Root and Branch – 19.13

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The Nobles stood on the rooftop, amid the bodies of scattered warbeasts and experiments.  Ribcages had been torn apart so they spiked skyward from otherwise unrecognizable piles of meat and gristle.  Skulls had been bifurcated, some so neatly that it seemed inconceivable that it had been done in combat, while others had been divided in a messy way, skull fragments sticking through torn flesh and scale.

It was getting late, and we’d decided that they were too relaxed up there.  We’d taken care to ensure the warbeasts didn’t suit as food.  The ones who scattered the rooftop and hung from the branches that had grown across it were only a small share.  Some had been bloated, filled with gas or parasites.  Junior and Poppy- Persephone?  Prissy?  I wasn’t sure of her name.  Whoever she’d been, she and Junior had made sure that many of the warbeasts, when slain, had smelled as pungent as possible.

My sampling of the smell had revealed it to be something like faeces mixed with perfume.  I’d prepared myself in advance of the sample by liberally coating every inch of my body, hair, and clothing in powder, inside and out, changing out of the clothes in question right after.

Even with that, only Ashton had been willing to keep me company for the twelve hours that followed.

The Nobles were holding up remarkably well.  One or two had been lightly injured by the second wave of warbeasts we’d sent their way.  When they’d realized the traps hidden within the beasts, they’d changed their tactics, parrying tooth or claw while physically throwing the beasts off the rooftop.  It was harder and more hazardous, when most of the beasts were several hundred pounds.  Most beasts had accelerated reflexes and enhanced strength.  Some had barbs in their fur to make letting go that much harder.

Junior had been one of the more dangerous, devious, and ruthless of Beattle’s students, leading the Rank.  We’d told him, Prissy and Gordeux to go all out, and this had been the result.  Spite, traps and overall nastiness blended together with snarling warbeasts we’d mostly inured to the gas.

The Lady Gloria was one of the injured.  She had torn off her sleeves and used them to wrap the wound at her middle, and she was the only noble who wasn’t standing, seating herself on one corner of the roof, her head turned our way, the wind periodically blowing her hair this way or that.

The rest stood, pretending to be impervious to the elements.  They had been up there since dawn, and now the sun was going down.  The light was fading, and the Nobles on the rooftop were getting harder and harder to make out.

“Soon,” Mary said.

I lowered the binoculars and rubbed my eyes, my shackles rattling.  I turned my back to the window, resting against the wall to the side of it.  The room had a series of beds in it, but only one of the beds was occupied.  Nora had arranged her overlarge body so she curled up in the corner, her shoulders and head against the headboard, her back and legs against the wall that the bed had been set against.  Three pillows had been propped up around her, in use by four different people, with Abby and Bo Peep sharing the one by her knees.  Ashton used another, and Lara rested directly against her sister’s upper body, hugging a pillow instead of using it to rest her head.  Quinton did without, just enjoying the proximity of the others as he lay on his side.  Two blankets were haphazardly shared by the group in a way that seemed entirely sub-optimal, but I doubted I could have fixed it, and I knew I would’ve woken at least one of them by trying.

Emmett, pretending to be too mature for the sleep pile, had seated himself by the foot of the bed.  But he was still young and there was only a certain extent to which he could act the adult.  He’d dozed off, and because of Quinton’s hoof jutting over the bed, had unconsciously tilted his head to one side, into a very uncomfortable position, so he wouldn’t get repeatedly kicked in the head as Quinton had his running and jumping dreams.

Lara was awake and all but unable to move, nestled in as she was.  Her eyes were open, and she was humming, accenting the hums with a vibrating distortion.

Her eyes watched me.  The two main eyes were red-rimmed in a way that might’ve made my eyes water sympathetically, were I not used to them.  Her eyelids themselves looked like she’d screwed them shut and endured having someone rub glass dust and salt into the lids until she had two black eyes and the eyelids themselves were raw and shredded.  The orbs weren’t much better.  The structure of the space around the eyes was mid-transition.  Lesser eyes, even more damaged looking, were peering out, socketed in spaces where skull had dissolved into socket and the surrounding flesh was pushing out latent infection and skull fragments in painful looking clusters.

Bone fragments and eyes.

The arms that hugged the pillow appeared overlong, but it was just her claws.

