I didn’t have to walk for long before I found the others. They had been watching from a distance, so I picked a safe direction to move in, the general direction that the fire and smoke were coming from, and I anticipated Jessie and the others moving to meet me there. It helped that I was slow, by dint of my exhaustion, how cold I was, and the fact that I was managing a hostage. Two, technically, but only one was actually in chains.
“You had me worried,” Jessie said, as she stepped out from around the corner. We were close to the train tracks, which were close to the water, in turn. The burning building was two blocks to our west.
“I had me worried,” I remarked.
Jessie approached me, navigated around my hostage, and wrapped her arms around me.
I returned the hug with my one available arm, wobbled, and found myself leaning heavily on her. Florence pulled away a bit, unwinding the chain I’d put around her neck, and moved as far away as she was able, to the momentary protests of the broader crowd.
They quieted down when they realized she was still shackled.
“I forgot the signal for ‘distract’. I’m glad you pieced it together,” I murmured.
“I had to talk it through with the group and play-act it before it clicked. The conversation was as if you’d said ‘you ignore him’, I said ‘yes’, and then you said ‘no. you ignore him.'”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m glad you pieced it together.”
She squeezed me harder, then pulled back, her hands supporting me so I wouldn’t tip over.
I ran stiff fingers through my hair. My fingers weren’t moving well. I lowered my hands, then examined the backs of them. “I’ll need help cutting out the plague later.”
“Possibly,” Jessie said, “But not because of the smoke from that building.”
“Hm?” I asked.
“Jessie tricked some people in quarantine suits into moving the bodies out,” Gordon Two said. “Then we got rid of them and set the building on fire.”
“There’s still a risk,” the Treasurer said. “But it isn’t nearly as high.”
I nodded. Berger would put the pieces together soon.
“Are you okay to stand?” Jessie asked.
I checked my balance, then nodded. I felt like I could move properly or I could think, but not both at once. The cold and wet had lanced right through every part of me.
As if she’d read my mind, Jessie said, “I brought you dry, clean clothes. What’s your thought on timing and priorities?”
“We need to get out of here, for one. I made a promise to my hostages here, to get them to agree to be hostages. We’ll have to make that the next big thing we do. After that, we exit.”
“That’s not the whole reason we’re here. You also have my air hose shackled,” Florence said.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s a factor in the hostage-ness, too. Either way, the noble professor is liable to take action. We either want to catch him now, or try to wait things out and see if the resources he’d draw on leave. I prefer the ‘now’.”
“I do too,” Florence said. “You said you’d give us the answer in five minutes, and we’ve waited long enough.”
“I said I’d give you the answer in the span of five minutes. I didn’t say it immediately followed your capitulation,” I pointed out.
That didn’t win me any points with her. I shouldn’t try to be so clever when I was this tired.
“Here. Give me your shackle, Sy,” Jessie said. She took my hand and began picking at the lock. “When I’m done, you can step around the corner. There will be water, but it’s cold, so don’t go overboard. Get changed, get cleaned up-”
“Please,” Fang cut in.
Bea jabbed him.
“-and meet back with us,” Jessie said. “We’ll figure out what we do next after we get that far.”
I nodded. “I wouldn’t mind warming up. I’ve moved well past the point where my teeth are chattering and I’m shivering. I don’t think I have the energy to chatter or shiver. I’m groggy, too. Stringing words together is taking mental focus.”
Jessie pressed a thick-gloved hand to my forehead. I couldn’t feel the warmth of her hand, so I wondered if she could feel how cool I was.
Shirley pushed her way through the crowd and put a hand out. She wasn’t covered up, still, so the contact was warm.
“Uncle said he was twenty-something degrees,” Charles said. He was still standing off to one side.
The alarm on the faces of both Shirley and the academy-trained students in our retinue was concerning. My first instinct was to use it to poke fun at them or tease them, but I didn’t have the energy.
