“Yeah. Talk is safe,” Sylvester said. He paused. “Shall we talk about how the entire balance of power is a lie?”
Davis tensed at that. “Some of your friends from Lab One said you were saying something like that. I get it. You don’t remember telling me you wanted to be cut out of the proceedings, that you didn’t trust yourself. You’re upset that we’re in charge.”
Sylvester’s eye was roving across the nobles that were seated along his table, while Davis spoke. He looked at the Doctors who stood by, ones with the full training and reputation like Fray and Avis, and the rogue ones like the Snake Charmer and Percy.
“Not you,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that’s not the balance of power I’m concerned about. I’m talking about the Crown. About the Academy. How every part of it is as much a fairy tale as the ones that inspired a parrot boy, a red-hooded messenger, and a golden-haired troublemaker. In fact, the link between them and the nobility is closer than you think.”
“Really,” Davis said. His tone was skeptical, and Sylvester was very aware that Davis was trying to weigh the degree to which he could be believed against what he might have heard. He was aware because his friends at and around the table were aware. They were changing posture. Ready, keenly interested, and many had dangerous looks in their eyes. The ones who didn’t have those looks looked cold, instead. Detached.
Paul the parrot-feathered wasn’t a nemesis, he wasn’t someone Sylvester had plotted against, but there was something very much about him that suggested he was on the same page as the doctors and professors, the back-alley docs, the experiments, the monsters, and the madmen who kept Sylvester company. He had the predatory look, seeing something valuable that he might be able to capitalize on.
Like greed, avarice, hunger, but it wasn’t gold or food so much as the promise of someone else being made to bleed
The effect on Paul was enough that it drew the attention of the others near Paul. They had been rounded up to be questioned, it looked like, and they were being kept somewhat removed from one another, with students sitting around them, one or two Beattle rebels between each of the Lab One experiments, some students removed to nearby benches.
All the same, Paul’s change in how he sat and the look in his eyes was something noticed by those closest to him, which was noticed by others they had associated with. There was an elegance to it. As Paul’s hair was red and gold to go with the feathers he’d once had flowing with his hair, it was Red and Goldilocks who noticed that he was paying keen attention, and they became more ready, more wary, anticipating what came next. They got along more with the various delinquents, including one of the girls who had spent more time herding the younger fairy tales, and so those delinquents absorbed the sentiment and passed it down.
By the time it reached the very last members of the group, including Bo Peep, the effect was less like anticipation and more like fear. It was around then that the ones guarding the group seemed to sense something was amiss.
“Sylvester?” Davis asked, patient. “I’m curious where you’re going with this. Like, I could understand if you think you’ve found a weak point to hammer at, or if you’re just musing aloud-”
“No,” Sylvester said.
“No, this is a known fact, Davis. Jessie and I have been sitting on it for a while now. The nobility is an outright lie.”
Davis’ attention piqued at that. There were a few murmurs.
Paul was stock still, though. Waiting, sensing there was more to it. A lot of the older fairy tales, young nobles, and delinquents in that circle were. Like a skulk of foxes who had sighted food, they were holding still so they wouldn’t disturb their quarry.
Sylvester was their quarry, in a way. Or his words were.
“Sylvester,” Shirley said. “Maybe we should leave this topic alone.”
“You don’t want to hear it?” Davis asked. “Or is there something I don’t know?”
“I’ve been with Sylvester and Jessie for the last year, I know more than most. Sy, you were working hard to keep this secret for a reason. It’s dangerous knowledge.”
Davis ran his hand over his head, where his hair had been smoothed down into a part. “Darn it.”
“I know it sounds tantalizing, but I’ve seen Sylvester like this before…” Shirley said. She trailed off to look at him.
Sylvester watched Shirley by equal measure, quiet.
“…where he’s not himself, exactly, but he isn’t much diminished in terms of his ability to… I don’t even know. Hurt people. Cause havoc.”
“I know, you, Sy and Jessie explained that to us lieutenants before,” Davis said.
“She’s not explaining for your benefit, Davis,” a voice whispered beside Sylvester’s ear. Mauer. “She’s talking to the room. We taught her well, didn’t we, Sylvester?”
