“Oh no,” Jessie said, moving her glasses up before putting her face in her hands.
“Two Lambs,” I said, repeating myself for good measure. I made sure to look each and every one of the Lambs in the eye. It took me a second to recall that some of the ones I was looking at weren’t alive or in the city.
“Now I’m wishing I hadn’t intentionally missed, earlier,” Mary said.
“No, Sylvester,” Lillian said.
“Yes, Lil,” I said. “Things need to be done, we’re making a massive sacrifice to enable you to try to wrangle Berger and the Duke, and frankly, I’m wanting to prioritize the little time I have left, so I don’t want to take any big steps backward. If I’m giving this up, I want something equitable.”
“You’re our captives,” Mary said.
“Will someone tell me what I’m missing?” Berger asked. He looked and sounded as though he was down to one last nerve, and we were doing a good job of provoking it. His face was still heavily bandaged, his words still mangled.
“A number of crises demand attention,” Duncan said. “A very real crisis at home, and Sy’s… ongoing existence as the architect of crises.”
“I would argue, but I can’t quite disagree,” I said.
“What’s the crisis at home?” Berger asked.
Lillian leaned forward. “The plague is spreading. In the last several days, several cities have been written off. The Infante may be looking to write off the Crown States.”
I was careful to watch Berger. I saw him drum his fingertips on the table.
“It seems you’re not very surprised,” Jessie said.
Dang it. I would have liked to see how Berger played it without the prompt.
“I’m not so surprised,” Berger admitted.
Lillian spoke, her voice low, “It’s the hope of the Lambs that we can take you off of Sylvester’s hands and that you’d be able to help the Duke find his voice again. With luck, perhaps he could convince the Infante?”
Berger made a sound that might have been a laugh or a snort. Given the state of his face, the line between the two was ambiguous.
I could see how crestfallen Lillian was at that noise. Laugh or snort, it wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
“The Infante does what the Infante wants,” Berger said. “As far as he’s concerned, the good Duke of Francis is as far below him as the Baron was below the Duke. The noble of higher standing might allow the lesser noble to speak, but chances are good they’ve already made up their mind. To be approached by a noble and receive unasked-for advice? I wouldn’t say it never happens, but it’s rare. Rarer still that the advice in question would be listened to.”
Lillian diminished just a little bit further at that.
“There has to be something we can do,” she said.
“There is,” Berger said. “But it won’t be as direct as you’re imagining. The Duke of Francis knows people, and if his interests align with yours, which I think they do, he’ll do just that. But things are rarely simple. I’ll need assistance to get close enough to him to try fixing him, and you’ll be that assistance. We’ll need to cooperate to get the right words to the right people, and again, you’ll play a part. This is not impossible.”
“Improbable,” Lillian said.
“The Duke of Francis can talk,” Duncan said. “He asked for Wyvern, and we provided it. He seems better every time we see him… not that the Infante knows.”
“Ah,” Berger said.
“Is that a problem?” Duncan asked.
“No. But it was a risk. There was a chance it would have exacerbated the damage to his brain. He chose to make the gamble when he asked you. A gamble on two fronts, as it was something the Infante might have figured out, on top of being something that could have cost him the remainder of his life or faculties.”
“He outlined the danger the Infante posed,” Duncan said. “He wanted to wait until you were back before making a play, we were looking for Sylvester, and we were just in the next town over when word came down of the quarantine here.”
“I expect that everything that the Duke of Francis told you is material he tried to communicate to me, in the limited times we were together and unobserved,” Berger said. “Since that discussion, I’ve come to believe that the Infante may have had a hand in the sudden and abrupt spread of plague here.”
“He was responsible for this?” Jessie asked. “What we saw in the city?”
“I’m not sure. But this disaster was manufactured in a manner that none of the others I’ve seen were.”
“All down the main street,” I said. “As if they were fed it?”
“Are the rebel groups capable? Marginally,” Berger said. “Are they willing or wanting? I don’t believe so. I’d be more certain if I knew what the news was in other cities. For now, I’m only willing to say that it looks like someone powerful, with resources and desire. I do believe you’ve struck on the topic of his aim and desire.”
“I want this to be another one of Sylvester’s bad jokes,” Duncan said.
“No joking,” I said.
Berger spoke, “There’s too much we don’t know. I don’t believe the Duke of Francis wants to grievously harm the Crown States. If anything, he relishes the challenges the rebels pose. For now, I’ll content myself with hurrying to the side of my noble, provided you Lambs can get on the same page about that.”
