Ashton held his hand up near the window. Morning dew had accumulated over the past two hours, and as he held his hand up, the dew changed to a dusky rose color. The drops with the dew were heavier and left pink streaks on the painted window frame and sill.
The sun filtered through bushes just beyond the window, striking some drops while leaving others in shadow. There were gray droplets, gray-pink droplets and there were pink-gray droplets and pink droplets and rosy droplets. Some were cold and some were warm.
There was a world beyond the droplets of dew and the window and the bush. Buildings, a street where people were emerging and starting their day. There were regular patrols on the street, and when Ashton saw one he made sure to write the time on the windowsill. The movement of the pencil inevitably drew lines through some of the moisture that had collected there. He very much looked forward to when he next had an excuse to make the next marking, especially now that there was more moisture.
The sun was just rising, it was humid out, and it was already very warm. It was going to be a very hot day, even with the clouds on the horizon.
“You scared me,” Lara said.
Ashton turned his head. Duncan had sat up in bed. Lara was in one corner, curled up in a chair with her arms around her legs, a blanket draped over her. Her hood was down and her hair was tousled. One of her eyes was very red and watery, the eyelid inflamed.
“I’m sorry I scared you,” Duncan said. He rubbed at his eye.
“It’s okay,” Lara said.
“Is Ashton keeping you company?”
“My sister is. Ashton is quiet.”
“I’ve said we can talk if you want to talk,” Ashton said.
“It’s okay,” Lara said, again. “I didn’t want to make noise and bother anybody.”
“Alright,” Ashton said. He smiled using smile three from the books. “I’m always happy to practice talking.”
Social niceties were important, and Ashton knew his doctors would be happy if he got more practice, so he had been doing it as much as he could. It would be good if he got back and they oohed and ahhed over how much he had progressed. It would reflect well on Duncan and Lillian and the other Lambs that they had done a good job with him.
All his life, his creators and the people around him had talked about who and what he should be. It was a big responsibility.
“How is your head? Sylvester said you would have a hangover,” Ashton said.
“I have a hangover,” Duncan said. “Not too bad, all considered.”
He swung his feet out over the side of the bed, then stood. He swayed on the spot. “Amend that.”
“Amended,” Ashton said, turning to look out the window.
“I can’t help but notice I’m not wearing pants,” Duncan observed.
“Abby thought you would be uncomfortable sleeping with all of your clothes on, so we took your shoes and pants.”
“Uh huh,” Duncan said. He rubbed at his face. “And my skin is dry.”
“Sylvester painted your face to make fun of you,” Ashton said. “I thought that was rude, so I insisted we clean your face before we put you to bed.”
“Thank you, Ashton,” Duncan said.
“You’re welcome, Duncan.”
“Lara? Cover your eyes. Just until I find my pants.”
Lara obeyed, raising her hands to her eyes. She spoke at the same time Ashton did. “End of the bed.” “We hung them- yeah, the bed.”
“You’ll want to know what Sylvester said,” Ashton added.
“No,” Duncan said. “Let me wake up first, see if I can’t clear my head. I’ve got one headache already, I don’t need a second on top of it. Any word from the others?”
“Some,” Ashton said. “But they’ve stopped for now. They know where the man who is hunting them is. He’s called the Devil. They spent the night hunting down the Devil’s people. They know where he is now, but they want to rest, organize, and make sure we’re all awake and well just in case they need us, before they act.”
“Good. Has everyone eaten?”
“No,” Ashton said. He looked at his watch, then checked one of his notes on the windowsill. “The sun rose half an hour ago. We don’t usually eat until seven or eight.”
“I’m going to arrange breakfast now so we can get an early start,” Duncan said. “Stay put, be good. Let the others sleep in. When I get back, you can fill me in and we’ll decide where we go next.”
“Okay,” Ashton said. He looked back and saw Duncan looking at the beds where Emmett and Abby were sleeping. Abby was curled up with the lamb, Quinton.
Duncan pointed at Abby.
Ashton stared, not sure what to do. He’d figured out pointing, but he couldn’t connect the point to any thought. It would have been easier if Duncan said something.
“How’d she sleep?”
“No fits tonight,” Ashton said. “I don’t think she had nightmares.”
