We walked, Helen keeping one hand on me and one hand on Jessie, guiding us. Instead of disappearing into the thickest part of the woods, we were working our way into more open space. It meant I was walking face-first into less branches, but it also meant the snow was a little bit deeper. Not that it was deep, but my hands remained tied behind my back, the ground was wet and fairly soft, and it took only one misstep for me self to slip and fall.
“You’re really going to fight us on this?” Lillian asked.
“I’m not fighting,” I said. “I’m stressing that it’s not as cut and dry as you’re saying. Berger is a commodity at this point. His knowledge, his expertise, his access.”
“He may be the only person who can help the Duke, and we need the Duke to sway the Infante,” Lillian said.
I had to watch my footing. From an exhaustion standpoint, I was at a stage where everything felt deceptively light and airy.
“May be, I said, “sway. No guarantees. You don’t sound certain.”
“Listen, I understand that you want to help Jessie,” Lillian said.
“Which is something he didn’t actually discuss with me in advance,” Jessie pointed out.
“Either way, you can’t equate trying to stop the Infante from going crazy and leveling half of the Crown States to… whatever scheme you had in play.”
“I can,” I said. “I can even favorably compare the two ideas. The Duke is a lunatic. He might be the most sane lunatic of the bunch, but you won’t get more control over the situation by throwing him into the mix.”
“What would you propose?” Lillian asked. She didn’t ask it in a way that sounded like she was very receptive to anything I might suggest.
“I’m proposing that you have a sit-down with Professor Berger. Get the details on how to help the Duke, pass it on if you absolutely have to, and let other doctors put it into practice. We keep the Professor, and maybe Jessie and I escape your custody and bring Berger with us.”
“There are so many things wrong with that,” Lillian started. She paused. “Even the question of how much it would hurt the Lambs to have you slip away again, during such a sensitive time, put that aside, what about the fact that they probably wouldn’t even let us near a doctor or let those doctors near the Duke?”
“Do you think they’ll let Berger near the Duke? If the man could be fixed, they would have fixed him already. They’re keeping him sick and brain-dead for a reason. Because the Infante wants free reign. Giving you Berger so you can hand Berger over to the Infante would threaten the man, if he can even be threatened. It would introduce a complication and a hassle he’d sooner remove from the picture.”
“That’s a lot of self-serving assumptions on your part,” Lillian said.
“May-” Jessie started, at the same time I said, “I’m-”
We both stopped, and we looked at each other.
“Floor is yours,” I said.
“Thank you,” Jessie said. “I’d like to interject and ask for the discussion to stop and cool down. It’s been the two of you going back and forth for a little while now. We all know there are feelings in the background that are playing a role here.”
“That’s unfair,” Lillian said. But she said it too quickly, emotion in her voice, and she seemed to realize that her denial had only proved the point, given how it was posed. She made a face and fell silent.
“Take a minute. We’ll discuss before we get Berger, or even after, and I’d very much like to do it as Lambs, if Lillian, Mary, Helen, Ashton and Duncan are okay with that. As a singular group.”
“I don’t know if that’s possible,” Mary said.
“If it’s not, then I understand,” Jessie said. “But I’d like to give it an honest shot. After we’ve cooled off.”
Jessie’s calm was of a very different sort than Helen’s or Mary’s. Helen’s calm was that of a predator, settling in before it struck out for its prey. Mary’s calm was colder, borne of restraint, discipline, and confidence.
Even back with the first Jamie, there’d always been this sentiment that whatever else happened, he was the rock I could cling to in stormy seas. A constant in uncertain water. At least, he had been until he’d been the rock I’d broken myself against.
Jamie and now Jessie had alternated between being the rock to cling to and the rock I was flung against, with a tendency toward the ‘cling’ part in recent weeks and months. Jessie’s calm was, as I saw it, borne of experience and careful assessment with all of the facts in hand. It was a calm that was very easy to share with others.
