Mary stood atop the wall. There were people on the other side, keeping their distance from the Academy’s vat beasts, which paced back and forth, shoulders brushing against the walls.
The beasts, by contrast, had been replaced recently. They appeared similar to naked mole rats, but they had teeth, claws, and bone hooks at their joints that would have done any predator proud. They were somewhat lopsided, and they had muscle to spare beneath their pink flesh. They had sunburns, even though the rain from Radham reached the town. Not technically warbeasts, they were mass produced in vats, expendable, entirely instinct rather than training. They patrolled where there were scent markers, attacking anything that came too near, and they left a scent marker. Once the first batch had been walked along the patrol route, they were collectively good to guard that route.
The haggard and dirty people didn’t look particularly scared of the beasts, which meant they had been there for some time. They’d had time to get used to the things and learn how they behaved.
They’d also had time, Mary suspected, to get desperate. Enough so that they’d started flirting with the idea of fighting the beasts. There were many who were gathering poles for more tent construction, each pole sharpened on each end so they could be planted in the ground.
That’s the lie, anyway, Mary thought.
That lie was what kept the peace for the moment. Refugee and Academy both pretended the sticks weren’t spears being stockpiled for future incident. Both sides hoped for a resolution that didn’t have one.
The patrol of the vat beasts had turned grass at the base of the wooden wall to a thick soup of mud. A hundred feet of grass separated the band of mud and the beasts from the refugees. Trees had been chopped down and pieced together into haphazard shelters, and some material had been used to erect tents, but the omnipresent rain and the sheer number of refugees posed their own problems. Tens of thousands of people were out there, Mary guessed. Tens of thousands of people had to walk, they had to eat, and they had to go to the bathroom. The ground level of the refugee camp was quickly becoming a sty, any ground not covered already by some form of shelter quickly becoming a stew of mud, shit and piss.
On the other side of the wall, Lillian was hanging back while a group of doctors talked with the town’s city council and prominent citizens. The ground there was a wicker-basket weave of grown wood filling the plaza. There wasn’t much mud at all, and the rain had washed away most of the dirt that had been tracked in when others had entered or exited through the gate.
Vats sat by the wall, as did the wagons that had brought them there, and the stockpiles of food and chemicals to sustain them. More vat beasts were within, and yet more creatures sat near those. A circus show of monsters and beasts lurking near where the food was handed out and where the overhang of the wall’s edge helped keep the rain off them. They included all types, from the aquatic to the reptilian to mammals. Most were hairless and mostly unclothed, and most were bipedal, drawing inspiration from their creators.
Mary’s thoughts touched briefly on what Sylvester and Jessie had said about the Block. Her thoughts touched briefly on the vague image of this noble that supposedly shared blood and history with her, and the glass coffin the noble had laid within.
How many of those monsters had been human once? How many others had been pieced together from components that were obtained from human donors? Any one of them could have benefited from root cells, muscle transplants, or sections of brains, if not whole brains then molded with drug regimens.
Lillian was watching the beasts while the conversation played out next to her.
Mary wished Lillian wasn’t being so quiet. She could see what Lillian was doing, but it wasn’t actively serving their purpose here.
Glancing up, Lillian met Mary’s eyes. Her hand moved in a gesture. I. Eyes.
Then before she could communicate anything more, someone in the group said something to Lillian, taking up her full attention.
It didn’t seem urgent, whatever it was Lillian had been conveying.
Looking back in the direction of the refugee camp, she saw that one of the bystanders closest to her had his pants down. He was actively jerking his hand back and forth, furiously enough that she thought he might hurt himself.
He pulled his hands away in a very dramatic way, raising them with middle fingers raised at her, and shouted. The distance made his words inarticulate, but she could guess what he’d said. He’d illustrated, in a way, with a forward thrust of his hips coinciding with each word.
He screamed over and over like a small child having a tantrum, rage and desperation boiling over. When she didn’t react or move, he added variation. She could almost read his lips, and pair that read with the distant cry. Screw you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you all, screw yourselves…
Trying to get to her, to bother her, hurt her like he was hurting, even if it was through a kind of self abuse and humiliation.
