Enemy IV (Arc 18)

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“Yeah.  Talk is safe,” Sylvester said.  He paused.  “Shall we talk about how the entire balance of power is a lie?”

Davis tensed at that.  “Some of your friends from Lab One said you were saying something like that.  I get it.  You don’t remember telling me you wanted to be cut out of the proceedings, that you didn’t trust yourself.  You’re upset that we’re in charge.”

Sylvester’s eye was roving across the nobles that were seated along his table, while Davis spoke.  He looked at the Doctors who stood by, ones with the full training and reputation like Fray and Avis, and the rogue ones like the Snake Charmer and Percy.

“Not you,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that’s not the balance of power I’m concerned about.  I’m talking about the Crown.  About the Academy.  How every part of it is as much a fairy tale as the ones that inspired a parrot boy, a red-hooded messenger, and a golden-haired troublemaker.  In fact, the link between them and the nobility is closer than you think.”

“Really,” Davis said.  His tone was skeptical, and Sylvester was very aware that Davis was trying to weigh the degree to which he could be believed against what he might have heard.  He was aware because his friends at and around the table were aware.  They were changing posture.  Ready, keenly interested, and many had dangerous looks in their eyes.  The ones who didn’t have those looks looked cold, instead.  Detached.

Paul the parrot-feathered wasn’t a nemesis, he wasn’t someone Sylvester had plotted against, but there was something very much about him that suggested he was on the same page as the doctors and professors, the back-alley docs, the experiments, the monsters, and the madmen who kept Sylvester company.  He had the predatory look, seeing something valuable that he might be able to capitalize on.

Like greed, avarice, hunger, but it wasn’t gold or food so much as the promise of someone else being made to bleed

The effect on Paul was enough that it drew the attention of the others near Paul.  They had been rounded up to be questioned, it looked like, and they were being kept somewhat removed from one another, with students sitting around them, one or two Beattle rebels between each of the Lab One experiments, some students removed to nearby benches.

All the same, Paul’s change in how he sat and the look in his eyes was something noticed by those closest to him, which was noticed by others they had associated with.  There was an elegance to it.  As Paul’s hair was red and gold to go with the feathers he’d once had flowing with his hair, it was Red and Goldilocks who noticed that he was paying keen attention, and they became more ready, more wary, anticipating what came next.  They got along more with the various delinquents, including one of the girls who had spent more time herding the younger fairy tales, and so those delinquents absorbed the sentiment and passed it down.

By the time it reached the very last members of the group, including Bo Peep, the effect was less like anticipation and more like fear.  It was around then that the ones guarding the group seemed to sense something was amiss.

“Sylvester?” Davis asked, patient.  “I’m curious where you’re going with this.  Like, I could understand if you think you’ve found a weak point to hammer at, or if you’re just musing aloud-”

“No,” Sylvester said.

“No?”

“No, this is a known fact, Davis.  Jessie and I have been sitting on it for a while now.  The nobility is an outright lie.”

Davis’ attention piqued at that.  There were a few murmurs.

Paul was stock still, though.  Waiting, sensing there was more to it.  A lot of the older fairy tales, young nobles, and delinquents in that circle were.  Like a skulk of foxes who had sighted food, they were holding still so they wouldn’t disturb their quarry.

Sylvester was their quarry, in a way.  Or his words were.

“Sylvester,” Shirley said.  “Maybe we should leave this topic alone.”

“You don’t want to hear it?” Davis asked.  “Or is there something I don’t know?”

“I’ve been with Sylvester and Jessie for the last year, I know more than most.  Sy, you were working hard to keep this secret for a reason.  It’s dangerous knowledge.”

Davis ran his hand over his head, where his hair had been smoothed down into a part.  “Darn it.”

“I know it sounds tantalizing, but I’ve seen Sylvester like this before…” Shirley said.  She trailed off to look at him.

Sylvester watched Shirley by equal measure, quiet.

“…where he’s not himself, exactly, but he isn’t much diminished in terms of his ability to… I don’t even know.  Hurt people.  Cause havoc.”

“I know, you, Sy and Jessie explained that to us lieutenants before,” Davis said.

“She’s not explaining for your benefit, Davis,” a voice whispered beside Sylvester’s ear.  Mauer.  “She’s talking to the room.  We taught her well, didn’t we, Sylvester?”

Sylvester remained silent, content to let the conversation continue for now.

“This seems like him sowing havoc.  We should change topics.  Revisit it at a later date, if Jessie and the others agree it makes sense.”

“Don’t we deserve to know?” a delinquent asked.  He was one of the ones who would have partied with the Lab One fairy tales and other more rebellious rebels.

“Enough, Fang,” Bea spoke.  She was sitting on a table with her feet on a bench.

“The cat’s mostly out of the bag already, isn’t it?” he asked.

“I imagine there’s a lot more going on,” she said.  “Please, let us handle this.  You’ve trusted us this far.”

“Thank you, Bea,” Davis said.

“I don’t know about you, Davis,” Paul said, from a distant table, his voice carrying, “But I have a personal stake in this.  They carved me up.  Carved up some of the girls and little ones here.  And apparently what happened to us has something to do with the nobles?”

“Paul, please.”

“Please don’t, Paul,” a small voice said.  Bo Peep.

“My imagination is afire, sir,” Paul said.  The look in his eyes had only intensified.

“I want to chime in,” Gordeux said.  “If I may, Davis?”

“I trust you.  Feel welcome.”

“Thank you.  I haven’t been with Sy for as long as Shirley, but I’ve seen him work, and I was one of the first people in Beattle he reached out to, I think.  Besides Junior’s group.”

Sylvester looked at Junior’s group.  Was that bloody avarice in their eyes too?

Gordeux went on, “If my opinion as a near-veteran of the group counts for much of anything, I think we should leave this alone.  I think we should drop this, eat breakfast, talk about things in general, introduce ourselves to the people who’ve crossed the bridge from the Hackthorn dorms.  Treat them to the good side of the rebel life, without faculty and rules over our heads.  I think Helen and Rudy did a good job in the kitchens.  Is there dessert?”

“Hot frosted buns,” Possum said.

“Good food, weather’s not too bad, it’s quiet, there’s more serious stuff we can discuss over the course of today and tomorrow while we wait for Jessie and the Lambs to turn up, but we can do that at our leisure.  Team leaders know what we need to hammer out if you want to stay busy, and…”

Gordeux spread his hands, he chuckled a bit.

“…if you don’t want to play a part in bringing meaningful change to the world, well, I don’t want to get into details, but there’s a wine cellar with enough wine to keep all of us tipsy through to the end of next year, and we’re not exactly separating dorms by gender, if you know what I mean.”

There was some general amusement at that, and some confusion from the younger years and experiments.

“Frosted buns, red wine, good company, sunshine, and maybe some hope for the future.  With the rest of the nation reeling with plague and the black wood, I gotta say I’m pretty happy with that status quo.  Everything else can wait for tomorrow, and speaking as someone who’s seen some fighting and rebellion already, we’ll be darn fucking glad we had the time to rest before we got properly underway.”

“Ya know, I have some buns I know I’d like to get my frosting on,” someone at one table joked.

“Oh fuck you and fuck your joke!  We’re better than that!” one of his friends said, raising his voice to be heard over the laughter.  It was an insult made in good fun, one friend to another, and it only made others laugh louder at the dumb joke.

Only the ones who looked hungriest for blood looked like they weren’t swayed or amused by any of this.  Paul, Red, Goldi, Fang.  They composed a small fraction of the people gathered.  One in fifty.  One in thirty if Sylvester didn’t count the people he was fairly sure only he could see.

Sylvester watched as Davis clapped a hand on Gordeux’s shoulder, leaning in close to whisper in his ear.

“So many of them have learned from you,” Mauer said.

Sylvester nodded.

Shirley was approaching him.  Others were glancing his way.  Thinking, trying to figure out how to manage him, rein him in, how to use him.  The ones with red lights in their eyes were looking at him from another angle, too hungry to think straight.  It wasn’t quite bloodlust – they wanted answers, they wanted vindication and revenge in a way that didn’t necessarily have to do with blood.

“You know what to say,” the Snake Charmer said.  “You know what to give them.”

Sylvester nodded.

All around him, others were talking.  Beattle rebel, the occasional experiment, students getting up to get first dibs on dessert, talking, laughing.  It was good amusement in a way that was almost more boisterous and exaggerated because the students were pushing against the doubts, pulling friends away from the glances in Sylvester’s direction, and trying very hard not to think about the big questions, doubts, and fears that loomed.

“But for a different roll of the dice, you might have been a beautiful noble lord, Paul,” Sylvester said.  His voice was more or less drowned out by the conversation, by the laughter, and the noise of people moving.

But others were listening, paying attention, or keeping an eye on him, and some were close enough to hear.  Paul was one of them.  So were Red, Shirley, Davis, and Junior.

Again, it was like something voltaic, a current like a horrific accident in one of the labs where stitched were mass produced, the excess charge ripping over every available surface, dancing across the path of least resistance, before diffusing out into the grounded objects.

Slowly, step by step, from one group to the next, or from one member of a group to the rest of that group, people fell silent, or noticed that others had fallen silent.

The amusement and good nature faded more swiftly than it had set in.

The Baron, sitting near the Primordial, laughed in the silence.  Sylvester smiled.

Paul had stood up, and his one hand was planted on the table in front of him as he leaned forward, his eyes wide.  Had they not been modified, the whites would have been clearly visible.  As it was, they had no whites, but the colors made the pupils very clear.

Bo Peep’s mouth formed the word ‘no’.  Shirley actually said something similar out loud.  “Don’t.”

“It’s done,” Sylvester said.  “They heard.”

“Heard what?” Fang asked.

“Sylvester said, that if the dice roll had been different, I could have been a lord?” Paul asked.

Murmurs passed over the crowd.

“Sylvester’s in a weird place,” Davis said.  “We shouldn’t put too much stock into-”

Explain,” Paul said, interrupting, ignoring Davis.  His voice was hard.

“Isn’t it amusing, in a dark way?” Sylvester asked.  “They’re a fabrication.  As much as you are, Paul.  It’s the big secret.  It’s one they’ve killed to protect, countless times.  They wipe out entire continents and blame it on war and plague, to hide it.  They’re in the middle of doing it to this one.  Wipe everything out, clean the slate, and then rebuild with complete and total control and nobody else to say different when they rewrite history and tell a different story.”

“I don’t see how that’s funny,” Fang said.

“Don’t you?” Sylvester asked.  “I mean, how many of you are named John, or Charles, or Duncan, or Philip or Mark or Timothy, because they’re names of prominent nobles and it’s a nice look for the parents?  How many of you have siblings with those names?  Mary or Elizabeth or Malcolm or Montgomery?”

He could see people here and there frown as their names were spoken.

“The street names of houses we grew up on, or schools we attended, or cities we lived in, how many of those had names inspired by nobles?  How many of you actually aspired to work with nobles, or achieve a status where you might dine with one?  Who among you felt true awe for the first time at one of their parades or ceremonies?”

“That’s enough, Sylvester,” Davis said.

“Is it?  Weren’t you really damn proud that you got a commendation pinned on your chest for your academic performance and service to the crown, Davis?  Who was it that pinned that bit of silver to your chest and made you feel more grand than you’d ever felt?  Was it a noble?”

“No,” Davis said, but he still looked like that one had struck home.

“Did it bother you it wasn’t a noble?” Sylvester asked.  He already knew the answer.

Davis had no answer to that question.

The nobles no longer sat at the table.  When he hadn’t been looking, they had stood, scattering themselves throughout the room, making themselves felt.  It was the Snake Charmer and Percy who were close to him now, buoying him forward.  Sub Rosa and Melancholy.  The Fishmonger, the Devil, Cynthia, Mauer, Fray, Avis, the Headsman Warren Howell, Wendy, Dog and Catcher.  The Primordial.

Shirley wasn’t approaching anymore.  She wasn’t even reacting.  She seemed to understand there wasn’t a real chance to stop him.  The bottle had been unstoppered.

“Can any of you name one meaningful part of your lives that wasn’t affected in some way by this farce of theirs?  A friend group or family without that one person who was loyal to the King or, flipping it around, maybe that one person who had lost someone close to them in the name of the Crown?  A major event in your lives that wasn’t influenced by them, by the flags they have us wave, the words they have us say, or the beats they have us march to?”

“We get the point, Sylvester,” Davis said.

The warm humor of just moments ago was gone, replaced by cold restlessness.  People shifted position or looked uncomfortable, without any place to go.

“What does that have to do with what they did to us?  To the experiments?” Red asked.

“Same as they did to me and the Lambs,” Sylvester said.  “They snatch up children or they offer children with no other options a choice to go with them.  To get healthy and to have shelter.  They round us all up in a place like New Amsterdam, test us to see who’s the fittest, strongest, best looking, smartest.  The best of us get to be Noble.  They get the best the Academy has to offer, they get invented histories, or they get slotted into a waiting space on the family tree.”

“And the rest of us are fodder for experiments,” Red said.

“Not just fodder for experiments.  Fodder for them.  They have to be effective, and for that, you have weapons like the Lambs that act as trial runs before a noble gets the modification.  They have to be pretty, and for that, artists like Ferres needs their practice.”

Red flinched at that.  Paul, meanwhile, only stared.

“History, the role of the Academy, politics, the wars, the disasters, it’s all wrapped up in this.  I told Paul that if the dice had fallen down differently, if he’d been a little taller, or a little fitter, that he might have been a Lord.”

Montgomery twirled his cane.  The Twins prowled through the crowd, gravitating towards the agitated, the angry.

Sylvester knew he could use that.

“How many of you are wearing Academy uniforms?  Think about this: they were testing you too, rolling dice, playing games behind the scenes.  If you aspired to be a black-coat Professor, then they were keeping all of this in mind when they decided if you deserved that coat.  Nothing to do with how hard you worked or how good you were.  But whether they thought you might play along, if you could be trusted to possibly pull the strings one day, and keep the farce alive.  For each one of you, that was the reality: either you are the sort of monster who would exploit children to succeed, and I don’t think many of you are… or they were never really going to give you a chance.”

Virtually every voice that was likely to speak for sanity and calm was too affected to speak, or they were familiar enough with Sylvester to know that there was little reason to do otherwise.

“Do you have proof?” Mabel asked, speaking for the first time.  She hung her head a little, clearly shaken.  She was standing by the stairs that led down deeper into the building.

Sylvester smiled.

“We have proof,” the Fishmonger said.

But even in the silence, nobody heard the fat boy with the nasty expression.

Sylvester waited.  Like the Fishmonger had said, there was an answer to Mabel’s question.  It was better to let them find their way to that answer on their own.

It only took a moment more before Davis looked at Sy, alarm on his face.  He was quick and clever enough to jump to that conclusion.  Mabel was almost right on his back, connecting to what Sylvester had said.

But as quick as they were to realize the conclusion, they weren’t equipped to get ahead of it, to actually deal with it.

“Ferres,” Junior said.

“She’s in surgery,” Davis said.  “And we actually need her.”

“But she can provide answers,” Fang said.

“She’s in surgery,” Davis said, more firmly.  “She’s going to be around tomorrow, there’s no reason to rush this.  You got your answers-”

Paul moved, crossing the dining area.  Davis called out, almost inarticulate in his haste to get his people moving.  Students who were acting as soldiers scrambled to get up from their benches, to get between the thirty or so students and experiments in Paul’s entourage.  More in Paul’s periphery than there had been before this discussion.

“We deserve answers!” Goldilocks called out.  People were shouting now.  Finding themselves divided, one side against another.  Sanity and concern against outrage.

“You’ll get answers!” Davis called back.  “Tomorrow!”

As quickly as the larger group had come to a halt when faced with Davis’ improvised formation of junior soldiers, they pulled back.  Junior was near the rear, and he was calling for another route.  There was another staircase down on the other side of the dining hall.

Soldiers rushed to get between the group and the stairs, and they didn’t quite make it.  With Cynthia standing and watching, the soldiers instead collided with the front left corner of the group of students, trying to block them physically, bodies pressing against bodies.

Junior and Paul’s group pushed them away.  Then, when the rows and columns of soldiers made it impossible to push the junior soldiers back and away, the press of bodies behind them making it nearly impossible, hands went up to protect faces, elbows stuck out, and somewhere along the line it became punches being thrown.

The frailer, more nimble members of the group dodged around the knot of melee, going for the stairs, heading down in the direction of Lab One.

Davis called out, ordering soldiers who were still blocking the first stairwell to hurry down, to try to intercept.  It looked like he was about to go himself, though he was unsure of the swell of violence on the other end of the room.  Mabel signaled and then headed down, leaving Davis to manage things upstairs.

Sylvester watched it all unfold.  Mauer stood beside him and it was partially with Mauer’s eyes that Sylvester analyzed the crowd, trying to decide if he needed to say anything more.

The restlessness was bleeding out.  People were picking sides but not yet finding an outlet.  Some were moving to help the soldiers.  More were hanging back, still digesting what they’d heard.

“Why?” Davis asked.  He was asking Sylvester.

Sylvester glanced at the Snake Charmer.  He looked at Sub Rosa.

“It’s a way forward.  It ensures we don’t fall into the rut.”

“A rut!?  Do you even understand what you’re saying!?”

“I think the fact that my words were able to get this kind of effect is a pretty good indicator I know what I’m saying.”

“No.  Lords, no, you don’t have a bloody clue,” Davis said.  “Valentina was absolutely right.”

Then Davis turned his attention elsewhere.

“Valentina.  The vice president of the Beattle student council,” the Snake Charmer said.

“She believed in the nobility, in a twisted way,” Melancholy said.  “You were supposed to be a surrogate, Sylvester.  That was the label she desperately wanted to apply to you.  She wanted you to be someone who could lead, who wouldn’t bleed or stumble when push came to shove.  It’s ironic, because what you said here just now would have shattered that perspective of hers.”

Fray was standing so close by, holding Evette.  Fray looked solemn while Evette smiled.

“She thought you were weak,” Percy said.  “I think, in service to what we’re striving for in the long run, you should step in now.  Instigating this was one thing, but you won’t win over the likes of Davis until you show that you have control.  That you have that power.”

Sylvester nodded, mostly to himself.

He raised a hand, standing from his seat at the dining table.  People turned to look.  They saw as Davis grabbed his wrist.

“Whatever you’re doing, just stop, please.”

“Davis,” the Treasurer said, a few steps behind his old student council president.

“Don’t tell me you’re on Sylvester’s side,” Davis said.

The Treasurer was quiet.

“Please.  Don’t make things harder for me.  I’ve tried to be a good friend.”

“I want answers,” the Treasurer said.

“I know.  But…”

“I’ll wait for them.  I won’t get in your way.”

Davis nodded.  He turned back toward Sylvester.

Sylvester simply spoke to the room, “There are some faculty members in the administration housing building.  They might know.”

Davis let go of his arm as if he was poisonous to the touch.  He called out an order, but it was too late.  Students who had been lingering in earshot now turned to hurry off to the bridge, for the same building that Sylvester, Jessie, Helen, and Ferres had been sleeping in.  There was no way for Davis’ relatively modest group of soldiers, already preoccupied, to get from one of the two south corners of the room to the northeast one.

Some of the students who lingered, looking like they might have followed Paul’s group or the group that was going to the administration building, but who were holding back, they looked like defectors.  Hackthorn students from one of the dorms.

“There are faculty members in the other dorms, aren’t there?” Sylvester said.  “Go.  Hands in the air if you’re worried about getting shot at.  They’ll see your uniforms and let you approach.  Go.  Go ask, grill them.  Tell the students in the dorm.”

Davis didn’t even try calling out an order this time.

It was a small group, all considered, but as prodded, they took the suggestion.

There was noise from elsewhere, shouting, banging, and the periodic sound of breaking glass, but the dining hall had largely cleared up.  The student body had been divided and much of it had marched off.

Davis staggered back a few steps and fell into a sitting position on a bench.

“There’s no reason for this,” Davis said.

“They want answers,” Sylvester said.

“There’s no reason to press things like this, to stir it up.  To tell them in the way you told them.”

“Avoiding the rut.  You don’t even realize you’re doing it, talking down to the experiments, marginalizing them.  Academy on top, the useful experiments a rung below.  We can’t do that.  We don’t want that to be how we approach this final stage of things.”

“When you say ‘we’,” Shirley said, speaking up for the first time since Sylvester had started talking, “Do you mean all of us here, you and the Beattle rebels, or do you mean you and the voices in your head?”

“They’re not just voices,” Sylvester said.  “They’re people.”

“You know what I mean,” she said.

Sylvester nodded.

He didn’t answer her question.

Across the room, Possum was hugging Bo Peep.  Rudy stood off to one side.

Sylvester was glad that Bo Peep had someone, at least.

The soldiers who had headed down toward Lab One were now making their way up.  Before they had even found the breath to speak, Sylvester started walking toward them, walking away from Peep and Possum.

“Downstairs.  It’s bad,” the soldier told Davis.

Sylvester continued walking.  Shirley, Davis, the Treasurer and most of those who remained headed downstairs at a near-run.  They passed him.

From the look on Davis’ face, it was likely that some consideration was given to some form of incarceration or binding.  Or maybe a gag.

But that would have been slipping into the rut.  Whether Davis had processed the thought or whether his instincts had told him to do otherwise, it would have been a mistake.  Sylvester had acted to keep from being put under the thumb of the others.  The host of personalities, perspectives, and ideas in his head would have found a way to show how much of a bad idea it was to imprison him or put him in chains.

The situation was almost in his control.

Lab One was only one floor down.  The main area was still occupied by a few experiments who didn’t have cells or stables to be stowed in, but it was mostly tables, desks, and a lot of open space that was now filled with two opposing factions of students.

Sylvester stood at the very back of the crowd.

Barred from the actual surgery hall by the soldiers, Paul and his group had taken another route.  They’d accessed the hallway on the other side of the room, opening cells and dragging prisoners out.  Faculty members, favored students.

Betty was kneeling, sobbing, while Paul held her by the hair.

“She knew,” Paul said.

“If you do this, Paul,” Mabel said, “They win.  They’ve made you ugly.  They’ve taken your humanity.”

“She knew.  She knew where we came from.  She was exactly what Sylvester talked about.  The students who were tested and who succeeded.  Who they thought could be useful and support the real Academy.  Isn’t that right, Sylvester?”

“It’s exactly right,” Sylvester said.

He began making his way through the crowd.  Davis could have stopped him, but didn’t.

There were no magic words.  There was nothing Davis could do that wasn’t ordering an outright conflict.

“She knew about the- what was it even called?”

“The Block,” Sylvester said.

With that, Betty’s eyes went wider.

“And she had her justifications and they were… very tidy.  I’m clever with people and I’m not even sure if she believed them herself, or if she was just that evil.  But there’s a truth, and she didn’t serve that truth.”

He made his way out of the front of the crowd.  He passed others.  Cynthia.  The Devil.

“Then what happens next?” Mabel asked.

“Aren’t you angry?” Sylvester asked.  “Aren’t you upset?”

“Of course I am,” Mabel said.  “But I was already angry and upset.  This isn’t a big change for me.  It’s an eye opener, if it’s true, but I was already willing to leave the Academy.  I was already willing to fight for something better.”

“Yeah.  You’re a good one, Mabel,” Sylvester said.  It was getting harder to find the softer, calmer types in the crowd.  It was all the likes of the Fishmonger, the Devil, the monsters.

“Are you going to do to Betty what you did to Ferres?”

Sylvester looked down, meeting Betty’s eyes.

“That might be up to the others,” he said.  “To Paul, and Red, and I.B. Spider, if he’s recuperated enough.”

“I think your word matters,” Mabel said.  “You get a say, and they’ll listen.”

Red spoke, “She’s as ugly as Ferres where it counts, inside, and she doesn’t even have the excuse of being older.  I think she would have been worse, if she’d grown up to earn a black coat.”

“I don’t disagree,” Sylvester said.

“Sylvester, with one word, you could stop this,” Mabel said.

Sylvester turned, looking at her.

He had a lot of complicated feelings about the girl he’d flirted with, who had seen something and backed away.  Melancholy and Cynthia had positioned themselves to stand on either side of the Sheriff’s daughter.

“With one word, I could make it clear that we’re in charge,” Sylvester said.

“Nobody’s disputing that,” Mabel said.  “It’s clear.  But you could make it very clear in the here and now that you deserve that responsibility.  That you haven’t let them make you into the monster they wanted you to be.”

“That’s a really tired argument,” Sylvester said.  “One I’ve read in books.  Or my bookworm friend said they were in books.  I’m not a super avid reader.”

“As arguments go, I think it stands,” Mabel said.

“I hate this girl so much,” Red said, from the other side of the room.  “She acted sweet, like it mattered, while she was so brutal and unkind when it counted.  She just did it to look better, not because she ever cared.  When nobody was looking, she was lazy, rough, more inhuman than anything we have in the stables.  I want her to look as ugly on the outside as she is on the inside.”

“There’s justice in that,” Sylvester said.

“I don’t agree,” Davis said, “and that’s beside the point, either way.  We need her.  At this stage, we could get her to cooperate, I think.  We can do what we need to do for the greater plan.”

“And you, Betty?  What say you?  Favored student of Professor Ferres, on the fast track to your black coat, and you probably would have gotten it.  You were complicit in the block, you told me it was… well, I don’t remember the particulars of what you told me.”

“The children asked for it.  I mean- I mean,” Betty stuttered.  “They gave permission.  They knew what it involved.”

Sylvester looked at Red and Paul.  “Convinced?”

“No,” Paul said.

“It’s the way things have been going for decades.  Since Professor Ferres’ was my age, and since her mentor was my age.”

“That’s even less convincing,” Sylvester said.

“Yeah,” Goldilocks said.

“If you’re going to do the kind of work the Academy wants to do, it involves children.  It allows you to do more, it opens doors, it saves lives indirectly.”

“I think you’re just flicking ink at the paper and hoping it makes a sensible argument,” Sylvester said.

“Please,” Betty said.  “It’s the way things were, and the pressure was high.  There was never a moment where I could stop and take stock, because I was always rushing forward.  It was only ever little steps toward-”

“Toward this?” Sylvester asked.  “Being at the mercy of your creations?”

“She took my face,” Red said.  “I’m thinking I take hers.”

Her knife went to Betty’s nostril, the point sticking within.  As the knife moved, Betty craned her head, trying to avoid being cut.

Eventually, unable to keep raising her head to move in concert with the knife, Betty was left to grimace, then wail, as the knife pressed against the skin.  In the moment the skin reached its limit, the knife flicked out, and Betty collapsed, blood dribbling to the floor.

The voices of dissent weren’t dissenting.  Mabel, Davis, Gordeux, Shirley…

Sylvester held the floor.  It was up to him.  Hackthorn was his, as were the people who resided within it.

Red was looking at him, wanting approval and guidance.

“I think we need to invent something suitably horrible to do to her,” the Fishmonger said.  “A parasite, or we make her a parasite.”

“Or we execute her and put her on display.  A grisly scene,” the Devil said, in his monstrous voice.

Sylvester could imagine.  He could get away with it too.  The dissenting voices were quiet, and he was fairly certain his faction overwhelmed the Beattle Rebels now.  Defectors turned rebel now turned… horrified.  Disheartened.

Betty could so easily be made into something less than human.  It was an Academy tactic, the horrible fates that only a scalpel could bring, one she had wrought in an indirect way.

His eye fell on Fray, who stood off to one side.

With Evette, for a third time.  Still as solemn as Evette was smiling.

He wished he had the other Lambs here.

We can stop here, he thought.  The Lambs would want me to, wouldn’t they?

He asked the question of himself and he wasn’t positive of the answer.  No figure stood in the crowd that he could turn to and figure it out.  Fray, maybe, but Fray was silent and cryptic.  Evette, but he didn’t want to give Evette an in.

“Sylvester,” a voice came from the crowd.

It wasn’t one of his rebels.  It wasn’t one of the experiments, like Itsy Bitsy or Bo Peep.  Not someone like Shirley or Pierre.

She was just out of surgery, and even like that, she was partially confined and held firmly by two students.

Ferres.

“Was this a plan?” Sylvester asked Davis.

“Plan?” Davis asked.

“To bring her here.  To challenge me with her.”

“Kind of.  She said she had something vital to tell you.”

“Oh, I know what she wants to tell me.  It was a mistake to bring her this far.”

“Mistake?”

“The last time I heard what she had to say, I took her to pieces.  This time-”

This time I’m the person everyone’s listening to.

“Cover her mouth,” Davis called out.

The student did.  A moment later, he whipped his hand back, blood spraying.

Surgical enhancements.  Ones made long ago.  The blades had been inserted into cheeks, and now sprouted, like mandibles.  No longer held by one of the students, Ferres sprawled.

“Sylvester!” she called out, her voice shrill, wild in way that only a doctor who’d had her hands taken from her could sound.

A hag or a harpy incarnate.  As students fell on her, trying to manhandle her, she arched her body, forehead on the ground, limbs shielding her head and mouth, fighting for the chance to speak.  Her voice took on an eerie, fevered pitch, “You could have saved them!  If you’d only realized, you could have saved your friends, all those years ago!”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Enemy III (Arc 18)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Genevieve Fray was very still as she sat on the wall that overlooked the gates.  Warren sat with his back to it, facing the city, while Avis stood on the battlements, facing the sea, a blanket wrapped around her and her wings.  Wendy was with Warren, chattering incessantly and brightly, the stitched’s finger pointing at things that drew her attention, while Warren solemnly looked on.

The Academy city sprawled out before them, and from a certain perspective it appeared almost frozen in time.  The birds were active, as were the rats, stray dogs and cats.  The clouds flew across the sky as if time was passing at twice the speed it was, while nearly everything else looked like a very realistic painting.

Efforts to control the city had the bulk of the population quarantined.  The only groups that moved now were the rebel’s and the necessary few who were relocated from one place to another.  Squadrons of stitched guarded areas, weapons in hand, all wearing raincoats that hid all but the lower half of their faces.  The faint steam that rose off of each cluster was all that really moved, while the stitched themselves remained as still as the dead.

“The Lambs still aren’t here,” Avis said.

Genevieve Fray nodded.  The only Lamb in Hackthorn was Sylvester.

“I see a thing!” Wendy said.  She pointed.  “Look.  It looks like it’s half rat and half cat, it’s on the peak of a roof over there.  Why would they mix a rat and a cat?  What do we even call it?  They both end with -at.”

Warren set one overlarge hand on Wendy’s head.

“It had a bow in its fur,” Wendy pointed out.  “Someone must have loved it, or they love it.  I like that.”

Warren nodded.

The last of the boats had come and gone for the time being.  Barring surprises, no more boats would arrive today.  There was always the chance of a boat arriving outside of schedule, but there was a chance of many things happening.  The odds were good that the Lambs wouldn’t turn up tonight.  It was a two day trip from Radham to Hackthorn, and it had been six days in total since Jessie and Helen had left Sylvester.

She was here to communicate a message to Sylvester.   That would be her role in this.

He was stopping to rest.  He had barely eaten, and though he was hydrated he had gone at least twelve hours at one point without drinking the water that managed his chemical leash.  The fact that it had been some time since his leash had last been reinforced meant the consequences hadn’t been dire.  The modified molecular chains had been shed as they were replaced, cast off with replacement cells, but the leash nonetheless demanded its due.  The most sensitive parts of the body would be rebelling, eyes sensitive to light, ears ringing, stomach turning, the brain throbbing with a headache.  The muscles and bones wouldn’t shed the leash so easily, and would feel it more.

Even sitting still, caught up in his thoughts, he fidgeted and shifted restlessly, trying to balance the fact that muscles twitched and cramped when still and both muscle and bone ached when he moved.

He stared off into space, lost in the moment, his body almost operating by a different apparatus than his brain.  He seemed almost oblivious, even though he was surrounded by his people.

“It’s now or never,” Avis said.  “It would be better if the Lambs were here, but…”

But indeed.  Sylvester was arguing with himself and losing.  What started out as a single incidence that he barely registered quickly became the new normal, the parts of his brain he could negotiate with Wyvern became non-negotiable, and he was quickly approaching the point where he lashed out at others like he had done with Professor Ferres.

Fray stood and she approached Sylvester.  All around her, children turned to follow her approach.

Sylvester’s eyes were flat as he looked at her.  He had been aware of her for some time, but he hadn’t acted on it.  Even now, he almost looked through her.

Fray laid a hand on one of the children’s heads.  The child looked up at her.  Evette.

“It would help if you actually spoke,” Sylvester said.

Fray remained silent.

“Yeah,” Sylvester said.  “Right.  That would defeat the point.  Every one of you represents something, and you in particular represent me not having a danged clue.”

Fray broke into the abstract.  Different faces looked in different directions.  One of those faces looked at Sylvester with sympathy.  She reached out for Sylvester, reached out to take him in her arms-

He flinched away.  “Yeah, enough of that.  If you want to help, how about you get lost?  I know you guys don’t actually listen when I tell you, but it’d help.  My thoughts are so scattered they’ve actually grown legs and are walking around, they’re talking over each other.  Can you just… not be one of those things I’ve got to deal with?”

Fray let her hand fall.

“Please,” he said, without much emotional affect.  His eyes remained devoid of focus as he looked at everything and nothing at the same time.  Sylvester’s thoughts turned to other things, and Genevieve Fray ceased to exist as a more concrete entity.

“We need to keep moving,” the boy in the yellow raincoat spoke.

Sylvester acted on that without argument.  He stood, wincing at the muscle aches.  As his eye traveled, his mind moved by the same measure.  Figures in the crowd became defined as Sylvester’s thoughts did, and to him the concrete manifestations of ideas and thoughts were indistinguishable from reality.  In the moment, feeling the pain, his mind’s eye drew images of Academy Doctors in the guises of children, drew an image of the fat Fishmonger as a child, of a child noble with black hair and a cane, who whispered of pain and punishment while a sickly boy with his own stick nodded.

It was the boy in yellow who walked beside Sylvester, now.

They were joined by a retinue.  The boy in yellow looked unkempt and wild beside his friend, but his friend was so very put together that he might have made anyone look less, wearing dapper clothes that included a coat that clung to him.  The boy in the yellow raincoat was rough around the edges, his outfit improvised to serve a functional purpose, with a butcher’s apron instead of a medical one, a raincoat instead of a lab coat.

In this, he was a stark contrast to his friend.  His friend’s clothing served a more ideological, psychological purpose, almost assuming the role of Doctor without claiming it.

Sylvester had deciphered them and named them appropriately.  It wasn’t that hard, even, especially after he realized that the boy in the neat clothing paid particular attention to a young lady who resembled Mary Cobourn.