“We should be positioned.  They’re going to try something, and this time they’re going to be desperate,” Mary said.

“Yeah,” I said.

I raised the binoculars.  The Nobles were still there.  One of the Nobles I hadn’t put a name to was talking to Lady Gloria.  The distance and the lighting meant I couldn’t make out the lip movements.

“Are you going to come?” Mary asked.

“Might as well,” I said.  “We going to bring Ashton?”

“He might be useful,” she said.  “Even if the enemy is counteracting him.”

“If we can tax their resources by forcing them to prepare Ashton countermeasures, that’s a good thing,” I said.

The humming died down.  I lowered the binoculars and glanced at Lara.

She looked very concerned.  Her eyes blinked, the ordinary ones out of sync with the others.  Some of the others didn’t have enough eyelid to blink fully.

“We’ll make sure he’s safe,” I said, my volume quieter than normal, as if I was saying it to Mary, though I met Lara’s eyes.

“Don’t stop,” Ashton mumbled.  His hand reached up and patted clumsily at Lara’s face.

“They want you,” she said.

“Mmm,” Ashton said.  His eyes snapped open.

He’d somehow wound up at the center of the mob, with a pillow against his belly while Peep and Abby rested on it.  He managed to extricate himself without disturbing them too much, stepped off the bed, and where another person might have stretched, he remained poised, like a stitched that had burned through a wire, hunched over with arms slightly raised, knees slightly bent.

His hands went to his belt, and he drew a comb.  He immediately set to fixing his hair, his eyes fixed on the ground a few feet head of him.  Done entirely from memory.

I glanced out the windows.  Lady Gloria was no longer talking to the others.  They’d taken their former perches, spaced out on the roof and surrounding branches.  The residual gas drifted across the Academy.

We headed for the door, and Ashton moved to follow, glancing back at the others.  His attention was on his clothes now, fixing wrinkles.

“They’re not going to care, Ashton,” I said.

I care,” he said.

We stepped out into the hallway, and I gently eased the door shut behind us, as quietly as I was able when chained.  I was very aware of Lara’s penetrating stare as the gap narrowed and the door finally closed.

“I’m trying to decide if we should unchain you,” Mary said.  “On the one hand, you’d be faster, and you could help more.  On the other, when all is said and done, I think I’d be more effective if I wasn’t having to keep as much of an eye on you.”

“Best to play it safe,” I said.

“Chains on, then.”

We passed a window.  I peered through, raising my binoculars.  The light was worse, but I could make out the Nobles.

We passed the next window, and the combination of light and angle made it next to impossible to tell if the Nobles were there.  I met Mary’s eyes.  “They’re gone.”

“I saw,” she said.

Our pace picked up.  We headed down one set of stairs, then another, and by the time we entered the hallway, we were running.

Lillian, Duncan, and Jessie were by the doors.

“They’re moving,” I said.

Duncan twisted around, raising a hand.

The gate cracked open.  Cages creaked as doors were opened.  Experiments flooded out, moving in a stream.  All pack animals, all a cross between simian and canine, with faces defined by long, slanted eyes and the long canine teeth that jutted more forward than up or down.

Duncan hauled open another cage.  His Grabber pawed its way forward, tentacles lashing this way and that as it felt its way, exploring the world beyond its cage.  It was the size of a horse, but its body was lighter and its legs longer and stronger.  The thing’s children were closer to large dogs in size.  All headless, all with tentacles framing the stumps where the necks should have begun.

Lillian wasn’t wearing the suit she’d designed.  The Treasurer was, buried within what looked like muscle layered over muscle, with no skin to cover it.  Only the mask wasn’t organic, his breath hissing through the filters.  Even with the added mass and extra foot and a half of height, he looked burdened with the casks and the cages he carried.  The lifeforms within the cages were similar to the canine-simian chimeras, but they were smaller.  Less baboon-wolf and more chimpanzee-puppy.

Lillian only had a rifle and her white coat.  She had a quarantine mask, but she didn’t wear it over her face, instead leaving it hanging around her throat, like a second face.

Helen was smiling, swaying on the spot as if to music only she could hear.

“Go,” I said to Helen, as I stopped walking, coming to a halt beside Jessie.

Helen was right on the heels of the slowest of the attack beasts we’d unleashed.

