The three recruits climbed out of the carriage to join Duncan and Ashton. Duncan squared his shoulders, straightened his shirt, and looked around, taking it all in. His pets remained at his side, harnessed, with chain leashes extending from the harnesses to Duncan’s hand.
Abby watched and waited, her companions on either side of her. Ashton looked back at them and smiled reassuringly.
“I should have known,” Duncan said. “I haven’t really worked with Sylvester or Jamie, mind you, but I should have known. It looks like a good share of this city burned down in the last few days.”
The other girl, enshrouded in a hooded shirt with overlong sleeves, fidgeted nervously, then turned around as if she was going to walk away, before turning around again. Ashton went straight to her, clasping the extra length of sleeve in his hands as someone else might clasp hands.
“It’s okay, Lara,” Ashton said.
He had to move his head to peer beneath the hood, even though they were the same height. Abby emulated him, matching the tilt of his head. Crammed within each of Lara’s eyes were several lesser eyes, two visible, the other two only really visible when she opened her eyes wider, for eight smaller eyes in total. Individual pupils dilated to very different extents, each surrounded by gray concentric rings.
Ashton drew in a deep breath and then sighed. “I know you don’t like new places, and all of this travel has been hard, but we’re close, and they won’t hurt you. They absolutely can’t and won’t.”
Duncan surreptitiously glanced at the back of his hand. He did that when Ashton was making spores, and sometimes when Ashton wasn’t. Abby tried to pay more attention to Duncan, because Duncan was in charge. There was a hierarchy and in the here and now Duncan was the one to listen to.
He looked concerned. He gave Ashton a curious look.
“Lara?” Duncan asked, raising his free hand to cover his mouth as he spoke. They were supposed to do that when they thought that Sylvester might be watching. Sylvester could read lips. Abby did too, but it was because she understood the mouth movements better than the sounds.
“She needs a name,” Ashton said, moving his hand to his mouth to cover it. All the mouth-covering made Abby restless.
“We were explicitly ordered not to name it.”
“I know. I’m disobeying orders,” Ashton said. “I have been for weeks now.”
Duncan held back frustration, then worked through it before responding, “Why would you do that?”
“She needed a name,” Ashton said, simply.
“So I gathered,” Duncan said. Patience. “Why are you revealing this secret name now?”
“Because,” Ashton said, “It’s stupid to not have anything to call her when we might need to say a lot very quickly.”
Again, the barely-withheld frustration on Duncan’s part.
“And because by letting you know now, you’re more likely to let it go because we need to focus on more important things,” Ashton said. Beside him, ‘Lara’ had stopped fidgeting so noticeably. Ashton’s spores were working.
“Are you actually being shrewd?” Duncan asked.
“No,” Ashton said. “Helen and I talked about it and she suggested it.”
“I see,” Duncan said. He made a face, looking at the group of four. “I suppose she’s right. I’ll have to let it go.”
Ashton nodded. He squeezed Lara’s sleeve, swinging his arm a little.
“But why call it Lara?”
“Because they called her a larval form and if you take the ‘v’ out of larva then Lara,” Ashton said.
“Ah,” Duncan said. He looked at Lara. “Lara?”
Lara’s head barely moved beneath her hood. A faint nod.
Duncan moved his hand from his mouth to her hooded head, giving it a pat. “Alright. We should go. Grab your bags. Emmett, if you could take mine, it would be appreciated.”
Emmett gave him a nod in response. The boy had the build of a stocky fourteen year old and the face of an eight year old. He was only slightly shorter than Duncan, who was three years his senior.
“Follow,” Duncan ordered, leading the way off the main road.
All of the buildings were pale stone traced with curling branches. There were lawns and gardens, but in many the grass had wilted a little. In others, there were pebbles and stones laid out to take up a portion of the yard, set so that rainwater would collect on the grass. Those yards were the healthier ones.
Not so many trees. Abby liked birds and squirrels and some of the Academy-made things that sometimes lurked in the trees. She missed home, a little. Back at Sous Reine, she had slept in a lab and the lab had had a window, and she would spend hours at a time watching the things in the trees and how they moved. She had been on this world for eleven years, growing at the same rate a human did, and she had learned to identify every last one of the squirrels and birds who visited the trees, who their parents were, where they nested, and how they acted.
Over the course of this journey, going from city to city with no explanation about why, she sometimes thought about the birds and squirrels and she would feel her brain go dark and would have fits. Ashton would come into her room, calm her down and in their own, strange way, communicating despite their very different brains and perspectives, he would guide her through the experience. Other times, when she judged that he was in a good mood, she would go to Duncan and seek the more rational, scientific explanation. She’d done it after having the fits the second time around.
