She’d cracked the whip. Now the whipped were working the way they were supposed to.
The collected stitched were being modified, surgically outfitted with contained bladders, flesh added to encapsulate these growths and other internal structures given to allow the growths to be triggered remotely. Arandt was handling the mental programming so that hearing the right word would prompt the bladders to burst and the pressured gas within to be released. He was nearly done the batch of stitched, tying a purple ribbon around the arm of each stitched that was primed and ready. Once they were filled with gas, the ribbons were replaced with other colors.
The warbeasts had already been handled. Other gas canisters were being loaded and prepared.
The work had gone on all through the night. But for a detour where Evette had escorted Shirley to her own quarters, lending her bed to the exhausted young woman, Evette had spent the night awake, watching, and thinking.
The chatter of the Lambs was a constant background noise. Slowly, things had taken shape.
Mauer’s men had taken the paper that had the ‘shape’ of the man’s agenda on it. Not too important. Her focus over the course of the evening had been to recreate it, and figure out the general shape of the Infante’s plans.
She watched as the doctors pumped stitched full of flammable methane instead of gas. The labels had been changed around, the canisters moved. The trap was set and primed, just a short distance from her.
There was a knock on the door. It didn’t surprise her in the slightest.
“Come in,” Kinney said. She looked considerably worse for wear after her poisoning. A little bent, a little worn around the edges, her eyes rimmed with red and then by further dark circles. She’d showered and changed into fresh clothes and a black lab coat, but fat had been stripped from the bone, metaphorically speaking. The makeup rinsed off, the little touches of style gone. Only the hardness and faint hint of madness that any professor needed to make it this far, now.
Evette didn’t recognize the man in the black coat who entered the room, but she did find him a very interesting person. He was a professor by rank, and had an emblem on his sleeve she didn’t recognize. Between the decoration and the way he’d styled his hair and the fine clothes he wore beneath his coat, she knew he was someone with money to fritter away.
Infante, she thought.
“The Infante will be here in a moment,” the man announced. “Please ensure that you are not busy and that there will be no interruptions during his visit.”
“Yes sir,” Kinney said. Arandt’s voice echoed hers by only a moment.
She had anticipated the visit. She had also wondered how it would be approached; it was folly to enter any lab without warning about one’s presence. Some work wasn’t to be interrupted at all, and even a knock was a grave mistake that could get people killed.
Yet, at the same time, to knock was to ask permission. Nobles did not ask permission.
To send a delegate was one of the two way she had reasoned the Infante would make his entrance.
The doors in this building were large, reinforced, and heavy. It took some effort for the fancy man in the black lab coat to position himself where he could see down the hall and still hold the door partially open.
After several long seconds, he moved back, opening the door wider, and knelt, still holding it open.
The Infante was large enough that he almost couldn’t pass through the door. Kinney and Arandt had already stepped away from their work, dropping into deep bows, so they were already bent low as the Infante entered.
They bowed even lower as he passed through the threshold, to the point that it had to be painful.
As the Infante turned her way, Evette was sure to bow as well, hopping down from the table, timing it so she was lowering herself into the deepest part of her bow as he set his eye on her.
“Give a man free rein, and his actions soon reveal a great deal about him,” the Infante said.
“Yes, Lord Infante,” Evette said.
“How are things progressing?”
“Quite well, Lord Infante,” she said. “I think we’re one or two hours from being finished.”
Likely two to three hours, but it was good to crack that whip a little more.
“You were gone for some time yesterday.”
“Yes, my lord,” she said. “I was looking for Mauer.”
She’d realized, on seeing her tail, that she was being followed. Since leaving the Infante’s company, she had likely been followed by one of his people or experiments. On leaving Mauer’s company, Mauer would have his own spies on her. That was, if he hadn’t already been keeping an eye out from the moment she’d been taken off the train by the group of young nobles.
“I’m sure the others told you about my heart problem, Lord Infante,” she said. “I tried to get closer to Mauer and dialogue with him, using our… pre-existing relationship, if you will. It could have gone better.”
“I asked you to kill Mauer, and gave you resources to handle the task. Yet you ‘dialogue’ with the man.”
“Yes, Lord Infante. For my plan to work, I needed to position him. Left alone, he’ll carry on doing what he’s been doing. Every time the Lambs have dealt with him, he’s been careful in how he positions himself.”
“So I have seen.”
