Jessie and I made our way up to the halfway point on the stairs so we could look down at the crowd. We took in the scene.
Two hundred students, with more arriving by the minute.
The leaders of each of the individual groups were all present, by our request. Pierre had told them to gather. As such, we had Ralph and Mabel for the Greenhouse Gang; Davis and Valentina for the student council; Junior, Rita and Posie for the Rank; Bea and Neck for the rooftop girls and delinquents.
There were others. Clay’s men, Otis’, Archie’s, and Frederick’s. The prisoners hung near them. Some of the recently released prisoners were affiliated with one group or the other.
Rudy and Possum stood off to one side, near the Stray children, while Gordon Two stood near Pierre and Shirley.
I used my notebook to help keep track as I indicated each of the people and giving Jessie the names she hadn’t already been told.
“…that’s Rudy and Possum over there. Possum’s a nickname. I think we’ll be able to count on them. Then Gordon Two.”
“Gordon Two?” she asked, archly.
“Also Gordon the Second, if you want to go that way. Felt fitting.”
“We only just got over the new Jamie-old Jamie confusion, and you start this?”
“Don’t get all fussy now.”
“You tend to bring fussiness out in people, in the same way that being an arsonist brings out the ‘fire is bad’ attitude in others.”
“I’m an arsonist too,” I pointed out.
“Yes you are,” she said, sighing a little. “We should get this under control.”
We were out of earshot of the assembled students as we had our conversation, but we had their full attention. Ears were strained. Eyes were on us. The buzz of conversation was minimal at best. They were agitated.
I could look at the crowd, fuzz out my vision, and focus on movement and spacing, and I could intuit, to a degree, the restlessness and degree of motion. I could see where people remained turned toward friends, looking at Jessie and me over or along their shoulders. They appeared in clusters, in places where groups mingled. The Greenhouse Gang was among them. The patterns and shapes made by those clusters looked like cracks and fissures running through the collected mass of students. Suspicion, dissent, and the vast pool of anger and frustration threatening to turn toward Jessie and me.
I could imagine that some had talked and already found out that my story didn’t add up, or that I’d told different stories to different individuals. Had I been in their midst as it happened, I could have steered it.
But I’d been tending to Jessie, because Jessie was more important than this small army I was building.
Those veins of dissent running through this body of people would make this next bit hard.
Better to address this on a smaller-scale level.
I indicated each of the people I’d named, and indicated for them to come upstairs. The leaders of the student groups, the people I’d singled out, and then Mr. Unhappy from the group of prisoners I’d released.
We gathered ourselves in one of the hotel rooms. The leaders of the student groups, the gang leaders, our assistants and helpers.
Many of them found seats around the room. Jessie and I did too, turning two chairs around. Shirley stood in the corner behind us, while Rudy and Possum stood off to one side. The gang leaders took standing positions at various points around the room.
A decent crowd unto itself, this.
“Introductions are in order,” I said. “My name is Sylvester Lambsbridge, this is Jessie Ewesmont, and the most important thing to get out of the way is that we have no association with Genevieve Fray at all.”
I saw mixed reactions, across the board, mostly among the students. Junior was smiling. He’d known. Others looked more confused, including Rudy and Possum. The student council looked shocked, and the Greenhouse Gang looked resentful. Ralph in particular, the round, glasses-wearing head of the Greenhouse Gang, looked angry.
“You lied to us,” he said. He’d known before I’d even announced it. There was no shock or processing period that absorbed the initial impact of my admission.
“Absolutely,” I said. “I’m sorry I had to.”
“You lied,” he said, getting angrier. “We’ve been misled all this time, first by the Academies, ultimately this, the school shutting down, and now by you?”
He took a short step forward, pointing a finger.
As he did, Otis and Frederick moved, as if to intercept him. Ralph’s scowl deepened as he retreated that same step. He very dramatically flung his pointed finger down and out of the way, as if discarding it, the anger and accusations by no means gone.
“The fact of the matter is,” I said, “Fray dropped the ball. We picked it up. We intend to keep every promise she made. The plan stands. It’s just a plan with different leadership.”