“Alright. I’ve already outlined what I want. Two Lambs,” I said. “Mary and Ashton.”
“What?” Lillian asked.
Mary looked like she might kill me. Duncan looked aghast.
“What’s the reasoning, Sy?” Jessie asked, sounding exasperated.
“Thank you very much for asking, Jessie-”
“Please don’t thank me,” she said. “The other Lambs aren’t liable to forgive me if you draw too much attention to it.”
“It’s the most painful and organic-looking loss, because it’s unlikely,” I said. “We can explain away the deaths by saying the plague got ’em. The Lambs are going to be under suspicion, whatever happens, but the clear debilitation of losing key talent and abilities will diminish that suspicion.”
“Oh, I see,” Lillian said, sounding very unimpressed. “It’s for our benefit.”
“For the most part,” I said. “You guys pick up the new, younger Lambs to round out your group in the meantime, and the fact that you won’t have key combat and problem solving talent makes it likely you’re taken off the front lines in the immediate future. That gives you more time near the Infante and near the Duke. More leeway.”
“I don’t think it’s nearly so elegant as you’re painting it,” Mary said.
“Oh, it’s crude and brutal,” I said. “Feelings get hurt, it’s raw, it’s an ugly break that forces everyone involved to adapt and cope emotionally. But you’ll have eyes on you. People will see that raw ugliness and they’ll believe the pain and the deaths are real, you follow?”
Helen spoke, “Referring to a young lady’s raw ugliness is not going to win you friends.”
“True,” I said. “But I wasn’t referring to external beauty. I was referring to the inside stuff. The thoughts and feelings.”
“Ah,” Helen said, “I don’t pay much mind to that. These days, I mostly have one big hairy, bloody sugary messy feeling I try to cram inside and ignore unless I’m eating or killing.”
“That’s another thing,” I said.
I didn’t get to finish, as Lillian had something to say.
“You’re talking about taking the most loyal members of the group and making them defect,” Lillian said. “Are you trying to manipulate us with this deal, Sy? Because trying to slide something past us or using shady negotiation tactics to try to get your way would be a supremely shitty thing to do to friends.”
“I’m a manipulator by nature, but no, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m making a genuine offer in terms of what should be most tactically sound. They won’t expect the two most Crown-loyal, capable Lambs to drop dead or defect.”
“You want me to abandon my best friend?” Mary asked.
“They know you’re her best friend, that you’re close. The person who manages the dormitory reports to higher-ups when you sleep over at the dorm. Ms. Earles reports to the higher ups whenever Lillian stays over with you at the Orphanage. They know what’s going on, they know the relationships between you all. We need something that makes them think that the situation really did go crossways.”
Any marginal goodwill I’d earned with Lambs was quickly fading. Lillian looked upset, Mary was angry, Duncan seemed offended.
“If anything,” I said, measuring my words, “I recognize that there’s a clique. You and Mary get along famously and that’s a liability.”
Jessie, face in hands, shook her head.
“Liability how?” Lillian asked, sounding just about as dangerous as Mary looked now.
“You get along and you do your things. Duncan and Ashton get along well, and their attention is sucked up by the new Lambs. Your attention is sucked up by schoolwork and the major project. And for half the time I’ve been around Helen today, and I get the feeling there’s something desperately wrong.”
All eyes turned to Helen. Some turned back to me.
“We know,” Lillian said.
“Do you?” I asked. I looked at Helen. “Do they?”
“I’m desperately in need of breakfast sweets,” Helen said, looking forlornly over in the direction of the kitchen.
“We’ve discussed things over the past several months,” Duncan said. “In some ways, our hands are tied.”
“I refuse to believe that,” I said.
“Which part?” he asked. “That we discussed it, or that our hands are tied?”
I frowned, glancing again at Helen, then back at Jessie. The Helen that lived in my head was so insistent, asking for very different things.
“Call it intuition,” I said. “Call it a quirk of my brain, but I’m really concerned that Helen has fallen by the wayside. The strong bonds between the rest of you have left her mostly out in the cold.”
“I’m fine in the cold,” Helen said. “I like the warmth too, but in the cold, I can hug someone and break them and feel their body heat, and it is delicious.”
“Helen is managing as best as she’s able,” Duncan said. “I don’t think our involvement will change anything.”
I wasn’t so sure, but I didn’t want to argue.
“Why not take Helen?” Lillian asked.
“Do you want me to? Are you suggesting it?” I asked.
