Mary, Nora, and I reached the Lambs just in time to see the ship pulling into the harbor.
The Lambs, Emmett, Bea, and the Treasurer were all at the tower that stood over the gate. A zig-zag path led from the harbor, up the cliffs and into to the backside of Hackthorn.
“He was on the deck, I’ve seen his portrait and Jamie wrote about him,” Jessie said. “Edmund Foss.”
“Can we bar the doors? Pretend not to notice him?” Lillian asked, her voice still soft. It was as if she was trying to whisper so as not to be heard by a guy who was a speck to anyone that wasn’t holding binoculars.
“We could,” Jessie said. “They’d go back and tell others.”
“Can we work with that?” Lillian asked. “Isn’t it easier to work with a little bit of negative opinion of one man, compared to… whatever happens if he comes inside?”
I spoke, “They’d say that Ferres is rude, she has something to hide, the report of a discovery of true immortality is the dying effort of an older Professor to be relevant again as the Crown States ceases to be. Everyone turns their attention to other things, with only a few intrepid, irrelevant individuals and second-in-commands investigating. Some of the most pivotal players have already backed out, this threatens to take all of the meat out of the plan.”
“Nora passed on that Edmund was with Fray, back in the day?” Jessie asked.
“She did,” Mary said. “What does that mean for us?”
Jessie spoke, “We don’t know to what degree they might’ve been collaborating, if it was self-serving in the moment or something bigger, but you Lambs discussed it then and came to the conclusion he was a Fray plant. There might be an ongoing relationship even today.”
“We have to assume he’s not,” I said. “If we act buddy-buddy and we’re wrong, it’s the end. We’re forced to capture him, others get suspicious, we don’t get any advantage worth talking about, and the Infante might even clue into what we’re doing. We observe from a distance and if we find out something about Fray then that’s great, but for now we take this as an early check-in from the Academy.”
“If we take it as that, we’re definitely not ready,” Duncan said. “We’re not close to being able to invite someone in and talk to them. Half the place is in ruins, the other half is a mess, we’ve got prisoners everywhere.”
“Not everywhere,” Ashton said.
“Not the time for pedantry, Ashton,” Duncan said.
“We invite him in,” I said. “Which is going to be… what, ten minutes from now?”
“Sixteen minutes,” Jessie said. “We can stall and make it twenty. But twenty isn’t a lot.”
“Twenty has to do,” I said. “We can do this.”
“You have ideas?” Jessie asked.
“Absolutely,” I said. I’d thought for the time it took me to run to the tower. Now I was figuring out which thoughts to tie up and which needed more attention. It was a question of priorities. “Duncan, you, Bea, Ashton, Emmett, Lara, and the Treasurer-”
“I have a name,” the Treasurer said. He looked far more unhappy than he should have for the misplacement of a name. I suspected he was holding onto hard feelings from the prior week’s events.
“You guys stay. We’ll communicate via. Nora. Everyone else with me.”
“Are you sure?” Lillian asked.
“Why the doubt?” I asked.
She didn’t have an immediate answer for me. I wondered if she didn’t trust me, if she was trying to articulate that she hadn’t seen me in good form for a while.
“I’ll say why I doubt,” Bea said. “You told me once you cause as much havoc as you can and then you have the benefit of being better at handling the consequences and better at knowing what’s going on when it comes to working out a resolution.”
“That sounds like something I’d say,” I said. I looked down at the boat. How much time was this going to cost us?
“It’s pretty much the context I met you in. The problem is this is something where we need to build something,” she said. “Not to tear it all down.”
Mary glanced at me. “She’s not wrong. You really think we can do this? Twenty minutes to transform the Academy into something respectable, that passes muster with someone like Edmund Foss?”
“No,” I said. “Twenty minutes to transform the Academy into a place that’s in the midst of preparation for a major event.”
“It’s less than twenty minutes,” Jessie said.
“Which is all the more reason to move,” I said. “Unless someone else has a better idea?”
I could see it. The Treasurer was about to voice an objection, the objection would need to be answered, and we’d lose half of a minute.
“Go,” Duncan cut in.
I went, the others following. I wasn’t fast, and my recent spar with Mary had done a number on me. Jessie appeared beside me, taking my hand. She wasn’t holding me up, but she was providing me some support. I was sure if I needed it, she’d help support me in a more practical way.
