I wasn’t good at being alone.
I tossed and turned. I hadn’t slept for a few days, and I was at the point where I was looking to sleep and I couldn’t. Somewhere along the line, I had tried to force a mental image of one of the Lambs into the bed beside me, only for my scattered thoughts to turn to the fighting and violence.
I was really, really hoping that the blood that soaked the sheets next to me was an imagining that wouldn’t go away and not something real that I couldn’t remember the source of.
“Ferres,” I spoke, my voice feeling very small in the professor’s expansive bedroom.
“What is it?” I heard the voice.
Well, she sounded snippy.
“Well, you sound snippy,” I said, voicing the thought.
“Can I help you with something, Sylvester?” she asked. Less curt than before. She sounded tired.
“Did you go into this with dream of doing good? Was it always about the art?”
“Oh, so it’s the personal questions now?”
“I could ask you other questions, but I think you’re one of the people that’s furthest from my comprehension.”
“It was both, but the art was a constant throughout. From my first days in Academy prep, I would trace the diagrams and sketches in the textbooks. The diagrams inspired by Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, only with the Wollstone ratios applied, the anatomy sketches, the sketches of chimerical work, the dog variations with different second and third ratios.”
I could visualize each of them, even if I had little experience with those things.
“When you apply to the Academy, it isn’t invite-only, but they ask you to prove your knowledge, and you don’t get that knowledge without having practical exercise first. The Academy prep schools help, but it’s not an absolute. Especially for a young lady, at the time I was seeking entry.”
I closed my eyes. “A steeper hill to climb.”
“It’s the very start of a long series of small political games. You need someone to help, and either you prove yourself as a cut above, or you put yourself in that individual’s debt. The latter is often better than the former.”
“Is it?” I asked. I was trying not to think, to let my thoughts ease down, and listening helped. The question was automatic, just keeping things going, more than anything I analyzed.
“If you’re a cut above, others will look to cut you down. If you’re in someone’s debt, then that someone is motivated to help you move on to better things. I was both, but I hid my strengths. I paid attention to the local professors, and I gifted some sketches to the one I liked most. Art based on an article of his I didn’t even understand at the time. That was my in. My inspiration was always my way in, always something I had in play for each turning point in my life.”
“What part of it was about doing good?”
“I put a smile on that man’s face. I created things that made people smile and marvel at the wonder of our world.”
“You created those things at a cost. Each smile paid for with someone else’s tears. For self aggrandizement.”
“Ah, and now we move on to the verbal abuse.”
“Are you deflecting?”
“No,” she said, and she sounded that much more tired than before. “No, Sylvester. By all means. Castigate me. Attack me with words.”
I was silent. Something about her tone…
I opened my eyes, and in the doing, I realized I had company beside me on the bed. I wished I recognized them. There was a boy, his sandy blond hair parted to one side, wearing a long raincoat of the sort that students liked, long enough to touch the top of his shoes. The style served to emulate the flutter and majesty of a proper white coat. He sat on the bloodstain, hugging his knees.
A girl lay beside him, sprawled on the bed, graceless, arms and legs bent at odd angles. Her red hair was slicked close to her head, wet, and she wore very plain, basic clothes in far too many layers, an undershirt worn over a slip, worn over a dress. Her throat had a choker at the neck, a collar held close to the neck by a ribbon, a buttoned uniform collar around that, and a looser collar around that, low enough it might have shown decolletage if she hadn’t been so ensconced, and if was old enough to have any. Her legs were nearly lost in the folds of a slip, a plain dress, and a pleated skirt.
She was more modest than many of the random girls that appeared to me.
The room was lit only by the light of the moon coming in through the window, but the red of the blood on the other side of the bed was very clear. As I shifted position, the girl on the bed raised her head a fraction, and I could see the blood on the one side of it, both dry flakes transferred from sheet to skin, and the still-to-dry damp of it. Some of it had found its way into the corner of one of her eyes, diluting through the moisture there to color the one eye red. If she’d blinked, she might have blinked it away, but she didn’t. She only stared at me.
“Ferres,” I said, to distract myself.
There was a pause.
“What can I do for you, Sylvester?”
Well, she sounded snippy.
“Why don’t you seem to care if I call you out on your amorality?”
“Pot and kettle, isn’t it, Sylvester?” she asked. I heard her yawn.
“Is it?” I asked.
“They don’t have names when they come to me, Sylvester. They don’t have histories.”
I reached out for the hand of the girl in the layered clothes. She wore fingerless gloves over regular gloves over elbow length ones. It took me a second to trace my finger down the long gloves until I touched her upper arm.
