, professor,” Mrs. Garey said. She smiled at me.
A cluster of students who were waiting by the door parted in a deferential way as Hayle approached.
“He mentioned your eye,” Mr. Garey said. I sensed Lillian tense beside me. “Can I ask what happened?”
Actually being polite? He was still prying, but not being an asshole about it.
“Work,” I said. “I got something in my eye.”
“You said you designed poisons?” Lillian’s mom asked. “A lab accident?”
I didn’t answer the question, because I didn’t want to lie to Lillian’s parents tonight, and tell her it was a sword that I got in my eye. Instead, I said, “The Academy can fix or replace eyes. For now it’s just an inconvenience.”
“I imagine so! I hope you recover swiftly,” she said.
Recover swiftly. It made me think of how I needed to remove the Baron from the picture first, and how that meant I couldn’t come back. It very possibly meant leaving Lillian, or convincing her to say goodbye to this pair forever.
I wasn’t sure if I was more or less pessimistic about her willingness to leave her parents and career behind, having seen how she interacted with her parents. There was a yawning chasm between them, her dad seemed to want different things for Lillian than she seemed to want for herself, and they didn’t seem compatible. It was very possible that her dad was the sort of personality where the closest thing to being compatible was to kowtow to him.
But, at the same time, even in pulling away, marking the distance between herself and her father, Lillian seemed to hold on. She didn’t storm out. She warned, staying where she was, willing to break away but only if she absolutely had to.
The dining hall was so warm, and I could feel the warmth of Lillian’s hand, up until she let go to reach for the bread basket and butter, and yet I only felt a deep sadness, permeating me to my core.
I put a smile on my face, scooted my chair a touch closer to the table, and leaned forward, addressing Lillian’s mom, “Would I be right in guessing you’re an avid horse rider?”
“Did Lillian give you a hint?”
“No,” I said. “Your posture and the way you hold your hands is a big clue, but I first noticed when we were walking to the dining hall. When you look over your shoulder, you start to drift in that direction. The only people I know who do that are people born to the saddle.”
“I’m going to be self conscious about that now!” she gasped, sounding almost delighted, her voice rising just high enough that it was above the overall din of the dining room. Heads didn’t turn, but eyes glanced our way.
Her husband reached over and put his hand over hers. In another circumstance it was the sort of thing that would have seemed like a nice gesture. In this circumstance, it felt more like he was shushing her, using his presence and his role as a husband to do it.
I didn’t like it.
An old fashioned man, I thought. Conformity, expectations, roles. It chafed. I liked shaking off the conformity and order, unveiling the person as they really were. For my enemies, it was for the purposes of uncovering their weaknesses. For my friends, it was to uncover their strengths.
It was with that in mind that I made it my mission for the dinner to make Mrs. Garey as excited and loud as possible. That it served a double purpose in flipping Mr. Garey the bird was a nice reward.
“I know some riders are uncomfortable if they’re on a ledge, they don’t want to look over the edge, because they instinctively feel like they’ll go over that edge,” I said.
“That’s me!” she exclaimed. “We were riding the carriage over and I felt uncomfortable looking out the window and over the edge of a bridge. I never connected the two ideas!”
Heads did turn. Mr. Garey raised his hand up and more firmly took hers. She pulled it away, not paying attention to him, clasping her hands in front of her. “Do you ride?”
“I do a little bit of everything,” I said. “In the field behind the orphanage, we sometimes see some altered horse stock the Academy is raising. Beautiful creatures.”
Lillian seized the opportunity to leap into the conversation.
The deep sadness that seemed to have soaked me through and through didn’t go away. If anything, I felt as though a rock had plunged into the depths of my stomach. At the same time, paradoxically, I could appreciate the pleasant warmth of the present moment. The benefits of a mind that could travel several roads in parallel, perhaps.
We left the dining hall, and Lillian was hugging my arm with both of hers. She seemed to bounce as she walked. I’d been unable and unwilling to interject as she and her mother talked. My shoulder hurt while I held the coats with one arm, but it was a minor price for the feeling of her so close.
There were nice things about girls, things the older orphans and mice talked about when they wouldn’t be overheard and they wanted the group to validate their burgeoning manliness. Skin and underwear and all manner of body parts, lewd words and acts. So often, I tuned it out and didn’t even listen. I didn’t get it.
This was what stirred funny feelings inside of me, seeing Lillian genuinely pleased and happy, her stresses forgotten. On other days, teasing her just to see the relief when I stopped or the smile when I made the tease worth it, turning an annoyance into a compliment or whatever else, it sufficed. I liked to get reactions of all sorts out of her, to make her squirm, laugh, or vent her feelings. But seeing her in a naturally good mood was maybe the best thing. Better than her body parts or underwear.
It was probably because I was screwed up and stunted that my priorities lay where they did. Like Jamie had said, we were all twisted when it came to our relationships.
She hugged her mom, who looked just as happy as she did. She then hugged her dad, who remained an ominous storm cloud.
“Say good things about me,” Lillian said.
“We will,” her mom said. “We want what’s best for you.”
I stayed with Lillian as we watched them walk to the stairway.
“Now I’m terrified,” she said.
“You’re allowed to be terrified,” I said.
“You got my mom to open up. You did that on purpose?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Because your dad tried to get her to quiet down? Because of you?”
