Genevieve Fray was very still as she sat on the wall that overlooked the gates. Warren sat with his back to it, facing the city, while Avis stood on the battlements, facing the sea, a blanket wrapped around her and her wings. Wendy was with Warren, chattering incessantly and brightly, the stitched’s finger pointing at things that drew her attention, while Warren solemnly looked on.
The Academy city sprawled out before them, and from a certain perspective it appeared almost frozen in time. The birds were active, as were the rats, stray dogs and cats. The clouds flew across the sky as if time was passing at twice the speed it was, while nearly everything else looked like a very realistic painting.
Efforts to control the city had the bulk of the population quarantined. The only groups that moved now were the rebel’s and the necessary few who were relocated from one place to another. Squadrons of stitched guarded areas, weapons in hand, all wearing raincoats that hid all but the lower half of their faces. The faint steam that rose off of each cluster was all that really moved, while the stitched themselves remained as still as the dead.
“The Lambs still aren’t here,” Avis said.
Genevieve Fray nodded. The only Lamb in Hackthorn was Sylvester.
“I see a thing!” Wendy said. She pointed. “Look. It looks like it’s half rat and half cat, it’s on the peak of a roof over there. Why would they mix a rat and a cat? What do we even call it? They both end with -at.”
Warren set one overlarge hand on Wendy’s head.
“It had a bow in its fur,” Wendy pointed out. “Someone must have loved it, or they love it. I like that.”
The last of the boats had come and gone for the time being. Barring surprises, no more boats would arrive today. There was always the chance of a boat arriving outside of schedule, but there was a chance of many things happening. The odds were good that the Lambs wouldn’t turn up tonight. It was a two day trip from Radham to Hackthorn, and it had been six days in total since Jessie and Helen had left Sylvester.
She was here to communicate a message to Sylvester. That would be her role in this.
He was stopping to rest. He had barely eaten, and though he was hydrated he had gone at least twelve hours at one point without drinking the water that managed his chemical leash. The fact that it had been some time since his leash had last been reinforced meant the consequences hadn’t been dire. The modified molecular chains had been shed as they were replaced, cast off with replacement cells, but the leash nonetheless demanded its due. The most sensitive parts of the body would be rebelling, eyes sensitive to light, ears ringing, stomach turning, the brain throbbing with a headache. The muscles and bones wouldn’t shed the leash so easily, and would feel it more.
Even sitting still, caught up in his thoughts, he fidgeted and shifted restlessly, trying to balance the fact that muscles twitched and cramped when still and both muscle and bone ached when he moved.
He stared off into space, lost in the moment, his body almost operating by a different apparatus than his brain. He seemed almost oblivious, even though he was surrounded by his people.
“It’s now or never,” Avis said. “It would be better if the Lambs were here, but…”
But indeed. Sylvester was arguing with himself and losing. What started out as a single incidence that he barely registered quickly became the new normal, the parts of his brain he could negotiate with Wyvern became non-negotiable, and he was quickly approaching the point where he lashed out at others like he had done with Professor Ferres.
Fray stood and she approached Sylvester. All around her, children turned to follow her approach.
Sylvester’s eyes were flat as he looked at her. He had been aware of her for some time, but he hadn’t acted on it. Even now, he almost looked through her.
Fray laid a hand on one of the children’s heads. The child looked up at her. Evette.
“It would help if you actually spoke,” Sylvester said.
Fray remained silent.
“Yeah,” Sylvester said. “Right. That would defeat the point. Every one of you represents something, and you in particular represent me not having a danged clue.”
Fray broke into the abstract. Different faces looked in different directions. One of those faces looked at Sylvester with sympathy. She reached out for Sylvester, reached out to take him in her arms-
He flinched away. “Yeah, enough of that. If you want to help, how about you get lost? I know you guys don’t actually listen when I tell you, but it’d help. My thoughts are so scattered they’ve actually grown legs and are walking around, they’re talking over each other. Can you just… not be one of those things I’ve got to deal with?”
Fray let her hand fall.
“Please,” he said, without much emotional affect. His eyes remained devoid of focus as he looked at everything and nothing at the same time. Sylvester’s thoughts turned to other things, and Genevieve Fray ceased to exist as a more concrete entity.
