The two men I was following were good. I followed them as they followed Avis, and that gave me ample opportunity to study the pair.
Their choice of clothing and hairstyle were accurate enough to fool me. If they hadn’t been actively following Avis, then I wouldn’t have given them a second look. Overalls tucked into wading boots and a sweater for one. Vest, shirt, and slacks for the other. Their hair was messy, only nominally combed back or parted, and their hands. Oh, thing of beauty, they had the calluses of hard manual labor.
Their guns, I noted, were well hidden. I actually had to look to find them, I watched how fabric moved and judged where the weight was, and then deduced the rest.
There were other hints I was able to catch, as they alternated, one walking briskly to pass the other and get closer to Avis, while the other fell behind, staring in a store window or taking a slightly different path. I could draw pretty darn close to them while they kept a careful eye on their partner and on the more distant Avis. They had shaved at just about the same time, and it hadn’t been that long ago. They had eaten the same food from the same place, and they had done so recently enough that I could smell it as I drew within a few feet of them.
They had received the call to turn up here very recently. That pointed to two possibilities.
The first possibility was they had received word that Fray was on the train, and their hope was to do what we were doing and intercept the plan rather than intercept her, exactly. News of Fray being due to arrive could have fit into the timeframe here. She would’ve had to be sighted while she boarded in the middle of the night, this morning, the message delivered before the sun had risen this morning. The timing, the distribution of the key elements, and the objective would suggest Cynthia more than anyone else.
Expert elements like this pair would have been assigned to another task in this area if they were here now, which raised questions about what they were doing, what Cynthia would have been doing. It hinted that the task and subject they’d been assigned to were lower priority than Fray and Fray’s actions, and-
I stopped myself there.
The second was that they had been tipped off. It would have had to occur within the last four or five hours. The Academy moved slower, with instructions passing up the chain of command and key assets, which would mean they got the info four or five hours ago. Cynthia would move faster and more aggressively.
More lines of thinking spiraled out from that. Cynthia was naturally more combative and aggressive, which would likely mean that she would move forces in, which meant implications and consequences and possible war or civil war, which raised questions about Fray’s response and the tools she had at her disposal, and how she had accounted for this possibility in general.
Then there was a simpler, more chilling question of who or what had tipped them off. Only a few likely possibilities stood out, and those proposed answers didn’t lead to many more questions, so it was an easy set of permutations to wrap my head around. Four or five hours ago, I had been stewing over the fact that I was setting so many stray individuals free into the world, not knowing exactly what their courses would be.
At that time, I had just made my move against the Rank, my lieutenants helping.
Odds were good that we had been seen or infiltrated.
The bystanders around us were taking on a particular style, now. They were younger, or they weren’t laborers. People who worked with animals, carriage drivers, students in uniform and students out of uniform.
Beattle Academy didn’t convey the sense of an institution. It clung to the city as a man might cling to a crumbling cliffside. In many places, the buildings weren’t identifiable as Academy buildings right off. It took a glance through windows or a glimpse of a plaque or lettering on the front face of the building, or attention to the students coming and going.
There was a ‘heart’ to Beattle, a core of the city center where nearly every building was Academy. As one got further away from the heart, the hold on the city slipped, and the Academy dormitories, classrooms, stables and labs were more spaced apart, interrupted by businesses restaurants and apartments.
My tracking of the trio was interrupted as a student very deliberately bumped into me.
“Watch where you’re going, grub,” he said.
“Will do,” I said, walking past him.
His hand fell on my shoulder. “Are you being flippant with me?”
I watched as Avis and the two men walked away. The man at the very tail end turned to glance in the direction of the commotion, and I turned my back to him, stepping to one side so that the people in the crowd would block his view of me.
I knew what the three of them looked like. That counted for something.
I met the eyes of a boy two years my senior, a solid six inches taller than me. His hair was black, the part set too far to one side, making his hair look more like an elaborate comb-over. An unfortunate look for an eighteen or nineteen year old.
“You’re not a student,” he said.
