The soldiers on the rebellion side backed away from the blinded Falconer, giving her a twenty-foot berth. The very sound of the battlefield had shifted, with the rebellion side watching in a kind of awe, while the Crown forces pushed hard, shouting and urging the front ranks into more of a forward push.
Striving to get to their noble. Through rain and smoke, someone had seen and passed on the word. Now, belatedly, they were fighting to give her a place to escape to.
Jamie and I ran, with Jamie taking the lead, my hand holding Shirley’s. I kept one eye on what was going on in front of me and one eye on the Falconer, as we circled around.
Orders were given, and experiments from the rebel side charged in from all directions. They included several stitched, a modified hound with spines, an oversized insect, a modified human with weapons built into him, and a crude vat-grown man that was seven feet tall. The vat-man looked like he was formed entirely of scar tissue, the details washed out.
There was some loose degree of coordination. The stitched marched forward, more or less mindless, while the animals shied back, looking to dart in while her back was turned, while she turned this way and that reacting to sounds, her sword moving.
She must have heard the tramping footsteps of the stitched, because she lunged toward the nearest two, striking out. One beheaded, another slashed across the lower face. She reversed the cut, this time aiming for the throat, and beheaded that one as well.
She’d been able to figure out what she had cut, and adjust accordingly.
But as she turned on the third, the spined hound leaped for her. Quieter than the stitched, harder to hear, it got its teeth on her.
She whirled, moving the sword, not cutting so much as she brought the blade under, sawing along the creature’s head.
The scar-man clubbed her, making her stagger a few steps, and was killed for the insult.
She fought blind, with clear mental visualizations of where her enemies were.
And, as she held the sword out, holding it so it pointed generally in the direction of a third stitched, who had stopped in its tracks after seeing others die.
Deciding on discretion over valor, she bolted, running in the general direction of the Crown forces – Montgomery’s group.
She cut a swathe, stumbling here and there as bullets were fired in her direction.
She didn’t make it out of the clearing. The man with weapon arms flung himself at her, caught her legs, and tripped her.
Stabbing toward the man who still held her legs, she pierced him in the chest.
The Falconer -Mary Cobourn- might have been able to escape if she’d managed to start running again, cutting her way through the crowd, but it didn’t get that far. The man with the weapon arms was still alive as someone threw something incendiary at him and the Falconer.
I saw only a glimpse of the fire that sprang into being around her and the man, and then Jamie and I were too far into the thicker part of the crowd. I couldn’t see what unfolded from that, but I could guess well enough.
With my focus split as it was, it was Shirley, not me, who spotted another person coming through the crowd, straight for us. I felt her hand tighten, and I looked.
Jamie and I stopped, and we wheeled around, facing the man, who had no doubt fought through the crowd from the moment the scene first unfolded with the Falconer.
He was tall enough to look past many of the heads in the crowd, tall enough to see the flame where the noble actively burned. The light of that fire burned in his eyes.
But the rest of him was dark, stained with wet painted gray and black with thick smoke. His clothes, including the heavy coat he wore over his shoulders, looked very heavy, a kind of burden. His face was drawn, the faint lines here and there very visible.
Only points of fire still alight in those eyes, the rest of him dark and drenched… and he nonetheless was intense. Immense in stature, and in how he conveyed himself.
As noble as the real nobles had seemed. If they even were real.
He channeled all of that into his voice as he spoke. One question, two words, enunciated very clearly, leaving no room for compromise.
Eyes were watching us, ears were listening. Ears had probably heard what I’d shouted to the Falconer.
It was very possible that the words would get back to Mauer, and he would realize what it was. He knew Mary, after all. He’d known Percy.
It was very possible those words wouldn’t. That my voice had been one among many, among gunfire and shouts and the sound of the rain falling, in a moment when people were trying very hard to get away from the noble that had been cutting down the crowd like a scythe cut through wheat. The voice of one person shouting, it could so easily have been misheard or slip from their minds. Brains under stress didn’t always recollect things perfectly.
I glanced back at Jamie, and I thought about Mauer’s interaction with Augustus.
“Jamie blinded her,” I said.
Mauer was quiet and still, eyes still reflecting that fire, while the crowd moved around us, heads turning to look and to watch. I felt Shirley grip my hand tighter.
“He did. But you gave him the opportunity. What did you tell her?” Mauer asked me.
“It wasn’t what I told her,” I lied to Mauer. “It was when. I cracked a jawbone in my hand, so to speak, and she flinched.”
