There was no elevator, and Mauer’s men weren’t inclined to be kind and meet me halfway.
Stairs, stairs, and more stairs.
That was the problem with these tall buildings. They required too much effort to get from one point to another. Humans, according to Wallace’s Law, had developed to confront the plains and the savannahs. Large tracts of flat ground. The reason the Lambs liked operating from high places was it positioned them to operate in a dimension their enemies didn’t.
But operating from up above was very different from getting there in the first place.
I’d used the word them to think about the Lambs.
Was that why I couldn’t get the ghost of a person who never was to leave?
The recalcitrant Evette took the stairs with a kind of grim determination. We worked through ideas on how to tackle Mauer.
My thoughts rambled, with Evette. I didn’t have enough to hold onto, no past experiences to think back to. I could try to organize them, but then I was fighting her. I could embrace them, but then there was no guarantee we would find our way to a resolution.
“You’re slouching,” Helen pointed out. “You’re making Sy slouch.”
“Shh,” Evette said. “Thinking.”
“There are only so many times we can approach an enemy to have a face to face with them before one of them decides to be unkind,” Gordon said.
“I know this. But we have a lot of ground to cover,” Evette said. “Too many things to do. Case in point. I need the opportunity to figure out how this is all going to take shape. Which means you all need to shut up and let me think. The alternative is you get to shout at me, nothing changes, and we’re hobbled. Wasn’t that the whole point of the ‘one person takes over’ thing?”
“This isn’t the way to do it,” Jamie said. “Not in the big picture. You’re shrugging off advice and counsel. You’re not letting us offer our input. Think, Evette. Think, Sy. What roles are the various Lambs playing here? We’re representing parts of Sy. And there are parts that are small and parts that are buried, that don’t get a lot of representation. Those Lambs aren’t doing much.”
“I’m going to let you talk, but then you’re all going to have to be quiet and let me damn well think,” Evette said.
“I think that’s a deal? It should be one, anyway. Gordon?”
“Yes. Fine. Deal. I hope you’ve got a good argument, Jamie.”
“I hope so too,” Jamie said, his voice soft. “Helen’s obvious enough, Sy. She’s instinct, your wants and needs. Food, sleep, and a bit of identity, on the most basic level. You as an organism.”
“I’d like to point out that aside from that blood apple, we haven’t eaten in a long time,” Helen said.
“Gordon’s trying to handle all the rest of us. He focuses on the action, he makes the calls, he’s negotiating,” Jamie said. “He’s us as the composite, understand? All the different pieces working together.”
“I’m annoyed at that,” Gordon said. “Doubly annoyed that I’m very clearly failing.”
“I’m about the connections, the deeper thoughts, the analysis. I’ve always been slower than the rest of the Lambs. I’ve always been more rational and inclined to educate myself on the details. It says a lot that you picked me and not my successor.”
My heart was heavy at the combined weight of the thoughts of the older Jamie and the new one. Both out of reach.
“You’re trying to put that stuff out of mind,” Jamie said. “Jamie and Lillian. If you actually reached out and tried communicating with them, you might tap into aspects of yourself that are more compassionate or teamwork oriented. You might even figure out a way to get a handle on what’s going on in your own head, Sy. Just saying.”
“He might not figure out a way,” Evette said. “And the damage could be incalculable.”
“I won’t argue,” Jamie said. “I don’t want this to be an argument. But we haven’t seen Lillian or my successor since Evette really took over. They’re very far away now, and that shows in how we handled Shirley. I think that Lillian might represent a part of Sy that cares, in terms of compassion, and Jamie might represent a part of him that cooperates. We haven’t needed to draw on the Lambs or any past experience for either of those things, except sort of with Shirley. Again, stressing Shirley as a key point, here. That’s not how Sy acts.”
“It was a calculated move,” Evette said.
“That’s the thing, though!” Jamie said. And he sounded as agitated as I’d ever known Jamie to be. “That’s the thing! You called for a calculated move. But you’re not that part of Sy! That’s Duncan, I think, or it’s me. You’re a different part of Sy. At first it looked like you were the part that includes making the unconventional calls, improvising, problem solving and being inspired.”
“But?” Evette asked, sounding hostile.