“Drop ropes down,” I reminded the students who stood off to the side.  “Two tugs, a pause, and two more tugs, means it’s us.  Or you can just cut the ropes and leave us out there.  Would be a tidy way to get rid of us.”

“He’s joking,” Jessie said.  Like Lillian, she had a mask.  “Don’t do that.  Really.”

With that, we stepped through the morass of builder’s wood that had been cleaved and pulled down out of the way, freeing the doors to open, and we passed through the gap and into the city proper.  There was a haze, but the word from our Doctors was that it was supposed to be inert, now.  The moisture was still heavy in the air, but the chemicals wouldn’t be active.  Ominous, to see ambient clouds of what had been corrosive gas, but not hazardous.

“Nervous, Sy?” Lillian asked.  Her voice was hushed, and it sounded eerie, given the landscape.

“Hm?  Never.”

“Never, right, yeah,” she said.  “You always poke fun when you’re uneasy.”

“Uneasy?  Here?  Naw,” I said.  My eyes scanned the area.  There wouldn’t be any Nobles, not here, not this far in this fast.  I still felt the need.  “We’re sticking our necks out, there’s no danger.”

“We spread out as soon as we’re into the street,” Jessie said.  “Duncan, Lillian, Ashton, you’re the fulcrum points.  Mary-”

“I’ll fulcrum,” I said.

“You’re chained up.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Let me be the bait.”

“Let him,” Mary said.

“Alright,” Jessie said, her voice soft.  “Mary, Duncan’s beasts, Treasurer, Helen, and I are floating.  Ashton, stay close to the middle, support whoever needs supporting, which will probably be Sy or me.  I’ll take the west, since that puts me further from the side with the Nobles.”

“The objective isn’t to kill,” Mary said.  “We don’t need to win.”

I might have made a joke about Mary needing to convince herself of that.  I didn’t.  I’d just been called out on poking fun, for one thing, and I knew the words weren’t meant for Mary, but for Helen, who was already roaming, staying just in earshot.

The sound of a distant thud drew our collective attention.

The thud was soon followed by a sound like a sturdy iron rake across cobblestone, and then a wet, gurgling scream.

The pack of warbeasts had found the nobles, or vice versa.

We moved as a unit, fanning out.  The Treasurer was a weak point, he didn’t know the dynamics, and in an odd way that completely went against the language Jessie had been using, he became the fulcrum point.  He was the fixed point which the rest of us revolved around, as we found positions, chose vantage points, and kept an eye on those closer to us.

“Blasted things!” a voice called out.  It was augmented.  Noble.

“Calm, Clifford,” a voice replied, further away.  It was only the sheer silence that hung over the city that allowed me to catch it.  “Calm.  They want us agitated.  It wouldn’t do to give them what they want without something in return.”

Something told me it was Carling.

“We’re not alone anymore,” a woman said.  “And it isn’t the beasts.  Not entirely.”

I paused, remaining where I was, chains gathered up in my hands and twisted around so they wouldn’t rattle more than was necessary.  Jessie was just a little further up ahead.  Lillian was a distance to my right.

Jessie signaled.  Three-three.

I passed on the signal to Lillian.  Lillian gestured to someone I couldn’t make out.  I knew it was the Treasurer, or it was someone who could access the Treasurer.

“Ho!” Carling called out.  “Fine evening, isn’t it?  Fine weather, not too warm for a summer evening.”

We all remained silent.

“Something just scurried across the rooftops, my Lord,” a Lady said.

“I know,” Carling said.

“It was smaller than the others, but larger than a housecat.  My Lord, cats and cockroaches aside, nothing should have survived the gas.”

“It was theirs.  They uncaged it just now.  I heard the hinges.  Just be on guard.  I imagine the blasted things have poison or they go for the eyes.  Whatever they do, they-”

The explosion cut him off.  A flare of orange struggled to penetrate the fog, and only served to bring a spot of warmth to it before fading, replaced with rolling black smoke.  Masonry crumbled to the ground in a steady patter.

“Ho ho!  That was an improbably big detonation for a small package!  Everyone alright!?” Carling called out.

I didn’t hear the responses.  The fog was thinning out, though.  The fire had burned away a lot of it, and much of the fog we had was rolling in to occupy the area around the explosion site.

