Forest for the Trees – e.4

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Lacey’s hands shook.  She clasped them together, then unclasped them, balled them into fists, and then clasped them together again.  She leaned on the railing, high above the city, elbows resting on the wood, her eyes roving over the city below, where countless citizens were clustering at vantage points and railings like hers, trying to see what was coming.  She gazed over overgrowth and water.

It was fall, and the wolf clover thrived more than anything.  It had been found in the late summer, disseminated over the fall, and it had survived its first winter.  The Academies of the Crown States had devised and disseminated the strains, crossbreeds, and other materials as winter gave way to spring.  The black wood was still there, the soil was tainted with the stuff to the point it was stained.  But the clover had spread over the summer.  The Crown States were now painted in a palette of black and green.

The cities affected by plague had been more or less reclaimed.  The black wood had consumed the worst of the plague growths, but there was concern of resurgence, so those cities were occupied primarily by the Mercies.

Everyone had been working so hard.  Lacey was put in mind of the times when exam season and the culling of the bottom percents of the student body had come around.  Times when everyone had been fighting to stay afloat, because they knew that if they didn’t give their all, they would have nothing.  This mentality had run through the most recent seasons.

People fought even harder now that the war was over.  Studying, figuring out answers, figuring out the balances, and how to use piecemeal scraps of cats and cockroaches to form a passable ecosystem.

It had been over a year.

A long, long time ago, she’d been told that she did the things she did out of selfishness.  She had been told that she extended kindness toward a wild and terrible child for herself, not for that child.  The words had annoyed her, shaken her, and even cut her.  She had pulled away.  She had thought, naively, that it would be her last involvement with the project.

The problem all along had been her failure to see that the wild, terrible little boy had come from somewhere.  He had learned from great teachers.  She had learned to be on guard against him, and she had failed to see what the first of the teachers was doing.  Whatever direction she turned, whatever path she took, she was pulled back in.  By the boy.  By the Lambs.  By Hayle.

She wrapped one fist in the other hand and squeezed it until she knew it would hurt to hold a pen or a scalpel tomorrow, if tomorrow came.

She could have left.  She always had the ability to walk away.  She could have attended a less prestigious Academy and graduated with honors and accolades.  She could have found a Professor to marry and been his assistant and partner.

On paper, as regrets, those options seemed so clear, so plain.  She could spell them out like any project outline, in thesis, hypothesis, costs, goals, applications.  She could have drafted each one with the letters with the carefully chosen language that were meant to sell the idea to the people with the resources to make them happen.  In her work with poisons and drugs it was Professors and Headmasters, even whole Academies that she wrote those letters to appeal to.  In this choice of life paths, it was her parents, colleagues, friends.  Herself.

She couldn’t have left.  In her naivety, she had taken on a project with immense responsibility.  When she had been rebuked, she had said what she had thought were final, parting words to the Wyvern.  She had told him that she knew him.

That knowledge had been the trap, that pulled her in, that drove Hayle to keep her close and involved, so he could guard what he was doing, that compelled her to be here, right now, trying to summon her courage.

A sea creature was making its way to the Eastern shore of the Crown States.  Other sea creatures and weapons were gravitating toward it.  She couldn’t see the battle or the frothing of the water, but she could see that the great sea creature continued its inexorable approach, and the water around it was dark with the floating bodies and viscera of its hundred challengers.

It wasn’t the largest creature in the world.  It probably wasn’t.  It wasn’t the most powerful.

It would, all the same, hit the shore, and the Crown States could well be broken by that arrival.  She had absolutely no say in the outcome.  Her say had been in the beginning, when she’d played her part in setting this in motion.

She was terrified in a way she never had been before.  There had always been a way forward, the notion that she could return to her laboratory and try to figure out her options or if there was a solution.  There was always ground to retreat to in times of war, when she was one of the people who served the back lines.  Her position as one of the people closest to the headmaster of a top Academy meant that in times of plague or other catastrophe, she had always had some right to be one of the ones who were secured an out.

It was only the noxious child she had helped create that latched his claws in her, creating any uncertainty in her footing.  That facet of things had only gotten worse with time and distance.

She straightened, turning her back on the scene.  The fear she had wasn’t because of the great sea beast or the potential devastation it threatened to bring with it.  The poisonous child wasn’t a child anymore.

They had claimed a neighborhood.  The residents had largely been evacuated, and the ones who hadn’t left were incentivized to leave.  Ten manors on a cliffside were now in the process of being transformed.  Teams of students were running around, setting their work into motion.  Wood grew so quickly she could follow the formation of branch and the expansion of trunk with her eyes.  All was charcoal black.  Harvesters crawled through everything, chewing away anything that wasn’t part of the greater construction.

It was claustrophobic, to enter a building that was forming around her.  The light was fading as the growths rose up, elaborating on and exaggerating the features of the manors.  Ten separate buildings were made more uniform in design by the shared material that formed them.

“My lord,” Duncan could be heard from down the hall.  “Could I beg you to please don some clothing?”

“My Duncan, I will get to it when necessary.  Abigail and I are deciding what I should wear.”

Lacey rounded the corner.  Duncan stood with his back to the wall beside the door that was open a crack.  The girl with the soft white curls stood on the other side of the door, wearing a fine dress.  She went by Bonnie these days.  The latest Quinton sat beside her, very un-lamblike in its behavior as it sat there with the wariness of a guard dog.

“My lord, it has been two hours now.”

“My Duncan, I am very much capable of looking at a clock and keeping track of time, as is Abigail.  Don’t fuss.”

Duncan looked like he was going to say something, then spotted Lacey.  He relaxed once he recognized her.  “We’re nearly out of time, my lord.”

“I do believe our guest is on the horizon,” Lacey informed them.

“Our guest is on the horizon, my lord,” Duncan repeated, pitching his voice to be heard.

“My ears work perfectly fine, my Duncan.”

Duncan made a pained face.  “He’s really going to need to stop saying that.”

“So do you,” the Lord said, from the next room.

“Please tell me the others are ready,” Lacey said.

“I wish I could,” Duncan said.  “It’s been a year and two months of preparation and convalescence, the deadline’s here, and we are down to the razor’s edge.”

“We shouldn’t have set the deadline in the first place,” Lacey said.

“Far be it from me to lay the blame at the foot of any of our esteemed Lords or Ladies,” Duncan said, “But I recall something said about them wanting to put pressure on their own.  They worried if they didn’t have a deadline, that nothing would get done.”

“They?  He.”

Duncan drew in a deep breath.  “Abigail, could I see you for a moment?”

There was a pause, and then the door moved.  Abigail stepped out into the hallway, closing the door behind her.  She was as tall as Lacey, though she was less than half Lacey’s age, and she was beautiful in a very peculiar way.  Her dark hair was long, and she wore a fine green silk dress that draped straight down from armpit to ankle.  Her slenderness was the slenderness of youth.

Abigail walked a fine line as it was.  It was hard to call her a Noble, because she wasn’t quite there.  It was hard to call her just an aristocrat.  Perhaps it was fitting.

Seeing her made Lacey feel that fear rising a touch.  It made the vague feeling of claustrophobia and the looming, unavoidable crisis that much worse.

A distance away, the hallway was growing into place.  Harvesters swarmed, keeping the growth from reaching inward, creating the apertures that would be windows, and redistributing material to smooth out the floor into a flat plane without even the divides of floorboards.

“Abigail,” Duncan said.  “Please forgive me for saying so, but I don’t believe you’re helping matters.”

“Rest assured, Doctor, our Lord does what he says he’ll do.  If he says he’ll be ready on time, he’ll be ready.”

Duncan suppressed a response, which might have been a sigh and which might have been a bark of uncharacteristic anger.

He was as scared as Lacey.  For different reasons, yes, but he was scared.

“My Lord, for all his punctuality and finer points, is shortening my lifespan with the stress he’s causing me,” Duncan said.  He said it so the room’s occupant could hear.

“How so, my Duncan?”

“By insisting on calling me ‘my Duncan’, for one thing.”

“He’ll stop when you stop using ‘My Lord’ when there’s no bystanders in earshot,” Bonnie said.

“We never know who’s in earshot,” Duncan said.

“I have very good ears,” said the voice in the next room.

“Just the wait is causing me enough stress, you know,” Duncan said.  “I’m going to have a heart attack if we cut it any closer.  Would someone please help me with this?”

“I think Abigail’s heart is skipping beats for different reasons,” Bonnie said, her voice soft.  There was the faintest hint of something wry in her tone.  “Playing dress-up with a red-haired young Noble, when every moment counts?  Oh my, oh gosh.”

“Such insolence,” Abby said, affronted.  For all the character she managed to inject into the words, she proved the lie by the gentleness with which she touched the side of Bonnie’s face.  She paused at the door, looking at Duncan.  “We will be on time.  I promise.”

Lacey approached the small group as Abigail stepped through the door.  She saw Bonnie’s expression change as the girl paid more attention to her.

Poison had its way of spreading through systems, Lacey observed.  It could affect character and personality.  There were traces of the boy she’d known in so many of these things.  In the jokes, the cavalier treatment of danger, in the anger a soft, gentle child could display toward a woman in a laboratory coat.

“Is it what you expected?” Lacey asked.

“You’re asking me?” Duncan asked.

“Yes.  You wanted to work with Nobles.”

“I don’t know.  He might not be one.  We’re holding off on a final decision or verdict.  The last time we talked about it, we decided we wouldn’t announce him as one.”

“As you’re not announcing Abigail or the others?”

Duncan nodded slowly.  “We thought we’d decide when we saw them all together.  If he looked the part, and if he could play it.  But we have, what, less than half an hour?  Tens of minutes?  Less?”

“I couldn’t tell you.  Any of the above.”

“We’ll have other things in mind.  Unless it’s unanimous and instant, I think we’ll hold off.  So to answer your question, I don’t know.  I don’t know if any of this is what I expected.”

“You work closely with other Nobles.”

“Of my share of our Lords and Ladies, do you really think any of them are the type you work with?”

“I’m not wholly certain any of them are,” Lacey said.

“And I’m not wholly certain why you’re here,” Bonnie said.

Lacey glanced down at the girl.  She saw the anger and it took her breath away.  She’d seen the same expression on a young face, a decade ago.

“I’m only a witness,” Lacey said.  “I think I’m one of the only ones still standing who knows enough to know what happened, who isn’t threatening enough to warrant being destroyed, and I’m not so close to things that my judgment is obscured.”

“I heard who you were.  What you’ve done,” Bonnie said.

“I’ve done good and bad,” Lacey said.  “Yes, absolutely.”

The anger didn’t wane in the slightest.

Like so many things, that anger had been passed down in its way.  By deed, by word of mouth.

“I think you’re lying to yourself if you think your judgment is clear,” Bonnie said.

Lacey paused at that.

It was Duncan who rescued her, or who interrupted at the moment she could have made order of very disordered thoughts and sentiments.  “Lacey?”

“Yes?”

“I’m tied up here.  Could I ask you to check on Ibbot next door?”

Lacey glanced down at the girl from Hackthorn’s Fairy Tale ending.  She saw the hard expression, and she left, so she wouldn’t subject the girl to her presence any longer.

“I’m thinking I’ll need to check on everyone.”

“That might be good.  You could fill us in last minute.”

“Excuse me, then.  No time to waste.”

“Thank you, Lacey.”

What had come before would come again.

She had to pass through the hallway in progress, Harvesters swarming along their prescribed paths, removing and depositing material.  Branches slowly reached out toward her like grasping hands, only to wobble, jerk, and twitch as they were gnawed at their bases.  That which fell to litter the corners between wall and floor was swiftly caught up and carried in the same direction Lacey traveled.

A young man ducked his head in a hasty little bow as he passed Lacey, traveling the other direction.

Lacey reached and knocked on the door to the next manor, which was becoming part of the overstructure.

The answer was a woman’s voice.  “Come in.”

Lacey bent her head in a bow as she entered.

“No need to bow, my dear.”

“My lady,” Lacey said.  She raised her eyes.  “You might want to know that your guest is on the horizon and fast approaching.”

“I know.  We had lookouts poised.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

Ibbot was in the center of the foyer.  He knelt, his eyes fixed on the ground, and his entire body was rigid.

Galatea was there, wearing a dress that resembled a toga, all in spun golden silk.  It draped off of one shoulder, gathered in careful folds around a belt that accentuated her waist, and the bottom hem was knee height at one side, ankle length at the other, the one calf exposed.  Her shoes were stilettos with golden ribbons fixing them to her feet and ankles, but she was still putting one on.

She was and always had been fairly Noble in appearance.  She’d only ever needed to grow to her full proportions to fit the mold.

No, it wasn’t appearance that had marked the change, here.

Galatea finished doing up the other set of ribbon-straps.  She moved her foot and leg to examine it from multiple angles.  Some of the angles bordered on the unlikely, but it was a thing she might have dismissed as an illusion or trick of the mind if she hadn’t known better.

Lacey averted her eyes, hands clasped in front of her.  She’d been told not to bow, but here especially, she felt the need to.  She wondered if it would be the case with the others, or if it was only the feeling of danger that went hand in hand with this particular young Lady.

The Galatea project had very nearly come to a conclusion when she had been reduced to only the core, essential pieces.  The experience that had followed would have broken any other individual, to be confined in a parcel of flesh and brain for months, before a body was ready.  But this woman had not and never would operate like other individuals.  She was an actress, and she would never allow others to know the full extent to which she had changed, if she didn’t see the need to.

With Lacey, as familiar as Lacey might be to her, she wouldn’t see the need.

“Is there anything else?”

“I’m checking on everyone, my Lady.  Duncan requested I check on you and the Professor Ibbot.”

“Very well.  I’m still getting ready.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“The Professor is fine.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

The fat little man had barely moved since Lacey had entered.

“Is my little brother well?”

“He seems to be taking his time, but miss Abigail is helping him, my Lady.  Bonnie suggested miss Abigail is secretly enjoying the process.”

The Lady in front of Lacey tittered at that.  Lacey swallowed.

“If she’s enjoying herself, then he is too.  Good.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“I’ll be along shortly, once I’ve put my Professor in his cage.”

“Yes, my Lady,” Lacey said.  “Please excuse me.”

She only felt as though she could breathe once she’d left the room.

She passed a cluster of Doctors who were discussing the harvester’s work with the overstructure of the castle-in-progress in hurried and hushed tones.

She knocked on the next door.

The doors were opened.  In the hallway alone, there were three men and three women in dress uniforms, the men to the left, the women to the right.  Rapiers as their sides, rifles in hand, resting against shoulders.

Lacey bowed as she entered, and she kept her eyes to the ground as she made her way through the manor, using the position of the guards to know when to turn.  If they were in her way and she had another path, she would take that path.

She entered the master bedroom.  The Lady of this particular house was standing in front of a mirror, her back to the door as Lacey entered.  Lacey saw only one eye, peering over the Noble Lady’s shoulder.  The eye assessed her, then returned to the arrangement of jewelry.

“If you’re looking for our Doctor Lillian, she left a minute ago.”

“I’m under instruction to look for everyone, my Lady.  The messengers told you that your guest is imminent?”

“They did, thank you.”

“Is there anything I can do for you while I’m here, my Lady?” Lacey asked.

“No, I don’t imagine there is.”

“Very well, my Lady.”

“I never could have worn a dress like this before.”

“I’m afraid I don’t fully follow, my Lady.  You’re referring to your weapons?”

“I do miss the feeling of the flats of the metal blades resting on my skin.  Not that I’m any less dangerous.  Just the opposite.”

“Yes, my Lady.  You could still use the blades, I imagine.”

“Not today.  They wouldn’t make a difference, but the others thought that our guest might be able to smell the metal or the oils used on it.  I had some special work done, blades of material other than metal.  It’s not the same.  Very different.  Lighter.”

“Yes, my Lady.  I imagine so.”

“It all reached a certain point, and then it started playing out backward.”

“My Lady?”

“I knew who I was and where I belonged, part of my unit, knowing who I followed.  The crisis.  Taking that leap of faith, at his behest.  Getting to know the Lambs.  Being a prisoner while I was secured and reconfigured for a new role.  Crossing the threshold with a new kind of mission.  The big, new, intriguing missions.  Thinking I was falling in love.  Finding love.  Loss.  More missions.  More losses.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“More losses, more missions.  Loss.  Falls in love, both false and real.  The big, new, intriguing missions.  The new, greater, grander missions.  Being a prisoner while I’m remade for a new role.  That’s as far as we’ve gotten.  Now…”

“Getting to know them again, My Lady?  Taking that leap of faith, at his behest?  The challenge.”

“The crisis.  Yes.  That would be our imminent guest, this time around.”

“If you’ll excuse me saying, then after the crisis is faced down, with luck, you’ll find the security you had at the very beginning?  Knowing who you are and where you belong?”  Lacey asked.  She realized she’d forgotten the appellation and was quick to add, “My Lady.”

“Ah,” the Lady said.  She adjusted her jewelry, her back still to the door.  “I should have said that differently.  I don’t know if I really knew, then.”

Did that mirror, as well?

Lacey said, “I remember seeing Mary Cobourn, back then, my Lady.  I talked to Professor Hayle about her.”

“Yes.  Mary Cobourn.  We talk about her as someone who has passed.  Or someone we’ve passed on from.  New names, now.  Did she look lonely then?  Lost?”

“She did.  But if I may say so, my Lady, that didn’t last for long.”

“A good reminder, that.  Thank you, Lacey.”

“You’re quite welcome, my Lady.”

“Would you give me a moment’s privacy?  I’ll be along shortly.”

“As you wish.”

For all that the Noble Lady had turned down her offer for support, Lacey suspected she’d wanted, needed, and benefited from it most.

The outer shell was formed, at least for the ground floor, as Lacey emerged.  The growth was faster now.  The building had its outer walls, and the interior space was being fleshed out.  Students hurried to place pots and tumbles of clover and the derivative plants in sconces and troughs, so the green spilled out to the ground below.  It turned the area that had once been the cul-de-sac in the midst of the manors into a kind of garden or an overlarge gazebo.  Flowers were set with care throughout, splashes of color in a dark aesthetic.  They avoided the color red, it seemed.

“Ma’am?”

“Yes?” she asked, turning.

It was a messenger.  A young man, black-skinned with his head shaved of all hair.  He wore a vest over a dress shirt.  “I was told to tell you the guest has touched ground.  We’ve sent people to meet him, and we can expect updates shortly.”

“Thank you,” she said.

She picked up her pace, all but running to her next destination.

It was everything the last houses hadn’t been.  Busy, with Academy science in plain sight.  Doctors and Professors worked to get everything arranged.  Tanks bore the floating brains within, glowing faintly, as Lacey had seen countless times.  Smaller tanks, these.

They were arranged as a wedding cake was, one atop the other, each a bit smaller than the one below.

“Don’t be so flustered, Lacey.”

It was hard to find her voice.  She could barely see the Lady through the jumble of bodies.

“All according to schedule, thus far.”

“Forgive me for saying so, but your castle is still growing, my Lady.  Things started late, as we expected him today, but we didn’t know what city to expect him in.”

“All according to schedule, I assure you.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“Moving,” one Professor announced.

“Excuse me.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

Tubes were disconnected.  Pressurized gases hissed out, and mechanical latches snapped.

Stitched provided the lifting, though it would have been incorrect to call it steady lifting.  It was a team that did the work because grace was required.  With a team, it could be done fluidly.  An upper body was carried into place.  Trailing cords and tubes were plugged into the new housing, the layered stack.

Lacey averted her eyes, as stitched moved away, and an opening was provided that gave her a glimpse of the full picture.

Latches snapped into place, gases hissed, and things were connected.

“Ahem,” the Lady said.  “I don’t seem to have feet, Professor Verde.”

“Beg pardon, my Lady,” a man muttered.

There were more snaps, then another hiss of gas escaping.

In Lacey’s peripheral vision, as she stared at the ground, the connected body raised itself up a fraction.  The Lady didn’t move as a biped moved.  She glided.

Cloth swept into the air as attendants took over.  A dress was put in place.  Hair was adjusted, where it had already been pre-done.  There were no glasses.

The crowd thinned as everyone filled their prescribed role.  All on a kind of schedule.

When they moved away, there was only a young woman of Noble-caliber beauty, silver hair braided in an intricate way and left draped over one shoulder.  Her dress was of top quality, but modest, draping down to graze the ground.

“Walk with me?”

“As you wish, my Lady.  I haven’t checked on Doctor Foster or-”

“Of course.  I planned to give them a bit of time together, but the deadline’s come.”

The young Lady moved like a ghost floating through the air, always a measured, even distance above the ground.  Even at the short set of steps that had once been the front steps of the manor, she moved fluidly and without effort.

Others were gathering and preparing.  Duncan had arrived, which meant the others would be on their way.

Lacey could see Red and the other fairy tale creations.  They had been done up pretty, but many had left monstrous features in place.  Bonnie -Bo Peep- was in their company.

Shirley was present, too.  The woman had made herself mayor of one of the cities to the west.  The Lords and Ladies had recently made her an aristocrat proper.  Shirley was in the company of a lanky, white-haired man, with a cast to his features that suggested they had been provided by the Academy.  They were close.

Emily Gage was present.  She’d done away with her monstrous features in part, solely for this event, but she was still an imposing woman.

Each had seen facets of the Wyvern when Lacey hadn’t been looking.  Witnesses in their own ways, perhaps.  Each compromised in ways Lacey wasn’t.

She wished she could compare notes with them and she doubted it was possible.

This particular beast had flown its coop.

“How are the others?” Lacey’s companion asked, as they walked the outer perimeter of the interior garden plaza.  More guests were arriving by the moment.

“If you had asked me an hour ago, my Lady, I would have said I knew them well enough to say.  Now… I’m not sure I have a grasp of any of them.  Of any of you, I beg pardon, my Lady.”

“Riddles and enigmas.”

“One fusses and makes others fuss.  One is compelling and frightening at the same times.  The next is dwelling on arming themselves against the wrong thing.”

“And the next?”

Lacey glanced at the Lady beside her.

“Speak openly.  If our guest doesn’t take to our hospitality, it could be your last chance.”

She said it in such a cavalier way.  That this was all so critical a thing.

“You should be the most concerned of all of us, my Lady.  You remember everything.  You should see what’s unfolding with the most clarity, shouldn’t you?  The others are caught up in the details, they’re dwelling on their personal perspectives, their needs and drives, the imminent threats and dangers.  You’re equipped to see the big picture, the greater agendas, and how those details connect into something greater.”

“You think we’re missing something?”

“I think each of you have touched on pieces of it, my Lady.  I hoped and felt you might be the one who would take those pieces and pull them together.”

“I played my part in getting us to this point.  This meeting was always going to be part of the greater plan.”

“You didn’t see him toward the end, my Lady.  Not around the time they besieged Radham, killed Hayle, or confined Genevieve Fray.”

“I did see,” the silver haired young lady said.  She drew in a deep breath, then smiled.  “I saw it in a dream, you see.  Words spoken while I was asleep, all left unsorted.  Ones I can forget or interpret, or that exist only in abstract.  I would even say they’re my most cherished, special memories.”

Lacey felt her partially prepared response wither in the midst of her vocal chords, at those final words.

That response died when the young Lady said, “I believe in him.”

Lacey stopped in her tracks.

Her walking companion progressed a bit further, then paused, looking back.

“My Lady,” Lacey said.  “I wouldn’t want to cause trouble, but-”

The silver haired young lady waved her off.  “Speak frankly.  Without titles, if it’s easier.  Barely anyone is in earshot, and I trust all present who could listen in.”

“I- I beg your pardon.  But really, truly.  I spent the last decade of my life mired in this project.  I’ve kept tabs on everything, I’ve followed along, I saw Project Wyvern at its inception, from that angry little boy that Hayle had delivered to our offices to the young man who killed Hayle and watched him die.  He’s a shapeshifter of the mind, a sponge, a… puzzle.”

“He is.”

“It’s impossible to say anything for sure about Sylvester except that you can’t believe him.  You can’t trust him.  Once you do that, you’ve lost.  Only disaster follows.  Please.  If all the years I’ve spent being involved in this count for anything, it needs to be that you hear and realize that.  You can’t believe Sylvester.  You can’t believe in SylvesterHe’s very possibly the scariest and most dangerous person in the Crown States, and I say that with your guest disembarking onto your shores.”

“I’m sure you’re right.  I won’t deny your long and storied experience when it comes to Sylvester and the Lambs.  It’s a large part of why you’re here.”

“Please, my lady.”

“But he isn’t Sylvester any longer.”

“Please.”

“And we’re no longer Lambs.”

With that, Lacey knew she had lost.

An entire city bent at the knee with his arrival.

He was a giant.  His humanity had long been discarded.  He was only human in the face he wore and his rough shape.

He strode down the carefully swept road, his retinue of fantastical beasts on either side of him and behind him.  His beard was heavy, his hair long, and his footsteps had gravity, which made the bowing heads near him bend lower.

He had no carpet unfurled before him, but he had one trail behind him.  Tubes, wires, and conduits of all sorts followed him, flowing from his back and shoulders, arranged in fine, orderly lines behind him.  For every ten steps he took, there was a set of servants to take up position at the trail of fluid-filled tubes, to ensure that everything flowed straight and without issue.  He took corners and traveled bends in the path, and the team worked discreetly to manage the trail so nothing caught, nothing became disorderly.

The trail extended to the mouth of the great sea beast that had borne him across his ocean, down at the harbor.  The beast had unfolded itself, turning itself inside out to provide functional accommodations at the harbor, the revealed buildings taller than any building in the not-immodest city.

The bellowing of trumpets marked his approach and words were spoken to announce his coming, further down the road.  His steps were measured.

The words were spoken as he passed through the gates.  The hush was such that the words could have been whispered and most would have caught them.  “You are graced by the presence of your rightful Lord King Adam, Emperor of the one hundred nations, bearer of the Crown, sword, and scales!”

All were already bowing, scraping the ground.  The Lord King gazed at his subjects.  He raised his eyes to look at the building that was still erecting itself, black branches reaching for the sky as it grew, shapes forming into arches and decoration.

You,” the King spoke.  Most present startled at the sound.  “Have succeeded in drawing my attention.

His head turned, taking in the surroundings.

