Root and Branch – 19.15

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Multiple guns cocked, the sound stirring me out of the deep well of darkness and poisonous thoughts.

You’re going to need to open your eyes now, the voice said.  It wasn’t the Infante’s voice anymore.

I kept my eyes closed.

“Please put the guns down,” I heard Lillian.  Then, more insistently, “Please.”

“You shouldn’t go near him, Doctor.  Not when he’s like this.”

“It’s okay,” Lillian said.  I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or the others.  “It’s okay.”

I waited, tense.  I felt like I needed to vomit, and the smell of blood was rich in the air.

“Can you look up at me?  Is this Sy I’m looking at right now?”

I nodded, then realized I’d meant to answer the second question.  Maybe the fact that I hadn’t looked up at her made it the right answer by process of elimination.

It didn’t make much sense, but very little made sense anyway.

“Open your eyes, Sy.  Look at me,” she said.

I didn’t want to.

Open your eyes, the voice said.

I opened my eyes.  Twelve students with guns were gathered in the sitting room.  Fray stood in the background, her arms around Ashton.  Gordon was close by, half-turned away, with Hubris next to him.  Jamie was there too, in a chair by a bookshelf, his arms around a book so large it hid him from belly to the tip of his nose.

He was so small.  He was so thoughtful, so funny when he stepped out of his usual space, and that was something mostly reserved for me.

I knew part of the reason he hid was that I couldn’t remember him, and there wouldn’t be anything to see if the book was moved.  It was the same for Gordon.  They were too far behind us.  Too many months and years separated him and where he was from where we were now.

Lillian was just a few feet away from me.  I was avoiding looking at her, postponing reality.

Look at her, the voice instructed.

I looked at her, then looked away just as fast.

“What happened?” Lillian asked.  Her voice caught midway between ‘happened’.

Answer her.

“Jessie-” I started.  My voice caught.  I raised my hand to my throat, saw it drenched in blood, and dropped it away and out of sight, as surely as if I’d just raised a blazing torch to my face.

“Sy,” she said, and it sounded like she might burst into tears, just by the way she’d said it.  “You said that if you were with one of us that you’d be okay.”

“Jessie fell asleep,” I said.  My voice was hollow.  “Then I wasn’t with any of the Lambs.”

Lillian looked so damn sad, as she took that in.  I couldn’t meet her eyes.  I didn’t want to look at any of the rebel soldiers with guns, either.  My eyes kept moving from face to face in the crowd of figures that occupied the sitting room.  The Snake Charmer and Percy were watching intently.

I was cold.  It was summer and I was cold.  I wasn’t wearing a shirt, I realized.  I glanced around to see if I couldn’t spot it.  I saw Jessie lying very still in the armchair.  I saw streaks of blood on her and the chair and averted my gaze.

“Sy,” Lillian said, her voice very quiet.

I could tell from her tone.  Whatever she was going to say, it was going to be a hard one.  The silence had a heaviness to it.

“Should I give the order for them to shoot you?”

Alright then.  Not the hardest question she could have asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Maybe.”

“Did-” she started.  She stopped, clenching her jaw very intensely for a second, almost as if she was trying not to vomit.  She turned her head and used the heel of her hand to wipe at one eye.

“I don’t know,” I answered her, pre-emptively.

“You don’t know if you killed Jessie?”

I opened my mouth and closed it.

That would be one of the hard ones.

“Was it- maybe it wasn’t you?” she asked, as if begging an answer.  “Can we at least say that you weren’t yourself, that it was a quirk in your head, another personality?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, and I hated myself for not telling her what she wanted to hear.  At least I’d given her an answer that wasn’t ‘I don’t know’.  “I don’t think that distinction really exists.”

Soldiers with guns shifted their feet uncomfortably.  They weren’t pointing the guns directly at me, but they were close.  When I met the eyes of one fellow, he looked away.

When I let my eye roam, trying to go anywhere that wasn’t where I was standing, just a few feet from Jessie, I saw just how many Nobles were present in the room.  They moved, pacing, and as they did so, the others moved out of their way.  In this place, in this visual representation of where my thoughts dwelt, the Nobles held sway.

Lillian blinked hard, then blinked a few times in quick succession.  She looked skyward, and the tears started.

I wanted to tell her not to do that, but how could I?

“For all that you guys tried to teach me a good poker face, huh?” she asked, her voice too high, as if it was on a precipice.

“Yeah,” I managed.

“What I keep going back to is-” she stopped abruptly, blinking more.  “I know it’s stupid, but it’s just about the only thing I can cling to right now.  The Lambs accept each other’s foibles, big and small.  There’s a part of me that wants to do that.  Sylvester is what he is.  From the earliest days, when you convinced me that certain rude words were normal conversation among adults and I used them in class, or when you put that egg in my mouth while I was sleeping, or when you looked up my skirt or relentlessly made fun of me, well beyond the point it was funny and when it made me want to quit… not just the Lambs but the Academy altogether, give up on my dream because you were that vicious?”

“Lillian,” I  said.  I didn’t really have a follow up.

“You were a horrible little shit sometimes, Sy.  And this- this is… whatever this is, seeing you like this, deranged at one moment and lost the next, covered in blood?  It’s-”

She stopped.

“Bad,” I said, swallowing.

“But I knew that Wyvern hurt you.  I knew you came from a bad place if you’d go from that to the Academy labs.  I knew- not at the very beginning, but I figured it out quick, that Wyvern was going to do your head in.”