Carling was talking an awful lot, taking an optimistic, lighthearted stance.  I suspected it wasn’t really for his fellow Nobles.

“You could have sustained the siege, couldn’t you?” Carling asked.  “You could have held back, remained secure at the perimeter, while letting us reunite with the others.  You’re done with your white gas, so you would have had to.  But you saw the need to venture out here yourselves.  I can hear two of you whispering.  A girl and a boy.  You’re worried.”

He wasn’t entirely wrong.  The skew of the worry might have been slightly different than he’d expected, though.

I glanced over at Jessie, who stood with her back to the corner of one house.  The house had taken some damage in the earlier fires.  I gestured as best as I was able to, without releasing my chains.

They flank.

Carling was communicating by some unnatural means, like subvocalizations, directing another noble to circle around.  That was very likely what Helen and Duncan or Helen and Ashton were discussing.

“You’re worried we’re going to stand firm.  We’re proud, and rightfully so.  Crown and Academy will hold out to the last.  The people in that building can do it in part because we represent something.  The Nobility matters to them.  You’re thusly compelled to act against us.  You Lambs need to take a piece out of us, for symbolic reasons.  And you’ll stake a great deal on it.  You put yourselves on the line.”

I met Jessie’s eyes, and I signaled, pointing.

Jessie raised her hand skyward, gesturing.  One-four.

I changed where I was pointing, hand moving to gauge distance.

Jessie changed the signal.  Three-four.

“You’re confident,” Carling said.  “And rightly so.  I’ve never actually experienced anything of the like.  This is… fascinating.”

The chimp-puppy popped out of the fog, somewhere between Jessie and I.  With the way the fog clung to the ground, it had been largely obscured.  Its eyes glowed bioluminescent through the mist as it assessed me, then it headed off at a diagonal.  Taking the long way round me.

“Am I going to be the only one talking?” Carling asked.

“I can respond,” I called out, gripping the chains tighter.  I was revealing my location.

“Excellent.  I’ll assume, based on discussions I’ve had with others, that you’d be Sylvester?”

“You assume right.”

“That leaves me to figure out what I need to ask you.  I won’t ask what your grand plan is.  You’ve likely told the others, and if we reach them, then we’ll hear the same.  If I asked-”

The second of the explosions was more intense than before, but I was closer to it this time.  It was only a few houses down from where I was.  I backed away from the source of the detonation, eyes on the shadows around the rooftops.  The fog and smoke made it appear as if things were there when they weren’t.

But I did have some experience with seeing things that weren’t there.  I wasn’t too unnerved.

Gut feeling had suggested they’d be close.  They’d be approaching from the most inconvenient, most unexpected angle, and that meant they’d circled the long way around.  Jessie had echoed my sentiment if she’d agreed to give the signal and open that cage.

The chimp-pups were akin to homing pigeons in some regards, except home was out the charges and canisters we’d laid out well in advance.  They pulled pins and levers and then scampered off to a second ‘home’ site.  By releasing them, we could activate explosives, gas canisters and traps at a dozen locations.

The original plan had been to use it to uproot the enemy if they decided to lay a counter-siege and try to access the boys’ or girls’ dormitories, but this worked too.

“These noisy interruptions are rather uncalled for,” Carling said.

“Already set in motion,” I said.  “Nothing I can do about them for the time being.”

“So I see.  I was hoping to have a civil discussion.”

“Ah,” I said.  “Well, you might be disappointed.  Civility isn’t ranked high on our list of priorities, these days.”

I heard Carling’s voice.  Not directed at me, this time.  “Where’s Lord Willoughby?”

There was a pause.

In the distance, there was a softer explosion, less sharp.

That last one was likely our safeguard to hold enemy reinforcements at bay.  They’d want to send people and experiments out to answer the explosions and help their nobles.  A fresh cloud of gas would buy us a little bit of time.

“Gas, that time?  You’ve injured a Lady and, unrelated to the gas, you’ve made Lord Willoughby disappear.”

With the heat burning away the fog, the figures in the distance were becoming clearer.  There was a distant glow of fire.

“I can hear the rattle of your chains, Sylvester.  Why are you chained up?  Are you that far gone?”

He was pacing.  I could track his voice as the silhouette moved through the fog.

“We thought we’d give you a handicap,” I said.

I heard the sound, low, building.  A chuckle.  It became a laugh.

