In the distance, on the far side of Hackthorn, barely visible with the main building and the other constructions barring the view some, a gargantuan warbeast climbed up the face of the boy’s dormitory. It was vaguely apelike, but with a long crimson mane and no mouth on its face. It was quick, acting with jerky moments and deceptive speed for something its size. Its feet kicked in through windows on the third floor while oversized hands gripped windowsills on the fifth.
The gossamer thing floated a distance behind it. The two had been taking turns, not because they were that incredibly coordinated, but because the ape was scared shitless of the gossamer thing, but was compelled to attack, so it moved in whenever the gossamer thing backed off.
Between them, they were doing a fair amount of damage. The gossamer thing had slowed down considerably in recent hours, but the boy’s dormitory wasn’t quite as formidable as the admin building. I worried.
It found a grip on another window, and it started to make its ascent, tearing down architecture by accident more than by purpose.
No sooner was its grip settled than a flash of light and fire flared around the hand. The sound of the explosion reached us a second later. They’d anticipated where it might grab and timed explosives to go off when the hand appeared.
One of its paws now a bloody ruin, the silent ape tumbled to the ground below, landing in what had to have been an awkward position, given my last glimpse of it before it dropped out of sight behind the intervening buildings. It didn’t rise to its feet or crawl anywhere, instead thrashing on the spot, an occasional leg, foot, or arm sticking up to where we could see from our vantage point.
The blind and deaf apes were still in reserve, but I wasn’t overly concerned. By all reports, they were designed to be big, but they didn’t have a great deal going for them otherwise. They were a mediocre project from one of the smallest Academies.
For now, it looked like the gossamer thing didn’t have much left in it.
“I’m trying to figure out how I feel about all this,” Helen said.
“You’re not one for agonizing and self doubt,” I observed. “Or even for doubting the rest of us.”
Helen stirred restlessly in her seat. She’d taken a nice window seat, padded with cushions on either side, and curled up in it. The way she’d positioned herself was just so, when it came to Helen. In more ways than one, she was too curled up, too able to move her head to view what was happening in the world beyond, given the way she was oriented.
Lillian was standing just a short distance away, hands in her coat pockets, tense and analytical as she watched proceedings in… very possibly the absolute opposite perspective that Helen was.
I sat sideways in a heavy chimera-leather and wrought iron chair, watching them more than I watched anything else. My left arm dangled, the manacle heavy. The other end was connected to the frame of the chair. My right ankle was connected by the same kind of measure.
“I like part of this,” Helen said. “I like that we’re strangling them.”
“In more ways than one,” Lillian said.
Helen craned her head around to look at Lillian, then twisted around, reorienting so her feet were where her head was and vice versa, without really standing or adjusting her profile. She took on a more easy, languid position as she draped herself along the window seat, and reached up, taking Lillian’s hand in two of hers.
“You’re in a mood,” I remarked.
Helen nodded. “I’m restless.”
Restless was an adjective that paired badly when it was part of a trifecta that was put together with Helen and with the fact that she was holding on to someone I care about.
“Is that the flip side of what you were talking about?”
“I want to be the one strangling. This is… odd.”
“Vicarious?” I asked.
Helen smiled. She moved Lillian’s hand and held it against one side of her face. “Good word choice.”
“It’s something I do,” I said. “And you do strangles, getting a hold on the enemy and then breaking them. This… all of this, it’s really an abstract expression of you.”
“It feels unfulfilling,” Helen said. “I like anticipation, and I like waiting for my prey, but that’s usually when I know I’m going to, hm. I’m not sure how to put it into words.”
Helen was set enough in her ways and specialized enough in what she did that her mental framework wasn’t often tested or forced to adjust. She’d evolved some as she dealt with the breakdown of parts of her design, but she hadn’t often been challenged.
I didn’t press or supply the ideas.
“It’s like it’s all drawing circles, and circles are good and beautiful and strong in so many ways, except it’s embraces, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” I said.
“And here we’re drawing circles, but we have so many that are three-quarters of the way drawn and they’re big and they’re beautiful and I want so very badly to draw that last quarter-circle and wrap all of this neatly in a way that lets me put a bow on top. But that’s not how this finishes, is it?”
“Not physically,” she said. “Not with hands on long, slender parts of long slender people and cushy, soft parts of cushy soft people.”
