“Do you know what I miss about our place in Tynewear?” I asked.
“Do tell,” Jessie said, from the other room, through the door. “Also, let me know when I can come in.”
“You can come in any time,” I said. Then, as I heard her hand rattle the doorknob, I said, “But I’m naked, so be warned.”
She left the washroom door alone.
“Why do you want in?” I asked.
“I want a towel for my hair. Can you pass one through the door?”
“Hands are gucky,” I said, as I slicked my hair back. “So no. Give me a second…”
I carefully picked at the towel, wrapped it around my lower body, and, not wanting to get it all gross, I pressed my hips against the cabinet below the sink to pin it in place.
“There. Come in. I’m covered.”
She let herself into the washroom, averting her eyes as she headed straight for the cabinet with the towels.
“What was the thing you missed about Tynewear?”
“Which? What? Oh. Showers. East coast, edge of the world-”
“You’re really sticking with that, aren’t you?” she asked, as she used the towel to squeeze water out of her hair. She was already dressed,
“So close to the heart of the Crown Empire, and what do you know? No showers.”
“They have some in public places, like pools and athletics clubs.”
“Point stands. No appreciation for the shower. Only baths. And baths are miserable when you’ve got stuff to do. Great if you want to stop, but terrible if you’ve a five minute window before a day full of spying, kidnapping, murder, arson-”
“Theft. Don’t forget the rampant theft.”
“And theft? With plans to set up a rebel enclave? Either way. Five minute baths are a tragedy.”
“Coming from someone who has experienced tragedy, that seems very grave.”
“It is! Terribly grave,” I said. I fixed my hair as best as I could, but it was already rebelling against the oil-wax blend I had used to try to pin it down. “Especially when we have to cut corners, no tea with breakfast, no time to toast or cook anything, just grabbing some fruit and whatever as we rush out the door, going hungry all morning…”
“Sylvester,” Jessie said, in a very pointed way.
“Jessie,” I said, mimicking her tone.
“Are you hinting that you would like me to prepare breakfast while you get ready?”
“However did you get that impression? No, no. Just because I let you have the bath first, with hotter water, and-”
“I’ll see about your breakfast, Sy,” she said, with a sigh. “It’s not going to be fancy, we don’t have that long.”
“I’ll take that as my hint to hurry things along.”
She hung up the damp hair-towel, grabbed a brush, and left the washroom.
I leaned in close to the mirror to check my face for any proper sign of facial hair, was disappointed, and ducked into the other room to start getting ready.
Mary was waiting for me. Silent, she oversaw my selection of the tools and weapons as I laid them out on my bed. Ashton sat at the window, and didn’t look up as I touched it, gauging the temperature outside.
I dressed with more warmth than was necessary. The pants meant more for winter than for fall. I wore a shirt under a heavier sweater. I couldn’t remember where it came from, but it was soft and close-knit enough to be worn on its own. Something I’d looted way back in Tynewear? Maybe Jessie had bought it during one of our supply runs, and it had found its way into my luggage.
I grabbed a jacket but didn’t wear it. I collected everything I’d laid out on the bed, everything with its place. My gun disappeared into the inside pocket of the jacket, which I folded in such a way that the gun wouldn’t fall out. Other things were put in pockets, belt, and hidden pockets based on priority and need. I grabbed a bag and stowed the things I wouldn’t need for sure, but which would be useful to have. These too were put away based on a kind of instinct more than proper organization. Lockpicks in a front pocket of the bag, while a smoke canister and ammunition went into the bottom of the bag, sure to be buried by other things.
“Is this how you operate, Mary?” I asked. “Is it a factor in how you’re put together? When you’re really nervous about the day, you focus a little bit on grooming? Armor yourself in fashion, arm yourself with the necessary tools, and find your center?”
“I was only nervous in the very beginning,” she said. “Back when I didn’t know the Lambs. Then again, when Percy came up, and when the Lambs split.”
“The very beginning. That’s when you settled on your particular style. Before then, we mostly saw you wearing the Mothmont uniform.”
“I started wearing lace and soft fabric, to hide the steel,” she said, smiling. She touched my chest, over the heart. “What’s your soft armor hiding?”
I could smell toast. My head turned.
“Good luck with the mission,” she said. “I look forward to hearing the results, all the way back at Radham Academy.”
I smiled, hiked the bag up over one shoulder, gathered the jacket under one arm, and joined Jessie in the kitchen, heels of my boots knocking the wood floor with each step.
“Thank you,” I told her.
“You’re welcome,” she said. “It’s self-preservation, too. You get cranky when you’re tired and hungry, and I’m putting up with you for a good portion of the day.”