“We need to keep moving,” the boy in the yellow raincoat spoke.
Sylvester acted on that without argument. He stood, wincing at the muscle aches. As his eye traveled, his mind moved by the same measure. Figures in the crowd became defined as Sylvester’s thoughts did, and to him the concrete manifestations of ideas and thoughts were indistinguishable from reality. In the moment, feeling the pain, his mind’s eye drew images of Academy Doctors in the guises of children, drew an image of the fat Fishmonger as a child, of a child noble with black hair and a cane, who whispered of pain and punishment while a sickly boy with his own stick nodded.
It was the boy in yellow who walked beside Sylvester, now.
They were joined by a retinue. The boy in yellow looked unkempt and wild beside his friend, but his friend was so very put together that he might have made anyone look less, wearing dapper clothes that included a coat that clung to him. The boy in the yellow raincoat was rough around the edges, his outfit improvised to serve a functional purpose, with a butcher’s apron instead of a medical one, a raincoat instead of a lab coat.
In this, he was a stark contrast to his friend. His friend’s clothing served a more ideological, psychological purpose, almost assuming the role of Doctor without claiming it.
Sylvester had deciphered them and named them appropriately. It wasn’t that hard, even, especially after he realized that the boy in the neat clothing paid particular attention to a young lady who resembled Mary Cobourn.
The boy in yellow was the Snake Charmer, the immaculate boy was Mary’s creator, Mister Percy, the pair, like so many others, writ in youth.
“This is doable,” the Snake Charmer said. “It’s all going to pieces, and it has been for a while. It’s corrupt, it’s poisoned, and it’s doomed. If it’s crumbling, then we recognize it and work with it. Capitalize on it. That’s what you do. It’s what you’ve always done.”
“Are you talking about my mind or society?” Sylvester asked. “It’s unclear.”
“I’m talking about everything,” the Snake Charmer said, with a note of anger. “We’re going to need to improvise. We work with broken pieces and fill in the blanks.”
The Devil spoke, the sickly boy with his cane, speaking with the guttural voice of a monster, “Cut down those who get in the way. Hurt them badly enough that others think twice before doing the same.”
Sylvester shook his head a little, trying not to listen.
There was a system in place. Sylvester had once switched perspectives and skillsets with ease. He had been able to calibrate his brain and take on any role. In the constant reorganization, these things had been lost in the shuffle, partially overwritten, remnants drawn out, filled in, and then shuffled back in, over days, weeks, months and years. The slate, however, had never truly been wiped blank, only set out of reach.
Comparisons could be made to the gestures. Broad ideas encapsulated into something that could be used.
Sylvester, scattered, almost didn’t exist anymore. Each idea and thought process existed in the form of a figure that accompanied him. The Devil was such a thing, speaking of things that Sylvester had always feared lay beneath the veneer of his humanity and civility. In his existence as a sickly boy with an unholy voice, he would bring those things to pass if given a greater role.
The Snake Charmer would help that to come to be if it meant achieving the necessary goals.
“Keep the plan in mind,” Percy said, adding his voice to the conversation. “We wanted to get the attention of the people at the top? We maintain that course. It is something we can very much do.”
“You’re contradicting each other,” Sylvester said.
“No,” Percy said, at the same time the Snake Charmer shook his head.
“One of you is saying to let it go, use what I can, find a new direction. One of you is saying to keep the plan in mind.”
“Keep the end in mind,” Percy said. “But stop focusing so much on maintaining the same steps, the same prerequisite steps to fulfilling it. Use resources at hand, use what’s easiest and most freely available. Capitalize on any and all vulnerabilities, use any and all footholds.”
Sylvester reached a crossroads. He paused, looking down each street. The streets were largely empty, but there were stitched further down the road.
The girl in the layered clothing, ever silent, rested her hands on Sylvester’s shoulders, and he flinched at the contact. Damp from the rain, her red hair stuck to her head, her clothes flattened out with colors bleeding between the damp and transparent fabric. The clothing looked less like cloth now. Lines of floral patterns became vein-like in the right light.
She hugged Sylvester from behind. Her hand formed a gesture, and the line between the crowd around Sylvester and his Lambs blurred further.
He waited where he was, eyes closed.