Sylvester remained silent, content to let the conversation continue for now.
“This seems like him sowing havoc. We should change topics. Revisit it at a later date, if Jessie and the others agree it makes sense.”
“Don’t we deserve to know?” a delinquent asked. He was one of the ones who would have partied with the Lab One fairy tales and other more rebellious rebels.
“Enough, Fang,” Bea spoke. She was sitting on a table with her feet on a bench.
“The cat’s mostly out of the bag already, isn’t it?” he asked.
“I imagine there’s a lot more going on,” she said. “Please, let us handle this. You’ve trusted us this far.”
“Thank you, Bea,” Davis said.
“I don’t know about you, Davis,” Paul said, from a distant table, his voice carrying, “But I have a personal stake in this. They carved me up. Carved up some of the girls and little ones here. And apparently what happened to us has something to do with the nobles?”
“Please don’t, Paul,” a small voice said. Bo Peep.
“My imagination is afire, sir,” Paul said. The look in his eyes had only intensified.
“I want to chime in,” Gordeux said. “If I may, Davis?”
“I trust you. Feel welcome.”
“Thank you. I haven’t been with Sy for as long as Shirley, but I’ve seen him work, and I was one of the first people in Beattle he reached out to, I think. Besides Junior’s group.”
Sylvester looked at Junior’s group. Was that bloody avarice in their eyes too?
Gordeux went on, “If my opinion as a near-veteran of the group counts for much of anything, I think we should leave this alone. I think we should drop this, eat breakfast, talk about things in general, introduce ourselves to the people who’ve crossed the bridge from the Hackthorn dorms. Treat them to the good side of the rebel life, without faculty and rules over our heads. I think Helen and Rudy did a good job in the kitchens. Is there dessert?”
“Hot frosted buns,” Possum said.
“Good food, weather’s not too bad, it’s quiet, there’s more serious stuff we can discuss over the course of today and tomorrow while we wait for Jessie and the Lambs to turn up, but we can do that at our leisure. Team leaders know what we need to hammer out if you want to stay busy, and…”
Gordeux spread his hands, he chuckled a bit.
“…if you don’t want to play a part in bringing meaningful change to the world, well, I don’t want to get into details, but there’s a wine cellar with enough wine to keep all of us tipsy through to the end of next year, and we’re not exactly separating dorms by gender, if you know what I mean.”
There was some general amusement at that, and some confusion from the younger years and experiments.
“Frosted buns, red wine, good company, sunshine, and maybe some hope for the future. With the rest of the nation reeling with plague and the black wood, I gotta say I’m pretty happy with that status quo. Everything else can wait for tomorrow, and speaking as someone who’s seen some fighting and rebellion already, we’ll be darn fucking glad we had the time to rest before we got properly underway.”
“Ya know, I have some buns I know I’d like to get my frosting on,” someone at one table joked.
“Oh fuck you and fuck your joke! We’re better than that!” one of his friends said, raising his voice to be heard over the laughter. It was an insult made in good fun, one friend to another, and it only made others laugh louder at the dumb joke.
Only the ones who looked hungriest for blood looked like they weren’t swayed or amused by any of this. Paul, Red, Goldi, Fang. They composed a small fraction of the people gathered. One in fifty. One in thirty if Sylvester didn’t count the people he was fairly sure only he could see.
Sylvester watched as Davis clapped a hand on Gordeux’s shoulder, leaning in close to whisper in his ear.
“So many of them have learned from you,” Mauer said.
Shirley was approaching him. Others were glancing his way. Thinking, trying to figure out how to manage him, rein him in, how to use him. The ones with red lights in their eyes were looking at him from another angle, too hungry to think straight. It wasn’t quite bloodlust – they wanted answers, they wanted vindication and revenge in a way that didn’t necessarily have to do with blood.
“You know what to say,” the Snake Charmer said. “You know what to give them.”
All around him, others were talking. Beattle rebel, the occasional experiment, students getting up to get first dibs on dessert, talking, laughing. It was good amusement in a way that was almost more boisterous and exaggerated because the students were pushing against the doubts, pulling friends away from the glances in Sylvester’s direction, and trying very hard not to think about the big questions, doubts, and fears that loomed.
