There was a knock on the door of the automobile. Helen was the one to open the door. Lillian waited for Nora, Lacey and Mary to climb out before she made her way out.
Immediately, her focus was on her surroundings. The corners of the garage they had pulled into, the little windows that looked in from the top of the double-doored gate and from the rear of the room. It was dark enough she couldn’t see clearly, but the gleams of reflected light from outside and from the open door in front of her made her momentarily think she’d seen Sylvester’s face or the lenses of Jamie’s glasses.
The Academy officer who had knocked on the automobile’s door now closed that same door. He stared down at her as if she’d somehow wronged him. It reminded her of her dad, and the expression he’d worn when, so soon after they’d left the Academy, her parents had been intercepted and sent back to sit in while she was interrogated about Sylvester’s disappearance.
He hadn’t believed her. If anything, her father had believed her less than the Academy interrogators had. Maybe that was her own bias, her fears and her disappointment in her father coloring her perceptions.
She quickly retreated from the dark garage and the officer’s expression, entering the building and closing the door behind her. Lacey was talking to a very attractive forty-something man in fine clothing that was nonetheless drab in color. He had black hair going gray at the temples and a shrewd expression. Even though it was later in the evening and he had bags under his eyes speaking to a long day, his eyes were clever and focused as he talked to Lacey. He looked like the sort of man who shaved twice a day just to banish the possibility of a five o’clock shadow, and who likely had his hair trimmed once a week. Very possibly the owner of this spacious home.
The officer from the garage passed her, carrying their bags into the house.
With Lacey arranging their accommodations and everything calm for the moment, Lillian felt it safe to simply retreat back, lean against the wall by the door, and close her eyes, holding her hand firmly against her heart. It was pounding, despite the fact that things were as quiet as they were.
Her recent thoughts of her dad were part of it. It reminded her of dealing with her parents, so soon after Sylvester had told her that they had betrayed her. That they had, after pushing her her entire life, cut her down before she reached her goal. Tried to keep her black coat from her.
Those days and hours after Sylvester had left had been filled with so much doubt, they had been so hard. She hadn’t been able to think about recent events without wanting to break down into sobs, hadn’t known what the future held in store. Past and future effectively baited with pitfalls and doubt.
It might have been something she could have handled better if she had known who to trust, which shoulders she could lean on. Sylvester’s words, as much as she believed them, had to be analyzed, second-guessed, so she hadn’t even been sure if her parents were the traitors he’d so casually painted them as. Mary had been gone, Helen in Ibbot’s custody, Ashton not available, and Jamie hadn’t been around for long before he’d bolted too.
The interrogation had involved injections of drugs that made her emotional, drugs that made words tumble more freely from her lips, and drugs that made it hard to keep track of what she was saying, the memories disappearing to the abyss of hour-long blackouts, so she couldn’t be sure she wasn’t contradicting something else she had said in the midst of those lost memories.
Two days and two nights of questioning with different investigators taking turns, each one focusing on different things. She had already been emotionally drained by the loss of Sylvester alone, but everything else on top of it- if it hadn’t been for the lingering effects of the Wyvern dose that gave her the ability to maintain some control her own feelings and her thought processes, she might have succumbed.
What that might have looked like, she wasn’t sure. It might have been coming to the conclusion that Sylvester had lied to her about her parents, just so she could hug her mom and talk civilly to her father. It might have been allowing herself to slip, allowing a mistake or a lie to become apparent, so that the unrelenting pressure could stop.
‘Succumbing’ might have been allowing herself to come to hate the Academy and what it was doing to her.
She felt hands envelop her own, which were still gripped together, pressed over her heart. Her first thought, against all logic, was Sylvester.
It was Mary.
“I would have given you a hug, but you’re leaning against the wall,” Mary murmured.
Lillian moved away from the wall, hugging Mary, who hugged her back.
“Are you okay?” Mary asked. “Your heart is racing.”
“I can’t seem to calm down,” Lillian said.
“Fear? Excitement? Both are okay,” Mary said.
“It’s both,” Lillian murmured.
Mary didn’t answer, but nodded. She pulled away from the hug, taking Lillian’s hands and holding both as she leaned against the wall beside Lillian, their arms a kind of overlapping tangle in front of them.
