They looked at me differently. Students, whether they wore Beattle uniforms or Hackthorn ones, or whether they’d lapsed into civilian clothes, all turned their heads to follow me as I walked down the hall with Duncan.
I’d nearly brought everything tumbling down. I’d put them at mortal risk, and I remained unpredictable. They had been making forward progress, something that approximated hope and direction, and because of me, in large part, they had seen it all in jeopardy. It went a step beyond that, because I represented something to them.
They’d lived ordinary lives, before. Beattle students struggling to find a way forward, getting their second chance with knowledge that they were in the clear with a future ahead of them, that they were doomed, their goals falling to pieces, or that they were in limbo, and only hard work could see them through. Professor Ferres’ students weren’t facing the gauntlet in the same way, they were students with a slight artistic lean, but they were strong students and Hackthorn was mostly an Academy where everyone who attended had reasons for attending. The Hackthorn students had been secure.
My appearance, for all of them, had thrown things into disarray. To the Beattle students, I’d been the first recognizable face to the new reality, that the Academy was closing and that they didn’t have a chance. To the Hackthorn students, I was the invader, the leader of the rebels that had taken over. We’d said the right things to some, and fear or hope for a better tomorrow had brought them into our camp. Others were reluctant, only with us because the alternative was being a prisoner. I was the face of the person in charge, alongside Jessie, and I was the one who talked the most and acted the most overtly.
When they needed to put a face or a voice to the idea of what their future might hold, my face and voice were liable to be what popped up.
I couldn’t really blame them, either. I wasn’t sure I trusted myself. I didn’t trust my senses or my judgment. I sure as heck didn’t trust the Infante, who was walking behind us, his every footfall heavy enough to drum through my trains of thought.
“You’re quiet,” Duncan said.
“I know we didn’t spend that much time together, but you normally focused a great deal on the others. Spend time with Jamie- Jessie now, with Lillian, or with Helen sometimes. You’d hang out with Ashton if you got the chance, but I wasn’t exactly a focus.”
“Yeah. Sorry if that was crummy of me.”
“Nah. That part was fine. Lonely sometimes, but I pushed through. I took it as another political test, if I couldn’t tackle being on the outside of a tight-knit group, I didn’t deserve to be a professor, right?”
“Sure,” I said. I privately thought that the stance explained a fair bit about why he’d been a bit insufferable, if he’d been taking it as a challenge.
“But you had a pattern, kind of. Somewhere along the way, if we were interacting, you’d get on me.”
“Get on you?”
“Undercut me, passive remarks, find ways to contrive for me to sound like I didn’t know what I was talking about. I’m… pretty sure on that last one, by the way. I wasn’t at the time, but I’ve chewed that particular cud for a bit and I can remember times when I’d say something about the Academy or Academy Science and you’d be in earshot, and then a little while later it would come up and I’d be wrong. At least in that particular instance.”
“You chewed that cud right,” I said. “Yeah. Even if I don’t remember any specific examples, that sounds about right.”
“It’s just odd, because this is the first time we’ve had a proper conversation and you haven’t done that.”
“Is it?” I asked.
“More or less.”
I nodded. I wasn’t really sure what to say to that. It was what it was.
There was a group of students who were gathered around a section of carpet, where the carpet stretched down the length of the hall. The carpet had been torn, and efforts to address it were complicated by the fact that there was blood soaking the area around the tear.
They looked wary as they watched me approach and pass. Duncan stopped and so I did too.
“Stuck?” Duncan asked.
The student was a young man, eighteen or so, and he’d taken off the uniform shirt and tied it around his waist, wearing slacks and an undershirt. He was covered in fibers and dust, and the stuff stuck to his oiled hair. He sighed and asked, “How bad would it look if we tore it all out? If we left it bare?”
“Bad,” Duncan said. “Every hallway has a runner like this. People might not notice specifically that the hallway is without, but they’d feel like something was off, at the very least, and that would make them suspicious. Besides, the building here went up fifteen years ago, the carpets have been here at least that long, and I guarantee you, if you tear it up, it’s going to leave a patch that’s a different color than the rest of the floor. It’ll show, and this is a trafficked hallway.”
