Five years of preparatory schooling with tutoring twice-weekly that started when she was four, ensuring that she knew most of Wollstone’s ratios by heart before she even entered school. Four years of preliminary Academy studies at Dame Cicely’s sister school, coinciding with work as a lab assistant so she could get lab space and work on her admissions project. She’d left all of her acquaintances behind as they’d either failed out or gone on to Dame Cicely’s and she’d tested for and earned her place in Radham, which was more reputable.
Four rigorous years at Radham, followed by examinations and testing, the same ones that Lillian and Duncan were working their way through now. She had created her Paddock as part of her testing, and fought viciously for sought-after lab space to make, grow, and raise the toadlike, self-destructing warbeast. She had failed on her first attempt, and she had very nearly quit, before summoning up the scraps of her dignity and courage to push forward for one more year.
She had cried tears of very mixed emotions at the end of the second year, when Academy grunts had knocked on the door to her lab and enlisted her help in crating up Paddock and Paddock’s first litter. The tears of sadness were because Paddock had been a constant companion for two lonely, frustrating years, and he was being shipped off on a wagon to kill and to die on a strange battlefield. The tears of joy were because the Academy’s acceptance of her project was virtually guaranteed to be her sought after white coat.
A white coat with Radham’s coat of arms on the breast guaranteed her future. Radham was among the top ten schools in the Crown States, its students consequently among the top ten percent of those available in the Crown States, and only a small fraction of those actually saw it through and graduated. With that coat, she could have picked any city in the Crown States to live in and found a place there, earning the most comfortable wage that that city could afford to pay her. She might have run her own clinic or served as a science officer in a military base, and people would have tipped their hats to her and called her ma’am out of respect for what that coat represented.
But it didn’t really work that way, did it?
There might have been people who got their white coats and didn’t care about advancing, but those students didn’t attend Radham. They weren’t teased by rumors and by their witnessing of Radham’s greater projects and advancements. Even as they stood among the top five percent of the doctors in the Crown States, they were made to feel small, and they were made to feel hungry. Like all of her graduating peers, she had seen the coveted specialist’s gray coat as a stepping stone, not a goal.
She had played the political game, used what she’d learned in Kensford among the backstabbing aspirant Dames to sabotage rivals, she had worked to pay for her apartment, found a boyfriend that would complement her image, and attended special classes. She had worked as a research assistant, studying Wyvern, and then one of the professors that had taught a specialist class had called her in to a special meeting. She’d earned a mentor, the space, and the leeway to work on a notable project. In doing so, she’d drawn attention and become the target of countless small and large sabotage attempts.
Nevermind that her own damn project had been sabotaging her. That had been the breaking point. There was more to it, but she’d seen disaster looming and had decided to cut her losses. Professor Hayle had agreed.
From the time that she was four until the time she was twenty-seven, she’d worked so damn hard. When she looked in the mirror, she could see faint hints of exhaustion etched around her eyes, which never went away, no matter how much she slept, how well she ate, or how many days she took to enjoy peace and quiet while working in her lab. She was approaching thirty and her youth was behind her.
For what? Was she a glorified babysitter? The only reason she made it a question in her own head was that ‘glorified’ might have been too generous and lofty a descriptor.
Nora, with Lara chiming in, was giving a recap of the conversation with Sy to Lillian, Mary, and Helen.
They had moved more toward the city center and found refuge in a covered bridge. To listen in, Sylvester would either have to crawl along the underside of the bridge and press his ear to the underside, or move along the tin roof and cook alive there. He couldn’t approach or stand at the ends of the bridge without being spotted, and wouldn’t be in earshot there.
The shade was nice, and the space was cool in the moments the wind blew in one end and out the other, but it was stifling otherwise.
“Um, then said he’s enjoying the company of the Lambs the only way he could? He’s teasing, lurking, watching, then shows up.”
“When he thinks he won’t get attacked,” Lara said, before adding under her breath, “Gnatwit.”
“Yeah. That,” Nora said. “What the runt said. Then he said he’d let us get close and then run. And if we play along enough, he’ll give us something we can give to the people in charge, so the Lambs look good.”
“How kind of him,” Mary said, very dry.
“And then-” Nora started, before being interrupted.
