“Alright,” I said. “How about this? Right hand, two-foot section of his stomach, skin, of course, and a section of his face and-or scalp.”
“Why are we back to the midsection?” Lillian asked.
“I like my face and-or scalp,” Ashton said.
“We’re back to the midsection because you’re vetoing the drus nodes.”
“The nodes are too blatant,” Duncan said, sounding very tired.
“I like my face and-or scalp,” Ashton said, with emphasis.
I leaned forward. “I hear you, Ashton.”
“Good. Because my creators worked very hard and I needed some extra luck to get a good face. I like my hair too and I’m worried if you take any of my scalp then it will be like messing up my hair but for good. I’m cute.”
“He is cute,” Helen said.
“Exactly,” Ashton said. “Being cute means Helen and girls like Helen like to hug me, and hugs are warm, safe, and strategically important. I don’t want to not be cute because you’re a bad person.”
Berger leaned back. “Strategically important.”
“It means his spores are working,” Jessie said.
“That was less of a question,” Berger said, “And more of a realization, far too early in the morning, that I’m sitting where I’m sitting.”
“Where else would you be sitting?” Ashton asked.
“Hold on, we’re getting off track,” I said. “How big of a danger is it really, that this hurts Ashton long-term?”
“Minimal to negligible,” Duncan said. “He’s got good bones, so to speak. There would be a recovery period, but after that he would be fine.”
“I would still like to veto,” Ashton said. “Sylvester has been messing with my hair too much. I’d like to nominate my heart for the cutting board, instead.”
“I’m fifty percent sure that would kill you, Ashton,” Lillian said. She looked to Duncan, “You’re the Ashton expert. The mucus membrane only had a point-eight translation rate, didn’t it?”
“Did,” Duncan said. “It’s point-eight-two now, they substituted in the gland from one of the failed alternate projects because it had a higher rate. Downside is Ashton complains about dry skin a lot more than he did.”
“They got around to that, then. Point eight-two, three or more days of travel, would be… survivable but exceedingly uncomfortable for those three or more days.”
“He doesn’t particularly care,” Duncan said.
“I don’t particularly care,” Ashton echoed. “I prefer this. This is my suggestion.”
I spoke, “I suggested the face and scalp because it would be visible and hard to ignore. Carving out the kid’s heart would do a good job, except it doesn’t really help with actually doing what I’m shooting for here.”
“I suggested it because I thought it would be nice and visible and Sylvester cares about the visible,” Ashton said.
“I would rather not,” Lillian said. “Not the heart, not if something could go wrong while we’re traveling back home, delaying us. There are too many things going on in this country and in this region.”
“You’re vetoing a perfectly good heart, Ashton’s not letting me have a bit of his face or scalp, you’re saying taking the drus nodes would be too obvious. So we’re back to a limb or two-”
“One limb,” Lillian said.
“I’m getting one limb, and you’re wondering why I keep going back to a nice ten or so pounds of what Ashton’s got in his middle?”
“Hold on one second,” Lillian said. “Ten pounds?”
“Work with me here,” I said.
“You’re wanting to butcher a Lamb like he’s sitting on the chopping block. Some resistance is to be expected,” Lillian said.
“I’m just saying, I started off this argument very reasonably asking for a whole Ashton and a whole Mary. You’re the ones that are raising the stakes here in a very weird and bizarre way.”
“Yes,” Mary said, dry, “We’re the ones being weird and bizarre.”
“You are! I mean, it’s not often that I try to bargain with someone and they’re changing the terms in ever more disfavorable ways for themselves.”
“Disfavorable as a word hurts me,” Jessie said.
“It’s fine, I’m sure it’s a legitimate word,” I told her.
“You’re the one that started us on the topic of cutting Ashton up,” Lillian said.
“Yes, and I started off with a very reasonable suggestion of one whole limb, one partial limb, and forty percent of his skin. We can leave his face alone. I’m not an Academy-trained student or doctor or anything-”
“As evidenced by the fact that the Crown States aren’t a blighted crater,” Mary said.
“-As evidenced, yes, but even without training, I have a pretty good idea of how the jigsaw that is Ashton is put together. Lobes and nodes and clusters and polyps. He needs food, he’s got a good system there. He needs water, he gets some through skin in moist climates, drinks the rest. Needs carbon dioxide, well, that gets more complicated, but his heart does half the job, treating his entire body as a lung, and his skin sucks in the rest by way of mucus membrane. Breaks it down and then just distributes it by osmosis. Loads up his mucus with it and it gradually makes its way where it needs to be. Yes?”
