“You’re asking for a lot, and you’re giving me very little,” the man said. “You’re taking my Academy from me.”
“There’s room to negotiate,” Avis said. “In another place, at another time. Not here. Not in neutral ground. Keep in mind, if anyone overheard you talking like that, it would leave you less room to negotiate, not more.”
“You’ve delayed me three times, now. I’ve played along, I’ve helped keep the pot stirred, I’ve lined up the targets for you to shoot down, but I’m running out of patience. Don’t think I don’t see the direction the winds are blowing, I know what it means that you’re here and things are happening.”
“We never doubted your political sense, Albert.”
“You want my cooperation? You have it. But I won’t be delayed, not when I know that you’re in the final stages, and you won’t necessarily have a place for me when all is said and done. If I wait too long to make sure I get what I need, you’ll move forward and I’ll be left in the lurch with nothing and no leverage to negotiate with.”
“Fine. Shall we move to your office?”
“My office is the last place this conversation should be had. My quarters aside, it’s the one room in this academy where I should feel like I have a modicum of privacy, so it stands to reason I have none at all. We’ll talk in generalities.”
“Or we won’t talk at all?” Avis asked. There was a pause, a non-verbal response. She responded with a quiet, “Very well. What do you want?”
Gordon Two shifted position, slowly moving into a sitting position with his back to the bookshelf that separated us from Avis and her conversation partner. He stared into space like someone who was only beginning to comprehend the great mysteries of the universe: awed, horrified, and confused.
“I want to run my Academy, but I won’t have that, will I?”
“Generalities,” Avis gently reminded him.
“I want money enough to live comfortably for the rest of my life.”
“We’re not equipped to supply that, especially not up front, and I doubt you’d take a promised future amount any more than you’d accept delaying this conversation.”
The man I’d thrown a knife at gurgled a death rattle, gases and fluids warring for a place in his throat. It seemed to scare the living daylights out of Gordon the Second.
“I assume you’ll keep asking for the moon, knowing we can’t or won’t deliver.”
“Mmm,” he said.
Avis lowered her voice, and I had to strain my ears and tilt my brain toward the task of hearing her. “I’ll tell you what we can deliver. We’ll move forward with this, you already have some idea of what’s at play, and we’ll cut some individuals out. We know that the stables are… crowded. As the flood occurs, the horse and the pig will be caught out in the cold.”
“The horse and the pig? Oh. Oh, that does tickle my shriveled black heart,” the man said, without speaking any quieter than he had been. He sounded louder, if anything.
“We agreed to pay you a sum that we haven’t and won’t pay them, and we’ll pay you the remainder before anything else happens. It will see you through the next year or two, we hope. Enough time to get back on your feet and find another stable elsewhere. You know my credentials, professor.”
“I’ve seen people rise and fall, represented in pins on a map as well as the addresses and titles on pieces of mail. The number of birds that fly to and from them. While the earthy beasts figure out what’s happening and turn their attention toward finding shelter and surviving the cold winter, you’ll be secure enough to focus on getting ahead.”
“The only reason I’m talking to you is that I know I won’t be getting ahead, dear. I won’t get another, ah, stable. Don’t lie to me and pretend I will. The stable was built on floodlands. It flooded. I’ll be a stablehand elsewhere, not an owner.”
“Somewhere starting with an S, or a W.”
“Look at me, professor,” she said, lowering her voice even further, to the point that her voice distorted. I leaned closer to the corner to hear better. She went on, “Imagine that I’m a vulture that flies in circles over the dead and dying. Those two places are among them. A morbidly ill beast and another stable of creatures built on floodlands, respectively.”
“You have me so very excited for these prospects, my dear,” the older man said, lacing his words with sarcasm and even more venom.
“We will be in your neighborhood in the future, professor. And in a way that isn’t traceable, a way that isn’t easy to connect to you, we will see that you have a stable of your own to run again. If it is S, that ill beast, then you shall keep it, and we shall nourish it, because it suits your ends, and it suits ours.”
“A small war to bring some life to a warbeast with no purpose?”