“Do you know that for certain?” I asked.
His hand gripped me by the collar, bunching it up around my neck. I was forced to stand on my toe-tips to keep my shirt from being untucked and my sweater from rising up enough to reveal the weapons at my belt.
Four other students lingered nearby, all boys. The five made a crowd, it looked like.
I momentarily debated the wisdom of simply slicing his wrist open and then using the confusion to disappear into the crowd.
Probably not worth it.
“What are you doing around here?” he asked.
“Honestly?” I asked. “I’m here about a girl.”
Perhaps the wrong thing to say. He hadn’t liked me on principle before. I didn’t read like a student, and I hadn’t been trying to. Going by his reaction, he probably hadn’t had much luck with girls in recent memory, and the idea of a non-student getting the girls when he wasn’t? Ooh man.
I could see the venom and the calculation in his eyes.
“Even here the girls don’t have standards that low,” he said. Contempt dripped off his tongue as he looked me up and down.
To his credit, I was a bit nettled at that. I knew he would’ve said something like it no matter how I looked, but I was nettled. I’d put effort into preparing for the day. Girls liked me. Mostly after they got to know me, but still.
Even Jamie had liked me, and he was a boy.
And if this rat-bastard was saying something bad about Lillian, Mary, and Jessie’s standards, well, I couldn’t brook that.
I glanced in the direction of Avis and the pair.
“Whoever she is, she can wait,” the student said.
“Perhaps,” I said. “Can you tell me why she’s waiting? I might have to explain later.”
“I think you should apologize for bumping into me and being insolent,” the student said. “As a starter.”
I nodded. “Or you’ll beat my face in.”
“I didn’t say it,” he told me. He gripped my collar tighter. “You did.”
“Here, in the street, where we have an audience to watch you do it? Or somewhere out of the way?”
“Here’s fine,” he said.
Here, with an audience?
“Your teachers won’t care, huh?” I asked.
“Not here,” he said. He drew back his fist to hit me.
My jacket draped over my arm, my hand holding the gun, I jabbed the gun into his gut.
With that in mind, I was entirely surprised when he socked me across the face. There were cheers and hoots from the crowd around us, and people began rearranging themselves to get a better vantage point. Even the ones who hurried away looked like they were doing so reluctantly. They had classes to get to.
I pressed the gun harder into his gut. I saw him glance down.
“Eyes forward,” I murmured, as I cocked the gun. I wasn’t sure if the student’s friends would hear, but I really needed to get things moving along.
They didn’t seem to hear, but a slight widening of my aggressor’s eyes suggested he had.
“You got your first lick in. What’s say you let go of me, and you and me make this a fair fight?” I asked, glaring at him.
My cheekbone smarted.
He let go of me.
“Been in a fight before?” I asked.
“A few,” he said.
“Among students?” I asked. I paced a little.
He was wary now. He’d heard and felt the gun.
“I grew up on the streets. With some mean bastards, too. People who would shank someone or shoot them dead and then leave them bleeding on the street, slip away before authorities could step in, you know?”
“Sure,” he said.
“And even if we didn’t go that far, a lot of us were nasty and crazy enough to find the person who crossed ’em, track them to where they lived, and get ’em there. They were the ones who taught me what I know. You get me?”
His friends sniggered.
“Assuming you’re telling the truth, sure,” he said.
“I’m going to give you a handicap,” I said. I put the arm with the jacket behind it behind my back, gun and hand covered by fabric. “One hand behind my back. I’m going to kick your ass until you cry uncle. Which I’m betting is going to be embarrassingly soon.”
I could see him realizing what was up, measuring this situation he had instigated.
I’d prophesied a future and the gun made it so.
Unless he threw me another curveball.
“You wouldn’t be Thom, would you?” he asked.
“Nah,” I said. “Simon.”
“You look like some of my cousins from New Amsterdam. George, Thom, Westie?”
His tone had shifted. He was begging for me to get it. To let him go out with a semblance of pride.