I nodded.

“So what I’m clinging to is this silly, little-girl idea that this is normal.  Of motherfucking course you’re standing there like that and I’m standing here with a bunch of soldiers with guns.  Of course when the others leave you alone to talk to Mauer and to get me, we all come to reunite with you and find you’re lost to the world, so nonfunctional your organs are suffering for it, and you’ve turned an entire Academy upside-down.  Of course, Doctor Lillian.  Business as usual.

Her voice was getting even higher at the end there.

“And that part of me really doesn’t want to blame you.  It was what was done to you.  It really, really, really-”  She stopped there, raising her hands up, as if to put a wall between us, or to ward me off from speaking, and pushing her in any way.

I was silent.

“-really,” she continued, once she had her composure.  “I want to be able to tell myself that I’m a proper Lamb, and I can forgive the experiment parts of you, because that’s how we operate.”

“It doesn’t make you any less of a Lamb if you aren’t okay with this,” I said.

“Don’t tell me that,” she said.  “Because it’s all I have, Sy.  Jessie is- was- Jessie’s one of my favorite people I never got to know enough.  It sounds so dumb, but I was really looking forward to reading books with her.”

“She said she was losing her memories,” I said.  “A lot of them.”

“She told me.  We didn’t want to tell you because you were fragile,” Lillian said.

I clenched my fists.  My hand hurt, a lot.

I wasn’t clenching them because I was angry or anything like it.  I needed to remind myself I was present.

“That makes some sense, then,” she said.  “It makes this scene make more sense.  Thank you.”

I couldn’t bring myself to respond.

“Can I check on her?” Lillian asked.  “Or should I wait?  The others were signaled.  They’ll be on their way.”

“You can check on her,” I said.

“No abrupt movements, Sy.  And don’t go anywhere, okay?  Let’s be mindful of the soldiers you recruited who have guns.  Let’s respect their feelings on this too.”

“Don’t go anywhere?  I-”

I turned to check.

The shackle on my arm was gone.  The hand at the end of that arm-

Skin had torn wholesale.  From the midpoint on the back of my hand and palm to the second knuckle, I’d managed to strip off the flesh, so it bundled around the ends of my finger.  It was still bleeding profusely, enough that I’d not been able to see where the torn skin had gathered in the initial glance.

“Get me my medical kit,” Lillian said.  “Hurry!”

I could look more freely without having to look at Jessie, because Lillian’s body blocked my view.  I looked to the ground.

The chain that led to my ankle was bundled up.  My shirt was bound around it, with the leg of a tea table thrust through the cloth.  It was soaked with blood and something else, and it had been twisted up and around several times.

It was a trick that served to bend steel bars and, in the right circumstances, to apply force to something like a human head or chain, when cloth would otherwise tear and wood wouldn’t have the leverage.  Twist up the cloth, soak it, bind it around, and then use the stick to twist it up further, until the cloth crushed that which was between it.  Bars would bend to be closer to one another, a skull would crack, and chain links could theoretically bend or break.

The chain that was attached to my ankle was in bad enough shape that I could have broken it.  I could break it even now, with enough of a kick of my leg.

I’d almost been free, before they’d come in with the guns, before Lillian had arrived.

I’d almost… what?

A soldier had brought Lillian’s bag.  She was digging through it.

That she was doing something, doing anything at all, it should have filled me with hope.  It didn’t.

I couldn’t communicate it to Lillian.  I couldn’t articulate that, and if I could’ve, I wouldn’t have wanted to say it and make Lillian’s heart hurt the way mine did.

“Lillian.”

It was Mary.

Lillian stopped what she was doing.  Simply the arrival of Mary was enough to draw out more tears on her part.  Mary flew to her side.

“I can’t stay for long,” Mary said.

“I can’t make the call myself, Mary,” Lillian whispered.

Mary looked my way.

“Jessie’s alive?” Mary asked.

I saw Lillian nod.

“Then why?” Mary asked.  One of her arms encircled Lillian, hugging her.

“Because Sylvester was talking before… before he came to.  Because-”

“I could have,” I said.  “I would have, if…”

I trailed off.

“Yeah,” Lillian said.  “That.”

For all of her hardness before, Mary’s look now was pure sympathy.

I’d seen that eerie sympathy when she’d stroked my hair, before.  The tenderness that Mary didn’t offer up very often at all.  It was what Lillian had been talking about.  She was able to accept and look past the parts of me that were experiment, and be kind to the other side, and it was so clear a divide in her that it had seemed entirely out of place.

“I need to go.  I can’t leave the others, but someone had to come, and I thought that if it really was an emergency, I’d have to be the one to fight off whoever or whatever it was.  But it’s a thing there too.  We got intercepted on our way here.”

“Take me with you,” I said.

I saw the looks on both of their faces.

“Take me with you,” I said, again.  “Whatever say I have, whatever weight my word still carries, whatever favors I can still rightfully call in, you need to take me there.  It’s important.”

“Why?” Mary asked.

“Because.  Because I can’t do anything else.  I can’t stay here and look at this and I can’t be there if and when Jessie wakes up.  I need to keep moving.  If I stop moving forward I won’t be able to start again.  This, this whole plan, it’s me, and I need to see it through.”

“It might be better,” Lillian said.

“Do we have shackles?” Mary asked.  “Cuffs, anyone?”

“Not here, but I can go,” one soldier said.

“No time,” I said.  “If something untoward happens, Mary can kill me.  She wins in a fight.”