“Yes,” Duncan said.
“Cut out his heart, his skin can carry the worst of the burden, cut off his skin, and the heart will carry the remainder of the burden.”
“With difficulty,” Lillian stressed.
“Can we just accept the fact that this isn’t going to be easy peasy?” I asked. “I’m asking for Helen, and I’m asking for a piece of Ashton. Now you guys keep talking yourselves into giving me bigger and bigger pieces. I think you’re being contrary.”
“Oh yes, we’re the contrary, problematic ones,” Lillian said.
“I feel the need to remark that you and Mary are sounding very alike these days,” I said.
“Let’s stay on track,” Jessie said, before anything could erupt. But then, I’d suspected she would step in.
I spread my arms, I took a deep breath, and then lowered my arms. Calling for a stop, an intermission, while letting people spend a moment gathering their thoughts.
I tried to assume a calm, collected demeanor. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been calm before. I had. I’d even been enjoying myself. But I had also been in he throes of trying to solve a problem, trying to divine the reality that saw Jessie and I and Lillian’s group all happy and healthy.
It was a balancing act, sending the Lambs back home, but there wasn’t another option, short of kidnapping Lillian. Kidnapping Lillian when she was anxiously waiting to go home and check to see if she had earned her white coat would be an evil I could never dream of.
No, she still had ties to the Academy, she had dreams, and there was no way for her to walk my path. Duncan was much the same.
“Remind me again why we can’t just take Ashton’s skin?” I asked. “Non-face, non-scalp skin.”
“It’s too interlinked with the rest of him,” Duncan said. “Which isn’t very interlinked on its own. Carries hormones, blood, carbon dioxide. The rest of the structures of his body, shelves of his brain, the individual organ clusters and the rest of him are dependent on a very narrow assortment of vehicles. Skin is a good, healthy way for him to move things from one part of his body to another.”
“It’s fine,” Ashton said. “I’m okay with it. Skin and a hand.”
Lillian spoke, “Please don’t blindly agree with Sylvester or get caught up in his pace.”
“I’m not blind, and I’m not caught up. I think if Sylvester is trading the professor to us he needs something in exchange and if that something is a piece of me then I’m happy to help. If I could give more of me to not have to give up Helen then I would.”
“You’re a sweetheart,” Helen said.
Mary drummed her fingers on the table.
There was a faint murmur of conversation elsewhere in the room. The kitchen staff were bringing food out, with some helpful students carting food back and forth. Everyone was keeping one eye on our discussion, and all of the students present had the sense to either sit at the edges of the room or wait. The tables surrounding ours were unoccupied.
“Do you want to go with Sy and Jessie, Helen?” Lillian asked.
“I think Ibbot would be very upset,” Helen said.
“That’s not a downside,” I said.
“Shh,” Lillian said. “Don’t interfere.”
I sighed and sat back.
“I quite like being whole, and Professor Ibbot keeps me whole,” Helen said. “He made me and I love him and I don’t like him very much.”
“I don’t want to be undiplomatic,” Duncan replied, “But I don’t think I’m treading new ground if I suggest that he’s a very hard man to like.”
Duncan was being so mindful of things with Professor Berger here. Nevermind that Berger was already privy to damaging information. Perhaps Duncan would be mindful of the sensitive and undiplomatic if the sky was falling.
“I like my professor less than anyone, I think,” Helen said. “I’ve spent too many hours in his lab with him. Smiling when told to smile. Sometimes he works on other things, but sometimes he only works on me.”
“There’s only so much work that can be done,” Jessie said.
“Oh no,” Helen said. “It’s really very endless, the work being done. But he doesn’t see me as a person and he doesn’t let me tell him when he’s wrong, or say no, or let me insist that he shouldn’t tamper with parts of me. Even when I’m with him, he’s alone for all intents and purposes. A man who only has himself to answer to, only himself for company, with me as a prop on the side. It makes for a skewed perspective. I would like a vacation. Even knowing the consequences.”
“Even knowing it might be a permanent vacation?” Mary asked.
“Even knowing,” Helen said. “I expect I’ll be liberally bribed with sweets and goodness by Sylvester and Jessie.”
“Liberally,” I said. “I think the kitchen is preparing something over there.”
Helen craned her head to see, investigating.
“So that’s that,” Lillian said. “A Lamb and a pound of flesh.”
