Students aged seventeen to twenty gathered in the library, shuffling from one side to another, standing on tiptoes, and craning their heads to see. A man in a white coat placed the sheet of vellum up on the board, tacking it securely in place, with three tacks to each corner. To one side, a stitched guard with a helmet stood with arms folded. A Radham Academy crest had been sunken into the flesh of the stitched’s chest and bicep, an ornate badge of metal surrounded by a ring of graying scar tissue.
The stitched guard was necessary. Without it, the students might have dragged the man away from the wall or torn the parchment from his hands. They were increasingly restless as the man took his time, the people in the front flinching as if they’d been pained when he dropped one of the tacks.
Lillian wasn’t part of the crowd. She leaned against the wall by the front door of the library, on the very fringe of the crowd. It was all too apparent that the man in the white coat was relishing the torment he was inflicting on the assembly, and Lillian had experienced more teasing in the last four years than most people experienced in a lifetime. She was inured to it. She’d learned patience.
He dropped another tack. The stitched guard put a hand out, pushing away some of the students who pushed in a little too close.
If this joker just happened to get dragged into the crowd, lynched complete with a tarring and feathering, and then thrown into a stall of hungry, carnivorous experiments, she might have put her usual feelings about needless brutality aside and applauded along with the rest of the crowd.
She recognized faces here and there. Frank, Raymond, Harold, Chester, Walter, and Clifford among the boys, and Beatrice, Sarah, and Jane among girls.
Duncan wasn’t here, which was a shame, but not too surprising. Duncan often got nervous enough at these times of year that he became nauseous. She had only found out after she had suggested his name for the Lambs project. Had she known before, she might not have nominated him.
But that was why he wasn’t here. He couldn’t show that weakness in front of his peers. He would sneak in just as the bulk of the crowd dispersed, if he couldn’t catch her as she walked back to the girl’s dormitory.
The man in the white coat finished up, more because he seemed to sense he’d pushed his luck as far as it could go. He backed away, and the crowd pushed in, while the guard continued to protect the paper.
Lillian remained where she was. Even if she pushed, she wouldn’t see that much sooner. Patience. She had been tormented by a boy who had been engineered to be a right goblin, then she had made him her boyfriend and embraced the torment.
Put up your dukes, world. I can take it, she thought. There was a cynicism in the thought, a lack of humor.
Months of frustration and eagerness, a peak of fear and joy and pain, then… a long slump, emotionally.
She watched as the first batch of students worked their way out of the crowd. She could read them on a basic level using tricks Sylvester had taught her, once upon a time. It wasn’t that she was anything special when it came to reading people, but when emotions ran this high, then it was as plain as day.
Good practice, this.
Raymond looked pensive. He usually did when he was most stressed. He was twenty and he couldn’t stay in the Academy for much longer.
Jane looked delighted, but she had to play nice and suppress it because Sarah looked devastated. Lillian knew it was an unhealthy friendship, prone to sabotage and undercutting. The trio of Beatrice, Sarah and Jane were weaker together than they would be apart.
And then… Patty.
Patty wore her blonde hair in a style so short it could be mistaken for a boy’s, but where most boys parted their hair or slicked it back, Patty had parted her hair, then tightly curled the hair on both sides of the part, so it formed a single roll, and pinned it there. The execution was so tight it looked sculpted, not styled. She wore makeup that looked like it took some effort, too, heavy on the eyeliner and mascara.
“Lillian, hon,” Patty said.
Lillian managed a smile. “Good morning. How did you do?”
Patty waved her off. “As if there was any question. Are you putting it off?”
“I’m just waiting for the crowd to clear up,” Lillian said. “The numbers and letters on the paper won’t change if I wait five minutes.”
“Sure, hon,” Patty said. She reached out for Lillian’s hand, snatching it up to then hold it up and squeeze it. “We’ve been in classes together for years. You and I are the only two girls who skipped ahead. The youngest girls in this crowd. You don’t have to lie.”
“I’m not lying, Patty. We’ve both heard the stories of the quarter-end seniors rioting. Pulling hair to the point that scalps tear, students getting trampled…”
Patty scoffed. “Older students tell those tales to scare the younger ones.”
Lillian was ninety-five percent sure that she’d seen one of the riots in progress, early on in her time at the Academy, but she kept her mouth shut. Patty was being good, for the most part.
It would have been so nice if she and Patty had gotten along. They were the same age, they’d both skipped ahead, and they both were near the top of the class. But they had differed in seemingly every way. Oil and water.
Patty was the oil, in that analogy. Glossy, rich, naturally rising to the top. In many ways, she was someone Lillian envied. Brilliant, sharp, capable, born to a wealthy family, with countless natural connections by way of that same family, Patty had been close to the top of the class and did it while freely building up social circles, going out, gussying up, and almost effortlessly sabotaging and tearing down her rivals.
