I missed the rain. Springtime in Radham had always been when the rain came down hardest, and there was something about letting it wash over me, over face and through hair, that really appealed to me. It was almost the inverse of Wyvern, reaching inside of me to the very core of me and polluting me in a way that was as artificial as rain was natural.
Well, most rain.
A strong, cold wind blew past the dormitory window, only a portion of it actually passing inside. I stood off to one side, using one eye to watch the students who were huddled in the dim dormitory hallway as I kept another eye on the window itself. The wind that blew past my cigarette made the smoke roll off it in a thin horizontal line, everything beyond was pitch darkness. It wasn’t overcast, but there was no moon. I could hear the waves crashing against the cliffs far below. I could smell the ocean.
Mabel approached me.
I tapped my box of cigarettes against my leg and held it out toward her.
“No thank you,” she said.
I changed the angle and tapped the box with a finger to have the cigarette disappear back inside. “Want to share this one?”
“My dad would kill me if he knew,” she said.
Which was a yes. I handed it over, turning my head toward the window to exhale.
She took one draw and handed it back.
“Not your usual brand,” she said.
“They make this one in-house. Artsy fartsy students, spending all day dressed in white uniforms while following strict rules about sterility, maintenance, schedule, authority. Some fit that, but others need to… breathe something that isn’t Academy air.”
“I’ve seen that group. They dress civilian when they’re off the clock, listen to music, congregate in the area of the dormitories?”
I nodded. I offered her the cigarette again. Her arms were folded, and she raised a hand a little, refusing me.
“Are they like Bea’s group?” Mabel asked.
“No,” I said. “They’re rule-followers more than rule-breakers. I think they just evolved as an adaptation to the Academy. Some people can go all-in on the Academy thing, and that’s their identity. Others form a kind of two-headed identity, one face for Academy and the other for themselves. Their self-identity doesn’t take away from their Academy identity.”
“Hm. I think I was pretty all-in. I don’t know if I would have stayed that way. I didn’t know what to do with life except work harder,” Mabel said. “Life would get in the way, and then I’d crumble. I’d piece myself together in time for the next semester. It got easier when I had an excuse to not go home for the mid-year and end-year breaks.”
“After you got to Beattle, I assume.”
“Yeah,” Mabel said. “I could say I only had a week and a half off for each of the breaks, it took two days to travel out, two days to travel back. It didn’t leave a lot of time. Thankfully.”
“Did he visit?” I asked. The sheriff. Mabel’s dad.
“Some,” she said. She looked down at my cigarette. “Gim- me.”
I was already passing it over.
“Reading my mind,” she said.
“Not so much,” I said.
“You’re a step ahead of everyone.”
“Again, not so much,” I said. “With Jessie, Helen, sure. I know how they think. The other Lambs, who you met briefly? Same sort of thing. More Mary and Lillian than Ashton, mind you. But Ashton isn’t hard to figure out.”
“I know the key points. My memory isn’t good- you know my memory isn’t good. I forget things, as much as I don’t want to. But I hold on to some things. I don’t have enough of you to hold on to.”
I’d planned to add ‘yet’ to that last sentence, much as I’d planned the innuendo with the idea of holding onto her. Seeing her stare out the window into the darkness, I decided against the ‘yet’, let the innuendo be on its own, without emphasis or a careful eye movement.
I continued, filling the silence, “Not analyzing you on that level. Just paying attention. I’m on edge, ready to pull a gun if I have to, so it shouldn’t be odd I can move a second faster to pass it to you.”
I’d left the statement open for further input, a chance for her to rebut, or to build on what I’d said.
She wasn’t responding, and she was taking her time with my cigarette. Lost in thought.
“Want to come over tonight?” I asked. “It’s gotta be about three in the morning right now. Your choice if we just make it high quality sleep, all together, or if we just do without sleep altogether.”
“I’m not so comfortable doing that,” she said.
“If it’s about the old woman in the bathtub,” I said. “We could put her to sleep with an injection, throw a sheet over her or something.”