I was aware that Lillian and Mary were with us. A part of me wanted to analyze them and their reactions. I couldn’t afford to. There was too much to do.
The act of moving away from this scene where I could watch my opponents and analyze them felt like I was stepping through one of the windows and falling onto the cliffs. I didn’t have a good read on Edmund, I didn’t know why he was here, what he wanted, and what would satisfy or compel him.
I was so focused on what was happening outside and what was happening fifteen minutes from now that I wasn’t focused at all on the present. We turned a corner, and I saw the Infante, squarely in front of me, back to me.
Jessie’s hand tugging mine gave me the impetus to get moving again, where I might very well have remained in paralyzed silence for a full minute.
I needed to distract myself.
“Nora, pass this on?” I asked.
“Alright,” Nora said. She oddly seemed more at ease when moving than when standing still. It was as if she were built to be perpetually in motion, moving with the support of her arms and claws, back arched slightly, head sticking out more forward than up.
“Tasks, roles, responsibilities. Duncan, you’re taking point. He’s never met you and I don’t think the Lambs have been gone long enough for word to get out about you. Based on what we’ve seen cross Ferres’ desk, there might not be wanted posters either. Get yourself into a Hackthorn Academy uniform. Bea? Pass on word, all guards and soldiers in the city need to hide, while still holding the peace. Talk to Shirley.”
“Treasurer and Davis need to gather everyone who’s trustworthy, who’s educated and who’s proper. Get Davis, he’ll look good and he’ll make a good complement to Duncan.”
“Why?” Nora asked. “Treasurer asks.”
“That’s going to be the crowd we put in directly in front of him. He’ll like that, being from Cicely’s. Girls are especially good. Ashton? I asked you to stay back because this guy’s never met you. He’s going to meet you in passing, and he’s going to get a whiff of you. Not enough of anything to make him look back and wonder about anything-”
Nora was making noise. I paused.
“Ashton is trying to interrupt you,” she said. “He says he’ll do just fine. He doesn’t tell you how to be a jerk, you shouldn’t tell him how to do his thing.”
I wondered how much of that was Nora’s license and how much of it was Ashton. If it was the latter, who or where had he got that from?
“Great,” I said. “Slow our target down, treat him well, get him to talk about his Academy and how much better it is. Get him to the tea room or the dining hall in the main building, slow him down. He spent the last while traveling, and sitting in carriages and boats makes people want to sit around. Ironically.”
“What do we say?” Lillian asked. “He’s going to ask for particulars.”
“We be coy, Duncan says,” Nora said. “Why would Ferres give away the show? It’s her big moment, the kind all Professors hope to have.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Even beyond that, Ferres is a showman, she likes her art. We need to put that in front of Edmund’s face. Art. The quality. Lillian and Jessie are headed to the labs. Lillian identifies everything of top quality that the Academy can boast. We parade that in front of him. Jessie knows the keywords to control the warbeasts. Those were top notch, the control, the theatrics of having a giant wolf or spider in our complete control, more than the Academy usually strives for.”
Helen spoke for the first time. “She’s a showman, but what happens when she doesn’t show?”
“We’ll figure that out,” I said. “I’ll look into the Hackthorn children. It’d be asking a lot, but I think even after the fiasco of the other night, they’ll listen to me.”
“The girl is talking, Bea,” Nora said, as if Lara had supplied the name. She adjusted her voice to match the person speaking. “It’s unfortunate, but those kids are loyal to you, Sylvester. But it’s going to take time to round them up, we split them up because they had too much of an influence on each other, and a lot of that is your secondary influence.”
Doubt, suspicion, concern, lingering feelings. Bea and the Treasurer both. It was only going to get worse.
“We’ll handle that when the time comes,” I said. “For now, we need to dwell on this. Helen and Mary here are going to need to keep an eye out in the meantime. Details. Things that need immediate attention. Where possible, we get students to move things into place. Furniture, stacks of boxes, it’s all about hiding the damage, focusing on presentation, we make it look like we’re mid-renovation, not mid-reconstruction. It’s a fine line.”
“One of the dormitories has fire damage,” Nora said. “A bridge does. The plant life on the bridge is all burned. There are a lot of places around the Academy where that’s going to be visible.”