I matched him in pacing, venturing further from the building I’d been hunkering down beside.

“What a shame that we had to be enemies,” Carling said.  “I would have liked to have you work for me.”

“I think the problem is that you still see yourselves as superior to us,” I said.  “And not as peers.”

“Is that the problem?” Carling asked.  His tone was light.  “I thought it was your blatant and grotesque lack of respect for the Crown and what it represents.”

His voice had turned harder with that second statement.

It was also a mask, something meant to grab my attention, and distract from the reality that one of the figures in the smoke had gone very still.  An illusion, or a hollow Noble like the sisters had been, or- I had no idea what.  But I saw the silhouette of one of the Nobles standing in the fog and smoke, and in the next moment, he was also charging forward, a mere five paces from me.

A rifle shot caught him.  He barely stumbled, but he did stumble a little.

One of Duncan’s larger tentacle-hounds caught the noble.

Even with tentacles catching at his leg and both hands, he managed to lift the thing up, then dash it to a bloody ruin on the ground.  The time it cost him and the limited mobility meant he caught two more rifle shots.  Lillian and Jessie.

“Hold, Wharton,” Carling said.

Wharton, the attacking noble, moved forward a few steps, then stopped.  Whatever rifles had been aimed his way fired again, but they didn’t seem to catch him.  He was practically unbothered by the fact he was being repeatedly shot.

I backed away a few steps.

“Come to me.  Leave them.”

“My lord, you just ordered-”

“I know what I just ordered.  But I’m swiftly changing my mind.  If you’d killed him as planned, I’d be happy to let you continue, but you didn’t, and I now suspect you won’t.”

“The gas is spreading, my lord,” a female voice said.  “Multiple colors, more than one taste in the air.”

“Which only furthers my point,” Carling said.

Wharton stayed where he was for an instant longer, then turned, stalking back toward the others.

“If we stay, we only play into their hands,” Carling said, as if to reassure Wharton that he was doing the right thing.  Yet he’d already indicated he could communicate to them in ways we couldn’t hear.  The words were partially meant for me and the other Lambs.  “They want us to come after them.”

“You realize that if you leave us alive, you also play into our hands?” I asked.  “How many people are looking down at this, watching the explosions and the gas clouds?  How do they respond when you retreat, fewer in number than when you ventured toward the main building, without a single dead Lamb to your names?”

Carling chuckled.

I heard the female voice again.  Gloria, I suspected.  I didn’t hear the exact words.

“No,” Carling said.  I caught that much.  He said something else I didn’t hear.

“I insist.  I know I should defer to you, on several levels, but-”

Jessie was donning her filtration mask.

“They wouldn’t have done this if they weren’t nearly certain they could hold their own or come out ahead.  They got two of ours,” Carling said.  “Let’s leave it at that.”

There was a long, tense pause.

“Ah,” Carling said.

The heels clicked on the road.

Lady Gloria emerged from smoke and fog, her chin held high.  She’d been the noble with Professor Gossamer.  Lillian had had some things to say about her too.  She was pale of hair, skin, and eye, with only black lining at the eyelashes and as a small part of her clothing.  She radiated with intensity.

She also used the wrapping of her sleeves to try and hide a stomach wound.  Blood around the wound had already dried, the damage done hours ago.

She stared me down.

“Is it that you want to act, you can’t let yourself back down?” I asked.  “You should act then.  Is it that you want to talk?  I recommend you talk.  Or if you just want to look your enemy in the eye… take your fill.”

“I’ll ask,” she said.

“Sure,” I said.

“The gas is spreading, Gloria.  And I do know you heard the scampering things finding their way to more traps and explosives.”

“I heard,” she said, absently.  “Is Lord Willoughby dead?”

“Probably,” I said.

“You know, we’ve given so much.  Our entire lives are in service to the Crown Empire.”

“I know,” I said.  “But where we differ is in that you see the Crown Empire as a force for good, and we don’t.”

“Not good,” she said.  “But I think the alternative is far worse.”

“We disagree on that too,” I said.