“I know Westie,” I said. “I guess you’d be my second cousin once removed or something like that?”
He rubbed his hand through his hair. His head and hand moved like he was a stitched with a kink in the joints, too stiff, jerky. Nervousness shining through. “Shit, man.”
There was even a hint of a tremor in his voice, though I wasn’t sure others could hear it.
“I’m family and you hit me?”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I’m not the type to narc on you to our relatives, but wow.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated himself. “I’ll leave you be.”
“No,” I said. “No, you’re coming with me, because I’ve got a date with a girl, and you’re going to explain this bruise on my face to her. I’m not going to have you ruining my chances. And then we can let bygones be bygones. Alright?”
People were peeling away now. The show had ended.
“I’ve got a class to get to,” he said.
I shook my head, and I brought my gun and jacket forward again. I refolded the jacket with care, keeping the gun hidden. “You can do this. And then we’re even. It’ll take five minutes.”
“Five minutes?” he asked.
“Shit,” he said. He made a face that was particularly pained. More like a guy doing something at gunpoint than a guy having to be late for class, odd as it was.
I jerked my head in the direction that Avis had gone.
His friends were jeering, nagging him, telling him how mad his teacher would be.
“Fuck it,” he said, and then he broke away from his friends.
The jeering got worse.
“You can tell them I held a gun on you later,” I said, as we walked away.
He nodded, face tight.
“We’re going to take longer than five minutes, though,” I told him.
He stopped in his tracks. I caught him, one hand at his back, giving him a push to keep him going.
“What kind of guy your age carries a gun?” he asked.
“My age?” I asked, pointedly.
“I dunno,” he said. “Sorry.”
“How old do you think I am?” I asked.
“I think… going by my luck today, if I guess, I’m going to be wrong. Maybe you’re actually older than me. Are you twenty?”
“Seriously. How old do you think I am?” I asked.
“Fourteen?” he asked.
I suppressed my urge to shoot him.
“I’m looking for two men,” I said. “And a girl, I was sort of telling the truth about that. So we’re going to go looking. And if we find them, then all is good. And if we don’t, I’m going to be annoyed with you, because you’re the reason I wasn’t able to keep my eye on them.”
“I don’t understand what’s happening,” he said.
“That’s fine,” I said. “Just do what I tell you to do. Okay? Now, you need a name.”
“I have a name.”
“I’m going to call you Gordon the Second.”
Gordon, walking off to the side, gave me a nasty look. I suppressed the urge to return the favor.
“That’s not my name. Why am I ‘the second’? What happened to the first?”
“Died,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, in a way that sounded like he was in the process of having his life flash before his eyes.
“It was… a loss,” I said. “His dog died too.”
“Oh. I don’t have a dog.”
“That’s too bad,” I said.
He didn’t have a response for that, but Gordon the Second didn’t look like he agreed with me about how unfortunate his dogless life was. Not that I’d always wanted a dog, really, but I had to admit that Hubris had turned me around some.
The fact that Hubris had been completely self sufficient had been a factor. The fact that he’d nourished a part of Gordon that needed nourishing, supporting my friend and brother like he had… that was the real thing that had opened my eyes to why dogs were a thing.
But I couldn’t conscience owning an animal that was liable to outlive me, so that was that.
“What’s this building?” I asked.
The building was one of the bigger buildings in the area, and had a placard with only a symbol above the door. It was the place that Avis had been heading directly toward.
“Academy office,” Gordon the Second said.
“Count me far from surprised,” I said. “We’re going inside. Act like you know where we’re going, second Gordon.”
Every time I said or thought the name, Gordon the first looked doubly irritated.
“What about the girl?”
“We’re trying to find her. Keep up, second Gordon,” I told him. “And keep talking to me. Tell me about your family.”
“I don’t want to tell you about my family.”
“You already told me some things. Westie and you called me Tim or something-”
“I didn’t call you Tim.”
“You called me something. Keep talking, man, come on. If you’re going to do one tenth as well as the original Gordon did, you need to be able to look natural while you’re nervous.”