She could be clinically empathetic, but she couldn’t quite bring that empathy home and feel it. Things were the way they were. She couldn’t do anything for him.
She would support Lillian, trusting that Lillian would make things better.
She fixed the hood of her raincoat, turned away, and walked down the stairs that led from the wall-top to the plaza below. As she made her way down, she could see the full assortment of the Academy’s monsters. Most existed for utility purposes, it looked like. A solution for every problem.
The council was already starting to depart when Mary reached them.
“The general was saying we have a few days to figure things out,” the mayor said, his voice lowered a bit, so the rest of the city council wouldn’t hear as they walked away. “He thinks the vagrants outside the wall are going to stir themselves up and try another attack, so we don’t have much longer than that.”
“We’ll see what we can do,” the lead doctor said.
“If they have a way into the city, we need to know about it,” the mayor said, insistent. “There’s rumors that some out there are sick. Not the red plague, but any sickness is bad when we’re already pressed in.”
“Rest assured, we have the situation in hand,” the lead doctor said.
The mayor didn’t look convinced. “Let us know if you need anything.”
With those parting words, the man struck the wood-woven street with his cane and limped away.
It was telling that the group of Academy doctors were silent as the town’s council left the area. They didn’t want to be heard.
Lillian glanced at Mary. Mary moved her hand. I see-know.
Lillian signaled. We agree.
They’d both figured out the answer.
Speak, Mary urged.
Wait, was the response.
Mary pursed her lips.
“The Infante should be by before nightfall,” the lead doctor said, checking his watch. “No more than two hours. There are rumors that other populations have been crossing the burned acreages to reach black woods and collect the wood for use against the Crown. He thinks, if there’s a trend, that it might occur here, close to Radham. Don’t make me look bad.”
Mary and Lillian exchanged glances.
“We’ll check the vat beasts for drugs,” the lead doctor decided. “If the vagrants are getting in, they have to be getting by the vat beasts somehow. I can only imagine a rebel group with access to medicine using darts or drugging food for the beasts and slipping by.”
“Yes sir,” was the muttered reply. Mary didn’t feel compelled to respond.
“Station some scratchers on the wall. Turn their ears toward the vagrant mob. See if they can’t hear and scratch out anything suspicious.”
“We’ll need to set up something to keep the rain off of them and their papers,” another doctor said.
Mary looked at the scratchers, which were sitting in the rain. Their heads and ears seemed to make up half of their bodies, the rest of them spindly. They resembled hairless cats minus the tails, or hairless bats without wings. They looked less fond of the rain than anything present, human faces on bestial bodies with long fingers, sulking as they sat slouching in puddles.
“Do it. Recruit help if you have to, to get the materials or building done. Requisition the writing supplies if we don’t have enough. Volume of material is better than anything else, and if the mayor says we can ask if we need anything, we might as well see if he’s telling the truth.”
“I’ll handle that,” one doctor supplied.
The lead doctor nodded, folding his arms. He drew in a breath, and in the process he managed to puff himself up a bit. Finally, he relented and asked, “Any other ideas?”
Speak, Mary gestured, again.
Wait, Lillian gestured, before asking, “Can any of the experiments at the wall talk?”
“Some, I’m sure, if only barely,” the lead doctor said. “Why?”
“If we haven’t asked if they’ve seen anything, I don’t think it’ll hurt.”
The lead doctor looked fairly unimpressed, but that wasn’t anything new. “You’re here to lend your particular expertise, as Professor Hayle touts it. I was hoping you’d impress me with something more concrete, miss.”
We know what the answer is, Mary thought, before gesturing again. Speak.
“I’m confident in my abilities, doctor,” Lillian said. She’d emphasized ‘doctor’ a touch, as if to make a note that she was using his title while he insisted on calling her ‘miss’.
He didn’t respond to that. Instead, he looked at Mary. “You have a guest, girl.”
Mary was surprised at that. “Do I?”
“Your parent. They’re at the north gate. I was called away from other duties to receive the message and carry it to you. They’re waiting for you now.”