Evette nodded. “He treats these things like a game of chess. No piece can be taken without retaliation or consequence. It goes for everything from the lowliest pawn to the rooks, knights, hunters, to the king and queen. But he and I have faced off. It goes hand in hand with his plans being disrupted. Tell a man you have a gun pointed at his privates, and even if he knows your hands should be empty, he’ll want to be sure, because he values his privates. He’ll betray a glance, or move to better protect his privates from this phantom bullet. By showing myself and invading Mauer’s inner sphere, I can make him wonder at his plans. He’ll betray some subtle clue that lets me see what he’s really doing. And he did.”
The Infante was unreadable. She had to fight to suppress her fears and worries. Everything was so precarious in the here and now. Which was exactly why the Infante was here, and why she’d been so sure he would reveal himself.
“What did you dialogue about?” the Infante finally asked.
“We didn’t, Lord Infante,” she lied. The lie made her already precarious position feel even more so. “I was bludgeoned in the head and imprisoned in a bathroom. I tried to escape and was summarily impaled through the heart and neck. But I had sources that informed me what Mauer was up to, I was able to catch his attention before I bled out. He opted to keep me alive. But they made the mistake of trying to drug me. It didn’t work. I was able to slip away.”
“How fortuitous,” the Infante said.
He doesn’t believe me? Or is he being droll?
Evette and the Lambs had rehearsed this conversation a hundred times over the course of the night. Various permutations, likely scenarios and points to cover. The Infante scared her like nothing else did, because he could so easily destroy her. Physically, taking away the things she valued, changing her circumstance, or crushing her psychologically. Worse, he could do it all with no effort at all.
She still wasn’t sure how to handle this. She bowed deeper, remaining silent.
“You have a sense of what Mauer is doing and where he is, then.”
“Yes, Lord Infante.”
“That is a statement that invites answer. Do not toy with me,” the Infante said. “You know what I expect.”
“Yes, Lord Infante, but I can’t provide the answers you want without putting myself in danger.”
Anyone else might hear what she was saying and jump to a conclusion. That she’d betrayed him, that her dealings with Mauer were less than genuine.
How the Infante reacted would be telling.
“Then come,” the Infante said. “This way.”
His hand was extended, ushering her forward.
She straightened, collected the satchel with the ticking heart in it, and bowed her head slightly as she moved past him. The hand he extended to her left served to set her path for her, palm out and angled so as to indicate the door.
Out into the hallway.
The Infante must have signaled his personal professor, because the man shut the door behind them.
There were no people out in the hallway. The fact that the Infante had come this way meant that people weren’t permitted to use the corridor. Subordinates had no doubt limited passage and access. The hallway was long, wide, and decorated well with fine art along the one wall, above and to either side of doors that led into individual labs. On the other wall, there were windows that pulsed faintly in time with the movement of the fluids between them. Each pane and fragment of glass was surrounded by vein-like growths. Something between stained glass, a broken window, and a living thing.
Pillars were set at regular intervals along that one side of the hallway, and it was one of these pillars that Evette was pushed up against, as the Infante scooped her up off the ground and shoved her back, pinning her into place.
He didn’t give a rationale. He didn’t explain why he was doing this. He saw fit to crush her, and there was little she could do.
She didn’t fight. She simply felt her much abused neck and throat constrict fraction by fraction in his grip, and she hung limp, working to meet his eyes.
“Wretched creature,” the Infante spoke. “If you think that my pity for your circumstance will spare you, you are wrong. If you think your audacity entertains me and that I might enjoy you too much to kill you, you are wrong.”
Evette managed a nod, despite the meaty two fingers and thumb that encircled her neck.
He dropped her, and she made something of a point of collapsing onto the floor rather than landing on her feet. He would like, even on the smallest, most insignificant level, that she was prostrate before him.
“I hope, for your sake, that whatever it is you were afraid of speaking of is something you can tell me here, in private, and not something you’re unwilling to divulge altogether.”
“Mauer’s plans and activity, Lord Infante?”
She swallowed hard. “He took me to Gomorrah, my lord.”
“Yes, Lord Infante. Gomer’s Island.”
“The place is often said to be a bastion for the religious and the rebellious in the Crown States. Mauer’s like are often at home there.”
“So it is said, my lord,” Evette said.
Her response was coded, much as the Infante’s statement had been. Talking about something without admitting or pointing to it.
Gomer’s island was far from being a bastion.
