No sign of Fray. Mauer played his part. The Infante and the major players are absent.
Well, the Infante was present. He waited for me in the stairwell, not moving from his spot, his stare penetrating. He kept the company of the Primordial Child.
The Lambs had split up, as moving from building to building was a laborious process. There were three ways to get from building to building. The first was to take one of the two arms or the leg that held up bridges, which necessitated passing through the main building, the body of the reclining woman, and walking past ninety percent of the guests. For obvious reasons, we had to rule that option out.
The second option was to use the walltop road that formed the three-quarter circle connecting the Academy buildings around the perimeter. Most of them were dormitories, and getting from, say, the boy’s first dormitory to the girl’s dormitory meant taking a curved road through two other buildings, one of which was the administration building, until reaching the destination. What should be ten minutes of walking to get from boy to girl proved to be twenty or thirty in practice, notwithstanding obstacles, having to move out of the way if any carts were using the path, or trouble accessing the buildings, like when the administration building closed for the night.
The last option was making our way down to the ground, walking to the foot of whichever building one wanted to access, and then walking up.
Not a single option worked in the long-term, when the Academy was as occupied as it was. We had access to the ground for the time being, but as the aristocrats and lesser professors started getting settled and got luggage put away, the city below us would teem with low level threats.
The layout was meant to hold up to siege and invasion, and the limited, easily controlled paths played a part in that, with the heart of the University being able to produce an endless tide of warbeasts, stitched, parasites, or the like, should an enemy try to hold a given point.
We rounded a corner, and the Infante was there again. This time he kept the company of Dog and Catcher. They weren’t children anymore, but were full size, with Dog being large enough to make the hallway cramped.
The pair fell into stride with us.
“Do you get that jump of emotion in your chest, when you’re on the verge of closing the deal?” Catcher asked.
I was silent. Dog made a garbled sound of agreement.
“Dog and I were made to feel it. Helen as well. It was something they gave the Academy students, you know.”
“The kick. For experiment and student both, they joined drug with reinforcement in reality. The students were all given access to Wyvern in small amounts, enough to make them susceptible, just in time for the first of the most critical examinations. We were given dosages of drugs for our first hunt. Success? The desire for it was etched into us. Failure? Etched in with Wyvern for the students, the weaker students not only weeded out but made into failures in every fucking sense of the word. For us, it was withdrawal from the drugs and a lack of maintenance if we failed. They ingrained us with the sense that if we could not be useful, we’d be left to rot, with no team to care for us.”
“I know,” I said.
“You know that they did the same to you, don’t you? Except what they did with you was deny you access to your fellow Lambs. In your explanations and stories, do you even realize that you tell the same story twice, but you’ll change it around?” Catcher asked.
I was silent. It was my paradox, wasn’t it? I was the liar, but liars needed a good memory to keep track of their deceptions.
“I don’t mean to get on your case, Sy,” Catcher said, in his grizzled burr. “But you’ll tell a story about yourself and you’ll say you did what you did because of Wyvern, while you privately tell yourself you did it for the Lambs. You’ll tell that same story a few months later, and you’ll say you did it for the Lambs, while you privately tell yourself you did it for the drug. I’m telling you what you always knew. I’m not trying to trick you or get at you, that’s not how I do things.”
“Not how we do things. Dog and I, we set our eye on something, and we see it through. We’re straightforward. I’m telling you straight, Sy, it’s one and the same. Your Lambs, your addiction. It’s never going to be good for you or them, and it was never going to go anywhere but a few broken hearts. The only difference between us is that Dog and I are ugly, we came to terms with things early. I never believed I could have a woman, or even a friend that wasn’t a proper experiment-”
I startled a bit as we turned a corner and the Infante was there. He stared into my eyes.
Jessie touched my arm. “It’s okay.”
“-And your Lillian doesn’t count as a proper experiment, Sy. As much as you want her to, and as much as she wants to. You have the unfortunate reality of looking human,” Catcher said. “They got you young, and they got their hooks in deep. There’s no getting those hooks out without a lot of blood.”
