A hike into the wet, cold woods was the last thing I wanted after the day I’d had yesterday. Worse, we weren’t taking the path, but we were moving through thick brush and collections of branches. The Lambs ahead of me had collected the bags they had hidden away in the spot where they had been observing our little city from. They took care to avoid breaking branches as they walked through thicker areas, and stepped where there wasn’t too much mud or snow. All to avoid leaving a clear path as to where we had gone.
Meanwhile, I made sure to walk into or onto every branch, every patch of snow, break every iced over puddle…
There wasn’t really a logic behind it. There wasn’t a deeper scheme, it wasn’t step one out of however many to turn this situation around. It was just satisfying to do, and I felt more than a little bit contrarian.
None of the Lambs had stayed behind. We were together, and besides the addition of Mabel and Archie as hostages, we were only the Lambs, together again. Good company, bad circumstance, worse weather.
“We can set up camp here,” Mary said. “Chemical stove, no fire.”
“I think I have the tank for the chemical stove in my bag,” Duncan said. “It’s heavy enough that it feels that way, anyhow. Someone else has the stove part.”
“I do,” Mary said.
We settled in a ditch. It wasn’t the right word, but I wasn’t feeling charitable enough to think about what word would work. In the midst of the trees, the ground had formed a dip here, a bowl deep enough that I could stand within and I couldn’t quite look out and past the top. Water had pooled at the bottom of this depression, and now that it had frozen over, that ice formed half of the floor. Downed trees and large branches occupied most of the space.
We found seats on the drier parts of the fallen trees, using them as benches. Duncan placed the little tank in the center, and Mary pulled the top piece and base of the little stove out of her bag, screwing them on.
It was half the size of a breadbox, a portable stove that I was mostly familiar with as something our team medics packed for the sake of boiling water in the field. Lillian had the foldable pot, stowed in her bag partially folded with the less-used medical equipment packed within.
Tea, apparently, was the first priority. In a moment, the stove was hissing and sputtering, periodic orange flames reaching out to lick at the underside or side of the pot. The smoke was clean – nothing that would attract attention.
Trekking through inhospitable terrain wasn’t a comfortable thing. Given the time of year, we didn’t have bugs, but all the same, just about every member of the group had a bit of branch to dig out of the space where their sock met their leg, clothing adjustments to make, weight to redistribute in bags for easier carrying later or frozen mud caked into the treads of their boots. Tea was in the works, and now the Lambs cared for the small things, getting organized and comfortable.
“Cake?” Helen asked.
“Limited backpack space, and you brought cake,” Jessie said.
“You’re surprised?” Helen asked. “It’s not confectionery, that would be a mess, but it’s still cake.”
“I would love a slice,” Jessie said.
“Me too,” I said.
Other Lambs agreed.
As resting spots went, it was good. The walls of the ditch provided some protection from wind, and the tree cover kept the precipitation away. The Lambs’ presence combined with that of my particular cast of Lambs to make the little spot very cozy.
I suspected Berger was more cozy, beyond the discomfort as he waited for the shackle to be removed from his wrist.
“Duncan?” Lillian asked. “Can you check on Sy? He’s looking a little pale.”
I frowned at that, and Lillian pretended not to notice.
“Jessie,” Lillian said. “Are you okay? No injuries? You’re not too cold?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Jessie said.
“Good, I’m glad. Mabel? No, you’re as well as can be expected?”
“I’m alright,” Mabel said. “I’m actually a little bit more comfortable than I was, now that I’m out here. I know that sounds odd, but it makes me think of camping with my brother.”
“Do you need anything to be comfortable?” Lillian asked.
“My legs are a touch cold,” Mabel said. She was wearing a skirt, and her knees were bare. Helen supplied a blanket, one of several from the tightly folded and belted sleeping bag arrangement, and given that Mabel’s hands were tied behind her back, Helen took it upon herself to get the blanket arranged.
“And…” Helen turned to Archie.
“I’m fine,” Archie said.
The water on the little stove was already starting to form bubbles. Even the initial steam was dramatic in the cold.
“In just a short while, we’ll go rendezvous with Sylvester’s rebels,” Mary said. “They have Berger, we have Sylvester and Jessie. If we have to, we’ll trade the pair away to get him. I’d rather go back to our original plan and have the extraction be our mission.”
“Agreed,” Lillian said.