“But there’s more to it,” Jamie said. “I don’t know what it is, and I know that sounds lame and makes for a weak closing argument, but you broke pattern to be very calculating and ruthless in a key moment. You’re the unique case. You’re not based on anything real.”
“Allow me to make a counter-argument,” Evette said.
“Please do,” Gordon said.
“Sylvester is never more Sylvester than when he’s gloating over his victory. When it all comes together, and he has the upper hand. What we lack right now is Sylvester, the complete, nourished, functioning whole. So what I’m going to do is very simple. I’m going to take point, and I’m going to achieve a big win. Something we need, after we had to say goodbye to everyone in Radham, dealt with wear and tear in Tynewear, and…”
“West Corinth. Lillian and Jamie. Yeah,” Gordon said, with a bit of resignation.
“That was supposed to be a win. A good few days that let Sylvester be the devastating, magnificent person he needs to be, touching on every person and key point we needed to touch on. But it wasn’t a win in the end.”
“So we’re doubling down?” Gordon asked. “Going for broke? Because if we gamble on this and we lose, and the odds are definitely not with us, then we’re not coming back from it in one piece, if we come back from it at all.”
“The fact is,” Evette said, “We were going to lose Shirley if we took her and walked away from all of this. We can’t connect to her. We can’t ask for help, cry on her shoulder, or be her shoulder to cry on. There are deep-set problems and there aren’t easy fixes to them. Thus, the gamble. We take out the major players in one fell swoop. We start enacting the plan he and Jamie were piecing together in Tynewear, during the winter and spring. Purpose, drive, direction, and a reason to exist again.”
“I don’t wholly disagree with the goal, even if I think it’s too much of a house of cards,” Jamie said, quiet, “But I particularly disagree with how you’re going about it. The fact remains, we don’t entirely know what you represent, what you’re really striving for, or why you’re this prominent in Sy’s head.”
“That’s fair,” Evette said.
Gordon spoke, pointed, “But so long as you aren’t willing to vacate the spot, Sylvester will be one dimensional. Jamie’s right. Helen commented on posture, you’re barely even caring about how you present yourself at this point. I’m commenting that you’re not thinking things through. There’s not even a glance in the direction of compassion… I could go on.”
“I’m willing to hear you out, but I’m not willing to vacate,” Evette said.
“Why?” Jamie pressed.
“Because we were and are off balance. All it took was a little push, and we crumbled. Every time we exchange places, our perspective shifts, our goals alter, and we end up walking a zig-zagging line. It’s contradictory, when Sylvester has to reach out to each one of you to get things done, but he doesn’t want to reach out to the Lambs or remind himself of them. Did nobody else catch the metaphor that was running through Sylvester’s head back on the train? Grabbing a blade and clutching it?”
“I noticed that,” Helen said.
“What we were doing wasn’t sustainable. What I’m doing isn’t either, but at least we’ll get more done before it all goes to pieces,” Evette said. “We’ll get more done traveling in a straight line than in a zig-zag.”
“I’m not so sure,” Gordon said. “The moment we find ourselves in a circumstance where you can’t handle things, we lose all the ground we gained by traveling that single course.”
“Given the alternative is guaranteed lost ground, the pain of having to deal with you, being off balance with constant adjustment, and falling to pieces?” Evette asked.
“It seems you already decided,” Jamie said. “Thank you for entertaining my argument.”
For the next two floors of the upwards ascent, it was only Evette and I.
“We left on a good note with Mauer, all considered,” Evette mused aloud. “The good note being a truce with the Baron, a primordial, a plague, an acquaintance of ours being carted off to have all of her custom body work torn out and her body crippled head to toe…”
It was hard to know what to expect with Mauer. Better to go into it with an idea of what to say and how to approach the discussion. Treat it as a problem solving exercise.
What did Mauer want? He was driven by anger, at least in part. He was driven by pride.
We could feed his pride.
I fished the paper out of a pocket, looking it over, framing the individual strategies and the key points to hit. Weaknesses, strengths, what he wanted and needed.
We rounded a bend in the staircase, and movement at the top of the stairs drew our eyes up and away from the paper.
We folded the paper and put it into a pocket.
Men, waiting. They had the looks of soldiers, but were wearing civilian clothes. Two of them had long rifles leaning against the wall by them. One had a revolver in hand, aimed and pointed since before I’d even come up the stairs.
