I had gone to a lot of trouble to build my first phase of an army, all individuals with reasonably respectable backgrounds and some degree of know-how. It had required planning, subverting the gangs of a small city, subverting Fray’s plans, and then weeks and months of acclimatizing the students to life beyond the academy. Months more work still remained to do.
“I can’t believe they lost,” I said.
“Surrendered,” Jessie said.
“I’m so disappointed,” I said.
I surveyed the situation. The area we’d left our people in had seen some sparse gunfire and some fires that had already petered out. We were in the process of creeping up on a row of apartments where our guys’ carriages were still parked outside, only half of the bags still mounted on them.
“Against a tenth their number,” I said.
“There’s no evidence of that,” Jessie said. “There’s no telling what their numbers are.”
Our guys were inside and we could only see glimpses. Their guys were mostly inside, with a few standing guard.
Helen draped over Jessie, who was helping her to walk. Helen wasn’t lifting her head, and our improvised medical care had her wrapped up awkwardly in several places, but she was an oddity, a creature that only a very select few could really work on. That was what made me worry.
Halfway across the city, her brother was hunched over, only his shoulders and part of his back visible over the skyline. Now and then he moved, producing a horrendous crashing sound.
“I wonder if he’s having fun,” I asked.
Helen smiled through the curtain of blood-stained hair that covered her face, moving her head to try and look up at her brother. She couldn’t seem to see him with the way she slouched forward and then let her head droop, conserving energy.
Her resilience in the face of multiple gunshots was giving me a newfound respect for what her brother must be like.
“Does he enjoy things? Does he have good days? Imagine the Lambs with him in tow. There’s Evette, there’s Jessie, then you’ve got Ashton, Gordon, Helen, Lillian, and-”
“You’re leaving yourself out? And including me as a girl?”
“Just imagining hypotheticals. So you’ve got the core group, and the dice fell down differently and so there’s no Sylvester, maybe throw Hubris in there from an earlier point of view, because I like the idea that the real Evette would come up with something like that as part of her problem solving mindset, and so Gordon gets Hubris as a puppy that grows with him. Because I really think he took to that dog and other-Gordon deserves to have him for longer.”
“That’s a nice thought, Sy,” Jessie said. Helen nodded.
“And then you just stick Neph in the group. Subtlety out the window. Gordon’s got Hubris and sends him to go attack the bad guy. Nope! Neph strikes, attacking with his sleeping dragon.”
“And the nice glowy what-if is ruined,” Jessie said.
“They could totally have a rivalry, even. Because Gordon would need to have one with someone to be happy and healthy.”
“Okay, Sy,” Jessie said. “You’re getting off track.”
“It makes for interesting thoughts on which lines the group breaks on. Is it the unconventional thinkers, with the Ibbot siblings and Evette on one side, and the rational, serious types with Gordon, Ashton, Jessie and Lillian-”
Jessie covered my mouth with her hand.
“You’re always a little fuzzy around the edges when you come back from the brink, Sy,” she said.
“Mmph,” I said. Then I gestured. Lies.
“It’s true,” she said. “You get a little bit wobbly. Minor blood loss and exhaustion might be helping to keep you wobbly. But those are our people in there. We made pledges to them.”
I nodded, Jessie’s hand clamped against my lower face.
“Of the last forty-five times we’ve been in a situation like this, me asking you to be serious, with good reason to be serious, you’ve only listened half the time. It’s actually very close to fifty percent, which… really says a lot. Are you actually going to be serious?”
I stuck my tongue out, and as slowly as I was able, I licked the palm of the hand that was clamped over my mouth.
I did get the faint break in composure I was looking for. A flash, too brief for my battered senses to even fully assess before they were gone, then a glance away, as if she was disappointed in herself for giving me that.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said, her hand dropping away.
“It was either that, or I was going to gesture something like ‘big sleep dragon’.”
“We don’t really have a gesture for dragon. Lizard-beast?”
I gestured. Man. Meat.
Her composure broke for real. She was so caught off guard that she snorted a little. She pushed her glasses up to cover her face with her hands.
“It sounds quiet,” I said, getting serious. “No sound from inside, except maybe the patter of talking. We’ll know more as we get close. The gunfire was brief, it really does look like a surrender, like you said. What can see through windows suggests that they’re calm, not agitated.”
“We should still focus,” Jessie said.
“I don’t know about you, blushing and thinking about Helen’s brother’s pendulum, but it’s an established fact that I can think about multiple things at once and it’s usually pretty good thinking.”
“Yeah? Then regale us with your brilliant idea, sir.”
“I don’t have the slightest of clues how to tackle this.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“This is your turn to step up, say you know the building layout and we’ve got this.”
“In a strange city, with no prior experience?”
“That’s where you say that you recognize the building design, it’s by so-and-so an architect, he builds things certain ways, and so we know there’s going to be an access point here and here and there.”