“You get the professor, and a good chance to stay in the good graces of the Academy,” I said. “Graduate with your coat. Look after Mary, Ashton, and the little Lambs. Maybe even save the world from the Infante.”
“Don’t put it like that,” she said. “As if we’re balancing the scales or a married couple breaking apart and deciding which assets go where.”
“I like how the chance to save the world is an asset,” I said.
“Don’t,” she said. “Don’t joke. Don’t-”
“You’re being very strict with me,” I pointed out. “Don’t do this, be quiet, stop, no, please lords…”
“I did not say half of those things,” Lillian said.
“But you are being strict,” I pointed out.
“I’m not going to say I’m not,” Lillian said. “And that makes me think… Duncan, would you like to handle the removal of the necessary pieces of Ashton? I’d like to have a word with Sylvester.”
“We’re having a word with him now,” Duncan said.
“No, Duncan,” Ashton said.
“Personally,” Lillian said. “Privately.”
“That might be a bad idea,” Duncan said.
“It’s fine,” Mary said. “If Sylvester is willing?”
“Willing enough, I suppose.”
“Then I’ll guard you, Lillian,” Mary said.
We sat on makeshift chairs and sections of tree trunk that hadn’t yet been reduced into constituent elements, instead serving as makeshift stools. All of the legs and sawed ends of tree trunk scraped against the floor as the Lambs found their way to their feet.
My back ached as I stood. Half of it was more bandage than skin. I’d sat still for too long, gotten chilly and then warm again.
I looked at Jessie. “Any objection?”
“Me talking to Lillian.”
Jessie smiled. “Go ahead.”
“You don’t mind? We’re getting along, you and I. That’s important to me.”
“Go,” she said. “We all reconvene here. If you’re going somewhere, tell me where you’re going. If you’re looking for someone, come to me. I don’t think the Lambs are going to get lost.”
With that, the group scattered. Berger, much like I would’ve preferred to do, remained at the table. His wounds clearly hurt, as mine did, and this was far too much activity for first thing in the morning.
My lieutenants were looking on.
On my way to the door, walking in the company of Mary and Lillian, I spoke to them, “Get everyone packed and ready. By day’s end. Anyone who straggles will have to catch up. Big projects… leave them for now if we really can’t move them.”
There was so much to juggle. Professors and interpersonal relationships and Lambs and Mabel and Jessie and Lillian and Mary and the plot to end the Crown and stop what the Infante was very possibly plotting.
We stepped outside, and I lit myself a cigarette, offering to Mary and Lillian. Both refused.
Once we’d settled at a spot across the street, me leaning into a very old-fashioned lamppost, Mary broke away.
She kept an eye on things, but remained out of earshot.
“So what’s with that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Lillian said. “Well, I do know, but I don’t know how to word it.”
“That doesn’t help me any,” I said.
“If you’d stuck around, you’d know more,” Lillian said. “About Mary’s psychology, about how we’ve bonded and broken away and gotten frustrated with each other. About a lot of things. But you left.”
“Out of necessity.”
“You won’t come back.”
“Not without Jessie, and they’d dissect Jessie. Not without me being stuck in a cell in the worst, deepest floors of the dungeon so I wouldn’t pose a threat to the Crown.”
Nothing surprising in any of that.
“What’s your aim here?” Lillian asked me.
I raised my eyebrow. “Here? I’m not about to divulge greater plans, you know. We’re nemeses.”
“Not that. What’s your concern with the Lambs? What are you driving for? Why take two on? It has to go deeper than what you’ve said.”
“Deeper,” I said, ruminating on that. “I suppose. It’s really not all that fancy an answer.”
“But it’s something you’ve spent the last hour and a bit working on. Clearly putting brain power toward devising solutions. Going the extra mile.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’m a curious sort.”
Lillian folded her arms. No nonsense, but not in the stern librarian way.
“I’ll tell you,” I said. “But on one condition.”
“I’m not sure I’m in the mood for conditions, Sylvester.”
“When we part ways this time, let’s do it favorably. I go do what I need to do. You guys do what you need to do. But I’ll wish you a sincere good luck, and you do the same for me.”
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. Only that I want to end this without tears. The tears nearly destroyed me last time. Let’s… yeah. That’s my term. If you agree to follow it, then I’ll tell you what I’m shooting for.”
“I find that deals with you are never wholly happy, Sylvester.”
