The pent-up aggression of the students was clear, and not helped by their brief incarceration.
They had listened to me as I’d outlined where to go and what to do. The uniforms had come in, and the students had swept in. Out of hiding places, out from around corners, and cutting off escape routes.
The guards had truncheons, the students and other prisoners had improvised weapons and sheer numbers at their disposal.
“Take them to the cells,” I said. “Strip ’em, lock them in.”
“Strip them?” the student council president asked.
I indicated the adult prisoners, who hadn’t been part of the riot. “You guys are free to get lost, but if you want some money or a position with the rebellion, I can provide that. Get you lot off to a better start than you’d have on your own.”
I watched as they exchanged looks between them. Some looks were more wary than others. I measured them in length and intensity, making a mental note.
“I’ll pay you right now to drag the bodies. You can decide where you go from there,” I said.
They took a moment to decide. While they did so, I withdrew my wallet and nudged one injured guard with the toe of my boot. “Five dollars each. You and you.”
The men I’d pointed to bent down and started dragging the body back toward the cells.
“Then these two. You look like big fellas. Eight dollars to each of you, but each of you drags one person. Gently.”
They took about as long to decide as the first two guys had, but they started dragging the fallen guards. A student who’d checked on one of the unconscious guards backed off as a prisoner started dragging the man, while the other guard had been only mildly injured. He was stiff necked and tense as he was taken back to the cells.
In this way, I set most of the adult prisoners to work.
“Hey,” Gordon Two said. He’d been in one of the back cells.
“Hey,” I said, not taking my eyes off the men doing the carrying. “Glad to have you with. It would have been a pain if I had to go find you.”
“Sure thing,” he said. “The other students were talking about you, you know. While they were in the cells.”
“Probably,” I said. I watched as one prisoner ran his fingers through the hair of an unconscious guard, fixing it, as a parent might do for a sleeping child or a child might do for a doll. “We’ll talk about it later? I’ll explain then? Unless you’re going to tell me I have a problem.”
As I said the last bit, I focused on Gordon Two, staring him down.
A problem, in this case, would be him saying that things didn’t add up. Even calling me out in front of the others.
“If I’m part of this, I want a raise,” he said.
Ah. Not a problem, exactly. He wasn’t going to out me as someone independent of Fray.
“We’ll talk about that when I explain everything later, Second Gordon,” I said. I smiled. “But that might be something we can arrange. You’ve been vital.”
He nodded, and he stepped back out of my way as I stepped forward.
I followed the prisoners back in the direction of the cells, while they dragged guards that were varying degrees of beaten, unconscious, and surly.
I took in the scene, watched a few of the jailed men stripping down the uniformed guards.
I drew my gun.
Reaching out, I slammed a jail door shut. The adult prisoners jumped at the sound, heads turning.
I wheeled around and aimed at another one of them, the prisoner from before, now busy using a bit of cloth to dab at the blood on the unconscious guard’s face.
The lot of them froze. Students at the door at the end of the hall stared.
“Gut feeling about the two of you is pretty bad,” I said. “Now I’m asking the other people who’ve been here longer than a day… how right is my gut? How happy or unhappy would you be to work with the guy I just locked in and the guy I’m holding at gunpoint?”
The reply wasn’t immediate. Being a narc wasn’t a good thing, even in a jail that wasn’t a proper prison.
“Unhappy,” one man said. He was the youngest of the non-students.
“Unhappy,” I repeated.
“You can go fuck yourself,” the man who’d been cleaning the guard’s face said.
“There was a reason Hagan was alone in his cell,” Mr. Unhappy said, as if emboldened by the cussing. “And why the guards handled him in threes and fours.”
“Yeah,” I said. I looked at Hagan.
Hagan turned, staring me down.
“Yeah, I believe that,” I elaborated.
The look in his eyes was one I tried to dig for when I was making myself look scary. The cold, dead look, not so far from the look that had been in Rudy and Possum’s eyes. A look where Death was present.
Except Death wasn’t alone, here, and Death was facing a different direction.