“I don’t have anything. But I’m going to read up on architects, if I get a chance. There can only be so many tall building designers.”
Helen reached out, waving a hand in front of us.
Her hands moved, and I could see the concerted effort she was making to get shaking fingers into specific shapes. The more effort she put in, the more her fingers seemed to shake, until they locked up.
She remained like that for a long moment, hands in claws, head bowed and face covered by hair, before I reached out to take her hands. Her head moved, resting so it lay sideways on Jessie’s shoulder.
“You want to say something?” I asked.
Helen nodded, her head still sideways.
The phantom Helen, intact, stepped to the fore, Fray’s arms around her shoulders, a possessive embrace.
Think like Helen thinks. I can finish the sentences of any of the Lambs. The other Lambs have changed some, but I can figure her out like this, can’t I?
Her hand pulled free of mine, and as if it were heavy, she lifted it, indicating a direction.
As if answering, her brother tore up the next part of the street. I could hear the distant avalanche of falling construction as he let it all settle.
“Okay,” I said.
She indicated the building that Cynthia’s soldiers and our rebels were gathered in.
Then, with uncooperative hands, she reached for the side of her skirt. There was a pocket hidden among pleats, and a small weight in the pocket.
My mind skipped along possibilities. Both Mary and Helen often kept some money in the same leather fold that had the badge we’d been given ages ago, that bore the Radham crest and the short message and signature that gave us a degree of access.
The intact Helen held up the badge, indicating the emblem.
“Radham,” I said. Helen nodded. I then eyed the other Helen, who beat bloody Helen in touching her throat. “Buildings and cities are lifeforms. They need air, water, food of a sort, they need a spine.”
Helen was nodding with as much energy as I’d seen from her since she got shot.
“The building has its own veins and arteries, airways. You want to use the airways?”
“I’ll have you know that those airways are almost always half-filled with dust, they have nails sticking through everywhere, and half of them have ecosystems to keep them clear of rodents and pests.”
“But it’s a way of accessing them,” Jessie said.
Helen made a clumsy gesture.
“And Helen thinks it’ll be a healthier, more robust system, because it’s a taller building,” I said.
“I’m halfway convinced that you’re just making this nonsense up and saying Helen said it because I trust her sincerity more than I trust yours,” Jessie said.
I made my best ‘innocent’ face.
Jessie brushed at my face with her hand. “Don’t do that. Put that away. It’s creepy.”
I smiled and looked up at the building. It was tall, it wasn’t especially pretty, and it didn’t look like it did a fantastic job of being utilitarian either.
“Our kids deserve some sacrifice, huh?” I asked.
“They gave up their old lives,” Jessie said. “They deserve more than just some.”
“How long do you think we have to wait until the next shift comes to relieve the guys standing outside?” I asked.
“I couldn’t begin to guess,” Jessie said.
“Guess,” I said. “And come on. We want to be ready when they do.”
“It’s already been a while, but it wouldn’t be too trivial a length of time. I’d have to guess ten minutes. Fifteen at most.”
“I bet it’s one,” I said. “Want to bet who’s more right?”
We crossed the street from a point they couldn’t easily see us, and then we made our way closer to the building. I mentally counted the seconds, and gestured clearly as the time limit hit.
I was off by twenty seconds. We spotted the soldiers guarding the side door of the apartment building, and the relief guard stepped out to greet them as we took stock of their number.
I’d figured a minute because I had seen soldiers checking their watches with increasing frequency, because they weren’t lighting up new cigarettes, and because they were increasingly antsy, as if they were only feeling the cold now that there was a very short time before they could go inside.
Three soldiers to a door. Their job was less to shoot and more to keep watch and make sufficient noise to alert the rest if trouble came up. That posed us the task of going through them to get inside.
“You should wait here,” I told Helen.
She shook her head.
“I know you aren’t going to. But you should,” I told her.
She made her hands into claws, scratching them in the general direction of the soldiers. I wondered if that was perhaps a little overly optimistic. She barely had it in her to stand straight, let alone fight.
Three was doable, in a specific set of circumstances. We needed the drop on them, we needed them to be unarmed, or we needed them to be out of earshot of any reinforcements. Preferably two of the three.
“Helen,” I said. “Can you give me a cat noise?”
She barely moved, but my version of Helen gave me a theatrical-quality unimpressed look.
“Fine. Can you give me a dying cat noise?” I asked. “Those are the best ones.”
Helen opened her mouth, and she managed to produce a sound that resembled an old cat in a screw press; it was tortured, ragged, and yowly.
I motioned for her to stop, and I listened, waiting.
As predicted, the soldiers commented on the sound. They were concerned, they didn’t want to leave their post, but a sound like that bore investigating.
I wanted to draw them out, to create a window where they could be ambushed or where we could slip past.