“I know I was an asshole, but please, can we-”
“No, no, no,” I said. “We’re getting close to people. Make up a story about your mom and my mom. Change the names if you have to, but talk, come on.”
“I don’t… well, I know when they were little, my mom climbed up a tree, one taller than most houses. And she kept going higher, until she was perched on small branches. And then she fell, clean straight to the lawn below. Faceplant.”
“And she got up and laughed like everything was fine? Because kids are resilient?”
“No. She had to go to the local Academy because she was really messed up,” Gordon Two said. “And while she was there, my Auntie Nono-”
“You have an Auntie Nono? That sounds like some bad guy from one of the books this kid I know reads.”
“She got the nickname when we were little and it stuck,” Gordon Two said.
“That’s beautiful. I want her to be my mom.”
“Okay,” he said. He seemed taken aback. “While my mom was gone, Auntie Nono assumed she was dead, didn’t shed a tear, just went into mom’s room and began taking her stuff. Fair game, you know?”
“Perfect,” I said. “I really am my mother’s child.”
“My mom came away from the experience with a love for the Academy doctors who saved her. She studied, but… it’s hard. She says it was harder for a girl, back then. But I think it’s just hard. And maybe it helps her to have that excuse.”
I glanced over the people in the Beattle Academy office. I didn’t see any of the people we were looking for.
“Now her son is a proud student,” I said.
“At Beattle,” Gordon Two said.
“It’s not that bad,” I said.
“It’s pretty bad. I’ve been here for four years. I avoid getting cut but last two years I haven’t advanced either. Now budgets are getting slashed, and everyone’s nervous. We’re thinking they’re going to cut more of the student body. If they do, that means I’m out.”
“There will always be a place to go,” I said. “It’s in their interests to ensure there’s always a place.”
“It means moving. Disappointing my family more. If I go to Belltower or Sprung then it’s going to be even more vicious, even more competition.”
“Not out of the question,” I said. “But they like what that vicious mentality breeds. And now and again, someone rises up out of the desperate clawing mass bloody and dangerous and primed with the right sort of instincts, and the Academy can tell themselves that it works. And so schools will keep closing and others will open and cities rise and fall around them, and it all keeps the farce going.”
“A farce,” Gordon Two said. “That seems about right. Even this, with you. Acting like we’re getting along.”
I saw one of the men I’d been tracking walking down the hall, perpendicular to me. His hair was combed and slicked, no longer a natural sort of messy, and he wore a white coat.
“You’re doing a marvelous job,” I said. “And I just found one of the men I’m looking for, so I think I’m in very good shape.”
I felt a little bit of trepidation. I had a sense of what the next steps had to be, but if these guys were this skilled at disguise then they could be dangerous in other ways. They might have added capabilities.
“I can go, then?”
I chuckled. “No, no. Stick with me. Tell me what happened to Auntie Nono.”
“She got married and had a child six months later,” Gordon Two said. “You wouldn’t really shoot me here, would you? Not in the middle of an Academy building.”
“Shhh,” I said. “We’re keeping conversation nice, light and easy. Understand? Also, look at my right hand.”
He turned to look. I adjusted my sweater, revealing the knife handle.
I kept my voice light and quiet, smiling throughout as I talked, “If you panic or try to signal that group of students we’re about to walk by, I’ll slip this into your vitals. Silent. By the time they realize what happened, I’ll have slipped away. By the time they alert an authority, I’ll be outside. Then I’ll be gone, and you might live, or you might forever end your mother’s dreams of adding one more good doctor to the world.”
We walked by the group of girls without incident. Three of them had eyes for Gordon Two, giving him appraising looks, but one of them turned her attention to me, instead. It started as a glance because of the bruise on my face, I suspected, but her eye traveled as her mind clearly wandered into the territory of wondering what my story was.
I winked, confident, and I got a surprised smile.
Low standards my ass.
“And you think I deserve that?” he asked, once we were clear, “Because I gave you a hard time?”