“Any and all vulnerabilities, any and all footholds,” Sylvester repeated Percy’s line from moments ago.
“Absolutely,” Percy said.
“In your original interpretation, that included exploiting and stepping over the bodies of children. Repeatedly.”
“It did. Many of your rebels aren’t fully grown adults, Sylvester,” Percy said. “You’ve always been fond of your mice, of your Lambs and Bo Peeps.”
Sylvester didn’t have a response to that. In the moment, voices overlapped, ideas becoming words that became noise, a constant static of shouts, threats, violence and whispers, with very little that was comforting.
“The idea was always to achieve big things,” Percy said.
He could question, challenge, and he could keep his guard up, not quite letting any one figure take the reins, but he was physically and mentally exhausted, and he conserved his strength carefully, in vain hope that he would be able to correct his course or stop things if a moment called for it.
In this, he didn’t question and he didn’t fight. Percy got his points, working his way in deeper.
Still hugging Sylvester from behind, Sub Rosa gestured as a small group of rebels approached the stitched.
Sylvester crossed the street.
Stitched reacted to the sighting of him, but they were a hair slower than humans were. The students who were addressing and examining them had their backs to Sylvester, and as they turned they would only see a glimpse of Sylvester.
“Move fast,” the Snake Charmer said. “They’ll ask questions, and they might realize it was you. We want to be gone by then.”
The Snake Charmer indicated the way. Between buildings. Sylvester saw another cat-rat hybrid, but this one didn’t have a bow in its fur. They weren’t too uncommon. He wondered if he could catch and cook it, if he had to.
“We’ll get proper food. Priority number one is to get ourselves sorted out,” the Snake Charmer said. “Clothes, food, allies.”
“We get things laid out so we can get back to the mission,” Percy added.
“You guys keep contradicting each other,” Sylvester said.
“No,” Percy and the Snake Charmer said, at the same time. Percy deferred and the Snake Charmer spoke, “The world and the system they’ve established don’t give us any advantages. It’s up to us to take them. There are rebels, delinquents, and freed experiments who only want to see us put something great into action. They’re talking amongst themselves about the fact that we carved Ferres up and they believe it’s right, or they’re sitting in the background, believing it without the opportunity to say it.”
“Clothes make the man,” Percy said. “Style and grace matter. You can pull that off, even while you’re hurting like you are. Food… well, that was more S.C.’s purview, getting the meals sorted out.”
“So you’re agreeing,” Sylvester said.
He stopped in his tracks as he reached the end of one alley, and saw where the course had taken him.
He was back at the foot of Hackthorn Academy. The reclining lady of Hackthorn stood high above him, back arched, one arm folded beneath her, the other outstretched.
“And you led me here,” he said. He turned, and his eye swept over the crowd that surrounded him. Every face was one he should recognize but needed interpretation at the same time. All had been translated into an age appropriate for Lambs, for sympathetic reasons, out of his desire for companionship. They included countless slain and maimed soldiers and Ghosts, the plague men and the stitched. They included experiments, great warbeasts now looked like boys and girls with body modifications.
Sub Rosa stroked his hair with one hand.
“We’re all in agreement,” the Snake Charmer said.
“That’s worse,” Sylvester said.
Sub Rosa pointed, directing his attention.
There were guards. Not many, but enough that getting in would be difficult. Three teenage boys and one stitched that kept them company, a very large man who wore no shirt, the namesake stitches crossing his chest and forming the ‘Y’ shaped intersection at the chest, flesh of the torso and neck bulging where hardware had been stowed within. He was made to be strong, not to be pretty, clever, or effective.
Sub Rosa stroked Sylvester’s hair, her hand moving in gestures.
Sylvester closed his eyes, feeling the sensation of the hand moving through hair, and he could remember one of the Lambs doing the same. Had it been Lillian? Something tender, occupying long minutes between other moments, where she might kiss his eyelids, his forehead.
Had it been Helen? She had always liked hair, combing it, the beauty of it, the aesthetic, young Helen being gentle one moment and chewing on his scalp or ear the next.
Younger Gordon, in the earliest days, after his appointments when the pain was still a thing he hadn’t gotten used to, back when girls had been ick and Gordon had been a pal he confided in and trusted in moments of weakness.