Helen stood a short distance away, smiling at them, placid and calm in a way that Lillian wasn’t at all. Nora stood with her back against Helen’s front. The little girl had her hood pulled down, which was normal, while Helen played with the long sleeves that hid her hands. In the process, Helen moved the little girl’s arms this way and that, in a kind of dance that didn’t use the head, body, or legs.
“Lillian?” Lacey asked.
“Mm?” Lillian raised her head, focusing on the present. She broke away from Mary and approached. “What’s going on?”
“This is Professor Johannes Mistry. He’s-”
“-The headmaster of Corinth Crown Academy and Laboratories,” Lillian finished, realizing. She stepped forward, taking the man’s hand just as he started to extend it. Too quick, perhaps; her thoughts and timing were befuddled by the humiliating awareness that the man had no doubt seen her hugging Mary and holding Mary’s hands. It was a childlike thing to be doing in front of someone respected and prominent.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, headmaster,” she said, clasping his hand in her own and offering him a short curtsy.
“And I you,” the man replied. “Your old mentor is making waves, you know. I can respect a man who anticipates a need and is prepared to meet it as it first arises. People are paying attention to what he’s doing and the moves he’s been making behind the scenes… and I know you two had a hand in one of his projects.”
Lillian managed a smile, curtsying again, as she glanced at Lacey. “We were, headmaster.”
“But for a girl as capable as you, sixteen or seventeen years old, to look at you, someone mentored by Headmaster Hayle, I find myself wondering why you would need a chaperone.”
“Ah,” Lacey said, “I can explain that, sir. I’m not quite a chaperone. I’m here in the capacity of an expert. I worked on one of the projects we’re hunting now.”
“The same individual who is responsible for a third of my Academy being caught up in a fire?”
“The very same, I regret to say,” Lacey said.
“I see,” the man said, his eyes and chin dropping a fraction. For a moment, the circles under his eyes seemed deeper, he seemed more tired, and a darker emotion like frustration or anger seemed about to erupt. Then he changed the angle of his head, looking up at Lacey once more, and the light hit the circles under his eyes and the lines of his face in a different way, and the emotion was gone. There was no eruption.
Lillian momentarily wished she could see the world through Sylvester’s eyes and know whether the man really was angry and good at bottling it in, or if it was a trick of the mind.
She wished, in a way, that she had the talent Duncan had when it came to gauging when and where to call for favors, because she had an idea of what was going to come up in the conversation.
“I worry he’s going to act again, and I’m not equipped to handle it if he does.”
Okay, that wasn’t quite what I had in mind, Lillian thought. An admission of weakness.
These wheelings and dealings could be so difficult sometimes. It took work to stay on top of things.
“I won’t lie to you,” Lacey said, firm, “It’s likely he will. It’s our hope that we’ll be in place to stop him when he does. Or that he’ll be distracted enough by our presence that he isn’t any further trouble to you.”
Well done, Lillian thought. It sounded like the words that she would have wanted to say, but that was meaningless in retrospect.
“What resources do you need? My hands are partially tied what with the fire damage, but I’d like to help.”
There it was. Lillian had expected the offer. She also knew that there was a kind of game to the political dealings. What had Duncan called it? Double trouble. Take a favor from the wrong person and you could be expected to give up twice the number of favors in interest.
This was his wheelhouse she was in, while he was busy immersing himself in hers.
Still, she told herself that she had to learn sometime.
“You’ve already given us a great deal of help,” Lillian said.
She wasn’t wholly certain of that statement, but it was ambiguous enough, and she was reasonably certain that he was the one who was providing a place for them to stay for the night.
“Providing you with rooms, a bath, a base of operations, and a few meals is the bare minimum,” the man said. “I would be indebted if I could do something more substantial to help.”
That wording meant she was safe from the trap. The sharp look in his eyes reminded her of Sylvester, a little. A tacit acknowledgement of the game they were playing. Her response had been just right, stopping short of seizing on the favor. His response had been something of a wink and a nod of that fact.
She liked him a little more, seeing that, and then the feeling got into a blurry space, and she felt a little gross about liking an old man in one of the same ways she liked Sylvester.
“There’s a list of chemicals. Some are used in the modified study drug that Sylvester takes. Some are hard to obtain on their own. It’s a shot in the dark, but he might use the fire and the chaos at your Academy to obtain a batch. If he can’t find the drug itself.”