The Infante hadn’t replied to her, and she suspected his patience was running low. He wasn’t invested in her fate, and if she failed to justify her continued existence, he would kill her and carry on with the remainder of his day, likely not giving her a second thought.
She wasted no time in sharing, “Lord Infante, he brought me there, drugged, with the intention of finishing me off, I think. A hidden area within Gomer’s Island. From the way he talked to his lieutenants, and from what I was able to infer…”
Something had shifted in the mood. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but she sensed that what she said here could see her killed for entirely different reasons. The Crown had killed a great many people to silence whoever had been at that location and keep any secrets they held.
“…My Lord, he’s as dangerous as I’ve ever seen him. When he was at Radham, the very first time I saw him, and he addressed the crowd, he was fire, he was intense, he was taking the first concrete steps in carrying out a greater plan, and there was no sign of anything coming to stand in his way. The Lambs hadn’t yet made their move. What I saw, yesterday evening, there was a similar look in his eye, but it wasn’t that newly kindled fire.”
“Dispense with the poetry,” the Infante said.
Evette stared at the noble’s feet, still on her hands and knees. “Lord Infante, that was the beginning of what he was trying to do. Four years ago. My mistake in dealing with him was in thinking he wanted or needed me. But he’s close enough to the end, or a end, that he didn’t want me around to interfere with what he’s setting in motion.”
She waited, tense in mind and stomach, while she tried to keep the tension from showing in her arms, legs, shoulders, or back. She couldn’t give the Infante anything that might suggest she was being deceptive.
“If he truly believes he’s close to any measure of victory, then he’ll be gravely disappointed,” the Infante said.
“If you say it is so, Lord Infante, then it’s so, and I feel sorry for the man,” Evette said.
She wondered for a moment if she’d pushed it too far. If she came across as disingenuous.
Then again, whether she came across as Evette or as Sylvester, she sounded disingenuous when she was being genuine.
“Feel sorry for him indeed. Mauer has set himself up to fail,” the Infante said. “Still, I’ll be happy to see him die, so long as he has the guns and the will to face down the Crown and Academy both. Carry on with what you’re doing. I’ll send my doctor to you in two hours, with every expectation that you’ll be ready to act.”
“Yes, Lord Infante,” Evette said.
“Stand,” the Infante said.
“As you wish, my lord.” Evette stood.
The man’s large hand reached down, and it brushed her hair out of her face. Sylvester’s hair out of his face, to be fair. The act made the angle of her head change, so she looked up at him.
He stared down at her with those eyes that were far too sharp for his massive, bulky frame. It felt like he saw straight through her.
“Hm,” he said.
With that, he turned his back to her and started walking down the hall. Raising his voice enough to be heard, he said, “Sir Charles.”
The door opened. The well-dressed professor stepped outside, closing the door behind him, gave Evette a glance, and then walked briskly in the direction of the Infante, who was already a fair distance down the hall.
By the time they had reached the end of the long, straight hallway, Evette had surrounded herself with Lambs.
“That was interesting,” Jamie said.
“Dangerous as all hell,” Gordon said. “That nobleman does not like being lied to, and you lied through your teeth for most of that, Evette.”
Evette was silent, watching the Infante’s back.
“But you shook him,” Gordon said. “You got his attention.”
Evette nodded, to Gordon and to herself.
“Was he telling the truth?” Mary asked. “About this being something so dangerous and problematic that it might hurt Mauer? Hurt us?”
“It’s not out of the question,” Gordon said. “It’s equally possible we spooked him, and he played it cool. More possible even.”
“Look at how he acted in the past,” Jamie said. “He’s always been impervious, untouchable, unmovable. He’s powerful in a way that, when we imagine him dealing with the Duke, it’s a power difference as vast as the one between the Duke and ordinary civilians. Maybe not quite that extreme, but…”
“He moved,” Gordon said. “He reacted, took an extreme stance, then course corrected.”
Evette stood in the hallway, thinking, letting the Lambs talk, while she waited for her thoughts to stop racing, badly out of sync with the tick of her temporary heart, which wanted so badly to beat madly in response to her fear.
Which was as good a reminder as any.
She made her way back into the lab.
“I thought you’d died,” Kinney said.
“What a shame. I’m still alive. Now, we’re working with a set deadline. The poisonous gas needs to be prepped, and then there are the parasites. Where are we with the fisteria?”