I didn’t miss that she went straight to another puff on the cigarette after I dropped that thought. There had been a pattern to how long she’d waited before drawing in a breath, too small a sample size to be perfect, but noticeable to anyone who paid enough attention to her. That pattern picked up.
“Bad joke,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Now you’re reading my mind.”
“You’re clever, Mabel, you’ve got a fine eye for detail, but when it comes to flipping things around, I think anybody could tell what you’re thinking.”
“You might have too high an estimation of ‘anybody’, Sy,” Mabel said. “It’s more about coming and going, I worry I’ll blow our cover.”
“I’m adaptable,” I said. “As for the coming, we’d be making the most noise in the dead of night, I don’t think we’d be overheard, especially with the quality of the construction over there. As for the going, Jessie, Helen and I have done fine. Only person to see you go is the Hag of Hackthorn, and she’s not in a position to complain.”
“All the same,” Mabel said.
Someone in the cluster of students raised a hand. I pointed, and Mabel handed me what remained of the cigarette before hurrying over.
I needed to teach my people to walk more quietly in spaces like this. The dormitory building was grown, all builder’s wood, and the floor wasn’t planks, but a controlled outgrowth. It was hard to make noise when there was something approximating a bisected tree trunk underfoot, as opposed to planks that bowed under a person’s weight, and Mabel still managed to scuff the floor with her shoes.
It went back to what I’d been thinking before. As a pair of eyes, a lookout, an investigator, a reader, she was good. Put her to task, she did good work. Just about tops. But as the person watched, as the investigated, the read, the person being worked on? Room for growth.
I wondered if I was just thinking along those lines because I wanted to find fault.
She’d left me with barely anything of my cigarette. I took one last pull to finish it off, then spat it out the window.
As a point of pride, I moved across the floor without a sound, being sure to position myself so I wouldn’t interfere too much with the amount of light in the hallway. The human eye was sensitive, and even the slightest of changes in light level could trip prey instincts.
One of the people gathered at the door was a young male student, one of Mabel’s from the Green Team, or whatever they were calling themselves this week. He’d started out as one of Bea’s, and against all odds, he’d become more of a proper and dedicated student now that he’d left the Academy than he’d been when he’d been part of it.
I was pretty sure he was sweet on Mabel, too. Entirely fair. She was neat.
That had absolutely nothing to do with the perverse pleasure I felt when my silent appearance made him jump.
There were five of them gathered. Jessie sat with her back to the wall, sleeping in the middle of a mission. The three students who were kneeling at the door were wearing quarantine masks. One held a hose and a bladder that he palpated, another held something to the gap beneath the door while making sure the hose stayed in place, and the third was the fellow I’d just spooked. He was mixing a chemical that was feeding into a ‘Y’ shaped join in the hose, bladder, feed assembly. Mabel checked the levels, taking a drop of the mixture into a vial, which she shook before checking the color as best as she could by the dim light.
She gestured for the go-ahead. Her subordinate turned the key that connected the fluid hose to the bladder.
At that same moment, a doorknob rattled down the hall, the door cracking open. The cluster of students all froze, and I moved.
I crossed the hallway, darting to the door, staying low to the ground. As the person within stepped out, I pressed a knife to their throat.
I took stock of them. Him. He looked to be a rather rough-edged young man, gangly, his hair long enough that oil and wax didn’t serve to keep it all in order. He wore an undershirt and slacks, and had a proper shirt slung over one shoulder. His eyes went wide as he realized what the knife was.
I moved the knife, fast, the blade pressing against his lips.
Moving slowly, I reached over and closed the door as quietly as I could.
“Uh,” he whispered.
“Shhh,” I said. “Quiet now. You just had a bit of bad luck, is all.”
I pressed the knife against his lips, harder, until I sensed that any further pressure would break skin.
“It’s okay,” I said. “You’ll come for a walk with me, while these guys do what they’re doing. Then you’ll disappear. Maybe for a little while, maybe for good. It depends how much you cooperate. How quiet you are. Understand?”
I gave him my best reassuring smile.
Unwilling to nod and slice his lips open, unwilling to make a sound, he closed his eyes very deliberately, and then he opened them.