I pulled the trigger. There were shouts and screams, more shouts from the prisoners, screams from the students at the end of the hall. Hagan fell over, hollering about the hole in his foot.
“Twenty dollars each to the two men willing to go in that cell and drag the guard out. Shut the door behind you,” I said.
Good money was good money. The young guy who’d volunteered the information was quick to jump to the task. Another guy from another cell joined in.
Hagan swiped at one, and then tried to grab at the body. As they hauled the uniform back, with Hagan dragged as part of the process, I took hold of the door.
When just Hagan’s hand was sticking out of the door, I swung the door shut. Hagan pulled his hand back just in the nick of time.
“And this guy?” I asked, indicating the cell with the hangdog-looking prisoner that I’d locked within. He wasn’t putting up a fight.
“Him?” Mr. Unhappy asked. “He’s just an asshole.”
Other prisoners and even a number of the students who couldn’t have been in the jail for an hour nodded. Hangdog continued looking hangdog. Hagan cussed and swore about the hole in his foot.
I looked over the other prisoners and even gave a glance to a few students. Nobody stood out. There were no wary glances that were too long, nor were there any wide berths or odd gaps where people gave others too much space.
“Good enough,” I said. I turned to go, and the men fell in step behind me. I watched the students in front of me for reactions, rather than look overly nervous by trying to keep an eye on the prisoners I’d released.
There would be problems with others, some problems that would come up later, but I could count this as another ten recruits, on top of the students I was looking at bringing on board.
I paged through bills and handed out the appropriate amounts to each of the men who’d done the transporting of the guards. Half of them had pulled on uniforms, others had uniforms with them.
“Stay put,” I said. “There’re deeper cells, right?”
There were a few nods. Someone pointed.
“Yeah. Stay where you are. The next wagon of officers and rioters bound for jail won’t arrive for a short while, and we can deal with them if they do,” I said.
I took the stairs, descended part of the way, and reached a locked door. I had to fumble with the keys for a little while before I could make my way through.
A few creatures snarled at me. Others remained where they were. The area was built into the foundation, with thick stone walls as long as my arm was from shoulder to fingertip. The grates at the front of the cells were woven like a basket might be, with one span of space between them for every five spans of metal. I could stick a finger through, but nothing more. Each gate had a stack of paper hanging from the wall next to it. Two different handwriting styles across all of the various stacks, but each detailed the exact nature of the prisoner within.
I found Avis, and I read the notes carefully.
I found the right key and let myself within.
She was bound, still, wings and arms to her body, a metal mask on her face. Chains attached her to the wall. She couldn’t even lie down.
She looked up at me.
I sorted through the keyring for one of the smaller keys, the one for handcuffs, and used it on the mask at her face.
The tangle of machinery came free.
“The paper said you had the device removed from your neck,” I commented.
“Yes,” she said, her voice strangled.
“Do you want out, Avis?”
She took in a deep breath, then exhaled.
“If you don’t, I can just leave. If I was a real asshole, I would, too. But I didn’t wholly forget how things were when the Duke had you in the cell in Radham.”
Darkness crossed her face. She shrunk into herself, as much as one could be expected to with the bonds that secured her.
“I would like out,” she said, eyes fixed on some point between my feet, her expression tight. “Please.”
“I don’t want this to be a continuation of our last encounter. I don’t want to fight, and I believe you’re capable of it. That you might have other things or trick secreted away.”
“I don’t remember our last encounter,” she said, staring into space, through my chest.
“I’m talking about at Beattle.”
“So am I. The combat drug,” she said. “I take it so I can fool myself into believing I’m still a pacifist in some form. I become someone else.”
“And you aren’t responsible,” I said.
“So I tell myself.”
I sighed. Avis did much the same.
“I’m willing to let you out,” I said. “But I want concessions. I won’t ask you to betray Fray, but I need you to help me a little.”
“I’ll betray Fray. She knows I would, in this same circumstance. But don’t drag this out,” Avis said. “Don’t waste so much time talking to me that you get us both caught down here.”