“It’s a fucking lot different!” Ralph said. His face was red now. I could see the student council picking up on his energy. The anger was spilling over and they were absorbing it. Given a moment, they would join their objections to Ralph’s.
“You didn’t even want to go with the students,” Jessie said.
“I didn’t and I don’t, especially not now!” Ralph said. “But these students you’re preying on, they’re students I care about! Students I tried to help! I joined the student council to help them, and even after I dropped out of the council, I committed! I stuck my neck out to ensure the best and brightest wouldn’t get sabotaged or cut down with interference and petty politics! So they wouldn’t get used!”
“You actually care about your fellow students?” Junior cut in. “No wonder you ended up on a bottom-rung Academy like Beattle.”
“Talk to me about success and failure when you’re in the top ten of students here, R.J.,” Ralph said. “Until then, shut up and stay out of this.”
“Ow. But I’ll concede the point,” Junior said.
“Ralph,” I said.
Ralph turned his attention to me.
“Genevieve Fray is very good at sounding like she cares. Even through intermediaries. I don’t know exactly what she said to you, but I imagine it something along the lines of how she plans to save the world, and I know she tells every individual soul along the way that she’ll save them, making promises to each and every one about how she’ll solve their medical issues, save their lives, save their minds, or cure them of everything that ails them.”
I glanced at Junior as I said that. He nodded, and the motion got glances from others.
I continued, “…But as brilliant as she is, she’s only human. She can’t grant every wish.”
“And you can?” Ralph asked. It was a question meant as something retaliatory or accusatory.
“No, no I can’t, and Jessie can’t either,” I said. “But there’s a reason you’re in this room with Jessie and me and not Fray and her people. We’re paying attention.”
I paused, letting that sink in.
It didn’t quench or answer Ralph’s wrath, but it didn’t stoke it either. It seemed to be reason enough for the student council to hold their tongues, when they were ready to join Ralph in cussing us out.
“She’s working in other cities,” I said. “She’s making promises to others. She’s spreading herself thin, with too many pokers in too many fires, and some are being forgotten, others neglected. She’s not so different from the Academy in this respect.”
“She was here today,” Ralph said.
“Her messenger was,” I said. “But we were here weeks and months ago, planning and watching.”
I indicated the gang leaders.
“Who are you, then?” Davis, the student council president asked. “Who are you really?”
“I’ve spent more time working for the Crown and the Academy than many of you have been in school. I’ve killed on behalf of the Crown while working for them, and I’ve killed members of the Crown nobility since leaving that role behind. I’ve witnessed the start of wars and I’ve personally ended them. So trust me when I say it’s no mistake that I’m standing here in front of you now.”
I paused for effect.
“Jessie is nearly as experienced as I am, and far more capable in a number of areas. She’s also harder to explain, because she lurks more in the background, as a planner and coordinator. That’s who we are. For every day you’ve spent studying, we’ve spent a day immersed in the darker, bloodier side of the Crown’s and Academy’s dealings. Today, our individual worlds have collided. The students need the kind of help we can provide in navigating that dark underbelly of Crown and Academy. We need the knowledge, the influence, and the voice the students have.”
Jessie spoke, “You can turn us down, say that you’re not interested in what we have to offer. But know that you’re our first priority, and you’ll have our full attention.”
“The plan stands,” I said.
Bea’s leg jiggled up and down. The student council president and vice president were rigid, upset. Ralph still had red in his face. Only Junior looked calm, but none of this was news to him.
“What’s next?” Mabel asked.
Ralph looked at her, aghast.
“We don’t have other options, do we?” she asked, in response to his look of outrage. “What do you think we’re supposed to do, Ralph? Go out there and tell the students that they shouldn’t hear Sylvester out, that this was all a bad idea and there really isn’t anyplace to go? They’d tear us to pieces. Then they’ll leave. Go home or go elsewhere, or try to make their way on their own. And that doesn’t help anyone.”
“If he hadn’t interfered, then the students could have gone with Fray. Someone we know,” Ralph said.