“Good,” I said. I moved the knife to his throat. “No noise now. Come-”
“Sy,” I heard the whisper behind me.
“He’s one of ours.”
“Is he?” I whispered back. I looked at the guy.
“Think so. One of Bea’s?”
The flat of the knife point rested against his throat. My grip on the knife was light, so I could swap hands or shift my hold at a moment’s notice, and I could feel the vibrations of his pulse making the knife move.
Slowly, he nodded.
I pulled the knife away.
“We’ve talked,” he said.
“I went out with Bea after Fang did? And we played cards in the big tent while on watch in the middle of the black woods? I did the second shift? Day two?”
“There were a lot of days, a lot of faces playing cards,” I said. “Uh, did we talk about girls?”
“Oh. Well… that was a less than stellar guess. Shucks. Now I feel like a heel.”
“I… really don’t know what to say to that,” he whispered.
“Come on,” I said.
We joined the others. The palpating of the bladder had resumed, and a little mixer or fan whirred at the ‘Y’-shaped connector.
“What were you doing here anyway?” I asked. “It’s the girl’s dormitory.”
The young fellow looked startled at the question. Then, slowly, a smile spread across his face.
“Right,” I said. “Good night?”
His smile widened. He had the decency to look sheepish.
“Almost ready,” Mabel said. “I’m going to get clear. Unless you want to let Jessie keep sleeping.”
“We need her,” I said.
“Then I’ll get clear. Come on, Happy.”
We’d brought a blanket and several canvas bags, and I’d draped the blanket over Jessie while everything got underway. Supplies had been left on and around her.
I reached over and touched the underside of her chin, lifting it.
“If you were anyone but Sy, I’d have stuck you with a knife by now,” she said, as she woke.
I put the gas mask on her face for her, fixing everything in place.
“I can get away with a lot,” I said. I set the blanket aside, then took her hands. I hauled her to her feet. Right at the last second, I pulled her off balance, making like I was going to drop her.
I caught her, hand at the small of her back, and flourished, the pair of us every bit the ballroom dancers.
Jessie drew her knife and made like she was going to stab me. She stopped just shy of actually doing it. “Not that much. Not when I’ve just woken up.”
Mabel glanced back at us, as did Happy. The others were pulling equipment aside. The wadding at the base of the door was pulled away, and I could see the wisps of vapor.
I popped the door lock, which was of the mass-manufactured sort that assembly lines of stitched worked on, so easy to break that it really was there for show and propriety.
There were two students to a room. Betty had divided the room up with a black-skinned girl who slept in a bed on the far side of the room, and from the looks of it, it really was more of a division than a sharing of the space. There wasn’t a line of chalk or paint drawn down the center of the room, but it was absolutely clear which side of the room was Betty’s. The gas was pea-soup thick, one student pulled a towel down from where it hung on the back of the door to keep more vapor from leaking into the hallway, and the other two looked to me for an a-okay for permission to illuminate the room.
“The gas isn’t flammable, right?” I asked.
“It’ll dampen the flames, but won’t put them out.”
The three students in the quarantine suits gathered the blanket, and they worked on rolling up Betty in the thing. Jessie and I gathered the canvas bags and began methodically working through Betty’s space. I packed up the clothes, three Academy uniforms with seven smocks, five days worth of non-Academy clothing that I suspected she hadn’t worn much, a seemingly disproportionately large number of underthings, and an even more disproportionate number of socks. I swept all the jewelry into the bag.
Jessie worked through the bookcase. She picked the books with cracked spines and wear and left the more pristine ones. We worked swiftly to ensure the bags were neatly packed. It was only enough possessions to fill half of a room and one small closet.
In the thick fog, it was the little personal touches that were easiest to miss. A doodle from a notebook stuck between wall and windowframe, so it was close to the pillow while she slept. Similar ones along her closet door, running from top to bottom. Quotes of the motivational sort, drawings, cryptic research thoughts that had probably struck late at night and needed to be written down lest they be forgotten.
As her bundled form was carried out of the room, I moved my attention to the bed.
