Lamb (Arc 17)

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“…You’ve each grown and taken on a fortitude that goes well beyond what your teachers and textbooks were able to impart.  Wallace called it a preservation of the favored, and you favored students sit here now, having faced the gauntlet of testing, examinations, projects, and screens.”

Lillian didn’t want to fidget and betray her anxiety, but she did dig one nail of her thumb into the underside of the other thumb’s nail.

“You are what we sought to preserve.  Recognize and be proud of the strength you have no doubt found deep within yourself, the courage, the commitment, and the willpower.  Each of you have provided a long series of minor projects and two major projects to the Academy and Crown, strengthening it, much as Crown and Academy have strengthened you.”

At the stage, Hayle stood at the podium.  Radham’s professors, the mayor, two people Lillian didn’t recognize, and one minor noble Lady she had never seen all stood or sat behind Hayle.  A man in a white coat stood by a long table.

“Civil war, rebellion, religious mobs, betrayal of the Academy by its own members, and a plague that may well be covered in textbooks your children’s children read… it paints a bleak picture, doesn’t it?” Hayle asked.  The grey-haired man stood to one side of the podium, not behind it, one of his hands behind his back, the other resting on the edge of the podium, periodically pointing.  The deep-etched lines of his face were cut darker by the lighting.  He might have resembled a fencer, given his stance, but if he was one, he was the old master.

“But I’m optimistic, and I’m optimistic in large part because of you.  You’ve witnessed and endured a great deal in the past five years.  I believe our future is in capable hands.  I trust each of you in that.  Some of you will be commended for your efforts in these trying times, others will receive accolades.  But each of you, by dint of the fact that you’ve earned your seats here, are remarkable.  Some of you will go on to manage clinics or work in labs, others will join the military to offer your services.  Others will push themselves even further, to earn your grey coats, or even your black coats.”

He smiled.  Lillian hadn’t ever seen Hayle try to be genial.  She wasn’t sure he was very good at it.

“Life, as each and every one of you know, is a remarkable thing.  Your lives, dear students, especially so.  You are better, and this is only the first leg of the journey for many of you.  Now prove yourselves even better still, whether it’s in the face of life’s winding course, or if it’s in pursuit of greater academia and the best that Crown and Academy can provide you.”

Lillian’s thumbnail dug deeper into the flesh.  It would have been nice if Duncan had been able to sit by her, but he was a row ahead of her and way off to the left.  Her second thought was Mary, but Mary would be in the audience at the very edges of the room.

“I’ll stop torturing you all now,” Hayle said.  The look on his face was especially dark as he smiled.  “You want to hear your names spoken.  I’ll cut right to it.  Owen Barr!”

The entire front row stood.  Owen strode to the stage.  Lillian watched as he hurried up the short series of steps and approached the table.  Owen must not have slept a wink the night prior, because he had dark circles under his eyes.  Had he not wanted to use medication to remove them?

Owen accepted the white coat handed to him by the man at the table, shucked off his student’s jacket, and donned the coat of a doctor.

He shook Hayle’s hand, then jumped a foot in the air as Hayle called out the next name the second his back was turned.

“William Bray!”

William ascended the stairs as Owen reached the lady noble at the far end of the stage.  He bowed, and the noble lady inclined her head in acknowledgement, smiling.

The audience at the edges of the room included powerful locals.  Radham was a good academy, and by virtue of being what it was, it spawned a vibrant ecosystem of schools, businesses, industries, and military arms.  The headmaster of Mothmont would be there, looking for young recruits to teach classes and tutor.  He wasn’t the person that had been in charge of the preparatory school when the Lambs had attended or when the Bad Seeds had struck.  That woman had been replaced.  Edward Scullion was also present, a local businessman who ran a local plant and who often contracted with Radham to use the Academy’s facilities to handle especially big orders.  His plant made psuedo-embryonic fluid for vat-grown life, custom-ordered by each given client.

“Scotty Becksie!”

Even now, they were being examined.  The unwitting might not have picked up on that, but very few got this far in their studies while also being unwitting.  Eyes were on them.  People like Scullion had come with names in mind, and they would approach the new Doctors with offers ready.  The people he picked would make more in a month than the average citizen made in a year, and if they could also earn Scullion’s favor, which was apparently not too difficult so long as they could handle their drink after hours, they would often be paired up with a local and attractive young aristocrat.

