I approached a group of girls, hands in my pockets.
“No,” the lead girl said, the moment she spotted me.
“You didn’t even hear what I have to say.”
“Cheesy pickup line. You look like the type to think he can get away with being a little sleazy and think it’s funny.”
“Wow,” I said. I pressed my hands to my heart. “Wow.”
I looked over the group of girls. There were about nine of them, and they moved as a loose crowd, each with a unique style. I saw a few body modifications here and there, some unconventional hair styles, and very loose interpretations of Beattle’s dress code. Skirts were hiked or rolled up to show more leg even while they wore jackets and coats that looked like the sort of jackets Mauer’s soldiers would wear in cooler months – oversized and prone to drooping over hands, even when they were rolled up two or three times over.
Makeup was often heavy, often chosen to accent the body mods. One girl had a lone deer antler at the corner of her scalp, and makeup had been staggered so it seemed to blend into her brown skin. Another girl with goat eyes lined heavily with eyeliner was staring me down.
The leader wasn’t modded so heavily, but she’d foregone the academy jacket entirely to wear a black sweater with a layered collar beneath a double layer of jacket and military jacket. I’d thought about clothing as armor as I got ready in the morning, but the fashion choice there was akin to plate mail where it covered her, and there wasn’t much beneath. Her top three buttons were undone and her skirt was hiked up higher than any of the girls. Chance more than choice that I couldn’t see anything worth seeing.
But her attitude, I’d seen it on some drunks and some fighters. She was spoiling. For a fight, for trouble, for… anything. She was the queen of her clique here, and the crowd at her sides and back were more armor, on top of the layers she wore. It let her expose more throat and belly, metaphorically. Baiting others in even as she looked for a morsel to bite at herself.
“You’re not worth my time,” she said.
“You’re the rooftop girls,” I said.
“And you’re a kid who thinks that because he’s heard the rumors, he just needs to say the word, snap his fingers, and I’m yours? Go away.”
“Are you sure you want me to go away?” I asked her. “We had a meeting planned for later.”
She stopped in her tracks.
“You?” she asked.
“I saw your group walking across the campus, I figured out who you were at a glance. I’m currently waiting for a few people, some things are going on, but I thought I’d say hi.”
She gave me a look, top to bottom. “Hi.”
No apologies, no excuses. I could appreciate that.
“I’m quite glad I was able to spot you. It makes things easier. Two people just died,” I told her. “It happened in the library. They know, they’re after us, and things are moving ahead of schedule, with different times and places. Which is why you’re dealing with me, specifically.”
“Died?” another girl asked.
“Who are ‘they’?” the lead girl asked.
I waved her off. “Our mess. Our problem to clean up. Two key players got greedy and went rogue. The problem with doing as much as we’ve been doing long-distance is that it’s hard to assess who we’re dealing with. But it’s a problem that can be handled. Which it will be, in a matter of minutes.”
I gave her time to digest that, and looked in the direction of the greenhouse. Avis was still there.
I turned and looked in the direction of the library. No Gordon Two and no Horse.
“Minutes?” she asked.
“If you want to watch, you can,” I told her. “If you wanted to leave and get us started, that’s even better, and would earn you a little drawn medal on this particular assignment.”
“A medal on my homework?” she asked. “Please don’t treat me like a child.”
And in saying that, you make me think of you as more of a child than if you’d remained silent.
“As you wish,” I said. “But you should decide now if you’re still in. Everything is starting into motion now, and it’s up to you if you want to be one of the ones who go or one of the ones who stay behind.”
“Mm,” she made a sound.
The girl with the goat eyes was still staring at me. The rectangular irises made for an interesting effect. I quirked an eyebrow at her.
“Sylvester,” she said.
“Hm?” I asked. “Yeah.”
“I’ve met him,” goat-eyes said, to the lead girl.
“Have you?” I asked. “My memory isn’t the best.”
“I was one of the people sitting in the background while you were talking with Ronnie? Before everything turned topsy-turvy?”