“I see,” Mary said. She saw the expression on the doctor’s face, put on her act as a young lady of Mothmont, and curtsied. “I’m sorry for the trouble.”
“I already think very little of you two being here. It’s dangerous, the vagrants could reach their tipping points and attack any day now, and you girls seem more interested in sightseeing, playing about, and apparently visiting with family.”
“Again, I’m sorry for the trouble,” Mary said. She curtsied, and this time she kept her head down.
After a moment, the doctor sniffed. “Get going.”
Mary turned to Lillian. “If I may?”
“I’ll look into some things and meet up with you later,” Lillian said, as her hand moved. Think. Think. Water. Sleep.
Agree, Mary gestured. Lillian would work on this some more, wash, and then nap. They’d traveled overnight to get here. It was overdue.
It still frustrated Mary, that Lillian was keeping quiet on something essential. They’d come here to accomplish a mission, and it was an easy mission. The refugees were being collectively driven out of town and city by the spread of black wood and plague. This was one of many locations where the refugees had traveled in hopes of finding a new home, only to find a barrier. Some refugees were slipping past, despite a population of vat-grown beasts that were supposed to be on watch, with senses that allowed them to feel the vibrations in the earth from tunneling.
Hayle had volunteered them, and they’d been happy to accept, really. They had skills in investigation and infiltration. Investigating infiltrators was second nature. They had their mission.
The broader, larger mission was to build up Lillian’s reputation. Getting her grey coat would require sponsorship and funding. Each Academy had only so many labs, and an overabundance of specialists. Lillian was positioned to get lab space, and even to use her ties to Hayle to have her own exclusive lab, but after some discussions over tea with Hayle, they’d decided that taking advantage of that connection in the now would potentially leave them short of political capital later.
Lillian needed to prove her worth in a way that gave her a history she could clearly point to. References, completed missions and being a cog in the war machine that had won.
Both of them knew that the refugees were tunneling after all. Lillian had seen something within the city that had helped her realize it. Mary had seen from the wall how the refugees were setting up the spears, yes, but also that they were camouflaging the hole they were digging, while simultaneously guiding the flow of rainwater to better flood areas.
The tunnels would be waterlogged as a consequence, but the actual movement of earth and footfalls underground would be muffled.
Lillian knew and was staying quiet, when they could have challenged the annoying doctor’s perception, proven their worth, and finished the mission in record time. If they could do that enough times, Lillian could make her name as a problem solver.
Mary was annoyed, frustrated, and a small part of that had to do with the condescension.
It was a bad tone as she found her ‘father’ by the north gate. She found him at the gatehouse, talking to a military officer. On seeing her, he broke away from the conversation, raising and opening an umbrella in the same motion.
He was a man who dressed well. He liked the tailored suit jacket, the tie, and the triangle of a kerchief in the pocket of his suit, color matching that of the tie, though it was plain while the tie was patterned. He wore round glasses with gold frames and kept his hair oiled and parted. The look was old fashioned at the same time as the glasses, tie, and kerchief were bold decoration.
“Father,” she said. “It’s a surprise to see you here.”
He reached her, and with the umbrella in one hand, he embraced her briefly with the other arm. She allowed it, maneuvering so he wouldn’t feel the press of blades or weapons.
When the hug broke, he remained close enough that they could share his umbrella. Mary lowered her hood.
“We made plans,” he said.
“I know. I was called away.”
“As you often are,” he said.
She didn’t have a response for that. It wasn’t that she was speechless or troubled. It was that he was right and she didn’t really see the issue with that reality.
He sighed. “We only ask for your company three or four times a year or so. In recent years it’s been only twice a year. Last year it was once.”
Mary thought again of the noble girl who shared her blood. This man’s real daughter.
She had only maintained limited contact with her supposed parents, for appearances, at Hayle’s request. They had maintained a concern that embedded programming would make her turn on them and on herself in a violent way, and it had taken some time to ensure that wasn’t the case, with the help of pictures and incidental exposure while she remained restrained.
It had been necessary to be sure, even after learning the truth about her trigger phrase and Percy’s intentions.
