I peered past my hand of cards to study the cards arrayed in a partial five-by-five grid on the stump. The second column had a three, two, and a king down the middle with empty spaces at the top and bottom, and my hand had a three and two, among other things. Two of a kind.
The chip count was good too. I liked my numbers stacked at the top of the column.
I laid down the two, and then I laid down a nine.
“Pair,” I said. My voice was muffled by my mask.
“You should have a three in your hand,” Jessie said, her voice similarly muffled.
She wore a quarantine mask, a tube running to a tank which rested on the log beside her. Every breath was a hiss, but it was barely audible with the way the wind blew. She had donned a kind of robe for her quarantine outfit, everything strapped in and then taped. Her hair peeked out of her hood, and it was already stained black on one side.
“Helen has the three,” I lied. I indicated Helen.
“Helen has the joker,” Jessie said, indicating with one gloved hand. Helen wore a similar quarantine outfit. She had painted hers with what might have been a clown face, though black dust had erased most of that, and she had also attached a hook to each glove and foot.
“Then call her a joker and be done with it,” I said.
Jessie sighed audibly, the noise carrying with the wind. The sheet we had erected to help keep the wind from blowing away the cards was flapping violently.
Jessie put down a full house using the top right and to left corners, using my two. She put down her chit. She indicated Helen, hand extended, “Joker.”
Helen laid down the joker and a nine. “Naught,” she said.
Jessie sighed audibly again.
“I get to make a rule,” Helen said.
Jessie’s hand remained extended toward Helen as she looked at me.
“What’s the rule?” I asked.
“Ummm,” she said, her voice picking up a burr as the filter of her mask caught the lower register of the ‘mmm’.
“You don’t need to pretend,” Jessie said. She put her face in her hands, as much as the mask would let her.
“I get Sy’s dessert,” Helen said.
“No, no,” I said. “You’re supposed to make a rule that benefits me as a bribe to later get my dessert.”
“Low hands win, then,” Helen said.
Jessie shook her head, mask still resting in gloved hands.
“Low two, two pair, and low five,” I said. I collected the chits I had bet on the rows and columns.
The quarantine setup muffled noise, but there was no muffling the noise of the forest around us. Trees rocked back and forth in the wind, branches scraping against branch. The wind hissed as it carried flecks and particles of black, rolling clouds of the stuff that made seeing anything difficult beyond our wind-proofed area. Branches of a hundred trees all around us cracked and snapped as if they were being systematically broken by a small army and yet more branches knocked and clacked together with a deep, hollow clatter.
The leaves had fallen from the trees and formed a thorny carpet on the ground, the living wood crumpling leaves as it sought leverage, before growing out into briar-like clusters of reaching branches and twigs. The trees themselves had been sucked dry of every nutrient as the wood grew on them, the existing branches breaking as the wood twisted and pulled on them mid-growth. In appearance, they best resembled trees mummified in black leather and caked in black dust.
Jessie was shuffling the cards as best as she was able with the gloves on.
“We could mix it up with the next rule change,” I said.
“I think I’m done with cards for a long, long while,” Jessie’s voice was hollow as it came through the filter.
The wind changed direction, and we collectively tensed, my hands moving toward the stump, which had no cards on it. The wind wasn’t strong enough to blow the chits away, but it was strong enough to carry a cloud of black dust into our campsite. Tents flapped and the ridges of the stump’s rings caught the dust, infinitesimally small details marked out in stark clarity by the fine powder.
All around us, black builder’s wood encased trees and then twisted them into pieces within the black shell as it grew thicker. The splintered wood became another in for the invader, and it crept in before expanding again, causing once-straight trunks to twist even further. Only the relative strength of the black wood kept the entire forest from toppling.
But gaps between trees and between branches grew slimmer, the charcoal-black forest floor and the trees absorbed the light that managed to filter through the clouds. It felt increasingly claustrophobic.
“It’s only been three days for you,” I finally said. “I kind of wanted to keep you for longer.”
Jessie sighed again.
“If you want, we could go into the tent,” I said. “Get out of the suits, I could give you a hand washing your hair.”
Jessie shook her head.