I shook my head. “You have me at a loss. I can think of ten things off the top of my head that that could apply to.”
“The start of the civil war?”
“Again, that’s like, three major events in my very shoddy recollection.”
I snapped my fingers, “Got it. Yes.”
She turned to the lead girl. “When we first talked about this. You brought up the rebellion head? Genevieve? And then I said I’d met her, and I shared my take?”
The lead girl nodded.
“He was there when it all happened. He was there before it happened, even.”
“I often am,” I said. “It’s a quality of mine.”
“And,” she said. “He was hunting Genevieve.”
“Yep,” I said.
The lead girl gave me a look. “Now you’re working for her?”
“With her,” I said. “Not under her. I see it more as a partnership.”
“Really now? How did that come about?” goat-eyes asked.
“It makes a lot more sense if you think about the two of us being siblings,” I said. “Even when we were on opposite sides, we got along pretty well. Then I left the Academy, and here I stand.”
The girls had relaxed considerably in the talk with me, which was interesting. A clique who were very at home with the idea of imminent change. They were in, committed to this path that Fray had outlined for them.
“Looks like whatever you anticipated happening is happening,” the lead girl said.
I turned to look.
On the back stairs of the library, a group of men flanked by stitched had emerged. There were about twenty in all, some with weapons. I could make out the man in the center of the group – average height, but good looking by most metrics. His hair was parted to one side and grown long, and he had a rakish mustache. He wore a lab coat of a very old fashioned style worn by people on the battlefield, old enough that I imagined it had been his father’s style more than his own.
“The Horse,” I said. “Subtlety really isn’t his strong suit, is it?”
That got a nervous titter of amusement from the rank and file of the rooftop girls.
“Are you staying or are you going?” I asked.
“I’m watching,” the lead girl said.
“And are you staying or are you going?” I asked, again.
She gave me a curious look. Then she deflated a little.
“No other choice,” she said. “I’m in. I’ll do my part when it all starts.”
“Good,” I said. “If I have to run off and we don’t get a chance to talk after this, go downtown. Uhhh…”
I fished in a pocket. I found my notes.
“…Oxham and Haigsbow. Meet us there when you’ve done what needs to be done and you’re not sure where to go anymore. Because the dorms aren’t safe anymore, and Beattle is about to have a very interesting day.”
“This should be dramatic, and it’ll help leave people uneasy,” I said.
Leaving the girls with those parting words, I approached Gordon Two and the Horse.
The stitched were in uniform, and were warm enough I could see the heat of their bodies in contrast to the cool air around them. They and the men who worked with them all wore Academy design and Academy badges. They were Beattle’s security team. The people who rounded up escaped experiments and broke up fights between students.
“I saw the bodies,” the Horse told me.
“Gordon,” I said, turning away from the horse professor. “Do me a favor? Keep an eye on the Greenhouse. Let us know if she departs?”
I turned my attention to the Horse.
“A word in private?” I asked him.
“Hm? What do you need to say to me that you can’t say in front of these men?”
The Horse was proud, arrogant. Good looking for those who liked men, I supposed. I could see why Yancy hated him already.
“Because it has to do with certain… indiscretions on the part of one of your-” I cleared my throat. “Partners.”
“Does it now?” the Horse asked.
He pointed, and put a hand on my shoulder, leading me off to one side and out of earshot.
I was really hoping Avis wouldn’t round the corner and see the gathered soldiers.
“Talk to me,” he said.
“Would it surprise you to know that at the same time that those men were slaughtered in your library,” I said, careful to make it his library, “That a colleague of yours was there?”
“A colleague. You’ll have to be more specific,” the Horse said.
I smiled, but internally, I was scrambling. I couldn’t remember Yancy’s real name.
Yorkie? Did it start with a Y or a Y-sound? Eustace? No, it probably started with a Y.
“I don’t want to name names. Let’s call him… Professor Y,” I said.
“Professor Y,” the Horse said.
“Do me a favor? Can you move your soldiers out of sight?”