“But for a different roll of the dice, you might have been a beautiful noble lord, Paul,” Sylvester said. His voice was more or less drowned out by the conversation, by the laughter, and the noise of people moving.
But others were listening, paying attention, or keeping an eye on him, and some were close enough to hear. Paul was one of them. So were Red, Shirley, Davis, and Junior.
Again, it was like something voltaic, a current like a horrific accident in one of the labs where stitched were mass produced, the excess charge ripping over every available surface, dancing across the path of least resistance, before diffusing out into the grounded objects.
Slowly, step by step, from one group to the next, or from one member of a group to the rest of that group, people fell silent, or noticed that others had fallen silent.
The amusement and good nature faded more swiftly than it had set in.
The Baron, sitting near the Primordial, laughed in the silence. Sylvester smiled.
Paul had stood up, and his one hand was planted on the table in front of him as he leaned forward, his eyes wide. Had they not been modified, the whites would have been clearly visible. As it was, they had no whites, but the colors made the pupils very clear.
Bo Peep’s mouth formed the word ‘no’. Shirley actually said something similar out loud. “Don’t.”
“It’s done,” Sylvester said. “They heard.”
“Heard what?” Fang asked.
“Sylvester said, that if the dice roll had been different, I could have been a lord?” Paul asked.
Murmurs passed over the crowd.
“Sylvester’s in a weird place,” Davis said. “We shouldn’t put too much stock into-”
“Explain,” Paul said, interrupting, ignoring Davis. His voice was hard.
“Isn’t it amusing, in a dark way?” Sylvester asked. “They’re a fabrication. As much as you are, Paul. It’s the big secret. It’s one they’ve killed to protect, countless times. They wipe out entire continents and blame it on war and plague, to hide it. They’re in the middle of doing it to this one. Wipe everything out, clean the slate, and then rebuild with complete and total control and nobody else to say different when they rewrite history and tell a different story.”
“I don’t see how that’s funny,” Fang said.
“Don’t you?” Sylvester asked. “I mean, how many of you are named John, or Charles, or Duncan, or Philip or Mark or Timothy, because they’re names of prominent nobles and it’s a nice look for the parents? How many of you have siblings with those names? Mary or Elizabeth or Malcolm or Montgomery?”
He could see people here and there frown as their names were spoken.
“The street names of houses we grew up on, or schools we attended, or cities we lived in, how many of those had names inspired by nobles? How many of you actually aspired to work with nobles, or achieve a status where you might dine with one? Who among you felt true awe for the first time at one of their parades or ceremonies?”
“That’s enough, Sylvester,” Davis said.
“Is it? Weren’t you really damn proud that you got a commendation pinned on your chest for your academic performance and service to the crown, Davis? Who was it that pinned that bit of silver to your chest and made you feel more grand than you’d ever felt? Was it a noble?”
“No,” Davis said, but he still looked like that one had struck home.
“Did it bother you it wasn’t a noble?” Sylvester asked. He already knew the answer.
Davis had no answer to that question.
The nobles no longer sat at the table. When he hadn’t been looking, they had stood, scattering themselves throughout the room, making themselves felt. It was the Snake Charmer and Percy who were close to him now, buoying him forward. Sub Rosa and Melancholy. The Fishmonger, the Devil, Cynthia, Mauer, Fray, Avis, the Headsman Warren Howell, Wendy, Dog and Catcher. The Primordial.
Shirley wasn’t approaching anymore. She wasn’t even reacting. She seemed to understand there wasn’t a real chance to stop him. The bottle had been unstoppered.
“Can any of you name one meaningful part of your lives that wasn’t affected in some way by this farce of theirs? A friend group or family without that one person who was loyal to the King or, flipping it around, maybe that one person who had lost someone close to them in the name of the Crown? A major event in your lives that wasn’t influenced by them, by the flags they have us wave, the words they have us say, or the beats they have us march to?”
“We get the point, Sylvester,” Davis said.
The warm humor of just moments ago was gone, replaced by cold restlessness. People shifted position or looked uncomfortable, without any place to go.
“What does that have to do with what they did to us? To the experiments?” Red asked.