Lillian and I put our debate aside for the moment. We walked, each of us on different sides of the group.
I looked back at where Duncan and Ashton were managing Archie and Mabel, keeping an eye on them while keeping them out of earshot.
Duncan looked so down. Poor guy.
I was sincere in thinking it, but it still felt weird, because it was Duncan. He was a Lamb, but he was still a pain in the ass.
Was this how the others thought of me?
While Lillian and I cooled off, so to speak, Helen spoke, “I like your clothes, Jessie.”
“You’re very well put together. Very stylish. You look smart.”
“I try,” Jessie said. “I’m a little rumpled right now.”
“You’re fine. Tell me, where did you get your style?”
“Where? I’m not sure I understand.”
“When I was young, Ibbot hired people to dress me and do my hair. Then he told me to learn. I was introduced to beautiful women. The wives of aristocrats, models, actresses, singers. I was supposed to study them, their mannerisms, what they wore, how they did their makeup.”
“Jamie wrote about that.”
“I imagine he did,” Helen said. She smiled. “I wish he was here. I would have liked to see him grow up.”
“I wish I could have met him in person, myself,” Jessie said.
“I can’t remember if I ever told him, but up until a certain point, I was only copying. I think I got some things wrong. I didn’t quite have an eye for beauty. And then I did. It was around the time we lost Jamie, as a matter of fact.”
“When you were burned?”
“Yes. We were fighting Avis and I was burned, and I spent some time in bed, with Professor Ibbot looking after me. He was very upset about the burns, and he showed me my own face in a mirror. I remember thinking about the things I’d need to do if I needed to hide or conceal the burns, I thought about all of the people I was copying, and in the middle of it, I understood it. I started to become me. I was secretly excited about it, and then I was troubled by Jamie being gone, and others were troubled, and I couldn’t talk about it.”
See me, I thought.
A lot went on with Helen, and we didn’t see it because she was so self-sufficient, so capable on her own. She didn’t cling to us or reach out to others like many of us reached out for each other, but…
“You reportedly acted out in the early days. To be funnier or more accommodating, be warmer, to help the other Lambs,” Jessie said.
“Yes. I paid a lot of attention to them, too. And now I’m paying attention to you. I’m wondering, Jessie dear, are you copying, using that marvelous brain of yours, or are you you?”
“I’m more me than I was, I think,” Jessie said. “I was a bad copy of Jamie before.”
“Not so bad,” I said, quiet.
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Helen said.
“I’m copying,” Jessie said. “But I think most people do. Fashion and style are an art and only a few people are artists. You became the artist that Ibbot wanted you to be. I have a ways to go, and I likely won’t ever get there.”
“Who was your inspiration?”
“Women I used to notice and admire,” Jessie said. “I would see them around Radham and notice them. Often it was because they were reading books when I saw them, and I would think it would be nice to talk about books with them. Sometimes they looked educated or intelligent. Nine women I’ve noticed who fit that same general category, that I’ve seen over the years. I would run into some several times and I’d remember them, and I could track how their style and how they changed. I took the parts I liked most of each.”
“It’s a little bit too adult, but I do think it works for you,” Helen said. “Did you fancy them?”
“Fancy?” Jessie asked. She looked surprised. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. Not like I fancy and fancied Sy.”
Lillian reacted a little bit to that, and she tried to hide her reaction. She was momentarily very interested in the trees all around us.
“Of course you didn’t fancy those women like you fancy Sy,” Helen said. “He’s Sy. He’s someone you know, and he’s someone you’re fond of. Just like Lillian knows Sy and is fond of Sy and fancies him so very much.”
“Helen,” Lillian said. “Let’s let that lie.”
“And Sy knows Lillian and is fond of Lillian, and he fancies Lillian. He clearly knows you and is fond of you and fancies you, Jessie.”
“I’d like to think so,” Jessie said. “Sometimes I think Sy fancies anyone wearing a skirt.”
“I’m a little more discerning than that,” I said.
