“Caton’s second rule is where you have to be able to do maths quick in your head. Intake scales. I’m not going to read the numbers out loud, you both can read. Gases, fuels, hydration. Note correlation to size. Where the science stops and the art starts is when you can adjust the scales and numbers as you grow the system, and you start seeing the organism naturally take on the necessary proportions to draw breath, digest, and, of course, hydrate.”
I nodded, looking down at the book. It was one of Fray’s tomes, not the Academy’s, but the tables were much the same. I commented, “I’m not going to remember numbers like that.”
“I will,” Jessie said, sitting on the stool next to me.
I elbowed her.
“You can always refer to the books, I guess,” our tutor said. “But if you want to be good-”
“I want to be below average, not good,” I said. “I’m quick. I can pick stuff up. I’m primarily interested in getting a grounding in anything I wouldn’t be able to figure out on my own.”
“Speak for yourself,” Jessie said.
“That’s exactly what I’m doing. Speaking for myself. You can manage on your own,” I told Jessie.
Jessie was wearing a wool dress in navy blue, with a collared shirt underneath. Her hair was braided to one side, the short braid just barely touching the collarbone at her right shoulder, and she had the glasses set so that she was looking over them as often as not, to better complete the ‘librarian’ look. It allowed her to give me a lot of ‘disappointed teacher’ looks.
She gave me one in response to my teasing, before turning to our tutor. “Anything you can teach us is appreciated, Leah. Do you think you’re up for it?”
“Mm hmm,” Leah said. She glanced at Jessie, then me, wary. “Possibly.”
I could understand why.
“Okay,” I said. “I know I sound like the worst person to tutor ever.”
“You might just be,” Jessie said.
“But we can make it worth your while. What did we suggest fundingwise, when we approached you, again?”
“Six hundred,” Jessie and Leah said, almost at the same time.
“Right,” I said. “Six hundred crown dollars.”
I turned, opened a bag, and, blocking it with my body, I picked out some bills. I counted them, closed up the bag, and turned around.
“One third now,” I said, counting out the bills, “One third at the halfway point. One third at the end. If you’re keen.”
“I’m… cautiously keen,” Leah said.
Leah didn’t look like a suspicious individual, which made her all the more perfect for the role of clandestine tutor. She was shorter than me, fresh faced, blonde haired, and dressed in fairly nondescript clothing – a long-sleeved dress, cardigan, and stockings. Her boots were lace-up, almost knee high, and caked with now-dry mud, marking her trip from the Academy to the crummy neighborhood that Jessie and I had set up in.
If it wasn’t for the dark circles under her eyes from late-night studying, the ink-smudges at one side of her hand where it had rested on notebooks? The faint stains of bodily fluids that her lab coat and apron hadn’t caught and washing hadn’t entirely removed? I wouldn’t have guessed she was an Academy student.
All the more so because she had found her way to a lantern-lit room in the ass end of town, where everything was covered in cloths and dust. Tools and bits of building material from a job that had never finished were strewn here and there.
I finished counting out the money, then held it out. She reached for it, then stopped short of taking it.
“Problem?” I asked.
“A couple,” she said.
“Start with the first one, then,” I told her.
“I feel like the moment my hand takes that money might be the same moment that Academy soldiers kick in the door and drag me off.”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Because that’s how it works. They’re waiting for you to touch the money. The introductory lesson to show you know your stuff? Irrelevant. They have to follow very arbitrary rules like you taking the money after sharing the info.”
Leah frowned at me. “I was thinking they would wait and see if I took money, so they could pose aggravated charges.”
“They don’t need aggravated charges, Leah,” Jessie said. “If you’re found giving a lesson here, or if you get caught in the future, that’s enough. They’ll expel you at best and disappear you into a dungeon or lab somewhere at worst, depending on who your parents are and how badly those parents would miss you. If that worries you, then say so. You can take the initial sum, and you’ll never see us again.”
“Just like that?” Leah asked. “Two hundred dollars for showing up here, proving I know my stuff?”
“We want a tutor we can use and we’re willing to shop around. The money buys your silence,” I said. “I’m a terrible student. I used to attend a preparatory school out West-”
“Very briefly,” Jessie pointed out.
“Doesn’t matter. It was long enough that-
“Long enough? A couple of days.”
