Lillian stood from the bed, putting the bulk of it between her and Mary. She approached Jessie, only for Jessie to raise one hand, motioning for her to stop.
Stopping, heart pounding, she turned to Mary. “What’s wrong with you!?”
A part of her actually, honestly wondered if Mary would turn that gun on her. Mary had started out as an enemy agent, had then changed hands to the Academy for several months, as she was vetted and leashed, and she’d never really moved to the same tune as the other Lambs when it came to doubting their employers.
It was a fleeting thought, one that ran in contradiction to the ‘we need more time’ line, but as it crossed her mind, she felt her heart as though it was a zoataoan life form, all frantically grasping limbs that simultaneously around the idea and recoiled from it. What if Mary was always on their side?
No. But just as fleeting, just as heart-wrenching in its desperate, wild way, was the idea that Mary might have been genuine all along, but still be a trap, with a passcode phrase made to work in the event that the right criteria were met.
Neither was right or fair… but neither was shooting Jessie.
Jessie stood, leaning against the doorframe, one hand to the gouge in her leg. Lillian imagined the vascularity indexes, the blood maps and tried to use the shorthand to calculate Jessie’s height and body weight.
“Let me bandage it,” she said. “You’re not in danger, but-”
Jessie was already shaking her head. “No time.”
“Exactly,” Mary said. She was still sitting on the bed, still had the gun in hand.
“I’ll be around,” Jessie said. “There’s blood in the water, so I guess I’ll be dodging the sniffers.”
“There are three,” Lillian volunteered. “Sniffers, I mean. I saw two of them getting fed, and usually it’s-”
“Two at home and one on the hunt,” Jessie said.
“Yeah,” Lillian said.
“Lillian, I know I’m the odd Lamb out in a lot of ways,” Jessie said. “You could argue I’ve spent less time with the Lambs as a group than anyone. If people wanted to argue my attachment to the group isn’t as cemented in stone as it should be, I don’t think I could argue it. But you visited me a lot when I was…”
Jessie floundered at that.
“Blank and relearning?” Lillian offered.
“Yes,” Jessie said. “I’d like to think we got along. We talked a lot.”
“We did. Yes on both counts.”
“You brought me books and articles and things to proofread-”
Jessie paused as Mary stood from the bed, still holding the gun. One hand still to her bleeding leg, Jessie glanced over her shoulder to check the coast was clear.
“…I’m in a weird place,” Jessie said. “I want so badly to say that I was cheering for you as much as anyone when it came to you getting your white and black coats, but I’m against unfair competition. Sy, Mary.”
“I think back to that period when I was empty, blank, and lost, when I try to imagine you possibly giving up almost everything that makes you you. I empathize, I really do. I know it’s an idea that deserves a lot of time. But that’s time I don’t think we have. I don’t want to guilt you, but…”
Lillian could finish the thought. “Sy.”
“If you think back and think of Sylvester when he was struggling the most,” Jessie said, “I want to tell you that his good days these days are like that.”
Lillian swallowed. “Yeah.”
“Except I’d be lying,” Jessie said. “Because even on a good day today, he’s even worse than any bad day a year or two ago.”
“I don’t think you saw him after he lost Jamie, Jessie,” Lillian ventured.
“I saw him when he lost you,” Jessie said.
Then Jessie looked over her shoulder and stepped backward through the door, before moving out of sight.
That’s not fair, Lillian thought.
None of this is fair.
Mary looked as though she wasn’t even bothered. Seeing how very cold her best friend was in this moment, Lillian was spooked. Mary was getting dressed, her movements precise and practiced as she used ribbon and razor wire to position the knives she hid on her person, the ribbon protecting her body from the wire.
We’re all so far apart right now. I don’t think we come back together so much as we crash together in a heap. Some of us might not even walk away.
“They’re coming in through the building,” Mary said, as she placed a knife in the midst of her hair.
