Mauer’s men gave Evette a push, returning her to the apartment. They nudged her with the butt ends and barrels of rifles, and manhandled her until she had been herded to the sitting room, and they had her take an armchair, before settling into position, with one behind her, another two to the sides, and the rest in front of her, staring her down.
The other soldiers filled out the rest of the room.
Mauer was one of the last to enter, followed by two doctors who went straight to the man in the bathroom, who was hunched over the sink. The one who had had glass thrown in his eyes.
Mauer had donned his coat, which had fallen off when he had reached up to seize her out of the air, and it now hung over his shoulders, more or less hiding his monstrous arm.
She watched him carefully. He took measure of everything in the room before finally relaxing and turning his attention to her. Even then, however, he gave her a once-over before assessing her as a non-threat.
“Tea?” he asked.
He nodded, and signaled one of his men with the hand of his good arm. “For everyone who wants any.”
One of the soldiers stepped into another room.
“Sylvester’s pain,” Mauer said.
“Yes,” Evette said.
“Shall I address you as Wyvern? Sylvester’s pain is a mouthful, and addressing you as ‘Pain’ makes me think of the nobles with their pet projects.”
He didn’t even sound like he was humoring her.
Explaining about the Evette personality was too complicated. “You can call me Sylvester. It’s fine. Names aren’t important.”
Mauer nodded. He took a moment, thinking. His men waited with no sign of impatience. One or two heads turned to glance in the direction of the bathroom, but their focus was more on Mauer than anything.
The rain pattered against the window. It was dark out.
“Sylvester,” Mauer said. “You and I, whatever might have happened in Lugh, are far from being allies.”
He made it sound worse than being simple enemies.
Evette withheld comment.
“I know you’re a fugitive and that you’ve distanced yourself from the Crown and Academy both, but the very nature of what you are, or what Sylvester is, it means you can never be trusted.”
“I know,” Evette said.
“You’ve tried to burn me alive, and it remains very possible that all of this is a long con, with you breaking from the Lambs in an attempt to bide time and place yourself close to me or to Genevieve Fray. It’s very possible that this is a short con, and you are indeed a fugitive, but I remain a piece in the current caper of an independent, unhinged Sylvester Lambsbridge.”
He’d seen the wanted posters then.
“You can’t be trusted,” Mauer said. “Even this very shift in demeanor, posture, expression and manner of speech…”
Mauer gesticulated at Evette in a general way.
“…I have no way of knowing if it is reality or an elaborate act.”
“Most would operate on the assumption that it’s an act,” Evette said. “Or would know that Sylvester is exceedingly adaptable because of the drug regimen he’s been on for most of his life.”
“Most would,” Mauer said. “And I wouldn’t put it past him, or past you, to set up a trap with the subtlest of cues, using my own strengths against me.”
“Because I don’t want that to be the focus of our conversation. Because, if it is a ruse, I’d rather you had the slack to hang yourself with. And because,” Mauer paused for emphasis, “if it isn’t, I have seen others with similar looks in their eye to the one you have now, and I wouldn’t want someone else to have called them a liar to their faces.”
“Ah,” Evette said. She wished for a moment she had access to the manipulative aspects of Sylvester. She felt like every thing she could think of to say would be too blunt or even abrasive. Her thoughts turned over, trying to figure out a good way to guide the conversation.
Mauer beat her to it. “How did ‘Sylvester’s Pain’ come about? Is this a recent thing?”
“Yes. It’s recent,” Evette said. She was supposed to be feeling emotional turmoil. She felt bad, but it was a static, flat kind of bad. “Sylvester left the Lambs behind when he became a fugitive. He abandoned them to avoid having to watch them die one by one. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense, when you think about it.”
She expected an answer from Mauer. The lack of an answer caught her off guard, and it was very telling, in itself.
“He didn’t want to work for the Crown or the Academy anymore. Not after the way some of the others were treated. He went to Tynewear, just in time for the plague. He told himself he could maintain ties to the Lambs in some other way. A cat and mouse game, challenges. Because even being enemies was better than having nothing at all. In trying, he ruined the ties he had left.”
She glanced up from her hands to Mauer.
No feedback, no indications.
“He retreated. There was a bit of an adjustment, but I’m managing things now. Everything extraneous is tucked away and pushed back. I’m pursuing the mission, solving the problem at hand, until he comes back. If he can.”
“What’s the mission?” Mauer asked. “I have to assume I’m involved?”
“Right now? I’m working for the Infante, but it’s a double cross. In the end, I’m looking to help you. Our goals align in this.”
“Do they, now?”