He was fiddling with a weird piece of metal, and I couldn’t figure out what the metal was supposed to be for. It was barbed, at least.
If there’s going to be blood, I’ll be the one shedding it, at least, I thought.
“Goodbye, Sylvester,” Catcher said.
I felt a minor shock run through me at those words.
“I don’t think we’ll talk again,” the gravelly voice said.
Dog, for his part, said his own farewell, almost incomprehensible. And with that, they stopped walking. Jessie and I left them behind.
I wanted to stop, to go back, and to ask, as stupid as it was. I felt a loss even though they’d beleaguered me and targeted my weaknesses. They were familiar and among all of the old enemies that were living in my head and making their appearances around or alongside the Infante, Dog and Catcher were some of the less bad ones. Straightforward, not seductive, not too scary, not too dangerous to others.
Were they gone because there wasn’t time, or were they gone because I was going to soon find myself in a state where I couldn’t function in the same way?
I glanced at the Infante. He remained still, biding his time. He hadn’t made his move, yet his every appearance managed to make my heart jump, it felt like he was a great hammer, and he was chipping at me with his every appearance, that he had been for a long while.
At what stage did the chips become a crack and a crack become a breach in the wall?
“Sy?” Jessie asked. “Who is it?”
Who was it? I couldn’t bring myself to say. Naming him might give him power.
“Dog and Catcher,” I said. “Was I that obvious?”
“Not that obvious, but something was going on,” she said.
“Dog and Catcher aren’t too bad, are they? Even at their worst, when they were hunting us, it wasn’t horrible. We ate and drank with them.”
I blew air out of my nose hard. “I forgot about that.”
“It’s one of the ones I hold on to, when you look like you need a refresher on a good memory,” Jessie said.
I reached out for her hand.
“Dog and Catcher aren’t bad. They might even be one of the better ones. But Catcher calls me Sy and it sounds so friendly it worms its way into my head, and between his gravelly voice and Dog’s size, it’s really hard to ignore them, so it wears at me.”
“Think about other things, then.”
We passed by a window. I could see outside. There was something there, and for all I could tell, it was a jellyfish sans jelly, a specter to rival nearly anything I’d ever seen before, all wisp and tendril, blowing in the wind. Millions of gossamer spiderwebs organized by a great pattern might have achieved the effect.
It was like the ghost of a great warbeast I couldn’t remember, something of a scale that dwarfed Helen’s little brother, but so light it was a fraction of the mass.
“Okay. Other things. Is that real?” I asked, pointing.
“It’s real, Sy,” Jessie said. She didn’t need to look; she’d seen it earlier.
“That’s good,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
“It’s a theoretical exercise by Moraga Academy in the Californias. While we were watching the gate, Lillian, Duncan, Mary and I were talking about what we could possibly do about it and we don’t really have any good ideas,” Jessie said.
“What Academy’s in the Californias?”
Jessie made a so-so gesture. “Not so much a proper Academy. Test ground, somewhere that something like that can be trialed without too much risk to Crown population.”
I waited until we passed another window to glance at the thing.
“It’s not bright. Brain the size of your fist. We don’t know what that brain perceives, or how it follows orders. But those loose fibers?”
“Gossamer is a good word for it. It turns them hard. There are fibers that’re nearly as long as Hackthorn is tall, and it makes them into a spear, leveraging the rest of the body to plunge that spear through a building. Through exterior wall, interior walls, floor, and out the other exterior wall.”
I nodded. We passed by labs with open doors. I saw a dismembered Academy student that stared at us as we walked by. A girl lay on a table, strapped down, while a team placed needles in her eyes.
“As far as we can figure, it’s just one more thing we have to take account of, and it’s going to stay in play,” Jessie said.
“We can’t burn it? Chop it?”
“At best, we can penetrate its brain, and its brain is…”
“…way up there. I see. Fill me in on what you know at the next good opportunity,” I said. “We’ll figure it out.”
“There are a lot of things that need figuring out, Sy.”