“Paulson!” the Horse called out. “All of you step inside. Keep an ear out.”
One of the soldiers nodded.
“The Academy is closing down,” I said.
“Within a few years,” the Horse said.
“You’d think,” I said. “But no. Today. Functionally, anyhow, if Professor Y would have his way. But it gets a little more complicated than that.”
“I see,” the man said. “I can handle complicated.”
“Good. The professor intends to leak information suggesting Beattle will close before the semester’s end. The student body locked out of the classrooms, no credits, partial refunds.”
“That would mean a great many angry students,” the Horse said.
“That was the end goal. There are rebellion forces in the area,” I said. I cleared my throat. “Ones that might like to recruit from among such a large body of Academy trained individuals.”
The Horse’s jaw hardened. “Do you, young man with uncanny knowledge of current events, happen to be one of them?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
He nodded, frowning.
And, a few moments after that, I saw his hand move out of his pocket, thumb hooked into one corner of his pocket. Nonchalant. I couldn’t see it or see the bulge, because of the nature of the coat he wore, but I was willing to bet that it was a very easy maneuver to flick his coat aside and reach for a weapon at his hip.
So that was how it was. Military background, perhaps, and a dislike of the rebels and insurgent groups.
I’d captured the rooftop girls. Fray had Professor Y and the Greenhouse Gang. If this went sour, then I’d lose ground, while Avis would be free to continue recruiting, gathering forces.
There was a critical mass at play that, should either of us achieve it, would mean that we could flip the stragglers and the questionable types. It was a race to that scale and mass. And if I could remove Avis from play, then I could grow our forces while Fray tried to figure out what was happening.
But doing that required winning over the Horse.
“We thought at first about bringing all three of you on board. But the… dynamic made it very clear that it wouldn’t work. That you were too noble for the task,” I said. “That approach twisted around and bit us. As it turns out, Professor Y is a greedy and black-hearted man.”
“I believe that of him,” the Horse said.
I nodded. “He wanted to keep it to just him because it meant more money and more power for him, it meant he could make you the scapegoat of all of this. And he wanted to keep things small and wholly under his control so he could turn the table on us. Are you seeing where this is going?”
“Oh, I understand,” the Horse said. His jaw set once again, but the steel in his gaze wasn’t meant for me.
“He hired someone, a monster who murdered our two men in the library. Now he’s working with students to turn them against us and against you. He wants a monopoly on the hearts and minds of the students here, and he’s frankly not capable of achieving either.”
I wanted to see a trace of bitter satisfaction at hearing about the failure of Professor Y. Except I didn’t, and he wasn’t someone with a good poker face. That satisfaction wasn’t there. He hated the man, I was fairly sure, but… no joy at seeing the man fail.
Had I just made the mistake of trying at a clandestine deal with someone that was actually a decent person? Someone who wanted his enemies to be better people?
“I know you don’t like us or our type,” I said. “But Professor Y brought a monster among your students. She’s there now, my agent there is watching out for her. If we don’t handle this, then there may be more bodies. Things are underway. The riots are going to happen, and I think you and I both want this to be as bloodless as possible.”
The Horse stared off in the direction Gordon Two had gone.
“You said the two men in the library were yours?” he asked.
Something in his tone set off bells, tripwires and other trouble in my head.
He knew something.
“I said they were ours,” I said. “Our mutual problem. Just as the students are. Just as the rioting that’s about to start is.”
I was doing my utmost to drag his focus away from that line of thinking, picking apart my wording and being pointed about the nature of those two men.
“Your riot. To your ends.”
I shook my head. “We were going to be gentler about it. We planned for it to unfold some time from now, and we laid the groundwork. Until things were underway, we wanted to milk the teat. Collect the stragglers… see those girls over there?”
I indicated the rooftop girls more clearly.
“I see them. I know the type. Belligerent. The ones at the bottom of the rankings.”
“They alter their bodies and distance themselves from authority like you because they want to be as far away from home as possible. Some go back and they try to make lives for themselves. Others… we wanted to milk that teat.”