“No,” I said. “Not physically. Not with hands on crooked, twirly bits of crooked, twirly people.”
Helen turned her head, giving me a look, like a mother chiding a child.
“Silly,” she said.
“You’re the silly one,” I said. “I don’t believe you’ve ever truly been teased, have you?”
Lillian glanced my way, taking notice of the word.
“Not left wanting. You’re dangerous enough you get most prey that’s gettable, and you don’t often not get prey.”
“Sometimes I don’t,” Helen said. “But the ones I’ve waited the longest for are ones I think I might get eventually.”
“Like Fray and Mauer?” Lillian asked.
“And others, yes. It’s been years and all of that’s okay. I got close to Mauer and I almost closed that circle in a very inconvenient way. But that’s fine. That’s something else. There are others I wanted and then they went and died for reasons that weren’t me, and I’m very good at being very disappointed for a very short time and then putting that disappointment behind me. But this is something else.”
“Take your time with it,” I said. “Digest the feeling, decide what you want to do with it.”
“And let me know if you need anything in the way of fine tuning, to help you wrestle with it,” Lillian said.
“I will,” Helen said. She moved Lillian’s hand closer to her head and gave it a kiss, still holding it in her own.
Lillian barely reacted to Helen’s strangeness, instead glancing my way. “Speaking of comfort and needs, do you want me to move your chair, Sy? I could cuff you over here.”
“I’m comfortable,” I said. “I’ll have to move again when it’s time to eat, I think, and I can sort of see what’s going on.”
Lillian folded her arms. Her reaction didn’t quite strike me as her wanting me closer and being disappointed when I stayed put. I took note of it but decided that I couldn’t do much about it without more information.
For now, staying put and easing forward felt like the way to go about it. Rash and reckless movements would do more harm than good.
The admin building had always been the trap meant for the Nobles, and we’d prepped it well in advance. The last minute changes had been mandated because of the damage the gossamer thing had done, but we’d developed our workaround.
The trap had taken hold. The building was being enclosed in builder’s wood and greenery, windows and doors blocked. We’d planted builder’s wood around the holes they’d created with the gossamer thing, and we’d destroyed the bridges that provided easy access to the rest of Hackthorn.
We’d baited them in with the premise that we had people within, easy victims and leverage that we were desperately trying to protect, and we’d buried them. Just as we’d planned from the beginning, before Ferres interfered.
But wood took time to grow, even if it was Academy made, vines and branches took time to grow, and so the danger had been that the nobles could break out of the building before the trap was fully in place.
With that in mind, we’d considered a great many improvised measures, and we’d thrown out each and every last one of them. Nobles couldn’t be underestimated.
No. Instead of trying to stop them, we’d let them.
Now a pale gas sat within the enclosed walls of Hackthorn, stubbornly refusing to dissipate fully. The houses on the ground were unable to be seen given the thick vapors, and the Nobles who had broken free of the admin building were… well, they’d escaped the building, only for their way back in to close up behind them.
From my perspective, slouching in my seat with my chained arm and chained leg dangling over different arms of the chair, I could see out the window to where the white gas lapped against the outside of the admin building and the perimeter wall of Hackthorn Academy. I could see the admin building itself, more a gnarled twist of wood and vines than a proper building now. I could see the distant silhouettes of the nobles who stood or sat on the roof and the branches that were reaching over it.
They barely moved. Almost anyone else would have gotten impatient, paced, or given some indication that they were talking among themselves.
I wondered how much of their decision to stay as still as they were staying was because they were trying to conserve their energy and strength, how much was because they knew they were being watched and they were trying to unnerve us, and how much had to do with the fact that they had left their humanity long behind.
“What are you thinking, Lil?”
Lillian turned to look at me over one shoulder. It was a stern look.
“Hush, ignore him,” Helen said. “He’s cranky because we’re waiting for food.”
“What makes you think he’s bothering me any?” Lillian asked.
“I can hear your blood,” Helen said. “It creaks as it runs through you. Also, it takes a moment, but if you’re close, I can smell irritation.”
She still didn’t like the ‘Lil’ thing. Still, it gave me a way to gauge where she and I stood.
I cleared my throat, being careful to keep my tone light as I said, “Why am I the cranky one here? I asked a simple question.”