“Something of the sort. If you find yourself placed at W, then perhaps we’ll see if we can’t make it a repeat of what you’ll see happen here. Acknowledging that two points make a line, and that line points at you, we’ll furnish you with a more comprehensive exit strategy.”
“No generalities,” the old man said.
“Money enough to make you comfortable for the rest of your life, professor. At that point we’ll be prepared to provide it up front.”
“If that comes to pass. But tempting me with imagined gnashing of teeth on the part of my enemies isn’t changing matters now, is it? You’re still telling me to have faith that you’ll deliver on your promises.”
“Then I’ll give you something concrete. You know what I’m asking. We’ll both set this in motion, and in the earliest stages, you’ll be free to steer it or reverse course. Your ability to do that is why we’re talking to you. We need you to let this unfold. Take the first step, ignore the first mutterings. And you’ll have the horse kicking at your door, clearly upset about this.”
“A nice thought, but hardly enough to make me feel secure about this.”
“I’m not done, professor. You’ll take the second step. People will inquire, trying to find the validity of the rumor. They’ll find it started at the horse’s stall. He’ll be at your door again, angry. He’ll wheel, he’ll deal, but it will be Sisyphean at that stage. And all you’ll have to do to break him is wait until he’s on the brink of saving himself, the stone nearly hauled to the top of the mountain, and you give it one small push, to send it and him down with it.”
The old man chuckled.
Gordon Two was shaking his head. I placed my hand on his shoulder, and he startled, as if he’d forgotten I was there.
“I think we might have a deal,” the old man said. “If I get to see the horse’s back broken and the pig…”
“Crushed in the stampede, I assure you.”
“And all it takes is that I have to hasten a flooding that will inevitably happen? Yes. Worth it to see that happen, if nothing else.”
“You’ll watch it happen as you help us, I assure you, and we will follow through. Even if the damage can’t wholly be stopped at that point, you’ll be placed to rake over some messes and allow certain others. We want you to feel motivated to do that.”
“We have a deal.”
“Allow me to talk to some others. We can ensure the horse is blamed for the break in the floodgates, so to speak. I’ll send someone to you, and you’ll know it’s time. In the meantime, get your house in order. Not too orderly, but know that people will be looking at you.”
“Of course. I’m an old hand at this.”
“It’s why we’re talking to you, professor.”
“How do I reach out, if I need to talk to you?”
“You can use the messenger we send you. I’ll be checking in myself, to fine tune things as they play out. If not me, then my employer will. You know her.”
“Then until our next conversation about stables, floods, and drowned horses, professor.”
“Until our next conversation, my dear.”
I tensed, readying for Avis to come in our direction and find the bodies. I held my gun and my knife ready.
She wasn’t pumped full of combat drugs, and the modifications to her body that let her fly also made her frail. I’d have the opportunity afforded by surprise.
If I could do it without giving her a chance to scream, then I could make it look as though they’d died in a mutual struggle. I could remove Avis from the picture, cause a stir, and use the paranoia of the Academy, Academy staff, and Fray to eke out an advantage.
No, there were a lot of ways this could be done to my advantage.
I met Gordon the First’s eyes.
But the footsteps moved in other directions.
The tension slipped away. I stood, and then I stretched.
I stuck the toe of my boot into the side of the body beside me.
“Come on, Gordon Two,” I said. “We have a lot to do.”
He looked up at me as if I was speaking in tongues.
“The stable is about to flood,” I told him. “I want a good vantage point when it does.”
“It’s not a stable,” he said. “It’s the Academy. What they said before they started talking about stables, the Academy is closing. They didn’t even talk about the students. That bit at the very beginning. We’re a resource to them.”
“You predicted it would.”
“But they’re hurrying it along!” Gordon Two hissed at me. “Do you know what that does to me? To my friends?”
“Yes, absolutely,” I said.
“If it was a slow death, then they’d cut us in stages. Maybe I’d get dropped, I’d be able to go to Sprung, but I’d have a chance. If they cut us all at once? That’s a few thousand students who’re looking for a place elsewhere.”
“Oh, I know,” I said. “And I know who and I know why.”
He looked at the body. “I helped you-!”