She was ice cold.
I felt a stab of fear, pushed harder, as if to push through, and she pulled away, slipping from my finger as wet soap might. I followed, lunging across the bed, and was immediately put in mind of a comical scene of me trying to grab soap, it slipping from my hands to pop into the air, my second grab doing the same, my third grab repeating the effort.
That image made me think of the Lambs laughing, gave me a fleeting memory of the Lambs all together, no Ashton but Gordon and Mary definitely there. All of us in the sun, somewhere away from Radham, stripped down to underwear for the boys and slips for the girls, while we were washing ourselves and our clothes at the edge of a river. I’d done it on purpose, for laughs.
The memory was too short lived, too incomplete.
The laughter didn’t echo in my head as I thought of it. The Lambs didn’t appear. There was only the boy and the girl I didn’t recognize, the boy hugging his knees while looking at me with narrow eyes. The girl had fled my touch and was now curled up at the corner of the bed furthest from me, leaning against the foodboard, watching me half the time, spending the remainder of the time glancing down at Ferres, who slept in the cot at the end of the bed.
“A bit of a reach to say they don’t have anything to them, Ferres,” I said, after I remembered the conversation I’d left trailing.
I heard Ferres shift position.
“What’s done to the children on the Block is done long before I get involved.”
And if you weren’t dipping into that particular stock, others would, and nothing would change. If enough people stopped, it would raise questions and would break the unique life cycle of the nobles…
Those weren’t my thoughts, but they were conclusions that were in my head, and they were conclusions in my head because we’d had this conversation before.
“You know, Ferres,” I said. “If you want this to let up, maybe you could start thinking more about your answers. Then I won’t have to hammer you with the questions.”
“The answers are honest, Sylvester. Keeping me up for hours with lines of questioning won’t mystically make the truth any different than it is.”
I reached out for the boy with the narrow eyes, then thought twice about it.
“Maybe I’m trying to wear you down,” I said.
“If you are, you’re doing an exceptional job at it,” she said. “I have to ask, to what ends? What do you want from me? Because I’ll supply it. If you’ll stop waking me up every five to fifteen minutes, I’ll give you whatever you want.”
“I want to know what you’re keeping up your sleeve,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “Of course.”
The springs on the cot creaked as she shifted position again.
It was an odd answer. Of course.
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.”
Blood had transferred to my hand sometime around the point I’d reached out for the girl in the layered clothing. I wiped it on the sheets, and then stared down at the trace streaks of blood.
Restless, I swung my legs off the bed and stood.
“And now for the pacing,” Ferres said.
Wanting to prove her wrong, I didn’t pace, but instead strode across the dark room and into the washroom.
I stopped in the doorway. Ferres was in the tub, wide awake, staring at me. She wasn’t drugged, either. There were three children huddled under the sink, whispering together, two boys and a girl. Another girl perched in the window, swaddled in a blanket.
I pushed forward, driven by a desire to avoid being seen hesitating, a desire to look confident and strong. Whether it was Ferres in the other room watching me from the cot, or this Ferres watching me from the tub, I wanted to look as though it was business as usual. I headed straight for the sink, bent down and washed my hands, the moonlight streaming in through the open window striking white tile behind, which helped illuminate the pale bowl of the sink. It made for contrast with the pink ribbons that streamed from my hand to the drain as the blood washed off.
I washed my face, then straightened up, leaning heavily on the sink.
My eye traveled to the chain by the toilet, where a number of tools dangled, stuck through the spokes. Scalpels, a small hand saw, a pen, a tin kit that would contain a needle and thread. More littered the side of the tub and the floor around it, sitting in spatters of blood and unspooled coils of bandage.
It would have been dangerous to leave Ferres unmedicated with so many tools within arm’s reach, yet this wasn’t dangerous at all. Ferres wasn’t sitting up in the tub. She lay within it, eyes only barely capable of peering over the edge. Both of her arms and one of her legs had been surgically removed. Streaks, smears, droplets and aterial sprays of blood painted the porcelain and tile near her.
The whispering of the children beneath the sink continued, as a constant refrain.
“What does it take to get you to talk, I wonder?” I asked the Ferres in the tub.
She closed her eyes, and it was a timid, trembling close, as if she couldn’t quite bring the two eyelids together, because every impulse in her body was keeping her in fight or flight mode and she couldn’t quite bring herself to let her guard down and actually close them tight.
Then again, a moment later, as her teeth chattered, hard, she screwed her eyes shut, flinching in reaction to something I couldn’t see. The room was warm, not cold.