The boy in yellow was the Snake Charmer, the immaculate boy was Mary’s creator, Mister Percy, the pair, like so many others, writ in youth.

“This is doable,” the Snake Charmer said.  “It’s all going to pieces, and it has been for a while.  It’s corrupt, it’s poisoned, and it’s doomed.  If it’s crumbling, then we recognize it and work with it.  Capitalize on it.  That’s what you do.  It’s what you’ve always done.”

“Are you talking about my mind or society?” Sylvester asked.  “It’s unclear.”

“I’m talking about everything,” the Snake Charmer said, with a note of anger.  “We’re going to need to improvise.  We work with broken pieces and fill in the blanks.”

The Devil spoke, the sickly boy with his cane, speaking with the guttural voice of a monster, “Cut down those who get in the way.  Hurt them badly enough that others think twice before doing the same.”

Sylvester shook his head a little, trying not to listen.

There was a system in place.  Sylvester had once switched perspectives and skillsets with ease.  He had been able to calibrate his brain and take on any role.  In the constant reorganization, these things had been lost in the shuffle, partially overwritten, remnants drawn out, filled in, and then shuffled back in, over days, weeks, months and years.  The slate, however, had never truly been wiped blank, only set out of reach.

Comparisons could be made to the gestures.  Broad ideas encapsulated into something that could be used.

Sylvester, scattered, almost didn’t exist anymore.  Each idea and thought process existed in the form of a figure that accompanied him.  The Devil was such a thing, speaking of things that Sylvester had always feared lay beneath the veneer of his humanity and civility.  In his existence as a sickly boy with an unholy voice, he would bring those things to pass if given a greater role.

The Snake Charmer would help that to come to be if it meant achieving the necessary goals.

“Keep the plan in mind,” Percy said, adding his voice to the conversation.  “We wanted to get the attention of the people at the top?  We maintain that course.  It is something we can very much do.”

“You’re contradicting each other,” Sylvester said.

“No,” Percy said, at the same time the Snake Charmer shook his head.

“One of you is saying to let it go, use what I can, find a new direction.  One of you is  saying to keep the plan in mind.”

“Keep the end in mind,” Percy said.  “But stop focusing so much on maintaining the same steps, the same prerequisite steps to fulfilling it.  Use resources at hand, use what’s easiest and most freely available.  Capitalize on any and all vulnerabilities, use any and all footholds.”

Sylvester reached a crossroads.  He paused, looking down each street.  The streets were largely empty, but there were stitched further down the road.

The girl in the layered clothing, ever silent, rested her hands on Sylvester’s shoulders, and he flinched at the contact.  Damp from the rain, her red hair stuck to her head, her clothes flattened out with colors bleeding between the damp and transparent fabric.  The clothing looked less like cloth now.  Lines of floral patterns became vein-like in the right light.

She hugged Sylvester from behind.  Her hand formed a gesture, and the line between the crowd around Sylvester and his Lambs blurred further.

Wait.

He waited where he was, eyes closed.

“Any and all vulnerabilities, any and all footholds,” Sylvester repeated Percy’s line from moments ago.

“Absolutely,” Percy said.

“In your original interpretation, that included exploiting and stepping over the bodies of children.  Repeatedly.”

“It did.  Many of your rebels aren’t fully grown adults, Sylvester,” Percy said.  “You’ve always been fond of your mice, of your Lambs and Bo Peeps.”

Sylvester didn’t have a response to that.  In the moment, voices overlapped, ideas becoming words that became noise, a constant static of shouts, threats, violence and whispers, with very little that was comforting.

“The idea was always to achieve big things,” Percy said.

Sylvester nodded.

He could question, challenge, and he could keep his guard up, not quite letting any one figure take the reins, but he was physically and mentally exhausted, and he conserved his strength carefully, in vain hope that he would be able to correct his course or stop things if a moment called for it.

In this, he didn’t question and he didn’t fight.  Percy got his points, working his way in deeper.

Still hugging Sylvester from behind, Sub Rosa gestured as a small group of rebels approached the stitched.

Go.

Sylvester crossed the street.

Stitched reacted to the sighting of him, but they were a hair slower than humans were.  The students who were addressing and examining them had their backs to Sylvester, and as they turned they would only see a glimpse of Sylvester.

“Move fast,” the Snake Charmer said.  “They’ll ask questions, and they might realize it was you.  We want to be gone by then.”

Sylvester nodded.

The Snake Charmer indicated the way.  Between buildings.  Sylvester saw another cat-rat hybrid, but this one didn’t have a bow in its fur.  They weren’t too uncommon.  He wondered if he could catch and cook it, if he had to.

“We’ll get proper food.  Priority number one is to get ourselves sorted out,” the Snake Charmer said.  “Clothes, food, allies.”

“We get things laid out so we can get back to the mission,” Percy added.

“You guys keep contradicting each other,” Sylvester said.

“No,” Percy and the Snake Charmer said, at the same time.  Percy deferred and the Snake Charmer spoke, “The world and the system they’ve established don’t give us any advantages.  It’s up to us to take them.  There are rebels, delinquents, and freed experiments who only want to see us put something great into action.  They’re talking amongst themselves about the fact that we carved Ferres up and they believe it’s right, or they’re sitting in the background, believing it without the opportunity to say it.”

“Clothes make the man,” Percy said.  “Style and grace matter.  You can pull that off, even while you’re hurting like you are.  Food… well, that was more S.C.’s purview, getting the meals sorted out.”

“So you’re agreeing,” Sylvester said.

He stopped in his tracks as he reached the end of one alley, and saw where the course had taken him.

He was back at the foot of Hackthorn Academy.  The reclining lady of Hackthorn stood high above him, back arched, one arm folded beneath her, the other outstretched.

“And you led me here,” he said.  He turned, and his eye swept over the crowd that surrounded him.  Every face was one he should recognize but needed interpretation at the same time.  All had been translated into an age appropriate for Lambs, for sympathetic reasons, out of his desire for companionship.  They included countless slain and maimed soldiers and Ghosts, the plague men and the stitched.  They included experiments, great warbeasts now looked like boys and girls with body modifications.

Sub Rosa stroked his hair with one hand.

“We’re all in agreement,” the Snake Charmer said.

“That’s worse,” Sylvester said.

Sub Rosa pointed, directing his attention.

There were guards.  Not many, but enough that getting in would be difficult.  Three teenage boys and one stitched that kept them company, a very large man who wore no shirt, the namesake stitches crossing his chest and forming the ‘Y’ shaped intersection at the chest, flesh of the torso and neck bulging where hardware had been stowed within.  He was made to be strong, not to be pretty, clever, or effective.

Sub Rosa stroked Sylvester’s hair, her hand moving in gestures.

Sylvester closed his eyes, feeling the sensation of the hand moving through hair, and he could remember one of the Lambs doing the same.  Had it been Lillian?  Something tender, occupying long minutes between other moments, where she might kiss his eyelids, his forehead.

Had it been Helen?  She had always liked hair, combing it, the beauty of it, the aesthetic, young Helen being gentle one moment and chewing on his scalp or ear the next.

Younger Gordon, in the earliest days, after his appointments when the pain was still a thing he hadn’t gotten used to, back when girls had been ick and Gordon had been a pal he confided in and trusted in moments of weakness.

The opposite end of things, timeline-wise.  Jessie?  Fingers combing through his hair as if she could make it make sense, only for it to spring back up, wild and uncooperative?  The intimacy between them had always been a thing they were constantly figuring out.  He’d had relationships and flirtations with others, and yet the one with Jessie had felt the most like a real one, finding a faltering, eager, quiet way forward, not teasing but clutching for someone with need, when the rest of the world wasn’t looking.

Had it been Mary, consoling him?  The feel of fingernails against his scalp was a thing that suited her, like knives or crisp lace against tender skin.

It might have been her, as he tried to place the sensation.  She had been with him when he had lost Jamie.

Jamie.  There was a sharp pang at the fact that he was surrounded by people he had killed or played a role in killing but that Jamie wasn’t present.

It felt so very unfair, especially given it was the one that mattered most.

The sensation of moving from the line of thinking of the Lambs to his present circumstance resembled stepping from a doze in a warm bed onto a cold floor, from soft vagueness to reality.

He wasn’t standing where he had been.  He’d followed one of the guards.  The teenager had walked a distance away from his friends, and was unzipping his pants.

“Almost, Sub Rosa,” the Snake Charmer said.  “Almost got in.  But that’s what you’re good at, isn’t it?”

Sylvester felt cold, empty.  Loneliness gripped him.

It would be so easy to act automatically.  Dredging up and making up memories would be some consolation.  He could live in fragmented sensations and ideas.  Sub Rosa could give him that.

She was security and insecurity, he knew.

The guard was watering the weeds, at the point where the reclining lady’s leg merged into the earth.  He sang.

“We know what you’re doing, Liam!” another of the guards called out.  “Don’t have to sing to cover up the sound!”

The guard sang louder in response, prompting some laughs from the others.

Sylvester was very still, random muscles cramping and twitching spasmodically, his bones aching where he rested his weight on them.

The crowd around him had fallen silent, but for the Ghosts, who were free to communicate, unheard and encoded so only the other Ghosts heard them.  It was a choir of girls who existed in odd sets, like bouquets of flowers, each with one redhead, one blonde, one Eastern girl, and so on, all wearing white dresses.  They sang in a harmony of cricket and cicada chirps, nail-on-blackboard scratches and knife-on-plate squeals.

The sound was unpleasant, and even though the day was nice enough, Sylvester was weary enough that the damp of the periodic drizzling rain and the wind combined to made him outright cold.  The only Warmth was Sub Rosa’s body pressed against his back, with all its ridges and folds.  The sensation of a hand running through his hair was almost hypnotic.

“Go,” the Snake Charmer hissed.  Sub Rosa gestured the same.  Pushed forward and away, Sylvester followed the instruction.

Sylvester was aware that the Falconer and the Devil flanked him.  He knew the pain and danger they posed.  Lethality on one hand, torture and agony on the other.

He couldn’t stop without getting caught, and he couldn’t get caught, but in moving forward, he couldn’t sort out his thoughts enough to decide on a plan of action that wasn’t doing what the Falconer and the Devil wanted him to do.

He thought back.  The Snake Charmer.  Sub Rosa.  They wanted clothes, goals, security.

It was Sub Rosa’s methodology that was in his mind as he approached his target.  He reached for the back of the boy’s head and hesitated.

“…and she drank, she drank, her wonderful compound, and now she joins in on all the gaaaaames!”

At the next pause, Sylvester grabbed the back of Liam-the-guard’s head, using the forward momentum of his approach in conjunction with an arm-thrust to drive the young man’s face into the wall in front of him.

The Ghosts changed their tune.  Sylvester matched it, raising his voice, mimicking the boys’ accent, with something of a drunken drawl, to help mask things and play things up.  “And old Sterling, he thought he was a king!”

He smashed Liam’s face into the wall once again.

“There are places that verse’ll get you killed, Liam!” one of the other guards called out.

He ratcheted up the volume, “and so they’d help him home from town!”

Liam reached up, fumbling for his arm.  He struck Liam’s face against the wall again for good measure. He tried to keep Liam from slumping down into a puddle of his own piss.  “He drank, he drank, her wonderful compound…”

“Your singing needs work, my man!  You’re getting worse by the line!”

“…and now he wears the Crowwwwn!”  Sylvester finished.

He dropped to squat on his heels, and the Devil dropped to a position mirroring his.

“Clothes, like the Snake Charmer said,” Sylvester said.  Nobody liked to be ignored, but so long as he was doing what one of the others said, the Devil could hardly complain.

He helped Liam out of his makeshift uniform jacket.  All of the guards were wearing dark jackets and dark slacks with caps, some with Beattle crests at their breast, scavenged from uniforms hardly anyone wore anymore.  He already wore slacks like Liam’s.  The boots didn’t match, but boots didn’t matter.

Sylvester donned the jacket.

“You finally done making our ears bleed with that singing?” one of the others asked.

Straightening, he put the cap on, pulling it on down low.

Liam had a rifle propped up against the wall, and Sylvester borrowed it.

He walked with a cocky swagger as he headed in the direction of the others.

“You’re terrible, man,” the others said, as he rounded the corner, joking.  “I’d listen to the sound of you pissing for the next week straight if it meant not having to listen to you for another minute.”

“Maybe you like the sound, Matty.”

They were smoking, barely paying attention to their friend as he returned.

The clothes and the mundane nature of the moment meant that Sylvester had the freedom to draw just another two or three paces closer than he might have otherwise.

He reversed the grip on the rifle and swung it by the barrel.  The stock met one boy’s face on the first swing, sending a cigarette flying, and met the next boy’s throat.

The stitched perked up at the violence.  Slow to react, slow to move, it was big, it was strong, and it was dangerous.  It shifted its stance.

He hadn’t hit the one in the face very hard, all considered.  Had that one reached out or tried to stop him, it might have complicated things.  But he’d landed one blow to the other’s windpipe, and in the moment, his friend felt the need to tend to that.

Sub Rosa was already standing by the gate.

The Stitched lunged.

Fast, strong, athletic.  It wasn’t one to tire, and it wasn’t one to move with care for how it hurt itself in the course of its offense.  Legs twisted in odd ways, and it had an odd grace in that, twisting on one leg and over-stressing one knee as it hurled itself at Sylvester, following him as he tried to duck around.

Sylvester threw himself back against the wall.

“Stitched!” Sylvester barked the order.  “Obey me!  The codeword is Gallows!”

The stitched ignored him.  He had to spin and throw himself out of the way as the thing threw a heavy punch.

He caught a glimpse of Sub Rosa gesturing.

“I know,” he said.  “It was worth a try.”

The damage to his body and his weariness made this simple encounter that much more dangerous.

“They changed the words,” Percy observed.

“I know!

The spark of anger and irritation fed into his next movement, driving him a hair further.  The great bludgeon of dead flesh that flew past his head might have clipped him, had he not moved that extra hair.

The stitched grunted, then adjusted its footing, getting ready to charge once again.

“Stick to the plan,” the Snake Charmer said.  Behind him, others were already heading up and into the Academy through the now-unguarded gates

Sylvester did.  He changed direction, and ran for the gate.

Changes in behavior and pattern went a long way.  The stitched hesitated.

“Go after him!” one of the guards shouted.

Too late.  Sylvester passed through the gate and threw himself against a heavy door, hauling it closed.  The gate was wide enough for a carriage to pass through, and the gates were large enough that they were meant to stop a runaway carriage that rolled down the sloping path to the Academy.

The stitched brute slammed into it, and Sylvester bounced away from the door, sprawling on the ground.

But the impact had been such that the gate was thrown back, rebounded off of the wall with a loud crack, and now swung shut again.  Sylvester found his footing and helped it along.  This time it hit the stitched and made it stagger back.

He closed the gate fully and placed the rifle through the handles, buying himself time to get the actual lock lowered into place.

Sub Rosa was waiting in one of the side tunnels to an area that smelled like a stable.  He took that direction.

“They’re not going to like that,” Percy said.

“They won’t like much about what we do,” a young girl with sharp teeth said.  The girl from the whispering triplets.  Melancholy.  “We’re not one of them.  You knew it the moment you realized about the mutiny, Sylvester.  We’re different, we’re a solution for their problems on one day and a problem for them to fix on another.  It’s a sad fact that when humans divide things into us and them, we don’t end up part of the ‘us’.”

Sylvester shook his head.  “If any of you guys are going to earn the coveted spots in my head that I normally keep reserved for the Lambs, I really need you to be more constructive.  A lot more constructive.”

“I am being constructive,” Melancholy said.  “Paul Parrot would agree with what I’m saying.  Red might too.  We have allies, and there’s a lot we can do with them.  Capitalizing on that means recognizing that we aren’t a person.  The Beattle rebels certainly don’t see you as a person.  We let the Sylvester mask slip and now we’re a monster to them, a thing that wears the mask of a young man.  We’re a thing to be pitied, a murderer, a strategic force of nature, chaos incarnate, a manipulator, a hero, a villain, or a target, and the label in question depends on who’s being asked.  We will never, ever, ever truly win out over the label.  We will never truly sell them on the full Sylvester package.”

“We don’t have the resources to maintain the full Sylvester package,” Percy observed.

“Not sold on the reductionist approach,” Sylvester said.  “Seems sorta convenient for all of you and terrible for me.  Food, clothes, getting into a better position?  Sure.  I’ll do that.  I’ll bully my way into that.  But I’m not about to buy your pitch.”

“There’s a benefit to it,” Cynthia said.  She was a little girl now, half of her face burned.  She had been one of the last to show up that he could name.

“Oh, Cynthia, how grand,” Sylvester said, sarcastic.  “Yes, I’m going to take advice from someone who managed to start out as a major figure in a thriving, widespread clandestine organization and managed to whittle herself down into a shadow of her former self.  Let’s see, let me think, you’re all about rage, a need to attack anyone, even those who could be allies, and desperation.  Do tell me all about the benefits of this course of action.”

She fell in step beside him.  They weren’t on the main road that led through the interior of the Academy to the ground floor of the main building, but they were moving in parallel to it, stables and kennels on one side, the periodic warbeast snorting and huffing in response to their presence.

Cynthia’s hand grasped his shirt.  He hunched over, hauled forward, as she brought her face closer to him, her cheekbone brushing his.  All he could see of her was the burned part.

She murmured in his ear, “You can’t do what you want to do alone.  You’re not functional without.”

“No kidding,” Sylvester said.

“And when you’re you, Sylvester, what the hell happens, do you remember?  Jamie the first?  Lillian?  Multiple times?  Jamie the second, in West Corinth?  Mabel?”

Sylvester’s retort died in his throat.

His head dropped a fraction more.  “Touché.”

“When you walk your unique walk, you either end up alone or you end up in the company of a desperate few.  That’s what I know.  That’s the unique fucking perspective I can offer.”

Sylvester nodded.

“Cynthia had her soldiers,” Percy said.  “We have your experiments.  We know what to say to get them on our side.”

“We recruit them, in service of goals writ large and small,” the Snake Charmer said.  “Melancholy was right.  Paul Parrot would remove anyone we named.  If we wanted a girl to hold close, Red would oblige.  There are rebels, delinquents, and freed experiments who only want to see us put something great into action.  They’re talking about the fact that we carved Ferres up and they believe it’s right, or they’re sitting in the background, believing it without the opportunity to say it.”

“Hold on a second,” Sylvester said.  He was listening to them, but he didn’t have the resources to pick everything apart, to challenge.

They didn’t hold on.  Voices overlapped.

“I’m tired,” Sylvester said, and his voice was nearly drowned out.

The quiet of the building was interrupted by the noise of tromping boots.

“This would be so much easier if you guys were disagreeing more with each other,” Sylvester said.

“They’ve been patrolling to find us, and even with our talents they’re getting close,” the Snake Charmer said.  “We haven’t been able to sleep, we’re hungry, our mind is tired because you’re keeping your guard up, keeping us from practicing what we preach.  As our resources dwindle, theirs consolidate.  We know full well that we have two options.  The first is to surrender right now, become an experiment under the thumb of people in lab coats.  They’ll have good reasons, we harbor reasons to surrender.  But all the same, if you were really willing to settle for that, you wouldn’t have left the Academy in the first place.”

“You can’t surrender any more than I could,” Mauer’s voice broke through the noise.  He had always been good when it came to making himself heard.

Sylvester nodded, numb.

“Any more than any of us could,” Mauer said.  “Very few of the people you’ve encountered were the type to give up.  Life struggles on.  It persists, it adapts, and it gets dragged down into God’s Hell fighting every step of the way.”

Sylvester was dimly aware of the technique.  To hammer the enemy repeatedly with strong arguments alternating with the weak, and to save the key argument for the last.

Mauer, naturally, was the key argument.

Fight, Sylvester.  You’re trying so desperately hard to convince yourself not to, and you’re not finding good reasons.”

Sylvester didn’t have a response.  His eyes returned to looking at everything and nothing.

“If you wait, if you don’t do it of your own volition, then you’ll end up in a corner, we’ll take action on our own out of necessity by rule of fight or flight, and nobody will like the end result of that,” Mauer said.

Sylvester nodded.

He knew what he had to do.

He moved through the Academy by the back hallways, by ladders and stairwells reserved for faculty and other employees.  There were people he ran into here and there, and he tried not to focus too much on the fact that he didn’t remember how he’d dealt with them, only minutes after he had run into them.

There wasn’t much traffic on the arm, that led from the shoulder of the academy to the administration quarters.  But he was a distinctive silhouette, even wearing the guard’s improvised uniform.

“They’re coming,” Cynthia said.  “Don’t go giving up now.”

“He isn’t,” the Snake Charmer said.  “We aren’t.”

Sylvester went to his own room, and washed off the worst of the blood.  He collected clothes at Percy’s instruction, discarding the guard’s jacket at Cynthia’s, and exited the room while still buttoning up his shirt.

A squad of soldiers waited on the bridge as he made his return trip.

Davis was among them.

“Sylvester.”

“Sorry for the mess,” Sylvester said.

“Jessie said to be prepared and to keep an eye on you,” Davis said.  “I could’ve done better on both counts.”

“I don’t think you can be blamed,” Sylvester said, as Sub Rosa stroked his hair.

“I’m blaming myself,” Davis said.

I didn’t even expect things to fall apart this badly,” Sylvester said, “If I can’t anticipate it, how could you?”

“Right,” Davis said.

“Not saying you didn’t help it along, what with the whole mutiny and all…”

“Wait, mutiny?

“You might say you don’t like being in charge, but it’s a power trip, isn’t it?  And it’s familiar, the Academy running the show-”

“Sylvester, no.  That wasn’t it at all.”

“-screen mad old Sylvester out, take charge?”

“You asked me to.  You asked me to lie to you and pretend that everything was quiet and calm, and keep the exciting stuff off your radar, so you wouldn’t undertake any risky stunts.”

“Maybe,” Sylvester said.  “Maybe you know that’s exactly what to say to make me doubt myself.”

“Sylvester,” Gordon Two cut in.

“Hi Gordeux,” Sylvester said.

“That’s not my name, but yeah, sure, hi.  Listen, speaking as a guy who really didn’t join to wage a war against any outside enemy, let alone an inside one… can we take it easy?  The Lambs will be back any time.”

“Will they?”

“Boat could arrive whenever.”

“We know the schedule for the usual boats,” the Devil countered.  “It’s unlikely they’ll come at dusk in a borrowed boat, when the sky is overcast, the way in unlit.”

“Could be an hour,” Gordeux said.  “Could be three.  Or five.  But that’s not too long to wait.”

“He’s lying,” the Devil said.

“It’s an eternity,” Sylvester said.  “If you could spend one of those hours in my head, you wouldn’t be saying that.”

Gordeux was silent.  Pity marked his expression.  Sylvester thought of Cynthia’s words, of the labels.

“And it’s not going to be one hour, or three, or five.  It’s going to be closer to eight, or twelve, or twenty-two,” Sylvester said.

“What do you want, Sylvester?” Davis asked.  “You’ve hurt your own people.  You carved up a key piece of your plan and left her in the bathtub.  Not that we know the entirety of your plan, despite everything we’ve put into this, but…”

“She’s alive, isn’t she?” Sylvester asked.

“She’s alive.  We’re getting her new arms and legs.  She’s cooperating, but-”

“If she’s cooperating, then that’s all that’s important.”

Why, Sy?” Davis asked.  “She was horrendous, but she didn’t deserve that.”

“I was raised to be a monster and to hunt monsters.”

“I think you’re more than that,” Shirley said, speaking up from within the crowd.

She pushed her way forward.  Pierre was beside her.

Sylvester frowned.

“If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have helped me like you did.”

“You wouldn’t believe the tally I’ve got going on in my head.  Especially since I don’t have the memory to keep a proper tally, so it’s more of this impossible, incalculable thing, like a mountain that grows two leagues taller for every league I ascend,” Sylvester said.  “But I owe you so much more than you owe me.”

“It’s not about owing!” Shirley said.  “It’s about… just being there.  Helping when help is due.  And I think you did that for me.”

“I calculated it.  I calculate everything.  Every social interaction is manipulation, molding people like putty around me.”

“I don’t think that’s true.”

“The very first thing I said to you was a tip on how to manipulate people,” he said.  “I don’t remember what it was, but I remember that.”

“It’s not about what was said,” she said.  “More how and why.  You had no reason to help me.”

“You were useful.”

“I don’t think that’s it,” she said, even though her body language suggested she very much worried it was.  She sounded almost scared as she asked, “Why are you pushing us away?”

“Sy,” Gordeux said, before he could respond.  “Listen.  Come eat.  Come into the dining hall.  We can talk over food.  Helen- Possum made some with Rudy.  We’ve got some of the defectors from Hackthorn with us.  We’ve actually talked to them and we might’ve sold them on being on our side, and not just because they’re scared.  The whole black forest and plague thing is really a good starting point, they have their doubts about the Crown.  You might get something out of the discussions.”

“Throwing me into the mix might not be the best idea, if it’s at all tenuous,” Sylvester said.  “As a matter of fact, any of this might be a bad idea.  Squadron of soldiers, me, this whole thing.  Seems like it ends badly.”

“Badly?” Davis asked.

“We- I don’t want to hurt you guys too badly.  I sort of took down a few of our own in the course of getting here.  I’m not sure I can stop.”

“Sylvester- do I have to force you to come eat and talk with us on threat of being shot?” Davis asked.

Sylvester considered.

“Go,” Percy said.

Sylvester nodded.  “I’ll come with.”

Davis looked relieved.  He really shouldn’t have.

With twenty students with guns pointing their weapons at Sylvester, they guided him down the remainder of the bridge, into the main building.

“We spent days looking for you.  We didn’t think you left the Academy at first,” Davis said.  “Those students you sent into the room to clean up, they came to get me, I immediately set to looking for you.  Bea quizzed the Professor as soon as she was lucid, trying to figure out if she’d said anything.”

“If she did, it might be better not to mention it.  I’ve got this sticking thought that she told me some secret of hers under duress, and I didn’t like it, going by the blood.  Not sure though, since I don’t remember any of it.”

“She wouldn’t say what it was,” Davis said.

“Yeah,” Sylvester said.

They made their way into the dining hall proper, above Lab One.  It was teeming, filled with defecting Hackthorn students, with Beattle rebels and the whole group of the Hackthorn fairy tale experiments, minus the actual monsters who were no doubt in Lab One.

The large boy stood at one end of the crowd.

As Cynthia had suggested, they weren’t all people.  The line, at least, was blurred.  Every time Sylvester had seen him, the large boy had been busily eating, always eating, a monolithic thing.  Now, even though there were tables with food laid out on them, the boy ate without partaking, chewing meat when the only meat in arm’s reach was the population of the crowd.

The armed guard of soldiers drew attention to him.  He had to remind himself that the remainder of the crowd around him wasn’t actually there, even if it almost felt more real than the remainder of this scene, with its fairy tales and more teenagers and children.

He took his seat at the same table as the Primordial, the eating child.

He belatedly realized the company he kept.  The nobles had appeared before, but they had been conspicuously absent for some time, with the exception of the Falconer, who had been something of a special case.  Mustering strength.

Immediately, his eyes dropped to the table itself, so he wouldn’t look at them, wouldn’t see them.  So he wouldn’t see the most dangerous of the nobles he’d met, the one he’d told himself would mean he’d lost himself entirely.  He tried to rise out of his seat, and a hand pushed him down.

“Stay put, please,” Davis said.  “Please.  Let’s just talk.  Talk’s safe.  Talk kills time, and we just need to buy enough time for your friends to get back, right?”

“Right,” Sylvester said.  He heard laughter, and recognized it as the Baron’s.

He knew when the Baron had laughed like this, too.  It had been close to the time Sylvester had poisoned his brain with Wyvern.

He knew why the Baron had laughed.

The Baron had known.

He assessed the room, and he saw the others gathered around.  His trains of thought, interwoven with the crowd.  They were ready for conflict, ready for the calm to be broken, for defector to become doubter, for the harmless fairy tale children to erupt into anger.  Many of the guns trained on him would turn elsewhere.  He could see it, in abstract, by how the countless dead and lost were woven among the living.

“Yeah.  Talk is safe,” Sylvester said, before sharing the most dangerous words he knew.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Lamb III (Arc 18)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Jessie peered through the binoculars.  Her vision was hampered by the fact that her view was through windows and that those windows had branches dividing panes of glass.

The Infante had cornered Lillian and Mary.  His soldiers were gathering in the area surrounding the building.  The Helmed, Jessie termed them.  Beast and biped, they were moving out through the city, alongside soldiers and doctors leading teams of warbeast and stitched.  They moved with a mission, securing major points, the gates to the city, the intersections of major roads, and the larger institutional buildings, like the hospital, the schoolhouse, and the merchant’s hall.

They were securing the city.  The fact that the city was surrounded by refugees complicated matters.  If the populace realized what was going on and fought back, they would have to contend with a fight within their city and enemies outside the gates.  Jessie had seen this play out in too many permutations to have any illusions about what was really happening.

The Infante intended to squash this city, and from his body language, he intended to do much the same to Lillian and Mary.

Jessie would need to help.

Her mind was architecture, every memory a brick set in place.  She thought of her memories as ‘cards’, coded in placement and color and in terms of what they were, but the mental construction wasn’t a house of cards – it was far more stable.

Taking stock of everything she had collected since visiting the city, touching on all points of reference, she reoriented her memories as if they were a pop-up book coming to life, the individual rows and columns taking a geographical position in her head.

She could, at the speed of thought, move through the city, analyzing the details she had catalogued.  She had noted details about houses and what she had seen when looking through windows, and she could cross reference that to make educated guesses about which houses might have guns on display or in places she could access.  She could think of four places where munitions or things she could turn into munitions were stored.  There were places she could set fires, if she wanted to alert the populace and change the tone of things.  There were places where civilians would be gathered, and she could go there to make an appeal.  In rural areas, the Crown had a different image.

She thought of Jamie’s writings about Mauer and his rhetoric, about Sylvester’s rhetoric, and she had some tenuous ideas on what she might try to say.

Her recent failure to get Lillian and Mary on board sat heavy with her, casting doubt on her ability to actually execute those ideas.

None of those things were likely to stop the Infante.

Enemy forces were drawing too near.  The Infante had stopped, only periodically taking a step forward.  He was talking.

Jessie focused on his mouth.

-control

The Infante spoke the word as the last utterance of a longer line, and then he smiled.  He held up his hand as if he had something in it, but it was empty.

Eighty feet away, at the other end of the expansive office, Mary kept one hand on Lillian’s shoulder and held a knife in the other.  The Infante didn’t even seem to recognize the knife as a weapon.

Jessie stood straight, drew her gun, and aimed high.  Her brain worked through countless similar cases, times when she had aimed high, aimed low, the various wind conditions, and the places the bullets had struck home.

She aimed, and she fired, wincing at the sound, binoculars still held in place.

She didn’t see the bullet strike home so much as she saw the white dot appear on the building’s surface, a short distance to the left of the window.

She aimed again, adjusting, then fired twice in quick succession, before dropping the binoculars.  Soldiers in other areas were turning their heads at the sound of gunfire.  They hadn’t seen her, but she was concealed, tucked into the shadows between a window that jutted out of a rooftop and the rooftop itself.

In the distance, the window shattered.  She might have hit the Infante but she doubted she’d accomplished anything.

It would have to do – a distraction, and a signal to the other Lambs that she was here.  There were two ways to read the tap code, depending on if they’d heard the initial shot or just the two follow-up shots.  If it was just the two follow-up shots, the code was ‘no’.  No, she wasn’t here, no she wasn’t able to help just yet, no they couldn’t rely on her.

If it was the first shot, then two in close succession, it was the same meaning as the sixth gesture, the flat hand with fingers curled in, a sign that meant to hold position, patience, to wait, to guard something.

Protect yourselves.  Hold on.  I’ll try to help, just give me time.

Jessie moved from her hiding place at the side of a window on a rooftop to the ground, and then wove her way through the streets.  She hadn’t decided on a destination or answer yet, but she had a sense of where the greatest number were.  It was a path that took her directly away from the other Lambs.

“Hello,” Lillian’s voice was hesitant.

He wasn’t confident enough in his speech to give a proper answer.  The memories and instructions in his head were sparse, lessons learned over the past several days, and he was inexperienced in bringing them to bear.  It was slow going, ensuring everything was organized in ways that wouldn’t get in his way later, slower going to reflexively tap that information.  He knew the words, but bringing tone into things was complicated.  Even thinking about gestures, the simple act of raising his hand in greeting, it was hard.

“Yeah,” she said, and her voice broke just a little bit.  She was sad.  “Hi there, Jamie.  I thought I’d stop in.”

She wasn’t the only one that was sad.  Jamie was miserable and lonely, and the way the doctors talked past him without actually talking to him had made it far worse.

“I’m guessing you’re overloaded,” Lillian said.  “You’ve had too many lessons today, and you don’t need me putting anything more on your plate?”

He wasn’t sure how to respond to that.

Lillian kept talking, “I have homework.  I thought I’d sit, keep you company.  I- I brought candy, from this shop downtown.  You liked it, before, and it makes good medical sense, sugar for the brain, and…”

She held a small paper bag, raising it like she was going to hand it out, but then she stopped short, hesitating.

She broke through whatever was holding her back, pushing herself, and handed him the bag.

“Don’t- don’t chew it,” she said.  “You’ll break your teeth.”

He nodded, reaching into the bag, retrieving a hard candy, and putting it in his mouth.

Lillian took a seat at the desk, moving papers aside, getting her bag, and taking books out.  She rubbed at one eye and swore under her breath.

“I told myself I wouldn’t cry.  Except, as Sy keeps saying, I’m a bit of crybaby.  I hope you don’t mind,” she said.

Jamie would have gestured, but Lillian was sitting so Jamie was to her left and behind her.  Instead, Jamie ventured a, “No.”

“Jamie was a good friend.  He was gentle, well read, patient, and all around lovely.  We all miss him terribly.  I didn’t want my visit to be all tears, you know.  It’s why I waited just a little while.  Turns out I’m crying some anyway.”

“It’s okay,” Jamie said.

“I’m sure you’ll be lovely too,” Lillian said.  She managed a smile.

“I hope so,” Jamie said.  His overtaxed mind was working hard to catalogue all of the things about Lillian’s words and movements, the little details about her, the taste of the hard candy, even the ambient changes in the room.  It was too much stimuli, but Lillian’s presence in the room helped on other fronts.

Jamie stood from the bed that had been placed next to his ‘throne’, the edifice that connected him to the greater Caterpillar.  He approached Lillian, watching over her shoulder as she penned out her homework.

She looked up at him, and she smiled again.  She raised one hand, and rubbed his upper arm.  Warm, kind, unsure.