“We once had a long-standing deal of the oldest sort, one that existed before any institution or tribe. Boy and girl,” I said. “I think you were happy for a stretch.”
“A frustrated sort of happy,” Lillian said.
“You liked being frustrated,” I pointed out.
Wrong thing to say. The folded arms became more of a self-hug. The conversation paused.
Why did this have to be so hard?
“I’ll take your deal, Sylvester.”
“Then I’ll give you your answer,” I said. “Fray.”
“She’s always there,” I said, lowering my voice. “When the Lambs appear, she’s there, clutching at them. She lurks close to them and brings out bad qualities.”
“Sy, is this the real Fray, or-”
“The one I can never directly look at, because she’s pieced together from fragments and I really don’t know her well, but she’s Fray.”
“Sy, no. That’s not even funny to joke about.”
“It really isn’t,” I said. “She’s ominous. She threw me off to give you guys a shot at me, and now she’s up to something else. There’s a level of intuition at play with all of this, and everything’s importance. Every Lamb represents something. Mauer and Fray represent things. Mr. Bubbles represents something. The trick is seeing the pattern, trusting the Lambs, and trusting the prey instinct. If Fray is clutching at you in my head, I want to get you out of her reach in reality.”
“There’s a lot more to just about everything you said than that,” she said. “You’re punching at shadows here.”
“Or,” I said, “my intuition is saying that this is worth paying attention to and being wary about. Taking on Helen lets Jessie and I see what changes, lets us access some people, and gives us a bit of an edge we lacked in confrontations.”
“While depriving us of the same,” Lillian pointed out.
“Yeah,” I said.
“So that’s it, then? Duncan is putting the scalpel to Ashton in some makeshift lab because you had a feeling about a hallucination you’re seeing?”
“It’s part of it,” I said. “Or maybe it’s better to say that ‘it’ involves some longer-term thinking. Because I don’t want to go out alone. I want… I’ll see you before the year is up, wherever you end up. I’ll bring Helen back.”
“You’ll come back? To say goodbye?”
“Because I’ll be watching all of you. I’ll be keeping an ear out, and I’ll be thinking about everything that needs thinking about. Just like I did this time, I’ll have information and answers when we cross paths. And I’m really hopeful that when we get that far, we can join forces.”
“It’s so sad,” Lillian said. “This. Mary. Helen. Even poor Ashton in there.”
“Duncan,” I said.
I puffed on my cigarette. Snow collected on and around us.
Mary, off to one side, was throwing knives at trees while keeping an eye on us. The implication was that she could hit me with a knife if I did anything she didn’t approve of.
It was hard to figure out what to say, when my thoughts were very much elsewhere.
“I’m glad we ran into each other, even in this circumstance,” I said. “Even with recent differences.”
“Yeah,” Lillian said. “But maybe next time we run into each other, it would be nice if I didn’t come in from the cold and the dark and nearly six months of only having Mary and my books for company and find you nicely snuggled in between Jessie and some girl.”
“Ah, yeah,” I said.
“Not that I have any claim or anything on you or what you do-”
“No, no. I get it.”
“But the shock and surprise… I was unkind to Jessie, I was so caught off guard.”
“I get it,” I said. I drew in a deep breath. “Next time, I will strive to be in the midst of something even more shocking and disarming when you burst into the room to surprise me. Something even, I dare say, disturbing. What would you say to activities involving a funnel and large spiders?”
Lillian punched my arm, and in that moment, the world was a little bit more right than it had been a minute ago.
Helen held Ashton’s arms while Duncan cut. She talked into his ear.
Duncan made a fresh incision, and Ashton screamed, blood-curdling, scaring the daylights out of poor Duncan.
“I think I just had a heart attack,” Duncan said.
“Helen told me to do that.”
“You’re not helping, Helen,” Duncan said.
“Sorry,” Helen said.
He cut again. Ashton screamed, blood-curdling, once more.
“Ha ha,” Duncan said.
“She told me to do that too.”
All around us, the students were getting packed up. The kitchen supplies were being hauled to a wagon and cart, the students’ belongings were being moved down, and everything was being sorted out to maximize space. Jessie was overseeing a fair bit of it.
At Duncan’s insistence, Helen gave up on holding Ashton and backed off. Lillian took over.
I was still smoking, now on my second cigarette. I stayed away from the murder scene in progress, and I kept an eye out for Lieutenants.
“Gordon Two,” I said.
“Gordon what?” Lillian asked from the other end of the room.
