The deal had been struck. The alternative had been erasure of all Sylvester had been. All but the shell, the flesh, and even that would have taken its beatings.
The Lambs had to live, because they were integral, but we had to be prepared to eliminate them if they truly stood in the way. One Lamb’s death was worth the life of two others, if it came down to it. We’d striven to keep things from coming down to it.
The enemies had to die. Fray, Hayle, the Infante. When all we’d had was uncertainty, the people who fostered that uncertainty and carried their own visions for the future were too dangerous. They pressured us from all sides and created too small a space for us to exist within.
We’d had to compromise, to be willing to kill mice and damage relationships. We’d known we would have to play party to some of the same evils we had once condemned.
We’d had to be prepared, even, to do worse than the Crown and Academy were prepared to. The arms race wasn’t a war of better technology and science so much as it was a war of freer and looser ethics.
We’d had to embrace monsters we resisted, to accept their direction.
We’d had to do as we were told, unflinching, when it truly came down to it, and we’d had to avoid looking too hard at what that voice sounded like, where it came from. We had abandoned the allusions between certain characters in our past and the roles they had in our minds.
We’d had to surrender to the notion of being crafted to be Noble at the very beginning, and becoming Noble as a means to ends.
While Sylvester had slept and dreamed his feverish dreams, his thoughts scattered so far that they seemed unrecoverable, the Lambs had administered the Wyvern’s poison. Sylvester had rebuilt his brain without thinking, and his unconscious had come across the closest thing he could have to a solution. He had fabricated a way of concentrating this sentiment, all of the individual terms of the deal, and pit it against himself.
He had known, we had known, that to go against this fabrication was to risk erasure and oblivion.
We stood at a hole in the wall. Floor to ceiling, nothing remained of this one part of the tower. The remainder of the room was a medical office, a doctor’s quarters for quiet study, when the broader lab space elsewhere on the floor wasn’t suitable. The rain hit the side of the tower and ran down it, and it poured across the opening as a sheet.
Outside the office, further down the hall, some of the others were discussing what to do. One of Radham’s specialist doctors was providing information on the bowels, how accessible they were. The others, including Mary and several Beattle lieutenants were discussing the possibility of holding prisoners there en masse. Fray would be one of them.
Beyond the front of the tower, stitched were arriving from various points in the Academy grounds. Clad in raincoats with heavy hoods or helmets with sufficient breadth to keep their heads dry, they moved in single file, arms loaded down with weapons. Those weapons were then deposited at the foot of Hayle’s tower.
Squadrons were being disarmed, armories emptied.
Elsewhere, we could see lanterns of the people overseeing the stitched soldiers that were carrying away the dead or cleaning up the Hag Nerve.
Sylvester had recruited armies, gathered soldiers, and extorted others into playing along.
We, however, had relatively few allies in this. Even the Lambs… that would be a transition. We would have to be patient, and we would have to wait for a time when everyone was transitioning into their new roles. Then, hopefully, they could acclimatize, they would wear their new skin, bear their new statures, and they would see the changed Sylvester.
Until then, indeed, few allies.
A small handful of those allies approached us, entering the office. Red. Goldie. Paul. Sonny.
“You really did it,” Red said.
“You sound different,” Paul said. He’d been Poll Parrot, once. Now he was Paul. He’d wanted to be a soldier, and he’d been given what he wanted. The deep scars of plague removal scarred one side of him, and his hand was a mismatch, a graft marred further by the way the plague had crawled across it. It didn’t seem as though it had much strength to it.
“Not so surprising, that. I am different.”
“You’ve been changing since we met you,” Red said.
We nodded at that.
“Wild, uncontrolled, scary, even to us.”
“That won’t entirely go away. I won’t be controlled. I’ll probably scare most rational people.”
“I can live with scary,” Red said. “You’ve all done what nobody else could do.”
“You won,” Goldie said.
“No. Not a win. A controlled mutual loss. Sylvester is gone, sacrificed. So are several of the Lambs. We traded one of ours for one of theirs, several times. We’ll do it again if we have to. Then, with the groundwork we laid, we get to our feet faster than the enemies we fight.”