If this was what the Lambs were, then things might be okay after all.

She hated leaving Lillian and Mary.

Jessie might as well have put her foot through a tripwire as she rounded the corner.  She’d tracked the movement of the soldiers throughout the city, watched as they mobilized, and she had a sense of how fast they moved, ideas on where they could go.  It was, for example, very unlikely that they would backtrack.  It was unlikely they would take winding courses through narrower alleys and roads.  They would move along main roads unless the narrower paths took them to a place of interest.

From there, it was simply a question of keeping track of timing, adjusting the cards and knowing the most likely positions of the enemy.  People were predictable.

The tripwire, so to speak, wasn’t a person.  Jessie had chosen speed over silence as she ran, shoes tapping the road, and something had heard.  She recognized the snort, not from this creature, but one very like it, and she recognized the snuffling, the drum of paw on road.

Sniffers.  The warbeasts were canine, large, and covered in rolling locks of white fur, their eyes large and unblinking, their noses like something sculpted, highlighting wide nostrils with ridges of tissue and flesh.

They had gone to great lengths, working with Mabel and the rest of the Green team to produce a countermeasure to these warbeasts and things like them.  They had released their own warbeasts, ones that carried scents almost indistinguishable from their own, and on sending children to West Corinth and other locations, they had had the children release the countermeasures.

Jessie’s leg hurt where she had been shot.  It had been a graze, barely an injury at all, but now that she was running it was worse.  Worse still when she was running with renewed intensity.  The warbeast was faster than her.

Her mind’s eye still held the likely positions of everyone present, blurrier in parts where their objectives or paths were less sensible.

She made a beeline for a covered wagon she had seen two minutes ago, trusting it would be present.  She would be able to reach it before the warbeast reached her, but what happened when she got that far was a bigger question.

She could remember the construction of the wagon, and drew correlations to wagons like it.  She’d seen the exteriors and interiors.  She’d seen the wagon-driver’s bench, and the steps leading up to it.

Even before it came into view, she was mentally reciting the steps she would need to take.  She rounded the corner, coming face to face with the wagon and the stitched horses that drove it.  She saw the driver, who was craning his neck to try and peer past obstacles and see what was going on elsewhere in the city, with soldiers and the Helmed fanning out.

She’d very nearly been run over in crossing paths with the wagon that in dodging the trotting horses her shoulder brushed with one of theirs.

“Get down!” she shouted, as she leaped, setting foot on steps at the side of the wagon that she’d barely had time to verify were indeed there.  As the sniffer shied away from the horses, she stepped up to the bench, climbing over the driver.  She stepped onto the bench, the back of the seat, then the covered part of the wagon.

It would have been easy to set foot on cloth and have her foot go through it, but wooden bracing kept the cover in place, giving it a nice arch shape.  She carefully set foot on the places where the bracing was likely to be strongest, hidden beneath the canvas cloth, and hopped over to the low-hanging roof.

The sniffer, in hot pursuit, crashed into the side of the wagon, demolishing a share of it where the steps were.  The driver had thrown himself down into the groove where his feet and bags normally rested, sheltered by the overhanging bench.  He yelled as the sniffer clawed and clambered up, an awkward vertical climb onto a moving vehicle on the sniffer’s part.  Four hundred pounds of warbeast managed to climb up so it was partially astride the seat and bench, lunged to follow Jessie’s route, and collapsed into a heap of canvas cloth, shattered wooden bracing, and whatever supplies the wagon had been carrying within.

“Go!” the driver shouted, “Git!”

The instructions coincided with him hurling himself off the side of the wagon.  The horses galloped, carrying their cargo away – the cargo being a warbeast that was fighting to free itself of cloth, netting, and uneven footing.

It would get free and it would be back.  It was what the sniffers did.

She wished she was brave enough to follow it as it collapsed onto the wagon, to fight it there, while it struggled, and to put a blade through a vital spot, but that wasn’t her strength.  Sy might.  Mary would.  Gordon could’ve.

She would have to do something bold to answer the Infante.  She was of little use in a direct confrontation and getting involved would potentially risk Mary and Lillian.  It wouldn’t do to step in in their defense only to find out that they were negotiating, downplaying their involvement with her and Sylvester, or taking another course.

A gun wouldn’t work, and neither would a knife.

There were other options.

The city had been aware and prepared for war against the refugees beyond the gates for some time now.  That meant they’d needed soldiers, guns, weapons and stockpiles for a potential siege.  There would be banks of stitched waiting and charging in case they were needed, and there would be chemical weapons of war.

Wiring systems had connected the banks of stitched and the biovoltaic generators in nearby buildings, and Jessie had seen those wires, noting them.  Buildings that housed the soldiers who were on call for confrontation at any time were located in specific areas, with certain required dimensions.  There were regulations, and Jessie could think back, go over the books and papers she had read, and recite them by heart.

From there, it wasn’t terribly difficult to work out which buildings held other stockpiles.  Close to the gate, certain building sizes, reinforcement, set with a certain distance from other critical buildings and infrastructure, in case of accidental or intentional detonation…

Her enemy here was watching for trouble from the refugees beyond the gate and focused on a potential war with people within the city.  They milled throughout the area surrounding the gate, but it wasn’t with an eye for danger.

She found the lock, and she recognized the make and model.  She didn’t pick it – settling for jamming her knife into the lock itself.

Once within, she immediately went to the mortars, collecting one, and a strapped-together stack of rounds in tidy wooden boxes.  Both the mortar and the strapped-together crates were arranged so they had wheels on one end and handles on the other, so they could be pulled along.  Checking the coast was clear, she hauled them behind her.

Minutes passed as she got from the gate to a point close enough to the government office that Mary, Lillian, and the Infante were in.  Forty precious seconds were wasted, waiting for a patrol of ten men to jog down the street.  She could have chanced thirty, but there was a risk they would have heard the wheels of the mortars clicking and clattering over the wooden road.

She kept an eye out for the sniffer as she got to where she needed to be.  She climbed a fence to stand on it, looking clear of shrubbery and short trees.

Her heart pounded, and it wasn’t because of the exertion of hauling a ninety-one-point-seven pound contraption and the rounds behind her.

I’m too used to working with Sy, trusting he’ll scrape on by, find answers, and manage while I’m getting things organized.

She almost didn’t want to look.  There was no architecture, tag, or system of threads that really touched on why she had such a bad feeling.

Only her knowledge of the threat the nobles posed.

The Infante had barely moved from where he stood, but his forces had closed around the building.  Mary was holding one side of her face, moving unsteadily.  She had tried something and been struck, at a glance.

Two men stood on either side of the Infante.  They looked like soldiers, but they weren’t officers.  Both stood in ways that made them lopsided, as if they couldn’t hold themselves entirely upright.  Both were coughing, or doing something like coughing, with whole-body jerks.  As unsteady as they were, their upper bodies almost flopped around with each of the jerky little motions.

Lillian looked so very scared.  She had a pistol in hand, not pointing it at anything.

The Infante spoke, his lips moving.  “Obedience in action alone is worth nothing to us.”

Mary responded.  “Obedience has to be earned.”

The Infante smiled, arms wide.  “Obedience is taken, clearly.”

Lillian shook her head.  Then, as she mouthed the word ‘no’, she put the barrel of the gun to her temple.

It said a great deal that Mary didn’t stop her.

Shock gripping her, her senses shaken to the point she could barely track her own breathing and heartbeat, Jessie hopped down from the fence.  The mortars were in an older style, but she was happier with that, knowing they were similar to the ones that their rebels had been devising.  She had a larger catalogue of memories when it came to those, to trajectories and patterns of fire, and they weren’t so old that the barrels weren’t rifled.

It was fast to set up the mortars, to deploy them.  She hadn’t actually performed the task herself, but she had seen it done, knew the motions.  Only once or twice did she run into snarls, moments where her shaking hands didn’t cooperate.

She cut a strap, tore open the wooden box with its lone shell within, and loaded the mortar.

She couldn’t see the Infante from this angle, couldn’t peer through the window.  But she could extrapolate, imagine where he would be if he’d advanced at his typical slow pace, she could place him if he’d remained where he was.

He wasn’t one to step back.  He wasn’t one to meander.  It was a narrow range of possibilities, and she chose an angle that aimed to put the mortar in the middle of that range.

She held her arm to one side of her head, the hand at the end of that arm clapped over her ear, and she fired.  The blast of the mortar took the breath she’d been holding and shook it loose.

Teeth grit, she slapped the wooden box away from the top of the stack, tore away the lid, and retrieved the next shot.  The metal of the mortar was hot to the touch as she loaded the next round-

She heard the distant gunshot, followed soon after by another.  Again, she hopped onto the fence.

The sniffer could be on her trail any second.  Nearby soldiers might have heard the origin or seen the mortar start on its course.  She had no time.  No time.

The idea echoed Mary’s words.

If only they’d come.

She looked through the binoculars, to see where the shot had landed, to see how the scene had played out in the wake of it.

The two soldiers that had been flanking the Infante were on the ground.  The side of the building had been torn open, the blast taking out much of the structure.  The devastation and fragments of ruined building were scattered around the Infante, even some splinters and dust on him.  It hadn’t penetrated the side of the building, hadn’t actually hurt him, where it should have at least bowled him over with the shockwave.  His head was turned in her direction.

Mary and Lillian ran for it, taking the opportunity to go for the doors.  Both fired their guns at the Infante as they ran.

Again.  Another shot, with no time to waste.  Jessie hopped down, dragging the mortar to one side, changing the angle.

She fired again, hoping to time it to catch the Infante as he followed them out of the building.

A third shot.  The last of the ones she’d been able to bring with her.  Again, she loaded it so she could fire as quickly as possible after glancing at the scene.  She worried she wouldn’t have a view of the scene, that intervening buildings would block her.  It would mean shooting with a higher risk of hitting Mary as she engaged the noble lord.

She had prepared the shot and was ready to open fire when she heard the sound behind her.

Her memory had perfectly transcribed a dozen individual snorts and snuffles like it.

Barely looking, she hauled the mortar around, hitting the catch that kept it anchored at a set angle.  It collapsed, the barrel dropping.

She didn’t have time to protect her ears as she saw the sniffer dash toward her.  It was mid-air when she hauled back on the trigger.

As such things went, the explosion was such that she was only barely out of the worst of it.  The second-worst of it was bad enough to knock her over, to send her glasses flying from her face.

Overkill, to shoot a warbeast with a mortar and turn it into bloody ruins.  It only stood a chance of being sufficient harm for the Infante.

She didn’t even look for her glasses.  Her first three steps saw her traveling in a steep arc, one step north, one step northwest, one step west.  She bounced off of a wall.  Her vision didn’t focus and her ears rang and the Lambs were in danger.

Danger enough that Lillian believed it right to shoot herself rather than let the Infante do what he’d planned to do to her.

Jessie didn’t find her bearings, but fought for them, clawed them forth.  She searched her memories for tricks and found little.  Similar instances were still too different from this to be any kind of resource.

This was new ground, such as it was.  A desperate road.

The second shot hadn’t hit the Infante.  She wasn’t too surprised.  He would have delayed, anticipated it, or listened for the distant sound of the mortar firing before its projectile reached him.

He was faster than he looked.  All power, all force.  Jessie was far enough away she couldn’t reasonably feel it, but she imagined the ground shaking with every footfall.  He was heavy, and he had no difficulty at all in moving that mass.

Mary ran and she dragged Lillian behind.  It meant that when the Infante reached them, it was Lillian he grabbed.

Jessie could hear the scream.  It was a sound she’d never wanted to hear from her friend, her romantic rival, her fellow bookworm, though she’d never been the bookworm Jamie had been.

“Taken,” the Infante pronounced.  “It is time you all realize you exist at our mercy.”

Mary aimed her gun, and she opened fire, putting bullets in the Infante’s head, emptying the gun.  He had to close his eyes and twist his head to one side, but he barely reacted outside of that.

“Please,” Mary said.  “Please.  I’ll lead you to Sylvester.”

“If you do, it will be because I will it,” the Infante said.  “Not in any exchange.  I brook no disloyalty to the Crown.”

Lillian thrashed, fought to escape the one-handed grip on her neck and shoulder.  The struggles increased as the Infante lifted her, bringing her to a position where her back was to his chest.  His hand moved to cover her nose and mouth.

“Lord Infante!” Jessie screamed.

“Jamie Lambsbridge,” the Infante said.  He turned slightly, to better face the two girls.  “So to speak.”

“I know-” she started.  The words trailed off.

The angle the Infante stood at gave her a view of Lillian.  She could see Lillian’s continued struggle, and she could see Lillian’s eyes roll back in her head.  Lillian’s throat distended, then distended more, until it threatened to split down the middle, as if an ordinary-sized man was shoving his full arm down her windpipe.  Her body arched, hands clawing at the Infante’s, then at open air.

“Stop,” Jessie said.

“I’m most sure that you know how to properly address nobles,” the Infante said.

Mary took that opportunity to attack, approaching at a run.  The Infante’s hand warded her off, at first, but two swift kicks with blades revealed from her boots allowed her to dig the knives in, and use those footholds as points to leap forward.  She lunged for his face.

Treating Lillian as if she weighed nothing at all, he used the hand that held the Lamb’s medic to swat Mary out of the air.  She landed on her feet, ready to renew her assault, and stopped short as the Infante let Lillian go.

Lillian dropped to the ground, still writhing, coughing and gagging in an attempt to dislodge that which had found its way into her throat.  Two tendrils like that of an octopus, one large, one small, both encrusted with hornlike growths, were thrashing out of her mouth.  The longer one groped at her nostril, looking for a way in and finding it.

“Lil-” Jessie started.

The tendrils contorted, becoming squat, rather than long, and in the doing, produced spikes.  Sharp points penetrated Lillian’s nostril, cheek, and three points at her throat that Jessie could see.  Lillian spasmed in one moment, then went limp and still in the next.

The recent disorientation of the nearby explosion coupled with the disorientation of this to all catch up with Jessie, dropping her to her knees.

“Stand up,” Mary said.

Jessie’s hands shook.

“Stand up, Jessie,” Mary said.  “I know we’ve had recent differences, but this is where we need to be together.”

The Infante almost ignored them.  He held up one hand, and one tendril like that of the horror he’d just unleashed on Lillian was slurping its way back into a slit in his heavy palm.  As it disappeared within, the slit closed, indistinguishable from a line in the noble’s hand.

“Stand up,” Mary said, as if it was a refrain.

Jessie did.

“A weapon of war, this,” the Infante spoke.  “I keep an assortment, change it out, to remind myself.  These ones, like many of the ones I carry, are the sort we rain down on battlefields and unleash on places under siege-”

“Shut up,” Mary said.

“-to terrorize, destabilize, and to create openings.  Marvelously elegant and nuanced, believe it or not-”

Shut up!

“-and only one of five weapons I bear with me today.”

“Shut up, you malignant child!”  Mary roared the words.  A single tear touched her cheek.

“Why would I do as you say?” the Infante asked.  “What purpose does it serve?  What do I gain?  I will not stop speaking.  I will let you know exactly what happens next.  You will try to destroy me, and you will fail.  I will make you an example much as I did her.”

Jessie breathed hard.  What were the options?  What chance was there?

“Shall I make you bear the plague, Mary Cobourn?  It’s a burden, to carry this one.  For every hour I leave it unattended, I must spend an hour under the knife, ensuring it doesn’t get a grip on me.  Would you like it if I put you up for display?   I could do it so that as it crawls over you, it makes you a diorama.  A centerpiece to the greater scene, as Mauer’s God is in Lugh.”

Mary straightened.  She held a knife in one hand, the other hand empty and behind her.  A fencer with a foil, but her ‘foil’ was only nine point seven inches long.

Mary took a step back, adjusting her footing as she did so.  As angry as she was, she moved in a measured, practiced way.  Jessie had seen the practice.

“This isn’t a strength of mine.”

“I know.  But I also know you have the capability,” Mary said.

“I’m not him,” Jamie said.  “I’m not my predecessor.”

“Again, I know that.  But there’s no reason to think you couldn’t do it if you wanted to.  Let’s try it again.”

Jamie almost said no.  Every part of him hurt, and it was a hurt deep enough that he couldn’t tell if it was the bones or the muscle protesting.  His legs had been strained until they were columns of throbbing, and his breath hurt in a ragged way, as if he was breathing in the coldest air – and it wasn’t that cold out.

But he could see Mary’s expression.

They’d just lost Gordon, there was a void yawning in the midst of them, and for Mary, this was how she dealt with loss.  It was the relentless, mad way she dealt with everything.  Working harder, pressing on.

He was so worried about how Sylvester was doing, about Sylvester’s conversation earlier in the day, a hint to Duncan that he wasn’t satisfied with the status quo.

There was a rift, a schism, and it looked like the group would split at any moment.

Better to give Mary what she needed and try to bind them all just a bit closer together, than to help that schism open any further.

“You can’t expect it to be like it is with Sylvester,” Jamie said.

“I don’t.  It won’t be.  But I know that if and when you learn it, you’ll remember it.  So let’s learn it.”

“I’ll need a weapon.  Another weapon, anyway,” Jamie said, holding out his hand, as he took a step back, then to the right, matching Mary’s movements.

Jessie took a step back and to the right.  She held out one hand, and saw the flash of the knife moving through the air.  She didn’t look up or away from the Infante.  She trusted.

The knife almost bounced out of her hand, the blade nicking the webbing between finger and thumb, but it landed, and she was able to close her fingers around it.

Mary lunged, and it was the kind of lunge that was meant to do terminal damage.  No nonsense, no question.  They had rehearsed the steps, but it wasn’t rote.  There were paces to go through, but it wasn’t the same attack every time.  There were trends but no rules.  What was a stab one time would be throwing a knife the next, reeling it back in with a pull on razor wire.

It was about attack and movement.  Never defense, never pausing.  Jamie knew to move only because Mary was first to attack.  She was more comfortable attacking, deciding that first move and dictating what would follow.

Jessie moved, trying to maintain a position that would keep the Infante perfectly between them, unable to look at the two of them at the same time.  It was a distraction, something that begged a moment’s thought from the opponent while Mary moved in.

Again, Mary used the boot-knives to penetrate flesh, to scale the Infante as if he were a mountain to be hurdled, positioning herself to attack the face and head-

He reacted quickly, slapping Mary down before she even got that far.

Mary would only redouble the assault if Jessie didn’t seize the scant opportunity afforded her.  It wasn’t much of an opportunity.  A half-second, while Mary was adjusting her footing.  Failure to capitalize on this meant only misery, a break in the exercise, a return to the beginning steps, where Mary was on the offensive.

Jessie attacked.  Slashes, cuts.  A man this large needed support, and every cut was at the knee, with one chance swipe at the ankle as the Infante raised one foot.

It was brief, the initial foray meant to only let the Infante know she was present.  All to grab attention, to seize it.  Almost without having stopped after being struck at, Mary returned to the fray, going low this time, tumbling down into a roll, before striking up, at the Infante’s inner thighs and genitals.

The memories merged with reality.  This was where Jamie grabbed Mary, to put her off balance.

Jessie grabbed Mary, hauled her to her feet, pulling her up and away as the Infante shifted his footing, kicking and only grazing Mary.  As adroit as she was, Mary wouldn’t have successfully gotten out of the way.

Jamie matched strikes with Mary, again, never pausing, never defending, always either moving or attacking.  Jessie did the same.  In this, they attacked in concert, two sets of attacks from two directions.  The Infante moved to deal with Mary, who was no doubt cutting more effectively, and Jessie redoubled her attack, gripping the knife handle with both hands to add more strength to the cuts.

It was meditative, it might even have been calming, if the circumstances were different.  Pain and fear and desperation flattened out, the frenzied immobility of shock meeting the peaks and valleys of highest and lowest emotion and finding something in between.  It was easier to stick to the recitation, the dance they had worked through, Mary’s therapy.

The problem, then and now, was that Jessie wasn’t a fighter.  In this, she was much like Sylvester, dependent on another.  The Infante changed tacks, choosing to go after the weaker of the two interlinked individuals, his sights falling on her.

The moment he turned on her, Mary was on his back, dealing as much damage as she could with her blades.  She produced loops of razor wire, and they moved almost impossibly slowly through the air as they approached the Infante’s head, threatening to wrap around his face.

He struck at Mary, then swiped at the wire, brushing it out of the air and lacerating the back of his hand with the force of the movement and the sharpness of the wire.

He was strong, and Mary wasn’t invincible.  But her technique and skill was such that she could move with the blows.  Razor wire connected elsewhere allowed her to haul with one arm, and pull herself slightly out of position.  Knives jutting out of the toes of her shoes stabbed into belly and back and allowed her to kick out, move up or step down.  In this way, as much as he hurt her, he didn’t remove her from the fight with any one strike.

Mary hit the ground, rebounded, and was on the offense again, while Jessie focused on movement, on not being in a position where she could be grabbed or struck down.  She wasn’t so adroit.

She maintained her end of the dance, as best as she could.

His reaching hand was surrounded by loops of razor wire.  They tightened around his fingers and palm, and the wire didn’t penetrate the thick skin.  He hauled his arm forward, and Mary skidded, skipped, and fought to get her balance.

That alone wouldn’t have been so bad.  But as Jessie maneuvered, pushing herself to move just a little bit further, a little bit faster, a hand gripped her.

Lillian stood, her body lopsided, as if one side of it was heavier than the other.  Her mouth was open, and she coughed, gagged, groping with hands, to seize, scratch with nails.

Not Lillian’s actions, but the parasite’s.

It was all the Infante needed.  He stepped in, reaching, and Jessie didn’t have the opportunity to slip away before the noble seized her.

Jessie was lifted clean off the ground.  The Infante swatted at Mary again, then held out one hand, palm out, as if one hand was all he needed to keep her at bay, now.  He glanced down at Lillian, then touched her cheek with two fingers, turning her head by force, so she looked at Mary.

Lillian took three staggering steps in Mary’s direction, making guttural sounds.

“Shall I use spiders that stitch you into a cocoon of your own flesh?” the Infante asked.  Slits and folds in his arm yawned open as if reflexively answering that question.  “No.  You wouldn’t remember that one.  It wouldn’t hold the same meaning.”

He shifted his grip, and pressed his hand over Jessie’s nose and mouth.

The first of the tendrils slithered into her mouth, like a long, wet tongue.  It was covered in hard growths, like warts, ulcers, or small horns, and each periodically stabbed and pricked, producing the spikes it would use to no doubt impale her spinal column and get near-permanent leverage in her throat.  They struck out at nerves, numbing and paralyzing when and where they made contact, un-numbing and freeing the part as they withdrew.  A wet member slithered into her nose, then scraped against her upper lip as the rest of the thing hauled itself deeper into her throat.

Her throat distended.  She couldn’t breathe.  It sucked at the air in her lungs and took it against her will, in one end, out the other.

It angled the spikes to better its grip, to ensure that any ground it gained going in and down was ground it didn’t give up.  It numbed and paralyzed to close the throat to coughs, to keep the gag reflex there but unsuccessful.

She hurtled this way and that as the Infante moved, addressing Mary.  She closed her eyes, remembered the dance, the steps taken-

Jamie set his foot down and exhaustion won out.  He staggered.

Mary, anticipating something else, had to fall on top of him to avoid hurting him.

In that, Jamie thought of Sylvester, smiled, and moved his own knife toward Mary’s throat.

She caught his wrist and rolled her eyes.

The sacrifice play.  No- the reaction, allowing the injury to happen.  The Sylvester play.

Jessie remembered what she’d seen Lillian do.  The spasm, the stillness.

She emulated it, body arching, a whole-body flinch.  Then-

She didn’t even have to go any further.  The Infante looked her way, curious.  In that instant, standing five feet behind him, Mary lashed out.

Two knives attached to razor wire flashed out, each traveling in a half-circle in each direction.  The blades struck home, each one slicing the Infante across one eye.

Superficial damage.  Not complete blindness, but partial blindness at the least.

But she repeated the strike.  Flicking knives on wire, one after another.  Each one furthered the damage.  When he raised one hand to cover his eyes, she opened other wounds.

He dropped Jessie, and she collapsed.  The horror still lurked in her throat, tendrils reaching down past epiglottis, toward lungs and stomach both.  Her fingers found little purchase on the thing’s skin, and even the hornlike growths weren’t enough.

Tendrils wrapped around her face and neck, trying to secure the thing’s position.

“You know my reinforcements are approaching even now,” the Infante said.

“I know,” Mary said.

“You won’t win.”

“I know,” Mary said.

Jessie stabbed at the thing, the blade sticking through a cluster of tendrils and biting into the wood of the road.  The struggle that followed was a hellish thing, because it mandated she take the hardest road and threatened to end her if she hesitated for a second while walking it.  She dragged the thing free of her sinuses, throat and mouth, inch by inch, and it made sure that every inch felt like she was hauling knives and fishhooks out, the points facing in the worst directions.

It felt like it was grabbing the inside of her chest.  It closed its airways and tried to starve its host of oxygen so she might relent.  A tentacle touched her eye, and threatened to find a gap to disappear inside and unfurl hooks in there.

“Let us go,” Mary said.  “You know we’ll cross paths again, if you understand me at all.  You won’t be seen fighting and doing anything less than your best against the likes of us, you won’t be seen bleeding, not like that, and we…”

“Get to live another day,” the Infante said.

Jessie hauled the thing free, then stabbed it, and stabbed it again, and again, and again-

“Is that a yes?” Mary asked.

“It’s a yes, with a promise that I’ll have far worse in store for you on our next meeting.”

Jessie finished stabbing the horror to death.  She looked up, panting.

The experience of the thing lingered in her head.  It was a card of the wrong shape and size, one that threatened to scatter the others if she placed it wrong.  She could remember every detail of it, and she did remember every detail, as it lingered in her mind’s eye, not yet positioned or sorted out.

She looked at Lillian, then hopped to her feet.  She rushed Lillian, throwing herself at her friend, and was clawed at in return.  The parasite ruled here, the parasite decided the order of action, lashing out at movement or at faces.

Jessie endured the scratches and injuries, reached into Lillian’s belt pocket, and retrieved a syringe.  She plunged it into Lillian’s throat.  Tranquilizer.

She didn’t deploy all of it.  Some of it she reserved.

Pulling the needle free, she stabbed the horror, depressing the plunger.

She kept it there, ducking her head down, burying it against Lillian’s shoulder, so the scratches wouldn’t do too much damage to her face.  She endured, waiting, until something jostled them.

Mary.

Lillian’s strength was dwindling as the tranquilizer took hold.  The horror increased the intensity at which it fought, but the tranquilizer had its effect there too.  The spikes began to retract, and the horror’s movements grew more sluggish.

“We need to go,” Mary said. “I know a way out.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.10

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“Sylvester,” the voice was firm, and the speaker was both male and young.  “Wake up.  We have a lot to do.”

I draped my arm over my face, so I could shut out the light and block the world.  My eyes were damp, as if I’d been crying, yet I’d been firmly asleep.

“Sylvester.”

I almost spoke, responding, before I shut my mouth.  Speaking was dangerous now.  At any point, it could spell disaster, talking to someone who wasn’t there.  I had allies I needed to preserve and other allies who could very easily become adversaries if they lost any more faith in me.

I let my arm fall from my face, and blinked my eyes dry as I could get them.  An arm draped across my neck, making breathing and sitting up more difficult than they had to be.  I slept in a pile with a number of others, and I couldn’t name very many of them.

If the hallucinations and twists of the mind were always bad, always hostile, it might have been easier.  I could have steeled myself, turned my brain to the task, and found a way forward.  I wanted to believe that.  But they weren’t always bad or hostile.  They supported me, they kept me company, and they kept me warm when I felt cold.

The sensations were largely imagined, I knew.  The touch, the feel of clothing on skin and skin on clothing, of breathing into someone else’s hair.

I’d slept, at least.  Going by the light, it was dawn.  That meant… three hours.  A step forward from no sleep in the two days prior.  We were sleeping in a barn, apparently, in a pile of old blankets draped over a haystack.

Red Riding Hood lay on one side of me, her breath sour with last night’s alcohol.  The girl with the layers of clothes spooned me, her arm the one that had been making it hard to breathe and to rise.  There was a redheaded girl and a girl from the Eastern Crown States that I couldn’t place or name, a boy who slept with his back to me, and two delinquents, one of whom had done the body modification thing, with two sets of horns and some scarification of the forehead.

There were bottles and some food on the ground.  I could only remember parts.  A whirl of hallucination and dancing, of the Hackthorn experiments and delinquents.  I’d wanted to ingratiate myself, to ensure I didn’t burn bridges with the ones most likely to hear me out and not fall back into Academy ways of thinking.  I’d had something to drink, but the effects were somewhat muted.  It had been a dizzy spiral down into sleep and rest.

“All we want is a voice,” the boy at the doorway said.  He’d been the one to urge me awake.

A voice?

The hallucinations wanted a chance to speak?

He shrugged with one shoulder.  He looked angry but didn’t have a seeming target for that anger.  The night’s festivities had left him with dark circles under his eyes.  He was the one I’d seen on the bed in Ferres’ room, with the yellow raincoat that vaguely resembled a lab coat, like aspiring Doctors sought.  He wore an apron beneath it, and I didn’t miss that he’d stashed a knife in that apron.  He looked at me, “That’s the plan?  You don’t get shut out of things, we get a voice.”

“And us woebegone fairy tales get our chance to be on top for once,” Red Riding Hood said.  She sat up and stretched.  “Get some catharsis.  Get some revenge.”

“Yeah, if that’s what it comes to,” the boy in yellow said.  “Not that I care, but I’m willing to do what’s necessary to get where we need to be.”

“Try to sound less like a jerk,” Red said.  She looked at me.  “The sleeping hero awakes.  Good morning.”

I looked between the two, blinking, trying to sort out the conversation.  Was she not-?

“Hm?” I grunted, quizzical.

“I said I slept surprisingly well considering this blanket smells like wet dog and old cow.  Good morning, sleepy hero.”

I didn’t want to respond, to get caught up in things.  It would be too easy to ask a question and be offered another statement that begged yet another question.  These hallucinations were a product of my mind and I was one hundred percent aware that my mind was very good when it came to that sort of thing.

I almost didn’t want to move.  I was surrounded by mostly girls, I was cozy, and I worried that once I started moving I wouldn’t be able to stop.

The decision was almost made for me.  Our conversation had stirred others.

“It’s too early,” one of the delinquents said.

“If Sy wants to get up, we get up,” Red responded.

“Fuck Sy up the bumpipe with a lumpy branch,” the delinquent said.

I cleared my throat.

“…With a not-lumpy branch, then.”

“You’re quiet,” Red said.  “Are you mad?  Did I bother you, last night?”

I barely remembered her role in last night.  I shook my head.

“Not up to talking?” she asked.  “You’re in pretty good company then.”

Beside me, the girl with the layers of clothing reached up, using her fingers to tidy my hair.

I shook my head a little, running my fingers through my hair to fix it, and then stood up, extricating myself from her.

“We’re up!” Red said, full of good cheer, and that same cheer played into the groans her voice was eliciting.

I walked straight for the open door to the barn, where a rain barrel was set beside the boy in the raincoat.  I saw Bo Peep on a bench by the door.  She watched me, eyes large, and drew her feet up from the ground to the edge of the bench, so her knees were tight up against her chest.

I gave her a wave, even though I didn’t want to gesture, even mundane gestures, for much the same reason I didn’t want to speak.  After a moment, she waved back.

Red reached out for her, as if to muss up that woolly head of hair, and Bo Peep swatted at the hand, far more forcefully than necessary.

Had I done something?  Had Red?  Was Peep jealous?

There were so many questions and I wasn’t sure I had the resources at my disposal to answer them.  I felt rested, I was only a little hungry, and yet I’d been awake for a few minutes at most, and I had already faced a number of challenges.  The energy and focus I had were things I’d need to ration for the day ahead of me.

I’d need to save up a number in case I faced a larger crisis.  Mutiny, combat, an uprising from the Academy we were holding hostage, another downturn in my mental health, or if the accumulated positive elements of my mental landscape turned on me… if the Lambs appeared, real or not, and if they weren’t friendly or kind, it was something that could leave me in shambles if I wasn’t prepared.  I needed to be ready, whatever the day brought.

The irony was that devoting time and attention to conserving mental and emotional resources was in itself draining those resources.

The boy in the yellow coat stood at the rain barrel with his hand out, letting the water run off the gutter and into his open hand.  I watched as he clenched that fist, squeezing out the water.  Beyond him, the sky was mottled with clouds just thin enough to take the blue out of the sky and thicker clouds that looked almost black.  The sun had risen just enough that the light came from one direction but didn’t color the sky pink.

“We can’t let them ignore us, Sylvester,” he said.  “It’s what they do.  They marginalize, they set up a system, and then they twist it to their favor.  Power and control.”

I plunged my head and shoulders into the water of the rain barrel.

Cold.  I kept my head there, where the rest of the world couldn’t bother me, gripping the edge of the barrel with more and more intensity as the cold crushed in on my head and stabbed through skin to make my skull hurt.

I withdrew my head and straightened.

The moment my eyes opened, the boy in the yellow coat was rushing me.  I stepped back, and in the doing, I cracked the back of my head against the edge of the door.  He grabbed me by the collar.

“You little shit!  You think you can ignore me?  Right when I was saying we get a voice!?”

I raised my hand to grab him, to pull him off me, and in the doing I brought it up to where the rain barrel pressed against the exterior wall of the barn.   How to get my hand around that simple obstacle was a thought process that eluded me in the moment.  Realizing I had another hand I could use took me a full second.

As I raised it, Red brushed against my arm, approaching the rain barrel.  She put her hands in and flinched.  “Lords and ladies, that’s cold!  You put your head in?”

I shrugged.  I realized I had one hand raised halfway up, and I’d left it hanging there.  The phantom in question was no longer there, no longer grabbing my collar.  The snarl in thought process that had made getting my right hand up and out of the space between me and the rain barrel was gone.

She bent her head down and splashed it, yelping as she came in contact with the water.  She had been modified to have facial features reminiscent of a deer, rabbit, or another prey animal, the fur was soft and so fine that the places where fur started and ended weren’t clear, brown-gray fur blending into brown skin with the fine and sparse hairs that all people had.  Her eyes were larger than normal, more expressive, and they had almost natural makeup with black skin at the edges of the eyes, the dramatic highlighting of the furrow by the tear duct, and long black eyelashes.

She’d wanted to go under the knife and she likely would, but she wanted to have an actual, normal face, and working out that particular puzzle out was a task that would take more than a week, if scars were to be avoided and all features were to look normal.

She smiled as she stepped away from the rain barrel, face beaded with moisture, and she ran her wet hands through mostly dry hair.  “Are people going to wonder where you’ve been, hero?”