“Yeah,” Lillian said. She reached out and touched the wall with her hand. The building creaked, and the impact of footfalls traveled.
“I’ll need help with this, if it’s no trouble,” Mary said.
“You shot Jessie!”
“Yes,” Mary said. She donned what might have been called a necklace of razor wire, ribbon, and knives. She must have pulled it off as one interconnected piece before her bath. “Can you hold this ribbon?”
“You do realize I’m mad at you? I’m- I’m not even mad. I’m appalled!”
“That’s allowed,” Mary said. “But I would still appreciate help. What I was saying, what Jessie was saying, is there’s no time. They’re coming upstairs as we speak. Save me some time and hold the ribbon. Please.”
“I don’t like this side of you,” Lillian said. She took the ribbon.
“Jessie is stubborn,” Mary said. With the one ribbon secure in Lillian’s hands, she was free to weave threads and more ribbons into it, “It doesn’t shine through very often because she’s also soft spoken and she doesn’t tend to take center stage. It takes unreasonable amounts of force to make her change her mind. It’s why she can weather Sy as well as she does. What breaks another person only chips away at Jessie.”
Breaks. Lillian weighed the word in her mind. She didn’t like how it sat.
“But by that same token, if she says she’s not going to leave, she won’t leave,” Mary said, “Hold this knife? Careful, there’s wire attached to it.”
“I know she’s stubborn. I know who she is. Who Jamie was, anyway. I still don’t understand any of that Jessie-Jamie thing, except maybe wanting to leave it behind. But you shot her.”
“Her mind is like a fortress. Carefully constructed, and very hard to change,” Mary said. She said it very patiently, but she managed to avoid sounding condescending. “Unless the foundation is shaken.”
“You shot her,” Lillian repeated for emphasis.
Mary sighed. “I can handle the rest myself. Get ready, and bring your gun.”
Lillian let go of the knife, letting it fall between Mary’s shoulder blades.
She turned her back. Getting herself ready was as simple as gathering the clothes and kit she had set aside and getting everything on. Socks, waterproof boots, hairband, belt pouch…
She hesitated as she held her lab coat up.
Mary gestured. Incoming.
“Yeah,” Lillian said, still looking at her coat.
She still jumped a little as a knock came at the door.
“We’re getting dressed!” Mary called out.
Soldiers pushed the door open, as if that was more invitation than deterrent. Mary was buttoning up her shirt, her back to the door. She had no boots on, and her jacket was closer to the door than to her.
“Ma’am,” the lead soldier said. He was only a few years older than Lillian and Mary. He looked at Lillian, and appraised her as she pulled her coat on. “Doctor, ma’am.”
“‘We’re getting dressed’ is not an invitation to enter,” Lillian said. She wanted to project authority. “We could have spoken through the door.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said. “What was the gunshot? There’s blood on the door.”
“That was me,” Mary said. “We had an intruder. An acquaintance. She’ll be on the run, and she’s bleeding. I’d follow the blood trail now, because she’ll staunch it or she’ll disappear into the rain, and then you won’t be able to find her. You’ll want to signal the sniffers as well.”
He took stock of that, then glanced at Lillian.
“Please do as she asks,” Lillian said.
That was as good as an order. He turned about-face, and he and his men jogged off, following an apparently distinct blood trail.
Lillian gave Mary an unimpressed look.
“If the Infante is coming, we need to look like we’re doing our job,” Mary said.
“I just wish that we could look a little less like we’re doing our job when nobody’s looking,” Lillian said. “They- you- the Lambs as a whole, if I discount myself, you have so much to deal with, I don’t want us to make that road harder for each other.”
Mary picked up Lillian’s bag and handed it to her. “You should count yourself among us. You’ve earned that place.”
Lillian wanted to say something to that, but she wasn’t sure what.
“And while you’re doing that, remember that we’re strong, we’re capable. Be proud of your strength, Doctor. Recognize our strengths. I can make Jessie bleed and set the dogs on her and trust she’ll manage.”
