The moon was out, but it didn’t do much to help illuminate Hackthorn. Bridges, overhangs, greenery, tall buildings and walls cast most of the Academy city into a shadow that triumphed over even the moonlight. The light that did touch the buildings, bridges, and the houses down below was deceptive. The large glass panes of the main building made the light filter and refract, creating suggestions of things that weren’t there. The trees and hanging gardens, a factor yet again, moved in reaction to the wind, creating a shifting interplay of light and shadow below.
Some had gone to sleep. Others were burning the midnight oil.
Not that it was actual midnight oil, really. I could see who was awake because lights were on, and our people had kept track of where we’d seen them go, when & where they’d left the main building to venture into houses and other buildings in the city below. Some of those buildings had fireplaces burning or lights on. We’d taken the oil, firewood and candles where possible, so they would have had to throw books or pieces of broken furniture into the fireplaces.
I was standing in a room with a view, a balcony framed in glass. Ashton was with me, and Professor Foss had a seat which positioned him to see everything that was unfolding. His hands had been placed into buckets filled with a creamy bone white material.
The Infante stood near the Professor.
It was all about the pressure, leaning on them, making them work for even creature comforts. It was summer and the nights were short, but darkness had a primal power. Making them go the extra mile to stave off the dark had its merits. They were in enemy territory – a city under siege.
Making them work to find places to sleep was another point of pressure. The main building didn’t have so many. We’d planned to divide and isolate them by group, our forces consolidated in a few points. We would have targeted the aristocrats and the Nobles by separate measures. As a consequence, there had always been an expectation that we would send some to the boy’s dorm and others to the guest building, where beds awaited them.
It would also have meant that things like the gossamer creature would have been tricky to use without risking harm to one of the other groups.
There were a lot of things that would have been convenient about things going according to plan, there.
Our primary targets, though, were the top-ranked professors, nobles, and aristocrats present. Our hope had been to delay them, on the premise of Ferres wanting to discuss the impact of her immortality procedure, then to blow up the bridges.
It would have been twenty people at most gathered in the largest building, with empty houses and buildings at the foot of Hackthorn below. Isolating, disorienting, with a lot of dark corners and hallways for a relatively small group to keep an eye on.
Instead, there were more than a thousand guests in that building, alongside some of ours. We couldn’t attack effectively without risking hurting our own, and we had to temper our approach on the attrition front for much the same reason. If we lost their loyalty now, then they might share information.
A thousand individuals needed to sleep. Counters and surgical tables in the labs were only so comfortable. Benches and tables in the main hall and the broader sets of stairs overlooking that area had much the same issue, and the added issue of being less private. Clothing from luggage cases could be draped over the hard surfaces, but it was meager at best, and not everyone had access to their personal things.
Add the parasites and other creatures we’d released as we went, the light dusting of irritants and gas I’d released when we’d made our escape, and it made for uneasy rest.
They were venturing out to where there were beds. No doubt the more levelheaded among them had noted the danger inherent in that. But we’d known we were fighting an enemy that was proud, above all else.
All along the perimeter wall, I watched the little orange lights appear, then multiply.
“I rather like this part,” Ashton said, beside me. The little orange lights glittered in his eyes.
“Me too, little man, me too.”
The larger of the orange lights were braziers. The smaller were the heads of the arrows. Little time was wasted in ensuring that the arrows were fired promptly. Targets had already been decided in advance.
The first volley was in the air by the time the people in the main building managed to sound any kind of alarm. They used horns, and the bass drone of the collected instruments filled the air.
Buildings had been treated to resist fire, and our removal of the stacks of firewood and the like meant there was a little less in the way of combustible targets. But there were bales of hay for the feed of horses, stacks of crates and barrels, arrows sailed into buildings and found curtains, floorboards, and pieces of furniture. Even with the wood being treated, there were places arrows could sink in and burn away with enough intensity that they would eventually start burning.