“Just throw them at me later, we’ll see what we can do,” I said. “After.”
After. There wasn’t a lot more time. We’d arrived at our destination.
Lab One was too hazardous, so we’d made use of other labs, further down. Now we walked among experiments, modified youths and children. A young man was being strapped together, a symbiote or parasite embracing him as a kind of external suit that made him look morbidly obese. His fine clothes were folded beside him. He was made up to look like an aristocrat’s brat.
A girl was topless and seemed not to care in the slightest about it. Her makeup was being touched up, and the open wound at her chest was being smeared with something medical. She looked my way and smiled. The gaping hole where her heart was supposed to be, large enough for me to reach my hand through, was in plain view.
Was I supposed to know her? I gave her a smile in response. The ‘I know a secret’ kind of smile.
Jessie elbowed me.
She elbowed me again.
“What? Not many of the students smile at me these days. Wouldn’t do to lose friends.”
“Yes, yes, friends,” Jessie said. “That’s what you were looking for.”
“You’re really going to dwell on this sort of thing now?” I asked. “Are we going to bicker in front of everyone, on the literal eve of… everything going down?”
“It’s afternoon, not any kind of eve,” Jessie said.
“Alright, it seems we’re bickering today.”
“Please don’t,” Bea said, from the room at the end.
We looked at her, and she stood up, waving off the student who had been doing her makeup. Bioluminescence etched her eyes, making them glow like coals, and lines of the same traced their way from her fingers to her elbow, crimson and bright, with her fingers the brightest, the skin around the edges of the crack painted dark to bring them out by way of contrast. Her hair wasn’t her own.
She placed one hand at the doorframe, and it was a gesture. Come.
We went. Bea partially closed the door.
“We’re not really bickering,” I said. “Just so it’s clear. It’s just how we communicate.”
“Believe it or not, I’m very aware. I don’t know how you two can do that,” she said. “Or how most of the Lambs can.”
“Have to,” Jessie said. “It’s either laugh or cry, and sometimes there’s no opportunity to laugh, sometimes there’s no opportunity to cry. So you take what you can get, or you push for more of one than the other to prepare for later drought.”
“Do you really think there’s only going to be tears later?”
“I think,” Jessie said. “If this doesn’t work out, we won’t be laughing.”
Bea nodded at that.
Her eye fell on me. It was hard, critical. She’d been there through the worst patch.
“I’m good,” I said. “I’ve got them with me.”
“You had them when you were whispering to yourself about needing to make Little Bo Peep bleed,” Bea said.
I winced. I hadn’t, but I wasn’t about to argue the point.
“It wasn’t really us,” Jessie said.
Bea didn’t respond. I didn’t either. I suspected we were both thinking but not articulating the idea that there really wasn’t a difference between the people who were real and the people who weren’t, when I really lost it.
“Right,” Jessie said. Perhaps she was thinking the same. Her expression changed slightly, “Are you ready?”
“I always liked fire,” Bea said. “Watching it, playing with it. I’m either going to have the best, most terrifying time, or it’s going to be only the terrifying part.”
“Good luck,” I said.
Her response was a tight smile, and an opening of the door.
From the way some people looked away, we’d had eavesdroppers. That was fine.
“They’re done with the first act.,” Jessie said. “Final preparations, cover-ups, and get moving, just as you rehearsed. Apple should start soon. From there it’s all about the order you die in.”
Bea used a dropper to put drops in her eyes, temporarily clearing away the bioluminescence, checked the makeup was set, and then pulled long gloves on over her arms. The fabric was supposed to go up in flame in an instant.
The boy with the parasite was getting help in putting on a heavy coat. The moment it was done up, he spun in a circle, got thumbs ups, and then swiped an apple from a nearby basket before legging it up the stairs. Bea urged another girl up the stairs, then followed.
Most of these people were student volunteers. We hadn’t been able to conscience sending all of the other experiments to the ‘stage’. Some had had their alterations reversed, making it impossible, and more were simply unwilling to put themselves through that. It wasn’t acting, but reality played out to a razor’s edge, with the sharpest control that Professor Ferres’ science could enact.