Stumble on the stairs on the way up or show fear like Owen had when Hayle had shouted, and that possible future could easily be retracted.  It was easy to make a mistake when nerves were this bad.

“I’m pleased to announce,” Professor Hayle said, “Travis Birch, with commendation.”

Lillian’s gaze was sharp as she watched a smiling Travis ascend the stairs.  Rather than don his coat himself, he was give his coat by one of the professors from Claret Hall.  After he approached Hayle, shaking the headmaster’s hand, Hayle affixed a little silver elaboration to the Academy crest just over Travis’ heart.  It was small, a little silver bar with a stylized leaf at one end.

But that was a decoration that Travis could wear for the rest of his career.  Every person who wore a lab coat knew what it meant, that he had placed himself head and shoulders above.  Sometimes they were politicized, sometimes they were downplayed, or someone might comment that a given professor handed them out freely to good looking students or any student with a nose sufficiently caked in brown… but there wasn’t a student in the auditorium that didn’t want to hear the headmaster announce them with commendation.

It opened doors, it fast tracked them along certain paths, giving them an automatic in where others would be questioned, tested, or second-guessed.  It afforded a measure of authority, all else being equal.

It, to be cynical, kept the students hungry, even after they knew they had a right to walk up on stage and claim their white coats.

She joined in with the applause, she smiled politely.  She felt the hunger, and it gnawed at her in a way; her thumbnail bit deeper into the quick of her other thumb as she clasped her hands on her lap once again.

More names.  Nicholas Booth.  Sidney Brown.  Luther Cockwill.

It wasn’t until the last names had passed into the realm of ‘D’ and two more boys had had their names called that the first girl got to walk up and claim her coat.  Jean Dahl.  Lillian had tutored her for a little while.  She hoped Jean found some measure of success.

Bruce Dearly.  D.J. Derrick.  Wesley Dillon.

“And I find I have to pause here,” Professor Hayle said.  “Because this next name deserves special mention, above and beyond even commendations.”

Lillian’s heart jumped in her chest.  Was Duncan there, at the front of the line?

“For exemplary service to Academy and Crown, for showing capability, intelligence, and skill that did the Academy proud, the collective faculty of Radham Academy is unanimous in wanting to recognize Max Fortin.”

Lillian joined the crowd in applause, watching as professors stood from their chairs, all applauding.  The noble lady, too, stepped forward.

Hayle spoke, as multiple professors, the mayor, and even the noble gave their congratulations to Max.  “As a student, now a Doctor, Max Fortin joined three members of our senior faculty in the labs, and it was his keen eyes that helped us identify two individual infection vectors for the carmine plague.”

There was no saying that someone like Max got lucky, that he had brown nosed his way into this, that he had cheated, or that he had slept with the right old pervert.  Commendations and accolades.  It was the result of committee, heated debate between staff members with favorites, with agendas, and, among people with black coats, very often people who wanted to protect the reputation of the accolades they had received, once upon a time.  They wouldn’t tarnish the elaborate decorations on the badges they wore for formal occasions.

Lillian’s disappointment staggered her.  For Duncan and for herself.  Commendations were something that were parceled out, often with each professor handing out one at most.  Accolades were a once-a-year thing.  There were tales of years with two, and a single year with three, but Lillian had long suspected that those years had been calculated, that they were dealt out primarily to give hope whose names had yet to be called.

And she did hope.  It was a bad year, wasn’t it?  It would be a good year to be generous.

“With my own commendation, Duncan Foster,” Hayle announced.

Lillian watched as Duncan ascended the stairs.  If he felt any of the same disappointment she did, he did a marvelous job at not showing it.  He smiled, extending a hand in a wave for someone at the back of the crowd, and beamed as he met Hayle at the table, shaking the headmaster’s hand before allowing Hayle to help him don the white coat.

Students to the left and right of Lillian were standing.  Lillian joined them.  She was suddenly so close to the stage.

“Alexander Fox,” Hayle announced.

Alexander ascended the stairs.  Lillian moved forward.  One student between herself and the stairs.

She could see some of the crowd at the side and back of the room now.  She saw Mary in the crowd, smiling, and was struck by the memory of Mary lying on a street that was only a twenty minute walk away from the auditorium.  Her own hands had been slick with Mary’s blood from fingertip to wrist as she had performed field surgery on her friend, Jamie’s voice calm as it spoke in her ear, helping to guide her.