“You’ve said that twice. That implies things when you’re talking about young ladies like that,” the Horse said, stiff.
I blinked, put the pieces together, then reversed course swiftly. “Oh, no! No! Not at all-”
-unless they were keen and Jessie was okay with it-
“-and never. Rest assured. I was building up to a greater metaphor, is all. We aimed to collect the ones who weren’t going home. Boy and girl. Give them a focus and a place. Apprentice them to back alley doctors who tend to those that can’t afford what the Crown asks, perhaps. And we would keep our thumb on the pulse for when Beattle closed, and when there was a greater crop of the disaffected, frustrated, and aimless… a profit.”
“Interesting to see how the other side thinks,” the Horse said.
“Well, I’ll give you an insight as to how Professor Y thinks. He wants to slaughter this cow early rather than milk it. That’s the metaphor. Bloody, messy, violent, and amateurish. He started early, thinking we were too far away and too preoccupied with other things to notice him doing it.”
“He brought a monster into our midst to safeguard himself while he did it?”
“And he started already. The rumors are out there. The ball is rolling downhill. Stop me if you want. Arrest me, turn me in, take action. But call the remainder of your security forces. You’ll need all of them to stop this woman, or this will end badly, understand?”
“That was my security force,” the Horse told me. “They’re waiting inside the library right now.”
“You have others, don’t you? Stitched?”
He shook his head. “Not for combat.”
“None combat ready. Priscilla and Scythe, but they’re low with litters. Spike is out to stud in another city.”
I blinked a few times.
Slight miscalculation. I’d co-opted the Academy forces and found them wanting.
“My men are good at what they do,” the Horse said.
“I’m not questioning that. I’m questioning their welfare if we don’t handle this well. Do you have more? Anyone watching the bodies?”
“Two men keeping students from wandering in on the scene,” he said.
“Anything else? Containment specialists who can hold a pointed stick? Any particularly fit teaching staff? Secretaries you don’t particularly like?”
“Some of the men from the stable double as handlers when a student project gets ornery.”
“Get them. Get nets, because this is a monster that flies.”
“Just how dangerous is this creature?” he asked, as he started walking toward the library and his waiting men.
That is a very good question.
Avis exited the Greenhouse alone. She held herself differently now than she had. She was calmer, a little more confident, and a little less worn around the edges.
She’d been Academy once. Intelligent conversation, tea, and time with students had to be a balm for the soul. She was a head and shoulders, and an obscure draping of a black cloak covering the form below. All of my senses that I’d trained to keep an eye out for patterns that went with a concealed weapon were twitching instinctively at the sight of bulges here and there beneath her cloak.
She headed straight for what Gordon Two had suggested might be her next meeting place. Students gathered sometimes at the bend near the river, and the student council office wasn’t far away.
I would have liked to go ahead and beat her to the punch, then see her expression when they weren’t waiting there for her, but removing her from the picture now was too important.
“Wings don’t leave much room for other things,” the Horse commented.
The Horse, Gordon Two and I were gathered indoors, looking through a window at Avis. The rooftop girls were nearby. I’d told them to watch and wait at a nearby vantage point where they wouldn’t look too unnatural.
We’d rounded out our numbers, at my urging.
Fifteen soldiers, twenty stitched, some noncombat but capable of obeying orders. Two men with nets and ropes who were used to dealing with unruly warbeasts. One student project.
Five soldiers and ten stitched walked in a group down the left side of the path, toward Avis. They left the way clear for her, and even through the window I could hear them talking and laughing.
I wondered how genuine they sounded.
“Overwhelming force, huh?” Gordon Two asked. “Hitting her before she knows what’s happened?”
“This is going to end one of three ways,” I said. “The best case scenario is that it’s over in an instant. Everyone does what they’re supposed to, and they break her wings and legs in the initial hit.”
The group of soldiers and stitched were twenty paces from Avis.
If they tipped her off…
“What are the other two ways?” Gordon Two asked.