“I have a small army upstairs,” I said. “But fine. All I need from you is this: you’re going to put your mask back on, and you’re going to play along. I’ll get you out of here, assign you guards, and…”
I paused, trying to figure out how things unfolded from there.
Avis watched me expectantly, warily.
“…You can escape at that point if you must. But it would be appreciated if you didn’t. When Fray and I have exchanged words, I’ll point her in your direction. You’ll be free to go, and you can carry on doing what you’re doing.”
“That sounds deceptively simple.”
I spread my arms. “I’m your enemy today, but not in the grand scheme of it all. We might be allies tomorrow.”
“That sounds deceptively optimistic, incredibly manipulative, and far too philosophical given how very material matters at hand are.”
“I’m cursed to always sound dishonest when I’m telling the truth,” I told her. “But if you want material, how about I just say this. I’ll get you out if you play along for now.”
“Please. I’ll be in your debt.”
“That’s not a condition,” I said, exasperated.
“I’ll be in your debt,” Avis said, with an emphasis that strained her already strangled voice. “You don’t know what it is like to fall into their hands. To be one of their enemies. I hope you never do.”
“I’m not long for this world, Avis. I’ll lose my mind regardless, whatever they end up doing to me. There’s a mercy in that, maybe. Or maybe it’s that I’ve been in their hands, and that was bad enough, that’s why I’m not long for this world. I’ve been their enemy, too, and I’ve just been lucky enough to avoid both being true at the same time.”
“Luck runs out, Sylvester. Don’t lean on it.”
“I’ll try,” I said. “I’m going to put your mask back on. Anything to say or ask before I do?”
She shook her head. “I’m just glad it’s not a living gag.”
I took the gag and I slipped it back into place. It had a system for pouring water into so the wearer could be hydrated, but that meant tubes and an arrangement of things to have in place. I figured it out and locked it.
Freeing her from the wall, I helped her into a standing position. Then I led her down the hallway to the stairs. I was careful to support her so she wouldn’t trip with the leg restraints and tumble down the stairs.
Eyes widened as we approached the group of students.
“I need two able-bodied men,” I said.
Two volunteers stepped forward.
“Support her. Be ready in case she has a fit and starts struggling,” I said.
“What happened to Avis?” the student council president asked.
“She took a combat drug,” I said. “She, by her own admission, should stay in restraints for at least another few hours.”
I glanced back at Avis, who had a look of faint surprise in her eyes. Then she nodded.
“That’s a long-lasting drug,” a student remarked.
“None of us do things by halves,” I said.
I indicated that we should walk, and we started making our way toward the exit.
“You two with Avis, and… four students. You, you, you and you. You’ll all get a wagon and you’ll head off to… this address,” I said, scribbling on a back page in my notebook and tearing it off. “Sit with her, wait. I’ll send a rabbit your way with further notes and instructions. Keep her in restraints, be patient, you’ll be rewarded for your time.”
I got wary nods in response.
The men didn’t look too eager or happy at the prospect of babysitting her, so I figured we were safe. The combat drug would likely spook them as well.
“The rest of you prisoners will go to the Academy. Some of the students here will go with you. The… six students here.” I said, indicating a group. “Act like you belong. Go where the rest of the people in uniform are. They’ll be holed up in a building somewhere. Probably with a lot of papers and higher-ups. Start a fire there. Stables with stitched horses and Academy or Crown wagons? Start a fire. If you think you can get away with it, start talking about being from another group of men who were leveled with gas and parasites. You’re passing on a warning. If they get any large batches of students arrested and start heading back to the prison, maybe hitch a ride, saying your wagon burned. So long as you act like you believe it, keep your gaze steady and your head tall, and keep moving like you’re going someplace and you’re concerned about everything, you’ll be fine.”
“Who is this kid?” one of the prisoners asked, gesturing at me.
“This guy,” I said, “Is Sylvester Lambsbridge.”
“He has wanted posters up in post offices and police stations across the Crown States,” the girl from the Greenhouse Gang said.