“Yes,” Evette said, with unvarnished earnestness. She grinned. “Because I’m betraying the Infante, and I can set the nobles up to get gunned down. But it’ll be complicated, because the source I used to find you all here is going to be drugged and he’s going to crack. He’ll reveal the lie, and I can use that to position the Infante.”
“That does sound complicated,” Mauer said. “I don’t see a reason to play along.”
“I know what you’re doing. You’re waging a war, slowly and steadily, choosing key moments, places, and targets every step of the way. The soldiers who do it know they’re sacrificing themselves in the process. Because they’re believers. You’ve made them into zealots.”
“Zealot is oftentimes a sort of insult, Sylvester. It would be wise to avoid ambiguous insults directed at the soldiers gathered in front of you.”
“Ah,” Evette said. She processed that. It was so easy to put her foot in her mouth, to focus on Mauer and forget the wider audience. Not that she was an actor, orator, or director of any sort of play. “I didn’t mean it as an insult.”
Mauer didn’t respond.
The slack he’s letting me hang myself with goes beyond the Evette persona, then, she realized.
How unfortunate. Sylvester had handled adversity for a long time by escalating the risks, trusting the other Lambs to catch him when he inevitably stumbled. None of that mapped to the other Lambs. It didn’t map to the people Sylvester had studied as he’d developed. It was his alone, fostered and refined by the Wyvern in his system.
It was Evette’s, now.
Now, faced with a grim sort of adversity, that risk-taking behavior was one of the few tools that Evette had at her disposal. She had a welling bruise and a cut on her scalp from the blow she’d taken to the head earlier, her hand had been cut by the ground glass, and her throat still had some residual soreness from Monte’s abuse on the train, which was her fault. Getting hurt in the process was a part of the gambles she took.
Now Mauer had prepped the noose for her, and she was left to wonder if the fact that it was metaphorical meant she was any less likely to inadvertently harm herself with it as she so easily hurt herself with other things.
“You’re going to run out of people, Mauer. I know you hope to turn this into a movement with the initial victories. That’s how you operate. But it’s going to take time to find new people who are willing to die for the cause. The Academy will develop countermeasures. Even for your next attack, which I’m betting you’re already planning, I’m sure you’re calculating odds, weighing that nine or twelve or fifteen percent chance that you’ll make your play and they’ll have an answer. Something that goes beyond the sniper-hunting, wall-crawling warbeasts. The next mission will be riskier, as will the one after that.”
“Do you see me as a zealot?” Mauer asked.
“Huh?” she asked. She didn’t miss that he’d used the word, so soon after criticizing her for using it. The real, whole Sylvester would have been able to gather something from that, but she was left trying to wrap her head around the question.
“You seem to be implying I’m not as willing to die as any of my soldiers.”
“I don’t imagine you are,” she said. “But that’s not what I’m trying to convey or accuse you of. You’re working with Fray. She probably has something up her sleeve. But maybe she hasn’t told you. Maybe you have doubts, after the primordial thing.”
“I have doubts,” Mauer said.
Her eyebrows went up.
“I’m on the verge of failure. The Academy is a monstrous entity, as is the Crown. You lowballed it on the chances, I imagine. The real number is supposed to be higher, but we won’t talk about that,” Mauer said, his voice soft.
The look in his eyes was dangerous.
“Faced with all of this adversity, what am I to do?” he asked. There was a note of concern in his voice. “I’ve worked for years at this, lost good men. Fray is unreliable, and I’ve spent a very, very long time in hostile territory, waging a long war.”
His voice had started to waver. She heard a hint of panic now, she heard the exhaustion. She saw some of Mauer’s men exchange glances.
“And you,” he said. He extended his one good hand. She didn’t miss the tremble in his voice. “You, Sylvester-who-is-not-really-Sylvester, you have the answer. You are our salvation.”
And with that final word, all of the tremor and the emotion dropped away from his voice. The waver was gone, the insecurity banished. The tone he gave the word was almost one of condescension.
Everything he’d said from ‘I have doubts’ onward had been solely to bait reactions, to build to that condescension.
“Create a problem,” he said. “Then solve it. I’ve done it myself.”
“That’s not what I was doing.”
“No?” he asked. She could see a flash of anger in his eyes as he swept his monstrous hand out from under the cloak and extended it her way. It trembled, as if it was a distillation of the anger that was etched into his words and face. Muscles here and there stood out against the skin of the arm, twitching spasmodically. “Sylvester’s pain? That wasn’t what you were doing? That mention of pain?”
The twitching seemed to intensify with that last word, as if he’d willed it to get worse.