“Sure,” I said. I would’ve been lying if I said I wasn’t a little put out by that.
“I mean, it sounds nice, really nice,” Jessie said, pausing in the calculated shuffling to look up at me. “But…”
She trailed off.
“It’s fine. All good, Jessie,” I said.
She nodded, and she resumed shuffling.
“The other Helen baked me a treat,” Helen said. “I told myself I would wait until tea time, but the anticipation is delicious. I might actually be drooling and-”
She jerked, wriggling in her seat.
“-getting my arm through the sleeve and up to my face-”
She wriggled more, then relaxed. “-is hard. There. Not much drool.”
“You’ll get some of my dessert too,” I said.
“Stop! Gee whiz fuck, Sy, you’ll get me going again. I think I’m going to keep my hand here for the time being.”
“We’ll see what we can do soon,” I said. “Get your face fixed up proper this time around.”
Another professor, another two steps forward, one step back.
“Soonish,” I said. Soon.
Gordon and Fray moved through the trees. As if to remind me of the deadlines. It was a minute before we could put cards down, and I tried not to focus too much on the figures in the trees.
The wind settled down, and Jessie leaned forward. She laid out the cards in a three-by-three, then dealt out the rest of the cards.
“Opening gambits,” she said.
We stacked our chips at different points on the perimeter. Mine were green, Helen’s red, and Jessie’s blue.
I looked at my hand of cards, and saw how grimy they were. Every movement of branch against branch produced some, every twist and grind grated it, producing air-light flakes ranging from leaf-sized to the finest of specks.
I held my fanned-out hand so that the faces of the cards caught more of the dust, picked out two, and laid them out.
“Helen’s rule still stands. Before that was Sy’s rule about the king of hearts, Sy’s rule about the king of diamonds, Sy’s ‘old maid’ rule, and my lunch rule, and Sy’s rule of three winners,” Jessie said.
Jessie made her play, Helen made her play, and then Jessie announced, “Add to your gambits or make new ones.”
I stacked more chits on the thing. Looking down at my cards, finding them sufficiently dusty, I began using the edge of one card to scrape dust, moving it. I tried to look very interested in the state of the board to take focus off of what I was doing, then placed down two more cards.
The round continued, with Jessie getting the much-coveted royals setup.
“Flush,” I said, as I got my next turn. I slapped down my cards.
Jessie turned a black-dusted mask toward me. Her expression was hidden, which was a damn shame, but I could very easily guess what that expression was.
“Have you been keeping that up your sleeve the whole time?” Helen asked. “Why are there two aces of spades? Did you have another deck? I’m confused!”
Jessie reached down and touched my ace of spades. The spade smudged, revealing the club beneath.
The wind hissed, the trees cracked and audibly splintered within their black casings, and branch knocked against branch with heavy, hollow knockings. Jessie stood from her seat, and the wood cracked and snapped as it broke away from the seat of her robe-like quarantine suit.
“Sorry,” I said.
She shook her head, standing there.
“I can’t see your face, so it’s hard to calibrate. I thought you’d smile and call me something unkind.”
“I’m about to do something uncharacteristic and stupid,” Jessie said.
“Please don’t,” I said.
“But I hate this place. I hate this forest,” she said. She hung her head. “I hate the lack of color, I hate the lack of anything. I hate that I can smell the stale death of every living thing that died here. I hate the waiting, I hate the fact that I can’t breathe, I hate the quarantine suits, I hate constantly changing the filters, I hate this place so much I could cry.”
“Crying can be good,” Helen said.
“Crying can be good, but you shouldn’t inflict this situation on yourself if it makes you that miserable,” I said. “I hate the idea of you crying if it’s not because of me.”
Jessie hiccuped a laugh at that.
“Come on,” I said. “Back to the tent with you. Hair wash and sponge down, I can massage and tend to any places the quarantine suit is pressing at you.”
“I’m spending more and more time in the tent. It’s only been three days and six hours. I’m already sleeping three-quarters of every day. At this rate, by tomorrow I’ll be in the tent all the time, sleeping for five-sixths of the time, and then what’s the point?”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” I said. “Read, rest, keep the tent nice, then when I get back in through the airlock I can be all, ‘honey, I’m home!’ and stuff.”