“If this is an attempt to kill me, you should know this isn’t my true body.  Your attempts will fail.  If this is a mere farce, then the perpetrators of it should announce and explain themselves.”

If I may, Lord King” one figure said, rising, only to segue straight into a deep, flourishing bow.  His dark hair was long, and he was Noble in appearance, with sharp green eyes and a taller frame than even many Nobles.  “I would announce those who invited you.”

“You may.”

“Lord Asher.”

The young man appeared to be close kin to the first, but was red haired, his hair tidily taken care of.  He was adolescent, but had all of the hallmarks of anyone Noble-made.  He had a woman of similar age beside him, still bowing.  They wore clothes of similar colors, both in dark blues, in the finest fabrics.

The expression that Lord Asher wore was an unflinching one.

Lady Helena.

A beauty, possessed of grace.  There was artistry there that few beyond the Lord King himself, his Queen and his Prince could lay any claim to.  Most importantly, she carried it all with the bearing of someone that had known it from birth.

She smelled like blood.

“Lady Margaret.”

Another beauty, if a sharper one, in the dangerous glint of her eyes and the way she held herself.  Had he seen her in another context, he would have believed she was any of his new Nobles, still learning their new bodies.  Promising.  Dangerous.

Lady Jessica.”

Something else, there.  Confident, but not nearly as immediately dangerous as the other two announced, supposed Ladies.  Silver haired, modest, alert, her hands clasped together.  She immediately went to the side of the tall man that had announced her, her hand on his arm.

One of the key players in this, then.

“You may, if you so desire, my Lord King, call me Lord Simon.”

The King stared at the assembled group.  He looked at the crowd, and he saw the assorted monsters, the rough-edged hiding in the back rows, the ones decorated with tattoos and other things no true aristocracy would harbor.

“Let’s do away with the audience of this particular theater.”

Lord Simon gestured with one hand.  The assembled crowd turned away, filing into the back hallways and doorways.  In less than thirty seconds, only the announced Lords and Ladies remained, alongside two young individuals in lab coats, a boy and a girl.

The girl approached the Lord Simon and stood at his other side.  He placed a hand on her shoulder, and he stared down the King.

“The stage is a good one,” the King observed.  He looked up, where the branches were striving to meet in a steeple.  “I’ve not seen one quite like it.”

“Thank you, my Lord King,” Simon said.

“It represents something.  Transformation, growth, and timing.”

“Yes, Lord King.  I’m gratified that came across.”

“I have never met any with the gall you supposed Lords and Ladies have on display here.”

The girl in the white coat that stood beside this Simon was scared, he observed.  The boy who stood in the back was.  The remainder were better at hiding it, if they were capable of feeling fear at all.

He went on, “That you would even try this ruse suggests that you know things few get to survive knowing.  The existence of your audience suggests you’ve talked about these things.”

“Yes, Lord King.  We know these things.”

“You’ve waged a war, clearly.  You killed my kin.”

“Yes, my Lord King.  Most here have Noble blood on their hands, in some form.”

The King moved through the room, traveling slowly.

Most, if taken at face value as Nobles, were only of the caliber that would be called bastards.  Odd, that the one doing the speaking was one of those.  Some were better, or had more promise.

“You managed to draw me here with your invitation.  Now you’ll likely die for what you’ve admitted to me.  You did this for a reason.  You wanted my ear.”

“Yes, Lord King.”

“You have it.”

“Lord King, we would humbly request your sanction for our plan to wage war with the Crown Empire in its entirety, to ruin the Academy structure, and to behead the nobility.  Yourself and ourselves excluded, of course.

“You continue to call yourselves Nobles.”

It seemed to surprise more than a few of them that he’d chosen to dwell on that part of things.

Simon seemed to take it in stride.  “Yes, Lord King.  Absolutely.”

“Why?”

“Because the nobility under you is more farce than what we’ve posed here, Lord King.  We proved our value by taking your Crown States as our own.  I believe wholeheartedly that we’ll be better nobles than the nobles your Academy manufactures.”

“You would destroy our Academies, not just behead and replace our nobility.”

“They’ve grown too powerful, Lord King.  In cutting them down, we would bring them in balance.  It is in fact the reason we first decided we would approach you with the idea of a deal.  We believe that you, being who you are, you would have to feel some degree of frustration with the state of the Crown as it is beside its brother, the Academy.”

“You would wage war with the Crown Empire.  One broken nation against a hundred?”

“Yes, Lord King.  We would, given an opportunity, colonize every place you’ve rendered unfit for habitation.  We would stage wars from these grounds.  Competition is healthy, yet the Crown never loses.  You need an enemy or your people will wage a war against their own.  They’re dangerously close to doing that.  Even here, they were.”

“That plan of yours would require a great deal of time.”

“Generations, Lord King.”

“It would require my silence.”

The tall young Noble smiled.  “Yes, Lord King.  Your arrival or the arrival of your kin was inevitable.  We thought we would invite it, so we could answer it appropriately, and make our best offer.”

“As offers go, it is not a very good one.  War and death for me and my people.”

“The alternative was that we would raise the spectre of primordial-derived superweapons unleashed on the world at large, my Lord King.”

“You would not even be the first to do so.”

“We imagine not, Lord King.  We would hope-“ Simon paused.  “Well, perhaps not hope, but we may be breaking from pattern in that we’ll relinquish this leverage.  We would hope others would do the same in similar circumstance, but we suspect we’re striking new ground in doing it this way.”

The young ‘Noble’ turned to the girl in the coat.

She hesitated, the Lord King saw.

But she turned over the iron key.

Simon approached, and he reached up to hand the Lord King the key.  “The experiments are ready to be unleashed with a turn of the key, Lord King.  They’re sitting dormant in the red-decked boat on port.  You’ll want to dispose of them, I imagine.”

The key almost disappeared in the Lord King’s palm, as he held it.  It was almost weightless.

“You believe this.  You’d throw yourselves on my mercy to make it happen.”

“Belief is all we have.  Belief that you’d have to find this necessary, interesting, or valuable.  That you can’t possibly be satisfied with the way things are.”

“I’m the most powerful individual in the world.  Why would I not be satisfied?”

“We’ve lived in that world, Lord King.  We’ve seen it from the lowest to the highest points.  The audience you saw ranged that same gamut.  If you’re a representative of that world in near-totality, then you have to have seen the need for it to change.  You must have seen and recognized that monstrousness at the core of things.  The darkness.  The ugliness.”

“Must I?”

Simon touched his own chest, “It’s standing right in front of you, calling itself a Lord, my King.”

Others reacted to that, to varying degrees.  The one in the back.  The young woman with the dangerous eyes, ‘Margaret’.

Lady Jessica didn’t react.  She raised her hand, holding Simon’s, and kissed the back of it.

“My King,” Lady Jessica said, as she lowered their hands.  “The Academy wanted control and it pushed that control to the point of slavery.  The result was rebellion.  Your Crown wanted power and it exercised that power, breaking that which didn’t bend.  Lord Simon here is a representative of every aspect of that.  He was made to absorb and adapt, to mold himself to environments.  He molded himself to us first.  He molded himself to your world last.”

“And I’m supposed to trust him, knowing this?”

Trust them.  They’re the reason I’m here and wanting good things.  They’re the reason I didn’t use the key.  Well, as something more than a token,” Simon said.

The Lord King looked down at the key that rested in his hand.

“You’re not the first to make a bid or to pose a challenge,” the King said.  He looked between them.  He saw Helena’s hand on Asher’s shoulder, the look she cast back over her shoulder at the male Doctor.  The way Lady Jessica and Simon and the female doctor stood together, and how the female doctor looked back at Margaret.

All knit together, their body language woven into one another.

“If you were to give us the chance, we can be the ones who succeed,” the young Doctor said.  “We’ve come too far to do anything else, I promise you that much, Lord King.”

They might just.

The King clenched his fist, destroying the key.

“Do as you will.”

Previous                                                                                                                    End

Forest for the Trees – e.3

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Just beyond the periphery of the city, the landscape rippled and bulged from the mass graves.  All was now buried under a carpet of wolf clover.  The plague had hit New Amsterdam, and war had hit it some time after.  Word was that the putrescence made walking out among those mounds and that clover dangerous.

It was still so nice to see green again.  It had been a bleak time of it.

Drake puffed on his cigarette, then moved his hand, putting the cigarette just in front of Emily’s mouth.  She drew on it.  Then, smoke still suppressed, she kissed the back of Drake’s hand before he pulled away.  Her exhalation of smoke chased after his hand.

He moved the cigarette to his right hand, before reaching beneath her hair to rest his hand on the back of her neck.  She half closed her eyes and let her head rock left and right as he used the one hand to massage her.  The scales that decorated his hands were smooth on the surface, rough at the edges.  His fingertips were clawed, and she shivered every time the points grazed her.

“I always planned to come here.  I was so young, the last time I came,” Drake said.

“New Amsterdam?”

“Yeah.  It’s our city, isn’t it?”

“It’s everyone’s.  Or it was,” she said.  “It’s supposed to be big and messy enough that anyone can find their place here.”

His hands were strong.  She loved his hands.  They were long-fingered and capable of massaging her neck, from hairline to shoulder.  It would be so easy to pinch or squeeze in the wrong way, and he avoided it.  She loved that they were studded with scales and marked with tattoo and as a consequence there were probably no hands like his in the world.

She loved that just about every last part of him was like that.

A distant train whistle screamed, and people that had been in the station or sitting on benches under the eaves began to migrate out toward the platform.

That same group of people represented a cross section of the city’s residents.  The rich, the poor, the young, the old.  The free, the slaves, the living, and the dead that were animated with voltaic riggings.  There were families there, Emily noted.  She felt a twinge at seeing that.

Drake’s thumb ran down the side of her neck, tracing beneath the collar of her shirt, the nail touching skin of her shoulder that clothing covered.

“You’re bored, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Never, when I’m with you.”

Clearly,” she said, with exaggerated amusement.  “You turn your full attention my way when you have to wait around for even a few minutes.”

“It’s been an hour.”

“Not even half of one.”

The relatively chaste contact of his hand on the back of her neck was drawing some stares from some of the people who’d gathered closer to them on the platform.  Well-to-do families.  Not as well-to-do, perhaps, as the family Emily had been born into, Emily figured, but well-to-do enough to have clothes of the latest fashion and stitched to carry their bags.  They would be paying the fares for those stitched servants, too.  Those same servants would have a separate car.  The smell of death and ozone tended to come up when they gathered in an enclosed space.

She was aware of the pressure.  There was an unspoken expectation that Emily and Drake would get out of the way.  They were supposed to move to a place on the train platform that would be out of sight.  They were altered.  Tattooed, physically changed.  She was horned and her teeth were fangs.  Her clothes were a men’s work shirt, because ordinary woman’s clothing didn’t fit well with her altered musculature, and she wore overalls with the straps and front piece of the upper half tied around her waist, knotted in front.  Drake wore a sleeveless shirt and canvas pants with suspenders.  The suspenders were a necessity, with him having next to nothing in body fat.  Lean muscle, more lean muscle, the requisite pieces and organs to keep him alive, the skeleton to keep him upright, and everything else was decoration.

She wouldn’t have it any other way.

There was a girl, Emily noticed.  Thirteen or fourteen, in nice clothes with nice hair, a pretty stitched servant carrying her bag.  Where the girl’s family and greater group were turning up their noses or stopping just shy of outright sneering at Emily and Drake, the girl kept sneaking glances, and her expression was unreadable.

Please, little lady, Emily thought.  Please see this for what it is.

She reached up for Drake’s hand, and she pulled it down, so his arm was against her neck and shoulder, his arm against her front, his front against her back.

She held that arm with both hands, holding it against herself, holding herself against it.

Look, she willed.

“What’s our agenda for later?” Drake asked.

“Our agenda?  We have guests to entertain.”

“Mmm,” he made the sound, and she felt that sound through where his chest and stomach. pressed against her back.

“We’re fairly flexible, though.”

“That we are,” he murmured in her ear.

She laughed, loud.  That got her more annoyed glances than the affectionate touching had.  The little lady looked away, rather than at her, as if ashamed, embarrassed on her behalf.

Look, Emily willed, prayed.

“Good thing too,” Drake continued.  “The very next moment we’re alone together, I’m going to pounce on you, beautiful creature, and I won’t be letting you go.”

Where his hand draped down in front of her, his fingertip tapped twice against the knot of the overall’s straps, that knot just a bit lower than a belt buckle ought to be.

She hugged his arm to her, tighter, and she smiled to herself.

In many things, she worried.  In many other things, she was far from alright.  In most things, even, there was anger or pain.  Old, present, and looming.

In this, however, she was content.  She had fought for this.  She had claimed her scale-decorated man and left him behind, and she had fought her way back to him again.  She wanted to embody her contentment in a way that could be seen.

That little lady with the fine well-to-do family and the stitched carrying her bag looked her way, curious despite herself.

Drake placed the cigarette in her mouth again.  Emily drew back, then exhaled the smoke through her nostrils, twin plumes.

The train screamed again.  It was coming out of the trees now.  One scream after another, as it drew close to the platform.  The sound of the whistles and horns were joined by the sounds of the brakes.

Soon the passengers would flood out and flood in.

I’m everything you’re not, little lady.  I don’t have the fine clothes, I don’t have the money or the future waiting for me.  Not properly.  I could hang tomorrow, if things unfolded wrong, if the wrong words found the wrong ear or if the wrong people happened to arrive in this city.

But I’m free.

The train came to a stop.

Stairs stretched down from the side of the train, part machinery, part musculature.  The passengers followed a moment later.

The car closest to Emily and Drake was filled with people like the little lady.

“Shall we go find them?”

Emily nodded.

They took their time traveling around the back of the crowd.  They got several more dirty looks.

Chance and Lainie were getting off the rear car.  They had a crowd around them.  Lainie wore a sleeveless dress in a dusty rose shade that wouldn’t have looked out of place on someone in the well-to-do crowd, but she wore it to show off her arms.  Plague scars marked one arm, and tattoos marked the other.  Thorny branches reached up from her hands, and Kraken tentacles reached down from her shoulder, making only the slightest contact, just past the elbow.  It was part of a broader tattoo that claimed her back.

Her eyes were modified, in what was supposed to be a minor change, but there had been a complication.  A red ring marked the division between pupil and iris, stark and bright, but her actual eyelids were reddened, the spaces beneath each eye darkened, as if she’d just finished a marathon session of crying and gone a night without sleep.

Emily always noticed the eyes.  Eyes held meaning to her.  She’d offered to find someone good who could fix it, and Lainie had declined.

Chance was relatively unchanged, for his part.  He was fit, with the work he did in the downtime, he had one or two tattoos, he had some plague scars that were worse than Lainie’s, mostly beneath his clothes, and he had a mod-girl at his side, but he was still recognizable as Chance.

The rest of their small crowd was of similar caliber.  They were dockworkers, youth of questionable reputation, thieves, charlatans, with tattoos, modifications, and delightfully poor fashion choices.

Emily’s hand moved.  Together.

Of the group, Chance’s hand, Lainie’s hand, and three others all moved in the answering sign. Agreement.

She broke away from Drake to reach out.  Her hand caught Lainie at the side of the head, fingers in Lainie’s red hair.

“How are you?” she asked Lainie.

“Tired from the trip.  Hungry.  We made friends on the train.”

“Good,” Emily said.

Chance said, “Job finished early, but trains took forever.  They were pulling trains off of one line to put them on this one.  Five more trains are going to pass through this station before the afternoon and evening are over.”

“Why?” Emily asked.

“We should find out and report back to our Lords and Ladies,” Chance said.  “After.”

“After food and sleep, please,” Lainie said.

Chance put an arm around the girl he’d been close to since stepping off the train.  The girl had lace growing out of her, to the point it wasn’t clear where clothing ended and skin began.  “After.”

Emily laughed.  “I know just the place.”

“You know a place?” Drake asked.

Emily nodded.  “Come on.  All of you.”

She gave them a hand with one of the heavier bags, slinging it over one shoulder.  She led them toward the city, the rest of the group chattering and smiling.

She cast a look over her shoulder, searching the crowd for the little lady.  She found her target in the window, meeting the girl’s eyes.

Emily smiled, revealing her fangs.  The girl turned away from the window, a flicker of annoyance on her face.

That was fine.

It had been the theaters of Tynewear, not a train station, she’d been two or three years younger, but years ago she had been that girl.  She had cast the same inquisitive glances, her expression flat because she’d been unable to come to a judgment.  Rather than a couple, it had been a heavily tattooed man and his friends, drunk off their asses, singing.

She hoped and she prayed that the girl, should she need it, would find it the same opportunity that she had.  The first seed of a realization, if not the catalyst itself.

“Where are we going?” Drake asked her.  She knew what he really wanted to ask.  With this crowd in their company, would there be any pouncing?

“Home,” she said.  “In a fashion.”

The music played throughout the apartment home.  She moved her hand and it caught in torn sheets with beads of blood on them.

The room was nice.  The walls were painted evenly, decorated with portraits and landscapes in fine frames.  One wall had a bookshelf sitting against it, and the books were all leather, including some exotic kinds that had been Academy created.  The bed had four posts and a canopy, the floor had a fine rug from halfway around the planet.

Everything in the apartment home would be of similar caliber.

She wanted to destroy the rest of it, as friction, scales, claws, and other decorations had destroyed the sheets.  She wanted to tell the others to help her destroy it, but she didn’t want to spoil their rest.

Before they left, perhaps.

She sat up.

“Cigarette?” Drake asked.

She reached to the bedside table, retrieved the sole remaining cigarette from the little metal case, and handed it to Drake.  She found a matchbook and pressed it against his bare chest, before standing from the bed.

“Not partaking?”

“Getting water and checking on our guests,” she said.  “I’ll be back.”

“Get dressed first,” he told her.  “I’ll save it until you’re back.”

She threw a small pillow at him, then stretched.

She found the clothes she’d had on, and put them back, the overall’s straps going over her shoulders this time.  She walked barefoot into the next room.

Lainie was curled up in a young man’s lap, head on his shoulder.  The lad had a guitar resting across the armsrest of the chair and her lap, laid with strings up.  As the music box played, he plucked the strings.

One of the young men stood and approached her as she found a wine glass and filled it with water from the tap.

“Keep your distance,” she warned.  “I imagine I smell atrocious.”

“Can’t smell a thing,” he said.  “Too many years of exposure to noxious chemicals, even before the Lambs found me and snatched me up.”

“Chemicals, hm?”

“And after they found me, it was more poisons, gases, and other things that singe the nose hairs, even if you’re being careful,” he said.

She drank her water, making a bit of a nodding motion to make it clear she’d heard.

“Junior,” he introduced himself.  “Posie is over there, with one of our guests from the train.  The other two, are boys I’m training up in hopes they’ll be able to follow in my footsteps.  Marv and Vic.”

“Emily,” she said.  She offered a hand to shake.  He shook it.  “I’m the princess in the tower that Lillian and Sylvester rescued, and now they don’t know what to do with me.”

“I think-” Junior started.

There was a hard knock at the door.

“-He knew exactly what to do with everyone.”

Past tense?

She went to the door.

No peephole.  In a building like this, there wasn’t really a need.  Each resident had an apartment that spanned one or two floors.

She opened the door.  The people on the other side forced it the rest of the way open.  Soldiers.  They flooded into the apartment.  Anyone who could have gone for a gun wasn’t given a chance.

Candy stared down the officer who pointed a pistol at her.

If they shot Drake-

“On your knees!” the officer shouted into her face.

“No,” Emily said.

The others were kneeling.  Junior had dropped to his knees of his own volition, even without a gun pointed his way.  It freed officers to turn their attention to her.

Two approached her from behind, grabbing her arm and shoulder.  A boot kicked the back of her knee, sharp.

Her leg didn’t bend or even move in reaction.

“I will not ask you again!  Down on the ground or I will put a bullet in you!”

“My answer will remain the same.  If you shoot me-”

“Candida.”

Emily closed her eyes for a moment.

“Officers, it’s alright.”

“Are you sure?”

The pair stepped through the door.  More officers followed behind them.  He was an older man, his features chiseled to the point they looked artificial.  She looked thirty years younger than she was, her figure ridiculous.

“Everard.  Adelaide,” Emily greeted them.

“Candida.  Don’t use our first names like that.  It’s petulant.  We’re your father and your mother,” Everard said.

“I’d hoped never to see you again.”

“Then our family apartment in New Amsterdam was a bad place to visit.  You’ve brought squatters?”

“Friends and acquaintances.”

Drake had emerged from the other room, dressed.

“They’ve broken into our liquor cabinet, it seems,” Everard observed.

“My lords!  You’ve destroyed yourself,” Adelaide said.

“I feel better than ever, Adelaide.”

“Your eyes,” Adelaide said.  “Whatever possessed you?”

Emily raised her hand to her face, touching near her eye.  The orbs were there, but they had been made utterly clear and translucent, visible only if the light caught them at the right angles.  Otherwise, it left her eye sockets looking empty, raw.

“The husband you picked for me had it done.”

“Nothing so grotesque, I’m sure,” Adelaide said.

“What even brought you to New Amsterdam?” Everard asked.

“I could ask you the same thing.  You could have left.”

“We tried,” he said.  “Our timing was wrong.  There was supposed to be a boat this spring.  We made the trip and were turned away.  Imagine our surprise when we return here, only to hear the doorman is alarmed at the rabble that forced their way through, and that authorities are already contacted and en-route.”

Emily glanced at her friends.  “The trains.  It’s why so many were coming back.  They weren’t allowed to leave.”

“Quarantine concerns,” Everard said.

“What a shame,” Emily said, with no emotion in her voice.  She wondered if it was one of the other groups, isolating and rooting out key players in aristocracy and business.

Her father certainly didn’t look happy.  She’d seen that unhappy expression on his face many a time, but it had typically been reserved for her misadventures and delinquency.

“We’re hoping the ports will open soon,” Adelaide said.  “We’re expecting ships next fall.”

They won’t.

“What shall we do with them?” the officer asked.

“Will you behave?” Everard asked.  “We can have all of that stripped away, the tattoos removed, the eyes replaced.”

“I would sooner kill you than let that happen,” she answered.

“Please,” Adelaide said.  She drew closer, hesitated, then closed the distance.  “Candida.”

“That’s not my name.”

“It’s the name we gave you,” Adelaide said.  She sniffed.  “You reek.”

“That might well be the cigarettes,” Emily said.

“Not ladylike, those.  Phallic, stinking things.  Unhealthy, the Academies say.”

“Oh yes.  Unhealthy.  If only I were immortal, and didn’t have to worry about such things.”

Her parents exchanged glances.  Her mother said, “It’s not the cigarettes.  You smell like sex and sweat.”

“I should hope so, after six goes at it.”

Everard made a face.  Emily only glared at him, staring him down.

“Why do you have to make it all so hard?” he asked.

You tried to sell me.  I was the currency you used to bet your chips on a particular horse, and that horse was put down.

“Why couldn’t you have ever made it easy for me?” she asked.

“We gave you everything,” Adelaide said.  “You seem to glory in perverting it.  Ruining those things.  It’s a wonder you haven’t soiled this place more than you have.”

She glanced at the mess.  Considering the people she kept company with, it was so mild as to be laughable.

She caught Junior’s eye.  He gestured.  FightQuestion.

She shook her head slightly.

“Tell us you’ll cooperate, that you’ll be good.  We can discuss fixing what you’ve done to yourself.  Perhaps, if the local authorities are willing, we could have them take your friends into custody, and free them, contingent on your cooperation,” Everard said.

“Whatever you need, Mr. Gage, sir,” an officer said.

“Thank you.”

“The local authorities are so obedient.  You’ve climbed the ranks, haven’t you?” Emily asked.

“Even with the fate of the Lord Baron Richmond, the tragedy that was, we were elevated by our association with him.”

“Ah,” she said.  “Were you?  I would say that was the most tragic part of it all, except I wouldn’t want to undermine how very horrible the rest of it was.”

“His death was a great loss.  Then you disappeared.  You played at being dead for a time, only to resurface, tried your hand at playing dead, but we had eyes on you- and then you disappeared for a considerably longer period of time, appearing only today,” Everard said.  “For the best, perhaps, considering the last word was that you were associating with rebels.”

“Rebels?” the officer in charge asked.

“I would recommend treating her colleagues here as such,” Everard said, with a kind of finality.

“You’re aware that the penalty for even suspected involvement in rebel groups would be death by execution?”

“I’m aware,” Everard said, staring Emily down, before he couldn’t stare into the void of the raw, translucent orbs any longer.  His sculpted, Academy-given lips twisted with disgust.  “Arrest her with them.  But postpone her execution, at the very least, if you can.  I do have hope she’ll come around.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You really don’t know me at all,” she said.  “Thinking I can come around.”

Everard drew closer, until he was shoulder to shoulder with his wife.  He was smaller and shorter than Emily, with all the augmentations she’d had.

He reached up for her face, and she caught his hand.

She squeezed it, watching his expression, wanting to see just a little bit of the pain.  She heard the parts of his hand grind into one another.  She saw his expression tested, but she didn’t see it break.

“Let him go,” the officer said.

She let Everard go.

They were led as a group toward the lift.  Thick fluids churned through tubes as the lift made its way toward the ground floor, their small crowd of delinquents and rebels with shackles on, arms behind their backs, while officers lined up behind and to the side of them, guns in hand.

Drake stood by her, his upper arm pressing against hers.  That ended when her father intervened.  Drake was pulled back by men in uniform.  Everard stood to Emily’s left instead.

“You really want to do this?” she asked.

“Not in the slightest,” Everard said.  “But what other option do we have?”

“Leave us to this.  Admit there’s no rebel involvement.  Go to one of your other homes.  Accept that I served my role and elevated you in status, and leave me to lead the rest of my very, very long life as I see fit.”

He shook his head, and he remained silent, as if he couldn’t even dignify her with a response.  He could dignify her by making her a Noble’s wife, but… it terminated there.

“Does the lobby of this building have a phone?” Junior asked.

“Of course,” Adelaide said.

“Shush, dear.  Don’t entertain them.”

“Of course,” Junior muttered.  “Like it’s assumed.”

The lift’s door opened.  They stepped out into the lobby.