It was the Ferres in the other room that answered my question. “What if I’ve already talked? What if I’ve told you and you’re simply forgetting, and we go in this dark, miserable, sleepless circle over and over again?”
I bent down, touching my hand to a bloody handprint on the tub. It matched my own.
The bloody fingerprints on a scalpel that had fallen and come to rest beside one of the tub’s clawed feet were my own, as well.
“I’m pretty good at figuring things out,” I said, to both of them.
“You are. Your memory might not be that far gone, Sylvester,” the Ferres in the other room said. “But there are things you want to forget, things you hold on to and things you let slip away. Perhaps this is a thing you’re willing or wanting to let slip away.”
I shifted position, turning around and sitting on the bathtub’s edge. The Ferres in the tub flinched as my hand moved toward her face, stopping at the tub’s edge before gripping it harder than was necessary. The flinch had been as dramatic as if I’d swung a club directly at her, not casually moving my hand within a foot of her head.
The girl in the window had company, scratching and scraping while making high-pitched noises. It fled under the swaddling blanket as I glanced up at her. Not so dissimilar from the grabbing-soap touch, only it was sight.
I glanced toward the door, beyond which the Ferres in the cot lay, supposedly shackled to the foot of the bed. I looked the other way, at the Ferres in the tub, who shrunk back from my gaze like a small child that had shirked their homework, only far more grave.
I looked between the two, smelled the blood in the air, and heard the scritch-scratching of the thing in the window, listened to the three that were huddled under and around the pedestal sink.
I heard the chattering of teeth beside me, and changed the angle of my head slightly.
“Please,” the Ferres in the tub whispered, as if she’d read something into the angle of my head.
I still held the scalpel with the bloody fingerprints on it. I changed its angle so it caught the scant moonlight from the window.
“Please,” she said, more insistence.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“In exchange for my card? One I might have already tried giving you, only for you to refuse it?” Ferres asked, at the same time she spoke in the reediest whisper, “Please don’t take my other leg. You’ve already taken my hands.”
I paused, closing my eyes, trying to stop, to take it all in isolation. Which had spoken first? One of them had spoken to fill the silence around when the other had. One had had natural timing in response to my question, the other had been squeezed around it, and I knew I had the ability to decipher that.
“Could I convince you to let me and my favored students go free?” “Even if they replace the arms, there’s no guarantee they would fix the nerves. I’d have to relearn how to use my hands. Relearn how to create, practice medicine, relearn how to draw, if it’s even possible.”
“Stop talking,” I said, irritated that they had interrupted my train of thought. “No.”
They stopped. The whispering had stopped, as had the scratching and the high pitched sounds.
I wanted to bury my face in my arms. I felt profound loss, and it had been especially pointed since I’d thought about the Lambs at the riverbank, since a little while before it, when I’d imagined someone singing me to sleep and failed to recall who it was.
I stood, reached for the door, and felt how slick the doorknob was.
Carefully, I toweled it clean. I washed my hands and the towel at the same time. More pink water down the drain. A slick doorknob and pink water and a bloodstained bed I couldn’t pin down as real or not.
I remained stone faced, using all the tricks to keep my expression straight. I took deep breaths and as I washed hands and towel-cloth together, I was careful to use measured, controlled motions, so neither of my hands was ever just there, not touching something. So long as I had my hands on my hands, the towel, or the sink, I could use those things to steady them. Ferres, wherever she was, was watching, and I couldn’t give up my upper hand there, if I had it.
The little girl that was stroking her pet while she sat in the window, the three whispering children by the sink, the boy with the raincoat, and the girl with too many clothes were all watching and they felt hostile.
I wasn’t sure anything would or could happen with that hostility, but I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t or couldn’t, either. I’d already dealt with one loss of control, and I didn’t like the idea of what might happen if these ones found their way to the driver’s seat. It didn’t feel like they liked me very much at all.
It was well beyond the point of being very much ready for the Lambs to get back and greet me in their individual ways. I would have settled for one of the Lambs in my head paying a visit. I would have settled for them coming when called, except the last time-
I thought back.
The last three or four times I’d tried, I’d had small disasters. Other things instead. Things that bothered me and left me unsure enough that I didn’t want to push any further. The bloodstain on the bed was one of them. If it was one of them.
I took a deep breath, and it was hard to get the breath around the lump in my throat. I hung up the towel, then dried my hands, before stepping back into the bedroom. I got myself dressed.
The whispering and scratching in the other room was getting more intense.
I looked at the two on the bed. The girl with the layers of clothing smiled at me, and it was oddly motherly, and the feeling that she was dangerous wasn’t any less intense.