“I don’t freeze to death,” I said. “I just hibernate, like a reptile. Because I’m project Wyvern, right? And wyverns are reptiles.”
“No, not right,” the Treasurer said.
“I’m pretty sure they are,” I said, toying with him. “But my point stands-”
“It doesn’t,” he said.
“-I’m just sleepy because I’m going into hibernation mode.”
“No, I’m pretty sure that’s you working your way toward freezing to death,” the Treasurer said. “You probably shouldn’t be conscious. Or verbal.”
Jessie seemed unfazed. “Rudy? The lamp?”
“I can use Wyvern, alter my mind, force myself to stay awake,” I said. “Too much to do.”
“It really doesn’t work that way,” the Treasurer said.
“Don’t underestimate the power of the mind,” I said.
“Or the other drugs and treatments we’ve been subjected to,” Jessie said. “Or faulty thermometers.”
Rudy had fetched us what looked more like a hand-held stove than a lamp. He handed it to me.
I touched the cast iron exterior, and on verifying the outside was warm but not dangerous to touch, I wrapped my arms around it, hugging it to my body. Warmth passed into my arms and upper body.
Jessie got the stack of clothes from Gordon Two, then stacked it on top of the stove-lamp. I pressed it down with my chin to keep it in place.
I swayed in place, feeling the heat radiate from the stove to my chest, while Jessie took my lockpicks and undid my shackle. She took custody of Florence.
I wasn’t sure it mattered so much. Florence wasn’t going anywhere, given how things stood. She’d invested too much, and she wouldn’t get away.
Still, I could read the two children, and even with my thoughts somewhat slushy around the edges, I was aware of how out of their element they were. I slid all my chips across the table, so to speak, into the area I’d sectioned off for manipulating and influencing people.
For most of their life, their lives had revolved around the expectations of family, with their father and uncle being a major part of that. It was a lopsided deal. The expectations went one way. When push came to shove, Berger never really had to answer to them. Florence, in her desperate attempt to make sense of this environment, had taken to pushing buttons and pulling strings, rebelling in ways that made human and animal suffer, while offending her father’s sensibilities.
It was a way to get a reaction. In figuring out what to do to get her to do what I’d needed to do, I’d proven myself, and then made the promise that I could give her a far better reaction.
I didn’t look at anyone in particular as I spoke, “What comes next is that we pose Berger with a choice. He can have Charles and Florence at the cost of helping us for a little while, or he can walk away and try to get them at a later date.”
“What kind of parent is going to walk away?” the Treasurer asked.
“A lot of us here have parents who would, and I bet a lot of people back at headquarters would say the same,” Rudy said. “All of us ran off to join the circus because we didn’t have much tying us down.”
There was a pause. I saw Florence and Charles glancing at each other. I wasn’t the only one that noticed.
Florence ventured, “I don’t think my father will stay.”
“Right,” I said. The little mini-stove was helping. “Listen. The answer isn’t black and white. It isn’t ‘does he care about you or not’. It’s a question of degrees. But that five minute conversation? It’s going to be telling, even accounting for his bluffs.”
“I don’t know why I agreed to this,” Florence said.
“You’ll see,” I told her. “We’ll make this work.”
Florence pursed her lips. Charles looked like he wanted to say something.
The moment passed, and he remained mute.
“We still need to make that conversation happen,” I said. “With Berger, ideally alone.”
“We can work that out,” Jessie said. “I’ve done quite a bit simply by being dressed up like an Academy soldier and handing off the right sort of forged letters.”
I tried thinking through the other key points. There wasn’t anything that couldn’t wait. I turned around, then tried to think of how to gracefully break away.
“Do you want any help?” Jessie asked. She indicated Shirley and herself.
“No. I’m just going to take a couple of minutes,” I said.
“We’ll be here, or we’ll be close,” she said.
I walked away.
I rounded the corner and found the area that Jessie had no doubt intended for me. The house had an enclosure off to the side that might have been a stable once, but had been retrofitted to have a stitched horse within. The horse was still present.