“Yeah,” Duncan said. “They’re Sylvester-trained, they’ll be pains in the ass, but I’d rather deal with a hundred lesser Sylvester headaches than one effective, concrete Sylvester headache.”
“Three hundred,” I said. “Minus any casualties from last night. I’d really rather you didn’t hurt them. I know you’re capable, but at no stage in this have I really fought you guys-”
I saw several Lambs open their mouths to protest. I jumped straight in to say, “Unless you’re going to take issue with my playing with knives when I borrowed one of Mary’s and pretended like I was going to take one of you hostage.”
“Might,” Mary said.
“I was pretending,” I said, insistent. “Either way, my point stands. I was willing to tell my guys to surrender so you wouldn’t have to fight. I want everyone here to survive. I need you all to want this too.”
Duncan checked my temperature, then measured my heartbeat.
Helen hummed as she served the tea. With as many people as we had, there weren’t many containers to drink from, and the water from the pot of boiling water went quickly. As was proper, Helen served us first before preparing a fresh pot of water for the little heat source.
“I want us all to be on the same page,” I said, “And that’s something that’s a lot easier to say than to accomplish. I’d really like to think there’s a way through this.”
“We’re very different people,” Lillian said.
“Don’t say that as if it’s bad!” I said, aghast. “Different is good!”
“Yes,” Ashton said. It would have been easy for us to talk over him, but he’d found a moment where he could be heard. He added, “I said something very similar to the new Lambs before.”
I jumped in, “We embrace each other and our peculiarities. Sometimes literally.”
“Please leave my peculiarity un-embraced,” Duncan said, adjusting his belt in a way that drew attention to his groin.
There was a titter of amusement from the group. I allowed him a smile. Had to. Take Archie and Mabel out of the equation, and Duncan was in a group with Mary, Lillian, Jessie and myself. He wasn’t taking himself too seriously, he was willing to be the butt of a joke for the benefit of the group, and I wanted to reward him for that. Leaving him hanging out to dry with his naughty implication and three girls in the area wouldn’t have been a reward.
“Seriously though,” Duncan said. “Yes, different is good.”
Duncan continued his ministrations and care, checking I was okay. He began peeling back the bandage at my shoulder. I winced, but I was glad I didn’t feel the telltale agony of the plague crawling through me.
“A group of very disparate members needs several things to stay strong,” Mary was saying. “Love, respect, honesty, caring, sharing, communication, and trust.”
Back to that.
“Yeah,” I said, simply. “And… I forgot how this thread of conversation started.”
“We’re all very different people, everyone being on the same page,” Jessie supplied.
“Right. Thank you, yes. I think this is doable. Mary touched on how. Communication. We need to put everything out on the table.”
“We have hostages in earshot,” Lillian said.
“Then Duncan and Lillian can dig into their kits and gather some earplugs. Or wax, or something. If any of you have a keypress, there’s soft wax in there, you know, the little boxes that you stick keys into to figure out the shape of them. Dig out the wax, jam it in Mabel’s ear.”
Mabel looked a touch annoyed at that.
“That was an example,” I clarified.
“Why do I feel like this is a trap?” Mary asked. “The moment we plug up the ears of the hostages, you’ll reveal you have a warbeast inside you, and it starts screeching or singing, and you simply clean up in the aftermath?”
Duncan was poking and prodding me, Helen was serving out tea in the caps from the various dewar bottles the group had brought with them. She had cake as well, and in absence of plates, she was depositing the cake directly into hands. It looked like new-citrus and poppyseed.
“I’ll get dirty and sticky,” Ashton complained.
“Lick your fingers clean,” Helen instructed him.
“That won’t be enough,” Ashton said, sounding as annoyed as he ever got. Not that he got annoyed.
“Then lick better,” Helen instructed him.
Ashton proceeded to eat his slice of cake with all of the enthusiasm of a prisoner on death row walking to the gallows.
Helen, meanwhile, sat down across from Jessie, Mabel, Archie and myself. She didn’t blink, watching each of us,
I’d proposed things, only to discover there was no trust. No sharing, no communication, no honesty about true feelings and allegiances, no respect, no love. This wasn’t anything that would properly stand under any real scrutiny.
Archie and Mabel were listening, more or less quiet, listening in.
Could I afford to risk it?
“We met the real Mary Cobourn,” I said.
Tea-sippers stopped mid-sip. Cake eaters coughed with crumbs in their mouths.
Only Archie and Mabel remained blissfully unaware.
“It was a thing,” I said, simply.
“It was,” Jessie said.
