The snow was starting to fall, and both students and kids were involved in the extensive relay, handing crates back, each packed and covered with a cloth. On the other side of the road, another team was sending crates out.
There were shouts as a carriage rolled by, piled high with greenery, moving too close to the people on one side.
“Can I have a few minutes of your time?” a Doctor asked. He was young, with dark hair that curled around his ears. He wore an indoor lab coat under one worn by those who worked outdoors, and the shirt beneath that coat had been badly wrinkled.
“You may,” Shirley responded.
“We have a problem,” he said. He paused for effect, which annoyed her. He’d turned up a minute ago, and had paused to take in the scene, hands jammed into his pockets. Despite the pause he’d taken to observe and let the words sink in, he said, “We’ll need to act sooner than later.”
Further down the line, one of the smaller children in cold-weather jackets called out, “I’m getting tired!”
Nobody seemed to be ready or willing to pick up the slack. Shirley looked back at the Doctor, “Come and talk to me.”
She touched shoulders, and the little boy backed off, the older child to her right shuffling to one side to make room. She began passing the crates down. Each was light, only five or so pounds, more a basket of wood strips than a proper crate, whatever its construction might have looked like. The contents weren’t densely packed, either.
Peevish, perhaps, to busy herself and refuse to be swept up into the man’s tempo, but she would have done this if he hadn’t turned up, and she could leave at any moment.
The Doctor explained, “In any disaster, or when we use a serious weapon, we can expect that as much as ninety-nine point nine nine percent of the target population or area will be killed. The number varies, but bear with me. It applies to bacteria, to plant matter, to animal, and human populations. For much of what we’re dealing with when it comes to the Black Wood and the long-term effects of the plague, it’s most of the above.”
“Cats and cockroaches,” Shirley said.
“Oh, it seems you know something about it then.”
“I’ve picked up some things,” she said.
“Well, good for you, miss. Good for you.”
Shirley met the eyes of the girl to her left. Ten years old, if she had to guess. “You said you had a problem? Semi-urgent.”
“Urgent, very urgent,” he said, giving no evidence to that urgency in how he comported himself. She’d met people like this, for whom everything was an emergency and a priority, to the point that the label meant nothing, even to them. “We’ve got cockroaches.”
“Actual cockroaches? Or the-”
“The same cockroaches made famous by the ‘cats and cockroaches’ term.”
“Alright. Do you distinguish between the cats and cockroaches when using the term?”
“Yes, sometimes we do. The use of the term can vary from place to place, institution to institution, often after the little disasters and clean-ups that demand a shift in perspective. Oftentimes it’s the cats that are wanted, the cockroaches that aren’t. That’s how I’m using it now. This might be good in the long-run, but it’s a bad thing in the here and now.”
“What is it?”
“Rats. There are a lot of them. Think of the parcels of land we’ve carved out as islands, surrounded by water.”
“There’s the actual water too,” Shirley said. “We’re on the ocean, here.”
The Doctor made a face, looking very unimpressed with her contribution.
“Go on,” she said. Even with gloves on, her hands were cold, handling the snow-dusted boxes.
“If we have a small population of these rats here that seem able to survive the Black Wood, then there’s a strong possibility they’re more numerous, spreading with no predator population to control them.”
“They need food, don’t they? That’s in short supply out there.”
“We think they might be burrowing, digging deep enough to get to the soil beneath the detritus. To find worms and deep-buried roots or tubers. There’s more to it, but it’s easier to show than to tell.”
“Why approach me about this? I’m not in charge.”
“Anyone in charge stays only a short time, then becomes preoccupied. They leave to travel, organize, abdicate their positions, or get so caught up in running things that they lose sight of the day to day issues. Our current ‘mayor’ is locked in his office, trying to work out rationing and the bartering budget so we can get through the winter.”
“I heard about that.”
“Indeed! No surprise, as you, little miss, struck us as the person who knows everyone, with a thumb on the pulse of things.”
“Perhaps. I’ve been something of a liaison, and I catch the rumors and gossip at the shop.”
“Someone told me to talk to you, and I knew exactly who you were, thinking back. There’s a concern that with the weather getting colder, the rats might seek refuge here on this island of ours. They’re already getting at the food, I think I said. The mayor is claiming he’s trying to prevent the food crisis, but he’s ignoring this.”