I made my way inside, and walked to the center of the room before setting the clothes and the stove-lamp down. I put the clothes against the lamp, so they would be warm.
Leaning forward, I rested my arms on the wall, and buried my face against them.
I was so tired. The missing fingernail smarted. Breathing hurt, because of cold and smoke. My skin didn’t feel like my own and the numb cold and disassociation of earlier were big contributors to that. The brain fog combined with the sheer disconnection from the pain of earlier to make me feel like I was in a dream.
Simply relaxing for a moment made my eyes well up with tears.
I allowed myself one minute like that, getting centered, letting myself feel what I needed to feel. Twenty or so seconds into that minute, I realized I’d left the door open. I stood straight, wiped my face, ran my hands through my hair, and went to address that.
As I closed the door, I saw Fray, Ashton, and Helen standing on the other side. Helen smiled as she saw me. There was a dangerous edge to Helen, as there always was when she showed up with Fray. Ashton… well, he was always hard to read, but now he wore more of an expression than I’d ever seen on him. It was less of an emotionless mask and more of a casual resting expression.
“Hi,” I said. “Changed out of the black clothes? What does that represent?”
Helen cocked her head to one side, a less human movement, as if by turning her head one way, she could see me by the right angle and interpret me. She always liked swaying. As she did, her pink dress swished back and forth, accenting the curves of her body and the grace of movements that came with a keen and exact awareness of the space she occupied in the world. Ashton, by contrast, was very still.
“You don’t understand what’s going on in your own head anymore,” Fray said.
“Right this moment, I’m just trying to get through the next few hours. I’m really looking forward to a warm bed, except dealing with a certain professor has to come first. I’m just… I’m gonna get changed while I talk to you.”
“Okay,” Helen said.
I disrobed, pulling off the wet jacket, shirt, and pants, before shucking off my underwear. I raised my pants to my face and sniffed, trying to judge if I’d relieved myself while paralyzed. They were so sodden I couldn’t even be sure.
I mostly smelled smoke. I dropped the clothes on the floor, and returned my hands to the stove-lamp, walking around the water barrel in the corner.
“While I sat out there, I realized just how badly I missed you all,” I said. I reached into the water barrel and hauled out the layer of ice that sat on top of it. I let it crash to the floor. “Hearing your laugh helped me out there, more than I could really explain here.”
“Good,” Helen said. “I’m glad.”
“Are you? You don’t feel emotion, exactly. You’re more of a representation of instinct.”
“I am glad,” she said, again, as if to reaffirm her answer. “And I’m a representation of instinct, I suppose.”
I dipped my hands into freezing water, and used them to wash myself, periodically touching them to the stove to warm them, and touching them to cold spots on my body to fix any parts that felt too cold.
I was straddling a line. Sanity-wise, and in the care of my body. I didn’t want to argue with phantasms.
“I don’t think even Jessie knows how close I came to not making it there, and Jessie knows almost everything,” I remarked.
“You should tell her,” Ashton said.
“Thank you, Mr. Stating-the-Obvious,” I said. “But not now. Not in earshot of the others. There are appearances to be maintained.”
“Oh,” Ashton said.
“Appearances. Clearly,” Fray said, with a raised eyebrow.
Still nude, I performed an elaborate bow, the flourish of my hand just so happening to highlight that which was on full display.
“It’s such a shame that your appointments stunted your growth,” Helen said. She held her hands behind her back, clearly amused.
“Ha ha so funny,” I said. “I’m fine, and I’ve still got a few years. They worried I wouldn’t have any more growth spurts, and look at me now. I was right.”
“You didn’t grow. And as I remember it, you were the one who worried you wouldn’t grow. They were the ones who were closer to right.”
“Semantics,” I said. I ran wet, freezing hands through my hair, fixing it, and washed my face. The water droplets that fell to the floor were tinted grey.