Duncan nodded. Ashton thought that he was nodding more to himself than to him. It made more sense: Duncan was a problem solver. He did best with organizational problems, like where things should be and how people should act. He was good at telling Ashton how to act, and Ashton thought he would do a good job telling the others how to act.
Abby was one of the problems that Duncan was trying to solve.
“Progress,” Duncan said, before leaving the room. He shut the door with extra care as he left.
Ashton’s mind was very busy, keeping track of the multicolored raindrops, trying to figure out ways to organize them and keep track of them as the colors changed. He liked color. Another part of his brain was busy exploring the bush just beyond the window.
He worked the part of his mind that focused on spatial things. He had an intuitive sense of where the bush was and where the street was and where the buildings were, but he could distort that sense like he could unfocus his eyes and imagine different geometries that would make that same environment possible. A landscape of cobblestone wall and askew buildings with misshapen blobs of liquid. He could piece together a mental image of the landscape as if it was actually a mix of grays and gray-pinks and pink-grays and pink.
His creators called it meditation, but it wasn’t like that. His brain was organized into what his creators called shelves, described as being like fungal growths or a coral, and in his early development each shelf had been given over to a different task, like the lobes in a human brain. Sometimes it could be hard to get one of the less-used shelves working. As he started his day, he pushed every part of his ‘brain’.
Even as he sat very still, standing with his arms folded on the windowsill, staring out at the world beyond, his mind was very, very active.
“Ashton?” Lara spoke.
“Yes?” Ashton said.
“Nora fell asleep. I don’t like the quiet. Can we talk?”
There was a long pause. Ashton estimated about a minute’s time passing. In the meantime, he began to pull the surroundings apart in his mind, imagining it all as if everything was made of meat and vegetation. As he mentally dismantled buildings, blood leaked from the gaps, touched the stretched beads of gray and pink dew and expanded into clouds as it diffused into the liquid.
He liked how the blood looked when it diffused. He began painting his view of the city with clouds, while concentrating the way he sent his spores out into the air so it would concentrate in some beads more than others.
“Can you think of something to talk about?” Lara asked.
“Okay,” Ashton said. He pulled back from his imagined paintings so he could think about what to talk about. “After we’re done here, whether we get Sylvester or not, we’ll be going back to Radham.”
“The idea is scary,” Lara said.
“I like Radham. It’s home.”
“It’s not my home. It’s a strange place to me.”
“It will become home eventually. There will be more labs for you and your sister and all of the ones who come after. You’ll have your own room, though you might have to share it with Nora.”
“I share this room with Nora,” Lara said. “I described every part of it to her. She described every part of where she is to me. It feels safer to imagine myself over there than it feels to be here. Nora said it was the other way around for her.”
“That makes sense,” Ashton said.
“I was talking to her about how I like that you’re the same height as me, and Abby is too. And we’re three. I’m part of a group. But Nora isn’t. She’s with the others and she looks up to them. They’re more like teachers and they’re something she’s working hard to try to be like?”
“That’s bad,” Lara said. “We’re becoming different. We were the same and now we’re different.”
“Different is good. Look at how the Lambs work. They are stronger because they’re all different. Everyone has things they’re good at and things they’re bad at and we make up for each other’s weaknesses.”
“My project is strongest when we’re the same. We have to be able to understand each other.”
“You will,” Ashton said. He gave her smile number three again. It was small and it was meant to be reassuring.
“You don’t understand,” Lara said, and she said it in a way that made Ashton quickly remove the smile. She was frustrated.
“Okay,” Ashton said. He drew in a breath, then devoted more of his thoughts to the conversation. “Then I’ll try to understand.”
“There were six of us. All in a row. Each in a vat. We could talk, sometimes, but it was hard because we were all in fluid. I was the second. Nora was the sixth.”
“I was all alone,” Ashton said. “I grew in a node, which grew in a plant-like structure.”
“I’m talking about me and Nora,” Lara said. She wasn’t upset or frustrated, but she wasn’t pleased either. It was a reminder, the kind of reminder that made Ashton think of when he was little and understood conversations less. After a few more of those patient reminders she would get upset and bothered, or she might stop talking.
He knew that if she did any of those things, she would probably be unhappy or bothered for the rest of the day. That wasn’t a good thing.
“Okay,” Ashton said.
