The trains had been outfitted with more seats, to make up for the higher demand on the lines that were still active. Less leg room, less aisle space. The new benches had armrests placed to divide them, constraining how many people could sit on each bench, with an eye toward encouraging more people per bench.
Considering that the force that was pushing so many people to take the trains and get away from the west coast was a plague, pressing so many people in together seemed like a poor idea.
The train car had been crowded for far, far too long. It had been the kind of crowded that spilled over, the sort of crowded that ruined everything it touched. Children had crawled underfoot, conversations had risen to a shouting volume just so their participants could be heard. Even with windows open, the human smell and the noise had been compounded by the enclosed space.
I’d turned to Wyvern to shut out the most obnoxious and offensive of the stimuli, curled up, and lost myself in thinking about nothing in particular.
I had just enough room to curl up in one seat with my satchel wedged in between my side and the armrest, a short barrier to block off the rest of the world. It was warm, but I still kept my hooded raincoat draped over me. A blanket, with the hood rolled up to be a makeshift pillow. My legs were pulled up beneath me, my head rested against the window, my eyes tracking everything that was going on outside.
Getting on the train meant a full physical checkup. Getting off the train meant the same. The sole saving grace of this plague was that the physical signs were often early and obvious. We had stopped at a station, and the exodus of passengers were currently being sorted out by gender on the station platform, being directed into separate booths and buildings.
“Excuse me,” the train’s conductor said, behind me.
It was easier not to move, to pretend to be asleep.
I watched through the window as a mother was reluctantly separated from her child. Heat was making tempers hotter, fuses shorter.
I saw shadows move as a hand reached for me.
“Oh,” Shirley said, from her seat across from me. The seats were arranged so that one set of three chairs faced another, and when the train was most crowded, space for knees and feet alternated between a row of seats and the row facing it.
Shirley must have been half-asleep too, given the slowness of her response. She had a line of sight to see my face, even looked me in the eye, but she still said, “No need to wake him. He’s with me.”
“Ah, very good. This is Radham. I thought, since the young gentleman had a raincoat, he might be doing what many Radham natives do and prepared his raincoat well in advance. I wanted to ensure he didn’t sleep through his stop.”
This was Radham?
I hadn’t even recognized Radham? The quarantine buildings were new and blocked a large share of the view, but even so, it caught me off guard.
“We aren’t getting off here, no. Passing through.”
“Very good. I’ll double check your ticket… you’ve come a fair way already.”
“We’ve been on the train for a day and a half, now.”
“And you’ll be on the train for a while yet, it seems. His is the same?”
“That’ll do just fine. Are you familiar with this stretch of the journey?”
“Not at all.”
“We’ll be hitting mostly rural towns and smaller cities, and if nothing has changed from the last few weeks, we’ll bleed more passengers than we take on. The hour is late, and it’s a quiet leg of the journey. The next stretch of the journey should be quieter and less crowded, but you’ll notice we’ll spend as much time stopped as we spend moving. For the stops that don’t have their own, the doctors in the first car set up our own quarantine tent for checks.”
“They have to get everything set up? Tent, tables?”
“All of it, every time. But I’ll be at your disposal. We have books, if you’re a reader, and I can bring you tea and treats on request. Blankets, too, if you want to try sleeping through the night.”
“Does everyone get such dedicated service?”
“No, not everyone does, heh. But it’s really no trouble when the cars are as empty as they are. I’ll be asking about tea in about half an hour, if you don’t request some any sooner, but until then I’ll be at the other end of the car, cleaning up. We should be moving in fifteen minutes.”
“That’s all very reassuring to know, especially as I’m not a frequent traveler. Thank you kindly, sir.”
“You’re very welcome. But, just to let you know, there may be something of an inconvenience. The train car, given how empty it is, might be commandeered. If it looks like that might be the case, I’ll try to warn you in advance. I wouldn’t want you harassed.”
“Everything is so very astir, isn’t it?” Shirley asked.
“Very much so. Any city with an Academy is more astir than most. You have a nice evening, ma’am, and I’ll bring the tea trolley along in a bit.”
I could hear the man’s footsteps recede.
When he was out of earshot, Shirley murmured, “I dare say that man fancies me.”