I could see a muscle stand out at the corner of Mauer’s jaw.
“I mentioned the Block,” I told him. “Her reaction confirmed her involvement. We can find out where the Infante has been, he’s been bringing those two with him since he turned up in Warrick for the Baron’s engagement party-”
I raised my voice to be heard over the chaos around us. So much motion and noise, and Mauer could well have been a lifelike statue. “-We have a lead! We’re pursuing it!”
Mauer stared me down for long moments, before he turned away. He shouted out to a lieutenant.
I had no idea if he’d believed me or not, but he was letting this lie.
I looked at Jamie, and gave Shirley’s hand a tug. We left the battlefield.
Our part in this was done.
Our destination was the opposite of where we’d been, in many ways, yet I could imagine that statue of Mauer standing in the midst of it, his eyes burning in a very similar way.
Bone dry, dark, and so still that it was stale.
We descended the stairs, and I let go of Shirley’s hand as she lifted it to her mouth.
“No,” she said.
Skeletons and mummified bodies. Ash here and there. A layer of dust with a tint to it. A hidden area.
We’d come here not because we hoped to find something new, but because all of it took on a new light, as a consequence of what we’d seen. Now that we were here, it was like we could talk about it.
“The bodies,” Shirley said. “So many of them are so small.”
Shirley walked around, but every few steps seemed to move her into a vantage point to see more bodies, more of the death.
Her hair had been covered by a hood, and with the hood down, her hair was the driest part of her. Droplets of water soaked into an old footprint in the layer of dust on the floor.
Jamie’s hand gripped the elbow of his other arm. His hair was wet and tucked behind his ears, and his spectacles were beaded with moisture, but he didn’t have anything dry enough to properly clean them. The white button-up shirt he wore was faintly translucent from the moisture, and I could see the angry marks of scars on his upper body.
I wasn’t sure if it was the chill air of the underground area contrasted by the heat we’d brought down from up above, or if it was dust in the air, but it looked like his breath fogged momentarily as he exhaled.
A part of me was about to speak. The voice hitched. Awkwardness, and I’d very nearly done what I’d been doing for the last day, using a spectre to speak.
They were here. They were prominent. The spectre of Mary. The spectres of Gordon and the younger Jamie. Of Everett.
Not Helen, not Ashton, Lara, Nora, Evette, nor Abigail.
Mary, though, was front and center, taking it all in.
“You lied to Mauer,” Jamie said.
“You don’t trust him?”
“I don’t trust him to use it well,” I said. “I thought about that moment back there with Augustus. Mauer lost there, and I feel like he’s fighting, he’s just digging as deep as he can to keep the fight going, but there have been too many setbacks. The people he was leading, they were angry at first, but then he lost their faith. He and Fray stirred up a fresh sort of anger, they started a civil war, and when that died, they turned to primordials. He’s fighting an enemy he can’t ever stop with the tools he has at his disposal. If we give him this…”
I raised my hands, then let them drop.
“If we give him this?” Jamie asked. “He fails?”
“I worry he’ll spend it. He’ll use it to stoke those fires again, he’ll make a valiant effort, and then the nobles will know we know, they’ll be able to react and adjust, and the chance will be lost. Maybe Mauer will ask people and find out on his own, but I’d rather it comes later. After this fight. He can ask around, find the people who witnessed that moment with the Falconer, and maybe the fifth remembers the name. But if I told him, when he’s on the edge, fighting a battle that’s going to be a draw at best? When he came here, almost a last bastion where he could find enough people that are wanting to fight?”
“He would use it, rally people. In the midst of a situation the Academy is actively corralling and suppressing. I think I see where you’re coming from.”
“You didn’t have to bring up the jawbone thing. That was a slap in the face.”
“I did. If he happens to put the pieces together after this, I think he’ll get it.”
“It wasn’t because he failed you on some level?” Jamie asked.
I raised an eyebrow.
“The books said you used to idolize him.”
“Still do. A little. I wish I could learn from him. But the timing felt wrong, I didn’t and I don’t feel he was in the right place to hear that name and use it. The jawbone… might have been a little personal, too. I wish he was in the right place. We could use help.”
Jamie seemed privately satisfied with his intuition on that front.
“We’re the only ones who know,” I said, quiet. I looked over the bodies. “About Mary Cobourn.”
Mary’s phantom didn’t react to the name. Maybe because it wasn’t hers.