“He does,” I said. “He’s also had to deal with hired mercenaries, hitmen, and experiments when he was out in Tynewear, over in the west coast of the Crown States. Now, I won’t say that he’s responsible for the fact that Tynewear wasn’t really standing when he left, but I won’t say he’s not responsible either. Rest assured that he’s a fellow that earned that wanted poster.”
“He also seems to talk about himself in third person,” one student said.
There was a titter of nervous laughter there. I turned my head to give the student a nod of acknowledgment , smiling.
“Greenhouse Gang,” I said, still walking. “Where are you?”
Some students stepped forward in the midst of the herd, or they raised hands where they couldn’t find a path to navigate amid the walking group.
“No,” was the reply.
I looked for the sheriff’s daughter and found her. Brown haired, with hair tucked behind one ear. “Your name?”
“Mabel. Can I trust you with a task?”
“You can,” she said, and she said it very quickly too.
I drew the second envelope out of my jacket and handed it to her. “Read it, spread the info, show the envelope for proof if you have to. It’s time the other students know what’s really going on.”
She nodded, not opening the envelope but tucking it away. She glanced down at the ground, then up at me. Before her eyes dropped again, I saw a quick wink.
For all my ability to read people, I couldn’t tell if that was an interest wink or if it was a ‘I know we’re fabricating this whole thing against the Academy’ wink.
I would think about it later. Whichever it was, I could trust her to do the job well.
“Counting on you,” I said.
That got me a smile, and any further read on her was obstructed as someone inadvertently moved into just the position required to block my view of her. I had to fight back the instincts fostered by my annoyance, that made me start analyzing that student as a potential enemy.
I was too keyed up.
We stepped outside, and I sent the adult prisoners off to get changed and to infiltrate the officers on the Crown side of the rioting.
I also sent Avis off with the contingent I’d assigned to watch her, being sure to do so before the rooftop girls came.
Hopefully there wouldn’t be too many questions there.
All that done, I gestured, beckoning for others to come. Slowly, the rooftop girls and other delinquents made their way to us, joining my small army.
“When the officers went rushing in, we thought maybe we should go in after them and help,” Bea said. “I had to discourage the others, bring up the fact that you said you used the gas for the Greenhouse group, you gave me some, and you might be using more in there.”
I smiled. “Discouraging them was right.”
“You really did it,” she said, as if she didn’t wholly believe it. She looked curious, “You even got her.”
“If you’re loose about definitions about prisons, this isn’t even my third prison break at this point,” I said. Then I looked to distract. “In the interest of keeping things moving, can I give you something to handle?”
The queen of the rooftop girls shrugged. “I’ll do whatever.”
A boy made a comment amid the group of students behind me. There was a half-hearted series of amused chuckles through the group.
“Someone hit that boy upside the head,” I said, without looking back.
I heard the smack.
“Someone else, do it harder.”
I heard the second smack, followed by cussing. I wasn’t sure if it was harder, by the sound of it.
I glanced back, and I caught a glimpse of one student rubbing the back of his head. He looked young.
“We’re all on the same side,” I said, turning around.
My voice was hard, and there was no room for ambiguity. “Get that into your heads. Alright? Our success and failure from here on out is our collective success or failure. If we do this right and we don’t start doing stupid things for stupid reasons, it’ll be a success. But if you get greedy for yourself instead of greedy for the all-of-us, or if you start thinking small then we start failing. Get over whatever ideas you had about how you or any of the rest of us are divided.”
I was gauging things as best I could, trying to figure out how much I had them, and how much I could push them before I lost them. These people had seen me at near peak performance, but showing them Sylvester Lambsbridge at his darkest would be the fastest way to lose things.
I dropped the stern appearance, smiled, relaxed, and then turned back to Bea. I held up another envelope. “Third letter. Courtesy of the student council.”
Bea gave the student council a glance. “Should I wait?”
I shook my head. “Tell your people first, let them disseminate the full package. Because this? This is something to get angry about. The student council had this, they already talked about it. The measures taken against students, the security forces, the campaign against the student’s reputations, it’s something that has to be factored in.”