Lara put a sleeve-clad arm out, smushing her forearm against Nora’s face. “-Then he said he wants to let people know that children need protecting. The future needs protecting. This situation will scare the people here. Make them act. He said the Devil’s old alliances are breaking down and they might not tolerate him any more. If we don’t get the Devil, then he will.”
“You forgot a whole part! Lacey said stuff and Sylvester said he was complicated and-”
Lara smushed up Nora’s face again, interrupting. “That part wasn’t important. I was trying to be brief and efficient.”
“We can leave it at that,” Lacey said. “They summed it up. There was more, about his bigger plans, about the Lambs, but they don’t matter for this mission. Later, I, Nora, or Lara will fill you in on what he had to say.”
She could see Lillian and Mary practically squirm with their desire to hear just what Sylvester had had to say. In another situation, she might have felt bad for them. In this situation, she only felt a pit of concern in her gut.
“He’s a whirlpool,” Lacey said, doing her best to diplomatically address that concern, “The closer you get to him the greater his leverage. Get too close and you’re no longer in control.”
“Interesting metaphor,” Duncan observed. “I think that’s the fifth ‘Sylvester is dangerous’ metaphor I’ve heard in the last two days. Maybe the most accurate one.”
Lacey gave him a small smile. “Thank you. Listen, I know I’m not in charge. I’m here to watch, offer some counsel based on what I know about Sylvester, provide a bit more legitimacy to the group than you might otherwise have, and to dole out pills. I’m not the leader. But if you’re willing to take my advice, I would strongly advise that you keep your eye on the prize. Put feelings aside. You have a plan. Stick to it. Don’t get caught up in Sylvester’s pull.”
“Devil first, then Sylvester,” Mary said. She had a hard look in her eyes again. It hadn’t taken much to remind her to put her feelings aside. But Mary was like that. It might even be a programmed trait, something that Percy had done to her, much like he’d made her so very focused on training her body and her expertise with weapons.
Mary was easy. Lillian- Lacey could look at the girl and see that she wasn’t wholly convinced. The pit of concern remained in Lacey’s stomach.
It would, much like the girls’ desire to ask more questions, and the myriad other distractions that Sylvester would throw in their way, be something that she had to put off until later.
“Exactly,” Lacey said, before reaffirming, “Stick to the plan.”
It wasn’t wholly by accident that she met Lillian’s eyes briefly as she said the latter part.
“We know where his new headquarters are,” Mary said. “We took down three of his new lieutenants this morning, and we put down the Skippers last night. They won’t be reinforcing him. The Apostle and the Witch are dead. The Spears, I forget what they called themselves exactly, they’re still out there, but there is enough animosity and enough loyalty to other corners that I’m not sure if they’ll be confident in getting involved. It’s time. We hit his headquarters.”
“What are you thinking?” Helen asked, walking around the periphery of the group, placing herself between Lara and Nora and putting an arm around each of their shoulders.
“Hm?” Lillian asked. “I’m trying to anticipate Sylvester. I think… Duncan and I are primary targets. He’s made that clear enough with Duncan. Sorry, Duncan.”
“Not your fault,” Duncan said.
“You’re thinking he’ll use our focus on the Devil to come after you?” Mary asked.
“One of us,” Lillian said. “Probably when the task is very nearly wrapped up. If I had to guess, he’ll turn us into a liability somehow. I can think of several times in the past he’s disabled people with poison and then held the antidote at arm’s length. He could use something that affects our mental faculties, something that binds us to an area…”
“He used gas to deliver a drug payload last night,” Duncan said.
“And to cover his retreat just now,” Lacey added. Nora nodded her agreement at that.
“Turning us into a liability ensures we can never use our full strength against him, we’re constantly off balance. And…” Lillian spread her hands. “…I don’t know. He’s more able to draw us into his flow in the way Lacey described.”
“Something to watch out for,” Lillian said.
There were nods all around.
“I guess it works that we’re all together now,” Lillian said. “How are you all?”
“My group is managing,” Duncan said. “We had a moment of nice teamwork, with Ashton on point. Sylvester went and found someone that could shrug off Ashton and left her and her boyfriend lying in wait with a gun.”
“I mentioned that,” Lara said. Nora pointed at Lara, as if to confirm.