“-Long enough for me to know I’m not meant for classes. I’m a student of the city.”
“I’ll admit he actually is,” Jessie said. “I know how that sounds, that it’s a phrasing that comes out of the mouth of numbskulls and thugs, but it’s actually apt here.”
“And I’m a quick learner.”
“Again, I have to confess true,” Jessie volunteered.
“Devastatingly intelligent, even,” I added, to see if Jessie would acknowledge it.
Jessie sighed instead.
“…And we have the money to pay you,” I told Leah, returning my focus to her. “It’s just a question of whether you can endure the risk and put up with me.”
“That last point is not to be understated,” Jessie said, quiet.
“I think I could,” Leah said. “And being able to cover next year’s tuition isn’t small potatoes.”
“Absolutely. Potatoes of significance, these,” I said. I flapped the money lightly.
“But my second thought is that I don’t even really need the money. Don’t get me wrong, the money is good, but is it…”
Leah trailed off. I let my arm drop, holding the money in my lap.
“Is it?” Jessie prodded.
“Is it questionable money?” Leah asked.
“Absolutely,” I said, without a moment’s hesitation.
Jessie elbowed me.
“Not particularly bloody money, if that’s what you’re worried about,” I said. “Mostly stolen.”
Jessie elbowed me harder. Then she leaned forward. “Sorry. Don’t pay too much mind to what he’s saying. Why do you ask?”
“I ask because… do you know anything about Beattle Academy’s approach to students?”
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” Jessie said. Then, to me, she said, “I’ll explain later.”
“I’m placed fifty-fifth,” Leah said. “I know that isn’t the best thing to be saying, when you’re considering hiring me, but-”
“But you would like to be fiftieth or higher?” Jessie asked. “I’m starting to see what you’re getting at.”
“Can ‘later’ be now? Fill me in?” I asked. “Please?”
“Beattle is a school that takes in a great many students,” Jessie said. “But filters out more than most.”
“It’s a ‘last chance’ school,” Leah said.
“I wasn’t going to say that outright, but yes,” Jessie said. “It is the kind of school that attracts students who couldn’t succeed elsewhere, who want to try for the long shot. Some were caught up in bad circumstance, cut down by sabotage, or they got sick at a critical time. In a city like Laureas, the rent is cheap, the schools are… not as expensive as elsewhere, and the school accepts a lot of new students each quarter. It draws in a large student population.”
“…And puts them to work as part of the curriculum,” I said. “I’m starting to see.”
“Yes, but that’s not the focus here. Leah is rank fifty five. With five hundred students, I imagine there are accommodations meant for the top fifty.”
“There are,” Leah said. “Lab space that isn’t rented or shared, small amounts of funds, not having to offer up as many volunteer hours. And if you get into the top fifty, then you tend to stay there. Because of those perks, and because the staff doesn’t really care to put in the work to make sure labs are thoroughly cleaned out and the new student is smoothly moved into the lab in question. They’ll do what poses the least work for them.”
Sounds like a stellar institution.
“You want us to get you into the top fifty, then,” I said. “And we pay you less?”
“I’m not sure,” Jessie said. “Can we confer?”
Leah gave us a short nod in response.
Jessie leaned close and murmured into my ear, “We have money. We don’t have as much time.”
I had to twist around so that I was perched on the stool next to hers, my mouth by her ear, her mouth next to mine. “It sounds interesting. Playing kingmaker. Queenmaker.”
“Of course you’d say that.”
“And you get on my case about the money. Why not save it if we can?”
“I can change it up. Get on your case about time,” she whispered.
“Ooh, variety. But for Leah here, I’m thinking I can make the time. I’ve been feeling restless anyway.”
“I’m not about to argue if you think it won’t interfere,” Jessie said. “Alright.”
We twisted around in our seats so we were both facing our would-be tutor.
“Starting after the second week of tutoring, after each week’s tutoring session, I’ll remove one of your rivals,” I said. “We choose, not you. That’s five rivals removed in six weeks.”
“Remove?” Leah asked. “What do you mean?”
“This deal doesn’t include details,” I said. “I’ll let you know if I have someone in mind as we wrap up each session, so you know I’m the one doing it. They’ll fall in the rankings or leave school before the next session.”
“It won’t be murder,” Jessie said.