“Is it over?” Paul asked.
“No. There are major cities to take. There’s an incredible amount of work to be done. In a way, this is just the beginning.”
“The war is done, at least?”
“This one. There will be more. But yes, this is over in the sense that the rebellions are toothless, there aren’t any major figures remaining in the Crown States who are prepared to contest our control.”
Paul nodded. He looked harrowed, angry.
“Do we have a problem?”
“We did, before,” Paul said. “Now, I’m just trying to process this. I didn’t think we’d get here.”
“Things will get easier because we have armies that can wear Crown uniforms and we have the ability to lie. We know most of their secrets, we have access to their projects, and we have access to their students and doctors. Once things settle, we’ll have the people.”
“You think so?” Paul asked. “You really think you have the people?”
“We can. We had some of the best teachers.”
“Some of the worst, by my impression,” Paul said.
“Things will settle. We’ve had food and water tainted with Fray’s chemicals for sterilization and leashing, we’ve had disease ravage us like no other, we’ve faced death, and we’ve faced down war. Rain fell from the sky, melting flesh and creating pools of blood. Mucus-laden superweapons have formed out of the same water. Swarms of parasites have ravaged this city and others. So many warbeasts have been deployed that we won’t bring all of them back. We’ve seen countless poisons and diseases, fire, storms, refugees sweeping through areas and leaving nothing edible behind. We’ve seen smoke and clouds of insects blacking out the sun. Families of all classes have lost their sons and daughters. You three were among those lost. To somebody.”
“We don’t know for sure,” Goldie said.
“We’ll find out.”
“I don’t know if that’s possible,” Red said.
We acknowledged that with a nod.
“Too many families have lost people. We lost Gordon and Jessie, we might yet lose Helen. People are tired, Paul, Red, Goldie. For all that the arrogant people at the top have butted heads, people are tired. They’re ready to hear whatever we have to say, if it means that all of this stops.”
“You really believe that,” Red.
“I believe in a lot of things now.”
She nodded slowly. Her dark eyes turned to look out over the same city I’d been looking at.
“Among them, I believe all things are possible.”
“‘All’ includes an awful lot of bad things,” Red said.
Goldie frowned at that. Paul, for his part, seemed to consider it before nodding his agreement.
“It includes things like a Crown States where no child is subjected to experiments without their permission, and they would be treated gently and with respect thereafter, retaining their memories.”
“I expected you to say you wouldn’t allow experimentation on children,” Red said.
We were silent.
“It costs us too much, doesn’t it? It’s too important, when you’re thinking about a war in-”
“Five years, twenty, a hundred. Inevitably.”
Red pursed her lips. An expression of disgust scrunched a sculpted nose. She hung her head, and her mouth was close to the scarf she’d wrapped around her face at one point, then allowed to fall around her neck. She hadn’t picked red because of its connotations, but blood had splattered much of it at one point. Hers or someone else’s. It was more of a dark brown-red now.
“We can’t lose that war, or things will go back to the way they were,” she finally said.
“If you think that, then you might be on the same page as me.”
“That’s a scary thought,” Red said.
“An appropriate one. I think I want a retinue.”
“Consider it. The road the Lambs take now is one that gives us some incredible freedoms, but at the cost of others. We’re in need of capable protectors, ones that inspire something beyond simple fear, and that extend our reach.”
“You’d have us?” Paul asked.
“I would. It would mean status, power, things I think you wanted when you wanted to fight, Paul. What Red wanted when she took up her axe and danced with her Wolf. I think it gives you freedom like you wanted when you and your peers had your carnival, Goldie.”
“I remember Bo Peep was frightened by that,” Goldie said.
“I remember that too. I think she’s found her own happiness. There’s little need to worry.”
“The problem wasn’t with her,” Goldie said. “It was where we stood, how we acted. We were so angry and bitter.”
We thought back, imagining the scene. We remembered being drunk on girls and on madness, delirious, disconnected.
“Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I’m mistaken to ask. Joining the retinue could mean going to the table, to be fixed, improved. I know many of you don’t want to do that.”
“I don’t,” Red said. “And I’m worried about your reasoning.”