“You’d kill me, but only because I’m Noble-born.  I’ve never harmed my subjects, I’ve been gentle, and I’ve devoted time to ensure they’re looked after.  I’ve always been gentle, and it’s a task, sometimes.  I host lessons and tutor the gifted, and I host events, even for middling families.  Balls to give them a taste of what they could have if they worked hard, welcoming young ladies into their bachelorette years, giving them a chance to be beautiful.  I’ve shared my wealth out, not hoarding it.  Whatever you represent, whatever you fight for, I can’t imagine you’re my enemy.”

“Perhaps your doctors could contrive to give you a better imagination, then.  If they survive all of this.  I’m afraid you’re our enemy, whatever illusions you hold.”

“If we’re to talk-”

“We really shouldn’t,” Lord Carling said.  “They’re delaying us, so the gas can creep nearer.  Best to go to the main building, rendezvous with the others.”

“Forgive me, my Lord.  I’ll try to be brief.  If we’re to talk, Sylvester, can I ask that you use honorifics, and refer to me as a Lady?”

“You can ask,” I said.  “But I’m liable to tell you to go fuck the spikiest warbeast you can find.”

“I see.”

There was a pause.  I could imagine Carling being very impatient.  I could see more of him, as the smoke nearer to us cleared.  The gas off to either side and ahead of us was piling up taller, into high plumes.

“Why do you hate us so, Lambs?  Have we hurt you?”

“If you mean directly, then I could point out the Baron pointed out my eye.”

“The Baron doesn’t count.  He was mad and pathetic.  I feel like I can say that much without betraying the Crown.”

“It doesn’t matter, Lady Gloria.  It’s not- you’re not the focus, here.  The nobility isn’t as important as you think it is.  The Crown, the King, the stations, it’s really… nothing.”

“I see.  Base insults?  Attempting to get a rise out of me?”

“No, Lady Gloria.  No.  You’re really truly nothing.  You’re a farce.  The nobility is, in entirety, or next to.  Just children stolen from streets, from mothers, from breeding stock, whatever.  The cream of the crop, gathered up, sorted among families, and made into Nobles.”

Wind whistled through burned husks of buildings and the gaps growths of builder’s wood.

“You really believe that?” Lady Gloria asked.  “It’s tragic, that you’ve convinced yourself of such-”

“We know,” I said.  “We found out in New Amsterdam.  Others have found out too.  We told students and it was enough to change minds, convince them to turn rebel.  Haven’t you wondered why the Infante wants to scrub the Crown States from existence?  He wants to use plague and black wood to kill and choke the truth from our lips, and to strangle the spread of that base truth.”

“Nonsense,” Carling said.

It was curious that the Lady Gloria was silent.

“The Baron found out.  It’s what drove him mad, made him wretched.  The Duke knew too, but… I think he persevered through it.  Above all else, though, the Professors at the top know.  I imagine that if you went back to that building and hinted at it, you’d see alarm on a select few faces.  Ferres among them.”

There was a long pause.  Lady Gloria was unreadable.

“Isn’t a beautiful farce better than an ugly truth?” she asked.

Ah.

So we were already at that point.  Had she been ready on some level to accept this already?  Suspicions?  Questions without answers, that had all settled at once?

“I think you underestimate the ugliness behind your farce,” I said.

Lady Gloria didn’t seem to have an answer for that.  She looked sad, standing there, thinking about it.

“No,” Carling said.

He stepped forward, becoming less of a silhouette and more of a man.  As he approached, Lady Gloria turned her back to me, and raised a hand, clapping it to the front of Carling’s shoulder, halting him.

“No,” he said.  “That’s madness, and it’s an insult I can’t-”

“Lord Carling,” Lady Gloria said.  Her voice was soft.  “You were concerned about the gas.  You said we couldn’t attack without playing into their hands.”

“He’s saying-” Carling started.  He didn’t finish.  He glared, expression shifting three different ways across two moments.  “No.”

“I know, Lord.”

“We’re better than that.  We have a long history, family lines.  Even the least of us in the present hold status on par with-”

Another explosion over in the direction of the main building’s gate suggested that we’d made our second attempt at stalling the reinforcements.  We’d have to back off soon – an explosion would delay them less than gas would.

“It’s a lie,” Lord Carling said.  In the doing, he sounded more like his old self.  He chuckled, raising a hand, and waggling a finger at me.  “They said you were devious, that you’d find weak points to capitalize on.”

I remained where I was, my hands bound behind my back.  I didn’t flinch, didn’t change my expression.