We raised my hands.
He gestured with the gun. We ascended the last leg of the stairs.
There were more people beyond a doorway, all gathered in a single apartment. The way was clear for us to pass through.
The moment we passed into the apartment, however, we felt the sharp pain and sense-rattling impact of a heavy object striking my head. All the strategies and ideas we were holding ready, for arguments and to make the case against Mauer, all for naught, as our thoughts flew sideways and darkness took over.
Evette stirred. She blinked, slowly, suppressing a wince at how the simple action was cause for more pain, then began to pick herself up off the ground.
Something had shifted. She raised her hands, looking at the backs of them, before patting herself down.
Still Sylvester, in body if nothing else.
No other Lambs around.
“Fragile,” she murmured to herself. “It would have been nice if we could have gotten off the train and taken a few weeks to ourselves, come to terms with things. But we keep on taking our lumps, and we keep crumbling.”
The room was bright, as she allowed herself to open her eyes wider. The artificial lights were on, glowing, with dark things swimming within, and the walls, tile, counter, and fixtures were white, with some black shapes winding through them. A small bathroom, with the door closed, the doorknob missing.
“It looks like we’ve been taken prisoner,” she said. She paused. “It would be a problem if we were too late to reunite with Shirley.”
Her hand went to her waist.
The canisters were gone.
Her boots had been removed, her shirt untucked.
Subjected to a search while unconscious.
There was a part of her that was supposed to feel violated. There was another part of her that was supposed to be reminded of Lillian and the moment of their second goodbye. The frisky frisking.
She welcomed it. It was something that made sense. She was the enemy, and the enemy didn’t get the benefit of niceties.
Additionally, she reasoned, ignoring all of the jokes the Lambs had made in the past, it would have been very weird if Mauer had conducted a frisk while they were awake, if the frisk was even remotely similar to the one Sylvester had performed with Lillian.
She welcomed the pain, too. It was a nice, neat little indicator of where things stood. The adversarial relationship, the gravity of the situation, and he expectations of the enemy.
She looked around. The mirror had been removed from the wall. The components of the toilet had been removed, from the flush chain to the lid and, she suspected, the contents of the wall-mounted tank that held the water and mechanisms.
She searched the cupboards beneath the sink, and found them empty, except for a single, isolated mouse dropping. She crossed to the other end of the small bathroom, and searched the shower. There was soap, but the taps and the head of the shower had been removed, leaving only the pipe sticking out of the wall.
Peering closer at the drain, she saw the residue that had collected where the metal met the varnished bone. A bug so small a less keen eye might have missed it crawled away from the residue, making its way to a crack between the tiles.
Blood. Now that she knew to look for it, she could see more of it in the cracks between tiles. Someone had been killed here, or they had been cut apart into a more convenient series of smaller pieces and then the pieces had been disposed of elsewhere.
She closed her eyes, halfways to anticipating the others speaking, interrupting the scene with interjected thoughts and ideas.
The silence was blissful. Troubling, to be sure, but it was a problem that could be solved later. For now, she was finally free to think.
She walked over to the sink, and checked out the wound to her -to Sy’s– head. She turned on the water, slowly, so as not to make too much noise, and filled the sink.
With her sleeve, now damp, she daubed at the wound. She bent her head low and then washed her face, immersing the upper corner of her scalp where the skin had parted and the congealed blood had formed what she suspected were the beginnings of a scab.
Trying to decide her next move, she stared down into the pink-red water, and she saw her reflection. Sylvester’s face.
Sylvester had made her to fill a void, and then he had become a void. He had retreated. To then find herself being confronted with the fact that she wasn’t real- it wasn’t good. She was the sole operating figure right now. The lone personality.
Sylvester was hurting, and every time he got hurt any further, he retreated. He’d given up his volition to let the individual, discrete parts of his personality and mind make the calls. He’d retreated further and distanced himself from the Lambs, and let them become flawed, unrecognizable on a level. Now he’d pulled far enough away that he’d pulled the Lambs out of her reach.
She focused, and she used Sylvester’s technique to build up a mental image strong enough to obscure and overcome what she was really seeing. Now, when she looked down into the water, which was briefly distorted by a lone drip from the tap, she saw Evette’s face.
What were her options?
She took stock of the tools at hand.