“We’ll deal,” I said, with little idea how. “It’s a question of directing their attention. We bring people and things out at key times. Hand signals are going to play a big part. Mary and Helen will round up students when we get back to the main building, liason with the lieutenants. Again, hand signals. Once we make Mr. Professor Edmund Foss stop for tea, hopefully, we’ll redirect attention to areas depending on which ones he’ll see next. We paint the damn walls five minutes before he arrives in the room in question, if we have to.”
“Paint needs time to dry,” Nora said, in an ‘Ashton’ voice. “He likes watching paint dry. Duncan is saying Ashton is being pedantic again.”
I continued, ignoring the interplay between the other guy Lambs. “I’m thinking we station students in even numbered groups in doorways to mark no-go side routes, hallways, stairways.”
“Got it,” Nora said. “Duncan. Duncan’s getting a uniform now. Bea is going to spread word and get people on board.”
“We need to hide any and all Beattle uniforms,” I said. “And we need to maximize the number of Hackthorn uniforms around them. Spreading word is a good thing.”
We weren’t far from the main building now. I saw a portrait of a noble, the Infante standing next to it, staring at it.
“We’ll need everyone’s attention,” I said, hoping that didn’t echo the Infante’s noble lines of thinking and somehow wake him. I felt anxious and bothered in a way I hadn’t for some time.
Helen perked up at that.
I could tell, even before we were done crossing the bridge, that the students were reacting to the word. The boat had been seen, it bore Academy colors, and it wasn’t out of the question that students with binoculars had seen enough to draw conclusions about who it was. They were talking, worried, unsure about what was going to happen. I watched through windows and saw the anxiety.
Some among them could even be considering rebelling against the rebels, being subversive, or passing on a message.
“Let me take point?” Jessie asked.
“Sure,” I said. “As soon as we have their attention.”
I’d thought not long ago about the role I took in their hearts and minds. That I was the face that the students and rebels linked to the fall of their respective Academies; Hackthorn had fallen twice and the second fall had been grim. I’d been the one to get involved in interpersonal rivalries, in compromise, when a group butted heads with others on a distribution of resources and labor, or when someone struggled with another member of their team. Compromise left both sides unhappy, and that unhappiness was something that touched me, coloring opinions of me.
So long as I did everything right and supplied peace, hope for a better future and freedom from the constraints of their old life, I’d remained in their good graces, and that association hadn’t held me back.
But I’d broken that trust on all three counts.
Jessie was stability. She was organization, the liason. She was inoffensive, rarely linked to conflict, more to measured, calculated responses.
We were a team for a reason. I gave her hand a squeeze before letting go of it. Association with me would taint their image of her. It made sense, it would be only a small taint, but everything counted in the here and now.
Helen whistled, using her particular control of vocalizations and intonation to simply produce something loud. It wasn’t the worst she could do, but it did get the attention of the hundreds of students in the open space.
Helen half-flounced, half-flourished, all theatrics, as she moved to one side, indicating Jessie.
“We’re making the school presentable in the next ten minutes. Vernon, you take twenty students with you. There’s construction material at the ground floor and near the stables, stacked in the hall. Carry it away, stack it anywhere there’s damage, missing portraits. Grab carpets from upstairs. Take them down. Hurry.”
“Clive found extra carpets-” The guy who was supposedly named Vernon started speaking.
“If you found some, use them, but go,” Jessie said.
Jessie pointed, “Eddie, you and ten students, more materials from that space. Do the same thing, second floor. Martin, ten students, third floor. Alvin, ten students, fourth floor. Be mindful of the damage to the ceiling, there’s a short ladder in the library on the fourth floor, grab it on the way, see what you can do to plaster the ceiling in the next ten minutes. Jim, ten students, fifth floor. Herman, ten students and sixth. Darlene, eight students, left stairwell. It should be mostly clear, be mindful of the railing.”
Students were mobilizing now.
“…Go to the dormitory,” Jessie said. “Pass on word, recruit more helpers. Harvey, ten students, just block the right stairwell, make it look like you’re doing work.”
“Flip it around,” I said, looking around. “If they come upstairs from the left stairwell, they’ll be able to see through the glass exterior of the dining room, they’ll see the burned dorm, clear as day.”
Misdirection, control where their eye looks.