“I’m not worried about a fight,” Mary said.  “I’m worried about circumstances where I don’t even get a chance to fight back.  You tend to create those.”

“I think-” I said.

Tell her you’ll be good, the voice said.  Convince her.

“I think I’ll be okay.  I think I know where all of this is going.  The rules this operates by.  I’m okay if I have Lambs close.  It didn’t work here because Jessie wasn’t there with me.  I can do this.  And it doesn’t make it easier or right, but I can’t spend the rest of the time I’ve got hobbled.  I need to act decisively, while I’ve got a chance.”

Mary glanced at Lillian.

“Do it,” Lillian said.

“You think?” Mary asked.

“If we don’t have Sylvester and we don’t have Jessie, then we might not be able to see this through,” Lillian said.  Her voice was pitched to a volume meant for Mary and I alone, or just for Mary, with me overhearing by accident.  “And if we can’t trust Sylvester, if he’s this far gone in the here and now, then we definitely can’t see it through.”

Mary stood.  Wavy brown hair, ribbons, and a dress with tasteful amounts of lace all remained aloft for a fraction longer than it took her to move.  Many of those same things settled with a weight that only a trained eye might have caught.

“Are your pockets empty?” Mary asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

She stood, approaching me.  With deft movements of her hands, she frisked me.

“You’ll need a shirt,” she said.  She turned to one of the rebel soldiers nearby.  “You.  Give us your shirt.”

The hesitation was clear.

Now.  Everything we’ve been doing for the last few weeks and months hinges on this.”

He pulled off his shirt.  It was a button-up shirt, and he had an undershirt on underneath, even though it was summer.

She handed it to me, and then bent down to address the chain at my ankle.  I started pulling on the shirt, working gingerly with my damaged hand.

The moment my shackle was off, she gripped the upper arm I’d already set into the sleeve, and steered me in a hurried march, out of the room and toward the exit that would lead onto the walltop.

I did what I could to get buttoned up.  I might’ve been taking too long, because with scarcely a glance, Mary reached over with one hand and began doing up others.

“Jessie’s gone, or she’s going,” I said, quiet.

“I know.”

“Helen’s…”

“Yes.  I have my difficulties, but it’s a few months to a year off.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I just wanted to know where we stood.”

She tore at some of the lace that encircled her waist.  Seizing my wrist, she began moving the loose skin back into place.  Her grip was stern as I reflexively jerked and pulled.

The Baron stood in the stairwell, watching us as we made our way down to the door.

“I’d normally use Wyvern to convince my body to stay still,” I said.  “I think it has its hands full.”

“I know,” Mary said.  “It’s fine.”

There were guards at the door.  They gave us some wary looks, but at Mary’s gesture, they unblocked the door and hauled it open.

“Keep your hands in your pockets unless you absolutely have to move them, and if you do, try to signal me and keep them in view,” Mary said.  “The pressure from the edge of the pocket will help, but you need more attention to that hand than I can give you here.”

“It’s fine,” I said.

It took some doing to get my damaged hand wedged into a pocket.  I worried the blood would seep out and run down my pant leg, but it was dark, still.

The others had gathered at one end of the bridge.  Some of our lieutenants were with them.  Davis, Mabel, Junior.

Of the assembled group on the other side, just a few paces from the Lambs, I could recognize Professor Ibbot, Professor Gossamer, the noble Lady Gloria, and the aristocrat, Mrs. Deb?  Darby.  Mrs. Darby.  I couldn’t remember the name of the well-spoken man who’d been at the same meeting Mrs. Darby had.  There were another six who hung back a bit, less familiar to and with us.

“Everything okay?” Duncan asked.

“We’ll manage,” Mary said.  “I don’t think we need to do further introductions, do we?  You’re all aware of who Sylvester Lambsbridge is.  I’m Mary Cobourn the Second.”

“Is that an attempt at humor?” Ibbot asked.

“I hope it is,” Helen said.  “With the state of things, we need more reasons to laugh.  You’ve done a poor enough job that a great many people have reason to cry.”

“Watch your tone, Helen,” Ibbot said.  “A proper lady should be deferential.”

Helen laughed at that.  Outright disrespect.  I could see how it prickled Ibbot.

It prickled me too, in a different way.  I heard the laugh and I knew that Helen was far from being in a good place, too.  Having Ibbot near just brought it into focus.  A stressor of its own right.

“We saw the flashes of light,” Mrs. Darby said.  “Your pattern to date suggests that you often flicker the lights on and off to communicate just before you attack.  We thought we would get ahead of that and open dialogue.”

They will submit, the voice said.

“Kneel,” I said.

I saw the shock hit them.

“That’s not-”

Kneel,” I said, louder, firmer.  I let some of the emotion and raw energy from earlier into my voice, the anger at everything and at myself.  I turned it against the people who were supposed to be responsible for everything.  Who were symbolically responsible for me being what I was.

“We should go,” Professor Gossamer said.

“If you leave,” I said, “We will blow up that bridge with you on it.”

I could see the alarm on Duncan’s face.  Ashton frowned slightly.

Mary, at least, seemed to be neutral to this, or she was sufficiently good at appearing neutral.

Helen looked intrigued, for her part, but Helen was a difficult read in the here and now.

“You’d lose any and all chance you had of getting the others to listen or cooperate,” Professor Gossamer said.