“We can’t sew it up, so we’re thinking silkworms. There’s some stuff in the lab where one of the student groups was producing quality textiles for fashion. Worm silk. It would take some jiggering, but we might be able to squeeze it into the schedule.”
“Maybe,” Duncan said. “I think, for now, tear it up, but don’t leave it bare. Get one of the runners from the top floor, bring it down. Leave it bare up there for now, see what you can do on the patch job, hopefully we can manage things so the upstairs don’t see too much traffic.”
He glanced at me. “What do you think?”
“It’ll do,” I said. I wondered at the wisdom of asking me for advice. “It’s maybe a silly suggestion, but maybe instead of engineering silkworms to patch it together again, you could check with the staff and see if they have any spare runners in storage?”
That earned me some long looks.
“You might have to grill some more uncooperative staff members we’re holding prisoner, but you might be able to negotiate something. You can tell the jailer I said it’s okay. Or that Duncan okayed them getting privileges or treats.”
The dusty fellow finally said, “I’ll go do that. You guys roll this one up, and if I’m not back, clean the floors?”
The others nodded.
“Good luck,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said, with a funny note in his voice. It was, as best as I could figure it out, rooted in the fact that he wasn’t a fan of taking counsel from me. The troublemaker.
The Infante watched me as Duncan and I resumed our brisk walk.
The students and a number of non-students were up, about, and active, getting things done. Supplies and construction materials were being carted this way and that. Other things were more mundane. Multiple wheeled carts piled high with school uniforms to be laundered were being eased down the staircase by teams of four. They’d been cooped up for two days and a hundred scared people produced a lot of sweaty clothing.
I wondered if it had been the fact that they’d been cooped up and now were free. There was a time limit, and as reluctant as some were, the Beattle rebel leaders and Lambs had managed to convey that we needed to do this right. There was no room for error. If we screwed up here, students would die, very possibly by way of marching single file to take their turns at a set of nooses or guillotines.
It was a grim and very motivating image, that.
Then, as if to stand in stark contrast, Bo Peep and Abby turned up, alongside Lara. One of them had dropped the leash, and Quinton was getting away. He was more spry and adventurous than the first Quinton I’d met, and he ducked in and through the legs of furniture as he crossed the top floor of the main body of Hackthorn. The main dining hall. The stairwell I’d sat on and watched proceedings from was now occupied with students. My ‘throne’.
Abby threw herself beneath a bench, sliding on the recently mopped floor. Quinton evaded her hands, leaped up onto the bench, then onto the table.
The table next to him had another table on top of it, legs sticking up in the air. Quinton leaped onto the struts that connected the legs. Bo Peep made an inarticulate sound of alarm.
Picking herself up, Abby stood at the nearby table, planting hands on her hips.
“Bleahhhh,” Quinton said.
“Bleahhh,” Abby said, sticking out her tongue. “I’m glad you’re having fun. But if you keep going that way then you’re going to get that leash tangled up in the struts and you’ll hang yourself when you jump down.”
“No!” Lara said, alarmed.
“Bleh-heh,” Quinton said.
“You know he can’t understand you, right?” I said.
Abby glanced over her shoulder at me, then turned her full attention to Quinton. “Play time’s over. Come here.”
She put her arms out in front of her.
Quinton jumped down to the table and then leaped through the air, throwing himself into Abby’s waiting arms.
Bo Peep practically bounced with joy on her way to Abby and Quinton’s side. Lara wasn’t far behind.
“Well,” I said. “I think it’s going to take a crowbar to separate Abby and Peep, now.”
“Yup,” Duncan said.
Duncan smiled. “They’re good. They’re a positive influence on Ashton.”
“Does he need positive influences? He’s such a little goody-two-shoes he probably folds his clothes before he puts them in the dirty clothes hamper.”
“No comment. No, really, they help him be more human. It’s an uphill climb sometimes.”
“Just wait until one of them ends up sweet on him.”
Duncan made a face.
“One of them’s already got a burgeoning crush?”
“No comment,” he said.
So many of the students in the area were watching the children interact, and smiles found most of those faces.
“We can do this,” Duncan said, his tone changing. He was reacting to the expression on my face. I wasn’t really trying to keep tells at bay. I was conserving energy.