The work we had applied to Bea had been meant for the nightmare, but with everything that had gone on, the original team of doctors had never been able to spare the time and effort to riddle out just how to make a horse burn the way they needed the nightmare to burn, and yet not die in the process.
Jessie had been able to dig up enough obscure, dark fairy tales for us to put something together. Several of this batch were part of a series of cautionary tales, and we’d strung it out into a reinterpretation, wherein the old cautionary tales related to lab safety and the hazards of Academy life. Bea was one of twenty-six actors who were going to die in improbable, grisly, and convincing manners. She was ‘C’ for ‘Combustible’.
Ashton had wanted ‘C’ to be ‘choke’ and for Bea to take over ‘Fire’ or ‘Burn’, but in the shuffling of letters and an effort to use more Academy terms, and in small part because of Duncan’s insistence, we had moved that one over to ‘K’, for ‘Knock’.
And this, as they said, was the curtains rising. The actors left as a group.
All of this was in the name of running out the clock, selling the idea that Ferres was involved, and in guiding the emotions of our audience. It would be alarming at first, but one oddity or unusual thing would be followed by another, and with luck we could desensitize them. Maybe, in a moment that counted, they would think for just a second that it was a joke.
The place was a flurry of actors getting dressed and artists doing final touches, of causes of death being hidden and primed.
This was only part of things. There were a lot of reasons to do it and a lot of things that could go wrong. As the Infante and I watched them make their way up the stairs, I was very aware that any one of them could choke. Not just them, but any student in this school who we hadn’t sequestered away and put to sleep. One short sentence could turn the tables.
We had measures in place, but the more I saw of the guests and the weapons and tools they’d brought to show off with and to protect themselves with, the more tenuous they felt.
“What are you thinking?” Jessie asked.
“That I can’t believe we thought we were going to pull this off with major players present. The Infante, Hayle, the brain doc Ferres mentioned…”
“I think if they were planning to be here, they’d be scary, yes, but the others wouldn’t be so prickly.”
“Prickly?” I asked. I thought about it. “Yeah. Their hackles are up. They’re among peers, there’s no reason to bow or keep their swords sheathed. They hold their swords up and they wave them around and if anyone flinches, it’s a win for the sword-waver.”
“You losing your mind again, Sy? Because you’re incoherent.”
I elbowed her and she smiled. We were watching everyone, Jessie looking out for details, while I was keeping an idle eye out for trouble, dissent, for people who were paying too little or too much attention to Jessie and me.
A student lagged behind. She was younger. Fourteen or so. Lillian hadn’t been much younger when I’d been teasing her mercilessly and when she’d first faced down the monsters.
“It’s okay to be afraid,” Jessie said.
“We’re near the bottom floors and they’re at the top, and I can hear them,” she said.
I listened. The clamor was indeed audible, albeit faint. People on the stairs, things moving about, and the whisper-faint noise of the most recent round of applause.
“Stage fright is normal,” Jessie said.
“The trick,” I said, jumping in, “Is to realize that there’s two kinds of fear.”
“There’s a lot of kinds of fear,” she said. “We studied the areas of the brain-”
“Not like that,” I said. “Listen, there’s fear that makes you stand still, and there’s fear that makes you move. The standing still fear is what you use when a warbeast is there, tense, and you’re not sure if it’s seen you. You take the moment. But the moving fear? That’s what you use when the warbeast is running at you.”
Jessie gave me a look.
“It’s really, really easy to make your brain switch to the other track, understand? Just… lift yourself up on your toes, like this, then drop down to the ground. Bam. The warbeast is chasing you, and you’re going. And eventually, you get yourself to the point where you’re doing that without needing the jolt. Where it’s always the moving kind of fear. Because we don’t ever need that standing still fear in modern society. Just give yourself that jolt, that push. You’ll be fine.”
“I’ll try,” she said.
“Good. We’re going to pull off something amazing, and this is only the beginning.”
“You should go,” Jessie said.