“We’re on Crown business,” Junior said.  “It’s meant to be discreet.  Before things go any further, I’ll have to ask that I can make a phone call.”

The officers exchanged glances.

“I was the fiancee of the late Baron Richmond,” Emily said.  “Adelaide and Everard Gage will confirm this.  Take that into account and hear me when I say that you must allow that phone call.”

“She was, but-” Adelaide said.

“Shush,” Everard said.  “It’s fine.”

Junior smiled.

They approached the desk.  Junior took the phone.  He paused for a long moment before dialing the number, as if he had to remember.

It was a much longer moment before there was a response.  He stood where he was, waiting.

“Junior,” he finally said.  “Yes, my Lord.  Yes, my Lord.”

He held the phone out to Emily.

She took it.

“It’s Emily, my Lord,” she said.

“You don’t ever have to call me that.”

She wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Shall I leave this to Junior?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“Do visit.  That’s not an order.  Only a wish.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

There was a soft sound of amusement on the other end.

“Hand the phone to the person in charge.”

She extended the phone toward the head officer.

She watched as he listened.  Whatever he heard, he wasn’t given a chance to speak, much less utter a ‘my lord’.  Not until the end.

“Yes, my Lord,” the officer said.

Emily watched her parents’ expression transform.  Puzzlement, then something between concern and hope.

The officer hung up.  He kept his hand on the bar of the phone while it rested on the cradle, then glanced at the secretary at the desk.  “That was the true number?”

“Yes, sir.”

The officer nodded.  He turned to Junior.  “My apologies for the inconvenience, sir.”

Junior smiled.  “Please take the shackles off.”

The officer motioned.  Officers in the retinue hurried to oblige.

“What is this?” Everard asked.

“You can shackle them,” Junior said.

“What!?”

Junior glanced at Emily.

“They were directly implicated in the Baron Richmond’s death,” she said.  “That in mind, keep them alive.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the officer said.

“I don’t understand,” Everard said.

“I think you do,” she said.  “It’s really very simple.  You and your ilk owned and ran this country.  You ran it into the ground, as a matter of fact.  Now it’s no longer yours, and debts are coming due.”

“We’re your parents.  Your family!”

“You never even resembled family, let alone parents,” she said.  “You’re traitors.”

The officers stood ready to cart the two away.  They looked to her for leadership, expecting their orders.

She didn’t like it.  It resembled what she’d seen and done as the Baron’s fiancee.

The Lords and Ladies of Radham had asked her if she wanted a greater role in things.  She had refused.  She had her family.  She looked at Drake.

“A question, before they go,” Junior said.  “Though I suppose I could interrogate them properly, with chemicals-”

“There’s no need,” Everard said, “We’re loyal to the Crown.  This has to be a misunderstanding or a lie.  I’ll tell you whatever you need to know, without chemicals.”

“You said you expected ships next fall?”

“Yes,” Adelaide said.

“Incoming or outgoing?”

“Incoming,” she said.  “It was the talk of Trimountaine Port.  We’re hoping- were hoping, that we could sail out with them when they left.  You can’t imprison us, none of this makes sense-”

“That’s enough,” Junior said.  “That’ll be all.”

Their group remained in the lobby while the officers, Everard, and Adelaide left.

Together, they all returned to the lift, many rubbing at wrists.  Couples paired off and friends met to converse.

“Incoming guests?” Drake asked.  “How?  How would we even know?”

The questions echoed her own thought processes, even if the direction of those questions didn’t.  In many things, she worried.  In other things, she was far from alright.  In most things, even, there was anger or pain.

Some of that had quieted, with this.  Some of the fears had been put to rest, the demons slain.  Her parents were gone, and with luck, would never darken her path again.  Old pain there, yes, but never to be present or future pain again.

Monstrous, perhaps, to turn on her parents like that, to let it happen.  But she wore that monstrousness with pride.

Her hand with its clawed fingertips reached for and found Drake’s.

“A singular guest, I imagine,” Junior said.  “As to how, I have to think our Lords and Ladies sent out an invitation.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Forest for the Trees – e.2

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

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.

“Hm?”

“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.”

“It’s disconcerting.”

“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 wasn’t.”

“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.”

“You can’t?”

“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.

“He manages.”

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.”

As pawn.

Her hand moved.  “If you’ll excuse me, then.”

“You’re well excused,” one of the doctors on the sideline said.

So rude.

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

“I am.”

“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.

Shirley frowned.

“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.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Forest for the Trees – e.1

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Her footsteps made no sound as she climbed to the top of a hill.  The woods around her were noiseless, without bird, without buzz, without the sound of branch rustling against branch.  There was little movement, for most of the particles that could be blown away had already found their way free, and the remainder formed only dark clouds that swirled through the trees at knee or waist height.  Weather and the slow, steady pressure of time had seen most of it compressed and condensed down, like snow without the crunch of a layer of ice on top.

The sky was brilliant with blue, but it was the only color she could see.  The landscape had been painted with the black of a charcoal without any shine to it.  That which could not be made black had been powdered or outright caked with the stuff.  If any of the large boulders she saw had any color to them at all, her mind convinced her eyes it was a trick of perception.  Soil had been thoroughly mixed with the stuff, sterilized in the process, and the color had bled out from it.  Gray at best, but most often black.

She raised a gloved hand, and the caked-on powder cracked and fell away as she reached into her jacket pocket and withdrew a brush.  She swept it over the glass eyes of her mask, then dusted off the filters of the breathing apparatus.  She’d alternately been glad at the silence of the apparatus and wished that the apparatus made sound, so there could be something.

The forest here was past the point of creaking.  That which would change had changed, and it had died.  The wind and movement would break it down, it would crumble, the wind would do away with the fine dust, the rain and snow would compress the larger granules, and all of this would disappear.

The branches that remained were skeletal, condensed in their way, much as the ground underfoot was.  They had drawn in the moisture, compressed with the weather, drawing in more moisture, and what hadn’t fallen away had become like needles, too thin, twisted, criss crossing one another.

The sun shone, and the blackened landscape ate that sunlight.

She stretched, shook herself as a dog might, to shake off the weight of the dust that had managed to accumulate on her, and then she sprinted down the hill, faster than any human could move.  The dust that was kicked up behind her formed clouds taller than she was.

She avoided the path, moving through the trees.  There was always the danger of something falling, but the density of the ground was better, where there were or had been tree roots, and where the ground hadn’t been cleared of stones and rocks for the road.  There were other hazards too, rare, but it really took only one unlucky step.

She was strong.  She had been made strong, because that was a prerequisite for being made fast, for being acrobatic.  She had been made to put up a fight, to lose that fight.  She had been made to be fucked, should anyone want it of her.  She’d been made to die, if anyone wanted to see it from her, and she’d been made to even like or want that death, if given the appropriate instruction.  The reaction she would have to the death or the fucking was up to others, not her, decided by a key phrase.  Her wishes had never factored in, not for her, not for any or all of the others, be they boy, girl, or other; nearly normal or strange; big or small.

It was the strength, however, that let her move through the sometimes knee-deep debris.  If she found that one step carried her forward into a ditch, her entire body plunging into black powder so deep that she could stand on her toes and reach skyward and her fingertips wouldn’t stick out of the powder, that strength let her gather herself together and then bound up and forward, free.

Spotting a sturdy tree through the film of black on the glass eyes of her mask, she leaped up, onto the thickest, lowest branch.  It didn’t break under her, and it didn’t bring the tree down, but smaller branches and finer structures all shattered at the impact.  Branch and twig fell to the cover below.  Much of what hit her broke and snapped without sound on impact, so light it could barely be felt.

She shook off her glove, then reached for the brush.  She dusted off her eyes and filters again.  She glanced at the filters, then pressed the back of her hand to her mask, mouth pressed against the breathing hole, and blew with as much force as she could muster.  Fine dust geysered out of the filters.

Tilting her head to the right, she reached up, and she brushed off her antlers, the top of her head, and her shoulders.  It was idle movement, vanity.  But the antlers were vanity.  So was the mask she wore.  Preening let her avoid kinks, cramps, or getting into too routine a set of movements.  It made her aware that a tougher branch had fallen amid the antlers, tangled up in the tines.

She would need to stop soon.  She was hungry, she needed to hydrate, to relieve herself.  The filters needed changing, and she needed to be somewhere reasonably clean and safe to do that.

Taking stock of the landscape, she searched for the telltale hints in the forest of black on black.  She saw a particularly flat expanse.

More twigs and branches fell in a shower around the tree as she jumped down.  The landing was an awkward one, but she caught herself.  The biology she had been given spared her a twisted ankle in the middle of a barren black wasteland.

The flat expanse took her a minute to reach.  There were more dips and rises here, more ditches to swallow her up.  She started bounding more than running, moving horizontally,  either hand and both feet ready to catch the first solid earth they came in contact with, finding secure footing, then moving into the next bound.

She slowed as she approached it.  Spots like this were especially treacherous, and bad things happened if she had a misstep.  The ground was soft, swallowing and sucking instead of absorbing and giving way.  Her hands found the equipment, the flask, the filter and crank for the flask, and the hose.

She had to dive into the powder to reach what lay beneath.  She fed the hose into the black liquid, then cranked the contents into the flask.  The crank was necessary, given the work needed to pull the fluid through the filters.

The flask started ticking with each crank, and she detached the apparatus, coiled up the hose, stowed it in the jacket pocket, buttoned that pocket to secure it, and then closed up the flask, the filter within.  She walked with care while continuing to work the crank, finding her way to the point where the powder wasn’t nearly up to her shoulders.

The filter would get the water mostly clear of the dust that choked it to the point it was sludge.  It was a problem that water and dust both tended to collect at low ground, that she had to dive into the powder to get at the pond, that she could fall in and find herself in something much like quicksand, her outfit and pack soaking through and becoming many times heavier in an instant.

Still cranking, working the filter through the sealed flask, she searched out high ground, and paused in the cranking to stretch and dusted herself, her eyes, and her filters off.

She was looking for things.  There was a long list of possible things, and she found one of those things as she secured the high ground here.  Hard geometric shapes, with right angles.

She ignored the flask that still occupied her hand as she leaped from high ground to high ground, avoiding the ditches.  If there was a pond, there could be other collections of water.

The shape was small, and near the road.  Examination revealed itself to be a carriage, much of the exterior changed into the black wood that would become black chunks, black splinters, and ultimately black dust.

Her feet kicked up the bones of a warbeast.  The toes of her boots caught on the wires and fastenings that had given it a facsimile of life as a stitched.  She stooped down to seize it, tore it up and away, and coiled it with her hands as she paced around the carriage.

One of the doors had fallen away, and the black wood had gotten inside.  Two bodies, a mother and daughter, sat together, each holding the other.  The material of their dresses wasn’t organic, so the black wood had left it alone, and the gold of the mother’s dress and the violet of the girl’s dress were startling after there being nothing but the blue of the sky.  Black wood had grown up and around them, ensnaring their bodies and the fabric.  The flesh had been dessicated, changed, and disintegrated, revealing the white bone beneath.

Fine dresses.  She knew what to look for.  This woman and girl were ladies of high station.

“My ladies,” she said, her voice muted by the dust.  Her eyes roved over the interior of the carriage, over cushions that had disintegrated, over the lacquered walls, and over the finer details of their clothing.  Her gloved hands traced their necks, then their fingers, searching for jewelry.  A pendant.  She dusted it off with her brush, but it wasn’t a locket.  There was no engraving or message.  She laid the jewelry on the bench.  “Perhaps it’s a good thing if I can’t know your family name.  I might resent you.”

She’d been told of family crests and colors, of the aristocratic lines and such.  She’d known some would be invited to the festivities.  In another scenario, could this mother or this daughter have conceivably been in attendance?  Ordering her killed?  Ordering her fucked?  Participating in either?  Would they have applauded as they watched her be beaten and battered for show?

“My name is Red,” she told them.  “I can’t express my condolences for what happened to you.  I can’t bring myself to feel any pity.  You played your role in bringing about this world, this is what you wrought for the sake of your pretty dresses and beast-drawn carriages, your balls and manors.  Most likely.”

With a gloved hand and her brush, she removed all but the most stubborn fragments of condensed black wood that had used to be the younger girl’s face.  Much of it had retained its shape.  Other parts had been deformed by the wood’s growth, where they were more exposed to the water and wind.

“Yet, in case you had no choice, born to a gilded cage with no clear opportunity to go… I’ll be your escort.”

There was a clasp on the wall of the carriage the two were facing.  Red undid the clasp, then eased the table down, the hinges protesting.  A share of the table disintegrated with the effort, but the rest seemed to be holding up.  A slab of condensed carbon.

She tried to keep the largest pieces intact.  The dress made things harder, so she cut it away, turning the knife to the seams, so the fabric would be left more or less in its panels and carefully arranged ties.  She laid the largest sections of dress out on the table, and then placed head and part of the upper body on it.  More had to be arranged so it lay in the gaps and cavities.  Arms and segments of leg were gathered together into a bundle, placed so half of their length was within the chest cavity, a hand and foot  were collected individually and set near the throat.

She broke away everything she could.  One of the hands, however, was particularly stubborn, almost entirely intact, barely gnarled.

Red turned it over in her own hands, and found herself holding it, as if giving the young lady a handshake.

She recoiled at that, and hurried to put it down and be rid of it.  The bones and densest parts of the young lady were gathered together into a bundle made of a dress she had no doubt been ecstatic to receive, and the bundle was tied together and secured.  Barely more than a Crown stone in weight.

After the hand-holding moment with the girl, Red was more brusque with the mother.  She used her knife to pry and break chunks away, to separate head and neck from torso, because she couldn’t have it be too bulky, and she couldn’t have it be too heavy.  She had to whittle it down as best as she was able, keeping the woman down to just the bones.

She discovered the woman’s dress had a secret fold that could be reached through to find the leg.  At that same leg, a pistol barely as large as Red’s closed fist was tucked into a garter holster.

“You have a story, miss?” she asked, dusting the thing off.  “Is this to protect yourself, or for the confidence it gives?”

Red tested the gun, and found it jammed.  She pocketed it.

Mother was bound into a bundle, one and a half stone in weight.  Both mother and daughter were bound together.

The jewelry was collected, then bound into squares of fabric, a bit from each of the two’s dresses.  It went into a side pouch of her bag.

“We have a long way to go,” she told them.  “It’s been days of travel through this mess, no sound, and barely anything to see.”

That which hadn’t been protected was lost.

She was grateful to have been protected.

Red began bounding through the landscape, seeking out anything that might be suitable for a stop.  She zig-zagged through the landscape until she spied a mesa-like bit of rocky outcropping.

“We’ll stop for dinner there,” she told the passengers, who were making her already heavy pack weigh that much more.  She was making use of her natural athleticism.

It had been almost a day since she had come across a forest that creaked, in the early-middle stages of its transition to dust.  The silence was maddening in its peacefulness, the landscape disorienting in its bleak serenity.

She’d wanted to get away.  To understand what was out there.  She’d spent so long in the labs, a prisoner, she hadn’t been able to see the outside world.  Once she was freed, she had found out she wasn’t truly free, either.  There were restrictions and threats of another sort.  Ongoing skirmishes and civil wars, prohibiting travel to other places, plague, black wood.

She’d needed to get away.  Sylvester had rescued her, but he had threatened to be another thing that bound her, one of the things that had scared her most, once she’d found out about it, experiencing Ferres’ trial runs and tests.  To be killed was one thing, but to have the choice of how to face or feel about one’s own murder was another.  Her relationship to Sylvester threatened to be a subservient role she wanted, that was not entirely of her own choosing.

She felt much the same about Paul, in a different way.  With Paul, it wasn’t about leading and following.  It was about giving and taking other things, and not being sure she was choosing that.

Sylvester was gone now.  The Lambs were largely gone.

For months now, Red had traveled.  She’d stopped in cities and towns, observing, taking notes, sending messages back to the others, and then she’d left again.  It had only really been this corner of the Crown States that she’d started to feel the impact of all of this.  Here, it was especially bleak.

Being out in the midst of all of this, she could find herself, free of others and their complications, she could decide how she felt about things like love and Paul and Sylvester and she could see through the glass eyes of her mask that the world wasn’t there waiting for her anymore, now that the dust had settled, literally and metaphorically.

There was nothing but the occasional set of bones, without enough about them to let her distinguish or name them.  Choked ponds, spidery forests, and silence.

What had they fought for?

She reached the hilly outcropping of rock, high enough up that the dust didn’t really reach it.

She was gentle with the bag as she set it down, accounting for her passengers.  She was careful to dust herself off before pulling her mask off.  Her hood came down, and she was careful with the antlers that were attached to the hood.

The air was stale.  Her hair stuck to her face with sweat.  All around her, it was charcoal darkness.  Flat, forest, hidden swamps, hills, dusty clouds.

She cranked her flask more, then drank from it, emptying it.  She paced as she did, walking over the largest, flattest bit of rock, surveying her surroundings.

Part of it was to look for a place to relieve herself.  She spied one place, far off to the side, and approached it, starting the arduous process of peeling away the jacket and other conveniences, then starting on the skintight sleeves that protected her from black wood and plague.

An arrow struck rock an arm’s length away from her head.  It shattered, and one fragment spun away, in an arc such that she could have caught it out of the air.

She turned on her heel, and she was running at a full sprint before her own gasp of surprise was even fully expressed.  She dashed for the bag.

Four young men and women in red clothing were coming over the side of the rock, not far from her bag.  All wore masks.  Mercies.

They were like her.  They were survivors in this bleak land that didn’t allow for life.  They and others like them were the reason she was reluctant to set foot on the road.  Traps abounded.

Her explorations were supplied, paid for, and encouraged with the idea that she would keep an eye out for certain things.  The state of the black wood in various places was one of those things.  Creaking wood.  Settlements could be found and checked.

There were rarer things, too.  Survivors outside of the major settlements were one of those especially rare things.

Enemies?  She was supposed to watch for those.  They weren’t necessarily rare, in her experience.  There were enough out there.  People who roved, Academy people wearing Academy gear, with no idea the war had been won, soldiers with their masks and rebels with those same masks, stolen from the dead.  So many were hostile and dangerous.  Almost always, she’d ran.  Twice, she’d had to use her axe.

It was rare that she’d get caught off guard.  Had they been more patient, she might have been caught with her pants down, she mused.

It wasn’t so bad as that, but it was still dire.  She jumped behind a bit of rock on the mostly flat hill, and she glanced out only long enough to check on her bag.

Her mask was there.  Her jacket, all of the equipment.  Her weapons- even the small gun.  Without those things, she might as well have been trapped on a small island, surrounded by sea and unable to swim.

They were doing what she was doing, in large part.  They weren’t as covered up, but they might have been using similar equipment.  They were roaming, and they were seeking refuge in spots like this, too inorganic to be affected by the black wood, too high up to be caught in the storms of dust.

“Hello!” she called out, her back still to the rock.  Her voice sounded strange without the mask on.

“Greetings!” came the jovial response.

“I’m not much of a threat!”

“Nor are we!”

She patted her pockets, and she found a kerchief.  She often used it to wet and wipe away the dust as she pulled off her outfit and washed up.  She tossed it out to the side.

The arrow flew by a moment later.

“It’s awfully hard to convince our visitor we’re not a threat when you’re shooting at her.”

“I thought I could hit her.”

“You could if you weren’t useless with that thing.  Give it back.”

“Not a threat?” Red called out.

“Not when Ansel is shooting!” came the jovial response.  “But he’s not shooting anymore.  It’s my bow, and I can put an arrow through a sneezing donkey’s arse without making it bleed anywhere you could see.”

She hung her head at that.

“You can,” one of the other Mercies said, “But that doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed.”

“One in three times,” the Jovial Mercy said.

“One in five, at best.”

“I don’t suppose you’d let me go with my things?” Red asked.

“We need our protein, my dear, and you’re it,” Jovial said.

“Jewelry!” one Mercy said.  The sole female one.  “Watches.  There’s a whole bag filled with things!  She’s a looter!”

“I am not,” Red said.  “The possessions go with the bodies.”

“One, two, three… hm.  Twelve parcels.  Some with fine things in them.  Some with less fine things.”

“Twelve parcels.  Two bodies,” another Mercy said.

“Three, could be,” the female Mercy said.  “It’s hard to tell.”

“Still, something doesn’t add up.”

“It’s not as though we needed the excuse of you being a grave robber to eat and kill you, mind you,” Jovial said.  “But perhaps it’ll feel more right if you feel as though you deserved it.”

She hated this.  Being cornered, being contained, knowing that horrible things were coming.

What had all of this been for?  How was it worth it?  She’d steeled herself to get through Ferres’ training and treatments at Beattle, she’d helped the others, encouraged them, fought, and even played her part on Ferres’ stage, for the Lambs’ ruse.  She’d dreaded it and it had been just as bad as she’d feared.

She had played her part in the war.  She had played a part in the cleanup.  She had played her part in the months that followed, patrolling, searching, mapping out a changed landscape, to make sure no disasters unfolded while they were without a leadership.

She felt so angry, and the anger was so familiar.

“I don’t know what tricks you’ve got up your sleeve, ma’am,” one Mercy said.  He was close.  “But if you’re kind enough to not put up any kind of fight, we’ll make it quick, so you’re dead for everything that comes after.”

I got this far, she thought, but the statement lacked in heart, and she worried she’d need all the heart she had for what was imminent.

She’d gotten this far, but the journey had been long and tiring.  She felt heartsick, after seeing the depth of the darkness and the damage done.  There were bodies, there were fallen villages and cities, and whatever the Lambs had said, they were gone now, and the words had lost some meaning, this far into the bleak wastes of the black woods, where civilization was so far away.

“I’ll cooperate,” she said, lowering her head.

“Thank you,” the Mercy said.

He stepped around the rocks that were providing her cover.  She was quick to move, to act.  She lunged at him, keeping him between herself and the Jovial Mercy who was wielding the bow.  His guard was down, and he stumbled, while she tried to guide that stumble.

But as fast as she was engineered to be, he was engineered to be strong.  She’d hoped to use momentum and timing to drag him toward the edge.   She’d hoped to go over that edge with him, and be gone or in a hiding place by the time the Jovial Mercy was in a position to shoot.  She didn’t manage to drag him more than the initial one step to the side.

An arrow cracked against the stone below her, shattering.  The pain came a moment later.  Jovial had placed a shot through the gap between his fellow Mercy’s legs, to graze her calf.

“I’ve been fighting for a long time,” she said.  She stumbled back, and her injured calf didn’t want to bear her full weight.  The Mercy right in front of her reached out and grabbed her.  She spoke to him, defiant, “I got this far.  I’m not about to stop struggling now.”

“There’s a point where you break, you know, where you have to stop fighting back, give up, and tend to other things.”

“And how is that doing for you?” she asked.  “You get me, and then what?  You subsist on the animals that retreated onto these mountains and places like this, you wait for them to run out, and you wait for the black wood to take over everything?”

“We have a chateau to go back to,” the female Mercy said.  “Books to read, food to look after, we’ll keep ourselves occupied until the Crown returns.”

“You’re Crown?” Red asked, her eyes widening.

“Of course.”

“So am I.”

The Jovial Mercy sniffed a laugh, as if one from the mouth was too much effort for the petty lie.

“In my jacket.  There’s an envelope.  Inside breast pocket.”

The small Mercy checked.  She retrieved an envelope, then unfolded it, reading it.

“What is it?” the Jovial Mercy asked.

“She’s Crown.  The letter is signed by others.  She’s an envoy.”

“Where are you from?”

“Bathaven,” the Small Mercy said.  “Other places before that.”

“We thought we lost Bathaven.  Our messengers said the bridge washed out and things looked grim on the other side.  I thought you had to be defectors, to be in an area with no settlement to fall back to.”

“Things were only grim because the people panicked.  Now they’re quiet.  We’ve been using the port when the weather is clear,” the Small Mercy said.

“We’re on the same side,” Red said.

On the other side of the group, the Jovial Mercy toyed with an arrow.

“We are,” Red said.

“I recognize the signatures,” one of the other male Mercies said.

“I expect you’re right,” Jovial said.  He smiled wide.  “I’m awfully hungry, though.”

Red’s expression faltered.  She limped back a bit further, then remembered that the Jovial one had a bow.

“You were made to be loyal,” Red said.

The statement felt hypocritical to the point she thought her whole being was diminished by it.

“I was.  I was also made to be hungry, to seek out my protein sources,” Jovial said.  “It’s the funny thing about life, isn’t it?  It finds a way around things.  We adapt.  I’ve adapted to my current circumstances.  And they’ve adapted to me.”

The three Mercies didn’t look particularly happy.  Their instinct was supposed to keep them loyal to the Crown.  That didn’t give them the drive to push back when someone was being disloyal, perhaps.  Or he’d bullied them enough to get them to cooperate up to this point, and they didn’t have it in them to fight back.

Red had seen so many of the methodologies.

“It’s treason,” Red said.  “I’m a representative of the Crown, performing a vital service for the Crown.”

Of all the statements she couldn’t have ever imagined she’d say with such conviction.

“It’s only treason if I get caught.”

“Raise your muzzle, blackest of wolves,” Red said.  It was like a prayer.  “Howl, and we shall howl with you.  Hunt, and we shall hunt with you.  Bloody those claws, and fill that belly, and we shall draw blood and feast alongside you.”

“You consider yourself one of us?” Jovial asked.  “You think you can hunt with me?”

“All but the one with the bow bear the pelts of wolves.  He… he bears the pelt of a traitor to the Crown.”

She hoped it could hear, if it was even out there.  It was finding its own independence.

The Jovial Mercy nocked his arrow.  His expression was more firm now.

He didn’t get his chance to shoot her.  The Wolfdog, as Lillian had termed it, was already sweeping out from the darkness below the rocky bit of hill.  The Jovial Mercy turned, arrow drawn back, and found himself faced with a wolf as big as any carriage, with no weak points in plain view.  The beast’s eyes were covered with lenses, its muzzle a mess of machinery and breathing apparatuses.

Jovial fired the arrow as he tried to leap aside.  The arrow did nothing of consequence, and the Wolfdog did something of final consequence.  It pounced on the Mercy and by size and momentum, it destroyed him.