“And that’s different from Sylvester putting a bullet in your knee?”
“Only barely,” Mary said. “We should walk.”
Lillian held her medical bag, the strap not yet over her shoulder.
“What are you thinking?” Mary prompted.
“That you made the decision without me.”
“And that something happened to make you change direction like this. What are you thinking? What even happened Mr. Gage?”
Mary smiled. She gestured, and Lillian nodded, slinging her bag over her shoulder. They exited the apartment, and Lillian locked it behind her before placing the key in one of her countless pockets within the lab coat, buckling it before withdrawing her hand.
“I don’t know. We had a nice conversation,” Mary said. “I told him some of the truth, and some lies. I think I put his heart at ease.”
“There are only a few times I’ve seen you this…” Lillian floundered for a word. She felt flustered, sleep deprived and anxious, too unprepared to tackle everything that was being thrown at her in the here and now.
“Unpleasant?” Mary asked.
“No. Yes, but that’s subjective. I’d almost say cold, but that’s wrong. You’re this… hard.”
“To think I was saying much the same about Jessie.”
“You’re alike, you two. You don’t budge. You set something in place and you hold fast to it. Except for you it’s something felt, it’s practice and routine and execution. It’s something constructed, like you say, when it comes to Jessie.”
Mary thought about that. Before she could say anything, more soldiers appeared. Mary pointed down the hall, in the opposite direction she and Lillian were traveling, and the soldiers hesitated. Lillian, for her part, was already drawing her badge from her pocket. She flashed it to the group. The Radham crest and a paper with signatures, both in a tidy little leather package.
The soldiers marched off.
Lillian continued, “Where things are flipped around is that it’s normally you on the offense, trying to achieve the goals, while Jamie was always the one on the defensive, being careful, one eye on the clock and on all of the little details.”
“You said Jamie,” Mary pointed out.
“I meant Jamie. I can’t be definitive about Jessie, because I can’t say where Jamie ends and she starts. But I know that when they were acting the way I remember them acting, they were Jamie.”
More soldiers approached. The fact that others had no doubt come this way was enough of a point in Lillian and Mary’s favor that they barely glanced at the badge. There was a lot to be said for image, for the white coat and the medical bag.
“I’m not good at this, for the record. Wrapping my head around whatever that is. Jessie’s business.”
“You’re doing fine, I think.”
Lillian was still upset about the way Mary had handled things, about the hardness, that her reflexive impulse was to say something negative back, to snap about being condescended to, maybe. She bit it back.
She hated being upset with Mary as much as she hated the reasons for being upset.
“If I had to give you an answer, then in talking to my dad, I was thinking about what I wanted. Something beyond wanting to support you,” Mary said.
“If it’s something I can help you find-” Lillian started.
“You leading an Academy, me training the soldiers there. Making them elite. Something honed, that gets the respect of other Academies and imparts some of it on you. I like to imagine you’re kind, you’d lead an Academy that would do good things, and I could offset that.”
“By being-” Lillian started. She almost said unkind. “-hard?”
“It’s not like that. That’s not the road I want to take to get there. But I’ve only barely started putting the idea together. Then Jessie showed up and she asked us to abandon everything.”
“No. Not like that,” Mary said. “But I don’t like the idea of not getting to think about it and then regretting it.”
The exact opposite for me, Lillian thought. I’ve sat with this idea in my head since I could write. I’ve worked at this so hard, built it step by step, assignment after assignment, terrifying day after terrifying day working with the Lambs, bleeding to make headway, my heart breaking to make headway, hurting and helping to kill people to make just another few steps of progress.
Her fingers reached for and clutched the front of her white coat.
They stepped out the front doors of the building, and they stopped there. Others were approaching.
“What happened?” the Head Doctor asked. Lillian’s de-facto superior for this whole exercise with the refugees.
“Someone else got in,” Lillian said. “Someone we might know.”