“Another lab is handling it,” Arandt said. “We still need to test it.”
“That’s fine. What about the fast moving stitched?”
“Handled, and already loaded into a wagon, ready to be brought wherever we need them.”
“Excellent. We have two hours.”
“We need three,” Kinney said.
“The Infante gave us two.”
“Because of what you said, earlier,” Kinney said. The look in her eyes. It was tantalizing. Pure, utter, abject hatred for Evette.
“Figure it out. And while you’re at it, we’ll need this heart issue sorted out. Fix my heart, so I don’t need this ticker.”
Evette shook her head, her expression serious.
“I’ll reach out to someone. I know someone who is good with this sort of thing. And you can go fuck yourself for making me take the time to do that.”
“I want you to do the surgery,” Evette said.
Kinney stared at her. The hatred took on a new dimension.
“You little bastard,” Professor Kinney said, “Are you aware I despise you? That I actually want to see you dead? You’re putting your very heart into my hands?”
“I’m aware,” Evette said. “I’m also aware that you know the stakes better than anyone. If another doctor made a mistake, they’d be more likely to get away with it. But a failure on the part of someone invested in all of this, letting me die, when the Infante clearly prefers me alive? No. He would not abide such failure.”
“Clear a space on the counter,” Kinney said. “Lie down. If we’re going to have to do this, we might as well start sooner than later, so I can focus on what I need to. With luck, you’ll be sore and tired enough that I don’t have to put up with you for a solid hour to an hour and a half.”
This made for her second trip to Gomorrah in the span of a day. She rode in a nondescript carriage, one that could have belonged to any civilian in the city, and she rode in the company of twelve stitched, arranged in rank and file, in an interior that had only two seats.
She held Shirley’s hand, unsure of what to say or do.
She recognized the colors the stitched wore. The red and purple ribbons on their left arms were supposed to mean the gas would create ringing in people’s ears. To Evette and her future victims, it meant ‘methane’. Explosive.
The stitched themselves were flammable. The other gases had trace amounts of methane in them, and, from what she had been able to reason, wouldn’t stifle the rolling explosion when the time came.
For now, they smelled like burned air and formaldehyde, and their presence made the interior of the carriage oven-like, to the point that the glass of the windows was fogging up. The outside was wet, with pouring rain, but it was as hot a day as she had ever experienced, all the same. It was unbearable, and she suspected this was a punishment. Chances were good that Kinney had called in a favor, to ensure that the higher-ups that were managing the distribution of forces put Evette in with the stitched.
Other vehicles would be moving into the neighborhood by other routes, by meandering paths, all with the same location in mind.
Mauer was supposed to be here. If he wasn’t, it would at least be a collection of his soldiers, all gathered in one place.
The moment the vehicle slowed, she reached for the door, opening it, and let herself out, pulling Shirley after her. She had to jog, then walk briskly to keep up with it, following it to the destination.
Further down the street, another carriage door opened. A man stepped out. Skinny, with longer hair than was conventional, and a ragged, unkempt beard.
But Evette could tell that the man had a gun, and she suspected that any one of Mauer’s men with binoculars would be able to tell, too.
He knew his way around guns, from the way he wore his, which suggested a soldier, but he’d worn a gray lab coat when she had first been introduced to the man, which suggested a doctor. His unkempt appearance suggested something else altogether.
She assessed him as a damaged, curious man who looked enough like someone non-Crown and non-Academy to blend in. So he’d been promoted. He served a role here.
Part of that role was to wrangle her.
“Sylvester?” the man asked. “And companion?”
Evette gave him a nod.
He gave them a once-over. Evette had left her shirt unbuttoned, so it wouldn’t rub up against the fresh scar across her chest. The scar was ‘Y’ shaped. Kinney had a sense of humor. The scar drew attention.
Shirley drew more, and Evette was grateful for that.
“I’m Lou,” the man said. “And I hope the person who did those stitches was a first year student, and not anyone with a coat.”
He frowned a little.
“I made an enemy of her,” Evette clarified.
“I suppose that’s alright then. What are you up to, outside of that carriage?” he asked, as she drew nearer.
“I’m getting some fresh air while I look for a vantage point. Someplace high up.”
“High up is dangerous, and makes it slow to move around.”
“Fast to move around when you fall,” Evette said, giving the man a smile.