“Not in so many words,” Mary said. “Good job, all of you.”
“I didn’t really do anything,” Lara said.
“You communicated after the fact,” Duncan said. “It’s what you’re made to do.”
The little experiment nodded. Just as the nod concluded, Lacey could see a glimmer of some emotion the girl wasn’t completely hiding, as she looked toward the ground. Disappointment? Frustration?
A part of her wanted to respond to that. To make a mental note to put in the effort later, to encourage the girl, explore the feeling in question, resolve the problem.
The Lacey of four years ago might have.
“They’re doing well. We ate well, rested as well as we were able. I’m not sure how much we can contribute, but my experiments and I will help with the Devil if we can.”
“Emmett, are you confident, giving some direct help? I can guide you,” Mary said.
“Good. We stick together as a group, keep watch as we move to the Devil’s headquarters, then we split up,” Mary said. She looked to Lillian for confirmation, and Lillian gave her a short nod.
The group moved on. Mary, Emmett, Ashton and Helen took the lead, Mary talking to Emmett, who was mostly content to listen, and Helen clinging to Ashton, while quizzing him.
Toward the middle of the collected group, Abby walked Quinton, and Nora and Lara talked to one another, bickering.
Lacey walked with Duncan and Lillian, the three of them trailing behind the rest. The wheels of Lillian’s case clacked as they rolled over the wooden slats of the covered footbridge.
“No injuries?” Duncan asked.
“Very minor ones. Mary wanted to be on the hunt all night, but after she got a bad scrape, I decided we were done. Too tired, and she’s only human. More focused than most, but you can’t keep up that focus for hours on end without something suffering.”
“It’s good you got rest,” Duncan said.
“Agreed,” Lacey said. She’d worried when they had had to vacate the headmaster’s house, but the Lambs knew how to secure temporary accommodations.
She liked Duncan. He tried, he was focused, and he had a lot of promise. There were things he needed to work on, he’d effectively been dropped into this role without seeking it out. They shared common background in that.
“How are they?” Lacey asked.
“The little ones? Reliable, scared, impenetrable, and sensitive.”
He didn’t even need to name them.
“I’m worried this is a test run, a prelude for something that’s in the works. A second Lambs team?”
“It’s not,” Lacey said. “And I say that as someone who knew about the project when it was only a concept.”
“I agree,” Lillian said. “Can’t be. Doesn’t work, that’s not what the Lambs are.”
“Clever, capable experiments with a partial emphasis on their mental abilities,” Duncan said.
“Operating as a group,” Lillian said. “Built to lean on one another.”
“Right,” Duncan said. “We had that for a moment, dealing with the two teenagers that had the gun. If someone like me can strike the right note once while fumbling with the instruments I’ve been provided with, I feel a sustained note could be doable with practice. With a lot of practice. Or with someone else at the helm.”
He leaned forward to look past Lacey and give Lillian a pointed look as he said it.
“You don’t want the job?” Lillian asked.
“No. Not at all. Not in the long run.”
A stepping stone, Lacey thought.
She wasn’t sure what to expect. Would Lillian talk about the merits of the job? What she appreciated about it?
“I think I understand,” Lillian said. “I didn’t want the role either. Not at first.”
“Hm,” Duncan made a noise. His expression was knit into something more thoughtful and concerned.
“Spooky to think about?” Lillian asked.
“Heh. Very spooky,” Duncan said, smiling.
“Duncan?” Helen called back. She beckoned for Duncan to come forward, while clutching Ashton’s head to her side.
The smile dropped off of Duncan’s face.
“Very, very spooky,” he reaffirmed.
“Helen?” Lillian asked. “You can’t give her a prey response, or she’ll pounce on it. It’s all in fun, either way.”
“The prey instinct is involuntary, in my case,” Duncan said. “It’s a question of gender, and Helen developing into a weapon against my gender. If we switched positions, I think you might find it harder than it is in your shoes.”
“Maybe, but my shoes also benefit from years of experience,” Lillian said.
Duncan held up a finger, “I could make an argument-”
“Duncan, dear,” Helen cooed. “Sweetheart. Ashton and I would like you to join the discussion, pretty please.”
“-And I won’t, now that I think about it. Thank you, Helen,” Duncan said. He raised his voice, “One second!”