“No,” I said. “Because the Academy is already here. Fray was too slow. There were agents in place, eavesdropping, already moving against her. Gordon-”
Jessie put a hand over my mouth. She turned to Gordon Two. “What’s your real name?”
Jessie removed her hand from my mouth. She gave me a pointed look.
I cleared my throat. “He can testify. We had a run-in with two of the agents.”
“We did,” Gordon the Second said. “Sylvester killed the both of them. I heard the bird woman talking to the headmaster. I didn’t exactly go running off after her to join up with her side when I heard it, either. It didn’t really sound like the students were a factor.”
“Naturally,” Ralph said. “She was talking to the headmaster. She’ll say different things depending on who she’s talking to.”
“Including us?” Mabel asked him. “Come on, Ralph. Don’t pretend it’s any different.”
“She was a student once. She sounded genuine when she talked about that period in her life.”
“She was a bureaucrat too,” I said. “One who helped orchestrate the trafficking and recycling of children into experiments, working with a rebel group. I was there when she was brought into custody.”
“And we’re just supposed to believe you?” Ralph asked. “You’ve already admitted you’re a liar.”
“I believe him,” Mabel said. “Maybe it’s silly or I’m being misled because I’ve actually looked into his eyes and talked to him while Fray only sent a representative, but I feel better about working with Sy than I felt when we were talking to Avis. Something about her unnerved me.”
“I don’t think you’re processing this with your head, Mabel,” Ralph said.
“You think I’m going with my heart?”
“Parts below the belt, Mabel,” Ralph said.
She struck him, open palm, across the face. He rose out of his seat, and she did the same.
The two of them stopped short of an outright scuffle when Frederick moved closer to them, ready to break it up. Both breathed hard, incensed.
Ralph abruptly turned away, striding toward the door.
Otis blocked his way, keeping him from exiting. The middle aged, grizzled gang leader glanced at me, and I gave him a gesture, telling him to stay where he was.
“I was never going to stay,” Ralph said. He didn’t look at anyone as he said it. “So I don’t have to stick around for the rest of this discussion, right?”
“It’s a problem if you leave and say the wrong things,” I said.
“Mabel said it, didn’t she?” Ralph asked. “If I tell the students down there what really happened, they’ll riot again. Then… there’s nothing. Nowhere for them to go. It doesn’t benefit anyone. But I certainly don’t have to stand there and say this is a good idea. I won’t lie to them either. I’ll use the back door.”
“Alright, Ralph,” I said. “Good luck in your future studies.”
“Keep your ‘good luck’ and go fuck whatever pit you crawled out of, Lambsbridge,” he said.
“We’ll have to give you an escort to make sure you don’t cause a stir,” I said.
“On it,” Clay said.
“Nah,” I said. I had to do a bit of guesswork on this one. The funny thing was, Clay would have been my choice if he hadn’t spoken up. “Otis? Pick out one of your men and send him with?”
Otis opened the door for Ralph, gesturing at a lieutenant of his. He closed the door once the two had left.
Mabel remained standing. Her hand went to her hair, tucking it behind one ear. I could see the tremor in her fingertips. She probably didn’t like confrontation.
“You can sit down, Mabel,” I said, quiet.
She didn’t sit down. She didn’t meet my eyes, either. She did meet Jessie’s briefly. It took a moment before she shook her head.
“Listen,” she said. “Ralph and I, and all the rest of the Greenhouse Gang, we talked to Avis. She talked about where she came from, she talked about being part of the Academy, and she was good at that, she had good stories, she made us laugh. And she talked about what she does while working for Genevieve Fray, the sorts of things Fray is doing, and she made it sound good, hopeful, and exciting. But she looked hollowed out, like she hadn’t slept enough over a long time.”
I touched my cut eyelid, “I’m not sure I look much better.”
“It’s more than just that. She talked about her birds, and even brought one outside of that cloak she wrapped herself in, keeping one hand over its head like it was a bird of prey, and she didn’t talk much about anyone except Fray. Like the lady who only has her cats and one friend that sometimes visits.”