I almost kept silent, but I worried my silence would be just as worrisome as my speaking here.

“Hero?”

My question coincided with the bulk of the group exiting the barn.  Bo Peep and the girl with the layers of clothing among them.  I saw the triplets, who I’d first seen under the sink, whispering to one another.  Paul was present too, and from the straw stuck to him and to Goldilocks, I was guessing they’d found a secluded corner of the barn to bunk down in.

I watched a boy of fifteen or so twirl a stick with his fingers.  He looked a little more worse for wear, as if he’d had more to drink and a few other things beside and he’d woken up with the worst hangover, for the past one hundred days.  He contrasted that with very posh clothes and blond hair that he’d slicked back, close to his head.  He spooked me a little.  He was closer to the whispering triplets than to any of the others, and he set my instincts in overdrive.

That might have been his role.  Putting me on edge, representing something alarming without actually clarifying that something.

“You saved us,” Red said, smiling.

“You did,” Paul said.  “We owe you a lot.”

“Mm,” I grunted.  I stood back while others took their turn with the water barrel.

“He’s not talking much,” Red said.

“Alright,” Paul said, firmly.  “Well, we’ve got a few like that.  We’ll manage.”

He seemed to make it a statement, meant for the group, as if to ensure that I wouldn’t be looked down on, or so I wouldn’t run into trouble.  Maybe it was self serving on his part, ensuring his group was fine.  Maybe it was that he was actually an alright person.

“We’ll manage, yes, as we get done with all that we need to get done,” spoke the boy in the yellow raincoat.

“Speaking of, where are we going?” Goldilocks asked.  “What’s next on the agenda?”

“I want to stay,” Bo Peep said.

“Stay?” Paul asked.  “Laze around in a musty barn all day?”

“We can’t stay,” the boy in the raincoat said.  “There’s an agenda.”

“There’s stuff to do,” I said.  I didn’t want to be accused of ignoring the boy in yellow again.

“There are things that need doing that only we can do,” one of the triplets said, almost echoing the boy in yellow.  His voice sounded as though he had a cold, in contrast to the indistinct whispers.  “We’re talented.  We have to put those talents to use.”

“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m hungry,” Red said.

“I’m alright with being hungry,” Bo Peep said, more insistent.  “Let’s stay where we are.  It’s safe.”

“The Academy is ours, Peep!” Red said, smiling.

“It’s theirs,” the boy in yellow said.  “Don’t lose sight of that fact.”

“Don’t be silly, it’s as safe as it’ll get.  We’re as safe as we’ll ever be,” Red said.

I’d been awake for only a few minutes and I was wondering if I had the grit needed to get to noon.  This was too much, and it wasn’t enough.  It was worse because I couldn’t be sure if people were saying things to others or if I was making mental revisions to make it seem like they were.

“I’ll keep you safe,” Paul said.  “Whatever it takes, Little Bo.  I’ll be your personal bodyguard.”

Yeah, that was a large part of why Red and Goldilocks and so many others were fawning over Paul.  It wasn’t so much that he was devastatingly beautiful, and ‘devastating’ wasn’t a word I was about to use lightly, but he had a good heart beneath that righteous anger of his.

“I don’t care,” Bo Peep said.  “Not about me.  I care about Sylvester.  I know it’ll bother him if I say it, but I think it’ll be worse if I don’t say it.  He’s not well.  He wasn’t well last night.  I want to stay here with him and not do anything.  We just have to wait until his friends come back.  So long as we stay put and we don’t do anything, nothing can go wrong.”

Twenty sets of eyes turned my way.

“You’re not well, Sylvester?” Paul asked.

I felt like admitting it out loud would’ve said something, and I couldn’t bring myself to deny it.  I shrugged yet again.  It felt like I was trying to buck the weight on my shoulders that was accruing there over time.

“We’ve all got our quirks,” Paul said.  “Neuroses.  Sylvester exemplifies that.  But we’re capable, we’re strong.  Some of us even got changes that made us better than we would’ve been.  I say we move forward.  We’ve got little ones to feed.”

“You guys can go.  I’ll stay with Sylvester.  We can talk, and you can bring food back to us,” Bo Peep said.  Her hands clutched at her skirt.  With so many eyes on her, her small voice pushing against a very large group, she couldn’t quite keep her head raised.  “Please?”

“That sounds like a bother,” Red said.

“Please?” Bo Peep asked.  “Please, I’ll never ask for anything again.  I’ll be good, I’ll do one favor for everyone here, I’ll do chores, or I’ll knit something for everyone, if you’ll give me time, or…”

She seemed to sense that she wasn’t making much headway with the group.  She took a half-step toward me, then hesitated.

I dropped to my knee, so I was more on her level.  At that, she threw herself at me, her arms around my neck.  I returned the hug, and I felt her heart beating like she’d just run a mile.

“Please,” she said.  “I’ll do anything and everything you want.  I’ll go away forever, or I’ll stay right next to you forever.  But can’t we please just stay here?  We can talk, and you can tell me or tell all of us stories of you and your friends?”

That sounds nice, I thought.  Soothing, almost.  I could almost frame it in a way that taught lessons, gave tips on how to be an effective investigator or infiltrator, how to act in the acting sense, and how to manipulate.

So long as I was addressing a group, even, I could even talk freely.  The fact that I couldn’t talk to anyone without knowing for sure if I was just speaking to open air was paralyzing, a weight on my throat that coincided with a lump there that wasn’t going away.

“You said things last night that scared me, when you were talking to others that weren’t there,” she said, and the words were so quiet that she couldn’t form all of the sounds.  I’d had to fill in the gaps and reason out many of the words.  She went on in much the same fashion  “And Red Riding Hood caught wind of it and she egged you on, and Paul liked the way you sounded when you scared me most, and now I don’t like them anymore.”

“Stories?” I asked.  I was warming to the idea.  I wasn’t sure I liked having my guard down, doing nothing while things happened elsewhere, but I wasn’t sure I liked having my guard up, either.

“When you all were young.  The good days.  And I know your memory isn’t good but you could make up stories and I bet they’d still be good.  Helen was telling us that before, you would imagine things so very well that it felt real to you and now it’s hard for you to tell the difference between what’s real and made up… but if- maybe just telling stories and not worrying about any of it would be nice?”

“That could be really nice,” I said.

“I couldn’t sleep all night because I was worried about the things I heard you all saying, so I watched over you and I thought hard about it and I came up with the stories as a thing we could do,” she said.  She sounded even more desperate now that I’d indicated I was interested.  “It made sense.”

The boy with the stick approached me.  I knew he wasn’t real, but something about him made me worry.  It was less the latent danger he posed, less the anxiety that surrounded him, and more that… I wasn’t even sure how to word it.  I would have described it as a mousetrap, waiting to be sprung, everything straining, packed with potential energy.  A collapse waiting to happen.

To keep Peep away from him, I stood, still holding her tight in my arms, effectively picking her up.  I kept my back to the boy, and I saw the girl with the layered clothes and the boy with the raincoat standing with his hand in his deep coat pocket.  Something alive was in there.

There were many others, I realized, now that I took in the crowd as a whole.  The number had been twenty earlier but now it had doubled in size.  Too many were made up of boys and the rare girl in uniform.  Girls who wore only the stripped-down Academy uniform pieces, no jacket, just the white blouse and dress.  They were easy to overlook because many students were doing that now, to cut down on the laundry they had to do.

I turned as much as I was able, while the boy with the stick paced around me.

“I-”  I started.

As he spoke from a position behind me, the boy’s voice didn’t match his haggard appearance and it didn’t match his dapper clothing.  It was too deep, too ragged.  It reached into the deepest parts of me and shook me.

If you don’t get moving, we’ll make you kill that girl in the worst way possible.

Bo Peep’s heart continued to beat its relentless pace, my own now caught up to it, matching it in tempo.

“-wish I could,” I said.  I set her down, with a bit of effort to pull her free of me.  “I really do.”

She flinched at the words, then she nodded.

I didn’t miss the way she hung her head, or that her hands went to her eyes.

“Let’s go eat.  I know a good place,” I said.  Then, as a concession to the boy in yellow and the stick boy, I added, “Then we’ll see about getting down to business.”

I had to double check to make sure Bo Peep was with.

The spot was only a little distance away.  I wondered if I’d chosen it subconsciously.  The mob followed behind, the rough-edged, the altered, the recently repaired.  The building was quaint, and that quaintness was contrasted by a heavy regiment of stitched guards.

While I figured out what the best way past that regiment might be, a face appeared in the window.  Shirley unlocked and opened the door.

“Sy,” she said.  She smiled.

“Any chance of breakfast?” I asked.  It still felt strange, talking, but at least in this, I felt like I was pretty safe.  It was a known location, and the door had been unlocked and opened.  Absent Shirley, it wouldn’t have made sense.  “I don’t have my wallet, but I figure maybe you’d extend me a tab?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Shirley said.

“I know I’m a bit of a liar and a troublemaker, but I wouldn’t say it’s ridiculous, given our history,” I said.

“Of course you can eat here, Sy.  For free.  Come on in.  Your friends too.  I’ve got some oatmeal on the stove and a batch of cinnamon twists in the oven that we were going to send up to the dorms.  We’ll give you guys the twists and send the next batch up to the dorms.  How’s that?”

“That sounds pretty amazingly close to perfect.”

There were some whoops and cheers as the crowd filed in.  It was positive, good.

Bo Peep was a contrast to that.  I felt a pang.

Feeling like I could trust Shirley and that the world made sense was a big deal.  I liked feeling like I was trending closer to sanity, some scares aside.  I felt like I owed that to Bo Peep, to the three hours of sleep I’d got, and the feeling of having some company as I slept.

That was the good.  The bad was… harder to pin down.  It felt like it was still there, still growing, and I was having trouble grasping it.  It was less like the negativity wasn’t there or looming and more like I simply couldn’t see it.

It was soon chaos within the cafe that Shirley was managing.  This was our meeting hall in the city itself, and Shirley was apparently continuing her cover in keeping it running, even though the cafe part of the cafe was no longer necessary.  She could have stacked up the tables and chairs and ignored them, only ensuring that employees kept the kitchen going so the students in dormitories could be supplied with food, treats, and other necessities.

Shirley looked happy.

There were others present.  The large child from the previous night’s meeting was sitting at one table, gorging himself.  I found myself staring for a long time at another set of individuals.  Two girls and a boy that was slightly older, all with long blond hair.

Was it a code?  I’d trained myself to look for patterns.  How had they appeared?  Boy in yellow, girl with the clothes, triplets, girl in the window.  One, one, three, one… did I read anything into the fact that the boy in yellow and the girl in the window had had pets?

Who had come after?  The large child.  Yes,then the boy with the stick.  Now this set of three.  There was the plethora of boys in uniform and girls in white, but I hadn’t kept count and if I was entirely honest, the cues my hallucinations tended to give me tended to be cues of a sort that I knew and appreciated.  I wouldn’t have set myself a task better suited to Jessie or Mary.

No, I wasn’t sure if my brain would have posed a riddle to me in terms of math or science, not that kind of pattern.

Pierre, meanwhile, was wearing checked pyjamas, sitting on the end of the bench closest to the kitchen.

“Wasn’t expecting guests,” he said.  “I’m barely decent.”

I smiled, took Bo Peep’s hand, and led her to Pierre’s side.  “Come on.  Have a seat.”

She sat, head still bowed.

“I’ll look after her,” Pierre said.

“Thank you,” I murmured, “She’s quickly catching up to you, Shirley, and the Lambs when it comes to my list of people I really owe.  Getting support, backup, and smart support-backup is… pretty invaluable when I find I’m low.”

“I’ll definitely look after her, then,” Pierre said.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

I got food for myself and for Bo Peep, and I brought it over to her.  I separated myself from the larger storm of discussion and sat with her.

“We’re sitting here on our lonesome over here, talking about fav0rite animals,” Pierre said.

“Well, clearly, Lambs are the best,” I said.

“Lambs grow up, and then they aren’t Lambs anymore,” Bo Peep said.

I felt a stab of something horrifying at that thought.  It wasn’t that the sentence was so poignant, but… I wondered if it cast a shadow of doubt on Bo Peep, a thought that didn’t match her.

Not that I knew her that well.

“I think we can all hold on to the best parts as we grow up.  It’s part of what growing up is,” I said.

“I really want to think that,” she said.

“You’re a good one, Peep,” I said.  “Please don’t let anyone, me especially, convince you that you aren’t.”

More people kept filing in.  I was well aware that many were my hallucinations.  I was aware that there was a lingering sentiment of hostility, and that the boy with the stick had threatened to do something to Bo Peep if I didn’t keep moving.

But this was nice, and it was essential.  I needed to make it up to Peep, get my ducks in order, and figure out what I was doing.

Peep finished her breakfast and moved on to the threat that accompanied it, the cinnamon twist.  Dough, sugar, cinnamon, more sugar, at a guess.

“No word from the Lambs,” Pierre said.  “We checked all avenues of communication.  It’s going to be a few days more at a minimum.”

They were painful words to hear, when I felt like getting to noon was going to be hard.  That feeling faded into the background when I saw how much Peep was enjoying her cinnamon twist.  She was smiling again, after I’d disappointed her.

“I could see if there’s another,” I suggested.

“I was supposed to get one,” Pierre said.

“I would’ve brought it to you if I’d-” I started.

He was waving me off.  “Give her mine.”

“I’ll grab it,” I said.

Too many hostile eyes watched me as I stood and headed to the kitchen.  Too many eyes that were filled with expectation watched me, waiting for me to disappoint them.  It was the eyes of the most insightful people here that I tried to stay most cognizant of.  Shirley, Pierre, Bo Peep.  It felt like they saw the real me, or had at least spent long enough with me to see through any veneer of bullshit I put up.

I was still in the kitchen when I saw the latest batch of arrivals turn up.  I recognized one of them as Bea.  She made a beeline straight to Shirley, giving some hard looks to some of the delinquents who’d been out with us the night prior.

I remained in the kitchen, hanging back.  Shirley looked in the direction of Bo Peep, pointing, but she didn’t spot me.  She’d thought I was still sitting there.

I watched Bea’s face and I translated what she was saying by watching her lips.

“Headmistress… s bad.  We don’t know what we’re doing.  Sylvester-”

Someone moved between me and her.  I missed the latter part of that sentence.

“…in the bathtub.  It’s going to take work to get her standing again by the time the Infante turns up.”

Shirleys hands went to her mouth, also happening to block my view of her lips.  After a few moments, she lowered her hands, still speaking.  “-His reasons?”

Bea’s expression hardened.  Whatever it was she said, it had a question mark as part of it.  ‘Who knows’, possibly.

I collected the twist, and I tried to figure out the best way forward.  That ominous feeling was starting to take shape, now, and feel less vague or indistinct.

Bea was just now gathering others, giving them instructions and complicating the already complicated situation.  Paul said something, challenging Bea.

In another time and place, they might have gotten along famously, but this wasn’t that time or place.  Bea was transforming, day by day, week by week.  She had more to lose, and she wanted to be a leader, not a ringleader.

Paul, meanwhile, was balking hard at the continued presence of the Academy as an interfering factor in his life.

I navigated a crowd saturated with opposition, with more added every few seconds as Bea gave orders.  I watched as Paul and his backers formed a line, pressing back against the agents Bea had sent at us.

So long as I remained, I was a catalyst for trouble.

I delivered the treat to Bo Peep, gave her another silent wave, and then I ducked into the areas of the crowd where it didn’t look like trouble waited.  I made my way back to the kitchen.

There was a door there that had no exterior handle, necessitating that travel be either from the inside out, and that anyone who made the mistake of letting the door closed would have to walk around the building perimeter to get back to the front door.

I was glad I was traveling from the inside out.

I stepped out into the light drizzle, and I moved quickly, aiming to put as much distance between myself and them as possible.

It was all accumulating, and Bo Peep was entirely right in that I needed to move as little as possible.

Except doing nothing at all would exacerbate problems.  I would need to find a niche I could fit into.  I could hammer out some key points, identify weak points in security at the periphery of Hackthorn, and stay out of the way.

I hoped I could.

I’d keep my hands and head busy and try to see my way through to noon, then I’d adjust, and I’d figure out what it took to get me through the afternoon.  I wanted more time in the company of the others, but they were too difficult to wrangle when outnumbered and packed into a cafe like sardines.

I felt better than I had the last few nights.

That feeling was caught in my chest as though I’d been grabbed, as I rounded a corner and saw a pair of figures.  Two, for this part of any pattern, if they’re hallucinations, I thought.

One was a boy, fat.  The other-

“Mary,” I called out, despite myself.

She turned.

Not Mary.  Young, yes, but far from being Mary.  The clothing was wrong, the eyes showed no familiarity with me, and there was something separate about the way she moved.

In that sighting, it dawned on me just who and what the countless new hallucinations represented.  Past and present caught up to me in an instant and dashed all hopes that I had of feeling better off.

No, this was so much worse.

I could work backward from this moment of recognition.  I could assign names to the boy and his sisters, because I knew just about all of them.  I could assign names to most of the non-soldier ones.  I’d deciphered the pattern and it had nothing to do with numbers, it only had to do with the fact that they were so often something constructed or engineered.  Manufactured in sets.

Just as the Lambs were.

I fled that scene of the pair, putting distance between myself and them and myself and the cafe.  The ominous, hollow feeling I’d had was coming full circle, my eyes widening.  This was so much worse, even if it just stopped at this.

It wouldn’t.

I knew full well the course this took.  That was why this was as bad as it was.  I was slipping away, violence was happening without my being aware of it, and as I slipped, dangerous players were trying to control me.  It wasn’t just horror in retrospect or horror in the moment.

It was horror because I knew who waited for me, just steps down this particular road.  I’d told the others to kill me if I fell that far, and they weren’t here to execute that particular standard.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Lamb II (Arc 18)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Lillian stood from the bed, putting the bulk of it between her and Mary.  She approached Jessie, only for Jessie to raise one hand, motioning for her to stop.

Stopping, heart pounding, she turned to Mary.  “What’s wrong with you!?”

A part of her actually, honestly wondered if Mary would turn that gun on her.  Mary had started out as an enemy agent, had then changed hands to the Academy for several months, as she was vetted and leashed, and she’d never really moved to the same tune as the other Lambs when it came to doubting their employers.

It was a fleeting thought, one that ran in contradiction to the ‘we need more time’ line, but as it crossed her mind, she felt her heart as though it was a zoataoan life form, all frantically grasping limbs that simultaneously around the idea and recoiled from it.  What if Mary was always on their side?

No.  But just as fleeting, just as heart-wrenching in its desperate, wild way, was the idea that Mary might have been genuine all along, but still be a trap, with a passcode phrase made to work in the event that the right criteria were met.

Neither was right or fair… but neither was shooting Jessie.

Jessie stood, leaning against the doorframe, one hand to the gouge in her leg.  Lillian imagined the vascularity indexes, the blood maps and tried to use the shorthand to calculate Jessie’s height and body weight.

“Let me bandage it,” she said.  “You’re not in danger, but-”

Jessie was already shaking her head.  “No time.”

“Exactly,” Mary said.  She was still sitting on the bed, still had the gun in hand.

“I’ll be around,” Jessie said.  “There’s blood in the water, so I guess I’ll be dodging the sniffers.”

“There are three,” Lillian volunteered.  “Sniffers, I mean.  I saw two of them getting fed, and usually it’s-”

“Two at home and one on the hunt,” Jessie said.

“Yeah,” Lillian said.

“Lillian, I know I’m the odd Lamb out in a lot of ways,” Jessie said.  “You could argue I’ve spent less time with the Lambs as a group than anyone.  If people wanted to argue my attachment to the group isn’t as cemented in stone as it should be, I don’t think I could argue it.  But you visited me a lot when I was…”

Jessie floundered at that.

“Blank and relearning?” Lillian offered.

“Yes,” Jessie said.  “I’d like to think we got along.  We talked a lot.”

“We did.  Yes on both counts.”

“You brought me books and articles and things to proofread-”

Jessie paused as Mary stood from the bed, still holding the gun.  One hand still to her bleeding leg, Jessie glanced over her shoulder to check the coast was clear.

“…I’m in a weird place,” Jessie said.  “I want so badly to say that I was cheering for you as much as anyone when it came to you getting your white and black coats, but I’m against unfair competition.  Sy, Mary.”

Lillian nodded.

“I think back to that period when I was empty, blank, and lost, when I try to imagine you possibly giving up almost everything that makes you you.  I empathize, I really do.  I know it’s an idea that deserves a lot of time.  But that’s time I don’t think we have.  I don’t want to guilt you, but…”

Lillian could finish the thought.  “Sy.”

“If you think back and think of Sylvester when he was struggling the most,” Jessie said, “I want to tell you that his good days these days are like that.”

Lillian swallowed.  “Yeah.”

“Except I’d be lying,” Jessie said.  “Because even on a good day today, he’s even worse than any bad day a year or two ago.”

“I don’t think you saw him after he lost Jamie, Jessie,” Lillian ventured.

“I saw him when he lost you,” Jessie said.

Then Jessie looked over her shoulder and stepped backward through the door, before moving out of sight.

That’s not fair, Lillian thought.

None of this is fair.

Mary looked as though she wasn’t even bothered.  Seeing how very cold her best friend was in this moment, Lillian was spooked.  Mary was getting dressed, her movements precise and practiced as she used ribbon and razor wire to position the knives she hid on her person, the ribbon protecting her body from the wire.

We’re all so far apart right nowI don’t think we come back together so much as we crash together in a heap.  Some of us might not even walk away.

“They’re coming in through the building,” Mary said, as she placed a knife in the midst of her hair.

“Yeah,” Lillian said.  She reached out and touched the wall with her hand.  The building creaked, and the impact of footfalls traveled.

“I’ll need help with this, if it’s no trouble,” Mary said.

“You shot Jessie!”

“Yes,” Mary said.  She donned what might have been called a necklace of razor wire, ribbon, and knives.  She must have pulled it off as one interconnected piece before her bath.  “Can you hold this ribbon?”

“You do realize I’m mad at you?  I’m- I’m not even mad.  I’m appalled!”

“That’s allowed,” Mary said.  “But I would still appreciate help.  What I was saying, what Jessie was saying, is there’s no time.  They’re coming upstairs as we speak.  Save me some time and hold the ribbon.  Please.”

“I don’t like this side of you,” Lillian said.  She took the ribbon.

“Jessie is stubborn,” Mary said.  With the one ribbon secure in Lillian’s hands, she was free to weave threads and more ribbons into it, “It doesn’t shine through very often because she’s also soft spoken and she doesn’t tend to take center stage.  It takes unreasonable amounts of force to make her change her mind.  It’s why she can weather Sy as well as she does.  What breaks another person only chips away at Jessie.”

Breaks.  Lillian weighed the word in her mind.  She didn’t like how it sat.

“But by that same token, if she says she’s not going to leave, she won’t leave,” Mary said, “Hold this knife?  Careful, there’s wire attached to it.”

“I know she’s stubborn.  I know who she is.  Who Jamie was, anyway.  I still don’t understand any of that Jessie-Jamie thing, except maybe wanting to leave it behind.  But you shot her.

“Her mind is like a fortress.  Carefully constructed, and very hard to change,” Mary said.  She said it very patiently, but she managed to avoid sounding condescending.  “Unless the foundation is shaken.”

You shot her,” Lillian repeated for emphasis.

Mary sighed.  “I can handle the rest myself.  Get ready, and bring your gun.”

Lillian let go of the knife, letting it fall between Mary’s shoulder blades.

She turned her back.  Getting herself ready was as simple as gathering the clothes and kit she had set aside and getting everything on.  Socks, waterproof boots, hairband, belt pouch…

She hesitated as she held her lab coat up.

Mary gestured.  Incoming.

“Yeah,” Lillian said, still looking at her coat.

She still jumped a little as a knock came at the door.

“We’re getting dressed!” Mary called out.

Soldiers pushed the door open, as if that was more invitation than deterrent.  Mary was buttoning up her shirt, her back to the door.  She had no boots on, and her jacket was closer to the door than to her.

“Ma’am,” the lead soldier said.  He was only a few years older than Lillian and Mary.  He looked at Lillian, and appraised her as she pulled her coat on.  “Doctor, ma’am.”

“‘We’re getting dressed’ is not an invitation to enter,” Lillian said.  She wanted to project authority.  “We could have spoken through the door.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said.  “What was the gunshot?  There’s blood on the door.”

“That was me,” Mary said.  “We had an intruder.  An acquaintance.  She’ll be on the run, and she’s bleeding.  I’d follow the blood trail now, because she’ll staunch it or she’ll disappear into the rain, and then you won’t be able to find her.  You’ll want to signal the sniffers as well.”

He took stock of that, then glanced at Lillian.

“Please do as she asks,” Lillian said.

That was as good as an order.  He turned about-face, and he and his men jogged off, following an apparently distinct blood trail.

Lillian gave Mary an unimpressed look.

“If the Infante is coming, we need to look like we’re doing our job,” Mary said.

“I just wish that we could look a little less like we’re doing our job when nobody’s looking,” Lillian said.  “They- you- the Lambs as a whole, if I discount myself, you have so much to deal with, I don’t want us to make that road harder for each other.”

Mary picked up Lillian’s bag and handed it to her.  “You should count yourself among us.  You’ve earned that place.”

Lillian wanted to say something to that, but she wasn’t sure what.

“And while you’re doing that, remember that we’re strong, we’re capable.  Be proud of your strength, Doctor.  Recognize our strengths.  I can make Jessie bleed and set the dogs on her and trust she’ll manage.”

“And that’s different from Sylvester putting a bullet in your knee?”

“Only barely,” Mary said.  “We should walk.”

Lillian held her medical bag, the strap not yet over her shoulder.

“What are you thinking?” Mary prompted.

“That you made the decision without me.”

“Postponed it.”

“And that something happened to make you change direction like this.  What are you thinking?  What even happened Mr. Gage?”

Mary smiled.  She gestured, and Lillian nodded, slinging her bag over her shoulder.  They exited the apartment, and Lillian locked it behind her before placing the key in one of her countless pockets within the lab coat, buckling it before withdrawing her hand.

“I don’t know.  We had a nice conversation,” Mary said.  “I told him some of the truth, and some lies.  I think I put his heart at ease.”

“There are only a few times I’ve seen you this…” Lillian floundered for a word.  She felt flustered, sleep deprived and anxious, too unprepared to tackle everything that was being thrown at her in the here and now.

“Unpleasant?”  Mary asked.

“No.  Yes, but that’s subjective.  I’d almost say cold, but that’s wrong.  You’re this… hard.”

“To think I was saying much the same about Jessie.”

“You’re alike, you two.  You don’t budge.  You set something in place and you hold fast to it.  Except for you it’s something felt, it’s practice and routine and execution.  It’s something constructed, like you say, when it comes to Jessie.”

Mary thought about that.  Before she could say anything, more soldiers appeared.  Mary pointed down the hall, in the opposite direction she and Lillian were traveling, and the soldiers hesitated.  Lillian, for her part, was already drawing her badge from her pocket.  She flashed it to the group.  The Radham crest and a paper with signatures, both in a tidy little leather package.

The soldiers marched off.

Lillian continued, “Where things are flipped around is that it’s normally you on the offense, trying to achieve the goals, while Jamie was always the one on the defensive, being careful, one eye on the clock and on all of the little details.”

“You said Jamie,” Mary pointed out.

“I meant Jamie.  I can’t be definitive about Jessie, because I can’t say where Jamie ends and she starts.  But I know that when they were acting the way I remember them acting, they were Jamie.”

Mary nodded.

More soldiers approached.  The fact that others had no doubt come this way was enough of a point in Lillian and Mary’s favor that they barely glanced at the badge.  There was a lot to be said for image, for the white coat and the medical bag.

“I’m not good at this, for the record.  Wrapping my head around whatever that is.  Jessie’s business.”

“You’re doing fine, I think.”

Lillian was still upset about the way Mary had handled things, about the hardness, that her reflexive impulse was to say something negative back, to snap about being condescended to, maybe.  She bit it back.

She hated being upset with Mary as much as she hated the reasons for being upset.

“If I had to give you an answer, then in talking to my dad, I was thinking about what I wanted.  Something beyond wanting to support you,” Mary said.

“If it’s something I can help you find-” Lillian started.

“You leading an Academy, me training the soldiers there.  Making them elite.  Something honed, that gets the respect of other Academies and imparts some of it on you.  I like to imagine you’re kind, you’d lead an Academy that would do good things, and I could offset that.”

“By being-” Lillian started.  She almost said unkind.  “-hard?”

“It’s not like that.  That’s not the road I want to take to get there.  But I’ve only barely started putting the idea together.  Then Jessie showed up and she asked us to abandon everything.”

“You reacted.”

“No.  Not like that,” Mary said.  “But I don’t like the idea of not getting to think about it and then regretting it.”

The exact opposite for me, Lillian thought.  I’ve sat with this idea in my head since I could write.  I’ve worked at this so hard, built it step by step, assignment after assignment, terrifying day after terrifying day working with the Lambs, bleeding to make headway, my heart breaking to make headway, hurting and helping to kill people to make just another few steps of progress.

Her fingers reached for and clutched the front of her white coat.

They stepped out the front doors of the building, and they stopped there.  Others were approaching.

“What happened?” the Head Doctor asked.  Lillian’s de-facto superior for this whole exercise with the refugees.

“Someone else got in,” Lillian said.  “Someone we might know.”

The Head Doctor’s face transformed as he took that in.  It looked like he was going to say something.

“We told the soldiers to track our intruder, to rouse the sniffers and put them on the trail.  Half the city’s going to be active and looking shortly, especially with the Infante’s arrival imminent.”

“You should have come to me first,” the Head Doctor said.

“Time was of the essence,” Lillian said.  “The kind of intruder this is, the trail goes cold in less than a minute.  A handful of seconds, even.  We specialized in dealing with this kind of threat for a long time.”

The Doctor frowned.

He was a proud man, but he wasn’t an unreasonable one, she hoped.  Which won out?  She had a sense of how others like Helen or Sy handled these things, and confidence was often key.  Showing no hesitation, driving forward.

“The problem with those who specialize is they often miss the big picture,” the Doctor said.

“If your socket-graft patient is facing a cardiac ejaculation and you have a heart and a graft specialist offering you assistance, it would not reflect well on you if you turned them down,” Lillian said.

She was happy that she’d found the word choice mid-sentence, focusing on how things would reflect on the Head Doctor.

“Carry on then,” he said, and he almost sounded like Mary as he said it.  Mary when Mary was being much too focused and intense.

She departed in a way that made it look like she wasn’t fleeing the scene.  She executed a half-dozen little tricks that the Lambs had painstakingly taught her, that she had turned into something natural, and now almost did without thinking.  Quirks of body language, of pacing out her movements.  Mary matched her, and the matching of character and intention without overtly observing Lillian was something exceptional Lillian couldn’t have learned if she had another ten years with the Lambs.

“He wasn’t happy about that,” Mary observed, once they were out of earshot  “You’ll have to end that particular fight later.”

“We know how,” Lillian said.  “We know about the refugees.”

“The value of biding our time with that particular chip, then?”

Lillian smiled.

Things were picking up.  More people, more de-facto guards, soldiers, and military.  Everyone who had a uniform to put on to join the local forces was outfitted or getting there, a gun in hand.  Preparation for the Infante on one hand, not to mention that the local forces had already been on high alert from a few scattered individuals making their way into the town and stirring up trouble or trying to secure accommodations.  There had been fire and sabotage, and now a gunshot from one of the buildings.

“The net is closing,” Mary said.

“I know,” Lillian said.

“I don’t want to go with Jessie,” Mary said.

“I know.  You made that very clear.”

“I wanted time to think.”

“You seem very decided.”

“No,” Mary said.  She sounded exasperated.  “Don’t let me decide.  I can go where you go.  What are you thinking?  You and Jessie were talking about Sy.”

“I don’t want to go to him if it’s just to see how very bad he is on a bad day.  I-” Lillian started to speak, then paused to take note of where she was.  “It’s complicated.”

Her hand moved in a series of gestures.  Reflecting status, then the basic sign for emotion and socialization, all followed by a series of descriptors.  High heart small poison man.

I love him, she thought, translating it.

Add high heart cutting metal dancer, Lillian added.  I love you as well.

Mary reached out, taking Lillian’s hand in her own, giving it a squeeze.

“I don’t know what to do,” Lillian said, whispering.  “I can’t make a decision like this on short notice.”

“No,” Mary agreed.  “That’s the problem, isn’t it?  But this isn’t a short notice decision either, is it?”

Thoughts whirled through Lillian’s mind.  She felt as scared as she had felt when she was new to the Lambs, when Sylvester had been so very nasty, and when the monsters had been so much more incomprehensible.  That had changed over time, seeing some monsters on operating tables and others lying dead on battlefields.  They were still scary, but she understood them now.

She didn’t understand this.

The rain was pattering down, and the water traveled in tiny contained rivers, between the folds and slats of wood throughout the city.

Soldiers were everywhere, patrolling, scouting areas for possible trouble, hunting for Jessie, or hunting for any refugees that might have gotten in.  Others had collected near the gate, with a bulk of them being stitched forces, massed in case the refugees beyond the gates used the opening of those gates to rush within.

There was a barking sound, then a bark of gunfire further down the street.  Lillian felt her blood run cold.  It ran colder still when she saw the soldiers in question.  They’d raised and fired their rifles, almost casually, tagging their target.  The barking – a sniffer?

Jessie?

She did her best to hide her emotion, to bury the tells and walk like nothing was particularly wrong.

The target was one of the refugees, it looked like.  They had been dashing down the street, going by how the blood splatters were spaced out, as if they’d continued to run for another five strides, with a bullet hitting them each time their foot touched ground.  Now they lay in a heap, bleeding.

She wanted to help them.  She wanted to do something so badly.

“It all feels so far away,” Lillian reminded herself of what they’d been talking about.  “I want to be there, at the destination, but I’m so very sick of this journey.  I’m… I know I could do it, but I don’t know how much longer you’ll be with me.  The others too.  It becomes me and Duncan and Ashton, with the new Lambs.  It’s so much mud to wade through to get to the end.  So much looking past the bad, telling myself I’ll be able to fix things when I get to the end.”

“You’re worried you’ll change before the end.”

“I’m worried a part of me already has,” Lillian said.  “I’m worried I won’t have anyone with me by the time I get there, and then who keeps me on the straight and narrow?  Who keeps me sane?”

“You’re looking to the Lambs for sanity?” Mary asked.

“Yeah,” Lillian said.

The gate at the north end of the city cracked open.  There was shouting from beyond the gate, of refugees.