Lou made a bit of a face, then said, “Alright. While you’re looking, you’ll want to know what you’re keeping an eye on. Look past my right shoulder. You’ll see a collection of buildings with a sign on one face.”
The buildings were red brick. The branches that grew along the side of them grew in such a way that they followed the rigid lines set out by the mortar, zig-zagging and very inorganic. The sign, faded, had once been painted but now peeled. It had had a woman on it, once, but now only had a blob that suggested an hourglass figure.
The faceless, blurred image struck a chord in Evette, so similar to the broken Lambs that shadowed her now. So did the hourglass, suggesting the deadline, the time limit.
“We’re using all of the resources you suggested,” Lou said. “All from multiple directions. It’ll be some time before we act. You said he might spot us before we get everything in place?”
“Let’s hope he doesn’t. We’ve got three nobles overseeing things, but they’re keeping their heads down.”
“I don’t know who, exactly, except that the young First is nearby. Be mindful.”
The First. The Ogre. August.
Evette nodded. She was already soaked from the rain, and it did nothing to mitigate the heat of the outside. It helped rinse the smell of formaldehyde from her, if nothing else.
She surveyed the area, picked a tall building, and let herself inside.
This was it. The pieces were being put into place. She would need to survey the arrangement before she made any calls, decided to pull the pin, and blow it all up.
“You’re playing with fire, you know,” Gordon said, as she reached the stairwell. “You’ll go to pieces when it counts.”
She ignored him.
“We’re too slow,” Jamie said. “You can emulate Sylvester given time to tackle things as a general problem, but it’s clunky, flawed, and when you try to handle too much and let it all pile up too much, it can be too great of a burden. That’s when you crack at the foundation.”
It was true. But what else was there to do? Evette picked up the pace, moving up the steps doubletime.
“We’re all twisted up,” Helen said, hands on her hips. “Wearing a mask. You know you’re not Evette, you’re just Sy, burying the monster inside, and you’re not doing a very good job of hiding it, mister.”
Her heart hurt. It had been fixed and glued together, with strips of something or other worked in there to patch it up. It beat in time with her feelings, now, but it had been abused in the surgery, and the meds that were supposed to temper the pain weren’t as effective when Sylvester was as drug resistant as he was.
“You’re all tangled up,” Mary said. “The Infante thinks he’s the one pulling your strings, setting you up so you hurt Mauer more than you hurt him, or you remove yourself as a problem. Mauer thinks he’s got you on his side, working on this conspiracy with Gomorrah, that you hate the Crown and Academy more than you dislike him. But the only sure thing here is that the weapons you’re deploying are double-edged ones. The only guarantee is that you’ll hurt yourself.”
She couldn’t maintain the pace of taking the stairs two at a time. She slowed, and she hated that she slowed.
She rounded the bend in the stairs, moving up, because the Lambs liked being up high, looking down, working their way from an advantageous position to a more secure, familiar one.
“Sy?” Shirley asked.
“I’m losing my mind, Shirley. I’m not really Sylvester, anymore. I’m sorry I dragged you with me.”
“I don’t understand. What happened?”
“For all of my life, or the only years of my life that really counted, I’ve taken a drug, to make me adapt, to make me change. It makes me liquid, they call it. So that I can fit myself to a situation, learn new skills as I need them, forget skills and habits as I need to forget them.”
“I know that much,” she said.
“But in molding myself, I made myself fit to the group, to the Lambs. I fit the void that was left when two of the Lambs that were supposed to exist ceased to be. As the Lambs fell away, were wiped blank or killed, I spread myself thinner, to fill those gaps. I couldn’t keep to that. So I broke away. Left them. Jamie followed.”
They reached the top of the next flight of stairs.
August was there. With a group of soldiers gathered around him. He wore a suit jacket with long sleeves, shorts, and high socks, and he had a menacing aura to put any warbeast to shame.
Evette and Shirley bowed, before retreating further up the stairs.
“So long as I had Jamie, I could remember what the other Lambs looked like. How they acted. But we fell out. A lot of things fell out. And now there’s a kernel of doubt because I’m not sure I can remember any of the faces.”
Evette continued, with more energy now, because if she stopped, then Shirley would say something, and she didn’t want Shirley to interrupt.
“I get a glimmer, like the memory is there, the face is accurate, and then I question it. I wonder if it’s because I want to see them all so badly that I’m filling in the gaps wrong. I’m worried I’m going to pursue a fiction, build lies upon lies, so I pull back, and the doubt keeps getting bigger. I’m not seeing their faces in my head anymore because I won’t let myself. I’m not seeing my face anymore.”