“Did you eat?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I’m taking some of this. Toast, with liver spread. Cheese. Fruit.”
I made a face.
“Eat some fruit,” she said.
Reluctantly, I took the fruit, popping it into my mouth.
“I skipped the tea,” she said. “We can’t drink it while we walk.”
“We could with a Dewar flask.”
“We had a Dewar flask. We’ve had several. You keep turning them into bombs. Mostly poison gas bombs.”
“And the glass jars with wire fasteners, and the milk bottles, which get costly, because they forced us to renew subscriptions if they couldn’t collect the used bottles-”
Behind Jessie, Helen creeped up and stole a piece of toast. Except it was a phantom piece. Jessie, none the wiser, picked up the real version of that same piece of toast. Jessie bit into the toast with emphatic, not-entirely-serious anger.
“Yes,” I said. “Take out your aggression on the toast, not on me. Gnash it. Gnash it good.”
Helen’s eyes crinkled with humor as she devoured her own piece.
Swallowing, Jessie stabbed the remaining bit of toast in my direction. “It wouldn’t be so bad if you handled it, but you leave that to me, because you don’t-”
I waited, watching, as she remained where she was, toast held in the air. She stared at me, a faint frown crossing her features. If it was twelve percent of a proper frown, then it creeped up a percentage point, second by second, over a good five seconds.
“Jessie?” I asked.
“Shh,” she told me.
I frowned, glanced at Helen, who shrugged, and I eased my concerns by eating my liver toast and cheese.
“We should go,” Jessie said. “We might have to make a detour.”
I grunted assent through a mouthful of toast, made sure I had my stuff, and hooked the strap of Jessie’s bag with my foot, lifting it up to a level where she could grab it without having to bend over.
We vacated the apartment, and I paused before locking the door, making eye contact with Helen.
“Watch the apartment,” I told her. I got a nod, closed the door, and locked it.
When I turned around, the look of general concern on Jessie’s face had jumped a few dozen percentage points.
“Helen,” I told her, doing my best to manage the handfuls of food without getting my fingers too sticky.
“Okay,” she said.
“Where are we detouring?” I asked, as we walked down the stairs to the street.
It was dim outside, the first rays of dawn only just reaching out. People were awake and busy, because it was seven in the morning, but the colder season was creeping in, stealing away daylight and making its approach clearly felt in the early morning. In a few weeks, water would start freezing and the air would be dry. For now, however, the salty air that blew in from over the ocean and into the city was cold and damp, the light faltering.
“If nothing changes in the next few minutes, we might want to head to the-”
In the distance, a train whistle screamed.
“-train station,” Jessie finished. “Nevermind.”
“You’re aware the trains are almost never on time?” I asked.
“I’m aware there’s a deviation. Plus eleven minutes or minus seven, at the limit, for Laureas. When things are at that limit, about half the time, I can go down to the train station and ask.”
“You seriously ask?” I asked.
“I do,” she said. “And most of the time, something noteworthy happened. Enough for people at the station to talk about it with each other. Fray just arrived with her group, and she’s a tich late.”
“I’m just imagining how you go about that. You just walk up to the ticket booth, say ‘hello Sammy, how’s work this morning? Oh, that’s good to hear. Why is the train late?'”
“I’m a little more adroit than that, Sy.”
“How does one adroitly manage the topic of a late train, as someone regular who isn’t a passenger?”
“You’re dwelling on the wrong part of this. Fray has arrived. That she arrived late might be important.”
“Maybe you think it’s adroit, but they talk among themselves about the odd girl who gets uppity about the train being late, even though she has absolutely no stake in it.”
“Jessie. How can I trust an ally if she’s doing things behind the scenes that might hint at grave weaknesses or infirmity? This could be the fulcrum point by which our partnership regains balance or careens into disaster.”
“There are a lot of locals who visit the station now and again purely out of a fondness for trains.”
“Really. Can we please refocus?”
“Little kids, I imagine. And old men. But seventeen year old girls?”
“Do you like trains? Do you pay particular attention to trains here for purely selfish, hobby-esque reasons?”
“If I say yes, you’re going to clap your hands with glee, then file that away as one of the memories you actually hold onto, so you can use it against me. If I say no, you’re going to stubbornly stay on this like a terrier on a mousehole.”
“So… that’s a yes?” I asked.
“I don’t dislike trains. They make a good reference point for the flow of the city, when I’m measuring it all. When people come, when they go, the time it takes them to get from A to B, with the station itself oftentimes being one or the other-”
“You like trains! That’s so adorable!”
“You’re making more of this than there is.”