“Yeah,” Jamie said. “Looking at her, my first instinct was, ‘oh, so this is what it feels like when you’re forgetting something’, you know?”
“What do you mean?” Shirley asked, turning around.
“As if it’s on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite find the word. The connection is there, but you can’t quite make it. A face that’s familiar, that you can’t quite piece together.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Seeing her fight her way through that crowd, I realized, every time I felt myself want to go to her, to act while seeing her in action, I was wanting to dance, coordinate so I was moving in parallel, covering her weaknesses, augmenting her strengths. Subconsciously, I recognized her. If I hadn’t spent so much time with the phantoms lately, I might not have.”
“Percy introduced them, taught our Mary the other Mary’s mannerisms and way of speaking. Something in that, and in the way they moved, underlying structure or habit or something else, they changed stuff on the outside, the color of her hair, the shape of her face, they changed stuff on the inside, and something still lingered.”
“They made your friend into a noble?” Shirley asked. “A clone of her?”
“Our friend was a clone,” I said. “And the original was… discarded. She found her way here, or to a place like this one, or… no. It makes more sense if she never made it this far. Or if these people never made it that far. Children collected from various places, using a quota system, then gathered, tested and examined. If they met criteria…”
Jamie picked up the thread. “Reaction times, recall, attractiveness, natural strength, endurance, flexibility, overall health, anything along those lines.”
“Yeah. They’d be whisked away. The rest of the children go up on an auction block for the Academies, as test subjects. To obfuscate, explain why children are being collected and transported? There is a demand, after all. And then when someone gets too close, gets one or two steps away, burn it all. I wonder how much Percy knew. Mauer said Percy knew enough to point him and Fray in this direction.”
“Percy had her, and he… sold her? Traded her?” Jamie asked.
“Assuming it’s the Academy proper that’s focused on meeting quotas… he traded to someone in the Academy for some lab equipment, maybe. Or for knowledge. Or he traded her to Cynthia, and Cynthia made the trade, looking for something similar,” I said.
“Why?” Jamie asked. “Why does the Academy do it this way?”
“That’s a mystery we’re going to have to solve,” I said.
“Much like the Twins,” I said. “The Baron’s low status. He knew something about this. He- he laughed, when I asked where the children go.”
“I think we could benefit from studying the narrative,” Jamie said. “The Falconer, you called her. She was distant. The Baron and Baronet Twins, distant, again. Brought on board at a later age? Explained away as distant relations? While more effective projects, worked on from birth, are said to be direct relations. Or they are direct relations, and the like of the Baron is… supplementary.”
“It might not be how early they were brought on board,” I said. “It could be that he learned, he was allowed into the loop, and he took it badly. All that ugliness in him, what if he just stewed in the knowledge that his nobility was a farce.”
“A farce,” Jamie echoed me.
“Yeah,” I said.
“This is big,” he said. “Bigger than showing a noble can die. It’s showing that nobles aren’t real. The way you were talking about Mauer. We want to be careful how we use this.”
“As careful as possible. Like Augustus said, they write the history books. They decide the narrative. We could do untold damage to the Crown, but we need to make it count. For that to work, we need more information. We need proof, if it’s even possible to get any at this stage.”
“Might be worth moving forward with the plan we had,” Jamie said.
“Become a rebel faction?” I asked.
“Except less focused on the assassination of nobles, aristocrats, and professors. More focused on information.”
“Okay,” I said. “We have a time limit as it comes to that. More than we already did. Assume Mauer finds out. He won’t sit on it.”
“A year? Six months?”
“I don’t know. We’ll figure that out.”
Outside, muffled by the intervening ground and distance both, we could hear explosions. Cannon fire, it sounded like. Academy reinforcements would show up, the pressure would increase. Mauer would possibly unveil another card he had up his sleeve, but it would still be a bitter, ugly battle. I imagined it would end with Mauer slipping away. The dead noble and the fact that he’d done it and lived would be cause to call it a win, or as close to a win as anyone got against the Crown.
More explosions rumbled. It sounded like thunder, and for a moment I wondered if it was. A summer storm?
Shirley hugged her arms to her body.
“Are you alright?” I asked her. “We can leave.”
“I feel better down here than I felt up there,” she said. “My heart is still pounding.”
“I owe you a lot,” I said. “Your patience, that you followed us. That you stuck by me. If you wanted to leave, I’d understand. I’d find some way to make it up to you, repay you for the help you gave. I promised you that you wouldn’t have to get your hands dirty or face any danger, and I failed to follow through. There would be no hard feelings.”