The girl went. Another girl was waiting for her and took her hand, going up with her.
“We should go up too, to play our part and check on the others to make sure they’re playing their part,” Jessie said.
We rounded up a group of students who felt up to leaving the lab alone, and we moved as part of the group.
We didn’t even make it to the end of the long winding hallway that cut through the now-empty or mostly empty labs before we ran into trouble.
We’d tried to sequester off one of the stairwells, but the problem with trying that was that we were dealing with an awful lot of guests who were used to getting their way.
It was young aristocrats, with their entourages of stitched.
“I was asked to play tonight by Ferres herself!” one of them called out.
They were in our way.
“I understand, sir,” the Doctor in front of them said. “But please, use the other stairwell. We have some dangerous and fragile experiments going up and down this particular staircase.”
“Hold them back, clear the way,” the musician aristocrat said, in a tone that implied he couldn’t even fathom that she hadn’t already done it.
“If there was any possible way we could minimize the hassle to you, the Professors, and the Nobles, glory to the Crown, I would, sir.”
There were cries of dismay and alarm, with a few shrieks.
“A,” Jessie said.
There were two points where we needed to act. Two points where, in an ideal world, we would need to walk among our targets and take action. We’d left ourselves five windows among the twenty six letters of the alphabet, where they would be blinded or distracted enough that we felt at ease walking among them with minimal disguise.
‘F’ was the first one.
I tugged on Jessie’s hand as the young aristocrat went on a tirade. Not listening, only asserting his power and how very impossible it was that he would have to go down to a lower floor, find his way to the other staircase, and then head back up.
We ducked into the first lab that still had students inside. One of them had cracked open a bottle of something alcoholic that I could smell from across the room. The students had been about to celebrate getting their child with springloaded eyeball needles or pre-prepared disembowelment out on schedule.
“Uh,” they said, as they saw us.
“Sorry,” I said. “I know you did your part, you should be done, but we need help.”
“Fuck,” the one with the drink said. “Is it bad?”
“It’s minor, but it’s the kind of problem that adds up. We can’t get up the stairs without going through some people. We can’t go to the other stairwell because that’s the one designated for all the people we want to avoid.”
“It’s throwing some crucial timing,” Jessie said.
“Do you have body bags?” I asked. “Or a stretcher?”
“We can get them,” the young doctor said, already out of his chair, signaling the others.
“C,” Jessie said. “Bea just had her turn, assuming timing’s right.”
We could have killed the aristocrats, but that was another sort of problem that swelled up and became a larger issue. Especially if the man was scheduled to play music.
“D,” Jessie said, while the Doctors were still gone.
They arrived with the stretchers and body bags. Jessie and I climbed in.
“If there’s a question or any small problem, just wink,” I said. “If there’s a larger problem or if the wink doesn’t work, then take us to the nearest safe place. Otherwise, our best destination is Lab One.”
“Lab One, got it.”
I lay down on the stretcher, arms at my side, and let them do up the front of the bag, sealing me in.
I closed my eyes and counted the steps. I hadn’t counted the steps from the staircase to the small lab, but I had a sense of it. Generally speaking, my instincts were good.
“Pride goeth before the fall,” the voice was deep, but it wasn’t the sheer bass of it that made me shake so much as it was the clenching of my teeth, my desire to stay still, when we had to be within a few paces of the young aristocrat.
I’d been dreading the voice.
“Where are you going with those?” I heard the aristocrat asking.
There was silence.
“I… see,” he said. “Carry on.”
Carry on, I thought. Carry on. Move forward, don’t dwell, the dwelling is the dangerous part.
Carry on, the most pretentious, desperate way to sound as though one was in control of the situation, when said like the musician aristocrat had said it.
I couldn’t gauge how much ground we were covering as we were carried up the stairs. The footsteps on stairs were too much of a jumble, the pace weird.
I was very aware, however, when we stopped moving, and we didn’t start again.
The crash of glass and the thud of a body striking the ground near us marked ‘F’.