“Okay,” I said. I took a deep breath, and exhaled, settling myself down. “Fair.”
Act reasonable, let the subject drop. If there was anything to share, she would venture it, because she did want to share more of herself with me.
“Some of my fonder memories are of the Lambs together, on the train. It’s so often a nice intermission, in the grand play of life. The pause before things start, the pause after they conclude, where we were together, me and you or us and the Lambs as a group. We can talk, but we’re still moving toward something. Everything else was prone to being interrupted, be it time at the Orphanage, let alone the actual missions.”
I nodded, trying and failing to suppress the grin that crept over my face.
“I’ve given you a fully loaded weapon to use against me, haven’t I?” she asked.
“Not at all,” I said. “Not at all.”
“That would be far more convincing if you didn’t look like the cat with the canary.”
“I don’t want to discourage you from sharing parts of yourself,” I said. “It’s all good. I won’t use it against you.”
“I don’t believe you. You’ll forget you promised not to use it against me, and I’ll remember I didn’t believe you, and I’ll soothe my frustrations by telling myself I was right, when the time comes. But can we please just focus? Or can you do what you did back in New Amsterdam, lose your mind and let one of the ghosts take over? Because that might be preferable.”
“Irreversible, quite possibly.”
“But preferable all the same,” she said, smiling.
“Ha ha. Alright. Focusing.”
“How is your lipreading?”
“I’ve been focusing on it. We’ve known we’d probably be needing it. I should manage pretty well. We’ll see how it goes.”
“Let me know if you’re not picking up everything. I’ll translate.”
“Will do,” I said.
Jessie pointed. We changed course.
We were mostly silent as we finished eating and wiping our hands clean, making our way to where we needed to be.
One building had stairs that ran up the outside to a porch that overhung the lawn. We borrowed use of the stairs, climbing up halfway, but without standing on the porch itself.
Jessie reached into her bag and I reached into mine, and we both pulled out binoculars.
It took about twenty seconds to find Fray. I spotted her first.
She had toned down the lipstick and wore a hat that folded up on the one side, but she hadn’t jumped to wear any particular disguise beyond that. The stitched girl was with her, wearing a jacket that was lighter than the morning chill called for. The stitched girl’s boy was nowhere to be seen. Fray’s Bruno, the headsman, Warren.
Avis, too, was with her. Avis… didn’t look good. I’d braced Junior to expect Avis to look haunted, but the woman appeared hollowed out. More experiment than experimenter, gaunt, not quite able to look like a member of the crowd, even with the concealing cloak she wore. Not that the cloak helped, draping down to cover everything from the shoulders down, but it was a sight better than openly wearing the wings that she likely never removed, now.
Still, she and Fray talked.
I turned some things around in my head, adjusted, changed focus, and let some walls down.
I imagined the voices, pulled out the stops as I focused on the act of lipreading, and put it all to work.
“…long do you need me to stay?” Avis asked.
“Not long at all. Once we know we’re clear, I’ll signal you or openly ask you to see to other business.”
“I don’t like leaving you,” Avis said.
A vehicle momentarily blocked our view of the conversation. My mind, primed to fill in the blanks, immediately jumped in five different directions, as to where the conversation might go, and how Fray might respond.
The horse and carriage passed, and I took a moment to get a grasp of what was being said.
Fray: “…the reason I keep you around is for the company.”
“…company to keep,” Avis said. I missed the first word. I could have asked Jessie about it, but I wanted to test myself, force my brain to adapt where I hadn’t been able to push it to on my own.
Fray reached out to touch Avis’ arm, which was covered by the long black cloak. “Who else can I have good, long conversations with?”
Then the pair of them were out of sight, blocked from our line of sight by an intervening building.
We picked ourselves up, bags in one hand, binoculars in the other, and hurried to the next vantage point.
“Warren is probably coming on another train. Too conspicuous. Might show up with a group of Brunos he can blend in with,” I said.
“That’s quite a thing to imagine,” Jessie said.
“Indeed! I bet you would-”
“Don’t even say it, Sy. We only just finished the conversation where you said you wouldn’t give me a hard time.”
“About trains,” I said. “Other things are fair game. Why? What did you think I was going to say?”
“I don’t even know. But it was going to involve trains. And I guess men, or some association between hobbies and work. What were you going to say?”
“A bunch of hulking men, crammed together in a train car-”
“Oh, ew,” she said.
“Talking about muscles, oiling their bodies like the gladiators of old, to show-”
“Stop. Mercy. I cry mercy.”
“I much prefer the image of many large, musclebound men sitting in seats too small for them, dressed to the nines and waiting for the tea cart, acting like gentlemen.”