I could see Mary’s phantom cluing me into Mary’s thought process as she composed herself. She was even angry at this stage.
“Too targeted toward my weak points, too convenient in timing,” Mary said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m always less believable when I’m telling the truth.”
I glanced down at my tea. Helen, still unblinking, took it, and she dutifully gave me a drink from the cup she’d placed beside me, tipping back a small amount of the contents. I looked at the cake, and she gave me cake.
“That’s a fiction, Sylvester,” Mary said. “I think you once made yourself appear to be bad at that, so you could introduce ambiguity, and it became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“Easily possible,” I said.
“Mary Cobourn?” Lillian asked. “The last we heard of her was-”
“She was sent off by Percy,” I said.
“The last proper mention of her was in Percy’s notes in the Lamb’s adventure journals from the tenth day of the fifth month of nineteen twenty-one,” Jessie said.
“I can’t get away from that man,” Lillian said.
“He’s still dead. He doesn’t have any power,” I said. “But anyone, everyone leaves a ripple of effect and consequence when they do something. Percy’s still rippling. So is Mary Cobourn. I don’t think those ripples have a lot of influence.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Block,” Archie spoke, interrupting the flow of conversation.
“Archie,” I said.
“You said something about those people back in the city.”
“Archie,” I said. “No. Ignore those people. Trust me when I say you really shouldn’t want to know any of this. All those times I told our people to just run, to surrender, to let things happen? Doesn’t sound good, but I was really trying to protect them. I’m really trying to protect you now.”
“Oh my lords,” Lillian said, her eyes widening. “The Block.”
“Well, cat’s out of the bag now,” I commented, glancing at Jessie.
“Had to find its way out sometime,” Jessie said.
“Sometimes you can just tie it really, really tight,” I said. “Sometimes you need that cat secured. Sometimes there’s not really another choice.”
“You followed the lead Emmett gave you to the Block,” Lillian said. “You found the real Mary Cobourn. He was dealing with the Academy in a very illicit capacity. Corruption?”
“In a way,” I said. Off to the side, Helen was supplying Jessie with tea. Ashton now held a cup for Mabel. Archie had declined taking anything.
“That explains why you said Duncan would theoretically react worse to this news than I would. He isn’t as inured to that side of things. He holds the upper rungs of the Academy in higher regard than I do.”
“I’m not as fragile as you’re making me out to be,” Duncan said.
Lillian shook her head. “I’m not trying to make you out to be fragile, I’m interpreting things through Sylvester’s very warped perspective-”
“-and trying to work backwards to work this out. Corruption of a deeper scale could matter,” Lillian said. She looked to Mary for confirmation.
Mary, who had taken a seat on a branch, looked lost in thought.
“Sylvester said you were liable to defect,” Ashton pointed out, for Duncan.
“Can we please stop entertaining Sylvester’s delusion as if it’s fact?” Duncan asked.
The group continued talking. I turned my attention toward getting more tea and cake from Helen. If I didn’t eat something resembling breakfast now, I’d be useless later in the day.
“Thank you,” I told Helen.
“Mm hmm,” she said.
I met her eyes, taking a look at her, trying to see if anything about the current discussion resounded with her. I didn’t find anything resounding, and that wasn’t too much of a surprise. What I did notice was that one of her fingers was moving. It was like an involuntary muscle twitch at one ring finger, the finger moving so little that it was barely noticeable. Had it been a pencil instead of a finger, that small range of movements might have sufficed for a single small punctuation mark.
Helen could control her body on a fine level in order to perform her acts, that was ordinary enough. She had masterful control over every single part of her body, over tension of skin and how open her pores were. Her circulatory system could deliberately slow down or speed up. To better serve her when she was the beast rather than the beauty, she was able to fall still.
On the flip side, however, being too still and perfect posed a danger if it broke her cover and made her look less human. She was too good for that. In most other circumstances, I might have explained that tremor away as an affectation on someone who was almost entirely affectation.
But it was so small and isolated it shouldn’t have mattered. Why only that part? And it was here, in the company of the Lambs, where she could be more herself, insofar as she was ever herself.
I looked up at Helen. I studied her, in contrast to the phantom that lurked just behind her shoulder.
A dozen deviations and odd elements added up. They lined up like a constellation-
“Sylvester,” Lillian said.
I turned my attention away from Helen. I hated that Lillian was using my full name like that.
“Yes, Lillian?” I asked.