“Also, be warned, there are experiments in play. You saw me dealing with one. The Academy will have a few. If anyone starts asking questions and they aren’t a student, make sure people know they aren’t to get the time of day, or they should be lied to. When you slip away to the meeting place, you do it discreetly.”
“Alright,” she said. She took the letter.
I asked a question I already knew the answer to, “Where’s Neck?”
She indicated a direction, then got Neck’s attention.
I walked with Bea in Neck’s direction, away from the group.
“Spread it slowly from a different direction than Mabel did. Far end of the school,” I said, murmuring.
“Alright,” she said. “Thought there would be something like that. How hostile should we be when reacting to anyone asking questions?”
“Don’t be. That’ll get them riled up. Spread false information. None of the major groups are around, so give them false locations. Have others give false information.”
“Good luck,” I told her. “Stay out of trouble. If I have to break people out of prison again, it gets harder.”
“Thank you,” she said.
I raised an eyebrow. Neck looked surprised too.
“For standing up for me.”
“Ah. Cracks are going to show sooner or later. Students here were set against each other from the first attendance. I’m glad to have a chance to start telling people how dangerous that is now.”
She smiled a little.
“And you’re welcome,” I said. “Bring everyone you can when you’re done. I gave you the meeting place?”
She looked like she was going to say something, then smiled and nodded. “Yes.”
“Good,” I said. “I’ll see you later.”
She turned back toward the group. “Roof girls, troublemakers, delinquents, with me!”
I turned to face those who remained. The student council, some members of the greenhouse gang, and some of the angrier protesters who’d gotten themselves arrested.
I opened my notebook, and I made some notes. One for Bea. One for… what had her name been? Mildred? Maple? Mable. I drew her head, with the straight hair down one side of her face, tucked behind her ear on the other side. Sheriff’s daughter. Happy triangle above her head. She was sharp, and she was sharp in a way I liked.
I put a circle with a happy triangle in one corner above her head, then put a question mark there.
I checked my destination, and was happy to see I’d included notes on how to get there, with a few sketched landmarks.
I looked up at the group, closed the book with a slap, and then used it to point the way.
Pierre fell into lockstep with me as we made the final approach to the building. The thirty students in my entourage seemed a little taken aback by it.
“I found your students,” the rabbit-headed man said. “Was the most curious thing, their choice in graffiti.”
“Something about rabbits. Then when I approached to ask them about it, they said they were waiting for me.” He scratched his head, between the ears.
“I was thinking we could have that be a signal from here on out.”
“Signals only work if they’ve been communicated to the person receiving them, Sylvester,” Pierre said. “Or if they at least make some degree of sense.”
“Well, it’s been communicated now.”
“I’ll never understand how your head works, boss. Jessie’s at the rendezvous spot, for the record. Fray has run into some trouble.”
One side of his mouth moved in what might be intended as a smile, but looked more like the twitch of a dying muscle on a severed rabbit’s head.
I raised a hand, two fingers extending, interrupting Pierre before he could say anything more. “I assume she’s still managing?”
Pierre didn’t miss a beat. It helped that his face betrayed zero tells for those who hadn’t known him for a few weeks already. “She’s managing. Trouble with the Academy. Jessie can tell you more. But I should run- I’m running interference, keeping our foes from the prize for just a little while.”
Our foe being Fray. Perfect.
“Thank you, Pierre. You’re a gent.”
He swept into a bow, taking his initial steps backward. A moment later, he was running at a speed that could rival a speeding carriage.
We approached the rendezvous point. It was an old, magnificent building, set at the intersection of two major roads near the edge of town. Not that we lacked for a good exit. The town sprawled around a bay, and was surrounded by dense forest and mountains. There were regular ships coming and going, mostly fishing vessels and some cargo boats.
I pulled on the board, and the door opened outward, the boards not actually nailed into anything.
The building was an old hotel. The ugliest bits of furniture had been removed, the rest of it, mostly wood, had been left within.