“What chemicals?” the headmaster asked her.
“I can write them down,” Lillian said. She reached for the pen she kept in her pocket.
“Say them. I’ll remember.”
Lillian turned to Lacey, who immediately recited, “Ifosfamide, carmustine, felotane, venenum A through G, I, N through P, and T.”
“That’s familiar enough. Depending on other ingredients and ratios, could include the combat drug Cicuta?” the headmaster asked. “Or C-G Temero?”
“Wyvern,” Lacey said. “Modified, and in high P-concentration, for Sylvester’s project.”
“Ah. I’ve used that regularly enough, often with other drugs to dull the pain after injection,” the man said. “Should I have my people look for any stolen pain medications? I’d imagine he’d have some dependencies.”
“None,” Lillian said. “The P-concentration is too high. He took doses high enough that nothing would put a dent in it, from the beginning to the present.”
The headmaster nodded, seemed to consider for a moment, then shook his head a fraction. “I could almost bring myself to feel some sympathy for him. Almost. He did burn down a lot of my Academy.”
Almost sympathetic, Lillian agreed. It was a good summary of her own feelings at this point in time.
“Still, I half expected losses to war, but the worst of the war didn’t reach this far west. Lugh, yes, but that’s further north. Some rebel groups recruited, but nothing significant. Then there was the plague, and I expected the worst. Dodged that bullet. I was bracing myself for something, so I’m not as shocked or bothered as I might be.”
“Yes sir,” Lillian said. She wasn’t sure how else to respond.
“Aggregate?” the headmaster asked.
“None,” Lillian said, then she reversed course, “Sorry, no, not none. He would have picked some up at any one of the last few stops he made. But the ingredients we listed off are controlled substances-”
“-And several of them are only available by way of doctors with a specific focus or level of access. And I and many of my personnel are a rare concentration of such.”
“Yes, headmaster,” Lillian said. “If I could ask, we heard tell of a gang war in the city?”
“Yes,” the headmaster said. He frowned. “The spark of that particular war was started and ignited by your quarry, the young man. I can tell you what I know.”
Mary, Helen, and Nora had drawn nearer. Helen had her arms around Nora’s shoulders.
The Apostle’s men, the dominant gang, had been beheaded. The underground drug runners, led by a matriarchal succession of leaders, each of whom were dubbed ‘the Witch’, had seen its leader drowned in a chemical vat. The Witch’s drugs had been used to mount a chemical attack on a district, capping off a night of murder and arson. All of which paved the way for the explosion at the train station.
There were others, all small players. The Barren, who were a rebel splinter group of Cynthia’s, the Devil’s Men, the Bergewall Neddies, and the Skippers. Some had been caught up in Sy’s murdering spree.
“That helps, thank you, headmaster,” Lillian said. “Just getting the lay of the land from someone who lives here.”
The man smiled, gesturing as if tipping his hat. Lillian smiled back.
“Can I ask about the missing children?” Mary asked.
“Missing? Some have been evacuated or taken somewhere safe. The ones without anyone to look after them are running for the hills. Your quarry is likely responsible for that particular instance.”
“Sylvester?” Lillian asked. She looked at Lacey, then back to the headmaster Mistry. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t fit his character.”
“Keeping in mind that I have a very low esteem for his character,” Lacey said, “I have to agree. He doesn’t have anything against children.”
“From what I understand, it’s his eagerness to protect children that drew the ire of the collected gangs, with the Apostle heading the aggressive stance,” the headmaster said.
“That’s… not impossible,” Lillian allowed. “But he’s more mindful of long-term strategy than that.”
“I don’t know enough to say,” the headmaster said, “But people change. People on heavy loads of experimental drugs can shift in personality.”
Lillian nodded. The idea of Sylvester changing like that scared her more than she wanted to admit, but she wasn’t sure she could bring herself to believe it. Still, she wasn’t about to argue the point with the headmaster.
“I’ll keep that in mind, headmaster,” she said, “and I’ll hope there’s another explanation.”
Mary spoke up, “If he’s changed that much, he might be that much harder to catch, and that much more dangerous.”
“Very true,” Headmaster Mistry agreed. “Though hard to imagine, considering the chaos he managed to inflict on this city.”
The collected Lambs nodded their heads.
“Have you eaten?” the man asked.
“We ate on the road, headmaster,” Lacey said.