I looked away from the quarantine buildings and the sprawl of Radham and met her eyes. She gave me a smile.
“I did that right?” she asked. “We are continuing on?”
“Okay,” she said, letting out a small exhalation of relief. “That’s good. I don’t want to press you for answers, but I do wish I knew more about what we were doing here.”
“I know,” I said.
I looked out at the city as the train started moving.
Radham. It hadn’t changed so much, but it was no longer a place that felt like home. I heaved no sigh of relief as the train slowed and then stopped, knowing I was mostly free to do as I pleased for the next while. No calibration of my thoughts to think about the times I wasn’t free, and to plot how to handle them, like my appointments, and what to say the next time I saw Hayle.
There was no adjustment of thought patterns or pace as we arrived here, anymore. There was no fondness. I’d said my goodbyes to it.
Not the final goodbye, I thought. I would come back. I’d started my journey here, and before I ended the journey, I would get answers, and I would see some injustices answered.
But not now. Especially not when I felt so raw, and when every direction of thinking seemed to hurt.
I heard the door shut at the far end of the train car. A group made their way down the narrow aisle.
They stopped by Shirley and I.
“We can’t all cluster here. It would be madness.”
“Three, maybe four people?”
“Thinking about this logically… the new recruits aren’t that talkative, because they’re that new, we don’t want to inflict Duncan on Sy, and Mary is hostile to him unless we feed her a task to accomplish. Jamie and Lillian won’t talk to Sy. That cuts down the options. How many people are we using here? Me, if there’s no objection. Helen?”
“I’ll sit, Gordon,” Helen said. She wore the same dress she’d been wearing as I last saw her.
Gordon crossed his arms. He wore a white shirt with no sleeves, and heavy pants tucked into boots. Clothes like a laborer might wear. It showed off the seams in his body. Sweat more than pomade or oil helped to slick his golden hair back, and his eyes were intense.
“Good. Then who else? Evette? Ashton?”
“I’ll sit,” Evette said. She’d taken on an appearance very different from Abby’s, more stable than she’d been, once upon a time. Abby was a bit of a country girl at heart, so Evette had reached out and seized on something that seemed more ‘mad artist’. Elbow length gloves, stockings, black shorts with suspenders, and a white blouse, with her hair cut to a length that exposed the back of her neck, while remaining long enough to cover much of her face and ears. There was more emphasis on hiding the defects, and I wasn’t sure what had provoked her to start doing that in my mind’s eye.
She had a dark circle under her one visible eye, and her lips were thin. She put her bag on the floor in front of her seat and sat down, using the bag as a kind of footstool to prop her feet on.
“Ashton isn’t that familiar a face,” young Jamie said. “I’ll take the fourth seat.”
“Is that a good idea?” Gordon asked.
“I think it will be okay.”
“Alright. Keep an ear out, Ashton? Pay attention?”
“I can do that.”
Gordon, Helen, Evette, and Jamie sat in the seats near Shirley and me. Ashton sat on the other side of the aisle with the other would-be Lambs: the twins, Emmett, Abby, and her pet. Mary, the newer Jamie, Lillian, and Duncan sat at nearby seats and benches. Mary sat so she could twist around and follow what was being said. Duncan paid more attention to the younger crowd.
Lillian and Jamie sat with their backs to me.
“Priority number one,” Gordon said.
“And we’re straight to business,” Jamie commented. The younger Jamie. Softer around the edges. Somehow more able to work with the dynamic, however it presented.
“I think the first point of order,” Helen said, gesturing while using her control over her voice to sound very imperious and ladylike. “Would be tea.”
I saw Mary’s head turn, eyes narrowing, as if she wasn’t sure if Helen was making fun of her with the voice or not.
Jamie, meanwhile, only sat in his seat next to Shirley, curled up in a similar way to me, but facing the group. He smiled, apparently content to watch the discourse.
The difference of Jamie’s age to the newer Jamie was startling and painful to see. He’d been erased in the midst of the summer months, some time ago, and it was summer now. He’d been erased, and the Lambs had been taken off duty until the subsequent spring, when we’d gone to Brechwell, and faced down Fray. A season later, the next summer, the one year anniversary, had been damnably quiet, leaving me little to do to keep myself occupied, except to enjoy Lillian’s company and make initial overtures at getting to know Ashton and the new Jamie.
