He’d wanted to run the Academy for so long, now. He’d ascended to the rank of second in command, and now he was to burn it all down.
Men, women, and children gathered around the water’s edge. The canal served as a moat to separate Chedglow Academy from the supporting city. Boats lined the canal, each with ramps extending down. Teams of vat-grown labored to load luggage, crates, and cases onto the individual ships.
The people on the far shore were clearly restless. There was an excitement that would be fitting for people at the street’s edge during a parade or mass hanging, but there were less smiles than a parade would have, and less fervor than an execution might stir up. The sentiment was there, but they didn’t dare to reveal it to those around them. The little he could make out of expressions -of brow and the play of light and shadow on each face- indicated solemn and blank expressions.
“Are the three widows still around?” Hector asked the room, without looking.
His assistant replied, “They are. I believe they’re hosting guests and reassuring the, ah…”
“No, Professor. The gentler sorts among the upper class.”
The interim headmaster nodded. The soft. The idealists.
The doctors and students alike were packing up. Some students had gone ahead or traveled to meet family that would give them more comfortable accommodations aboard nicer ships. Others had already been sequestered away with special projects, to keep them out of the way until they could be informed of what was underway.
The people standing on that far shore were very much like the students who had been gathered together under the guise of learning manners and decorum. Of the five hundred students at Chedglow, eighty-five had been from poorer families, ones without backers, patrons, or standing sufficient to earn them a way over the King’s Ocean. Rather than catching up to their peers, as they hoped to do, they would be left behind. There was a dim possibility that they would be killed outright, to minimize complications once all people of good standing had fled for safer territories.
The people realized something was wrong. The key would be to reassure them, to tell them that war was underway. There would need to be an illusion, somehow, that there was still a governing body above them, and that keen minds remained in Chedglow. The widows would have an idea of what to say.
But things were moving neatly.
He swept his black lab coat around him as he turned his back to the window and the people he could see from it. His assistants hurried to gather papers and notes, slotting each into folders, collecting folders into stacks, and follow behind him. Others stayed behind, closing the office.
The libraries and records would be set to burn. Everything worth preserving had to be preserved now.
There were guards in the hallway. Each wore red in varying shades, and each was immaculately groomed. For most, the skin growth had been artificially stalled. Fuller pins with loads of succinylcholine were slotted into the edges of faces and running down their necks – small, subtle needles set in place much like pins might be used by a tailor. Some had three radiating from the corner of their jaw, others had them as ear ornaments, and one had such a pin through the base of their noses. They might have looked like native savages if their clothes and hair hadn’t been done up to crisp perfection.
With a single hand motion, he bid the full arrangement of Tender Mercies to follow him.
“You’ll have the run of the place in a matter of hours,” he said, to the nearest one.
“Yes, Professor Hector.”
“What are your thoughts on that, hm? You were made for a world of desolation and plague. That world dawns soon.”
“Not so soon, Professor. It may be days or weeks before either black wood or plague find their way to Chedglow,” the Mercy said.
“All the same. There’s no telling if the years and the desolation will wear on you, when the hunting is done,” Hector said. “We’ve tried to prime you for that kind of environment and mentality, but we could hardly test it, and minds are funny things, aren’t they?”
“I feel like the world is too bright, busy, and loud now. If the world is quiet and sick, it might be the kind of peace I’m meant to enjoy.”
There were murmurs of assent from other Mercies.
“The busyness might be that we’re trying to wrap up. Still, I hope you’re right. It’s certainly our intention that you’re comfortable as you lapse into your roles as custodians and hunters of our cats and cockroaches.”
“Yes, Professor. I’m eager. We’re still trying to figure out how we might organize ourselves. I’m caught, myself.”
“Two of my brothers are staking out the rural territories until those territories are no more. Hunting for strays in the woods, the fields, and the mountains. My other two siblings, my dear sister and eldest brother, they’re looking to remain here. They want to repurpose your quarters and those of the other well-to-do. I hope that’s not an issue.”
“Not at all. A strange feeling, really, but I’m strangely glad my apartments will be put to use. How are you caught, then?”