“The Nobles as they were existed as something too disparate. We need to tie ourselves together. We need to maintain a connection to our roots, those who helped us get here. I want to find excuses to make all of those connections into something long-term, transform them.”
“You could have the other Lambs.” Goldie suggested.
“We will. But that connection can’t be the entirety of it. It’s too insular. That road leads to madness, in my expert opinion.”
“Can we think about it?” Red asked.
“Please do,” we said.
Red put a hand on Goldie’s shoulder. Paul broke away from staring at the shattered city to walk alongside them, departing with a great deal on their minds.
They stopped at the door.
“Do I call you Lord?” Red asked.
It was all we could do to not approach the Lambs. We stalked around the edges, had our flirtatious visits with each. It was flirtatious not in the romantic sense, but in the intimate kinship sense, as only people who knew each other was well as we did could approach, touch, and speak to each other, communicating in a manner far more efficient than would be possible with any stranger.
But as much as we moved around the periphery, we knew we were something alien.
We were a threat they were coming to terms with, a new reality.
Sylvester was gone. He would not come back. He had been subsumed, he had subsumed. They might have sensed it.
They, we acknowledged, would experience it.
Until then, we were cautious. They would be on their guard for manipulation. They would push back if pushed. We wanted them to join us, to stand at our side, to face down the threat and take up the new mission, but we couldn’t do it by any means except extortion or by patience.
We would let them decide, but they had to make the decisions themselves. We had to trust in the Lambs.
We had to trust that, when the time came, they would come around to the idea of using the key to access Fray’s primordials and her work. We would be free to unleash primordial-cultivated superweapons and we would destroy all of the world except for the Crown States.
Yes, it was a bargaining chip. Yes, it was the motivating force that Fray described, a weapon of last resort. As it drove her, now it would drive us to work fervently to ensure that there was always another measure to put forward, so we wouldn’t have to face the last one.
It was all of those things.
It was another kind of contingency. If the Lambs faced the same dilemma that Nobles the world over had, if breeding proved difficult, and if we couldn’t create our successors as so many Nobles did, then we would need a way to strike out, ensuring the Crown couldn’t flourish in our absence.
After all, Jessie was lacking, much like Jamie had. Helen and Ashton couldn’t bear children, as they weren’t human. We had reason to suspect that Project Wyvern meant we were sterile, owing to the poison that tainted our system. Gordon wouldn’t have produced ‘Gordon’ stock, but whatever source had supplied that individual seed. Mary’s offspring would be only an exceptional person, if she could even carry to term with the state of her internal organs.
Much as Fray had sought alternatives, we would strive to have something to put forward. Our doctors would work hard, looking for a way.
If they couldn’t, perhaps it would be best to visit an end to the rest of the world that Fray’s chemicals hadn’t touched. A clean slate was better than a world where the Crown resumed power again.
The question bothered us.
We had steered clear of Duncan, and Duncan had avoided us.
We visited Jessie’s lab. We stared at Jessie’s doctors, a mingling of the old guard and new ones. Duncan still gave direction, much as he’d been doing when we stepped away days ago, to confront Fray and Hayle.
Duncan looked at us as we entered.
“I was wondering when you would show up,” he said.
We walked around the room. Jessie sat in the throne on the dais, a sheet wrapped around her.
“Everyone, you can leave for the day. Back to your cells and quarters,” Duncan ordered the other Doctors and Professors in the room.
They began filing out. Soldiers outside the door guided them. We watched them go, studying expressions and body language, searching for any tricks or problems.
When they were gone, we looked to the rain-streaked windows above the bookshelves, that gave us a glimpse of the sky above and around the tower. It was late in the day, the shadows long.
“How is she?”
“She’s resting,” Duncan answered. He stood by a table with folders and notes strewn across it, half his attention on me, half on the notes.
“No,” Duncan said. “We’ve only been laying the groundwork in hopes of future progress. Powering things on and turning them off again is a net loss, and we can’t do that.”
We approached the throne, walking up the dais. With fingers and fingernails, we combed Jessie’s hair, and then began doing it into the braid she liked, that draped over her shoulder. Her glasses sat on the throne beside her.