Then, at the cusp of fall and winter, it had been Lugh. The Primordials, Mauer, and the Duke being shot. I remembered snow had been falling as I left the Lambs behind, broke it off with Lillian, and went after the Baron.
This Spring had been Tynewear. Now it was summer again. That meant we were at, just past, or just approaching the two year anniversary of losing the first Jamie.
He looked so young, so insecure, hugging that book of his. He was shorter than me, which was a feat, considering I perpetually lurked at the lowest bounds of typical height for a boy my age. I could look at him and tell, by body language alone, that he was more introspective.
I’d left him behind at some point, and I hated that that was the case.
“There are bigger priorities than tea,” Gordon said.
“It was such a mess earlier, they can’t even fit trolleys down these aisles, the servers came in with trays of sandwiches and it was such bedlam,” Helen said.
“I know, I was as aware of what was going on as you were. We were there in a manner of speaking,” Gordon said. “First come, first serve.”
“And,” Helen said, holding up a finger, “the fact is that Sylvester does not always look after the essentials. He represses the essentials. His need for sleep, his need for food, his need for whole and physical well-being.”
“You’re not wrong,” Gordon said. “I was more concerned about having a plan by the time we get off this train.”
“It’s a dangerous situation, and we’re not prepared for it,” Evette said.
“Exactly,” Gordon said. “Thank you, Evette.”
“I can see where Helen is coming from,” Jamie said. “We’re sitting here and talking for a reason.”
“Hold on. We as in all of us, or we as in us four, specifically?” Gordon asked.
“Us four,” Jamie and Helen said, at the same time.
“Why am I taking charge in this discussion if you’re just going to go and agree with Helen and be on the same page like that? I thought I’d have to roll up my sleeves and force you all to work together.”
“Helen and I want the same thing,” Jamie said. “We want to look after Sy. He wants to look after himself. Ever since he faced down Sub Rosa and truly believed he would die, he’s had a drive to live.”
Ever since I nearly saw you die at Sub Rosa’s hands, I’ve wanted to ensure that each of you live as well. But I lost you, Jamie. I lost you, Gordon.
“And that drive to live starts with the basics,” Helen pronounced. She and I spoke in unison. “Tea.”
“Hm?” Shirley asked, raising her head.
“If it’s no trouble, I’m… pretty famished. Could I trouble you to take that fellow up on the tea? And any snacks to go along with?”
“I’d be happy to,” Shirley said. “I was just thinking I wanted an excuse to exercise my legs.”
“And cake,” Helen said.
“Could you get something with sugar as well?” I asked.
“That will do,” Helen said.
“Sugar?” Shirley asked. “You mean in the tea, or-”
“Cake, or biscuits, or candy, or something sweet for that fast rush of energy.” I tapped my head. “I need fuel.”
She smiled, stood, and walked down the aisle.
“I like her,” Jamie said. “I’m glad Sy brought her.”
“She’s adorable,” Helen said, “And she’s bringing tea and treats without complaint. That gets almost anyone into my good books.”
“But she needs and wants answers that Sy isn’t giving,” Evette said.
Jamie raised a hand, pointing at Evette. “I know we don’t want to harp on some of the most recent lessons Sy has learned, but I’d really rather not see him make the same mistake while we’re still reeling from the last ones.”
“A lack of consideration?” Gordon asked. “Maybe. But I remember what it was like in my doctor’s lab in the months before I died. Or Sy remembers, because he visited now and then. They’d go exploring, carve me open, dig through my parts, working to shore things up so they’d last a little bit longer, and while they were fixing the one thing, they’d find another two things that were wrong, and while they were fixing those-”
“A routine, minor surgery would become a day-long exercise,” Jamie finished. “One without any actual resolution. At a certain point, they had to cut their losses, accept that some things were bad, and they had to let things be bad.”
“I see your point,” Evette told Gordon. “You’re worried that will happen here?”
“Let’s stay on topic,” Gordon said. “Tea should be coming soon. Let’s get as much figured out as we can, before they arrive with the tea and we’re distracted by eating and drinking. Because there’s a lot to figure out.”
