“That’s a fine way to treat someone that’s helping you out,” I said. “Pointing a gun at them.”
“You’re an admitted part of the rebellion, and you’re a big part of why trouble is unfolding here,” the Horse said.
I turned around, facing professor Horse. I wiped at my lower eyelid, and my finger came away with an unbroken line of blood on it.
“The actual fault lies elsewhere. Mainly with your professor Y. Now before emotions take over, I want to point out that you’ve got men bleeding over there, professor Y is preparing to run, and the riot is unfolding behind the scenes. There are priorities here, and effective management of time is key.”
It wasn’t, but I was certainly hoping to move it along.
Horse glanced back at the injured men, who were being tended to. He didn’t look very happy as he looked back at me. The gun didn’t waver either.
“Now, speaking for myself, I’m very, very interested in learning who our captive here was talking to in the greenhouse. So if you’ll let me go, give me an escort to march me along if it makes you feel more secure, I’ll go do that, you can tend to your people and our captive, and in a matter of minutes, we’ll converge to go together and get professor Y before he can disappear on us.”
“You’re implying he’s not already gone.”
“He won’t be. Not until he hears about the bodies. I’m assuming that when you investigated, you didn’t send anyone to him to keep him in the loop?”
The Horse didn’t answer me, but his expression told me that he hadn’t.
He might have wanted our Professor Y to be a better person, but he wasn’t about to stick his neck out for the man to cut.
“He’s attached to his position. He’d do an awful lot to get an even firmer grip on it, including removing you. If he left without a dang good reason, it would run contrary to just about everything I understand about his character.”
“You really have been talking to the man,” the Horse said.
Lying on the ground, I heard a sound from Avis.
I realized that it was her laughing to herself, her voice muffled by the fabric and chain that encircled the lower half of her face, locked at the back of the neck with a simple padlock.
“Seems like she might know more than we do,” I said. “Which is reason enough to move faster.”
I put a touch of emphasis on those last two words.
The Horse looked at two of his men, and indicated that they should go with me.
“Great,” I said.
“Shackle him,” the Horse said. “And take his gun.”
I rolled my eyes as one security officer reached for my gun, and used finger and thumb to lift up my shirt to make it more visible. No use making life harder and risking that they frisk me and find everything else. The other officer pulled out a pair of cuffs. They were a modern sort, which was doubly annoying – ‘u’ shaped bands of metal that both fit into bars. The bar was ratcheted up to my wrist, then the key withdrawn. Just tight enough that I could feel my pulse throbbing against the bar.
The security officer put the other shackle on his own wrist.
“I’ll find you,” the Horse said.
“Here? There’s nothing to see here. Keep eyes on things closer to the heart of the Academy, watch the exits of the offices, keep an eye on the crowds and see if there’s any stirring, anything being passed around,” I said. “We’ll meet you at the library, and we’ll move on Professor Y together. With luck, he won’t have any other hirelings, and this is all the bleeding I have to do today.”
Avis twisted around on the ground. Veins still stood out, and her eyes were bloodshot. Her expression, intense, one brow arched, was the body language equivalent of screaming, “I know you’re up to something!”
I remained calm, even as she struggled with the stitched who held her. She was gagged with chain included as part of the gag. Her hands were bound behind her, and a chain encircled her body, trapping her wings against it. More binding secured her legs and the feet with talons built into them.
I would have liked to encourage professor Horse to keep Avis under lock and key, but I worried that it would have the opposite effect.
Besides, it didn’t matter too much. The man was fairly firm in his convictions, and he actually seemed to care about the people who served under him. The damage done and the deaths seemed to have left their mark on him, because he was distracted.
I wasn’t planning on sticking around, either.
“To the greenhouse, escorts!” I proclaimed.
The two men looked less than impressed.
But the Horse nodded, and I was led off.
This wasn’t a sustainable series of events, really. Being shackled was bad, because it meant I had little chance of escaping the chain of events that would see me in Academy custody.