“Probably.  I’d give them their chance to kneel, and if they didn’t listen, I’d wipe them out too,” I said.  I was very aware of how many nobles were arranged around us.  Mine, not theirs.  “Your time is up, the sands have all found their way to the bottom of this hourglass.  The point’s been made.  You know and we know how this ends.  No more pretending, no more niceties.”

“Niceties are important,” Lady Gloria said.  “You can achieve our cooperation without humiliating us.  Trying to humiliate us will only make us balk.  We may well die before we kneel to someone who isn’t our Lord King.”

“Then you might as well die,” I said.  “Because if you want to see this as humiliation, you’d face a lot more of it.  We had our turn as the bottom rung, doing the Academy’s bidding.  Now it’s the same, but the positions reversed.  You’ll be our slaves in all but name.  You will bow, you’ll scrape, and you’ll choose the right words.  How fast you bow and scrape will determine if we treat you with something resembling kindness, as we’ve treated the experiments we took into the dormitory over there, or if we treat you as things to be used and discarded.”

“That’s it, then?” Mrs. Darby asked.  “I’ve already given you my personal concession, I’ve told the others I’m already willing to surrender.  I don’t know how much my circumstances will change, and I’m scared at the ideas of what might happen, but you’ll hold us hostage here?  You’re making me reconsider my decision.”

“You can kneel, knowing just how many of them are watching this through the window, you can come with us, you can try to walk away, and we’ll take the bridge out from under your feet, or you can be taken prisoner.  You don’t want to be taken prisoner.”

“We’d be agreeing to be prisoners in the long term,” Lady Gloria said.  “I know where I stand in relation to you.  I know it’s not as wide a gap as some would like to pretend.”

I shook my head, slow.

“Yet I must insist that you could make this easier,” she said.

“That decision is entirely in your hands,” I said.  “It rests on how quickly you admit your decision in totality.”

Her face was hard as she stared me down.  I didn’t flinch.

Time was not a currency I was willing to spend any more of.  No.  We held power, and I had every intention of using that power to hoard that very currency.  I would give everything for more of it.  I would tread over any number of corpses until I could get more of it.  I would take it by any means.

Mrs. Darby shifted her footing.  Multiple eyes turned to her as she reached out for the railing to the bridge she stood on, and started to work her way to her knees.

Ibbot seized her arm, stopping her.

Her eyes on the ground, Mrs. Darby said, “I would have it be known I’m bending the knee, or I would if I wasn’t being manhandled by a notorious boor.”

“He’s pressing the issue because he’s in crisis,” Ibbot said.  “The Lambs have expiration dates.  Someone’s run short.  Jamie, was it?  Or have Lillian’s dalliances in study drugs caught up with her?”

“You don’t know anything,” Mary said.

“No,” I said.  “He’s right.  It’s a big part of why time’s up.  There’s so very little left to lose, now.  You can be sure I’m putting a high price on that little.  You do not want to pay for it in blood.  You do not want to see me get creative.”

“As you did with Ferres?” Professor Gossamer asked.

“Compared to where I am now, I was in a good mood when I addressed Ferres,” I said.  “And I didnt have the benefit of the other Lambs to focus me.  I can promise you, they’ll all have something to contribute, if it comes down to it.”

Mrs. Darby yanked her arm from Ibbot’s grip.  She dropped to her knee, head low.

“Thank you, Mrs. Darby,” Duncan said.

“I’m a pragmatist.  I’m going to believe my being first to bend the knee counts for something.  Please don’t dissuade me from that belief.”

“It does count for something,” Duncan said.  He glanced at me, and I nodded.

Others started to kneel.  Low-level aristocrats that had attended that trailed the group.

They were most used to bending the knee, perhaps.  They had the least to lose.

“I’d like assurances of food, proper accommodations,” Gloria said.

“This isn’t a negotiation, Gloria,” I said.  “That boat sailed so long ago it’s already reached the other side of the King’s Ocean.  When you bend the knee, it’s an acknowledgement that you are wholly and totally at our mercy.  You are wholly and collectively fucked.  You’ve wholly and collectively fucked the population, the landscape, the governing, the economy, the past, present, and future, and the time has come for it all to catch up with you.  If servitude is all you face, then that is a ludicrous kindness.”

“I’m not even ‘Lady Gloria’ anymore, then.  Two of my three Professors are sick with dehydration and hunger.  Their care of me has floundered,” she said.  “Being atop that building over there for a day and night hasn’t helped matters.”

“That was the intent,” Mary said.  “We might not be able to defeat Nobles, but we can drive home just how dependent you are on them.

“One among many of a series of realities I’ve suspected but never had to face,” Gloria said.  She paused, and then swept into a curtsy that became a kneeling position.  I wondered if it was a motion practiced and reserved solely for the likes of the King or perhaps the Infante.

With her submission, others followed suit.  Professor Gossamer, Doctors, and some holdouts among aristocrats.

Ibbot was a holdout.

“I will not bow to a life I brought into this world.”

Helen picked her way through the assembled group.  She found her way to him.

He held himself high, chin raised, refusing to even back away.

She reached over to brush a hand down one side of his face.  She was taller than him, helped mostly by the fact that he wasn’t tall for a man.  It had been some time since I’d seen them together, and somehow I was left with the impression she hadn’t stood nearly so tall in past cases.  Diminished by association with him.

“Miserable, miserable man,” she said.  “I’d pity you, but it’s not something I’m very good at doing.  I’d hate you, but I can’t, as much as you deserve it.”

“This is where you break me, then?” he asked.

“If I took hold of you to break you, I’d kill you,” she said.  “A bit of a snag in the way you put me together.”