“We all have our, ah, proclivities.”
“We tried to nurture a variety of talents, so you might cover a number of bases.”
“Exactly. My brothers like the crossbow and impalements, respectively. My dear sister likes pretending to be human, luring prey close, and then using great whaling hooks she hides on her person, and my brother likes large swords an ordinary human couldn’t use. I like mechanisms, triggers.”
“Traps, Professor. Bear and fox traps, tripwires, small explosives, deadfalls…”
“How enterprising,” Hector said, amused.
“Yes, professor. I’d like to think so. But I’m still not very good, and I’m very much aware that as much as the cities suit me more and that I’m closer to my sister and elder brother, my weapon of choice would work far better in the wilderness. I’d be a contact between city and the rural reaches, but that’s a position in high demand.”
“I trust you won’t fight among one another.”
“No, Professor. Even when we have cause to disagree, we’re loyal in drawing the line and keeping to our purpose.”
“Good to hear,” Hector said. “Now, I do believe I hear voices.”
The Mercies took that as their cue to fall back a few steps, more a following than a group that was keeping him company. His assistants hurried forward, almost synchronized in how they each put stacks of folders under one arm and opened the way for him with their freed hands.
Aristocrat, Doctor, Specialist and Professor alike were gathered in front of the building. He looked for and found the three widows toward the center. They were dowagers of sixty to eighty years of age, but they had the kind of money that bought apparent youth; they looked half or less than half their age.
“We sent some students to find you in the labs, Hector,” one Doctor said. Arthur, one of Hector’s favorites. “We were concerned when you didn’t come.”
“I was in my office, not the labs. Has something happened?”
“Hackthorn was sieged. The Headmaster was there.”
“Ferres’ Academy? When, and how?”
“The information we have is spotty. Two birds reached Franklinton, and they dispatched copies of the messages to us. Not all of the message reached us intact.”
He was aware of the attention of everyone present as he approached the center of the throng. At a possible time of crisis, he was the one making the final decisions. He stood straighter, and felt his heart swell, even as all of the usual and proper emotions reached him. The loss of their own, even a radical like Ferres, it was a tragedy.
But there was more to it. Ferres had been throwing an event. Her supposed immortality.
He took the messages, shook them, and held them with both hands to straighten them out as they sought to return to the form they’d been folded in.
“A late arrival saw wrecks at the water… Academy superweapons deployed and attacking Hackthorn. A day and night passed before the message was sent, with only gunfire and explosions as signs of life from within. More message birds to follow, but the sending requires us to abandon our observation post.”
“Flight times for the message birds suggest-”
Hector interrupted. “Events should be a day delayed. The third message was sent later than the first?”
He read the second of the two notes. It was a third letter, the second lost in transit, the bird scooped up by a passing hawk or its message fallen from its leg. “All present are believed dead or captured, given the stillness and silence during the most recent hours of our observations. The Infante has been informed, and we should leave post-haste, with an emphasis on combat readiness to deal with the culprits. A massed attack against rebel parties. Convene in Franklinton.”
It had been nearly three weeks. Depending on weather and how travel had proceeded, Hector’s superior could have been under siege at Hackthorn for as much as two weeks, for as little as one.
It was firm, the wording was right, and-
He reached for his belt. Vials were lined up in a row there. He drew one out, uncorked it, and tipped it, to place a drop of bioluminescent trace on his fingertips. He rubbed fingertip against thumb, then swept his fingers over the lower third of the page.
On the second swipe, he saw the dark stain start to spread. The glow emerged shortly after. The sender had used the coded droplet of fluids. He wasn’t in his office with the necessary equipment to check the code against senders, which meant it wasn’t verification that the sender was who they said they were. Still, the sender was Franklinton, so that mattered very little. They would have done the verification that it was Ferres.
“War?” one of the widows asked. Mrs. Rue. Her husband had been military, once.
“Not a war. Ferres was having an event, and it worked neatly with the schedule for leaving the Crown States. Many were guests there. If they attacked Hackthorn when so many of ours were gathered there, and if we haven’t heard word since, it might well have been successful. It’s something other than war. The rebels have been quiet, and they might have been biding their time for this particular strike.”