“Whatever your reasons, I think I learned more about my mom tonight than I did in the whole rest of my life. It started off rocky, but it ended up nice. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome,” I said, somberly.
She bent down just a bit to give me a brief kiss.
“I’m sorry I didn’t win over your dad. I don’t think he would’ve let me, no matter what I did, and if there was a way, I would’ve made myself ugly in your eyes.”
She gave me another brief kiss.
“I take it that means you’re okay with it.”
“Remember how you hugged me earlier?” she murmured. “Holding my arms down, painfully tight?”
“Sorry. I sort of needed a hug.”
“No, no,” she said. Her voice dropped another degree, “I think I need that sort of hug right now. Come back to my room? I’m going to be so nervous about that meeting and about my presentation tomorrow, I don’t think I’m going to be able to sit still. It would be nice if you were there, and you could hold me tight in that way, make me be still, so I didn’t have to worry about not sitting still. And we could talk.”
I looked over in the direction of the stairway.
She touched my cheek, turning my head so I faced her, and gave me a kiss on the tip of the nose.
“Ah-hem!” a woman in a gray lab coat had made the exaggerated noise, giving us a pointed look. We stepped away from each other, until we were separated by one armspan. The woman carried on her way.
Lillian turned her head and stuck out her tongue at the woman’s back.
If I went with Lillian now… could I even leave like that? Break away to catch the tail end of the meeting between Hayle and her parents, get the general synopsis?
Could I leave at all? I felt unsteady inside, the holes left by Jamie and Gordon leaving feelings and beliefs unstable, threatening to fold in on themselves. I’d slept in the bed with Mary and Lillian and I’d been unable to sleep, the unsteadiness and the memories keeping me up all night. I had no idea if tonight would be different, but after seeing how happy she had been, talking to her mom, I felt like it could.
“Please,” she said.
But tomorrow? If we had a mission and if I had to watch another Lamb die?
“I want to more than anything,” I said. “But I sort of made other plans.”
Wyvern helped her to hide her feelings. It had always been a weakness of hers. Still, I knew her too well for her to throw up a mid-level poker face and fool me.
“Soon,” I said. “I won’t be long.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Do your homework and refine your ideas on that project. I’ll find you after. Then I’ll give you that hug.”
“Okay, Sy. I look forward to it.”
I helped her put on her jacket, and then gave her my coat too. She shot me a curious look.
“I’ll be quick enough in getting from A to B that the cold won’t touch me, and I’ll have to come get my coat, so you know I’ll be there later. Okay?”
“Okay,” she said. She smiled.
I watched her walk away.
Before she was out of earshot, I said, “Heya.”
She turned to look at me.
“I love you, dum-dum.”
The smile was genuine this time, a silly, goofy smile. “I might love you too, Sy.”
“I don’t know yet. Never been in love before, to compare this feeling to.”
“Good enough, then.”
I watched her leave. The smile was on her face, each time she glanced back at me.
Through the custodian’s office, down to the cellar. There was a channel that led from Claret Hall to the bowels. There was also a fixture attached to the boiler, where corpses and bodies could be stashed and quickly incinerated in an emergency, with levers and chambers attached, controlling how the contents of the fixture were treated and where the smoke went.
The Academy had several mechanisms in place to handle crises. One of those mechanisms had to do with this boiler. There were vents and ducts throughout Claret Hall that helped to move air around, but by throwing the right switches, this fixture would burn something noxious and spread a poison through the entire building, killing people within. I could see the terminal, and I saw the spaces for the switches, each one like a key, only operating if it had a specific construction.
But other switches were always in place. There was one that would let the smoke from the fires that fueled the boiler flow through the vents. It served as a means of handling things if and when the boggy climate of Radham led to flies and small insects collecting in Claret Hall, and with the windows open in the summer, the smoke would be allowed through with some poisonous cedar left to burn, killing off the worst of the pests.
Throw the right switches, and smoke would flow into the side-chamber, and flow from the side chamber to the vents. I shucked off most of my clothes, neatly folded them, and set them aside, on a shelf where anyone who came in wouldn’t find them. I pulled levers slowly, eliciting metal-on-metal squeaks as I opened the way from side chamber to vents. That done, clad in only underwear, I climbed into the incinerator and braced feet against either side, making my way up the chute to the vents.
The vents were wood, treated for pests, and, inconveniently, they were layered with about two inches of dust, whole walls of cobwebs, and punctuated with nails that the dust did a good job of hiding.
I had explored these routes when searching for a way to get to the records room and get the individual files of the Lambs. For all my trouble, cumulative days of shuffling along these miserable corridors, dodging rusty nails and feeling spiders and academy-designed creatures climb over me, I had learned that Hayle kept those files near him at all times.
The remainder of the trick was finding my way to the room Hayle had mentioned, which was on the top floor, meaning a lot of hazardous climbing. My memory wasn’t good, but Claret Hall had a lot of big rooms, and it made for less places to check.
Moving slowly, adjusting my weight to squirm forward more than I pushed myself with hand or knee, I approached the room where the meeting was being held. My hand cleared away dust, and I laid myself down, eye and ear on the vent that opened into the meeting room.
I listened to the first clear sentence they’d uttered since my arrival, then the second.
I listened, and a not insignificant piece of me broke.