Jessie looked skyward.
“Gee,” I said. “I’m really not hitting the mark today, am I?”
Still looking skyward, Jessie said, “You can’t see my face right now, Sy, but I want you to imagine my most disapproving look, and then up it by a factor of two.”
I bit back my witty banter and teasing. It wasn’t the time, and I wasn’t hitting the mark.
“Are you going back, Jessie?” Helen asked.
I leaned forward, “You do a good job watching over our guys. I’d be sorry to see you go, but I’d really be happy knowing you were watching over things, keeping the peace. There’s nobody I trust more than you. I might even trust you more than I trust myself.”
“If I go back then I miss you guys,” Jessie said. “And I end up worrying, because the last time I checked on you, Sy, Helen was taking a break to see if she could hunt deer at the edge of the black wood while wearing a quarantine suit-”
“Which I can,” Helen said, waving the hook she’d attached to her quarantine suit.
“-and you were having long, intensive conversations with Mauer. You didn’t even recognize me.”
“I recognized you,” I said. “I wouldn’t not recognize you. But maybe I didn’t think you were real. Sometimes they get crafty.”
“Sometimes they get crafty. Yeah. That makes me feel a lot better about leaving you on your own.”
“I’m managing,” I said.
“Are you?” Jessie asked. She paused, very deliberately. “How sure are you that I’m real? Right now?”
“Right now? Geez. Well, you and Helen come as a package deal, because you’re interacting and they aren’t quite that canny. Sometimes they wedge themselves into ongoing conversations, like Fray did back in Sedge, but honestly-”
“How sure?” Jessie asked, no-nonsense.
“Mostly?” I asked, sounding less than mostly sure.
Jessie looked to Helen. “Help me out. Please? Give me something to work with.”
“I’ll watch him more carefully,” Helen said. “I promise.”
“You’ve been here for eleven days, you two. I can barely tolerate it for three. Most of the others can’t even do a full day before their nerves start fraying. I’m worried about you two.”
“Helen’s as happy as a clam,” I said. “And I’m staying because I have to stay. If I’m not available when this all comes together then there’s no point. So I keep going because if I stop then it makes all the suffering that led up to it worthless.”
“I am as happy as a clam,” Helen said. “I caught a deer, I have cake, I have you two.”
“I’ll rephrase. I’m worried about you, Sy. I hate not being able to talk to you, I hate these woods, I hate the black dust-”
In the workings of my head, something clicked. Transference. She was accusing me of losing my mind when…
“I’m sorry,” I told her.
“-the- what?” she asked. Then she startled a bit, before clenching her fists, “Because I was hiding it from you, you dolt.”
Helen was looking at me. I spoke before she asked the question, “Dropped a memory.”
“And I know three is a completely arbitrary number, but I feel like three is it,” she said.
“You could have told me,” I said. “Us. You could have told us and you should have told us. So don’t call me a dolt, you nubmunch.”
“I- heh,” Jessie started. “Stop trying to make me laugh when I’m working myself into a state here.”
“You should have told me, nubmunch.”
“I would have, but I don’t want to give you added stress when you’re doing this.”
“Well, it hardly helps if you’re just wrestling with it on your own and I suddenly can’t figure you out, between all the distractions and you acting funny. You end up suppressing everything until you snap. Stop bottling.”
“Okay,” she said. And then she stopped talking. A moment passed. She added, “We’re sitting here, waiting for the perfect timing, and I’m trying not to think about the mail Jamie read that crossed General Ames’ desk that talked about travel being suspended for certain locations, or additional countermeasures, or the fact that if they’re doing this textbook, we don’t have very long before they start releasing Academy-grown monsters into these woods. I worry that this all goes wrong in a second, or worse, that this is how we while away the little time we have.”
“We’ll manage,” I said. “Helen would probably even get a kick out of us being attacked by Academy experiments. Might do to see if we can’t set up traps, now that I think about it. Something to occupy ourselves with.”