But she hadn’t gone to any lengths to do more than the bare minimum in seeing them. It was an inconvenience. Their depth of feeling for her made her lack of feeling for them an uncomfortable lack.
“The messenger brought your note, and I hurried to see if I couldn’t see you at the train station before you left.”
“We didn’t take the train,” Mary said.
“I know. I found that out. I went asking, and I heard you were here. I heard… worrying things.”
“Things?” Mary asked.
He liked to be clean-shaven, without any facial hair, and even with the overcast weather and the shade the umbrella provided, she could see a muscle stand out as the corner of his jaw as he glanced away.
“If you asked girls at the dormitory, you should know they’re catty, they like their webs of rumor and deceit, to cut down the other girls. Whatever it is they said.”
“I asked at the orphanage,” he said. “Where you stayed so you could be closer to the school. Are the webs of deceit cast by girls of the Academy that insidious, that someone at the orphanage a ten minute walk from the Academy’s doors would say the same things?”
“You were apparently busy.”
“I was,” he said, and that was very nearly a sentence on its own, but he continued, “…wanting to know my daughter.”
Mary glanced away. She wondered what the noble lady had properly looked like.
She wondered if there was something she could say that would make this man stop trying to cling to her.
As she looked up at him, he held himself stiff, chin firm.
Her own chin was raised, held steady, so she could meet his eyes without wavering.
“I sent you to Mothmont because I believed it would provide you with opportunity,” he said. “Because I work every day with wealthy and powerful men and I can see that there’s a divide, a chasm between me and them. I am good at managing money, but I could do my best work every single day of my life and I wouldn’t ever be their peer. I wanted Mothmont and the connections it gave you to at least give you the possibility of being great.”
“Things happened, unfortunate ones. But in the midst of them you found a direction. I trusted you to walk that path you chose.”
“Trusted. Past tense.”
“I never fully understood what you were doing, and any questions were met by your insistence it was classified. I’ve wrung my hands over it, talked with your mother. We decided each time to trust you.”
“Have I betrayed that trust?”
“Have you?” he asked, not turning it around, but making it a genuine question.
“I think I would need to know the accusations before I can answer that question.”
“You and Lillian. Spending too much time in each other’s company.”
“Mild, as accusations go,” Mary said.
His expression changed, hardening a bit, looking more wounded, making it more clear what he was meaning to say.
“No, father. She has a boy she likes. Gordon- you met Gordon.”
“He died some time ago, Mare,” her father said, his voice softening. “And I could almost understand, almost, if it was your heart being tender after a loss, but…”
Mary held firm, remaining silent.
“…It’s been some time, and I haven’t known you to be tender for quite some time.”
“It’s something I’m not terribly good at,” Mary said.
“I wondered about you, but I trusted you,” he said. “I want you to know that. But I’ve heard things and stewed over them for the entire trip here. I don’t know you and I’m unsure about the path you’re walking. Girls and boys from multiple places remarked on you. Saying that you share her bed. That you’re her servant, following her around like a dog. There was speculation you take combat drugs, that you’ve been experimented on-”
“That’s only venom from a nest of vipers, father.”
“Convince me,” he said. His knuckles were white as he gripped the umbrella. The umbrella’s waver betrayed his. “Please.”
It’s all because I’m not the girl you’re looking. Percy was my father more than anyone.
“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say,” she said. “I can protest all day, but you’ll wonder all the same.”
“I don’t know where you’re going, I don’t know where you are. I don’t know how you got this way,” he said. He sounded oddly less plaintive, even as he pleaded. “I don’t know you.”
She reached up, fixing her hair. It was damp from some of the spatter of rain, and she pushed it up and away from her forehead.
“It’s classified,” she said.
“-so I’m expecting you to be discreet.”
He shut his mouth.
“There was the incident in Mothmont. I… was homesick. I fell in with a bad group.”
That muscle at the corner of his jaw worked again.
“Should I continue?” Mary asked. “If I carry on, I’ll upset you.”
“If you don’t, I’ll be more upset.”
Are you sure? she thought. She spoke, “I partook in the mass poisoning.”
She studied his reaction. She watched the thought process, as he tried to put it all together while still not having enough information.