“No falling out is worth this,” Shirley said.
“No,” Evette agreed.
“Then stop this? Because you’re frightening me. Can’t we go back?”
“If I go back, they might not be there.”
“But they might be,” Shirley said. “Or Jamie might be.”
Evette wasn’t articulate enough to answer just why that spooked her. She only shook her head.
Her heart hurt so badly, even with just the brisk ascent.
But if she slowed, then she might have to slow further, later. If she slowed further, she might have to stop.
A direct answer to Shirley’s statement wasn’t possible, but she was able to say, “Things are in motion already. The pawns set in place. The only thing needed is a word, and then a match. Or a spark. Between the weapons we’re using to weaken Mauer and our makeshift bomb in the midst of the Academy’s ranks, combined with territory as neutral as any we’ll find in New Amsterdam… it should be bloody on both sides.”
“All three sides, you mean,” Shirley said. “We’re a side, aren’t we?”
“That’s not supposed to put a smile on your face,” Shirley said.
“I’m smiling because you’re clever,” Evette said. “I respected you in the first place because you were clever. You just needed confidence. I wish I’d done better by you. I should have left you behind.”
“I’d feel glad I came along, if only because I was able to change your mind about all of this,” Shirley said. “But I don’t know that I can?”
She’d made it a question. Or she’d made it a plea.
Evette wasn’t sure which.
“If nothing else, let’s make sure we have a view,” Evette said.
Shirley didn’t say anything as they made their way up two more flights of stairs.
Evette stopped in her tracks as she was confronted with two more Lambs.
Jamie and Lillian, together, standing at the top of the next flight of stairs, staring her down. Their backs weren’t turned. Their expressions weren’t happy.
“Poison and fire,” Evette said, walking up the stairs, toward the pair.
She walked past them, and onto the roof proper. The walk up the stairs had been enough for her to almost start to dry off. In the downpour of warm water, she was quickly drenched again.
Shirley hung back, keeping to the shelter afforded by the doorway that led down to the stairwell and building interior.
Evette spread her arms, taking in the scene, while letting the rain soak her. She knew she presented a good target for one of Mauer’s shooters, and that she risked tipping him off. She suspected -or the phantom Lambs suspected, after a full night of deliberation- that Mauer wouldn’t run, and that Mauer wouldn’t shoot.
Mauer had other things to focus on. Enemies of a less ambiguous sort.
“Sylvester,” the voice came from behind her.
She turned. She was close enough to the ledge that she could have slipped and tipped over.
Jamie. Jamie with a face, rain streaking his glasses.
“I thought you’d come back here at some point,” Jamie said. “I staked out the area. Saw the people and carriages moving in unusual ways.”
“You’ve been following me,” Evette accused.
“Of course!” Jamie said, with uncharacteristic intensity. He drew closer, and she moved, almost to back up, except that would have meant stepping back and into the void. She moved to the side instead, maintaining the distance between them.
“Good,” she said. She nodded to herself. “Good. Take Shirley. Then go.”
“Only if you come with.”
“I’m seeing this through. It’s meaningless and petty if I’m not here to take action. I have to hurt them, cripple both sides, and then step in. Surgical strikes.”
“I know, Sy. We talked about this for months on end. But you know that we planned something bigger than this. It was supposed to be more elegant.”
“I memorized the keywords. Lipreading. I know how to control the stitched. The soldiers and doctors are the only concern, and I have ideas for dealing with them. I can take August hostage. Take the Ogre.”
“You could, I’m not denying that you’re theoretically capable.”
“It’s the same it was when we fought the Baron. Just need to arrange things, set the tone, I can make this elegant.”
“You can. But will you? Will it really work out that way? Sylvester, I want you to stop. Take your mind off the mission for a moment. Listen to me.”
Evette scowled. She glanced over her shoulder, at the scene below.
“Listen, damn it,” Jamie said.
He stepped closer. Again, Evette circled around to one side.
If she just got a little closer to the stairwell, she could make a break for it.
Or to the side of the building. She could see where Jamie had looped the rope and slid down. He must have been on a different building, had seen her enter the building below, and moved over while she climbed the stairs. She could use that same rope to descend.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just- I’m sorry. At Corinth, I was hurt. I handled that badly. I gave you the wrong impressions, I asked you to live up to unfair expectations.”
