“If I offer you tea, will you resist?”
“Resist?” Sylvester asked. “You could have said refuse.”
“I could have, I didn’t.”
“No tea,” Sylvester said.
“Having watched you for the last few years, I’d like to think I know you.”
“You’re loyal to the others. When you broke in and searched through records, you looked at theirs, too. Maybe you looked for theirs specifically.”
“You’ve been subtly fighting me every step of the way since. You’re upset and angry and you don’t have a direction to point that sentiment. It’s why I chose the word resist.”
“We never had this conversation.”
“We’re having it right now,” he said.
“I never sat in…” Sylvester looked around. He parsed the space as an office, the window with its branch-framed glass looking out on Radham. “Here. You never offered tea. This subject never came up.”
“Your memory isn’t that strong, Sylvester.”
“I can’t remember things, but I feel like if we’d had this conversation, I would have done something with it.”
“Maybe you did, Sylvester. Maybe you ran away. Maybe you resisted in ways that went beyond refusing tea or not telling me things about your companions.”
The question went unanswered. In the unlit space, the impossibly dark shadows on the other side of the desk were now unoccupied. The question was swallowed up.
Sylvester would have turned his thoughts to the task, but they were scattered. This place was one room in Radham, and all of his lines of thinking were in Hackthorn, stalled, or poised and waiting to be allowed to act, like bullets in the chambers of rifles.
He, too, remained where he was, poised, while the once-fine machinery of his mind operated by accident more than design. A windmill in a windless valley, turning slightly because too many birds had gathered to roost on one blade.
He could have acted or brought things to resolution, but he didn’t trust any of his trains of thought. Mauer’s voice was too persuasive, and Sylvester lacked the resources to really sort out the words that sounded right from the ones that were right. Cynthia was too angry, too wounded. The Snake Charmer was too short-term in thinking, Percy too long-term.
All of the ones he understood were problematic, by dint of what they were. Others were problematic because of the great and terrible unknowns they represented. Fray. The devouring child.
Sylvester stood in the room, watching as the light moved across it. Noticing a change in details, he turned to face the window.
Evette leaned against the wall, the curtain to one side of the window wreathing her.
Being noticed was the prompt for her to move.
She set down a syringe of Wyvern. The usual dose, far higher than most managed. More than even Fray took.
Then she set down another, a short distance away.
With a snapping motion of her fingers, she set the heavy syringe to spinning on the table. She did the same with the first.
Sylvester already knew how this turned out.
The syringes came to a rest, the points aimed at Sylvester.
And even though this isn’t an accurate memory of long ago, because I have no accurate memories of long ago, I know how it turned out.
I connected dots and I showed my hand. He realized, and the next time I had an appointment…
Sylvester turned, touching the door handle. The room was locked.
When he turned back toward the desk, Evette was gone. The room was empty, the windows open and curtain billowing. The syringes were depleted.
If I hadn’t revealed my hand, if I had escaped the room, if I hadn’t let them poison my brain with more Wyvern, hold me in captivity, mold my brain and brainwash me, if I’d somehow remembered or found a way to leave a message to myself…
Ferres’ voice echoed in his ears.
If I only connected the dots again. If I let myself connect the dots…
It was at a time like this that Sylvester badly wanted to see the Lambs, to recognize their faces, to have them as concrete points he could arrange in this visualized space he was using to construct- to reconstruct the thought process.
The expiration dates for the Lambs never made sense.
Why raise Gordon up to be someone who would be exceptional? What had Gordon said, toward the end? He never got to shine? Never got to…
Sylvester groped for it, and all he could think of was how hard it had been to hear Gordon ask for his dog and be unable to give him that in the moment.
He turned his thoughts toward other things. To Gordon thinking about defecting to Fray, the way he’d started saying ‘god’ and ‘damn’ more, if only to swear. All around the time that he had started to dwindle.
Helen was created and raised by one of the best Professors in the Crown States, yet would never truly grow up to be of an age to use those talents. She was created to be a wife, a companion to a narcissist Professor.
The only Lambs where expiration made any degree of sense were Mary and Sylvester himself. Sylvester because he imbibed poison, and Mary because she had been grown fast, and she would burn out fast. The irony was that neither of the two had originally been part of the plan.
The expiration dates weren’t an unhappy coincidence. They were there by design. A hand tilted the scales, as loyalty came into question. That same hand had been on Lillian’s scales, in a different way.