“I’ll bite. If there’s a deeper explanation, now’s the time.”
“Bit of a rabbit hole,” I told her. Putting it mildly.
“Sure, Sylvester,” Lillian said.
“I think the thing to do, then,” I said, checking again with Jessie for confirmation. “Would be for two intrepid volunteers, perhaps Helen and Ashton, to block the ears of our two guests, ensuring they don’t hear anything.”
Helen got up from her seat, wordless. I visualized all of the details and factors, the fact that her nails were worn down, when they were supposed to be pristine, the way she was hovering near me, when there were others deserving of cake and tea. Yes, she gave Jessie some. But she gave me her attention.
“See me?” I heard Helen, but Helen hadn’t spoken.
I turned my head.
She was dressed in charcoal grey-black. Helen, hands clasped behind her, her expression dead in a way she rarely wore anymore. She wore a slip of a dress in a strange rendition of the flapper style, with hose that was patterned in a fancy way. More importantly, however, the Helen I was looking at was only eleven years old, if I had to guess.
Fray stood just behind her, one hand on each of Helen’s shoulders.
“Save me,” the dark, childish Helen said.
What am I supposed to do?
I could look at her, and I knew that she was a figment of my imagination. Countless underlying elements, snippets of conversation recalled as only the sentiment, broad-strokes memory becoming intuition becoming a sense of cadence, approach, and muscle memory toward her and those things relating to her.
She was familiar to me on a level words couldn’t fully articulate. I’d molded myself around the Lambs, to better assist them, to move in lockstep with them. I had made mention of the keypress before, of the wax imprint that a keymaker would take into his workshop. Then that same keymaker would file away at the real block of metal until it fit the imprint and matched the key.
I’d filed away at parts of myself since I could remember, to better work with them. I had adapted and worked hard, and I’d attended classes, and scarcely five minutes ever went by where the Lambs didn’t cross my memory.
“It’s not confectionery,” the little Helen said.
I looked away from her to Fray.
Why are you here? I asked. Why again, Fray? Is it the rule that when you show up, things go ass-backwards in short order? Last time you were trying to tell me about the Lambs being in town, signaling the dress colors. Or you were interfering and distracting, clouding matters. But whether you were helping or hurting, I can’t see why you’re here, when it’s clear the little Helen is already trying to communicate a message.
Another prod from Jessie. Another jerk back to reality, taking my focus off of Helen.
They were waiting, expectant, even looking a little concerned. Helen and Ashton were ready to cover the ears.
“I would have given the okay, but you usually like to handle this,” Jessie said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. Go ahead.”
The hands went up, blocking the ears of our hostages.
“Mary Cobourn, as we saw her, was the Falconer, a young noble in the charge of the Lord Infante, modified heavily.”
“What?” Lillian asked.
“Not unique to her. It’s the case for all nobles. Selected from the crop that’s sent to the Block, modified, indoctrinated. There is no family tree, they get allocated to locations with histories made up based on how high quality they end up. There is no Crown, really, because the Academy controls the process. Many of the nobles don’t know, and if they were to find out, it’s not out of the question that it could spark an internecine conflict between Crown and Academy as they cease working together with the top dogs each feeling smugly superior of the other.”
“Sylvester, wait, stop, let me interrupt you.”
“You’re not interrupting. I was more or less done.”
“You can’t- no, Sy,” Lillian said. Then she corrected it, “Sylvester.”
“That’s it?” I asked. “No? Alright then. That’s that. Helen and Ashton can put their hands down now.”
“Sy, be fair,” Jessie told me.
“It’s not done,” Lillian said. “You’re just not making sense. It comes across like a headgame.”
I knew that if I argued, Lillian would push back. There was a wall between us and too many things threatened to make it taller and wider.
I focused on the others.
Mary was lost in thought, and to all appearances, it was a deep well of thought. I tended to think of Mary as being a wild animal barely tamed. The hawk was a common parallel, but I could also think of her as a cat, or a wild horse brushed and beautiful. Movement, power, danger, and nobility were all inherent in those interpretations. She wore an adult woman’s winter coat and a violet dress, her dark brown hair done up with a brooch and ribbon at the back, her makeup was light but effective.
If she had a failing in how she portrayed herself, it was that she could be rigid if she wasn’t mindful of it. She could act, given a push to do so, and she was fair at it, but she wasn’t emotive, and she didn’t betray much when she fixated on the job.