“They’re the reason I’m… not tender. Them but especially the man who led them.”
She thought about elaborating. Calling that man a father figure. The twist of the knife that would ensure she was never inconvenienced by this man again.
Lillian wouldn’t have wanted her to.
“My stay at the Academy was to watch over me, ensure I wasn’t a danger. It’s why they didn’t let you visit. Lillian is one of the few who know where I came from.”
“But the rest of it? The classified jobs?”
“I was asked to accompany them because they were keeping an eye on the reverend Mauer. Who you introduced me to. Who was revealed as a secret rebel.”
Again, that muscle at the jaw.
“I knew enough that the Academy didn’t to be useful. I’ve learned skills. The only things they’ve done to me are to ensure I’m alright, even if I’m not tender and haven’t been for a long time.”
“So that’s what happened. That’s where you were, all this time.”
He looked, to a degree, as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
“As to where I’m going, what lies at the end of this path?”
For an instant, she floundered. Giving an answer that tied her too closely to Lillian was problematic.
“I want to teach,” she said.
“Teach?” He sounded surprised at that.
When she answered, she spoke the words and knew they were true at the same time. “I want to train a proper army, and I have for a long time. The path I’m walking, I think I can get there. I’m enough of a perfectionist that I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less.”
“So you are my daughter after all. The perfectionist.”
She felt uncomfortable at the idea, but she kept her mouth shut.
“I have more questions,” he said. “About what happened at Mothmont. Just what you’ve been up to.”
“They may have to wait. If I can even answer them at all.”
“But for now? I really do have a job to do. And speed is of the essence. I’m going to go.”
“If I stayed in town, could I see you again?”
“If you’re in town when the Infante arrives, you may find that the roads are closed and security redoubled,” Mary said. “You should go soon. I’ll see you later this year.”
He somehow didn’t seem very hurt by the bluntness. It could have been that he valued being taken into confidence. It could have been that he had largely come to terms with the distance between them.
Clinically, she could tell that his eyes were sad, his smile genuine at the same time.
“I don’t need to worry about you and Lillian?”
“She’ll run the Academy, and I’ll handle the military arm,” Mary said. “She has that boy she likes, and I… just need time.”
Time being the integral component. This dream might have been feasible, if only barely, but time was the thing she needed most, with more time giving her more room to accomplish it. She would expire, sooner or later.
“It’s not what I envisioned, when I held you in my arms,” he said.
Again, Mary didn’t have a response for that.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
“Thank you,” she said, her voice soft.
They did need help. They needed contacts and resources. Maybe all of the discomfort and distraction involved with maintaining this family would prove useful. Maybe.
“Hood up,” he said. “Don’t get too wet. Unless you want my umbrella?”
She shook her head, reaching up to lift her hood back into place.
They parted ways.
You deserve a better daughter, Mary thought. Not a ghost. Not an offshoot.
The line of thought about the teaching and training soldiers stuck with her. It kept her company alongside less comfortable, easy thoughts that lingered from the conversation.
She had been happy to exist, to keep people she valued close. She honed her skills and proved her worth and she was content in that.
At the same time, she had avoided thinking of the future, until pressed to paint one for her father.
It all would have been easier if she had ignored the man. She might have, if the image of her counterpart didn’t nag at her, if her original self was dead five years ago, reduced to nothing and boiled away in a vat, instead of mere months ago, keeping company with nobles.
She valued how she was evaluated, liked being the best Mary she could be. Seemingly effortlessly, someone else had surpassed her in that.
Yet talking to her father was supposed to fix that? She didn’t like the way that idea rested in her head.
Lillian was supposed to be back at their temporary accommodations, stealing a nap before the Infante came. There were things to be discussed and considered before then. Mary would get the answer as to why Lillian wanted to wait instead of seizing the most political capital possible.
She felt restless.
The building was quiet, its other occupants out for the day, or at least entertaining themselves with books rather than music boxes and conversation. Many refugees of higher standing had been allowed into the town, and many places were crowded, but this building had avoided the worst of it.