Was that the reason for the appointments? To adjust what needed adjusting, to ensure that a leash of a different sort was maintained? Or was it all part of the same leash, that constrained them? To keep them in one area, geographically, and to manage lifespans, so a rebellious creation would be limited in the damage it could do?
If I’d only realized, I could have done something about it.
Gordon could have lived. Jamie could have lived.
Maybe whatever is happening to us now could have been averted before it started.
Sylvester stared into the darkness at the opposite side of the large desk.
“It’s all about control in the end,” he said.
Sylvester opened his eyes.
“Whatever you’re thinking about doing-” Davis said.
Sylvester shook his head.
Ferres was on the ground, struggling. They were using cloth to bind her mouth shut. Her face was blossoming like a flower – the blades at either side of her mouth had only been the first stage. Now everything unfolded endlessly from a central point in waves of skin, bone, small organs, and jagged metal points. She whipped it this way and that, to make the act of getting the gag in place as difficult as possible. The noises she made were alternately muffled and screeching, but she formed no more complete words.
She’d said as much as she needed to say, really.
The effect carried to the exposed skin of her arms, her exposed calves, and her feet. She was a primordial in fast motion, the subject of a powerful and dangerous drug.
Sylvester turned, to look more in Davis’ direction. He became aware that the primordial was there, standing right behind him, almost touching him, looming in a way that meant Sylvester stood in its shadow.
The Primordial was poised, like so many of the others, bullets in rifle chambers. He held limbs and parts that looked like pieces of other primordials that actually looked like primordials. One was held out, as if proffered to Sylvester, and it twitched and kicked.
He wanted to eat.
He wanted to eat with Sylvester.
Jamie, Gordon, Helen, Mary, Lillian, Ashton, Duncan, and all the little ones. Lara, Nora, Abby, Emmett…
The ones who weren’t dead or broken enough to be headed there would die sooner than later.
There were two ways to handle that. The first was to face his own culpability, in a time and place where he had no tools to manage that.
The second was to turn his attention to the culprits.
“Sylvester,” Davis said.
Sylvester turned to Davis.
The student council president had been so handsome, once. A fine pair when put together with Valentina, who wasn’t here anymore. But days of fighting had injured him. A scar covered part of his face, marring one eye. Combat drugs he’d taken to improve his focus and coordination were likely responsible for the exaggerated vascularity on the other side of his face.
“You’re in control, the Academy is yours. You’re right. All of this is… much worse than I’d thought. The nobility, the role of the professors, the way the system is rigged, the lies we were told…”
“Davis,” Sylvester said. “It doesn’t feel good, does it?”
“No,” Mabel was the one who responded. “But that’s no reason to-”
Sylvester didn’t miss Davis’ hand motion, telling Mabel to stop.
“It doesn’t feel good,” Davis said.
So that was it. Manipulation. Currying favor.
Sylvester was very aware of the Primordial’s proximity. He was increasingly aware that wherever he looked in the crowd of young Academy students, there were modifications, scars, injuries, and stitches.
Ferres was akin to a lamprey with its rings of teeth, but instead of teeth they were modifications, alterations, weapons, and poison. Weapons of the Academy spilling forth as from a fountain. They welled out in a constant, endless wave, and as they flowed out, they tainted other things. They marked students, they colored the building.
Hurt sat in the base of Sylvester’s throat as he saw it, he knew it was whatever the Primordial represented in his own head, going to work. Recognizing the enemy, seizing emotion and pain and helping him to adapt, to grapple with things.
Ferres didn’t have retractable mouth-parts. She’d simply bitten the hand that had tried to silence her. Davis didn’t have a scar. Mabel didn’t have modified eyes to help her already exceptional perception.
A defense mechanism? A last-gasp mental shift with Wyvern?
The premise was simple. If the students weren’t people anymore, if they were only tools, ugliness, and extensions of the same engine that had hurt him for the entirety of his life, bringing Sylvester and the people closest to him to their lowest points, to points they didn’t always surface from, then it would be so much easier to hurt them.
“It’s horrendous,” Davis said.
“I’m going to pretend you’re not trying to manipulate me as you say that,” Sylvester said.