“And don’t… don’t use your spores on me? Not while I’m talking about this.”
Ashton wasn’t one to get frustrated, usually. It wasn’t really something in his emotional makeup. He could keep trying at a task until he was told to stop, he didn’t get tired, and he didn’t hit limits in the same way other people did, after repeated tries.
If he did get frustrated, he reasoned to himself, then he would be very frustrated that people kept asking him not to use his spores to calm them down when they seemed to need it most.
He took the thought and put it away for thinking about later. His ability to reason, feel, experience, and learn tended to come in spurts, coinciding with his bouts of physical growth. His appointments helped, giving him massive injections of nutrients that would allow such. Maybe he could gain something if he figured out frustration and made it a focus the next time he was growing in a new shelf.
He could talk about it with his creators. They had said each new shelf that he grew would be smaller and have less impact than the last. He would have to carefully choose what he would make each shelf do.
Lara had stopped talking. Ashton had stopped talking.
He looked out the window and began painting the landscape with his imagination again. The heat was starting to take away the moisture in the air, even with the humidity and light drizzle of rain. The droplets were shrinking and evaporating.
“You were number two and she was number six?” he asked.
“Yes. There were four more, but they died before the rest of us could think and communicate. The girl in the fifth vat didn’t grow good claws, so she got recycled. Her body was taken out of the vat. They took her to pieces, mashed her up and fed her to the rest of us as nutrients.”
Ashton nodded. This made sense.
“The one in the first vat was next to go. She- he- not a boy and not a girl. Just a mishmash. I don’t know why it mattered, but the one in the first vat died because of that and was fed to the four of us that were still there. We were small and young enough we didn’t understand or mind, even if we remember.”
“Yes,” Ashton said. “This is what the Academy will do, sometimes. It’s how Mauer’s people made the primordials, Lillian said. I’m not the first Ashton. They fail a project and they recycle it and try again.”
“How old are you?” Lara asked.
“I’m not very old. I’ve only really been out of the vat for two and a half years.”
“I’ve been out for seven,” Lara said. “But I haven’t been out of the lab much.”
Ashton started to speak, then stopped, before admitting, “I’m having a hard time following this conversation. I’m not sure what this has to do with what we were talking about.”
“Okay,” Lara said. “I’m older. Even if you’re senior, here. Yes?”
“Yes,” Ashton said. “That is a very good way of explaining it.”
“I started off from a human base, like Abby did, except she had a lot more human to start with, and she isn’t going to change as she grows. But you’re very different. You were made from new. And you’re finding your way to acting like a person.”
“Yes,” Ashton agreed, with confidence. He paused, connecting thoughts. “Am I doing a bad job of acting like a person?”
“Yes,” Lara said. “I don’t care if it makes sense or if it’s how the Academy does things. I had sisters and now I don’t. The people who made me took away four of my sisters because they were too different. Now Nora and I are becoming different.”
“And you’re scared.”
“I’m scared of everything,” Lara said, shrinking down into her bundle of blanket, until only her eyes and the top of her head were visible over her knees. “But I’m very scared of this in particular.”
“Because you’re worried it’s the same as when they were making you?”
“Yes,” Lara said.
“I’m not very good at being human, so I’m not going to be good at helping with that. I’m not very good at giving advice about being scared, either, because I don’t get very scared very much,” Ashton said.
“I don’t want help or advice. I just want you to listen, like Nora listens.”
“I’m not very good at listening either, I don’t think,” Ashton said.
“No you aren’t,” Lara said. “I think I’m more upset than I was before we started talking about this.”
“But,” Ashton said. He had to put his brain to work for a few seconds. “I think being different might be good, now that you’re this grown up. And I think the Lambs have gotten away with things they shouldn’t have, because they do very good work. If you do good work then there are people who are going to want you to keep doing good work. If you and Nora do good work then they won’t treat you like they treated your sisters. I think.”
“You’re thinking a lot,” Lara said. “You keep using that word.”
“I’m not very good at this, so I’m working extra hard to try and figure it out. Even if I’m not very good at figuring out answers, I do want to help. Because I want to do good work for you too, so you’ll want me to keep doing good work. Like I just talked about.”
“I think I understand,” Lara said. “What you said makes sense, and it does make me feel better. If we do a good enough job?”