The Rank and the stray’s children were present within. The Rank were strewn here and there, lounging, while the children were clustered around the bar in the corner where some initial amount of food had been laid out. Rudy and Possum were closer to the children than to the Rank. All watched as I entered, the rest of the students behind me.
“Sylvester,” Junior said. “And the student council.”
“Be good. Look after them. Don’t say anything we’ll all regret.”
Junior leaned back, smiling. “I’d be more worried about their reaction to the Rank than the Rank’s reaction to them. Last I heard, there were sore feelings.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” the treasurer said. “We don’t devote that much energy to thinking about you.”
I looked between the groups, and I said, “Do I need to separate you all?”
The answer was a unanimous silence, with only a few shaking heads.
“Ignore each other. Please,” I instructed.
The students settled into their places. The Rank had the center of the room, while the student council took a point off to one side, between the bar and the front desk of the hotel, where a battered old grand piano still sat. There was a bench, and there were a number of stacked chairs off to the side. They began pulling down the chairs and arranging them into a loose circle.
Other students found other points nearby. Some gravitated toward the children, others toward the Rank, and others toward the student council.
Factions would form, inevitably. I was just hoping we’d get that far. The balancing act continued.
Gordon Two lingered closer to me, not sure what he should do. Rudy and Possum approached, too.
“Where’s Jessie?” I asked the room.
“Upstairs,” Rudy said. “We talked briefly.”
“This is bigger than I thought it would be,” he said.
“Cold feet?” I asked, wondering just how big he thought it was.
He shook his head.
“The children okay?”
“They keep taking food and stowing it in their pockets,” Possum said, voice a hush. “Jessie sends them out in groups, and the group that was leaving when we showed up just came back. They emptied their pockets while they were gone, and now they’re loading up again.”
“Let them,” I said. “If they end up staying while we leave, they’ll be happy to have it, either to keep or trade. If they stay with us, then it’ll take a while for them to realize that the food won’t run out.”
“That’s so sad,” Possum said.
“I’ll catch up with you all in a minute,” I said. “Touching base with Jessie first. Be nice to each other. Talk.”
I looked back over the room, looking for any signs that things might boil over while I was gone, then jogged up the stairs.
I found Jessie at the end of the hallway. I’d been worried she had drifted off. She was only staring off into space.
“Hallo there,” I greeted her.
“You took your time,” she said, turning. She smiled. “Productive?”
“Good,” she said. She feigned sternness. “Because every minute of peace that you had to do your thing was hard earned. Keeping Fray corralled and stalling her has been a heck of a task.”
I snorted. “Watch your language.”
“She’s not stupid. She started realizing that something was up when she turned around and the Rank had disappeared on her. Shortly after that, I had to tip off the police. The men we saw are Crown, by the way.”
“I’m already aware,” I said, smiling.
“I’ve been interfering with them, too. We intercepted one group and got ahead of their messages. I had to lead a raid on the post office.”
“Well look at you,” I said.
“It was a narrow scrape, but we were able to find someone she was communicating with and point people in her direction. I assumed you didn’t want her outright captured.”
“It was a delicate operation, keeping her under pressure and steering her away, without getting her caught. Undertaken on a hunch, no less,” she said. “I did beautifully, if I may say so myself.”
“You may. Don’t let me stop you.”
“You went incommunicado for just long enough that I had to worry. I heard some noise about the Academy and assumed it was you.”
“Extending trust, as a Lambsbridge orphan ought to do,” I said. I leaned against the wall on the other end of the window. “I’ll have you know that I have co-opted the vast majority of her plan. That army of six hundred I promised? I predict we’ll be half or two-thirds of that amount by the day’s end. We’re seventy-five or eighty percent of the way to being done already. We just need to deal with Fray and actually mobilize, and we’re set.”
“That’ll do,” Jessie said.
“And I had to deal with Avis, who took a combat drug and murdered a few people. Actually landed my shot, brought her down without killing her.”
“And I saved a few lives that Fray would’ve probably missed as collateral damage in her plan.”