I could play along for a while, but I didn’t get the impression that I could change the Horse’s mind on things.
“He really doesn’t like me, huh?” I asked.
“You’re a rebel, he said,” said the soldier I was cuffed to. The man was young, prematurely balding, and his short hair didn’t help hide it. He had a nasty talon-wound on his forehead, but it had already had something applied to it – a quick daubing of some styptic.
“I’m just surprised at the depth of the Horse’s dislike, really,” I said. Testing.
“Professor Horsfall fought them down south,” the officer said.
Not taking up the nickname, but jumping straight to professor Horsfall. He was respected, then.
I could use that.
“So I gather he manages security and he’s the one the students like and go to, professor Y is part of things because he’s smart and opportunistic with some good manipulation skills, and the fat cat aristocrat has the final say when it comes to the purse strings. Strength, cunning, and money, in three different corners of the power triangle?”
“Sure,” the guy said.
Laconic, this guy.
His right hand was cuffed to my left, and the soldier walking to my right was free, just keeping a mild eye on me while he walked, glancing around him.
I began playing up my limp, where my leg was already bleeding.
“Makes it hard for me. See, I became a rebel because every professor I ran into was of Professor Y’s ilk. I can’t stand the Crown because every person with any power that isn’t Academy is like that aristocrat guy who manages the Academy. So I’m kind of really floored that I’ve run into someone who seems decent.”
“You talk a lot, huh?” Mr. Laconic asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. “Mostly when I’m nervous. Or to think through problems. Also, talking helps distract from the fact that I’m bleeding in twenty places and it kind of hurts.”
“We all are,” Mr. Laconic said.
“I’m just glad we were able to stop her,” I said. “I’m not good for much else, but I can deal with that type alright. I’m assuming Horsfall will be fair to her?”
“Fair as she deserves,” Mr. Laconic said.
“He’ll be fair,” the other officer countered.
I played up my limp more, and eyed a paving stone that lay slightly ajar on the path ahead. If I kicked it with enough strength mid-stride, I could manage a pretty convincing trip and fall. I wouldn’t fall all the way, but still, it would be a step.
I’d need another step to complete the maneuver.
“Yeah. I got the impression he wasn’t the kind to abuse a prisoner,” I said.
Build rapport, reinforce ideas, us versus them, don’t hurt prisoners, we’re on the same page about Horsfall being a good guy.
The officer to my right lit up a cigarette.
Scratch that. I might not need another step to my plan after all.
“May I?” I asked.
The man gave me a sidelong glance.
Then he tapped out another cigarette, handing it to me, before striking a match and holding a flame to the cigarette.
“Thank you,” I said. “Goes a ways toward calming my nerves.”
“Yeah,” the man said.
He offered one to his friend.
Take it, I thought. Take it. You know you want it.
He reached out, taking the cigarette. Because one of his hands was occupied with the shackle and my hand, his buddy leaned across me to provide the lit match.
I moved closer to the man I was shackled to to make room, reached across my lower ribs with my free hand, and paused, waiting a moment.
“Steady,” the other officer said, as they tried to coordinate.
In that moment, while their focus was elsewhere, I lifted Mr. Laconic’s gun free of its holster. I held it by the handle, the chamber against my wrist, the barrel against my lower arm, in as casual a position as I could manage, and readjusted the strap of my bag on my left shoulder
Moving my arm back, I slid the gun between my bag and my back. The bag was heavy enough and had enough stuff toward the bottom end that the gun was held in place.
Just fine, this. Had I not had the opportunity afforded by the match, I could have kicked the stone and lifted the gun in the midst of tripping and climbing up the man to find my balance. It might have required more of a distraction or a redirection of attention to my leg if I wanted to move the gun across me and into a temporary hiding spot. Maybe to my injured leg. Maybe I could have bumped into a wound. Maybe I could have used exhaled smoke to cloud the movement.