“Yes,” Ashton said. He saw another patrol walk by, checked his watch, and marked down the time. Duncan was there too, with bags in his arms. He had to stop to let the patrol by.
“Thank you,” Lara said.
“You’re welcome,” Ashton said, automatically.
“You’re awake, Abby?” Lara asked.
“Sorry,” Abby said.
Abby sat up in bed. As her movements rustled it, the lamb bleated. Her braid was messy and residual dirt from Quinton had transferred over to the front of her very simple ankle-length nightgown, leaving cloudy markings on the bleached white fabric.
Not for the first time, Ashton thought that Abby was like Sable, from Good Simon Says. She was supposed to be better than Sable, able to understand things about humans as well as animals, but she wasn’t all the way there, and she wasn’t as good with animals as she was supposed to be. That part of her brain had never really developed, and the added systems for communication had never really developed. She was the least talented of all of them.
“Quinton will need to make water and make a deposit,” Abby said, scooping the lamb up in her arms.
“Deposit? Water?” Ashton asked.
“It’s what they said at Sous Reine, to be polite,” Abby said. “Should I go outside? Would one of you come with me?”
“Oh. Put it out the window,” Ashton said. “It’s at ground level.”
Abby smiled. “Good idea.”
He helped Abby get the leash on and open the window. They placed the lamb outside, holding the leash, and let it explore the bushes.
“Were you listening?” Lara asked.
“Sorry,” Abby said.
“It’s okay,” Lara said. “It’s okay if you know.”
Abby smiled. She held the leash and watched Quinton play in the bushes. Ashton didn’t need to work very hard to work out just how happy she was. It didn’t take much. She just needed something to take care of.
There was a knock on the door. With Lara bundled up and Abby holding the leash, Ashton took it on himself to respond, peering through the keyhole before opening the door.
“You were fast,” Ashton commented.
Duncan answered, “I called in advance, to make sure they’d have our specific breakfasts ready. I’d have been faster, but I took a detour.”
“Would you want me to take a bag?” Ashton asked, as Duncan made his way through the door.
“Thank you, Good Simon,” Duncan said. “Take this one.”
“My name is Ashton.”
“Thank you, Ashton,” Duncan corrected.
“That’s better,” Ashton said. He could smell the food.
There was a table in the corner of the room. The table was likely meant to serve as a desk, but countless rings from teacups and water glasses marked it as a frequent dining table in the dormitory here.
“Bread,” Duncan said, putting his own bag down and fishing through the one he had given Ashton. “A pat of butter, jam, some sausage from the cafeteria, some chop, some fruit, and some mystery food that the local Academy grew. No promises on the mystery food, but enough others were snatching it up that it can’t be that bad. Should do for Emmett and me, and anyone else who wants to partake. I know Ashton likes jam. Ashton, would you wake Emmett?”
Ashton walked over to Emmett’s bed and laid an arm on Emmett’s arm. It didn’t take much. Emmett’s eyes opened, and he was out of bed shortly after. He trudged over to the table to eat.
Without a word, Duncan handed Ashton a plate with a cloth tied in a knot over the top.
“Thank you,” Ashton said, automatically. He found a seat at the table and undid the knot. Various fruits, vegetables, and meats were organized into a kaleidoscopic pattern of colors and shapes.
Ashton dutifully set about taking apart the kaleidoscope from the inside out.
“Abby,” Duncan said. “I sent a letter well before we even arrived, after talking to your doctors, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to track all the particulars of your diet.”
Duncan trailed off. Ashton watched as Duncan uncovered what looked like a heaping bowl of uninteresting shades of brown.
“Mashed nut, shredded mushroom, raisins, onion.”
“I can eat normal food,” Abby said, protesting even though she looked very happy with the boring bowl of food.
“But your doctors said you don’t like it, because your palate is different,” Duncan said. “So long as your needs are met, there’s no use in making you eat something you don’t want to. Especially when you might dislike it enough that you have fits. You had a good night’s sleep, you’ll have a meal of the foods you like, and we’ll start the day off with the right foot.”
“Thank you,” Abby said.
“It just makes sense,” Duncan said.
“You’re supposed to say you’re welcome when someone says thank you. It’s impolite if you don’t.”
“Be quiet and eat,” Duncan said.
“That’s not very polite either.”