But the Infante was making his entrance in style.  Along his trip to this town on Radham’s very periphery, the noble had picked up an entourage.

The entourage had been changed to be uniform.  Lillian recognized the work, and connected it to what she had seen written about in articles as theory, only months ago.  The Chrysomallon.  Drawn from an effect seen very rarely in nature, they ate rust and they absorbed the metal into their bodies.

In practice, they were quadruped warbeasts and biped soldiers.  All were large and muscled, though the muscle wasn’t always symmetric.  Shells formed around heads, making the soldiers resemble gladiators, the warbeasts appearing to be great reptiles with heads encased in helmets.  All of them had shells crusting their bodies elsewhere, a mingling of actual iron, mollusc shell, and keratin, like that of the fingernail.  The metal was black, the keratin pale, and the combined effect something like a translucent marble.

They walked in procession, and almost effortlessly beat back or struck down any refugees or other troublemaker who ventured too close.  It gave them a kind of aura, where people backed away from their presence.

Out of time.

It’s not possible to make this decision, is it?  There’s no magic answer.

“I haven’t seen my father,” Mary remarked.  “It would be nice if he got out alright.”

Lillian glanced at her friend.

“If only because he’s a contact we could use,” Mary said.

“I suppose,” Lillian said.  “He’s been kind, all considered.”

“He has,” Mary said.

The parade was making its way into the city, and the Infante’s carriage appeared.  It was drawn by the largest of the warbeasts, one twice the size as the other reptilian hulks with its helmet and patches of grown-in plate mail.

Lillian turned away before the Infante was so far into the city that she would be obligated to bow and to stay bowing until he gave the go-ahead to stand.  She didn’t want this to be the deadline.  She wanted more time and she wasn’t sure if she could even come any closer to an answer if she had it.

The Infante was as evil a man as she’d ever come across, if it was true that he was leveraging plague and black wood to grind away at the Crown States, so it could be left to go fallow for future generations, if he was complicit in the Block.

She felt almost nauseous, her heart hammering, as if she was facing down any of the worst monsters, and its sights just so happened to be set on her.  Except it wasn’t any monster, she was fairly sure.  It was the decision.  Every passing minute made it worse.  Striding away from the street with Mary in tow made it worse still.

She remembered a desperate Sy calling to Jessie for help, and for an instant, she considered doing that.

In that, at least, she found a glimmer of an idea.  It wasn’t an answer, or even a path to an idea, but it beat doing nothing.  She gestured, indicating a building.

It was, as it turned out, a mostly empty building, guarded only by a skeleton crew.  It was government, a local politician’s office, and she didn’t even need to flash her badge to get in.  The white coat fluttered around her legs, and it counted for a great deal.

There was that, at least.

“It’s early afternoon?” she asked.  “Hard to tell with the weather and my nap.”

“Early afternoon,” Mary said.

Lillian nodded.

She made her way through the empty office until she stood at a desk.  A telephone sat there.

Picking up, she pressed the button.

“Operator speaking,” the voice came across fuzzy, in and out from half second to half second, waxing and waning in time with the cumulative heartbeats of a school of organisms somewhere along the line.  “How may I connect you?”

I want to speak to my father, Lillian thought.

She set the earpiece down on the hook, and then stared at the phone.

She couldn’t even say it aloud.

Everything about her just felt like a morass of things she thought she wanted, sitting in the way of things she wanted but couldn’t wrap her head around.

She thought through all of the thoughts she had tried to articulate as they’d left the apartment.  The difficulty in deciding.  The fact that she’d be disappointed in herself and she would be disappointing people like Sy and Mary who had given so very much to help her find her way, if she didn’t carry forward to get her black coat.

But she would be disappointed if she didn’t go.

It all contributed to her feeling trapped, panicking as the walls closed in and none offered anything good.

What would she have said to her father?  What would he have said?

That he was upset that she hadn’t reached out in months.  Their relationship had foundered ever since she had learned they had tried to delay her from getting her black coat.  If they’d had their way she wouldn’t even have her white coat now.

“I remember when Sylvester left.  He said goodbye to me, and then he grabbed you and left to  go fight the Baron.”

“Yes,” Mary said.

“I remember he said, if I couldn’t get my black coat, it would kill me,” Lillian said, and her voice was quiet.  “I can’t even remember how I worded my response, if I even verbalized it, but I know I wanted so badly to say no.  That he was wrong.  I wanted to say it and I saw the look on his face and I told him yes instead.”

“You do, I think,” Mary said.  “You want the black coat.”

“Did, maybe,” Lillian said.  “I think I wish I’d gone with him.  I wish more of us had gone with him.  Maybe we could have done more about the plague, or stopping the black wood.  We could have done something about the Duke.”

“We all did what we thought was right at the time.”

That was it, wasn’t it?  It was the complete wrong answer and it was the complete right answer at the same time.

What had the Head Doctor said?  That she hadn’t looked at the big picture.  She’d tunnel-visioned in.

She’d failed to keep the key points in mind, the most important lessons she’d learned.

Trusting the other Lambs was one.

She wanted to go.  She might even be able to convince Mary.  The questions, the doubts, even if Sylvester was as bad as Jessie said, Sy, Jessie, Helen, Duncan, Ashton, Mary, they could all help find the answer.

They were so capable when they were together.

But how to even communicate that to Mary?

She felt relief and new fear in conjunction, and she knew it was close to what Mary had felt on deciding her direction only to have it threatened.  The sick, nauseous, trapped, zoatoan feeling hadn’t left Lillian’s breast since Jessie had been shot, and it was only now abating.

Which made it feel almost ten times worse as the front door to the building opened wide.  Hinges creaked and groaned in the opening, because the hand that pushed the door moved the door at an odd angle, bent the metal and tugged at the screws and nails.  The door would deform from the action.

The Infante was capable of gentleness, and he’d chosen to damage the door.

He spread his arms, as if to welcome himself more than to greet them, magnanimous.

“Lambs,” he said, and his voice reverberated through the empty space.

Automatically, Lillian dropped to her knees.  She could feel the floor of the building shake with each heavy footstep of the noble.  As she stared at the ground, her eyes were wide.

“I believe you’ve heard,” the Infante spoke.  “This town has fallen to plague and blight.”

It was a set of statements that played into each other, and they implied two very bad things.

That the Infante knew about the Duke, for one, and that they’d been communicating with the man.

And that he’d condemned this town.

“A tragedy, to be sure.  A great loss for the Academy.  Every single resident has been lost, slain by circumstance, you Lambs included.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Enemy II (Arc 18)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“I wonder sometimes, sir, at the darkness and the quiet.”

It was anything but dark or quiet, Mauer observed.  The wind had picked up, the rain came down as the faintest of drizzles, and the dogs were barking.  Three of the four other people present were seated around a tall fire that had been given far too much wood.  Isaiah, Wil, and Limps.  Dalton stood with his arms folded, but would soon resume pacing, his face illuminated by the blazing fire.

But Isaiah wasn’t talking about the darkness and the silence here.  Not in the physical, tangible way.

“I don’t think He’s silent,” Mauer said.

“I didn’t mean to insinuate-” Isaiah started.  He stopped as Mauer raised a hand.

“Let me continue.  I don’t want to imply you’re wrong to say this, and it’s a good point of discussion.  Let me think of how to gracefully word this.”

It was important to choose words carefully with Isaiah.  The man was a competent soldier, a remarkable shot, and if told to march he would march until he was physically unable, and from that point the man would crawl.

It was possible that if the Academies were to conduct their tests, that they would find something wrong with Isaiah’s head.  Mauer himself had spent some time trying to decipher the young man, after discovering how very sensitive he was.  Isaiah would kill without remorse, but would sulk for weeks after a stern verbal rebuke.  He was one of the more common people to show up when Mauer sat himself by the campfire, perhaps too eager to ask for guidance and too unlikely to seek his own.

Mauer had met Isaiah’s mother once upon a time.  He would have liked to have her counted among his flock, as she was a woman from one of the countries to the south who had participated in the fight against the Crown.  She had sought out the meeting, and much of it had been to evaluate Mauer.  In exchange, while Mauer hadn’t outright asked, he had been able to verify that Isaiah had been this way since he was small.

Isaiah was nearly thirty, but he looked very much a boy, here, leaning forward, waiting for his answer like a boy wanting his forty pence in allowance.  Though Isaiah’s deep brown skin, very green eyes and chin with a deep-set dimple had any number of young women cooing over him, Mauer knew Isaiah was entirely innocent.  He was a peculiar lad.

“Whether He makes himself heard relates to whether we listen.  Again, this isn’t to say you’re wrong, and I know you read your passages, I would never say you don’t try.”

Isaiah nodded.

“But hearing Him is a skill.  It takes time and practice to learn that you hear him not with your ears, but with your heart,” Mauer said.  He touched the fingers of his good hand to the respective body parts.  As if to remind him of its presence, his other arm almost vibrated with restless pain.  “All of you four have already come that far.  Where it gets harder is when we lose sight of how open we are, or if other things stand in the way.”

The others were listening.  Limps was an old man, an infrequent visitor to the campfire since Mauer had picked up the habit, one who rarely talked without being addressed first, and didn’t seem to need much more than a friendly voice late in the evenings.  Limps was the hardest to speak to, because he gave so little feedback, outside of a nod.  Best to leave him be.

“Fear.  Doubt,” he said.  The words were meant for Isaiah.  He said them as if he spoke of fear and doubt that might be experienced by the smallest child in the deepest darkness.  The next word was for Dalton, spoken to address a man, though Dalton was but an adolescent.  “A desire for revenge.”

Dalton, by contrast, had only been visiting in the last week, six visits in the last seven days, after years of being content to follow orders and keep mostly to himself.  He was a teenager, and when the Academy had wrought its mass sterilization, Dalton’s mother had spontaneously aborted the child she was carrying.  Dalton had spoken of it to Mauer once, when he had first joined, had shed no tears when describing the blood and the two funerals that had followed.  Mauer had his doubts the miscarriage and the death of the mother had to do with the drug, but he wasn’t about to argue that a good soldier’s reasons for joining the war were wrong.  He wouldn’t take that belief away from Dalton when Dalton had nothing else.

The boy had no family but the other soldiers now.  He kept company with a few soldiers and camp folk his age and with a fury of a different brand than Mauer knew.  The boy didn’t sit, but mostly paced, periodically leaving, only to return and throw something more on the fire.  He wanted badly to confess something, Mauer surmised, or to seek advice, but it had been a week and he hadn’t voiced it, whatever it was.  Dalton’s anxiety was the reason the fire had been made as large as it had.

“Other needs and wants,” Mauer continued, and he said it as if it was to nobody in particular, but it was a statement meant to come to rest between two particular ears.

He didn’t look at her, but he somehow doubted Wil had received the message as intended.

“Even I feel I need to look inward and double-check myself,” he said.  “Think twice about what I’m doing and why, and if I’m serving God.”

“Yes sir,” Isaiah replied.

“Would you like some tea, reverend?” Wil asked.  The timing of the request and her blithe tone suggested she wasn’t taking his hint.  She didn’t want to take his hint.

He deigned to nod.  “Just bring me the hot water.  And please, again, I must insist you not call me that.”

“Yes, o’course,” she said, in a way that suggested it had gone in one ear and out the other.  She went around the group, offering tea.  Only Limps accepted the offer.

She dressed like a soldier, she followed orders, she knew her guns, and she called herself Wil rather than Wilma.  Mauer didn’t welcome vulgar talk in his immediate vicinity, but he knew soldiers were soldiers and he had overheard men talking about willing cunts and wet holes, trying to bait something out of Wil, and they had been effectively silenced when she had gone on at length about twitching rods with eager dew at the tips, about hardness meeting softness and, turning their words back on them, her own ‘wet cunt’.  He’d had words with her after that, about how she was conveying herself, how he expected more of her, yet as effective as his words usually were in giving guidance and direction, he worried she heard only what she wanted to hear.

It was almost as if she wanted to be dressed down, as if her insolence begged it, because it was attention.  In the midst of it she took his words and gave them an entirely new tone and order, taking away their power.

Wants and needs.

What was more, she straddled a line of propriety and masculinity with very clear distinctions that likely made sense only to her.  She played at a male vernacular, but when she spoke her voice was soft wherever she could get away with soft, and whether soft or delivered as an order or insult, she spoke with an especially country Crown accent of a sort normally heard an ocean away.  She normally wore her uniform clothes, but given a chance she would flaunt a dress, often flaunting at him in particular.

He tried to let her be, to not feed her the attention, but she often appeared at these campfires, at an hour when many had gone to bed.  The pain of his arm often kept him awake, and rather than lie awake, staring at the walls of his tent, he came out here, to listen to those who needed listening to, to offer prayer and reassuring words.  Wil turned up almost as often as Isaiah did.

She was gone for the moment, but she would soon be back with the tea.

Isaiah spoke up, “Is it possible that, given where we stand, it’s harder to hear Him than it was?”

“Where do you think we stand, Isaiah?” Mauer asked.

“I worry about the plague, and this blighting, which is almost a plague unto itself, sir.  I feel as though we’ve meddled too much in His creation, played at being God, and He’s pulled away from us.”

“No, Isaiah,” Mauer spoke.  “Not so.  It is them who meddled, them who played at being God.  You and I, Dalton, Limps, all of us, we’re fighting.  We’re fighting on His behalf.”

The words felt hollow on his own lips, but he could see the effect that they had for Dalton and for Isaiah: Dalton’s anxiety eased and Isaiah seemed to find strength and direction in that.

He could paint a clearer picture, he knew, outline a way forward, and they would follow that path, but he didn’t.  For the time being, they had retreated to an island in the midst of a lake, more or less outside of the reach of the blight.  If he gave them a goal and inflamed their passions, it would do even more to ease Dalton’s restlessness and erase Isaiah’s doubts, but it would only backfire if and when he didn’t carry it through.  No use giving them motivation with no power or allowance to enact it.  It would only frustrate.

He could hear the dogs barking.

Wil returned, holding a kettle and three teacups, two of which were full.  She handed one to Limps and set one down on her seat before bringing the remaining cup and kettle to Mauer.

He took the cup first.  With his good hand, he handled the teacup in one hand, running his fingers along interior, edge, and handle, his eyes turned to the surface of the cup as the firelight lit it.  He could feel the warmth at the handle where Wil had been holding it.

“You have the oddest rituals, reverend,” Wil said.

“Please, Wil.  I’m not taking that role at present.”

“You’ve done a fine job the last few nights, if I may say so,” she said.

“Even tonight,” Isaiah said.

Mauer shook his head.  He balanced the teacup on his knee.  He held out his hand for the kettle and asked, “Who boiled the water?”

“Lieutenant John Coumb,” Wil said, handing him the kettle. “I can hold that cup for you, if you’d like.”

“No,” he said, before she could.

“You have the oddest rituals about tea that I’ve seen,” she said, her voice soft.  “About your meals too.”

“About many things.  Many were lessons I was taught when men didn’t take precautions,” he said.  Coumb was a known factor.  But the barking of the dogs and the fact that he didn’t wholly understand how Wil operated, it was cause for him to be cautious.

He shrugged one shoulder, letting his coat slip from where it was perched on his shoulder and draped over his bad arm.  The act revealed his arm, and he knew that all present were looking.

He held his bad hand out, and he poured steaming water into the cupped palm.

“Reverend!” Wil exclaimed, eyes wide.

It hurt, as boiling water poured directly onto flesh should.  His flesh was callous thick, yet it would blister and burn.  Growths ran through it, resembling a fungus or plant, but they would crack and bleed as any flesh did.

He had grown used to pain.  The arm always hurt, from shoulder to each of the blunt, crude fingers.

The water escaped through the gaps between fingers, burning as it trickled through.  He closed his eye, feeling the agony of it, while trying to show very little of that pain.  He tried to focus on the other sensations, to feel for grit, for the weight of the water, and how it moved.

With one eye, he watched Wil and her reaction.  She seemed horrified, broken out of the spell that swept over her when she was around him.  He felt sufficiently satisfied that nothing was amiss, no parasite or particulate was present, and that she wasn’t putting on a show.

He moved his bad hand, and the corner of his mouth pulled back with a twitch as a physiological reaction to renewed pain touched his expression.  He took the modest cup in a large, burned hand that could have closed fully around the kettle, and set the kettle down on the bench beside him before drawing a leather pouch from his coat pocket.  He kept the teabags on his person, in the pouch with a small spoon.

Mauer prepared his tea with care.  Teabag in, a set number of turns of the spoon, at a pace he had rehearsed many times.  He turned the spoon over and rested it at a set angle, and he eyed the small bubbles on the surface of the liquid that continued to swirl after the spoon had ceased moving, doing so with a mind to amount and to pattern.

It was quiet.  There wasn’t a sound except for the stir of wind and the distant lapping of water on the shore.

“It seems most have retired for the night,” he said.  He took a sip of his tea.  “Dalton, you pass by the supply tent and makeshift watch tower on the way to your tent, don’t you?”

“Yes sir.”

“Tell them to wake all of the patrols.  They’re to tell the patrols to do a sweep, be watchful.  They’re to be more careful than kind.  Wake others up if they must, but let’s ensure we don’t have any trouble.  Anything remotely suspicious gets reported.  We’ll pick up and move to another location tomorrow.”

Limps spoke for the first time since asking for his tea.  “I heard the Crown was close to finding us.  Sniffers.  Are you thinking they might have found us already?”

“They’ve been drawing closer,” Mauer said.  “If it were that alone, I wouldn’t want to take such precautions.”

“If it’s not that alone, what else is there?” Dalton asked.

Mauer took a sip of his tea, “The dogs were barking.”

“Past tense,” Limps spoke, realizing.

Everyone present, Mauer excepted, reacted, hands touching pistols at their waists, their attention extending beyond the circle of light at the campfire.

“Check the dogs are alright while you’re at it, Dalton?” Mauer asked.

“I’ll go now, if that’s alright, sir?”

“Please do,” Mauer said.

He liked the way they responded.  The questions they asked.

They were good men and women, overall.  They were believers, even if some were believers in him and some were believers in God.

“Where are we going?” Wil asked.  She’d seated herself on the edge of the bench Mauer sat on.

“I don’t reveal destinations to anyone but my key personnel,” Mauer said.

“Well, I’m only going to say, sir, I might’ve got family in these parts.”

“We’ll see,” he said.  He finished his tea, handed his cup to Wil, and then he stood, collecting his coat and draping it over his shoulders.  “I’m going to retire.  Limps, will you look after the fire, or find someone who will?  Dalfton built it, so if he returns, you can tell him I asked him to mind it.”

“I can, sir,” Limps said.

“If he’s left to his own devices, he might leave us with no wood and a signal fire that they can see from New Amsterdam,” Wil said, joking.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Mauer said.  He drew in a bit of a breath, then addressed the trio with more assertion, “Goodnight.  I’ll be awake for a little while yet, in case there’s a problem, but I’m not to be disturbed otherwise.”

“Yes sir,” repeated an overlapping three times.

He didn’t like that he had to specify that.

“God be with you,” he said.

“God be with you,” was the echo from the other three mouths.

The camp was dark in contrast to the fire.  There were tents throughout, and he was very aware of the numbers, that his army was presently very small.  There were boats propped up, used as a roof or one side of a more structured tent, supplemented with tentcloth and all lashed up with rope and careful knotwork.  His own accommodations were similar, only they came close to being an actual home.  The boat had taken nearly everyone to move away from the water and turn over, with boards, railings and other furnishings coming away to serve as benches and other furnishings.

God be with you.  His own words echoed in his head.

He was very tired, and he’d been getting more tired as of late.  Whenever he ruminated on that growing feeling of exhaustion, it was always the same image and sound that sprung to mind.

One of his primordials had spoken.  It had named itself.

God.

It was a voice and a sight that had tainted every mention of Him since.  He couldn’t even call it a device of the Crown, calibrated to sow unease in his mind.  His God had been pieced together by his effort and by Genevieve Fray’s.

He lit candles, and as he did, he checked the papers that were stacked and scattered throughout his quarters.  An Academy in the West had fallen to plague and Fray had braved that area to acquire a map.  That she was willing to brave that kind of environment suggested she might have been hiding in the midst of plague as he hid in the midst of water and blight.

The map showed the spread of disaster.  It showed which of the Academy’s weapons had been released, and the paths they had taken or been given.

There was not much ground left for the staging of a fight.  The reported movements of nobles and higher-ups was suggesting that they would vacate, only a skeleton crew of Academy professors left behind to administrate.  Experiments created to brave the plague and blight would stay behind, policing a smothered continent.

The fingers of his good hand traced over the images, drawing out imagined paths for Academy, refugee, rebel and Crown.

He wanted to stay up to keep an ear out for trouble, and he busied his hand with the tidying up of papers, he kept his eyes active by glancing over letters and messages, correspondence from members of his flock.

The alertness granted him by the tea gradually faded, and he heard no commotion.  After what might have been an hour, he hung up his coat, then unbuttoned his shirt at the shoulder and side before pulling it off.  Disrobing was a painstaking process when he had only one hand and he had his bad arm to work around, but he was careful to fold shirt and pants.

His monstrous hand quenched candles, pinching away the flames.

He retired, laying on his back, head on pillow, arm heavy enough at his side that it meant he slept on a faintly angled surface.  He draped the crook of his good elbow over his upper face, shutting away the faint light and the light of the blazing fire that seeped between the wood of his accommodations and the ground.

It took a lot of focus to take his mind off of the throbbing of his bad arm.  It felt as though it had been flayed alive, every inch of it hurting.  The burn in the palm and fingers was of a different sort, more focused, reacting to every change in the air.  It was something to focus on, a change from prior sleepless nights where the pain had trained him to remain awake until he fell into sleep with no progression or process that could be interrupted.

He didn’t dream, but he did sleep, and he did wake.  It was as though he was laying in bed one minute, feeling cool, and in the next moment he was snapping to alertness, the temperature different, the feel of the thin stuffed mattress and sheets different.

His revolver was tucked between mattress and wall.  He collected it, cocked it, and aimed it into the gloom with the same motion of his arm and hand.

He waited, and he waited for a considerable amount of time, aiming at only darkness, letting his eyes adjust to the light level.  The fire deeper in the camp had shrunk by a fair margin.  It would be close to five in the morning, if he had to guess.

Mauer waited, all of his instincts from the battlefield primed.

He shifted position on the bed, and in the doing, he used the thumb of his monstrous hand to flick a knife from under his pillow down the bed, closer to his waist.

Easing down, he pretended to relax, even as he took up the knife between two fingers of his monstrous hand.  He set the revolver down.  All of this was something he had done one to ten times a night for years.  Being ready, being hyperalert, as if every night’s sleep was something stolen in the midst of an ongoing fight.  The dogs barking and then settling down had him on edge more than usual.

In many ways it was.  This long period of dormancy was one of the longer breaks he’d had from the fighting since he had been setting the stage in Radham.

It was different this time, though.  That had been more of a beginning, and this felt like the approach to the end.  He was tired, and he hadn’t been before.

He used the same techniques to fall asleep, dwelling on the pain of the burn, controlling his breathing, relaxing various muscles.  Again, he fell into sleep rather than fading or slipping into it.  Consciousness dropped away, and seemingly a moment later, he felt the movement of air across his burn.

His hand lifted, knife caught between two meaty fingers, and he backhanded his assailant.  He struck the figure down, pinning them against the luggage container that served as a bedside table with the back of his hand and the blade of the knife on opposing sides of their throat.

“Oh,” the voice said.  Female.

He remained silent, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

“Sorry,” she said, with her Crown accent.  “I don’t know what came over me, that I found myself here like this.”

“Not wise, Wil,” Mauer said.

“No,” she breathed.  “Apparently not.”

“Did something come up?” he asked.  He hadn’t released her.

“I… was hoping to contrive for something to come up,” she said.

Was that it?  It wouldn’t be the first, fifth, or even tenth time that Mauer had drawn that kind of interest.  Twice it had been insinuations from men, even.  He’d never reciprocated.  It was an unfortunate consequence of his ability to draw people in; sometimes he drew them in too close.  People who were looking for something often found that something in him.

“I’m a man of God,” he said.  Again, the image of his primordial flitted through his mind’s eye.

“But you’re a man, aren’t you, Reverend?” she asked.  And she sounded less sure of herself than he’d ever heard her.

“Don’t- I’ve told you time and again, don’t call me that.”

He released her, moving the knife away.  There was the revolver to fall back on, just in case-

He felt the movement of air, and then her weight was on top of him.  He brought the revolver around, and fingers closed around his.  He was strong enough, fitter than the vast majority, and yet he was matched or beaten in physical strength here.

Her fingers tightened on his, and he felt the pain of cartilage grinding and flesh giving way as the vise closed his hand around the hardest parts of the revolver.  He grit his teeth, and swung his bad arm up and at the weight on his chest.

It was two legs that caught his bad arm, toes finding holds in the gaps and hollows near his hand and wrist, the strongest part of her legs and hips stressing the weakest parts and angles of his shoulder and elbow.

He knew what she was, too late.

“Lambs,” he said.

She giggled.  It didn’t sound like Wil anymore.

Two of her arms caught his good arm, one of her hands over his, the other on his forearm.  The weight of her body rested across his, and her legs had his other arm.  She was astride him.

“How many of mine have you killed?”

“None,” Helen said.

“The dogs?”

“I’ve left the dogs alone.”

“Will you leave them alone as you make your exit?” he asked.

“It depends on how this conversation goes,” she said.

“A conversation.”

“Mm hmm,” she said.

She laid her head on his chest.  The angle of it was wrong, her head positioned too far down.  She shouldn’t have been able to place her ear over his heart.

She wasn’t wearing much.  A nightgown, perhaps, or just a slip.  For the ruse of pretending to be Wil?  She would have had to hear Wil speak, or even overheard their interaction, which meant she had been close for some time.

“I remember,” she said, and she moved his destroyed hand with the revolver.  The flat of it rested against the back of her head, on her hair.  “Our first real meeting.  You pressed a gun to my head.”

“I do recall something like that.”

“You’ve been in my thoughts ever since.  I could have approached you another way, but Sylvester did say that you shot him on sight.”

“Sylvester,” he said.  “Are the Lambs still coordinating as a whole, or-”

“I defected.  I’m officially dead, but that won’t hold up for very long.”

“Mm,” he said.  “If you talked to Sylvester you know he and I parted on… not the worst of terms.”

“Oh, I know,” she said, her voice a whisper.  She shifted position, and in the doing, she made the harder part of her ribs grate against his.  “But I just-”

He took the opportunity and moved his gun-hand, and made it only inches before something in her seized up, reflexive, the hold on his arm becoming a stranglehold, as tight as his movement had been quick.

As he relaxed, so did she.

“I just really wanted very badly to hunt you, sir,” she whispered “To see if I could.  To be here, like this.”

“Is that so important?” he asked.

“It’s my everything.”

He knew about inflection, about emphasis.  The way she had said it, he absolutely believed it.  That she’d gone as still as she had after uttering those words, not even breathing, her heartbeat barely perceptible as his own heart drummed its war beat, it drew out that statement, begging him to dwell on it.

“You have lines in your face you didn’t have when you pulled the gun on me, Reverend,” she said.

“It’s been many years.”

“Hasn’t it?”

“You’ve changed considerably from that small child.”

“I have,” she said.  “I used to be softer.”

As she said it, she changed position.  The cushions of hip and chest rested heavily on him.

“Now I’m…” she moved one leg away from his arm, bringing it up so it rested across his lower body, bent.  “…Hm.  I had innuendo in mind, but you’re not cooperating.”

“Humor is often lost on me.”

Amusement is, apparently.”

He wondered at his ability to use his arm, with all of its composite mass and muscle, warring with the strength of her one leg.  He was stronger, he suspected, but she had the all-important leverage.  The question was whether he could do sufficient damage before she ended him.

There was a similar problem if he raised his legs up, then brought them down to generate the momentum to stand and try to topple her from where she rested on top of him.  She still had her grip on him.

“It’d be my first time, doing this with an emotional connection,” she whispered.  “You were on my shortlist.  So was Fray, and many of the Lambs.  I wanted it to be special.”

He tensed.

“I’ve had my dalliances, but they were purely physical,” she said.  “Flesh and flesh, with very little meaning.  But this…”

“I think you’re losing sight of what you came here for.”

“…This,” she whispered.  “This would be the sort of instance where I could give someone a happy ending.”

“Except you came here to have a conversation with me, you said.  You’re talking in woulds and coulds.”

She laid her head down across his chest, and she pulled his arm down and in front of her, so the length of his forearm was parallel to her body, hugged close to her, his wrist between her breasts.  The revolver was close to her chin, but his hand was too mangled to do anything particular with it and the angle of the shot was such that it put his own head in the line of fire.

“My passions are reserved for God and for justice,” he said.  “For seeing this greater battle through.  I’d say I’m sorry to disappoint, but in this instance I’m really quite glad.”

“I’m interested in the battle too,” she said.  “Hot blood pumping, muscles tense, the blood, the screaming.  It’s all very lively and interesting.”

Again, inflection and emphasis.  She wasn’t talking about seduction, she hadn’t been from the start, aside from the teases.  That left him to wonder what she meant by ‘first time’, when he had little doubt she meant violence.

Execution with an emotional component?

“Again,” he said.  “We’re getting distracted from what you came here for.  A conversation?”

“A conversation,” she said.  “We would like your assistance.  We’re staging something.”

“What are you staging?”

“If I told you, you’d interfere.  We might welcome some of your involvement and interference, but not at this stage of things.  For now, we want to get their attention.  We have to be indirect.  We want you to allow one of your own to get captured and it’ll need to be someone they know you’d miss.”

“To what end?”

“They’ll confess that you knew about a girl that had attained immortality in Lugh.  That the Baron took her with the intent of marrying her and obtaining her secret, and she fled when the Baron died.”

These things were truth.  He had paid attention to that whole proceeding.  He just couldn’t see where it all led.

“What do I get out of this?”

“A victory.  A true, honest to goodness victory, Reverend.  And it will be one that has implications for the world.”

“A hollow victory, if it’s one I can’t even see the shape of.”

“It’s a victory, and whether it’s hollow or not doesn’t matter.  Unless you’re about to tell me that self-aggrandizement or pride take higher priority than besting them?”

“No.  I won’t say that.”

“We’re prepared to leave you the secret of the Block,” she said.  “As an incentive.”

To say that she now had his full attention would have been disingenuous, as she’d already had it as part and parcel of having his arms in her deathgrip.  Still, he hadn’t expected this.

This was everything he wanted, vague and unfulfilled as it was.

“I could be convinced,” he admitted.

“Yeah?” she asked, raising her head.  In that instance, she sounded very much like the little girl again, and not the young lady of eighteen to twenty years of age.

“Tell me what I need to do, exactly.”

“You sacrifice your pawn, someone you can trust to endure under pressure.  Someone who will experience torture and drugs and will convey only what we need you to convey, either because they’re that capable or because you can manipulate them to that degree.  They’ll tell the Crown that you, the Baron, and others were interested in a miss Candida Gage, who was an imperfect immortal.  She’s in Brichton.  They’ll look there and they’ll follow the trail elsewhere, finding their way into our trap.”

“They’re not gullible.”

“But this will be very convincing,” Helen said.

He considered.  He weighed the merits.

“I’ll want to be in touch.”

“We’ll arrange that,” she said.

He had plans in the works, but they were hollow ones.  Gathered students, projects, wars on multiple fronts, targeted assassinations and kidnappings.  The problem was that so much of the Academy had condensed.  There were more resources in a smaller area, and it made doing the things he wanted to do that much harder.

It was a choice between this vague errand or a hopeless series of battles before his army crumbled in entirety.  The sacrifice of one of his people versus committing the entirety of them to a losing fight.

“Alright,” he said.

“It can’t be you that you send, you know.  They’d be suspicious, and you’d draw more scrutiny than the message did.”

“I know,” he said.

“Good,” she said.  “Perfect.”

That statement uttered, she remained where she was.

Somewhere outside in the camp, someone was rising early.  Likely one of the cooks.  They scuffed the dirt with their footsteps.

“However,” Helen said.  “We might have run into a difficulty.”

“If you’re concerned I’ll stab or shoot you the moment you let go, then we’re starting this arrangement on a bad foot.  There needs to be a modicum of trust,” he said.  He was careful not to point out his injured hand.

“No,” Helen said.  “I’m having trouble letting go.”

“What brand of trouble?”

“My mind accepts that I need to,” she said.  “My body doesn’t agree.”

Her breathing had changed.

“I’m afraid I may break you, despite everything,” she said.  “I was worried about this.”

“This seems like an oversight,” Mauer observed, though he was more nervous than he had been since the beginning.  Was this everything coming full circle from where it had started in Radham?

“It wasn’t an oversight.  It was very sighted,” Helen said.  “We knew I might have this difficulty.”

“A grave mistake then,” Mauer said.

“There were no good answers.  Had it been Sylvester you wouldn’t have heard him out.  Had it been Jessie, you-”

“Who?”

“Jamie.  Had it been Jamie, there would have been difficulty communicating.  You occupy different wavelengths.”

Ah, the one who had read off the list of the supposed dead, to destabilize his hold on the mob in Radham.

“And putting Jamie-Jessie here raises its own questions, because then it’s either Sylvester visiting the others, and that isn’t about to go well, or it’s me visiting them, and I’m not so sure I’m equipped to visit them and then leave again, or to say everything that needs saying.  And if any of us stayed behind-”

“You’re rambling.  Not that I particularly mind knowing just what you’re all up to, but I’d rather address this crisis of yours.”

She flinched.  “Please choose your words carefully.  The way you said crisis, it almost made me snap.”

Words?

“What words are a problem?”

“The word problem is.  So is crisis.  Strong words, words that mean trouble or bad things.  Threats and provocations.”

Were his words, a gift that God had given him, going to now be his end?

He fell silent, waiting.  She was breathing very rapidly now.

“I’m trying to be still,” she said, her voice soft.  “I’m trying to be easy, to be quiet, when every inch of me is wanting culmination, in its bloody, bent glory.”

Mauer waited, tense.  He wasn’t sure those last three words were the sort of words she should be saying.  Challenging her might have ended up being the provocation that made her ‘snap’.

“Mr. Reverend Mauer,” Helen whispered.

“That might be one too many titles,” he said.

“I need you to do something for me,” she said.

“I should be able to oblige,” he said, picking words to sound nonthreatening.  It wasn’t as if he was in a position to refuse.

He was very cognizant of the fact that not long after the cooks were awake, others would check on him, or would expect him to be up and about.  He didn’t sleep much by habit, and his staying in bed would make others worry.  It would make them knock, and intrusion was entirely something that might provoke this Lamb.