“You think?” I asked.
“I think so,” he said. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
I nodded at that. “Sorry I was a shit to you all that time. You very thoroughly proved me wrong.”
“Good,” he said. “That’s satisfying to hear.”
“Thank you for looking after them.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “I wish I’d been able to keep better tabs on Mary and Lillian. We got our coats and we went our separate ways. I should have done more, but my head wasn’t there. I was wrestling with what you’d said about the nobles, the Crown being a lie. I saw my family, I worked in a few places that Hayle connected me to, looked after Helen for a stretch while Ibbot was away, and I couldn’t get over it.”
“No. Somewhere along the line, I realized I couldn’t envision a world where I kept working for my black coat, where I went on to work for nobles in the highest capacity. I crossed paths with Lillian a few times. I think, odd as it sounds, it was harder for her to come to terms with.”
“She wanted to run an Academy like Ferres runs Hackthorn, but something better-intentioned, more focused on the people on the ground, helping those in need. It’s not as clean a break, for her.”
“It wasn’t easy,” Duncan said. “I’m giving up a lot, and I’m lying in bed at night, trying to go to sleep, and I worry so much that they’re retaliating against me by going after my family. But Helen came, she laid it out, and I thought of those guys.”
Bo Peep was stooped over, trying to stay still and not lose her passenger as Quinton perched on her shoulders, but that proved difficult as he adjusted his footing, hard hooves biting into her.
“You’re a good guy, Duncan.”
“I used to think so,” Duncan said.
He was about to say something else when Lara turned around, craning her head. “Duncan!”
“What?” Duncan called out.
“Nora says there’s a problem. Urgent. They’re at the gate.”
“Right,” Duncan said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Grab Lillian while you go? She should be near the bridge there. She was talking to the men in charge of soldiers.”
“And!” Lara called out, flinching as people turned to look. “Is Jessie still napping?”
“In the admin building,” I said.
“They want Jessie too.”
Asking for people by name, and I’m not among them.
I got it. It hurt, it sucked, but I got it.
It was the cost of losing my mind, even as I’d tried to lose it as gently and non-destructively as possible.
Duncan spoke, “You guys go get her. I’ll head straight to the gate, you guys go wake Jessie. You want to go with them, Sy?”
Yep. He got it. I wasn’t supposed to go to the gate.
Bo Peep flinched as I looked in her direction. Wary.
“Best if they go on their own. I’m bruised, I’ll slow them down,” I said.
It sucked to see the relief on Bo Peep’s face, even as she tried to hide it.
“If you’re sure,” Duncan said. “You want to stay here?”
Did I want to stay here? In the dining hall, where I’d spent far too much time over the last week? With only the Infante and a few hundred students that didn’t like me for company?
The Infante was staring at me.
“No,” I said, averting my eyes. “Not-”
“-Not alone,” I said, quiet.
“Then come,” he said, without the moment of hesitation or the look of pity I’d worried about. “We’ll do what we can.”
I wasn’t sure what the rules were, if there were rules for personified mental breakdowns and weaknesses. The Infante was quiet, he stood off to the side, sometimes with company, often nobles, but he was omnipresent. The more attention I paid him the more attention he paid me, but at the same time, he worked to catch me off guard, keep me on edge, and exert his presence.
So far, being in the company of the Lambs was good. It kept my attention constructively elsewhere. It shored me up in other ways.
It was equally possible that the rigid definition of the rules that might keep this abstract force at bay would be the avenue he used to get me, to trap me and crush me, to return to saying those same devastating words he’d used in New Amsterdam, and this time he would have the advantage of having access to the entirety of my mind.
I’d told the others to kill me if the Infante started appearing and having an influence over me. I’d wanted to articulate that he was the end of the road. The greatest threat. He wanted to bring about an ending, both in my head and in reality. But Jessie hadn’t cared. She understood.
A part of me wished I could run off and be the one to wake her up. To have that sleeping beauty moment.
“I’m going to find Lillian,” he said. “Mary’s just over there.”
I looked. ‘Just over there’ was down a short stretch of hallway, twenty paces. I could see where the door was open and the mottled sunlight reached past the open door and into the hallway.
“Or do you want me to come with?” Duncan asked.