Patty had advanced ahead a year after Lillian had done so, without the leverage of being on a special projects team, and she had terrified all of the girls and many of the boys that were a year older and a year more experienced than the two of them. Lillian had been among those students who feared this girl, but by virtue of not being at the Academy, busy working with the Lambs and getting caught up with the other students, she had flown under the radar.
Sometime into her work with the Lambs, two things had happened at once. Lillian had caught up, leaping to the top or near-top of the class rankings, and she’d made a mental connection. With that eye makeup she liked and the coiffed, fashionable style, Patty was an eerie, non-experiment parallel to Helen. A cut-rate Helen.
With that, the fear had dissipated. And an unfashionable, mousy girl who didn’t fear her and just barely managed to stay ahead of her in the rankings perplexed Patty.
Patty was the sort that attacked and blotted out what she couldn’t understand. Most of the time, she wasn’t even in the city to fall prey to Patty’s usual methods of attack. Lillian realized this attack was imminent too late.
“What happened this summer, hon?”
Lillian blinked. “This summer?”
“There are rumors. People watch you, because you’re so near the top, you’ve obviously used back-channels to build connections with the blackest coats at Radham.”
“Rumors can be wrong. I’m not denying I’ve built connections, but we all do that. I’m not sure what makes a connection back-channel.”
Lillian wanted to kick herself before she was even finished talking. She was retreating, backpedaling, when she should be… what? Deflecting? Attacking? Negating? What would Sy do?
Then she wanted to kick herself for thinking about Sy first and foremost.
Duncan was a good model. What would Duncan do?
Patty wore a condescending smile. “We all saw your dip in zero quarter, a faltering rise for first quarter, and then the steepest dip of any student this year in the second. Most students call it quits after a drop like that.”
Sylvester leaving in winter, a quiet spring where she focused on her project before they started after Sylvester in spring… and then summer.
Thinking the word ‘summer’ alone made her stomach sink. She kept it from showing on her face. “I’m not worried, Patty.”
“You should be!” Patty said. “You were number one, number two sometimes! You’re my rival, hon. You’re not supposed to be this weak. More than half of the senior students who drop down in two of the five quarters fail. But three?”
Patty gestured in the direction of the sheet, and her expression changed. She squeezed Lillian’s hand hard.
Lillian’s heart skipped a beat.
She looked for my name. She saw.
“Nobody comes back from bad marks in three quarters,” Patty said. “They barely have time to review everyone’s work every year, so they shuffle the failures to the end, and they won’t even look at some of them.”
She could see the pained sympathy on Patty’s face. It was too reminiscent of Jane’s expression with Sarah.
“I think that’s another myth, there,” Lillian said.
“Lillian,” Patty said, her voice dropping, becoming something urgent. “Hon.”
“Patty,” Lillian said, dryly, refusing to be drawn into Patty’s tempo and rhythm. But her mouth felt dry, and her heart hammered in her chest, still.
“Whatever magic you were working to do as well as you were doing before…” Patty said, “And we’ve all heard the rumors, you know. You need to recapture that. Find a way back into good graces.”
“You’re being silly, Patty. The ‘magic’ is that I’m working with a special project for Headmaster Hayle. It’s an open secret. It was a hard summer with the project. The headmaster and my professors know this.”
A bit of a fib, that.
“With Headmaster Hayle and Professor Ibbot,” Patty said.
Lillian sighed. “Special projects are secret projects.”
“Ostensibly. You’re surrounded by clever people, hon. Don’t think we don’t see or pay attention. We talk among ourselves and piece things together. Ibbot spends his time in the company of his ‘daughter’, who bears no resemblance to him at all. She’s in his lab all the time, and when she isn’t, she’s often in your company. It used to be Lambsbridge, but not so much, lately. Are they keeping things closer to the Academy proper, so as not to interfere with your studies?”
So this was it. Falter just a little for just a little bit too long, and the vultures would start circling.
“You’re getting wildly off track,” Lillian said, with a calm she didn’t feel. “I’m fine. Truly.”
Patty glanced left, then glanced right. A prelude to her follow-up maneuver, as if she was putting on a show for someone. The girl let go of Lillian’s hand, then she stepped closer, hands clutching at Lillian’s sleeves, at the upper arms. It was something Patty did a lot. Snatching at hands or clutching at someone. But even while Lillian could file it away as a technique one of the Lambs might try at using, she found herself falling prey to it in the moment. She startled a little, and froze enough that she got caught up in Patty’s follow-up.
“They say Ibbot was baited to Radham with promises that he would be allowed to pursue his perversions. That girl he created. Having you at his beck and call.”
Lillian found herself at a loss for words.