Had that not been an opportunity I might have drawn a knife and timed it to knife one of the men as we entered the greenhouse.
But there was little use dwelling on it. It was done. I had one of two guns. My gun had been handed off.
“You don’t suppose the Horse would go easy on me, since I’ve been cooperative, and since he seems like an alright guy?”
“Dunno,” the officer that had provided the cigarettes said. “Most we’ve had to deal with is students poisoning each other, getting between two guys in a fistfight or two cats in a claw-fight, or having to shoot a project that gets too excited at being outdoors.”
“I hear you,” I said. But what I took away from it was the distinct impression that these men weren’t experienced. I’d suspected such from the fact that they hadn’t searched me, but now the sentiment had been reaffirmed.
We walked down the path to the greenhouse. I saw one of the occupants at the glass, peering through to look at us. The whites of his eyes were visible as they widened.
Cigarette-man opened the door to the greenhouse, and he led the way inside.
I drew the gun, and I pressed it between the man’s shoulderblades.
“Stop right there,” I said.
I felt my shackled arm go taut, and glanced back over my shoulder at Mr. Laconic, who was in the process of realizing he’d lost his gun.
“Don’t try anything funny,” I told him. “I shot her, I can shoot you two.”
“Sure,” he said.
“Cigarette man,” I said. “Very slowly, with two fingers, pull your gun from the holster. Toss it into the soil bed over there.”
He did as I asked.
“Now lie down on the floor, right here, arms out to your sides.”
He did. In the process, he stopped blocking my view of the students of the Greenhouse Gang.
They looked more like Lillian’s crowd. Some were attractive, but I didn’t get the impression that attractiveness was a priority. They were tidy looking, in a school where a lot of students weren’t. No major alterations had been made to their uniforms. There was a roughly even balance of boys to girls, eight and seven.
“Good morning,” I told them.
“Good morning,” a few of them mumbled, as if I was a homeroom teacher at too-dang-early-o’clock in the morning. They looked spooked and confused at this scene.
“I’m with Fray. You might have heard the gunshots a bit ago. We’ve run into a small snag,” I said. I turned to Mr. Laconic. “Lie down on top of him. This arm behind your back, here.”
“You going to shoot us?” he asked.
“Not if I can help it,” I said. “But you’ve got one of my wrists. Let’s see about getting me free. Lie down.”
Reluctantly, slowly, he lay down on top of the smoking man. I twisted the arm I was shackled to behind him, so the chain extended up to me and gave me some freedom of movement.
“You,” I spoke to a boy who looked like the leader of this particular group. He was heavyset to an extent that his cheeks pushed his eyes were slits, with a round face and glasses. “Would you do me a favor and be an extra set of hands?”
“Bag here,” I said, shrugging one shoulder out of the bag. “Watch for the blades and syringes I have in there, the points and edges shouldn’t be exposed, but let’s not test our luck. Dig deep for a jar. Ridged exterior.”
He gave me a long, searching look, his face unreadable, and then did as I asked, lifting up the flap at the top and rummaging inside while the one strap dangled from the crook of my elbow.
He retrieved a jar of fluid.
“Would you grab my cigarette, and these men’s cigarettes? That stuff might theoretically be flammable, and I’ve got friends who can’t know that I did something stupid and burned myself alive. That’s good. Thank you. And step back, all of you get to the other end of the greenhouse…”
I waited while the crowd of students obliged.
“And throw that at the ground in front of us, hard enough to break it.”
“Oy!” the soldier on the bottom called out.
The boy threw the jar, and it shattered. Bits of glass might have hit the face of the uniformed men I was shackled to.
This gas had a chemical odor, but it was invisible. I saw doubt on the expressions of the Greenhouse Gang, before the soldiers began reacting. They coughed, to start, and then they groaned. The groaning was soon interrupted by coughing, and then the two things blended together into a unpleasant barking retching noise.
