“Look at the chair you’re sitting in right now,” I said. “Now, this might sound silly, but I want you to imagine there are lines of strength running through it. Close your eyes for me. Visualize the chair. Where is it strongest? When someone sits in it, where are the stresses? Where would you draw the lines, if you were just drawing the imaginary bones of the armchair?”
I watched as Shirley closed her eyes. I could see how tense she was. Her back didn’t even touch the chair back.
“Um,” she said. She moved her hands, twisting around. She indicated the chair back, the arms. “I think here and here? And the legs? I don’t really get it.”
“No, you’re right,” I said. “Where are the lines of strength in your body? It’s cheating if we think of your skeleton, so I want you to imagine one line running from your right hand to your shoulder, curving down to extend to your left leg, and another from your left hand to your right leg. Imagine it, as strongly as you can.”
“I’m imagining it,” Shirley said.
“Can I touch you, to guide you?” I asked.
“Most men don’t ask before touching me,” she said, opening her eyes. “They pay after.”
“Eyes closed,” I said, chastizing her. She obeyed. “Imagine the lines.”
“What color are they?”
“Um. Yellow? Why?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. Shirley was a pixie of a girl, barely nineteen, petite, with a smaller chest than most girls of her profession, and some amazing legs. Her black hair was shorter than mine, but a headband gave her a feminine touch. I liked her eyes most, though. They were large and expressive.
Interesting that she thought of herself as yellow. It didn’t mean anything, and it got her thinking about the lines again. “I’ll ask again, since I didn’t get an answer. May I touch you?”
“Okay,” I said. I touched her shoulders firmly, and urged her to lean back. “Relax, keep imagining the lines, and lean back, feel the chair back against the small of your back and your shoulderblades. The lines of the chair and the lines of your upper body are more in alignment, aren’t they? Almost like you can imagine them as two pieces of a whole?”
“And…” I said, putting two fingers on the back of one knee. I felt her move it as I used the bare minimum of strength, until her thighs were crossed, one foot dangling, “For your lower body, I want you to figure out where your leg goes, so it’s in alignment with the chair’s arm and leg. Keep those eyes closed.”
She moved her leg to the side, so the foot was at the base of the leg. After a moment, she shifted position, so only her toes were on the floor, her heel resting against the leg. It had the same effect as being in heels, elongating her already long legs. It also had the effect of raising her knees, which was a tantalizing thing when she wore a short dress.
Movement off to one side caught my eye. There were four young women, two young men and one Jamie gathered at the entrance of the room, watching. A young woman standing in the doorway was changing her posture to better pose herself at the doorway. Listening and learning. We had an audience.
“Someone could paint a picture of you right now, Shirley,” one of the women at the door said.
Shirley’s eyes opened.
Before her focus was lost, I gave an instruction, “Relax your shoulders and let your arm down so-”
She dropped her arm, draping it along the chair’s.
“-Like that. Perfect,” I said.
Shirley gave me a smile. When I smiled back, she looked away, suddenly self-conscious.
“Why are you running away from me?” I asked. “Eye contact. When you’re working, If you’re here or you’re outside, you’re going to want to pick out customers, instead of having them pick you, right?”
She frowned a little.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s the job, isn’t it?” she asked. “The customers choose. Even here.”
I dropped down to sit on the coffee table, across from her. “From here on out, you choose. I know you had a bad run. You got hurt, you want to keep doing this, but you’re still afraid.”
She broke eye contact again.
“Look me in the eye. Don’t waver. Good. That’s better. If you look afraid, the people who approach you are going to be the ones who want fear. In this house, you’re pretty safe, but you still get some bad ones, I imagine. If you’re clearly aware and comfortable with your surroundings…”
I gestured to indicate the length of her arm, the chair arm, and her legs.
“And if you’re confident in the eye contact you use, you can ignore the people you’re not interested in without looking like you’re shying away. You’ll lock eye contact onto someone without actually staring at them. I saw your expression just now. I’ll clarify. You can turn your head or change position to keep from being too still or too direct and intense.”
She did it, trying it.
“Just like that. Now you’ll look a pretty picture as you fit into your surroundings, you make the eye contact with the people you choose, and then you hook them, line and sinker. The ones you want, who look like they have money and like they might be fun, or safer. You don’t need to shout louder than the other girls on the busier streets, your gaze, posture, and quiet confidence will be far louder than their brash offers.”