The opposite end of things, timeline-wise. Jessie? Fingers combing through his hair as if she could make it make sense, only for it to spring back up, wild and uncooperative? The intimacy between them had always been a thing they were constantly figuring out. He’d had relationships and flirtations with others, and yet the one with Jessie had felt the most like a real one, finding a faltering, eager, quiet way forward, not teasing but clutching for someone with need, when the rest of the world wasn’t looking.
Had it been Mary, consoling him? The feel of fingernails against his scalp was a thing that suited her, like knives or crisp lace against tender skin.
It might have been her, as he tried to place the sensation. She had been with him when he had lost Jamie.
Jamie. There was a sharp pang at the fact that he was surrounded by people he had killed or played a role in killing but that Jamie wasn’t present.
It felt so very unfair, especially given it was the one that mattered most.
The sensation of moving from the line of thinking of the Lambs to his present circumstance resembled stepping from a doze in a warm bed onto a cold floor, from soft vagueness to reality.
He wasn’t standing where he had been. He’d followed one of the guards. The teenager had walked a distance away from his friends, and was unzipping his pants.
“Almost, Sub Rosa,” the Snake Charmer said. “Almost got in. But that’s what you’re good at, isn’t it?”
Sylvester felt cold, empty. Loneliness gripped him.
It would be so easy to act automatically. Dredging up and making up memories would be some consolation. He could live in fragmented sensations and ideas. Sub Rosa could give him that.
She was security and insecurity, he knew.
The guard was watering the weeds, at the point where the reclining lady’s leg merged into the earth. He sang.
“We know what you’re doing, Liam!” another of the guards called out. “Don’t have to sing to cover up the sound!”
The guard sang louder in response, prompting some laughs from the others.
Sylvester was very still, random muscles cramping and twitching spasmodically, his bones aching where he rested his weight on them.
The crowd around him had fallen silent, but for the Ghosts, who were free to communicate, unheard and encoded so only the other Ghosts heard them. It was a choir of girls who existed in odd sets, like bouquets of flowers, each with one redhead, one blonde, one Eastern girl, and so on, all wearing white dresses. They sang in a harmony of cricket and cicada chirps, nail-on-blackboard scratches and knife-on-plate squeals.
The sound was unpleasant, and even though the day was nice enough, Sylvester was weary enough that the damp of the periodic drizzling rain and the wind combined to made him outright cold. The only Warmth was Sub Rosa’s body pressed against his back, with all its ridges and folds. The sensation of a hand running through his hair was almost hypnotic.
“Go,” the Snake Charmer hissed. Sub Rosa gestured the same. Pushed forward and away, Sylvester followed the instruction.
Sylvester was aware that the Falconer and the Devil flanked him. He knew the pain and danger they posed. Lethality on one hand, torture and agony on the other.
He couldn’t stop without getting caught, and he couldn’t get caught, but in moving forward, he couldn’t sort out his thoughts enough to decide on a plan of action that wasn’t doing what the Falconer and the Devil wanted him to do.
He thought back. The Snake Charmer. Sub Rosa. They wanted clothes, goals, security.
It was Sub Rosa’s methodology that was in his mind as he approached his target. He reached for the back of the boy’s head and hesitated.
“…and she drank, she drank, her wonderful compound, and now she joins in on all the gaaaaames!”
At the next pause, Sylvester grabbed the back of Liam-the-guard’s head, using the forward momentum of his approach in conjunction with an arm-thrust to drive the young man’s face into the wall in front of him.
The Ghosts changed their tune. Sylvester matched it, raising his voice, mimicking the boys’ accent, with something of a drunken drawl, to help mask things and play things up. “And old Sterling, he thought he was a king!”
He smashed Liam’s face into the wall once again.
“There are places that verse’ll get you killed, Liam!” one of the other guards called out.
He ratcheted up the volume, “and so they’d help him home from town!”
Liam reached up, fumbling for his arm. He struck Liam’s face against the wall again for good measure. He tried to keep Liam from slumping down into a puddle of his own piss. “He drank, he drank, her wonderful compound…”
“Your singing needs work, my man! You’re getting worse by the line!”
“…and now he wears the Crowwwwn!” Sylvester finished.
He dropped to squat on his heels, and the Devil dropped to a position mirroring his.