She saw Ashton, still so young in appearance, and it wasn’t a stretch to imagine the others, as they had once appeared.

“Tom Gabriel,” Hayle spoke.

Tom ascended the stairs, and Lillian felt the air move in his wake.  Nothing between her and the stage now.

So many years ago now, Hayle had spoken to her in his office.  She had been terrified of him then, much as Oliver had, earlier.  He had spelled out that he needed a field medic for a project, and that the medic had to be young.  He hadn’t been headmaster then, but he had been a professor.  He talked about time away from the Academy, and how she would be compensated with allowances and some help from him and other members of the administration.  He’d spoken her praises, going over her grades from Academy prep and her introductory tests.  Was she interested?

She had almost said no, purely out of fear.  She had been such a scaredy cat.

But her fear of upsetting this terrifying man and dooming her career before she had even had her first midterm had won out.  She’d been afraid of what her parents would think or say if it somehow got back to them that she had been singled out as special and she’d said no.

Fear on one hand and fear on the other.

Seeing Mary reminded her that there was more to that story.  She had interacted with the Lambs, one particular Lamb for all of twenty minutes before she had gone straight back to Hayle to ask him to take her off the project.  He had talked her back into it.

“And I’m pleased and proud to now announce a student that I’ve followed since the beginning of her studies here.  This exceptional young lady has consistently been top of the class or close to it, and she maintained that academic standing while traveling to war zones and cities under siege at my order.  Lillian Garey, with commendations.”

Commendations.

Lillian’s eyes dropped for a second.  The fingernail of her index finger bit into the quick of her thumb for a second as she felt all of the doubts and fears she’d been keeping at bay wash over her.  The true nature of that noble on the stage, what she’d heard about Hayle’s lies and the conspiracy to keep her black coat from her, one she wasn’t entirely sure she had averted.

Getting no accolades felt like another play when it came to that conspiracy.

For an instant, she thought she might turn and walk away.

But what good did that do?  What good did it do to run, when she’d found the guts to stay in this all this time?

She could face down this particular monster.

She could put a smile on her face, ascending the stairs, acknowledging the applause.  She moved with a confidence that she hadn’t been given by her parents, in genetics or in upbringing, and she met Headmaster Hayle at the end of the table with the coats and scrolls.

The applause continued, polite applause from students and meaningful applause from others.  Mary was clapping, smiling.

Hayle bent down a fraction, speaking in her ear.  “I know.  I’m sorry.”

She shook her head, still smiling.  She had fought so hard to get here, and even being on this stage was something special, a vindication of too many moments of terror, too many times that she had bled and times that she had made others bleed.  Countless nights studying until her eyes could no longer track words on the page.

“Thank you for your help in putting me here, headmaster,” she said.

“The vast majority of it was you,” he said.  “Trust me.  Come to my office later tonight.  We’ll talk.”

“Alright,” she said.  The applause was dying down.  He offered his hand and she shook it.  She turned, allowing him to slip the lab coat into place.

Her back to the rest of the stage, her eyes passed over the crowd, her smile wistful.

She saw her parents, but she didn’t acknowledge them, she didn’t let her eyes stop for a fraction of a second as her gaze swept past them.

She searched for specific, more important faces and she didn’t see them.  It would have been insanity to expect those faces to appear here, of all places, but insanity played a fair part in defining at least one of those individuals.

I did it, Lambs, she thought.  Her hands tugged at the lapels of the coat.  It wasn’t one of the generic white coats.  This one had been made to fit her.  A special touch by Hayle, no doubt.

She turned to face him, so he could pin the commendation in place, and felt the shock of the unexpected, a hand at her arm, as he steered her, so that her turn completed without a stumble or a moment of confusion.

The noble lady stood before her.  Pale, white-haired, with oil-black lashes on her eyes and a slender, graceful frame and a gossamer-thin dress, the woman was young as nobles went, no older than twenty-five.  The noble lady’s fingers were long, the painted, pointed fingernails like a brandishing of daggers that fenced Lillian off from being able to reach out and take the commendation that lay in the cup of the palm.

No move was made to pin it on Lillian’s breast.

Automatically, Lillian curtsied.  She drew on everything she had, and she maintained her composure.

“My lady,” she said, her voice soft, almost inaudible in the dwindling applause.

The noble didn’t move, and the noble didn’t speak.