“Nobody’s trying to gather my or Jessie’s stuff?”
“Your rooms are untouched,” Gordon Two said.
“Where are Pierre and Shirley?”
“Overseeing the carriages. It’s going to be tricky, getting everyone in. I think two-thirds of us are walking.”
I wasn’t surprised. We’d been under-stocked even before wagons had gotten damaged in the evening of conflict.
I kept my mouth shut, and I watched, giving occasional pointers as Duncan carved at Ashton. He had a good sense of what he was doing, but I’d spent more time than most with the red plague. My tips and suggestions for Duncan were of an aesthetic sort, to better make it look like the plague had done the damage to Ashton.
Seeing a cross section of Ashton proved distracting for innumerable students who were passing into and through the dining hall.
“We’ll need more wagons,” I said, absently.
Ashton was no longer screaming, but he seemed uncomfortable. It was only natural. He was losing a hand. After this, he would be partially flayed. He was a stoic little fellow. Particular, but stoic.
When the arm came off, severed at the elbow, Helen was quick to latch onto it, the most reluctant to hand it back. Mabel had a container waiting, and the arm went straight into safety.
“Painful,” Mabel said. She looked at me. “Why?”
“The thing about the Lambs is that they’re top quality work,” I said. “One of the better projects from one of the better Academies in the Crown States.”
“And you want to replicate it?”
“No,” I said. “No, I want to learn from it. Jessie knows the key ratios, don’t you Jessie?”
“Absolutely,” Jessie said.
“Memorized the tables, charts, formulas?”
“And we now have one piece of a pheromone-driven experiment for reference, while we’re in the midst of preparing our own such experiment. That speeds us up?”
“Considerably,” Jessie said.
I spread my hands for Mabel.
She nodded. I watched her watch the Lambs, and I wondered what was going through her head.
Was she, in her own perception, intruder or intruded-on? Bystander, outsider, or someone at home? I didn’t have enough experience with her to say one way or another.
Heads turned away as Ashton was cut into.
Ashton’s eyes settled on mine.
“You’re aware I could make this entire building implode on you?”
“Yeah, Ashton. I’m aware.”
“Good,” he said.
Which was all. The little man was changing. He’d set his sights on something, said something about drives and goals, and he’d said other things I would have to ask Jessie for in order to get reminders, but he was changing, and that was a very good, positive thing.
Lillian and Jessie hugged. Then Jessie and Mary hugged while I faced Lillian down.
I was rescued by Helen, who threw her arms around my shoulders and Lillian’s, hugging us both, while advertently putting us in closer proximity to one another. My forehead knocked lightly against Lillian’s, and then came to rest against it.
“No spider funnel, please. I don’t need to see that,” Lillian said.
“Noted. Centipedes and a good stuffing stick.”
I had to pinch Helen to make her let go of us, which was a bit of a shame. When I raised my head, forehead no longer pressing against Lillian’s with the strength of Helen’s grip, I let my lips graze Lillian’s forehead.
Mary hugged me, which was weird. I didn’t take any of her weapons and she didn’t hold anything sharp or pointy to my throat.
Ashton settled for a backwards handshake, using his non-dominant hand. Duncan took an ordinary, almost-adult handshake instead.
“Don’t die, don’t let Fray make decisions for you.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Jessie spoke, “Take care of that professor. He was hard to retrieve. We all suffered for it. Sy more than most.”
I thought of the torture, of the bug latched onto my back. The day felt a little less bright than it had.
“We’ll see him out safely,” Mary said. “You’ll look after our Helen?”
“Absolutely,” I said. I looked at Helen. “Yes?”
“I’ll be fine,” Helen said.
“Perfect,” Mary said.
There was an antsy caravan behind us, ex-students looking to get moving on what was liable to be a full day of travel. They had little stake in what happened here. The Lambs wanted to go for much the same reason. The overall anxiety was compounded by the presence of the ‘enemy’, so to speak.
We had every reason to go, to get moving.
I looked at these Lambs, at a damaged Ashton and a stern Mary, at Lillian who I would have dearly loved to sit by a campfire with, and at Duncan, who… wasn’t disappointing me anymore, and who was impressing me now and then.
Unless that was a trick of memory.
Every reason to go… and without coming up with an excuse or voicing it, both sides were reluctant to be the first to turn away and put distance between us.
One way or another, if only half of the Lambs make it, we reunite. We band together. We find a way through, I thought. We don’t end this separated.