“Okay,” she said.
“I want you to lean over this table here. Use your instincts. The lines of your body and the lines of the table. But keep in mind it doesn’t all have to be parallel, try right angles or curves. Be playful, stay at ease. It’s hard to do it wrong, but stay conscious of the table and yourself. If you’re not sure how to do it, take your time while walking to the table. But try it now, stand up.”
She did. Her anxieties aside, she knew how to walk. It was when she was sitting still or standing somewhere,left alone with her thoughts, that she’d end up looking so stricken and nervous. Sauntering over to the table, she placed her right hand on the left side of the table, and her left hand on the other side, arms crossed, so they pushed her decolletage forward. Her gaze remained locked to mine.
“Ah,” I said, huffing out a, “ha. Perfect.”
“Sylvester,” Jamie remarked, his tone light in its mock sternness, “Are you done manipulating that poor woman into giving you a show?”
“It’s not-” Shirley and I spoke at the same time. I stopped talking. Belated, Shirley finished, “-not manipulation. I like this. It helps.”
“Thank you,” I said, turning my full focus to her, “I’m glad. I think you instinctively knew some of this, you just needed reminders after you got shaken by bad experience. You needed a framework to put it in.”
She nodded, with more emphasis than necessary.
“Final piece of the puzzle here,” I said. “It feels good to get a reaction out of me, right? You have the power, you did that perfectly, and in the doing, you got to be the second person in this house who’s ever rendered me at a loss for words.”
“Who was the-”
“Jamie,” I cut her off. “Focus, and smile. When you get that reaction, then you signal that you know, one hundred percent, that you just earned your small victory. Because ninety-five times out of a hundred, the guys who like that smile are going to be the guys who are going to respect you and respect that confidence.”
“Ahem,” I heard the voice from the hallway.
“Whoops,” I said. The Madam.
“What’s going on here? Why is there a crowd in my foyer? Jamie?”
The madam of the house made her way through the cluster of people at the other end of the room, my audience. Marv wasn’t far behind.
“Sylvester,” she said, unimpressed. “And Shirley, it seems.”
“Sylvester,” Marv commented, smirking, “You sly rascal, I didn’t think you had it in you.”
One of the young men at the doorway protested, “Nothing was happening, Sylvester was-”
He fell silent as the Madam raised her hand. She opened her mouth to say something, but hesitated as Shirley stood straight, walked to the armchair, and draped herself easily across it, her posture only slightly different from before. Shirley’s eyes remained locked to the Madam’s throughout, and remained there as she crossed her legs, then folded her hands in her lap.
When the Madam’s eyebrows went up, Shirley allowed her a small, confident smile.
“Son of a gun, Shir,” one of the bystanders chimed in.
“Sylvester,” the Madam said, without taking her eyes off of the girl. “What drug have you given to my Shirley?”
“Confidence,” I said. “Just confidence.”
I didn’t get the impression she believed me. Shirley, meanwhile, seemed to be very much enjoying feeling more at ease in her own skin, for what might have been the first time in months. The little smile she wore for the Madam became a more mischievous one.
The Madam folded her arms and fixed Shirley with a pointed look. “Shirley. Lois has been complaining that you’re not keeping your half of the room tidy enough. I won’t endure any more nagging from her because you’re a piglet. I want you to clean up.”
Shirley blushed as she rose from her seat. She started to head to the door, stopped, then reversed course to walk over to me. She bent down and gave me an amazing hug before kissing me on the cheek.
“If only you were older,” she said.
“I’m older than I look,” I said, with a note of hope.
She rolled her eyes a little, then gave me two more quick kisses on the cheek before skipping off. Half of the girls and boys who’d been our audience started to join her. The other half dispersed on their own.
“Don’t go too far from the house!” the Madam raised her voice, “House meeting later!”
I heard distant moans and groans.
Marv and the Madam made their way into the room. Jamie crossed the room to be at my side, taking a seat in the chair that Shirley had been in.
“I should have asked permission before meddling,” I said, to beat her to the punch.