“It’s not polite to hound someone who is nursing a hangover from a tranquilizer gas,” Duncan said. “Take a note of that, and leave me be, alright? I’m allowed to be grumpy.”
Ashton turned his attention back to the colorful plate. He made sure to do as Duncan had asked and make a note about not bothering grumpy people.
“And Lara… protein,” Duncan said. He handed over a jar. “Have some of the mystery meat and sausage. Doctor’s orders. Your stomach gets sensitive if you don’t vary things any.”
Lara nodded. She opened the jar and worked at fishing out her prey.
“Lastly, well, just about lastly,” Duncan said, fishing in the second paper bag for the first time. “Quinton.”
He retrieved a cloth sack and a bowl, and set the bowl on the ground, before pouring out a small share of beans from the sack.
Abby threw herself at Duncan, wrapping her arms around his middle, which nearly made him drop the sack.
Duncan remained frozen, as if not sure how to handle it, then relaxed a bit. “Go on. If you’re happy, show it to me by eating quickly and listening to me. We’re all here to do a job.”
Abby obeyed, making sure that Quinton was eating before serving herself.
“This is good,” Ashton said, as Duncan retrieved a jug of what looked to be tea from the same bag that had held Quinton’s food. “The breakfast. You did well. I don’t think anyone is unhappy.”
Nobody seemed to disagree. Lara didn’t look particularly enthused as she choked down her still-wiggling meal, but she didn’t look too upset either. Mealtime wasn’t a pleasure for her. It wasn’t a big pleasure for Ashton either, but he did like the colors.
“I have to, don’t I? I have to do well,” Duncan asked. “I want to run an Academy or be a noble’s doctor one day. If I can’t manage the breakfast of four experiments and one animal at seventeen, can I really expect to manage a whole Academy at thirty? Can I expect to get away unscathed if I make a mistake with a noble’s meal plan?”
“No,” Ashton said.
“Exactly. You’re a trial run. You’re one step out of many,” Duncan said. He set down a cup of tea in front of Emmett, then poured out one for Abby. His response had left a bit of a silence, as everyone ate. He served Ashton, then himself, then rummaged in his bag for a small jar and popped it out, before doling out the large, yellow pills. Only when he’d ensured that everyone had had theirs did he sit down to eat.
Not that he really ate. He rubbed at his eyes some, and grimaced with pain, before setting one elbow on the table and resting the bridge of his nose against the heel of his hand. His head hurt, probably.
“Now tell me what I missed last night,” Duncan said.
Everyone had dressed, and they had dressed in the lightest clothes they had. All of the boys and Abby were wearing their shoes without socks, just to have less fabric to trap the heat in. Lara still wore her shroud to keep the sun off, but the fabric was thin and she wasn’t wearing anything to cover her feet, letting the cloth of the shroud hide the claws there, while the air circulated around them. The edges of the cloth was getting dirty as it traced along the damp road.
Emmett had his shirt open, while Duncan and Ashton had the first few buttons undone. Abby wore a gingham dress and walked with Quinton on a leash beside her. The fabric of her dress flapped against her legs as the wind picked up.
It was warm. Ashton liked the heat more than the cold. He liked being in the light. He liked the drizzle.
The yard was a field, with tracts of dirt with painted markings on them, worn by the weather and the rain to the point that the lines were faint and ragged, now. There was grass here and there, normally kept short, which had grown long.
There were also, by the largest field, two long, squat buildings. One was more open, a roof and three walls with benches sitting within. The other was enclosed with a door, maybe it served as a place for changing clothes.
The open building was empty. They walked by it slowly, looking over every detail.
“Nobody’s been here,” Duncan observed. “No signs of food, clothing, no blankets…”
“Nobody,” Abby agreed.
They approached the other building. Duncan hauled open the door, and froze where he was. Ashton joined Abby in peering under Duncan’s right arm, while Lara peeked past his left. Emmett looked over Duncan’s shoulder.
A boy and a girl, kissing, lying astride a bench. They’d stopped as the door opened, lips still touching, their eyes going to the door.
“I’d like to have a word with you,” Duncan said.
The boy on the bench slid his hand up the girl’s side, while she lay very still, glaring.
“Please,” Duncan said.