“Same as they did to me and the Lambs,” Sylvester said. “They snatch up children or they offer children with no other options a choice to go with them. To get healthy and to have shelter. They round us all up in a place like New Amsterdam, test us to see who’s the fittest, strongest, best looking, smartest. The best of us get to be Noble. They get the best the Academy has to offer, they get invented histories, or they get slotted into a waiting space on the family tree.”
“And the rest of us are fodder for experiments,” Red said.
“Not just fodder for experiments. Fodder for them. They have to be effective, and for that, you have weapons like the Lambs that act as trial runs before a noble gets the modification. They have to be pretty, and for that, artists like Ferres needs their practice.”
Red flinched at that. Paul, meanwhile, only stared.
“History, the role of the Academy, politics, the wars, the disasters, it’s all wrapped up in this. I told Paul that if the dice had fallen down differently, if he’d been a little taller, or a little fitter, that he might have been a Lord.”
Montgomery twirled his cane. The Twins prowled through the crowd, gravitating towards the agitated, the angry.
Sylvester knew he could use that.
“How many of you are wearing Academy uniforms? Think about this: they were testing you too, rolling dice, playing games behind the scenes. If you aspired to be a black-coat Professor, then they were keeping all of this in mind when they decided if you deserved that coat. Nothing to do with how hard you worked or how good you were. But whether they thought you might play along, if you could be trusted to possibly pull the strings one day, and keep the farce alive. For each one of you, that was the reality: either you are the sort of monster who would exploit children to succeed, and I don’t think many of you are… or they were never really going to give you a chance.”
Virtually every voice that was likely to speak for sanity and calm was too affected to speak, or they were familiar enough with Sylvester to know that there was little reason to do otherwise.
“Do you have proof?” Mabel asked, speaking for the first time. She hung her head a little, clearly shaken. She was standing by the stairs that led down deeper into the building.
“We have proof,” the Fishmonger said.
But even in the silence, nobody heard the fat boy with the nasty expression.
Sylvester waited. Like the Fishmonger had said, there was an answer to Mabel’s question. It was better to let them find their way to that answer on their own.
It only took a moment more before Davis looked at Sy, alarm on his face. He was quick and clever enough to jump to that conclusion. Mabel was almost right on his back, connecting to what Sylvester had said.
But as quick as they were to realize the conclusion, they weren’t equipped to get ahead of it, to actually deal with it.
“Ferres,” Junior said.
“She’s in surgery,” Davis said. “And we actually need her.”
“But she can provide answers,” Fang said.
“She’s in surgery,” Davis said, more firmly. “She’s going to be around tomorrow, there’s no reason to rush this. You got your answers-”
Paul moved, crossing the dining area. Davis called out, almost inarticulate in his haste to get his people moving. Students who were acting as soldiers scrambled to get up from their benches, to get between the thirty or so students and experiments in Paul’s entourage. More in Paul’s periphery than there had been before this discussion.
“We deserve answers!” Goldilocks called out. People were shouting now. Finding themselves divided, one side against another. Sanity and concern against outrage.
“You’ll get answers!” Davis called back. “Tomorrow!”
As quickly as the larger group had come to a halt when faced with Davis’ improvised formation of junior soldiers, they pulled back. Junior was near the rear, and he was calling for another route. There was another staircase down on the other side of the dining hall.
Soldiers rushed to get between the group and the stairs, and they didn’t quite make it. With Cynthia standing and watching, the soldiers instead collided with the front left corner of the group of students, trying to block them physically, bodies pressing against bodies.
Junior and Paul’s group pushed them away. Then, when the rows and columns of soldiers made it impossible to push the junior soldiers back and away, the press of bodies behind them making it nearly impossible, hands went up to protect faces, elbows stuck out, and somewhere along the line it became punches being thrown.
The frailer, more nimble members of the group dodged around the knot of melee, going for the stairs, heading down in the direction of Lab One.
Davis called out, ordering soldiers who were still blocking the first stairwell to hurry down, to try to intercept. It looked like he was about to go himself, though he was unsure of the swell of violence on the other end of the room. Mabel signaled and then headed down, leaving Davis to manage things upstairs.
Sylvester watched it all unfold. Mauer stood beside him and it was partially with Mauer’s eyes that Sylvester analyzed the crowd, trying to decide if he needed to say anything more.