“Shhh!” the voice on the other side of the library shushed him.
“This day started so ordinary, and now I actually helped someone die, and I’m about to lose everything.”
“That’s not my name.”
“You were training to become an Academy doctor. You likely had dreams of becoming a black coat, working with a noble, or-”
He was shaking his head.
“Running an Academy? Did you have some creation you were eager to put out there?”
He continued shaking his head.
“Make mom proud?” I tried.
He shook his head.
“I give up,” I said.
“I just… wanted to work in a hospital. Academy hospital, actual hospital. I gave up on the other things a long time ago. White coat. Maybe grey. Surgeries, clinics. Cute nurses. Maybe there would be one cute nurse I could date and eventually marry.”
He looked up at me like a small child who’d seen his favorite toy break.
“Oh man,” I said.
“If I got lucky, she could be a redhead,” he said. “I had a chance. Now I don’t.”
“You have a chance,” I said. “Far slimmer chance, but still a chance. However, it depends on you not getting caught here with two dead bodies.”
He lowered his eyes to the body.
“Yeah?” I prompted him.
“I really killed someone.”
“Don’t get too ahead of yourself,” I said. “I’m actually sort of really proud I delivered both killing blows there. Don’t take that from me.”
Again, that look, as if I was speaking in tongues.
I changed tacks. “This can be salvaged, in a way. But you need to keep moving. You need to follow my lead. Because what that woman said was right. If this gets underway, there won’t be any stopping it. But we can steer it. Understand? We need to move, Second Gordon. Think about your mom.”
He turned his eyes back to the body.
I reached down, grabbed his arm, and tugged.
Reluctantly, he rose to his feet in response to the tugging.
Once I had him standing, I was sure to keep him moving. I didn’t bother with the gun, and I didn’t really have to. He seemed to have forgotten that I’d led him at gunpoint until now, and the sight of those men dying seemed to have left an indelible impression in him.
“You would have seen patients die at some point,” I said.
We navigated the library, walking until we reached a railing that overlooked the floor below. The open space between us and the people below was bridged with a clear membrane. There was a little bit of dust on the membrane, and the faint lines of blue veins webbing it, but it made for a remarkably clear picture of what was going on below, while absorbing a remarkable amount of the chatter and noise. There were tables, groups gathered, and students drinking tea while sitting in chairs with books. The levels above us were separated by more membranes, making for increasingly blurry views of each floor above.
It was, as scenes went, actually a lot nicer than nearly everything I’d seen at Radham. The only part of Radham that had struck me as being as cozy and nice as this was the girl’s dormitory. Most of my time in there had been with Lillian and sometimes Mary in nightgowns, Lillian and I or the three of us just sleeping together in Lillian’s bed.
That wasn’t the fairest of comparisons.
I spotted Avis at one of the doors. She attracted a few sidelong glances as she walked past students, but nobody stopped her or commented.
“Stairs?” I asked.
Gordon Two pointed.
I walked briskly, bringing him with, hoping to catch up to Avis.
“Did you ever spend time here?”
“Sometimes,” he said.
“Getting caught up on homework with my friends. We’d nudge each other when a good looking girl walked in.”
“I don’t understand that mentality, but alright. I know it all seems hopeless, but it’s not. There will be days and moments like that again. If you focus. You wanted to be a doctor? Today’s when you reach that crisis point when you have a dying person on your table, and you need to show that you have what it takes. It’s just coming a little earlier. Got it?”
“I had a dying person in front of me because I helped kill him.”
“Put that out of mind. We’re talking hypotheticals.”
We passed other students, the counter where tea was being made and served, exchanged for money, and we exited into the chill outdoors.
No longer the warm interior, but amid the barnacles clinging to the rock. Cold, damp, and briny.
“We just left those bodies there,” he said.
“Someone’s going to find them.”
“Absolutely. Can’t be avoided. Unless you have really deep pockets or something, stow a body inside. I’m not strong enough to drag a body that big, and there aren’t exactly any good hiding places there. I think the conversation happened there because it isn’t a part of the library that gets used much, so it might be a little while.”