His explanation was that her brain was different, very like a human’s, but with more of some things and less of others, and there were a few parts that didn’t work like they should. When she experienced strong emotion, she had seizures. He’d called the sensation ‘feelings’, but she preferred ‘experience’, because it wasn’t so much something that she could touch as a room she seemed to pass through.
So, with all of that taken into account, she had stopped thinking about the birds and the squirrels, even though that made the experience even worse somehow, and had tried to watch for other things to pay attention to instead.
Duncan’s animals weren’t that interesting. They didn’t have much personality. No heads, no brains.
No, she couldn’t see much of anything, or hear much of anything. She sniffed the air-
“Smoke,” Abby piped up.
“Mm hmm,” Duncan agreed. “Probably set the fires to distract so they could blow up the train station. I’m not sure why. I would be happy-”
He paused to move his hand to his mouth, feigning a bit of a scratch of his cheek, while glancing quickly at nearby windows and alleyways.
“-to have a conversation with the other Lambs and touch base.”
Lara turned her head to him. The hood hid her eyes.
He reached out and gave her head another pat. “Soon, Lara.”
Abby scrunched up her nose at the lingering smoke smell.
“When we get to Radham,” Ashton said, to nobody in particular, “We can spend more time with the others. We can teach you all things, like the gestures. There’s something nice about being part of a group.”
“They aren’t part of the Lambs project, Ashton,” Duncan corrected.
“I know. But that doesn’t mean we can’t spend time together and talk. We can all make each other stronger and better.”
Duncan narrowed his eyes a little, thinking. “Mary.”
“What?” Ashton asked.
“Mary said that, I’m guessing.”
“No, I said it,” Ashton said.
“Mary probably said that about the Lambs making each other better and stronger, and you heard it, and you just repeated it.”
“Yes,” Duncan said. He sighed.
“Emmett can get stronger and Lara can become braver, and Abby can get fixed so she actually works.”
Duncan looked at Abby. Checking to see if she minded. She didn’t.
She had met the other Lambs, and Lillian had explained the situation, sitting with Abby and her makers. The Headmaster of Radham Academy was looking for experiments of a certain sort, and while the Lambs project had spent the last little while going here and there to look for two of their own, they would sometimes collect one of the projects that fit. Lara was one, Emmett was sort of one, and Abby had been the last to be collected, weeks ago, even though Abby wasn’t a successful project. The only reason she was being raised to maturity was the Sous Reine’s ethics board and the possibility that she might develop the talents she was supposed to manifest at birth.
And now, with her inclusion in this odd group, she was the so-called ticket for her creators to have a better funded lab at Radham.
There wasn’t to be much danger, they were mostly meant to act as decoys. This group would go ahead, checking ahead and drawing attention, while the other group with Lillian, Mary, and Helen stayed behind. Abby knew she was here because of the way she looked more than because she was anything special. Black hair in long braids, her features distorted, her teeth wrong. Because she was the right age, and she was just obviously enough an experiment.
“I don’t think I’ll get braver,” Lara commented. Her bag was the lightest, despite her wearing the most clothes, as a general rule. The strap of the bag disappeared inside the sleeve that hid her hand.
“But you’ll get bigger, and more dangerous,” Ashton said.
“I’ll pupate, and then I’ll change, but I don’t think I’ll be any braver,” Lara said.
“No pupating until we’re secure within Radham,” Duncan said.
“I know,” Lara said.
They had to cross an intersection of side streets. Duncan stopped at the corner, looking around. Abby mimed him, because she was good at miming people. Still, she wasn’t used to cities. Academie Sous Reine had been surrounded by acres of farmland, all of it experimental crops and forms of cattle that had been experimented on. It had been great plains of one crop or another, or grassland dotted with animals, and trees, and green, punctuated by great wooden buildings.
At the memory, she felt herself pass into the dark room, where a pressure pressed in on her and threatened to send her into fits.
Ashton seized her hand. She was surprised enough that she forgot to feign surprise.
He was pushing out calm. She closed her eyes, breathing deep.
With some concentration and Ashton’s help, she was able to turn her thoughts away. The city was different. There were more details to pay attention to. More windows, any of which could have harbored their quarry.
Across the street, an animal bleated. Abby stood on her tiptoes, looking to see.
She couldn’t see it, but she could see the people. The way their heads turned, the expressions-
“Coast is clear, I think,” Duncan said. “We should go.”
He flicked the leashes. His pets started to move.
“Um,” Abby jumped in.
“What?” Duncan asked, stopping short. The leashes jerked tight against the harnesses.