“I don’t know if you agreed to it, thinking you could propel yourself up the class rankings, or if you were a victim. If that bloated, narcissistic, sleazy greaseball put his narrow, slimy hands on you, or if he just used you to test out his perverted pet. It doesn’t matter-”
“Patty,” Lillian interjected. Were people listening? No. Nobody seemed to have drawn close to listen in. The rumor mill wouldn’t be agitated by this particular scene.
“Hon,” Patty jumped in, insistent. “It’s okay! Whether you were victim or whether you went along with it, that’s the reality of being a young lady in the Academies. It’s not always easy. I don’t fault you. We don’t fault you.”
Lillian experienced a monumental sinking feeling at the realization that this was the web of rumor that Patty had been spinning while she’d been away. Months and even years of sidelong glances suddenly made some small amount of sense.
That ominous line of thought was cut short. Lillian could see Mary, some distance behind Patty. It woke her up to reality, so to speak.
But Mary wasn’t jumping in to save her. Mary walked up behind Patty, made the gesture for silent kill, then stepped back.
No, this was up to her, not Mary.
“Patty,” Lillian said, more firmly. “You’re being silly.”
“Calm down,” Lillian said, adopting a tone more like a teacher talking to a young student. “You’re getting so caught up in your fantasy that you’re practically drooling.”
Now it was Patty’s turn to be at a momentary loss for words.
“Ibbot makes weapons,” Lillian said. “This is common knowledge. His ‘daughter’ is a weapon. And it’s equally common knowledge to anyone in the know that the professor prefers his women like he likes his wine, matured. Which I promise you, is just as disgusting a mental image for me as it is for you.”
She could see Patty preparing to turn the tables. Lillian hurried to deliver the knockout first. She took a page from Patty’s book, clapping a hand on Patty’s shoulder to startle before leaning in close to her ear.
“If you fantasize of being with Ibbot, hon, then I’ll extend you a courtesy and I won’t fault you for your utter lack of taste. If you fantasize about Helen… maybe Ibbot would allow you to put yourself forward as a candidate for helping with any tests, when she reaches an age for those tests to start. I doubt they would help you with marks or help your standing in anyone’s eyes.”
“You’re disgusting!” Patty exclaimed. Heads turned. Patty pulled back, and Lillian maintained her grip where her hand rested between the girl’s neck and shoulder, holding her firm for just a moment longer.
“Do what I do,” Lillian said, unfazed. “Focus on the weapons, not lascivious rumors, and not the lascivious.”
Patty pulled away, spinning on the spot, and took one step before finding herself face to face with Mary, stopping in her tracks.
The girl changed direction, circling around Mary as she left the library.
Lillian’s hands shook from the agitation of that confrontation, the shock at the allegations.
“Patty, if I remember right?” Mary asked, looking over at the retreating girl’s back.
“Yes,” Lillian said. She composed herself. She couldn’t afford to look weak, whatever the rumors were. “Hello. I didn’t expect you to show up here.”
“Hayle sent me. He knew you would be checking your results here.”
“He sent you for work?” Lillian asked, with a hint of dread.
“Work,” Mary confirmed.
Lillian wanted to ask, but the word remained at the tip of her tongue.
“Sylvester,” Mary said.
Lillian bit her tongue, instead.
“He found his way to Laureas,” Mary said.
“Where? I don’t know that place. Or person.”
“Place. A smaller city, far east. We thought he might be heading into the heart of the Crown’s territory, but he’s staying put. We only found out he was there because he’s building up an organization, and he unwittingly invited a Crown spy into his group.”
“Knowing Sylvester, it was probably witting.”
Mary looked thoughtful. “Perhaps. But by all accounts… nobody who has seen him has said he’s been doing well.”
‘Then Jamie isn’t with him?”
“Apparently not,” Mary said.
“We’re leaving soon.”
“There’s never any forewarning,” Lillian said.
“It’s why we keep bags packed,” Mary said. “I brought yours.”
“You’re a dear. Just… let me check?” Lillian asked.
“Of course. And Duncan-”
“-Asked you to ask me to check. And write it down exactly.”
“Exactly,” Mary said.
The crowd wasn’t exactly thinning. People who had waited were losing patience and joining the crowd, keeping the size roughly even, but the initial rush and push had died down.
She weaved her way through the crowd. Talking to Mary had centered her. If she’d navigated this crowd with Patty’s poisonous words in her mind, this journey through the bodies would have been awful. Doubly so if she hadn’t shooed Patty off like she did.
She suspected she would pay for that. But that wasn’t a war she’d win anyway. She’d long ago decided that she couldn’t fight the rumors and there were limits to what she could do about sabotage. The only thing she could do was do the best work she could, and use what she’d learned from the Lambs. A lot of that had involved finding a measure of emotional strength within herself.