He’d developed compassion of a surprising degree, if he realized that being alone for even that long was something that worried me.
“No,” I said. “They said it’s urgent. Go find Lillian.”
I ignored the Infante and Percy as I walked down the hall. There had been reconstruction work, recently, where apparently one of the spider things I’d released had started to lay eggs. Sections of wall had been cut down and boards had been sawn to measure and set into place. Sawdust was piled high at points, and the boards with the eggs clustering them like barnacles were piled at other points.
I held out my arm, running it along the wall, letting the sawdust accumulate in my cupped hand as I walked.
I came to an early halt as I saw that Montgomery and the Moth were standing by the door. The Mothmont nobles from the train. I had to think for a second, deciding if I wanted to walk through them or around them.
The hesitation created a moment where I inadvertently eavesdropped. I shifted rightaways into intentionally eavesdropping.
“-scarily competent,” Mary said. “He brought this entire Academy to its knees, and one of those times he more or less did it on his own.”
Talking about me.
“That’s not a good thing,” a male voice said.
“We have a mission,” Mary said. “Maybe the most important we’ll ever have. Because I don’t think humanity or the experiments get many more shots. I won’t say this is the end if we fail, but it might be decades before someone else is positioned like we’re positioned, understand? And if we fail or if we decide not to fight them on this, then the next people will find it that much harder. The nobility will be that much more secure, the Academy more advanced. We must do this.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m more scared than passionate. All of you aren’t going to think less of me for admitting that, but it’s the nobles. It’s the Academy of the Crown States. We’re not well positioned at all.”
Another voice, not as deep, said, “We’re in an even worse position if we have to worry about him going crazy and setting us back weeks again.”
I raised my hand to my face
“He killed the Baron of Richmond in Warrick,” Mary said. “He assisted me in killing one of the Baron’s bastard sisters. He assisted another Lamb in killing another. More to the point-”
Mary said that last word hard, and I imagined her gesturing with a blade as she said it.
“-he wasn’t even at his best when he paralyzed Hackthorn, understand?”
‘That much was clear,” the gruff voice said.
“No,” Mary said. “Not that part of it. He was alone. You understand? He did it single-handedly, but he’s one piece of a greater system. The Lambs. He might have brought a school as grand as this to its knees, and that’s something he can clearly do, but it’s Jessie who clarifies the when, the what, the who. It’s Helen who twists their arms and whispers in their ear, breaking them. It’s me that slits their throat when necessary.”
“What about Lillian and Duncan? They keep you in working order?”
There was a note of derision in that.
As if it was very clear that they saw Mary as the experiment, not the woman. Or that Lillian wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping the likes of me in good working order.
“They cover what comes after the giant is made to kneel, the body broken, the throat slit,” Mary said. “They piece things back together.”
“Listen, you seem like a nice girl,” the voice said. “You’re good with a blade, I won’t deny you that. If you killed a minor noble, that’s amazing. Credit to the Lambs. But this is something else entirely. It’s bigger. Almost as big as it gets. I saw a glimpse of Sylvester when it was bad, here. You didn’t. I don’t think this is doable.”
“Any commentary, Sylvester?” Mary asked.
I raised my head, my hand dropping to my side.
The Mothmont twins weren’t at the door anymore. Percy and the Infante were still there.
I stepped into the room.
“Sylvester,” the soldier said. He looked like someone who had been a soldier before we’d come to Hackthorn, rather than one of Davis’ conscripts who was acting in the capacity of a soldier for us.
No, there were twenty or so people who fit that latter label.
“I want to find the best way forward. Nothing personal intended.”
I shook my head. He started as I raised my hand, one hand moving closer to his weapon. I clasped one of his shoulders with a dusty hand in passing, as I approached Mary.
“We’re taking a break from sparring,” Mary said.
“She beat Carson with a knife, when he had a saber,” one of the bystanders remarked.
“She did,” Carson said. The true soldier, my critic. “Credit where it’s due.”
I held up a hand.
Mary didn’t toss the knife so much as she threw it at me. I trusted her throw, let my fingers close around the handle as it slapped against my hand.
“Spar?” she asked.