Leah frowned more, her eyes rising to meet Jessie’s.
“She wasn’t worried about murder until you mentioned it,” I told Jessie.
“I’ll take the deal,” Leah said.
I stepped down off the stool, and extended my hand. Leah shook it, then shook Jessie’s.
She picked up her bag, shouldering it.
“If my parents could only see me now,” Leah said. She gave us a smile. “Their good little girl, selling Academy knowledge.”
“We get in as much trouble as you do if any one of us get caught,” Jessie said, hinting.
“I won’t actually talk to my parents,” Leah said.
“Good,” Jessie said.
“Don’t come looking for us,” I said. “We’ll find you before the next meeting, and let you know where to go.”
“Ominous,” Leah said. She put a hand on the doorknob. “I suppose I’m not that hard to find. Goodbye, then?”
I gave her a mock salute.
“Goodbye, Leah. I hope for a good working relationship,” Jessie said.
Leah nodded. She let herself out.
Jessie and I exchanged a glance.
“You seemed to decide on her partway through,” Jessie asked. “What do you think?”
“Good actress,” I said. “She has a dangerous side, I’m betting.”
“She does,” Jessie said.
“Wait, you know already?”
“I did my research before we brought her on board. She jumped ahead three years, then couldn’t catch up. She dropped behind a year, which still puts her a respectable two years ahead, keeping in mind that it was a school that adjusted student years quite freely-”
“So not that exceptional?”
Jessie made a so-so gesture. “Whatever the case, she took a lot of students down when she dropped that year. Never formally caught, but… investigations coincided with that Academy deciding to drop a few more students than usual that year.”
“Never formally caught, but they decided they were best rid of her?”
“Students from wealthy and connected families were taken out of the running that year,” Jessie said. “I suspect they didn’t have enough information to formally point the finger, but they guessed and decided to prevent the same thing from happening the next year.”
“I’m guessing it didn’t stop her.”
“No, no it didn’t. But she got subtler.”
“Assuming I jumped in to remove five people from her way to the top fifty, does she stop?”
“I don’t think she knows how.”
“A product of a system that breeds cutthroats. You end up with people who can’t stop cutting, I suppose.”
“What’s your gut feeling, now that you know her context?”
“That she’ll do. Maybe I can be more creative about who I take out and how. If the crime scenes are grisly enough, in a dramatic sense, then that could sate her bloodlust some?”
“Not actual bloodlust. I imagine violence would bother her.”
“Probably. But given a chance, she could get a taste for it, same as she got a taste for sabotage. Her grades are good?”
“Better than fifty-fifth place good.”
“Right. She’ll do quite nicely, especially if that subtlety translates to not getting us caught. But she’ll bear watching. Pierre?”
The tall, gangly rabbit-headed man had to stoop to enter the dusty from the dark adjacent room.
“You gave her a head start,” Pierre said.
“Only a little,” I said. “I’m very curious where she goes from here. I’m imagining her riding a high. Moving straight from one excitement to another. Her choice of where she moves to could say a lot about her character.”
Pierre nodded. “Where do I find you when you’re done?”
“Fish hook,” I said.
Pierre cocked an ear, then gave me a salute, much as I’d done for Leah. He let himself out the front door.
Jessie snuffed the lantern, then picked it up, while it still faintly glowed with heat-reactive bioluminescence. Purples and blues danced and the residual light made it possible to see the outlines of the door and doorframe.
I opened the door for Jessie. “Our rabbit is tracking down our Alice. Sam’s due to send a letter…”
“Tomorrow. I’ll intercept,” Jessie said.
“Good. I’ve been wondering how our orphanage is doing.”
“We need a waypoint between here and there. We can’t just round up kids in need of saving and then expect them to get on a train and travel all the way to the other end of the Crown States.”
We drew attention, two youths dressed fairly sharply for a poorer part of town. Jessie’s wool dress was fairly nondescript, but it was hand-knit, and she had a leather bag slung over one shoulder, not quite a bookbag, not quite a purse. I had boots, slacks, and a collared shirt, with my jacket slung over the same shoulder that a bag hung from. Too cold with the jacket off, too warm with it on, I’d settled for wearing gloves and a cap, keeping head, hands, and feet warm. It worked well. Jessie was doing almost the opposite.