“Thank you,” Helen replied, before leaning down to kiss the top of Ashton’s head, rubbing her cheek against it to muss up his tidy hair.
Duncan spoke under his breath, “Why did that request sound menacing?”
“Helen is not being menacing,” Lillian said.
“Is there a tell? Something I can listen or watch for?”
“No. I’m drawing on years of experience of dealing with her. You are in no real danger. Except maybe from Ibbot.”
Duncan huffed out a sigh, “Would you? I don’t want to drop it when she tackles me or scares the living daylight out of me again.”
He extended the leash of his tentacle dog to Lacey. She took it.
Free to go, Duncan then picked up his pace, catching up to Ashton and Helen.
“And I know just what argument you were about to make before she interrupted,” Lillian said, under her breath, in an uncharacteristic dark tone, “Thank you, Duncan, for not finishing the thought and making me slap you. You’re learning.”
When Lacey didn’t venture a response, Lillian looked over and up. “You knew what he was going to say, I’m sure.”
“I didn’t think about it,” Lacey said.
“He can be so nice to be around when he doesn’t put his foot in his mouth,” Lillian said. “But get him caught up in an argument or put him on his back foot, and he says things that he shouldn’t.”
It took Lacey a moment to catch up. He was going to turn the tables. Accused of being weak in the face of Helen, was he going to say something about Lillian and Sylvester?
Yes. It was good he’d kept his mouth shut. Thank you Helen, indeed.
Rather than comment, Lacey said, “I’m trying to stay objective, and not get too wrapped up in things. I made that mistake once upon a time, when Sylvester was involved. I promised myself I wouldn’t repeat it when I agreed to come on this trip.”
“Uh huh,” Lillian said. “So, based on what you just said, you’d tell me that earlier, when you were talking about Sylvester’s pull and the threat of getting too close, you weren’t saying it to me?”
There was a significant gap between the time that Lacey had first been involved with the team, when Lillian was brand new, and the present day. She’d kept tabs on how her project was doing, and how the Lambs were operating, but Lillian hadn’t been part of what she asked about and looked for.
A mistake, that, and one she regretted. Maybe she could have offered more counsel. Maybe she would be more aware of just how canny Lillian could be, after years of keeping up with the Lambs. Periodic sharing of Sylvester’s doses of Wyvern, too, according to the higher-ups.
“When I talked about the whirlpool, I was talking to you, yes,” Lacey said.
Lillian shook her head a little.
“I don’t want you to suffer where I’ve suffered,” Lacey said. “I look at you and Duncan and I see a glimmer of my old self. The Academy is cutthroat. Radham more than most. If you fall behind or make a mistake, it can take a long time to get back to where you were.”
“‘What was it you said? ‘Stick to the plan?’,” Lillian asked.
“Absolutely. Here, and in the greater scheme of it all.”
“Greater scheme. I just now realized… when Sylvester was talking about his, you cut off the girls. You didn’t want him to say it. Was it because you were worried we would get caught up in his pull? Something big, drawing our attention and drawing us closer, until we’re swept up in it?”
Lacey frowned a little, then glanced at Lillian. She saw the look in her eyes. “Speaking of realizations-”
“You’re deflecting, Lacey,” Lillian challenged. “I’ve spent long enough around Sylvester that I’m not about to get distracted by something that blatant.”
“That’s fine,” Lacey said. “But you’re more defensive and hostile than you should be. How much of the combat drug did you inject into yourself before you went into the building?”
“I played it by ear. The mood response to the drug depends on my mood, so I have to adjust.”
“I’m well aware of the peculiarities of different combat drugs,” Lacey said. “I have a gen. spec. in drugs and poisons. I know how that can sometimes be necessary. That in mind, when your mood is far outside the usual bounds, your judgment when ‘playing something by ear’ is not always going to be optimal. You can overshoot.”
“I don’t think I overshot,” Lillian said.
“Alright,” Lacey said, doing her best not to let her doubts creep into her tone.
“Who was the liar in the group?” Lillian asked.
“Sylvester was given massive doses of Wyvern from a very early stage in his life. I know he learned from others. He started off by building his identity as a mosaic of the people around him. He’s very good at lying, but your response just now, I don’t think he got the lying from you. Deflection, maybe, but not deception. You’re too transparent.”