I could hear the initial nervous titter of laughter, maybe a panic response, followed by a more natural laughter. They’d clued in. Sooner than expected, but that wasn’t a bad thing. The sooner they fell into the stride of this, the sooner they would get used to the violence.
That was the good. The bad was that we’d missed our first window.
I could hear the whispers. The doctors that held us were communicating.
This would be the worst time for a betrayal, I thought. I could imagine them simply carrying us up to the main hall, where the vast majority of our guests had already assembled, and revealing us.
“This is macabre,” the musician said, very close by. He’d followed us up. “How am I supposed to play anything in the wake of this?”
“You would have to ask Professor Ferres, sir,” a Doctor who was carrying us said.
“I might just. Excuse me,” the musician said, saying those last two words in the least polite way possible.
“We can talk,” one of the Doctors whispered. “Very quietly.”
“What’s happening?” Jessie asked.
“Professor Ferres is in Lab One, entertaining some people. The aristocrat is talking to her now. She doesn’t look pleased to be interrupted.”
“Listen,” I said. “On I, the big cloud, you let us out, alright?”
“On I? Got it.”
“Sy, we can go out, we can plant the hook, but if we can’t get back-”
Planting the hook. We had invited certain people. Whatever I’d done in… wherever the second orphanage had been, where Pierre and Charles or whoever were keeping our rescued mice safe, we were doing it here. A hidden hook and rope. I’d snagged Lillian like a fisherman. The people we’d invited were supposed to be located at key seats, but there were no guarantees.
The trick, the key, was using one window of opportunity to place hooks as close to key targets as possible, sinking them into spaces in the floor. The next window of opportunity, combined with clamor, noise, and distraction, would let us steal them away. With luck, people would be out of their seats, the crowd would be a jumble, and these individuals wouldn’t be missed.
If we couldn’t do it flawlessly, we wouldn’t. If we could, we’d remove some key players and, ideally, we’d turn some of the defenses and measures they’d brought to use against us against them, by co-opting the people in charge.
These were the preliminary moves.
I waited, tense.
G, H, and then I. It was the countdown. Jessie was better with timing, but I couldn’t look her way for cues.
“Your headmistress certainly brooks no nonsense,” the musician said.
I didn’t like that he was back.
I liked it even less that Jessie spoke, despite the fact that she was supposed to be a body in a bag. Her voice was soft. “Take us back.”
“Did you say something?” the musician asked.
“No,” the Doctor said. “If she’s in a bad mood, we won’t get in her way. Excuse me, sir.”
We weren’t even all that far down the stairs before Jessie whispered again, “Out.”
They laid us down on the stairs and freed us. Jessie stood, and gave me a hand, as I was on less even footing.
“The timing is screwed up,” she said. “We need eyes on this.”
I looked at the Doctors. “Is the musician alone?”
“They sent his entourage down the other way,” the Doctor said.
“Then go up the stairs, make a small crowd, blocking Ferres’ view of the musician.
“You’re sure?” the Doctor asked.
“Please,” Jessie said, with a rare note of urgency in her voice.
We followed our group up again, coordinating with signs, the stretchers and body bags behind and below us. The moment the group had blocked the view of the musician, Jessie and I knifed him.
We pulled him to the ground, my hand finding his mouth at the first opportunity, and we stuck him with knives repeatedly.
I could hear the conversation, though I couldn’t quite make out words, and my heart sank.
This wasn’t when people were supposed to be having hushed, intense conversations in the midst of hundreds of Nobles, aristocrats, Professors and Doctors.
We edged closer until we could peer over the stairs at the scene.
It was a man in a black lab coat, his beard was long, full, and more appropriate to a wizard of myth than a man of science. He was stooped over, his hands out to cup the face of one of our actors. One of the early letters.
I could see the family resemblance, the expression on the older man’s face, the alarm and fear on the face of the student.
We’d asked each and every last one of them twice, thrice, and then a fourth time, if there was the slightest chance that anyone might be in attendance who might recognize them.
“Blood always runs through,” the Infante murmured in my ear, his voice deep.