She reached the front of the crowd, and one or two students glanced at her and recognized her. She knew their faces, but not their names.
Following the interviews and project proposals, the ‘zero quarter’, students would start their work on their final projects to earn their white coats. The year was divided into four quarters, and each one was graded. Producing good results at each quarter was essential, as it dictated the resources allotted, and as Patty had said, it adjusted the expectations of the instructors for the final assessments.
But above all else, it told students where they stood.
Q0 (Winter): 12th (-11) O: 5 P: 5 E: 7
Q1 (Spring): 7th (+5) O: 6 P: 7 E: 9 Au: 2
Q2 (Summer): 28th (-21) O: 6 P: 5 E: 5 Au: 1
Q3 (Fall): 6th (+22) O: 6 P: 7 E: 10 Au: 3
Lillian sighed in relief.
Sixth place was a far cry from first, but… she’d recovered. She’d unconsciously known she would, given how she had thrown herself into her studies after a hard summer, but a twenty-one position drop was cause to start doubting oneself.
She had picked up some financial backers over and above what the school itself would give her, and people clearly liked the quality of her work.
She checked other results. Duncan was second. Frank was first, and he had a commendation for his work. She could see where the other notable students had risen and fallen. Harold, Chester, Beatrice had placed in the top ten. Her earlier suspicions about others were confirmed as she found their places on the rankings.
Lillian had to search to find Patty.
Patty’s block of results was on the long piece of paper, closer to the ground than to eye level. From a rise to fourth in zero quarter, to twelfth, then sixty-second, then one hundred and thirty-third place. No backers. Given the scoring, the only reason she was even as high as a hundred and thirty third out of three hundred students was that she’d started out with a good position. There was some hope that her talents would bear fruit.
Lillian knew in that moment that she would probably never see Patty again. The girl was very likely done at Radham. Pulling up from that steep a drop would be nigh-impossible. No matter how many strings she had available to pull, she wouldn’t get through the next zero quarter, either. She could prove her talents might bear fruit, but it would be at a smaller, less prestigious Academy.
Lillian dutifully wrote down Duncan’s results, then found her way back to Mary. Her conversation with Patty lingered in her mind, taking on a new tone now that she knew the context.
She wanted to dislike the girl, but she only felt a profound sadness.
“Lillian?” Mary asked.
Lillian looked up.
“Are you okay?” Mary asked, cautious.
Lillian realized how she must have looked. She smiled, and she laughed a little. “I’m fantastic, and Duncan did fantastic too.”
“The look on your face-”
“I’m worrying about others.”
Mary gave her an abrupt hug.
“I’m only sixth, mind you”
“That’s not why I’m hugging you,” Mary said. “And you can climb to a more respectable ranking in the last quarter.”
Lillian nodded, giving Mary a tight squeeze.
“Only problem,” Lillian said, “Is one little goblin that acts as an ill omen when it comes to my grades.”
“Only solution,” Mary said, keeping one arm around Lillian’s shoulders as she led Lillian into a walk, “Is we shoot out both of his knees, then riddle the body with knives.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Lillian said, fully aware they were joking. “Except knives are too merciful.”
“We should enlist Nora and Lara when we get that far,” Mary said. “From the horrible things they come up with when they taunt and mock each other, they could come up with something interesting.”
“Perfect. But I get dibs.”
“Of course. I have my own axe to grind. Literally. But larva twin torments, axings, knives and kneecapping is all going to have to wait.”
“Wait?” Lillian asked. She mocked horror. “No!”
“Sylvester doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and we’ve received an invitation,” Mary said. Her tone was changing to become decidedly more serious.
Fray? No. It would have come in the same breath as Hayle ordering them to move. Which meant noble. Which meant-
“The Infante,” Mary said, with no humor in her voice anymore. “He wants us to stop in on our way over.”
As a group, they departed the train. Duncan, Ashton, Mary, Helen, and Lillian made their way down to the train platform, each carrying their bags.
From the adjacent train car, Hayle and Ibbot stepped down. They had help. A flock of professors and gray coats followed them, independent of that help.
Ibbot almost looked in his element here, but he worked hard at dispelling that notion. The small, balding, greasy man moved awkwardly in the midst of the group. He would turn to talk, and get in someone’s way, and the graceful movement of the entourage they’d managed to gather would be disrupted. Even his voice seemed jarring. Too loud at the wrong times, as if loudness could serve in place of a sense of humor or wit.
Hayle, by contrast, conducted himself as any headmaster should. Lillian didn’t agree with Hayle in all things, or even in most things, but she could look up to him in this.
“I still don’t see why you would feel bad,” Duncan said.
The topic had turned to Patty, a minute before they had stepped off the train.
“Solidarity?” Lillian guessed. “Because she’s a person, and I don’t actually like other people losing or failing out, even if it means my success?”