She’d let Lillian see or hear her doubts, then.
“I don’t think the others in my group were good liars,” Lacey said. She paused. “But if they were, I don’t suppose I would have realized. Could it be the other Lambs?”
“No,” Lillian said. “Not the other Lambs. He resisted copying anything important from them, because it was his job to mold himself around them, around us.”
“I know that, but there were a number of redundancies,” Lacey said. “He learned lockpicking, like many of you. Acting and presentation, like Helen.”
“And he got it in his head to learn some of Mauer’s manipulation, and Fray’s approach, and he picked up some bloodthirstiness along the way,” Lillian agreed. “But I’m talking about the Sylvester in the very, very beginning. Before he started picking up those things. I was with the group for a year and a half before he even dabbled in lockpicking again. Redundancies came later.”
“I don’t know,” Lacey said. “I think deception and lying are pretty endemic, in the Academy. Rich compost to grow a schemer.”
“Maybe,” Lillian said. “I won’t argue it. Like you say, I could be under the lingering influence of the drug.”
There was bitterness in the sentence.
Babysitting. How ironic, that when she’d tried to look after the child in her care, she’d pushed him away. But when she’d resolved not to do it, she found herself stuck with the responsibility.
“I would recommend…” Lacey said, as carefully as she could, pausing to find her words. She didn’t get the chance.
“That I don’t use the combat drug again,” Lillian said.
“Yes. Dealing with Sylvester will be hard enough, but if you’re in an altered state, even in the mildest sense, it might be something he can use.”
“I already resolved not to, from the moment you brought it up. I’ve been trying it to see if I couldn’t get an edge, something I could use. We had time before we focused on Sylvester. I thought I’d try a test run in a more serious situation. The costs aren’t worth the gain, I couldn’t even really feel the benefits of the drug. I hoped I could find a chemical that might cover up weaknesses, but they only ever hurt me.”
Lacey diplomatically held her tongue.
“Before,” Lillian said. “When you stopped Lara and Nora from talking about Sylvester’s big plans. That was on purpose. To keep the Lambs from getting excited about it?”
“Yes,” Lacey said. “In part.”
She didn’t let that thread of the conversation drop after all. Well trained by Sylvester.
Lillian nodded, seemingly satisfied, but then asked, “Academy mandate, or your own decision?”
Another satisfied nod. Lillian switched hands, pulling her case behind her with the other. Lacey wound up the leash around her hand, bringing the tentacle dog in closer.
Abby was watching out for Sylvester, keeping her eye on the surroundings, on ledges and rooftops. She kept getting distracted by Quinton or by the birds that were trying to find shade from the summer sun.
Helen, Duncan, and Ashton were all having what seemed to be a civil conversation, with none of the blood or terror that Duncan had prophesied. Ashton seemed to be leading the discussion.
Mary and Emmett and the communication experiments seemed content to talk, still.
“You’re the expert when it comes to Wyvern,” Lillian said, ending the break in the conversation.
“In a way.”
“Sylvester of the past, he was a mosaic. Blank, mirroring people around him. Adjusting how he learned and copying things, picking up skills and figuring out the ones to retain with his rapidly dwindling retention. Until things leveled off, and more of his personality and nature solidified.”
“Accurate,” Lacey said.
“He picked up some things from enemies, but he mostly remained in a kind of equilibrium. He adjusted, adapted, and focused on molding himself around the Lambs. Sometimes he forgot things, like lockpicking, to pick up other skills. As we lost some Lambs, he changed his approach. Consciously or unconsciously. Tried to fill in for Jamie. Became far more aggressive after we lost Gordon.”
“You’d be more familiar with that era than I am.”
“That’s the Sylvester of yesterday. But-” Lillian said, pausing. “But what’s he like today? What’s there, when he’s this independent? He has help. He has the rabbit man. The other man, Samuel, who he collected from prison. Did he get them to emulate them? Who else is he copying? Or-”
Lillian stopped there.
“Or is he not copying anyone?” Lacy finished.
“I don’t know what to expect, and that terrifies me. Who is this Sylvester we’re about to face?”