People sitting on stairs and leaning out windows watched us. Some of those people already knew of us.
We’d been here for a little while, working at staying out of sight to those who might be in a position to find out who we were, while staying visible and noticeable to those who weren’t.
I drew a pen from my pocket, uncapped it, and wrote on my palm.
Jessie tilted her head, looking. I hid my hand.
“What are you up to now?” she asked.
“Curious what you think. What happens tonight with our stray?”
“Ah. You want to pay a visit?”
“What’s your guess?”
“My guess is you think tonight’s the night.”
“I was hoping to hear your guess on what happens, not your guess on what you think my guess is.”
“I think not tonight.”
“Alright,” I said. “You just set yourself up so that whatever happens, you’re gonna be wrong.”
“Or I’m right.”
I rolled my eyes.
We weaved through streets of slouching, dilapidated buildings.
Laureus, named for the laurels of victory, had been the site of an early victory, after the Crown had landed on the fledgling nation’s shores. But it wasn’t a place that lived up to its name. The local Academy had lost stature, the city hadn’t proven itself as a pivotal cog in the machine, or something else had gone wrong, and the foundation had rotted.
It gave the sense of a place that had been abandoned. The wooden growths that supported and reinforced local structures now played host to a new ecosystem that enjoyed close proximity to the ocean. Algae-like slime grew on the wood, and where that slime dried out and died, it provided nutrition for weeds and saplings to find a foothold. The lights within buildings weren’t strong, with much of it being candlelight and oil lanterns.
But people occupied this place. There was a high concentration of back-alley doctors here, which was starting to make sense, now that I’d been told about Beattle Academy’s approach to student intake and retention. With so little to do indoors, the early evening saw clusters of people gathering on rooftops and on front steps. They talked, they drank spirits that smelled offensive from the other side of the street, they smoked.
No opportunists harassed us on our evening walk. A bit of a relief, that. On the down side, it meant we couldn’t continue to subtly establish our local mythology. On the upside, it meant we didn’t need to make any detours or change out of bloody clothing.
A steep drop of ten feet separated the street from the beach, consisting of a stone wall. The wall crawled with branches, and the branches were slimed with the algae. More branches, logs, and discarded bits of wood had formed piles beneath.
Jessie and I walked to the top of the wall, which was only a foot above the street.
Waves crashed against the beach, here. Without the light of the city to obscure anything, the stars were visible, and were periodically reflected by the black water. The autumn wind was bitter and freezing.
To the far north and the far south, larger cities glowed brighter.
We were caught in an alley, a dark corner.
“The edge of the world,” I said.
“Hm?” Jessie inquired.
“It feels like this is the edge of the world. No further to go. The final stop, somehow so far away from everything that the only people who end up here are left exhausted or are outright destroyed by the journey.”
“I like that,” Jessie said. “Poetic in that it’s where we start out, isn’t it?”
“But wouldn’t it make more sense if the edge of the world was set to the far west? As far from the Crown as you can get, without being in the Asiatic countries?”
“You’re ruining it, Jessie.”
“The Crown is over there,” Jessie pointed at the horizon. Darkness. If the size and greatness of cities was represented on the horizons like the lights of the two cities to the north and the south of us, then the empire to the east should have burned like a miniature sun. “We’re as close to it as we’ve ever been.”
“Ruining it more. Isn’t it kind of especially well-fitting if the edge of the world is closer to the Crown Empire than not?” I asked.
“No,” Jessie said. “No, that’s asinine.”
“You’re asinine. It’s very nicely fitting, I think.”
“Okay. You’re allowed to think that way.”
“So gracious of you to allow me that.”
“…Because your brain is half-scarring over and half-melting from all that Wyvern. Mental infirmity is to be expected at some point.”
“So gracious,” I said. “Now if you’ll please excuse me. I’m going to descend to the beach, lose my footing because of my scarred, melted brain, and snap my neck.”
Jessie nodded, rubbing her arms for warmth. “It was nice knowing you.”
I hopped down to the largest branch in the pile. It creaked and bent, but didn’t break.
Turning on my new perch, I grabbed my jacket from where I’d slung it over one shoulder, and hurled it at Jessie’s face.
She caught it.
I hopped down to the next branch that looked steady enough.
It snapped, and I fell the rest of the way to the damp sand.