Ferres said something as I headed out the door of the room. I wasn’t sure which one it was, and I didn’t particularly care. I slammed the door shut behind me, as if somehow that could keep the new visitors where they were.
The slam had drawn attention. Students on the bridge, now coming down the hallway at a run.
What to say to that?
“Problem?” the one in the lead asked.
He was flanked by three others. He was one of ours, I knew. Rebel. Two of the others with him looked like they were Hackthorn students. Defectors, ones who thought it was better to stick with us than to be prisoners. The fourth wore a uniform I didn’t recognize, like a military cadet.
I smiled, shook my head, and tried to figure out how to respond. “No problem. Underestimated the weight of the door.”
“I’ve done that myself now and again,” he said. Very light, very easy. “What’s going on?”
What to say, when I wasn’t sure what the scene inside was?
Best to be vague.
“Could you handle the professor while I take a walk? I need her tidied up and in one piece. You can send for help if you’re not comfortable with it.”
“Yessir,” he said.
“No need to call me sir,” I said. I gave him a half smile.
“Yessir,” he said, clearly joking. That got a proper smile from me.
I clapped a hand on his shoulder as I passed him.
I realized only as I passed by that the young man in the military uniform was closer to being like the three children under the sink or the girl in the window than to being one of my rebels or any of the Hackthorn defectors.
There were others here and there. They stood on the bridge, a lot of them children in cadet’s uniforms, a lot of them urchins who could’ve been mice, given the chance.
Each sighting and each face I couldn’t recognize was another weight on my chest.
It almost made me tear up when I saw Evette, standing at the archway at the edge of the bridge. She smiled as she saw me.
The feeling that welled up in my chest was one of fondness, of familiarity. Another Lamb.
That was her trap, perhaps, to stage things so I had nobody I cared about close at hand, only for me to bump into her and be caught by surprise. It very nearly worked. I’d almost let my guard down. Almost.
The surge in my chest became all the more hollow as I walked past her without glancing her way.
I wasn’t sure of the time, but it was late at night. I was summarily surprised to see my rebels gathered. All of the team leaders, plus one or two more that had taken up leadership positions as our numbers had swelled with defectors. None of the defectors carried weapons, but it was an uneasy thing all the same.
There was someone else present. Another face I didn’t recognize. He was larger than anyone present, though very clearly younger than anyone else here, and he was very much like Evette in how he was put together, only to a whole other level. Evette was unattractive by conventional standards, even ugly, to be unkind. At the same time, something about her was alluring, if one could step away from human standards.
This fellow who sat across from me was that many times over. It was hard to look at him and awkward not to look at him, given his size and presence. When I sat at one end of the long set of tables that had been pushed together, I was effectively sitting opposite him.
“Sylvester,” Davis greeted me, as I pulled my chair in.
Was there something in his tone? Had I somehow caught him off guard?
Mutiny? No. I didn’t get that vibe. Not exactly.
“Handling things?” I asked.
“You’d like how much progress we made,” Mabel chimed in.
“Yeah, we’re handling things,” Davis said.
I smiled to myself, even if I didn’t feel a whole lot like smiling. They’d met and were moving forward and they were doing it without me. Because they didn’t trust me.
I couldn’t even respond to Mabel with certainty because I wasn’t sure she was actually present. What would it look like if I answered someone who wasn’t there, in front of everyone?
“Need me for anything?” I asked.
“Don’t think so,” he said. “The people in the south Dorm are making noise like they might play ball. One of them is suggesting we poison them.”
I had to be so careful about how I talked and who I talked to. Was I absolutely positive he had said that last line?
“That sounds positive,” I said. I made my expression a little amused.
“The line of thinking is that if we poison them, something mild that will definitively be in their system, they’ll be loyal, and if things go sour and we lose in what unfolds next, they’ve at least got an excuse for having defected.”
“When what they want is better food and not worrying about being raided,” Bea said.
I nodded at that.
“They’re willing to cooperate under that condition, and Junior thinks we can balance it so it works,” Davis said.
“South dormitory is mixed boys and girls?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Davis said. “They’re pretty reasonable and haven’t been much trouble.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s really good. That should be enough bodies to put on a good show?”
“Should be,” Davis said. “We’re just talking about how we want to tackle the negotiations.”
Negotiations were something I was fairly good at. Was the idea that I would scare them away?
But Davis was putting on a show, so I wouldn’t look bad to the people who didn’t know I was being kept out of the loop, and I didn’t gain anything by getting in his way.
“Sounds good,” I said. “Who’s handling it?”
“Davis and me,” Mabel said.
“Perfect,” I said.