“I imagine he’s adapting to work well with whoever he has near him,” Lacey said. “I would say that, based on what I know, what I’ve read of your mission files, and what you’ve said, that he tends to mirror or conform around strong figures. Big personalities, major players, people he’s impressed by.”
“The rabbit feels more like a pawn.”
“Okay,” Lillian said.
Based on the signs she was seeing, Lacey was suspicious that Lillian’s combat drug was a variant on liquid courage. Mood altering, with some minor benefits to coordination, to strength, stamina, and the ability to tolerate pain. A mild drug, by most metrics, one that could be given to new soldiers and conscripted civilians to make them combat ready. Emotional highs came with more focus and less confusion. Flight fed fight. All emotions did.
Still feeling the influence of the drug, Lillian was more confrontational than she might otherwise be. That would fade fast. But that confrontational attitude was fed by other emotions, and it wasn’t terror.
Whether she was aware of it or not, Lillian was wearing her heart well on her sleeve. She hadn’t taken the classes on hormones and mood that Lacey had specialized in. Lillian’s anxieties, her hopes, her broken heart that hadn’t quite mended, all were bleeding through in a single color.
It would be better to stay silent. To discourage this relationship and game that Sylvester was trying to foster with the Lambs. Lacey opted to speak, instead.
“In the early days, Wyvern shaped him on the most fundamental levels. Or it helped him shape himself. In the days you came to know him best, it helped him shape his ever-shifting role and skills, and it helped him conform and adapt to fit the team’s needs. He focused a lot on all of you. I would guess that he committed what he wanted to keep. Right now, I would surmise that Wyvern is being turned to other focuses. Whatever it takes to put his greater plan into play, he’s using Wyvern to help facilitate that. Leadership, maybe, longer-term planning. I don’t know.”
Lillian didn’t say anything to that. She seemed to ruminate on it.
“Lillian,” Lacey said, even though she suspected she shouldn’t. “He’ll have shucked off many of the traits or adaptations that he needed to be a member of a group of five or six Lambs. Everything he needed to be a loyal agent of the Academy, for that matter. He’ll have dropped some pretensions and he’ll have picked up others, and he might well have changed how he acts or presents himself. Some things hold true, however. His treatment of Duncan shows that.”
Lillian smiled a little. “His treatment of the new boys and girls, too.”
She was looking in the direction of Abby and Quinton.
“I think, if you were to talk to him now, Lillian, you’d find he’s more Sylvester than the Sylvester you knew. Everything he wanted to be, in part, that he’s now free to build up, and, on the other hand, all of the other parts of him that were buried by other things, and those other things are free to fade away.”
“Why do you somehow make that sound like a bad thing?” Lillian asked Lacey.
Lacey smiled, “Did I?”
“No. Yes. Almost.”
“I’m not sure myself. He apologized to me, you know.”
“He also said I was one of the half-decent doctors,” Lacey said. “Damned with faint praise.”
“High praise!” Lillian countered, grasping at Lacey’s sleeve. “Not the highest praise, but for Sylvester, that’s a kindness. He resents just about every doctor out there, whether their coats are white, gray, or black. Exceptions for some of the illegitimate sorts in lab coats, rogues and enemies we’ve encountered along the way, but even where he likes them as people, he dislikes them as doctors. To call you half-decent is the sweetest thing!”
Lacey frowned. She also noted that Lillian’s mood had visibly lifted after the mention of Sylvester being more Sylvester than before, which made her deeply regret saying anything.
“You don’t sound as if you believe me,” Lillian said.
“I believe you. Still, I can’t wrap my head around the idea. If I’m half-decent, and this is high praise, what in the King’s name is actually decent in his eyes?”
“Me,” Lillian said. “Not the me of now, but the ideal me he wants me to become. It sounds so conceited, saying that. But it’s his conceit that I’m admitting to, not mine.”
“You don’t sound upset about it.”
“Because I’m not. It’s flattery, much like what he said to you. And I plan to do my ultimate best to live up to that expectation. It’s a… shimmering outline that stands in the distance ahead of me. Every day I study, every time I coordinate well with the Lambs, every time I’m kind, I feel like I get closer and closer to filling it. It’s something I already wanted for myself, but it means a lot to have someone believe to that extent.”
Lacey’s smile found its way to her face, and it was a genuine smile. But at the same time, she felt a twinge of jealousy, and a knot of despair.