“The dissent against the Crown? The mention of lost comrades, or the hollow look in your eyes? These weren’t elements you cobbled together to strike a chord with me and my zealots?”
“No,” Evette said. She shook her head. Every time Mauer used that last word, it was all the more damning. “No, not at all.”
Had he doubted her all along? Had he saved up the little details and clues that would have sounded so petty on their own had he called her out on them one by one, and built up a case?
This conversation was a mistake. She wasn’t equipped for this any more than she was equipped to out-politic the Infante.
“Whatever you might be plotting, I’ll have no part of it. I won’t put myself or my people in harm’s way at your suggestion.”
“Sylvester,” Mauer said, with gravity.
“I have complete and utter confidence in the path we are taking. But as I said, we are far from being allies, Sylvester, and everything I know about you, from our first meeting to Genevieve Fray’s fondness for you, it tells me you’re too dangerous to leave alive.”
He reached into his coat. Evette startled at that, immediately rising to her feet, turning, with the aim of putting the armchair between herself and Mauer.
A knife, not a gun. Mauer’s foot went out, a leather shoe and one leg barring her way, so that she ran into his leg instead of escaping.
With his overlarge hand, he grabbed her, and he pinned her against the seat of the chair, in a way that had her lying sideways across it.
“Wait,” she said. “Wait wait.”
He drew the blade of the knife across her throat. Her eyes went wide at the initial leap of blood that appeared before her eyes.
She hadn’t even had a plan for what to say.
What could she say?
If not the Infante, then-
“Island,” she said, voice a squeak.
He moved his overlarge hand and embedded the knife in her chest. The blow wasn’t remarkable on its own, but it felt like he’d used the giant hand to deliver it. All of the wind went out of her. Her heart strained to beat and failed the attempt. It failed the next, and then the next.
With every failure to beat, more and more strength fled her. The amount of strength that seemed to pour out of her was surprising.
“Gomer’s,” she managed, with a last gasp.
But Gomer’s Island didn’t mean anything unto itself. That meant nothing to Mauer. It gave him no reason to spare her.
“Missing children,” she said.
Too late, she realized that she hadn’t actually said anything at all. Her lips had moved, but there had been no sound.
A part of her reached out, emotionally, hoped, prayed, for Mauer to understand. It had nothing to do with sparing herself, finding a reason to make Mauer want to keep her alive. She simply wanted answers. She wanted Mauer’s curiosity to be piqued.
Maybe he would choose Gomer’s Island for a place to hide out for the next stretch, and maybe, one shot in a million, he might find out something about the missing children.
Perhaps there would be resolution there, and the children would be okay.
That part of her wasn’t Evette. It wasn’t a bundled together mass of the behaviors and reckless thinking, nor any representation or fallout of the countless sessions of agony and disorientation that Sylvester had endured to gain what Wyvern had offered him.
Hello, Sylvester, Evette thought. Nice of you to join us.
Lambs, catch me.
“Put the book down for one damn minute, Jamie,” Sylvester said.
He had to dodge around the littler members of Lambsbridge, who were playing a violent variant on the game of tag, in order to reach the base of the tree, where Jamie sat. The rain was lighter today, but Jamie still needed the dense leaves of the tree to protect his book from the water.
“Important bit,” a twelve year old Jamie said, scribbling something down, tongue sticking out between his lips. “Gimme a minute.”
On the other side of the yard, Gordon roared as he lifted one of the smaller children over his head.
Mary, still reticent, not wholly used to the group, hung back, at the furthest end of the yard. Her hands were clasped in front of her. As a indicator of how nervous and out of her element she might have felt, the hands were minor at best. The fact that she kept looking at Sylvester for reassurance was more telling.
Sylvester met her eyes and smiled. She smiled back, and unclasped her hands.
Lillian was beside her. Chattering madly about something.
Sylvester turned his attention to Jamie, and plucked the book out of Jamie’s hands mid-word. The pen scratched against the paper in the process, no doubt drawing a long line down the page.
“Give that back,” Jamie said.
“I want to see what you’re saying,” Sylvester said.
Jamie stood, reaching for the book. Sylvester blocked Jamie with his body, putting the book as far away as possible.
“Don’t be a dick, Sylvester,” Gordon lectured him.
Some of the other children picked up the cry of, “don’t be a dick!” It became a chant.
“I’m not being a dick!” Sylvester protested. He mashed a hand into Jamie’s face, very intentionally making Jamie’s glasses sit ajar and smudging them, in an effort to keep the book away.
Helen, who had been braiding one of the older girls’ hair on the back steps of the house, handed over her work in progress to another one of the girls, stood, and carefully dusted herself off before stalking in the direction of the two boys.