The flaming arrows weren’t solely targeted at the buildings they’d chosen to sleep in, but at the buildings that had the infrastructure for stitched servants to recharge, and at the outdoor buildings where warbeasts and other animals were being stabled.
The flames were starting to spread. People were fleeing now, and some were releasing the animals from the stables. There was an effort to get the stitched out of the burning building, hampered by the agitated stitched themselves.
“We should have set fire to the tall building down there,” Ashton said.
“Yeah,” Ashton said.
“We considered it, if I’m remembering right. Given how your head works, I’m thinking your reasons are different from the rest of us.”
“It would be more symmetrical,” Ashton said. “And it would flow better. As it is now, it’s like a sentence that starts, pauses in the middle, and starts again.”
He used his hand, gesturing, to sort of illustrate what he meant.
“I can’t tell if you’re a genius or if it’s pure coincidence, but flow was my line of thinking too,” I said. “More to do with the flow of people, creating the right balance of chaos.”
“Call it genius then,” Ashton said.
One of the buildings blew up. The initial flare of the explosion illuminated the scattered figures on the street. It was the middle of the night, they’d been stirred from their beds, there were freed horses and warbeasts here and there, and stitched had been released from one building, agitated from the fire. In a strange city at the dead of night, even the ones with their wits about them didn’t necessarily know which way to run.
“More explosions would be nice too,” Ashton said.
“Agreed,” I said. “Looks like the voltaic system that houses stitched just blew up.”
“Maybe,” Ashton said.
A new flash of light appeared at the girl’s dormitory. A very bright point of white that sailed skyward. It detonated in the sky, so bright it left a spark on my field of vision. The brilliant, flickering flash quickly died out as the projectile sailed toward the ground.
The smoke and the deep shadows made it hard to track what was going on, but I saw Miss Muffet’s spider make its appearance. Other experiments were venturing into the fray, more recognizable for the fact that they were very focused on what they were doing, and the enemy was more jumbled, trying to organize, forming into ranks or hurrying toward safer territory. Fires lower to the ground helped cast long shadows for creatures that already had long limbs. The poison apple, Miss Muffet’s spider, the giant, the nightmare that didn’t burn, the crimson bull…
“Jessie and Lil have done their part,” I said. “Let’s walk.”
Ashton grabbed Professor Foss’ arm, striving to haul him to his feet. I would have helped, but my hands remained bound.
“Stand up,” Ashton ordered.
The Professor remained in his seat, not cooperating.
Ashton turned his head. He turned it away as another distant explosion occurred. He sighed, as if he was very bothered he hadn’t seen. He looked back in my direction.
“Do you have a knife?” I asked him.
That got me a nod.
I stuck out a foot, sticking Professor Foss in the upper thigh with the toe of my shoe. “You can stick it there, and it won’t do too much harm.”
The Professor stood in the same moment Ashton drew the knife.
He stood there like that, glaring at me, then at Ashton, as if he could somehow maintain the veneer that he had some ability to resist. I saw the eye contact break and his posture slip a fraction, as Ashton worked his magic or the Professor’s ability to lie to himself faltered.
“Come on,” Ashton said. He tugged on the Professor’s arm. I followed alongside, as we headed into the room, through it, and into the hallway. Students were standing guard.
Probably more for me than for the Professor.
“Please come with us,” Ashton ordered them. “Hold on to the professor for me while you’re at it, please.”
We made our way out of the building, and onto the perimeter wall. We didn’t bring lights with us. The fires were the focus, as were the gunshots, now, the warbeasts on both sides, and the soldiers fighting on the ground. We had them running, we weren’t really pressing them, and we weren’t committing a terribly large amount of our forces. We wanted to test them and to strain their resources.
But I kept an eye on the shadows, as best as I could. While we acted in the dark, it was very possible that a clever Noble or Professor might try to do the same.
“Talk to me about Fray,” I said.
“Haven’t seen her in years,” the Professor said.
“You’re aware that if that’s true, you’re really not that useful to us?” I asked.
“Then I’m not useful to you,” he said. “Are you going to throw me off the wall?”