“I asked around. There’s a lot of farmland around the perimeter of the town,” Duncan said. “They hold regular farmer’s markets. Bleating isn’t unusual.”
“But people are acting like it’s unusual,” Abby said. She pointed at the crowd, then wasn’t sure what to point to, exactly, and let her hand drop.
“I think it’s best to stick to the game plan that Mary and Lillian outlined for us,” Duncan said. “No distractions.”
There was another bleat.
Abby broke away from the group, heading straight for the sound.
A hand grasped at her shoulder, then seized one of her braids instead. Her head was yanked, and she felt an awful pain at that. She squeezed her eyes shut, her mind and body hurled into a room that was unpleasant and throbbing.
“Shoot, sorry!” Duncan said, letting go of her hair.
Ashton reached for her, and she swatted at his hand, turning her face away. She swiped at the air between Duncan’s hand and her braid. Off to the side, Emmett had stepped in, shoving Duncan against the wall, separating the two of them.
“Sorry. I am very, very sorry,” Duncan said. “I legitimately didn’t mean to do that. I meant to grab your shoulder.”
Abby hunkered down, shoulders forward, eyes screwed shut. She wanted the pain to go away, and to leave that pulsating red room that she wasn’t really in well behind her. But, paradoxically, she held her breath, because she didn’t want Ashton to be the one who dragged her out of the room.
“Sorry,” Duncan said, his voice softer. “I won’t grab at you again, okay?”
Abby nodded. She opened her eyes, found them watery, and then squeezed her eyes shut again, the moisture squeezed out and onto her cheeks.
She felt a hand on her back and flinched. But it was a big hand, and a gentle one. Emmett. She nodded again, and the hand rubbed her back.
“We’ll take a detour, okay?” Duncan asked. “Go investigate? But we’ll do it as a group. We can’t run off and get split up.”
Abby nodded. She opened her eyes.
“Good,” Duncan said. “We’ll go directly there in just a minute.”
There were people in the street that were now staring. In the background, there was another bleat.
“Not to sound callous, but I do wonder if Sylvester and Jamie saw that, and what they made of it,” Duncan said, looking out beyond the buildings and street for vantage points that their quarry might be watching from.
Abby rocked a little with the motion of Emmett’s rubbing of her back. She eventually raised a hand, and gently moved his hand away.
Her voice was only barely a whisper to Emmett, inaudible to Duncan, “Don’t hurt him.”
She turned to look at Ashton and Lara, who were standing together. Lara reached out, using a hand that had cloth draped over it, and dabbed at Abby’s tears. The now-faintly-moist cloth went into Lara’s mouth to be sucked at.
“Okay,” Duncan said. He glanced back to verify everyone was with him. “We’ll investigate.”
They moved as a group, heading across the street, weaving past people and wagons.
Their target was hard to reach, because a crowd had gathered around it.
“Excuse me,” Duncan said, pushing through the crowd, his two animals helping spook people into moving out of his way. Emmett made use of the opening Duncan had created by wedging himself into it, then using his arms and body to help provide a path for the other three members of the group. Ashton, Lara, and Abby were all about the same height, and moved in single file.
It bleated again. White and wooly. A lamb, but not the sort they sought. It had been left here, leashed to a parked wagon.
“This yours?” someone asked.
“It’s not mine,” Duncan said. “But it might belong to someone I know.”
“You sure? Why? Ran off, he did.”
Duncan raised his head, his interest piqued. “A boy with wild dark hair?”
“A giant rabbit,” someone commented. Another person, Abby saw, nodded in agreement at that.
“Of course it was,” Duncan said. He heaved out a sigh. “That makes enough sense to me.”
“You know what this is about, then?” a bystander asked.
“A prank, if anything,” Duncan said.
The explanation seemed to serve. The crowd dispersed, the mystery solved.
Duncan looked back at the group. “He’s already a step ahead of us, it seems.”
“Mary said he would be,” Ashton said.
“Emmett, would you?” Duncan asked, while holding the leashes for his pets out for Emmett to take. There was no expectation that Emmett might say no.
Emmett didn’t say no. He took the leashes, and Duncan stooped down over the bleating lamb, searching it. He came away with a folded paper.
“Ah,” he said. “A dire warning.”
Abby stood on her toes again, craning her head to try to read and to see the lamb better with Duncan in the way.
“Oh,” Duncan said, on seeing her straining. He stood, holding the paper. “The local gangs are apparently very upset, after some very targeted instances of arson. Sylvester thought it diplomatic to warn us that we should watch our backs, in case there was trouble. He wants us to know he was expecting the other Lambs, not us, he’s sorry, he doesn’t want to put us in danger, so he’ll be actively steering trouble away from us, best he can.”