Jessie, though, was smiling. Teasing.
“Sy most definitely does turn his head for virtually anyone who wears a skirt…” Helen said.
“Again, I’d like to stress that I’m a little discerning.”
“…But he holds a special place in his heart for us. He’s fond of you two and he’s fond of me but I think any fancy for me is balanced by him being scared of me. He fancies Mary and I don’t know why he doesn’t follow that fancy, but I think it might be because he’s scared of her or he’s scared of himself.”
“I’m not scared of nuffing,” I said.
I was joking, but I could see what Helen was doing. In the midst of a group dynamic where there were definite rifts in the group, old feelings having long broken things apart, our wagon of goods in shambles behind us, Helen was reaching out and trying to bridge the divides.
Humor would help ease the worst of the tensions, I hoped.
“Even if Lillian gets frustrated and hurt, or if Mary shoots Sy, or if Sy runs away from you, we’re still all very close,” Helen said. “Whatever Sy does, he does for reasons, and he most certainly cares.”
“He lost his mind a few times. Usually when it came to saying goodbyes,” Jessie said.
“I’ll have you know I didn’t lose it. I knew exactly where I put it. I just didn’t want to bother with it and all of the stuff that was going on, so I let it do its own demented thing. Except maybe the hill I set it down on was a little too steep, and so when it got rolling, it rolled a little too hard, too far.”
“Sure, Sy,” Jessie said.
“And you might never meet someone you can be sweet on as much as you’re sweet for each other, and I might never have a tart quite so good as the one I enjoyed in the tall man’s shop in New Amsterdam. Ashton might always think fondly about the morning on the third day of the sixth month of this year, when the pollen from the flower fields and the rain from the night before mixed and the trees and the grass were painted blue because of it, and the temperature was just perfect. Duncan dreams of me and he thinks about the girl with the large chest in his Higher Design class-”
“Ugh,” Lillian said.
“Did I hear you say my name?” Duncan called out, from the tail end of the group.
“And he thinks of you, Lillian, just a bit, because of admiration and because he spends time with you. We’re all tied down and tied to the things around us and we want to protect those things, I think. And even though we’re not supposed to, I think a lot of us would give our lives for others in the group, as a one-for-one trade. So when you’re talking about what to do with Berger, I think it’s important to keep this in mind.”
“It’s not that simple,” I said.
“It’s simpler than you’re making it out to be.”
“There’s a reason I turned Mary away, way back when, and there’s a reason it didn’t work out with Lillian. I’m a liar and a manipulator, I’m someone who pushes boundaries, targets weak points. It’s not terribly healthy.”
“You can still get along. When you get upset, you stop, you step back, and you think of happier times before you try again.”
“It’s not that easy,” Lillian said.
“I think it can be. You close your eyes, you think of the other person, and of skin, and bodily fluids-”
We started protesting. The words almost drowned her out.
“-and teeth, and squeezing, and less common bodily fluids-”
The protests became sufficiently loud and unified to mask the sound of Helen’s voice.
She gestured, several times, and it seemed she was willing to stop there. The protests died down.
“No more about bodily fluids,” Helen said. “I understand.”
“Thank you,” Lillian said. She was blushing pink.
“I feel like we missed something,” Duncan said.
“Caught up?” Jessie asked.
“You all slowed down while you were shouting at each other,” Duncan said. “It didn’t look like serious discussion.”
“It wasn’t,” Lillian said. “Helen was being rude.”
“And wrong,” I said.
“My point is-”
“Helen, no,” I said.
“Love each other like I love pastry. Enjoy being together like I enjoy an éclair. Savor the moments.”
“Now you’re just going ahead and being naughty again,” I said.
“She is?” Mabel asked.
There were murmurs of agreement among the Lambs.
“She really likes cake and confectionery,” Duncan said. “Just… take my word for it.”
Helen started talking again, and we jumped straight into drowning her out and protesting. At this stage, it was mostly for fun.