The others remained stock still.

“Lay your head down to rest, black harbinger,” she said.  “Stay clear of me.  Begone.”

She watched it lope away.  Where her breathing apparatus was silent, it hissed and wheezed.  The saddlebags, tent, and the packages that were the ten other dead bodies she’d collected hung off of its sides.

Her guardian, her nemesis.  Her Wolf, with another project’s best qualities.  Her feelings toward it were complicated.  It was supposed to be her partner, as she worked well with it, but the memories she associated with it were so grim.  Lillian had urged her to give it a try.

She felt guilty, in a way.  It wasn’t dumb, and it had some of the instincts that domesticated dogs did.  It wanted to please, and it was keenly aware of her and her mood.

It knew she hated it, so it lurked in a place where it was out of her sight, out of her thoughts, its wheezy breaths out of her earshot, yet where she was still in its earshot.

She was coming to terms with that.  Like so many other things, it seemed like a loss.

She stepped forward, walking without nearly so much fear, now.  She had to pick her way past the bloody smear that had once been a Mercy, and she had to walk between two of the Mercies to get there.  They didn’t approach or comment.

The Small Mercy was sitting by her bag, gathering the components and pieces back into the bag.  No longer sorted, sadly.  She’d have to rely on memory.

“As an emissary of the Crown, I’ll ask you to lead me and my partner to Bathaven.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the Small Mercy said, extending a hand, the mask held out.

It was an image of various animals all blended together, softened, made warm.  A deer, a rabbit, and other prey animals, combined into a single pretty face.

It was hard to articulate why she’d asked for a mask with that face.

Whatever face she had or mask she wore, it wouldn’t be hers.  Not anymore.  She wanted to make peace, to conquer that demon.  She didn’t want to wear anything else, because then she might not have been able to take it off and reveal this face again.

“I’m sorry about him,” one of the other Mercies said, possibly reading her expression as something else.

“Good,” Red said.

She pulled the hood up, and clicked the small antlers into the waiting places at the top of the mask, as part of the arrangement to get everything sealed.

“You’ll keep me company,” she said.  The Wolfdog had been doing much the same.  “Take me to your home.  I’ll take record of how things are doing, check on the people you’re supposed to be watching over, and I’ll be gone, leaving you with only my urgings that nobody is to hunt.”

“Nobody?”

“We’re trying something experimental, and we can’t trust there won’t be other mistakes like this one.”

She saw their expressions change.

“For now, at the very least” she said.

That got her some nods.

“If I may?” the Small Mercy asked.

“Yes?”

“There’s something you might find of more importance than the report.  Can I show you?”

“What is it?”

“A plant.  It’s not too far out of our way.”

She frowned at that, behind her mask, but she nodded.

They were faster than she might have thought.  Once they all had their gear on and masks in place, they set out as a group.  Where she was strong in a way necessary to let her be agile, they were nimble as a side effect of their strength.

She was faster, but she didn’t have to slow herself to a crawl to let them catch up.  She could get ahead, peer back over her shoulder, and see the direction.

She liked having people, she was realizing.  She liked company, and it helped with the dark thoughts, the feeling of pressure on all sides, in this bleak place.

Not so much that she felt like she could or would keep her Wolfdog company on the long way back, but she would work on that, as she worked on so many things.

If she was to take Sylvester’s offer, she would need the Wolfdog’s assistance to be properly useful.  She’d memorized the commands.  It was hers.  Bonded to her.  She was it’s.

She simply wished this wouldn’t be so hard, bleak, and uncertain.

“There,” the Small Mercy said.

There.

She blinked, convinced her eyes had fooled her.

It wasn’t massive.  It wasn’t even pretty, or useful, or anything of the sort.

But, amid black trees and black ground, black branches and black clouds of dust that drifted close to the ground, there was a slice of green, like clover.  It encircled the trunk on the side closest to the sun, and it peeked through where the dust wasn’t piled too high on the ground.

This.  This was why.  Why she fought, why she’d tried.  It was hope.  Acknowledgment on some greater level.

“What was it your friend said?  Life adapts.  We adapt.”

“He wasn’t a friend,” the Small Mercy said.  “Not really.”

Red was quiet.  She reached out to touch the green leaves, that were somehow surviving despite so much.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.20

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

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.

“We did.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thank you.”

“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.”

“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.

“Soon.”

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.

Wasn’t it?

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.

“Progress?”

“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.”

“And you?”

“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.”

“You were.”

“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.”

“I’m sorry.”

“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.”

“Did ‘we’?”

We nodded.

“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.”

“You’re dangerous.”

“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.”

“We know.”

“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.”

“Ah.”

“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?”

Other ways.

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.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.19

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

We watched our creator bleed out.  We watched him lean heavily on the table, breathing as if each inhaled breath was an attempt to lift a large weight, blood bubbling around the wound, each exhalation comparatively feeble and sudden.

We watched him grope at the wound, pressing his hand to it.  Still holding our knife, we moved it to the crook of his elbow, drawing the blade against that crease.  He reached out, fumbling through the air in an attempt to grab the knife so he could be free to try to stop the bleeding, and he caught nothing but air.  He attempted to staunch the wound again, and again, we used the blade of the knife to pull his elbow and hand back.  His arm bled from the cut.  He didn’t try to stop the bleeding with his hand a third time.

“Sylvester,” Lillian said.

The blade of our knife touched our lips, in a ‘silence’ motion.

“I wanted an answer,” she said.  “I wanted to hear what the end goal was.”

Genevieve Fray had moved away from her position at one side of the desk, moving closer to the others.

Fray, Lillian, and Mary, standing opposite us.  Ashton was standing from his seat, backing away.  He’d been a little slow to notice the response of the others.

“If we say, he’ll know he was right or wrong.”

“Sy.”

We shook our head.  “He doesn’t get to know.”

“If you let him die like this, the rest of us don’t get to know either,” Mary said.

“I’ll tell you.”  It sounded strange to use ‘I’.

“When have you ever, ever said anything and had it be the unvarnished, undeniable truth?” Mary asked.

“That’s not terribly fair.  You know how my memory is.”

It was Lillian who chimed in, now, “Your memory might be bad, but you understand people.  You understand yourself.  You know people on an intrinsic level.  You know you lie, you bend the truth, you manipulate.  Even with us.”

Hayle reached over, trying to staunch the wound.  We caught his wrist.

His breathing sounded bad.

He fought to wrench his arm free, pulled against us, to try to match my strength with his own.

We were stronger than him.  We weren’t strong, Sylvester had never been, not compared to the average man, but we were stronger than him.  Our creator was an old man, and all of the political power and scientific knowledge at his disposal didn’t change that he had very human limitations.

Hayle fell from his chair in the process of fighting us, slumping against the front of the desk.  We held his wrist, so it was visible above the top of the desk.

“I love you, Doctor Lillian Garey.  I regret every single day, hour, and minute I didn’t get to spend in your company.  I love the girl you were, the young woman you are, and the person you’ll become.”

“That’s dirty.”

“It’s the unvarnished truth Mary wanted.  Like you said, I understand people.  I know who you are.  I know who I am.  I’m painfully aware of the ways we don’t mesh, the conflicts, the ways the gears and cogs that make up my being often grate and do damage when they run up against your finer workings.  I’m… dangerously aware of the ways we could mesh, given an opportunity.”

We met her eyes.  We still held Hayle’s wrist.

“As am I,” she said.  “Dangerously aware.”

“It’s the fate of a Doctor to reap what they’ve sown.  You’ve been gentle, Lillian.  Any ugliness in you was sown by others.”

“And you, Sy?”

I’m not your Sy.

“I was worried that Hayle’s revelations would ruin us, by revealing something that could divide us.  If we’d been- anyone else.  If the blame fell down differently.  He wants to ruin us with silence, so he gets this fate.  I was a child who scowled at him.  Maybe that’s ruinous in itself.  It raises questions, doesn’t it?  Maybe I was always ill-tempered and contrary.  Maybe I can’t lay the blame at my creator’s feet.  That might make things harder.”

“It’s only ruinous if you let it be,” Mary said.

We stopped, pausing.  Part of it was for effect.  Part of it was to digest, to find our bearings.

“Mary.”

“You shot me in the leg,” she said.

We fell silent, staring at her.

“You shot me in the leg, and now you’ll invent reasons and explanations as to why, but it’s my best response to what you’re about to say.”

“Assuming you know.”

“I’m going to assume you’ll say you love me, you’ll say it with just as much meaning, and it’ll strike me right in the heart, with just as much impact as any dagger or bullet I could deliver to you.”

Hayle pulled at my grip on his arm.  We let him.  It wasn’t because he was fighting us.  He was slumping over to the ground.

Mary went on, “You have your mission, and I don’t, not anymore.  I’m not looped into it anymore, even now.  I joined you, I fought the Infante, I brought Lillian and the others, but this was your plan.  You told us to trust you.  There’s a limit to how far that goes.”

“There is.”

“I already killed my creator, nascent Noble whatever you plan to call yourself.  I’ve stood where you stand.”

“You did, you have.”

“But you don’t get to pull that card, to call back to the first time you kissed me, or to the time you helped me get my knives on under the stairs, or how you leaned on me after we lost Jamie.  You don’t get to reminisce about how you brought me on the team, or how we play off of one another on a battlefield.”

Lillian touched Mary’s arm.

“You don’t get to,” Mary said.  “I understand why you did it, why you needed to, but that ‘why’?  It was evidence that I’m not your first priority.  You don’t love me like that.  You got to leave me behind, but you bought and paid for that opportunity at a cost.  You can’t say the same kind of thing to me that you said to Lillian, or it’ll be a lie, and if you can’t give me truth, against your better nature, then I can’t know you’re speaking the truth when you tell us what Hayle’s end goal for us was.”

We nodded.

“I’ve said my piece.  Now say what you’re going to say, be your manipulative self, pull on my strings and convince me you’re telling the truth,” Mary said.

We were silent.

“Please,” she added, as a belated afterthought.

“Thank you for looking after Lillian.”

Lillian’s hand dropped away from Mary’s arm.

“I know by saying that, I’m only reinforcing that you’re not in first place, I don’t like that.  But it’s heartfelt.  I do mean it.  The only thing that kept me sane at times was that you were there with her.  Ashton, Helen, and even Duncan too, but… mostly you, in that sense.”

Mary nodded.

“I’ll tell you where you do fall in first place.  I realized the truth about the Block because of you.  The nature of Nobles.  The Falconer.  She was you.  That undefinable, underlying element.  I saw that part of you in her.”

“I’m glad I helped,” she said.

I believed her.  There was no malice in her voice.  For all that she’d mentioned me shooting her in the knee, there was no hatred.  Only quiet concern.

She wasn’t gripping that throwing knife with any less intensity than before.

“You’ve always been goal oriented.  The mission, the challenge.”

“Percy hammered it into me.  Slight alterations in my growth and upbringing to tune me to those ends.”

We looked down at Hayle.  He was still, not even trying to breathe.  A bubble of congealing blood popped at his side.

We stepped on the side of his neck for good measure.  More blood bubbled out of his side in response, mostly due to how he’d shifted position at the added weight.

“And now I’ve killed my creator too.”

Lillian moved forward, hesistant to approach us.  We didn’t move, watching as she circled the desk, giving me a wide berth.

“I won’t bite.”

The eye contact on her part was intense, unflinching.  A thousand things communicated.  She maintained it well past the point where she could have broken the connection and looked down at Hayle.

We saw her purse her lips slightly at the sight.

Fray, off to one side, frowned.  She’d fallen silent.  No doubt she was considering her various alternatives.

“The mission, Sy?” Mary asked.

“Our goal in this?  Jessie and I had our plan we were working on.  Key pieces we needed to knock down, things and people we could use, ways we could whittle at the greater hierarchy until something toppled.  We didn’t have all of the information, we didn’t know how far the Infante would go, but it was workable.  A long shot, but workable.  That’s what Jessie and I were doing.”

“We’ve never shied away from long shots,” Lillian said.  She returned to Mary’s side, glancing up at Fray as she passed the woman.

“No we haven’t.  But I want you to know, Mary, my connection to you and your connection to the Falconer started us on this greater mission.  It was when we started moving in this particular direction.  One that sees all of us in this office.  I’d hoped Jessie would be here, mind you.”

“Not entirely unpredictable,” Mary said.

“Not entirely.  It’s still a shame.”

“It really is.”

“I couldn’t share the plan because if I’d been wrong, it would’ve left us with nothing.  ‘Nothing’ is salvageable if it’s all you have at the end, all you need is the strength for one final effort.  ‘Nothing’ at the outset or midway point of a long campaign makes the rest doubly difficult.  We couldn’t have managed that.”

“We’re not so weak as that, Sy.”

“You aren’t.  I might’ve been.”

We watched her, we saw the small changes in her expression, the way she looked at Lillian, as if she was betraying her friend by thinking it.

“Maybe.”

“It all comes together with us becoming Nobles, that’s the conclusion.  I never would have figured it out or imagined us here if I hadn’t seen your other self as such a fine Noble, if I hadn’t known to my core that our Mary would have been so much better than her.  It took a while to digest things and realize, I had my doubts, but it was a real process, and one that wouldn’t have been possible without you.  Whether I communicated it or not, the mission was and is yours.”

We watched Mary, in much the same way we’d watched Hayle.  The little details, summed up into the greater battle.

The rain was so heavy outside.  We’d really missed it so.  We’d missed how dark things became in the late evening, how the rooms were illuminated in strange hues by the combinations of candles and lamps, by artificial, voltaic lights burning their chemical yellows and oranges, and by the blue-green light so common to bioluminescent sources.  No one light source was consistent or powerful enough to reach the corners and crevices, the combinations therein casting everything in a strange light.

Mary was so beautiful, so elegant.  We felt an appreciation for her, and we tried to feel it in a way that could reach past the desk and the chasm that separated us.

Lillian not elegant, but beautiful in so many other ways.  Lillian had been Mary’s professed reason for killing Percy.  A just, overdue killing.

“Where does this mission lead?” Mary asked.  “Hayle is dead, you can say.”

“Fray and Hayle gave up on us when we fractured and when we abdicated.”

“Not entirely,” Genevieve Fray spoke.  “We held out a measure of hope.”

“But you made plans in case we didn’t succeed.  Things were tenuous.”

“Eggs and baskets,” Fray said.

“The question arises, then.  What does a rebel terrorist like yourself get up to when she needs something that would scare even the Crown, who thinks nothing of leveling whole continents, with plans to return to recolonize the ruins several generations later?  She wants to spare humanity.  Her resources are a headmaster of a special projects Academy, scattered few lost souls, innumerable rebel groups, a printing press…”

“Do you know, or are you asking?” Fray asked.

“I don’t know the exact answer.  I expect the primordials are involved.  Nothing else would scare the Crown, and you need to scare them if you’re going to try and convince them that defeating you means they lose as well.  Nothing else would break Avis and Warren.”

“You’ve seen the answer, Sylvester.  Lambs.”

“Clarify,” Mary said.

“The Hag Nerve.  The Black Wood.  The Harvester units.  The Whelps.  The Belchers.  The Little Ones.  I could name others, but I’d be less confident you’ve encountered them.”

“And somehow the printing press and the spread of Academy knowledge helps you deploy this assortment?” Lillian asked.

“It helps her deploy the safeguard.  Only the safeguard.  A backup measure, and a means of preparing distribution.”

“Sylvester,” Fray said.  “Or… whoever you are.  If you’re doing what I think you’re doing.  I understand you wanted Hayle to die with doubts and torment, worrying about what he brought forth.  If you think perverting my mission or even entertaining the idea of doing so is a similar kind of punishment for my role in your existence, then I- I really have to argue otherwise.  I’m wary enough as it is.”

“I don’t understand,” Lillian said.  “Those projects?  All put together, they’ll create a mess.  But… only a mess.  Is there a greater whole I’m missing?”

“No.”

“No.  Nothing like that,” Fray echoed us.  “But none of it is like it was.  I’ve been refining them with the help of my lab partners.  No one answer will really stop the Academy.  Hayle and I planned to threaten a strike on all fronts.  A crushing offense in a way that tops whatever they could bring to bear.”

“With a collection of special projects?  You’re talented, I’m sure, Avis has her strengths, I read over her graduate work, but-”

“The lab partners aren’t Avis and Warren,” we interrupted.

Lillian closed her mouth.  She looked between us and Fray.

“Primordials?” Ashton asked.  He’d been the first to clue in, picking up on the lingering detail.  “Your lab partners are primordials?  That’s crazy.  They’d be terrible at taking notes.”

“They weren’t there to take notes,” Fray said.  “They were there to take what I gave them, turn the projects over and around, explore them, and give us something better.”

“That’s what you meant when you said they reached a point where they wanted to create tools.  You’re insane,” Lillian said.

“I was desperate,” Fray said.

“You’re actually more insane than Sylvester.”

“I was desperate!” Fray said, with new emotion in her voice.  “We were desperate.  We’re all desperate, don’t you see?”

“We absolutely see,” the words left our lips.

“And you’re absolutely the wrong type of person to handle this, Sylvester-the-Noble,” Fray said.  “I’m not even sure I’m the person to handle it.  Only two of the projects are in a state where I could imagine using them.  The others need more time.”

“So your safeguard might hold.  Your tainted water, the leash.”

“Lillian,” Fray said.  She wasn’t even talking to us, changing focus to our Doctor.  Our heart.  “You’re most equipped to understand what I was doing.  It took two years to teach them that the chemicals I used in the leash was anathema, death and frustration as assured as anything.  I kept them small, each of my primordials no larger than a human head.  I’ve been working on it for years, and I still think it’s too dangerous.  It was a last resort, and I don’t think you’re right, in calling me more insane than he is.  I’m worried Sylvester is going to try to convince you all it’s a resort of the less than final kind.”

“I’m still trying to grasp this.  What you were doing, with the barrier to the primordials, the scale of this,” Lillian said.  Her eyes went wider than they already were.  “You’d destroy everything?

“Everything that wasn’t leashed.  We’d distribute the leash.  We’d clear out everything, but for an island of humanity.  But only if it looked like there was no other way.  I can’t emphasize that enough.”

“Oh my lords,” Lillian said.  She looked between Fray and us as if she was trying to tell which was worse.

“That kind of cussing loses its meaning when we got here by killing lords.”

“Please don’t try to be funny,” Lillian said.  “How close did we come?  How close are we?  Is this something you’re even entertaining, Sy?”

“I entertain everything.  It’s part of what I do.”

“I-” she started.  She turned and nearly lost her balance.  Mary caught her.  Lillian backed away several steps, to get a better view out the door.  Our lieutenants were there.  Red was there.  My fairy tales.

Their expressions were dark.

“Please tell me I’m not the only sane person here,” Lillian said.

“You’re not the only sane person here,” Gordeux said.

The Treasurer spoke, “I’m not sure I get it.  I’ve read about Primordials, I understand them in that sense, but I read about the war for the Crown Empire.  Past a certain point, it’s words on a page.  Important, ominous words, but still black ink on white or yellowed paper.”

“Don’t say that,” Lillian said.  “Please.  Don’t let me think that Sylvester could convince you to go along with this.”

“Would he?”

“He’s considering it, like he considers everything,” Mary said, from beside Lillian.  While Lillian made her plea to the Beattle rebels, Mary fixed her gaze on me.

“It’s a potential bargaining chip.”

“To?” Mary asked.

“To approach the King’s table as a person with a voice, if it comes to it.  To threaten a war they couldn’t necessarily win.”

“We can’t do this, we can’t touch it,” Lillian said.  “As a last resort, or as a bargaining chip.  I don’t trust you that much, Sy, however much I do believe that you love me and the rest of the Lambs.”

“Ah.”

It was barely a word that passed through our lips.

“When Sylvester was addressing Mary,” Fray said.  “He spoke of needing something.  That having ‘nothing’ at the early or middle stages of the journey made it impossible to forge forward.”

“He did,” Mary said.

“Then I want you to know this was our something.  There wasn’t necessarily truth to this as a plan.  We needed to know we had the option of going that far, while we were simultaneously terrified of being forced to.  Because it grants confidence and the desperate need to put other options forward or bring other things to fruition.”

“That’s not good enough,” Lillian said.

Hayle was thoroughly dead.  Our foot hurt where it pressed against his neck.  We started to bend down to check him, and Mary moved, tensing.

Once she saw what we were doing, she gestured, allowing us to carry on.

We pressed one finger to the old man’s throat, and found it without a pulse.

We ran one hand over his thin white hair, brushing it back.

We looked at him, examining the features that had shifted as consciousness had fled him, and searched for a sign that he’d gone out doubting, afraid, and lost.

In the background, the others were talking.  Lillian spoke about her brief experience with primordials.  Fray countered with talk of the safeguards.  Lillian made mention of how unsecure things had been at Lugh, how close we’d been to disaster.

We tuned it out.  We paid attention to the patter of rain on the window.  We knew the only enemies that remained to be defeated were across an ocean, years away from a confrontation, and were arranged here, in this room.  Mary, Ashton, Lillian.

“I trust you,” the Treasurer said.  “I don’t know, but you have the greatest grasp of things here.  You know the Lambs in ways we don’t, you know the enemy, you have experience with Primordials.”

“I don’t know if I deserve that trust,” Lillian said.  “But thank you.”

“I can’t guarantee we’ll all go along with you, but maybe most.”

“Maybe most,” one of the other Lieutenants echoed the Treasurer.

We straightened.  We felt a kind of peace.  Fray’s conspiracy, the tools she’d devised, they’d been the last god to defeat.

As we’d taken Power and turned it against the enemy, then taken Hayle’s unknown and visited it on him, we stood poised to take Fray’s conspiracy from her.  The grand plan, the cards in her sleeve.

She would desperately fight to keep us from doing so.  Lillian would too.

We walked around the desk, approaching the group, our thoughts turning.

It was Ashton who got in our way.  He held Helen up and out, so Helen butted into our chest.

“Helen says no.”

The conversation in the background stopped.

“Helen can’t talk.”

“She deserves a chance, just like me,” Ashton said.  “You convinced Mary and Lillian you’re being honest.”

“Not quite,” Lillian said.

“Well it sounded like you did,” Ashton said.  “And then you were less convinced when Sylvester started talking about using primordials as an option.”

“Primordial-refined threats.”

“Don’t be pedantic, Sylvester,” Ashton said, almost sighing as he said it.

“Alright.”

“Well, I think Helen and I deserve a chance to hear what you have to say and argue about it.  I think we’re harder to convince, because Helen mostly doesn’t have ears or a mouth, and I’m stubborn.  And as much as I like them, I think Mary and Lillian are very biased, because you’ve slept with them lots-”

Someone in the back cleared their throat.

“-and lots, and sometimes both at the same time-”

“Move it along, Ashton,” Lillian said.  Then, addressing the larger group, she added, “He’s referring to us sleeping in the same bed, for the record, when we were much younger.”

Ashton frowned, turning his head and opening his mouth, his expression changing as if he was trying to formulate an Ashton argument.

“Move it along,” Lillian said.

“Okay, well, you’ve only slept with me a couple of times, like that one time at Hackthorn,” Ashton said.

“Enough about that, please,” Lillian said.  She was flushed now.

“I’m not as biased,” Ashton said, firm.  “I think we should talk to Duncan and I think we should leave this be.”

“I think we should hold onto everything we can, as options and weapons go.  We’re so close to having security for the first time ever, it’d be the worst kind of tragedy to get here and to lose that security immediately after.”

“At what price?” Lillian asked.

“Did I interrupt your one-on-one with Sylvester?” Ashton asked.  “You’re all so terribly rude these days.  It’s the rebel thing, I’m sure.  It’s done away with your etiquette.”

“I’m sorry.  Carry on.”

“You like the mice.  There are mice all over the place.  I think if you were the Sylvester I knew in the beginning, then you’d never want to risk hurting them, and I’m concerned you’ve forgotten that part.  Or you’ve given it up, Sylvester.”

“I made a compromise.  I’ve wrestled with this, with everything, over a very long period of time.  Everything I’ve taken in and digested has led me to this conclusion.  I think you’ve been taking things in and digesting them too.  I think you’re trying to be funny, to fill a role, you’ve been looser, more free, more creative.”

“I’m trying,” Ashton said.  “But it takes work for me.   I think it takes you work to not slip away.”

“I think you might be right.”

“I like Abby, Lara, Nora, Bo Peep, Emmett, and Quinton.  When I was reading my books and trying to figure out empathy back in the beginning, I was told to imagine my favorite people and I was told to imagine other people in their place.  I imagined Helen, then, and that led to me getting yelled at a lot.  It was very frustrating.”

We reached out.  We rested one hand on top of Helen.

“The world has other Abbys and Laras, Noras, Bo Peeps, Emmetts and Quintons out there.  Ones I haven’t met yet.  If Ms. Genevieve Fray asked you what you wanted and what you believed, if that mattered, then someone should ask me what I want.  I want to meet more of those people I’m very fond of.  I don’t want to risk killing them, and I think that Fray is right and you’re the wrong person to trust with these primordial-refined projects.”

“Alright,” we said.  “That’s a good argument.”

“Thank you.”

“Should we hear Helen’s, before we respond?”

“She can’t talk, Sylvester.  Obviously.”

“Obviously.”

“So you’re going to have to imagine her arguing at you.  I want you to imagine really hard, and come up with an argument that beats you, okay?  Do her justice, give her a moment to shine.  She likes those moments.”

“I can’t do that, Ashton.”

We stroked Helen, running a hand along the wadding of bandage-covered flesh.

“I want to bring about a world that makes Helen happiest.  Her ideal world, in a way.”

“That’s not reassuring,” Lillian said.

“I want to bring about a world that makes you happiest, Lillian,” we said.  “One where you have every last thing you want, and yes, the stakes are high, it feels like the world is resting on your shoulders.  But isn’t that something you wanted, in its way?  You wanted to run an Academy and run it well, and deal with all of those pressures.  You’ve been preparing for it for a long time.”

We walked past Ashton, approaching Lillian.

“I want to give you us,” we said, placing an emphasis on ‘us’.  We let the word sit for a moment.  “I want to give you a black coat you’ve earned, and family, and peace.  I want the cogs and gears to fit together.  Believe it or not, with everything else set aside or reframed, I think it could be achievable.”