“What do you need?” the widow asked.
What a question. The three widows weren’t in official positions of power. They didn’t have their thumbs on the local government, the economy, the military forces, or anything of the sort. But by dint of who their husbands had been, their social finesse and the passage of years, they had enmeshed themselves in everything, acting as intermediaries, the ones who knew everyone worth knowing, even outside of the city, and who somehow had half of the city’s bourgeois owing them favors, while they owed few in return.
In other circumstances, having one of them make such an open ended offer of help was the sort of thing that could have helped him a considerable ways on his dream of becoming a permanently interred headmaster, earned him a coveted bachelorette for a wife, or removed an enemy from his path. They were limited in what they could do with the Academy, specifically, but they could help, in a way that few outside of the Academy could. That was a powerful tool when his enemies were so often playing with the same tools he was. A card up his sleeve that they couldn’t account for or wholly counteract.
But there was no room for selfishness here. He spoke, “The people. We need them not to panic.”
“We’ve already been smoothing things over. Are you stirring the pot, Professor? Enough of a stir that we’ll need to smooth more?”
“We’ll need to gather our forces. It won’t be a subtle departure. Yes, absolutely, it will be a stir.”
“There’s a man in your service named Captain Carr. He’s well liked and trusted, and he hasn’t ever lied to the people of the town. He and his father were from here, his father an officer before him, and the family is known to attend town halls. They trust him. If we could borrow him…”
“You’d have him lie?”
“He won’t be here after today, Professor,” the widow Rue said. “What does it matter?”
“He should be keeping the peace as the ships are loaded up, at the canal’s edge.”
“He is. With your leave, Professor?”
“Please, and thank you, Mrs. Rue.”
The woman smiled and left.
He stood a little straighter. “Gather our forces. We’ll bring a share of the Mercies with us. If the trains keep running, we can send them back after. Halve drug rations for any warbeasts we’re tranquilizing, make sure we have ammunition as well as weapons.”
He was surprising himself, with the ease that he found the words and identified the priorities, and also the ease with which others listened to them. The entire Academy was soon moving on a new set of priorities.
Was it Mauer? Fray? There had been some activity from the Radham brats, and there were others popping up here and there, as refugees were driven toward population centers by plague and black wood. Worse, civilians were starting to realize that things were reaching an untenable point. They were starting to worry, which was bad, and they were starting to wonder, and that was the most problematic of all.
A full hour passed, his forces moving. He oversaw what he could, addressed the issues, and stopped to watch as Captain Carr talked to the people. Lying to them, for the first and last time.
His thoughts were constantly on the enemy. Whoever the opposition was, it required different kinds of thinking. Mauer was one to inflame the hearts of the people, and there were a great many people who might listen. Fray was the type to make grand plays. Burlap soldiers terrorized, the Lambs subverted, the Witches drew on a core of back-alley doctors and a willingness to die if it meant hurting the aristocracy.
He was midway through overseeing the removal of one set of supplies from a boat to make room for Mercies when the meal bell rang. It was normally meant to bring in all of the students and Doctors who might be managing the shipping of experiments and Academy goods to the rest of the Crown States, but the hour was wrong. Too early for dinner, too late for a midday meal.
He picked up the pace.
Whatever had happened to Hackthorn. Was it happening here?
He didn’t expect the sight that greeted him at the gates of Chedglow. Headmaster Ensbury. His predecessor and superior. The others stood nearby, looking uneasy. It was a circle of the most elite of Chedglow, from the widows to the aristocracy and Hector’s- Ensbury’s top faculty members.
“Did the siege break? You would have had to be right on the backs of those messenger birds,” Hector said.
“The siege didn’t break,” Headmaster Ensbury said.
“We sent everyone away, given Ensbury’s disposition,” the eldest of the three widows said. “If you’d like, we can leave as well.”
“Please stay,” Hector said. “I imagine it’s quite alright. Headmaster Ensbury, can you explain?”