“It’s a lie,” Lord Carling said.  He turned to Lady Gloria.  “Yes?  I’m not some-”

“Sick child,” I said.  “Orphan.  Street beggar-”

“Stop,” he said.  He was stern, finger held out.

“-or a jail birth.”

He reached for his axe, and Lady Gloria stopped him.  His face was suddenly etched with anger.  “Why are you stopping me?  Why aren’t you with me in this?  Why aren’t you speaking out?”

Lady Gloria didn’t answer.

“Lady Gloria,” he said.  “Daughter of Alex Kinloss.  I order you to answer him, firmly and clearly, and dismiss his lies for what they are.”

Somehow, the words lacked authority.

Lady Gloria seemed to think the same, because she didn’t answer immediately.  She didn’t turn my way.  Instead, when she did speak, it was to him, and her voice was gentle.  “I’ve seen things that made me wonder.  I believe-”

“Enough.  Or I’ll cut you down where you stand,” he said.  Tension strained his voice.

The smoke and gas had cleared enough that I could see the other two nobles in the back.  I could see Lillian, a ways off to the side, a rifle in her hands, aimed but not fired.  I saw Duncan’s dogs gathered, alongside three of the baboon-wolf warbeasts, all poised and ready for the excuse.

I suspected he could deal with them, and the rifles besides.  It would buy me time to run, however.  I’d have to move fast.

He jerked, as if he’d come after me.  Lady Gloria stopped him.

“Let’s leave it at this,” she said, barely audible.

“Now that I’ve told you-” I started.

“Sylvester,” Lady Gloria said.  “Let’s leave it at this.”

“It’s important.  If you speak a word of this to the wrong person-”

“I know.  I can work it out.  I’ll tell him and make sure the others know.  We’ll move carefully.”

I nodded.

She started to lead Lord Carling off, and then stopped.

“Should I send some people to you?  You can outline your terms for our surrender.”

“That would be appreciated,” I said.  “Ensure Professor Ibbot is with them, please.”

I saw Jessie move, hand shifting to a different position on her rifle, fingers taking a different configuration.

“Amend that.  We’ll let you know who we want.”

“I’ll go to the others and see if I can’t prepare them,” Lady Gloria said.

“Mrs. Darby is already there.  Talk to her for a start.”

“I’ll do that,” Lady Gloria said.

“You’re talking about surrender,” Lord Carling said to her, barely audible.  He spoke as if gently reminding her of a simple truth.  “We don’t lose.”

“The Academy doesn’t lose, Lord Carling,” Jessie said, adding her voice to the conversation.  “But this Academy has been ours since well before you arrived.”

For a moment, he looked as if he was going to lash out, drawing that weapon after all.  The moment passed, and he turned away.

With more Academies, States, and Crown to follow, I thought.

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30 thoughts on “Root and Branch – 19.13

  1. I’m loving this chapter, and Sylvester’s endgame. One thing I’m not sure about, though. Sylvester only has a year or two left, before he goes completely bats**t, right? Same for the others, except for Lillian? So, what’s he going to do with the Crown States if/when he finally drives the Crown out? Does he plan for a legacy, like the orphanage in Corinth, or is he hoping for a way to get more time?
    I’m really just hoping for a happy ending for Sy, right now. I think they all deserve it.

    http://topwebfiction.com/vote.php?for=twig

    Vote if you think an ugly farce is worse than an ugly truth.

    • Vote for Twig, yes, then while you’re waiting for the next update, read the newly listed Mother of Learning. Unlike most new stories popping up on TWF, this one is actually fantastic, I’ve been following it for a year.

      I really can’t decide whether I think MoL or Twig deserve the #1 spot more. Twig is more professionally crafted and better written, but I feel a deeper emotional connection to Zorian & co than I do Sy & Lambs

    • Unfortunately, it seems that Sy’s time is measured in days or weeks rather than months. I’m not usually a pessimist, but this is Wildbow’s story we’re reading.

  2. Definitely wasn’t expecting that. There were lots of little things I liked… the sleeping Lambs, the bit about the Lambs adjusting to account for the Treasurer, and of course a bunch of moments during the conversations with Carling and Gloria. I’m really looking forward to seeing how they leverage their new resources; I suspect Sy wants Ibbot to fix Helen up, but Jessie interrupting there has me concerned that he might be dead or something.