“As I ease down, I need you to be still,” she said.  “I’m going to let go of you, and I need you not to do anything.  Don’t flex a muscle, don’t move too quickly, don’t move slowly.  If you do anything, I might react reflexively, and then you’re broken up into useless little bits, or we’re at the very least right back where we started.”

“You need me to be still?”

“I need you to relax, utterly, so I can follow your lead.  I need you to stop fighting.”

Stop fighting.

He hadn’t done that in a very, very long time now.

“I don’t know if I’m capable,” he said, modulating his tone to sound nonthreatening.

“Your life may depend on it, sir,” she said.

“If I was capable of it, I would have done so at some point in the last decade, and I would have… given up entirely,” he said.  He was still trying to avoid aggressive words, like fighting, war, and ‘died’.  “I wouldn’t be here before you now.”

“That does pose a problem,” she said.  “I’m very terribly sorry.”

Her hands were trembling as she held him.

“We’ll try,” he decided, knowing that it was a task they were bound to fail together.

“Trying,” she said.

It was a glacial process, and one that was hard to measure, as she didn’t relax progressively or in a particular order.  It was more as if she was holding steady, trying not to act, and gradually, muscle by muscle, she released her hold.

The moment he had a meaningful chance, he would act.  He wasn’t capable of proper surrender, not like this.

He would act.

She relaxed gradually, and the only sound was his own breathing and hers.  She panted, and the pants grew further in between.

If she took her weight off of him, he would act.  If she let go of an arm, he would act.

“I’m having difficulty moving further,” she said.

And others were waking up throughout the camp.  Was it closer to six now?  Six thirty?

How long before a loud sound spooked his foe here and drove her to act, explosively constricting around him, twisting his limbs out of sockets or snapping his neck?

She’d stopped, and she was frozen now, so unwilling to move a muscle that she wasn’t willing to breathe.

He still had the pistol in his ruined hand.  What had been his good hand, something absolutely vital to him.  His index finger was near the trigger, but the cartilage at the knuckle had been torn to shreds, and the finger might have been broken in one or two places.  It wasn’t mechanically possible to pull that trigger.

His other hand was empty, and she had covered that base too thoroughly.

“Can I move my good arm?” he asked.  “Just a small amount?  It’s cramping.”

He watched her eyes move.  He watched her eyes stop short of looking directly at hand or gun.

If he said gun, she would act, he suspected.  If she looked at a gun, it might be the threat that activated her.

“Yes,” she said.

She knew about the gun.  She knew what he had in play.

His arm moved.  He made it a few inches before she tensed up in multiple places.

“Just a small amount more?” he asked.

“A small amount.”

Again, she tensed.  He sensed the threat of it, read it in her.

She couldn’t bring herself to let go, and he couldn’t move any further, nor could he surrender to help her in letting go.

They remained like that for what might have been a minute.

“Move your shoulder,” she said.

“My shoulder?”

“Yeah,” she said.

Like that, he brought his shoulder forward a fraction, drawing it inward.  It was a movement on his part, and it drew a reaction from her, instinctive, when she was a small fraction of reason in a larger sea of something more dangerous.

She moved her hands, seizing his shoulder hard enough to hurt.

She’d let go of his arm, and he was free to aim the revolver.  He didn’t.

Instead, Mauer moved the revolver as if he was throwing a punch.  He struck her in the shoulder, the angle of the strike meant to catch his own ruined finger to drag it against her bare skin, to pull at the trigger, to shoot.

In the wooden hut formed from an overturned ship hull, the sound was impossibly loud.  The pain of his finger was mild compared to what he was used to, but it distracted, took his mind out of the moment.

He’d caught her across collarbone and upper arm with the bullet, and she’d released her grip on his other arm.  He used the strength it afforded to reach out and grab her- and when she didn’t let go he aimed and used the revolver again, in much the same fashion, grabbing and pulling on the broken finger with his bad hand.

She tumbled to the dirt floor of his quarters around the same time his people arrived en masse, having heard the shots.

He stood, shaky, as they entered.  His lieutenants, his best soldiers, all armed.  The real Wil, and Dalton, and Isaiah and Limps.

“Put the guns away,” he said.

“I’m really not enjoying getting shot so much,” Helen said, from where she lay on the ground.  She had a bullet through one wrist and another bullet through collarbone and upper arm.

Mauer remained silent.

It would be so easy to order her death.  It would have been so safe.

“Can you make your way back on your own?”

“I can,” Helen said.  Slowly, she picked herself up.  She had to do it without much use of her arms.

“Let her pass,” he instructed his people, and he made sure through tone that there was no room for argument.

The crowd parted.

He watched as she walked away.

God had spoken to him through the mouth of a primordial, so to speak.

It said something that his prayers were answered by a monster with the appearance of an angel, this time.  It said something that he was being asked to sacrifice one of his own.

He wasn’t sure it was something positive, but he wasn’t about to quibble.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.9

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

I wasn’t good at being alone.

I tossed and turned.  I hadn’t slept for a few days, and I was at the point where I was looking to sleep and I couldn’t.  Somewhere along the line, I had tried to force a mental image of one of the Lambs into the bed beside me, only for my scattered thoughts to turn to the fighting and violence.

I was really, really hoping that the blood that soaked the sheets next to me was an imagining that wouldn’t go away and not something real that I couldn’t remember the source of.

“Ferres,” I spoke, my voice feeling very small in the professor’s expansive bedroom.

“What is it?” I heard the voice.

Well, she sounded snippy.

“Well, you sound snippy,” I said, voicing the thought.

“Can I help you with something, Sylvester?” she asked.  Less curt than before.  She sounded tired.

“Did you go into this with dream of doing good?  Was it always about the art?”

“Oh, so it’s the personal questions now?”

“I could ask you other questions, but I think you’re one of the people that’s furthest from my comprehension.”

“It was both, but the art was a constant throughout.  From my first days in Academy prep, I would trace the diagrams and sketches in the textbooks.  The diagrams inspired by Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, only with the Wollstone ratios applied, the anatomy sketches, the sketches of chimerical work, the dog variations with different second and third ratios.”

I could visualize each of them, even if I had little experience with those things.

“When you apply to the Academy, it isn’t invite-only, but they ask you to prove your knowledge, and you don’t get that knowledge without having practical exercise first.  The Academy prep schools help, but it’s not an absolute.  Especially for a young lady, at the time I was seeking entry.”

I closed my eyes.  “A steeper hill to climb.”

“It’s the very start of a long series of small political games.  You need someone to help, and either you prove yourself as a cut above, or you put yourself in that individual’s debt.  The latter is often better than the former.”

“Is it?” I asked.  I was trying not to think, to let my thoughts ease down, and listening helped.  The question was automatic, just keeping things going, more than anything I analyzed.

“If you’re a cut above, others will look to cut you down.  If you’re in someone’s debt, then that someone is motivated to help you move on to better things.  I was both, but I hid my strengths.  I paid attention to the local professors, and I gifted some sketches to the one I liked most.  Art based on an article of his I didn’t even understand at the time.  That was my in.  My inspiration was always my way in, always something I had in play for each turning point in my life.”

“What part of it was about doing good?”

“I put a smile on that man’s face.  I created things that made people smile and marvel at the wonder of our world.”

“You created those things at a cost.  Each smile paid for with someone else’s tears.  For self aggrandizement.”

“Ah, and now we move on to the verbal abuse.”

“Are you deflecting?”

“No,” she said, and she sounded that much more tired than before.  “No, Sylvester.  By all means.  Castigate me.  Attack me with words.”

I was silent.  Something about her tone…

I opened my eyes, and in the doing, I realized I had company beside me on the bed.  I wished I recognized them.  There was a boy, his sandy blond hair parted to one side, wearing a long raincoat of the sort that students liked, long enough to touch the top of his shoes.  The style served to emulate the flutter and majesty of a proper white coat.  He sat on the bloodstain, hugging his knees.

A girl lay beside him, sprawled on the bed, graceless, arms and legs bent at odd angles.  Her red hair was slicked close to her head, wet, and she wore very plain, basic clothes in far too many layers, an undershirt worn over a slip, worn over a dress.  Her throat had a choker at the neck, a collar held close to the neck by a ribbon, a buttoned uniform collar around that, and a looser collar around that, low enough it might have shown decolletage if she hadn’t been so ensconced, and if was old enough to have any.  Her legs were nearly lost in the folds of a slip, a plain dress, and a pleated skirt.

She was more modest than many of the random girls that appeared to me.

The room was lit only by the light of the moon coming in through the window, but the red of the blood on the other side of the bed was very clear.  As I shifted position, the girl on the bed raised her head a fraction, and I could see the blood on the one side of it, both dry flakes transferred from sheet to skin, and the still-to-dry damp of it.  Some of it had found its way into the corner of one of her eyes, diluting through the moisture there to color the one eye red.  If she’d blinked, she might have blinked it away, but she didn’t.  She only stared at me.

“Ferres,” I said, to distract myself.

There was a pause.

“What can I do for you, Sylvester?”

Well, she sounded snippy.

“Why don’t you seem to care if I call you out on your amorality?”

“Pot and kettle, isn’t it, Sylvester?” she asked.  I heard her yawn.

“Is it?” I asked.

“They don’t have names when they come to me, Sylvester.  They don’t have histories.”

I reached out for the hand of the girl in the layered clothes.  She wore fingerless gloves over regular gloves over elbow length ones.  It took me a second to trace my finger down the long gloves until I touched her upper arm.

She was ice cold.

I felt a stab of fear, pushed harder, as if to push through, and she pulled away, slipping from my finger as wet soap might.  I followed, lunging across the bed, and was immediately put in mind of a comical scene of me trying to grab soap, it slipping from my hands to pop into the air, my second grab doing the same, my third grab repeating the effort.

That image made me think of the Lambs laughing, gave me a fleeting memory of the Lambs all together, no Ashton but Gordon and Mary definitely there.  All of us in the sun, somewhere away from Radham, stripped down to underwear for the boys and slips for the girls, while we were washing ourselves and our clothes at the edge of a river.  I’d done it on purpose, for laughs.

The memory was too short lived, too incomplete.

The laughter didn’t echo in my head as I thought of it.  The Lambs didn’t appear.  There was only the  boy and the girl I didn’t recognize, the boy hugging his knees while looking at me with narrow eyes.  The girl had fled my touch and was now curled up at the corner of the bed furthest from me, leaning against the foodboard, watching me half the time, spending the remainder of the time glancing down at Ferres, who slept in the cot at the end of the bed.

“A bit of a reach to say they don’t have anything to them, Ferres,” I said, after I remembered the conversation I’d left trailing.

I heard Ferres shift position.

“What’s done to the children on the Block is done long before I get involved.”

And if you weren’t dipping into that particular stock, others would, and nothing would change.  If enough people stopped, it would raise questions and would break the unique life cycle of the nobles…

I frowned.

Those weren’t my thoughts, but they were conclusions that were in my head, and they were conclusions in my head because we’d had this conversation before.

“You know, Ferres,” I said.  “If you want this to let up, maybe you could start thinking more about your answers.  Then I won’t have to hammer you with the questions.”

“The answers are honest, Sylvester.  Keeping me up for hours with lines of questioning won’t mystically make the truth any different than it is.”

Hours?

I reached out for the boy with the narrow eyes, then thought twice about it.

“Maybe I’m trying to wear you down,” I said.

“If you are, you’re doing an exceptional job at it,” she said.  “I have to ask, to what ends?  What do you want from me?  Because I’ll supply it.  If you’ll stop waking me up every five to fifteen minutes, I’ll give you whatever you want.”

“I want to know what you’re keeping up your sleeve,” I said.

“Oh,” she said.  “Of course.”

The springs on the cot creaked as she shifted position again.

It was an odd answer.  Of course.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Of course.”

Blood had transferred to my hand sometime around the point I’d reached out for the girl in the layered clothing.  I wiped it on the sheets, and then stared down at the trace streaks of blood.

Restless, I swung my legs off the bed and stood.

“And now for the pacing,” Ferres said.

Wanting to prove her wrong, I didn’t pace, but instead strode across the dark room and into the washroom.

I stopped in the doorway.  Ferres was in the tub, wide awake, staring at me.  She wasn’t drugged, either.  There were three children huddled under the sink, whispering together, two boys and a girl.  Another girl perched in the window, swaddled in a blanket.

I pushed forward, driven by a desire to avoid being seen hesitating, a desire to look confident and strong.  Whether it was Ferres in the other room watching me from the cot, or this Ferres watching me from the tub, I wanted to look as though it was business as usual.  I headed straight for the sink, bent down and washed my hands, the moonlight streaming in through the open window striking white tile behind, which helped illuminate the pale bowl of the sink.  It made for contrast with the pink ribbons that streamed from my hand to the drain as the blood washed off.

I washed my face, then straightened up, leaning heavily on the sink.

My eye traveled to the chain by the toilet, where a number of tools dangled, stuck through the spokes.  Scalpels, a small hand saw, a pen, a tin kit that would contain a needle and thread.  More littered the side of the tub and the floor around it, sitting in spatters of blood and unspooled coils of bandage.

It would have been dangerous to leave Ferres unmedicated with so many tools within arm’s reach, yet this wasn’t dangerous at all.  Ferres wasn’t sitting up in the tub.  She lay within it, eyes only barely capable of peering over the edge.  Both of her arms and one of her legs had been surgically removed.  Streaks, smears, droplets and aterial sprays of blood painted the porcelain and tile near her.

The whispering of the children beneath the sink continued, as a constant refrain.

“What does it take to get you to talk, I wonder?”  I asked the Ferres in the tub.

She closed her eyes, and it was a timid, trembling close, as if she couldn’t quite bring the two eyelids together, because every impulse in her body was keeping her in fight or flight mode and she couldn’t quite bring herself to let her guard down and actually close them tight.

Then again, a moment later, as her teeth chattered, hard, she screwed her eyes shut, flinching in reaction to something I couldn’t see.  The room was warm, not cold.

It was the Ferres in the other room that answered my question.  “What if I’ve already talked?  What if I’ve told you and you’re simply forgetting, and we go in this dark, miserable, sleepless circle over and over again?”

I bent down, touching my hand to a bloody handprint on the tub.  It matched my own.

The bloody fingerprints on a scalpel that had fallen and come to rest beside one of the tub’s clawed feet were my own, as well.

“I’m pretty good at figuring things out,” I said, to both of them.

“You are.  Your memory might not be that far gone, Sylvester,” the Ferres in the other room said.  “But there are things you want to forget, things you hold on to and things you let slip away.  Perhaps this is a thing you’re willing or wanting to let slip away.”

I shifted position, turning around and sitting on the bathtub’s edge.  The Ferres in the tub flinched as my hand moved toward her face, stopping at the tub’s edge before gripping it harder than was necessary.  The flinch had been as dramatic as if I’d swung a club directly at her, not casually moving my hand within a foot of her head.

The girl in the window had company, scratching and scraping while making high-pitched noises.  It fled under the swaddling blanket as I glanced up at her.  Not so dissimilar from the grabbing-soap touch, only it was sight.

I glanced toward the door, beyond which the Ferres in the cot lay, supposedly shackled to the foot of the bed.  I looked the other way, at the Ferres in the tub, who shrunk back from my gaze like a small child that had shirked their homework, only far more grave.

I looked between the two, smelled the blood in the air, and heard the scritch-scratching of the thing in the window, listened to the three that were huddled under and around the pedestal sink.

I heard the chattering of teeth beside me, and changed the angle of my head slightly.

“Please,” the Ferres in the tub whispered, as if she’d read something into the angle of my head.

I still held the scalpel with the bloody fingerprints on it.  I changed its angle so it caught the scant moonlight from the window.

“Please,” she said, more insistence.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“In exchange for my card?  One I might have already tried giving you, only for you to refuse it?” Ferres asked, at the same time she spoke in the reediest whisper, “Please don’t take my other leg.  You’ve already taken my hands.”

I paused, closing my eyes, trying to stop, to take it all in isolation.  Which had spoken first?  One of them had spoken to fill the silence around when the other had.  One had had natural timing in response to my question, the other had been squeezed around it, and I knew I had the ability to decipher that.

“Could I convince you to let me and my favored students go free?”  “Even if they replace the arms, there’s no guarantee they would fix the nerves.  I’d have to relearn how to use my hands.  Relearn how to create, practice medicine, relearn how to draw, if it’s even possible.”

“Stop talking,” I said, irritated that they had interrupted my train of thought.  “No.”

They stopped.  The whispering had stopped, as had the scratching and the high pitched sounds.

I wanted to bury my face in my arms.  I felt profound loss, and it had been especially pointed since I’d thought about the Lambs at the riverbank, since a little while before it, when I’d imagined someone singing me to sleep and failed to recall who it was.

I stood, reached for the door, and felt how slick the doorknob was.

Carefully, I toweled it clean.  I washed my hands and the towel at the same time.  More pink water down the drain.  A slick doorknob and pink water and a bloodstained bed I couldn’t pin down as real or not.

I remained stone faced, using all the tricks to keep my expression straight.  I took deep breaths and as I washed hands and towel-cloth together, I was careful to use measured, controlled motions, so neither of my hands was ever just there, not touching something.  So long as I had my hands on my hands, the towel, or the sink, I could use those things to steady them.  Ferres, wherever she was, was watching, and I couldn’t give up my upper hand there, if I had it.

The little girl that was stroking her pet while she sat in the window, the three whispering children by the sink, the boy with the raincoat, and the girl with too many clothes were all watching and they felt hostile.

I wasn’t sure anything would or could happen with that hostility, but I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t or couldn’t, either.  I’d already dealt with one loss of control, and I didn’t like the idea of what might happen if these ones found their way to the driver’s seat.  It didn’t feel like they liked me very much at all.

It was well beyond the point of being very much ready for the Lambs to get back and greet me in their individual ways.  I would have settled for one of the Lambs in my head paying a visit.  I would have settled for them coming when called, except the last time-

I thought back.

The last three or four times I’d tried, I’d had small disasters.  Other things instead.  Things that bothered me and left me unsure enough that I didn’t want to push any further.  The bloodstain on the bed was one of them.  If it was one of them.

I took a deep breath, and it was hard to get the breath around the lump in my throat.  I hung up the towel, then dried my hands, before stepping back into the bedroom.  I got myself dressed.

The whispering and scratching in the other room was getting more intense.

I looked at the two on the bed.  The girl with the layers of clothing smiled at me, and it was oddly motherly, and the feeling that she was dangerous wasn’t any less intense.

Ferres said something as I headed out the door of the room.  I wasn’t sure which one it was, and I didn’t particularly care.  I slammed the door shut behind me, as if somehow that could keep the new visitors where they were.

The slam had drawn attention.  Students on the bridge, now coming down the hallway at a run.

What to say to that?

“Problem?” the one in the lead asked.

He was flanked by three others.  He was one of ours, I knew.  Rebel.  Two of the others with him looked like they were Hackthorn students.  Defectors, ones who thought it was better to stick with us than to be prisoners.  The fourth wore a uniform I didn’t recognize, like a military cadet.

I smiled, shook my head, and tried to figure out how to respond.  “No problem.  Underestimated the weight of the door.”

“I’ve done that myself now and again,” he said.  Very light, very easy.  “What’s going on?”

What to say, when I wasn’t sure what the scene inside was?

Best to be vague.

“Could you handle the professor while I take a walk?  I need her tidied up and in one piece.  You can send for help if you’re not comfortable with it.”

“Yessir,” he said.

“No need to call me sir,” I said.  I gave him a half smile.

“Yessir,” he said, clearly joking.  That got a proper smile from me.

I clapped a hand on his shoulder as I passed him.

I realized only as I passed by that the young man in the military uniform was closer to being like the three children under the sink or the girl in the window than to being one of my rebels or any of the Hackthorn defectors.

There were others here and there.  They stood on the bridge, a lot of them children in cadet’s uniforms, a lot of them urchins who could’ve been mice, given the chance.

Each sighting and each face I couldn’t recognize was another weight on my chest.

It almost made me tear up when I saw Evette, standing at the archway at the edge of the bridge.  She smiled as she saw me.

The feeling that welled up in my chest was one of fondness, of familiarity.  Another Lamb.

That was her trap, perhaps, to stage things so I had nobody I cared about close at hand, only for me to bump into her and be caught by surprise.  It very nearly worked.  I’d almost let my guard down.  Almost.

The surge in my chest became all the more hollow as I walked past her without glancing her way.

I wasn’t sure of the time, but it was late at night.  I was summarily surprised to see my rebels gathered.  All of the team leaders, plus one or two more that had taken up leadership positions as our numbers had swelled with defectors.  None of the defectors carried weapons, but it was an uneasy thing all the same.

There was someone else present.  Another face I didn’t recognize.  He was larger than anyone present, though very clearly younger than anyone else here, and he was very much like Evette in how he was put together, only to a whole other level.  Evette was unattractive by conventional standards, even ugly, to be unkind.  At the same time, something about her was alluring, if one could step away from human standards.

This fellow who sat across from me was that many times over.  It was hard to look at him and awkward not to look at him, given his size and presence.  When I sat at one end of the long set of tables that had been pushed together, I was effectively sitting opposite him.

“Sylvester,” Davis greeted me, as I pulled my chair in.

Was there something in his tone?  Had I somehow caught him off guard?

Mutiny?  No.  I didn’t get that vibe.  Not exactly.

“Handling things?” I asked.

“You’d like how much progress we made,” Mabel chimed in.

“Yeah, we’re handling things,” Davis said.

I smiled to myself, even if I didn’t feel a whole lot like smiling.  They’d met and were moving forward and they were doing it without me.  Because they didn’t trust me.

I couldn’t even respond to Mabel with certainty because I wasn’t sure she was actually present.  What would it look like if I answered someone who wasn’t there, in front of everyone?

“Need me for anything?” I asked.

“Don’t think so,” he said.  “The people in the south Dorm are making noise like they might play ball.  One of them is suggesting we poison them.”

I had to be so careful about how I talked and who I talked to.  Was I absolutely positive he had said that last line?

“That sounds positive,” I said.  I made my expression a little amused.

“The line of thinking is that if we poison them, something mild that will definitively be in their system, they’ll be loyal, and if things go sour and we lose in what unfolds next, they’ve at least got an excuse for having defected.”

“When what they want is better food and not worrying about being raided,” Bea said.

I nodded at that.

“They’re willing to cooperate under that condition, and Junior thinks we can balance it so it works,” Davis said.

“South dormitory is mixed boys and girls?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Davis said.  “They’re pretty reasonable and haven’t been much trouble.”

“Good,” I said.  “That’s really good.  That should be enough bodies to put on a good show?”

“Should be,” Davis said.  “We’re just talking about how we want to tackle the negotiations.”

Without me.

Negotiations were something I was fairly good at.  Was the idea that I would scare them away?

But Davis was putting on a show, so I wouldn’t look bad to the people who didn’t know I was being kept out of the loop, and I didn’t gain anything by getting in his way.

“Sounds good,” I said.  “Who’s handling it?”

“Davis and me,” Mabel said.

“Perfect,” I said.

To Davis’ credit, the discussion moved on, and he looked entirely natural with me sitting in.  It was almost enough for me to wonder if I’d had the wrong impression on sitting down.  Then I saw the wary look, as he glanced my way.

The people at the other end of the table were talking, while the young boy with the strange features steadily ate from his plate.  While the collective focus was elsewhere, Davis leaned closer to me.

“I’m sorry.”

I shook my head and smiled, even though I didn’t want to.

“I’m saying this with full knowledge of how it sounds, but there is something that probably only you can handle.”

“Ah, I’m being asked to leave?”

“No,” he said, very quickly.  “No.  Not at all.  But in lab one?”

“Got it,” I said.

“It’s just a little out of hand.”

“I got it,” I said.  “All fine.”

Heads turned as I pushed my chair back, the Beattle rebels glancing my way.  I made it look as if nothing was wrong, and gave them a mock salute.  “Keep up the good work.”

Most of the smiles I got back were genuine ones.

The large boy watched me as I headed to the stairs, taking them two at a time.

Madness reigned.  The inmates were in charge of the asylum.  The natural order overturned, with the most troublesome faculty and students in the cages, and the experiments in the hall between them.  I could hear the shouts and banging on bars well before I entered the hall.

Red and Paul were somewhere near the head of this storm.  There were students present too, and not all of them were Beattle students, either.  A small handful looked like they had been Hackthorn students.

Taking the leap and ending in too deep?  It was easy to do, when they felt the need to prove themselves.

There were others too.  Ones who didn’t feel comfortable with the students upstairs, who didn’t feel safe enough to retreat to their beds at this late hour, and couldn’t quite bring themselves to join this collection of fifty or so.  Bo Peep was among them.

There were shouts as I was recognized, even cheers, and it was a warm thing.  Dangerously so.

I touched Bo Peep’s head as I passed her.  I snapped my fingers in the tap code I could remember for the three blind mice.

Red wore the face of an undefined prey animal, with the eyes of someone that might be alright with killing, and she threw her arms around me, burying her face in my neck.  I could smell alcohol.  The tighter she squeezed me, the more I felt like I could breathe.  She was laughing for reasons I couldn’t decipher, and it was like I was underwater and she was supplying me with much needed air, only it was good humor, transferred from chest to chest.

Holding me close, rather than shying away.

As she spun me, as if to pull me into the dizzy, spiraling, crazed festivity of prisoners turned captor, I could see a glimpse of Bo Peep.  She’d been paying as much attention as anyone and I could see the concern in her eyes.

I put hands on Red’s shoulders and I moved her away.  I gave her a brief kiss on the forehead to let her know I wasn’t mad, because I didn’t trust myself to speak.

Goldilocks was at one of the more packed cells, and she held a broom.  She was jabbing it through the bars, aiming for bellies, for sides and armpits and groins.

Someone inside the cage grabbed onto the broom, and immediately, it became a tug of war.  Two or three people inside grabbed at the broom, and one of the delinquent Beattle students joined Goldilocks in wrestling for the broom, to pull it back out.

I approached, and I grabbed the broom at the middle.

I turned my attention to the people within.  Two faculty members.

“Let go,” I ordered.

Their grip already slipping away, they did.  As the broom came free, pulled by Goldilocks and the student, I gripped the end.  We stopped, now me on one end of the broom and the two of them on the other.

The picture made everyone more or less stop what they were doing.

“You’re scaring the little ones,” I said.

The likes of Goldilocks and Red had the decency to look ashamed.  I wasn’t sure about Paul, or about all of the students.  The pair let go of the broom, letting me take it into my grip.

Just needed a little sanity.

“I gotta ask you to leave them alone,” I said.  I looked into the cells.  I could see where some were soaking wet.  Some were bleeding, if only a little.  “We need them, and in an ideal world for everyone involved, they’ll be cooperating.  This doesn’t encourage that sort of thing.”

I could see Paul’s feathers ruffling.  So to speak.

I thought of the little mutiny upstairs as I paced.  I approached Bo Peep and she rose to her feet.  She hugged me from the side, and I set my hand on her head.

How did it go?  So many of us exited the world in a way similar to how we came into it?  Teetering this way and that on unsteady feet, shitting ourselves, not fully at grips with the world?

I wasn’t about to exit this world the same way I’d come into it.  Not as a pet experiment of Academy people who thought they got to make the calls.  I wasn’t sure that was the direction this was going, but I didn’t want to take it lying down if it happened, either.

“I need to know I can trust you if I need you,” I said.  Bo Peep clutched me tighter in response to that.

The words were heavy on my heart, sitting right beside my desperate, unspoken desire.  I needed the Lambs back sooner than later, to save me from the forces that were aligning against me, whether it be the ones in my head or the rebellion I’d drawn together.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Lamb I (Arc 18)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Mary stood atop the wall.  There were people on the other side, keeping their distance from the Academy’s vat beasts, which paced back and forth, shoulders brushing against the walls.

The beasts, by contrast, had been replaced recently.  They appeared similar to naked mole rats, but they had teeth, claws, and bone hooks at their joints that would have done any predator proud.  They were somewhat lopsided, and they had muscle to spare beneath their pink flesh.  They had sunburns, even though the rain from Radham reached the town.  Not technically warbeasts, they were mass produced in vats, expendable, entirely instinct rather than training.  They patrolled where there were scent markers, attacking anything that came too near, and they left a scent marker.  Once the first batch had been walked along the patrol route, they were collectively good to guard that route.

The haggard and dirty people didn’t look particularly scared of the beasts, which meant they had been there for some time.  They’d had time to get used to the things and learn how they behaved.

They’d also had time, Mary suspected, to get desperate.  Enough so that they’d started flirting with the idea of fighting the beasts.  There were many who were gathering poles for more tent construction, each pole sharpened on each end so they could be planted in the ground.

That’s the lie, anyway, Mary thought.

That lie was what kept the peace for the moment.  Refugee and Academy both pretended the sticks weren’t spears being stockpiled for future incident.  Both sides hoped for a resolution that didn’t have one.

The patrol of the vat beasts had turned grass at the base of the wooden wall to a thick soup of mud.  A hundred feet of grass separated the band of mud and the beasts from the refugees.  Trees had been chopped down and pieced together into haphazard shelters, and some material had been used to erect tents, but the omnipresent rain and the sheer number of refugees posed their own problems.  Tens of thousands of people were out there, Mary guessed.  Tens of thousands of people had to walk, they had to eat, and they had to go to the bathroom.  The ground level of the refugee camp was quickly becoming a sty, any ground not covered already by some form of shelter quickly becoming a stew of mud, shit and piss.

On the other side of the wall, Lillian was hanging back while a group of doctors talked with the town’s city council and prominent citizens.  The ground there was a wicker-basket weave of grown wood filling the plaza.  There wasn’t much mud at all, and the rain had washed away most of the dirt that had been tracked in when others had entered or exited through the gate.

Vats sat by the wall, as did the wagons that had brought them there, and the stockpiles of food and chemicals to sustain them.  More vat beasts were within, and yet more creatures sat near those.  A circus show of monsters and beasts lurking near where the food was handed out and where the overhang of the wall’s edge helped keep the rain off them.  They included all types, from the aquatic to the reptilian to mammals.  Most were hairless and mostly unclothed, and most were bipedal, drawing inspiration from their creators.

Mary’s thoughts touched briefly on what Sylvester and Jessie had said about the Block.  Her thoughts touched briefly on the vague image of this noble that supposedly shared blood and history with her, and the glass coffin the noble had laid within.

How many of those monsters had been human once?  How many others had been pieced together from components that were obtained from human donors?  Any one of them could have benefited from root cells, muscle transplants, or sections of brains, if not whole brains then molded with drug regimens.

Lillian was watching the beasts while the conversation played out next to her.

Mary wished Lillian wasn’t being so quiet.  She could see what Lillian was doing, but it wasn’t actively serving their purpose here.

Glancing up, Lillian met Mary’s eyes.  Her hand moved in a gesture.  I.  Eyes.

Then before she could communicate anything more, someone in the group said something to Lillian, taking up her full attention.

It didn’t seem urgent, whatever it was Lillian had been conveying.

Looking back in the direction of the refugee camp, she saw that one of the bystanders closest to her had his pants down.  He was actively jerking his hand back and forth, furiously enough that she thought he might hurt himself.

He pulled his hands away in a very dramatic way, raising them with middle fingers raised at her, and shouted.  The distance made his words inarticulate, but she could guess what he’d said.  He’d illustrated, in a way, with a forward thrust of his hips coinciding with each word.

He screamed over and over like a small child having a tantrum, rage and desperation boiling over.  When she didn’t react or move, he added variation.  She could almost read his lips, and pair that read with the distant cry.  Screw you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you all, screw yourselves…

Trying to get to her, to bother her, hurt her like he was hurting, even if it was through a kind of self abuse and humiliation.

She could be clinically empathetic, but she couldn’t quite bring that empathy home and feel it.  Things were the way they were.  She couldn’t do anything for him.

She would support Lillian, trusting that Lillian would make things better.

She fixed the hood of her raincoat, turned away, and walked down the stairs that led from the wall-top to the plaza below.  As she made her way down, she could see the full assortment of the Academy’s monsters.  Most existed for utility purposes, it looked like.  A solution for every problem.

The council was already starting to depart when Mary reached them.

“The general was saying we have a few days to figure things out,” the mayor said, his voice lowered a bit, so the rest of the city council wouldn’t hear as they walked away.  “He thinks the vagrants outside the wall are going to stir themselves up and try another attack, so we don’t have much longer than that.”

“We’ll see what we can do,” the lead doctor said.

“If they have a way into the city, we need to know about it,” the mayor said, insistent.  “There’s rumors that some out there are sick.  Not the red plague, but any sickness is bad when we’re already pressed in.”

“Rest assured, we have the situation in hand,” the lead doctor said.

The mayor didn’t look convinced.  “Let us know if you need anything.”

With those parting words, the man struck the wood-woven street with his cane and limped away.

It was telling that the group of Academy doctors were silent as the town’s council left the area.  They didn’t want to be heard.

Lillian glanced at Mary.  Mary moved her hand.  I see-know.

Lillian signaled.  We agree.

They’d both figured out the answer.

Speak, Mary urged.

Wait, was the response.

Mary pursed her lips.

“The Infante should be by before nightfall,” the lead doctor said, checking his watch.  “No more than two hours.  There are rumors that other populations have been crossing the burned acreages to reach black woods and collect the wood for use against the Crown.  He thinks, if there’s a trend, that it might occur here, close to Radham.  Don’t make me look bad.”

Mary and Lillian exchanged glances.

“We’ll check the vat beasts for drugs,” the lead doctor decided.  “If the vagrants are getting in, they have to be getting by the vat beasts somehow.  I can only imagine a rebel group with access to medicine using darts or drugging food for the beasts and slipping by.”

“Yes sir,” was the muttered reply.  Mary didn’t feel compelled to respond.

“Station some scratchers on the wall.  Turn their ears toward the vagrant mob.  See if they can’t hear and scratch out anything suspicious.”

“We’ll need to set up something to keep the rain off of them and their papers,” another doctor said.

Mary looked at the scratchers, which were sitting in the rain.  Their heads and ears seemed to make up half of their bodies, the rest of them spindly.  They resembled hairless cats  minus the tails, or hairless bats without wings.  They looked less fond of the rain than anything present, human faces on bestial bodies with long fingers, sulking as they sat slouching in puddles.

“Do it.  Recruit help if you have to, to get the materials or building done.  Requisition the writing supplies if we don’t have enough.  Volume of material is better than anything else, and if the mayor says we can ask if we need anything, we might as well see if he’s telling the truth.”

“I’ll handle that,” one doctor supplied.

The lead doctor nodded, folding his arms.  He drew in a breath, and in the process he managed to puff himself up a bit.  Finally, he relented and asked, “Any other ideas?”

Speak, Mary gestured, again.