“That sounds like Sylvester,” Ashton said. He reached over to squeeze Lara’s sleeve and arm more. “Don’t worry. We’re still okay.”
Duncan stared down at the note, frowning deeply. Abby watched his expression carefully.
“We’ll touch base,” Duncan said, covering his mouth, “Talk to the other Lambs. We should find a good place to do it.”
“A high place,” Lara said.
“Yeah,” Duncan said. “I think I saw a place we could use a little bit further on.”
He turned to go, expecting the others to follow. They did, but as Abby turned away, her attention and hands reaching for the little white lamb, the others hung back. Ashton spoke, “Duncan.”
“What? Oh. Abby, come on.”
Stubborn, ignoring him, Abby worked to untie the leash from the wagon.
“Abby. Listen. We can’t take that with us.”
“Bleeaah,” the lamb bleated.
“Bleeaah,” Abby bleated back. She was good at animal sounds. She reached out, and the lamb nuzzled at her hands and forearms.
“Emmett, would you please get Abby standing and keep her with us?” Duncan asked.
Before Emmett could move, Ashton spoke, “You hurt her.”
“I did. I still feel bad about it.”
“Make it up to her,” Ashton said. “That’s how one of the longer Good Simon stories might end.”
Duncan lowered his head, pinching the bridge of his nose between two fingers.
“You want to be a good person, don’t you?” Ashton asked.
“Life isn’t a storybook, Ashton.”
“You’re right,” Ashton said, then continued with his relentless attack, “But wouldn’t it be nice if it was?”
Abby tried to shut her ears to the ongoing conversation. She lowered her face to meet the little lamb’s and nuzzled it. The room she felt herself passing into was bright and made the world lighter and warmer, and a lot of that warmth reached deep into the center of her chest, to the point she almost worried she might have fits. She tried to put it out of her mind while enjoying the presence and the smell and the movement and the warmth of another living creature. She rocked side to side a little as the lamb rubbed its face against her neck and shoulder, then tried to bite her braid.
“I think it would be a horrid and thrice-lanced pain in the ass if life was a storybook, honestly,” Duncan said.
“Lillian says that good things are never easy,” Ashton said.
Duncan let out a long and drawn out groan.
“Bleeeh,” Abby bleated.
“Bleaa!” the lamb responded.
She shut her eyes, trying to capture the moment in her memories.
Duncan spoke, “You’ll have your own team, Duncan. Ashton likes you and cooperates with you, so you can keep him with you, Duncan. You’ll be able to show off your leadership skills, Duncan. There won’t be as much friction.”
“That’s a yes?” Ashton asked.
“Yes,” Duncan said, tersely. “Yes. Abby. You can bring the damned thing.”
Abby gave the lamb a scratch behind the ears and along the neck before standing, her dress flouncing with the movement. She bumped the lamb with her leg, to let it know where she was, and then tugged the rope leash. It resisted at first, but after she offered it a scratch of the neck and retreated, it followed. With only a little more guidance, it moved happily at her side.
Duncan looked particularly sour as he looked back at her and the lamb, walking between Emmett and Ashton.
“Bell tower,” Duncan said, pointing. “Old watchtower, I think? If we can get inside, we can head up.”
“Okay,” Ashton responded.
It was seemingly true that the city had more farmers and people with animals, because the only strange looks they got were the usual ones, reserved for a boy too big and strong for his age, for hooded Lara, and for Abby, who was put together in an odd way. If anything, she got less strange looks than usual as she walked briskly along the trotting lamb.
All of the lingering bad experiences from earlier had dissipated with this. She’d harbored some worries when thinking about their quarry, before. The way that Lillian and Mary and some of the Doctors had talked about Sylvester and Jamie, the concern, the way that everything became so complicated, it had been like she was in a room where she was flailing, trying to get her balance but with nothing in arm’s reach to hold on to, or in a deep place with the surface too far away.
But they had somehow given her a gift, and now she still felt like she couldn’t quite figure these two people out, but maybe they weren’t all bad? She was warm inside, and tomorrow might hold more moments like this, not more minutes and miles spent away from the place she knew.
“Smile,” Ashton said.
Abby looked over.
“When you’re feeling good, you should smile.”
Abby smiled as best as she could, with her strange teeth.
Ashton smiled back, reached out to squeeze her hand once, then let go.
They reached the tower. The building ended up being occupied by Crown forces, but that ended up a positive, because Duncan was able to show some identification. The soldiers stood by, staring curiously as the group went up the stairs.