The boy on the bench stood in a very fluid motion. In the process, he raised his arm, very fluidly pointing the gun he’d just picked up at Duncan.
Ashton and Abby moved quickly away from the door, to get out of the line of fire. On the other side, Emmett and Lara backed away. Duncan was too squarely in the gun’s sights to join them in taking cover.
“Damn it,” Duncan said.
“Okay,” the boy in the building said. “My name is Maurice. The girl with me is Noreen. I’m going to need you to listen very carefully. All four of you are going to back away very slowly. I want to see you standing as a group, about twenty feet behind… Duncan?”
Ashton could see Duncan sag a little at the mention of his name.
“I want you where I can see you, far enough away I don’t have to worry too much about you,” Maurice declared. “Especially the red haired one.”
“He got to you,” Duncan said.
“Sylvester? He did. Get moving, all of you. Come on now. Unless you don’t care about his welfare.”
Abby and Ashton moved back, following the instructions. Lara followed their cue.
Emmett remained where he was.
“Emmett,” Ashton said.
Emmett didn’t budge.
“Please,” Abby said.
“Bleehh,” Quinton added.
Reluctantly, Emmett backed off. They formed a group, standing a distance behind Duncan.
Duncan backed away a few steps as Maurice and Noreen left the building and came to stand in the doorway. Noreen stared them down as she buttoned up her blouse. Maurice continued to point the gun.
“What happens next?” Duncan asked.
“I detain you,” Maurice said. “I inconvenience you as much as possible. I’m allowed to shoot to wound. I’m quite a good shot.”
“Lying,” Abby said, loud enough to be heard.
“Let’s not antagonize them,” Duncan said. “Please.”
Maurice smiled. “Alright. I admit, I’m a terrible shot. That should worry you more than me being very precise.”
“It does, frankly,” Duncan said.
Behind his back, Duncan gestured.
Move. Gas. Move.
Ashton wasn’t very good with the gestures. Sometimes his brain wasn’t very good at putting things together that the others were very good with. Things like this, where move and gas and move had so many meanings and combinations, it confused him.
Slowly, he was able to piece together a likely interpretation.
The trick was how to do it. If he simply walked over, it would be a problem.
“I want to do something, but I don’t want any of us to get shot” Ashton said, quiet.
“He’ll shoot,” Abby said. “But only if he really, really has to. Can’t you see?”
“I’m not very good at understanding expressions,” Ashton said. “Especially from this far away.”
“I am,” Abby said. “I don’t think he’s going to shoot.”
Ashton reached for Lara’s sleeve, and gripped it, holding the end of her claw up, closer to shoulder height.
He pushed out spores.
“Seems like a bad idea,” Duncan said, “Staying here, when there are roving bands of criminals out looking for children.”
“Children with nowhere else to go get pointed here. We send them somewhere more secure. Most roving bands of criminals aren’t out and about this early in the day. We thought we had time to…” Maurice trailed off, looking at Noreen. “Wake ourselves up from our morning nap.”
“Sorry to interrupt,” Duncan said.
“No you aren’t,” Noreen cut in.
Lara’s hand shook. She started to pull away, and Ashton held on, still pushing out.
“This isn’t the group we were told to expect. Not all of it,” Maurice observed.
“No,” Duncan said.
“Sorry,” Duncan said. He seemed to notice something, “Are you Academy students?“
“Does it matter?”
“Best thing you can do for yourself is to forget you saw us and listen carefully. I’m going to take a step to the side. You’re going to walk past me, and into this building, understand? You’ll be going inside one by one.”
“I understand, Duncan said.
Lara’s trembling intensified.
All at once, she hauled her hand away, slicing at Ashton’s hand and some of her sleeve. She threw herself to one side.
“Woah!” Maurice called out.
He fired a warning shot. Lara threw herself to the ground.
While she huddled there, spikes and scythes of bone protruded from her shoulder and sleeve.
“No moving,” Maurice said. He didn’t seem to have anything to say about the weapons that Lara was displaying.
Ashton hurried to Lara’s side.
“No moving!” Maurice called out.
“She’s scared,” Ashton said, as the one who had used his spores to create the anxiety.
“No moving!” Maurice called out again.
Ashton huddled down, close to Lara, and pushed out calming spores.
“I’m very sorry I did that,” he said.