“She didn’t seem healthy?” I volunteered.
“She really didn’t,” Mabel said.
“She really isn’t,” I said. “After the incident with the children that I mentioned, she was taken into a dungeon and tortured for three-quarters of a year. She’ll likely never be well again.”
“Did Fray promise her a fix, like she promised me?” Junior asked.
“You need a fix?” Neck asked.
Junior only shrugged.
“I don’t know what Fray promised,” I said. “I wouldn’t be surprised. But I think Avis knows it’s not entirely possible to fix what’s wrong with her now. Maybe Fray wouldn’t have wanted to insult her intelligence.”
There were a few nods here and there.
“I just-” Mabel started. She glanced up, met my eyes for a fleeting moment. “I just wanted to make sure you all knew that I reasoned my way to my current position. It had nothing to do with what Ralph said was going on below my belt.”
“I can’t think of a diplomatic way to say this,” Valentina said, “Except that I think what Ralph said had more to do with what was going on below his belt than yours. It wouldn’t be the first time, in his case.”
“So you knew why he joined the student council?” Mabel asked. “And why he left?”
“I figured it out very quickly.”
Mabel nodded. Then she took her seat very quickly, as if she was very uncomfortable continuing to stand and be the center of attention.
“I should have joined the Academy, by the sounds of things,” Frederick commented. “Young romance, girls in pleated skirts, more going on below the belt than I got to enjoy before I was eighteen…”
“You’re not helping matters, Frederick,” I said.
The pale-haired, brown-skinned laborer and gang leader only smiled, showing off the white of his teeth.
“Bea. You’ve been sitting there and bouncing your knee for a while now,” I said.
“I always said I cared more about actions than words,” she said. “Your actions stack up.”
“Okay,” I said. I suspected that wasn’t the end of it.
“At my first school, I was told to do this, do that. I tried. I ended up worse off than I was before. I took advice from older students, and I picked a professor and I did the best work I could for him. That… didn’t work out. I found another professor willing to be my mentor, a woman, and she promised she would back me. When it counted, she didn’t follow through. I came here, because people said it would be better, and it wasn’t. I faced dropping out, and one more person came along, promising a fix. I told them I wasn’t prepared to just believe someone anymore. They told me to wait until today, see for myself. I did.”
I waited, giving her time to sort out her thoughts.
“I’m stuck, now. Because in all my life, only two people have ever said they’ll do something and actually followed through.”
“I’m one,” Neck said, to the room and not to her.
“And Fray isn’t the other,” she said. “But now this thing I’ve always said, when I was helping talk other girls through tough times and relationship troubles, that actions matter more than words? That guys and professors and parents can say whatever they like, but it’s what they show you that counts? I’m feeling like I have to stick by it, because you’ve been dishonest, Sylvester, but you showed your stuff when it mattered, with the prison especially. I’m not happy about feeling like I should stick by my old stance, and I’m not sure what I should do.”
“Give me a chance,” I said. “I’ll ensure you’re happy with this course.”
“Tall order, promising me any kind of lasting happiness,” she said.
“The prison break was a tall order too,” I said.
“Point,” she said. She glanced at Neck.
“I’m with you, love,” he said. There was no love in the word, only loyalty.
She nodded at that. Then she looked at me, nodded, and dropped her eyes.
“Student council?” I asked. “Davis? Valentina?”
I’d left them to last, in hopes that influencing them would influence the student council along the way.
The reality was that my read on the student council was by far the most lacking.
“What I find myself asking,” Davis said, running his fingers through his brown hair, “is what would have happened if you hadn’t turned up today.”
“Avis would have showed. The letters would have been written and distributed, the headmaster wins out, the Horse-”
“Horsfall,” Jessie supplied.
“-loses, badly, despite being much liked by a large share of the student body. The riot unfolds, and Avis and Fray stand by, letting it happen. Things are carefully orchestrated, people are swept up in it all, and by the time matters settle, the students are whisked away on Fray’s errand. The casualties are easily forgotten or lost in the shuffle.”
“Casualties?” Davis asked.