But I could remember Mary sleeping beside me, her face almost completely different, or the look on her face back in the day when she’d changed while I was in the room, the lines of her mouth and neck and shoulders all relaxing in a way nobody else got to see. I could look at her now, and I could see the facade breaking, but there wasn’t a smile on the other side.
This time, on the face of someone who killed without a second thought, a kind of recognition of death?
Mary had always yearned for family. More than I did, in a way, because what I sought wasn’t family, exactly. She had been a member of the Bad Seeds and that hadn’t hit the mark. She’d sought out the Lambs, and she might have found something there, except Gordon had left her, then Jamie, then me.
I was put in mind of the very young girl who had been in tears as she sought consolation from her puppeteer. He had said a command phrase to induce something – Hayle’s interpretation of it had been a kind of mini-seizure, interrupting the processes and trains of thought at work. I remembered how she’d reached out for my hand. How very lost she’d been.
That was still there, beneath the surface. It was perhaps the fuel that kept her particular furnace burning.
“I was taken with her from the beginning,” I told Mary, fully aware I was giving clues to our hostages. “It took me a while to figure out why.”
Mary looked away, her expression one of concern. Then concern became faint upset, and she turned her back, hands straightening her clothes, as she ostensibly made sure nobody was drawing close.
“You’d wanted to dance with her,” Jessie said.
I gestured. Lillian, attention pointed to Mary, hurried to her best friend’s side, putting an arm around her, another hand taking Mary’s in her own. When she spoke, it was into Mary’s ear, in serious whispers.
I could have eavesdropped or pried, tried to lipread, fine-tuned my hearing. I didn’t.
I looked at Duncan.
“I’m not going to defect,” Duncan said.
“I’m not even pushing you to,” I told him.
“Okay,” he said. “Thank you.”
Briefly, his expression was the closest thing I’d seen to a natural, not-smug smile from him in the time I’d known him.
It didn’t seem like a happy smile. Maybe that was why it looked more natural? If so, what did that say about me?
His eyes, too. I watched as they moved left and right, as if he was taking it all in. Not the things most pertinent to him, but the greater picture.
And then there was Helen and Ashton. I wanted so badly to go to Helen, to hold her hand, and to try to figure out what I’d been caught up in earlier, when my thoughts had run away from me. Unfortunately, I was tied up, quite literally. Ambiguously figuratively.
As for Ashton…
“This is a secret, by the way, Ashton.”
“Feeling very out of the loop,” Mabel said. Her ears had been uncovered. “I know the least here.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do to gently fill you in later.”
“It’s dangerous knowledge to have,” Jessie said, stressing that for the Lambs in earshot.
“For now, though, I’m kind of hoping the Lambs understand where you and I are coming from, Jessie. When it comes to Berger, we need him. We need him for project Caterpillar.”
Jessie took that in, looking very concerned in the moment.
“I never asked for that.”
“But we need it,” I said. “And we need him to get leverage and have access to the tools we need. We have a faction, information, and a game plan we’ve been working on for a year, that’s ninety percent complete. I want to make a better future. We don’t get that with the Crown being what it is.”
“Okay,” Lillian said It didn’t look like Mary wanted to talk. Lillian considered for a moment, then said, “I don’t want to speak for the others, but I’m reasonably confident in this. We need Berger more.”
“This issue you referred to earlier?” Jessie asked.
“The Infante is declaring parts of the Crown States unsalvageable,” Lillian said. “Whole regions, because they have plague, or they’re close to places with plague. Or cities with high rebel populations, out of concern that they’re deliberately spreading the illness.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” I said. “It doesn’t feel rebel. Timelines don’t match up.”
“They don’t, and it doesn’t,” Lillian said. “At least, we don’t think so. We talked to the Duke, insofar as he can talk. He told us he was concerned the Infante wouldn’t stop until he had all of the Crown States. Sealed and burned to the ground.”
I looked at Jessie. We’d heard something like that.
“The Duke told us the Infante might loose every single last one of the superweapons in the Crown States.”
My heart dropped out of my chest at that. Every city and every town within a short distance of the Academies themselves has one.
That wasn’t what we’d heard before.
“If we can get Berger to the Duke of Francis, he can revive him, and there’ll be an effective voice of dissent in play,” Mary said. “The Duke is of a lower station but not so low he can be ignored. He has resources, and if the Infante wants to preserve any appearance of propriety, he’ll have to stop or wait. That’s the mission.”
“I think we get dibs,” Duncan said.