The ten year old girl next to Shirley cast a worried look her way.
“We’ll figure something out,” Shirley said.
“The mayor seems to share that quaint notion, but he and you would be ignoring the experts in thinking anything like that,” the Doctor said. “We were short on resources already. I’m not sure how we’ll rally this.”
“We came this far, through plague, war, and black wood. Don’t discount humanity,” Shirley said.
“Humanity might be the source of this problem. Residual Academy work, as it happens.”
Shirley, between the handing off of boxes, raised a hand, to get the attention of a group of older adolescents by the gate to the city. It was one of the boys who stood and hurried over, pausing only to let one wagon by.
“I know you had a shift earlier, but can you take over? I have something I need to do,” she said.
“Sure thing, Miss Shirley,” he said.
She briefly put a hand on the boy’s shoulder before leaving the line. She didn’t miss how he stood a little taller at the contact.
The Doctor, however, had noticed something else.
“Miss Shirley,” the Doctor said, once they were out of earshot.
“The way they look at you, and the way they address you, it struck me as odd.”
“A boy who wears his heart on his sleeve, that’s all.”
“It’s not an isolated incident. I’ve seen you interacting with others before.”
“It’s simply the way things have panned out, Doctor.”
“Disconcerting?” she asked, a little surprised.
“I don’t mean any disrespect, but that tone, it’s a degree of veneration normally reserved for Nobles, aristocrats and Doctors.”
“‘Miss’ is ?”
“The tone, dear. The tone.”
“As you say, I know a great many people. I’ve been through warzones, I played a part in getting the orphans to safety.”
“Yes, of course. Many of us were tested during the conflicts. But things have settled, Shirley. The rebels are quashed, at some cost, the Infante is reportedly back overseas, and we’re picking up the pieces. This new landscape is a fantastic challenge to work with.”
“A more daunting one for us civilians. Can I ask you not to go on at such length about how dire things are, when children are in earshot? We don’t want panic.”
“Better to panic now than to panic too late. We have to act in times of crisis, you know.”
“As I said, I’ve waded through warzones. I’ve killed people. I know about action in times of crisis.”
“You don’t strike me as an ex-soldier,” he remarked.
“I see,” he said. “Right through here, by the by.”
She was glad for the lessons Sylvester had given her in poise, so she could keep her expression still, her body language confident. She was less glad about the situation. She didn’t know this Doctor, and she didn’t like him.
She didn’t recognize or like the ominous stone building he was asking her to enter, either. It was a tower, squat and defensively-focused, with what might have been an armory adjacent to it. The door was five paces beyond the arch and short recess that preceded it.
She turned her head, looking around. She felt a measure of relief when she saw that Pierre stood a distance away, leaning against the wall. His ears moved as she looked directly his way.
Her hand moved. The ears moved in response. Not a signal, beyond acknowledgement of her message.
She stepped through the archway, approaching the door. The Doctor was a step behind her, where she couldn’t easily see him.
The feeling she felt at this whole situation reminded her of a time years ago, when she’d been younger, more or less the age the oldest Lambs seemed to be. She had meant to go out with a partner. Not quite a friend, but someone she knew enough to work with. The partner had backed out, Shirley had needed the money, so she had gone out alone.
She had taken up with a customer, and she had felt then much like she felt now. That situation had ended with her being hurt terribly. The hurt of the beating had been dwarfed by the hurt to her spirit.
“I’ll get the door,” he said.
She reached forward and hauled it open herself. She didn’t wait for him before passing through. The interior was stone walls with wood threaded through it, and it was dark, with only the midday light streaming in through the windows to illuminate the interior. Even the light snowfall made the light noticeably brighter and more diffuse.
“Turn left,” he said. “There’s a basement area.”
She did. She could smell the vegetation before she saw it. The air was humid.
“Our line of thinking was that you might be able to appeal to the Mayor.”
“We feel he’s striving to maintain a divide between the Academy and the local government. It wouldn’t be the first time someone has wanted to protect his position by doing so. Most government positions are purely ornamental, you understand. Secretaries with better titles who balance the books and provide the information so Professors and those of Noble bearing can make the decisions.”
“You want me to be your mouthpiece?”
“We’d like you to be a lot of things, Miss Shirley,” the Doctor said.
He hadn’t said ‘Miss Shirley’ in a way that implied deference or respect.