Wait, Lillian gestured, before asking, “Can any of the experiments at the wall talk?”

“Some, I’m sure, if only barely,” the lead doctor said.  “Why?”

“If we haven’t asked if they’ve seen anything, I don’t think it’ll hurt.”

The lead doctor looked fairly unimpressed, but that wasn’t anything new.  “You’re here to lend your particular expertise, as Professor Hayle touts it.  I was hoping you’d impress me with something more concrete, miss.”

We know what the answer is, Mary thought, before gesturing again.  Speak.

“I’m confident in my abilities, doctor,” Lillian said.  She’d emphasized ‘doctor’ a touch, as if to make a note that she was using his title while he insisted on calling her ‘miss’.

He didn’t respond to that.  Instead, he looked at Mary.  “You have a guest, girl.”

Mary was surprised at that.  “Do I?”

“Your parent.  They’re at the north gate.  I was called away from other duties to receive the message and carry it to you.  They’re waiting for you now.”

“I see,” Mary said.  She saw the expression on the doctor’s face, put on her act as a young lady of Mothmont, and curtsied.  “I’m sorry for the trouble.”

“I already think very little of you two being here.  It’s dangerous, the vagrants could reach their tipping points and attack any day now, and you girls seem more interested in sightseeing, playing about, and apparently visiting with family.”

“Again, I’m sorry for the trouble,” Mary said.  She curtsied, and this time she kept her head down.

After a moment, the doctor sniffed.  “Get going.”

Mary turned to Lillian.  “If I may?”

“I’ll look into some things and meet up with you later,” Lillian said, as her hand moved.  Think.  Think.  Water.  Sleep.

Agree, Mary gestured.  Lillian would work on this some more, wash, and then nap.  They’d traveled overnight to get here.  It was overdue.

It still frustrated Mary, that Lillian was keeping quiet on something essential.  They’d come here to accomplish a mission, and it was an easy mission.  The refugees were being collectively driven out of town and city by the spread of black wood and plague.  This was one of many locations where the refugees had traveled in hopes of finding a new home, only to find a barrier.  Some refugees were slipping past, despite a population of vat-grown beasts that were supposed to be on watch, with senses that allowed them to feel the vibrations in the earth from tunneling.

Hayle had volunteered them, and they’d been happy to accept, really.  They had skills in investigation and infiltration.  Investigating infiltrators was second nature.  They had their mission.

The broader, larger mission was to build up Lillian’s reputation.  Getting her grey coat would require sponsorship and funding.  Each Academy had only so many labs, and an overabundance of specialists.  Lillian was positioned to get lab space, and even to use her ties to Hayle to have her own exclusive lab, but after some discussions over tea with Hayle, they’d decided that taking advantage of that connection in the now would potentially leave them short of political capital later.

Lillian needed to prove her worth in a way that gave her a history she could clearly point to.  References, completed missions and being a cog in the war machine that had won.

Both of them knew that the refugees were tunneling after all.  Lillian had seen something within the city that had helped her realize it.  Mary had seen from the wall how the refugees were setting up the spears, yes, but also that they were camouflaging the hole they were digging, while simultaneously guiding the flow of rainwater to better flood areas.

The tunnels would be waterlogged as a consequence, but the actual movement of earth and footfalls underground would be muffled.

Lillian knew and was staying quiet, when they could have challenged the annoying doctor’s perception, proven their worth, and finished the mission in record time.  If they could do that enough times, Lillian could make her name as a problem solver.

Mary was annoyed, frustrated, and a small part of that had to do with the condescension.

It was a bad tone as she found her ‘father’ by the north gate.  She found him at the gatehouse, talking to a military officer.  On seeing her, he broke away from the conversation, raising and opening an umbrella in the same motion.

He was a man who dressed well.  He liked the tailored suit jacket, the tie, and the triangle of a kerchief in the pocket of his suit, color matching that of the tie, though it was plain while the tie was patterned.  He wore round glasses with gold frames and kept his hair oiled and parted.  The look was old fashioned at the same time as the glasses, tie, and kerchief were bold decoration.

“Father,” she said.  “It’s a surprise to see you here.”

He reached her, and with the umbrella in one hand, he embraced her briefly with the other arm.  She allowed it, maneuvering so he wouldn’t feel the press of blades or weapons.

When the hug broke, he remained close enough that they could share his umbrella.  Mary lowered her hood.

“We made plans,” he said.

“I know.  I was called away.”

“As you often are,” he said.

She didn’t have a response for that.  It wasn’t that she was speechless or troubled.  It was that he was right and she didn’t really see the issue with that reality.

He sighed.  “We only ask for your company three or four times a year or so.  In recent years it’s been only twice a year.  Last year it was once.”

Mary thought again of the noble girl who shared her blood.  This man’s real daughter.

She had only maintained limited contact with her supposed parents, for appearances, at Hayle’s request.  They had maintained a concern that embedded programming would make her turn on them and on herself in a violent way, and it had taken some time to ensure that wasn’t the case, with the help of pictures and incidental exposure while she remained restrained.

It had been necessary to be sure, even after learning the truth about her trigger phrase and Percy’s intentions.

But she hadn’t gone to any lengths to do more than the bare minimum in seeing them.  It was an inconvenience.  Their depth of feeling for her made her lack of feeling for them an uncomfortable lack.

“The messenger brought your note, and I hurried to see if I couldn’t see you at the train station before you left.”

“We didn’t take the train,” Mary said.

“I know.  I found that out.  I went asking, and I heard you were here.  I heard… worrying things.”

“Things?” Mary asked.

He liked to be clean-shaven, without any facial hair, and even with the overcast weather and the shade the umbrella provided, she could see a muscle stand out as the corner of his jaw as he glanced away.

“If you asked girls at the dormitory, you should know they’re catty, they like their webs of rumor and deceit, to cut down the other girls.  Whatever it is they said.”

“I asked at the orphanage,” he said.  “Where you stayed so you could be closer to the school.  Are the webs of deceit cast by girls of the Academy that insidious, that someone at the orphanage a ten minute walk from the Academy’s doors would say the same things?”

“You were apparently busy.”

“I was,” he said, and that was very nearly a sentence on its own, but he continued, “…wanting to know my daughter.”

Mary glanced away.  She wondered what the noble lady had properly looked like.

She wondered if there was something she could say that would make this man stop trying to cling to her.

As she looked up at him, he held himself stiff, chin firm.

Her own chin was raised, held steady, so she could meet his eyes without wavering.

“I sent you to Mothmont because I believed it would provide you with opportunity,” he said.  “Because I work every day with wealthy and powerful men and I can see that there’s a divide, a chasm between me and them.  I am good at managing money, but I could do my best work every single day of my life and I wouldn’t ever be their peer.  I wanted Mothmont and the connections it gave you to at least give you the possibility of being great.”

“I know.”

“Things happened, unfortunate ones.  But in the midst of them you found a direction.  I trusted you to walk that path you chose.”

“Trusted.  Past tense.”

“I never fully understood what you were doing, and any questions were met by your insistence it was classified.  I’ve wrung my hands over it, talked with your mother.  We decided each time to trust you.”

“Have I betrayed that trust?”

“Have you?” he asked, not turning it around, but making it a genuine question.

“I think I would need to know the accusations before I can answer that question.”

“You and Lillian.  Spending too much time in each other’s company.”

“Mild, as accusations go,” Mary said.

His expression changed, hardening a bit, looking more wounded, making it more clear what he was meaning to say.

“No, father.  She has a boy she likes.  Gordon- you met Gordon.”

“He died some time ago, Mare,” her father said, his voice softening.  “And I could almost understand, almost, if it was your heart being tender after a loss, but…”

Mary held firm, remaining silent.

“…It’s been some time, and I haven’t known you to be tender for quite some time.”

“It’s something I’m not terribly good at,” Mary said.

“I wondered about you, but I trusted you,” he said.  “I want you to know that.  But I’ve heard things and stewed over them for the entire trip here.  I don’t know you and I’m unsure about the path you’re walking.  Girls and boys from multiple places remarked on you.  Saying that you share her bed.  That you’re her servant, following her around like a dog.  There was speculation you take combat drugs, that you’ve been experimented on-”

“That’s only venom from a nest of vipers, father.”

Convince me,” he said.  His knuckles were white as he gripped the umbrella.  The umbrella’s waver betrayed his.  “Please.”

It’s all because I’m not the girl you’re looking.  Percy was my father more than anyone.

“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say,” she said.  “I can protest all day, but you’ll wonder all the same.”

“I don’t know where you’re going, I don’t know where you are.  I don’t know how you got this way,” he said.  He sounded oddly less plaintive, even as he pleaded.  “I don’t know you.”

She reached up, fixing her hair.  It was damp from some of the spatter of rain, and she pushed it up and away from her forehead.

“It’s classified,” she said.

“I-”

“-so I’m expecting you to be discreet.”

He shut his mouth.

“There was the incident in Mothmont.  I… was homesick.  I fell in with a bad group.”

That muscle at the corner of his jaw worked again.

“Should I continue?” Mary asked.  “If I carry on, I’ll upset you.”

“If you don’t, I’ll be more upset.”

Are you sure? she thought.  She spoke, “I partook in the mass poisoning.”

She studied his reaction.  She watched the thought process, as he tried to put it all together while still not having enough information.

“They’re the reason I’m… not tender.  Them but especially the man who led them.”

She thought about elaborating.  Calling that man a father figure.  The twist of the knife that would ensure she was never inconvenienced by this man again.

Lillian wouldn’t have wanted her to.

“My stay at the Academy was to watch over me, ensure I wasn’t a danger.  It’s why they didn’t let you visit.  Lillian is one of the few who know where I came from.”

“But the rest of it?  The classified jobs?”

“I was asked to accompany them because they were keeping an eye on the reverend Mauer.  Who you introduced me to.  Who was revealed as a secret rebel.”

Again, that muscle at the jaw.

“I knew enough that the Academy didn’t to be useful.  I’ve learned skills.  The only things they’ve done to me are to ensure I’m alright, even if I’m not tender and haven’t been for a long time.”

“So that’s what happened.  That’s where you were, all this time.”

“Yes.”

He looked, to a degree, as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

“As to where I’m going, what lies at the end of this path?”

For an instant, she floundered.  Giving an answer that tied her too closely to Lillian was problematic.

“I want to teach,” she said.

“Teach?”  He sounded surprised at that.

When she answered, she spoke the words and knew they were true at the same time.  “I want to train a proper army, and I have for a long time.  The path I’m walking, I think I can get there.  I’m enough of a perfectionist that I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less.”

“So you are my daughter after all.  The perfectionist.”

She felt uncomfortable at the idea, but she kept her mouth shut.

“I have more questions,” he said.  “About what happened at Mothmont.  Just what you’ve been up to.”

“They may have to wait.  If I can even answer them at all.”

He nodded.

“But for now?  I really do have a job to do.  And speed is of the essence.  I’m going to go.”

“If I stayed in town, could I see you again?”

“If you’re in town when the Infante arrives, you may find that the roads are closed and security redoubled,” Mary said.  “You should go soon.  I’ll see you later this year.”

He somehow didn’t seem very hurt by the bluntness.  It could have been that he valued being taken into confidence.  It could have been that he had largely come to terms with the distance between them.

Clinically, she could tell that his eyes were sad, his smile genuine at the same time.

“I don’t need to worry about you and Lillian?”

“She’ll run the Academy, and I’ll handle the military arm,” Mary said.  “She has that boy she likes, and I… just need time.”

Time being the integral component.  This dream might have been feasible, if only barely, but time was the thing she needed most, with more time giving her more room to accomplish it.  She would expire, sooner or later.

“It’s not what I envisioned, when I held you in my arms,” he said.

Again, Mary didn’t have a response for that.

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

“Thank you,” she said, her voice soft.

They did need help.  They needed contacts and resources.  Maybe all of the discomfort and distraction involved with maintaining this family would prove useful.  Maybe.

“Hood up,” he said.  “Don’t get too wet.  Unless you want my umbrella?”

She shook her head, reaching up to lift her hood back into place.

They parted ways.

You deserve a better daughter, Mary thought.  Not a ghostNot an offshoot.

The line of thought about the teaching and training soldiers stuck with her.  It kept her company alongside less comfortable, easy thoughts that lingered from the conversation.

She had been happy to exist, to keep people she valued close.  She honed her skills and proved her worth and she was content in that.

At the same time, she had avoided thinking of the future, until pressed to paint one for her father.

It all would have been easier if she had ignored the man.  She might have, if the image of her counterpart didn’t nag at her, if her original self was dead five years ago, reduced to nothing and boiled away in a vat, instead of mere months ago, keeping company with nobles.

She valued how she was evaluated, liked being the best Mary she could be.  Seemingly effortlessly, someone else had surpassed her in that.

Yet talking to her father was supposed to fix that?  She didn’t like the way that idea rested in her head.

Lillian was supposed to be back at their temporary accommodations, stealing a nap before the Infante came.  There were things to be discussed and considered before then.  Mary would get the answer as to why Lillian wanted to wait instead of seizing the most political capital possible.

She felt restless.

The building was quiet, its other occupants out for the day, or at least entertaining themselves with books rather than music boxes and conversation.  Many refugees of higher standing had been allowed into the town, and many places were crowded, but this building had avoided the worst of it.

She unlocked the door and let herself in, looked at Lillian sleeping on the bed with a towel around her head.  Mary used every trick at her disposal to minimize noise.

The bathwater was still lukewarm, so she made use of it.

She wanted sleep more than she wanted anything else, so she was efficient.  She peeled off her clothes, damp even though she had been adequately protected by her raincoat.

Her fingers brushed over a hundred tiny scars, a dozen less tiny ones, and a half-dozen clusters or longer scars where she had been opened up.  Brown and black smudges grew here and there, or formed hard nodules.

She was a copy of another person, and she had spent the first few years of her life in a vat.  She had hit the ground running, growth-wise, development-wise, and even as her growth had been stopped, her body maintained a different clock, and her development had taken a fresh direction, with an overwhelming and eager focus on her training.

But cells copied themselves over and over again, and the combination of that reality and the odd clock she kept, with the copying of copying, it meant things were running aground, flaws finding reality.

There were times and places where her hands didn’t move quite the way she wanted, or where muscles caught.  She was careful to tell Lillian about each of them, and with Lillian’s care she was allowed to pursue her perfection again.

Lillian’s soap and toiletries rested on the bath’s edge.  On impulse, she left them alone, choosing the coarse lye soap instead.  She scrubbed herself until her skin was pink and tingling, then rinsed herself off.

She dressed light, so she wouldn’t rumple her clothes.  She would want to look good when the Infante arrived.

Lillian looked so tired, even in sleep.

The black coat remained the goal, it had to be.  But this job and jobs like it, they felt like small steps.  They needed to accomplish something more.

They needed to not wait when they had answers others wanted.  Not when time was so elusive.

Mary took a moment to tie her hair back with her ribbons, then climbed onto the bed.  She remained there, poised, on her hands and knees above Lillian.

Gently, she lifted Lillian’s hands, moving them out of the way.  Then she leaned down, touching her lips to her friend’s.

Soft, almost imperceptible.

Lillian reacted, exhaling softly, and Mary moved the towel to cover Lillian’s eyes as she made the kiss more perceptible, momentary touches instead of feather light ones.

Lillian, more awake, raised her head up, reaching, and Mary met that response with something substantial, then a touch of tongue.

It was about drawing it out.  A quarter of the way, each time.  Then as Lillian responded more, halfway each time.

Lillian arched her back, reaching up with her whole body, while her wrists were held down.

The progression, logically, meant the next step was a three-quarter one.  Body to body.  Instead of this, Mary moved her knee, placing it on the bed between Lillian’s legs, firmly, insistently pressing.  She could feel Lillian change the angle of her hips.

A part of her liked getting this right.  Like managing the perfect maneuver with the knife and wire, precise acrobatics.  It made her think of being in lockstep with Gordon, Helen, or Sylvester.

Lillian made the most delicate of moans, and that response merited another three-quarter-of-the-way-there response.  A kiss, a tightening of her grip on Lillian’s wrists.

In the midst of it all, the moment passed.  A change in the responses that each action got.  In the immersion she was maintaining.

Mary let go, and sat back.

Lillian reached up, taking hold of the damp towel that had been draped over her upper face, and pulled it down, clutching it to her chest.

“What gave me away this time?” Mary asked.

Lillian shook her head.  She was breathing hard, and she didn’t speak immediately.

Mary let herself topple over, lying on the bed to one side.  While she lay there, Lillian took her hand, fingers traveling over Mary’s fingers.  Fingertips traced calluses.  From handling knives and razor wire.

“They’re not his hand,” Lillian said.  Her voice was soft enough it crackled a little bit.  She sounded sad.

“Ah,” Mary said.  “I can do something about that.”

As she looked over at Lillian, however, she could see that her friend’s eyes were sad.

“Unless you want me to stop.”

Lillian shook her head, but she didn’t look sure.

“You look so sad, after,” Mary said.

“It’s nice to believe it, just for a few moments,” Lillian said.  “I don’t know if that’s a good thing.  Maybe I’m not letting it be a clean break.”

“I don’t know,” Mary said.

“I’m so twisted,” Lillian said.  “The Lambs are all twisted around, aren’t they?”

“I’m not the one to answer that, one way or the other,” Mary said.  “It’s more or less all I’ve ever known.”

Still holding Mary’s hand, Lillian knit the fingers of their hand together, staring at the hands, which were held up as they lay there.

They remained like that for several minutes.

“I don’t want to bore you,” Lillian finally said.  “Or for you to think less of me.”

“I’d never think less of you, not for something like this.  And I like the challenge.  Seeing how close I can get,” Mary said.  “But if you want to talk about irritating me… why did we wait?”

“I knew you were going to ask.”

Mary sat up, abrupt.  “I want us to progress.

“This is progress,” Lillian said.  “This is choosing our time to make a move with some wisdom.”

“You’re cautious,” Mary pointed out.  “You need to make bold moves.”

“It’s not that.  I knew almost right away that I’d need to wait a measured time.  I saw dirt patterns almost right away too, but still, no, if we act too soon, it’ll seem uppity, like we’re showing them up.”

“They don’t like you, or us,” Mary said.  “However you do it, they won’t like it.  All we’re doing by waiting is giving them the chance to find out the answer first.”

“With the track they’re on?” Lillian asked.  She shook her head.  “No, no.  This is right.  They won’t admit they’re impressed, but it gets us the most traction.  It’ll count for something.”

“I’d rather finish sooner,” Mary said.  “Move on to something more meaningful.”

Lillian huffed out a sigh.  There was some residual frustration in that huff.

“What?” Mary asked.

“And a part of me doesn’t want to say no, to people who want someplace safe to go,” Lillian admitted.  “I don’t want to be that kind of doctor.  I want to offer a better solution.”

Mary nodded.  She let herself fall back down, collapsing onto the pillow.

“I know, logically, it makes more sense to gain power so I can help people… but I wonder how many tell themselves that,” Lillian said.

“I was thinking about that, as a matter of fact,” Mary said.  “About where we’re going.  What we might do, if there’s time.”

Lillian turned her head.

Before she could respond, however, a knock rapped at the door.  Lillian jumped as she heard it, then sat up partway up as she recognized the pattern.

Tap code.

Lamb.

Mary reached over to the bedside table, and she drew her gun.  She had one knife under a pillow, and as she reached for that, Lillian slapped at her hand.

She would make do with the gun.

“Come in,” Mary said.

The door opened.  Jessie.  She wore a raincoat and a long skirt, and she’d chosen not to wear her glasses.  It wasn’t until she lowered her hood and moved her braid into place at one shoulder that she looked more like herself.  She drew glasses from her pocket and set them in place.

“Did something happen?” Lillian asked.  Mary didn’t miss seeing how Lillian unconsciously clutched at the sheets as she asked.

Jessie shook her head.

Then, with an entirely different kind of tension and fear, Lillian asked, “Did you hear?”

“Not so much.  I… surmised,” Jessie said.

While Lillian flushed, Mary stepped in to rescue her.  “Why are you here?”

“We want to gather the Lambs,” Jessie said.  “We’re pulling everyone together.”

“Why?” Mary asked.

Something about the look in Jessie’s eye was answer enough.

The desperation, the anger.  Mary had seen that on too many faces recently.  Jessie, at least, wasn’t re-enacting the desperation and anger that the man standing outside the wall had.

“The situation outside the gates is most of the answer, isn’t it?” Jessie asked.  “You know who’s really behind it.  We need to answer that.  Someone does.”

“There’s a lot of people responsible,” Lillian said.  “It’s too big a problem to tackle.”

“We’re in the middle of something big.  And we’re drawing a lot of people in,” Jessie said.

Lillian pursed her lips.

“And you won’t tell us more in case we don’t say yes,” Mary said.

Jessie shook her head.  “You didn’t become a Doctor to be complicit in that, Lillian.  I don’t think you became a Lamb to be complicit in it.  You wouldn’t have killed Percy one of the first times I met you, if you were willing to let this slide.  And don’t tell me if we’re patient that this will get better.  Because it isn’t getting better.”

Jessie’s tone was changing as she spoke.  That anger was there again.  It wasn’t really borne of empathy, though if Jessie resembled Jamie at all, she did have her share of empathy to spare.

No, it was an anger borne of a refrain.  Not enough time.  Repeated endlessly with periodic variation, as if enough insistence and the occasional variation could somehow break through and achieve the desired effect.

Mary had experienced some of that.  Something like it had spurred her to act and reach out to Lillian.

“I don’t-” Lillian started.  “Sy couldn’t come himself?”

“It didn’t work out that way,” Jessie said.  “Logistically.  We thought staying behind and keeping an eye on things would be hard… and he wanted to endure it himself.”

“Because he’s a moron,” Lillian said.

“There really was no good way to do this.  There’s no good way to move forward with our plan unless we have the Lambs all together.”

Lillian started to say something, and then she stopped.

Mary felt a sense of dread.  The current situation, the stall in the forward momentum, as they made the leap from getting Lillian’s white coat to getting the harder to define grey one.  The refugees outside the wall.  The Infante, and the problems there.

Missing Sylvester.  Missing the Lambs being together.

Lillian couldn’t give a firm answer because she didn’t have one.  If anything, Lillian was giving it serious thought.

Mary’s thoughts touched on her supposed father, inexplicably.  They touched on the idea he had helped her conjure up, of teaching soldiers.  Of wanting time, which the Academy could provide more than anyone else.

“What if I say no?” Mary asked.

Lillian looked at her, and Mary knew in the moment that they stood on different sides of the decision.

“Or if I need time to think about it?” Mary amended.

“There’s no time,” Jessie said.  “The Infante is coming.  You said it yourself, when you were talking to Mr. Cobourn, security will increase, roads will be closed.”

“We’ll manage,” Mary said.  “But don’t pull the oldest trick in the con artist’s book, and choose to have this meeting here, now, when there’s a time limit, and force a decision.”

“That’s not how I operate.  It just happened that way,” Jessie said.

“I agree with Mary,” Lillian said.  “I need time, too.  You’re asking me to put so many things behind me.  You know how hard I worked for my white coat.”

“I know,” Jessie said.  “But if we wait for the Infante, the city will lock down.  It means we aren’t meeting with Sy for a few more days, at a minimum, and that’s a lot to ask.  It means added danger.  At the very least, come out of the city with me.  We won’t be here, and that’s easier to explain away if you decide not to go.”

Lillian clutched the sheets again.  “No, Jessie.  Whatever you and Sy and Helen are brewing, you can’t just not be in touch for months on end and then suddenly show up and expect us to leave everything behind.”

“We were in touch.  We sent you a letter from Hackthorn.”

Lillian stopped in her tracks at that.

“Ah,” she said.  “I wondered about someone like her wanting to make Lambs.  I thought it would be a mockery, all appearances.”

Jessie shook her head.

“We’re in touch with the Duke,” Lillian said.  “We’re situating ourselves to help him stop what’s going on.  We’d be leaving him stranded.”

“We’ll rope him in too,” Jessie said.

“No,” Lillian said.  “It’s not that easy.  There’s Ashton and Duncan, and they’re complicated too.  I’m just worried if we do this badly, it’ll divide the Lambs again.”

“It sounds like you’re trying to find a reason to say no and it doesn’t sound like you’re convinced by any of them,” Jessie said.

“I have a thousand not-entirely-convincing reasons!” Lillian said, raising her voice.  “Everything I’ve done here has been not very convincing.  But it’s not like Sylvester offers better.  What you’re describing sounds terrifying.”

“What we need is terrifying,” Jessie said, and she said it in the calmest voice.  One that suggested that the anger and fear and the need for time were all answered in those five words.

And those five words spoke to something in Lillian too.  As much as she’d managed to fling herself into the ‘no’ side of things, she found herself straddling the fence.

Mary, not quite straddling that fence, moved her hand, situating the gun on her knee.

Jessie met her eye.

“We’ll need time to discuss,” Mary said.  “Go.  Please.  We’ll find you.”

“And if I don’t move?” Jessie asked.

Will I find that passion and strength and desperation, as my body gives up on me?  Mary wondered.  Maybe we’ll see.

She pulled the trigger, and as the room rang with the sound of the handgun firing, Jessie dropped to the floor, blood painting the door beside her.  Lillian’s yelp and her voice shouting into the midst of the ringing didn’t help matters.

Before Lillian was out of bed and all the way to her, however, Jessie was standing, one hand at the graze on her thigh.

“Give us just a little bit of time,” Mary said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.8

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Anger keeps you going,” Mauer said.  He kept his voice quiet and seductive.  “Sometimes it’s all you’ve got left to give.”

The very upper floors of the Academy building were burning now.  The inhabitants were stubbornly staying put.  The fire wasn’t really making its way down, but it still took a stern spine to remain in a burning building.

A stern spine or a degree of determination.

This was a problem.

“I think,” and I said the words carefully.  “I don’t have a problem going.  If I’m going to run into problems, it’s going to be stopping.”

I stood at the top of the stairs.  At the upper level of the Lady of Hackthorn’s torso, this staircase led to the head, which was a higher security storage area for materials.  Incidentally the place where I’d been deposited after being brought into the Academy.  I had a view of the upper floor of the torso, and windows and openings in the architecture also let me see along the length of her arms and where the one dormitory burned.

Mauer, Mary, Evette, and a few nondescript characters kept me company.

Below me, rebel forces moved at a run.  Hand gestures were commonplace with leaders and subordinate.  It was a good thing, because a lot of people were shouting.  The fire was a universal concern at this point.  One of the lady of Hackthorn’s arms was reaching out to touch the dormitory building.  If the fire spread, then that bridge could burn.  It made accessing the dormitory difficult to impossible.

If the dormitory couldn’t be accessed, that would be another kind of problem altogether.  We needed that fire put out.

We’d sequestered students in the dormitories, among other areas, knowing they might try something.  We’d searched them and searched their rooms, anything that might be used in biological or chemical warfare chief in our minds.

They’d gone for something more basic.  They’d lit a signal fire.

“There’s an obvious solution here,” Mauer said.

“Speaking of my having trouble stopping,” I said.  “Yeah, that’s the entire wrong line of thinking.  It’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

“Put that brain of yours to good use,” Mauer said.  “Consider all the options.”

“Killing an entire dormitory of kids is a sharp, jagged rock I’m supposed to hit way further on in my tumble down this mountainside,” I said.

“I guarantee you that this particular strategy is being driven by a few key actors,” Mauer said.  “Turn things around.  Think of how the Lambs interact.  One Lamb suggests the reckless plan-”

“Me,” I said.

“-and pushes for it to become reality.  You put your meat where your mouth is and take the associated risks yourself.”

“Only natural,” I said.

“Less than you’d think,” Mauer said.  “I’ve known generals and leaders who choose the dangerous road and make others take the risk, and I’ve known berserkers and monsters who take that path because it’s the only one they’ve been given, as a rule.  For you… and I would say for the students leading the rebellion in that particular dormitory, there’s a greater sense of what’s in play.  The plan takes on a special importance.  You and they put themselves into the plan, stake something personal in it.  Taking the lead is a way to force the hands of allies.”

“Manipulative,” Mary said, looking up from the blades she was sharpening.

“If you made someone else take the lead, they could abandon the plan or balk.  You know you won’t.  The students who came up with the fire there know they won’t.  That’s one side of the coin,” Mauer said.  “The other side draws on unity of the group.  They reluctantly accept the need for the plan, their comrade or comrades take the lead, and now they’re forced forward.  To hesitate is to let their ally charge in and die without support.”

“Like I said, manipulative,” Mary said.

“Which is all a roundabout way of saying…” I said.  I left the statement open for Mauer to finish.

“…You’ll only need to kill a small handful to wrest control of the situation back from the students there.”

I laughed at the audacity of it, loud and abrupt.  Rebels on the floor that weren’t actively in the middle of doing something stopped to look up at me.  I’d been sitting in the mostly unlit stairway, taking in the situation.  Now I had an audience, and this was more of a stage.

“Damn it, Mauer,” I said.  I smiled.  “Forcing my hand.”

“Entirely you, Sylvester,” he said.

Mary looked up.  “Are we doing something now?”

“Suppose,” I said.  I made my way down the stairs, fully aware that people would expect me to arrive with a plan in mind.  Having a deadline, even one that was a matter of seconds from now, it really helped me get my thoughts moving.

Evette stuck with me, but she was like glue at this point and was liable to be until the Lambs returned.  She was keeping her mouth shut, at least.  Mauer remained in the shadows of the staircase, happy to have planted a thought in my head.

“Sylvester,” Davis said.  “This is a problem.”

“Mail boat arrived and left without incident,” I said.  “I think they wanted to set the fire so the boat would see it while leaving, but it took too long with the rain.  I don’t think we have any boats due anytime soon.  There’s no need to panic.”

“I’m pretty close to panicking, Sy,” Davis admitted, at a volume that was just for me.  “The mail boat isn’t the only boat that comes.”

“We very rarely get a boat in the evening,” I said.

“Sometimes we do,” he said.

He was pretty close to panicking.  There was a point in fear, anxiety, depression, all of the negative emotions, where the person afflicted was almost captivated by the emotion, and argued with any attempt to pull them out of that state.

“Listen,” I said.  I put a hand on his shoulder.  “We have boats.  See if you can get anyone who can sail, Pierre will know if any of the people we picked up in Neph’s city have the know-how.  Get boats out there.  If we can get the word out there first, then we control the story, change expectations.  Tell them we’re smoking out a very intractable warbeast we were making into a fairy tale monster.”

Davis didn’t look very happy with that.

“If the boats’ searchlights are turned in the direction of Hackthorn, as if they’re keeping an eye out for the monster on the cliffside, it’ll sell better than most of the other explanations we give.  Quarantine raises questions and doesn’t wholly explain the fire.  Telling any degree of the truth is the sort of thing that gets reported to aristocrats, nobles, and other Academies.”

“Yeah,” Davis said.  He shoved his hands into his pockets, but the moment he did so, his foot started tapping, as if he couldn’t keep still.  He was frowning.

“Want me to take over?” I asked.

He raised an eyebrow.

“I sort of expected you to jump at that and say yes.  It’s been three days of maintaining the siege from within, three days since Jessie and Helen left.  You’re giving me every impression you’re needing a relief.”

“I am.  I’ve had some people take over, but it’s during the quiet periods, and I’m not sleeping a lot.  I’m constantly worried something’s going to happen when I’m not looking.  Like this.

“Then take my offer.  Take a minute where you can put this whole thing in good hands.”

“I’m just-” he started.

“He’s not able to relax if it’s you,” Mary spoke in my ear.

“Alright,” I said, jumping in as she finished talking, so that I wouldn’t do the thing where I was pausing too long while listening to others.  I barely had time to feel stung by Davis’ opinion of me.  “Alright.  How about this, instead?  Let me take lead.  You back me up, since you know people and you can be the level head to balance me out.”

He still looked reluctant.

I glanced at Mary.  “You’re a perfectionist.  I get it.  It’s hard to give up control once you’ve invested yourself into this.”

“It’s not me, it’s you,” he said, again in a volume that was chosen so only I would hear.

Again, that stung a bit, even if I knew it was the case.  “I was in the middle of dancing around that particular reality, as a matter of fact.”

“You’re talking to yourself an awful lot,” he said.  “Your eyes track things that aren’t there.  I knew it happened sometimes, but it seems like most of the time now.”

“And it doesn’t inspire confidence,” I said.

“I’m in charge here because of a whole succession of times when I was forced to take the role, and a whole succession of other times where I volunteered to take it.  I’ve fallen into this role.  I know an awful lot of faces there, people I’d be putting at risk.  I feel a responsibility.”

“And that’s fine.  That’s good.  It’s a large part of why I respect you as much as I do,” I said.  “And nothing I want to do is going to contradict that.”

“Alright,” Davis said.  He sighed.  The near-panic wasn’t the only thing he was clinging to, it seemed.  He had to work to let go of his stance here.  A deeper-seated insecurity was in play here.

I could address that later.

“I need a bit of explosive,  a way to make smoke, some shackles, and I need you to get your people ready for me.  If and when there’s an opening, you’ll be able to take advantage and get that fire under control.  I’ll handle the rest.  No risk to your own.”

“Easy enough,” he said.

I walked over to the stairs that led further down into the body of Hackthorn, while Davis went to go get everything else in order.  From where I was at, I could see the bridge and the northern face of the dormitory.  Lights were on throughout, and students within were watching proceedings.

This wasn’t a duel with a great mind like Fray’s.  It wasn’t a contest where one side took the upper hand and felt secure.  There was tension on both sides.  A hundred boys and girls on both sides of things were close to crying, or to pissing or shitting themselves, they were so scared.  Scared about what was happening, what the future held.

It was a fight with the Academy, after all.  With the Crown, in a roundabout way.

“You’re keeping the army back.  Is it because of what I said before, about the ways different leaders handle reckless plans?”

Mauer was back, it seemed.

“Maybe this isn’t so reckless,” I said.  “In fact, this might be a nice way to stretch my legs, a casual way to keep my skills honed and stay active.”

“Maybe,” Mauer said.  He used his voice to give the word the perfect sort of emphasis, mocking but not mocking, but also emphasizing it in a way that highlighted how maybe that maybe was.

Then he was gone.

I wanted to smoke, but I doubted I had time, and the actual cigarette would be dangerous when handling explosives and when trying to be covert.  I didn’t like sitting still.  Smoking kept my hands busy and made me feel like I was more in this world.  It made me aware of the smoke in my lungs and the acrid smells, the sensations of touch.  The smoke that obscured my vision helped my eyes slide off the things I was seeing.

And all the other excuses.

“There you are,” Davis said.

“Here I am.”

“How much explosive do you need?” he asked.  He held a small wooden box so the edge of the box rested on his beltline.