“You should have,” the Madam said. Then she looked over her shoulder, as if to make sure nobody was listening, and added, “But I’m going to give you the benefit of a doubt on this. It was nice to see Shirley happy, even if it proves to be temporary.”
I nodded, somber. Whether it was temporary or the foundation for better things was up to her and luck. Her next few experiences would pave the road ahead.
“The house mother and I were talking,” Marv said, smiling at the Madam’s look of annoyance over the appellation, “Something came up, and I let her know first, so she could decide how to proceed. When she consented, I reached out to you two to ask you to come by. I’d say I’m sorry I was in the bath when you first showed up, but you seem to have kept yourself amused.”
He shot me a smirk, then quickly hid it as the Madam glanced at him.
He reached into a coat pocket and produced a folded paper.
I knew what it was before he’d even fully unfolded it.
“You’re wanted men,” he remarked, handing over the paper.
They used Jamie’s own illustrations from his books to press these posters, I thought. A portrait Jamie had done of himself, and a portrait of me, scratched out in ink. The pictures were relatively small. Paragraphs of information and description followed.
“Traitors to the Crown, one Sylvester Lambsbridge to be delivered as corpse or secure prisoner to any Crown-owned office or jail, one Jamie Lambsbridge to be delivered alive as a secure prisoner to any Crown-owned office or jail,” I read it aloud. “While possessed of no overly extraordinary physical talents or capabilities, these two adolescent males are experienced killers, talented improvisers, and remain devastatingly intelligent in individual, complimentary ways. Devastatingly intelligent. Devastatingly.”
This time it was Jamie’s turn to roll his eyes. “Don’t look so proud of yourself.”
“But I’m devastatingly proud,” I said.
He aimed a kick in my direction, from where he sat in the chair.
“I visited Virgil’s Academy, and I saw this up in the main office, with a whole stack of them yet to be handed around and put up on the wall,” Marv said. “From what I gather, they’re going to start appearing all over the place, in Crown post offices, police stations, at borders…”
“I’m not surprised,” I said. “We expected this sooner or later. We’ll be out of here before there’s any chance of this coming back on you.”
“Thank you,” the Madam said. “I recall you saying you weren’t staying for very long, and that was… some time ago. If your idea of being gone within a few days means staying for two months, I hope that your being gone before there’s trouble isn’t similarly extended.”
“Ah,” I said, a little abashed.
“I haven’t minded having you around,” she said, softening. “But I do need to look after this house and the people in it.”
“I know,” I said. “I understand. Marv’s done patching me together, and I didn’t even plan to come back and hassle you any, except Marv reached out.”
“I owe you favors,” she said. She paused, as if seeming to consider the idea. “I’m not used to owing people favors. But send me a letter, if you need anything.”
Then, in a manner that starkly contrasted her authoritarian streak, she reached over and messed up my hair. “Be safe, Sylvester.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“And Jamie,” she said, reaching over toward Jamie’s head. I saw him wince, preparing for his longer hair to get tousled, but the woman only ran her hand over the top of his head. “Wayward Jamie. I’ve had so many long conversations with my girls and boys, when it comes to you.”
“Ma’am,” Jamie said.
“Find your happiness,” she said.
“I’ll try, ma’am,” he said.
She touched his cheek, as gentle as I’d ever seen her, then retreated, returning to her former demeanor.
That was our cue to go.
“Thanks for the work, Marv,” I said, touching my eye and giving him a salute from there instead of my forehead.
“Thanks for the money, paying customer,” he said, but with a note of humor.
I had to jump a little to get my raincoat off the hook on the wall, and put it over one arm instead of pulling it on. I stepped into my boots, strapped them at two separate places each, and then headed to the door, with Jamie right behind me.
It was raining, but only a droplet, here and there. It made me nostalgic for home. Tynewear was thawing for the imminent spring, and where it had once been softened by snow, it was now blurred around the edges with a light fog. It was evening, and people were out in force, with quite a number heading home from work. Even in one of the nicer of the poorer areas of Tynewear, where the managers of the boatyards and established employees had homes, the people still had nice clothes they could put on and wear as they walked into the heart of the city for dining or entertainment. Jamie and I fit right in among them, wearing our own dark sweaters and raincoats with slacks and polished shoes and boots.