“We’d like to drop off our things, if it’s no trouble, we’ll rest for the night, and get underway tomorrow. We have friends who are busy elsewhere.”
“If you’re sure,” the man said.
“Your rooms are just around the hall. One of you will have to sleep on the cot I had the maid lay out, I’m afraid. There are only four guest beds.”
“We’ve slept in worse spots, headmaster,” Lillian said. “This is luxury. Thank you.”
The man smiled. “The bath should be prepared by now. I imagine it will be a luxury after days of trains, carriages, and cars.”
“I imagine so,” Lillian said. “Thank you again.”
“Would you like tea, when your baths are done?”
That was their indication that they should go off to their rooms. The tea, Lillian imagined, couldn’t possibly be a double trouble political trap. Tea was too essential a nicety. The bath, the luxury… no, she didn’t imagine so.
Was it cynicism, then, that left her feeling wary?
She let the other Lambs and Nora catch up, while Lacey led the way down the hall to the guest bedrooms. The two doors were ajar at the end of the hall, the lights on but dimmed within. The bathroom light, however, was on bright, and steam billowed in the room.
Helen shifted position, fixing Nora’s hood. In the midst of it, she gestured. Index and middle finger pointed straight up.
At the end of the hall, with the doors open, the bath?
Helen leaned forward, wrapping her arms around Nora in an exaggerated hug. Both hands gestured. Two different locations at the hallway.
Hanging pictures. The headmaster, his wife, and his children.
Where are the children? Not a single mention of them.
It frustrated Lillian, that there was clearly some clue she was missing. Given an opportunity, she might have been able to figure out something meaningful from what the headmaster had said.
“Anything, Nora?” she asked.
The hooded girl shook her head. “Whispers. I can’t hear Lara very well.”
“Even whispers can be useful,” Lillian said.
“They’re talking about names. Duncan is upset about a chicken. He wants to talk to you soon.”
“Good,” Lillian said. “Thank you.”
“I don’t like all of this talk of murder and fire,” Nora said. She shrank into herself.
“I know, honey,” Lillian said. She stroked Nora’s head. “I think your creators did you a disservice, ingraining the fear instincts into you like they did.”
“I can’t help communicate if I’m dead. So I run first. I defend myself second. Always. This is the rule.”
“I know. I know,” Lillian said. She stroked the girl’s hooded head again.
Mary interjected, “Absolutes aren’t a good idea, when situations can vary as much as they do. It’s bad tactics.”
Nora didn’t respond to that.
They reached the end of the hall, where Lacey waited. She’d pushed the bathroom door open, and was checking each of the rooms.
“Big tub. You should all bathe, talk strategy, do whatever you need to do,” Lacey said. “I’ll enjoy some quiet with a book. You let me know if you need anything.”
“That sounds good. Thank you,” Lillian said. She checked nobody was in earshot. “And thank you for lying.”
“About the reason you’re here.”
Lacey offered Lillian a tight smile. “Just… don’t put me in a situation where I’m indirectly responsible for your deaths. Or for mine. Please.”
“We wouldn’t kill you, Lacey,” Helen said, smiling sweetly.
“I’m not worried about you killing me to abscond with the drugs,” Lacey said.
“Sylvester wouldn’t do that either,” Lillian said. “He wouldn’t hurt you.”
Lacey offered her another tight, unconvincing smile. The woman looked so tired.
Lillian didn’t have the heart to prompt another one of those smiles. She only smiled back, and after a few moments of silence, Lacey said, “Enjoy your bath,” and retreated to one of the rooms.
Lillian turned her focus to finding where her bag had been put, finding the towels that had been laid across the footboards of the bed, and then heading into the bathroom with the other girls.
They hadn’t disclosed Lacey’s reasons for being here to the headmaster, and Hayle hadn’t either, because it would have shown weakness. Lacey was in custody of the leash. Hayle, insecure in his control over the Lambs and the decoys, had arranged for a new leash. Another chemical, embedded in their body, that they were all dependent on. Fray had released them from the first, by making it so long a leash as to be functionally meaningless. Hayle had devised a second, and made it his prerequisite for them being allowed to pursue Sylvester. When they had arrived at Sous Reine to pick up Abby, Lacey had been there, waiting to ambush them.