“There he goes,” Jessie’s voice could be heard. “I’ll have to invent a good lie to tell the other Lambs. Hand to hand combat with a noble, and for once in his life, he actually put up a decent fight, but it wasn’t good enough.”
Lying on my back in the sand, I commented, “I like that.”
“You’re alive!” Jessie said, in feigned shock.
The branches rustled. I thought for a second that Jessie was descending.
Then I recognized that the source of the rustling was lower down.
The stray and its cubs.
She had been injured, once upon a time, or she had been confined in too tight a space. When she moved forward, it was only on the two forelimbs. Atrophied back legs dragged through sand and the smaller branches that littered it. It was hunchbacked, with a shell on the back, and heavy tusks on the face. Its forelimbs had claws long enough that I was left to wonder if it was meant to dig like a mole.
It smelled bad, not that the cubs that were peering through the branches cared.
No growling, no roaring. It didn’t charge or claw at the air.
Looking at it, I could see the ratios in head, torso, and midsection that Leah had mentioned.
“Huh,” Jessie said. “It didn’t kill you. That’s two near misses.”
“Not helpful,” I said, keeping my voice quiet and low, trusting the general silence of Laureus to allow it to carry up to Jessie. I watched the stray warbeast.
I looked past it to the ‘cubs’. The warbeast cared for them, protected them from predators. I could see three faces of human children. Aged eight to twelve.
There was a fourth, but they never emerged from the nest. Others brought him or her food.
“Checking to see if I’m okay? This is our fourth meeting, stray,” I said, keeping my voice calm. “And the first time you haven’t chased me off. Was that the trick? I look wounded, and that makes you want to care for me?”
It dragged itself closer to me, then lowered a head and snorted, snuffling as it got my scent.
Moving slowly, I reached for my bag, and retrieved the hock of meat, wrapped in wax paper. I started to unfold it, but the stray lowered its head and, as I pulled my hand back, bit into the hock, paper and all.
“First time you took my bribe, even,” I murmured.
The beast picked up the hock, and then began retreating toward the nest. It entered at a different point than it had left, the meat clasped in its jaws.
The cubs watched me as I shifted position, staying low to the ground as I moved toward the wall, and settled into a sitting position with my back to the surface, ass in the sand.
The oldest of the cubs ventured forth. So shaggy of hair and shabby of dress that I couldn’t guess at their gender, the child approached me.
I glanced up, then extended a hand.
In the gloom, I could only barely see the motion. I moved the hand, and caught the packet out of the air. The child that had been inching toward me jumped as if I’d stabbed them, then fell to the ground in surprise, before crawling backward.
Sudden actions were bad. But the theatrics had their place too. I considered it a break-even thing.
The child had stopped just short of retreating wholly back into the nest. They saw the packet, now. Cylindrical.
I opened it with one hand, then used my thumb to pry the first of the biscuits out of the packet, so it stuck up, contrast of chocolate and wafer visible even in the dark.
“What do you want?” the child asked.
“Ah, you talk,” I said. “I was worried you were all nonverbal.”
“You came here before. I saw two times, then this time. You said-”
“Four. I came four times in total. Three times before this.”
“What do you want?” the child asked, again.
“You go to the downtown area to panhandle. Very close to Beattle Academy. You see things. Hear things.”
“I don’t see or hear anything,” the child said.
I could see the whites of their eyes. Even the ones peering out of the nest. It was easy to see that they were fixated on the biscuits.
“Fine,” I said. “It would be nice if you could keep an eye out, but it’s not obligatory.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I don’t trust someone who offers something for nothing.”
“Then you can give me information, and I’ll give you these.”
I moved my hand, waving the biscuits in a lazy side to side motion. The snake charmer drawing the attention of the snake with the movement of the end of their instrument.
“What information?” the child asked.
“Have any children gone missing?”
That got me a shrug.
Shot in the dark, that.
“What are you doing for the colder parts of fall and winter?”
“Okay. I’ll give you some clothes and blankets, and let you know where you can stay if you can’t stay out here. Money too, if you want. But I’m going to ask you to keep an eye on some people. You can tell me if you see them.”
The child paused, then nodded.
I extended the hand with the roll of biscuits.
The child snatched at the entire damn thing, stealing it from my hand. Within a moment, three biscuits had been shoved into their mouth. No offering to the others. Taking their share first.