The restlessness was bleeding out. People were picking sides but not yet finding an outlet. Some were moving to help the soldiers. More were hanging back, still digesting what they’d heard.
“Why?” Davis asked. He was asking Sylvester.
Sylvester glanced at the Snake Charmer. He looked at Sub Rosa.
“It’s a way forward. It ensures we don’t fall into the rut.”
“A rut!? Do you even understand what you’re saying!?”
“I think the fact that my words were able to get this kind of effect is a pretty good indicator I know what I’m saying.”
“No. Lords, no, you don’t have a bloody clue,” Davis said. “Valentina was absolutely right.”
Then Davis turned his attention elsewhere.
“Valentina. The vice president of the Beattle student council,” the Snake Charmer said.
“She believed in the nobility, in a twisted way,” Melancholy said. “You were supposed to be a surrogate, Sylvester. That was the label she desperately wanted to apply to you. She wanted you to be someone who could lead, who wouldn’t bleed or stumble when push came to shove. It’s ironic, because what you said here just now would have shattered that perspective of hers.”
Fray was standing so close by, holding Evette. Fray looked solemn while Evette smiled.
“She thought you were weak,” Percy said. “I think, in service to what we’re striving for in the long run, you should step in now. Instigating this was one thing, but you won’t win over the likes of Davis until you show that you have control. That you have that power.”
Sylvester nodded, mostly to himself.
He raised a hand, standing from his seat at the dining table. People turned to look. They saw as Davis grabbed his wrist.
“Whatever you’re doing, just stop, please.”
“Davis,” the Treasurer said, a few steps behind his old student council president.
“Don’t tell me you’re on Sylvester’s side,” Davis said.
The Treasurer was quiet.
“Please. Don’t make things harder for me. I’ve tried to be a good friend.”
“I want answers,” the Treasurer said.
“I know. But…”
“I’ll wait for them. I won’t get in your way.”
Davis nodded. He turned back toward Sylvester.
Sylvester simply spoke to the room, “There are some faculty members in the administration housing building. They might know.”
Davis let go of his arm as if he was poisonous to the touch. He called out an order, but it was too late. Students who had been lingering in earshot now turned to hurry off to the bridge, for the same building that Sylvester, Jessie, Helen, and Ferres had been sleeping in. There was no way for Davis’ relatively modest group of soldiers, already preoccupied, to get from one of the two south corners of the room to the northeast one.
Some of the students who lingered, looking like they might have followed Paul’s group or the group that was going to the administration building, but who were holding back, they looked like defectors. Hackthorn students from one of the dorms.
“There are faculty members in the other dorms, aren’t there?” Sylvester said. “Go. Hands in the air if you’re worried about getting shot at. They’ll see your uniforms and let you approach. Go. Go ask, grill them. Tell the students in the dorm.”
Davis didn’t even try calling out an order this time.
It was a small group, all considered, but as prodded, they took the suggestion.
There was noise from elsewhere, shouting, banging, and the periodic sound of breaking glass, but the dining hall had largely cleared up. The student body had been divided and much of it had marched off.
Davis staggered back a few steps and fell into a sitting position on a bench.
“There’s no reason for this,” Davis said.
“They want answers,” Sylvester said.
“There’s no reason to press things like this, to stir it up. To tell them in the way you told them.”
“Avoiding the rut. You don’t even realize you’re doing it, talking down to the experiments, marginalizing them. Academy on top, the useful experiments a rung below. We can’t do that. We don’t want that to be how we approach this final stage of things.”
“When you say ‘we’,” Shirley said, speaking up for the first time since Sylvester had started talking, “Do you mean all of us here, you and the Beattle rebels, or do you mean you and the voices in your head?”
“They’re not just voices,” Sylvester said. “They’re people.”
“You know what I mean,” she said.
He didn’t answer her question.
Across the room, Possum was hugging Bo Peep. Rudy stood off to one side.
Sylvester was glad that Bo Peep had someone, at least.
The soldiers who had headed down toward Lab One were now making their way up. Before they had even found the breath to speak, Sylvester started walking toward them, walking away from Peep and Possum.