Lillian had two pills with her. Not intended for her, but for Sylvester, in the hopes that she could slip him one, that he could be leashed and that he would choose self preservation over freedom.
She suspected she knew what his answer would be, and it prompted an ugly feeling in her stomach.
The bathroom had framed pictures that might have belonged in children’s books on the wall, and more laid into the tiles at the top of the tub, which was a sprawling thing that sank into the wall and floor. Within the tub were multiple seats. Not wholly different from what had been available at the girl’s dorms at Radham. School was all tension and climbing the ladder. The idea was to encourage community and relaxation in the same space.
This would be the children’s bathroom, then. For the headmaster’s family.
As she undressed, Lillian’s eye was on the window, opened to let the breeze into the bathroom. It was dark outside, and there wasn’t a single vantage point where someone could perch on a building or stand at a window and see within. Even with that in mind, she couldn’t shake the idea that he was there. Watching.
Which he probably was, in an abstract sense.
But they had arranged things by phone, changed from carriage to car and then the first car to another car, all while in tunnels or within garages. They hadn’t stepped outdoors once while within the city. The only people they had been in contact with at this stage were the Mayor, the academy headmasters, and trusted officers of the Academies that were directly subordinate to the headmasters.
“You want him to be there, looking,” Mary said, as if she was reading Lillian’s mind.
“Not like that,” Mary said.
A bit like that, Lillian admitted to herself.
“I’m eager for a resolution too,” Mary said. “But I don’t think he’s going to be slippery in the same way Fray was. He’s not going to run. We need to be patient. Keep an eye out. There has to be an angle that works.”
Lillian nodded. “I know.”
“I get it,” Mary said. “Trust me.”
“I know,” Lillian said. She drew in a deep breath, and then let out a shuddering sigh.
Mary laid a hand over Lillian’s heart. It was still pounding. Mary gave her a pointed look.
Stepping back and away from Mary’s hand, Lillian pulled off her camisole and remaining clothes, then stepped into one end of the extensive bath.
Off to the side, Helen was helping Nora disrobe. Under the hood, Nora’s hair was white. Her eyes were dark and red rimmed. Prone to infections and irritation. It was much in the same way that her hair and filaments came out in clumps and her fingernails and claws could come off in a bloody mess if exposed to direct sunlight. She was a sensitive creature, in many ways.
A sensitive creature who festooned with natural weapons, Lillian noted. She had only had a few opportunities to examine Nora and Lara in person, and that had been on a table, with doctors pointing things out. Too up close a view. Standing aside, observing, she could see the way that the shoulders, ribs, elbows, the spine, and the girl’s fingers were all segmented.
The ribs, like everything, had pronounced joints at set intervals, joints that strained against skin like a fist clenched to the point that the knuckles had gone white. Where joints would normally already be, they were exaggerated. At the end of most fingers were scythe-like claws, roughly six inches long, normally hidden by the loose fabric of sleeves. Other fingers were actual fingers, and some were a melted-together blend of both blade and digit. Pure chance, what she had ended up with. Lillian knew from the short tutorial with Nora’s creators that there were more blades at the spine and joints of the shoulder and elbow, but they were buried within the joints.
They were meager natural weapons now, but Nora was expected to grow.
Helen showed no concern for the blades, both the retracted ones and the existing ones, as she helped Nora into the other end of the bath. Seeing Lillian looking, Helen smiled. “It’s like having a doll.”
“Just don’t bother her,” Lillian said. “She’s not used to being around anyone but her doctors and her sister, and you can be a little intimidating. If you provoke her fear reflex, I’m the one that has to stitch you back together.”
“She’s not bothered,” Helen said, confidently.
“I’m not bothered,” Nora said, quiet.
Lillian closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall, letting the tension seep out of her muscles. “That’s fine then.”
Mary took another minute to divest herself of her weapons and lay them out on the counter by the sink. She carried some tidbits over to the window and checked for eavesdroppers and spies before arranging a small trap at the window. That done, she made her way into the bath. She sat perpendicular to Lillian, knees bent so they formed an arch over Lillian’s legs.
“Where are the headmaster’s children?” Mary asked.
“That’s bothering you, is it?” Lillian asked. “Why didn’t he say where they went?”
“He’s hiding something. Multiple somethings,” Mary said.
“I don’t disagree,” Lillian said. “But that’s standard for Academy higher-ups. We stay focused. I don’t mind being wary, but let’s not get distracted.”