“Change that around!” Jessie called out. Darlene was already leaving. “Darlene, right stairwell, Harvey to the left. Those are the key areas to start with. Others, listen to the Lambs, be ready to act. We do this actively!”
“Uniforms!” Mary called out, her voice almost overlapping with Jessie’s. “If you’re wearing a Beattle uniform, then you’re going to make yourself scarce, but don’t leave just yet. Listen to what we have to say, then make it your job to inform everyone else you meet as you disappear. Check to see if they know what to do, tell them if they don’t. Hide your weapons, take them and soldiers to the west and south Dormitory buildings, make sure they don’t make a fuss. Carry trash with you.”
“This is a rehearsal of a really big play,” Helen said. “We really want to get this right, but it’s a test, and how we act is part of it. Don’t worry too much about looking like you’re trying not to look at them. If you’re worried you look suspicious or worried, then what you want to do is look like you’re doing something. You have a place to go, a thing to do, even if it’s getting food from the cafeteria, going somewhere, or finding someone else that looks uneasy and talking to them like they’re a friend.”
She was reading the room, sensing how tense and unsure they were, and reassuring, ensuring that they would reassure each other. She was good at reading people. It was a key part of acting.
Mary picked up in an instant. There was scarcely a breath between the two of them, but by going back and forth, they were able to organize their thoughts on what needed to be done. It was information overload to the audience, switching from one thing to the next, but… well, there was something to be said for being attentive.
Lillian was already heading downstairs to Lab One. I turned to Jessie, who gave me a nod.
“We need people,” I said. “Reliable, strong, good with weapons.”
“Jerome!” Jessie called out. “You and your friends. Patrick, Stefan, Curtis!”
“They’ll need guns.”
“They have guns,” Jessie said.
I smiled. “You read my mind.”
“Yeah,” she said. We took the stairs alongside Lillian.
“Warbeasts and less human experiments,” Lillian said. “Here?”
“There,” Jessie pointed. “I’ll be with you in a second.”
“I’ll check them for gunshot wounds and injuries first,” Lillian said.
“Be wary of Miss Muffet’s spider, she’s got a taste for humans now that she’s eaten and she’s entered her next birthing cycle,” Jessie said.
Lillian made a face, but she headed into the Lab One stables without further complaint.
As our contingent of soldiers arrived, Jessie began directing them to the other cells. The cells held Betty, key members of the faculty, and other students I’d deemed too clever and competent to be left among the other students being kept prisoner in the dormitories.
Was it possible to keep them penned up here while everything else was going on? Yes. Was it likely that Professor Edmund Foss would appear and insist on exploring the lab in full? No. But this was harder to explain than some bullet wounds on a giant, a bayonet wound on a great black wolf, or an acid stain on a wall.
I walked away from them, moving into the surgery theater.
Junior was there, alongside members of his team – not the Rank, but a team of volunteers and assistants he’d accumulated, mid-crisis and in the aftermath. Paul was here, too. He sat on a countertop, staring down Ferres.
Too much anger, too much bitterness.
Ferres was on the table. She had one leg, one arm that ended in a stump, and one arm that had a recently reattached hand that was now strapped down. Tubes ran through, in, and out of her body. Needles penetrated various points on her face and torso, with pen marks on the skin, with numbers and ratios.
A table beside her had what appeared to be two fifths of a human being, lacking skin, mouth agape.
“Junior,” I said, looking down at Ferres. “How drugged is she?”
“She should be fairly lucid, if you need to ask her something,” he said. He grimaced. “The project is a mess right now. We’re trying three methods of mapping her out in a way we can translate to another vehicle, we’re just figuring out what we want final implementation to look like. If you came tomorrow, I might be able to say we’d be on track and half-done. This isn’t my field. I’m just managing. David? Thoughts?”
“About right,” one of the others said.
“It’s fine,” I said. I would have been happier if there were results, but that would have been greedy. “Jessie and Lillian are outside. Talk to them, they’ll fill you in. Stay if possible, but if they say to do different, do that.”
“Sure thing,” Junior said. He gave me a sidelong glance as he walked by, assessing me.
Junior, at the very least, had experienced being my enemy. I’d earned his respect, and he was someone who had been a rebel long before
I didn’t want the events outside this lab to reach Professor Ferres. I walked slowly across the lab, noting that Paul was still sitting on that counter.