She was close to being able to make a run for downstairs. She walked slowly, measuring her steps, avoiding looking at Jamie directly.
“I knew you were hurting and lost from what had just happened with Lillian, and I pressured you. I want you to know, when I came looking for you in Tynewear, my feelings for you weren’t a factor. I said that because I was hurt, I wanted to make it clear that my feelings were real, so I exaggerated, I…”
He raised his hands, then let them flop to the side.
“I was running away, in my own way. Bending the truth, to try and make things clearer, while not having to be honest.”
“Give me back the Sylvester that doesn’t get innuendo. Who pokes fun at me, and who I can poke fun at in return. The guy who makes me tea and who I can listen to music with. Give me back the guy I can scheme with, as we figure out how to take on the most powerful people on this side of the ocean. We can conquer the world together. All of the rest of it, any other feelings, they’re unimportant noise. Give me back my friend.”
She could hear the hoarse note in his voice.
“Please,” Jamie said, for emphasis.
She reached for her belt. She found the gas canister.
Something to cover her retreat.
She unclipped it from her belt, pulling the pin with her thumb in the same motion.
Stepping out from the doorway, reaching out, Shirley seized her by the wrist, holding that same arm firm, keeping Evette from throwing.
The canister, still firmly clasped in one hand, began spewing gas. Evette waited patiently for the gas to force Shirley to back away, to release her.
“Drop it,” Shirley said. “And listen to him.”
Evette didn’t move. Jamie watched all of this, silent.
“Drop it,” Shirley said.
She pressed the sharp point of a scalpel into Evette’s back. When Evette didn’t react, the scalpel drove in a little deeper.
The canister fell from Evette’s hand. Shirley kicked it over the edge of the roof.
A long moment passed.
“That was silly,” Evette said. She jerked her arm, but Shirley didn’t release it. “Now they know where we are. You just tipped off both sides of the conflict down there.”
“Good,” Shirley said. “It’s better than what was going to happen.”
“If Sylvester is buried too deep,” Jamie said, as if all of this hadn’t transpired. “Give me the chance to do what he did for me. Give me a bit of time, to help him forge a new identity and piece himself back together…”
“…I really hope it doesn’t come to that, though.”
Evette wrenched her arm, trying to twist it free of Shirley’s grip. In the process, Shirley wrapped her arms around Evette’s arms and upper body, in a tight bear hug.
Evette struggled and failed to break free.
“They’re coming,” she said. “Every second you waste here, you’re bringing the bayonets and the rifles closer to us.”
“That’s fine,” Jamie said. “I’m here. You’re not going to get rid of me this time.”
Evette shook her head. “Nothing’s been fixed. We’re just going back to the same bad situation.”
“It’s fine. We can figure it out together, Sy. Whether it’s the people marching up those stairs or a tricky friendship dynamic. Just so long as neither of us run away anymore.”
“You keep doing that,” she said.
“Calling me Sy. You call yourself my friend. But the Infante was able to figure something was up, you know. Mauer was able to figure it out, that I wasn’t Sylvester. But you pretend to know me, and you missed it.”
She made it a needling comment. A jab.
“Because they’re the ones who are wrong,” Jamie said. “Understand? You’re you.”
She shook her head. Smirked.
“Then look me in the eye, Sylvester. Tell me that. Use your devastating skills at deception, lie to my face. Or show me you’re really not Sy and be genuinely honest. Either way works.”
Reluctantly, she looked up at Jamie.
Sylvester’s best friend.
“The good moments,” the words came reluctantly, “The high points, they’re always met by falls. Pain. Loss.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said. “I can see that.”
“I get attached to people and then watch them die one by one.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said.
“So if you say that you’re here to stay, you’d better not be lying. You stick this through. You’re not allowed to die. Not before me. No going blank, no fading away.”
“I promise,” Jamie said, with no hesitation. “You’ll have to help me figure that one out, but I promise.”
That would have to be good enough. It warranted a nod of acknowledgment.
“The Lambs. They don’t get to die either. We’ll have to figure that one out too.”
“You can let me go, Shirley,” I said.
Jamie gave her a nod, and she released me.
I looked out over the city, then over at Jamie.
“This is a mess,” I said.
“I still want to see how much damage we can do in the midst of it,” I said.
He sighed audibly.
“Sure, Sy,” he said.