“I’ve been drugged,” Ensbury said, his voice quiet. “Poisoned, if you want to use the crass terminology. I’m very much compromised. By speaking to you, I’m condemning myself, but you know I’m a patriot.”
Hector clenched his jaw. He nodded. He would have made Ensbury one of the enemies he had the widows help him remove, if they’d afforded him a chance, but that didn’t mean he demonized the man. Ensbury had his merits, and patriotism was very much one of those. He was a man of the Academy and the Crown, through and through.
“Who?” Hector asked.
“The Lambs. Noble, Doctor, Professor, aristocrat, student. They’ve seized us, one and all. Now they’re using us. Half of the cities and Academies that haven’t been claimed by the wasting of the Crown States are being targeted today, Hector.”
For all his assurance earlier, Hector found himself at a loss for words.
He found himself echoing the widow, and in the moment, he wondered if she’d experienced what he was experiencing now, only to hide it under a facade. He asked, “What do you need?”
“Take me prisoner. When I start to expire, I’ll start exhaling poisonous gas, and it will kill the people around me on its way to killing me, account for that when you lock me away.”
“We can take the precautions,” Hector said.
“You’ll need to act against them. Once today is over with, the Lambs will move on targets of a secondary priority. That will occur before the week is over. I talked to others, while we were discussing the surrender, and they’ve agreed that they will give their lives to spread the word. A third of the key locations being targeted today will still be the Crown’s. We’ll fight back.”
“How?” one of the military men asked. “This is… well beyond the pale.”
“Take me to my cell. There’s so much to cover, and I don’t have much time. You’ll need to arrange a bird too. I’m to write them to let them know if I’ve succeeded. The counter-agent will come with one of their subordinates if I do, and more of their forces will come if I’ve failed.”
“That gives us options,” Hector said.
“It does,” Ensbury said. “I might have to defer to you on that, Headmaster.”
“Too soon for that,” he said.
“Write me off, Hector. It’ll be easier for all of us if you do.”
The eldest of the widows even looked a touch teary-eyed at that.
“No tears,” Ensbury said. “We coordinate, understand? We get one shot at this. The Crown States may be in more danger than it’s ever been.”
Hector glanced away, his heart pounding. He saw students and Doctors gathered a distance away, far enough away to be well beyond earshot, but they were lingering, trying to read the situation. He motioned for them to go, and they started walking.
“The quarantine cells?” he asked.
“It makes the most sense,” Ensbury said. “Did you pack up the remainder of my belongings?”
“We did. But it should be accessible. I had the boxes arranged so they would be the first off the boat, so you wouldn’t have to wait to furnish your new home.”
“You’re a good man, Hector. Ambitious, but not in a way I dislike. You’ll do me proud.”
“I’ll try,” Hector said.
“Would you have some students bring me the boxes with my drinks and my photos? We’ll need to discuss, but I’m in possession of some fine scotches I’ve been saving for the future, and I’ll damned well indulge in them before I die.”
Hector nodded. He looked at one of his doctors, motioning one hand.
Ensbury hadn’t made mention of the photos, but asking would be crass.
It was so easy, in the midst of the games, the struggles, the political plays, and the efforts to outdo his superior, to simply forget that Ensbury was a man. He had a history, a family, lost loves and loves he’d found.
They started the walk toward the labs.
Ensbury asked, “Any word on the other rebels?”
Hector spoke, “Mauer was mobilizing, but not in our direction.”
“The others? There were some calling themselves the Four Nails?”
“Gone. Broken in two, one of the two groups became the Burlap soldiers, just in the past week. Inconsequential in large part, but any rebel group is most dangerous when it’s newly forged, its spirit not yet broken.”
Ensbury nodded. His expression was grave.
“This is manageable. The Infante-”
“Isn’t coming. The letters were faked.”
“Faked?” Hector asked. “That’s madness.”
“It’s how they operate,” Ensbury said. The closer they drew to the quarantine area, the darker his expression became. “It makes no sense and appears reckless from a distance, but there’s a logic behind it we cannot grasp. Yet. When we know, it will be too late. It’s how it was at Hackthorn.”