Lillian gave me a look that was almost rolling her eyes, then asked, “Are you sure you don’t want me to move you?”
“Am I missing something? You’ve asked me three times.”
“Twice,” Lillian said.
“Three times, if I count you asking me if I’m comfortable and okay with where I’m at, when you first chained me here.”
“Yeah,” Lillian said. “I guess you’re right. And I guess I don’t like that I can’t watch what’s going on out there and watch you at the same time, Sy. I feel like I’m going to turn around to check on you and that chair will be empty, and you’ll be up to something that leaves everyone in tears.”
“Ahhh,” I said.
“No, no. It makes sense. This is our present reality.”
“Yeah, Sy. I suppose it is,” Lillian said. The lines of tension were still standing out in her body language, but now… I saw a hint of sadness as well.
“Well,” I said. “I think there’s an easy answer to that one. How about you unchain me, to start off?”
“Uh huh,” Lillian said, without humor. “Perfect solution.”
“Well, that’s only the beginning, dummy.”
Lillian arched an eyebrow at ‘dummy’.
“See, you unchain me, bring me over to the window, like you’ve been wanting to do, and just huck me through it.”
I was glad to see a smile on her face, cutting past the prior tension.
“Or you could dangle me by the chain.”
Lillian’s smile widened, and she allowed herself a chuckle, pausing to glance back at the gas that saturated the lower grounds of Hackthorn.
As Lillian watched, I saw her pause, gathering her composure, getting ready to say something more serious, then giggle to herself, so brief and quiet I might have missed it if I hadn’t been studying her.
“I imagine Helen idly swinging me back and forth.”
“I could,” Helen said. “Or I could climb down to say hi.”
“Ah, that’d be nice. Are you keeping me company?”
“Absolutely, Sy,” Helen said. “And I could torment you for bribes while I do it.”
“I’m probably overdue for that torment,” I said. “When I think of torments, I’m imagining something like you adjusting my shirt so it covers my head and arms, and tying it into a knot at the end, while I’m dangling from my ankle there. Me, upper body bare to the world, everything from the armpits up bagged and tied.”
Lillian’s focus was on the window, and I could only see a bit of her face, but I could tell from that bit that a grin had spread across her face.
“Maybe do me a favor and undo my fly just in case I have to go?”
“I promise that if you ever find yourself in those dire straits, I’ll arrange you appropriately,” Helen said.
“Sy,” Lillian said. “You’re aware that just wouldn’t work, logistically? If you relieved yourself while dangling from your ankle, you’d be sure to get some on you. To the most tragic degree.”
“I’m the one with the appropriate equipment, thank you,” I said, in my best indignant voice. “I’ll have you know it’s a question of maximizing how much I push and minimizing how much I dribble. I have a Wyvern-equipped brain, so I’m sure I can optimize. Or wiggle my tied-up head and arms to move them out of the way.”
Lillian’s giggles were nonstop now, as much as she was trying to suppress them.
She managed in the midst of the giggle fit to pause, do her best to gather her composure. In the midst of it, as if purely by accident, she shot me a look of such pure, unadulterated warmth that it nearly knocked me out of my seat.
Which served to make me mentally stumble, my next few lines dashed from my mind.
“Ah,” I said.
Now Helen smiled like there was a joke that only she got.
“Shush, you,” I told her.
“I didn’t say a word,” Helen said, letting go of Lillian’s hand, arching her back in a stretch, before turning, so she was facing the window, her back and side to us and to the room.
I found my words. “So there I hang, dangling in more than one sense of the word-”
“Sy,” Lillian said, between giggles. “Puns? You’re better than that.”
“-and while I’m doing my best to water the grass far below and not to waterboard myself, all of the humorless black coats and aristocrats are no doubt peering through the window watching, not quite able to convince themselves it’s not a part of our devious plan that they should be very concerned about.”
Helen twisted in the moment and caught Lillian as Lillian sagged into the window seat, the stress of a very long few days, if not weeks, months, and years finding giggly release in irredeemable childishness.
I left it at that.
I was pretty content to watch Lillian smiling, with the occasional glance spared for the Nobles, who had shifted their position a little as the overall footing had changed. Three of them had gathered together to talk. I was content to bask, too, enjoying that memory of Lillian looking at me in a meaningful way that everyone wanted to be looked at.