“I am, for the record. I’m worried about what you’re going to do in the next couple of minutes. A lot of people are. So I’m trying to manipulate you into not doing whatever we’re worried about. But that doesn’t mean I’m lying. For a very long time, even until today, you were someone I couldn’t ever really understand. But I think I understand you more than I did, even if I’m also really not sure about what you’re planning.”
As he spoke, the veins crawling across his face grew darker, bursting. Sylvester looked away.
“Everything you’re feeling, betrayal, feeling like a part of your life was spent in service to the Crown, feeling like people close to you were betrayed, I’m- not to belittle what you’re feeling-”
“I get it,” Gordeux said. Sylvester was… relatively sure it was Gordeux. “I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I wouldn’t say what I’ve experienced and felt really compares. A lot of us got the short end of the stick, and you got a shorter one than most.”
It was the Devil who spoke in Sylvester’s ear. “A short joke. Kill him for it.”
Sylvester’s hand twitched and he had to fight the impulse that followed. He shoved it into his pocket, hunching over a bit to ensure it was really crammed in there.
Problem was he had a folded blade in there. He’d forgotten that. He’d accidentally gone and armed himself, now.
“I’m with you,” The thing that had been Davis said. He was speaking very carefully now. “I’m on your side.”
Sylvester nodded, numb.
“What do you need from me?” the thing asked.
“Ferres,” Sylvester said. “Did – damn it. I took her hand. We needed it.”
“We found the hand and reattached it,” the thing said.
Sylvester nodded. “Good. She’s not going to cooperate in the way we need her to cooperate. Preserve her brain, keep her alive in a way that we can get information we need from her, keep the hand there for now. Take whatever else you need to make us a Ferres-alike. We just need to fool them for a little while.”
He could feel the hesitation from the things that had been his lieutenants and friends just days ago as if it was a tangible thing. He was trying hard not to look at anything in particular, because it only made it worse when he focused on something and instinctively demolished the meaning of that thing, to make that thing easier to destroy in the coming future.
“Sure,” The festering thing that had been Junior said. “Unless someone else wants to object or argue the point, I know some other students I can ask, we’ll wrangle something.”
Sylvester thought of saying goodbye to Lillian, both times. He thought of how she had cried.
The lump in his throat wasn’t going away. The anger- it felt muted, but only because it was being redirected, painting everything in sight, twisting it.
He thought of shooting Mary, because there had been no good way to keep her from pursuing him.
Sylvester spoke as the idea was formulated and provided by the ones who stood nearby. Cynthia, the Sub Rosa. An unusual pairing. “Bring some food and supplies, plan to be there for a short while. I think there’s running water in there.”
“Food and supplies?” The Junior-thing asked. Then, likely in response to some signal, he switched stances, “Sure. Can do.”
“Alright,” The Davis-thing said. “Ominous. Do the rest of us need to take measures?”
“They run,” Cynthia said. Burned though she was, she was more person than the things that populated the crowd.
“The rest? They run,” Sylvester said, meeting Cynthia’s eyes.
“Sylvester-” one of the things reached out, touching Sylvester’s arm.
Sylvester lashed out, slapping it away, taking a step back and away.
He stood there, arm extended, blade in hand, watching the individual’s hand bleed, and he eyed the crowd.
“Alright,” the thing that had been Davis said, clutching its wrist. “Junior’s got that handled. What else do you need?”
“He’ll need to barricade the lab.”
“And we run. Alright. Can you explain why, or- or just tell me why you were so dead set on taking control over the Academy and now it looks like you’re dismantling that?”
“You control sixty percent of the rebels, perhaps, sixty percent that are angry enough to listen to you,” Mauer said. “You have enough sway to control the rest of the rebels, and by extension, you can keep your enemies pinned down in the dormitories. But you don’t truly control this Academy.”
“No explanation needed, because I’m not giving up that control,” Sylvester said. “I’m cementing it.”
“If Sylvester says to run,” the Shirley-thing said, “Then I think we should all go. To rooms, or to labs where you can do work. Grab food on the way, barricade.”
Sylvester nodded. “I’d hurry.”
Some hurried. Others paused. Half of the shapes and figures that remained were hesitant, wondering if they could hurt him. The other half, maybe a third, were the truly loyal. Paul and Red would be among them. They were waiting because they weren’t sure if they needed to protect him.
“I’ll walk away if you do,” a thing with a bird’s skull for a head said. Something indistinct throbbed behind the eye sockets.
“You guys take the other staircase,” the Davis figure said. “We watch each other through the glass.”