“I see, I see,” I said.
“Because it’s amusing and funny, not because of anything your perverse mind can piece together.”
“Understood,” I said. “So that’s where your mind goes. I’m learning so much about you, today.”
“Whatever else you’re thinking or about to say, keep it to yourself,” she said.
There was a fence bounding a yard at the corner of one street.
“Are we clear to peek at them?”
“Assuming they’re walking at the same pace they were? Yes.”
I gestured. “Up?”
“Catch,” she said. “Also, tree.”
She threw the binoculars into the air, put her hands together just in time for me to step into them, and helped boost me up. I skipped up to the top of the fence and perched there, glancing up momentarily before reaching out to catch Jessie’s binoculars.
My view was blocked by a tree. I raised the binoculars and peered through the branches.
We were on track. Fray was on course to rendezvous with Junior and the other members of the Rank.
I watched their mouths, but could only see Fray, and for only part of the statement.
“…our room. Then we’ll need you to swing by – -tul. You know – – – to cover. I trust you to handle it -ven your past experience.”
Avis said something a branch didn’t want me to catch.
I hopped down before Fray and Avis could advance far enough along the street that they would see me. We were keeping ahead of them and off to the side, and there weren’t a lot of positions where we could keep sight of their faces and also stay out of sight. Avis should have good eyes, if she stuck with the ‘bird’ theme.
“I didn’t think you’d be able to see, what with the tree,” Jessie said.
“Wasn’t too bad. I think Avis is visiting the local Academy. Fray and Avis talked before about Avis leaving Fray and going off somewhere, right?”
“That means you and I might be breaking apart, one watching Fray, the other watching Avis. What they’re talking about right now, it looks like something they couldn’t handle during the train ride, so it’s at least somewhat sensitive.”
“Stands to reason.”
“Also, thank you. That thing with the boost, and throwing the binoculars, and me catching them? Thank you. I didn’t tax your shoulder?”
Jessie shook her head. “It’s been a bit better. But maybe we shouldn’t do that again today?”
“I’m glad it tickled your fancy,” she said.
The next vantage point for us to reach was a little ways away, but it was the second-to-last.
“You’re in a good mood,” Jessie observed.
“The boost thing was a boost.”
“Getting a good few hours of sleep was a lift, moodwise,” I said.
“Sitting on cold stairs.”
“Even so,” I said. “I’m excited. Fray. Something great in the works. Good company.”
“Including ghosts,” Jessie said.
“Them too,” I said. “I’m less certain about the elements we have in play. We can’t control their every move, not yet.”
“Maybe one day. But free will and sheer variance in people means there are a hundred of little things that could go wrong. Things I used to exploit.”
We settled into our hiding spot, leaning against a wall rather than crouching, keeping an eye out for Fray.
“It’s good to be wary, Sy.”
Fray appeared, continuing her steady walk. She had company.
A boy, roughly of an age to match Ashton, Abby and the twins’ apparent ages.
I focused on the lipreading, raising the binoculars to my eyes.
The boy was shaking his head. He said, “No.”
“Strange creatures? Or rumors of strange creatures? Experiments without owners?”
“Nobody moved into the area? New faces?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Last night. There were gunshots. A lot of people walking around.”
A shrug, a response I didn’t see. A negative response. Unsure.
“Could it have come from that area down there?”
She gestured in the general direction of the Rank’s lab.
“Interesting. The people walking around, none were Academy?”
“No. Locals, looked like.”
I glanced at Jessie, and we exchanged a series of gestures.
I left Jessie behind, hurrying onward.
The boy had been paying attention. He’d likely been contacted in advance, paid, to keep an eye out.
The simplest answer was that the same person that had picked up shipments or delivered Fray’s messages had also set that up, at her request.
I ducked through the streets, zig-zagging this way and that. I couldn’t remember the exact location, but it was an oddly positioned building, where the streets formed a very long and narrow ‘x’ rather than a perfectly square one, and the streets were wide, which meant I had to find the wide street-
I found the wide street.
And then find the intersection with another wide-but-not-as-wide street. I found that, and spotted familiar territory.
I approached from the side, and knocked on a window.
A worker opened the window.
“Bring Junior,” I said.
My heart pounded. Fray wasn’t that far away. She might even pick up the pace if she sensed that there was something afoot.
Junior appeared at the window.
“I thought you weren’t going to show up this morning,” he said.
“She knows something happened last night. Keep it simple. Some of the locals found out you were dealing out of here, because of the comings and goings at night, and they came asking for money. You fired the shotgun a few times, and they decided to come back another time. Tell the others. If they can look upset about it, that’s great.”