“I think you deserve to have a bad day more than an awful lot of others, and you had the courtesy to let me know, when I needed camouflage.”
“Camouflage. This is for real, then. The gun, the… camouflage. What would you have done if you didn’t find me?”
“What the guy I’m tracking did, maybe. Stole a uniform. Or something. A distraction. I’ve got a bag full of stuff here. We’re about to walk through a group of people. Auntie Nono got married, huh?”
“She did. Young, to a decorated soldier a lot older than her. But he was upright enough to marry her when the baby was on the way. Then they moved across the pond. They moved so often we couldn’t keep their address straight, and then they moved to the edge of the green stripe. That’s what they called the front line in Africa.”
I could read his tone.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I never knew her. Barely knew my cousins. They won the war, but the tools they used were ugly, and somehow my aunt, living in a residential area far from the actual front line of battle, she died.”
I had a sense of what Gordon the Second was doing. Trying to humanize himself. But I didn’t really care.
“I’ve seen some of the messes left behind,” I said. “I’ve seen the red plague up close. Tore it out of someone, even. I’ve seen primordials. I’ve seen a man with the voice of an angel turn into a monster. And I’ve seen child and noble alike die.”
“I don’t think I believe you,” Gordon Two said, his voice soft. “And I’m surprised at myself, because I let myself believe a lot of what you’ve said.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That was a bad idea. Tell me, the layout here is weird. What’s this part of the building?”
“We’re adjunct to the library. I think this area opens up into a part of the library that’s for the really expensive books. Nothing restricted or Academy related, or it would be under guard, kept in classrooms and such, but… actual books. The stairs cut past that area and go down to the ground floor. Conversation and eating and drinking are allowed there, but as you go up to higher tiers of the library, the rules about being quiet are even harsher.”
“Thank you, Second Gordon. But we’re not on the ground floor. So if we go beyond the expensive books are, then we’d be…” I trailed off.
“Second floor means conversations are fine, but laughing or raising your voice would get you frowned at or make people ask you to leave.”
“Got it,” I said. “Let’s let ourselves into the library.”
I earned a few second glances, again, because of the mark on my face, but also because of the standards of my outfit, the fact that my hair was no doubt going to every effort to make itself a mess, and the odd pairing of me with a boy two years older than me.
He’d said I looked fourteen to him. At my worst, I looked fifteen, and I was legitimately a year older, after accounting for my stunted growth. Maybe two years, even.
He’d earned points in my book for volunteering the information and cooperating as much as he had, but he’d indirectly insulted Lillian, Mary, and Jessie, and he had insulted me.
So, all considered, I didn’t mind that I was about to make his bad day worse, and likely ensure he was going to be even later for class, if he attended at all.
The bookshelves in this part of the library smelled like leather and had gold lettering, the shelves very nice. We found our way into the more usual books, with a great deal of boring nonfiction works that Jessie would have been distracted by, and, with me guiding us to move more slowly, we got close enough to see the first of the two men.
Triangulating where the guy was, listening for the sounds of conversation, I could gauge the location of Avis. She was talking to someone in one corner of the library. In anything but a library, I doubted he would have been able to make any of it out.
“Gordon Two,” I said.
“That’s not my name,” he said.
“I know. But consider it a kindness that I’m not using your real name. Because it means I’m willing to forget you exist when all of this is done.”
He nodded. “This is serious, isn’t it?”
“If I said the fate of the Crown Empire hinges on this, would you believe me?” I asked, my voice low.
He shook his head.
“Yeah,” I whispered. “Well, it’s still pretty serious. So listen carefully. I want you to walk up to that man in the white lab coat, and I want you to punch him as hard as you can in the stomach. Solar plexus. And then I want you to keep punching him.”
I whispered “I’m not wholly sane, no, but I’m dead serious. Because the alternative to you doing what I say is that I knife you right here and right now, and then I knife him, or you could run over there and warn him, and then I have to open fire, and you can be sure I’m going to aim one of the bullets at you. And it’ll be messy and others will die in the noise and the chaos.”