Betty here was a vague and flowery narrative in a number of senses. She’d told herself stories about how the work she was doing was justified, but there were themes running through all of this. A fantasy in the notes she wrote to herself. ‘Create beauty’. The fact that three out of four doodles were of fairies.
I lifted up the mattress, searching. I reached into spaces between bed and bookshelf, searched under the bed, and then pulled out drawers, checking that nothing was stuck beneath and that there were no secret compartments.
“Sy,” Jessie said. She held up the diary I’d been looking for. Sitting on the bookshelf, within the folds of a larger book sleeve with no book.
If that had been found, it would have raised questions.
We erased the existence of Betty as much as we could. I did a final sweep while Jessie stood at the desk, using Betty’s stationary, pen, and handwriting to pen out a letter.
“Going down to the city, don’t look for me?”
“No,” Jessie said. “A post-boat leaves tonight. She’s hitching a ride.”
“I worry about that,” I said. “There’s a reason we didn’t boat in. There’s security. Oversight.”
“And Betty is determined and well connected. We point the direction, people won’t know where she is, and they’ll have to assume she left by boat.”
“You don’t think it’ll work?”
“It might. I just worry about…”
I used my hands to gesture. I tried to sketch out a shape.
“Diamond with a wizard hat?”
“There’s too many edges, too many angles others can come at it from.”
“There aren’t many places for her to go, Sy. The boat timing works. Anything else and they might look for her and realize she isn’t anywhere to be found. It’s not like she’s going to hike the wasteland and black woods.”
“They won’t be able to verify with the boat?”
“No,” Jessie said. “Not quickly enough to matter.”
“Then what’s the motivation?”
“Us. You and me. She doesn’t like what this has become, she’s mad at the professor. She’s questioning the sheer number of rural folk and strangers who’ve been escorted through the black wood and allowed to take refuge at the foot of Hackthorn.”
“It’s going to draw attention to us.”
“We’re close,” Jessie said. “Things are coming together.”
I cracked the window open so the gas could escape. I checked the room one more time, walked over to Betty’s roommate, and checked the girl’s breathing and pulse.
“You’re in a rush, Jessie,” I said.
“Yeah, Sy. I worry about how much time we have.”
She means to say she worries how much time she has.
Or maybe she really does mean to say how much time we have. As a pair.
“I just don’t want to cut corners and have things fall through at the last moment.”
“Yeah,” she said.
A smile touched my face, and I heard a sound from Jessie, through her mask. A short laugh.
The same thought had hit us both at the same moment. The role reversal. Jessie being reckless, me being the rational one.
We bent down, and we collected the bags that hadn’t already been carried out by the others.
“And Betty’s gone,” I whispered, closing the door.
There was a larger group waiting for us outside. We passed the heavy bags of books and clothes to others.
“Back to our rooms?” the Treasurer asked. Even in the gloom, I could see that he was doing better. He’d been solid, stoic, a reliable member of the team with a good head on his shoulders, especially when it came to his field of specialty, but seeing him now? He’d filled out, he stood taller, and he looked more ready to take on the world.
Davis had perhaps gone in the other direction, but it wasn’t wholly bad. He’d always been a pair with Valentina, and Valentina had moved on, alongside a small handful of others. The showing and the whole situation with Neph and the black wood had done a lot to earn the faith of our people. The change to Davis resembled someone who had gone through hard work and come out of it without an ounce of fat on him, but on a spiritual level.
Mabel had left with the others.
I’d wanted to finish my conversation with her.
“Not back to our rooms, I’m thinking,” Davis said. “Not when everyone’s active and around.”
“No,” I agreed. “There are things to do.”
I let Jessie do the gesture, and I watched as our people moved in response. A dozen of our guys and gals who weren’t already seeded throughout the Academy.
The buildings of Hackthorn were like the fingers of a hand that held the great reclining woman up. In the moonless night, she scintillated, countless labs and chambers with lamps and candles within now glowing orange, the light scattered among leaves and foliage that bristled along her skin.