The Head Doctor’s face transformed as he took that in. It looked like he was going to say something.
“We told the soldiers to track our intruder, to rouse the sniffers and put them on the trail. Half the city’s going to be active and looking shortly, especially with the Infante’s arrival imminent.”
“You should have come to me first,” the Head Doctor said.
“Time was of the essence,” Lillian said. “The kind of intruder this is, the trail goes cold in less than a minute. A handful of seconds, even. We specialized in dealing with this kind of threat for a long time.”
The Doctor frowned.
He was a proud man, but he wasn’t an unreasonable one, she hoped. Which won out? She had a sense of how others like Helen or Sy handled these things, and confidence was often key. Showing no hesitation, driving forward.
“The problem with those who specialize is they often miss the big picture,” the Doctor said.
“If your socket-graft patient is facing a cardiac ejaculation and you have a heart and a graft specialist offering you assistance, it would not reflect well on you if you turned them down,” Lillian said.
She was happy that she’d found the word choice mid-sentence, focusing on how things would reflect on the Head Doctor.
“Carry on then,” he said, and he almost sounded like Mary as he said it. Mary when Mary was being much too focused and intense.
She departed in a way that made it look like she wasn’t fleeing the scene. She executed a half-dozen little tricks that the Lambs had painstakingly taught her, that she had turned into something natural, and now almost did without thinking. Quirks of body language, of pacing out her movements. Mary matched her, and the matching of character and intention without overtly observing Lillian was something exceptional Lillian couldn’t have learned if she had another ten years with the Lambs.
“He wasn’t happy about that,” Mary observed, once they were out of earshot “You’ll have to end that particular fight later.”
“We know how,” Lillian said. “We know about the refugees.”
“The value of biding our time with that particular chip, then?”
Things were picking up. More people, more de-facto guards, soldiers, and military. Everyone who had a uniform to put on to join the local forces was outfitted or getting there, a gun in hand. Preparation for the Infante on one hand, not to mention that the local forces had already been on high alert from a few scattered individuals making their way into the town and stirring up trouble or trying to secure accommodations. There had been fire and sabotage, and now a gunshot from one of the buildings.
“The net is closing,” Mary said.
“I know,” Lillian said.
“I don’t want to go with Jessie,” Mary said.
“I know. You made that very clear.”
“I wanted time to think.”
“You seem very decided.”
“No,” Mary said. She sounded exasperated. “Don’t let me decide. I can go where you go. What are you thinking? You and Jessie were talking about Sy.”
“I don’t want to go to him if it’s just to see how very bad he is on a bad day. I-” Lillian started to speak, then paused to take note of where she was. “It’s complicated.”
Her hand moved in a series of gestures. Reflecting status, then the basic sign for emotion and socialization, all followed by a series of descriptors. High heart small poison man.
I love him, she thought, translating it.
Add high heart cutting metal dancer, Lillian added. I love you as well.
Mary reached out, taking Lillian’s hand in her own, giving it a squeeze.
“I don’t know what to do,” Lillian said, whispering. “I can’t make a decision like this on short notice.”
“No,” Mary agreed. “That’s the problem, isn’t it? But this isn’t a short notice decision either, is it?”
Thoughts whirled through Lillian’s mind. She felt as scared as she had felt when she was new to the Lambs, when Sylvester had been so very nasty, and when the monsters had been so much more incomprehensible. That had changed over time, seeing some monsters on operating tables and others lying dead on battlefields. They were still scary, but she understood them now.
She didn’t understand this.
The rain was pattering down, and the water traveled in tiny contained rivers, between the folds and slats of wood throughout the city.
Soldiers were everywhere, patrolling, scouting areas for possible trouble, hunting for Jessie, or hunting for any refugees that might have gotten in. Others had collected near the gate, with a bulk of them being stitched forces, massed in case the refugees beyond the gates used the opening of those gates to rush within.