“The others are weighing your ideas. They’re hopeful.”
“I was always one to follow the administrative shuffling and manipulation in the Academies. I’m aware of the games that are played, the tricks, what kinds of promises go furthest.”
“Interesting. Most were looking at it as manipulation, but it wasn’t.”
“No,” Duncan said. “I don’t believe it was. You believed what you said. It’s the broader picture that was more of a problem. It was politics, in part.”
“Politics aren’t necessarily bad.”
“They aren’t. Still, I worry.”
“Justifiably,” we said.
“Lillian told me on several occasions about what it was like, being young, being against you. You targeted her, you tore her down, teased her mercilessly.”
“It’s come up a few times. I was someone different then. I was trying to express something, and I regret that she suffered for that expression.”
Duncan nodded. “I was your nemesis du jour for a bit.”
“I took the advice of others, and I tried to be like your fellow orphan Rick. I let it be water off my back, I tried not to react, to play dumb, I didn’t want to give you anything.”
“If it helps, it wasn’t you. You could have been anyone. Anyone else would have been a bad fit, a symbol for the divide in the Lambs.”
“It does help,” Duncan said.
He looked at Jessie and sighed.
“Are you’re thinking you’re my enemy now?”
“I’m wondering,” he said.
“You’re one of the harder ones for me to reach out to. I don’t know you so well. I know you’re attached to Helen and Ashton.”
“I am. And the other little ones. But you used a promise to Helen to sway Ashton. You want to bring about her perfect world.”
“Something like it. The world I’m envisioning will be a hard one to work with.”
“You have ideas then?”
“It’s going to mean leaving a lot of things behind, Doctor Foster.”
“Doctor Foster,” Duncan said.
“What are you thinking?”
“That I wish I’d paid more attention, when you and the others had been discussing the tools you use and how you approach problems. I’m trying to figure out your angle for approaching this conversation.”
“Everyone has an angle for approaching every conversation.”
“You more than most. I’ve been dreading and anticipating this conversation for two days now. I started to wonder if you planned to ignore me entirely.”
“You also thought perhaps I was avoiding this lab because Jessie was here. You’ve had meals brought here, you’ve been sleeping in a chair. You’ve been here more than Lillian, even when Lillian is the one who has always been more familiar with Jessie’s project.”
“That was me acting on the dread, hiding here, thinking you might not come and I’d have time to think,” Duncan said. He smiled with that too-small mouth of his, then let the smile drop away. “I was wringing my hands. I concluded you would most likely make mention of my family.”
“Does it drive you? Family?”
“I’m not sure they’re alive, actually. When we sent armies and orders to the coasts to control the ports, I had people ask to find them. There hasn’t been a response, and I imagined there should be one.”
“We’ll see,” Duncan said. “I worry about what it says about me if I say that my family isn’t a major driving force in what I do, not anymore. I can’t imagine you bringing them up would sway me much, whether you wanted to help or hurt them.”
“I think you’re a fine person, Duncan. I wouldn’t worry about that.”
“My other thought,” he said. “Was that I can’t guess. You know what I like and want. I care about the others, but unless you plan to exile me, I have them, and I’ll continue to look after them. I want a black coat, but the whole system is broken, me attending the Academy now would be a farce.”
“You keep going back to the notion of ordinary life. Family, friends, school.”
“I didn’t realize that,” Duncan said. “Lords.”
“Lords,” we said, with a note of amusement at the irony.
“And yet we- I didn’t approach this conversation from that angle. I wonder if I misread you, now.”
“Who did you imagine Doctor Duncan Foster to be, if not a man who wrings his hands with anxiety while hoping for a good life?”
“I imagined you would wake Jessie and send her to me, to change my mind.”
Duncan looked up at me, as we finished with Jessie’s hair. We tied the braid.
“I thought about it,” he said. “I can’t put a word to it. I felt like you wanted me to, and even if I’m not a good enough chess player to know the best move to make, I might be able to feel things out, intuit when I’m walking into a trap.”
“You’ve learned a lot.”
“I was right then? It was a trap?”