“He’s going to shout or kick up a fuss after I hit him,” Gordon Two said.
“No,” I said. “And if he does, I won’t hold it against you. So it might even be in your best interests to hurt him enough to get a noise out of him, you know? But don’t you make a peep, if you can help it.”
“No,” Gordon Two said. “No, I don’t know, not at all.”
“Go on,” I said. “I’m missing out on one really critical conversation while this is going on.”
I moved the gun.
He shook his head, but he turned, walking toward the spy in the white coat.
So very obvious.
Leaning over, I looked at Gordon the First. “Doesn’t measure up to the original.”
“I don’t understand how your head works, Sy,” Gordon said. “But if you’re trying to get a rise out of me, it’s working, and that says bad, bad things about how your brain is put together.”
Second Gordon looked as confrontational as hell as he stalked toward the man in the white coat. I ducked out of sight as his attention drew the man’s attention.
The scuffle was so quiet as to be almost inaudible. I could hear Avis and her conversation partner more than I could hear the struggle. I doubted any proper punches were even landing.
Eyes closed, I put my hand against a bookshelf. I felt for the vibrations of footsteps as much as I listened for them.
With one spy no doubt watching his partner, who listened to Avis, he was no doubt watching the scene unfold with Gordon Two.
His partner had it handled, but the job wasn’t getting done in the meantime.
It was obvious for a distraction, so he wasn’t acting on it. He waited, observed…
Then he moved. I felt the dull sensation of boots on floorboards, on the other side of the wood-backed bookshelf.
I moved around a bookshelf so that if he checked his rear, which he would, he wouldn’t see me.
One grunt, then a gasp.
Then another set of footsteps, moving away from me.
Moving back around and then tracing the path to follow the man through the maze, my own footsteps were light and silent. My strides were long, my feet fell in places where the feet of the heavy bookshelves already pressed floorboards down, so they wouldn’t creak.
His partner was pinning Gordon Two down, and he himself was focused on the flanks, the rear no doubt just checked and confirmed clear. He wore a black coat.
I moved right up behind him before he realized I was there. My knife cut across his hamstrings, and then I reversed the knife and plunged it into his chest as he toppled.
The spy in the white coat watched his partner -the fellow he’d shaved and eaten with that morning- drop dead, while I threw my body between the man and the ground, to keep his impact with the ground from being too heavy. It slowed me down, tangled me up, perhaps a bit more than I’d anticipated.
He moved to rise, while Gordon Two was lying with his back on the ground, staring up and back at me in what would have looked like an upside-down murder scene.
I let the body fall the rest of the way to the ground, and he and I started toward each other, each breaking free of our respective opponents.
Me against a grown man that had at least some inkling of how to fight.
Ambush, surprise attacks, attacking inconvenienced enemies, I could do that. But my talents in fighting were limited to avoiding the fights where I wasn’t at an overwhelming advantage and capitalizing on the ones where I was.
My opponent stopped short as Gordon Two grabbed at his leg, hugging it. He turned, looking down and over, and as I moved, realized his mistake.
I threw my knife at the man while he wasn’t able to freely move around. It sank into his chest, placed well enough that I could see the defeat in the man’s eyes.
“Uuuuuughuuuh,” he groaned, an inarticulate, long, loud cry that seemed to be his dying rebellion, striving to draw attention to me or warn our mutual prey.
If that was what it was, then he was good.
If it wasn’t, then that was allowed, because dying had to suck.
Elsewhere in the library, well hidden by the rows and columns and corridors of bookshelves, a woman shushed the man who’d groaned so loudly.
I waited, listening and watching, my hand on a bookshelf so I might feel some residual footsteps, and nothing came of it.
I crossed to where the man in the white coat had been standing. I wished I’d been able to interrogate him, but I couldn’t imagine a scenario where he would have cooperated.
Matter of fact was, I was surprised that Gordon Two had acted to help like he had. Until I heard what Avis was saying and realized he’d heard a part of the same conversation.