“Downstairs. It’s bad,” the soldier told Davis.
Sylvester continued walking. Shirley, Davis, the Treasurer and most of those who remained headed downstairs at a near-run. They passed him.
From the look on Davis’ face, it was likely that some consideration was given to some form of incarceration or binding. Or maybe a gag.
But that would have been slipping into the rut. Whether Davis had processed the thought or whether his instincts had told him to do otherwise, it would have been a mistake. Sylvester had acted to keep from being put under the thumb of the others. The host of personalities, perspectives, and ideas in his head would have found a way to show how much of a bad idea it was to imprison him or put him in chains.
The situation was almost in his control.
Lab One was only one floor down. The main area was still occupied by a few experiments who didn’t have cells or stables to be stowed in, but it was mostly tables, desks, and a lot of open space that was now filled with two opposing factions of students.
Sylvester stood at the very back of the crowd.
Barred from the actual surgery hall by the soldiers, Paul and his group had taken another route. They’d accessed the hallway on the other side of the room, opening cells and dragging prisoners out. Faculty members, favored students.
Betty was kneeling, sobbing, while Paul held her by the hair.
“She knew,” Paul said.
“If you do this, Paul,” Mabel said, “They win. They’ve made you ugly. They’ve taken your humanity.”
“She knew. She knew where we came from. She was exactly what Sylvester talked about. The students who were tested and who succeeded. Who they thought could be useful and support the real Academy. Isn’t that right, Sylvester?”
“It’s exactly right,” Sylvester said.
He began making his way through the crowd. Davis could have stopped him, but didn’t.
There were no magic words. There was nothing Davis could do that wasn’t ordering an outright conflict.
“She knew about the- what was it even called?”
“The Block,” Sylvester said.
With that, Betty’s eyes went wider.
“And she had her justifications and they were… very tidy. I’m clever with people and I’m not even sure if she believed them herself, or if she was just that evil. But there’s a truth, and she didn’t serve that truth.”
He made his way out of the front of the crowd. He passed others. Cynthia. The Devil.
“Then what happens next?” Mabel asked.
“Aren’t you angry?” Sylvester asked. “Aren’t you upset?”
“Of course I am,” Mabel said. “But I was already angry and upset. This isn’t a big change for me. It’s an eye opener, if it’s true, but I was already willing to leave the Academy. I was already willing to fight for something better.”
“Yeah. You’re a good one, Mabel,” Sylvester said. It was getting harder to find the softer, calmer types in the crowd. It was all the likes of the Fishmonger, the Devil, the monsters.
“Are you going to do to Betty what you did to Ferres?”
Sylvester looked down, meeting Betty’s eyes.
“That might be up to the others,” he said. “To Paul, and Red, and I.B. Spider, if he’s recuperated enough.”
“I think your word matters,” Mabel said. “You get a say, and they’ll listen.”
Red spoke, “She’s as ugly as Ferres where it counts, inside, and she doesn’t even have the excuse of being older. I think she would have been worse, if she’d grown up to earn a black coat.”
“I don’t disagree,” Sylvester said.
“Sylvester, with one word, you could stop this,” Mabel said.
Sylvester turned, looking at her.
He had a lot of complicated feelings about the girl he’d flirted with, who had seen something and backed away. Melancholy and Cynthia had positioned themselves to stand on either side of the Sheriff’s daughter.
“With one word, I could make it clear that we’re in charge,” Sylvester said.
“Nobody’s disputing that,” Mabel said. “It’s clear. But you could make it very clear in the here and now that you deserve that responsibility. That you haven’t let them make you into the monster they wanted you to be.”
“That’s a really tired argument,” Sylvester said. “One I’ve read in books. Or my bookworm friend said they were in books. I’m not a super avid reader.”
“As arguments go, I think it stands,” Mabel said.
“I hate this girl so much,” Red said, from the other side of the room. “She acted sweet, like it mattered, while she was so brutal and unkind when it counted. She just did it to look better, not because she ever cared. When nobody was looking, she was lazy, rough, more inhuman than anything we have in the stables. I want her to look as ugly on the outside as she is on the inside.”
“There’s justice in that,” Sylvester said.