“Clothes, like the Snake Charmer said,” Sylvester said. Nobody liked to be ignored, but so long as he was doing what one of the others said, the Devil could hardly complain.
He helped Liam out of his makeshift uniform jacket. All of the guards were wearing dark jackets and dark slacks with caps, some with Beattle crests at their breast, scavenged from uniforms hardly anyone wore anymore. He already wore slacks like Liam’s. The boots didn’t match, but boots didn’t matter.
Sylvester donned the jacket.
“You finally done making our ears bleed with that singing?” one of the others asked.
Straightening, he put the cap on, pulling it on down low.
Liam had a rifle propped up against the wall, and Sylvester borrowed it.
He walked with a cocky swagger as he headed in the direction of the others.
“You’re terrible, man,” the others said, as he rounded the corner, joking. “I’d listen to the sound of you pissing for the next week straight if it meant not having to listen to you for another minute.”
“Maybe you like the sound, Matty.”
They were smoking, barely paying attention to their friend as he returned.
The clothes and the mundane nature of the moment meant that Sylvester had the freedom to draw just another two or three paces closer than he might have otherwise.
He reversed the grip on the rifle and swung it by the barrel. The stock met one boy’s face on the first swing, sending a cigarette flying, and met the next boy’s throat.
The stitched perked up at the violence. Slow to react, slow to move, it was big, it was strong, and it was dangerous. It shifted its stance.
He hadn’t hit the one in the face very hard, all considered. Had that one reached out or tried to stop him, it might have complicated things. But he’d landed one blow to the other’s windpipe, and in the moment, his friend felt the need to tend to that.
Sub Rosa was already standing by the gate.
The Stitched lunged.
Fast, strong, athletic. It wasn’t one to tire, and it wasn’t one to move with care for how it hurt itself in the course of its offense. Legs twisted in odd ways, and it had an odd grace in that, twisting on one leg and over-stressing one knee as it hurled itself at Sylvester, following him as he tried to duck around.
Sylvester threw himself back against the wall.
“Stitched!” Sylvester barked the order. “Obey me! The codeword is Gallows!”
The stitched ignored him. He had to spin and throw himself out of the way as the thing threw a heavy punch.
He caught a glimpse of Sub Rosa gesturing.
“I know,” he said. “It was worth a try.”
The damage to his body and his weariness made this simple encounter that much more dangerous.
“They changed the words,” Percy observed.
The spark of anger and irritation fed into his next movement, driving him a hair further. The great bludgeon of dead flesh that flew past his head might have clipped him, had he not moved that extra hair.
The stitched grunted, then adjusted its footing, getting ready to charge once again.
“Stick to the plan,” the Snake Charmer said. Behind him, others were already heading up and into the Academy through the now-unguarded gates
Sylvester did. He changed direction, and ran for the gate.
Changes in behavior and pattern went a long way. The stitched hesitated.
“Go after him!” one of the guards shouted.
Too late. Sylvester passed through the gate and threw himself against a heavy door, hauling it closed. The gate was wide enough for a carriage to pass through, and the gates were large enough that they were meant to stop a runaway carriage that rolled down the sloping path to the Academy.
The stitched brute slammed into it, and Sylvester bounced away from the door, sprawling on the ground.
But the impact had been such that the gate was thrown back, rebounded off of the wall with a loud crack, and now swung shut again. Sylvester found his footing and helped it along. This time it hit the stitched and made it stagger back.
He closed the gate fully and placed the rifle through the handles, buying himself time to get the actual lock lowered into place.
Sub Rosa was waiting in one of the side tunnels to an area that smelled like a stable. He took that direction.
“They’re not going to like that,” Percy said.
“They won’t like much about what we do,” a young girl with sharp teeth said. The girl from the whispering triplets. Melancholy. “We’re not one of them. You knew it the moment you realized about the mutiny, Sylvester. We’re different, we’re a solution for their problems on one day and a problem for them to fix on another. It’s a sad fact that when humans divide things into us and them, we don’t end up part of the ‘us’.”
Sylvester shook his head. “If any of you guys are going to earn the coveted spots in my head that I normally keep reserved for the Lambs, I really need you to be more constructive. A lot more constructive.”