“No, and yes. I’m wondering at your thought process. Again, taking two of our most capable.”
“I do like being considered a proper Lamb,” Duncan explained. “But I’m stung that I’m not considered one of the more capable, loyal Lambs. I’ll cede capability, but you keep calling my loyalty into question as though you were bringing a battering ram to the gate. You can’t keep saying it and make it true.”
“I’m talking about the condensed, unique package of loyalty with inhuman capability,” I said.
“Mm,” Duncan said.
“I don’t think this is going to work, Sylvester,” Lillian said.
“Then you may find that the Beattle rebels aren’t keen to let all of you leave,” I said.
“We knew what we were getting into when we came in here,” Mary said. “I’m reasonably confident I could beat your small army and carve a way out. Taking you hostage might even make us friends among your ranks, going by your habit of worming your way into the confidence of half the people you meet and making bitter enemies of the other half.”
“I’m wounded. I’ve actually been a good leader, I think. You were complimenting my troop movements earlier.”
“It’s a risk,” Mary said, “But I think I’d rather try fighting my way out of this dining hall than join you and fight my way out of a dozen more dining halls or similar places while you arrange your plan. I’m not interested. I am Lillian’s, and Lillian is mine.”
“Alright,” I said, a little bewildered by that. “Not sure on the possessiveness, but… alright.”
Mary’s phantom, as I’d put it together, was only able to give me a shrug. I’d need to think on things and try on ideas before letting it all coalesce and put that into context.
“I’m friends with Abby, Nora, Lara, and Emmett,” Ashton said. “I’m important because I keep that team and this team connected.”
“I believe that’s one of my official responsibilities,” Duncan said.
“You’re not very good at it,” Ashton said. “You do a very good job of taking care of them and being their doctor, but I’m better at being a friend and making sure they’re heard. I think they would be very sad and disappointed if I weren’t there anymore, especially if I faked my death and they thought I had died in a horrible way.”
“The other Lambs would tell them what had happened,” I said.
“Even so,” Ashton said. “I think they would be very sad and disappointed if I weren’t there anymore.”
“It’s because of your role and responsibilities that this works, Ashton,” I said. “They know you’d be missed, that you wouldn’t want to leave without a goodbye. This creates a dynamic, where they go looking for the goodbye, they watch for messengers and messages, and they listen for whispers. They’ll wait and watch and listen for your message to the others, and when it doesn’t come, your death will be that much more believable.”
“It’s insane,” Lillian said.
“That’s unfair and at this particular moment, it’s unwarranted,” I said.
Nevermind the phantoms, or Mauer standing on the other end of the room, or my growing concern over what Fray was doing in my head. Even Evette was watching the proceedings.
Lillian spoke, shaking her head, “I don’t want to put you in a bad position, but you have to see that this is too much. You’re asking for too much.”
“No. It’s just enough. I have to believe it’s enough.”
The conversation seemed to die with that. People on the fringes of the room, well out of earshot, were shuffling around, some getting up to get fruit or bowls of oatmeal from the kitchen.
Rudy still sat in the corner like a doll that had had its limbs and face smashed against the rocks, slightly slouched, enduring what had to be agony and frustration. His gaze was fixed and serious.
Couldn’t disappoint him. We’d spent so much to get to where we had Berger. I wasn’t going to give him up like this.
I could see the student council, and I reminded myself that Davis was put out by the fact that I’d stolen his moment and his leadership out from under him, when he had been trying to negotiate with the Lambs.
I could fall from grace just as easily.
Bea was with the delinquents, normally the loudest bunch of students, and she’d managed to get the table quiet, so their din wouldn’t disturb our conversation.
The disturbance might have been welcome, frankly.
“If I may?” Berger asked.
“Please,” Lillian said.
“I can’t help but notice I’m sitting at this table while you discuss this. Among you all, discussion of loyalty, of action against the Crown…”
He trailed off, but the tone of his voice was an ominous one.
I spoke, “You know what’s at stake. You know we’re reasonably reasonable. If you step in to provide any interim surgery or alterations to help the Lambs, then we’d be literally putting our lives in your hands. We need to get to the point where the nation isn’t at risk.”
“I could turn you in the moment I’m out of your custody.”
“But you won’t,” I said. “We need you on the same page as us.”
Berger didn’t respond to that, his face a mask.
“If you had to take someone, and I’m not saying this is a solution or an answer, I’d tell you to take Helen,” Lillian said.