“It’s really sinking in,” he said. “They’ll find the bodies, and then… things will happen, and the school will close.”
“Those two things aren’t linked.”
“But it’ll change things, won’t it?” he asked.
“Change happens. This way,” I told Gordon Two, leading him off to one side.
“I thought we were following her?”
“We are,” I said. “But she’s going between those buildings. Not many others are. If we follow, then there’s no place to go. If she looks back over her shoulder, and she will, she’ll see us. This is a case where we have to think a few steps ahead.”
We took another route, one that gave us glimpses of Avis as she walked with purpose, deeper into Beattle’s scattered topography.
There was a path with garden to either side, winding between buildings. The building it led to was all glass and wood, surrounded by an expanse of grass and only a few low bushes.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The Greenhouse. There are a few, but that’s the Greenhouse.”
“And she arranged to meet someone there, clearly,” I said. “The horse? The pig?”
“The horse is pretty obviously Professor Horsfall. I think the pig has to be Sir Mondy.”
“Aristocrat. He has a stake in the Academy. Professor Horsfall was a wartime doctor. Made warbeasts, earned an appointment, and he got stuck here. Professor Horsfall, Sir Mondy and Professor Yates are the three people who manage Beattle. Yates must have been the man who was talking to the woman you’re after?”
“Good. This is useful,” I said.
“But Professor Horsfall and Sir Mondy wouldn’t be here. Sir Mondy lives in the city. North end. He comes down twice a week, but otherwise doesn’t do much except lay down the law. All the professors and instructors hate him. Horsfall… would look out of place here. He’s proud.”
“Who would look less out of place here?”
“I don’t know. Some instructors. But most times, it’s where one student group meets.”
“A student group. Who?”
“Most just call them the Greenhouse Gang.”
“They’re not really a gang. They’re mostly top students who work together to stay top students. Some are attractive or popular, so they bring other attractive and popular students in. Very exclusive. It’s the warmest place where there’s any privacy in the winter, and so long as they’re there and watching each other’s backs, it’s hard to mess with them.”
“If I asked you about the Rank, would that mean anything to you?”
“You mean junior’s gang?” he asked. “Because they’re not like the Greenhouse Gang. They’re actually a gang. Sort of dangerous.”
“They’re a three out of ten on the danger scale,” I said. “Barely worth rating.”
“What? Junior’s group?”
“Yeah. Nevermind. Stay with me here. Where is the horse’s stable?”
“The horse’s- Horsfall?”
He wasn’t very mentally adroit, as in shock as he was. I couldn’t ask him to make those mental leaps of logic.
“Yeah. Him. I’ve got him figured out as a horse in my head thanks to that analogy. It’s going to take a bit to break. Where is professor Horsfall?”
“Back the direction we came from.”
I surveyed the scene.
Had the two men been Academy? Cynthia’s? Where would the old headmaster go from here? How would they react to the bodies? How would Avis react?
“Simon?” Gordon Two asked.
“One moment,” I said.
The bodies would be found. People would inform those at the top. The old headmaster, Yates or Yancy or whatever his name was, he would put two and two together, most likely, and he would strive to inform Avis. She was recognizable enough that he could put someone on the task, or have trusted lieutenants ask questions. Professor Horse would be clueless, more focused on the crime, while Professor Yancy navigated the greater picture.
If we went to Professor Horse, then everything else could unfold while my back was turned and my attention elsewhere. The bodies could be found, Yancy alerted, and Avis clued in that something else was afoot.
If we stayed, then we lost ground. I could maybe steer people away from Avis. She could leave, and then what? Where did she go?
Fray and Avis were already touching base with the Rank, with the headmaster, and now with the Greenhouse Gang.
I ventured, “The Greenhouse Gang. The Rank. What other student groups are there?”
“Distinct student groups. Who else? Gangs, clubs? Even individual, notable students who have followings.”
“The student council. They’re mostly other top students, but don’t mesh much with the Greenhouse Gang.”
“Good. Who else?”
“Girls?” I prompted.
“Some girl’s groups. Um. One, I don’t know their name, but they spend time on the roof of the dorm when it’s warmer. I don’t know how to put it nicely.”