Lillian pursed her lips.

“You know he’s good at this,” Fray said.  “The deceit, the manipulations.”

We shot her a look.  Warning.

“He is,” Lillian said.

“But?”

“But I’d like to believe it.”

We nodded.  We glanced at the group just outside the door.

“I want the Beattle rebels and our other assorted allies to have what they wanted, when they offered us their help.  A chance to finish their educations, a chance to bring about change that will see the history books.  Security, safety, success, and something we haven’t had for a long, long time now.  A shot at a life that resembles ‘normal’, at a time when it feels impossible to get back to that point.”

“All the promises in the world,” Fray said.

“I’ve been thinking on this very hard, for a very long time.”

“I imagine you have,” Fray said.

“Mary would make a fine Noble, and she would have her armies, her soldiers to train, and a mission unlike any other, one that might mark a turning point in history.”

“And Helen?”  Ashton asked.

Beautiful again.  She’d have to be, to be a Noble.  She would revel in the role, especially with some tuning.  She could have the greatest of prey to hunt.

Ashton nodded.

Your friends would be taken care of, as a generation to follow us.  They’d be free and they’d be together.  You’d have them, and others like them, Ashton.”

Ashton was silent at that, but he looked introspective.

We spread our arms.  Emphasis, theater, trying to make ourselves larger, as if it was a demand for more attention.

“I want Jessie to live.  I want Jessie to be Jessie.  I want to be greedy and have everyone, and I want to be greedy and claim my fairy tale happy ending.  I want everything I’ve promised to all of you, because those same things would nourish me.”

They were listening.

“I want to win, and I want to turn this shitty, blighted, corpse-strewn landscape into something we can be proud of.”

“At what cost?” Fray asked.

“The cost has been paid,” we said.  “In large part.  It’ll be hard work to secure things.  Taking all of these things I’ve described, they could be easy enough.  Keeping them will be hard.  Costly.  It will require work and focus.”

“And it’ll require you to have that bargaining chip, the world held at gunpoint,” Lillian said.  She looked so terribly sad.

“No.”

“No?”

“Mary, if you would?”

“Would what?”

“Search Genevieve.  She’ll have the means on her.  She wouldn’t trust it to other hands.  Be wary of the needles in her fingers.”

“The means?” Mary asked.  But she approached Genevieve Fray.

“I’m praying this is all an elaborate head game,” Fray said.  She submitted to the search.  Mary’s hands glided over her, searching, patting her down.  Vials and tools came free, were held up for us to see, then tossed to the ground.  “That Sylvester intends to break me in a different way than he broke Hayle.  You’re better than this, Lambs.”

“Of course we are.  We’re of the same stock as Nobles.”

“That is not what I meant.”

Fray reacted as Mary shifted to another location to search.

“There.”

We watched as Fray closed her eyes.

Mary sliced at Fray’s blouse, to reveal what was beneath.  She reached- and tentacles reached out, seizing her arm.

Fray had a creature living beneath her clothing.

“Down, Nina,” Fray said.

The tentacles released Mary’s hand.

Fray’s ‘means’ took the form of a key.  She’d made a spot below her ribcage for the item to slide in.  A sheath buried in flesh, so that the item could slide in, with only the uppermost end visible as a bar of dark metal against pale flesh.

Mary hooked the item with one finger and pulled it free.

A heavy iron key.

“Wendy will tell us where it is,” we said.

We paused for emphasis.

“You’ll find out, but don’t tell anyone, least of all me,” we said.  We watched as expressions shifted.  Relief, almost.  “Lillian safeguards the key.  Mary safeguards Lillian.”

We’d disarmed ourselves.  The weapon was known, but we were no longer a threat.  The hope we’d fostered would be free to blossom.

We touched the small of Lillian’s back as we approached her.  “We’ve won.  We have what we need.”

She stood taller.  There was an element of the dream, here.  The heady notion of possibility.  She wasn’t alone, either.  We’d claimed our third god, devoured it.

“He wanted us to worm our way into the graces of the Crown,” we said.  “To subvert it from within.  A gamble, one that could be made once at best.  We had to prove we were worthy, surviving to this point.”

“We’re here,” Mary said.

“We’re here,” Ashton said to Helen.

Indeed.  We were here.

“Take Fray into custody,” we ordered.

She stared us down as she walked past.  There was no hint of a smile on her face.  Much like Hayle in his final moments, she was left to wonder, to agonize.

The key could be obtained later, as the situation called for it.  To potentially have the ability to bring about the end of life on earth as we knew it, but for our small parcel of reality.

When we’d come to our compromise, hearing out the voice, weighing everything and losing that fight to hold onto everything worth having and hold onto our sense of right, we’d realized it was untenable.

There would need to be sacrifices, to preserve those things we so wanted.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.18

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“I think you’d better explain,” Mary said.

We become Nobles.  The plan at the start would have been to prop us up.  Offer us up as a more battle-tested, flexible, dangerous sort of Noble.  The kind that could trounce rebellions, that could use small amounts of power to do great things, best monsters, and test even the greatest minds.  Better yet, we coordinate like no nobles taken separately could.  We work together on an instinctive level.”

“The Twins worked together,” Mary said.

The Twins failed.  The Twins were relegated to bastarddom.  I think they craved that natural cooperation.  Something was missing.  We strike that note.”

I looked to Hayle for confirmation.

He didn’t respond.  He sat at his desk, arms folded before him.  He looked very old and very tired.

I nodded.  “Knowing Hayle and Fray, they left both options open.  The Lambs who survive are poised as great weapons, massive inconveniences to the Crown and Academy.  We and the Crown get an offer.  Lambs become Lords and Ladies, we become an asset instead of an inconvenience.  We get everything we want, we get power like we’ve never had it, and Hayle gets to leverage the one thing he has over us.”

“The expiration dates,” Lillian said.

I walked around the desk.  “The expiration dates.  He removes the gun that’s been held to our heads since we were small.  That, or he hands it over to the Academy, so they can control us.

“To what ends?” Lillian asked.  “What’s the end goal?”

I looked back over my shoulder at the old Professor.

He was silent.

“Things have been untenable for a long time,” Fray said, from the opposite end of the desk as me, supplying the answer.  “There was a balance once.  Wollstone was the start.  I personally suspect he was mythologized, the extent of his deeds and knowledge exaggerated to the Academy’s benefit, but all the same, his work was discovered and made known to the nobility.  What formed was a partnership.  Government and the Academy apparatus, enmeshed.  Over and over again, that pairing is hammered in, so that one is rarely mentioned without the other.”

“At some point the Block became an essential part of things,” Lillian said.

“Yes,” Fray said.  Cynthia was behind her.  “I imagine that is when the balance shifted.”

“This is where I get a little stuck,” I paused as I walked around behind Mary, Ashton, and Lillian.  “It’s where Hayle is sitting there, remaining quiet.  He’s confirmed the main thrust of what he’s doing, but the god lurks there, ominous.  It’s where you’re there, Fray, and I’m aware of the bits and pieces that you’ve threaded through everything.  Bigger and more devastating than the rebel groups you propped up.  You were up to something else.  You had a greater plan at work, and I don’t know if it was a greater part of what you’re putting toward the Lambs to Lords gambit, or if it was a fallback.  That’s the other god.”

“Gods?” Fray asked.

On each of our prior visits, you were careful to ask me about my beliefs.  What did I want, what did I believe in?  What would prompt me to take the great leap of faith, if and when it counted?  What was I here to do?

“I did.  I wanted to know what kind of Lord you might be, given the chance, Sylvester,” she said.

Did I ever give you an answer?”

“You gave me several.  I worry you’re giving me another, with this talk of gods.”

“It’s Sylvester’s metaphor,” Lillian said.  “For the great, abstract, hard-to-comprehend forces you two represent, that could still ruin us.  The Infante was the first.  Sylvester named that god Power.”

“And Power is conquered.  Securely in your hands,” Fray said.  “I see, now.”

I smiled.

“Let me think, then.  Control… you already have control.  You had it once you co-opted the lesser Academies and aristocrats.  Based on the thrust of Sylvester’s statement, I’m… the plot?  Intrigue?  Machinations?”

“Conspiracy,” Mary said.

“That would suffice.  Yes.  It was absolutely my job to keep pieces in play, remove others, strike a balance, distract, and now I’m here.”

With cards up your sleeve.

“Do you think I have cards up my sleeve, Sylvester?”

The dissemination of Academy knowledge, the creation of primordials, the fact you were working with just about every rebel group… you were building things that weren’t solely for us.

“I was.”

Primordials played a part.  Then and now.”

“In a way.”

I nodded.

“Will you do me a favor, Sylvester?” Mary asked.

I tilted my head to one side.

“Stand where I can see you and them at the same time?”

I’m not a threat to you.

“Please,” she said.

I crossed the room.  I stood at the side, near the bookshelves.  Torches and lanterns were lit throughout the Academy grounds.  It looked like the Hag Nerve was being dealt with, and people were freer to move.  Our people.  I settled in where I stood, close to the skin suit.

“Hayle… well, if he’s another god, he’d have to be another great force.  You’re not going to have power and then power again,” Fray said.

I shook my head.

“It wouldn’t suit Hayle either way.  Neither would Control, as a repeated thing.  It would need to be something that could rattle you, once you settled on this course of action.  And you have settled.  You were telling the truth about that.”

I did.  I was.  I am.

“I have my guess,” Fray said.

“You said you wanted what I wanted, out of Hayle,” Lillian said.  “And I really just wanted answers.  I wanted to ask why.  I’m afraid of the answer.  Maybe- maybe Sylvester is afraid of the answer too.  Is that what you meant, Sy?”

I wanted to respond to her use of my name.  That would have to wait.

It is.

“The unknown,” Fray said.  “You can’t wrap things up in Radham without asking the questions.  Professor Hayle’s relative silence up until now may stem from a concern about how you respond to the answers.”

“In part,” Hayle said.

The unknown.”  I nodded.  “That works.

“I’m quiet in part because this is a day I’ve seen coming for a very long time,” Professor Hayle said.  “I’ve known you since the very beginning, Sylvester.”

“Who was I?”

“Who were you?”

On the Block?

“I couldn’t even tell you, Sylvester.  It didn’t matter.  I visited the Block, I walked down the row, talking to the Academy Doctors who had brought their quotas or looked after each of you.  I browsed the paperwork, I made small talk with my peers.  Tea was served, and we discussed the projects that their picks would be slated for.  There was mention of a transplant of a child’s brain to the body of a specialized warbeast, they had their eye on one little girl with a vicious streak and a propensity for escape attempts for that.”

“It’s horrible,” Lillian said.

“If it makes you feel better, that one killed its creator,” Fray said.

“That does make me feel better,” Lillian said.  “But it’s minor, when I know so many others suffer.”

“They did.  They do.  There were other Professors who wanted hale and hearty children for breeding programs, some who intended to test drugs that would alter how children grew, with an eye to gigantism and custom proportions.  Most, however, wouldn’t tell me.  It would show their hands before the bidding, you understand.”

And me?

It was the first of the dangerous questions that threatened to ruin us.

“The son of a Doctor.  He pricked his finger with a needle containing a patient’s blood.  The blood was tainted from one of the weapons used in the war to the south.  It was primed to take the life of a soldier, it took your father, and in a roundabout way, Sylvester, it took your family.”

I had a family?

“You had an older brother and three sisters.  You might have been the youngest, but memory fails me here, it was a little over a decade ago that I read the paper, and I read it with an eye to anything that might qualify or disqualify you for what we had in mind.  You had a mother and a father.  Your father passed, your mother couldn’t look after you all.  I suspect she was told you’d get a life of some sort, even if it wasn’t the one you’d been born to.”

A doctor’s son.  Had things played out differently, if a man hadn’t pricked his finger, if a soldier hadn’t grown ill, I might have been a student.

“One who might have attended Radham, even, given the location of that Block.”

I nodded.

I wasn’t sure what to make of that.  Given the lack of a response, I wasn’t sure the voice had any ideas either.

“It was my second visit that I met you, months after the one prior, where I escorted my students to the Block and met… you have a new name for them, now that they wear skirts and dresses.”

Jessie.  But they weren’t Jessie then.  They wouldn’t have been Jamie either.

“I remember them, too,” Hayle said.

I’d ask, but I think Jessie has had enough shadows of the past nipping at her heels.

“I’d always hoped it would be constructive, not destructive.  Building them up.”

If I hadn’t been in the picture, it might have.

“We tried to revive Genevieve’s Prophetissima project, we erased her connection to it.  The Yggdrasil-G project was a failure to thrive.  Your predecessor, Ashton.  The Wyvern project was an easy one to sell, when budget was a concern and criticism of my project.  I made my visit to the Block, looking for my Wyvern.  I remember looking at you, you were wearing a paper smock.  You glared at me, Sylvester.”

I glared at you?

“It was important that you glared at me,” Hayle said.  “Do you know Wollstone’s last law?”

“I wasn’t aware they had a particular order,” Lillian said.

“It’s not one of the ones you’ll find in the textbooks,” Hayle said.  “Not a law that they teach students.  It’s been passed on by word of mouth or rumor to anyone taking on a particularly ambitious project.  Wollstone created the stitched and created the means for us to work out the scripts and patterns of living beings.”

He was killed by an advanced stitched of his, one with more memory and retention than the ones that preceded them.  I’ve heard this.”  I folded my arms.

“We lead secure lives.  Professors retire late, if at all, and we don’t tend to visit the battlefields directly.  What’s our most likely cause of death?”

“Your work,” Mary said.

She would be thinking of Percy.

“You glared at me, Sylvester, and I could see the expression you might wear when, after a dark and bloody affair, you walked into my office to confront me and ask me questions.”

Why did it matter?

“Because I didn’t want to forget that this was how it would end,” he said.

I nodded.

“When you made your bid for those badges of yours, I realized you were slipping away, that you might already be trying to find some measure of authority that might tip my hand for me.”

“You should have known what you were buying into, with that glaring child,” Genevieve Fray said.

“I should well have,” Hayle said.  He met my eyes, staring at me.

He hadn’t touched his tea or biscuit.  Slowly, surely, that tea would be getting cold.

You can’t even know the depths of despair you subjected me to.

“Every step of the way, every failure, every time it looked like the Lambs were lost or broken, I despaired,” he said.

My mouth for the voice to speak.  Ashton beat me to it.

“Can I interrupt?” Ashton asked.  He craned his head around, to look at the others, to look at me.

Go ahead.

“What’s going through your mind, Ashton?” Fray asked.

“Thank you.  If I understand you all correctly, Sylvester is going to kill Professor Hayle after this.”

“I hope he doesn’t, but I’m hardly in a position to stop him,” Hayle said.  “I can try to negotiate, but he’s headstrong.”

“Okay, then I’ll ask my questions before anything happens or anyone decides.  If your projects are what kills you, why aren’t you worried about me or Helen?  Why is it Sy?”

Helen’s hardly equipped to do much at this juncture.

“That’s distasteful, Sy,” Ashton said, making a face.  “My point stands.”

“It could be a rare fit of poetic fancy for an old man, but I’d like to think that projects such as Gordon’s, Helen’s, Jamie’s- Jessie’s-”

Jamie is accurate too.  Both.  Jessie existing doesn’t mean Jamie didn’t.

“They weren’t mine.  They were under my oversight, but other students brought them into the world.”

“Oh,” Ashton said.  “What about Doctor Fray?  Who kills her?”

“Evette was mine but she never saw fruition.  I do have my share of ownership in all of you,” Genevieve said.  “But I’m not feeling as fatalistic as Professor Hayle.”

Cards up your sleeve.

“Not like you imagine, it’s not that kind of leverage, that might save my life.”

I nodded.

“We don’t get to kill anyone, then?” Ashton asked.

“You had opportunities earlier tonight,” Mary said.

“I was hoping that I could knock someone down and tie their hands, then make them suffocate with Helen held down over their faces.  It might take some doing, but I think Helen would really enjoy it.  She doesn’t have a lot to enjoy when she’s like this.”

“Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it,” Lillian said, gently.  “It’s really nice that you’re thinking about Helen like that, even if that isn’t quite so nice.  We have other things to get out of the way, first.”

“Okay.  She’s important to me.”

She’s important to all of us.

“She is,” Lillian said.

“An ignoble way to die,” Fray observed, looking at Helen, who lay across Ashton’s lap.

“Do you deserve noble?” I asked.

“Perhaps not.  Based on my colleagues’ parting words, I might not.”

“Isn’t it very Noble if Helen gets to deliver the kill, if that’s what we were raised to be?” Ashton asked.

“We’re not at that point yet,” Mary said.  “We’re far from being Nobles, like this, and as much as Sylvester is talking like this is decided, I’m not so sure.”

“I might be on the same page as Mary here,” Lillian said.

I nodded to myself.

“Will that be a problem?” Lillian asked, looking at her former mentor and the Lambs’ nemesis.  “What happens if they decide not to be Nobles?”

“Things have been out of my hands for some time,” Hayle said.  “As far back as the night where your black coat was discussed, Doctor Garey.  I’ve created my monster, as Wollstone created his.  I unleashed it on the world and it has come home to roost.  I can give it some clarity, but I doubt I can change it anymore.”

It might have been further back than that.

“When, do you think?”

I looked at Mary.  “I might have seen the team as mine, when I extended one invitation to one enemy I respected.

“I could see that.  Not long before the badges.”

The badges.  I’d nearly forgotten.

“Well, like I said, it’s well out of my hands.  You’ll decide how to move forward, as you have been doing since you left, maybe even before then, what with your interactions with the Duke of Francis.”

I watched as Lillian drew in a deep breath.  Her hands were clasped in front of her as she stood by the chairs, standing across from Hayle.

I’d say this is where the dangerous questions begin, but I already asked about my origins, and we touched on Jessie and Jamie’s.  Let’s have them begin in earnest.

“So be it,” Hayle said.  “Your questions?”

“I think Lillian should ask hers.  Because once I start asking mine, we run the risk of a premature end.”

“I just have a few,” Lillian said.

“I was and am fond of you, Lillian,” Hayle said.

“What drove you to choose me?  Had things happened differently, I could have been any one of the doctors out there.  Students in service to the military that we killed or turned into Tangles, or the ones we used as stepping stones.”

“My dear Lillian,” Hayle said.  “No.”

“No?”

“Had you carried on like you were, I think you wouldn’t have had it in you.  When I found you, you were close to quitting.  When Sylvester turned his attention to you, you moved even closer to that decision.  It was the other Lambs that pulled you back.  Without the Lambs, you would have been a fine but minor Doctor from a lesser Academy like Beattle, I think.  You have a good heart and you would have been a credit to your profession, serving a town or a neighborhood of a city.  You wouldn’t have sought your black coat, and you wouldn’t have joined the military without the influence of the Lambs to drive you upward and forward.”

“I might have.”

“No, Lillian.  I’ve known many students, and your fear is unfounded.”

“Why deny me my black coat, then?”

“He spoke to me about it,” Fray said.  “About being a woman in the Academies, about the challenges, the expectations.  The politics were wrong for it.  The timing, the stance of your parents, your relationship to the Lambs project and the direction that project was going… it didn’t make sense.”

“It made sense to me,” Lillian said.  She turned to Hayle.  “I wanted it.  I deserved it.  I deserved the advanced commendations and Duncan did too.  I gave you everything and you couldn’t give me that.”

“I could have,” Hayle said.  “It would have destroyed you, because it wasn’t what you really wanted, and in that destruction, with the Lambs as fragile as they were, you would have taken them with you.”

Did you know I was watching?

“I thought it was possible, Sylvester.  I wondered if you would barge in or sneak in.  I thought you would take the Lambs with you in entirety if you left, or you’d transform if you stayed.  I didn’t expect a partial leaving, or the transformation that went with it,” Hayle said.  He turned back to Lillian.  “I know my fate today depends on you all.  I know I haven’t given you the answer you wanted.  I know you may decide not to spare me because of that.”

“That was the day I lost my family,” Lillian said.

“I expect it was.”

“My parents, Sylvester, and Jamie.”

“I understand that.”

Lillian’s hands were clasped in front of her.  Mary reached out to touch those hands.

“You can ask your questions, Sylvester,” Lillian said.

There were lights illuminating buildings across the campus.  The rain continued to fall, streaking the windows, and the little droplets that were left in the way of the streaks glittered with the light of buildings and fires.  Where water collected at the branches that ran through and around each window, the elongated blobs and narrow pools caught the light in lines, making those branches seem to glow.

Jamie.

One word that passed through my lips, the question only existing in the implicit.

“Not me,” Hayle said.  “Not the Duke, not Fray, not Cynthia or her predecessor, not you.”

I stared him down.

“I’m complicit only in that I agreed that the Caterpillar project should have several evolutions.  That the slate would be wiped clean several times, each phase retaining the best that we could impart onto it.  Jamie’s fate was very much expected as a thing that would happen.”

The books?  They were part of this evolution?

“The books were another part of things, in more than one way, but the other plans fell by the wayside,” he said.

Elaborate.

“The books were part of that sought-after evolution, yes, but I thought they could be a way to get the word out, that might slip the Academy’s notice for a time.  Fiction, at first, then the facts would add up, in an undeniable detail, with codes only the most astute could find out.”

“He mentioned, once, that he might be chronicling our adventures in some form,” Lillian said.

“I mentioned it to him, yes,” Hayle said.

“I had the printing presses,” Fray said.  “But that’s minor.  Tertiary.  We didn’t go that route.”

We could.

“You could, Sylvester,” she admitted.  “I could tell you where the means to produce the books are, I’m sure the black wood and plague haven’t consumed them all.”

“You stole the second Jamie away before we could carry on with his evolution or make use of the books.” Hayle said.  “The end result is your creation, not mine.  As you suggested, the team was already yours.”

I nodded.  “Gordon?

“Yes.  That was on my shoulders.  He expressed interest in joining Genevieve.  We started to sway him the other way, but he was already losing the vigor we wanted to see in him.  We tried to encourage him.  We thought he might shift stances after you’d lost Jessie, so we gave him the dog.  It didn’t matter, the fight had gone out of him.  He would have taken you in the opposite route you needed to travel.”

I watched Mary tighten her grip on her knife.

I was worried at the emotions that roiled in me, that the voice wasn’t elaborating on.  I was worried at the dark feelings, that I might reach out to kill Hayle, the other answers be damned.

It would be so easy to murder the man, to murder Fray, and to let everything else fall by the wayside.  There would be fallout, questions still left unanswered, and it would ruin us in the end.

“You killed Gordon,” Lillian said.

“We let him go,” Hayle said.  “You and Genevieve discussed your beliefs.  Had you given the wrong answers, we would have made a similar decision.”

The girlfriend.  She fed you the information on how he was doing.”  There was emotion in the voice

“Shipman,” Lillian said, eyes wide, as she looked at me, then back to Hayle.

“She didn’t know the entirety of what she was doing when she answered my questions.  I hope that informs any decisions you make about her,” Hayle said.  “But yes.”

The plague, then.  Who was responsible in the end?

“Mauer, in a way.  The Infante, in another way.  Me,” Fray said. “In that I expected something like it.  It seems inevitable, with the primordials.  They reach a point where they want to create tools.”

Which brings us back to your cards.

“It does,” Fray said.

And it brings us back to the final, most dangerous question.

“It does,” Fray said.

Why?

Outside the door, our lieutenants were talking.  Others had joined them.  Red was with them, as were Bea, and Junior, and Gordeux, and Rudy…

“Why?” Hayle asked.

What was the end goal?  Restoring balance?  Sabotage?  Reclaiming the world for humanity?

Poor Lillian was so tense.  Mary gripped that knife, had been gripping it since Gordon had come up.

“Does it matter?” Hayle asked.

It does.

“You are where you are.  The decision is yours to make.  You’ll decide what you do next.”

I looked between Hayle and Fray.

“You believe that.”

“I do.”

“It’s the safe answer,” Mary said.

I bit my tongue, thinking.

“It’s the answer the puppeteer gives to the puppet, because anything he says might give up more control than the doubt will,” she said.  “It’s the only answer he can give that gives him a chance at staying alive.”

Thinking of Percy.  She was always thinking of Percy when it counted.

Hayle wouldn’t say.  So long as he remained that god, the unanswered questions, he had cause to live.

I’d already ceded control.  I’d made a bargain with the voice in my head, after my thought processes and more had been consolidated by a dose given to me while I slept.  I’d realized how this ended and I’d taken on one last role, giving that role a voice and giving myself over to that voice.

I lost little to nothing, in pushing myself, in taking everything I could dredge up, and trying to give it form.

I pieced together a Hayle from my impressions of the man.

I put that Hayle in the room, in a matching chair, with a matching cup of tea beside him.

I was careful to obey Mary’s wishes as I walked around the desk, until I stood where that Hayle stood.  I leaned forward, planting my hands on the desk, so my head was level with Hayle’s.

There are several answers, Lambs,” they said.  “Several possibilities.  Believe me, in taking on a project of this scale, I considered them all as end goals.  I got to know each of you, and that desire to know you was part of my reason for keeping you as close as I did, when you first joined us, Mary Cobourn.”

The Lambs’ expressions were like stone as they watched me.  The people in the hallway beyond were much the same.

“Because I know you,” they said, Hayle’s phantom and the voice together, “I know that if I tell you, knowing full well that you rebelled by carrying on your romance with Sylvester, Lillian, that you’re set on carving your own path, Mary, even if it’s one that cleaves close to your friends, and that Ashton is set on reinterpreting the world around him, even if it’s down to the paint on the walls and grass on the fields…”

Hayle was staring at me.

“…Anything I tell you, you’ll rebel against it, yet if I lie, you’ll know.  Silence is the only answer.  If I don’t tell you what to do, then there’s a chance that when all is said and done, you’ll end up there.”

“As we ended up here,” Mary said.

Yes.

“That doesn’t seem terribly fair,” Ashton said.

“It isn’t,” Lillian said.  “Because it always leaves that doubt.  Was it us?  Was it our goal?  Or were we just working toward a finale that was set for us?  We’ll never know.”

“We could stop,” Ashton said.  “We could carve out a nice little area and protect it from plague and black wood, and we could lead nice, simple lives with the new Lambs.  We could have all of our Doctors and scientists work on doing good things without worrying about war.”