“I don’t know. I might have answered her, then been upset at you, putting you on the back foot, swaying you that way. Waking her up would cost her countless memories. It would do irreparable damage. I could have gone on the attack, I could have been gentle, I could have played off of your goals as a Doctor. I could have called it cowardice. Above all else, I would have tried to show you my human side. I think your ability to see us as humans is where you’ve changed most. Yet all of that feels like manipulation more than politics.”
“It does. What made you finally decide you were coming to me here?”
“Timeframes, schedules, and a few skirmishes in places like New Amsterdam… it would all be easier if we got the worst of it out of the way. I’m willing to take that step. I’ll be the first if need be. Constraints forced my hand. So I’m here. Like I said, I wasn’t sure how to approach you.”
“A big step. I’m sure you had some kind of strategy, didn’t you?”
“Nothing so grand. You have the ability to say no, Doctor Foster. You have the ability to talk to the others and cast doubt on my honesty, and I’m sure if you argued well enough, while I wasn’t there to say my piece, you could change their minds. We’d find another way, or they would. We respect the role your voice plays in all of this.”
Duncan reached out to the table, moving some papers.
He stopped, midway through one rearrangement.
“Respect,” he said.
“In talking to the others, we were only ever thinking about what I could give them. We want to give them the world, Duncan, and they deserve it.”
“Do you think I’m so petty that all I want is respect?”
“We didn’t come here to give you that. We came here to give you a share of what you’d experience if things went forward. A reasonably fair conversation with a Noble, as an equal.”
“You’re still a boy that’s shorter than me, Sylvester. By all rights, I should say it’s far from being a fair, reasonable, or conversation with a Noble, equal to equal.”
“By all rights.”
“You terrify me,” he said.
“As it should be. I just hope the other emotions outweigh the unpleasantness of the terror.”
“We wouldn’t have gotten this far if we weren’t.”
“What you want is to go under the knife, to be changed, to have a body that matches your mind. You want me to facilitate that.”
“We would hope our body isn’t so crowded, damaged, or lonely.”
Duncan moved more folders and papers. He collected a few into a stack, looked down at it, and drew in a deep breath.
“I’ll think about it,” he said. “About the body you’d get, who we’d have on that project, and whether I really want to do this.”
“That’s all we can ask.”
“Where are you going next?” he asked.
“To the gates, maybe to Lambsbridge.”
“It was damaged.”
“You’re still avoiding the others?”
“I made my arguments, I framed things. It’s up to them to come to terms with it.”
“Or are you scared?”
We were terrified. We were on the brink of something and the state of the Lambs had never been questioned. Even with our departure. Even with the schism that had formed with Lillian and Jamie in that windy room at the top floor of the building in West Corinth.
We were unsure what to say or do with Duncan. Well… one question.
“You gave us a pill.”
“I did,” Duncan said.
“What was it?”
“Something I’ve used a hundred times. One of our most powerful tools.”
“Just a placebo, Sylvester. I had enough things on my mind, without trying to rush anything too fancy with chemicals, medicine, and your unique biology. If you’d taken it and not discarded it after, I wouldn’t have been sitting in this lab for as long as I had, wringing my hands, considering my options”
“What if I said I didn’t discard it?”
“The instant you took it, I realized I knew. I knew you couldn’t submit yourself to that. It runs against everything you’re warring against. I’d call you a liar, and I’d tell the others you were a liar.”
We fell silent, turning our attention to Jessie again.
“Helen grasps, Ashton gets distracted by watching grass growing. Abby has her fits. You flinch away from any smiling Doctor giving you your medicine in the same way even a snail that’s struck ten times with a stick will wince in anticipation of the next blow. It’s reality,” Duncan said. “It was an unfair test.”
“But it still affects your final judgment.”
“You asked the others if they thought you were honest. Yes. You’re honest. You’re honest on turf you’ve chosen to allow honesty on. What did I say? It was the context or the big picture that concerned me.”
We took that in.