At the base of that hand, however, the landscape was uneven. The place wanted to be a city, but no two buildings were really seated on the same section of flat earth. Even some buildings were staggered, the foundation split across two to four levels.
It did its darndest to be a proper settlement, but it was an individual, separate beast. It served more as a spot of ugliness to offset the beauty and art of Hackthorn’s buildings and reclining woman than it did any other purpose.
All the roads were winding, stores remained open late, and it seemed like every other building was a place for students to meet for drink or food. Like the smoking students, it was a way for students to breathe and escape the pressure. It wasn’t a thing that a lot of Academies had.
It was presently late enough that half of those buildings had closed or were in the process of closing. We walked past several places where windows were being shuttered and containers rinsed out outside, and we scarcely got a second glance.
The cafe we stopped at was closed. I approached the door and knocked.
Shirley, Pierre, and a bulk of the refugees from the city where Neph had died were gathered within. They sat at benches and tables and formed a cluster, and most of the light within came from the fires burning in the kitchen and at the other end of the building, at the end of the cafe’s dining area.
“You grace us with your presence,” a fat man said, with a fair bit of irony to the use of ‘grace’.
“Few are more graceful than we,” I said, holding Jessie’s hand, holding it up.
“How are we doing on the ground level?” Jessie asked.
Straight to business.
“We’re doing quite well,” Pierre said. With the abundance of focus on the cosmetic, someone had tended to his head, and he looked far better. Still ghoulish, but better.
“Are we seeded?” I asked.
“We’re seeded on the ground,” Pierre said.
I rummaged through the things I still had with me, and I found a small bag.
“Talk to me about distribution,” Jessie said. “Military?”
“They wanted more bodies, what with things on the horizon,” the fat man said. “We weren’t able to get many in, but we got some in. Not going to have a regiment under your control if something goes south, but you could get information, or keys to the right locked door.”
“That might give us the control over weapons we need,” I said. “Given timing and everything else.”
I brought the bag to Shirley, who stood in the threshhold between the dining area of the cafe and the kitchen.
“Politics?” Jessie asked.
“The groundskeeper’s stitched had an unfortunate accident, went to pieces,” the fat man said. “He was forced to hire someone. Pretty young lady who is entirely loyal to us.”
The groundskeeper, because having an actual mayor didn’t make sense, given the local dynamic.
“That’s thin, as seeds go,” I said. Shirley had undone the bag. It was a bit redundant, given that she was running this cafe, but I’d included some pastries, a trinket, and a little bottle of non-alcoholic blackberry cider that Jessie had said Shirley adored.
Shirley gave me a kiss on the forehead for that one.
Not that a little gesture like this was anything close to what I owed her.
“It’s thin, but they aren’t happy about all of us moving in and taking up space. They don’t want to give us work. I’m proud of that one,” the fat man said.
He had a tone of belligerence that suggested he was drunk, when he actually wasn’t drunk at all. He was just loud and perhaps a little wanting when it came to inhibitions and delicacy.
“Factories, labor?” Jessie asked.
“We’ve got a lot going on. They were happy to have the extra hands. They stored a lot of lumber in advance of the black wood coming in. Now they’re processing it.”
“Good,” Jessie said. “Then, in case this boils down to a siege, we should talk food.”
“We’ve got tabs on the food,” Pierre said, speaking softly. He clasped his hands in front of him. “We made that a priority.”
“Good man,” I said, voice soft. Pierre shot me a salute.
“If we can control that and not lose it when push comes to shove, we can win in the long run,” Jessie said. “I’d rather not have it come to the long run, but I do like having that security.”
She was so focused on time. It pained me a little.
“Then,” I said. “Let’s talk about food in a different sense. Let’s say there was an event. Let’s say important people came. Festival, celebration, a need to please. If the high cuisine came in, needing to be stored, would we have a stranglehold on that as well?”
“I think we would,” Pierre said.
“Good,” I said. “Then I think we’re moving forward nicely.”
“Are you thinking of the young master’s celebration?” Jessie asked.
“No,” I said. I drummed my fingers on the table for a moment. “No, I’m thinking of bigger fish.”