She felt a sick feeling in her gut at that.
There were more Doctors waiting in the room at the bottom of the stairs. One Professor, it seemed. Three of the five Doctors were hanging back, two with arms folded, the other with hands in his pockets.
It could have been read as defensive. It wasn’t. They’d been expecting her, by the way they reacted to her. They’d been prepared with their guard up. They were ready for a fight, if they had to make one.
“My friends. This is the young lady you spoke of?”
Shirley knew he knew she was.
“She is,” one of the Doctors said. “Shirley, was it?”
“I am. Pleased to meet you. I don’t believe I have your names?”
“I’m Nester,” the Professor said. “Professor Nester.”
“Orville,” the Doctor she had been speaking to introduced himself. The others mentioned their names, and she committed them to memory, but she didn’t dwell on them. Nester and Orville were the ones she was facing down, here.
“Charmed,” Shirley said, putting some charm into her voice, even while her body language showed none but that which came automatically. She wanted to seem unflappable, almost untouchable. She achieved the result she wanted, as two people exchanged glances.
She took control of the exchange by turning away from Nester. She did a circuit of the room, keeping them in her peripheral vision.
Cages lined shelves, and tables throughout the room had plant samples in pots. A skylight allowed some limited light through, and the largest of the plants had been placed to absorb that light.
“We’ve trapped some rats and placed them in the cages, you’ll see.”
She saw. Green rats. They looked almost like plant-animal hybrids. Their fur was like grass, and plants grew out of them as if they were fertile soil. The largest had outright flowers growing from them. But most telling was that the predominant plant was the wolf clover.
It was the same clover that one of the Lamb’s own followers had found in an exploration. Shirley had heard, but hadn’t heard who. It was minor, small, of little nutritional value, but it grew in the black wood.
After a bit of attention from various Academy scientists, the means by which it managed that growth were becoming clearer, and the plant was being strengthened, given more value. The same crop that students and Samuel’s children were collecting and bringing in by that relay of crates would hopefully help to keep everyone fed over the winter.
A winter of thin soups, potentially, but so long as they had the Academy science and bio-material, a great many things were possible.
“An escaped project that found the opportunity to thrive?” she asked, examining one very pretty little green rat, which wasn’t very large, but had a long, long trail of grasses growing from it.
“Thrive might be an exaggeration. It’s a great deal of work to get food in that environment, and the net cost might approach or even eclipse the gains. The ones we trapped were skinny.”
“They get some sustenance from the plants growing on them?” Shirley asked.
“They do. But they prefer easier sustenance. They’ve been getting into our food, and they’re starting to nest in houses. When the winter rolls in-”
“I told her that much. They’ll be pressured to find shelter.”
“Alright,” Shirley said. “We’ll warn people, tell them to go over their homes and stop up any points the creatures might use to get inside.”
“It’s best if we warn people,” Nester said. “We hold some position of authority. If we had you handle this matter, we’d run the risk that some citizens would dismiss the crisis as a flight of fancy.”
If I never again felt the way I feel right now, I’d be so glad, Shirley thought.
“It’s just how people think, you see,” Nester said.
“I imagine it is,” she said. She kept a small smile on her face, but she gave him nothing else.
Orville said, “We thought you might talk to the Mayor. Charm him, or convince him of the danger. Whatever works. Pleas for the well being of the children, even deception, if you were so inclined…”
“The Mayor isn’t inclined to listen to you, so you want me to be your representative.”
“It’s a step up,” Orville said.
“Is it?” she asked.
“It is!” Orville said, with emphasis, almost surprise. “Good Professors in their black coats prove their worth and become right-hand men to the most powerful people in the world. Is it so bad to be the woman at the side of someone like Professor Nester? Two steps and change removed from being at the ear of true-born Nobility. I’ll have you know that Professor Nester is man of such standing that an Academy and its research projects were entrusted into his care when the continent was evacuated.”
“I’m well aware,” Shirley said. “I wasn’t aware he was in charge.”
“The Academy is in my care, nonetheless,” Nester said.
She turned around, clasping her hands in front of her. Her heart was pounding. That heartbeat changed when she saw Pierre standing in the door, which was open just enough that only a sliver of him was visible.
“Professor Cavvy runs the Academy side of things, doesn’t he?” she asked.