“Given the distance between Virgil’s Academy and Tynewear, and the speed we saw the posters for Fray and some others go up, I’d guess we have three or four days before people see, pass on word, and trouble comes looking for us,” Jamie said.
“Can we put off talking about that and discuss about how I got a ‘be careful’, like I’m some dingbat who is going to run headlong in front of the first knife, open flame, or speeding train I see, and you got a sweet ‘find your happiness’?”
“You are a dingbat who is going to run headlong into the first dangerous situation you see,” Jamie said.
“Ha ha,” I said. “No, seriously.”
“She meets rogues and bastards every single day. She’s used to your sort. But I’m… closer to the likes of Shirley. The sort of person she feels like she can nurture, I suppose?”
“Like Shirley, no, no, I get it,” I said. I turned around so I was walking backward and facing Jamie, swaggering a little, “Are you saying you’re a romantic, Jamie? Shall we get you some revealing clothes like the young men in the Madam’s employ wear? Are you a winsome tart?”
“What?” I asked. “Are you really, now?”
“No, I’m not. And the smile wasn’t supposed to mean anything,” he said.
“Liar!” I declared. I grabbed him by the front of his raincoat, still walking backward, my steps in time with his. He put a hand out and steered me to keep me from walking into a lamp post. “Tell me of the smile, young sir!”
“You seem more at ease than I can remember ever seeing you,” he said. “Not that I have many years of memories.”
I let go of his raincoat. I took a few steps back, intentionally clumsy and heavy, then spun, falling back into step at his side.
“I’ve seen glimpses of it, but it was fleeting. You sleeping, curled up with Lillian when we were in Lugh, actually relaxed. Moments you let your guard down, mid-conversation with the others, before you looked in my direction and a kind of shadow fell over your expression. A weight on your shoulders. Even when you tried to hide it.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. Sorry.”
“No, it’s okay,” he said. “But it’s nice that we’re getting past that? Are we getting past that?”
“We’re getting past that,” I said. “Or- hm.”
“Hm,” he echoed me. Not even making it a question or an effort to pry or to push.
“Just thinking. I don’t want to sound like a dick-”
“Hard to imagine that.”
“-But I don’t know if that shadow will ever entirely go away? I don’t want to leave you hopeful and then hurt, but-
“But but but,” Jamie said.
I raised an eyebrow.
“The old Jamie was your best friend,” he said. “You would be dishonoring him if you didn’t mourn him, if you didn’t remember him?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I guess that sums it up. Strides forward, but I don’t want to promise future strides? And I feel like a monumental dick for saying it, especially when you’ve given everything up to be here and you endure my company every dang day.”
“First of all,” Jamie started.
“You are a monumental dick,” I joined my voice to his, as he said it, even going so far as to match his cadence, then added, “You’re getting so predictable. Can’t pass up an opportunity.”
“And second of all, I came here for me as much as I did it for you,” Jamie said, ignoring me. “They were going to elevate my project. They still want to, looking at those posters. They very definitely want me alive. I don’t know for sure what that would have meant, but in all of the discussions I overheard and everything that came up regarding my project, they never seemed to manage to bring up the idea of my welfare. Nothing about what I wanted, preserving what I felt like I needed to keep. I think about the others, and I don’t know if their situations were any different, but… I talked to Helen. I floated ideas with Lillian and Ashton, testing the waters. I needed to go. They needed to stay.”
I felt a deep pang of loneliness at the thought of the other Lambs.
“Okay,” I said. “And now you’re here, and I’m glad to have you here, thank you, sir-”
“You’re very welcome.”
“-and it looks like we’re moving on.”
“Looks like. As I was saying, three or four days, going by what we’ve seen before. Assuming we even want to leave. I expect the posters will be everywhere.”
“Probably,” I said.
“Are we anticipating the Lambs?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “No, that’s only my gut feeling, but that’s not my instinct. Which is a good thing, because I’m still trying to figure out how to wrap my head around that problem.”
“Are you kidding?” I asked him, incredulous.
I’d caught him off guard. “What? You don’t think we’ll manage?”
“Geez, Jamie,” I said. I shook my head. “We’ll manage. We have to. The fact of the matter is that I can’t go back. I don’t know about you, but I’ll wither and die if I find myself back under the Academy’s thumb. I’m here and I’m free. I don’t go ten straight minutes without missing them so badly it hurts, but… but yeah.”