“Because you’re a gentle soul,” Helen said.
“Gentle isn’t how I’d put it,” Lillian said.
“It’s not how I’d put it either,” Duncan volunteered.
“Pish posh,” Helen tutted.
“I think Lillian’s a gentle soul,” Ashton said. “I think you’re a soul that’s going to get yelled at, Helen.”
“She is,” Lillian said. Mary nodded.
Helen looked at each of them, concern clear on her face.
“You ate too many treats from the tea cart,” Ashton accused.
“Hardly!” Helen said, hand going to her mouth.
“Your stomach isn’t perfectly flat,” Ashton said. “He’ll yell at you.”
Helen looked down. “I’ll rearrange my insides for a while.”
She did. She subtly contorted herself to look at her midsection from a few different angles before nodding, self-satisfied.
“Getting back to what we were talking about, I don’t like seeing others fail, either,” Duncan said. “But if someone had to fail, I’m sort of glad it’s her?”
“I don’t know,” Lillian said.
“She’s kind of really exceptionally evil?” Duncan suggested. “Even above and beyond the usual required of an Academy student?”
“I mostly avoided her. I was going to ask how you handled her. You’re usually so good at navigating that strategic space. People, politics.”
“I didn’t. I was terrified of her.”
“Did she come after you?”
“She told me I was asking her out,” Duncan said, with the terror clear on his face.
“It wasn’t because of interest. It was because I was second place and she wanted information.”
“What did you do?”
“I went on the danged date.”
“Really?” Helen cooed.
“And I made sure to be as boring as humanly possible, so there wouldn’t be a second one. I gave the dullest, shortest response available to every question, and I paid her every courtesy a gentleman should, while I did it.“
“Fantastic,” Lillian said. “I’m actually impressed.”
“Some scandal or another caught her attention before she could figure out how to deal with me, and I mostly stayed out of her way after that.”
“Maybe she actually liked you,” Ashton said.
“Never ever got that feeling,” Duncan said. He turned his head. “Hello, headmaster. Professor Ibbot.”
Lillian joined the girls and Ashton in giving her greetings.
As they split into groups to enter the carriages, she was sure to enter the carriage with Professor Hayle.
Ibbot, meanwhile, fussed over Helen, wanting her to be as perfect as possible for the imminent visit.
Lillian sat by Mary, across from the headmaster.
“Congratulations on the placement,” Professor Hayle said.
“Thank you, sir,” Lillian said.
“You can do better.”
“Yes sir,” she said.
The old man nodded. “Unfair of me to criticize, perhaps. I can do better, I suspect.”
“By all accounts, you’re the best headmaster Radham has had.”
“Tell me that when I’ve been in power for a full year. I inherited the Academy after a tumultuous time, and the timing was fortunate. It makes me look better than I am.”
“Just as the civil wars move out east?”
“Perhaps. The nature of the war may well be changing. I sensed an opportunity many years ago, when I first moved to create the Lambs. I suspected the battlefields would look like they do today. That the enemies wouldn’t be generals, but reverends. Not soldiers with rifles and bayonet blades, but scientists with books. Not unstoppable brutes, but things that lurked in shadows.”
“I’m rather partial to my guns and blades,” Mary said.
“And you’re partial to the shadows, too. Don’t deny that,” Professor Hayle said. “You know your poisons. You know where to position yourself. It wasn’t so terribly long ago that armies marched to war and stood out on the open field of battle, standing there to reload, aim, and fire as allies and friends to either side of them dropped dead. We’ve moved well past that. To trenches and waves of dead men, then to dark corners and more refined killers.”
“The nature of the battlefield will change again. The paradigm is shifting once more. I hope I’m able to suss out the coming reality as I did our current one, but only time will tell.”
“Where do we stand in this?” Lillian asked.
“When you say ‘we’, do you mean yourself and Duncan, who is enduring a carriage ride with our master of monsters, or do you mean yourself and the remainder of the Lambs?”
“Is it a mark against me if I say it’s the latter?” Lillian asked.
“I wonder,” Hayle said. He smiled. “Don’t worry, Lillian. I’m fond enough of you that I’m not about to mark you, for good or for ill.”
“Thank you sir,” Lillian said.
“I would say that the Lambs are, by design, uniquely suited for the current reality. I’m hopeful you’ll collectively determine the nature of the next reality.”
Lillian nodded, taking in the answer.
In retrospect, it made some sense of his earlier question, about whether she counted herself among the Lambs or among the students.
She wondered if she should have given a different answer. By Hayle’s own definition, the Lambs were created for the now. Shaping the future, yes, but with no place in it.
She had hoped to ask more questions, but the short discussion occupied her thoughts, and Hayle offered nothing more.
The warmth of Mary’s upper arm touching hers reminded Lillian that she wasn’t alone. The fate of Patty and the standing of the other Lambs lingered in her mind.