There was something about the way he’d said that, that made me think he was too confident.
“Do you really want to tempt me?” I asked. “Ashton here doesn’t give a damn, and I’m in restraints for a reason. I’m sure a smart man like you has noticed.”
“I give a bit of a damn,” Ashton said. His pale face changed as he squinted at me in the dark, arching his neck back to get a better look at my hands as I gestured. He added, “I’d like to drop him from the wall into a place where there’s some light.”
“Some light, huh?”
“I want to see the stains and splatters he makes. Oh! Or we could cut his knees and elbows and drop him onto a roof. We’ll make him crawl like that, and see the smears and stains he makes as he goes. It’ll be so nice to look at.”
“Head games,” the Professor said.
“I said I was a genius earlier, but I’m not,” Ashton said. “I’m a vehicle for pheromone discharges. I have a scaffolded brain with a low H.S.-like-value, high mimickry and high liquidity. I think someone like you might know what that means.”
“I have some ideas,” the Professor said, sounding very tired.
“I like the pretty patterns and colors, Professor,” Ashton said. “And I’m not very adaptable in late stage growth, and I’m well past early stage, so you can do the math. Eventually I won’t adapt at all, and I’ll turn inwards. I’ll be stuck in an endless loop. But for now I’m not, and I’m staying comfortable and doing what makes me happy. And making you into interesting patterns would make me happy.”
“I’m not a vat grown shelf-head, and I honestly wouldn’t mind,” I said.
“These students you two have escorting me might disagree.”
“We were told to follow their orders. If the two of them disagree, we follow Ashton over Sylvester.”
“Uh huh,” the Professor said. The sound came out guttural, as much a groan as words.
“Fray,” I reminded him.
“You’re pretending there’s another answer.”
“I’m pretending that you’re acting like you’re untouchable when you really shouldn’t be that confident.”
“Shouldn’t I be?” he asked.
Professor Foss was older, his hair grown in white, curled at the edges in a mimicry of the wigs of old, which had been powdered to keep the bugs out. He looked haggard, worn out by just the afternoon and evening in our company.
But there was something beyond that. Even being on edge, with one escape and recapture, even with all the stressors and the need to focus and keep control of his faculties while Ashton worked on him, he was still fighting.
I couldn’t remember much of him, but I could draw on context and I could read him. Being a Headmaster necessitated being a politician, as well as a Professor. He struck me as the kind of politician who obstructed, and I knew that he hadn’t volunteered much on Fray, despite our suspicion of his involvement with her.
He was delaying and obstructing now. The rhetorical questions, the way he steeled himself.
He would break, and I suspected he knew he would break, but he was determined to stall as much as possible.
“Lady whatshername,” I said. “The one you gave into Fray’s care.”
“Claire,” Ashton supplied.
“Lady Claire. She helped Fray and you backed her, you let Fray slip under the radar, even at the expense of the Academy. You played your part, Professor. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but Lady Claire is here. She’s over there in that building.”
“She was,” Ashton said. “She was over there in that building.”
Our walk along the perimeter wall had brought us to a point that was very close to where the wall met the slope of the main building. The doors and path down the cliffside to the harbor were all very near. Students had clustered in the shadows here. Mary was among them.
They were using ropes to lower barrels down the face of the wall.
“She-” Professor Foss started. He stopped.
“She?” I asked.
He set his jaw. He hadn’t meant to speak. Ashton’s influence.
My focus shifted. I wanted to pay attention to the nearby shadows. It wasn’t good that I had to remain bound, but I was concerned that each hit from the Infante would be worse than the last, and I wasn’t positive that the Lambs being nearby would be a guarantee.
How long before I forgot them, or before I needed two Lambs with me at all times?
“She was pretty,” Ashton said.
“Was she?” I asked. I wanted to fill the void, to keep up the patter. Ashton had softened the wall, and now we needed to hammer at it.
“She looked nice. Very asymmetrical,” Ashton said. “But in a good way. Clothes and hair asymmetrical. I think I’d like to… what’s it called? When you’re cooking meat and you cut it down the middle and open it up?”