“Paul? You too.”
“Are you hiding things from me now?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m hiding things from her.”
He considered that.
“I backed you,” he said.
“I’ll back you again.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Back me in this, alright?”
I’m not putting you away, I’m not trying to diminish you.
I was aware of the shape of the Infante looming in the corner of one eye.
“Keep the doors open,” I called out.
The surgical theater was fairly well lit, but it had a dark atmosphere. The time I’d spent in and around this particular room had been some of the hardest, when it came to making it look like Jessie and I were simply aristocrats who’d wormed their way into Ferres’ inner circle. I had watched children go under the knife for the sake of a show.
Now all of that darkness and negativity seemed to have been distilled in Ferres’ current state.
I reached into her mouth and took hold of the tube. I began pulling it out, hand over hand, while she coughed and gagged.
It felt like a full minute before the end of the tube finally came free.
I walked over to a cabinet, while letting her recover from the coughing, and found the little porcelain bottles. I peered through them, opening some that sounded right, before I found something that looked like what I needed. A compacted disc of medication, almost the shape of a large coin, if a little thicker, red.
I walked over to Ferres and placed it in her mouth. She could have bitten me, had she felt recalcitrant, but she didn’t.
“You were-” she started, before pausing to suppress a cough, “-paying attention.”
“You have early arrivals, don’t you?” she asked.
“Power plays. There are some I sized up who I left alone, and others I maintain rivalries with. I can think of a few it might be. Showing up early, throwing others off of their rhythm, it’s a minor play. Someone from one of the small Academies, I’m thinking. There might be one or two more. More of a coordination, ensuring there’s no time to prepare, no time to get everything right. They might even bring complications. If I were actually making this announcement, I’d have already contacted allies elsewhere to counter and react.”
I took my seat where Paul had been.
“You need me,” she said. “And by your own order, I’m in dire shape. They’re going to take my skin and a portion of my fatty tissues and make them into a full-body mask. They want to steal my voice. It’s macabre, isn’t it?”
“And it might even work,” she said. She closed her eyes, moving the lozenge around her mouth.
I was aware that our guest was just now arriving at the gate. There would be stalling, organization, asking for paperwork. While Lillian had been investigating monsters and hunting people, Duncan had spent far more time elbow deep in the Academy, his eye always on the ultimate political prize. He would have a good sense of what to say and do to buy us those extra minutes.
I was aware, too, that this conversation and what followed might take a little while yet. That our target would make his way up the stairs while the Lambs secretly collaborated and organized students to prepare areas and make them as pristine as possible.
We would arrive fashionably late.
If ‘we’ arrived at all. Ferres was unhinged. She was dangerous in the way that someone with nothing left to lose could be. She’d demonstrated that, taunting me, attacking me,
“You sound remarkably at ease with this,” I said.
“All stories have a bad ending,” she said. “The oldest, most powerful of the fairy tales see the heroines turned to sea foam, slain by the wolves, their only legacy a moral lesson for children, if there’s anything at all.”
“No,” I said. “Not all stories end badly.”
“At best we grow old and die,” Ferres said “The Academy can postpone it, we endeavor against this bleak fact, but we won’t conquer it and change it for at least a little while. At best, we lead a bright life with good stories, and we get our bittersweet ending with a positive legacy left behind. At best.”
“There are good endings,” I said. “To fairy tales or reality.”
“What ending is there that is unambiguously good? The noble sacrifice? The celebrated death?”
“Not all endings are deaths.”
“Not strictly, but close enough. You’ve known about your ending for some time. I’ve enjoyed the journey and focused on the brightness I could bring to others and the art I could bring to existence, I’ve tried to walk the path that only I could walk, a personal one. You, I think, are so focused on the endings that you forgot to pay attention to the middle.”
“If there was an opportunity to lay money on the chances I’d have a very violent, ugly end, I wouldn’t take that opportunity. It’s very possible,” I said. “But as bad as my ending is, I don’t think I’m going to end up flayed so someone else can make a skin puppet mockery of me. You talk about your legacy, but I somehow think you’ve managed to be far more hated than I. Even your Academy is turning on you.”
“I’ve had many, many more decades on this planet than you have, Sylvester,” Ferres said. “It’s a lot more time to earn people’s hatred.”