The bird skull nodded. “What should we do with this one?”
Sylvester looked at the shape that knelt beside the bird skulled boy. It bled from a face wound, hugging itself within a corset of its own flesh.
“You’ve killed worse monsters with less hesitation,” Melancholy said.
“I’ll handle it,” Sylvester said.
“If you’re sure,” the bird skull said.
In that, they started to retreat, the Davis-thing’s group matching the other. Only a few lingered. Shirley, Bo Peep. Pierre.
“Would the others want you to take this course of action?”
Sylvester, unable to definitively picture the Lambs’ faces, could only imagine the way Gordon’s voice had broken in that final exchange of words, Hubris’ sigh, the movement of Jamie’s hands as he’d sat on that stone throne with technology threaded through it, the way Lillian had covered her eyes while crying.
So much pain and anger.
“Yes,” he said.
Even with all that his mind was doing to make the people he was looking at less sympathetic, he was very aware of the look of disappointment on Shirley’s face.
She left, and Sylvester remained where he was.
He was left alone in the broader Lab One area, waiting, aware of the fact that he wasn’t even positive of his environment anymore. Stepping into that elaborate office in Radham had been the crossing of a line that made the rest of it so easy to lose.
Junior’s group came back down the stairs, still escorting a bound and gagged Ferres. They had crates of food.
“Wish us luck,” the thing that had been Junior said.
Sylvester didn’t trust himself to speak.
He waited, listening, as the doors to the surgery theater were shut, locked, and furniture scraped against the ground.
He walked, and he walked with only the company of his enemies, his regrets, and his disembodied thoughts.
Anger, in early childhood, could so easily be conveyed with a punch to a pillow. A sharper, less sensible anger could lead to punching a wall, breaking something. Despair, pain, loneliness, they warranted tears. More severe despair warranted wails. Screams.
More severe action, like the notion that he could have intervened with the expiration of two of his brothers? There was no physical dimension for that kind of expression.
He wasn’t sure the version of events or the train of logic was correct. He wasn’t sure how Lillian had been convinced, when she had access to their records. He could assign some blame to the fact that a clever architect and the fact that Lillian had been raised with this broader expectation, and the fact that so many experiments were also set up to destroy themselves sooner than later, to protect the Academy’s control over things.
But he knew and believed that Ferres had started acting like she had something she could use around the time the topic of expirations and the looming deadlines had come up.
She likely thought he would cave, that she could bargain, make a promise to postpone or avert this calculated extinction of Lambkind. Very possibly a lie or a half truth.
He doubted it had really been him that had done that damage to her, on his recognition of that blatant attempt at manipulation.
It would be him that acted on this instance of learning Ferres’ truth.
“Come,” he spoke, grabbing the back of a neck that belonged to the thing with the bleeding face. It made high pitched sounds as it stumbled, trying to keep up with him.
Lab One was an expansive area, with its open space, tables, cabinets, and space for the larger experiments. Some of those experiments were more visible now that the crowd had left. They watched the proceedings with lazy, drugged expressions.
There were five ways out of Lab One. Two sets of stairs, one on each side, a north door to the surgical area, and then two paths that folded around, leading to places onlookers couldn’t readily see.
One of those places was where this thing with the bleeding face had come from. The Betty-thing. The rows of cells that had once held fairy tales.
The other was where the beasts were.
“The Big Bad Wolf,” Sylvester said. “It hunts Red. Why?”
“What? Please. Don’t hurt me.”
“Cooperate and I won’t. Tell me how they work. Pheromones?”
“Keywords, for most.”
“Like Mary,” Percy said. “Hopefully these keywords work better.”
Sylvester spoke, his voice low, “There were storylines. Ones for if the birthday boy wanted adventure, one for if they wanted slaughter. It wasn’t ruled out that they might want to set the wolf on the innocent. On other experiments.”
“Please-” Betty said.
“It’s in the books,” was her reluctant answer.
Sylvester shoved the Betty-thing toward the collected volumes. “Find it. Cooperate and you live through this.”
Glass windows blinked. Branches that encased them throbbed. The Lady of Hackthorn was very much alive. She might even have felt the anticipation and barely restrained emotion that Sylvester himself felt.
The book had been opened to the right page.
“Like uttering a spell, isn’t it?” the Snake Charmer asked.
Sylvester held the book, looking at the wolf. “How dark it is, inside the wolf.”