I trailed off.
But I can breathe, I thought.
Jamie nodded, as if he’d read my mind.
“On the flip side of the coin,” I said. “I don’t think they want to bring us in. The Academy is going to hold a gun to their heads and figure out a way to make them, probably, but deep down? The parts of them that love us, just like we have parts of us that love them? They don’t want to. I’ve probably told you garbage like this before, about survival, wanting to survive versus truly desiring to kill.”
“I remember the conversation. Two, as a matter of fact, and a third where you were saying it to reassure Lillian.”
“Exactly,” I said, nodding sagely. I could just let the past conversations finish off my thought and not worry about concluding it, except to add, “Same idea.”
“And why am I kidding?” Jamie asked me.
“You asked me ‘are you kidding?'”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah. Got off track. No, the Lambs are coming after us, and it’s going to be intense. It’s going to be bittersweet. Mary’s going to be spitting mad and on her A-game, Lillian’s probably going to cry. Helen is nightmare material now that she’s on the other side, and I’m not entirely sure she’s going to hold back at all. Ashton’s… Ashton is going to be interesting. But I’m looking forward to it.”
Jamie shot me a look. Very ‘are you crazy?’
“I’m looking forward to seeing them,” I said, wistful. “Even if it’s them on the other side of a battlefield.”
“You’re a bizarre creature, Sy.”
I perked up, “That reminds me, did you notice? Did you see, on the poster?”
“I remember the poster verbatim,” he said, sounding very tired.
“Sylvester Lambsbridge. They named me after the orphanage. I have a last name.”
Jamie made a so-so gesture. “It’s not a very good last name, and we’re sharing it.”
“But it’s a name, and it almost sounds dignified, taken in isolation. And we probably share it with the others, except Mary, I guess. I never knew I wanted one, but they must have felt it looked like they were giving incomplete information if they left us without last names, so-”
“I get it, Sy.”
“I have a last name,” I said.
“You are in a good mood. Does that mood have anything to do with a leggy, dark-haired young lady who gave you several kisses on the cheek, back there?”
“Ha,” I said. “Only because it felt like a good deed. She said she’s too old for me. Girls my age are intimidated and have trouble keeping up. Older girls can keep up with my… dangit, what was the word?”
“Devastating,” Jamie said, sounding even more tired.
“Devastating intellect,” I said, grinning. “And they have the sense to be intrigued-”
“The sense to be intrigued. What a way of putting it.”
“Stop interrupting me, you dingbat! But they deem themselves too old for me. I’m stuck in a middle ground.”
“I suspect we’re doomed to tragic love lives, Sy,” Jamie said. “You, me, and the other master and miss Lambsbridges.”
“Agreed,” I said, smiling at the last part of what he said.
We reached the end of the sidewalk, and paused as we approached a procession on the road.
Soldiers, men and the occasional woman in uniform, carriages, and wagons with supplies consisting largely of lengths of wood.
My first thought was to wonder if somehow they had decided to mobilize the army to hunt down me and Jamie, which would have been an incredible puzzle to work our way through, but the focus was elsewhere. They were moving out of the city.
I craned my head, looking around.
“What’s going on?” Jamie asked a bystander.
The bystander, a man with a thin-trimmed mustache and a fine black raincoat, intoned the word. “Quarantine.”
“Quarantine,” I said, taking it in. “Oh… Oh wow. Dang.”
“Dang indeed,” the man said, with a trace of irony. “Food prices are going to skyrocket, and things are going to become massively inconvenient for the next couple of weeks, until they’re sure they have a handle on this.”
So much for making a tidy exit from Tynewear.
“What are they trying to get a handle on?” Jamie asked.
“The stupidest little thing,” the man said. “Some of the waterborne warbeasts they sent out to feed came back home with a skin problem. It proved contagious, handlers got it, it spread from there before they locked down. A few more people around the city are confined to their homes, because of it. All for a prickly red rash.”
“Huh,” I said.
Something told me the wanted posters would be circulated through the city before the quarantine was lifted.
Academy city, too. Their quarantines were going to be top-notch, now that I thought about it.
I looked at Jamie, before repeating myself, “Huh.”