I was resistant to poisons, and even I coughed. I realized where the groans were coming from as I felt every single one of my exposed wounds draw tight and then burn as if hot pokers were being pressed into them.
I could handle pain, but this was still bad.
Teeth clenched, I sat down hard on the second man, who was squirming. Tendons and muscles all over my body tensed as I weathered the worst of it.
When the struggles of the two men stopped, I moved a hand, fingers twitching, to my bag, fished in the front pocket, and found my lockpicks.
The gas was a paralytic, with a little bit of added extra to keep it from paralyzing cardiac and respiratory systems, and it had had a small effect on me, making the lockpicking an interesting endeavor. It didn’t help that the lock was more modern than some I’d fiddled with.
I started to speak, and coughed.
“How was your discussion with Avis?” I asked, when I was done coughing.
“Was fine,” the boy with the glasses said. “Is she alright?”
“Nope,” I said, internally cursing the fact that my thumb had no strength in it. “I tried to help her, but things got hairy. I’m more of a problem solver than a fighter. We’re accelerating the timetable a hair, here, and I might stumble a few times along the way since I only know part of it, but this is doable. Are you ready to go?”
“Oh, I’m not going,” Glasses said. “But I’m willing to help things along if it means less students going from here to Sprung, Wheelock, or Belltower.”
“Perfect,” I said. I worked my jaw a bit and worked out the oddity in my lip I’d felt as I’d made the ‘r’ sound.
“They’re going,” he indicated the rest of the gang.
“Even more perfect,” I said. I freed my wrist, moved the shackle over to the other paralyzed fellow, and locked it to his wrist. I stood and stretched, experiencing all sorts of funny things as a result of the mild nerve gas. My rectum in particular was clenching as if it was trying to communicate in tap-code, and I had some concerns that it would stop dotting and start dashing.
Maybe I’d avoid dosing myself with this particular gas in the future. I was very careful as I bent over to check the pulses at the throat of each of the men. Grabbing the one on top, I rolled him off of his friend.
“You’ll be okay,” I said. I said it to the men, but I addressed it to the Greenhouse Gang.
“Excuse me,” I said. I put the gun away, and moved out of the area. I couldn’t tell how far the gas reached, but the other students weren’t coughing. “We’ll use the other door.”
The group joined me, and we left the greenhouse.
“Goodbye, greenhouse,” one of the boys said. “I think this might be the last time we see you. You treated us well.”
“I didn’t think about that,” one of the younger girls said.
“I know the feeling,” I said. We walked around the greenhouse and headed in the general direction of Beattle’s library and main office. “Leaving behind that familiar place. I did it last winter, almost a year ago.”
“Yeah?” the younger girl said.
“But there were bad feelings tied to that place. It was where I grew up, and I didn’t realize that as familiar as it was, there was an oppressive feeling whenever I was there. The dark cloud that pressed down from above. Happy memories, don’t get me wrong. It was my family, my friends, my best friend, the girls I liked and a lot of good feelings. But the bad that you don’t even realize was there…”
I drew in a breath.
“…You get away from it all. You find a new place, and you bring the best of the good people with you, or you find new good people, and you get settled somewhere that’s good, without nearly as much of the bad.”
“Lambsbridge?” a girl asked me. “The place? It was the orphanage?”
I turned my head. “Don’t tell me I’ve met you too.”
She shook her head. “No sir.”
I’m a sir, I thought.
“My father is a sheriff,” she said. “He’s a mean son of a gun. And strict, makes me write home twice a week, or he comes over here and cusses me out at the entrance to the dorm. I’m a compulsive reader, and I have a good memory, so I saw your wanted posters there when i went to drop off mail, and at my dad’s work when I went home for summer holiday, on the wall with all the rest, an’ I remembered them. I saw them change it up now and then. It was interesting to see how some of the descriptions changed as the seasons passed.”
“I’m quite impressed,” I said. “Top student indeed.”