She unlocked the door and let herself in, looked at Lillian sleeping on the bed with a towel around her head. Mary used every trick at her disposal to minimize noise.
The bathwater was still lukewarm, so she made use of it.
She wanted sleep more than she wanted anything else, so she was efficient. She peeled off her clothes, damp even though she had been adequately protected by her raincoat.
Her fingers brushed over a hundred tiny scars, a dozen less tiny ones, and a half-dozen clusters or longer scars where she had been opened up. Brown and black smudges grew here and there, or formed hard nodules.
She was a copy of another person, and she had spent the first few years of her life in a vat. She had hit the ground running, growth-wise, development-wise, and even as her growth had been stopped, her body maintained a different clock, and her development had taken a fresh direction, with an overwhelming and eager focus on her training.
But cells copied themselves over and over again, and the combination of that reality and the odd clock she kept, with the copying of copying, it meant things were running aground, flaws finding reality.
There were times and places where her hands didn’t move quite the way she wanted, or where muscles caught. She was careful to tell Lillian about each of them, and with Lillian’s care she was allowed to pursue her perfection again.
Lillian’s soap and toiletries rested on the bath’s edge. On impulse, she left them alone, choosing the coarse lye soap instead. She scrubbed herself until her skin was pink and tingling, then rinsed herself off.
She dressed light, so she wouldn’t rumple her clothes. She would want to look good when the Infante arrived.
Lillian looked so tired, even in sleep.
The black coat remained the goal, it had to be. But this job and jobs like it, they felt like small steps. They needed to accomplish something more.
They needed to not wait when they had answers others wanted. Not when time was so elusive.
Mary took a moment to tie her hair back with her ribbons, then climbed onto the bed. She remained there, poised, on her hands and knees above Lillian.
Gently, she lifted Lillian’s hands, moving them out of the way. Then she leaned down, touching her lips to her friend’s.
Soft, almost imperceptible.
Lillian reacted, exhaling softly, and Mary moved the towel to cover Lillian’s eyes as she made the kiss more perceptible, momentary touches instead of feather light ones.
Lillian, more awake, raised her head up, reaching, and Mary met that response with something substantial, then a touch of tongue.
It was about drawing it out. A quarter of the way, each time. Then as Lillian responded more, halfway each time.
Lillian arched her back, reaching up with her whole body, while her wrists were held down.
The progression, logically, meant the next step was a three-quarter one. Body to body. Instead of this, Mary moved her knee, placing it on the bed between Lillian’s legs, firmly, insistently pressing. She could feel Lillian change the angle of her hips.
A part of her liked getting this right. Like managing the perfect maneuver with the knife and wire, precise acrobatics. It made her think of being in lockstep with Gordon, Helen, or Sylvester.
Lillian made the most delicate of moans, and that response merited another three-quarter-of-the-way-there response. A kiss, a tightening of her grip on Lillian’s wrists.
In the midst of it all, the moment passed. A change in the responses that each action got. In the immersion she was maintaining.
Mary let go, and sat back.
Lillian reached up, taking hold of the damp towel that had been draped over her upper face, and pulled it down, clutching it to her chest.
“What gave me away this time?” Mary asked.
Lillian shook her head. She was breathing hard, and she didn’t speak immediately.
Mary let herself topple over, lying on the bed to one side. While she lay there, Lillian took her hand, fingers traveling over Mary’s fingers. Fingertips traced calluses. From handling knives and razor wire.
“They’re not his hand,” Lillian said. Her voice was soft enough it crackled a little bit. She sounded sad.
“Ah,” Mary said. “I can do something about that.”
As she looked over at Lillian, however, she could see that her friend’s eyes were sad.
“Unless you want me to stop.”
Lillian shook her head, but she didn’t look sure.
“You look so sad, after,” Mary said.
“It’s nice to believe it, just for a few moments,” Lillian said. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing. Maybe I’m not letting it be a clean break.”
“I don’t know,” Mary said.
“I’m so twisted,” Lillian said. “The Lambs are all twisted around, aren’t they?”
“I’m not the one to answer that, one way or the other,” Mary said. “It’s more or less all I’ve ever known.”