“You’re that far gone, then,” he said.

“I’m that far gone,” she said.  She stepped closer to him.  Her hand ran along the top of his head, to the back of his neck.  “I have to wonder.  You made me, clearly with intentions that everyone suspected and nobody of note spoke aloud.  You didn’t care that they laughed at you behind your back.”

“They respect me,” Ibbot said.  “And I won’t betray that respect by kneeling here.  I’d sooner have my own experiment crush me.  There’s something to be said for closing that circle.”

“They respect your work,” she said.  She moved closer to him.  Her hand traced up his body.  When she spoke, it was into his ear.  “They have zero respect for you.  Everybody weighs the odds, is he so maladept and socially incompetent that he doesn’t realize what it looks like?  Or is he one of the disgusting sorts that seizes the reins of life itself, forging thinking, breathing existence from next to nothing, only so he can stick his cock in it?”

She breathed those last words.

“Have the Lambs warped you so much, that you’re this ruined?” he asked.

“Have they indeed?” Helen asked.  She giggled.  “No, Professor.  Without them, there wouldn’t be anything of worth in me.”

She seized his ear, twisting it.  His knees buckled, and he gripped the railing of the bridge to keep from falling to the ground, from kneeling even accidentally.

But that wasn’t her intent.  She twisted his head by twisting his ear, and she made him turn a quarter-circle.

“Show them, Professor.  Show them the sum total of what you are.”

He scowled, struggling more.  But he knew as well as anyone, very literally, just how futile that really was.

“How did Jessie put it, Sylvester?  We talked about it when discussing my brother.”

I winced at the mention of Jessie.  I felt a pang.

Still, my eye dropped to the lower half of Ibbot.

“The sleeping dragon,” I said.  “Except we’re not talking sleeping dragons in this case.”

Ibbot’s face was visibly red, even in the gloom.  With the angle of his body in regard to the main building, all of the faces in the window could no doubt see, as they watched Noble, Doctor, Professor and aristocrat kneel, while Ibbot… stood up.

“So easy,” Helen said.  “So easy to show them how small a man you really are.”

“Not that small,” Ashton said.

“Shhh,” Duncan said.  “Metaphor.”

“Oh.”

Ibbot picked up his struggle.  In the midst of it, I couldn’t tell if it was because he was struggling so hard or if it was Helen’s strength, but he pulled away from his creation, and he left his ear behind, firmly in her grip.  He snarled and gasped as he dropped to the ground.

He was on all fours, but he was on his knees too.

“Don’t kid yourself, Professor,” I said.  “Nobody thought you were the last holdout, nobody believed you were the strongest here.”

“They’d be embarrassed to think you were,” Mary said.

“Go back.  Talk to the others.  Make the stakes clear.  We’ll be approaching you with your assignments shortly.  Trust me when I say that you really, really want to have everyone on the same page by the time we get to you, and I’m talking an hour or two at most, understand?”

“There’ll be holdouts,” Gloria said.

“Address them,” I said, my voice hard.  “Consider that your first collective assignment.  Go.”

They rose to their feet.  I could see the unhappy looks on many faces, at taking these orders, at this circumstance.  They walked back over the bridge.

They’d tell themselves that it was only a matter of time, that the Infante would find out or they’d have a chance to get a message out.  That we were expiring.  There would be heated debate, but they’d concede.  They were too hungry and tired to do otherwise.

As the group departed, they left Ibbot behind.  Only a few disgusted looks were cast back his way.  He still huddled on the ground, head buried in arms, back arched, knees tucked under him, like a turtle drawn into his shell.  One of his hands struggled to stem the tide of blood from his ear.

My hand hurt in much the same measure.  The limited bandage wouldn’t be enough.

I wished my hand wasn’t as hurt as it was.  It would have been nice to have an excuse to postpone things.

“Come along, Professor,” Duncan said.  “You might as well come with us, as you’re not going back to them.”

“Pheromones,” Ibbot said.  “She was near the boy.  She drew them into her lungs, she breathed them on me.”

“You took drugs to ward off Ashton,” Duncan said.  “But if that’s the story you want to tell us, you can do that.  If you really believe it’s true, you can go back to them and tell them.  They’ll take any excuse to believe it, I think.”

Mary gestured at me.  Her eye dropped to my hand.

“Or you can stay here and bleed,” I said.  “Lambs, lieutenants, we’re going back.”

We started walking.  Behind us, without looking at anyone, and without even an armed escort, Ibbot picked himself up.  He trudged behind, head hanging.

“How bad was it?” I heard Duncan ask Mary.  “When you went to check on Sy, Jessie, and Lillian?”

“Far from good.  As to how bad, we’re going to have to see.”

A weight seemed to settle over the Lambs as we made our way back.

Lillian sat on one arm of the chair.  Jessie sat in the chair, bundled up in a blanket.  Much of the blood had been cleaned up.  Jessie was awake.

She smiled when she saw me.

I approached her, and I kissed her on the forehead.

“I appreciate you not killing me,” she said.

That doesn’t make this easier, I thought.

“You’ll want to look at Sy’s hand, Lillian,” Mary said.

“How are things?” Jessie asked.  “Is it resolved?”

“Something essential just broke in them.  The underpinnings that let them hold onto their pride.  The rest will crumble,” I said.

“Then there’s a chance I’ll get to see the conclusion,” Jessie said.  “Or the start of it.”

“No,” I said.