Evette leaned forward, “Starting with what Emmett said.”
A Day and a Half Earlier
Emmett made his way into the bathroom, shutting and locking the door behind him. He stopped at the mirror, brushed at his short hair with his fingers, then set about unbuttoning the fly of his pants, standing before the toilet.
It said a lot about Emmett’s character that he didn’t jump a mile into the air.
It said more that I could hear the stream hit the water. He wasn’t a shy lad.
I was standing on a half-inch thick wooden board that framed a part of the building exterior, just to the left of the open window, one hand gripping the sill to help hold my back and buttocks flat against the wall.
The thrill of the moment wasn’t wholly there. The game of dealing with the Lambs had been soured, at least in the short term.
I waited for his response, and when he didn’t give it, I said, “About that tidbit of information you were offering. I do believe I have something you guys want.”
“Mm hmm,” Emmett made a noise.
Had they trained him to be this hard to get a response out of, knowing it would infuriate me much as Rick had, or was it just his nature?
“I know you guys want Lillian back,” I said, “But I’m going to need that tidbit. And I’m going to want Pierre freed.”
“Yep,” Emmett said.
A part of me wanted to hit him. I was not in the mood. The reflexive desire to strike out or react to his non-utterances was almost enough for me to fall from my perch on the wall.
“Yes, you’re agreeing to the deal, yes you acknowledge my demands, or…?”
“Yes. I agree to the deal.”
“Just like that.”
“We thought you would do this.”
It made sense. They knew what I wanted, and they knew what I had to offer.
“Not this soon, I imagine,” I said.
“No,” Emmett agreed.
He finished his leak, and I could hear the rustle of clothes as he did up the buttons of his pants. The kid must have had some camel in him, to be storing up that much water.
He was surprisingly difficult to engage. Anyone else, I could stir them up into a proper conversation, but Emmett gave me the impression of someone who decided their own pace, then met it. I wondered if it had to do with his Bruno-level strength coupled with his young age. Was there a story there?
No. I had to stop myself.
It didn’t matter. The whole thing with the Lambs was tainted. I couldn’t blindly assume that me being involved in their lives would be for the better.
Emmett was Emmett. I would leave that be. I was here for answers.
I took note of the quiet on the other side.
“I took inspiration from the Devil,” I said. “I don’t know where Lillian is, at the moment. So if you’re thinking about shoving your fist through the window or the wall and trying to grab me, think again.”
“I wasn’t,” Emmett said. “And I’m not that strong.”
“Okay,” I said. I spun out a lie, “Well, getting her back requires that I give you the key right here and right now, and then I go to the right time and the right place to meet the people that have her. Then I can send her to you. I’ll want to see Pierre free, and I’ll need you to pony up that information.”
“That’s all very complicated.”
“Yes, well, I like complicated,” I said. “It’s what I do.”
I wasn’t on my game. My stride had been broken and I hadn’t yet found it again. I wondered if he had the savvy to tell.
“It’s a deal,” Emmett said, “But it still would have been a deal if you hadn’t done the complicated things with right times and right places.”
“Yes. I trust you, and I think you trust us. You were a Lamb.”
Were. Past tense.
If he even had a glimmer of how much of a punch to the gut that was, given recent events…
I had to bite my tongue.
Emmett, mercifully, started to explain. “My parents gave custody of me over to the Academy to see if the Academy could save me. They’d rather never see me again and give me a chance than me have no chance. The Academy started to work on me right away.”
“You said that much before, essentially,” I said.
“Think they probably did the same thing to you, before giving you Wyvern. To Jamie, before hooking him up to Caterpillar.”
I remained silent.
“They talked about things while I was in the room. Things they thought I would forget. They had an argument once, about how to handle my file as it pertained to the block.”
“The block,” I said, committing it to memory. Which made me think… “Memory block, or-“
“Block, as in a place. They were very concerned about sanctions and losing their place in the Academy. One man wanted to send me there, just to be safe. Another wanted to send the file there, along with a letter explaining their approach to my case.”
“Where?” I asked.
“New Amsterdam,” I said. I closed my eyes. It had to be just about the biggest possible single location to damn well have to search.