Funner still to see Mabel’s eyes widen some as she caught Helen talking, and when Helen’s tongue extended a foot out of her mouth-
Still engaged, we passed through a cluster of trees and reached the field where the Beattle rebels were waiting. Our protests dropped away, which meant Helen was the last one to fall silent, leaving us only with, “-all of the cream filling. Every last bit. And then I nibble.”
She was good at speaking with her tongue extended like that. She made a show of drawing it back into her mouth.
Lillian was flushed red, which was nice to see, and as it turned out, Mabel wasn’t a blusher, but she apparently was one to freeze. One of the three universal reactions, out of fight, flight, and freeze.
A hundred feet separated the Lambs from the Beattle rebels. They were on guard.
We were, as a result of a much easier conversation than the one we’d been having, quite relaxed.
“Can we negotiate this after?” Lillian asked. “No tricks? No shenanigans?”
“I’ll keep them to a minimum,” I said.
“No hidden ploys?” Lillian asked. “Nothing long-term either?”
“No,” Jessie said.
“I want to be able to trust you two,” Lillian said.
Mary reacted to that. She was still very quiet, all in all. She’d spoken up to shout Helen down, but she seemed caught up in her own thought processes, still.
Only fair, but I did have to wonder.
“A good show of trust would be to undo our restraints,” Jessie said.
“I think it has been a marvelous show of trust to not gag you two,” Lillian said.
“I’ll remind you there was strategy there,” Mary said.
“That too,” Lillian said.
“Strategy?” I asked.
Lillian explained, “So long as you’re talking, you’re much less likely to get up to trouble. If we tied you up and gagged you by shoving a- I don’t know-
You know, I thought, looking at Lillian and the phantom that mirrored her.
“A sock into your mouth, and then tying it in place, then you’d turn all your focus toward turning your pocket lint into something to cut your bonds with.”
“I’m not magic,” I said.
“No,” Mary said. “But you’re a talker.”
“Lies,” I said. “Lies, balderdash and fuckery. I’ll give you a ninety minute speech right here and right now, off the cuff, to tell you why it’s wrong.”
“Ha ha,” Lillian said.
“I think Helen broke his mind with the discussion of how she’d remove the cream filling from the pastry,” Jessie said. “He’s farther gone than I’ve ever seen him. He actually thinks he’s being funny right now.”
The group laughed, Mabel included. Even Archie wore a faint smile.
I smiled as I turned my focus toward the Beattle rebels.
Mauer stood at the head of the crowd with Davis and Valentina. Bea was there, as was Gordon the Second. There had to be a hundred students present. With everyone bundled up against the cold, the individual factions and tribes were hard to pick out. I had to look at boots and pants, at the style of scarf and hat, and extrapolate from there. Bea wore a red scarf with pins in it, and stood next to a girl with antlers. I could suss out a fair number of the rooftop girls and delinquent boys from that crowd.
I was immensely glad to see Rudy at one edge of the crowd. He was with Possum, and he sat in a chair. It was clear from the bandages that they had carved away far too much, but somewhere along the line they had gotten ahead of the plague. Entire muscle groups were absent now. It was the kind of comprehensive work that virtually guaranteed that, even with high quality care, he wouldn’t ever be himself again. It would be years before any replacement parts stopped feeling alien, and years more before it felt natural to use those replacement parts.
With lower or even moderate quality care, it stood to be much like Mauer’s experience. Chronic pain, phantom sensations, replacement parts that were ugly or inelegant in execution.
It didn’t look like he was shedding any tears. Rudy looked dead serious, and Possum looked divided between focusing on him and focusing on the rest of us. One of her friends from the kitchen was with her.
“Cut me loose? It’ll come across better,” I said.
Mary and Lillian exchanged glances.
“Come on, I’m not going to run,” I said. “I’ve still got to redeem myself after Jessie’s last barb.”
“More of a jab than a barb,” Jessie said.