Ten or fifteen minutes passed.
“I hate the rain,” Hayle murmured.
“Hm?” Lillian stirred.
“It’s nothing,” the man said. “We’ve arrived.”
“Yes sir,” Lillian said. She smoothed out her skirt, and straightened her clothing where it had gotten rustled from two stints of travel, one long and one short.
“The Infante is a dangerous man,” Hayle said.
Mary and Lillian nodded.
“I’m supposed to offer you words of encouragement,” Hayle said. “I’ve talked to the High Noble twice, and I have no advice to give. I can’t tell you to be wary. There will be no warning. I can’t tell you to be careful. I could tell you to be perfect, but I’d expect you two more than anyone else to try at that regardless… and I fear being perfect isn’t always enough, for him.”
Lillian would have replied with a ‘yes sir’, but she worried the words would catch in her throats.
“I’ve played god,” Hayle said, as if to himself, shutting his eyes for a moment. “Let’s face the devils bravely.”
The words sounded alien coming from Professor Hayle’s lips.
The old man opened his eyes and looked at Lillian.
“Ah,” he said. “Bad form, for a man of science, I know. Not faith, don’t you worry. More of a private joke.”
“I see,” Lillian said. She didn’t.
“I created the Lambs. Created you, collectively, if you’ll allow me to include you in the group you identify with. In life, in destiny, in the blood I had the Lambs shed, and in the expiration dates I knew would be handed down to all but to you, Lillian, I had a firm hand. When the Academy and the Church went to war, the act of ‘playing god’ was hot on their lips. They promised that our actions would have an equal and opposite reaction. I think of that reaction as the devils coming to call on us.”
The carriage door opened. A collection of stitched were gathered there, with Crown doctors and soldiers.
“Have they?” Lillian dared ask, with the listening ears.
“For the Academy as a whole? It has felt overdue since I heard the words leave the lips of those men, back when I was still a student. For me as an individual? I felt as though they would come for me the moment I signed my name to your project and I’ve felt that sword poised over my head ever since.”
Mary spoke, “After all of that waiting, I imagine your pet viper turning on you must have felt like a relief.”
Lillian glanced at Mary. She thought of Percy.
Percy’s devil had come calling, in the end.
Hayle, though, only chuckled. “It almost did. Almost. But the sword is still there. I might have the benefit of having a sense of where it is, yet that is balanced out by the fact that the edge is now pressed against my throat.”
Lillian might have added more, but she was deeply uncomfortable with the current topic, when there were listening ears. Hayle seemed comfortable picking his words carefully.
Will you be disappointed if the devil doesn’t come knocking? she wondered.
But she couldn’t frame that question without insulting her benefactor, or tipping off the listening ears.
The silence that followed was welcome… and soon broken by Ibbot’s talk.
She tuned the man out as best as she could. With gestures, she signaled to Helen, Duncan, and Ashton.
They were led as a group through winding hallways, past glass framed not with branches, but with veins.
Past living walls. A simple pillar of flesh, but in a crisis, those pillars would prove to be vacuum tubes, vomiting out streams of Academy-produced work. At virtually any hallway or room of the building where the flesh had been placed, a modest army could be produced, ejaculated forth and ready for battle in minutes at worst, moments at best.
In other places, it served as incubation chambers for vat-grown life that would last a very short time outside of its sac, but would do immense damage in the short term.
She could see some of the life forms, and recognized them as primordial-inspired. Derived from tests carried out in isolated, secured locations.
Everywhere else was thick stone, branch-like growth that would be harder than steel, and, running between stones, there would be a system akin to a nervous system, allowing for almost instantaneous communication across the facility.
Into the belly of the beast, she thought.
She was glad the Lambs were with her.
The great double doors were pulled open, and the Lambs, joined by a retinue of guards, stitched, and doctors, and by Professors Hayle and Ibbot, stepped into the garden of crimson plants.
The Infante was there, with the Duke of Francis sitting next to him. First Augustus was standing off to one side, by a casket with a lid of frosted glass.
The Lord Infante was a giant of a man, and his clothes, old fashioned, didn’t make him look any smaller. He and the other nobles wore all black.
As one, Lamb, stitched, and professor fell to one knee.
“Good of you to come,” the Infante said. His voice was so deep it could be felt right in the center of Lillian’s chest. “Lambs, Professors, please stand. Others, depart. Augustus, you’ve made your token appearance. Look after those affairs I told you of.”
Augustus bent his head in a small bow, then left through a side door. Behind Lillian, the entourage of doctors, soldiers, and guards left.
“War,” the Infante said. “The Reverend is drawing it out. He had to win his first battle if he had to fight on any sort of even ground, and he was never going to win his first battle. Augustus is proving his worth ten times over. Much as you’re doing, headmaster Hayle.”