I was already moving before the word was finished and pitched as a question. A thrust, which she parried. I followed up with a short swing, drawing a sharp angle as I cut back in the direction of the knee of her leg, closest to me.
There was a psychological reason to it, and it was the most obvious target. I did see a flash of emotion in her eyes, all the same.
She cut for my face, and I pulled it out of the way.
There was no phantom to inform me. I had no phantom Lambs anymore, as far as I could tell. Only the actual Lambs. But I knew Mary, for the most part. I trusted the way she moved.
Her hand motioned in a signal. Left.
Her foot followed, blade at the toe of her shoe. I stepped back and struck it with my own blade as it passed me, sending the blade back the way it had come, into the slot at the side of the sole.
From the noises of the crowd, she hadn’t revealed that particular trick yet.
Left thin long, she signaled.
Her hand flicked out, a knife slash, fast, hard, and seriously capable of injuring me if I was slow to react, but I was stepping in close. The knife wasn’t the threat. Another knife emerged from her sleeve, razor wire attached to it. It flew in a tight arc. Being in close was the only place that the blade and wire wouldn’t reach.
My chest pressed against hers, and as she took a step back, I matched her. She brought her head back- an imminent headbutt, and I brought my head forward, the top of it moving in the direction of her face, not to headbutt her, but to deny her the room to rear back and smash forward. She turned her head instead.
Without looking and without her giving me hints, I put a hand out, catching the wrist of her other hand before she could bring a blade around to stick it in my side.
My right hand tried to do the same to her. The back of her knife hand caught the crook of my elbow.
We broke away in the next instant. Mary’s knife cut my sleeve. My hand slipped under her shirt and came away with another blade.
One, two, she gestured.
What was that?
We stood there, pausing for the moment. Neither of us panted, but I wanted to. All of my aches and pains were coming to life.
But this was important.
You, left, she gestured.
I swung my right arm, instead.
Her fingers moved in a curious way, one I might have taken as a gesture. But then I saw the metal. Between finger and fingernail, tiny grooves of pale metal, notches for the wire to sit in. I pulled my hand back, and the loop of wire that was enclosing it caught only the blade I held, pulling it out of my grip. I passed the blade I’d swiped from beneath her clothes to my right hand.
Three, she gestured. Then, left.
She kicked, left leg, short and sharp, for my leg. I only barely caught the gesture of four before she followed up with a swing.
That led into a brief and intense series of movements. It wasn’t quite a clash of blade on blade or arm on arm, but it might as well have been. Knives were scary, knives were dangerous, and there wasn’t a movement that couldn’t have seriously hurt the other if we’d been a little slower or a little less on our guard.
My injuries were starting to complain all the more. I wasn’t sure of my grip on my knife, and my back hurt more than letting her cut me would’ve.
But I was on the outs with Mary, and I needed to fix that. I’d wounded her in a way I could never properly apologize for.
She backed off, tossing a blade into the air. The hand made the gesture nine before the blade landed in it once more.
Oh. Was that what she was doing? She was counting all the times she rightfully should’ve and would’ve killed me already?
I hoped that if I made a mistake important enough for the audience to notice, that she would act on it. It wouldn’t do if our ‘dance’ here made this look like a routine or farce. It was, in a way, but we wanted me to look good, and I wanted to close the distance between Mary and I.
I stepped in, aiming to move unpredictably, and moved into her personal space.
She retaliated, as she should’ve, and I fended her off, but I did see a fleeting eye roll from her in the process.
I remained close, my hand passing beneath her skirt, brushing her thigh, touching another blade handle. She moved her leg before I could take it. The angle had been wrong.
“It’s been years since you pulled that one, Sy,” she said. “You were a child then, you can’t get away-”
By all rights, she should’ve remembered this one.
The sawdust in my mouth blew out as a fine cloud, catching her in the mouth and eyes.
Immediately, her actions were sharp, dangerous. She was blind in the moment, and acting definitively was the only way of responding that didn’t leave her vulnerable for any longer. I barely managed to keep her from cutting me.
I stepped well back out of range, glanced at the surroundings – a classroom with almost no furniture in it, the rest cleared out or in use elsewhere. I tossed my knife in Mary’s direction.