That it had happened while I went on at length about my being tormented said something, but I wasn’t about to second guess the weirdness of my fellow Lambs.
Things eased down from there. We watched the enemy through the window, as the gas and circumstance strangled them.
Two students entered the room, carrying a tray of tea and a tray of fruit slices, breads, cheeses and nuts.
“Are there treats to go with the tea?” Helen asked, sitting up, her hands in her lap.
“After,” the student said. “Kitchens are packed with preparations for lunch. We’re aiming to have something for tea in the early afternoon.”
“Alright, thank you,” Helen said.
The students departed, leaving the four of us alone in the room.
“I think I’m being tormented,” Helen said.
“Yeah,” I said. “But it’s the kind of anticipation and torment you can bear.”
“It is,” Helen said.
Lillian glanced at me. “Do you want tea now, Sy? I know Helen waits until there’s something to have with it.”
“Not now, thank you,” I said.
“Alright. You’re sure you’re okay?”
“I’m good, all things considered,” I said. I waggled my foot, the chain rattling slightly.
Lillian made a small snorting sound, hiding her face.
“Don’t tell me you’re still on that?” I asked.
“Shush,” Lillian said.
“Come on, Lil, there’s gotta be rules about how long you’re allowed to laugh at something, when it’s behind us.”
Lillian let her head loll back, and she groaned.
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
Lillian rose from the seat, giving Helen a pat on the leg, so Helen would move her leg and free her to walk away. “Sy.”
“Lil,” I said, pressing it.
She stalked her way to the chair I sat in. I remained in place, staring her down.
“Watch your head,” she said.
Then she heaved, tipping the chair backward. It struck the ground with the impact that only a chair with a heavy framework of wrought iron could do. The dense padding in the leather didn’t help with the weight.
For my part, if it wasn’t for the cuffs that bound me to my seat, I would have bounced clean out of the seat and sprawled on the floor. Instead, the chains jerked.
“I’ve told you countless times, don’t call me Lil.”
I closed my eyes. “Did you? My memory is terrible.”
“Ha ha,” she said.
I remained where I was, assessing my situation. The chair was such that I doubted my ability to lift it into an upright position again, which would be harder than tipping it back would be, especially with the irregular shape. I’d humiliate myself trying. That left me to figure out where I was going. I could sit on the front edge of my chair, but it was hardly comfortable for the long term. I could ask to relocate, as Lillian had recommended I do two or three times now, but that meant asking.
Instead, as I lay there, I tried to be very still. My face changed, starting at a neutral position, but a grimace tugged at the edges, made my features contort. The grimace became a look of anguish.
“Sy?” Lillian asked. “You’re a charlatan. Don’t think I believe you for a second.”
I measured my breathing, letting it grow tighter by the second.
Even Helen had perked her head up, curious or concerned.
Lillian drew near, bending down to kneel at my side. I wrapped the excess chain around her neck, toppled her, and pulled her to the ground.
She reached out, and I matched her. My palm met hers, and I gripped her hand hard, fingers between each of hers, my grip firm.
Wait. Wrong hand.
I switched, moving to snatch her other hand, doing much the same thing. I was just in time to catch it as the syringes sprung forth from beneath her fingernails. With my fingers where they were, I could keep her from bringing the syringes down to catch me. I matched her attempts to move her arms with resistance. One of my legs helped to keep her from moving her lower body too much.
“You’re such a butt, Sy,” Lillian said.
“Very mature,” I said.
“Such a butt.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“What are you gunning for, Sy?”
“The goal here? With this.”
“Making you wish you hadn’t tipped over my chair, for one thing.”
“Achieved,” she said.
I was studying her expression, trying to find the hints of discomfort, the imminent break I’d seen back in… wherever that city had been.
“You’re aware Helen’s watching?” Lillian murmured.
I moved my head, looking across the room. Helen was still there, lying across the window seat, one hand dangling, fingers touching the floor. She was staring at us.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’m being taunted,” Helen said, mournfully.
“Are you, now?” I asked.
“My only joys are the vicarious and postponed,” she said.
“Helen,” Lillian said. “Please.”
“If you two had any grace at all, you’d close the circle. Honestly.”
“Helen,” I said.
“I know,” shes aid. “I understand. I know these things.”
Then she stood, and she strode from the room.
“I have to ask,” I said.