“Drat and dang it,” Sylvester said, on seeing the approach.
“Whatever she does to you, you deserve it,” Jamie said. He jabbed Sylvester in the kidney.
Sylvester, in turn, got Jamie into a headlock. He did his best to unseat Jamie’s glasses, which forced Jamie to have to catch the glasses and use up one hand.
Jamie, with glasses and pen in the same hand, lightly stabbed Sylvester.
“Ow! Uncalled for!”
“Called for,” Gordon judged.
“You can shut up, oaf!” Sylvester declared.
Jamie hooked one leg around his, and the two of them tumbled to the ground. With that done, Jamie tried to mash Sylvester’s face into the grass.
Extending one leg out, Sylvester found the ink pot Jamie had been dipping into. In the midst of the struggle, face being ground into dirt, Sylvester caught the pot between two feet, and jerked it up and in Jamie’s direction.
Jamie froze, releasing Sylvester.
The ink had splattered all over Jamie’s back, the back of his head, and one shoulder. Some had gotten on Sylvester’s clothes, but he’d gotten Jamie far, far worse.
Jamie’s jaw had dropped open.
Sylvester let a grin spread across his face.
Moving slowly, so as not to disturb the still image, he reached up and over, touching the ink at Jamie’s shoulder.
So lightly it was little more than a tap, he planted an inky handprint on Jamie’s cheek.
“What is wrong with you, you little goblin?” Lillian asked, horrified.
“Poor Jamie!” Helen protested. “Sweet Jamie!”
The children took up the cry, much as they’d taken up the call of ‘don’t be a dick’.
Sylvester could see Mary’s expression, the awe and the horror and the confusion.
Gordon stood off to the side with one hand at his mouth, hiding the smirk.
“I won,” Sylvester said. “You always tell me I never ever won a fight, but this is a win! This has to be a win, that was perfect!”
Jamie hit him in the ribs, adjusting position to better pin him down, and hit him again, harder.
“I won!” Sy protested. “Tell them, Gordon!”
Jamie pressed the heel of his hand into Sylvester’s face.
“You lost,” Gordon intoned.
“No! No I didn’t!”
“You lost because you were a jerk to your best friend-”
“He can take it!”
“-and because you’re getting your tiny ass beat right now.”
“No! I delivered the finishing blow!” Sy protested, in futility. “It was glorious. You all saw it!”
Lillian cut in, “You’re the worst, Sylvester.”
“I’m the worst and I won!”
Jamie shoved dirt and grass at Sy’s lips. Some slipped through, despite Sylvester’s attempts at keeping his mouth sealed shut.
Sylvester caught a glimpse of Jamie’s face and he saw the smile.
Spitting, twisting his head away, Sylvester said, “Jamie!”
“Very sorry, good sir!”
“You should be.”
“Very sorry. I was wonder- pff! I was wondering if you might allow me to borrow your journal.”
“After that display?”
“Yes, kind sir. If it would be no trouble. You looked so happy while writing, and I was yearning, absolutely, positively yearning to know why.”
Jamie finally relented. Sy lay on the ground, panting, while Jamie remained where he was.
Sy looked at the others. Helen had stopped a short distance away, and was trying to ease the worries of one of the youngest children that were somehow able to see past her mask, talking about simple things, while keeping only half an eye on Sylvester and Jamie.
Gordon was talking to Mary, with Lillian close by, listening. He held a mallet that was part of one of the lawn games in one hand. It was very likely he was talking about the group dynamic.
But, in the midst of that, almost absentmindedly, Gordon flipped the mallet into the air, so it spun end over end three times, before catching it by the handle again.
In that show-offy little action, Gordon did far more to ease Mary’s worries about not fitting in than any number of words he might have offered. It showed crystal clear in her expression and body language.
Gordon had won her over, just like that. But that was the sort of thing he did, with no apparent effort.
Jamie interrupted the observations by dropping the heavy journal on the side of Sylvester’s head.
“Ow. You sadist.”
“I don’t think you’re allowed to call anyone a sadist, Sy. Ever. It’s just not allowed. You’ve got that market locked up tight.”
“As if I’m worse than some of the nobles or back alley lunatic doctors out there.”
“You’re worse than all of the nobles put together,” Jamie said, climbing off of Sylvester. “Because at least they look pretty while they do horrible things to undeserving people. And you’re worse than the doctors, because at least they have talent.”
Sy gasped, melodramatic.
“Shut up and read while I figure out if this ink will rub off. You’re an absolute ass, for the record.”