To Davis’ credit, the discussion moved on, and he looked entirely natural with me sitting in. It was almost enough for me to wonder if I’d had the wrong impression on sitting down. Then I saw the wary look, as he glanced my way.
The people at the other end of the table were talking, while the young boy with the strange features steadily ate from his plate. While the collective focus was elsewhere, Davis leaned closer to me.
I shook my head and smiled, even though I didn’t want to.
“I’m saying this with full knowledge of how it sounds, but there is something that probably only you can handle.”
“Ah, I’m being asked to leave?”
“No,” he said, very quickly. “No. Not at all. But in lab one?”
“Got it,” I said.
“It’s just a little out of hand.”
“I got it,” I said. “All fine.”
Heads turned as I pushed my chair back, the Beattle rebels glancing my way. I made it look as if nothing was wrong, and gave them a mock salute. “Keep up the good work.”
Most of the smiles I got back were genuine ones.
The large boy watched me as I headed to the stairs, taking them two at a time.
Madness reigned. The inmates were in charge of the asylum. The natural order overturned, with the most troublesome faculty and students in the cages, and the experiments in the hall between them. I could hear the shouts and banging on bars well before I entered the hall.
Red and Paul were somewhere near the head of this storm. There were students present too, and not all of them were Beattle students, either. A small handful looked like they had been Hackthorn students.
Taking the leap and ending in too deep? It was easy to do, when they felt the need to prove themselves.
There were others too. Ones who didn’t feel comfortable with the students upstairs, who didn’t feel safe enough to retreat to their beds at this late hour, and couldn’t quite bring themselves to join this collection of fifty or so. Bo Peep was among them.
There were shouts as I was recognized, even cheers, and it was a warm thing. Dangerously so.
I touched Bo Peep’s head as I passed her. I snapped my fingers in the tap code I could remember for the three blind mice.
Red wore the face of an undefined prey animal, with the eyes of someone that might be alright with killing, and she threw her arms around me, burying her face in my neck. I could smell alcohol. The tighter she squeezed me, the more I felt like I could breathe. She was laughing for reasons I couldn’t decipher, and it was like I was underwater and she was supplying me with much needed air, only it was good humor, transferred from chest to chest.
Holding me close, rather than shying away.
As she spun me, as if to pull me into the dizzy, spiraling, crazed festivity of prisoners turned captor, I could see a glimpse of Bo Peep. She’d been paying as much attention as anyone and I could see the concern in her eyes.
I put hands on Red’s shoulders and I moved her away. I gave her a brief kiss on the forehead to let her know I wasn’t mad, because I didn’t trust myself to speak.
Goldilocks was at one of the more packed cells, and she held a broom. She was jabbing it through the bars, aiming for bellies, for sides and armpits and groins.
Someone inside the cage grabbed onto the broom, and immediately, it became a tug of war. Two or three people inside grabbed at the broom, and one of the delinquent Beattle students joined Goldilocks in wrestling for the broom, to pull it back out.
I approached, and I grabbed the broom at the middle.
I turned my attention to the people within. Two faculty members.
“Let go,” I ordered.
Their grip already slipping away, they did. As the broom came free, pulled by Goldilocks and the student, I gripped the end. We stopped, now me on one end of the broom and the two of them on the other.
The picture made everyone more or less stop what they were doing.
“You’re scaring the little ones,” I said.
The likes of Goldilocks and Red had the decency to look ashamed. I wasn’t sure about Paul, or about all of the students. The pair let go of the broom, letting me take it into my grip.
Just needed a little sanity.
“I gotta ask you to leave them alone,” I said. I looked into the cells. I could see where some were soaking wet. Some were bleeding, if only a little. “We need them, and in an ideal world for everyone involved, they’ll be cooperating. This doesn’t encourage that sort of thing.”
I could see Paul’s feathers ruffling. So to speak.
I thought of the little mutiny upstairs as I paced. I approached Bo Peep and she rose to her feet. She hugged me from the side, and I set my hand on her head.
How did it go? So many of us exited the world in a way similar to how we came into it? Teetering this way and that on unsteady feet, shitting ourselves, not fully at grips with the world?
I wasn’t about to exit this world the same way I’d come into it. Not as a pet experiment of Academy people who thought they got to make the calls. I wasn’t sure that was the direction this was going, but I didn’t want to take it lying down if it happened, either.
“I need to know I can trust you if I need you,” I said. Bo Peep clutched me tighter in response to that.
The words were heavy on my heart, sitting right beside my desperate, unspoken desire. I needed the Lambs back sooner than later, to save me from the forces that were aligning against me, whether it be the ones in my head or the rebellion I’d drawn together.