“It was slander. And I need my hands free or those guys are going to be militant. The president cut his teeth on military tactics last night.”
“He hated it,” Mabel said. “He told me.”
“He might have hated it, but he did fine, by all reports. Better than fine.”
“He did,” Mabel said.
“And people told him he did fine. He might have hated it, but he’s a clever lad, and there isn’t anyone, guy or girl, who can lead an army, keep most of his people alive and get the job done, and not feel accomplished about it. There’s a kind of power that comes with realizing your capability with something like that. Like the first time you get mugged and walk away with the mugger’s wallet.”
“That’s not normal,” Lillian said.
“I’m actually kind of surprised you managed that. You struggle a lot when caught off guard without superior weapons on hand,” Jessie said. “Did you have a gun?”
“It’s not important,” I said. “Point is, he’s going to be in a mood. Not a bad one, either. A decisive one.”
“Come here,” Mary said.
I provided her my hands. She cut away the razor wire and ribbon.
I flexed my hands for a moment, testing them to make sure there had been no circulation problems, and then raised a hand.
I signaled the president, and beckoned him to come closer.
We approached as a group, meeting in no man’s land between the two sides, and the president brought his own retinue. Valentina, the Treasurer, Gordon Two, Bea, and two delinquents. Some of Archie’s people were in tow as well, but they hung further back.
“Where’s Berger?” Mary asked.
“We hid him,” Davis said. “I think we did a pretty good job. I know you’re all infiltrators, you’re investigators, and you’re assassins. It’s going to take you time, all the same.”
“Davis,” I said. “I know you’re proud of whatever system or hiding place you worked out, but we don’t need it. We reached a deal.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” he said.
“Be sure. Or, better yet, just accept that I’m the boss.”
“You looked happy out there. Too happy. Laughing.”
“That’s the unfortunate effect of being around old friends,” I said. “Who just so happen to be on the wrong side now.”
“Let’s agree to disagree about which side is right or wrong,” Duncan chimed in.
“My concern,” Davis said, and he spoke in a very measured way, “Is… the little red-haired one.”
I looked back at Ashton.
“When we started the pheromone project, you mentioned him.”
“I also mentioned I’m immune.”
“You’re acting out of character,” Davis said. “It’s impossible to ever know what the Academy has up its sleeve, I may have to assume malfeasance.”
“We are the malfeasance. It’s what we’re all about. It’s why we’re rebels.”
“Sy,” Jessie said. “Be nice. You know what he means.”
“I’m being nice. Davis. Let it be. We’re fine. We’ve come to an equilibrium.”
“We have?” Ashton asked.
One of the Lambs shushed him.
“For the time being, take Mabel and Archie. Get Berger. Bring him to the dining hall. We’ll walk there with you. No hostilities, no threats.”
“You told us all to assume traps, to trust our gut. You outlined specific procedures in case of hostages, if we’re doing patrols and we see someone suspicious, you outlined what we do if supply chains are broken.”
“Yes,” I said. “I forget exactly what I said, but I’m confident past-Sylvester did it with the best of intentions. But I know, even if I forget the particulars, that I would’ve said that if all else fails, pass it up the ladder. And up the ladder from you is, well, Jessie and I.”
Bea cut in, “If you’re that vital and if you’re the last line of defense, you really shouldn’t get captured.”
“Thank you, Bea. We will keep that in mind going forward. For now, gather everyone. You can sit around the perimeter of the dining hall in the main building, you can keep guns pointed at us every step of the way and you can shoot us if anything untoward happens.”
He had only just gotten to get a taste of leadership. It hadn’t been a flavor he’d liked, conflict and military, but the leadership itself… I imagined he was keen on it. Now I was asking him to disregard it and set aside basic common sense.
“We’ll do it,” Valentina said.
The student council vice president. The heartbreaker. More emotion-driven than logic driven. The deciding factor.
The Treasurer was nodding along, and nobody was disagreeing with her. Davis, the student council president, was standing tall, trying to hide his indignation.