“You agreed faster than I thought you would,” I said.
It took the child about a minute to choke the mouthful of biscuits down.
“She trusts you,” the child said.
That said, the child turned and retreated into the nest.
I remained sitting for a little while, listening to the waves. I might have sat for longer, but I remembered Jessie being cold.
“Thought so,” I murmured to myself. I stood, and began walking along the base of the wall, away from the nest.
Jessie walked the walltop above me.
I held out one hand, gesturing.
A second, partially eaten roll of biscuits bounced off of the top of my head, not the palm of my hand. I caught it out of the air before it could get all sandy.
“Unkind,” I said.
“You threw your jacket at my face,” Jessie said. “I’m not letting you get away with stuff. Quid pro quo.”
She was wearing my jacket, now that I looked up.
Now that we were farther along, the wall was getting closer to the beach. After a little while, it would slope gently into the sand.
“We get the trust of the stray, and that gets us the trust of the chief cub. As twelve year olds go, they’re the most territorial and… respected?” I said, making that last part a question.
“Respected enough. Nobody picks fights with that one. Doesn’t hold back in a fight. Every last fight is a life or death one to that child, whatever it was that happened to them.”
“It makes others pay attention to them. Showing we work with the chief cub will get us a lot of cachet with the other children downtown. We’ll win them over in one fell swoop. That gives us the kind of eyes that even Pierre can’t provide.”
“Let’s also hope the others put the kettle on. I could do with some tea,” I said.
Jessie made a sound of agreement.
It wasn’t too long of a walk to the building we were camping out in. It was a tall building, set on a hill, which offered an even greater view. Three stories, but proportioned so that each floor was scarcely larger than a typical room in the average house.
It might have been a lighthouse once, or a watchtower, but refurbishment had stripped away any utility and offered very little more space in the bargain.
We let ourselves in, and saw a half-dozen faces within. Men and women, and one rabbit-headed man. Two of the men reached for guns as the door opened.
They recognized Jessie and I and put the guns away.
“Back already?” I asked Pierre.
“Yes,” Pierre said, meeting my eyes with his bloodshot ones. “I’m quick like that. I put tea on, by the way.”
“You’re too good to us,” Jessie said.
“We had some success on our end,” I said. “The stray gave us a once-over and decided we were fine. Now the feral children trust us. Will make something small happen tomorrow. Some good feelings about Leah.”
“Unless Pierre says that trust isn’t warranted,” Jessie said, going straight to the stove. She hung up my jacket on a chair back near it, then checked the kettle. It bubbled as she tilted it.
“She went straight to the Rank,” Pierre said.
The Rank. A local delinquent gang, consisting of current, former, and hopeful students.
Entirely unsurprising and yet disappointing.
“A double agent, then?” I asked.
“Working with us doesn’t mean that she can’t work with the Rank,” Jessie said.
“There was more,” Pierre said. “A name came up, one that you said to watch out for. Genevieve.”
“Fray. She’s coming?” I asked.
The rabbit head nodded. “From Trimountaine.”
I glanced at Jessie, who was warming her hands by the fire as she waited for the kettle to finish boiling.
Our choice to camp out here at what I’d described as the cliff at the edge of the world had been a choice made with some strategy in mind.
Mauer had been shifting his footing to position himself to where the receptive ears were. The disaffected, the frustrated, the furious. Once he had their ear, the man could make them zealots.
Fray had other methodologies, her eye turned in the direction of things and people she could use. The actions she could take with the widest-reaching ripples of consequence.
After assessing a variety of possibilities, we’d settled on this location, as a spot that one of the rebel leaders was likely to go. A place where we could move effectively against the Academy.
So often, Fray was the one being chased. This time, we would be laying in wait for her, our traps and schemes set up in advance. Once we had her and her resources pointed in the right direction, we could use the knowledge we had and deliver the most critical blow possible to the Crown.
“Only a skeleton crew tonight,” I observed, looking at the assembled mercenaries and crooks we’d recruited. “Spread the word to the others. Everyone lays low. Pay is increased for as long as nobody fucks the dog and alerts the neighborhood. If Fray makes an invite and it sounds good enough, then accept, and report back to us.”
Turning the tables on her. It would be interesting to see how she reacted.