“Sylvester,” Emmett said. “The drug that they gave me to try and alter my memory? It came from the same place.”
That painted more of a picture. It was like the Academies to centralize activities of a given sort. Had they centralized the kidnapping and child-experimentation angle? At least partially?
“Do you know why I’m telling you this?” Emmett asked.
“Lillian,” I said. Saying her name hurt. I kept flashing back to that look on her face, the sound of her voice as she’d said she didn’t like the person she was when she was with me.
“No,” Emmett said, his voice taking me away from that dark spiral-shaped line of thinking.
I listened, waiting.
“When I told the other Lambs what I knew, and when I heard them talking about what the Baron and you had spoken about. They agreed. This is important. This should stop. They, we were unanimous.”
I nodded, knowing he couldn’t see.
“You’re going to go there. We know this,” Emmett said. “And we’re going to follow you. But if you do escape from us again, and if you do find some answers or hold bad people accountable…”
“…It’s not a bad thing?” I asked.
He was silent, on the other side of the wall.
Was it because he was naturally taciturn, and he’d already uttered the three hundred and sixty-five words he was permitted for the year, or because there was a streak of loyalty in him that kept him from finishing the thought?
“Noted,” I said.
The emotional turmoil crystallized in my gut, pushed down until it compressed into something hard-edged, heavy, and painful to bear. I had a goal. Something to occupy my attention.
“I’m sorry your time with Lillian didn’t go well,” Emmett said.
My head snapped around. That jagged, black mess of emotion in my middle lurched skyward, catching my breath, my heart, and bringing everything into sharp relief.
I froze. I willed it all to stop. If I didn’t move, didn’t think, then it wouldn’t hurt.
Lillian is already back with them.
Just like that.
“Already free. I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer, before.”
“Jamie is free. Elsewhere.”
I winced at that.
This information he was so freely giving was… what? Pity?
No. I somehow couldn’t imagine Emmett giving me this of his own will. Nor would he be so condescending to poor, broken, sad Sylvester. I didn’t get the impression that that was how he thought or acted.
Perhaps Lillian had asked this of him. I could see that. I could see her treating it as an apology to me, when an apology wasn’t even expected or needed.
I wanted to scream in frustration, let all the feelings out. Instead, I let that bristling ugliness sink slowly from my chest cavity to the lowest part of my stomach.
“You’re giving me a headstart?” I asked, to break the silence.
“Yes. We have to talk to the Academy either way.”
I processed that, thinking.
Lillian was supposed to be kept away from the Lambs for two days. But they were giving me the headstart that that would have afforded me. They had presumably freed Pierre, and they were giving me the info I’d wanted without a fight.
Yes. Between Jamie and Lillian, they were extending a kind of apology.
“I keep thinking that you’re going to abruptly leave,” Emmett said. “Will you let me know when you do?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m not much of a talker.”
I smiled to myself. “I know.”
I would have to leave soon. The fear of being spotted and caught by other forces was only part of it. Another part, knowing that Lillian was somewhere in this very building, and Jamie was somewhere outside of it, it meant I had to leave if I wanted to get away from this.
“Emmett,” I said. “I need favors. And I know I’m not in a position to bargain.”
I felt so far from the mighty Lamb that I’d painted myself to be, as I’d taunted them all.
“I’d have to hear the favors before agreeing.”
“Can you tell me if you told Jamie any of what you told me? About Gomer’s Island, in New Amsterdam?”
“No. The conversation with him was brief. He-“
“I don’t want to know,” I said. “Please. No is enough.”
“That might have been the first time in years that I’ve been interrupted,” Emmett mused aloud. “Or been told I’m talking too much.”
“Mm,” Emmett grunted.
I wanted to ask him not to tell Jamie. To keep it a secret and to let me go.
I was aware of how monumentally unfair it was of me to do that. To black Jamie out.
“Did it sound like he said goodbye?” I asked. “Like he was leaving? Or that he had plans?”
“Do you want the long answer or the short one?”
“Short,” I said, hating myself for my cowardice.
“Then yes, to all three questions.”
I nodded, and made sure my exhalation of relief was silent, and that Emmett wouldn’t hear.