“Do you have to?”
“At the risk of opening up old wounds…”
Her voice was barely above a whisper, “I don’t know, Sy. That’s a… horribly complicated thing, and a part of me worries I’ll feel fine and good up until I don’t, and that scares me.”
“Scares me too,” I said.
“But,” she said, and her voice was quieter still. “I think I don’t feel two steps behind, when it comes to where we stand, respective to each other. I got… a coat, even if it wasn’t the color I wanted.”
“And you’re not putting me in a bad place, where I’m having to straddle two sides.”
“I kind of hauled you violently over to this side, into a place where we’re holding the hoity toity of the Crown States captive.”
“You did. But it’s steadier footing. I’m not divided anymore. And I’m not sure that fixes everything or even half of everything, but…”
She moved her head, and she let it rest on my chest.
The first night she’d shared a bed with me, she’d done much the same. She’d clung to me more, and maybe she would have here, if I wasn’t holding her hands to keep the syringes at bay, in case turnabout was fair play.
The weight of her head on my chest made a weight lift from me, in its odd, paradoxical way.
I felt her sigh, and I felt even more of that weight lift. I closed my eyes.
When I opened them, I saw the Infante standing where Helen had been, and I became very aware of how he might use this situation.
I postponed closing my eyes again for as long as I could. Eventually, I blinked, and the Infante was gone.
I heard his voice, as if from another room. “You were made to destroy, Sylvester. You were baptized in poison.”
I didn’t dare move or speak, in case that tipped this ever so delicate situation to his care.
I shouldn’t have done this. But if I shouldn’t have, then I couldn’t necessarily trust myself to do it again.
I couldn’t ever have this? I’d been given a taste of it with Lillian, then with Jessie, and now with nobody at all? Was that how it went?
Moisture in my eyes didn’t help with my attempt to keep from blinking. I failed, and I saw the Infante had moved closer, crossing half the distance from where he’d been.
My hand still holding Lillian’s, my fingers interknit with hers, so she couldn’t curl them in and use the syringes on me, I moved our hands so I could run the back of my hand along Lillian’s hair at the side of her head.
I found myself having to blink again. The Infante was gone.
If he closed the distance again-
“You have known hard, undeniable truths since you were capable of looking for them. Death takes us all. Some sooner than later,” the Infante said.
He sounded as if he was in the room.
“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice soft.
“Everything,” I said.
“Don’t be,” Lillian said. “Life’s too short for regrets, isn’t it?”
I screwed my eyes shut.
I gave her a peck on the lips.
Every time I let my guard down? I lose something?
She moved her hand a fraction, and moved my hand in the process. I was very conscious of the chain pulling across her throat.
It felt like seconds and it felt like hours, that I was suspended in that state of tension, striving not to move, to give him anything.
I’d pulled that chain tight, and in my stillness, I’d already done what I’d feared I would do in the future. My hands felt hot now, compared to how cold hers were.
I knew she was already dead.
I opened my eyes to see one of the things I’d hoped never to see – the lifeless face of the Lamb who was supposed to live, at my hands. Instead I saw the Infante’s face, so broad and so close that it consumed my field of vision.
An illusion. Past and present and future hopes and fears getting confused. I vaguely recalled something about the syringe fingers hampering circulation and temperature. Too late to matter. I’d let him in.
My mind refused to see, hear, to communicate, to feel.
I felt hot fluids run down my fingers.
It took a concerted effort to surface, to figure which way was up and to bring myself there, out of the recesses. It was harder than the last time.
A saucer was in my hand. Tea sat on the saucer.
I felt disoriented as I looked first at Jessie, who knelt beside me.
I looked at Lillian, very much alive. She had her head on my chest, and she looked half asleep.
“I arrived and asked Lillian if she needed a hand. She said she needed an edge for if you woke up and it came down to another brawl, something to surprise even the likes of you,” Jessie said. “I thought I’d give you a cup of tea to hold and see how you handled yourself, but she drifted off by the time I was finished stirring the milk.”
The tea? The hot liquid?
Jessie reached down and brushed hair from near my eyes with her fingers.
“No games? No shenanigans?” I asked. “Can you- can we talk?”
She took the tea, and she disappeared from my field of vision.