The wolf turned its attention to him. Whatever haze of drugs had gripped it fell away in moments.
“Raise your muzzle, blackest of wolves, howl, and we shall howl with you. Hunt, and we shall hunt with you. Bloody those claws and fill that belly, and we shall draw blood and feast alongside you. All…”
Sylvester touched the great black wolf’s snout, moving it to ensure the Wolf had a good look at all of the other experiments present.
“…who you see, all bear the pelts of wolves. The rest are yours to take.”
In an instant, the great black wolf moved, leaving the stable area, claws scratching floor.
“How dark it is, inside the wolf,” Sylvester said to himself. He tore out a page and stuck it into a pocket.
“Do you realize what you just did? It’s going to kill everything it can find,” Betty said.
Rather than ask her to point out the words, knowing what he was looking for.
Sub Rosa stood by and watched as he found the entry for the nightmare.
This would only be the beginning. Below were smaller labs. Ones with weapons meant to be more practical.
“A king of your own court,” the Baron said. “The subjects cowed with fear.”
Sylvester sat at the highest point he could that also gave him a view of the rest of the Academy. It was a point he had found earlier, at the stairs that overlooked the dining area, the bridges to the various buildings, and the dormitories.
He was the king of his own court, but it was a lonely one. Here and there, his vassals would appear. The Red Bull, the Black Wolf, the Rat Mother, the Poison Apple, the Hag, the Giant, or a host of scurrying parasites. They would naturally pass through in the course of going from one place to the next.
The thing that had once been Betty sat on a stair below him, her head near his knee. The more time went on, the less she talked.
One bridge burned. The fires were a way to keep things from entering the administration building.
“The lie built the Crown up to be something grand. Some learned the truth, but they twisted the lie so they could keep it close to their hearts. The Duke of Francis was one of them,” the Baron said.
The Rat Mother’s children dragged a morsel across the floor of the dining hall, to a dark place where they could devour it. To Sylvester’s eye it was more monster than the Rat Mother’s children. But by its size, it was a child – a boy. The child extended a hand toward Sylvester. One of the three blind mice, perhaps?
“For others, for us, one way or another, we let the truth destroy what the lie had built. It destroyed something in us. We ended up very similar, you and I, didn’t we?”
The Baron laughed that laugh again. It hadn’t been the first time in the last hour, nor the fifth, nor the tenth.
Sylvester told himself the child the Rat Mother’s children had been dragging was a hallucination. The last few had.
He remained where he was, holding his court hostage, every one of his muscles tense.
The Academy was absolutely under control, now.
“This is too lonely an existence, isn’t it?” Percy asked. “It’s wretched.”
Sylvester sat. Rain drummed against the glass ceiling. It was doing a number on the protective fires. Some of the experiments were out there in the gloom – the muffet spider’s eyes glowed in the dark as it scaled the outside wall of the dormitory, looking for its way in, periodically breaking a window.
“Didn’t you see the books?” Percy asked. “Yes, there were books for the bigger monsters. There were scripts and scenarios, a play waiting for the young master to arrive on his birthday, as central actor and director both. But there were books for the others.”
Sylvester had lost track of time. The overcast sky and storm didn’t help, as they made it so dark that the sun wouldn’t penetrate if it had risen.
It felt like it had been a long time. Ships should have come, but the storm might have been postponing them.
“Key phrases. Drugs. Pheromones. With Ferres being who she is, there’s no way she would allow a circumstance where she would have to say no. No way to allow a reality where she would tell the young master or his family no, we can’t do that.”
Percy walked up stairs and down them, a narrow boy in tidy clothes, hair slicked back.
“The young master being a young boy, the experiments being attractive and of an age with him… some of them with you, too, you know the means exists to… suggest they comply.”
“She wanted to make him a small god. You’ve stolen that, and now you are that small god, aren’t you? You have those means.”
“I wanted Ferres to suffer for a number of reasons,” Sylvester said. “That was one of them.”
“And he talks,” Percy said. He leaned in close. “The resolve weakens, and I make some headway. Now listen, and I’ll make more.”
Sylvester leaned forward, sitting so his hands were over his ears. It made Betty stir awake with a jolt. She made frightened sounds as she realized where she was, said something that Sylvester didn’t hear because Percy was talking.