“Rudy did mention, in a roundabout way.”
“And I orchestrated a prison break, and even broke Avis out in the process. Work of art, really.”
“I expect nothing less,” she said.
“And of course there’s a noble in town. Not even a lesser one, and I faced him down. I had to fight dirty but I won. I think I might have figured out the fighting thing. Crossed a threshold. There’s another noble out there, but I’m wholly confident I can duel her and win.”
“Excellent,” Jessie said.
“The noble had a primordial pet, can you believe it? And I fought it hand to hand. With tooth and fingernail, while it had fangs an armspan long and talons that could have cut a horse in half. I had to use a combat vial I got from Avis and gnaw my way through the thing until I got to a vital structure. It tasted horrible.”
“I can imagine.”
“But I had an epiphany, and I think I came up with a seventeenth Wollstone ratio-”
“There are fifteen.”
“I discovered the sixteenth too, Jessie, but that’s from one of the more minor adventures of the last couple of hours, and I’m covering the broad strokes here, don’t you see? I came up with a seventeenth Wollstone ratio, divined the fundamental pattern of the primordial, and gnawed my way into the key parts to disconnect the greater whole, and thus killed an unkillable thing, all while fighting to keep the talons and fangs from eviscerating me. Those moments of brilliance were with combat drugs fuzzing my brain, mind you.”
“That must be where these scratches came from,” Jessie said, reaching out to touch my lower eyelid.
“A very astute observation,” I said.
“Thank you, sir.”
“So, all in all, I think I win, but I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure?”
“Well, you have some reason you’re hiding up here instead of staying down there. I half expected to come up here and find you asleep again.”
“No,” she said. “Not sleep. Just thinking.”
“Thinking is important, when we’re doing what we’re doing,” I said. “But you’ll have to share particulars, or I’ll be claiming victory in our game of one-upmanship here. Killing a primordial and a noble a matter of minutes apart from each other is kind of hard to top.”
“You didn’t say it was a matter of minutes,” she said. “That’s amazing.”
I bowed a little.
“But I can top it,” she said. She said it in a way that made my heart sink. I had an idea what she was going to say. “I dropped a memory.”
I placed my forehead against the window.
“In his writing, Jamie described it. This same experience. The first one was a portrait. He dropped three in total before…”
“Yeah,” I said. “I remember the portrait during the Sub Rosa thing. I don’t remember everything that clearly, but that really scared me when it happened, so I remembered it.”
“It scares me too.”
“I don’t remember the others, but I read about them enough times in Jamie’s journals.”
“I feel like it’s a countdown. As if just like him, I’ll be allowed two more, over the next three or six months, and then time’s up, just a week or a few days after that.”
I swallowed, and it was a hard, awkward sort of swallow.
“Hey, Sy?” she asked.
“Hey, Jessie,” I said. I managed to sound normal.
“I don’t have a lot of time. I don’t want to kick up a fuss. I don’t want to pressure, or force things, or ask things of you, and I definitely don’t want anything that happens between us to be an act on your part.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Except, I’m really wondering.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“And I’m sorry I have to wonder.”
“Don’t be,” I said. I drew in a deep breath. “I don’t know. But there’s a jumble to sort through in my already unusually jumbled head. Can we tackle this? This big thing with Fray?”
“And I’ll think about it harder and more clearly when I’m not thinking about Fray and how to stay on top of all of this. Because I’ve told different things to a half-dozen groups and three of them are downstairs. But I’ll give you your answer. I promise.”
“Thank you,” she said.
Jessie was so often my rock. Reliable, someone I could go back to. My anchor in the storm that was ever active in my head and my immediate surroundings.
But she looked like she needed a rock, and I was happy to oblige.
“C’mere,” I said. “C’mon.”
I wrapped her in a hug. Not the first I’d given in the last day, but certainly the most important.
“Am I supposed to play along with the story and tell you you smell like primordial bile?” she asked.
“It was more stomach acid than bile,” I said.
She nodded, her head rubbing against my shoulder. “Terrible.”
“Sorry,” I said.