Lillian, already taking my hand to examine it and peel away bandage, stopped, tense.

“Sy,” Jessie said.  “This is not the time for you to get nutty on us.”

“We should put you to sleep, Jessie.”

She swallowed.  I saw a look of fear sweep over her expression before she pushed it away.  She reached up for my hand and took it.  “No, Sy.”

“We have a wealth of resources at our disposal,” I said.  “We’ll soon make our play to have the Crown States under our thumb.  But with the people we’ve brought here, we can start on the first leg of it.  Ibbot will work on Helen again, but as an exclusive project, with a dozen keen eyes and minds looking over his every last piece of work, to look for traps.   He will keep Helen from expiring, on pain of death.”

Eyes moved to Ibbot, who hung back at the rear of the group.  He scowled, but he didn’t have it in him to reply.

A good thing too, or I might’ve hurt him.

“We have Professors and Doctors to take over Mary’s project.  Minds that would have otherwise been turned to prolonging life are going to turn to prolonging yours, improving your quality of life.”

“Sy, we talked about this, but it wasn’t a primary focus-”

“It’s absolutely my primary focus now,” I said, tense.  “I will not, under any circumstance, see another Lamb die.  I will not lose another one of you.  The rule of longevity isn’t that you have to unlock a hundred extra years of life.  You unlock five, or ten, or twenty, and that buys you time to find another five, ten, or twenty.  They will find answers.”

“They’ll find some, but they’ll have failures.  There will be five or twenty year droughts,” Duncan said.  “Droughts that are long enough.”

“Then we put more on it,” I said.  “But I’m not taking no for an answer here.  Every single one of us, even the New Lambs, are getting focused, expert attention.  Entire Academies worth of people, if need be.  We’ll take control, we’ll have the power, and we’ll do all the things we said we would, we’ll-”

No, the voice said.

I changed the conclusion of my statement, “We’ll do this first.  Everything else follows from it.”

“This is the forward movement you were talking about?” Lillian asked.

“Absolutely.”

“So long as we do this, you think you’ll be able to cooperate and stay on track?”

You will not tell her about the compromise.

“As long as this is the route?  I’ll see things, I’ll have odd moments, but… I’ll manage.”

“And what if I don’t agree?” Jessie asked.

I met her eyes.

I was pretty sure I’d never seen her angrier.

“Tough.”

“It’s my choice,” she said.  “And I decided a long time ago that if we’re going to lose our minds, if we’re going to slip away, then it’d be on our terms.  I’d do it with you, I’d enjoy the moments, I’d make the most of the time we had, and we’d accomplish what we could before passing the reins for others or the others to see it through to the conclusion.  We agreed.  That was the deal we had.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You asshole,” she said, “You don’t get to change the terms of the deal.”

“Jessie does get a say,” Duncan said.

“I get the say!  It’s my brain!” Jessie said.  “And it’s crumbling and I can tell I’m losing memories by the hour, and it’s picking up speed, but I have a few days, maybe a couple of weeks.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I got the sense of that from our last conversation.”

“I’ve put up with so much shit from so many people.  I’ve worked hard to get us here.  Not just the plan, but you and me, with the people around us, with the Lambs here.  I’ve made compromises and sacrifices.  So I get this.  Even if it’s hard!”

“You should,” I said.

“If you put me to sleep to slow the damage until you find some answer, you do know what happens, don’t you?” she asked.

“I know.  Believe me.”

“I go to sleep, and it takes time to fix.  Time the rest of you don’t have.  Look at how far you’ve slipped in the last month, Sy.  If it takes another year?  If Mary and Helen continue down the roads they’re on?”

“We’ll stall, we’ll put things in motion,” I said.  “Just like I talked about.”

“That’s no guarantee.  You’re asking me to go to sleep, possibly for years, with no guarantee anybody but Duncan or Lillian is there when and if I wake up.  If I wake up.  If you don’t find an answer-”

“We’ll find something,” I said.

Jessie pushed the tea table I’d already damaged by tearing the leg off.  She rose out of her seat.  “I’m deciding I stay.  I’d sooner live out my last days with you than go to sleep, miss out, and live a longer life.  This was the damn deal!”

I’d already told Mary and Lillian the reality.

Jessie was so indignant.  It was rare.  She was usually so calm.  The rock to my storm.

She wanted this as badly as I did.

“You can’t,” I said.  “Because we don’t get that.  You and I can’t spend our last few days alone together.  I need a Lamb close by, or I’ll lose my mind.”

“I’ll be beside you,” she said.

“You’ll fall asleep.  You’ll drift off, because you sleep sixteen to twenty hours a day to stay at your best, and you won’t be beside me anymore,” I said.  “Because if you’re asleep, you’re not next to me.  You’re as good as gone.”

“That’s not-” she started.  “No.”

“Just a short step away from convincing myself you’re never waking up, the darkest parts of me saying it’s better to kill you than to see the look in your eyes when you’re completely gone.  Anything else, any compromise we might try to make, it’s going to feel hollow, reminding us of the issue, and I don’t want our last days to be a compromise.  Not like that.”

She shook her head.

“You’ll go to sleep, we’ll give you the drugs to keep you under.  We’ll be there when you wake up.”

She started to shake her head.

Then I saw her expression change.  Before anyone saw, I wrapped her in a hug.  She buried her face in my shoulder, hugging me tight.  I felt the borrowed shirt become damp, and I looked at each of the other Lambs, who would soon say their goodbyes.

It was some time before she nodded her head against my shoulder.