She shook her head.
“Alright,” I said. I offered her a smile. “I’ll be sure to give you a cool job title, and teach you all the sorts of things you wanted to learn.”
She smiled. Then her eye fell on the bodies, and the smile dropped away.
“And when we make them pay for this,” I said. “For the Block and every other thing like it, you’ll be able to say you played a part.”
“That might be nice,” she said, in a voice that sounded well divorced from those four words.
I put my hands in wet pockets as I leaned against the wall. I wanted a cigarette, if only for the reason to stay silent, and for the opportunity to draw warmth into my lungs. But I didn’t want to go upstairs.
We would have to inform the Lambs. Or set something up to protect them. Reaching out to them could be more dangerous than anything else. We had to protect the information. A dead man’s switch, most likely.
We would have to play this carefully, work together. I knew we could, but the word ‘we’ felt very unsteady, as I weighed on it.
I glanced at Jamie, who was deep in his own thoughts.
In the moment, pushed together and pressured by outside circumstance, we operated well enough. I remembered only a few hitches and hesitations here and there. But in the quiet…
I wasn’t sure how to talk to him anymore.
The jokes I remembered telling, testing for boundaries and trying to feel out the new dynamics, they now felt out of place, jarring. I regretted them.
I looked away. I found myself looking at the younger of the Jamies, the ghost. I saw the other ghostly Lambs, exclusively the ones who had no doubt passed through a place like this. There was something reassuring in that, which was a far cry from being a good sentiment. Bad feelings could be reassuring, and the knowledge that we shared a common root was that sort of feeling.
We would make it work, but… I wasn’t sure it would be easy or comfortable.
I’d known this would happen. It was why I had self-censored.
What would Jamie’s response be if I asked if I could or should self-censor again?
He was looking at me, now, and I avoided meeting his eyes, because I knew that would force a conversation and I doubted either of us had the words ready.
It had been easier when I’d been riding the high that came from being Evette. Reckless, self-destructive. Aware of and willing to own the painful realities.
I thought of becoming Evette again and immediately dismissed the idea.
It had been hard enough to come back from the last time.
I’d paid a price, in that the ghosts didn’t come and go at my bidding anymore.
Those costly decisions dwelt in the quiet moments like this. Being shot didn’t compare to what could follow from one bad conversation.
Jamie looked away, and I released a silent sigh of relief.
“Excuse me,” Shirley said.
Still hugging her arms against her body, she started making her way up the stairs.
“I thought you felt better down here than up there,” Jamie said.
“I’ll sit at the top of the stairs. It’s a bit chilly down here,” she said, glancing at me. “You two stay. Think. Discuss.“
Mind changed, I thought. Should have left you in that lab and fled the city.
Not really. But the awkwardness felt all the more poignant in the wake of that last word she’d left us. She had highlighted the silence. Every second that stretched on as she walked up the stairs, then stretched even further as the sound of her footsteps ceased, and she settled up there, awkward agony.
I looked at the individual Lambs.
I looked at Jamie the spectre.
“Sorry,” I said.
“No need to be sorry,” the real Jamie said.
“I feel like I’ve always given you a hard time. From a less than warm welcome to the group, to uneasiness, then I guess a perplexing winter and spring together in Tynewear, where I was self-editing, being a fool, and you were left scratching your head.”
“Don’t get down on yourself,” Jamie said. “It was a good few months. We might have driven each other crazy, puzzled each other, but I think it kept us sane. It was the warmest, happiest few months of my life. I’m optimistic about the next few. Which is where I’m stuck.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said. “I did a lot of thinking, after you left, replaying that conversation over and over in my head.”
“I know that feeling,” I said. I thought about the Jamie that had come before. The obsessive reading and rereading of the books.
“I thought about where I messed up. Where I was angry, why. The puzzle.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Familiar territory, again.”
“On the rooftop, I mentioned a compromise. And now I’m mulling it over, but I’m afraid talking about it will spoil everything.”
I remembered my very recent thoughts on bringing up the self edit.
“We’re on the same page, believe it or not,” I said.
I was glad my hands were in my pockets. I was nervous.
“Sy. I want to get along with you. I feel like there’s a great big obstacle in the middle of any interaction between us.”
“When my predecessor wrote in his journals, he left a code, remember?”
“I remember,” I said.