He’d tried to take a stand as leader and he’d been cut down by committee.
If Jessie and I stayed with this group, that would have to be something we balanced.
“Come on then,” Davis said. “We’ll fetch the Professor.”
“Pass a message ahead for someone to rush to the kitchen?” I asked. “Get the kettles going, ovens burning. We’ll need a proper breakfast… and some pastries.”
“Yeah,” Davis said. “I’ll pass it on.”
His group turned around and rejoined the mob, our small army of Beattle rebels.
“He’s disappointed,” Jessie said. “He almost resembles you, Sy, when you were newer to this, less mature.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“He had a plan, and it kills him that he doesn’t get to execute it. He’s relegated to being a messenger boy. I remember you being disappointed on several occasions you didn’t get the spotlight you wanted.”
“Ah,” I said. “Yeah.”
“Something to watch out for.”
“To be sure,” I said. “Remind me.”
We started walking to the tail end of the group. They looked pretty damn suspicious, collectively.
“You’re acting as if there’s an easy answer to this,” Lillian said, after he was out of earshot. “But it isn’t. There isn’t. We can’t split Berger down the middle. If you keep him, we’re powerless to stop the Infante. If we keep him, you’re powerless to help Jessie.”
“We’ll figure something out,” I said.
“If you’re sure,” Lillian said.
I’m not sure, I thought.
Jessie’s countdown was ticking down, and it wasn’t the only thing I was worried about.
Mary was giving me a curious look, now.
“You have something in mind, don’t you?” Mary asked.
“Yes. But not a scheme,” I said. “And not an easy answer.”
“Hm,” she said.
She was still so quiet. Not that she had ever been a chatterbox. She had perhaps learned that lesson the night I’d met her, when she had interrogated me. Stitched lips betrayed no weaknesses.
It was something of a relief to pass through the outskirts of Sedge and into the central area where our buildings were clustered. Bystanders and old hunters and curmudgeons watched through windows as we trailed behind the small Beattle army.
Berger was already waiting at the main table. Students were crowded within, and voices bounced off of the walls.
The shackle had been cut off, I noted, but someone with a bayonet stood behind him, keeping him secure. There were a few hundred students in the vicinity watching him, which didn’t help matters either.
Rudy had been brought over to the kitchen, and he was situated where he could see and talk to Possum while still having a view of the rest of the room. One of his arms was missing at the elbow. The other was missing half of its muscles, looking as scrawny as the arm of a child half Rudy’s age. His legs weren’t much better, and if I had to guess, neither was his body. Two students kept on checking on him.
“Possum,” I called out.
“Tea?” she asked me. She looked nervous.
“Please. And a pastry, and some breakfast. I’m famished.”
She looked increasingly nervous at that.
Why so nervous? Had Davis told her to do something?
Jessie elbowed me. I looked down at her, and then I looked up, before the thoughts clicked.
It was so easy to forget the little things in the midst of chaos and a broken routine.
“And hold the poison,” I told Possum.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said, more to herself than to me.
I found my seat beside Jessie, across from Mary and Lillian. Helen sat at my side, and the smaller Helen phantom sat just a little further down. Duncan and Ashton were sitting by Mary at the other end of the table.
I was reminded of Lambsbridge orphanage. The clamor in the morning, the crowd, being shoulder to shoulder.
“And here we are,” Berger said. He sounded like he’d taken some drugs for pain. His face was still entirely made up of bloody bandages. “Finally ready to negotiate?”
“In a way,” I said. “We needed to hash some things out, and I think my people won’t be entirely easy with how this has played out until we get something more concrete. Measurable.”
“Here it comes,” Mary said.
“You get Berger. You do what you need to do,” I said.
Lillian set her lips.
“In exchange, I’d like to make a deal with you.”
“Two Lambs,” I said. “Two of you, gone. Blame it on the plague. They help Jessie and I out.”