She remained where she was, hunched over, facing the ground. Her mangled feet with some clawed toes were sticking out behind her. Ashton adjusted the cloth to cover them so they wouldn’t be damaged by the sun. The wind nearly blew the cloth back out of place. He pressed it down with one hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She nodded. He was pretty sure she wouldn’t have been nodding if he hadn’t been trying to calm her.
As best as he could tell, based on the direction of the wind, the calming effect was being carried by the wind, to Duncan, Noreen, and Maurice.
“What’s wrong with her?” Maurice asked.
“She’s not very good with conflict.”
“That seems like a monumentally bad thing, given what you lot seem to get up to,” Maurice commented.
“It’s not the best,” Duncan said.
“Lords. You almost make me feel guilty,” Maurice said. He glanced at Noreen. “I’m getting too soft.”
“Get over it,” Noreen said, voice hard.
“We came to ask about Sylvester. We’re not here to hurt him. We just want to talk, make sure he isn’t up to trouble.”
“I don’t like you,” Noreen said.
“I see,” Duncan said. He sounded somewhat dejected as he said it. “I shouldn’t be surprised, given you two are pointing a gun at us, but it hurts to hear it said outright.”
“How do you do it?” Maurice asked. “You Lambs, if you’re even Lambs.”
“Not quite,” Duncan said. “Do what?”
“The intensity? The danger? I like a little bit of a thrill now and then. I mean, hell, I like her, you know? She’s threatened to kill me more times than anyone I know. But danger and chaos seem to draw in you kids like flowers do bees.”
“Some of us excel at it. I don’t think anyone in this group does,” Duncan said. “Most of them are new. We’re a distraction, sent to spring some of Sylvester’s traps and try to complicate his plots. Except we may have underestimated how many traps and plots there are.”
“I’ve spent a few days with him,” Maurice commented. “I can virtually guarantee that you did.”
“Fuck,” Duncan said.
Maurice shook his head. In the midst of the discussion, he had lowered the gun a fraction. Now it lowered again. “He was a bad enough headache for us, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be his target.”
“It’s bad,” Duncan said.
“Give me the gun,” Noreen said.
Maurice arched an eyebrow. “What?”
“Something’s wrong. Give me the gun.”
“Will you promise me you won’t shoot them unnecessarily.”
“I promise. Now hand it over,” Noreen said.
“What’s going on?” Duncan asked.
“You’re doing something,” Noreen said. “I’m going to shoot you before you can do something more.”
Maurice gave Noreen a sidelong glance. “You just contradicted yourself.”
“I didn’t. This is necessary. I feel strange. My emotions are stirred up. I feel tired.”
“We just woke up.”
“And I don’t normally feel emotions like this,” Noreen said. “It’s the red haired one. Give me the gun.”
Ashton closed his eyes, and he pushed out a heavy release of aggression, of spores that wound agitate and drive others to action.
“No,” Maurice said. “It’s fine. Just stop and-“
Noreen lunged for the gun. Maurice pulled it away and used one hand to push her to the ground.
His attention divided between Duncan and Noreen, he didn’t see that Emmett was barreling toward him until it was too late.
In a moment, both Noreen and Maurice were pinned against the ground. The gun lay several feet away.
Duncan walked over to the gun to pick it up. He stuck it into his belt. “Thank you, Ashton, Emmett. I do believe that’s the first time that we’ve worked as a group.”
“You’re welcome,” Ashton said. “Abby and Lara helped too.”
“Thank you two too, then,” Duncan said.
Noreen seemed to be reserving glares for everyone present, Maurice included. Duncan opted to talk to Maurice instead.
Ashton pushed out spores to loosen Maurice’s inhibitions and tongue.
It didn’t take long to get an answer.
“His orphanage,” Maurice finally confessed.
“His orphanage?” Ashton asked. “Lambsbridge?”
“No. It’s here, in this city,” Maurice said. “He’s collected every child with no place to go. Has a staff.”
“Soldiers,” Duncan concluded.
“And traps?” Lara asked.
“Naturally,” Maurice said.
“Naturally,” Duncan said, sounding very tired.
Ashton wished he could give Duncan a little bit of a boost in mood, but Duncan was taking drugs to counteract him. But the others seemed to be thrilled with their very first success, so he made sure to give them a little puff of happiness.