“They know they’re going to fail out. So they enjoy their last moments of freedom.”
“That’s exactly how I would have wanted to put it nicely, yeah.” He sounded surprised.
I’d seen the type at Dame Cicely’s.
“And there are the girls who aren’t failing out, who stick together because they’re girls, I guess? But not super keen girls like you have in the Greenhouse or student council.”
“I’m getting the picture.”
I was starting to see the pieces on the board, the key locations.
“They’re going to leak the news about the school getting closed down,” I said. “The student body will react just like you did, except their friends are going to be close by. The riot is controlled, because these cliques and gangs already know. They’ve been braced for it, and they’ve been told their options. The smart ones might have opportunities elsewhere-”
“Doubt it,” Gordon Two said, sounding miserable. “Being the top of Beattle isn’t much better than being in the bottom two rungs at a decent school.”
“Some are here because of circumstance,” I said.
“Oh, everyone is, if you ask everyone,” Gordon Two said. “And prisoners in jail will all tell you they’re innocent.”
“Fair point,” I said. “So even the top students don’t have much in the way of options. They can give up on this and go home… or they can rebel.”
“As in join the rebellion.”
Gordon Two’s eyes widened.
“Would you?” I asked him. “Ditch the uniform? Disappoint mom?”
A frown creased his features.
I put my hand on his arm, steering him. I turned him so he could see the nearest attractive girl.
“If she went? What if everyone from student council and Greenhouse Gang to the Rank and the girls on the rooftop was leaving? They say something like they know people who know people. You’ll get money, you’ll get lodging. You just… grab your stuff and go. And there are none of the Academy rules. No restrictions. You can room with girls. You can be angry, drink, and tell the world to fuck off.”
“Except it’s all manipulation,” he said.
“Well, you know that. Pretend you didn’t. Pretend that your alternative would be to stay. To do nothing except accept that you’d failed. You would have to tell your mom that you did so badly, collectively, that the school was shut down. Would you go?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I don’t think I would.”
“No,” I said. “But some would. Enough would.”
“Yeah. Probably. That’s what’s happening?”
“That’s how I think it plays out. And a crop of students get work tutoring the civilians who’ve received these mass-produced books with Academy knowledge, or they produce weapons, or they act as guerilla agents. There’s a lot that could be done with all of this. And it draws attention. It takes a bite out of the Academy and it’s hard for the Academy to bite back.”
Gordon Two nodded.
“We’ll get you your cute nurse,” I said. “We’ll get you your redhead, even. It probably won’t be exactly as you imagined it, but we’ll see what we can do. For that, I need your help. Because I can’t cover enough bases on my lonesome, and my other allies are watching other people and getting stuff done elsewhere.”
“What do you need?” Gordon Two asked.
“You’re going to take a message to Professor Horse,” I said. “Tell him that you’re a messenger, but… his fellow professor was going to betray Beattle Academy, and we were going to work with him to do it.”
“Us? We us? You and me?”
“Me more than you. You’re just a messenger.”
Gordon Two frowned.
“Okay? Are you with me so far? Because we’re just getting started. Professor Yancy-”
“Whoever. He hired someone to fuck with us. A bird lady. He killed two of ours in the library, and Yatesy plans to pin it on the Horse. So we’re extending the offer to the Horse now.”
Gordon Two nodded.
“Repeat it back to me.”
“Bring him to the library. Show him the bodies. People may have found the bodies already. If so, you should tell them you’re a concerned student. Once he realizes the gravity of the situation, bring him to me here. I might be there at the library, depending on what happens out here and where Avis goes. I might be gone. If so, wait a little while. I won’t be more than ten minutes.”
Gordon the Second nodded again.
“Repeat it back to me, with the last bit included.”
“Go,” I told him.
He made it two steps before he stopped.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Who were those two men?”
“Wrinkles,” I said. Two of quite a number that could get in the way of this unfolding the way I hope it will. Like Fray, or the fact that the Horse wasn’t Fray’s first pick for conspirator for a reason, the student groups, the informants, and the other top-quality agents who were no doubt waiting in the wings, watching proceedings.