“Not a ton.  Lemme eyeball it,” I said.  I peered over the edge of the box, and I claimed several sticks of dynamite.  I stuck them down the front of my pants, so they stuck up and out, then pulled my shirt down over it.

He handed me a canister.  I hooked it to my belt.  He provided the shackles.

“I’ll whistle,” I said.  “Keep an ear out.”

“I will,” Davis said.

“And if you want to make a commotion over at the other arm, move a lot of lanterns and lights over that way, even turn on lights in that direction, that might help,” I said.

I pulled off my shoes and socks, and popped the window open.

Going by the company, Helen, Mary and Evette were joining me on this excursion.

The wind was utterly merciless, and I was still indoors.  The rain wasn’t great either, but I at least had the benefit of the armpit and other structures above.  They’d avoided any outgrowth, garden or other things that might have given the illusion of armpit hair for the Lady of Hackthorn, but there were eaves and shelves that jutted out.  The water wasn’t so bad.  Not here.

It would be worse in other places.

I climbed outside, finding handholds and footholds as I went.  It took almost a full minute for me to make the transition from windowsill to being fully outside and situated on the wall outside the window.

“Are you going to be alright?” Davis asked.

I would have spoken, but my body was pressed tight against the wall, and I really did believe that speaking might involve motion and an expansion of my chest that would cost me my perch.  I gave him a smile instead.

It was slow going, and the clouds were heavy.  I could taste the smoke in the air from the fire blazing at the top of the nearby dormitory, and the water that ran down over me was cold.

As I made my way further under the armpit, I found one of the places where the water ran in a near-continuous stream down the wall.  A miniature waterfall.  The downward pressure of the water was one thing, threatening to wash me off and down.  But today was not the first or tenth time it had rained.  It had rained hundreds of times since Hackthorn had been erected, the water had found its way down this same path in varying intensities, and cracks that might have served as normal handholds had been eroded down to smoothed out indents.

“Keep your hips against the wall,” Helen said.  “It’s easy to overthink hands and feet and forget about the hips.”

In the gloom, barely visible, perched on another part of the wall, she swished her hips back and forth, water streaming off of her wet skirt.  Had she been anyone but Helen, it might have been tantalizing.

I drew my knife, and I stabbed it into one of the handholds that had been washed out.  I repeated the process, stabbing through the waterfall, and even with one arm in the downpour, the force of the water was enough that it almost tore me down and away.

After a few more stabs, I reached over, and dug my fingers into the gap I’d hacked into the dense, smooth wood-like material that formed so much of the Lady of Hackthorn.  The water was washing away the loose splinters, but there were less loose splinters.

I decided that splinters were fine because they were grip, and I pushed the pain out of my mind.

I hung from that notch I’d hacked out, stomach pressed against the wall, and swung around so I was most of the way through the waterfall, my back against the wall.  I made sure to follow Helen’s advice and keep my hips against the wall throughout.

Back against the wall, hanging by one hand, water pounding down on me, a good six hundred feet of empty air beneath me, I swayed for a minute, waiting for the wind to stop pulling at my feet and changing the direction of the water.

Once things seemed mostly settled, I very carefully transitioned the knife from my mouth to my free hand, and stabbed out blindly, aiming for the same general area.

It took a minute before I managed to land enough strikes in the same general area that I felt like I could get any fingertips into the notch.

It was a relief to get out from under the water.  I climbed up into the armpit, happy to find handholds now and again.

Any passage over the bridge would be noticed.  Under the bridge, I was entirely out of the light from the fire above.

The wood had cracks, knots, and seams.  They were growing pains.  On other parts of the Academy, they’d been places for scattered seeds to take root, and make the Lady of Hackthorn a little more green.  They served as places for ivy to find a hold.  Sometimes small birds nested in the spaces.

Now I moved along the underside of the bridge-arm, and the handholds I’d made use of earlier were still here, but the process of using them was different.  I needed to exert more strength, periodically needed to wedge fingers in.

Mary and Helen climbed with me, and in an abstract way, they were likely serving as a way for my brain to remind me how to climb, a way for me to track the handholds and footholds.  Where my head and hands went, I needed to note places for my toes to wedge in later, places for my feet and toes to press or hook in so my weight wasn’t hanging entirely by my hands and arms.

Mary climbed ahead of me, and from my vantage point, I could see more of her legs than I normally might.  Her clothes were wet and clung to her.  All practiced strength, grace and concise movement,  she was perfect Mary in that moment, and it was an utterly fantastic image that hit me in a rush.

I had a thought, imagining a situation where too much appreciation of Mary’s form might push my hips a prince’s span away from the surface I was clinging to.  The thought of me falling into the wind and darkness with a full fledged appreciation for Mary at the ready made me laugh out loud.

The moment gave me strength.  I moved with more confidence.

What could have been two or ten minutes later, in a timespan punctuated only by a hammering heart that wouldn’t slow down and a course of adrenaline, my feet slipped.

I dangled from my fingertips, my arms trembling with strain.  My midsection protested with what I was asking for it as I arched my body, bringing my feet back up to the surface above.

I was going to feel that tomorrow.

I continued my climb.  As the angle of the arm changed, I had a slightly less horizontal surface, one that was still dark and fairly dry.

I reached the dormitory.  A vertical surface.  The next best thing to a horizontal surface that was actually under my feet instead of over my head.

“What now?” Helen asked.

“Now, you might want to look away,” I said.  I shifted my hold on the wall, and I undid my fly.

“Sy!” Mary admonished me.

“Well, if you’re going to protest, you can look if you want,” I said.  “It’s cold though, so there’s less to look at than usual.”

“What are you even doing?” she asked, turning her head away.

“Being very, very relieved,” I said.  “Felt like I was going to piss myself a few times back there.  Might as well celebrate my victory over that particular feeling, yeah?”

Why?” Mary asked.

“Well, for one thing, I just haven’t had a chance to go in the past while, and now that the adrenaline isn’t suppressing normal urges to relieve myself, I really had to go,” I said.  I cleared my throat.  “For another thing, keeping in mind I’m halfway done-”

“Gross,” she said.

“-Or three quarters done.  Here we go.  One second.”

“I don’t need the moment by moment updates, Sy,” Mary said.

I zipped up.  “Yep.  That’s probably the most exhilarating leak I’ve ever taken.  Highly recommended.”

She made a sound I couldn’t make out.  I glanced at Helen, who hadn’t looked away or complained, who simply gave me a smile and one-shoulder shrug.

“I don’t understand how your mind works sometimes, Sy.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Well, few people can.  It’s an advantage,” I said.

“Getting back on track…” Mary prompted me.  “Why are we even here?”

“Well, for this, I wanted to thank Mauer for getting me to think about how the opposition here thinks.  They’re insecure leaders.”

“He compared you to these leaders, for the record,” Mary said.

“Shush,” I said.  “Come on now.  Don’t be peevy with me now.  They’re insecure leaders.  They’re worried that if they don’t control the situation, take charge, and take the lead, then their people might lose momentum or surrender.”

“Right,” Mary said.

“So… natural conclusion of that.  They’re managing the fire.”

“I can hear the chopping of wood,” Helen said.

I could, too.  It was distant, but the ‘thok, thok, thok’ noise could be heard past the bluster of wind, patter of rain and the hiss of water pouring down the side of the dormitory.

“Taking furniture apart,” I said.  “Or they’ll start taking parts of the dormitory building apart.  Most likely, the wood of the floors and walls are fire resistant, not fireproof.  But that’s not something that they need to control.  Their focus is on us.  They’re terrified of what unfolds if we attack, or if we deploy something.  They saw us use the gas in other parts of the Academy before we shuffled them over to the dormitory buildings.  So if they’re the type that has to lead from the front…”

I climbed.

I’d chosen the under-the-bridge route to keep out of sight, because they would have a hundred eyes watching the bridge to look out for potential attack, because it was sensible and because they were scared and emotion dictated the same.

Now my approach brought me up around the side of the bridge.  Unless they were outside or actively leaning out the window, which they wouldn’t be in this gloom, they wouldn’t see me standing right at the door.

I pressed my hand against the wall, visualizing.

If they were the type to lead from the front, putting themselves between ally and enemy, so their allies wouldn’t flee or surrender, then they would be by the door.  Standing guard not just against potential incursion, but against potential excursion.

I set a stick of dynamite into the wall above the door.  Then I took a moment to judge the construction, and decided against using the second stick.  Mauer’s urgings to kill were in the back of my mind, and I was happier with playing it safer.  I hung my jacket over the stick to keep it mostly dry, and lit the wick, which was now sheltered from the downpour.

Swiftly, I ducked down under the side of the bridge.  I clung to the exterior wall, with the idea of putting the thick and sturdy bridge and the fingers of the Lady of Hackthorn between myself and the imminent blast.  I was glad that the nature of the growth of the arm and bridge and its interconnection with the dormitory building gave me sturdy handholds.

The blast was more intense than I’d anticipated.  It wasn’t intense enough to send me flying, but it did knock me for a loop, my thoughts and senses rattled.

I gathered myself together as quickly as I could, and rose, climbing.  The blast had affected the ones sitting in chairs a short distance from the door, damaging thick exterior walls with the shockwave knocking them out of their seats and sending them sprawling.  They’d been hit worse than any of the others, and now some of those others had already rushed to the defense and aid of the two stunned individuals.

They didn’t even see me.  They’d taken it for a cannon shot or mortar rather than anything else, as far as I could tell, and the idea that an enemy might be right outside the door, on a cracked bridge, it didn’t even occur to them.

I threw the smoke canister, throwing myself into the room a moment later.

I disabled, rather than hurt or maim.  It was a fight in smoke and gloom, only a few moments after an unexpected explosion.  Nobody was about to open fire on what might include friendlies, and I suspected that even the students that were hurrying into the dormitory lobby to see what was going on were still unaware that there was even a person present.

I pushed away the helpful bystanders, grabbed the ones who had been sitting by the door, and hauled the first and most active of them back.

He didn’t have a sense of balance, and getting him to move where I wanted required only a few timely pushes and shoves.  He tumbled to the ground, and I used the shackles Davis had given me to connect him to the railing that ran along the bridge.

“There’s someone there!  They’re attacking!” A girl called out.

“There weren’t any alerts!”

“There’s one hundred percent someone there!  They got Eric and Neil!”

Feet tromped on floorboards.

I screamed, and I made it the scream of someone who was being hurt.  A gargly tortured person scream, or the scream of a person who’d just been stabbed.

“Neil!” the girl who’d spoken before shouted.

Guess I knew who she was sweet on.  Poor Eric.

The scream had given hesitation to people who had been relying on this pair for their forward momentum.

I grabbed the second of the pair and hauled them back.  They weren’t as responsive and they weren’t trying to climb to their feet, so I couldn’t direct their movement.  I had to drag, and I wasn’t strong enough to drag someone.  I got him a few feet, and then I noticed the smoke was clearing up.

“Where’s Tommyboy?”

“Tommy’s upstairs.”

That was another problem.  Small in the grand scheme of things.  I tugged again on the heavy lad, dragging him closer to the door, then finally got him close enough to his buddy’s ankle.

I wasted no time in immediately heading to the wall.  Every part of my fingers and feet protested, my stomach clenched into a knot as I made yet another climb.

Tommyboy or Tommy was the very first person they thought of when their leadership disappeared.

They were a trio, very likely.  They might have thought along the same lines we were thinking, in choosing to take shifts, to conserve strength, and play the longer game.  Tommy had rested so he’d be more alert later.

He’d have heard the explosion.  What had I seen inside?  I tried to think of the lobby and its layout, and to correlate that to what I knew was outside.

Damn my short memory.

I made my way to the first window.  It was shuttered, and the latch for the shutters were inside, but that was easy enough to fix.  A swipe of my knife through the gap lifted the latch.  I had a chance to peek through.

I saw Tommy run by, flanked by a small crowd of students.  The lobby was an open room with stairs running along one side, leading further up into the building.  Tommy made his way down to the lobby, and stood well back from the door as he stared at the scene – a destroyed door and slightly damaged frame and exterior wall, the other two shackled to the bridge outside.  It wasn’t no man’s land, but it wasn’t safe either.  To help them they needed to step outside, expose themselves to gunfire or other dangers.

There was a girl in an Academy uniform talking to Tommy, telling him about me, no doubt.  That something had been there in the wake of the explosion, pushing her away.

Their focus was on the outside.

I simply needed to be where they didn’t think I would be.

I drew my gun, mindful of what Mauer had said and taunted me of, shifted my position, and then broke the window with the gun handle.

Before they could react, I had my gun trained on Tommy, pointing at him through the window.

Slowly, he raised his hands in surrender.

“You’re going to put out the fire.  Whatever you can’t put out, you let die.”

I could feel the tension, see the people exchange looks.  So very many eyes were looking to Tommy for guidance.  It said a lot that his hands were already up.

“Yeah,” he said, his voice carrying to me.

Taking out these individuals was the lynchpin here.  Tommy raised his hands in surrender, and without the forward impetus of their leadership, everything in flux, the rest lost heart.

I signaled for Davis, with my best sharp whistle.  We had ears that would catch it.

“Some of the ships are staying out there,” Pierre said.  “I thought about being more stern about coming back, but I don’t do well with confrontation.  It feels unpleasant.  I don’t like being the one that’s staying put while others are moving.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Not the part about you being uncomfortable, but if that’s what they want to do, it’s good.”

“It’s a lot of resources we have to put in, to ensuring they have food, that they’re not overtired out there,” he said.  “It feels very spread thin.”

“It’s really fine,” I said.  “It’s about control, isn’t it?”

“You usually use that word as if it’s an epithet,” he pointed out.

“Well, look who’s paying attention.  But it’s really fine.  They want to play their part, have a role in this.  They’re keeping an eye turned outward, for external threat.  If it reassures them, let them.”

Pierre nodded.

We sat at the dining area above Lab One, below the top floor where I’d had a view of the fire and Davis’ efforts to organize his rebel soldiers.  This was the heart, a fantastic place to see just about all of the movement here and there through the center of the Academy.

Paul, formerly Poll Parrot, was sitting with other kids, eating.  He’d had too many surgeries in the last few days, and he looked drawn out, not enough body fat, but he was smiling, laughing.  He ate with one hand.  Even with good students and doctors turned to the task, we’d only salvaged one arm.  The other was a stump, and we would fix that soon.

He sat with Mauer, which was my own affectation, a younger parallel.  He ate with soldiers, which was his own affectation, a good indicator of his mindset, that the anger was still there, and the possible direction he might take from here.

There were others gathered.  Many of Ferres’ experiments had been glad to get their modifcations removed and undone.  Some of the more extensive ones had been harder to fix, put off until later, or until we had the resources.  We didn’t have a spare human face for Red Riding Hood.  No arm for Paul.

“Do you think I should go under the knife?” Pierre asked.

“Not my decision to make,” I said.

“Might be that I’m thinking about it,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

It had been so long that I’d known him, that I hadn’t asked.  I’d felt like I couldn’t.  That it would be crossing a boundary.

“If you told me to, I probably would, and I’d probably be happier for it,” he said.

“Maybe I like you the way you are.  Maybe you like you the way you are.”

“That’s true,” he said.

I saw some students come down the stairs.  It wasn’t an outright defection, but some of the students from the dormitory had changed their minds about things.  They were working for us in a limited capacity, with a strong guard.  Fearing for their security more than they likely ever had in their lives, they’d taken the security we offered over the security they had as prisoners.

“An Academy can’t run like this, you know,” Lillian said, from further down the table.  She’d seen me looking.  “With only a few hundred, when it needs more.  Even this small defection, it’s not enough.”

I agreed, but I didn’t want to go and talk to Lillian when I was sitting and eating with Pierre.  That would look curious, give others more reason to worry.

There was so much more to do.  Power and control.  The students we’d herded elsewhere were elsewhere as a group.  The were banding together, becoming factions unto themselves.  The fire at the top of the one dormitory was one thing.  There was another dormitory that was actively trying to fight back.  We had access to the Academy’s guns and arsenal, we had barricades and the warbeasts, chemicals for gas and more.  They had sheer numbers, and weapons of a medieval sort, improvised and fashioned using resources they’d had in the dorm.  Curtain rod spears, pokers, knives and clubs made from bedposts.

The others had wanted to gas them, but I was hoping that we could get them to expend their strength and stamina.  We needed to turn some of them.  Everything was about appearances here.

On the topic of appearances…  I watched Mabel hurry down the stairs, taking them two at a time, one hand on the railing so she wouldn’t take a spill.  She gave me a glance and a smile.

“She’s going to avoid me,” I said.

“Did things sour?” Pierre asked.

“No, not sour, exactly,” I said.  Mabel saw me and gave me a little salute.

I gestured.  Come.  Sit.

Brain work.  Mabel signaled.  Hands.

Research she couldn’t leave alone?

She didn’t glance back at me before hurrying on her way.

“Maybe I shouldn’t push it.  Just bothers me sometimes,” I said.  “People avoiding me.”

“I’ve experienced that too,” Pierre said.  “Sometimes it’s the way things are.”

I nodded.

Someone settled onto the bench next to me.

Bo Peep.  Twelve or so, dressed in borrowed clothes that were too large for her.

Reaching up and over, she took hold of my arm, hugging it.

“Hey critter,” I said.

Her head rested against my shoulder.

I shifted my position, and I hugged her closer.

“Still haven’t gone under the knife, huh?”

She shook her head.

“S’alright,” I said.  “Another time maybe.”

She shook her head again.

“No?”

“No,” she said.  Her voice had a bit of a croak to it.  Newly fixed vocal chords.  “No more surgeries.”

I looked over at Pierre.  His expression was unreadable, but his ears had an angle that made me think of worry.

Well, she wasn’t the only one who had expressed the sentiment.

“Well, would it bother you if I said that at least you have the best head of hair in the world, so if you’re going to keep it, it’s a pretty neat thing to keep?”

She shook her head, then said, “But it’s a head of wool.”

“I stand corrected,” I said.  She nodded in response, her head rubbing against my shoulder.

I wasn’t sure it counted for a lot, that she said she wasn’t bothered.  I could have told her pretty much anything, and she would’ve bought it.  I’d rescued them, and that counted for an awful lot.

I wasn’t sure that was a good thing, that I had their absolute trust.

“Did you just need a hug?” I asked her.  “Always an option.”

She shook her head, then seemed to remember that she had a voice, and that she wasn’t largely limited to head movements and gestures.  She stated a simple, “No.”

“No?  Not always an option?  Or you didn’t need a hug?”

“I wanted to say,” she said, and then she hesitated.  She pulled back a bit and looked up at me anxious.  “Can you stop talking?”

“Stop talking?” I asked.  My head went through all of the paradigms, trying to figure out the angle I was supposed to interpret that.  Did she want the hug, without words attached?  She was five or so years my junior and that wasn’t really a thing.  It was-

“Stop talking to them,” she interrupted my thoughts.  “People who aren’t there?”

I opened my mouth to respond, then stopped.  It hadn’t been an angle I’d considered.

No Lillian at the table.  That much I’d known.  But no Pierre either.

“It makes me uneasy.  It makes others uneasy too, and I don’t like them being uneasy with you.”

“It’s okay, Peep,” I said, jumping in before she could say any more.  “I get it.  I get it.  I’m sorry.”

She nodded, and then she hugged me tighter.

I gave her mop of wool a tentative, reassuring pat, and she nodded again, as if this was good.

Setting one elbow on the table, fingers pressed against my mouth, I used my other hand to stroke her hair while she sat next to me, clinging to me.

Sitting next to Paul, Mauer looked my way.

I thought of the conversation, about moving forward and about stopping.

I don’t think I can stop, I thought.  Let’s at least hope the others are moving forward.

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Enemy I (Arc 18)

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He walked slowly, taking in the scene.

He hadn’t walked slowly in a very long time.  It wasn’t how he operated.  It wasn’t what he was.  He always had a mission, if not several, and that mandated that he constantly be in motion, or that he be set in place, doing what the Crown needed him to do.

His memory was exceptional, his brains the best brains the Crown could provide.  When he turned those brains and that memory to the task of thinking back, trying to picture the last time he’d strolled, as one might stroll in a garden, he only found scenes he’d staged, scenes where he was conveying an image.  In those moments, his brains had been set to the task of focusing on the individual or individuals that he was strolling for, so it was never truly an opportunity to stop and smell the roses, so to speak.

But it was important to convey that he was unruffled, whether to an ally who needed reassurance or an enemy who needed to know their enemy was invincible.

As he dug through his memories, he had to reach back to childhood to find a time and place where he’d truly focused on the moment and not the destination.  He’d been confined to a chair, legs missing, his upper body as much a series of containers and vessels for organ systems and ongoing work as it was actual body.  He’d pushed himself, while his team of doctors followed behind.

He couldn’t remember the why of that moment.  He’d been upset, angry at a relative, and he had wanted to think, so he had pushed himself out into the garden, and nobody had stopped him or wrested control of the chair from him.  It was curious, because it must have been a justifiable anger, but when he’d found himself in the garden, the anger had faded, and he’d been free to witness the moment.  Even now, he wasn’t sure what it had been about.

It was a very different sort of garden that the Infante found himself in now.

One hand raised, he held it up, and he watched as red petals blew in the wind, brushing his hand and fingers.  His fingers traced the growths that sprawled across the city.  A system of water absorption and transfer drew water from the coast and fed the plague growth that smothered the city.  At the water’s edge, tendrils like the ones that had snared the plague victims floated on the water’s surface, a film that was alternately pink and brown, depending on how the light caught it.  It might gain ground on that front if the ocean currents started to push a great deal of seaweed or other material toward the coast.

The ocean here didn’t smell like ocean, the city didn’t smell like city, and the countless dead who scattered the streets, buried under the carpets and tangles of red vines.  Here and there, dessicated bodies lay, mummified by the environment, faces pulled into mocking smiles by the retreat of skin and the pull of the vines that were still hooked into them.

Everywhere, red flowers carpeted surfaces.  From a distance, it looked like the buildings and streets were drenched in fresh blood.  From as little as ten paces away, they looked like flowers.  When he reached out to tear one free of the vine and held it before its face, the makeup of it looked more like a chimerical hybrid of a starfish and a snowflake.

No weeds grew, no birds roosted, no rodents or insects crawled through this very alive place, that whistled with the wind and gurgled with the movement of fluids.

Only his Professors kept him company, and they kept their distance, hanging back.  They wore quarantine suits and were accompanied by gargantuan stitched servants in shrouds, with modified quarantine masks.  The stitched were ten feet tall, and they shambled, bent over by the burdens they bore, laboratories packed into five hundred pound boxes.  They were wearing robes that trailed on the ground behind them, and their expressions were limited to what the sculpted masks.

The Infante walked with his hands clasped behind him, drawing in a deep breath.  His throat and lungs prickled with plague and the responses of the implanted countermeasures fighting it off.

His professors were the only souls around for a considerable distance around.  The plague ensured that no others were near to see or to study him as he moved through streets and past war-torn buildings without particular pattern.

They might wonder at what he was doing, but they would never voice any of it.

After investigating a series of alleyways, a narrow market street, and a winding street with empty crates stacked on either side, threatening to lose the professors that followed behind him, he stepped out onto one of the wider streets, stood in the middle, and stopped.

It gave him a chance to let them find him and catch up, and it gave him a chance to stop.  He could see the whole shape of this red-stained city, which hadn’t been a place of much worth before the plague had found root in it.

At one edge of the city, an Academy creation had crawled onto land and summarily died.  There was sufficient bacteria, algae, or other material clinging to it for the plague to have crawled up onto it, embracing it.  A great seaborne warbeast’s skull, returned to its original function as an anchor for a greater system of living material.

His deep breaths were mechanically powerful, forceful enough that if someone had clapped their hand over his mouth, he could have pulled the hand into his mouth with the power of the draw and even broken fingers in the process.

This was a principle that applied to every part of him.  It applied to his legs as his professors emerged, finding him, and he started forward once again.

A part of him felt like a child unfettered.  He breathed this air in the same way a child ate candy.  It was prescribed as bad for him by the people who looked after his well being, but so long as there weren’t too many watching he would indulge himself.  He felt it in his hands, and he felt it on his skin, countless spores trying to find root in his flesh.

He liked to understand his enemy.

He went where the ‘petals’ were thickest, and where the spores were heavy enough to appear as a fine red mist, that beaded on surfaces.  There were many red herrings, misleading areas where the plague had found root in burned buildings and where bodies of plague victims had been stacked three high by the unwitting.

His stroll came to an end after he had made his way from these dense areas and macabre scenes for nearly a hour.  He’d found what he’d come looking for.

In some places, the bodies were embraced by the red vines, a papery, dry skin drawn tight around bones and the networks of vines that stretched beneath skin.  In other areas, there had been bones, some pulled away from the bodies by the pull and spread of the plague growth.  In this particular garden, he had seen child and parent, a man and his dog, he had seen rodents aplenty.

But this was something else.  It wasn’t anything natural to the Crown’s earth or derived of its denizens.  The formation that peeked through a gap in a wall that the weather had cracked hadn’t even been fabricated, really, by any man.  It had fabricated itself.

The Infante had to reach out and pull down a wall that was newer and more sturdily built than many of the ramshackle constructions in the area.

The bones were marked, as if a thousand deep cuts had been made into each bone, some at angles from one another.  To do it by hand would have required wire to get into the crevices, and it would have required a hundred years.  There was no flesh to draw tight against these bones, for it had been burned thoroughly.  Quarantine chemicals had been thrown over it and catalyzed.  If anything had remained alive and functional, trapped within char and gristle, it had been sealed away from the world by the clear crystalline growths that had resulted.  A bug trapped in amber.

At least Mauer was thorough in his handling of this.

He looked back at his team of professors, and he raised one hand, bidding them to remain still.  He ventured into the space.

The thing was headless, but its central column had something akin to ribs, which would have supported other parts.  He thought of it as a rack, almost, with a play on words as he thought of the familiar torture device, and of ‘wrack’ and its root words in middle low german.  To stretch, to reach.

It yawned open and apart, the individual spires, growths, and complex geometries of the rack like teeth in a wide open screaming mouth, a man’s ribcage opened up and splaying apart when he was being serviced in surgery or being tortured in inventive ways.

A crown lying on its side, its tines spearing in the Infante’s direction.

“I would like to name you, but it’s not my place,” the Infante spoke.

“My antithesis,” the Infante spoke.

Much as it had been a long time since he had taken a walk to enjoy the journey, rather than to position himself at his destination, the Infante hadn’t spoken for a long time without a proper audience, without modulating his powerful voice and keying it to optimal effect.

“They made you a tool to prop up the desperate multitudes.  I was made and given the duty of constraining and punishing the few at the top who warrant it.  You destroy, you lash out blindly, and you salt the earth.  I create, I order, and I make the world fertile for future generations.”

He reached up, touching the encasement.

“You were temporary.  A stroke of lightning.  Your desperate action had ramifications that may well be felt for a thousand years or more.  Your plague is stubborn.  I will live for a century and exercise a power you never had, and yet I’m only one piece of a greater system, performing a role that history will forget.”

For an instant, he had the urge to reach up and turn his prodigious strength to tearing down the quarantine encasement, breaking one of those bones so that whatever lay within them could be exposed to the world again.  It would be a foolish action, and one that might well kill him, either at the hands of primordial parasites or by the swift reprisal of the Crown.  It would also be an action that was entirely his own.  It would be a legacy, even if it was a grim one.

Red flakes of the plague’s flower-like growths were collecting all around the Infante, obscuring what lay beneath them.

“If you thought to hurt us, know that you only made us stronger.  You’ve given us an excuse to shutter the windows, lock the doors, to burn it all down, and step away with intent to return to a clean canvas in the future.  In challenging us and trying to claim your own portion of this nation, you’ve been our greatest ally.”

He walked around the formation, touching different parts of it, studying the art of a creature that had painted itself.

“Not a reality uncommon for a nemesis or antithesis, I find, that paths run in parallel…” he said.

He trailed off.

He remained where he was, hands clasped behind him, and he contemplated the writing on the wall, very literally.

The creation had been injured enough that it could be made to stay still while it burned.  The burning had been followed with chemicals, which formed a solid and clear binding chemical.  After the binding chemical, walls had been erected with the creature at the center.

All Mauer’s work.  To do anything less would have been tempting fate.

But there was one wall that had been part of the adjoining building, and that wall had a message inscribed on it.  He had to push down part of the roof and exterior wall to allow sufficient light into the dark, enclosed space.  Once he had, he could reread the message and be sure he’d read it right the first time.

It named itself God.

The Infante had taken all of this for an indulgence, a step away from the normal routines and responsibilities.  His desire to know his enemies had brought him here, so he might find the source of the plague and look it in the eye.

Mauer likely hadn’t seen the connection between primordial and plague clearly, or hadn’t wanted to.  Few others knew enough of the full details while also knowing that a primordial could even do something like this.

The epitaph scrawled on the wall had taken all satisfaction out of the study of his enemy, and it had taken the pleasure out of the indulgence, leaving only the bitter aftertaste.

His conversation partner had kept a secret from him.

He turned away from the primordial’s corpse, walking in the direction of his professors.

“Have your stitched seal it in securely, with all measures we have.  Repair the walls and seal those as well,” he said, without stopping.

He walked with purpose once more, ruffled in a manner he couldn’t quite put a finger on.

The train whistled as it vented pressure.  Lugh sat on the horizon, stained red.  Tynewear was at another place on the horizon.  Where Lugh looked like diced chunks of raw flesh scattered in a pool of blood, the spires of Tynewear and the damaged walls of living wood that riddled the city made for an image more like blood-spattered stakes or knives gathered in a cluster.

They had paused at a crossroad.  At the point where the tracks turned sharply away from Lugh and toward Tynewear, as if repelled by the sprawling rebel city, Academy had set up a waypoint, and buildings had started to appear in the vicinity, complementing the Academy institutions and forces.  The intent had been that scientists working the plague cities could fall back here, a safe distance away.

Other cities had fallen to plague, and this stop was little used.

“I suspect we’ll have to take you apart, Lord Infante,” his chief professor decided.

The Infante turned his head to stare down the man.

“To be absolutely sure, My Lord.”

“I am hyperaware of my own function,” the Infante said.  “I can turn my mind’s eye inward and I’m aware of every component, of temperature and nutrition levels.  I am intimately aware of every weapon stored within me.  I am very much aware that the plague has not found root in me.”

“The exposure level you just endured was unprecedented, Lord Infante.”

“Others have faced the same,” the Infante said.

“If you mean the ones who now lie dead, then I have to protest, My Lord.”

“I will take that under advisement,” the Infante said.

Sensing something was amiss, the professor bowed and retreated, finding his own seat elsewhere on the train.

Another professor stepped onto the train and made his way through security.  He approached the Infante, bowing, and handed over a stack of letters and papers.

“Any news?” the Infante asked.

“Nothing of note, my lord,” the professor said.

The letters were important.  Plague and black wood had served to squeeze all who lived in the Crown States.  Refugees from plague-ridden areas flooded every city that hadn’t been caught by plague.  Black wood strangled the smaller towns and the hiding places, and it ensured that the Academy’s food supply was the only food supply.

Black wood would soon be employed without quarantine measures or acreages of burned land to suppress it.  The rebel factions would be blamed.

Plague, as was its penchant, would carry on.

He had done this before, in a half-dozen variations.  He did it efficiently and he did it ruthlessly.

The letters, for the most part, were the responses from professors and aristocrats, from lesser nobles of the lowest tier.  What was normally easy in practice was difficult here.  The chemical leashes had been given to a large share of the population, and some members of the upper class were strictly leashed in place.  The Crown had spread the necessary chemicals needed to keep the leashed alive throughout the Crown States, but putting that same thing into practice on the other side of the ocean was a far more difficult task.

There was very little elbow room in the Crown Capitol.  To bring thousands of individuals and maintain the leashes, putting all the necessary labs into motion to produce the right chemicals, it invited negative attention and potential disaster.

It posed a dilemma.  To rescue all people of note and invite problems from the capitol, or to leave them behind.  Leaving them behind meant potentially losing good people, or worse, it meant that if and when the Crown returned in the future, that there might be survivors angry enough to point the finger and ask why they hadn’t been invited to leave.

Killing them all was another sort of problem.

In this, he was the figurehead.  The Crown would take the blame if anything went wrong, when leash, chemicals, mass sterilization and the treatment of the vast public were really the province of the Academy.

Men in black coats bowed and scraped before him, and obsequiously they addressed him with honorifics and careful mind to his tastes.  But at the end of the day, when all else was said and done, the Academy ruled.

A farce really.  It was a farce he entertained and played a supporting role in, but a farce nonetheless.  Maddening.

The Baron Richmond had learned of the farce and had gone properly mad.  The Duke of Francis hadn’t.  It had played a role in the Baron being demoted to a lesser noble, the Duke taking a firm hand in broader procedure and operations on the Crown’s end of things.  Most others fared somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum.

He sorted through the mail, skimming each letter.  Chemicals in one side of his throat allowed him to track and remember the numbers used with the security measures on mail.  With each such letter with a number in the margins, he was able to verify that the sender had used the appropriate codes.

If resources would be expended to keep the right individuals on the other side of the ocean, then he had to be careful no to accept too many.  The letters contained refusals and carefully worded pleas.  Others were entirely oblivious to the true and imminent dangers of plague and wood, their attention rarely extending beyond their labs or homes.

He reached a letter from Professor Hayle.

A clever man, Professor Hayle, but one without a great deal of clout.

The nation was a sinking ship, and the rats were clamoring for a chance to exit safely.  It was an exit only the Crown was equipped to provide, a roundabout way of saying that it was an exit only the Academy could provide.

Professor Hayle, for all of his forward thinking, was electing to stay where he was.  He wanted to continue to run Radham.

With thought of Hayle came other thoughts.  The Infante continued his search through the mail.  A day of travel into Lugh and a day of travel out had allowed the mail to accumulate.

There was a possible breakthrough, by the woman professor of Hackthorn.  He would attend that.

And there was a letter with a black resin seal.

The message within was printed with a machine, and the Infante, again, had the means of deciphering it built into his neck.

The Duke of Francis communicates, but only to the Lambs.  They conspire.

The Infante leaned back in his seat, custom made to his frame and weight.  The source was a trusted one, a spy who kept and maintained a pet experiment, a crawler in walls.  The thing was blind, with an ear keener than most, and the spy was competent enough to cover the other bases and double check everything pertinent.  The message would have been next to impossible to forge when the forger had no idea of how it was deciphered.

There was merit to this accusation.  This was sound.

There was no need for a proper court or deliberation.  The Lambs had made themselves dangerous.  He would see to that before he saw to Hackthorn.

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