She returned, and she brought a cushion from the window seat. We extricated me and put the pillow beneath Lillian’s head. She hugged it tight as soon as I was no longer in her reach. She had the key to undo my shackles from the chair, and with the length of the chain, we wound it around my midsection before attaching it to my other wrist.
We stepped into the hallway, walking past the tea trolley with the tea, Lillian, Helen’s and my meals, and the little platter of biscuits, berries, and cream.
“I lost a bit of me again,” I said. “I don’t know- did I do anything? Say anything?”
“How long ago did Helen leave the room?” I asked. “How long ago did the tea arrive? That’s the same tea? Lunch tea?”
“Less than a minute ago, and it’s the same tea.”
“Are you going to be okay?” Jessie asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. Had Jessie disturbed me from my spell of madness within moments of it starting?
Jessie took my arm, hooking hers through it.
“The thing with Lillian,” I said.
“It’s fine, Sylvester. Mostly fine.”
“Mostly fine isn’t perfectly fine and it doesn’t feel fine, Jessie. I’m losing my mind, I’m a danger to her and to you, I’m a danger to me and to everything we’re trying to do.”
“And I’ve dropped three memories, Sy, and it’s hard to shake the notion that I have a few days or weeks left. Helen’s on edge and Duncan pulled emergency measures to mellow her out in the short term, but her hormones are going to zig-zag. Mary appears fine, but she tends to keep the dangerous things under wraps.”
I pressed my lips together. I wanted to say things and I didn’t, because it was pointless. It would only distract.
“Sy. We move forward as best we can. We move forward without sabotaging ourselves and each other with doubts. The others have already agreed we do this with you in chains if we have to. But we’re going to do this.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“It’s not. But honestly, Sy, if you think we need to watch you better, we will, and if you have other concerns, voice them, but don’t- don’t let the concerns become the concern.”
“I don’t want to push anyone away,” I said.
“I told you a while back, you’ll have a hard time getting rid of me. I’m not going anywhere as long as I can help it.”
“I don’t want you to tolerate that Lillian and I…”
“I feel like a cad, Jessie. You deserve better than a cad.”
“You were a cad when Jamie took to you, and you were a cad when I did. I’m probably genetically predisposed to like you, and if and when we exact revenge on the Academies, we can exact revenge on them for that.”
“Ha ha,” I said, dry. “I’m being serious.”
“So am I. You’re not paying attention, Sy.”
“I’m paying enough attention to know you’re tolerating stuff when you say you’re okay with it.”
She drew in a breath, hugged my arm against her side, and kept her eyes straight ahead as she spoke. “You know what I am.”
“Connect the dots, then. Realize what I am. I never forget. The memories are… right there. Neatly categorized, all in order. You talk about you and Lillian like… I don’t even know. Like you want me to be bothered by it.”
“That’s not it.”
“It’s almost like it. But you’re missing the key detail. To me… you were with her five minutes ago. The memory is fresh in my mind.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it.
“To me, you came down the stairs from the bedroom, and Lillian had a skip in her step and you looked more relaxed than I’ve seen you in a long time. It might as well have been five minutes ago, and the memory is fresh in my mind.”
I nodded, with emphasis.
“It might as well have been that I just saw you sneaking a kiss, sitting with her on the back steps of the orphanage. I just saw you tuck a bit of her hair behind her ear and lean in close and whisper words of encouragement.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“If it was going to bother me or break my heart it would have done it a long time ago, because there are an awful lot of small moments anyone would be envious of.”
“I don’t have many of those moments,” I said. “I don’t- those memories aren’t there.”
“I know, Sy. But listen, okay? I don’t feel diminished, because I remember my moments. I remember you buying me the same nice pen from that store in Tynewear twice, because you forgot you’d done it the first time. I remember you making me tea and sitting with me, and we had the conversation with Mr. Bubbles. I have the moments I overheard you talking to Shirley and saying the nicest things about me. Our little game of one-upmanship, to ease into things, fumble our way forward in a facsimile of a real first relationship, awkwardness and all, and I remember the various fumblings of yours and of mine, and it’s especially nice.”
“You’ll have to tell me those stories,” I said. “I’d love a refresher sometime.”
“Anytime. Any time there’s not anything more pressing, I’ll tell you stories. I’ll be your memory. I’ll refresh you on the seventh time we slept in the same bed after becoming a pair and you kissed my scars – all of them, as numerous as they are, and-”
As steadfast as she was, Jessie rarely got choked up, but she’d gotten choked up here.