There was a barking sound, then a bark of gunfire further down the street. Lillian felt her blood run cold. It ran colder still when she saw the soldiers in question. They’d raised and fired their rifles, almost casually, tagging their target. The barking – a sniffer?
She did her best to hide her emotion, to bury the tells and walk like nothing was particularly wrong.
The target was one of the refugees, it looked like. They had been dashing down the street, going by how the blood splatters were spaced out, as if they’d continued to run for another five strides, with a bullet hitting them each time their foot touched ground. Now they lay in a heap, bleeding.
She wanted to help them. She wanted to do something so badly.
“It all feels so far away,” Lillian reminded herself of what they’d been talking about. “I want to be there, at the destination, but I’m so very sick of this journey. I’m… I know I could do it, but I don’t know how much longer you’ll be with me. The others too. It becomes me and Duncan and Ashton, with the new Lambs. It’s so much mud to wade through to get to the end. So much looking past the bad, telling myself I’ll be able to fix things when I get to the end.”
“You’re worried you’ll change before the end.”
“I’m worried a part of me already has,” Lillian said. “I’m worried I won’t have anyone with me by the time I get there, and then who keeps me on the straight and narrow? Who keeps me sane?”
“You’re looking to the Lambs for sanity?” Mary asked.
“Yeah,” Lillian said.
The gate at the north end of the city cracked open. There was shouting from beyond the gate, of refugees.
But the Infante was making his entrance in style. Along his trip to this town on Radham’s very periphery, the noble had picked up an entourage.
The entourage had been changed to be uniform. Lillian recognized the work, and connected it to what she had seen written about in articles as theory, only months ago. The Chrysomallon. Drawn from an effect seen very rarely in nature, they ate rust and they absorbed the metal into their bodies.
In practice, they were quadruped warbeasts and biped soldiers. All were large and muscled, though the muscle wasn’t always symmetric. Shells formed around heads, making the soldiers resemble gladiators, the warbeasts appearing to be great reptiles with heads encased in helmets. All of them had shells crusting their bodies elsewhere, a mingling of actual iron, mollusc shell, and keratin, like that of the fingernail. The metal was black, the keratin pale, and the combined effect something like a translucent marble.
They walked in procession, and almost effortlessly beat back or struck down any refugees or other troublemaker who ventured too close. It gave them a kind of aura, where people backed away from their presence.
Out of time.
It’s not possible to make this decision, is it? There’s no magic answer.
“I haven’t seen my father,” Mary remarked. “It would be nice if he got out alright.”
Lillian glanced at her friend.
“If only because he’s a contact we could use,” Mary said.
“I suppose,” Lillian said. “He’s been kind, all considered.”
“He has,” Mary said.
The parade was making its way into the city, and the Infante’s carriage appeared. It was drawn by the largest of the warbeasts, one twice the size as the other reptilian hulks with its helmet and patches of grown-in plate mail.
Lillian turned away before the Infante was so far into the city that she would be obligated to bow and to stay bowing until he gave the go-ahead to stand. She didn’t want this to be the deadline. She wanted more time and she wasn’t sure if she could even come any closer to an answer if she had it.
The Infante was as evil a man as she’d ever come across, if it was true that he was leveraging plague and black wood to grind away at the Crown States, so it could be left to go fallow for future generations, if he was complicit in the Block.
She felt almost nauseous, her heart hammering, as if she was facing down any of the worst monsters, and its sights just so happened to be set on her. Except it wasn’t any monster, she was fairly sure. It was the decision. Every passing minute made it worse. Striding away from the street with Mary in tow made it worse still.
She remembered a desperate Sy calling to Jessie for help, and for an instant, she considered doing that.
In that, at least, she found a glimmer of an idea. It wasn’t an answer, or even a path to an idea, but it beat doing nothing. She gestured, indicating a building.