The poor girl was in love, it was plain to see.
There was no way that would end well.
“Talk to me about your final project,” Lacey said.
“Another deflection?” Lillian asked.
“Blatantly. Chances are good that he’s watching and listening in somehow. If you keep talking about him like that, his head or his heart is going to swell up and explode, and we won’t be able to bring him in alive, like all of you are so keen to do.”
Lillian’s giggle was nice to hear, after some of the tension of the long discussion.
Their conversation mercifully turned to muscle types and arrangements, stand-ins for muscle, and structural elements. The conversation, as such, whiled away the remainder of their walk, before Mary raised her hand to give the signal, and the group fell silent.
Lacey didn’t know the signals, but she could draw conclusions.
They were close.
“Stay close,” Lillian said, grabbing gain for Lacey’s arm. “Abby, you too, come here.”
Duncan, too, broke away, retreating to join their group. Mary, Emmett, Ashton, and Helen remained at the group in the lead. At Mary’s instruction, the pair of Lara and Nora split up with one going to Mary’s group and one to Lillian’s.
Once they were organized, they moved more cautiously as a whole. Conversation ceased, and everyone’s attention was focused on the greater danger. Mary’s group would move up a distance, and then they would signal for Lillian’s group to catch up.
In this way, they approached to within a block of a building in construction. The building was swaddled in cloth drapes and scaffolding, and construction had obviously been interrupted at one point or another,because branches of builder’s wood had grown and then been ignored. Without being cut, they had continued to grow day by day and week by week, at a fraction of their original speed. Now branches wove their way into the scaffolding.
It probably looked worse than it was. The branches could be cut back. Construction could be readily resumed once the budget dispute or other problems were resolved.
In the meantime, it was a fortress. A building of stone, with men perched here and there on the scaffolding and the ledges and wall-tops that the incompleteness of the building provided them. Taken on their own, they might be taken to be construction workers or men simply hanging out and shooting the shit. With the knowledge that the Devil was within, however, it was more ominous. Those men were likely armed.
They collectively shrank back into meager shadows as a group of people moved by. There was no telling if they were threats patrolling the area or civilians going about their business.
Mary signaled. Lillian translated.
They stayed. They watched, and they waited as Mary led her group toward the building at an angle they were less likely to be seen. They found a way to cross the street in a cart’s shadow without being too exposed, then disappeared as they approached an climbed from an angle that Lacey couldn’t see.
But, in the wake of that, Helen and Mary could be seen on the scaffolding. It was all wood, and it seemed to creak, because men turned their heads and shouted, but the girls soon found a rhythm. Helen distracted, while Mary clung to the underside of one set of boards, and a strategic kick to break a board or a stab between the slats served to bring a man down. For the next batch, they switched roles, and Helen could be seen climbing with uncanny ease on the underside of one shelf, while Mary drew the attention.
Helen got her hands on one man, and, with one hand clinging to her handhold, dangling, she used her other three limbs to mangle him.
“Does it bother you?” Lillian asked.
“Yes,” Lara said. Or was it Nora?
“Yes,” Abby said. “I don’t like violence. But it doesn’t bother me as much as it once did. I could get used to it.”
“Oh?” Lillian asked. “I’m surprised at that. It sounds like you want to get used to it.
On the scaffolding, Ashton walked along one set of planks with excruciating slowness.
“I do,” Abby said. “I don’t want to be powerless forever.”
“There’s more ways to power than violence,” Duncan said.
“For you, and for Lacey, and for Lillian, maybe,” Abby said.
She didn’t say anything more.
Ashton remained very still, five feet below one of the men, who was keeping an eye out for Mary and Helen, both of whom had disappeared inside the building.
The man’s searches grew ever more erratic, before he recklessly stumbled in a direction, twisted around on hearing something inside, and missed his footing.
He hit a sash-like drape of of cloth that was supposed to cover a window that hadn’t yet been installed, but had been tied at the bottom to help secure scaffolding. It might have broken his fall, but he hit it at a bad angle, and he didn’t move very much at all on landing.
In a matter of a few minutes, with Mary’s group reconvening here and there, the guards were systematically disposed of.
Mary appeared on the scaffolding, found where Lillian’s group was, and raised a hand signal.