Lillian stayed still, confident, her head held high.  She was dimly aware of Mary in the background, and of Duncan, who wore a troubled expression.  She kept her eyes on the noble, though lowered in deference, and she tried very hard not to think about what the rogue Lambs had said about the nobility.

The Lady leaned close.  Lillian did her best not to flinch.

“You’ve been witness to the death of a noble,” the Lady whispered.  “And you’ve talked to so many who brought such things to pass.”

Lillian declined her head.  She was aware that five hundred eyes were watching the exchange, curious about the words being spoken.  “To my regret, my Lady.”

“Indeed,” the Lady replied.  She took hold of the commendation, rolling it in her fingers.  She exposed the point of the pin.

Poison?

No, it didn’t even have to be poison.  It only needed to make her bleed.

It took everything Lillian could summon up to hold firm as the Lady pinned the commendation in place.  The pin didn’t penetrate flesh.  No damage was done.  Lillian turned away in the same instant the noble Lady did, and she measured her steps with care so she couldn’t be perceived to be fleeing the stage.

“Chris Gateman,” Hayle announced the next name.

“You okay?” Duncan whispered, as Lillian found him in the group of students that had already stepped off the stage.

She managed to put a false smile on her face and nod, and she turned to look up at the stage.

She wasn’t okay, but she would have been hard pressed to articulate just why.  She was angry, at Hayle and at her parents and especially at the noble, this moment she had worked for tainted.

But she could look at the noble, and in a way, she had to wonder if the woman had acted as she had because of fear.

Was that creature, supposedly once a human, now simultaneously one of the most powerful people in the world and one of the most pitiable?

“Charles Gateman,” Hayle spoke.

Claret Hall was busy, as countless students were joined by parents and loved ones, gathering in the lobby and at the dining halls.  There were local business owners, politicians, teachers and other powerful figures now courting new Doctors, meeting here and there, making pitches and hearing students sell themselves.

Owing largely to the special attention from Hayle, a noble, and to the dramatic, just-long-enough pause before the commendation was pinned in place, Lillian received more than the usual share of glances and stares.

She ascended the stairs, and even on the second floor, there was a lot going on.  It wasn’t the crowd that was on the floor below, but the wide hallways and the open spaces were dotted with clusters and groups, each spaced out so they were just barely out of earshot of one another.

The top floor, however, was far quieter.  She passed one pairing of grey-coated man and new Doctor as she walked down two hallways.  She reached Professor Hayle’s office and knocked.

“Come in,” the Headmaster said.

Lillian did, closing the door behind her.

“Congratulations, Doctor,” Hayle said.  His smile seemed more natural than it had on stage.

“Thank you,” she said.  She put her hands into the pockets of her coat, enjoying the pull of it against her shoulders and neck.

“Have you had a chance to talk with your parents?”

“No,” she said.  Then she realized how it might sound.  “Perhaps after.”

“Perhaps after,” he said, nodding, digesting that.

He was standing behind his desk.  He had taken off and hung up his black coat, and his sleeves were rolled up.  Someone had brought him a tray of tea, which sat on the desk.  One cup had already been filled and sat steaming in arm’s length of his chair.

“Am I here for good news or bad news, headmaster?” she asked.

“Neither, I think,” Hayle said.  “It depends what you want to hear from me.  Again, I’m sorry for what happened on stage.  Lady Gloria invited herself.  I think she sought you out.”

“Why?”

“You likely know more than I do.  The politics of the Crown are a storm and I try to keep this ship on course in the midst of it.”

Lillian took in that statement, and turned it around in her head in light of what she’d learned about the nobles and the Block.

Was Hayle lying to her?  Did he know?

That did a lot to set the underlying tone of this conversation.

“May I?” she asked, indicating the tray of tea.

“Please do.  Help yourself to the cookies.  I’d rather not partake than deal with the heartburn or the remedy for the heartburn.”

Lillian poured herself a cup, and she tried to formulate a response while she did so.  “Would I sound petulant if I said I deserved accolades, Headmaster?”

“No,” Hayle said.  He settled into his chair, and he took hold of his cup of tea in both hands.  He didn’t elaborate.  He seemed to leave it at that.

“Was it her interference?  Or more politics that you couldn’t handle?”

“You didn’t capture Sylvester Lambsbridge, doctor,” Hayle said.  “You were put in charge of a project, with the idea of keeping the team intact, and not a single one of the original members remain.”