“You’re still short for your age,” Ashton said. “I might even catch up soon, and I’m a lot younger than you.”
“Enough of that,” I said, waving dismissively at them. I dried off as best as I could with my handkerchief, which amounted to very little, and then pulled on some underwear. “What was I saying before?”
“I don’t even remember,” Helen said.
More by just touching on the thoughts nearest the surface, I found my way back to the prior topic. “I couldn’t come up with what I wanted from Jessie, when I was trying to find my way through. I’m worried that if it had come up and if I hadn’t had a good answer, that would have been it. I wouldn’t have been able to bring myself to breathe, and… downhill from there, on a very steep slope.”
“You really should keep breathing,” Ashton said.
“Planning to,” I said. I pulled on the undershirt, then warmed my hands a moment. “It’s just sometimes things get in the way.”
“Do something nice for Jessie at another time,” Helen said. “What about a pastry?”
“Ha,” I said. “Maybe.”
“You know the Lambs miss you too, don’t you?” Helen said. “It goes both ways.”
“I know,” I said. “I don’t need the reminders, believe me. As fond as I am of all of you, it’s really become a bittersweet fondness since I left. Missing you all, knowing you all probably have mixed feelings where you halfway miss me and halfway just feel really relieved I’m not around pestering you.”
“You never pestered me,” Helen said. “Not really.”
“Because you terrified me. I still found ways to get your goat. Meticulously describing desserts.”
“That wasn’t punishment. The anticipation is as tasty as the meal.”
“…Conceded,” I said. “Hm.”
“You never pestered me either,” Ashton said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I regret I wasn’t more on the ball about that, Ash. For you and the new Lambs both. I was preoccupied and then I was gone.”
“You did what you had to do,” he said, very diplomatically.
“Still doing it,” I said. I put on the rest of the clothes, with the jacket being last.
As soon as I had the jacket on, I flipped up the hood, gathered up the stove-lamp and wrapped the jacket around it, so the heat was trapped in the jacket with me. I stayed like that for a moment, trying to will my body warm. The cold in my toes was a lot more stubborn, and I wasn’t sure how to amend that, short of standing with my feet on either side of the stove-lamp.
When I opened my eyes and looked up, all three figments were standing in the way of the door. I felt a kind of danger from them. Fray was a big part of that.
“So, this is what you were leading up to. You catch me on a bad day when my mind, heart and body are tapped out, and you just… what? Promise horrible things if I don’t kowtow to you?”
“A beautiful horrible,” Fray said, touching Helen’s hair, possessive.
“A Helen kind of horrible,” Helen said, amending the statement.
“You’re doing just what Evette did. You all want your turns, and since you’re the figments of my brain that represent instinct and… I don’t know, common sense? The senses? And Fray here represents… absolutely everything going wrong, or conspiracy, or… whatever. I don’t have the energy to do this. You’re staging your mutiny, working to push me out? A very complicated way of my self-preservation instincts saying ‘no more’?”
“Something like that,” Fray said.
“Well, you can go fuck a fistful of nails, Fray! And you two-”
Helen and Ashton stared me down, unflinching.
“Don’t do the nail thing. But do leave me alone. I’m doing too many important things. Go away.”
“What if I say no?” Helen asked.
“Don’t. No. You’re not allowed. Not today. I have things I need to square away.”
“Like a lot of things! This is just inconvenient. So scram. I banish thee, and I refuse to accept you’re going to pull an Evette and say no. You two will stand aside. I will it so. Just this once.”
They exchanged a look. Helen gestured to Ashton, and then the two of them parted, giving me clear access to the door. I passed through it.
They didn’t follow me, only watching from the door.
The world was too grey, the plague-vines that crawled across it too bright. Smoke and rain blurred the edges of the city around me. It looked like a painting, and the thin layer of ice at the water on the other side of the tracks really helped with that image. The crust had picked up a coating of rain which hadn’t quite frozen, so it looked liquid, but it also looked very still.