“I am being constructive,” Melancholy said. “Paul Parrot would agree with what I’m saying. Red might too. We have allies, and there’s a lot we can do with them. Capitalizing on that means recognizing that we aren’t a person. The Beattle rebels certainly don’t see you as a person. We let the Sylvester mask slip and now we’re a monster to them, a thing that wears the mask of a young man. We’re a thing to be pitied, a murderer, a strategic force of nature, chaos incarnate, a manipulator, a hero, a villain, or a target, and the label in question depends on who’s being asked. We will never, ever, ever truly win out over the label. We will never truly sell them on the full Sylvester package.”
“We don’t have the resources to maintain the full Sylvester package,” Percy observed.
“Not sold on the reductionist approach,” Sylvester said. “Seems sorta convenient for all of you and terrible for me. Food, clothes, getting into a better position? Sure. I’ll do that. I’ll bully my way into that. But I’m not about to buy your pitch.”
“There’s a benefit to it,” Cynthia said. She was a little girl now, half of her face burned. She had been one of the last to show up that he could name.
“Oh, Cynthia, how grand,” Sylvester said, sarcastic. “Yes, I’m going to take advice from someone who managed to start out as a major figure in a thriving, widespread clandestine organization and managed to whittle herself down into a shadow of her former self. Let’s see, let me think, you’re all about rage, a need to attack anyone, even those who could be allies, and desperation. Do tell me all about the benefits of this course of action.”
She fell in step beside him. They weren’t on the main road that led through the interior of the Academy to the ground floor of the main building, but they were moving in parallel to it, stables and kennels on one side, the periodic warbeast snorting and huffing in response to their presence.
Cynthia’s hand grasped his shirt. He hunched over, hauled forward, as she brought her face closer to him, her cheekbone brushing his. All he could see of her was the burned part.
She murmured in his ear, “You can’t do what you want to do alone. You’re not functional without.”
“No kidding,” Sylvester said.
“And when you’re you, Sylvester, what the hell happens, do you remember? Jamie the first? Lillian? Multiple times? Jamie the second, in West Corinth? Mabel?”
Sylvester’s retort died in his throat.
His head dropped a fraction more. “Touché.”
“When you walk your unique walk, you either end up alone or you end up in the company of a desperate few. That’s what I know. That’s the unique fucking perspective I can offer.”
“Cynthia had her soldiers,” Percy said. “We have your experiments. We know what to say to get them on our side.”
“We recruit them, in service of goals writ large and small,” the Snake Charmer said. “Melancholy was right. Paul Parrot would remove anyone we named. If we wanted a girl to hold close, Red would oblige. There are rebels, delinquents, and freed experiments who only want to see us put something great into action. They’re talking about the fact that we carved Ferres up and they believe it’s right, or they’re sitting in the background, believing it without the opportunity to say it.”
“Hold on a second,” Sylvester said. He was listening to them, but he didn’t have the resources to pick everything apart, to challenge.
They didn’t hold on. Voices overlapped.
“I’m tired,” Sylvester said, and his voice was nearly drowned out.
The quiet of the building was interrupted by the noise of tromping boots.
“This would be so much easier if you guys were disagreeing more with each other,” Sylvester said.
“They’ve been patrolling to find us, and even with our talents they’re getting close,” the Snake Charmer said. “We haven’t been able to sleep, we’re hungry, our mind is tired because you’re keeping your guard up, keeping us from practicing what we preach. As our resources dwindle, theirs consolidate. We know full well that we have two options. The first is to surrender right now, become an experiment under the thumb of people in lab coats. They’ll have good reasons, we harbor reasons to surrender. But all the same, if you were really willing to settle for that, you wouldn’t have left the Academy in the first place.”
“You can’t surrender any more than I could,” Mauer’s voice broke through the noise. He had always been good when it came to making himself heard.
Sylvester nodded, numb.
“Any more than any of us could,” Mauer said. “Very few of the people you’ve encountered were the type to give up. Life struggles on. It persists, it adapts, and it gets dragged down into God’s Hell fighting every step of the way.”
Sylvester was dimly aware of the technique. To hammer the enemy repeatedly with strong arguments alternating with the weak, and to save the key argument for the last.
Mauer, naturally, was the key argument.