“She could fly away. Then everything unfolds with the leak, Beattle falling to pieces, bloody riots, and she’s there behind the scenes, working against us.”
The Horse nodded.
“And the third result is that she wins.”
“Wins?” Gordon Two asked.
“She fought the Duke of Francis face to face,” I said.
I saw Gordon Two’s eyes widen.
“She didn’t win, but she fought him. She did pretty well too, and that counts for a lot.”
“We were within five paces of someone crazy enough to fight a noble!?”
You’re within two paces of someone crazy enough to fight a noble and win, I thought.
Instead, I just said, “Yeah.”
My biggest hope here was that she wasn’t expecting trouble. There were no warning signs. Her thoughts would be on what came later. The plan coming to fruition. She had little reason to watch her back.
So as the soldiers drew within ten paces, and then five, I was chewing the side of my tongue, hoping that she wouldn’t. The buildings on this part of the street connected above the street forming an archway or tunnel that foot traffic had to pass beneath. It was the place where the soldiers would pass by Avis.
I heard the shout as the order was given. The group that was now walking just to her left turned at a right angle to simultaneously face her.
In that same instant, she turned, backing away a few steps, her wings spreading wide, cloak cast behind her where it had encircled her before. In the doing, she loosed her friends.
Her wings had been folded around her body, a perpetual self-hug. Rigging and exoskeleton framework supported her body while staying light enough to allow her to fly. And, it seemed, in addition to all of that, she’d had birds with her. Perched on her wings. perched on the exoskeleton. Perched on her arms and settled on her clothing.
They had been bred to attack.
Lords-suckling mother-cunting birds! I thought, as I ran past Gordon Two and out the door.
She heard or saw me as I left the building and ventured out onto the street.
She turned to face me, and I could see the telltale signs of drugs at work. Veins and coloration, the nature of her eyes, and the way she held herself as she breathed.
The drug was only just kicking in. She hadn’t taken it overtly, which meant it was an implant she could activate with a muscle, or something contained within a tooth. Nothing acted quite that fast, which meant she’d likely taken it when she saw the Academy security approaching.
“You,” she said.
I drew my gun. I didn’t fire it as I pointed it at her. Good thing, too, because she was quick, ducking low to the ground, wings flapping to cast her forward at an angle her legs weren’t suggesting.
I adjusted, aimed, and loosed a shot I knew would miss.
Men were leaving the building behind her. One had a net.
With her back to me, I couldn’t see what she was doing. I was only aware that one of the two men dropped to the ground as if he’d been shot. He collapsed on top of the net he held.
She leaped, beating her wings twice while in midair to increase the distance at which she moved. She kicked the second man in the face with a bare foot, and she managed to slash his face open as she did it.
No doubt anticipating that I might fire again, she performed an acrobatic maneuver in the air. A flap of wings, a kick and a twist, to change direction while still airborne, hurling herself down and toward the ground, where she could land in a crouch.
I’d expected something like it, but I’d expected her to go the other way, where she had more room to move.
It only took a small adjustment. I shifted my aim and I pulled the trigger.
It hit wing, which wasn’t hard to do given the sheer span of her wings, and it produced little more than a mist of blood and a puff of feathers in response.
The remainder of the men exited the building, collapsing in on her from every direction.
“Stitched only!” I shouted. “Humans stay back!”
It didn’t look like they were listening, until the Horse called out from behind me.
“Obey the boy!”
But Avis heard me too. She shrugged out of the cloak, and she got to work. She hurled herself forward, caught one truncheon-wielding fist in her talon, and stepped on the same stitched’s shoulder. A flap of her wings, just barely high enough to be out of reach of a swatting club, and she was able to move forward without kicking off or really using her legs. It caught the man in front of her off guard, and she slashed his throat with a talon.
Every swing of a truncheon in her direction was a miss. Considering that her wings together might’ve spanned a modest barn door, that said a lot. She moved as if the stitched and humans around her were underwater and she wasn’t. Twitchy, fast, with minimal resistance from the environment around her.