“I don’t agree,” Davis said, “and that’s beside the point, either way. We need her. At this stage, we could get her to cooperate, I think. We can do what we need to do for the greater plan.”
“And you, Betty? What say you? Favored student of Professor Ferres, on the fast track to your black coat, and you probably would have gotten it. You were complicit in the block, you told me it was… well, I don’t remember the particulars of what you told me.”
“The children asked for it. I mean- I mean,” Betty stuttered. “They gave permission. They knew what it involved.”
Sylvester looked at Red and Paul. “Convinced?”
“No,” Paul said.
“It’s the way things have been going for decades. Since Professor Ferres’ was my age, and since her mentor was my age.”
“That’s even less convincing,” Sylvester said.
“Yeah,” Goldilocks said.
“If you’re going to do the kind of work the Academy wants to do, it involves children. It allows you to do more, it opens doors, it saves lives indirectly.”
“I think you’re just flicking ink at the paper and hoping it makes a sensible argument,” Sylvester said.
“Please,” Betty said. “It’s the way things were, and the pressure was high. There was never a moment where I could stop and take stock, because I was always rushing forward. It was only ever little steps toward-”
“Toward this?” Sylvester asked. “Being at the mercy of your creations?”
“She took my face,” Red said. “I’m thinking I take hers.”
Her knife went to Betty’s nostril, the point sticking within. As the knife moved, Betty craned her head, trying to avoid being cut.
Eventually, unable to keep raising her head to move in concert with the knife, Betty was left to grimace, then wail, as the knife pressed against the skin. In the moment the skin reached its limit, the knife flicked out, and Betty collapsed, blood dribbling to the floor.
The voices of dissent weren’t dissenting. Mabel, Davis, Gordeux, Shirley…
Sylvester held the floor. It was up to him. Hackthorn was his, as were the people who resided within it.
Red was looking at him, wanting approval and guidance.
“I think we need to invent something suitably horrible to do to her,” the Fishmonger said. “A parasite, or we make her a parasite.”
“Or we execute her and put her on display. A grisly scene,” the Devil said, in his monstrous voice.
Sylvester could imagine. He could get away with it too. The dissenting voices were quiet, and he was fairly certain his faction overwhelmed the Beattle Rebels now. Defectors turned rebel now turned… horrified. Disheartened.
Betty could so easily be made into something less than human. It was an Academy tactic, the horrible fates that only a scalpel could bring, one she had wrought in an indirect way.
His eye fell on Fray, who stood off to one side.
With Evette, for a third time. Still as solemn as Evette was smiling.
He wished he had the other Lambs here.
We can stop here, he thought. The Lambs would want me to, wouldn’t they?
He asked the question of himself and he wasn’t positive of the answer. No figure stood in the crowd that he could turn to and figure it out. Fray, maybe, but Fray was silent and cryptic. Evette, but he didn’t want to give Evette an in.
“Sylvester,” a voice came from the crowd.
It wasn’t one of his rebels. It wasn’t one of the experiments, like Itsy Bitsy or Bo Peep. Not someone like Shirley or Pierre.
She was just out of surgery, and even like that, she was partially confined and held firmly by two students.
“Was this a plan?” Sylvester asked Davis.
“Plan?” Davis asked.
“To bring her here. To challenge me with her.”
“Kind of. She said she had something vital to tell you.”
“Oh, I know what she wants to tell me. It was a mistake to bring her this far.”
“The last time I heard what she had to say, I took her to pieces. This time-”
This time I’m the person everyone’s listening to.
“Cover her mouth,” Davis called out.
The student did. A moment later, he whipped his hand back, blood spraying.
Surgical enhancements. Ones made long ago. The blades had been inserted into cheeks, and now sprouted, like mandibles. No longer held by one of the students, Ferres sprawled.
“Sylvester!” she called out, her voice shrill, wild in way that only a doctor who’d had her hands taken from her could sound.
A hag or a harpy incarnate. As students fell on her, trying to manhandle her, she arched her body, forehead on the ground, limbs shielding her head and mouth, fighting for the chance to speak. Her voice took on an eerie, fevered pitch, “You could have saved them! If you’d only realized, you could have saved your friends, all those years ago!”