“Fight, Sylvester. You’re trying so desperately hard to convince yourself not to, and you’re not finding good reasons.”
Sylvester didn’t have a response. His eyes returned to looking at everything and nothing.
“If you wait, if you don’t do it of your own volition, then you’ll end up in a corner, we’ll take action on our own out of necessity by rule of fight or flight, and nobody will like the end result of that,” Mauer said.
He knew what he had to do.
He moved through the Academy by the back hallways, by ladders and stairwells reserved for faculty and other employees. There were people he ran into here and there, and he tried not to focus too much on the fact that he didn’t remember how he’d dealt with them, only minutes after he had run into them.
There wasn’t much traffic on the arm, that led from the shoulder of the academy to the administration quarters. But he was a distinctive silhouette, even wearing the guard’s improvised uniform.
“They’re coming,” Cynthia said. “Don’t go giving up now.”
“He isn’t,” the Snake Charmer said. “We aren’t.”
Sylvester went to his own room, and washed off the worst of the blood. He collected clothes at Percy’s instruction, discarding the guard’s jacket at Cynthia’s, and exited the room while still buttoning up his shirt.
A squad of soldiers waited on the bridge as he made his return trip.
Davis was among them.
“Sorry for the mess,” Sylvester said.
“Jessie said to be prepared and to keep an eye on you,” Davis said. “I could’ve done better on both counts.”
“I don’t think you can be blamed,” Sylvester said, as Sub Rosa stroked his hair.
“I’m blaming myself,” Davis said.
“I didn’t even expect things to fall apart this badly,” Sylvester said, “If I can’t anticipate it, how could you?”
“Right,” Davis said.
“Not saying you didn’t help it along, what with the whole mutiny and all…”
“You might say you don’t like being in charge, but it’s a power trip, isn’t it? And it’s familiar, the Academy running the show-”
“Sylvester, no. That wasn’t it at all.”
“-screen mad old Sylvester out, take charge?”
“You asked me to. You asked me to lie to you and pretend that everything was quiet and calm, and keep the exciting stuff off your radar, so you wouldn’t undertake any risky stunts.”
“Maybe,” Sylvester said. “Maybe you know that’s exactly what to say to make me doubt myself.”
“Sylvester,” Gordon Two cut in.
“Hi Gordeux,” Sylvester said.
“That’s not my name, but yeah, sure, hi. Listen, speaking as a guy who really didn’t join to wage a war against any outside enemy, let alone an inside one… can we take it easy? The Lambs will be back any time.”
“Boat could arrive whenever.”
“We know the schedule for the usual boats,” the Devil countered. “It’s unlikely they’ll come at dusk in a borrowed boat, when the sky is overcast, the way in unlit.”
“Could be an hour,” Gordeux said. “Could be three. Or five. But that’s not too long to wait.”
“He’s lying,” the Devil said.
“It’s an eternity,” Sylvester said. “If you could spend one of those hours in my head, you wouldn’t be saying that.”
Gordeux was silent. Pity marked his expression. Sylvester thought of Cynthia’s words, of the labels.
“And it’s not going to be one hour, or three, or five. It’s going to be closer to eight, or twelve, or twenty-two,” Sylvester said.
“What do you want, Sylvester?” Davis asked. “You’ve hurt your own people. You carved up a key piece of your plan and left her in the bathtub. Not that we know the entirety of your plan, despite everything we’ve put into this, but…”
“She’s alive, isn’t she?” Sylvester asked.
“She’s alive. We’re getting her new arms and legs. She’s cooperating, but-”
“If she’s cooperating, then that’s all that’s important.”
“Why, Sy?” Davis asked. “She was horrendous, but she didn’t deserve that.”
“I was raised to be a monster and to hunt monsters.”
“I think you’re more than that,” Shirley said, speaking up from within the crowd.
She pushed her way forward. Pierre was beside her.
“If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have helped me like you did.”
“You wouldn’t believe the tally I’ve got going on in my head. Especially since I don’t have the memory to keep a proper tally, so it’s more of this impossible, incalculable thing, like a mountain that grows two leagues taller for every league I ascend,” Sylvester said. “But I owe you so much more than you owe me.”
“It’s not about owing!” Shirley said. “It’s about… just being there. Helping when help is due. And I think you did that for me.”