It was extra positive because the soldiers would guard the ground floor. There were reasons for being up high, and one was that it made it very hard for them to be listened to.
Once they’d reached the top and Duncan passed on some instructions and a note, the guards up top passed downstairs. Duncan tied up his animals and headed to the railing. He walked around the perimeter of the towertop, looking down at nearby rooftops and buildings.
“Lara,” he said.
Lara nodded, then settled down onto the floor. She hunched over, then cocked her head this way and that.
“Bleeaah!” the lamb bleated.
Abby settled on the floor as well. Emmett sat beside her, and reached out to give the animal a pat.
After a moment’s consideration, Abby handed the animal over, helping to get it settled so it was lying in Emmett’s lap. He cupped his hands around it to help keep it in place.
And, because it made sense on a strange level, she gave Emmett’s back a rub while he enjoyed having the animal there.
“Okay,” Lara said.
“Yes?” Duncan asked. He smiled. “Great! Lillian? Mary?”
There was a pause.
“Lillian: We’re here, Duncan,” Lara said.
“Excellent! We’re currently at the northwest watchtower. Arrived more or less without incident, but he’s already on us. He dropped off a warning and an… inadvertent present.”
“Helen: Ooh, present!” Lara said, mimicking the inflection in a stilted way.
“A lamb. Because he apparently thinks he’s funny,” Duncan said. “Abby took an immediate liking to it.”
“Helen: Awww. Mary: What was the warning?”
“A note. He started a gang war. There are thugs around who would be very happy to get their hands on anyone young and vulnerable, with special mention for any Lambs. Set fire to their headquarters and baited them out.”
“Lillian: Of course he did,” Lara reported.
“He promised protection for our group, because he thought it would be you who turned up, and that you could handle it, albeit with some distraction.”
“Charmer,” Duncan echoed. “I wanted to let you know we’re situated, and we’ll be moving out. It’s getting late, and it’s getting considerably darker. We’ll probably roam a bit, eat, figure out how to get our new pet fed, and then get settled.”
The lamb bleated.
“Lillian and the others are laughing because I transcribed the animal’s noise after giving them your message,” Lara said. She stopped abruptly, turning her head a little, then said, “Lillian: I’m crying.”
Abby saw a smile pass over Duncan’s face.
“Mary: we’re in the city too, but we’re staying out of sight for now. Your plan sounds good. Stay on course. We’ll try to find an angle to get at him.”
“Thank you, Mary.”
“Mary: We’ll be getting our dinner now, so good night for now.”
“Good night,” Duncan said.
“Helen: Baaaaa. And they’re laughing again. Now they’re gone.”
Duncan smiled at that. He gave Lara a pat on the shoulder, stood, and crossed over to where Abby and Emmett sat. He bent down and gave a light stroke to the side of the now-sleeping lamb.
“Thank you,” he said. “For making them laugh. It’s been a tense few months of trying to track those two.”
“It can’t understand you,” Ashton pointed out.
“I know, you pedant,” Duncan said. He straightened, stretching. “What do you guys say about some dinner?”
Nobody in the group was going to say no to that. Duncan gave Lara a hand in standing, then did the same for Abby. Abby remained virtually glued to Emmett’s side as the boy held the sleeping lamb cradled in his hands and arms. The smile Ashton had encouraged earlier didn’t leave her face.
They headed down the stairs.
They were a short distance from the ground floor when they heard the faint murmur.
Duncan stopped in his tracks.
“No,” he said, after a moment. “No. That mother-cunting little bastard. He didn’t, no.”
The murmuring grew more distinct as they got closer to the ground floor of the tower.
“Sir,” Duncan greeted the captain in charge of the tower. “Is that what I think it is?”
“I have to imagine so?” the captain answered, sounding unsure. “Bizarre.”
“Yes,” Duncan said. “I imagine so. At least we know we have his attention, so we’re doing our job as proper bait.”
“The most curious thing-”
“Was the giant rabbit?” Duncan asked.
“The rabbit man,” the captain confirmed.
Duncan set his jaw, glanced back at Abby with a hostile, deeply annoyed look, then pushed open the door to the tower. The rest of the group was quick to follow.
Three young lambs and one chicken were tied up at different points outside the front of the tower.
Abby felt the warm and air-light room warm up even more, the lightness becoming a fluttering feeling that might even buoy her into the air. Her smile widened.
“No!” Duncan said, pointing at her. “No. One pet. One.”
The feeling dissipated a little. Some of it lingered, however. The smile remained on Abby’s face.
“He thinks he’s funny,” Ashton said, echoing Duncan from earlier. Duncan glared daggers at the little red-haired boy.
“It’s a little funny,” Emmett said.