Percy’s voice filtered through, as if the fingers weren’t there at all. “You don’t have to be ungentlemanly as you go about it, Sylvester. You’re fond of the little girl with the woolen hair, aren’t you? A friendly face, gentle, and well meaning. We can bring her here, and with a few words or the right syringe, we can make her feel absolutely safe, when she might otherwise feel frightened.”
Sylvester shook his head, leaving the hands where they were.
“She can stroke your back, or sleep with her head in your lap, or she can sing, because they can all sing, and you’ll be able to rest, and you’ll sleep, which you desperately need to do.”
Frantic screams from the direction that the rats had dragged the blind mouse made Sylvester nearly jump from his seat.
Betty hadn’t moved, he realized in the last moment. She was still restless. She flinched at the sight of any of the other experiments, large or small. Keywords protected her from the former. The pheromones Sylvester had dabbed on himself would help for most of the latter, while forcing her to keep close so she benefited from the same chemical triggers and protections. She kept moving her head, looking around, jumping at sounds.
Sylvester was silent. He wanted to touch Betty, to say something, anything to urge her to relax, because her anxiety so easily communicated to him.
“Is she supposed to help you?” Percy asked. “If we’re going to get you moving and resolving things, then we’ll have to start with her, then.”
Sylvester sat draped across steps, the stone and wood digging into his back in places. He avoided looking at the fire that consumed one of the dormitories, shut his ears to the distant shouts.
Cynthia sat nearby, a knife whittling away at a piece of wood, not to create anything, but to reduce it to nothing.
Betty lay on the steps below, her limbs bent at odd angles, her face distorted by the way the weight of her body pushed it down into tile. She bled from a throat wound.
Sylvester avoided looking at that too.
Mounting anxiety and self-doubt warred within him, at stark odds to the view he had of the clouds overhead, moon peeking through them. The rain had slowed, becoming a mere drizzle, and the raindrops were like stars against the void, each one of them catching the light from the burning dormitory.
A lot of the time, the things he saw were relatively fleeting. People came and went. Images came and went.
But Betty remained dead. The fires slowly crept over the dormitory building, and anyone who tried to take action to put them out was picked off by warbeasts and things that hunted.
In this, Cynthia was patient. She would outlast him, because she was his ugly desire to survive, to dig past the pain and crawl forward on wounded limbs, and that would endure long after his mind did.
It would endure, at this rate, well beyond the Beattle and Hackthorn rebels.
“Sylvester,” Jessie said.
He didn’t want to look up.
He didn’t want to respond.
“We’re back to this, huh? Like it was in Tynewear, after I caught up to you?”
He swallowed hard.
“I’m sorry I had to come back alone. They did too much damage. Mary and Lillian had to stay back. Duncan didn’t want to come if the others weren’t coming. We might see him later – he couldn’t stay at the Academy with the threat the Infante posed. Helen went after Mauer and didn’t come back.”
Sylvester gripped the edge of the stair with his hands, eyes fixed on the ground.
“But I came back. I will always come back, okay?”
Jessie advanced another few steps, the sound of shoe scuffs loud in the empty dining hall.
“And what we were doing, we can give it an honest try. Us against the most powerful people in the world. How does that sound?”
Sylvester’s eye moved to Betty’s body, still there.
“Not that good? Can- can you please give me a bit of a response, Sy? Let me know there’s something of you still in there?”
There was uncharacteristic emotion in Jessie’s voice.
“Will you let me come up to you? Can I give you a hug? A kiss? I’ve sort of missed you.”
Sylvester listened to the footsteps.
“You numbskull,” she said, voice soft.
He lashed out, swiping at her with the knife, still not looking.
It was only after a long paralyzing minute where he wondered if he would look up and see Jessie bleeding from a throat wound that he finally allowed himself to look.
No Jessie. Nothing there.
Sylvester moved the knife back to his lap. He looked at his hand, where a bruise drew a line across the palm, black, purple and green.
He brought the hand back down to the stair, the line meeting the edge of the stair. Firmly in position, and he gripped it hard.
“I know you just had an appointment,” Mrs. Earles said. “I know you’re usually surly.”
“It was a bad one,” Sylvester said. “I can’t even think straight. Can’t remember things.”
Her hand brushed through his hair, stroking his head.
“Enjoy the moment. Spend time with your friends.”
While I can.
The thought came unbidden.