“Thank you,” she said, with none of the change in expression that I might have expected in response to praise. She looked sadder if anything.
“Who is he?” the round-faced boy with the glasses asked.
“Sylvester Lambsbridge,” I said.
“Traitor to the Crown,” she said. “Which usually means you were once in league with them.”
“More Academy than Crown, but yes.”
“Wanted dead or alive. Killer, problem solver, devastatingly intelligent.”
I grinned. “You remembered that? Dang, I like you.”
She tucked her hair behind her ear, not making eye contact. The tuck was a nervous thing, I suspected, not a flirty thing. Or it was both.
“A killer?” the boy who’d lamented the loss of the greenhouse asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Was part of my responsibilities, once.”
I had to duck my head a little and use the cover of a few taller boys in the group to keep from being stared at by a cluster of students. The peck marks and scratches would be bad, I imagined.
“Blood on your hands,” glasses said. “Avis was a pacifist.”
I had to resist the urge to snort at that. This was something that mattered to them. They didn’t want ugliness and violence. I wondered what the story was with that proclamation.
Instead, I nodded, and I put a sympathetic expression on my face. “If we could leave Avis in charge of you and let her manage this, we would. I’ll make freeing her a problem I solve at a later stage, not to worry. Because if I can’t, then I’ve got to take over this project for Fray.”
“She isn’t in charge?” glasses asked.
“She wanted to be,” I said. “But… snags.”
There were doubts. The group looked anxious. Enough so that I wondered if they would all be here if I left and came back.
“Part of the reason I’m here is I share common ground with you guys. I came from a place not so different from here. I had my own greenhouse. I had my own Greenhouse Gang. The most important thing? More than the mission? It’s going to be ensuring you all are free. Nothing tying you down. No dark cloud bearing down on you, no feeling like your best isn’t a guarantee.”
The people who had doubts still looked like they had doubts, but there was a little bit more light in the eyes of the others. The sheriff’s daughter was among them.
“Tea, talking, sleeping in, music playing on a machine. Resources to pursue passion projects. Associating only with the people you want to associate with.”
“What’s next?” glasses asked.
I have no blinking idea, I thought.
“Where were you at with Avis when you left off? From what I gathered, she was just rounding you up and making sure you were on board.”
Glasses nodded. “We know which students we’re talking to and where. We start the rumor about this being something that was in the works from last year. We have the credibility.”
“Perfect,” I said. “Okay. I’ve checked on the rooftop girls-”
I didn’t miss the faint look of distaste on one or two faces.
“-And you lot. Next is student council. They meet in the office?”
“No. Most of them handle things elsewhere. Liasion with staff. Only the president and vice president of the student council really spend time there regularly. When they meet, they usually do it by the water,” glasses said. He pointed.
“Ralph was a member of student council, once upon a time,” the sheriff’s daughter said. “He quit to keep his grades up.”
Ralph the round-faced glasses wearer pushed his glasses up his nose, and folded his arms. Defensive actions on both fronts.
That’s not why you left, I thought to myself, with a sing-song lilt.
“I want to walk around to the far side of the office,” I said. “I’m suspicious they’re lying in wait.”
“This way, then,” one of the others said.
We took a right, then a left, and walked down a street. The students and I watched to our left as we crossed the street.
We could see the library at the south end of the Beattle Academy office, and we could see the Horse’s men gathered on the back stairs. Something was wrong.
The Horse had told me that the security forces he’d brought to Avis were the extent of Beattle’s resources.
Then why had those numbers tripled, even accounting for the losses to Avis’ talons? Why were there suddenly sixty or more serious-looking men and women with uniform jackets and frames that looked like they exercised?
I thought of the two men who had died in the library.
Were these the rest of that particular group?
“Be prepared,” I told the Greenhouse Gang. “We’re starting.”