Carefully, she swept her attention over the tiles, searching, checking for anything that might be loose. They were firm enough she didn’t think she could pry anything loose. A shame. Whether bone or whatever it might have been, it could have been broken and turned into a shard. A shard could serve as a weapon.
The glass from the light fixtures would be too fine to serve as a good cutting weapon. It would crumble rather than break through tissue. The light fixtures were mounted on the wall above the sink and the unpainted patch where the mirror had hung. She climbed up onto the counter, swaying a little as her head throbbed, then used her dry sleeve to prod at the bulb.
Too hot to touch, much less unscrew. The switch for the lights wasn’t in the room, either.
She pulled off her shirt, balled it up, and used the two largest wads of cloth to seize the first of the three bulbs and crush it.
The occupant fell free, grazing her knee as it fell toward the sink. Rather than let it fall into the pool of water, which might have been inconvenient, she kicked it in the general direction of the toilet.
She shook as much of the glass particulate onto the counter as she could, before reaching up to crush the second bulb, this time being more careful of the black, worm-like thing that dwelt within. She handled the third quickly enough, though she could smell the cloth starting to smoulder from the high temperature bulbs.
The room was dark, now.
She thought about pulling the shirt back on, but decided against it. She shook it out as well as she could, then set it aside, using her hands to scrape up the glass dust into a small pile.
She couldn’t wear the shirt again. That gave her another idea.
Yes, there was a way out. She would have to think fast, improvise, and rely a touch on luck, but there was a way.
She unbuttoned her pants, then removed them, before removing her underwear.
There was a bar of soap. With water from the sink and soap in hand, she lathered up, and rubbed her entire body down.
With cupped hands, she pooled water on the floor, and ground the bar of soap into the tile there.
The clothes were set aside, pants bundled in one hand, the crushed glass collected and kept as a reserve measure.
The trick was to keep her feet dry. She avoided stepping in the puddle she’d made as she retreated to the tub, so she could plant a foot there, kicking off against the tub’s edge to give herself a forward push.
She crouched there, and she waited, the only light in the room being the light that came in through the door.
While she waited, she thought about her plans, her goals, and her needs.
Ironic, that when a noble had offered his full resources to her, she felt she had no resources to spare. The problems she had to figure out, problems with Sylvester, with needing to wake him up, with the Lambs and with various enemies, weren’t problems that Academy medicine could easily solve.
When her skin started to crackle and the soap film began to flake, she dipped her hand into water and wet herself down again, reapplying soap.
If she concentrated, she could hear the noise outside. Voices, people talking, discussing.
She heard the change in pitch as the conversation changed, and she tensed.
The key turned in the lock, and the door swung open. What had been a muffled mumble became a voice. “-lights are off.”
The soldier, a revolver in his hand, stared at the scene she’d created. At the naked adolescent that was curled up in the corner by the wall and the tub.
He shut the door. The key sounded in the lock.
“Damn,” Evette said to herself.
But she remained where she was. She counted off numbers in her head and considered the details of that scene of the open door, the room beyond. The light had been glaring, her memory wasn’t any better than Sylvester’s, but she’d see people in the room beyond, multiple, and the floor, and the distance to the wall, which had had windows running all alongside it. The exterior wall of the apartment building.
Again, she heard voices change.
The door opened. There was a different man there, this time. Not Mauer. And the first man was there too, standing behind him.
Faced with a tricky and questionable situation, he’d turned to a superior for counsel.
The superior drew his gun. Evette didn’t move.
“Cuffs,” he instructed his subordinate.
She heard the jangle of the chain.
“I’m going to come in there,” the captain said. “You’re going to give me your hand, and I’m going to cuff one of your wrists.”
The man stepped into the room, set one foot on the puddle of soapy water, and sprawled.
She lunged, driving one foot into the man’s stomach as she walked on him, kicking him across the face as she entered the doorway.
The subordinate that had first opened the door was there.
She’d noted the nature of the floor earlier. Now she dropped. Still slick, soapy all over, she slid hard into one of his legs, toppling him.
His hand grappled for her, his fingernails scraped skin, but found no purchase.
“He’s getting away!” the man roared. “Fuck!”
There were others in the apartment. A man sat by the window with a long rifle. Quick to react, rising to his feet as he drew a gun. She figured out the way to the front door, then bolted for it, using the passage into the hallway as a way to get out of the man’s field of view.