They entered the building. The widows looked a little alarmed at how stark and heavy-handed the measures were in the building. Vat-grown guards were posted throughout- Ensbury had never liked the stitched, and Hector himself had to admit he was glad for their absence. The vat-grown weren’t perfect, but they at least didn’t smell like old death, preservation chemicals and ozone.
“You make it sound hopeless,” Hector said.
“It isn’t. But we’ll have to be careful,” Ensbury said. “Lords, I could do with that drink. This is how my legacy ends, is it?”
“We can preserve your legacy, spread the story of what you helped us do,” one widow said.
“Hmm,” Ensbury grunted. “Forgive me. It rings hollow.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“Was it that they wanted us to think the Infante was going to reach out and guide us as the chaos unfolded, to leave us reeling when he didn’t?” Hector asked.
“I don’t know,” Ensbury said.
The closer they’d drawn to the sealed cell, the more Ensbury had drawn into himself. Hector had taken it to be a resignation to his fate, but-
He reached out, seizing Ensbury’s shoulder. He spun the man around, thrusting him against the wall.
He saw the terrible sadness in his old superior’s eyes.
“No,” Hector said. “What is this?”
“I’m so sorry,” Ensbury said.
The questions and the reactions of the others in their group were drowned out as cell doors opened down the length of the hall.
We’ve already been infiltrated.
For infiltration at this level, Ensbury would have had to cooperate. To share the layout of the building, the security measures. He would have had to urge the vat-grown to allow enemies through without issue.
All of this would have had to be done before the letter even arrived.
“Don’t touch those guns,” a voice said.
The owner of the voice stepped into view. His hair and eyes were wild, in a way that reminded Hector of when he’d seen the homeless urchins who’d been up for sale on his visits to the auction blocks in New Amsterdam, Crown London, and Elbitz. The ones who hadn’t been socialized enough by humans, or who’d been socialized once and then seen that learning stripped away by dark experience. The lad wore fine clothes, a vest over a buttoned shirt, slacks, and boots. He was no older than eighteen, to look at him, but his green eyes looked far older.
“I think it might be better to do as Ensbury should have done,” Hector said. “And given my life out of patriotism.”
“Maybe if it were life that was on the table. But it’s not, Hector,” the lad said. “You should know as well as anyone that the Academy can inflict far worse punishments.”
“Oh lords,” one of the widows whispered. Hector reached out to put a hand on her shoulder.
“You are not the Academy,” Hector said.
“You might be confused. It was certainly the plan. The letter, the crisis, all intended to get the wheels in your head spinning in one direction. I’ll explain. Chedglow is ours, Professor. Like Hackthorn is. Like Peachtree and Atlantica. Like the city of Wetwood and the town of Tyessex.”
Hector felt his entire perception of the world shift as the names were rattled off, as if he’d missed a stair on his way down, and now teetered on a brink. Too many. He found his bearings at the same time he gathered his courage. His hand went to his gun. If he removed one of them-
Pain lanced through his hand and fingers as they tried to close on the grip of his weapon, then redoubled as whatever adder or scorpion had stung him repeated its assault. Blood wept from his fingers as he pulled them away, trying to see what it was that had struck him. A solid, deep impact to the back of his knee knocked his leg out from under him, and his initial effort to bend his knee and go with the impact only brought him pain. He teetered and ended up falling sideways into one of the widows, his leg going straight to avoid repeating that pain.
A knife. One had slashed at his fingers even though nobody stood near him. Another had appeared in the back of one of his knees, going deep.
He cried out in pain.
“You’ve bought yourself an ugly fate, Professor Hector,” a girl said, from behind him. “I wouldn’t try anything else, or you might buy something equally grim for these people you have with you.”
He stole glances at the widows, at the Doctors who had served him so well, the Professors who no doubt hoped they would run an Academy one day. Ones very much like he had been not very long ago at all.
He looked at Ensbury, who stood with downcast eyes, looking like a man who’d died inside.
“Now,” the boy with the dark hair spoke. “My name is Sylvester. And I’m going to explain how things are going to work now…”
“…The letter? You’re going to play along. As far as we’re concerned, the warning is real.”