“The city. In case it wasn’t clear, two days here should be enough time to build a compelling case to bring back to Radham. Most of it has been uprooted or disturbed enough it shouldn’t take much looking to find. There’s a collection of files and folders you can use in the cellar of the Devil’s headquarters. His underlings can point the way to the building. Was the auditorium or something? Bookstore? My memory isn’t strong. But once you get that, you should be able to control the city.”
“The orphanage is almost done as a project. It has two people in charge, it has some children to get started, but still needs some staff and organization. I left it incomplete on purpose. Put your own personal touches on it, wrap it up? Use the control that the Devil’s papers give. I won’t say it will only take a few days to make the orphanage operational, but they are still delivering mail, and you should be able to get it started on the right foot. If you have to, sell it to the Academy as a way to keep tabs on me, because I’m going to be smuggling kids in need to that place and places like it soon.”
“Okay, Sylvester. We already talked a little about that.”
“Because that’s related to how we got started. Working with the mice, learning from them, teaching them. It’s important.”
“I think they know it’s important, Sylvester. It sounded like it.”
I swallowed around the lump in my throat.
“I’m leaving now, Emmett.”
“Goodbye, Sylvester. It was interesting to meet you.”
I hopped down from my perch to the road below, where I was joined by the host of spectres, leaving behind the warm building.
“Shirley gets us settled. She has legitimacy, she’s not a fugitive, Sylvester gives her the money, and focuses on starting the investigation. Probably with the mice.”
“Trouble is, you have to look at how complicated New Amsterdam is as a city,” Jamie said. “It’s a jarring city, an anachorism. The seat of the Academy’s power in the Crown States, and, just as an example…”
He hesitated, in that way that he used to do, trying to dredge up the information.
Evette picked up the slack. “The very name, New Amsterdam.”
“Yes,” Jamie said. “That. When they won the war for the Crown States, they took a city named after an English city, and gave it its original name. Just to show that they could, to display that control. Even if it made the city sound less Crown and more foreign.”
Gordon spoke, “Or the fact that it’s where the Nobles and Academy elite gather, the, as you say, seat of the Academy’s power in the Crown States, and yet it’s one of the places where the Academy’s hold is weakest. Too big, too unwieldy.”
“Too messy,” Evette said, smiling.
The door at the far end of the car arrived.
“Shirley!” Helen perked up. “And tea! And treats!”
Then, just as fast, she was deathly serious. The Lambs, as a group, rose to their feet.
They were reacting to something I couldn’t see. Prey instinct was giving me some miniscule details, something about the weight of the footsteps, the sounds or lack thereof, or that I was belatedly putting things together and realizing that Shirley should have been back by now.
“Not tea,” Helen said, as I let my feet drop to the floor and stood.
Crown Police? Was I caught?
As I moved toward the aisle, I could see them.
Not police after all.
Just seven other passengers, going to the same place I was.
So this was what the conductor had been saying when he’d said we might have to leave the car to make room. I’d thought military, but no.
Seven young men and women, adolescents, to look at them. All tall, most gorgeous, and all wearing the finest and most modern fashions I’d seen, no doubt custom made to their individual forms. They had intensity in their eyes and cold, mask-like expressions.
“Window,” Gordon said.
I bolted. The window was open, and the train was going full-speed. The fact that I could see the upper halves of trees and not the bottom halves suggested it was a slope, and it was a fall that was likely to kill me.
Preferable to this.
One hand on the side of the window, one hand on the bottom, I moved to launch myself out.
The hook-end of a cane caught me by the neck. I was wrenched back, stumbling, then neatly deposited in the middle of the three seats. The one that Jamie had been sitting in.
The young noble took a seat opposite me. He raised a long leg and propped one foot up on the seat to my left, then moved his cane so it was the other way around, bottom end facing me.
I moved to escape, and the cane caught me again. I froze, pinned where I was, the end of the cane pressing against my adam’s apple.
“Sy’s not at his best,” Helen commented, from the sidelines.
“He really, really, really isn’t,” Gordon said.
Go fuck your dead self, Gordon.
“I think…” Jamie said, weighing his words, “I think we’re on point, here.”
“Provided he and Shirley survive the remainder of this train journey,” Evette commented.