“Helen needs care. She’s asking for advanced care in every way except saying it outright, and knowing her, I’m not convinced she hasn’t asked and been ignored. I’m suggesting that she stay behind because I don’t know if we can give her that care. Given time, it becomes a time sink. Finding professors to work with who can even begin to understand her. Getting surgeries done, evading authorities after the fact.”
“Are we even really entertaining this?” Duncan asked. “No offense, Sy, no offense Jessie.”
Possum and the retinue of kitchen workers were venturing out of the kitchen now, with mugs and plates.
“I’d like to think we’re entertaining it, but I’m biased,” I said.
“I don’t like it as an idea,” Duncan said. “But I like the Lambs being together, and I… I suppose I respect you not being part of the core group, even if I don’t like it.”
And with that statement to punctuate things, breakfast was served. People milled about, providing this and that, there was light, polite conversation, and some posturing by Mary and the other Lambs, as foreign, hostile agents in this strange, isolated little world that Jessie and I had hewn together.
“I need fresh air,” I said.
I left my plate half-touched, and I accepted assistance from Bea, who stood behind my seat.
“Ashton, guard him?”
“I’m being guarded by Ashton?”
Ashton collected what looked to be the most colorful assortment of food items he could find, and gathered them up together in one fist so he could move chairs and open doors. Countless eyes were on him and me when we made our way to the front door.
We settled off to the right of the door. I leaned against the wall, being ginger and careful with the wound that seemed to have taken my entire back, and I fished for and found a cigarette.
Ashton provided the match.
The noise inside had crept up in volume since my exit. People were discussing, no doubt keeping an eye on the interlopers, trying to reason out relationships and patterns.
“I have phantoms in my head representing most of the Lambs,” I said. “My Ashton-phantom isn’t the strongest. I don’t think I know you as well as I could.”
“I’m not very complicated,” Ashton said.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s an outright lie.”
“It’s rude to call someone a liar,” Ashton said.
“What if it’s a compliment in disguise as a lie?” I asked.
“I think that’s silly. If you’re going to compliment, then compliment. White lies are alright, but that’s something else.”
“Black lies too,” I pointed out.
“Those aren’t a thing.”
“And green lies. And yellow lies.”
“I don’t think those are things, Sylvester.”
I puffed on my cigarette, thinking.
“Thank you for not messing up my hair,” Ashton said. “You’ve done it most of the times you’ve spent alone with me.”
“Yeah, Ash,” I said. “To be honest, I sorta had this feeling that I’d made a promise, but couldn’t remember, so I avoided it to stay safe.”
“Oh,” he said. He turned his focus toward the camp. “Yes, you did. You promised me, the second to last time you saw me.”
I narrowed my eyes.
“You also pledged to be more like Good Simon and to read the books. And you said you’d do your best to act like Sadie and I got very frustrated and you wouldn’t listen. Now I know you were teasing me, but I didn’t realize it at the time.”
I narrowed my eyes even further.
“I’m telling a lie,” Ashton said.
“So I gathered,” I said. “That was good.”
“I’m having a very hard time resisting messing up your hair,” I told him.
He smiled, looking for all the world like he didn’t care. If I hadn’t known better, I might have accused him of being intentionally smug, simply to rub it in deeper.
“Sylvester,” Ashton said.
“Some people have goals, and some people have drives and mostly everyone everywhere is pushed or pulled by something. I’ve been thinking for a long time about this, and I’m thinking very hard about you in particular.”
“I thought at first you were one, and then I thought you were the other, and now it feels like you’re both. Except it’s all in different directions. Are you trying to move in two directions at once by recruiting one of the Lambs? Or is this the whole goal, and are you hoping that by bringing two Lambs with you you’ll eventually have us all?”
“That last one isn’t the goal, Ashton. I just like being around the Lambs. It feels like home. I care about them and want to take care of them. I worry when I can’t see you guys. I worry when I can, like with Helen or with Mary being as angry as she is.”
“That’s just when you’re around or when we’re hunting you,” Ashton said.
Blunt, authentic honesty. Painful, but appreciated nonetheless.
“I’d like to fix that,” I said. “I’d like to make sure Helen gets the attention she needs.”
“Oh,” Ashton said.
“No. I was just thinking that we’re the only ones of a very small number who pay enough attention to Helen. And you know enough to do something about it. I can tell Duncan but I don’t think it comes across right, once the idea has gone from one shelf of my brain to another to my mouth and then to him and his understanding.”
“I wish I could have taught you stuff,” I told Ashton.