“He does,” Nester said.
“He does a fine job,” Shirley said.
She smiled. “I’ll be sure to talk to him. He’ll need to know about this, and his input will be invaluable, I’m sure.”
“There’s no need to complicate things,” Orville said. “Cavvy is working hard on his experiments and he isn’t to be disturbed.”
“But it’s clearly a crisis, you said,” she said.
“It’s a crisis we can handle,” Orville said.
“You weren’t so sure before, when you were talking to the children. Pierre!”
Pierre opened the door. He struck a dashing figure, in a way that made Shirley think a children’s storybook character might. The fop, the rapier-wielding duelist who drank a touch too much, the jester who’d changed into fine clothing. He was lanky enough he threatened to trip over himself when he wasn’t running, his tall frame made it hard for him to find clothes of the appropriate kind that fit, and his head was a touch too large for his body. That of a white-furred rabbit, slack-jawed.
His head was tilted to one side, so he watched her with only one eye as she gestured.
He swept himself forward into a bow. “Miss Shirley.”
She stepped forward, touching the side of his face. “Dear Pierre.”
She saw the muscles of his face shift into something resembling a smile, but it was only a glimpse, and it wasn’t a true smile with his mouth being what it was. He straightened, and his head moved well out of her reach.
“We didn’t invite your friend here,” Nester said.
“Oh, not to worry,” she said. “Pierre can be trusted with anything I can. He very frequently goes where I do and appears where I do.”
“And he is? A pet?”
“A protector of sorts, an escort, a fantastic scout and messenger, and a dear friend,” Shirley said. “Pierre. We could do with bringing the good Professor Cavvy into this discussion. We might have some very strange rats getting at our food stores.”
“I’ll find him and let him know before you’ve counted to a hundred, Miss Shirley,” Pierre said. He bowed at the Doctors. “Please pardon my intrusion.”
“Stop,” Nester ordered.
Pierre glanced at Shirley. Shirley, for her part, was aware of how Nester bristled at that.
“I know full well what you’re doing,” Nester said.
Shirley turned toward him, smiling. It was meant to be provocative purely in the ‘provoking’ sense.
“You think you’re cleverer and better situated than you are,” Nester said.
“I don’t think I’m clever,” Shirley said.
“Give yourself more stock,” Pierre said.
She ignored him, “I can’t claim to be brilliant or educated in scholarly things, but as I tried to communicate to your Doctor Orville, I’ve earned my stripes.”
“And how did a calico with supposed stripes like yours end up in our city?” Nester asked.
The Lambs had wanted someone they trusted, they’d needed eyes out, and the city had been of a good size to host the children from the West Corinth orphanage. She wouldn’t say that, though.
“Luck,” she said.
“It’s clear you’re looking to cause trouble,” Nester said.
“Trouble? Gosh no.”
“You’re clearly challenging the natural order and structure here,” Orville said.
“Am I? By asking after the man in charge of the local Academy?”
“By ignoring our recommendations, interrupting someone hard at work.”
“As you want me to interrupt the mayor?”
“The mayor, as I’ve stated,” Orville said, with some stress, “Is meaningless in the grand scheme.”
“Then you don’t need him at all, you don’t need me to talk to him.”
“Perhaps,” Nester said, “Considering your apparent bewilderment at all of this, you should avoid talking to him after all.”
“Perhaps,” Shirley said.
“We’ll find someone else to act as liaison.”
Her hand moved. “If you’ll excuse me, then.”
“You’re well excused,” one of the doctors on the sideline said.
Nester shot the man a stern look, then turned to her. “Thank you for your visit. I hope you realize the severity of the situation.”
“I do believe I have an idea of it,” she said. “If the rats have multiplied out there, they might come our way, a veritable plague.”
“A beautiful plague,” Pierre observed. “I do like animals in this vein. Rodents and burrowing creatures. These are finer. Aesthetically pleasing, even.”
Shirley let that go without comment.
“You might not think that when they’ve swarmed us,” Nester said. “Be careful about how you disturb things in the coming days. It would be easy to upset the balance and have this crisis become a catastrophe.”
“Not to worry,” Shirley said. “I’m harmless.”
“I’m sure,” Nester said.
Shirley gave him a light curtsy with a bow of the head only, then turned away.