“I’m going to address you as if you were Sy. Because I’m worried it might be the last time it happens,” Duncan said. “Lillian fell in love with you for a reason. It wasn’t that you’re a scoundrel. It wasn’t that you were cruel to her and then you were kind. Mary was swayed to join the Lambs because you gave her something she couldn’t get elsewhere. Gordon considered you a true friend, by all accounts. Jamie and Jessie independently fell in love with you, and it wasn’t because of a genetic predisposition on their part for short, scrawny kids with naturally messy hair.”
“We note you’re leaving Ashton and Helen out.”
“Ashton and Helen are Ashton and Helen. Ashton can be fascinated by an unusually shaped bit of glass from outside a factory in Luxham and he’ll carry it with him for two years. Helen falls in love with dead birds she finds by the side of the road, so long as she can step on them. They don’t challenge you so much as they accept you and ask for a peculiar kind of acceptance in turn. They do challenge you, but they don’t ask for you to dig particularly deep into your being to offer something up. The others challenged, they demanded something, and you answered and gave.”
“We wouldn’t discount the value of acceptance, given or taken. When you’re a lost little experiment, that acceptance and that smile count for a lot. The reliable, insistent little voice counts for a lot.”
“I’ll cede that one to you, then,” Duncan said. “But I worry. You’re changing, nobody’s denying that, and bigger changes are coming. But what happens if you lose touch with all those things that drew the others to you in the first place? Worse, what if you lose all of those things, but you find other ways to set your hooks in?”
We’d already started. It was part of the negotiation, the exploration, and the transformation that came with the next big steps.
“You’re right, Doctor Foster,” we replied.
“What does it say about me,” he asked, “That I actually wondered if you’d kill me, for testing you in the here and now?”
“That you’re smart,” we answered.
He didn’t tense. Neither did we.
“We’ll muse on what you said,” we responded. “Thank you.”
So much to think about. So many others who had to consider where they’d stand. We were on the brink of a revolution, a change to how a continent and its government functioned.
We gave Jessie a fond touch on the cheek, and then we left our good Doctor Foster to his work.
We made our way out of the lab and out the door, to the Academy grounds. We were brisk as we walked, eyeing the damage here and there, the ongoing work to clear rubble, where it would be cast off the side of Radham, to land far below.
We checked the time on our way, and we were content that we’d arrived fifteen minutes early. We’d planned for the chat with Duncan to be shorter, but we’d left ourselves an abundance of time.
It would be such a shame to miss this.
The rain poured, and the clouds rolled. It was windy, and the light of the sky was peeking between the thinnest parts of the clouds.
We passed through the gate, and the military forces there were ours, allowing us through without complaint.
We were greeted by a view. Such a beautiful world.
The war had stopped, the guns were put away, and the people of Radham were out of their homes and shelters, starting to find their routine. Radham was permanently raised up, the walls cracked, the Harvesters’ work on the architecture and landscape still visible in places, and yet children ran in groups down the street far below. They ran through fields that had had bodies on them just days before, now rinsed and drained, bodies collected and waste consumed by organisms.
Horses trotted down the streets, but it was far less than there had been once upon a time. Warbeasts were repurposed to work, and they hauled creations that would serve as winch-operated platforms, lowering people and things to the ground. Something would be worked out later. At least two hundred men were working on and around the hulk of the Infante’s ship, which remained where it had been, crashed into the walls of Radham.
There were still areas that were grisly. We didn’t miss the carts and wagons that were shipping bodies up to the Academy proper.
This city would be our fortress for some time, damaged as it was.
The rain shifted in direction and strength. A patter now.
Lambsbridge had been hit by a shell. Most of the damage had been relegated to the stable where Mrs. Earles kept her horses, but I wasn’t sure of particulars. It had come after we’d left. It had rolled through into the building, collapsing the dining room and sitting room, and it might have damaged the staircase.
The only thing that assured us there hadn’t been any major casualties was that children played around the building. We only recognized a small few, and they didn’t, at a glance, seem to recognize me in turn. Too many years, too many changes here and there.
Bo Peep, Quinton, and Abby were playing in one corner with the smallest children, Bo Peep holding the oversize umbrella with the butt-end on the ground. Nora and Lara sat with their backs to the stone wall that framed the orphanage’s yard.
Emmett was in the tree, and being there, he seemed more like the boy he was.