“I think that’s unfair,” she said.

“Gordon is dead, Helen is dead, Jamie was rumored dead, and even if that rumor was false, there’s some reason to think he was caught in one of the black wood traps with his partner in crime.  A casualty of the chaos other rebels created, if they weren’t the cause of the disasters in the first place.  No word of the pair in months.  How could I argue that case to a jury of professors?”

“Did you try?”

“No,” Hayle said.  He leaned back, holding his tea.  “As much as I’ve valued what you brought to the table, it wasn’t a sensible use of political capital.”

“I deserved for you to try,” Lillian said, not meeting his eyes.  She pursed her lips for a second, and then ventured, quiet.

“Perhaps,” Hayle said.  “I’ll see about making it up to you.”

Lillian wasn’t sure how to respond.  She already felt too entitled for pressing things this far.  She sipped the tea, testing the temperature, then took a more confident drink.  The cookies were shortbread, and they were perfect.

“I brought you here to discuss transition, change, not good or bad news,” Hayle said.  “In the interest of making things up to you… Mary is yours.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Take that in both senses it can be interpreted.  Her loyalty belongs to you already.  I am now formally handing you custody.  The doctors I tasked with her care will remain at your disposal should you ask, but whatever path you take from here, so long as you’re with the Academy, she is a project under your name, not my own.”

Lillian opened her mouth, trying to think of what to say, and then closed it.

“As for Ashton, I’ve him to Duncan’s custody.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” she said.  “And at the same time, I’m not sure if I should feel sorry for one of them, the other, both of them, or if it’s perfect.”

“A lot will depend on where he goes.”

“And my situation and Mary’s depend on where we go.”

“Yes.  No changes in her health?”

“Growths.  Largely benign, lower back and thighs mostly, some on the face and neck.  Manageable so far.”

“Good,” Hayle said, nodding.  “Good.  I’m glad.”

“But to backtrack- you said paths?” Lillian asked.  “What- I have paths?  What happened to the current path?”

The old professor nodded.  He leaned forward, elbows on the table, tea still clasped in both hands.  “The Lambs project is… in ambiguous territory.  You, Mary, and Ashton, you can be given a mission and I have confidence you could do a satisfactory job.  But it scarcely resembles what I was aiming to accomplish in the beginning.  There are the others that we used as bait…  I pay for their upkeep and I plan to do so for the indefinite future, but again, in function and form they would scarcely resemble what I hoped to create.”

“You wanted a gestalt.”

“You could say that, yes,” Hayle said.  He shook his head.  “I won’t say the project is finished or that it was a failure, but I think tying you to it in its current state is a crueler thing than failing to give you accolades.  I don’t foresee a resounding success that will launch your career forward.”

Lillian’s gaze dropped.  She helped herself to more shortbread.

“There are paths,” Hayle said.  “Right now you’re wearing that white coat with a student uniform, but that’s… a conceit for the evening, nothing more.  Tomorrow you’ll wear civilian clothes with your coat.  You might move on to work, interviews, or sign on for further study with the Academy.  Many of your fellow Doctors are in talks this very moment, deciding where they go.”

“Yes,” Lillian said.

“I’m held in some esteem, and you’re held in some esteem by me.  Some have floated interest in you for this reason.  Others have floated interest in you purely because of your own merits.”

The professor reached over, and he pushed a stack of letters and papers toward her.  Some were files, some were letters, and some were papers folded in threes and bound with cord.

“If you’d indulge me, I’d like to discuss the offers, and share my own perspective,” he said.

She put the shortbread down on the edge of her saucer and reached for the stack, sliding it closer to her.

“The letter that is on top… I put it there for a reason.  I think you should read it first, after you leave.  Calibrate expectations, digest it, be offended and insulted.  But read it and use it as a barometer to measure the others.”

“What is it?” she asked.  She lifted it up to better view it by the flickering voltaic lights.  “Sir Cory Llend?  I feel like I’ve heard that name.”

“A local aristocrat.  One of notorious stature.  He’s a boor and a pervert, he’s bad with the money he got by birthright, not effort.  More to the point, it’s not even a secret that he has an abiding fondness for intelligent, stern women.  Someone let slip that you were to be the sole female student to receive commendations at Radham this year.  He wrote to me with a message to be passed on to you.  He goes on at great length about the work Academy doctors have done on him, and his consequential… abilities.”