“It mattered an awful lot,” she said. “And I wouldn’t trade my moments for Lillian’s any day.”
I turned to her, and my forehead pressed against hers. I would have held her, if it wasn’t for the chains.
“Well,” I said. “Anytime there’s not anything more pressing, if you need a refresher…”
She brushed the side of my face with her hand.
“If I reach for that memory, I can almost relive it, it’s so clear. I relive an awful lot of moments with you an awful lot,” she said.
“Apparently pretty awful,” I said.
“If we get to the point where we need to figure things out, we’ll figure them out. And if you or Lillian decide one way or the other, I’ll step back, still at your side, and I’ll be pretty happy with the memories.”
“Yeah, no,” I said. “That’s just not going to work, you damn martyr. You’re too willing to retreat, on the surface of it, but the emotions always shine through.”
Then she lifted her head.
I followed her line of sight. Looking through the window toward the rest of the Academy, I could see it was the gossamer thing, making its slow approach to our building. It moved with few anchors, and the wind pulled at it, hard.
It advanced, and it reached out, attaching its anchors. It didn’t mount an attack.
Instead, as if the great thing had sighed and something had left it in the process, it billowed in response to the wind, and then it began to collapse, draping itself over the girl’s dormitory, and the bridges to either side of it.
Its descent and the movement of the creature against the exterior of the building made a rasping noise. Here and there, windows were slashed and broke. Things outside fell, pulled down by strands that anchored reflexively.
As final moves went, the thing had managed its final attack well.
Its well poisoned, the thing had needed food and water from an outside source. Our opposition hadn’t had a lot to spare, nor had they had the ability to send it to other sources of water, given how we were bordered by polluted ocean to the east and a wasteland to the west.
We’d weathered the attacks. The nobles redirected and captured, they didn’t have much. Now they didn’t have the gossamer thing.
By unspoken agreement, Jessie and I went to collect Lillian and find the others. Duncan, Mary, and Ashton were in the other dormitory, coordinating defenses. After the enemy’s initial focus on the admin building had proven useless or even detrimental, they’d turned their full focus to the other dormitory. No alarms had been sounded and no tap-code messages communicated. We had to assume they were alright.
Lillian stirred awake with a gentle shake of the shoulder.
“Did you get him, Jess?”
“She got me,” I said.
“Sorry I missed it,” Lillian said.
She took my hand and stood. Jessie looked her way, and Lillian avoided the eye contact.
I remembered the cold horror the Infante had brought me. It made me uneasy, being around her.
Before we were halfway to the penthouse garden that served as the girl’s dormitory headquarters, students from the garden found us.
“Hi Leah,” Jessie said. “Where do we stand?”
“Access to the garden is limited. We’re using the small library.”
“Good enough. Show us the way.”
The library was actually a narrow space, only two paces across, separated into three levels. It had the odd effect of being shaped like a space for a book to fit into, and as we used it for a meeting place, many students gathered on the ledges above that overlooked the central area of the library.
Many, many of our rebels were gathered at the window. Most had binoculars or spyglasses.
When we went to investigate, instead of providing answers, one of them simply handed a pair of binoculars to Jessie. Lillian got the next set, while I, chopped liver that I was, was the last to get a view.
There was a group standing where the bridge joined the building. The tallest among them was waving a kerchief. The flag of surrender. It looked like they were mostly aristocrats. No Nobles, no Doctors. Not the ones we were really interested in going after.
Were all of the aristocrats surrendering? No. But it was the first crack in the facade. They’d lost most of their big weapons, and others were being stripped away. They were hungry and feeling that hunger, and many would be thirsty.
It wasn’t wholly out of the question that they would surrender in this moment. They were of the higher class. They had pride. Starvation and destitution threatened that.
“We’re not going over to talk to them,” I said. “If they want to talk, they can come to us. They know the bridges are rigged with bombs, they haven’t dared to cross one since the first was blown. If they’re serious, they’ll take the risk that crossing that bridge entails, and they’ll negotiate on our turf.”
“Makes sense,” Jessie said.
We had our people make their exit and wave our would-be recruits over. It turned out they were proud. It turned out they were serious.
They crossed the bridge, and negotiations got underway.