I avoided looking at Rudy and Possum. “The students who couldn’t bear the reality she’d rushed to conclusion. The students sequestered in jail.”
“You don’t think a woman as smart as Fray had a plan in mind?”
I started to answer. Jessie beat me to it.
“We’ve been following Fray since the start of her career. We were there when she started her rebellion. I know Sylvester had a private chat with her once, while we were pursuing her. She wanted to recruit us, once upon a time. Her focus was always on humanity. Preserving humanity. But as time goes on, she’s slipping more. She’s finding it easier to overlook the small losses, to win a skirmish that involves moderate stakes. Overlooking moderate losses to win a battle that involves major stakes. Then overlooking major losses to win a battle that involves national stakes.”
“Releasing the primordials,” I said. “Then the red plague.”
“Primordials?” Mabel asked. “Released?”
The questions seemed to be reflected in the faces of everyone present that was wearing an academy uniform.
“This is a bigger concern than the fact that you’re saying she created the red plague?” Neck asked.
“It’s a bigger concern,” Bea said.
“And both are a long story,” I said. “I’m actually not so sure on the plague, but things add up, and it feels like her, which should say it all.”
“Listen,” Jessie said. “For what it’s worth, as much as Fray slides down that slippery slope, and whether she stops there or she decides that she’s willing to stake a nation to win a contest with global stakes, Sylvester is scaling up that same slope, going the opposite way.”
I tilted my head, giving Jessie a surprised look.
She said, “He wasn’t always the gentle soul you see before you now. There was a time when it was just him and his fellow experiments, myself included, and the rest of the world didn’t matter. That’s changed. Fray says she wants to protect humanity, but it feels like she’s forgotten the individual humans along the way. Sylvester’s found them, in the meantime.”
“I can testify that that’s the case,” Shirley said, from the back corner of the room.
“Yeah,” Rudy said. Possum nodded beside him.
“Beautifully put,” I murmured to Jessie, teasing.
“Shut up,” she said. She pushed my shoulder.
But, among this crowd of very individual humans, it seemed to be what they needed to hear. It seemed to have won over Bea, who had been less than wholly enthusiastic, and it seemed to have gotten the attention of the student council leaders.
“Then I’ll echo Mabel’s question from earlier,” Valentina said. “What’s next?”
“Next, we address the two hundred or so students that are down in the lobby. Because they want and deserve answers,” I explained.
“Without Ralph,” Valentina said.
“The Greenhouse Gang knew that he was leaving. He made no secret about it,” Mabel said. “It should be fine.”
“Good,” I said. “Great. Any final comments? Dissent? Questions?”
There were none. It seemed we had them on board, more or less.
I stood, and they stood from their seats alongside me.
Our collected allies backing us, we headed for the stairs. We walked halfway down.
“Three hundred and twenty students,” Jessie said, leaning in closer to my ear.
The tone of the hubbub and chatter changed as more caught sight of us. The change in the sound of the room drew more attention, and more people came in from outside.
“Three hundred and sixty students,” Jessie amended her statement. “And…”
“I see her too,” I said.
At the back of the room, filtering in among the students, was Genevieve Fray. Black hair fashionably styled, crimson lipstick, black coat, and heeled boots.
She folded her arms and settled in, seemingly to watch the proceedings.
I drew in a deep breath.
“Students of Beattle!” I addressed the room, raising my voice to cut through the chatter. “I see several citizens of Laureas here, and other esteemed guests.”
The room was silent, as I paused, assessing the tone of things.
“My name is Sylvester Lambsbridge. Behind me stand several key members of Beattle’s student body. Student council, disciplined academics, troublemakers, and free spirit alike. Several of the men you see are local gang leaders. Others are my partners, employees, and assistants. We stand together in this, and if you’re willing, we’d have you stand with us.”
Fray was silent, watching with a steady eye. Her body language was hard to read.
“Many or most of you students of Beattle don’t want to go home. Not now, maybe not ever. Many don’t want to let your academic dreams die here. Many of you don’t want to turn in papers, books, and uniform and sit down for that speech or assembly, where they tell you that you cannot continue your studies or use any of what you spent the last several years learning.”