Lillian looked down at the letter and experienced a deep, almost existential kind of horror.

“Are my expectations being set this low?  A love letter from an embarrassment of a man?”

“No.  That wasn’t my aim in suggesting this,” Hayle said.  “But… it’s a kind of offer you should think about.  There are other letters in the pile that are from aristocratic fathers and mothers looking for respectable ladies for their sons.  I know you’ve talked about running your own Academy.  Having backing would shortcut the process, and it would make a great many things possible.”

“No, professor,” Lillian said.  “Headmaster.  I’m sorry.”

“Give it some consideration,” he insisted.  “As your mentor and advisor, I’m warning you that it’s exceptionally easy for a male doctor to miss out on the opportunity to forge a family and home and to fall into the trap that the Academy represents.  For a young lady, who only has so many years to bear children-“

Headmaster,” Lillian said, more firmly, shutting her eyes.

He fell silent.

She took a moment, waiting to see if he would say anything more, before she opened her eyes.

“It seems you’re not open to counsel on the topic,” Hayle said.  “I understand.”

Lillian felt the warmth of the cup of tea in her hands.  Her thumbnail throbbed.  She turned the sentence over in her head several times before she decided she was safe to say, “I let you dictate my childhood and adolescence, headmaster.  My relationships… I’d like to avoid that topic, past or future.  Leave them untainted.”

The man nodded, but his words betrayed the nod.  “I’m concerned I’ve already thoroughly damaged that part of you, throwing you to the wolves as I did, or to the wolf.  I’d hoped to mend that damage with some guidance tonight.”

Lillian’s mouth was dry, and she’d already downed most of the tea.  “I… if you don’t mind my saying so, I don’t think that’s for you to do.”

He could have taken it much harder than he did, but he hardly seemed to mind.  He took a moment to think, finishing his tea before standing to pour himself a fresh cup.

Lillian reached out, picking through the letters.

“The first few are overtures of a similar if less lewd nature,” Hayle said.  “The first one you might be interested in is from Professor Berger.”

Berger.  She tried not to betray interest or excitement and searched for it, making her way down the stack.

It was an envelope, sealed with wax.

“I didn’t read that one,” Hayle said, “as it was sealed with the Duke of Francis’ mark.”

Lillian nodded, and she opened the envelope.  Within were two bits of metal.

Commendations.  Pins with leaves at the end.  The leaves were marked with crowns.

“I reached out to him,” Hayle said.  “I didn’t ask for this, specifically, I merely thought he could be a resource for you as you started out, opening paths.”

Before even examining the commendations in full or reading the contents of the letter, her eye scanned the letter itself.  She saw the frayed marks at the edges of the paper.  Two, then one, then three.

She put that aside for later, and she read the contents, which were relatively brief.

“One for me, and one for Duncan.  A thank-you for his rescue.”

“He struck me as the kind of man who would do that.”

“He mentions Helen, and he talks about some things that he and I discussed while we traveled back to the city.”

“Excellent.  If he’s your ally, that’s an immensely good ally to have.”

Lillian nodded, folding up the letter.

“The remainder are job offers.  I put the one you might be most interested in at the top, near Professor Berger’s.”

The one she might be most interested in.  She picked it up, holding it for a clearer view.  The office wasn’t brightly lit, between the soft voltaic lights and the lamps on the desk, and the lines of the ink were spiderweb-fine.

“Professor Ferres?  Is this Viola Ferres?”

“I do not know of any other professors by that last name,” Hayle said.  He was smiling.

“She’s- I’ve gone on two trips just to hear her speak.  She’s an excellent mind, but she’s also one of the most capable female professors in the Crown States, she runs Hackthorn Academy.  She’s the only female professor that isn’t running an all-girl’s school.”

She almost crumpled the pages in her hurry to unfold them.

“Miss Lillian Garey, I’m writing to you because I’ve made a point of keeping my eye on the most exceptional young ladies in the Academies, and I can remember our brief but enthusiastic conversation in the summer of the year nineteen twenty-three.  I know the tales they tell about me, they call me the Hag of Hackthorn, and it would be remiss of me to neglect a rare young lady like yourself that once put a smile on the face of a hag like me.  I don’t remember making her smile.”

“If you did, you were the first person in decades to do it, by all reports,” Hayle said.  “She’s not often described as being kind or easy to get along with.”