“Can you?” Fray asked.  “Knowing everything you do?  Knowing what is happening in the rest of the world?”

“No,” Lillian said.  Mary shook her head.

No,” the voice said.

Lillian looked me in the eyes.

The lack of an answer is dangerous.  The answer is dangerous in another way.

“Tell us,” she said.  “If you’re speaking for Hayle, then give us the answer.”

I looked at Hayle.

I’m yours, you’re right.  I started with you, you end with me,” the voice said.

“I wonder who you are, then,” Hayle said.  “Because I’m not positive you’re Sylvester.”

“I’m not.  I’m every monster I’ve ever fought.  Every enemy I’ve defeated.  I’m Sylvester and I’m not.  I’m the Noble that Sylvester will become.”

A frown creased the space between his eyes.  “The Noble you describe sounds like a monstrous one.”

“Isn’t it?” the voice asked.  “What a mistake you’ve made.”

We stuck a knife between his ribs, and swiftly backed away, bringing the knife with us, so the wound could bleed freely, air escaping his lungs.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.17

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The fallen structures still smoked.  People, the majority of them students, were doing their best to make their way across toward Claret Hall, where one fire had started.

Soldiers were setting up a perimeter, rolling or having stitched carry barrels of salt.  Other members of the teams were either helping to get the salt flowing freely, sticking trowels and shovels into the barrels, or they were using brooms to mix the salt with the slime, so the Hag Nerve on their side of the salt was thoroughly killed.

We picked our way over the rubble.  Many of the others from the ship had come running when the walls had come down.  They’d run into the Hag Nerve and they’d found their own way through, helped by the rubble that had cascaded down onto the fields.

There were enough of us that we couldn’t take one path without stretching ourselves out too thin.  Our forces fanned out, to the extent we could with the Hag Nerve around us, many of us armed.

The groups that flanked us approached the defending forces, the soldiers and Doctors that were moving away from the wreckage and devastation.  Many of the defending forces and Academy natives were shell-shocked, rattled by the devastation around them, and they didn’t put up a fight.

Off to our left, there was some gunfire, suggesting it wasn’t all that easy.

Claret Hall would be harder, even beheaded as it was, but Claret Hall could come later.

We made our way to the tower, stepping from slab to slab, chunk to chunk, and along areas where the slime had been parted by the force of falling masonry and that same masonry then dammed it off.  Everything was wet; the moss that had grown on parts of the wall and slime that had splashed up now made footing precarious.  I had to stop several times, because even with my legs tired from carrying Jessie and from the climb, I was still better at it than some.

The Wyvern had stunted me.  It had inhibited my growth – I was only as tall as Lillian, and Lillian wasn’t tall for a woman.  Jessie hadn’t grown in the usual way because Jessie lacked some of the hormones for puberty, and she was still taller than me.

I looked back at her, and saw her asleep.  Lillian was directly behind Mary, helping Mary to limp along – the two of them had hands gripping the stitched’s belt.  I really hoped it wouldn’t tip over and send all three girls spiraling onto the slimy, smoking fragments of wall.

I’d been stunted in other ways.  I was still the boy.  In personality and in other ways, I hadn’t grown up.  It was ironic that the Wyvern that made the acquisition and loss of skills so rapid left me with the ability to climb and walk tightrope-narrow walltops and bridges as young boys did.  It wasn’t because I was better at it, but because the fears and hesitation that held so many others back were muted in me.  One had to learn fear and caution as they learned any skill.

I’d seen Mabel somewhere, I was pretty sure.  I could watch Lillian and Jessie picking their way through the ruins, and I could follow that thought to its conclusion.  I hadn’t grown in the ways I needed to, in order to maintain a proper relationship with a girl.  One had to learn to navigate relationships.

In contrast, however, I had grown in a way that let me see this through.  It wasn’t my childhood home, not quite, but it was my childhood, and I’d left it in shambles.  The army behind us watched for my hand to move, saw me gesture, and they hurried to catch up.

“Yes?”

“Is Junior with us?”

“He was talking to Duncan, last I saw.”

“Can you bring him?”

“Yes sir.”

Sir.  A title for a man.

We were one of the most powerful people in the Crown States when we took Hackthorn hostage.

We supplanted others and raised our standing when we took the lesser aristocrats, the lowest of the visiting Nobles, and the various small Academies.  We became a power on par with any but the Infante when we gathered our army.

We beat the Infante.

“Everything okay, Sy?” Lillian asked.

“The path gets a little less clear here,” I said.  I pointed.

“In more ways than one?” she suggested.

“No,” I said.

We were just past the dormitories now.  The tower was on a raised area of land, but there was a dip before then, and that dip was flooded.  A slash of overly still water, twenty feet across, cutting through the road.

The tower itself was illuminated here and there.  I didn’t see anyone in the windows, but I did see the orange and yellow lights shift as people moved this way and that.

“No,” I said again, hammering it in.

“I know your memory is bad,” she said.  “I’m going to say it again.”

“There’s no need,” I said.

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” I said.

Junior reached us, with Ashton, Duncan, and Helen in his company.

“You have the stuff?” I asked.

“I recruited help and made extra, just in case, because I did not want to run back a third time,” Junior said.  “You can thank the rest of the old gang.”

Three canisters.  Each was as large as a single dewar flask, like the ones many Doctors used for long-term chemical storage, or as many civilians used to stow a kettle’s worth of tea or a multiple-person serving of hot stew.  Too large to really serve well as a grenade.

“Alright,” I said.  I pointed.  “We’ll need to get through.  It should kill the Hag Nerve, shouldn’t it?”

“Should,” Duncan said.  “There’s a risk of it multiplying back into the body of water, but that water will be tainted.  I doubt it’ll be mobile, even if it’s soupy.”

“I’m glad Abby isn’t here,” Ashton said.  “She’d be so sad.”

“It doesn’t have a brain,” I said.

“Neither do I.  Neither does Wendy.  I’m not sure about Abby.”

“It doesn’t have anything brain-like,” I said.

“Neither do you,” Lillian said.

I reached out to pinch at her cheek, and she caught my hand.

Junior got to work, flipping a switch on the flask before uncapping it.  The gas began billowing from it, rolling out before us.

The fact that the wall had come down and was now at our backs allowed the wind through.  It rolled out and brought the gas with it, carrying it over the Hag that covered the ground and filled the moat.

“How are you doing, Mary?” I asked.

“I don’t know how soldiers can use those things with any regularity.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I used to always like this spot,” Mary said.  “In the very beginning, when I was in Hayle’s custody, after you recruited me, Lillian would come visit me.   Then it flipped around.  I would walk Lillian to her office, or go to see her, or I’d visit the dorms here.  I used to be hereabouts, past the thick of the buildings, only a few students around, rain falling, and I’d get a happy, anticipatory feeling.”

“And now?”

“Dread.”

Duncan drew in a deep breath.

“Duncan?”

“I felt like I could stand a little taller, while going to see Professor Hayle.  I was recognized by one of the best students in class and one of the top Professors locally.  Huzzah for you, Mr. Foster.  Stand here, look forward and…” Duncan swept his arm out, fully extended, palm forward, as if wiping his hand along a picture, “…you can see that black coat.  You can see your way forward, that has you on an even footing with major aristocrats, below only the Nobles.”

“It always terrified me,” Lillian said.  “For different reasons.  By the time I got used to it, we’d lost Jamie.”

I looked back at Jessie.  I reached back and adjusted her hood, and let the back of my hand rest on her temple.

Lillian let go of the hand she’d been holding since I’d reached back to pinch her cheek.

“Two gods to slay, hm?” Lillian asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

The sound of the rain changed.  I tilted my head, listening to it.

“I think I had an inkling that one of your big abstract gods was lurking here even from the beginning,” Lillian said.

“I think you might’ve,” I said.

“I think that was why I found it all so intimidating,” she said.

“I think-”

She put fingers to my mouth.

I drew in a deep breath, then nodded.

“My first memories are here,” I said, after she lowered her fingers. I drew my hand away from Jessie.  “Being terrified, needles up my nose and around the sides of my eyes, to reach the brain, poisoning my brain, pain that seemed like it was so incredible that it wiped everything away.  I was scared too, once upon a time.  Then I figured out how to put that fear in a box and promptly lost it.  It was only the fear for others that was left, and fear of what I might do to those others.”

“Us?” Lillian asked.

“You.  Lambsbridge.  The… group from the sticks.  Radham.  The world.  But I forgot a lot of the familiar faces.  I’m only really good at remembering the people I see regularly.”

The change in the rainfall suggested the Hag had relaxed.  The rainfall on the bodies of water sounded more like rainfall was supposed to.  The appearance of the water, too, had changed, rippling and splashing more with the heavier raindrops or collections of droplets.

I gestured.  I was the first to set foot on the path below the scattered rubble, layered by an inch of water.

It wasn’t overly slimy.  Slick, yes, but it served.

Our soldiers charged forward, sloshing through the water.  I carried on walking, as they ran past.  Faces appeared in the windows, staring at the scene.

“Be on your guard,” I said.

The Treasurer, running past me as I spoke, called out the same words, “Be on your guard!”

The scattered few stitched we had were first through the door, at the instructions of the Treasurer and Bea.  The students in quarantine outfits were next.  Once the calls came back from the people inside, a large portion of our soldiers stormed the tower.

They hadn’t ever been here, it struck me.

So odd, when the place was a staple in my memory.

“I always hated this place.  Hated the doctors,” I said.  An extension of my earlier comments.

“Don’t let your hate color your actions,” Lillian said.

Walking, limping, or otherwise waiting for the others, the Lambs reached the door.  We passed within.  I could see our soldiers heading up the stairwells.  Some were hanging back, getting lanterns out.  Others were going down the hallway, investigating the various rooms and labs on the ground floor.  Students and Doctors were hauled out of rooms, threatened with guns, made to kneel.

I knew where I was going.

Sub Rosa stood by the door.  She looked mournful.  I’d seen her wear an expression like that, once.

I stepped through that door to Jamie’s old lab.

“Sy?” Lillian asked.

His Professors were there.  Soldiers I didn’t know were making them kneel.  The throne was there, like a tombstone, and there were the glowing tanks with the cloths thrown over them.  The walls were lined with bookshelves, and the bookshelves were lined with diaries.

I let my fingers trace the books as I took my time circling the room.

I didn’t recognize the Professors, but the stark fear on their faces suggested they knew me.  That was good enough.

“Is Fray around?” I asked.  I had to ask.  It would be silly and dangerous not to.

There were shakes of heads.

“Starting this out by lying to me is not a good idea.”

“We haven’t seen her.  We weren’t looking out until the wall came down, but- we’d have noticed.”

I nodded.  I took in the room, where Jamie and his successor had spent so much time.

“I’m thinking of a specific time and place,” I said.  “I’m really hoping you’re all thinking of that same time and place.  I think it should go without saying.”

The Professors were silent.  Jamie had had so many.  An incredible team.  There were specialists too, and Doctors.

“I remember how little you all seemed to care,” I said.  “You looked right past me.  You stepped over me.  I found a scalpel and came after you, and one of my friends stopped me.  You barely seemed to care.  You just wanted to get back to work.”

I saw old men clench their jaws.

“Did you keep working, after he left?  Are the brains working?”

“You did so much damage, taking him away,” a woman said.

“That’s not an answer to my question.”

The man who responded was the oldest one present, enough that even the Academy measures he’d used to restore his vitality were only partial at best.  It gave him a ghoulish appearance, almost a caricature.  His hair was overly dry and unkempt.  “They work.  Loss should be minimal.  Our work has been interrupted as different members of our team were pulled away for other projects, but we kept in communication.  At Headmaster Hayle’s urging, we committed to stay when the Crown States were abandoned.  Discussion to date has been where to take the project next, and we’ve been laying groundwork and outlining what we’ll need over this past week.  We were thinking about a vat-grown body.  Transplanting what we have to an empty vessel.”

I looked at the throne, then at the vats and the various tubes and cords that connected them.  Spines and brains in jars, tubes of fluid, a living thing interrupted, like a carcass.

Transplating what they had.  An empty vessel.

I didn’t dare let myself hope.

“Would that bring him back?  The Jamie who put those memories there in the first place?”

“What?” the old man asked.  He sounded indignant.  He almost spat the word, “No.

One of his colleagues, a middle-aged man with spectacles, reached out to touch the older Professor’s arm, urging him to be calmer.

I hadn’t wanted to let myself hope, but it was still painful to hear.

I could have killed that old man for that.

“It’s muddied,” the middle aged man said.  “It wouldn’t have been possible if we’d had a vat-grown body ready the moment we lost the original Caterpillar, because so much depends on original brain structure.  Beyond that, the brains are a stew of the original Caterpillar’s catalogued memory and the memories from eighteen appointments the second Caterpillar had.  There’s reduplication, meshing, the sorting mechanisms…”

He trailed off, as I gestured, beckoning.

Jessie came to stand beside me.

One of the younger ones, a grey coat, spoke up with his eyes wide, “That’s the Caterpillar?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “She’s in stasis, until we can get her to a point where she isn’t losing the memories anymore.”

“I- we can’t.  You know that, right?  That wouldn’t be possible, especially at this stage.”

Redefine possible,” I said, and I said it with venom in my voice.  “Do it like your welfare depends on it.”

“You’ll want to call her Jessie, not Caterpillar,” Duncan said.  “I’m reasonably sure that Sylvester wouldn’t kill you for referring to her as ‘it’ or calling her by the project title, but he’d make you regret it.  We have people we’ve been talking to and utilizing.  We’ll introduce you to them shortly, all going well.”

“Yeah,” I said, my voice soft.  I reached out to touch Jessie’s hair.  “Why don’t you go get settled in the throne, Jessie?”

“Um,” Duncan said.  “Here, I’ll instruct you.  Someone had better come and talk us through this.  It’s been a while since I kept up with this project.”

The young man I’d been threatening and the old man both got up, hurrying over to the dais that the great throne stood on.  The young man pulled off his coat and used it to dust the apparatus off.

“Hayle,” someone at the door said.  “At the top floor.”

“Is he in a position to come down to meet us?” Mary asked.

“Are they?” I asked.  “Plural.  Fray has to be there too.”

“Are they in a position to come down to meet us?” Mary asked.

“I don’t know what you mean,” the soldier said, sounding bewildered.

“I had a mental picture of one or both of them with a device or creature at hand, or an apparatus, a weapon, or-” Mary started.  “Nevermind.”

“We’ll be up shortly,” Lillian said.  “Unless there’s an immediate concern?”

“No, Doctor.”

“Then we’ll be up shortly,” she said, again.  There was emotion in her voice.

I watched as Jessie was situated.  The cords and tubes were pulled into their rough positions, but not attached.  They dangled, holding position by dint of habits formed long ago, poised like snakes ready to bite.  Jessie slept on, and the stitched that had served as her arms and legs stood behind the throne, following Duncan’s orders when he needed something brought to his waiting hand.

Lillian drew close to my side, rubbing my back.

“Jamie was lovely,” she said.  “Jessie had her good points too.”

“Has,” I said.  “Has her good points.”

“Okay, Sy.”

“They’ll fix her.  They should have followed my project enough to know I’ve got a great imagination, and people as smart as them should know I’ve got reason to despise them to the core of my being.  I’ve got motive, opportunity, means and more means.  As mean as you get.”

I said it loud enough to be sure they heard.

“I’ll stay,” Duncan said.

“Hm?” I made an inquisitive noise.

“Unless you need me.  I’ll stay.  I’ll watch Jessie.”

I stared at him, trying to figure it out.

“You can trust me,” he said.

“That’s not what I was thinking.”

“The pill-”

“Again, not what I was thinking.  I was just… thinking about logistics.  My head is in a different place right now.”

“You can’t trust they won’t try something, like taking her hostage, not unless you have someone who knows their stuff.  You could have one of your rebel doctors watch over things.  We have some who followed along with the preliminary work we were doing with Jessie, but… short of Lillian, I’m the one most familiar with her.  And Lillian wants to confront Hayle.”

“You’re sure?” Lillian asked.

“I’m sure,” Duncan said.  “Just leave me some soldiers.”

Mary called out some names.  Lillian and I stood back while people got arranged.

Ashton and Helen approached.  I messed up Ashton’s hair.

“Rude,” he said.  His hair stayed sticking up.  “I’ve got my hands full of Helen.”

“And no cause to be concerned for your safety,” I said.  “Many a lad has wished to be in the position you’re in.”

He looked at Helen, then made a face.

“No,” he said.  “No, I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about that.”

“A joke, young sir,” I said.  “Because the alternative is too hard to bear.”

“Okay, Sy,” he said.

I settled my hand on his head, partially patting the hair back into place.

“If Fray isn’t here-” Mary said, looking away from the soldiers she was directing.  The Professors were working out who would be permitted to do the preliminary work and who would hang back, corralled and held at gunpoint.

I shook my head.  “She’s here.”

Go.  End this.

“Bye, Jessie,” I said.

Someone threw a switch.  Turning on a machine.  I flinched and turned away.

We left Jessie and Duncan behind.  We ascended the stairs, and we passed Gordon and Hubris’ old lab.

We passed the room where Mary’s staff had worked from.  I watched as Mary touched the door in passing.

The hallway was one that wound up the tower exterior like a spiral staircase.  The windows looked out on the city.  Wreckage, harvester-modified surfaces and homes, innumerable bodies, and shapes that might have been clusters of bodies or warbeasts.  Rain obscured everything.  If it hadn’t, I might have seen some sign of black wood or the countermeasures against it in the distance.  Whether black woods or a burn circle, the effect on the landscape was much the same.

We passed Ashton’s lab, closer to the top.

Hayle’s office had no need for hallways along any side but the one with the entrance.  The windows provided an expansive view of the city.  He sat at his desk.

Warren stood to one side- except it wasn’t Warren.  A Bruno, but its head hung forward and was revealed as a mask, no skull or anything behind the flesh.  It was a husk, and it was a lifeless one.  Soldiers stood by, weapons at the ready.  Three guarded the Bruno.

Fray stood by the desk.  She was preparing tea.

“Invisible gas and antidotes in the tea?” I asked.

Fray shook her head.

“Anything fun?” I asked.  I examined the Bruno.  “Anything in the Bruno suit?”

“Useful for getting around when Genevieve Fray couldn’t.  The face is interchangeable.  I would periodically use Warren’s face, and sometimes something more generic.”

“Copying me?” Lillian asked.

“No.  Coincidence, Doctor Garey, and barely a coincidence, at that,” Fray said.  “It isn’t strong.  It just moves the way I want it to move when I wear it.  Avis designed the mechanisms for connecting my physiology to it.”

“It sounds wrong when you call me Doctor.”

“Be that as it may,” she said.

I was aware that the soldiers were watching the exchange.  The Treasurer was in the hallway, with Gordeux.

I looked at Hayle.  The old man, lines etched deep in his skin.  He made me think of a gargoyle.  In his natural process of aging, he looked more like an experiment than most of the experiments present.

“I’d appreciate it if the room were less crowded,” I said.  “The Treasurer and Gordeux can stay.”

“I have a name,” Gordo said.

“Guys, give us some breathing room.  Stay in earshot, in case anything happens,” the Treasurer said.

The soldiers left the room, passing by the Treasurer and Gord, who remained just outside the door.  Mary sat in the chair across from Hayle, because she didn’t look up to standing much longer.  Ashton sat as well, getting comfortable with Helen in his lap.  I stood beside Lillian at the back of the room.

The two gods remained on the other side of the desk.

“I wasn’t sure if you heard,” Fray said.  “I was glad to see it was you.  It would have been such a terrible fate for this to unfold and for it to be the likes of Mauer.”

“There would have been something just in Mauer finally getting his win.”

“It would have been a waste, Sylvester.  I think you know that,” Fray said.

I know.

I nodded.

Hayle had yet to speak.  That was fitting, given the god he represented.

“I always feel so glad to see you all,” Fray said.  “Less so when you arrange to have me chased down, but I get by.  I’m fond of you all.”

“Sy says it’s because you made them,” Mary said.

“That’s not what I said, exactly,” I said.

Fray smiled, red lips parting to reveal just a bit of her teeth.  She looked at me.  “What did you say, exactly?”

“I’m the wrong person to ask if you want exact recollection,” I said.  “But… I said we were your project.”

Fray smiled again.  She looked down at Hayle, who sat to her left, then back at us.  “You were.”

The rain drummed against one side of the tower.

“I can’t say I expected it to go this way,” she said.  “But that’s you, isn’t it, Sylvester?  Unexpected.”

Hayle finally spoke, his voice far older than I remembered it, which I didn’t, really.  “I wish you hadn’t destroyed my Academy.”

The other Lambs were watching the exchange, tense.  They were as tense about what I was going to say as they were about anything.

“Did Helen, Jessie, or Duncan make it?” Fray asked.

“Helen’s there,” Lillian said, indicating the parcel in Ashton’s lap.  “Duncan and Jessie are in the lab downstairs.”

“An uphill battle, I imagine,” Fray said.

“You imagine right,” Lillian said.

“What a shame about Helen.  She was a work of art.”

“She will be again,” I said. “We have Ibbot.  And, you know, we have pretty much everything else, this side of the King’s Ocean.”

Gunshots sounded elsewhere in the city.  Mary craned her head to look, perhaps in hopes of seeing who was shooting, and in what directions.  She eased back down.  She had a knife in her hands, where she hadn’t before.

“Well, I suppose Helen’s current situation simplifies the desserts I might serve with tea, then.  It was why I asked as to her whereabouts.  Who am I serving?” Fray asked.  “I recall you turned down my invitation, the last time we talked, Sylvester.”

“No tea,” I said.

Mary and Lillian refused.

“I’ll have tea,” Ashton said.  Mary gave him a stern look.  He changed his mind, saying, “I won’t have tea.”

Genevieve Fray served herself and Hayle.  She opened a tin and put a biscuit on each saucer with the cups.

“That’s not poison, is it?” I asked.  “I think we deserve more than you two offing yourselves.”

“No,” Fray said.  “I wouldn’t do that to you Lambs.”

“Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say ‘my Lambs’?” I asked.

“It could be.  I’d be worried that Mary might kill me, with that look in her eyes.”

“Don’t kill her, Mary,” I said.  I watched the knife disappear, then drew in a deep breath and sighed.

“I wouldn’t call you mine,” Fray said.  “Whatever part I might have played.  You are your own individuals.  As a case in point, your war was rather more messy than I’d have done, Hayle’s Academy in ruins and all.”

“And the deaths,” Lillian said.

“Of course.”

“I think you’re going to have to explain sooner than later,” Mary said.  “One of you.  And I do hate that I’m talking about a plural ‘you’ with Sylvester and Fray included.”

Lillian didn’t look very happy about it either.

“I don’t know how it started,” I said.

“Hayle set the class a project,” Fray said.

“I’d like to hear it from him,” I said.  “At least to start.”

“I had a good crop of students,” Hayle said.  “I wanted to challenge them, and I wanted to be challenged.  I set them the task of creating a better brain, or repurposing old projects to include one.  It was something I’d done before, but I pushed it, even though it was something the Academy didn’t encourage or reward.  In terms of advancement and funding, it was often a dead end.  Genevieve Fray was my student, then.”

“I went looking for a way to approach my project.  My journey took me to the Block, but not to the… full extent of the Block,” Fray said.

“They know,” I said.  I glanced over my shoulder at the Treasurer and Gordeux.

She gave them a searching look, then said, “I figured a large part of things out.  The copious amount of study drugs I was taking might have helped.  That I started from a child slave bought at auction and sought to make an experiment that would complement the Nobles… well.  Not a far cry.”

I bit my tongue.

“My project was Evette,” she said.

I’d wondered.  I nodded to myself.

“Evette failed,” Lillian said.

“She did.  I was overly ambitious, but some of it had to do with luck.  Had she succeeded, I don’t know what would have happened.  I took care to erase my background as team lead once we decided on a future course of action.”

Hayle joined in once more, “I called her to my office to speak about the failure.  We found our way to the subject of the block, as she explained why she’d been so ambitious.  Had she been anything but a favorite student, a circumspect one, and me a favorite, teacher of hers, both circumspect and harboring a desire for a greater challenge that he couldn’t articulate, one of us would have likely met our end after that talk.”

“But you didn’t,” Mary said.

“Unless you’re Stitched,” Ashton said.

“We raised the subject of the Lambs, a larger project with an ultimate end goal.  The Academy was complacent.  The Crown is stagnant, and it’s a stagnation that’s doing a great deal of harm.  They’re content to bury continents and uncover them again after a century or more.  They trust that any problem that arises is one they can solve,” Hayle said.

“When you say you wanted a challenge, you mean you wanted to raise one.  Literally raise us,” I said.

“In effect,” Hayle said.  “We adjusted the experiment, we created the idea of the Lambs as a gestalt of the best projects.  We turned down Percy, because Percy’s idea, while good in its own right, was very much what we didn’t want.”

“Ironic,” I said.  “That Mary’s here now.”

“What-” Lillian started.  “What exactly did you want?  What aren’t you saying?”

Fray smiled, and looked at me.

“I suppose I have to ask.  How did we do?” I asked.

“You did just fine,” she said.  “We’ll have to see how Jessie does, and if Helen can be restored, but I would venture to say you did perfect, getting as far as you did.”

“All according to plan.”

“Not even close to the original plan.  I’d initially hoped you would accept one of my invitations.  That I could guide you, nudge you.  We tried to separate you when you started to run into problems, and our attempt to keep things manageable backfired.  The, ah, crises I manufactured to pave the way and provide you something of an education got out of hand.”

“Mauer,” I said.

Fray smiled.

“Providence,” Hayle said.  “That you would walk your own path and-”

“We ended up right where you wanted us,” I finished his sentence.  I looked at the other Lambs.  “Poised to become Nobles in our own right.”

“Nobles?” Lillian asked.

I could see the alarm on her face.  The concern on Mary’s.

“Poised,” Hayle said, and he leaned forward, elbows on the desk.  I imagined he was seeing over a decade of work come to fruition in this.  “But are you willing?”