“I calculated it. I calculate everything. Every social interaction is manipulation, molding people like putty around me.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“The very first thing I said to you was a tip on how to manipulate people,” he said. “I don’t remember what it was, but I remember that.”
“It’s not about what was said,” she said. “More how and why. You had no reason to help me.”
“You were useful.”
“I don’t think that’s it,” she said, even though her body language suggested she very much worried it was. She sounded almost scared as she asked, “Why are you pushing us away?”
“Sy,” Gordeux said, before he could respond. “Listen. Come eat. Come into the dining hall. We can talk over food. Helen- Possum made some with Rudy. We’ve got some of the defectors from Hackthorn with us. We’ve actually talked to them and we might’ve sold them on being on our side, and not just because they’re scared. The whole black forest and plague thing is really a good starting point, they have their doubts about the Crown. You might get something out of the discussions.”
“Throwing me into the mix might not be the best idea, if it’s at all tenuous,” Sylvester said. “As a matter of fact, any of this might be a bad idea. Squadron of soldiers, me, this whole thing. Seems like it ends badly.”
“Badly?” Davis asked.
“We- I don’t want to hurt you guys too badly. I sort of took down a few of our own in the course of getting here. I’m not sure I can stop.”
“Sylvester- do I have to force you to come eat and talk with us on threat of being shot?” Davis asked.
“Go,” Percy said.
Sylvester nodded. “I’ll come with.”
Davis looked relieved. He really shouldn’t have.
With twenty students with guns pointing their weapons at Sylvester, they guided him down the remainder of the bridge, into the main building.
“We spent days looking for you. We didn’t think you left the Academy at first,” Davis said. “Those students you sent into the room to clean up, they came to get me, I immediately set to looking for you. Bea quizzed the Professor as soon as she was lucid, trying to figure out if she’d said anything.”
“If she did, it might be better not to mention it. I’ve got this sticking thought that she told me some secret of hers under duress, and I didn’t like it, going by the blood. Not sure though, since I don’t remember any of it.”
“She wouldn’t say what it was,” Davis said.
“Yeah,” Sylvester said.
They made their way into the dining hall proper, above Lab One. It was teeming, filled with defecting Hackthorn students, with Beattle rebels and the whole group of the Hackthorn fairy tale experiments, minus the actual monsters who were no doubt in Lab One.
The large boy stood at one end of the crowd.
As Cynthia had suggested, they weren’t all people. The line, at least, was blurred. Every time Sylvester had seen him, the large boy had been busily eating, always eating, a monolithic thing. Now, even though there were tables with food laid out on them, the boy ate without partaking, chewing meat when the only meat in arm’s reach was the population of the crowd.
The armed guard of soldiers drew attention to him. He had to remind himself that the remainder of the crowd around him wasn’t actually there, even if it almost felt more real than the remainder of this scene, with its fairy tales and more teenagers and children.
He took his seat at the same table as the Primordial, the eating child.
He belatedly realized the company he kept. The nobles had appeared before, but they had been conspicuously absent for some time, with the exception of the Falconer, who had been something of a special case. Mustering strength.
Immediately, his eyes dropped to the table itself, so he wouldn’t look at them, wouldn’t see them. So he wouldn’t see the most dangerous of the nobles he’d met, the one he’d told himself would mean he’d lost himself entirely. He tried to rise out of his seat, and a hand pushed him down.
“Stay put, please,” Davis said. “Please. Let’s just talk. Talk’s safe. Talk kills time, and we just need to buy enough time for your friends to get back, right?”
“Right,” Sylvester said. He heard laughter, and recognized it as the Baron’s.
He knew when the Baron had laughed like this, too. It had been close to the time Sylvester had poisoned his brain with Wyvern.
He knew why the Baron had laughed.
The Baron had known.
He assessed the room, and he saw the others gathered around. His trains of thought, interwoven with the crowd. They were ready for conflict, ready for the calm to be broken, for defector to become doubter, for the harmless fairy tale children to erupt into anger. Many of the guns trained on him would turn elsewhere. He could see it, in abstract, by how the countless dead and lost were woven among the living.
“Yeah. Talk is safe,” Sylvester said, before sharing the most dangerous words he knew.