“You’re on a first name basis with the current mayor, aren’t you?” Pierre asked her, as he took hold of the doorknob. He opened the door for her
“He wouldn’t mind a visit, I’m sure.”
“Do you think?” She stepped through.
“Yes, yes,” Pierre said.
“You’re aware,” Nester said, from the room they’d just left. “That would be the kind of disturbance that I was just talking about.”
“Not at all,” Shirley said. She turned around to look at him. “I’m not so clumsy as to misstep like that.”
Her expression changed. She’d worked, at Sylvester and Helen’s instruction, on working with her own expression in the mirror, for the sake of moments like this. She let Nester and the others see just how dangerous the Shirley she wanted to be was.
Nester’s expression hardened.
Pierre shut the door with more care and gentleness than was necessary.
“You’ve upset them,” he observed.
“I know. Ill-advised, perhaps. I don’t know if it’s this city or if it’s this way when you approach these echelons, but it gets to me. I had something to prove.”
“There’s absolutely no need for any excuses,” Pierre said. “We’ll do just fine, I think.”
“I’d feel better if there wasn’t the complete and total silence from the Lords and Ladies.”
“The Lords and Ladies might have their hands full getting themselves put back together. Give it time.”
“In the meantime, we’re here, with several hundred children to look after and keep busy. The local Academy is feuding internally and with the government. I’ve angered a warbeast I share a cage with.”
“We can leave if we have to. I’ve looked into the means. It would be tight, but we could transport the young ones in sealed containers.”
“Let’s avoid that,” Shirley said. “We’re best situated here, overseeing things.”
“In case Cavvy manages a breakthrough.”
“There’s that,” she said. She drew in a breath and sighed.
A student passed them in the hallway. Shirley gestured, and Pierre responded. They didn’t say anything more until they’d exited the stone building.
Pierre gestured again.
On several rooftops and in several alleyways, people of ill-repute backed off, disappearing.
“You didn’t have to go that far.”
“I’d be lost if something happened to you, my dear,” Pierre said.
She touched his arm. He moved it, and held it out so his elbow was where she could reach up and hold it.
The town hall was only a short distance. Pierre opened the door for her.
“Miss Shirley,” the Mayor’s assistant said.
“Is Ben too busy?” Shirley asked.
“He said no disturbances. Unless it was you or one or two select others. I can show you in.”
“Please,” Shirley said.
The older, rotund man in a woolen suit looked up as the door to his office opened. He leaned back in his chair on seeing her.
“These meetings with you and your lot feel so clandestine,” the Mayor observed.
“Aren’t they?” Pierre asked.
“How are our children?” the Mayor asked.
“All as well as can be expected. We’ve put them to work helping with getting the harvest collected, before too much frost sets in.”
“Good. I do like that.”
“We just had a meeting with Professor Nester.”
“Any more pleasant than your chance meeting with Professor Cavvy?”
Shirley shook her head. “Just the opposite.”
The man pressed his lips together. They parted reluctantly for him to say, “Do tell.”
Shirley explained, “He wants to supplant Cavvy. He wants to subvert you. To send a pawn your way to plead and sway you. He won’t be satisfied until this city is under his thumb. He’s spending much of the remainder of his lifetime here, after all.”
“I’m not surprised,” the Mayor said. He looked weary.
“It’s how the Academy works, and the Academy is still existent,” she said.
“It is,” the older man said.
“If I had to pose a guess,” Pierre said, “May I?”
“You may, whatever it is.”
“The food crisis might be manufactured. They’re worried. Something got away from them. Either the budget and rationing issues you’re facing are manufactured but the rats are real and threaten to spoil their play, or it’s all real. I’m inclined toward the former.”
“You really think so?” Shirley asked.
“What are a few starving children for the sake of utter control of a small city and it’s Academy?” Pierre asked.
“I’m too old for this. I retired years ago, you know. They’ve forced out my predecessors, sent them on trips with no return trip, pressured them, cut their hamstrings.”
“Not literally, I hope,” Pierre said.
“I couldn’t guarantee anything,” the Mayor said.
“Are you at your limit?” Shirley asked.
“I’m rapidly approaching it,” the Mayor said.
“Cavvy’s bubbles. Are they sustainable?” she asked.
Professor Cavvy was one of countless leaders who were charged with finding a means to survive in these harsh environs. The thought had been to find a way to build off of the coastline. If it could be arranged, then the next step would be to find a way to grow things there, where the Black Wood wouldn’t touch.