  3. I was ready for the story finale, when all the Lambs stepped out to battle. Ready for a climax, one way or another.

    The ending was a good one, though I had thought Carling was bluffing, speaking to the front and differing to the back. I like his voice.

    I’m skeptical of Lady Gloria’s reasonableness and kindness. Differs from the impression she left Lillian with.

    Ho, typo thread.

    The chimp-pups were akin to homing pigeons in some regards, except home was out the charges and canisters we’d laid out well in advance.
    -nix the ‘out’

  4. Nice chapter- Surprised that not all the nobles knew all along.

    There was a few bits near the end when I lost track of who was speaking.
    More speech tags in 3 way conversation maybe??

  5. Love Jessie’s last line. And most of Sy’s dialogue. And the Grabbers- I’m interested in how they think, with no head. And eat, what senses they have- just touch, or can those tentacles taste, as well? If taste, can they smell, or detect light?-, whether Duncan’s improved them since he first bred them… Lots of minor questions that aren’t majorly important but are interesting.

    Also the fact the Nobles lost track of Lord Willoughby’s interesting. Wonder what happened to him. Besides the obvious ‘something he didn’t want to happen’.

    • Now that I think about it, I suspect he found himself in a sticky situation that starts with an ‘H’ and ends in a tight embrace.
      So much for not needing to win, but she probably needed that.

  6. Ahh, Sylvester using his best skill: Talking!

    Also, maybe typo?

    > “If you mean directly, then I could point out the Baron pointed out my eye.”
    Should it be “poked” out the eye? I guess pointed might be some kind of regional way to refer to it that I’m unfamiliar with, but it seems a bit redundant/awkward since the sentence already says “I could point out”.

  7. I really like Jessie’s line at the end. Really twisting the knife there in a very Lambs way to drive the point home.

    Also love the characterization of even the side characters like The Treasurer and Lady Gloria. I think it’s what I love best about these works. They characters feel real and oft so interesting. Not that the world buildings not great either, but the diverse and engaging cast really sell it.

    Sorry if I don’t post often, but I’m naturally the quiet sort, and the later schedule means I’m checking in in the middle of the day whilst often too busy to comment. Keep up the good work, Loved this arc, as with the others.

    ~Teian

    • I think part of that is Wildbow’s writing style. You can really tell he’s spent time writing in his worlds from several of the character’s perspectives. Worm was probably the biggest example of that, but we know for sure he’s written from Fray’s perspective as well as some interludes for the nobles and stuff. Really adds to character development, especially for someone like Fray, where he’s developed a personality for them “behind the scenes” that can show through in his writing. You don’t see many authors able to get inside all of their characters’ heads like that.

  8. Fascinating. After all we have seen, I had kind of assumed the nobles were being culled for those who are too kind. The idea being kindness is a pretty big weakness in a world like this.

    Just who is Lady Gloria that she could be so kind… and successful in this world? I am impressed.

    Though I hope it isnt that easy. I cant imagine all the nobles going along with it. Irregardless, well done and fascinating chapter. Its neat being able to finally hear and see some nobles reacting to the truth 💕

    • I thought Lord Carling would also be excellent – like the Duke, not exactly benevolent, but able to exchange banter with his enemy, dominate without violence when adequate, and crush his opponents if needed. Maybe a bit too fragile on the ego side to reach that level…
      Lady Gloria was exactly that, though. She feels like a great person who’s also in a powerful position letting her push her agenda. Lillian would have probably done the best a noble-sponsored coat could under her wing.

      She could be a great ally to the Lambs and Hackthorn as a whole.

  9. I like Lord Carling and Lady Gloria. They’re not complete monsters at least.

    The Lambs are in a position of dominance at this point, I’m worried things might fall apart but I can believe that the plan could go through. That they can take the Crown States. Very exciting.

  10. Really enjoyed Lady Gloria in this chapter. Liked her indignation at being considered the “bad guy” and how she didn’t get angry at being told to find a spiky warbeast. Builds her as a reasonable character. It’s interesting to compare this portrayal of her versus Lillian’s impression at the time of her ceremony: is it simply because the tables have turned, or because Gloria perhaps is pretending to be benevolent? I want to hope, but I’m not fully able to. Hooray for WildeBeest!

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