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42 thoughts on “Root and Branch – 19.15

  1. So what was that compromise that the Infante is talking about? Simply Sylvester agreeing to give them whatever they want? It didn’t read as a “compromise” where Sy got something in return at the end of the last chapter.

    • I think it represents the melding between Sy and the Infante, where Sy no longer sees him but he is now a voice in his head of absolute authority. Notice how Sy immediately changed to do whatever the voice said?

      • On a related note, Sy mentioned the voice isn’t the Infante. I think “Infante” is controlling the thoughts, but it’s in Sylvester’s own voice.

        • I noticed that, that’s why I said they merged. Although I’m not sure it’s his own voice unless he doesn’t recognize his own voice in his head anymore. That would be……troubling.

      • True, but I’m still not getting what Sy gets out of the deal/compromise. Not killing Jessie doesn’t seem to work – since that was what the voice was telling him to do. Does it just mean not going insane for another few days/hours?

        • At a guess, the compromise is that Sy does everything he can to help the Lambs and see things through with their grand plan, but he won’t be able to come out the other side of things.

          Up until the last chapter Sy had been doing his best to fight off the phantoms, ignore their wants or at least do the minimum to keep them from taking over, and keep going with their plans. Plans that always included owning enough doctor’s and professor’s to get the Lambs taken care of. Now, that same thing is true except that Sy doesn’t get included. He is making the ultimate trade, his life for all of the other Lambs’. It isn’t ideal and things like the last scene with Jessie are really suck, but the alternative was to have her dead at his hands in the present, instead of possibly living without him in the future.

          • I actually don’t think thats *bad* enough. Sy has been willing to trade his life away for the lives of other Lambs since day one; it’s not an action his mental representation of inescapable cruelty would need to coerce him into a synthesis to take.

            The Syfante’s goals are unknown; He was trying to kill Jessie before he was stopped, and now he’s removed her from the picture in an eminently deniable way.

            I parsed his speech to Jessie, the:
            “Just a short step away from convincing myself you’re never waking up, the darkest parts of me saying it’s better to kill you than to see the look in your eyes when you’re completely gone”,
            as providing a tidy explanation for the other Lambs about why Sy is tempted to murder.

            In conclusion, instead of the berserker “knife your own soldiers” Enemy!Sy, I believe we now have a more sophisticated saboteur, who has convinced the rest of the Lambs that he’s safe so long as he’s with one of them, and he totally doesn’t need to be chained up, guys.

  2. Poor Jessie. I hope the Lambs (besides Sy because let’s be honest, that ship has long sailed) make it to the end of the story.

  3. Wow, the Nobles are apparently on an even tighter leash than I thought, yet are still too arrogant to have noticed. It’s been, what, a couple days, and Lady Gloria is apparently already suffering from a lack of upkeep.

    • I mean, we always knew they required regular maintenance from their personal doctors, but I’d figured they could go a month or so at least without too much trouble and they just always had the doctors around so they could schedule it whenever they had the time and not worry about a sudden interruption. Instead it sounds like they’re biological hanger queens, needing considerable maintenance for every day of activity.

      I suppose that is the price they pay for being better than mass-produced warbeasts, but it also means they’re completely dependent on the Academy’s loyalty in an even more immediate since than I’d realized. And that’s probably a big part of why they’re surrendering; so far the Lambs haven’t actually hurt them in any serious way despite everything that’s been thrown at them, but if their upgrades are starting to fail already, pretty soon they might be easy prey for scratch-built warbeasts.

      • I think the nobles, Gloria in particular, would be doing a lot better if they hadn’t been injured and barely receiving enough to eat and drink.

    • She was also injured and had to spend quite some time fighting. It is likely that normal, peace time upkeep isn’t quite that stringent but that Nobles have only limited recovery capabilities since a lot of their stuff is artificial and they’re unlikely to go without maintenance for long.

  4. Goddamn it. I’m relieved that Wildbow didn’t kill Jessie, but now, I think Sylvester’s connections to the lambs are the same as if he actually did kill her. I was hoping they’d have a somewhat-normal chapter where they could catch up and slow down. I really, really don’t want Sy to go stark raving mad.

    • Hah, you thought we would reach the end of a Wildbow story without the protagonist going stark raving mad? You sweet sweet child.

      Honestly though, I would like there to be some solution for Sy’s upkeep as well as everyone else’s. Maybe Fray knows something about dealing with Wyvern problems? It would certainly be worth looking into.

  5. Under ideal circumstances, such as being in their comfortable mansions and palaces and able to gorge themselves on the finest food the Academies can grow, the nobles could probably last without their doctors for a longer period. I think it’s the combination of doctors being out of commission and siege conditions that is taking a toll. After all, a baseline human in good health and living a healthy lifestyle can go years without needing medical attention and still be in dire straits if forced to spend a few days in unsanitary conditions with insufficient food and water and no decent place to sleep.

    Then again, Gloria could also be lower grade work for a noble, especially since the Enfant has presumably already evacuated most, if not all, of the nobles deemed worth saving from the Crown States before the western hemisphere is entirely left to plague and black wood.

  6. Really not digging Sy’s new motivations… I wonder if the deal he made was to spare the Lambs, while he rebuilds the empire of tyranny and misery that the nobles created. I’m finally starting to see the shape of the endgame, and hoo boy it’s a doozy.