The cracks I’d seen in the ranks weren’t as bad, now. The agitation wasn’t there. The people standing clearly askance had clearly relaxed, their backs or shoulders no longer turned away or to one side, their gazes less suspicious or antagonistic. Having the student groups clearly behind me helped. Many of these students were ones that were recognized and known among the student body.
“I’m offering you work, using the knowledge you have. I’m offering you the freedom to find your own way, on the side opposite that which promised you an education and snatched it away at the last minute. If you’re angry at them, then I can give you a role which will let you vent that anger. And if you just want to find your own way, I can position you to do that.”
I glanced at Jessie, then back at the students and assembled men, women, and rabbits behind me.
Then I addressed the crowd again. “There’s a lot to be said for being done with the uniform. There’s more to be said for being unified. No longer being rank forty or rank sixty or rank one hundred, looking at fellow students as opposition. No more fancying a girl or fancying a boy and wondering how courting them would affect your grades, or calculating how it might affect theirs.
“We’ve seen civil war across the Crown States in recent years. We’re going to see more. I suspect it may be perpetual, lasting as long as the Crown does. I just explained to the students behind me that I want your voices and your talents, and I’ll pay you for those things, in actual payment, but also in helping you to navigate the world that exists beyond the Academy…”
I explained, the crowd listened, and Fray remained where she was, unreadable.
I walked through the crowd with purpose. People talked to me as I did so, reached for my hand, and commented, and I tried to recognize each of them.
I forged through to Fray, who didn’t make her way to me, but who didn’t retreat either.
I gestured to students to stay back as I approached her. We walked outside, standing a short distance outside.
“Hello, Genevieve,” I said.
“Hello, Sylvester,” she replied. She uncrossed her arms and put her hands in her pockets. She sighed. “I was just telling Dolores that I’ve had the most surreal day.”
“Oh, you’ve got her there with you?”
“Of course. She’s getting old, yet she remains a good listener.”
“Surreal day, you said?”
“My day started as expected, but somewhere along the way, the Academy found me with unerring accuracy, multiple events coincided to keep me from making my way to the Academy, the gang of youths I’d conscripted outright disappeared while my back was turned, and when I finally made it to the Academy, neither my messenger nor any of the student groups I’d planned to meet were there. Every student I talked to either had no interest in what was happening or they outright lied to my face, trying to lead me on wild goose chases.”
“I suppose I should apologize.”
“It was almost amusing when I realized what was happening and who the culprit was. Almost,” she said. She didn’t smile. “We should talk.”
“Shall we go upstairs?” I offered.
“I don’t feel like braving that crowd,” she said. “Will you walk with me?”
“No tricks? No ambush?” I asked.
“That’s how you operate, Sylvester,” she said. She allowed me one small smile, this time. “I talked to Mauer. I’m worried you’re on a dangerous path.”
I glanced back at the body of students.
“Not them. Not this. It’s about what you found back in New Amsterdam.”
I read her expression, listened to her tone, and concluded, “Either you don’t know and you want to know, which is a bit of a shot in the dark, possibly with a fair amount of generous bargaining, which I’d be willing to entertain, or you do know.”
I could see it on her face as I said those last three words.
“You do know,” I repeated myself.
“I’ve known from the beginning. Some of it was deduction, using what I learned as I was offered the position of esteemed professorship. Not just any professorship, but the sort afforded to professors of note, when they were trying to decide if I’d walk a path where I’d soon run an Academy of my own, or if I’d tend to a noble. It’s part of why they’re so bent on finding and killing me, which, in turn, is why I’ve had to devote so much mental architecture to being elusive with the Academy’s dogs on my heels. Yourself included, once.”
That same elusiveness doesn’t help if your enemy deduces your path and lies in wait on the path ahead of you.
“So you’ve known all this time, and you haven’t used it? What was that thing with Mauer then?”
“Walk with me,” Fray said. “There’s a great deal to cover, and some will be unpleasant.”