“A year away at best. These things do drag on, and it could be two years, or ten, or fifty. It won’t get us through the Winter.”
“They have reason to make it difficult. The Crown at large, I mean,” Pierre said. “They have monsters released into the oceans that search the coasts.”
“The plan is to set something up at the mouth of the river and set up a barrier,” the Mayor said.
“Yes, I remember that now,” Pierre said.
Cavvy would keep himself occupied in the meantime, then. He’d handle his own internal drama to some degree, but his impact on the city would be limited, at least for now.
Nester’s task was a little more mundane, though Shirley thought it sounded more interesting. Like many others, Nester was taking the Wolf Clover and working on creating strains and variants. More nutritious or durable versions would be essential.
“We made enemies, didn’t we?” she asked. “A small Academy in a small city. But enemies all the same.”
“That’s worrisome,” the Mayor said.
“We’re capable of handling it,” Pierre said. “Their army is relaxing, while I’ve been talking to our people and making sure ours is ready, should the call come.”
Shirley nodded. “We should be capable of handling it. I agree with you there.”
“What are you thinking, then?” he asked.
She paused, then looked at the Mayor. “How eager are you to hold your seat there?”
“I took this job only to help in a time of need. You want your fellow here to take it?”
“I was thinking I might take it for myself.”
The Mayor and Pierre exchanged glances.
“It’s not unheard of, for a woman to lead,” the Mayor said. “But it’s typically a woman of some standing, in bloodline and background, and only for short terms.”
“I halfway expected a hard refusal,” she said.
“You underestimate how much I miss my retirement. Or how concerned I am with how they might force me to give up my seat.”
“I’d need you to hold a position in some capacity,” she said. “To advise, make appearances. At least until everyone in the city is ready for something new.”
“I could do that.”
“I’ve had a degree of training,” she said. “I think I can play this game with them, and keep a kind of balance. At least until we get word from our Lords and Ladies.”
Their Lords and Ladies. She saw that expression that was a smile for Pierre. For extra measure, he gestured his amusement.
“I think we could do this,” Pierre said.
The Mayor didn’t know the full extent of things. He didn’t know who his Lords and Ladies were, nor what had happened to the Infante. He did think she was a well-connected individual with discreet ties to those same Lords and Ladies, and some expertise in warfare, subterfuge, and politics.
None of which was wrong. There were simply details omitted.
Sylvester had taught her things. How to move, how to look, how to speak, and the techniques, the subterfuge, the violence.
Above all else, he’d helped her realize how one person could piece themselves together again after being broken. He’d helped her do that by breaking and rebuilding himself, over and over again, until none of it was recognizable as the boy she’d first met.
She’d broken once, and she’d pieced herself back together again. Sylvester had helped inform and instruct that person she’d been then. She knew it was possible she’d hit a wall and break again. She found an eerie confidence in the knowledge that if it happened, she would piece herself back together.
Endlessly, if need be. But she wouldn’t be cowed.
She would take the things she wanted.
She touched the small of Pierre’s back, moving fingers along it while she mused aloud. “I’m thinking we might start by having you involve me in things more, sir. Then we can have you fall ill.”
“Ill,” the Mayor said.
“I’ll take care of you. I’ll see to some of your duties. I’ll take over more as you suffer more.”
“The Academy would want to address my health,” the Mayor said. “As a point of pride.”
“Mental health?” she suggested. “Harder to pin down.”
The Mayor considered, then nodded.
“We should be able to nail that one down,” Pierre said.
“There’ll be pushback,” the Mayor said. “You’re not an aristocrat.”
“We’ll do fine, I think,” Shirley said, thinking hard. It felt so strange to be moving forward in the face of adversity like this. “It’ll need to start with me proving myself in regard to the food crisis.”
“We’ll pit them against each other, I imagine,” Pierre said.
“Perfect,” she said.
“We’ll want to involve the others,” Shirley said. “Samuel is in town, he doesn’t like the complex machinations, but he has an eye for some kinds of trickery and forgery.”
“We can reach out to other areas,” Pierre said. “To the others. There might be resources.”
The discussion continued until they needed to bring out the lamps and candles, and for some time thereafter. The snow began to fall more heavily.