The buildings further down the street were still burning.
The others were taking shelter from the wind, not far from where they’d been.
“Are you alright?” Fang asked. “Because that-”
Bea elbowed him.
“Stop doing that!” Fang said. “Your elbow is sharp. You’ll penetrate my suit, and then I’ll die.”
“Warm?” Jessie asked, speaking over Bea’s response, as if the pair weren’t bickering.
“I used the little stove thing to warm the clothes. The fresh clothes were a nice thought. Thank you.”
“I wish I could have done more,” she murmured.
I shook my head. I reached out, and I gave her hand a squeeze before dropping it. Then I turned to the others.
The shackle had been undone from Florence’s air hose. Otis now had Charles by one shoulder, and Archie had Florence.
I gestured to Jessie, outlining the plan.
We started walking, and the others followed, very naturally, our ‘muscle’ managing the hostages.
It was good to walk, to be with my people, my collection of rogues and scoundrels. We retraced our steps, moving carefully to the fringes of places we’d already been. The rain pattered down, and the light was fading.
We moved around the circumference of the street where I’d sat for so long. There weren’t any signs of people.
As we moved back toward the hotel, we spotted the group. Six squads of soldiers and Berger, with several stitched in tow. It looked like someone high ranking was with Berger.
“He cares enough to recruit a small army to look for you,” I told Florence.
“He cares about his reputation,” she said.
“Mm,” I said. “Five minutes haven’t started yet. You guys want to head down the street? Get a head start.”
“Head start?” Rudy asked.
“Trust me,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Can do.”
I did like Rudy. Good fellow. I wanted to do right by him. I wanted to do right by a lot of people.
“You should go too,” Jessie said.
“You’re tired, you’re slow. Let me.”
“You’re slow in general,” I said.
“Today, you’re slower. But you did good,” she said. “Lean on me. For the next little while, we take care of each other, right?”
I took that in. Then I exhaled. I nodded.
I gestured at the others, and I led them a ways away.
As plans went, it was a simple one.
Jessie whistled, loud, and I belatedly realized she’d have had to have removed her mask to do it. We summoned Berger, and we fled, drawing him out, forcing him and his army to approach the signal.
When he rounded the corner with an army at his back, we weren’t there. Jessie signaled again.
We repeated the process again.
It’s like training a dog, I thought, with a kind of grim satisfaction. Want the treat? Want it? No, you’re doing it wrong, figure it out!
Seeing Helen and Ashton might have put me in a bit of a mood, like that of a cat playing with its food. Not that I liked comparing myself to a cat. Dogs were better. Other things were even better than dogs. Birds were bottom-rung, of course.
After we’d gotten settled, seen Berger with his army following, and finished getting our next head start, Jessie waiting behind to be in Berger’s earshot, I found a moment to touch Florence’s shoulder.
“How many times do we do this before he can turn around and go home? If it’s just that he’s protecting his reputation, couldn’t he just leave, say we were luring him into a clear trap?”
“He might,” she said, as if she really hoped he would.
“Charles?” I asked.
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“Sure,” I said.
In the distance, Jessie whistled.
She gestured as she ran to us. The enemy had split up, to better head us off.
I gestured back. Silence.
We found a hiding place, perhaps a little too close to the slash of red across the city. Then we waited.
With Jessie having handled the worst of the running, I volunteered to do the spying. I climbed a building and edged across the roof until I could see them. I kept the stove-lamp with me and held it close.
It took perhaps fifteen minutes, but the two army segments convened. I signaled Jessie, and Jessie whistled.
This time, they didn’t come running after us.
This is the moment of truth.
I kept one eye on Berger’s route back. He didn’t take it. No, this time, Berger approached alone. He walked rather than jogging, rain running down his black quarantine suit with its long coat built in. I remained where I was so I could watch and see if the army came. If they did, I could signal the others and escape.