The sawdust wouldn’t bother her for long, but she coughed. She was very aware of the sound of steel striking the ground, the ringing of it. Steel was her song.
Hefting a wooden chair, I approached. She heard my footstep and stepped to one side before swinging. She struck the chair, and paused, off guard in the moment and wholly unaware of what she’d just collided with.
I kicked one of her legs out from under her, butted at her with the chair when that didn’t actually make her fall, and then planted the chair on the ground, the legs of it on either side of her body. I planted my foot on it, pinning her. I didn’t really feel safe pinning her otherwise. Having a nice solid piece of wood and a few feet of distance
Mary lay there, blinking hard, coughing once or twice. I turned my head and spat, the sawdust that had soaked with my saliva forming clumps.
“Fifteen,” she said, when she’d decided she could speak.
“How did we get from thirteen to fifteen?” I asked.
“What’s this?” Carson asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
Mary gestured. Left.
The knife came at me out of nowhere. My movement to react suffered for the odd angle of the trajectory and the fact it was a touch slower than a normal thrown knife. I swatted it out of the air, and cut the back of my hand in the process. Wire.
“You don’t need to show me,” I said. “I do believe you. Also, ow.”
“I cut the Infante with that trick. Knives that don’t fly straight.”
I nodded. I was very aware now of the Infante, standing off to one side.
Moving my foot, I pulled the chair back. I offered Mary a hand in standing, my back protesting at the momentary pull of her weight.
That, I was assuming, would be both the last exertion I would manage today and all in all, this was something I’d be feeling for two full days.
She segued straight from rising to a standing position to a hug.
“Dance with me?” I asked. “Fight alongside me?”
“You’ll need to catch up. You were terrible.”
“I was fine. I won.”
She gave me a look, eyes dangerous. I could read her mind. Fifteen.
I smiled. “I won, still. I did catch you off guard.”
“You won’t catch them. Not consistently.”
“Yeah,” I said. I gave her a squeeze.
She was so Mary to hug. I could feel the weapons in sleeves and at the trunk of her body. Her collar was stiff in a way that told me there was something hidden in it. But she was a girl and it was a nice hug all the same.
I broke the hug, wishing I didn’t have to.
“You need practice.”
“I need to heal first,” I said.
“You do,” she said.
We were both very much ignoring the other faces in the room. It was… an intimate moment, in its own way. Not because we were so very close, even when hugging, but because we had been very far away. We’d moved closer together in a very personal way that only we really understood.
I was very cognizant of the fact that not all of this would parse. I knew I had critics and this display wouldn’t change it.
There was so much repair work to be done. Not all of it would be sawdust and fixed carpets.
The faith of the people we were leading into battle against an unstoppable enemy was perhaps more important and far, far harder to fix.
“I missed you,” I said, putting those other people in the background for just another moment longer.
“I missed you too,” she said, and she said it very casually, with less than half of the emotion I’d used. She sheathed her weapons, slipping each blade into its place. When she was done, she met my eyes. Her hand gestured.
Hurt Lamb I destroy you.
I responded with only a, please.
With that, I might not have been forgiven, but I knew we could move past it. I remained very glad that she hadn’t turned one of those counts of coup into an actual wound. The Mary of a year or two ago might have.
“Mary!” a voice called out.
It was Nora, as tall as me and shrouded in white cloth.
We stepped out into the hallway. Nora peered past the shawl to stare at me with multiple alien eyes and a face with narrow slices of chitin biting through and peeling away from raw, red flesh, almost like terminal hangnails.
“You’re here,” Nora said. As dangerous as she might have looked, she shied back a hair as Carson stepped into the doorway as well. “The others want you… and Sylvester as well.”
“You paused,” I said.
“I had to ask,” she said. “We have guests.”
“Guests?” I asked.
“An Academy Headmaster. He’s arrived early, we think he wanted to check that the coast is clear.”
“The coast is the furthest thing from clear,” I said.
“It’s-” Nora started. She paused. “Jessie says we know him.”
“We know him?”
“Jessie says he was the headmaster of Dame Cicely’s, and might still be,” Nora said. “Jamie wrote about him. She says you said, then, that the headmaster was, quote, ‘in cahoots’ with Geneveive Fray.”
“Fray’s announcing herself,” I said.