Sy happily sat up, scooted over to sit with his back to the stone wall that surrounded the yard, and placed the book across his lap.
He paged through it, looking at the illustrations and the key words. Jamie was only a third of the way through this one. It started with the Snake Charmer, and moved on to the Bad Seeds. Then there was Mauer, their first mission with Mary…
And finally, a page with a line running down a third of it. On that page, sketched out in thin black lines with lots of hash marks, there was a depiction of the scene in the yard. Mary standing in the corner, hesitant, Lillian chattering at her, Helen braiding Frances’ hair, and Gordon playing with the kids. Sylvester had a spot of his own, hanging from a branch, observing it all.
He read the words.
“Mary looks very tidy and fashionable, with lace at the edges of her clothes. I wish I could draw well enough to represent it, but words will have to do,” Sylvester said.
“You don’t call a girl tidy, Jamie. You call someone tidy if you’re trying to be polite about the fact that they’re not very pretty.”
“Do you? Huh.”
“May I make edits?” Sylvester asked.
“I don’t see why not. You already added a long line down the page, and more ink to my clothes.”
“Scratching out ‘very tidy’, and adding ‘rather pretty’.”
“I’m fairly certain she heard that, Sy,” Jamie said, his voice quiet. “She jumped as if you’d pricked her.”
In an equally quiet voice, Sylvester added, “What a darn shame. Good thing it’s the truth. Helen is all charms, no argument there.”
He looked up at Helen, who had returned to braiding. She was some distance away, but she still looked up and winked. Sylvester grinned at her.
“And Lillian?” Jamie asked.
“Lillian… is doing a very serviceable job of entertaining our newest member. She’s not a complete disappointment.”
“Don’t you dare put that in the book,” Jamie said. “That’s not right at all.”
“If you’re actually sorry at all for getting ink on me, I want you to come up with something genuinely nice to say about her.”
“What? That’s unreasonable and over the top, compared…”
Jamie stared him down.
Jamie continued to stare.
“Fine. Fine. Lillian… makes a fine pair together with Mary. Her school uniform fits her as well as the lace does Mary, with sharp looks to match her talents as a student and medic.”
“That was… better than expected.”
“And she glanced our way as you said that.”
“Dang it. She heard?”
“Dang it. Too late to redact?”
Sylvester dutifully wrote down the bits. “Only thing I want to add about Gordon is that he was smirking after I got you with the ink.”
“I’ll figure out where to work that in. But don’t get things out of order.”
“Alright,” Sylvester said. He looked over the book one more time, then handed it back.
“Thank you,” Jamie said.
“Don’t act like it was a great service you did me,” Jamie said. “I’m still miffed. And Ms. Earles is going to be too, when I go to scrub down and I turn the bathtub black.”
“Why?” Sylvester asked.
“Why this scene? You said it was an important bit.”
“It’s a good day,” Jamie said. He found his seat again at the base of the tree, and carefully righted the ink pot, moving it aside. “It’s worth remembering.”
“Hm,” Sylvester made a sound.
He looked at Lillian and Mary.
For the past little while, Mary had shown signs of insecurity that would fade only for a few moments, when he gave her close attention. A glance, close proximity. But that knot was unwinding. She was embroiled in a three way conversation with Gordon and Lillian, and there were only faint signs of discomfort.
She would work out. She wasn’t close to Helen in the here and now, but she slept in Helen’s room. It would work out.
He felt a pang of fondness, looking at them as a group.
Even Lillian. A little. Ugh.
“Oh my lords,” Jamie said, without looking up from his book. “You’re going to pester me all day, aren’t you?”
“Absolutely. Absolutely. Are you going to add the scene with the scrap between you and me? With the ink? Is that part of the good day?”
“Of course,” Jamie said.
It was less a gasp and a lurch to step back from the darkness, and more an immense pressure, a terrible resistance, and finally pushing past a barrier, to stagger exhausted to the other side.
“There we go,” Mauer said, his voice soft. “Gomorrah?”
Evette shook her head, opening her mouth to ask a question, and found she didn’t have the strength.
Her vision was blurry. She could see the equipment that was strung into and out of her chest. Sylvester’s chest. Two of Mauer’s doctors were working on the damage.
Fought our way back. There we go.
She felt profoundly lonely. Sylvester was somewhere in there, but he wasn’t showing himself, and the Lambs, spectre or no, weren’t there.
“Gomer’s island,” Mauer tried. “Also known as Gomorrah. You mouthed two words, and it looked like missing children.”
“I do believe I know what you’re referring to,” Mauer said. “We’ll talk when you’re strong enough to speak.”