Professor Hayle bent again into a bow. “You’re very gracious, Lord Infante.”
“And the Lambs,” the Infante said. He spread his arms. “Draw closer, draw closer, now. Hayle, Ibbot, wait outside.”
As a group, the Lambs walked down the path between two fenced sections of crimson plants.
Lillian glanced back at Professor Hayle and Professor Ibbot, watching as the doors shut, leaving the Lambs with the great noble.
“I’ve met Sylvester several times now,” the Infante said. “I had no illusions about who or what I was dealing with. On the first meeting, someone in pain, looking to lash out. And lash out, he did, against the Baron Richmond. On our second meeting, it wasn’t pain, but loss. I wanted to meet the people he lost.”
The Infante set his eyes on Lillian.
“Lillian Garey,” he said.
“Lord Infante,” she said, giving him her best curtsey, bending her upper body into a bow.
“Tell me. How would you completely and utterly destroy him?”
She froze, head still bent.
“No answer? That’s an answer unto itself.”
“If it were me, Lord Infante, I would tell him that he was poison to me, that I was worse off for having him in my life,” Lillian said.
“That’s hardly of any use to me,” the Infante said.
“My apologies, my lord.”
“If you were in my shoes, Ms. Garey, how would you completely and utterly destroy him?” that deep voice asked her.
Her vision swam.
There was no good answer. She had to satisfy him, or the Lambs would be deemed useless and wiped out, but answering…
No. She had to give him exactly the right answer.
“Lord Infante, in your shoes, I would first ask how to completely and utterly destroy each and every last one of the Lambs, and then I would see it through.”
“Then you are blacker of heart than I am, Ms. Garey. Are you the one that he fell in love with?”
“He fell in love with all of us, Lord Infante, but he and I were close.”
“Tell me, Lillian Garey, were you the one that suggested that Professor Ibbot come?”
“No, my lord.”
“It was not Headmaster Hayle’s idea, and it was not by my request, although I allowed it when Hayle presented it.”
“I believe that suggestion was Duncan’s, Lord Infante.”
“And in the doing, the small Professor sees his Galatea as the gatekeeper to this realm, and a crisis is postponed,” the Infante said. “Deftly done.”
“Thank you, Lord Infante,” Duncan said.
“Ms. Garey,” the Infante said. “You desire a black coat?”
“Yes, Lord Infante.”
“With a single instruction, I could give you a coat. Would you want to attend a noble? An Academy? Pursue a project?”
“Lord Infante, I would run an Academy, given a choice, but given a choice, I wouldn’t want a coat in that form.”
“Of course,” the noble said. “But if you had it, and if I gave you command of Radham, for an example, what would you do with it?”
Her heart was hammering. She felt nauseous.
“With the utmost of respect, Lord Infante, I don’t feel this is a fair line of questioning. I don’t know with any certainty what I would do because I haven’t traveled there yet. The journey there will let me see what is right and what is wrong, what needs to change and what needs to stay the same.”
“Do you wish to have power for power’s own sake, then?” the Infante asked.
“No, Lord Infante.”
“Duncan,” the Infante spoke. “Do you wish for a black coat?”
“Yes, Lord Infante.”
“Do you want that power and position for power’s own sake?”
“I admit I do, Lord Infante. For the access to learning, and for the chance to have a hand in history.”
Lillian was breathing harder. It wasn’t just panic. There was anger there too.
Some of it at Duncan. But only some.
“Lillian,” the Infante said. “I’m at a loss. What did he see in you?”
For a paralyzing moment, she wasn’t sure she had an answer.
Then, glancing at the casket, she thought of Gordon. Gordon’s words.
Gordon had described each of the Lambs in turn as being something elemental in its simplicity. A flame that burned too bright, for too short of a time. Capricious whimsy and stolen breath. Etched memories and a monument. Then Sylvester, fluid, a reflection.
But what was she?
“Lord Infante, Sylvester is fluid. He conforms to fit those closest to him. He reflects them. But he doesn’t often get the chance to see himself. He got that from Jamie, once upon a time, I think, someone who saw all of him, even though a perfect recall is harsh, sometimes. He could leave a softer message behind, with me. One that wouldn’t be as stark, and which would carry forward better. And maybe, the lessons he imparted on me would matter, down the road.”
“He cares about legacy, then. It makes sense.”
Had she betrayed Sylvester, by sharing all of this? Had she betrayed herself and the Lambs, by sounding too fond of Sylvester?
“Yes, Lord Infante,” Lillian said, her voice sounding distant.
“Thank you, Lillian, for educating me about our mutual enemy,” the Infante said.
“Yes, Lord Infante,” she said, feeling numb and hot with anger at the same time. Staying composed and keeping her voice level was all she could do.