Then I heard one of them say it. “Get some of the others from inside.”
I sighed. This wouldn’t be easy.
All in all, it had taken us far too long to find a chink in the defenses, prodding and testing the waters at three different entry points. At the last one, the side door at the opposite end of the building to the one we had tried first, we ended up waiting until one of them was distracted before making our move. When one had stepped off to the side to take a leak, we got the attention of the remaining two. One had stepped inside, and Jessie and I had each taken one of the other two before the three of us slipped inside, just ahead of the incoming group of reinforcements.
They were careful, organized, and they had patrols throughout the ground floor of the building. But Jessie had enough of a sense of how these places were designed that she’d been able to lead us to the utility closet with access to the access door.
The access door featured a hatch in the floor that would lead down to whatever beast in the cellar was providing the voltaic power to keep the building lit, probably. The hatch in the ceiling led to the air ducts, which kept heat and airflow available in the various large apartments. There were few enough doors that I suspected that one apartment had nearly the same footprint as any small, one-level house.
Valentina was talking. The student council vice president, she was good at talking, at the emotional appeal, the marketing end of things. It sounded like she and her former superior on the student council disagreed on something important.
Davis sounded as heated as I’d ever heard him as he responded, “Is this how we’re supposed to forge a path ahead, now? We abandon anything that doesn’t show the slightest sign of working out?”
“Yes,” Valentina said. “Yes, absolutely yes. What do you expect, Davis? Sylvester and Jessie are brilliant, but they were never people I expected to be working with in five or ten years. This is a stepping stone. Just like time in the Academy was.”
“You see us with them in five years?”
“Maybe! Listen, Davis- no, Davis, listen to me, don’t turn your back. Listen. The seas are stormy out there. We’re individual ships without a port to call home. If our current employers aren’t up for keeping us fed, sheltered, safe, and giving us an opportunity to grow and learn, then we go someplace with someone who can.”
“That’s disingenuous. You’re arguing to your audience, not me.”
“Explain,” the Treasurer cut in.
“She buried the appeal to safety in there. All of you are feeling pretty darn unsafe right now. That’s alright, that’s natural. But what we’re doing, going rebel, it was never going to be safe. Now that’s finally hitting home, and I’ll be first to admit it’s lousy, but this was the deal with the devil I and every single one of you happened to sign. We knew this day would come. Anyone who pretended different was lying to themselves.”
“I have heard Sylvester admit a half dozen times that he doesn’t expect to live another two or three years. The deal with the devil was that we would make ourselves available to Sylvester and Jessie so long as they made themselves useful enough to deserve us. It was always going to be transient.”
“Can I break your confidence?” Davis asked.
There was a pause. I began to crawl further along the wooden ventilation shaft, feeling my way to avoid the nails and carcasses.
The pause, I realized, was Valentina and Davis having a brief whispered conversation.
“Enough of that,” I heard a man say.
“It wasn’t meat to be in confidence,” Valentina said, at normal speaking volume.
“It was a private conversation, I wanted to be sure,” Davis said. “You told me you fell in love with Sedge and what it represented. That you felt happy. Our bosses provided that. That’s worth something. It’s worth us not turning around and immediately jumping ship.”
“They have guns. I don’t want to get shot at, I don’t want anyone that I’ve gotten to know to get shot at. I fell in love with Sedge because of the people who occupied it, because of the freedom it represented. I’m grateful to our employers for giving us that venue and giving us some direction, but what made Sedge Sedge wasn’t that. We did it. Collectively.”
“You’re pulling a ‘queen and all her subjects’ on me.”
“What’s this?” another student asked.
“Appealing to loyalties of the crowd,” the Treasurer said.
It looked like our students were defecting, or enough were defecting that it was impacting how the enemy was handling them. Cynthia’s soldiers had to have seen us enter the city. They had adjusted and moved their forces, and moved against our people as we were getting sorted out. But the forces here were now holding position, which meant they expected company to arrive.
“A gun to my head counts for a lot. I don’t know about you,” Valentina said. “But if they’re willing to give us work and shelter and do what Sylvester and Jessie were willing to, I’m willing to accept the gun as a motivator and do what I might be willing to do otherwise.”
“That rebel group that’s sitting in the other room is ninety-nine percent male. Beattle, by virtue of association with all-girl’s schools, has a disproportionate fifty-fifty balance. Do the math, Valentina. They won’t necessarily want you for your brains.”
“That can be taken two ways, Davis. Both are unflattering.”
“Hold up,” the Treasurer said, talking over Davis’s response. “Stop.”
“I phrased that poorly,” Davis said.
“You did,” Valentina said.
“Why don’t we give someone else a chance to raise their voices?”
The discussion continued, with Mabel taking the floor. I moved on, with Jessie and Helen following behind. I could guess how most of the conversation would unfold, who would go where, and how things might flow from that point.