“Do it now, Jun,” I said. “There’s not a lot of time for this last minute alteration to the script.”
I ended the conversation by pushing the window closed.
I approached the corner of the street I needed to cross, and I saw Fray making her way to the building.
I took a longer, more circuitous route. It unfortunately meant that I would miss the opening of the dialogue between Fray and Junior.
And then some, it seemed. I’d hoped for a passing wagon to provide some cover as I crossed the street, but there wasn’t much traffic at this hour.
Five minutes passed. I didn’t hear any commotion, but neither Fray nor Junior were really positioned to cause any.
Finally, a carriage passed. I used it as cover to cross the street while staying more or less out of Avis’ field of view.
I made my way to the last vantage point. It was an apartment building across the street, low to the ground. Jessie was already there.
“Please tell me it’s going well,” I said.
Jessie was peering out the window with binoculars. “Well enough. Fray hasn’t given any signs. She’s interested in the enterprise. Or she’s pretending to be.”
I was eager to settle in and see for myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Jessie, but I trusted my own reads of people in particular.
“This is Leah,” Junior introduced Rita.
“Nice to meet you,” Rita said.
“Remind me, what do you do here?” Genevieve asked Rita.
“Leah is-” Junior started.
“I want to hear from her,” Genevieve interrupted.
I lowered my head, banging my forehead with the heel of my palm.
“Watch,” Jessie urged.
I looked up, focusing on the scene.
“…refine what we have, ideawise,” Rita said. “New drugs. Twists on existing ones.”
“Excellent,” Fray said. “I hope we have a chance to discuss that at some point. Drugs, and especially combat drugs, are something I’m hoping to make use of at a later date.”
“I’ve heard good things about your qualifications,” Rita said. “If you could share any insights on what I’ve been mulling over, that would be fantastic, but right this second, it looks like vat three is-”
Then she turned away, hurrying to a counter.
“The heat is too high,” Fray casually observed.
“I know!” Rita said, looking over her shoulder. “The knob gets wonky, so it’s a bit touchy where I have to eyeball it first thing in the morning, before figuring out what it’s actually set to.”
I watched the interactions continue, holding my breath, studying what I could make out of Avis and Fray’s expressions.
It was a solid minute later when I let myself breathe again. There were no signs that Fray was suspicious.
“Yeah,” Jessie replied to the exhalation. “I know.”
“Where did you find her?”
“Rita? Luck that I ran into her in the first place. Observation, that I saw something of merit in her when I ran into her. There’s a reason I wanted to pay double what we paid for the others to get her.”
“Good find. I want to keep her, however this turns out.”
“Might take some doing,” Jessie said.
Junior was taking the lead, handling ninety-five percent of the chat with Fray. He was clever, and Fray… if she had any proper weaknesses at all, she enjoyed engaging with clever. So long as they could keep talking, things were good.
If Fray started talking to Rita about the particulars of some combat drug regimen or another, then it would all fall apart, but at this stage, I trusted Junior or Rita to handle things.
Avis was visibly getting restless, moving about the lab, which made me restless. But then Fray turned her head, and gave the signal.
“She’s going to see to some other things,” Fray explained to Junior.
“If you need anything in particular, I’m sure some people here would be happy to get a break from the usual lab work,” Junior said.
“I appreciate the offer, but this is hardly a relief from lab work. Boring things,” Fray said. “An awful lot of negotiation and communication with different people.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Junior said, smiling.
I watched Avis as she left the building, looked around, and then headed off, walking briskly.
I began to get my things together, watching her as she walked down the street.
“Heading toward the Academy,” I observed. I pulled my bag over one shoulder. “I guess I am too. Don’t fall asleep here.”
“I don’t think I could sleep if I tried. My nerves are shot,” Jessie said.
“Everything’s in motion,” I said. I watched as Avis disappeared down one street.
I watched as two bystanders suddenly ended their conversation, exchanged a glance, and then turned to follow her. They weren’t so hot on her heels that it looked like they were going to rob her.
No, that kind of distance was good for a game of chase. Of tailing a target, with one in the lead and the other trailing behind. They would change it up, so no one was visible and obvious for too long of a time.
Practiced tailing of a target.
“Everything, and everyone,” I amended my statement. “Those two weren’t members of any of the gangs we collected, or any of the gangs we ignored?”
“No,” Jessie said.
“Bounty hunters? Who are very intent on…” I trailed off, letting the sentence die. I couldn’t find my way to an answer.
No, they were doing much the same thing we were.
Tracking Fray’s people. Seeing what they did.
“A major player. Cynthia’s people, or Academy,” I said.
This made matters harder.