High kicks, strong considering how slender she was, wings tucked in close, then a swift unfurling of the wings and a flap to reposition herself, so she was never surrounded.
I saw the man I’d told to wait on the rooftop creeping forward, as she engaged in a fighting retreat, retreating directly toward him. Slowly, quietly, he unfurled the net, readying it to throw.
And, in the moment I was recognizing that, I saw her pause in the midst of reorienting herself. Wings around her, spinning in place, one leg in the air and the other down, as she prepared to bolt for it and find a vantage point from which she might take flight, her eye lingered a little too long on me. I looked from the man on the rooftop to her.
And she looked from me to the man on the rooftop, twisting around to see him behind her.
I saw the muscles in her shoulder and neck convulse.
A dark mark appeared on the chest of the man on the rooftop. A wound.
The birds, done with their initial prey, extended their attention to the rest of us. Pecking, tiny talons scratching at eyes and hands.
Stitched and man alike flailed ineffectually at the birds, and Avis turned to run. She’d fought her way clear of the tunnel and the soldiers that had surrounded her, and she was very probably faster than any of us.
I drew a deep breath, and I aimed my gun while a small black bird dug into the back of my hand with talons, doing its level best to get a grip on the tendons that extended to my fingers.
I aimed while a bird pulled at my lower eyelid with a beak as sharp as any knife.
I put pain out of mind and out of body, so it wouldn’t affect my shot, aimed, and fired, emptying my gun.
Somewhere in the midst of the shooting, she jabbed the point of her left wing far to her right, bent forward, and fell face-down onto the road.
I holstered my gun, and I strode toward Avis.
Drawing my knife, I grabbed the first bird, ignored the pain as it gnashed and clawed at my hand, and I cut its head off.
I killed a second, and then the remainder flew off.
They were trained to fly back to Avis, and they did.
She struggled to crawl forward, bit by bit, while birds settled on her back, head, and shoulders.
Then, hearing my footsteps, she struggled to turn herself over with the wings obstructing her movements.
I leaped forward to stand on her back, stepped on two birds I could reach without losing my footing, and waited.
“You’re an omen of bad things, Sylvester,” Avis said.
“Are you reading the entrails of birds for these omens and portents?” I asked.
“You could have talked to us,” she said. “Genie would have been delighted.”
“We’ll talk later,” I said. “Not to worry. I don’t intend to leave you with the Academy or the Crown. Not long-term.”
“She described you as having your own special rules. Lines you wouldn’t cross and don’t allow crossing in others. You had Percy killed for harming children.”
“Not quite me, but close enough, sure.”
“We didn’t cross those lines. We’re working against the same forces you are.”
“Wrong line of argument, Avis,” I said. “It’s because your plans are so in line with what I want to do that I’m here.”
She was silent at that. I knew she was thinking it through, figuring me out.
I’d been on that side of things. On the back foot, against an enemy who had been anticipating me far longer than I had been anticipating them.
A bird nipped a coin-sized chunk out of my leg. I kicked at it, then aimed and fired at it, reducing it to a mess on the road. Avis jumped visibly.
“I’m just better equipped to see this particular plan through to the end.”
“You think so?” she asked. Then she spat, and then she coughed violently.
“Which reminds me,” I said.
I pulled off my jacket, wrung it up into a thick rope, and tied it around her lower face. She hadn’t been able to aim at me with her face aimed at the ground, but I wasn’t ruling out the possibility for later.
“Not taking any chances,” I said.
She only glared at me out of the corner of her eye.
The Horse caught up, having checked on his security people, and he brought a few men with him. Together, they worked to hold down a veiny Avis with a bullet in one thigh. They secured a chain in place where I had the jacket, and moved on to other measures I didn’t particularly care about at this stage. I was free to step off of her and away, and to walk away.
“I’m thankful for your help,” the Horse said. “But where do you think you’re going?”
I heard the gun cock.
Yes. There was definitely good cause for why Fray hadn’t worked with this sop.