“Things for me, that he didn’t want the Academy reading. That he didn’t want you reading. Some of it was about his budding feelings for you.”
I shifted, uncomfortable. If there was a Sylvester phantom in the room, he would have been replaying that conversation with Jamie out loud, taunting me with it.
“It went beyond that. He knew that I was inevitable. He wanted to brace me. So he talked about insecurities. The trick about being Jamie, wearing this body. Scars and all. So that I wouldn’t feel alone, if I found myself staring in the mirror.”
“But I found myself in a different place. He talked about how the group was divided in two. Gordon and you. Then the girls. Helen and Lillian.”
“I’m dancing around the subject. He- My predecessor wasn’t that attached to the idea of being a boy. But I think the decision was made for him, and then, to set a kind of balance when Mary joined, and maybe to be more your friend, he settled into it a bit more.”
“Not that attached?”
“He never wanted to be a girl, mind you, but when you were kids and being kids, boys poked fun at girls and girls joked about boys, he was always uneasy.”
I looked at the spectral Jamie, and I nodded.
I could remember the general shape of that uneasiness. He’d be quick to question the stereotype, question, or leap to the side of the girls if there was an imbalance. I couldn’t remember any instances, but I could remember being frustrated with it. I’d been rather partial to drawing the divide, even relished it.
“I’m… even less attached to the idea of being a boy. I don’t care either way. I look at myself in the mirror and there’s no boy there. There’s no girl. Scars. Ambiguity. Missing pieces.”
I was terrified enough of saying the wrong thing that I kept my mouth shut.
“Does it make it easier if you think of me as being neither?” Jamie asked.
“My problem was never with you, though,” I said. My voice sounded far away. “Just… the idea that I was failing my best friend. Or that the friendship was falling apart, when I really counted on it.”
“Then what if I was a girl?” Jamie asked.
“I couldn’t-” I started. I stopped myself.
“The entirety of my existence,” Jamie said, voice quiet, “I’ve lived in his shadow. I’ve failed to be him. I wore his face and his name and many of his old clothes. So don’t jump straight to ‘I couldn’t ask you to do that’. It would be a relief. But if the idea bothers or disconcerts you-“
He seemed taken aback by that.
“I spent enough time with Evette in my head, no.”
“It might be useful,” I said. “If rumors about ‘Jamie’ being alive persist, me being in the company of two girls could throw them off.”
“How very practical,” Jamie said, in a ‘how droll’ tone.
“I’m relieved I haven’t upset you,” he said.
“No,” I said. I felt a massive weight lifting off my chest. One that had been there for years. “No. Just the opposite. You being out from the other Jamie’s shadow sounds… really nice.”
I looked up, meeting his eyes.
I closed my eyes for a moment. Trying to alter my conception, use the Wyvern dose a little to help myself make that switch. The framing of this Jamie, the longer hair.
Easy enough to take in a different sort of stride.
“I can’t guarantee I’ll even like-like you,” I said. “Just saying. I only really just said goodbye to Lillian. That might be a process. I don’t want to get your hopes up.”
“Ah, yeah,” she said. She sounded disappointed. “That’s fair.”
“I’ve really only just met you, in a sense,” I said. I shrugged. “But… yeah. Let’s let it happen naturally as it happens.”
“I’m okay with that.”
“You said something about getting out from under the shadow of the name?”
She smiled. “I was thinking Jessie.”
“Sticking with the J-name? You’re aware Jessie can be a boy’s name?”
“I’m aware that Jamie is a unisex name too,” she said. “Parity.”
“Okay,” I said. Then I tried it out. “Jessie.”
On the spot, very clearly unsure of herself, she looked very different from how she had ten minutes ago. She smiled.
I exhaled, letting out all of the remaining tension. That feeling of the burden lifting off of me wasn’t letting up. I felt as light as air. Buoyant. A demon that had been stalking me and lurking over my shoulder for years had been put to rest, extinguished.
I spoke, “Good. Perfect. It was a massive pain in the ass, distinguishing between you and Jamie in my head. Can’t even say Jamie the younger because you’re younger in terms of years you’ve been around, but he’s younger chronologically, and that’s only the beginning of the issue.”
I gestured at the stairs, and Jessie gave me a nod. We started up in Shirley’s direction.
“I’m just glad that this puts your ‘pain in the ass’ innuendo to rest,” Jessie said.
“We’ll see,” I said. Walking up the stairs next to her, I gave her shoulder a bump with mine.
After a moment, she returned the favor.