      • Yeah you are absolutely right, I thought something similar as soon as I posted this. Until now, though, I didn’t really see ANY endgame forming. If we’re really really lucky, maybe Fray will show up at the opportune moment. Barring that… I don’t see how it gets any BETTER for Sylvester than the endgame that is currently foreshadowed. But that’s why I’m not Wildbow.

  7. I swear I typed up a comment predicting this but didn’t submit it.

    This is the compromise: Sy’s defying the Lambs’ expiration dates, and without the expiration dates, there’s no difference between the Nobles and the experiments. They are becoming like their enemies– and that’s why Sy fought the Infante in his mind for so long.
    The Infante represented a future where Sy does anything necessary to keep the Lambs alive, even at the expense of his conscience, his morality, and his identity as a downtrodden, oppressed experiment. By crossing that threshold, Sy goes from tragic-hero/underdog/revolutionary to tyrant/establishment/The Man.
    Sy’s crusade began with the idea that the existing social order was corrupt and needed to be upended. Sy’s loss to the Infante represents the end of that crusade, and the beginning of Sy’s career as the most powerful member of a new social order, potentially every bit as cruel and unfair as the old one.

    • The Crown King could very well have started out with the same intentions as Sy. Using science to keep his friends and family alive and well. The Academy stays in power no matter who owns the crown.

      The nobles are really just new “Lambs” that have been made. Remember that Sy and the others only didn’t become nobles by luck or just missing the cutoff point. Sy making the nobles kneel may have been necessary, but it really does seem like the path has changed.

    • I think you may have found the deeper theme here, yes, in the Infante representing the idea of the choices Sy hates, the choices of the nobility, because they were the choices that made the Lambs who they are.. experiments whose results were used to enhance nobles, which they could have been but for a different dice roll.

  8. Story long since ceased to have much impact on me because I’ve long since lost any sympathy for the principal narrator. Even before the appearance of the phantoms and the onset of slow, Wyvern-fueled disintegration, I realised that Sy was a shit. Not a Glorious Bastard and a delight to read, not any longer — just a shit of a human being.

    Yes, Sy’s suffered horrors no-one should have to face, and yes, it’s utterly and completely unfair… but others have suffered similarly and not become shits. But Sy has, or he always was, and I don’t *care* about him.

    Vicious shit Sy — I can’t feel anything for his story anymore now but impatience and a vague curiosity as to how it all comes out, and… and arent we done yet?

  9. Is it crazy that this chapter is making me feel hopeful?

    Actually, you know what, I don’t care. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that teams of hostage doctors might be able to prolong their suffering / save them / make them immortal, and now that that’s been pointed out I’m going to cling to it.

  10. So I just binged my way from start to here… and I don’t even know what to do anymore. Goddamnit Sy, you little shit.

    • That happened to me 8 or so uploads back. Can we please just go back to the Lambs hunting down rogue doctors and Sy teasing Lil all time time?

  11. Wow. I feel emotionally drained.

    I didnt dare consider what he actually did, or who’s blood was all over him. Im glad he didnt hurt jessie, but it looks like he did serious damage to his mind. I imagine this whole scene involving jessie was very hard to write.

    Its nice to see the outline of his plan though. To create trojan ships filled with infiltrators to take the fight to the crown itself. This is such an intriguing world you have created. Boundless possibilities filled with endless horrors… and just enough love to make it real.

    I hope you have a wonderful week.

  12. I can’t help but think of this potential regime change in terms of class warfare. Yeah, you’re basically trading one ruling class of experimental superhuman types for another… but I do feel like Sy has done a lot to empower the pseudo-middle class. The Beattle rebels and presumably others like them, that grind out hard work and are exploited emotionally and for their labor will be able to enjoy more freedoms and power, which to me seems just and righteous… Also, lets not forget that the Infante and other rulers have basically committed mass genocide with the black wood and how they’ve handled the plague. Sy and the lambs have done nothing to indicate at all that they are genoicidal maniacs. Yeah, the lambs can be brutally focused on revenge, but they are not down with the wholesale slaughter of giant swathes of humanity.

  13. 2nd reading.

    >”I don’t think that distinction really exists.”
    As tragic as it is, I feel like acknowledging this is a big step forward for Sylvester. The phantoms are Sy, but not really Sy, but also are manifestations of the TRUE Sy, and the only way he can really be honest with himself. I’m enjoying the layers in his personality.

    >her voice too high, as if it was on a precipice.
    Nice wordplay. I missed it my first time through (too emotional to notice things).

    >”if we can’t trust Sylvester, if he’s this far gone in the here and now”
    He is that far gone! You can’t!

    >She paused, and then swept into a curtsy that became a kneeling position. I wondered if it was a motion practiced and reserved solely for the likes of the King or perhaps the Infante.
    I REALLY like this detail. It gave me a very real sense of the power trip that Sy is enjoying right now.

    >”There’s something to be said for closing that circle.”
    I guess now we know who Helen picked up that turn of phrase from.

    >”Not that small,” Ashton said.
    As usual, Ashton has the best punchlines.

    I said this in the IRC, but I’ll say it again here for posterity. I’m really glad we got this moment of vulnerability from Jessie. I was having difficulty relating to her before, and that would have been a terrible way to leave her if she had died.

    Overall an excellent chapter, very, captivating, probably one of the best in Twig.

  14. My mind. So much has happened, so much possibilities.

    The Syfante Agreement could go….really bad. His new world order might not look all that different from the Crown when all is said and done. Which Id find intriguing. As long as the other Lambs live, they can regulate Sy, but still. Bad Omens.

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