Still holding Mary’s hand, Lillian knit the fingers of their hand together, staring at the hands, which were held up as they lay there.
They remained like that for several minutes.
“I don’t want to bore you,” Lillian finally said. “Or for you to think less of me.”
“I’d never think less of you, not for something like this. And I like the challenge. Seeing how close I can get,” Mary said. “But if you want to talk about irritating me… why did we wait?”
“I knew you were going to ask.”
Mary sat up, abrupt. “I want us to progress.”
“This is progress,” Lillian said. “This is choosing our time to make a move with some wisdom.”
“You’re cautious,” Mary pointed out. “You need to make bold moves.”
“It’s not that. I knew almost right away that I’d need to wait a measured time. I saw dirt patterns almost right away too, but still, no, if we act too soon, it’ll seem uppity, like we’re showing them up.”
“They don’t like you, or us,” Mary said. “However you do it, they won’t like it. All we’re doing by waiting is giving them the chance to find out the answer first.”
“With the track they’re on?” Lillian asked. She shook her head. “No, no. This is right. They won’t admit they’re impressed, but it gets us the most traction. It’ll count for something.”
“I’d rather finish sooner,” Mary said. “Move on to something more meaningful.”
Lillian huffed out a sigh. There was some residual frustration in that huff.
“What?” Mary asked.
“And a part of me doesn’t want to say no, to people who want someplace safe to go,” Lillian admitted. “I don’t want to be that kind of doctor. I want to offer a better solution.”
Mary nodded. She let herself fall back down, collapsing onto the pillow.
“I know, logically, it makes more sense to gain power so I can help people… but I wonder how many tell themselves that,” Lillian said.
“I was thinking about that, as a matter of fact,” Mary said. “About where we’re going. What we might do, if there’s time.”
Lillian turned her head.
Before she could respond, however, a knock rapped at the door. Lillian jumped as she heard it, then sat up partway up as she recognized the pattern.
Mary reached over to the bedside table, and she drew her gun. She had one knife under a pillow, and as she reached for that, Lillian slapped at her hand.
She would make do with the gun.
“Come in,” Mary said.
The door opened. Jessie. She wore a raincoat and a long skirt, and she’d chosen not to wear her glasses. It wasn’t until she lowered her hood and moved her braid into place at one shoulder that she looked more like herself. She drew glasses from her pocket and set them in place.
“Did something happen?” Lillian asked. Mary didn’t miss seeing how Lillian unconsciously clutched at the sheets as she asked.
Jessie shook her head.
Then, with an entirely different kind of tension and fear, Lillian asked, “Did you hear?”
“Not so much. I… surmised,” Jessie said.
While Lillian flushed, Mary stepped in to rescue her. “Why are you here?”
“We want to gather the Lambs,” Jessie said. “We’re pulling everyone together.”
“Why?” Mary asked.
Something about the look in Jessie’s eye was answer enough.
The desperation, the anger. Mary had seen that on too many faces recently. Jessie, at least, wasn’t re-enacting the desperation and anger that the man standing outside the wall had.
“The situation outside the gates is most of the answer, isn’t it?” Jessie asked. “You know who’s really behind it. We need to answer that. Someone does.”
“There’s a lot of people responsible,” Lillian said. “It’s too big a problem to tackle.”
“We’re in the middle of something big. And we’re drawing a lot of people in,” Jessie said.
Lillian pursed her lips.
“And you won’t tell us more in case we don’t say yes,” Mary said.
Jessie shook her head. “You didn’t become a Doctor to be complicit in that, Lillian. I don’t think you became a Lamb to be complicit in it. You wouldn’t have killed Percy one of the first times I met you, if you were willing to let this slide. And don’t tell me if we’re patient that this will get better. Because it isn’t getting better.”
Jessie’s tone was changing as she spoke. That anger was there again. It wasn’t really borne of empathy, though if Jessie resembled Jamie at all, she did have her share of empathy to spare.
No, it was an anger borne of a refrain. Not enough time. Repeated endlessly with periodic variation, as if enough insistence and the occasional variation could somehow break through and achieve the desired effect.