She closed her eyes again. Still very relaxed.
“How are the drugs?” I asked.
“Quite satisfactory. To make me calm, rather than to help with the pain. I expect that will end when they no longer need to keep me stable. The hand will go then too, I’m sure. It’s fine.”
“Is it really?”
“Several long weeks of misery for a life lived doing what I’m passionate about. I know my last few weeks have been as awful as you could make them, I know what comes next might well be more awful, but I expected cancers or dementia, and those are horrible in their own way. I mentally took note of every last thing, and I came to peace with the idea. I’m at peace with the fact that I lived to my passions, and I didn’t let minor things get in my way. I broke new ground, in Academy science, in making it possible for girls and women to make more headway, and in creating stories and works that would open minds. What are you passionate about, Sylvester?”
My first thought was of Lillian, of Jessie. Mary. Helen in a different way.
“Something in mind? You could have spent your time doing that, getting immersed in that, indulging in that-”
The thought made me snort.
“…and you’ve spent it desperately, madly struggling forward in vain against a reality you cannot change,” Ferres said. “It’s the saddest thing about you.”
My thoughts of the girls were moving on in the background, my brain turning to thoughts of Lambs, then to the mice. From that, though it was something unwieldy I hadn’t devoted enough attention to, the thoughts of a greater, more abstract world.
“There are a hell of a lot of things that are sadder than that,” I said.
“Not from my perspective, as someone who did the inverse.”
“You walked a dark path, your eye always on the end. Your own, the friends you neglected to save. You’ve allowed it to taint the rest of your life.”
I thought of the times I had. They weren’t accurate memories so much as they were impressions and blurry scenes that were more imagination than actual hard memory. The Lambsbridge backyard. Being in Lillian’s arms when she clung to me while she slept. Mary sleeping with her back to me, or turning over and her face relaxing in a way so few got to see. Being with Jamie while music played in our room in Tynewear. Sitting with Jamie and Gordon while interacting with mice in the… whatever that neighborhood had been called in Radham. Having tea with Helen while she made our ears and brains want to turn inside out from her elaborate descriptions of horrible scenes. Figuring out Ashton as we had a conversation in the orphanage dining room. Sitting with Jessie in an armchair only big enough for one person, me holding the tea for both of us, the two of us talking about the fish mounted on the wall. Talking to Jessie while she cooked, or vice versa. Eating with Jessie after the cooking.
“I think I’ve had a pretty good journey, with enough good moments along the way,” I said. “I made pretty good time with the people I had with me, and I think what I’m gunning for doesn’t take away from that. No. I think your impression of me is wrong on that score.”
Ferres nodded, leaning her head back. “Well, I don’t imagine you have long to wait and see just what awaits you.”
With those words, I was made very aware of the Infante, standing off to the side. That made me want to check that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t letting my guard down.
Junior, Lillian, and Jessie were standing at the doorway. The others would be nearby.
Jessie signaled. Edmund Foss was here. Upstairs.
He wanted to see Ferres, and she was here, doped up, in pieces, with tubes running through her.
“Junior,” I said. “Lillian. Let’s get Professor Ferres as put together as we can get her.”
“You’re not even going to ask if I’m going to cooperate?” Ferres asked. “I have nothing left to lose. You took my hands, gave one back, and you’ll take it away. You took my Academy and perverted it, and you took my students. You’ve condemned them, telling them something that will justify them being utterly and completely destroyed the moment those words touch the wrong ear. A series of bad endings will befall everyone here, far, far sooner than they otherwise might have. That’s on your head. And you expect me to play along?”
We don’t have a choice, I thought.
“You’ll get to demonstrate a little bit of that fairy tale play of yours,” I said. “The only thing worse than a bad ending is a story that doesn’t get one.”
I watched as she took that in.
“Isn’t it funny, then, that you’re taunting them with immortality, of all things?” she asked.
“Maybe. But you’ll see this through, just to demonstrate you can.”
She moved the stump of an arm that wasn’t restrained. “Then your doctors should get to work, shouldn’t they?”
They were already moving into the room, making way to the tools, talking under their breath about the measures that would need to be taken, things that would need to be scrounged up.
Ferres, facing her impending journey on the surgical table, only looked at me and smiled.