“Helen’s only at seventy-five percent,” Jessie said. Her posture changed slightly. I imagined she closed her eyes, and now that I had connected to the fact that she had dropped a second memory, my mental model of her was making a lot more sense, with less surprises. I’d thought it was me, after being out here too long.
“Seventy-five percent of a Helen is still pretty gosh-darn amazing,” I said.
“It is,” Jessie said. “But…”
She stopped talking, and I saw her hand shake a little as she balled the gloved hands into fists.
Ah, here we went.
Well, what were the odds it would be a problem? It wasn’t like we’d seen another living thing that wasn’t one of us for the last week and a half.
Jessie screamed, top of her lungs.
The scream reached through the forest, and it was oddly muted, even without accounting for the mask, the hose, or the filter. In an ordinary forest, the hard surfaces of trees would have bounced back the sound, but the sheer amount of dust caked on every surface and the thickness of the dust in the air dampened the sound.
I wanted so badly to hug Jessie, tight as possible, to speak into her ear, to say something reassuring and intimate and make it better. I ached to do it.
I could see Lillian, and I knew that on a level she represented compassion, but a part of me still ached for Lillian’s absence. I could see Ashton. It was almost as if the scream was bringing the others out.
All I could do was stand, wood breaking away where it had been striving to attach me to my seat, leaving jagged spikes and splinters where it had broken. I walked over to Jessie with the branches snapping and breaking beneath my boots, and took her hand.
The forehead of my mask clacked against hers.
She stopped screaming. No longer taking the background to Jessie’s anger and frustration, the hissing wind and pained creaking and breaking of trees resumed.
“I hate this,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“If it turns out that my scream screwed all of this up, gave us away, then they’ll probably mutiny.”
“Probably,” I said. “But you needed to scream.”
“I don’t like being weak. I don’t like being this frustrated.”
“You’re too damn stoic all the time,” I said. I made the masks clack against each other again.
In the distance, a tree branch broke and fell.
“Incoming,” Helen said.
It took a minute for ‘incoming’ to reach us. Two of our rebels, all in quarantine suits.
“All good!” I called out. “Don’t shoot us!”
They stopped running.
“Sorry,” Jessie said. “Losing my mind in here.”
“How’s the watch shift?” I asked the two rebels.
“Mind-numbing,” the larger of the two said. “Already looking forward to whoever’s coming to relieve us. I dropped my watch in the dust and branch bits beneath the perch and it took me fifteen minutes to find.”
I scuffed the ground with a boot. I couldn’t even see dirt beneath the detritus I’d kicked aside.
“Yeah,” I said. “Tell you what. You two walk Jessie back. I’ll take watch with Helen.”
“Yeah?” the smaller one asked.
“Yeah,” I said, emulating his accent a touch. “Go on.”
I pushed her arm, “Go on. We’ll be fine.”
“I’ll send some people to keep you company,” Jessie said.
“Yeah,” I said. “And we’ll talk after. Get caught up. Cover all the bases.”
I wanted to give her more support than I could here.
Helen and I left the cards behind and we began the trudge to the perch.
We climbed the tree we had nailed rungs to, and we took our seats in a thicker cluster of branches.
It wasn’t until we were settled that I noticed one of Helen’s sleeves was still floppy, no arm in it. The hook swung like a pendulum.
“Are you stuck?” I asked.
“Noo,” Helen said, implying she was. “But no, really, I’m fine. Thank you, sir.”
“You’re very welcome, madam.”
A solid fifteen minutes passed in relative silence. Helen started humming, playing with how her filter was making her voice buzz a bit around the edges, and I joined in with my own variation. Somewhere along the line, I started playing with my hand over the end of the air hose, near the filter, which I probably shouldn’t have been doing, but it allowed for some interesting stop-starts.
I could track the time by way of the watch that had been hung from a tiny spike of wood near my head. Fifty minutes passed, as we went back and forth, elaborating. Then we both trailed off.
Five minutes passed before Helen spoke.
“I spy with my little eye… something black and dusty.”
I pointed. “Funny shaped branch over there.”
“Yes. Then… I spy with my little eye, something black with only a little bit of dust.”