“Play along?” Sir Warthon asked. He stood a little straighter. “Listen here-”
“You’re going to play along, professor,” Helen said, very gently. “Your family will be in our custody, and we’re going to take measures with you, specifically.”
“You’ll muster an army. You’ll gather your forces, and you’ll lead them. You have doctors in your employ. You’ll put them to work. Your little fort town may end up a point other armies have to fall back to. We’ll need to be ready for them.”
“You’re mad,” he said.
“I don’t get mad,” Helen said, smiling.
“You have to know you’re calling the King’s attention down on you.”
“If we happen to upset him, you’ll be caught in the devastation that follows,” Helen said. “Something worse than black wood and red plague. I really do think you should cooperate.”
Warthon clenched his fists.
“Let’s outline the particulars first, sir, and then you can decide how much you want to object, and I’ll answer your objections.”
“Not with words, I imagine,” Warthon said.
Helen tittered, her eyes alight with fey mischief. “I do hope you object. If you do, will it be an objection to-”
“-calling a state of emergency,” Duncan said.
“I don’t have the authority,” the debutante said. “It’s not my city, it’s my father’s, and he’s away.”
“You can call the state of emergency. You saw what unfolded when the local government reacted to the letters. Without your father here, with communication between cities being so spotty, they’re adrift in a storm. You’ll take authority.”
“We’ll help you,” Ashton said. He sat beside the young lady. She wore an ankle-length dress, who had a wisp-light scarf around her neck, while her hair was so short and so oiled down it looked sculpted to her head. As casual as the scene and her posture might have been, something in her eyes betrayed a trace of the alarm she should have been feeling in the moment. Ashton added, “We’ll tell you what to do.”
She nodded, even as the vague impression of alarm grew more poignant. Slowly, it eased away, but then the alarm became apparent in how her hands moved. Ashton reached up and took one of her hands, holding it.
“You’ll coordinate with the others. Your father’s company supplies raw chemicals to Academies. You’ll propose joining the effort at Franklinton.
“You’ll want to do that,” Ashton said.
“We’re not soldiers.”
“But you can supply a war effort. There’ll be debate and discussion on what to do. When and if you have a voice, you’re going to spread information for us.”
“Just one clue,” Ashton said. He stroked her hand. “You’ll give them one clue, won’t that be easy?”
She nodded, numb. Her feelings were all over the place, she’d never experienced a crisis like this before, and she couldn’t gather her thoughts enough to know how she should act. It was always her father who’d made the hard decisions.
It was so much easier to sit, to listen, and hear Ashton’s soft, pleasant voice telling her what to do. It made the anxieties slip away, gave her assurance.
“One clue,” she said.
“It will have to do with the movements of rebels, and the odd patterns of birds,” Duncan said. “That will-”
“-be your cue,” Lillian said.
Emily and the two aristocrats Lainie and Chance were Lillian’s support as she faced the rest of the room. She had lieutenants, but it was so hard to shake the notion that the rebel soldiers were Sy’s. Something being Sy’s was always a cause for a sort of anxiety. Emmett was with her too, but Emmett had his hands full with Gustav, a local aristocrat who’d augmented himself.
Her soldiers encircled her, standing on the ground while she stood on a table. Their guns were raised, while the ten guests at the evening dinner were sitting stock still, frightened for their lives. Plates still steamed in front of them. The dishes had been lightly poisoned, enough to take the fight out of them.
Lillian found some comfort in that touchstone, that it reminded her of meeting Mary, of the bad seeds poisoning the cafeteria. There was too much to do, so she hadn’t had any Lambs come with her. Ashton had needed a babysitter and was most familiar with Duncan. Sylvester had needed someone to watch him and Mary was most able. Helen was content to operate alone.
It was nice that Mary was with her on some level, even if it was a reminder of a poisoning half a decade ago.
“You’ll provide the second clue, and others will connect the dots. The movements of rebels tie to a series of events in nearby towns. You’ll name the Lambs, and you’ll name the towns, and I’ll provide the particular details shortly, but the key element is that Radham comes up,” she said.