Yes,” the voice said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.16

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The clash of the two crude forces of nature made crossing the Academy grounds impossible.  The Tangle might’ve had a brain, if I counted the modified warbeast that served as its head, but destroying that brain wouldn’t stop the Tangle.  It would only render it impossible to control.

The jellyfish seemed so heavy it had difficulty moving without making its gelatinous self ripple and roll in a direction, but it had the advantage of being big.  It rocked itself back and forth, building up momentum, and rolled into the Tangle, gripping it and pulling it down onto its side.  The sound and the ‘splash’ were muffled.

I could see it start to build up strength, and to use similar mechanisms to get itself moving, now that it was agitated.  All of the water within the Academy and much of the water beneath our feet, extending into the ditches and onto the roads leading down from the Academy was an extension of the creature.

“How?” I asked, turning around.

Mary turned.  “Rifle!”

Bea tossed her a rifle.

With the bayonet, Mary sliced it across a puddle.  The gap widened as the larger mass pulled one part through the gate and toward its fumbling struggle with the Tangle.  The remainder was pulling together into a mass outside of the gates.

“Hag Nerve,” Duncan said.

“I don’t know that one,” Lillian said.

“Superweapon,” Duncan said.  “Mucin glands, they spin out collagen-axon chains-”

“The nerve in the hag nerve,” Lillian said.

“-And filament chains.  To form skeins that catch the water.”

“It’s actually made of water?” I asked.

“Ninety nine percent,” Duncan said.  “Water, filaments like spider web, and the translucent organs that make the webs.  It’s a blob of the slime you’d get if you dumped enough spider web into the water to keep it all collected into one mass.”

The Tangle went on the offensive.  It struck out, trying to sandwich the hag nerve blob between itself and the wall, and it slammed its body into the damaged gate, just a short distance from us.  Harvesters were knocked loose, many thrown into our general direction.

Mary moved to the rear of our group, tossing a rifle our way so it remained more or less upright, bayonet pointed skyward.  There was no intended recipient, she simply trusted that one of us would catch it.

I caught it, and used the weapon to stab a harvester that was getting too curious about us.

The things were swarmers, though.  They were gathering together into a mass.  That would be uglier, if they veered our way instead of heading back to the Tangle Prime.

Lillian opened a paper packet, pulled it over the top of a vial, and shook it, before tossing it at the swarm.

It exploded in a small, five-foot diameter puff of dust, encompassing the building swarm.  The cloud of dust was quickly beaten down by the rain.

It seemed to keep the swarm from building.  They didn’t dissipate, but it was something.

“More problematic-” Duncan said.

“The Hag Nerve thing is big,” I said.

Duncan gripped his rifle, then said, “It’s spreading.”

The Tangle waded through the Hag Nerve, and it was as though it was wading through gloopy slime.  Over the course of several steps it went from being immersed to what amounted to its ankles to being immersed to its knees.

The Hag Nerve began sloshing.  It rocked, building momentum with each movement, and the Tangle’s feet were dragged across the slimy cobblestones, left, then right, until it fell over.

In the course of its rocking, it rolled up against the side of one house, striking the gutter.  The water that spilled out over the surface of the blob slowed and congealed as it rolled, not even spilling out and over to the sides.

“Will explosives work?” Mary asked.

“Some,” Duncan said.  “But I don’t know if it would be worth it.”

It’s just water, I thought.

“We need to get around it,” I said.  “Unless there’s a way to stop it?”

“Horrendous amounts of digestive enzymes?” Duncan suggested. “Probably how they clean it up.”

“Can we get access to their cleanup method?  Wherever they went to get the acid rain going?”

“It’s probably one of the most guarded locations.”

“Given the protein focus, salt would work,” Lillian said.  “Ion chains.”

“Yeah,” Duncan said.  Then he perked up.  “Proteins!  That gas Sy had Junior make would work nicely.”

“I really didn’t want to use it so soon,” I said.  “Really didn’t.”

“He’s not back yet,” Mary said.  “And I don’t think we want to wait.”

“Salt then,” Lillian said.

“We’re a long way from the ocean,” I added.

Our rebels were apparently in position now.

“Explosives out!” Mary called out.  “Ready!  Stand clear!”

We were between two blobs.  The one in the plaza was large – and I was seeing what Duncan meant about how it was spreading.

Every body of water in the Academy grounds, some of the bodies of water beyond.  All were interconnected now.  All were part of this particular, deceptively simple weapon.

“I hate enemies without brains,” I said.  “I can never outsmart them.”

“There’s something to be said about that, Sy,” Mary said.

“Probably,” I said, my attention on the path before us.  I could see the water recede, in its way, leaving the stones of the road through the gate almost dry.  “Probably.”

The Tangle was being smothered.

“First throw!” Mary called out, pointing with a fresh rifle she’d borrowed.

Someone threw a grenade.  It detonated and didn’t fully divide the blob.  As if time had frozen, the mass of water with dust, sticks, small stones and countless splinters stuck in it split, splashing out, and then stopped, the edges blurring and slumping into one another.

“Second throw!”

Each detonation made me jump, my teeth rattling enough I worried I’d bite my tongue.  The tower-top artillery hadn’t been shooting.  Too many of us were too close to the base of the wall to be aimed at, and nobody, Junior included, seemed to be comfortable approaching.

“Hurry!”

With the blob divided, our rebels made a break for it.  There were eight of them, and two slipped on the slime.

I jumped forward, reversing the rifle in my hands.  Holding the barrel just behind where the bayonet blade was attached to it, I extended the rifle-butt their way.  They grabbed it, and I hauled the first one out.  The second was grabbed by the people who were mostly clear.

The Hag Nerve’s slime didn’t pull away so much as it simply stretched out, hampering their movement even once they were free.  The girl I’d helped fell as she came more or less free.  She hissed as she turned around, so she was sitting instead of lying down.

“You alright?” I asked.

She moved her leg around, raising one of her pants legs to expose her calf.  Red.

“Plague?” I asked.  I was aware of the change in expressions.

She shook her head.  “Acid.  It’s mild.  Diluted, but the Hag Nerve grips you.  Like an indian burn with something caustic on your hands.”

“Good to know,” I said.  I tried to wrap my head around that, what it meant for us.  “How is it to walk on?”

The Hag Nerve around us was shifting.  The divided portion was trying to reconnect, outside the gates and we still had soldiers on the far side of it.

The Tangle, fighting to find a way to escape, moved at the other side of the gate, dragging itself against the damaged door.  The door swung in, and slammed against the frame, hard.  More harvesters and a few scattered harvester-riddled bodies were shed, landing around the partially closed set of doors.

Of the large set of double doors, only half of one of the two doors was now held closed, but it was enough to narrow our exit into the Academy itself.  The path beyond- I could see the Primordial Child standing in the puddles and the runoff from gutters.  The drains that were supposed to vent out the rain were clogged with Hag-stuff.

Duncan, Lillian, and Ashton stepped forward to deal with the harvesters and their hosts.  Ashton had only a knife, but he did his part, presumably, with his innate abilities.

Neither of the threats could easily be stopped.  Most attempts to wound or stop them would only divide them.

“Next round, third throw!” Mary called out.  Nobody was close enough to get caught in any blast.

I braced myself.  The detonation wasn’t as bad as the two prior ones.  A bad throw- the road was raised with ditches on either side, and the explosive had landed on the far slope of the road.  If anything, it blew a portion of the blob in our direction.

But it slipped away, the two halves sliding into the ditches on either side of the road.  The rest of our small army was free to follow.

The Tangle bludgeoned the same partially intact gate door it had struck before, threatening to batter it free of the hinges.

“The Hag Nerve is neat to look at,” Ashton said, looking back.  “That’s nice, at least.”

“It’s massively inconvenient,” I said.  “Can you get the Tangle to move away from the door?”

“It’s trying and it can’t.  It’s all Hagged up,” Ashton said.  “Try harder, Tangle!  I’m cheering for you!”

I looked at Mary, “Do you see Junior?”

“No sign,” Mary said.

“I’d hate for him to get cut off,” I said.  “Some people should stay behind, keep an eye out for him.  I think we can get partway to where we need to be, but this would be a lot easier if we had a good answer.”

“I’ll handle it, I’ll stay, make sure he has a route.  You get as far as you can,” Mary said.

“I don’t like leaving you behind,” Lillian said.

“It’s the best way,” Mary responded.  “Bea, you and yours with me.  That’s- fifteen?”

“Fifteen,” Bea said.  She made a face.  “Marcus didn’t make it, Fang couldn’t come.  Plague.”

“Everyone else, with the Lambs,” Mary said.

“You’ll catch up?” I asked.

“I’ll catch up,” she said.

I gave her a lingering look.

“Look after each other,” Mary said.

Radham was a city of perpetual rain.  Everything was wet, and the Hag Nerve operated by extending itself through that interconnected wet.  There was no safe route to take except the high ground, and I knew Radham well enough to know that there wouldn’t be a good way to get from the walls to the places we wanted to be.

My mental picture of Radham Academy was shifting.  A mire, a bog, every step being one we had to fight for.

“Sy?” Lillian asked.

“It’s not a very Lamb sort of problem, is it?” I asked, taking in the scene.  The Tangle was still close to the door.  “It’s… a pretty perfect way to tie our hands.  Slow us down, keep us rooted.  It would mess with Mauer, too, but it really messes with us.”

“It’s not great,” Lillian said.

“Kind of drives home that we’re dealing with Fray and Hayle, who know us,” I said.

“Kind of,” Duncan said.

I turned around.

Mary had her contingent keeping the Hag at bay.  They worked to keep it from lapping its way up the slopes that led up to the main road.  But there was a large group, otherwise.  Our rebels, our soldiers.

“You guys have weapons, you have tools,” I said.  “Our goal is to get up through the Hedge-”

“The hospital,” Lillian clarified.  “We’re actually smack dab in the middle of it.  It’s the building to either side and above us, integrated into the wall.”

“And to the tower,” I said.

“High ground?” Ashton asked.

“Yeah, but not for reasons you’re thinking,” I said.

“The Hedge is going to be defended,” Mary said.  She was a distance away, but listening in.

“Yeah,” I said.  “But first, we’ve got to get to the door.”

“That’s our job?” the Treasurer asked.

“Please,” I said.

“Which way is the door?” he asked.

Lillian pointed.  “About a hundred paces.”

“I think the Tangle won’t come after us,” Ashton said.  “But it can’t move further away either.”

“Grenades first, then,” the Treasurer said.  “We’ll need to clear a way, we move in a tight group.”

“There’ll be enemies on the other side of the door,” I said.  “You need to be able to hold out while we work.”

“Fire?” the Treasurer asked.

“It’s made of water,” Duncan said.

“A ring of ignited oil?”

“I don’t know if we have enough, but yes,” Duncan said.

“Then it’ll have to do,” I said.

“Once we move,” Duncan said, “There’ll be no safe ground, no place we can stop where we won’t be fighting.”

“We get to the Hedge.  Then-”

Then what?

Claret Hall or the Tower?

Which would Hayle go to?  Claret Hall was technically the headmaster’s office.  It was where he could go to coordinate with the rest of his people.

As Mary had done, the Treasurer was arranging the soldiers into a relay of grenade tosses.  We’d stagger them out.

“Then the Tower,” I said.

“What are you thinking?” Lillian asked.

“A message,” I said.

I punctuated the statement with my signal to the Treasurer.

“We’ll only have a couple of minutes of oil at best,” Duncan said, as the Treasurer called out.  He and Lillian had their bags out.  They were examining their stock.

The first grenade was thrown.

“Maybe less,” Duncan said.  “Whatever you’re going to do, you’ll need to be fast.”

“I’ll do my be-”

The explosive detonated.  To pass through the gate, we had to pass beneath the nose of the Tangle, which had reared back from the noise and light.  We had to move within range of a claw swipe.

Ashton lingered, while we moved forward as a group.  Lillian, Duncan, myself.  Jessie and her stitched, the Treasurer, and one rebel with the next grenade.  We went around the corner, stepping into the Academy grounds, and I could see the distant door.

The plan was to move along the wall.  A hundred paces.  I gauged the amount of space we’d carved out with the first throw.

Twenty paces.  But as hard as we pushed, it was already pushing back.  Faster, initially, then slower.

Those twenty paces shrank to fifteen by the time we were in position.  After a minute or five, it might shrink to five or ten.

We moved fast.  Another throw.  The rebel who’d thrown didn’t move ahead with us, instead standing with their back tight against the wall.

It wasn’t the best way to move forward.  The explosions drew attention, we carved out little space, we couldn’t stand close to the detonations, and the Hag Nerve was retaking ground.

There was a window nearby.  I had dim recollections, of being on the other side of those windows.  When I had my appointments at a young age, before Lillian felt equipped to see to them, I’d had them in the Hedge.  In offices and doctor’s rooms.  I would be without any Lambs, in pain I didn’t yet know how to deal with, staring out through the bars of my cage.

The others would make their way forward.  They’d buy themselves time with oil and fire.

I’d get a headstart on my own role in things.

“Jessie,” I said.  “Come with.”

Lillian and Duncan looked at me with surprise.

Ashton was Ashton, like Helen had always been Helen.

“I love you all,” I said.  “Make sure Mary doesn’t use Junior’s gas unless she absolutely has to.”

“What-” Lillian started.

I grabbed the bars, and I started climbing.

“Oh.  Be safe, Sy.”

The rain poured down around us, onto the Hag Nerve, onto the Tangle of dead bodies.  It drenched an Academy that had gone quiet, making my every move a precarious one, where a finger or the toe of a boot could slip from wet metal.

Jessie’s stitched followed, after brief direction from Duncan.  It was large enough to reach where I had to jump.  It managed its slow, inexorable climb, Jessie on its back, piggy-backing it.  My climb was more precarious, and I was in a hurry.

A nice climb was one where I had three points of contact with the wall, two feet and one hand, or both hands and one foot.  I could reach with the free limb.  This wasn’t a nice climb.  There weren’t two points of contact here.  There oftentimes wasn’t even one.

There were gaps between windows large enough that I had to make little jumps, where I touched nothing but air and rain, before reaching out to grab at another set of bars.

One set would be rusty.  Another would rattle as I grabbed it.  Another leap had a loose stone in the sill.

The group below used the weapons we’d brought with us from the ship to carve a way forward.  They were just at the door now.

I spotted what I was looking for.  The branches reinforced the wall higher up, grown into the architecture, supporting parts that had started to crumble.  Those same branches provided a wealth of handholds and security that stone alone didn’t.

As multiple sets had overlapped, they made it harder to set up the bars.

I’d hoped to find a place where Jessie’s stitched could help rip the bars away.  I found better.  The bars had been done away with entirely on one of the upper floors, where the branches almost completely enclosed one window.

I worked the window open, slipping a knife through the gap to flip the latch, and I climbed within.

Patients were arranged on beds.  Two were asleep or in too dire a shape to move.  Five more were awake.  An old woman, one with a long face and her hair curled, glasses making her eyes hard to make out.  Two injured men who might have been soldiers.  A woman who might have been a mother, sitting in the bed with her child.

This would be long-term care.

Water dripped from me as I walked down the row between the beds.  “How many doctors on the floor?”

“Two nurses, they rotate.  One is always a shout away,” the old woman said.  “Doctors are two shouts away, if something happens.”

“Hey,” a soldier said.  “Quiet now.”

“He has a knife,” the old woman said.  “I’ve come this far.  I’d like to live.”

“The fighting’s over,” I said.  I glanced out the window, then leaned out a bit further, waving my arm so the stitched could see.

“Is it?  I hear explosions,” a soldier said.

“Cutting through the mess,” I said.  “The fighting is over, but the outcome hasn’t been decided.”

“You’re here to influence that outcome?”

“I’m here to decide,” I said.

Jessie’s stitched ripped away the branches.  I put one hand on Jessie’s arm, holding it, so she wasn’t scraped free & left to fall to the ground far below as the stitched climbed through the window.

“I’m a soldier,” one of the patients said.  He moved like he was going to get out of bed, and I could see the pain on his face.

I drew my gun.  Not for him.

A nurse came to respond to the sound Jessie’s stitched had made.  I pointed the gun at her.

“The Infante is dead.  The armies on all sides have been devastated,” I said.  I motioned for the stitched to follow.  “The people who got us to this point, myself included, need to get some things out of the way.  Either it’s me against them, or all three of us have different opinions on how this should go.  Now… where is the man in charge?”

“Headmaster Hayle?  I imagine he’d be at Claret Hall,” the old woman said.

“The man in charge of the Hedge.”

“He’s downstairs,” the nurse said.

I glanced out the window.  They were just setting up the ring of fire now.  The fire would keep the Hag Nerve from creeping in around them, at least for a bit.  The water would seep in, but the Hag part of things wouldn’t come with it.  They presumably had a way to manage the water lapping in around them.

Duncan had said there would only be a few minutes of reprieve.

“She’ll be safe as long as you don’t kick up a fuss,” I told the patients.  I approached the nurse, gun still pointed at her, and motioned for the stitched to follow.

“Whatever you’re doing this for,” the old woman said.  “Surely it isn’t a world where you’d hurt someone like her, who treats us kindly?”

“I think everyone who has a say would say the world they’re fighting for is the best one,” I said.  “That they’d want to preserve the good people.  The innocents.  But want as we might, we don’t always get a chance.  Don’t make me shoot her.”

“It’s your choice,” she said, to my back.  I was already out in the hallway.

It was dark.  The lights dimmed, at an hour when patients were supposed to be asleep.  But the city was under siege, and anxiety ran high.

We all say we’d want to preserve the good innocents, the voice said.  Reflecting on my statement a moment ago.  There isn’t single one of us who wouldn’t put a bullet in an innocent to bring their ideal world one step to fruition.

This is the world you live in, Sylvester. 

You are the embodiment of that sentiment, that world.

I kept the gun out of sight.  The Nurse walked with me.  Jessie followed, a short distance behind.  The stitched carried her properly in its arms, now that it was done climbing.

The Nurse led me down the stairs.

The others were outside.  How much time had passed?

But I couldn’t rush.  Not at this stage.  I had to appear calm.

She indicated the door.

I looked down the length of the long, empty hallway.

“Grab her,” I said.

The stitched caught the nurse, clapping a hand over her mouth, holding her against the wall.

“Thanks Jessie.  Stay put for now.”

I opened the door, letting myself into the room.  A patient’s room, luxury, but the person who lay on the cot with an arm draped over their eyes was a Professor.

I put the knife to their throat.  They stiffened in alarm.

I used my hand to move the arm.  He was relatively young.  Thirty-something.  He hadn’t shaved recently, but he was well-groomed, even to the eyebrows.

“I expected a knock at the door.  Someone saying we’d lost.  Ever since I saw that vessel out there,” he said.

I heard detonations.  Was that my signal?

“You guys are dragging out the loss.  It’s going to hurt all sides,” I said.  “Let’s expedite things.”

He considered that.

“Every second counts.  The patients and refugees in this hospital, the soldiers near to the ground floor, defending the entrance, the staff.  If you want them to live, make this easy.”

“What if I make it hard?” he asked.  “I’m not saying I will, but knowing might make the decision that much easier for me.”

“The artillery up above.  The shells and explosives they’re raining down on the attackers are stored somewhere.  I’d head to a tower, not too close to here, and I’d blow it up, and myself with it.  I want to give them a way through, that doesn’t mean they’re wading through the Hag Nerve.  I’ll sacrifice myself if it means giving them that.”

“It’s that bad already?”

“Yes.  And I want through.  Either you give us and them a way through, or I’ll take myself and everyone in the Hedge out to pave a way for my colleagues.  Decide fast.  You do not want to see what happens if they don’t make it.”

It wasn’t my voice that had made that warning.

He met my eyes.  It was gloomy, the only light from an oil lamp turned to its lowest settings.

He seemed to read something in my expression.

I’d always been bad at being sincere when it counted.  I came across as dishonest.

“Alright,” he said.  “What do you need?”

He seemed to believe this, when I was as honest about what I was willing to do as I’d ever been.

“Announce the surrender.  Say Hayle sent the message and he’s spreading it around.  The people outside the door get to come in.  They pass without incident.  All weapons get put away.”

He stood from the bed, swinging his legs down.

“What happens after?” he asked.

“Go,” I said.  “After all of this is over, we talk.  And that’s only if all of them out there are fine and healthy.  Hurry.”

He left.  He seemed bewildered, as he stopped in the hallway and saw Jessie, and more bewildered still when I didn’t follow to ensure he was doing what I wanted him to do.

I stood in the small, luxury patient’s office, and I had a sensation that I’d been cooped up in here, once upon a time.

I touched the window, looking at the bars of metal and the wood that wound its way across.  I could see the water that ran down the glass and the flame reflected in the individual droplets.

“Let her go,” I told Jessie.

The nurse was released.  She stumbled a few steps away, and it looked like she was about to run.  She didn’t.

“Did you hear?” I asked.

“We lost,” she said.  “I don’t know who won.”

“Nobody,” I said.  “That’s not how this plays out.”

I moved at a more leisurely pace.  The stress from carrying Jessie around had worn out my legs, and I was only now feeling it.  The climb had only exacerbated the stress and exhaustion.

“Can I- are you letting me go?”

“Don’t cause trouble,” I said.  “We still have to see how the dust settles, and who is left when it does.  If you stay quiet, you’ll be fine whatever happens.  If you stir things up and the wrong set of things occur, it only hurts you and others.”

“I came here tonight with only the plans to look after my patients.”

“Do that,” I said.

She fled.  Going back upstairs.

“How was that, Jessie?” I asked.

Jessie was silent.

“Yeah,” I said.

We moved briskly toward the stairs.  I had to trust the Lambs were doing their best.

I made my way up, Jessie following, I opened the door just enough to peek, then stepped back, staying in the stairwell with Jessie.

The Lambs appeared.  Lillian and Duncan supported Mary.

“You took too long,” Mary said.  She sounded different.

“The fire went out,” Ashton said.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

She looked up at me.  One of her ribbons had come loose, and her hair had fallen down on the one side.

“She pushed herself too hard,” Lillian said.  “Fighting back a rising tide with knives and wire.”

“And drugs,” Duncan said.

“Not much.  A burst of movement when I needed it,” Mary said.

But she’d needed it.  I wanted to say something and I couldn’t.

The others were coming.  Rebels.  They ascended the stairs.

“We should hurry,” Mary said.  “People recognized us.  Not everyone is keen with us just walking through, our guns raised while theirs were lowered.”

“I imagine it’s hard for them to process.  Most haven’t considered being in a situation like this, even in wartime,” Duncan said.

Mary continued, “The dissenters will find those of like mind, and they’ll follow.  Or they’ll do something to work against us.”

“I puffed at them to get them to hold back, but that won’t account for much,” Ashton said.

“Everything helps,” Duncan said.

“We’ll have to act before they pull themselves together,” I said.  More of our rebels were collecting.  Junior was with them, I saw.  He held up a canister.

Let’s give them a message, drive reality home.

I gestured.

Our rebels mounted the attack.  They moved through the doorway at the top of the stairs.  They stepped onto the rooftop, rifles bristling.

The artillery team was on the roof.  The great cannon was set in place, the crates of artillery were stacked neatly nearby, and the soldiers were divided.  Half were keeping watch while holding onto their tea and hip flasks.  The other half manned the cannon, many with binoculars in hand.

Our side fired first.  They fired back, but it was scattered.

I could see lanterns flaring to life on neighboring rooftops.  Concerned.  Their focus seemed to be on the ground, a concern of an attack from across the fields, or from within Radham.

Mary pulled away from Lillian and Duncan, and she stumbled a little before dropping to her knees, moving her rifle around from where it hand dangled at her back.  Her focus was on the nearby towers.

Our cannon was loaded.  Our team was able to reorient it.

“Attack the other tower,” she said.  “I need rifles here, fast!”

The cannon turned, slow and heavy, aiming at the tower to our north.

Mary’s group aimed a battery of rifle fire at the tower to our south.

They opened fire before we did, this time.  Rifle shots.  We ducked behind cover, crouching, as our cannon fired at the other tower.

The towertop exploded, violent, a flare of orange flame and heavy smoke.  All of the ammunition they had been carrying went up with them, and the towertop began to crumble.

It was an attack from within that they hadn’t been fully equipped to deal with.  They’d clued in, but it had been late.

If Mary’s rifle battery hadn’t killed most or everyone at the other tower, it had cowed the survivors enough that they weren’t poking their heads up.

That was fine.  If they were being crafty or if they were running in anticipation of the cannon being turned their way, that would be alright.

“Remind me which corner of Claret Hall had the especially fancy staff room?” I asked.

The Lambs turned to stare at me.

“We might as well,” I said.  “Like I said, delivering a message.”

I didn’t need to give the order.  Our rebels began working as a team to slowly rotate the artillery turret.  It stopped partway, the structure of it not allowing it to fully turn inward.

It was our mechanically inclined girl from Junior’s group, coupled with the muscle of Jessie’s stitched, that helped us get it turned the way we wanted it, infrastructure pulled away, safeguards pulled out, mounts loosened.

It was a slow process.  We got the cannon aimed at the heart of Radham Academy.

The team worked to fix its housing so it wouldn’t go flying off the tower, taking several of us with it, with the recoil of its shot.

“What if Hayle is there?” Lillian asked.

“He isn’t,” I said.

“You can’t know for sure.”

“I know the direction Fray ran, and she’d run to him.  I know that our prior headmaster-”

“Briggs,” Duncan said.

“-him.  He would’ve gone to the nice staff room with the nice curtains and rugs and gold-inlaid furniture, and he would’ve had his tea or his brandy there, talking with his fellow black coats.  Hayle wouldn’t.”

“You can’t know,” Lillian said.  “Not for certain.”

“As badly as you want your confrontation,” I said.  “I want my answers.  I wouldn’t do this if I thought there was any chance we’d miss out.”

“Alright,” Lillian said.

“He’s the third god, he wouldn’t make it that easy.”

“All good to go,” our mechanic said.

“Thanks, Posie,” Duncan said.

“Would you like to do the honors?” I asked Lillian.  “Considering what happened with your black coat?”

“I wouldn’t,” she said.  “I’ll do what I have to do in wartime, but… not like this.”

Not like this.

“Alright,” I said.

I gestured.

Posie and the Treasurer managed the firing.