“Let’s go,” Lillian said. She’d finished putting on her gloves.
“Go?” Duncan asked.
“Into the building, up the scaffold. It’s the safest place to be, I think. Up high is usually better.”
“With no escape routes,” Duncan observed.
“There’s more to it. Sandwiching them. Having the vantage point. Just trust us,” Lillian said. “You have to trust.”
They trusted. They made the approach, less careful than Mary had been, but there were no more people on watch.
Emmett waited by the ramp that led up to the first section of scaffold. From there, they made their way to Ashton, who joined them as they made their way up to the upper floor.
The interior floor wasn’t entirely complete, and ladders stood in places where stairwells would later be installed.
The top floor was only struts and beams, lengths of wood knit together by builder’s wood, and incidentally reinforced by one branch from the overgrowth of wood from an outside section. The wind blew through the missing sections of wall.
They crawled along the beams and struts. As they did so, they could see Helen and Mary on the fourth floor, below, moving with caution, their communications experiment sticking close by them. Through gaps here and there, other figures could be seen and heard on lower floors.
“Headmaster,” their Nora/Lara experiment whispered. Transcribing. “You have very little room to negotiate. Lara says his voice is weird.”
“The Devil?” Lillian murmured.
“The Devil: The thing is, while I may not have your children, I do have the gentleman you entrusted with their care. Under duress, he has told me he has squirreled them away. He is the only one who knows where they are, according to him, because you foresaw this very circumstance. You knew I’d find you and I’d want to use you. But… now we have a conundrum, don’t we?
“The Headmaster: I don’t see why you’re focusing on this, when your people are being cut down by the score.
“The Devil: My people. The ones that were worth keeping, I’ve kept close. Half of the police force is mine. A full two thirds of your office is loyal to me. There is nobody in this city who can die, who I cannot replace. Short of the city being leveled, I will not lose any power. Do you understand? I have my roots in everything that this city is. I have been working to set those roots for longer than you’ve been in office. All the power you think you hold is a joke I’ve let you entertain. I can see in your eyes, your eye, rather, that you’re realizing this.
“Either your man will break and he’ll divulge where your children are, or he’ll eventually expire from this duress I’ve applied. If he does, even you won’t know where your children are. Your only option, the only thing you can do, is to capitulate. You’re going to do everything I’ve told you and more, and then, when you’re done, I’m going to torture you to death.
“The Devil: You crossed me. You got in my way. You die. But if you capitulate, I might let your children live. I might even be generous in making my decision if you entertain me, sir. How much damage can a man do to himself with a knife, I wonder, before he decides his children aren’t worth it anymore?”
Lying beside Lacey so as better to see through the gaps in the floor, Abby raised her hands over her ears. She didn’t have Quinton. Emmett wasn’t here either. Were they outside, where there was less chance of being heard?
Lacey put a hand on Abby’s back, her best effort at being reassuring.
“The Devil: Don’t think about using that knife on me. I’ve taken measures. If I do not appear to the right people at the right times, then others will act on my behalf. Money will go to bounty hunters and bounty hunters will, given time, come for you and yours, and for all the rest of my enemies. The man who has squirreled your children away and secured them in a cellar or vault somewhere will die, and your children may die of thirst as they wait for you to return.”
Lillian raised her head. She reached out, and touched Lacey’s upper arm.
Lacey followed Lillian’s line of sight.
On the other side of one of the cloths was a silhouette. A tall man with rabbit ears.
The silhouette passed with scarcely a sound. The creak of wood could well have been the wind moving the scaffolding.
But as it passed, a figure remained.
“The Devil: Now, take a moment, because the screams from outside really should be-”
Lillian reached out, and put a hand over Nora’s mouth.
The figure reached out and pushed the cloth aside. Sylvester. He peeked through.
The group was lying across beams and across the meager sections of floor that had boards in. Nobody could rise to their feet fast enough to give chase, and the situation was precarious enough that nobody would dare make noise.
His hand moved. A series of gestures.
Then he ducked behind the curtain, so to speak, and followed the rabbit.
What did he get from me, if he didn’t get the lies? What aspects of his personality came from me?
“I. Help,” Lillian translated the gesture. “Of course. He wants to play at being a proper Lamb again.”