“You sound like me,” Mary said.
Lillian splashed her friend. Mary lifted her chin, playing the young lady, unbothered by such things.
“Um,” Nora said.
“Message?” Lillian asked, closing her eyes again, leaning back. Mary splashed her, and she wrinkled up her nose in annoyance, before snorting out a bit of the water that had gone up her nose.
“Message. Duncan’s group is done eating. Do you want to talk?”
“We can talk,” Lillian said.
Nora’s lips moved. She used Duncan’s inflection and the same pacing of words that Duncan might use, but it was in a young girl’s voice. “Duncan: he gave us more pets.”
“Aww!” Helen cooed.
“Duncan: Not aww. Four lambs and a chicken. I’m trying to figure out if he’s insulting me or if there’s a coded message in this.”
“Four lambs and a chicken?” Lillian asked. “Could be a message. But I’d say he’s probably just happy you’re bothered and wondering. He likes to tease.”
“Duncan: I see.”
“I’d say it’s fifty-fifty odds that he’s either insulting you or he saw a weakness and capitalized on it.”
“Duncan: He saw a weakness?”
“You took one pet. Maybe he wanted to see if you’d take more. The chicken thrown in to see if he could burden you further by sticking you with a variety of animals?”
“Duncan: I’m somehow more insulted than if he’d included the chicken as some kind of indirect put-down.”
“You didn’t keep the chicken?” Mary asked.
“Duncan: No. We didn’t keep any of them. But it took some doing to get Abby to let it be. Are you all settled?”
“Settled,” Lillian said.
“We’re wet and naked, Duncan,” Helen announced, grinning.
Mary reached over, as if to hit Helen, then instead put her hands over Nora’s ears. “I’d hit you if I thought it would matter.”
“It would make me feel better,” Lillian said.
Mary lightly punched Helen’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” Lillian said. As Mary lifted her hands off of Nora’s ears, Lillian said, “Are you still there, Duncan?”
“Duncan?” Mary tried.
“Speak, Duncan,” Helen said, smiling.
“Duncan: I’m here. I’m not sure how to respond to that.”
“The diplomatic thing to do is to pretend it didn’t happen,” Lillian said. “We’re staying with the headmaster of Corinth Crown Academy. It’s near the north end of the fort.”
“Duncan: I know of him. He’s a bigwig.”
“Bigwig. Speaking of, I wanted to ask. Double trouble? You mentioned it.”
“Duncan: I did.”
“Do I owe anything for shelter? Food? Luxury?”
“Duncan: Almost never. Gifts received while under someone’s roof, yes, you’d owe a favor for a favor, and you could find yourself under someone’s thumb. But food and shelter are sacrosanct. Dates back to the olden days, when denying a traveler food and shelter could be the same thing as murdering them.”
“I see. Thank you, Duncan,” Lillian said. Secretly, she mused on the fact that Sylvester had betrayed that sacrosanct thing by burning down the headquarters of local gangs. Or so he’d said, in his note.
“Duncan: We’re going to be going out soon. Changing clothes, gathering some things, and we’ll see if we can track down any preliminary details. We’ll be in the general radius of Corinth Crown. If we run into trouble or spy them, Lara will let you know.”
“Perfect. I think we’ll be getting settled,” Lillian said.
“I’ll be sleeping with my knives on,” Mary said.
Helen disengaged herself from Nora, who had been sitting at her feet, only the upper half of her head visible over the water, compound eyes wide, hair and hair-like filaments floating around her.
“The headmaster said something about the major gangs being the Apostle’s men and a drug group led by the Witch,” Mary said. She continued her explanation, but Lillian wasn’t quite listening to the recap. Her focus was on Helen.
Helen was getting dressed without toweling off.
Helen gestured to her ear. Listen. Man.
Then, barefoot, damp, wearing a dress, Helen scaled the side of the window, climbing out and up toward the roof.
That was reason enough for Lillian to get out of the bath. Something had concerned Helen.
“Come on, honey,” she spoke to Nora.
“Duncan:” Nora said, as Lillian lifted her by the armpits. “I beg your pardon?”
“Not you, Duncan,” Lillian said. “Helen’s acting curious. One minute.”