Bewildered, Lillian read on, “I put myself in direct competition with your Professor Hayle in reaching out and attempting to recruit your mind and your services.  I want you for my Academy, Lillian Garey, to pursue a project that closely mirrors your Professor Hayle’s.  I…”

Lillian read on.

The delight faded from her features.

“She wants to start her own version of the Lambs,” Lillian said.  “She wants to take children, separate experiments, and to raise them as a unit.”

“Yes,” Hayle said.  “On one level, the Lambs left their mark.  Professor Ferres is the type to look at what others did poorly and attempt to do it better.  I harbor concerns she dwells on the cosmetic and neglects the personal, but that’s entirely beside the point.”

“What is the point?” Lillian asked.  She looked up at Hayle.  “The- I’m not trying to sound weak or upset in a way I’m not, but this bothers me and I can’t articulate why.”

For reasons that went well beyond the fact that Hayle was the one listening to the articulation.

“Because you invested a lot of yourself into the Lambs, and it could be that this kind of project is something you’ll forever take personally.  Someone who started out raising warbeasts from cub to weapon of war might forever have a soft spot for the things.  Especially if they were eleven or twelve when they started.”

Lillian frowned.

“There are others,” Hayle said.

“Others?  Others wanting to create Lambs of their own?”

“In varying ways and directions.  I thought Professor Ferres would be most interesting to you.”

Almost, almost, Lillian had considered the offer.  But the meeting with the noble on the stage weighed on her in a way she would likely be digesting for weeks to come, and then to hear that there were others?  It was one thing to step in and have a hand in things from the beginning, she could see herself doing that, acting and taking a firmer hand, illustrating the key problems, but when this was only one drop in a bucket?

“There are other factors to consider,” Hayle said.  “Come around to my side of the desk.”

Lillian did, bringing her tea with her.

Hayle moved papers and books aside.  On his desk, held down against wood by a sheet of glass, there was a map of the Crown States.  It was white parchment, of the kind an artist used, and the map had been drawn by a hand in a forceful, sketched out style that Lillian was almost certain was that of a stitched, a kind that drew reproductions.

That paper, stained slightly by age, had been painted with watercolor, possibly Hayle’s own hand.

There was red, and there was blue.  She could infer from the placement of things what the colors represented.

“Very few people truly see the current state of things in the Crown States, Doctor Garey,” Hayle said.

Her fingers touched the glass, tracing it.  The red watercolor started from the northeastern states and struck out, touching all of the dots and marring names that hadn’t been struck out with bold lines of Hayle’s pen.  A full third of the Crown States were painted with the crimson of plague.

The blue, conversely, it took another form.  It appeared almost at random, at the southwestern states, at the eastern coast, and in the English and French-speaking north.  A compass and possibly a thin brush been used to draw out circles, going by the regularity and thickness of the lines.  Some of the circles had a succession of other circles or other more irregular shapes drawn out near them.

Black wood.  It covered far more ground than she had been led to believe.  Multiple states, in some cases.

“Multiple weapons of the Crown released and unleashed on the world.  The black wood activated in seven locations.  Pre-emptive burn circles-”

Hayle tapped one of the circles drawn with the compass.

“-failed on several occasions, leading to further attempts at controlling the spread.  We think it was Fray.  A play for power that failed, a greater gambit, I couldn’t guess what unfolded.  But the rebels haven’t made a move or even shown their faces in months now.  Only Mauer is still fighting his fight after having sustained heavy losses.”

Lillian stared down at the image, committing it to memory as best as she was able.

She would need to communicate this to Professor Berger, in case he didn’t know.

Again, by Hayle’s rhetoric and his easy lies, she was reminded of how precarious this was.  That Hayle could look her in the eye and speculate about who was responsble, when Professor Berger and the Duke of Francis had confided that it was the Infante?

Either Hayle was keeping the truth from her in pursuit of the Crown’s agenda, or he was dangerously incompetent, and Hayle was not a man who lent himself to incompetence.

He continued, “Hackthorn, right here.  They’re isolated by the black wood, and you’ll want to factor that into your decision.  Getting in and out is difficult and dangerous, for a multitude of reasons.”

“I’m not going to Hackthorn,” she said.

Hayle nodded, as if this made an abundance of sense.  “I won’t steer you too firmly, given our conversation earlier.  There are other offers.  Doors are open to you.  Ask me if you need anything, if you’re curious about a name or an Academy.”