They didn’t come. I made my way to the ground. I wanted to be present for this.
Berger approached the group, who had the children hostage.
“Father,” Florence said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” he said. “Not when I’m this angry. It will taint every apology I hear from you in the future.”
She barely seemed mollified, as far as I could tell with the quarantine suit. Was she happy now? Was his appearance a show of love that she hadn’t expected?
I walked up behind him.
“Berger,” I said.
“Sylvester,” he said. With the group in front of him and me to one side, he half-turned and then backed up a ways, so he could keep both me and the group in his field of view. “She let you go.”
“No,” Jessie said. “We took her hostage, bug and all. We watched everything.”
“Somehow, I’m not inclined to believe you. The simplest answer is often the right one.”
“Then know that every time you doubt her instead of believing the truth, you’ll lose standing in her eyes,” I said.
“Hm,” Berger said. He sighed. “So. I suppose you’ll be wanting the first deal you proposed? You take me into custody? I provide what you want, and we go on from there?”
“It gets a little more complicated, because you played that stunt,” I told him.
He spread his arms. “How complicated?”
“Hey, Rudy,” I said. “There’s a body in the snow there, isn’t there?”
Rudy looked over at a human-shaped lump of wet snow on the ground. “Sure.”
“Turn it over so we can see it?” I asked.
He used one foot to pry it off the ground, then kicked it so it lay face-up.
“Sorry, mister,” he told the body.
“You die,” I told Berger. “And you get your kids.”
I pointed at the corpse. “That’s you. Or they’ll think it is. You give up title, name, reputation, the black coat, the status, dignity, pride, everything. I get to do what I want with you. In exchange, the two children are safe. You can keep them close, or you can let them go. They’ll go back with the army over there.”
“You’re making my uncle a slave?” Charles asked. “This is the deal we worked for!?”
“Shush,” I said. “I’m negotiating.”
“No need to intervene, Charles,” Berger said. He was holding himself differently now. It was as if he could feel the weight of all those things I’d talked about, the years leading up to this point in his life, and he was taller for it.
“The alternative,” I said, “Is-”
He raised his hand, silencing me.
I fell silent.
“There are things I can’t betray. What you talked about, with Mr. and Mrs. Block-”
“It won’t go that far. But you will betray Crown and Academy, obviously. We’ll be discreet enough it doesn’t go back to the children.”
“You don’t want to hear the alternative?” I pressed.
“No need,” he said. “Send them to the soldiers.”
“Father,” Florence said. “You-”
“Go,” he said. “Tell them I’m dead, as ordered, or I presume these Lambs might actually kill me, to give the Crown less reason to pursue.”
“You presume right,” Jessie said.
“We won’t see you?” Florence asked.
“You would have been at school anyway,” he said. “And this isn’t up for discussion. Go. Attend your schools. Do me proud, in case I’m allowed to return, because you certainly didn’t make me proud today.”
That seemed to take the wind out of Florence’s sails. Charles was a little less crestfallen, going by his posture.
I looked at them. They had their answer. Their father and uncle was willing to sacrifice himself and his everything for them.
He was still a jerk, but I couldn’t make water into wine. I spread my arms a little.
The two children left, rather reluctantly. I, meanwhile, took my heater and cracked it open. I doused the body in oil. Rudy had more in his bag.
I reached up and tugged off Berger’s mask, and I put it on the body. He took it one step further, and he removed his jacket from his quarantine uniform. We turned the body face-down and laid the jacket over its back, before putting more oil on it.
I lit a match and tossed it.
Jessie drew her pistol and fired it. Berger’s ‘execution’, and our excuse to get the hell out of this city, which had intentionally been afflicted with plague by sources I still hadn’t riddled out.
We had our tutor, doctor, a shot at project Caterpillar, and a way to refine the plan to use the information about the Block. We had Shirley and our gang leaders.
Our fortunes in getting out of the city and a full night of cutting away plague would tell if the cost was too high.