A fourth man was in the hallway, guarding the closed front door. A harder barrier to pass.
Still sprinting, she hurled the handful of crushed glass in the general direction of his face and eyes. She had to bring her shoulder down low to drive it into the man’s solar plexus. Being shorter had its advantages here.
While the man suffered, knowing the other three were about to appear behind her, she passed the pants to the other hand, which had fine glass particulate embedded in the skin and countless fine cuts across the surface, and used the other, unhurt hand to turn the key and knob.
She hauled the door open, found herself with a grown man on one side of her and a grown woman on the other. Their hands found no purchase on her slick skin, but the attempts at grabbing her put her off balance. She half-fell, half-slid down the short flight of stairs, caught herself, and then hurled herself downward, one hand on the rail to keep her balance as she ran down the stairs.
Soap and water had transferred from her to the stair, and one of the two that she’d just now evaded slipped, catching themselves on the railing or their comrade. Whatever it was, she only saw a glimpse through the gaps between stairs and railings, and that glimpse suggested they’d stopped, at least for a moment. There were others catching up now.
She flew down flights of stairs, jumping down as much as she ran. After several flights, a glance suggesting they were a little ways behind her, she paused to catch her breath and pull on the pants. The texture against her soaped-up legs was uncomfortable.
The other Lambs would be making comments now. Still a concern, that.
But it could wait. A lot of things could.
The noise of the soldiers coming down after her spurred her into action again. She ran down the stairs, hit the landing and stumbled, then took two steps and jumped the remainder to the next landing.
There were people coming up the stairs.
Timing was key.
She knew there were people coming down from upstairs. There were people coming up from downstairs.
If she waited too long, then the ones from upstairs would catch up. If she was too early, she’d throw herself into the clutches of the people below.
She dropped down to a crouch, bracing herself, and then, on seeing a glimpse of the people below arriving at the top of the stairs below, about to round the corner and look up at her, she took a few running steps, and then threw herself down, one hand reaching for the railing.
She vaulted over, down to the stairs well below her, reaching for the railing on the far wall as something to catch and keep her from landing on the stairs and tumbling the rest of the way down.
A hand seized her by the ankle, coarse and rough enough to bite into skin and find purchase there. With sheer strength and a twist of the man’s body for leverage, she was hauled down out of the air, onto the stairs and landing.
It was Mauer, and two of Mauer’s lieutenants. She might have recognized one as being from Lugh.
Mauer looked tired, far older than he’d looked the first time she’d seen him. Or had Sylvester painted a prettier picture in his mind’s eye? Mauer’s coppery hair was longer and shaggier, his face slightly drawn, but his eyes were sharp.
“Trust you to make an entrance, Sylvester,” Mauer spoke.
That voice. The younger jamie would have a perfect word for the sound of it.
She looked up at the man and smiled. “Just who I wanted to see.”
“Yet you didn’t seem satisfied with staying put?” Mauer asked.
“The head wound and lack of explanation led me to assume the worst,” she said.
The men from upstairs were catching up now.
Mauer looked up at them.
“Charleston got the soap from the tub, but forgot the soap by the sink, or vice versa. The boy might have blinded Flinn, we didn’t think about the lighting.”
Mauer pursed his lips.
“We left our last meeting on good terms,” Evette said. “I hoped this one would go considerably better.”
“Mm,” Mauer made a sound.
For a man with such a powerful voice, he was being very quiet.
He settled his eyes on Evette. He seemed to take a long moment to study her.
“But you aren’t the Sylvester I knew,” he said.
“Ah,” she said. “Long story.”
Mauer drew a gun, aiming it at her.
“I can condense it.”
“My instinct and logic suggest you couldn’t get the drug you’re accustomed to taking and took something else, with a resulting change in mannerisms and manner of speech,” he said.
She almost opened her mouth to confirm that suggestion.
“But,” he continued, “things are rarely simple with you.”
“Rarely,” she said.
“Who are you?” he asked.
She thought back to the conversation with the others. The discussion of what part of Sy they each were.
They weren’t there or listening in, as far as she could tell, and the pat answer likely wouldn’t satisfy Mauer any.
“I’m Wyvern,” she said. “I am Sylvester’s pain.”