“Butterflying,” Mary said, her voice soft.
“I’d like to butterfly the pretty Lady Claire,” Ashton said. “Or it would be better if someone else could, and I could watch.”
“I could,” Mary and I said at the same time.
“Stop,” the Professor said.
I stopped. We all waited.
“I know full well what you’re doing,” the man said. “I know. Let’s not play games.”
“Let’s cut to the chase, Professor,” I said. “Let’s talk properly. We know you will eventually.”
“And if I don’t, you’ll weaken my resistances, break down my willpower, and make me unable to keep the vivid imagery of one of the people I love most in the world being brutalized from my mind?”
“Not brutalized,” Ashton said. “We could be gentle about it. She could even be asleep, so she didn’t move too much while we carved bits out.”
Even in the dark, I could see the tension in the Professor’s neck.
“I’ve been in touch with Genevieve Fray,” he said. “I don’t have much to say. She’s not very active, she hasn’t been moving much, in part because there aren’t many places to go.”
“No idea what she’s planning, then?” I asked.
The Professor stared at me for a long moment. “Whatever she’s doing, it’s near Radham, and if she’s wrapping it up, she’s intent on doing it where she got her start. I thought at first that she was planning on doing what you seem to be doing here, getting her pieces arranged, being more patient about it, but I’m less sure about that as time goes on.”
I glanced at Mary. “Radham was one of our planned stops, if we get out of here okay.”
“Who’s in the admin building?” she asked.
“Students, soldiers. They’ll toot a horn if there’s trouble. But nobody’s going to attack the main building,” I said.
Mary didn’t respond immediately.
“Ninety percent sure,” I said. “We left a clear path to there when we decided not to burn the spire-”
“Steeple,” Ashton corrected.
“-And they’ll think it’s a trap. I’m… eighty-five percent sure.”
Mary didn’t look impressed.
“What are you doing here, Sy?” she asked.
“I thought we’d stand guard while you work,” I said.
“You, the least combat capable member of the Lambs, with your hands tied behind your back, no less?” she asked, her tone wry. “And Ashton, the second least combat capable Lamb?”
Ashton and I voiced very different protests at the same time.
“I’ve gotten better,” I said, when there was a moment. “It’s predicated on opportunism, ambush, and debilitating the enemy, but still.”
“And I’m not the worst or second worst, even if I’m slow,” Ashton said. “I’m good with guns. Abby isn’t good at anything.”
“Weapons-wise,” I said.
“Yeah,” Ashton said.
Mary looked between us. Something about her looked far gentler and less… difficult, than I’d seen in a long time.
It worried me, more than anything. That Mary would let the hardness go any. I wasn’t wholly sure what had predicated it.
The ending being in sight, perhaps. Or an ending. Mine being one such possibility.
“Keep us safe, then,” she said, still with that wry tone. Sarcasm without the bite.
“I’ll try,” Ashton said, matching the wry tone with earnestness.
Mary grabbed the rope, then slid down it, over the other side of the wall.
I could only barely make out the pale blob that was Helen. The two of them disappeared down the cliff, Helen so close to Mary that it looked like they’d get in each other’s way, get caught up in each other and drop off the cliff face to the rocks below.
Here and there, students in dark clothes were working with ropes, to lower down barrels and cases.
“Where does this go?” the Professor asked.
“We break you,” I said.
“Me specifically, or…”
He nodded, as if there was no surprise in that.
“You break us,” he said. “You could have poisoned the vast majority of us at the outset, if you had a mind to. You could have made the gas you filled the dining hall with into something that killed. You didn’t.”
“Some of ours in the enemy ranks,” I said.
“There were roads available to you that you didn’t take. Now here we are. I can see much of what’s ahead, but not all of it.”
“Your peers will get hungry,” I said. “You’ll eat some of the warbeasts. You’ll make what you can and use chemicals and experiments to come after us. But we’ve left you all with very little, the numbers favor us, really, even if your strength is disproportionately higher on the face of things. You’ll get desperate.”