The surrender hadn’t been enticing enough. The prospect of recruiting several hundred students had been. I wasn’t sure who had fought for it or against it, but they had made the offer and now all bets were off. Valentina and Davis were debating things with students as an audience.
But they weren’t the voices I wanted or needed to listen to. The real danger was the rebel group that inhabited the building. They were the ones who were holding our people hostage.
The trick was to navigate the vents until we found a point where we could overhear the rebels. It made for a lot of crawling through ducts, two fingers on one of my hands in bad shape, my shoulder protesting at my being bent over.
I’d offered Helen a chance to sit out, and she hadn’t. I could most certainly do my share while she was struggling.
We found a spot where acoustics brought noise into the vents, a crossroads between multiple vents, with the next best thing to an open space in the middle of the chosen sector. A ladder extending up was especially useful, because it provided headroom. Helen, Jessie and I sat there, Jessie in the middle. Helen clung to her and draped over her, and Jessie turned away from Helen to fixate on my shoulder, undoing sodden bandages.
I called out, using those same acoustics to speak out to this entire part of the building.
“Cynthia is dead or dying. The woman crawls desperately through the drains, and the giant is tearing up the street as fast or faster than she can move. She will make a mistake. She will get tired. Your leader will die, if she isn’t dead already.”
All chatter had died down.
Someone in the enemy ranks shouted out, “Where are you?”
I was tempted to give a joke answer, but then Jessie pre-emptively elbowed me.
I elbowed her back.
“Cynthia is your lowest priority,” I spoke. “There’s a group of your people due east of here. They sent you ahead, or you reported to them. Franz led that particular group.”
I let the words hang.
There was more shouting and there were more attempts to provoke a direct response from me. Some even called out for me to show myself.
That could come later, if they were especially uncooperative.
“Franz is dead,” I announced. I paused, to give that reality some gravity. “The others… paralyzed. Eyes lost from sockets. It was messy and wholly deserved. I focused on disabling them. Smoke inhalation will have helped. The building is made of treated wood, so it wasn’t burning well, last we saw. There are two places you could be, and they aren’t here.”
There were more shouts, more threats. There were several gunshots, aimed at the ceiling. From our vantage point, we could see down the length of most of the ducts. None of the shots seemed to penetrate the ducts themselves.
They could come in after us, was the big threat, but that was a tricky proposition for all involved.
“I’ve told you what I did to the others. That was for hurting a friend of mine. Use your imagination to figure out what I’ll do to you if you kill anyone important to me.”
I heard more gunshots, and the timing was such that I was pretty sure that it was a response to my threat.
Jessie pointed, however, and I could see the faint light that was coming into one of the long ducts near us, a faint shaft of light spearing up.
Shooting at us, not at the kids.
It was too difficult, with what went into sturdy buildings like this one. I could hear the frustration in the words they exchanged, even if they had been closer or louder so I could make sense of it.
“Cynthia is desperate, a giant on her heels, and she’s resorted to crawling through ice cold water in the drains. Franz’s group burns. Every second counts. You can go if you let us slip the noose.
“Never forgive,” I heard a voice. One of Cynthia’s diehards.
“Then try forgetting, not forgiving. This whole embarrassing rebel-on-rebel episode has to stop.”
There were more responses, more shouts, many vulgar.
I could sense the change in tone though. I could hear the conversation between groups.
“Killing me gets you small fame and a small bounty,” I said. “Then because you chose this, you chose to tie my hands and force me to act, you’re left leaderless. No Franz, no Cynthia.”
It was, in a way, a turning of tables. They had been exploiting much this situation with our own rebels.
All that said and done, the best thing to do was to be quiet. Opposing discussions continued and intermingled in a way that mirrored the debates I’d heard between Davis and Valentina. They started talking about the people who should go, if anyone went. Following that, the if disappeared, they started talking about more people going.
I closed my eyes, my role done, and rested my head Jessie’s shoulder, my hand on her leg.
We gave them time, and they used it to make their decision. They’d known something was wrong, I suspected. The communication and coordination was too great.
When I emerged, I found the area empty. They’d left our people alone and vacated the area. A mutual truce.
They were soldiers, but they were soldiers of a stripe that needed someone to follow. Threatening the loss of Cynthia gave them pause. Taking Franz would take away more security. With the first and second in command out of the picture, there wasn’t much to be said and done.
The congregation of Beattle rebels emerged from the rooms they had been sequestered in.
I met Valentina’s eyes, and she looked away.
“It was good,” I told her. “Good bluff.”
“That was a bluff?” Mabel asked.
It wasn’t a bluff, but I wasn’t about to say it. If she was going to stick around after making a vehement case against going, I needed to give her the chance to save face.
She smiled, and it wasn’t a sure smile, and I smiled back, with roughly the same confidence.
Something would have to be done longer-term.