“I’ve upset you,” he said.
She couldn’t find the words to respond.
“I understand. Take a moment, gather your composure. I’ll have a word with the headmaster and the professor. Join us when you’re ready.”
“Yes, Lord Infante,” she said. She only felt worse now.
The Infante strode from the room. The doors closed behind him.
“That wasn’t what I expected,” Duncan said, his voice quiet.
Lillian frowned, staring down at the ground.
“You needed to answer his questions, which you did, and you needed to satisfy him, and you did. I think that was a loyalty test, and-”
“It wasn’t a loyalty test,” Lillian said. “He was sticking the knife in and twisting it.”
“Oh,” Duncan said. “I don’t think I understand.”
“You don’t need to understand,” Ashton said, firmly. “You need to recognize that Lillian is upset and you need to respect her feelings.”
“Thank you, Ashton,” Lillian said.
She felt arms wrap around her shoulders. Mary.
“He invaded the relationship,” Lillian said. “He pried. He poisoned things with little comments and doubts.”
She felt Mary’s head move in a nod.
“He made me betray Sy, and yet I’m not even sure if I told him anything new.”
“He would have found a way to get that information,” Mary said.
“But I’ll never know, will I? He found the good parts of that relationship, and he took it. Or smudged it, tainted it. And I don’t understand why.”
“To hurt Sylvester, in a roundabout way?” Mary suggested.
“I don’t know,” Lillian said. She shrugged, and in the doing she inadvertently signaled that Mary should end the hug. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Mary said.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do like this,” Lillian said.
“Handle the now, now,” Helen said. “Basics first. Eat, sleep, breathe, murder, drink. Then handle the next most essential things.”
“I think I’ve got most of the basics covered,” Lillian said. “It’s the complex web of things that has me stuck. Hayle asked if I was a student or a Lamb, back in the carriage.”
“You identified as a Lamb,” Mary said.
Lillian kept her voice quiet, “I identified as a Lamb. And I think I disappointed him. I think I disappointed Sy, when I told him I couldn’t be both. Or that I couldn’t be his and be ours at the same time. Or… I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now.”
“You are a Lamb,” Mary said. “You are a great mind. You’re capable of the number one spot in your year. Don’t fall into his trap. Just because you don’t see it now. Just because you don’t see it right this second doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. It’s like it is with my training and with your lesson plans.”
Mary had been pacing across the garden, before stopping to turn and talk. She stood near the casket, staring down at the frosted glass.
She turned away, “Concrete steps.”
“Ccome,” the voice said.
Her blood ran cold.
She turned her head, and she saw. Sitting in a chair at the other end of the garden, the Duke still sat. So still in the evening gloom, all dressed in black, he was easy to miss.
“Did he hear?” Ashton asked.
“More concerning is did he speak?” Duncan asked.
Lillian, quickly joined by Mary, approached the Duke.
Stiff, unsure, she bent into a bow.
“Lilliann,” the word came. Uneven, not flowing as a word should, drawn out, awkward.
“My lord,” she said. “You can speak?”
“A tthird off my mind gone. Slow. Unnn-befitting forr aa nobble, I know-w. But aa-ugmmentations… cann speak iff Ii consscentrate. Concenntrating alll my life.”
“Yes, my lord. Does- does the Infante know?”
“Nno. You will nott tell himm-m.”
She glanced at the others.
“Why us?” she asked. Then, “My lord.”
“For Ssylvesster. Yyou keep, inn your medicinne bag, W-wyvverrn?”
“Yes,” she said. She didn’t append the ‘my lord’ this time.
“Willl hellp mme work arround damaged parrts. Iin exchannge, I willl be ann allly. The innfannte, more dangerrous thann you knoww. I knoww things. Uniite the Llambs. I sso sswear this.”
She glanced at Mary, then at Helen, then back at Duncan.
The same question, posed again.
To do her duty, or to be a Lamb.
She reached for the pack that was attached to her belt. Not as a decision, but to confirm that the syringe she’d been asked to keep to administer to Sylvester was still there.
Duncan caught her wrist, and she met his eyes.
“The Infante knew the Duke was here,” Duncan said. “It’s a trap.”
“It’s not out of the question,” Mary said.
The anger was still fresh, clouding her judgment.
Hayle had been unable to brace her for the Infante. But he’d brought up his devils.
On the flip side of things, she wanted to be the compassionate Doctor that Sy and Mary both cherished. The one that cared even for gossip-mongers.
But the nobles were dangerous, this Duke among them.
“Is that the sentiment?” Lillian asked.
Both Duncan and Mary nodded.
She met the Duke’s eyes.
“Perhaps on a future visit, my lord?” she offered. “It’s something the Lambs will need to discuss.”
With glacial slowness, the Duke nodded his head.