It was only when we drew close that we saw the Lambs, sitting on the back porch. Ashton, Helen, Lillian, Mary.
It seemed like a dream, a flight of fancy.
They didn’t question where we’d been. They waved. There were some smiles, and there were far more complicated looks. Lillian wore one.
We stopped short of stepping onto the grounds of the orphanage.
We’d given an order hours ago. The timing around it had been a big motivating factor in us finally talking to Duncan, hashing things out. Now we waited, hands in our pockets, hood down, letting the drizzle patter against our head and shirt.
The Lambs stood, one by one, and they made their way around the back of the orphanage. There wasn’t a gate at the side, but a stone wall a couple of feet high was hardly an obstacle.
There was an expression on several faces, as they crossed the wall.
It had never been home for Lillian, but she surely had some good memories there.
For Mary it had been home for a while. The crossing of that wall was one more string or ribbon cut, that otherwise tied her to something.
For Ashton, it had been a place, and he’d always put some importance on places, on landscapes and on familiar things. He’d moved past that in a lot of ways, based on my observations, but he was still who he was.
For Helen, it had been one of two homes. Her home for now was being embraced wherever she went, firmly in the warm arms of Ashton or whoever had custody of her.
The drizzle stopped. The rain ceased falling on Radham for the first time in our lifetime.
“This is going to wreak havoc on the ecosystem,” Ashton observed.
“Shh,” Lillian said.
All around the city, people and vehicles stopped. There was almost a sense of alarm among the locals, that we hadn’t seen much evidence of when the war had been ongoing, what with them huddled and hidden away. The mischievous child in us liked that alarm.
“Did you have your talk with Duncan?” Lillian asked.
“Was everyone waiting for me to do that?” we asked.
“In a way.”
“Food for thought,” we said.
“In a way that’s going to delay us?” Mary asked. “Or are you reconsidering?”
“No, Mary dear,” we replied, “No on both counts.”
We hadn’t stepped onto the orphanage grounds because of what they represented, and what we represented.
Lamb to Lord.
There was reason to suspect the others, Ashton possibly excepted, had made it their last visit too. Even though we would remain in this city for some time to come.
The wind pushed the cloud cover across the sky with startling speed. The nature of the new landscape might have played its part, Radham jutting skyward. The lack of smoke from Radham’s smokestacks and buildings would be another part of it. The sky looked alive, while the city was still.
Over five, ten minutes, people started resuming movement again. The Lambs chattered. We watched the sky.
The carts of bodies and slain soldiers were an obstruction for our visitor. Duncan made his belated appearance at the head of one wagon. Swaddled in a blanket, sitting on the bench next to him, was Jessie.
We’d asked without asking. We’d made mention of it, made no secret that we’d hoped for it, as Duncan had suspected. We’d get mad at him, in our selfish way.
We hurried to catch up with them. We were halfway up the side of the wagon when we saw.
She slept, still.
Bittersweet. It hadn’t been possible to wake her up for this.
It hadn’t made sense. It hadn’t been right.
It would have made such a difference, all the same.
“Gentle, gentle,” Duncan said. “Some of the test work we’ve been doing isn’t housed firmly.”
We were gentle, working with Duncan, getting into position to lower Jessie down.
“There’s so much to ask, to fill you in on,” we murmured.
As the rain had given way, so did the opaque cloud cover that cast Radham in its perpetual gloom. Sun began to shine through, and then swelled as it found more open sky to peer through. With all of the moisture in the air, light colored the sky. We held Jessie.
Duncan’s advice hadn’t been enough. We worried. It made too much sense to destroy our enemy, to secure this.
Lillian’s key was only part of it. There were other evils. Other questions. We would turn from Lambs to Lords and Ladies. Duncan’s concern weighed on us. What would we become in the end? Would the divides widen? Would Duncan name us for the liar we were, citing his pill?
As the others chattered around us, we felt warmth swell in our breast and we felt fear in equal measure. Jessie rested her head on our shoulder. Lillian held one of our hands. Ashton was constantly moving, going back and forth between Helen and the younger Lambs.
The only Lambs, really.
“Who’ll be first?” Lillian asked.
“Me,” we said.