“And if I stay?” she asked.  With the Lambs, here?

“Then you’ll be eminently welcome, and you’ll have a seat in any class you wish to take,” he said.

“I’ll- it’s a great deal to think about,” she said.  “I’d like to take some time.”

“Please do.  If you still seek your black coat-”

Absolutely.

“-there are many paths that can carry you there.  I know tonight was a disappointment in some ways, doctor, but you have allies, you have a way forward.”

Almost, she turned to leave.

But too many things were weighing on her.  She wanted to be sure.

“Half of the Crown States are gone to plague or black wood, aren’t they?” she asked.

“Close to.”

“And more damage has been done by war and by the consequences of war, wood, and plague?  We’re even further diminished?”

“You may well have the sense of it.  But we will endure.  We have that capability.”

“Yes, headmaster,” she said.  She finished gathering up the letters, and she clasped them as a bundle in her hands.  “Thank you for your time, headmaster.”

“Thank you for yours, doctor,” he said.

She let herself out of Hayle’s office, closing the door.

Exhaling slowly, she took a moment to compose herself, moving papers between hands so she could tug on her lapels and get a feel for her coat, and then she set off down the hallway.  It was after hours, and only every other light was lit.

In the transition from darkness to light, Mary moved in complete silence, falling in step beside her.

“I’m yours,” Mary said.

Eavesdropping.

“I don’t like the ownership that implies,” Lillian said.

“I trust you.”

“Thank you.  I trust you too.”

“We’ll get you your accolades to go with your grey coat,” Mary said.

Lillian smiled.  She picked through the papers and then handed over the letter.  “A message from the Duke, among many other things.”

“I’ll decode it by the end of the night,” Mary said.  “What’s your plan for the evening?”

“Family,” Lillian said.

“They’ll be curious about the letters,” Mary said.

“Naturally,” Lillian said.  Being with Mary, being away from the auditorium, away from the office, it was a relief.  She could enjoy the coat, and she could put the rest behind her.

Holding Mary’s hand, she steered the way past crowds, through the doors to the outside.  With papers in her one hand and Mary’s hand in the other, she couldn’t flip her hood up to shield against the rain.  Without being signaled or asked, Mary reached up and over and flicked her hood up for her, before doing the same for herself.

There was only a moment’s confusion where they bumped shoulders before Mary realized where Lillian was going.  Then they were on the same page, heading away from the thick crowd and off to the right hand, the field office.  The stables.

“Don’t listen to her,” the voice reached them from the other end of the stable.  “I’ve seen miscarriages that expressed more sense in the five seconds they were alive than she’s expressed in her whole wretched life.”

“Terrible sister!  Pitiful sister.  You speak of sense and you’re the only thing on this living, diverse earth that could be made smarter by being made a stitched.”

“Yes,” Ashton said.  “But you- you two like to fling insults, but you’re both so mean you could make skeletons cry.”

“Terrible!” one of the twins said.

“Awful!” the other echoed.

“I never wanted to play this game,” Ashton protested.

“For good reason!  You’re so dull you enjoy watching paint dry.”

“So boring you actually derive pleasure from watching grass grow.”

“I’m fun,” Ashton said.  “See?  Whee.  Good feelings.  Whaa.”

“Let’s not drug our teammates,” Duncan chastized Ashton.

“It’s not drugs, it’s spores, Doctor Foster.”

“Don’t call me that, geez.  How many times do I have to tell you?  I’m still Duncan.”

“You have to tell him lots.  He has a brain like a cow plop.”

“Or the smelly gunk that you get from a lanced abscess.”

“Whooo.  Waaa.”

Lillian and Mary approached the end of the stable, seeing where the Lambs were gathered at the end of the stable.  Abby was asleep with an absolutely filthy blanket draped over her, nestled into the crook between a warbeast’s leg and its chest.  Nora, Lara, and Ashton sat on a hay bale, while Duncan and Emmett were standing on either side of another, a plate of food between them.

“Any word?” Duncan asked, his voice dropping.

“From the Duke of Francis?  Yes.  Mary will decode for us soon,” Lillian said.

“Excellent.”

“As for our…”

Opposition?  Errant ally?

Labels didn’t really suffice.

“…As for Sy, we’ll be ready when he pokes his head up.  Whatever he’s doing, it’s liable to be pretty big.”

“I’m kind of worried about big,” Duncan said.

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