Mary had experienced some of that. Something like it had spurred her to act and reach out to Lillian.
“I don’t-” Lillian started. “Sy couldn’t come himself?”
“It didn’t work out that way,” Jessie said. “Logistically. We thought staying behind and keeping an eye on things would be hard… and he wanted to endure it himself.”
“Because he’s a moron,” Lillian said.
“There really was no good way to do this. There’s no good way to move forward with our plan unless we have the Lambs all together.”
Lillian started to say something, and then she stopped.
Mary felt a sense of dread. The current situation, the stall in the forward momentum, as they made the leap from getting Lillian’s white coat to getting the harder to define grey one. The refugees outside the wall. The Infante, and the problems there.
Missing Sylvester. Missing the Lambs being together.
Lillian couldn’t give a firm answer because she didn’t have one. If anything, Lillian was giving it serious thought.
Mary’s thoughts touched on her supposed father, inexplicably. They touched on the idea he had helped her conjure up, of teaching soldiers. Of wanting time, which the Academy could provide more than anyone else.
“What if I say no?” Mary asked.
Lillian looked at her, and Mary knew in the moment that they stood on different sides of the decision.
“Or if I need time to think about it?” Mary amended.
“There’s no time,” Jessie said. “The Infante is coming. You said it yourself, when you were talking to Mr. Cobourn, security will increase, roads will be closed.”
“We’ll manage,” Mary said. “But don’t pull the oldest trick in the con artist’s book, and choose to have this meeting here, now, when there’s a time limit, and force a decision.”
“That’s not how I operate. It just happened that way,” Jessie said.
“I agree with Mary,” Lillian said. “I need time, too. You’re asking me to put so many things behind me. You know how hard I worked for my white coat.”
“I know,” Jessie said. “But if we wait for the Infante, the city will lock down. It means we aren’t meeting with Sy for a few more days, at a minimum, and that’s a lot to ask. It means added danger. At the very least, come out of the city with me. We won’t be here, and that’s easier to explain away if you decide not to go.”
Lillian clutched the sheets again. “No, Jessie. Whatever you and Sy and Helen are brewing, you can’t just not be in touch for months on end and then suddenly show up and expect us to leave everything behind.”
“We were in touch. We sent you a letter from Hackthorn.”
Lillian stopped in her tracks at that.
“Ah,” she said. “I wondered about someone like her wanting to make Lambs. I thought it would be a mockery, all appearances.”
Jessie shook her head.
“We’re in touch with the Duke,” Lillian said. “We’re situating ourselves to help him stop what’s going on. We’d be leaving him stranded.”
“We’ll rope him in too,” Jessie said.
“No,” Lillian said. “It’s not that easy. There’s Ashton and Duncan, and they’re complicated too. I’m just worried if we do this badly, it’ll divide the Lambs again.”
“It sounds like you’re trying to find a reason to say no and it doesn’t sound like you’re convinced by any of them,” Jessie said.
“I have a thousand not-entirely-convincing reasons!” Lillian said, raising her voice. “Everything I’ve done here has been not very convincing. But it’s not like Sylvester offers better. What you’re describing sounds terrifying.”
“What we need is terrifying,” Jessie said, and she said it in the calmest voice. One that suggested that the anger and fear and the need for time were all answered in those five words.
And those five words spoke to something in Lillian too. As much as she’d managed to fling herself into the ‘no’ side of things, she found herself straddling the fence.
Mary, not quite straddling that fence, moved her hand, situating the gun on her knee.
Jessie met her eye.
“We’ll need time to discuss,” Mary said. “Go. Please. We’ll find you.”
“And if I don’t move?” Jessie asked.
Will I find that passion and strength and desperation, as my body gives up on me? Mary wondered. Maybe we’ll see.
She pulled the trigger, and as the room rang with the sound of the handgun firing, Jessie dropped to the floor, blood painting the door beside her. Lillian’s yelp and her voice shouting into the midst of the ringing didn’t help matters.
Before Lillian was out of bed and all the way to her, however, Jessie was standing, one hand at the graze on her thigh.
“Give us just a little bit of time,” Mary said.