“Well,” Ashton said, sounding put-off, “It would help if you answered the important questions I ask you.”
“What’s my goal?”
“What’s your direction?”
“Fray asked me that question a long, long time ago, when I was the same size you are now,” I told Ashton.
“What did you say?”
“Faith,” I told him. “I was pushing forward out of faith that the Lambs could be what we needed. That Lillian could.”
“That feeling is still there. I want this to be true and good, but I’m not sure I trust myself. Only around Jessie- Jessie is resilient and patient, Ashton. She doesn’t put up with my guff. Everything else around me that isn’t resilient, I just break or taint.”
“But you’ve been making all of this happen,” he said.
“I’ve been trying. I was hoping to do something big with it. I have a powerful piece of information, I have hundreds of people working on my behalf, and once the message gets out, I think that number will swell. I have protection for my people and for friends… and I have very little time.”
“None of us do. Mary keeps having to get surgery, but she doesn’t like to talk about it. Lillian and Duncan might get their white coats, which might mean they have other things to do that isn’t being a Lamb, or they might not get their white coats and that might mean they stop being Lambs. Helen isn’t doing well and Ibbot isn’t treating her well. He keeps on isolating her and keeping her in the lab with him.”
“Sounds about right,” I said. I was trying to keep my tone casual, despite the fact that none of this was pleasant to hear.
“But you’re mostly okay, except for the seeing things, and Jessie’s okay, so it could be worse,” Ashton said.
I’m not okay. Neither is Jessie.
“If you want to do this ‘something big’, then you should do it while there’s time,” Ashton said.
“But,” I said, taking a puff on the cigarette. “Being expedient would mean snatching you up. Having Mary helps with any follow-up.”
“I think maybe the others aren’t so happy with that idea,” Ashton said.
“Mary isn’t interested,” I said. “It’s asking too much.”
“Yeah,” I said.
The disappointment was poignant.
“Lillian is out.”
“I think kidnapping Lillian again would be a very bad idea,” Ashton said.
“Yeah,” I said. My heart was heavy at the thought. “I won’t get much use from Duncan that I don’t already get.”
“Yes,” Ashton said.
“Leaving Helen, with all the associated warts and time-consuming hassles.”
“It’s possible,” Ashton said.
I shifted position, giving Ashton a more careful glance. He wore very tidy clothes, his pants tucked into his boots, shirt buttoned up with suspenders and a pocketwatch, his hair burnished red.
“What?” he asked.
“Just thinking… I have vague recollections of sleeping on the floor in your lab, sleeping odd hours, trying to gauge the time, hiding when people came in to check on your predecessor, and then walking over to the notepad to see what they wrote down, usually with the time.”
“Okay,” Ashton said.
“Would you be willing to give me a hand? Maybe a bit more? I’m thinking I know a way to make this work a little more tidily.”
“Oh,” Ashton said. “That’s good.”
“Come on,” I said.
I led him back inside.
I was very aware that conversations that were in full swing died as my bootheels tromped on the floor. I approached the table in the center of the room where the Lambs were eating.
“Final offer,” I said.
Jessie put her face in her hands again.
“This is a good one,” I said. “Helen, with us. We get her attention and care, as best as we’re available. We get a little… flexibility in terms of how we operate.”
“Why do I have a bad feeling?” Lillian asked.
“And, downgrading my previous offer,” I said. “Instead of asking for two Lambs, I’ll ask for one and a half.”
“Half?” Jessie asked, without moving her face. “Are you speaking of the new Lambs, who aren’t fully inducted?”
“Not in the slightest. I’m talking about a literal half of Ashton.”
“Oh,” Ashton said. “When you talked about me giving you a hand- you are a worse person than Sadie is, Sylvester, and Sadie is a caricature.”
“Out of the mouths of babes,” Mary said.
Helen wasn’t an easy creature to read. Her expressions didn’t betray much, she didn’t have body language so much as she deliberately posed at a given moment, but all the same, the phantom that lingered near her seemed calmer, the agitation of the finger or the eye movement that twitched where it shouldn’t.
But with me offering to bring her onboard, with the interplay, and most likely with a dozen other factors I wasn’t yet aware of, I sensed that she was calmer and better than before.
“You’re a bad person, Sylvester,” Ashton said.
“But you’re not saying no,” I said.
A half-dozen Lambs seated at the table jumped in to protest on Ashton’s behalf.
“If you must,” Ashton said, very stoic. “But don’t chop too much of me off. I have people I want to help too.”