“They’re trying to stop the flood. They won’t succeed,” I said. I reached into a pocket, sorted through my notes, and said, “Oxham and Haigsbow. Do what you need to do, we all rendezvous there. Stay discreet in the meantime. They’re looking for me and they’re looking for students like you, who are working with me. Soon it won’t be possible to find either.”
The students nodded.
“Stay the course,” I said. “I’ll make sure the system is rigged for you, not against you.”
The nods were slightly more enthusiastic.
Even among the ones who’d seemed most uncertain and most uneasy about the fact that Avis was out of the picture and that I was a killer.
I broke away from the group. More free agents, cast out, while I was left to trust that they’d find their way back to me, that there wouldn’t be any disasters.
I found another entrance to the office, and I began navigating it.
There was no easy way to judge where things were, and my memory wasn’t good enough to know off the back of my head. I would have really liked having Jessie around so she could tell me. I had to judge by the colors of coats and the styles people wore, all the while looking out for the uniform jackets that suggested Academy security.
It was perhaps a stroke of providence that I stumbled on the little trick to identifying where I needed to be. There were Academy security officers in the main office, and I steered well clear of them, taking the stairs, ducking into side hallways, even pausing inside an empty office at one point to let them pass.
And as I found the areas where the officers weren’t, I realized that they’d been told to stay away from Professor Y.
Which meant that in the course of avoiding them, veering more toward the places with more black coats, I found him.
I opened his office door and let myself inside.
Professor Y was within, sitting at his desk. He jumped at my arrival, and looked very concerned as he took another look at me.
He was an old man, his back so stooped that the curve of it could graph to one of Wollstone’s ratios. His hair was neatly groomed, but the fact remained that the top of his head was level with his shoulderblades. The lines of his face were deep, his eyes deep set and very blue, his cheekbones rosy, which was really the only part of him that didn’t jive with my mental image of him.
“Who are you?”
I ignored him, rummaging for another gas canister.
“What do you want?” he asked.
I saw his right arm move very slowly. He was opening a desk drawer.
I hurled the jar at him, and hurled myself forward in that same motion, putting myself against the base of the desk.
I listened, felt, and waited for the man to stop grunting, gagging, and jerking in his chair.
Once I was done, I investigated his desk.
Four letters and one document. Each one with ‘Professor Horsfall’ on it somewhere. The ones that were purportedly written by the man had forged signatures on them, clearly copied from the document that the old man had collected.
I checked the old man’s pulse, and found it weak.
I never brought more than one of the same kind of poison when I could help it. It was easier on my system and tested my tolerances less if I spread stuff out.
Couldn’t remember off the top of my head what this one was.
“I wonder what Fray saw in you,” I said. “Opportunity?”
Only his eyes moved. Drool was already leaking out of his mouth.
I had limited time. Horsfall would soon lose patience and decide they had enough in the way of forces to storm the place without me.
Still, I took the time to pen out a note.
Whatever else he was, whatever I was trying to do, the man seemed decent. I’d meant what I’d said to his soldiers when I said I wasn’t sure how to handle him. He was what I wanted to promote in the Academy.
For you, Professor Horsfall. You may be my opponent in this but you’re not my enemy. You earned my respect through your common decency and leadership. I would have killed the man, but I sensed you wouldn’t want me to.
I placed the note in front of the old man on the desk, so he could read it, and pushed his chair in with him in it.
Then, carefully, I rewrote the first of the notes, but changed names around. I tore Professor Y’s copy into quarters, and I left it beside my note to Horsfall.
I made my exit, avoiding the uniforms.
I could hear the tramp of boots on floor as the massed uniforms started to make their way to Professor Y. Other uniforms were gravitating that way too.
I made my way to the bulletin board, trying to stay mostly out of sight, knowing I looked a mess, and I put the first letter up.
Heads turned, looking at me and at the paper.
I touched one arm of the most curious looking of curious onlookers, pointing at the note, and that gave the person permission to take a look-see. Others gravitated in that direction.
Ready. Set. Go.