On the one side of the wall, the enemy was retreating into the main building. The lowest ranked students, doctors, aristocrats and experiments had taken up roost there, in hopes of some comfort or refuge, and they’d been denied it. If we couldn’t divide them up, we’d force them to cram in together in the main building. Maybe it would drive friction.
On the other side of the wall, I couldn’t see it, but Mary, Helen, and the team that had crawled down were carting off barrels and containers. They would float them out to set points and they would release the chemicals, hopefully without exposing themselves to the stuff.
“The Academy and the Crown are proud, above all else. You put a lot of stock in your ability to hold your heads high. So the first stage of this? We make you lower your heads.”
“All the better to chop at them with the headsman’s axe?” the Professor said, with the tone of someone who didn’t think that was a real possibility. “To humiliate them?”
I was silent, watching the shadows. Was that someone I saw, or a thick cloud of smoke?
“Or to collar them?” the Professor asked.
It was a person. A figure.
The noble I’d seen before, who’d worn the red jacket. He wasn’t wearing the jacket now – only a black silk shirt and pants tucked into boots. He was watching the walltop.
“There are two types of control, you know,” the Professor said, behind me. “The first is to rise up, so that when you act, you need only to reach down. The effort is minimal, the cost of acting small compared to the impact earned.”
It was eerie that he said that as I looked at a Noble. What had the man’s name been? Carling?
“The other, the path I took at Kensford, in dealing with Genevieve Fray, was to bring the others down. To allow ruin to befall other Academies while I kept the footing of Dame Cicely’s intact. We were quick to develop countermeasures, to free key individuals from the leash. Genevieve Fray promised, and it came to pass.”
Carling paused, and in that pause, I wondered if he’d made eye contact with me. I couldn’t see well enough in the dark to tell.
Ashton, beside me, was looking in the same direction. He didn’t seem too concerned, but the things that concerned him were a little different than the norm.
“Are you lowering others to your level, Lambs, or are you raising yourselves up?” the Professor asked.
Carling turned, and he strode into the smoke and darkness. If he was making a play, it wouldn’t be immediate.
Carling, the pale Lady Gloria, Professor Gossamer. There were others. The smarter enemies that were watching and acting decisively rather than milling about. They were coordinating, and I felt as though they were keeping pace with us so far. The rest- not so much. If anything, I felt like the minor struggles, the disorganization and the silly little things like aristocrats finding common beds to sleep in in the city itself were gambits.
“Remains to be seen,” I said. “A lot depends on what your side ends up doing here. But I think it’s key to note something.”
I was glad I’d come, so I could see the enemy, almost look them in the eyes.
The gossamer thing would drink the water we’d polluted, unless it was somehow able to take commands extensive enough to guide it away from water that might be poisoned, somewhere further down the coast, where it still had anchors. It would attack once or twice more, and then it would drink, and it would die.
They’re going to make a play within a few hours, before their side is too weak from hunger. It wasn’t an idea I had that was wholly based in logic or anything specific I’d noted. But instinct suggested it was right. It made the most sense, and it was the most inconvenient thing they could do. It would coincide with the next, last attack from the Gossamer thing, before the thing had a chance to be poisoned or counteracted. It would be decisive, one way or the other.
“It’s key to note something?” the Professor asked.
“Half of the Lambs are broken, dead, or dying,” I said. “So if we bring you all down to our level, it’s not going to be pretty.”
“It’s not a pretty thing either, to raise yourself up to a better position, if you’re starting from a point marked by the dead, dying, and broken,” he said.
“I’m going to guess you’re not one for prayer,” I said. “Being loyal to the Crown and all.”
“More than some,” he said. “The school I run used to be a religious one, before the title changed.”
My voice was hard, and I was very cognizant of the Infante in the corner of my vision, intently staring through the gloom. “Well, maybe say some words, then. Because that ugliness, whichever way the plan goes, is going to include you, your Claire, and everything else you hold dear.”