It was, as it turned out, a mostly empty building, guarded only by a skeleton crew. It was government, a local politician’s office, and she didn’t even need to flash her badge to get in. The white coat fluttered around her legs, and it counted for a great deal.
There was that, at least.
“It’s early afternoon?” she asked. “Hard to tell with the weather and my nap.”
“Early afternoon,” Mary said.
She made her way through the empty office until she stood at a desk. A telephone sat there.
Picking up, she pressed the button.
“Operator speaking,” the voice came across fuzzy, in and out from half second to half second, waxing and waning in time with the cumulative heartbeats of a school of organisms somewhere along the line. “How may I connect you?”
I want to speak to my father, Lillian thought.
She set the earpiece down on the hook, and then stared at the phone.
She couldn’t even say it aloud.
Everything about her just felt like a morass of things she thought she wanted, sitting in the way of things she wanted but couldn’t wrap her head around.
She thought through all of the thoughts she had tried to articulate as they’d left the apartment. The difficulty in deciding. The fact that she’d be disappointed in herself and she would be disappointing people like Sy and Mary who had given so very much to help her find her way, if she didn’t carry forward to get her black coat.
But she would be disappointed if she didn’t go.
It all contributed to her feeling trapped, panicking as the walls closed in and none offered anything good.
What would she have said to her father? What would he have said?
That he was upset that she hadn’t reached out in months. Their relationship had foundered ever since she had learned they had tried to delay her from getting her black coat. If they’d had their way she wouldn’t even have her white coat now.
“I remember when Sylvester left. He said goodbye to me, and then he grabbed you and left to go fight the Baron.”
“Yes,” Mary said.
“I remember he said, if I couldn’t get my black coat, it would kill me,” Lillian said, and her voice was quiet. “I can’t even remember how I worded my response, if I even verbalized it, but I know I wanted so badly to say no. That he was wrong. I wanted to say it and I saw the look on his face and I told him yes instead.”
“You do, I think,” Mary said. “You want the black coat.”
“Did, maybe,” Lillian said. “I think I wish I’d gone with him. I wish more of us had gone with him. Maybe we could have done more about the plague, or stopping the black wood. We could have done something about the Duke.”
“We all did what we thought was right at the time.”
That was it, wasn’t it? It was the complete wrong answer and it was the complete right answer at the same time.
What had the Head Doctor said? That she hadn’t looked at the big picture. She’d tunnel-visioned in.
She’d failed to keep the key points in mind, the most important lessons she’d learned.
Trusting the other Lambs was one.
She wanted to go. She might even be able to convince Mary. The questions, the doubts, even if Sylvester was as bad as Jessie said, Sy, Jessie, Helen, Duncan, Ashton, Mary, they could all help find the answer.
They were so capable when they were together.
But how to even communicate that to Mary?
She felt relief and new fear in conjunction, and she knew it was close to what Mary had felt on deciding her direction only to have it threatened. The sick, nauseous, trapped, zoatoan feeling hadn’t left Lillian’s breast since Jessie had been shot, and it was only now abating.
Which made it feel almost ten times worse as the front door to the building opened wide. Hinges creaked and groaned in the opening, because the hand that pushed the door moved the door at an odd angle, bent the metal and tugged at the screws and nails. The door would deform from the action.
The Infante was capable of gentleness, and he’d chosen to damage the door.
He spread his arms, as if to welcome himself more than to greet them, magnanimous.
“Lambs,” he said, and his voice reverberated through the empty space.
Automatically, Lillian dropped to her knees. She could feel the floor of the building shake with each heavy footstep of the noble. As she stared at the ground, her eyes were wide.
“I believe you’ve heard,” the Infante spoke. “This town has fallen to plague and blight.”
It was a set of statements that played into each other, and they implied two very bad things.
That the Infante knew about the Duke, for one, and that they’d been communicating with the man.
And that he’d condemned this town.
“A tragedy, to be sure. A great loss for the Academy. Every single resident has been lost, slain by circumstance, you Lambs included.”