Mary was out of the bath at the same time Nora was. She began putting her things together. Razor wire, knives, gun, syringes, bola, and darts. The summer clothes went on next, and all of the stowed weapons swiftly disappeared beneath the light and airy clothes.
Lillian did towel off, before donning her hairband and pulling on her clothes from earlier. She’d hoped to go straight to sleepwear, but her things were with her clothes, including those two little pills. Once she was dressed, she attended to Nora. Nora was nervous, Lillian was aware. Jarred from peace and comfort to tension, the little girl was trembling, hugging her arms to her body.
Lillian dearly wished she could do something more for the little girl.
She had managed to dress both herself and Nora before Mary was finished. Helen reappeared at the window, swinging down and into the bathroom, very nearly slipping on the wet tile.
Helen gestured at the same time she spoke, her voice soft.
“Of what sort?” Mary asked.
“Sylvester?” Lillian asked.
“I don’t think so. There’s a man at the front of the house. He has some people with him, and they all have weapons,” Helen said. “They’re here for us.”
“I see,” Lillian said. “Do we have time to get Lacey?”
“Window,” Mary said.
While Helen helped Nora through the window, an exercise that amounted to using three limbs to climb, while one hand kept a tight hold on the girl. Lillian exited the bathroom, careful not to make any noise as she did it. She let herself into Lacey’s room.
Lacey was reading by candlelight.
Lillian approached, walking like she’d been taught to do, and clasped her hand over Lacey’s mouth. The woman went utterly still, but for one hand, which went toward the side of the bed.
“Don’t,” Lillian said. “Be quiet. Come with me. We have to run.”
“Hired killers. Or kidnappers,” Lillian whispered.
Lacey’s eyes widened. She nodded.
“Bring essentials. The pills.”
As she left the bedroom, she could hear some louder voices. She crossed to the other room, accessed her luggage, and found the container with her partial project within. She met Lacey in the hallway, then led the way to the open bathroom window.
“Hey!” a voice called out, behind her.
She closed the door and locked it, just in time. Somebody threw themselves violently into the door, making it jump in its frame.
They would break it down. Probably within a few seconds.
Men were shouting. Giving orders, telling others to get outside, get around to the side of the building.
Lacey wasn’t as fast climbing down as Lillian needed her to be. The bathroom window was a solid fifteen feet up off the ground. Lillian double checked, then tossed her project down to Mary, shouting as it was already airborne, “Catch!”
Then, before Mary had fully recovered from catching the hurled case, Lillian backed away from the window, ran forward, and planted a foot on the sill. She didn’t jump up so much as she jumped over.
“Catch me!” she shouted.
A leap of faith. She wasn’t even sure Mary or Helen had the leverage or strength to catch her. Base physics. They tended to be brutal when things moved very fast or got very big, and she was moving fast.
But, as she flew five or six feet out and fifteen feet down, her face rushing for the ground, she felt arms seize her. She scraped one knee on the ground as momentum carried it forward, but they had caught her upper body.
She reached out, to put a reassuring hand on Nora’s shoulder and guide the girl as they started to run, but in the gloom, she only barely saw the spikes and bone blades, jutting out. The girl was terrified.
“Come on, honey,” she said. “Let’s get somewhere safe.”
Looking back to see Lacey trailing behind, carrying luggage, Lillian saw the men rounding the building.
They didn’t look like Academy students, so they weren’t the Neddies. They didn’t look young enough to be delinquents, and they weren’t sailors, so they weren’t the skippers. Half of them had the telltale signs of men hopped up on combat drugs.
The Apostle’s men? The Devil’s? The Witch’s group, looking to make an impact?
Whoever they were, they were in cahoots with the headmaster, or they had leverage on the man.
She thought of those missing children of his.
She couldn’t know. For now, all that was important was getting away.
Sylvester. The little bastard. She missed him a little less, in this particular moment.
But this was him. Everything in this city, touched by him. Everything that moved, was moved by him. Her heart still pounded like it did when he was close to her, because he was. He might as well have been next to her.
Sylvester had gotten what he wanted, and she had a sinking feeling in her gut that this was exactly the outcome he had hoped for. To uproot them, put them on the back foot, and distract them with questions and mysteries. He’d outright told Duncan that he’d trusted them to hold their own if trouble came calling. Now they had been flushed out and exposed. Nowhere certain to go where they could rest and be safe.
So much for the sanctity of shelter, she thought.