“Radham,” Davis said. “And all you have to do, Professor, is speak out on just how much trouble has come out of Radham. The Lambs, Mauer, and Fray. You’ll be sure to mention that last name.”
“Fray?” the Professor asked. He eyed the young rebels who stood in his bedroom.
“You just mention that name,” the Treasurer said.
“I don’t suppose I have much of a choice, do I?” the Professor asked.
“If you think you have any choice at all,” Bea said. “You’re gravely mistaken.”
Red paced at the back of the room, watching, her trusty hatchet in hand. She gave it a lazy swing through the air, as if to demonstrate what the Professor might be in for.
Sylvester closed his eyes. The wind was strong, and it seemed like no matter where he went, the air smelled like charcoal ash or death. Plague and blight.
Pierre approached him, coming to stand beside him.
“Define ‘good’,” Pierre said.
“The others are alright, I hope?”
“Messages from the others indicate they’re on track. Duncan’s group was slowed by an incidence of plague in their ranks.”
“You don’t seem alarmed in a way that suggests they’re dead and gone.”
“They say they’ll heal, but it will mean recovery time, and it will slow them down.”
“We’ll make do, I suppose,” Sylvester said.
“And the ones who didn’t want to participate in the battle are on their way to Sternwick.”
“We’ve talked about this. West Corinth had to evacuate. The orphanage has expanded beyond its considerable frame, we control a share of that city, with accommodations for everyone that’s presently headed there. They should be reasonably safe and out of the way there.”
Sylvester nodded, taking that in. He vaguely recalled something along those lines.
“Our contacts are saying there’s a hint of movement from others,” Pierre said.
“A hint, you say?” Sylvester asked. “It wouldn’t be Mauer. Fray?”
“Genevieve Fray’s colleague Warren Howell and her stitched Wendy were spotted in the company of a creature that matches Dog’s description.”
Sylvester smiled. “Too big to stick to the shadows very well, it seems. She had to have caught wind of what we’re doing. She’ll know her name came up.”
“The reports came late. Communication is hard, when even the phones and wires are affected by the black wood, and the waypoints beset by plague. But, difficulties aside, the forces you’ve recruited are making their way here. All seems to be reasonably on track.”
Sylvester stood on the balcony. The sun was setting, and the sky was on fire. Franklinton carried on its business, unawares of the role it would soon play as a staging ground. On the horizon, a city sprawled. Plumes of smoke rose from buildings and cast out a gentle spiral of clouds that each rained endlessly on the city below.
“Good news, then, Duncan’s group excepted.”
“Not all so good. The upper nobility might have a sense of what’s going on.”
Sylvester nodded slowly. “Did the Infante leave?”
“We don’t know.”
“Communications, again?” Sylvester asked.
“It seems so.”
“Well, that might be more problematic. Thank you for all of this, Pierre.”
“You’re welcome, Sylvester. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
“So do I. So do I,” Sylvester said. He didn’t admit to such doubts with many people.
He leaned against the railing. He watched the city, as people started to retire for the night, packing up shops, loading up carts and carriages, and taking to the streets. A group of children ran along the street with an Academy-created doll, flesh bound in a case like porcelain and fancy clothing. It had an ungainly, floppy run that made it look as if it might collapse and smash itself to pieces at any step. The girls took hold of its arms to support it and bring it along.
He looked away from that and looked at the sky. It was turning from orange to red.
“Jessie,” Sylvester said.
He heard footsteps behind him.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Pierre gave him a sidelong glance. He ignored it.
He ignored the three young women who were in the room that backed the balcony. Shirley sat with Mary and Helen.
His focus was on Lillian’s muscle-suit, which empowered a stitched with the frame to comfortably and perpetually carry a reclining young lady. Jessie was propped up, half-sitting, while the ten foot tall figure held her in its arms.
“Look, see? Radham,” Sylvester said, his voice soft.
He brushed his fingers through her hair, watching her more than he watched anything else.
She slept on. An endless dream, sorting through memories.
He hoped he’d given her enough good ones.
“We’re back,” he said.