The staff room of Radham was obliterated.  A hole through the wall, a shockwave followed, tearing through that enclosed space.  The windows blew out in rolling fire.

It was a shame that it had to happen, but we needed to break their backs.  To make it clear to those who remained that this was over.

Removing some of their leadership.  Some of their superiors and mentors.

There.

“We hold a position here, use the artillery cannon to open a way?” Mary asked.

“No,” I said.  “We leave nobody behind.”

“You’re sure?  You said you wanted to reach the tower.”

“We will,” I said.  “Shoot down the walls.”

I pointed.

Break their backs, then scar them.  Make it clear, above all else, that they’re no longer safe, whoever they are.

The cannon was loaded, and it fired once more.

One shot, to the base of one of the walls that surrounded Radham.

It mostly held up.

With the second shot, however, that section of wall collapsed.  It broke free, it twisted, unpinned, and it dumped half of the resulting rubble on the outside of the Academy, half on the inside.

Our rebels secured the door from those below as we made shot after shot, targeting the walls.

Tear it down.  Give them nothing.  If they would drown the battlefield, tear down their walls and walk over the rubble.

Lillian approached me.  She took my hand.  Speaking was impossible with the deafening boom after deafening boom.

We watched, hand in hand, as the cannon fired, tearing down the Academy that had given birth to me, to her, to Jessie, Duncan, Ashton, Jamie, Gordon, and even Mary, in a roundabout way.

When the ammunition ran out, we waited.  We let the dust settle and the rain wash that dust away.

Our retreat covered, we started on our walk to the distant Tower, where Hayle and Fray no doubt awaited us.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Crown of Thorns – 20.15

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Did she use the word primordial?”

“Yes.”

“Recently?”

“What does that mean?”

“Did she say it the last time you talked to her?”

“Say what?”

“Did she say the word primordial in the last few conversations you had with her?”

“I don’t know.”

I bit my lip.

“Did she use the word plague, when she didn’t mean the red plague?”

“I don’t know.  I wasn’t paying attention to that kind of thing.”

“Did she say the word superweapon a lot?”

“Some.  But she says a lot of things some.”

I gripped the railing ahead of me.  “Right.”

Wendy turned to look starboard.

“Listen,” I said.  “Um.  Did she use the words ‘Radham superweapon’?”

“Some,” Wendy said, looking back at me.

“Some,” I said.  “Was she talking about wild, uncontrolled?  Or controlled chaos, or…”

Wendy looked at me, lost.

“Okay.  Was she being exceedingly careful?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Wendy said.  “No more than usual.”

That rules out some grim possibilities, I thought.  At the same time, it left me at a loss.

Our initial attempt at getting moving had failed.  The craft had started to move, then faltered when some of the legs proved too damaged to drag us forward.

I stood at the railing and watched as teams lashed Fray’s pet Tangle to the front.  Wendy stood beside me, holding an umbrella to keep the worst of the rain from soaking her.

Our means of locomotion was macabre, but it gave us a way forward.  Some of the warbeasts were being gathered nearby, a share of our rebels were wrapping up a discussion about them.  I couldn’t see nearly well enough to read much more than broader body language, the simplest gestures, like a pointing finger, and who was speaking, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out.

They divided the warbeasts up, one group more injured, another not, and led the injured within range of the Tangle.  Chains and ropes were distributed, so the beasts were lashed to the same rigging that was attaching the Tangle to the front of the Infante’s ship.

When the crews had tied everything down and retreated far enough away from the warbeasts, orders were called out.  The warbeasts were lunging, pulling at the rigging while the greater Tangle remained still.  They didn’t like their proximity to this strange thing, especially when they were hurt and tired.

They liked it even less when chemicals were cast out over them.

It was an indication for the Tangle to go on the offense.  It reached out for the warbeasts, gripped the rigging and the beasts themselves, and then set to work attaching them to itself, while harvesters swarmed down its limbs to do the stitching work.  The beasts fought a futile tooth and nail battle against the attacker.

I was a considerable distance above the ground, standing at the very highest point of the ship, and I could still hear the sounds they made.

“The Lady Gloria is dead,” Duncan said.

“Oh no,” Wendy said.  “What a shame.  Who is she?”

“She’s a noble.”

“Was she a good noble?” Wendy asked.

“She wasn’t one of the worst,” I said.

“Oh no,” Wendy said, again.

“Alright,” I said.

He approached from behind and came to stand beside me at the railing.

Pawing at the ground where some of the chemical had landed, the Tangle tugged on the restraints that bound it.  The crew of rebels hurried to get out of the way in case it made any headway.

“You really see a way forward?” Duncan asked.

“Yes,” I said.

The people who were still in view below were looking up, trying to see me through the rain.  I waved my arm, the motion exaggerated, then extended my arm forward.

A horn blew.  I recognized the pattern as the de-facto call for retreat.  Ironic, when we weren’t running.

“I’m in a weird place in the Lambs,” Duncan said.  “I’m the newest member, in a way, discounting the pseudo-Lambs.  I actually have outside attachments.”

“Having doubts?” I asked.

“No.  No, there isn’t much room for doubt, is there?”

I shook my head.  I looked at the devastated terrain and the shattered city before us.

“I know Lillian and you do your thing, you negotiate.  You and she figure out where you’re at.”

“We do.”

“And I don’t mean to disparage her at all when I say that she’s emotionally entangled.”

I looked over at him.  His hood was down, his hair wet.  Water streamed down his face and into his collar.  It was that kind of day, though.  We’d been out and active in the rain for so long that being drenched was something we’d resigned ourselves to.

The Tangle hauled forward, hard, making us stumble into the railing.  One of our rebels had taken off on a warbeast, the others presumably onboard or soon to be onboard.  The rider had something held aloft, and gas was streaming from it, tinted so it was clearly visible.

The Tangle was trying to chase, clearly interested in the gas.

“Just the way it is,” Duncan continued.  “You’ve all known each other for a long time.  You were introduced early on.  Lillian aside, you’ll probably die in each other’s arms.”

“Oh no,” Wendy said.

“Dark thoughts,” I said.

“But not wrong, am I?”

“No,” I said.

The intact legs of the ship began clawing at the ground.  They were strong, and they provided the initial forward momentum.  The Tangle compensated, providing power the weaker legs couldn’t.

We started moving.

“The Lambs have their roles.  You were conceived of as a gestalt.  It’s part of the whole plan, y’know?  And I’m not part of that.”

“You’ve found a place.”

“As a secondary Doctor.  As oversight for the little ones.  Lillian fields you, Jessie, and Mary in large part.  I’ve immersed myself in the workings behind the vat-grown ones.  There’s a division of labor.”

“Sure,” I said.

“As attached as I am to Ashton and Helen, I wouldn’t say I’m as tied into things.  I hope I don’t sound arrogant or too forward if I say maybe I have another role.  I’m… about as objective as you guys are going to get, without actually being an outsider.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And outsiders don’t get it.”

“They don’t,” Duncan said.

“What’s the objective take?” I asked.

“Not a take.  A question.”

“Sure.”

We were picking up speed now.  Once something was in motion, it was easy to keep in motion.  We had momentum.  We charged toward Radham.

“How worried do I need to be?”

“That depends on Fray,” I said.

More people were ascending to the upper deck.  The windows below didn’t afford the same view of things.  The Lambs were among the people ascending.  A stitched carried Jessie, and Lillian and Mary walked on either side of it.  The stream of people was disrupted with a pause – people had given a wide berth to the younger Lambs, in large part because of Nora.

“But you’re not asking about Fray,” I said.

“No.”

“I could tell you the same thing I told Mary,” I said.  “That when push comes to shove… just about any of you could beat me in a fight.”

“You could tell me that,” Duncan said.  “It doesn’t really answer the question.  You picking a fight is a non-concern.  You have a wealth of ways to do damage.”

I remained silent, watching the city.

“Yeah,” Duncan said.

He reached out, both hands.  One hand shielded the other, so rain wouldn’t fall on what it held.

A single pill.

He closed his hand around the pill.

“Ah,” I said.  “You’re that suspicious.”

“I would appreciate it if you took this.  Right here.  In the time before the others get here.”

The pull of the Tangle and the fact that the legs were stronger on one side made the craft tilt slightly.  The Tangle corrected to stay on course, and we tilted the other way.  Everyone on the deck that wasn’t holding the railing slid or stumbled on the wet deck.  It was wood textured to make slipping a little harder, but the acid rain had done a number on that texture, and the degraded wood had a way of filling in the gaps and making everything a little more slick.

It slowed them down a fraction, but not enough time to really let me dwell on the topic.

Duncan might have intended that, to give him some credit.

“What is it?”

“Reassurance,” he said, without hesitation.  He’d anticipated the question.

“Vague,” I said.  I held out a hand.

He closed his mouth into a grim line, clearly not intent on saying any more.

Saying more would have given me a chance to divine what he was up to.  He was intending to keep this a secret.  It could be a leash, something to ensure I wouldn’t last very long after going rogue, or it could be a placebo, something that would have a minor or obvious effect like turning my mouth blue, which would reassure him that I was cooperating enough to take the pill instead of palming it.

Or both.  I couldn’t rule out both.

Or, the voice echoed.  The most distant, least connected Lamb could be a traitor.  A poison pill at the pivotal confrontation.

I held out my hand.  Duncan gave me the pill.

The others were close enough to see, now.  I popped the pill into my mouth, then held it in my teeth so Duncan could see.

“It’s a suppository,” Duncan said, dry.

“Ha ha,” I said, pill still held in my teeth.  I winced as I sucked it back, snorting.  I stuck out my tongue, waggling it to show my mouth was empty.  “You’re a funny guy, Duncan.  You don’t get enough credit for that.”

“And you’re a charmer.  Believe it or not, I was considered one of the best jokers of the year.”

“What’s this?” Lillian asked, as she joined us.

“Duncan says people thought he was the funniest guy around.”

“That says as much about the the classmates we had as it does about Duncan,” Lillian said.

“Ow, my pride,” Duncan said.

“You were and are quick-witted and fast with a retort.  Especially when you’re in your element.  It’s part of the reason I nominated you.  And there’s something to be said for the fact that just about everyone else was struggling to get to the top of the class rankings, and didn’t have it in them to crack a joke.  You were doing well enough in your classes that you could joke around.”

“Feels like a horrifyingly long time ago,” Duncan said.  “I can’t remember the last time I made a joke.”

“I’m supposed to be the one with the memory problem.  You made one about a minute ago, you know.”

“Ha ha,” he said, without humor.

The Lambs had gathered all around.  It was nice, having them close.  Even if Helen was in dire shape and Jessie was sleeping through this.  They were near, they weren’t all touching me, but I could feel the warmth of them.  I was familiar with them, the smells, the ways they thought, many of the ways they moved.

It was more like being home than returning to Radham was.

I took in the scene.  Fray was one of my gods to slay for a reason.  She was so hard to predict.

I couldn’t ask what I’d do, because she operated on a different level, for reasons I didn’t know.  I had inklings, but I didn’t know how to use those inklings, and I wasn’t wholly sure I could trust them.

“Hi Wendy,” Ashton said.

“Hi.”

“Are you well?”

“Yes.  I’m enjoying a very strange view.”

“Yes,” Ashton said, sounding very pleased.  “I’m going to commit it to memory and describe it to Helen later.  She doesn’t have eyes right now.”

“How nice of you.”

Some of the rest of us exchanged glances.

“We should get away from the foredeck before we make impact,” Mary said.

“We’ve got a little ways to go before we do,” I said, staring at the scene.

“Did Wendy have any ideas about what Fray is doing?”

“Nothing concrete.  Superweapon, maybe.  As much as I keep thinking it has to be something really wild and uncontrolled, that the Crown can’t control or get a handle on, much like the plague, nothing Wendy says suggests that’s the case.”

“Primordials?” Lillian asked.

“They might have factored in.  She used the word.  It’s a casualty of Wendy being Wendy, as exceptional as she is for a stitched.”

“Thank you,” Wendy said.  “But I don’t really have stitches.  I’m sealed together properly.”

“All the same,” I said.  “We can pick up on sentiment, but if she was capable of divulging anything too concrete, I suspect Fray wouldn’t have…”

I gestured to finish the statement.  Left her behind.

“Yeah,” Duncan said.  “Maybe.”

“It’s not as wild a thing as I thought it might be, but she might still be using the calamities as a kind of reverse effort to turn Radham and other strategic areas into an oasis in the midst of a desert storm,” I said.

“You might be thinking she should be using chaos and storms because that’s how you work,” Mary said.

“Might,” I admitted.

“We’re close,” she said.  “We should start preparing.”

“On that note, Lillian, Duncan, if you had to, could you quickly, cleanly kill that Tangle down there?”

“Kill?” Lillian asked.

“It’s ours,” Ashton said.

“No,” I said.  “It’s Fray’s.  We just happen to be using it.  So I have to ask, could you kill it?”

“No,” Duncan said.

“I could pull something together if you gave me an hour.”

“Okay, that wouldn’t be fast enough,” I said.  I turned around, and I made my way through the Lambs, leaving them at the very front of the ship.  I faced the group that had come up to the top deck.  “Beattle Rebels and other Academy-educated types!”

My voice carried.  I immediately had everyone’s attention.

“I need a quick answer!  Who can devise a solution to kill the Tangle down there before we actually get to Radham?”

A few people looked bewildered.

“Blow it up?” somone asked.  One of our soldiers, but not Academy-educated.  He’d been a thug, once.  We’d rounded out his training with guns, explosives, and other things.  He would be one of the last of Archie’s people, maybe?

“Wouldn’t work unless we had a big enough explosive,” I said.  “Anyone else?”

I saw a hand go up.

Junior.  Head of the Rank, our master poisoner.

“Good man.  Get to it, get what you need,” I said.

He rounded up his people, and they hurried below deck.

I was getting strange looks.  Including from the Lambs.

“It’ll be good to have if we need it,” I told them.

Nobody answered.

The crowd was filled with our past enemies.  There were enough I couldn’t recognize that it confused my senses.  Bea’s followers were into self-modifications, and it didn’t help matters when the physical alterations were often my first cue that someone was a spectre.  Horns?  Could have been the Brechwell beast, and it could have been someone who’d wanted to look intimidating.

We were drawing nearer.  The rider who was painting the trail was at the base of the wall, and was working on scaling it.  They’d chosen a warbeast rather than a horse because warbeasts could climb.

The problem was that climbing was slow, even with a warbeast that was good at it.

Mary gestured, and we backed away from the front of the ship.  Others retreated as well.  I felt some trepidation as I eased my way past Avis and Warren, past the Snake Charmer and Percy.  Past Sub Rosa, the Humors, Cynthia, ghosts and soldiers, the Fishmonger, Devil, Primordial Child, and scattered nobles.

At the edge of the Academy closest to us, there was a flash of light.  The sound reached us a moment later.

“Brace!” Mary hollered.

The artillery shell hit the side of the ship.  Our course shifted, then self corrected as the creatures hauled us forward.

When we’d talked about how we needed to use the craft to assault the city, we’d outlined a path that would place us closer to the Academy.  It was closer than the point where the Infante had landed, and now it was becoming clear why he hadn’t chosen to assault the Academy and the walls around it.  The Academy had defenses beyond the creatures that guarded it.

At a tower further away, another artillery emplacement fired.

The shot hit somewhere near the prow, detonating on impact.  That one would’ve hit one of the metaphorical horses of our metaphorical chariot.

We were damn close now, but every fraction of a mile that we plunged forward put us further into harm’s way.  Those who’d ascended to see Radham as we drew nearer were ducking below deck.  We were the last in line to descend, because we’d been the furthest forward.

Two more shots came our way.  One drifted, hitting field off to the starboard side.  Another struck low.  Aimed more at the Tangle.

The Lambs started to head below.  I clung to the railing, glanced back, and then put one finger to my nostril, blowing out the pill I’d snorted up into my sinus cavity.

The next round included a more distant tower, which apparently saw fit to open fire now that we were closer.  Three shots in all.

We were belowdeck before they hit home.

Narrow windows near the front of the ship provided a view of the scene.  One of the explosives ripped a hole in the hull, opening a space around where the window had been.  Smoke and the seemingly endless rain of water and debris obscured our vision.

We were slowing.  The explosions had damaged the rigging the Tangle used to haul us forward, and it had pulled away, only partially attached to us, the leash extended.  It clambered up the wall to the best of its ability, after the rider with the smoke.  It ascended far faster than the rider did.

The Infante’s craft, however, still had some forward momentum.  We slammed into the wall and rode up against the topmost edge.  Rubble and sections of wall crumbled down around the deck and around us.

The fluids and blood that flowed down the wall, over the intact window and across the damaged hole suggested we’d collided with the Tangle.

Well.  That complicated things.

More artillery fire struck us.

Problematic, that we were close enough for them to shoot at us.

“They’re hitting the rear.  I don’t think they have an angle,” Mary said.

More artillery shells struck us.  Tail end, again.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Unless they’ve got incredibly clever and coordinated people manning the artillery turrets on top of those towers, tricking us into poking our heads out before they obliterate us.”

“I wouldn’t put it past Hayle,” Lillian said.  “But I don’t think Hayle would be on those towers.”

We headed for the stairs leading back up to the deck.  Junior met us at the base of the stairs, and tossed me a canister.

“Look after Wendy,” I told him.  “Or find someone who can and follow.”

“Got it,” he replied.

There was no need for a ramp, with the way the wall had come down.  The rubble formed its own access point.  The Tangle had divided in two, and the ‘head’ was climbing up onto the top of the wall.

The lower half was groping its way up the wall, toward the hole we wanted to use to pass into the city.  The gap between the prow of the ship and the wall was forming a wedge it couldn’t quite force itself past, and it didn’t have the complete senses to figure out a way.  It groped blindly, pawing with a limb made of a warbeast and a dozen soldiers.

We passed beneath the groping claw, into the city.

I knew what the others were looking at as we stopped and got our bearings.

We were standing at the edge of a field.  A bridge stood a distance ahead of us.  Not the bridge, but familiar nonetheless.  We were on the same tier of land that Lambsbridge occupied.  The road between the Academy and the Orphanage was a little ways ahead of us, stretching from our right to our left, and we were about a third of the way down it.

Artillery fire struck near the Tangle at the walltop.  Stone and wood crumbled in equal measure, and the Tangle fell.  Behind us, the other Tangle was climbing up.

I pulled the pin and threw the canister at it.

Gas erupted around it.  There was a dull moaning sound, as if each of the bodies was making a small sound, and it began to lose strength.

The rebels took the opportunity to come over the deck, where they hadn’t had the confidence to come past the thing.  I spotted Junior.

“We need another!” I shouted.

He stopped, made a face, and then reversed direction.

“Was smart,” Lillian said.

“Hm?” I asked, trying to take in the surroundings.

“I was thinking we had to kill it.  He was thinking he needed to take it down ten percent, across the entire body, weakening the protein bonds that tie one body to another.  That’s all it takes.”

“Wonderful!” I said, not even really paying attention.   “Good job, Junior.”

“He’s not here,” Ashton said.

This was deceptively familiar ground.  It was a scene I’d seen countless times in my life, enough that it had solidified among my more durable memories, but it was set askew, painted over.  The terrain was tilted, and the movements of Tangles and the damage to Tangles had littered the area with a number of bodies that seemed almost ludicrous.  Some of those bodies writhed and moved as Harvesters ate or tried puppeteering them.  The lower ground and ditches were congealing with bodily fluids, rain, and the plant matter that had disintegrated in the acid rain, forming a black slurry of mud.

We started forward, picking a path that would take us closer to the gates.  They were open, too damaged to be closed.

There was more artillery fire, aimed at the Tangle we’d brought with us.  It hit the wall or sailed over it.

We were wet, dressed in dark uniforms, crossing a field of blighted crops, blood, and bodies; it meant we were almost camouflaged.  We moved with more purpose than the twitching bodies did, however, and we were a more concentrated mass.

The camouflage got us partway to our destination before they took notice.

A tower near the gate fired a shell, the sound echoing.

Aimed at us.

“Right!” Mary shouted.  There was a momentary resistance.  The way the plume of smoke that pointed skyward looked to be angled, they might have thought she was pushing us into the way of the shot.  She spoke with more venom.  “Go right!”

The rebels with us moved.  I was already weaving through the ones who weren’t moving fast enough.

It hit ground to our left.  Wind had carried it a considerable distance.  It wasn’t close enough to clip any of us, but loud enough that I lost the ability to hear with my left ear, and the shock of it took the legs out from several people.

“Go, go!” I shouted, leading the way through the ankle-deep soup of acid water, dead organic matter and mud.  Each step sucked at my boots.

Broken and dying Tangles roused as they took notice of us.  Leeches that protruded from orifices reached yearningly in our direction, and the bodies clumsily followed after.  Our rebels shot the ones who were close enough to be dangerous, stabbed at a few who were too feeble to be more than an inconvenience, and ignored the remainder.

There was another shot.  Mary called out the direction.  We moved to avoid it.

It was a different kind of shot, this time.  Three explosions landed near us, and more shrapnel or debris followed, kicking up sprays of mud and dirt everywhere between us and the tower it had originated from.

One of those explosions hit two of our stragglers.  Another six near them fell over, the shock of the nearby impact enough to knock them out or kill them.

The shrapnel knocked down one long-legged fellow to my left.

Jessie’s stitched, holding Jessie with one hand, gathered up three of the fallen, slinging all them almost carelessly over one shoulder.

We pushed forward, moving forward because anything else would have meant remaining a target indefinitely.

The tower that had been firing on us changed targets.  An order had been communicated.  I looked to see why, and I saw that the Tangle we’d brought was moving along the walltop, approaching the walls and towers of Radham.  It had its sights on the tower above the Hedge, the training hospital that served the civilians of Radham.

We were clear to make it the last third of the way to Radham itself.  We approached the gates, Mary motioning for our squads to hang back.  The wall provided cover from the cannons it supported.  I gestured for people to keep an eye up.

There were no soldiers guarding the gates.  A Tangle crept through the landing area where the checkpoints had been in wartime, ignoring some bodies and absorbing others.  Acid water formed pools around and beneath it, diluted enough to only sear and blister the flesh that was being repeatedly smashed into puddle after puddle.

The coast was clear?

Mary moved to push forward.  I grabbed her arm, stopping her.

The tangle flopped.  It clawed its way past apparent civilians and wounded, and absorbed a Crown soldier.  It splashed again in the water.

My prey instinct screamed.

High above us, artillery fired on Fray’s tangle.  Even bisected, it was large enough to be a threat.

I gestured for the others to wait.

“Why?” Mary hissed.  “If they have any acid they could dump on us from the wall-”

“Wait,” I said.  “Because I think what’s waiting for us in there is worse.”

“Worse?” Lillian asked.

“The water’s wrong,” I said.  “Ask Helen.”

“Helen isn’t communicative,” Ashton said.

“Well, if she could speak, she’d say it sounds off,” I murmured, hoping I wasn’t losing my mind.

I gestured for them to wait again, then ventured forward.

I passed through the gates we’d been lurking by, and crept closer, mindful of the smaller Tangle that could so very easily turn on me.  They wouldn’t be easy to kill, and Junior hadn’t caught up to us.

There was an open area that served as a place for visitors to stop and for checkpoints to set up, spacious enough for pallets of supplies or boxes of ammunition to be left to one side while multiple wagons could move freely through the area.  Roads branched off from the gate plaza to the rest of Radham.  Each fixture was reminiscent of a body part.  The tower for the brain, Claret hall for the heart, the dormitories for the ribs, Bowels for the… bowels.

This was the left hand.  The roads were the fingers, reaching out and around.

On the other side of the left hand, I could see Fray, standing on a covered bridge that extended between two guard-houses.

Not broken-reflection Fray, not a fractured image.  The real Fray, raven haired lipstick red, wearing a coat that wasn’t a Professor’s coat, but might as well have been.

Seeing her like this, odd as it was, solidified the story the phantom images had been telling me for a long, long time.  I was almost entirely certain of it.

“Lambs,” I said.

The Lambs advanced.  They came to stand behind and to either side of me.

“When the images in my head were trying to communicate something, I didn’t connect the thoughts.”

“Sy?” Lillian asked.

“It took some digesting.  Thinking of things from different angles.”

“From the time Avis was freed by an insider, we thought she might be working with Hayle,” Mary said.  “We talked about that.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I stared at Genevieve Fray.  “That’s… definitely possible.  More and more likely, the more we see and find out.  I’d give it ninety-ten odds at this point.  The only other option is that she went rogue late in the game.”

“But it’s not what you’re talking about,” Lillian said.

“Whenever I saw Fray, pictured her in my head, I couldn’t see her face without seeing it broken.  But one thing was consistent, almost always.”

“The images don’t mean anything, Sy,” Duncan said.

“She always had Lambs with her,” I said.  “She had you with her.  Or Evette.  She embraced them, she seemed… fond of them.  Possessive.”

“They don’t mean anything,” Duncan repeated himself.

“They’re just me holding ideas in my head I’m not sure how to parse or connect, yet.  The Lambs are Fray’s project.  Not Hayle’s.  We were always the primary or a primary focus of what she was doing.”

“Why?” Ashton asked.

I bit my tongue.

I answered a different question, that hadn’t been asked.  “She probably did multiple things at a time, every step of the way.  She extended our leash when she leashed everyone.  It’s why she was so happy to see us, so eager to talk to me.  It’s why she was so willing to let us have the Beattle recruits.”

And it’s why we’re not going to stop her, not in every respect.  Many of our goals align.

“Fray!” I called out.  “Let’s parley!”

She said something.  Her voice didn’t reach us over the distance.

What I wouldn’t give for Helen’s ears, now.

She pointed.  I couldn’t tell if she was giving direction to one of her pets or if she was warning us.

Whatever it was, it didn’t change our circumstance.  Artillery struck, and the Tangle we’d brought with us fell, crashing to the ground below.

It stirred the water, which began to move of its own accord.  A low-to-the-ground, camouflaged jellyfish, masquerading as puddles.  I’d felt like the ripples were wrong, the sound of the rain against water oddly muted.  This would be why.

Fray turned to retreat as two superweapons clashed between her and us.  Heading toward Hayle.

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