The door to the kitchen was open, and the sun was shining. Now and then the orphans went in and out of the kitchen, grabbing glasses from the edge of the table to drink them as fast as possible before hurrying outside again, as if every bit of summer possible had to be used to best effect.
Sylvester drew a foot up onto the bench he sat on, knee against his chest. His hands hurt, bruises crossing them.
“Mary’s doing what I told her not to, and she’s tying up her dress so it won’t get in the way while she climbs the tree. For such a young lady, she’s such a tomboy sometimes.”
“Someone should tell Lillian that if she follows suit and breaks something, it could get in the way of her studies. Gordon’s helping her.”
“She’d accuse me of looking up her skirt or something.”
“If you’re concerned about that, you should stop looking up her skirt.”
He allowed himself a snort of a laugh.
“Sylvesterrrrr!” a voice called out. Helen’s. “Jamie’s going to draw us! Come sit on the branch with us!”
Sylvester fixed his eyes on the table. Mrs. Earles continued stroking his hair.
“If you wanted to sit and be quiet, I don’t think Jamie would mind the company,” she said.
Sylvester shook his head, even though there wasn’t anything else in the world he wanted as much as that.
He remained where he was.
He heard the footsteps. There were no voices.
His hand found the knife.
He raised his head just enough to see the feet, the shoes.
Before he could finish counting, one of those sets of feet broke into a run.
One, two, three, four, five, six…
He finished the count just in time. There were enough of them.
The knife fell from his hand, and danced down the steps. He let his guard down, and he welcomed the embrace, fully aware that if this was a trick, if this was the ploy that his own head pulled on him, then he was done with, the last remnant of him would be gone.
It was a painfully tight hug, and it made the bruises where his lower back met the stairs flare in agony as the weight of her pressed against his front.
Lillian still smelled like Lillian. She still felt like Lillian.
“Move aside, Betty,” Jessie said. “Stay close, but let me by, here.”
Betty, still sitting next to Sylvester, got out of the way. Jessie hugged Sylvester as well, and she kissed the side of his face. He turned his head and she kissed him properly, before resting her forehead against his.
His bruised hand trembled a little from exhaustion as he fixed the position of her glasses.
“I tried to stay put,” he said.
“Shh. It’s fine.”
“I wanted to minimize the damage I could do.”
Duncan, standing very close by, gave a short laugh.
“Shush, Duncan,” Lillian said, her face still buried in Sylvester’s front. “Don’t even say anything.”
“Yeah,” Duncan said. He wasn’t one to join the hug, but he reached out, taking Sylvester’s hand. Almost shaking it, almost holding it. “Sorry.”
Sylvester shook his head. There was no need for apologies. He squeezed his friend’s hand.
Helen joined the hug-pile, and she was very good at fitting herself into it. Ashton followed her.
Even Mary, hesitant, joined in.
He’d told himself that he would trust in the Lambs, that nothing else would do for letting his guard down, for letting them close, or for listening to them.
“The Infante isn’t coming,” Jessie said. “None of the important ones are. The Infante clued into the Duke, he attacked, and now they’re getting defenses in order.”
“It’s fine,” Sylvester said. “It’s fine.”
They were together.
“Betty’s alive. I didn’t kill her.”
“Yes, Sy,” Jessie confirmed.
That vision of her had laid there for what might have been a night and a day, convincing him she was dead.
“The dormitory building, did it burn?”
“Is there- is there a blood trail there, where the rats dragged one of the children away?”
“Is- did Bo Peep die?”
“Not as far as I’m aware, Sy.”
“Did Shirley? Pierre?”
“No sign of anything happening to Shirley, Sy. Pierre’s off helping with getting children to the West Corinth orphanage. He doesn’t like staying in one place, remember?”
Sylvester nodded. “Don’t lie to me.”
“No lies. I promise.”
“Did I kill Davis? His body would be on the stairs.”
“No, Sy,” Jessie said.
Lillian made a small sound.
“Okay,” he said, his voice soft. “I’ll stop asking the questions.”
“You should ask as many as you need to,” Lillian said.
“No,” he said. “After. And maybe for a while yet.”
“Okay,” she said. “If that’s how it is.”
“It is,” Ashton chimed in, finally.
They were together. All back together, finally.
He had had more than enough time to think, in a roundabout, not-really-thinking way. That line of thinking, coupled with the swelling feeling in his chest, it made him feel like conquering the world wasn’t out of the question.