I pointed. “I think it’s a dead thing in a tree that had leaves fall on it and made it crispy-ish.”
“How long before you get one wrong?” Helen asked.
“I can see about three more interesting things. So… until you pick something boring.”
“Oh?” she asked.
“Well then,” she said. “I hear, with my little ear-”
“-a particularly crackly bit of wood?”
“Something creaky that isn’t a tree,” she said. “That’s pulled by a warbeast.”
I perked up. “Really?”
“No,” she said.
“But yes,” she teased. “Really.”
I perked up again. “Well peel my cat and call me a bastard. How far away?”
“Not far,” Helen said.
“Well dang,” I said. “Just one? If it’s more, I’m going to need to see how fast I can catch up to the others and if we can get back in time, maybe further down the road.”
“Just one,” Helen said.
“Positive,” she said.
“I actually feel bad,” I said. “And I don’t feel bad about much. Jessie’s going to be so annoyed she missed this.”
We climbed down from the tree, and we lowered ourselves into the shrubbery.
Helen’s gestures, partially masked by the gloves, gave me a good indication of when to expect them.
The wagon appeared, a rhino-like warbeast with two horns bigger than I was on its head and a chin-spike below trampled the fallen leaves and branches that buried the road, and it pulled a heavy wagon behind it. Industrial strength everything, from the heavy duty wagon itself, almost a rolling vault, with heavy wheels. The thing was meant to plow on. If it broke down, then the lone driver wouldn’t be able to fix it.
As it rolled past us, we pounced. I latched onto the side, and Helen grabbed on next to me, before tumbling down, disappearing beneath the front of the wagon. Any scratching or scrabbling on her part was drowned out by the noise the wagon made as it rolled over innumerable branches, leaves, and the fragile carpet of builder’s wood that knit them together.
Five. Four. Three.
The man screamed.
Right then. My models of Helen weren’t that great either.
I tried to make up for the time differential by moving faster, a little more haphazardly, gloves and boots slipping on the dust-caked surface. The worst that could happen was that I might slip, fall, and roll under the wheel.
I managed to avoid that, grabbed the seat, and hauled myself over.
Helen had pierced his hand with her hook, latching on, and had grabbed him with one hand. He was using his free hand to fumble for a gun that was positioned in a spot which was really meant to be reached for with the hand that Helen currently held.
I threw myself forward, stomach skidding on the dusty seat, and reached him just as he pulled the gun free.
I batted the gun out of his hand before he could get a grip on it. It was lost, off to the side, in a sea of branches and dust. I might have said that people two thousand years in the future might find it, but I somehow couldn’t picture it. Not the people part of it.
The resulting scuffle was short. Helen asserted her grip and adjusted the hook, and I seized his other arm in one of my own, and once we had him secure, the fight mostly went out of him.
His breath wheezed through the air filter.
“You have options, Mr. Driver,” I said. “Most of them are pretty good.”
I could see him taking that in.
“This gets a lot more pleasant if you cooperate,” I said. “There isn’t a friendly face for a hundred miles around. All you need to do is talk to me.”
“What do you want to know?” he asked.
“They expecting you on time?”
“Give or take an hour,” he said. “Horny Anne here is very regular, but the road isn’t. We sink into the soft spots.”
“Good,” I said. “Good, that’s just the kind of answer we need. Do you have a horn? Anything that would make a lot of noise?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Trumpet. It fits onto my air filter.”
He fumbled at the side of the wagon. Helen took one hand off of him to grab the trumpet, showing me. She pressed it between her body and the side of the wagon and began fumbling with her air filter.
“Good,” I said. “Perfect. Is there anyone further back down the road?”
“No,” he said. “Like you said, not a friendly face for quite a distance.”
He sounded a little bit depressed about it.
“If you’re lying, then we do something terrible, you know that right?” I asked. The rush of the capture, after so much dang waiting, it was making me heady, and that translated into me sounding almost excited at the prospect of doing something terrible, which was great.
“Yeah,” he said. “I know it.”
“Now let’s talk security measures. Anything I need to know before we borrow your wagon and take it to its destination?”
“Ah,” he said. He paused.
“I’m telling you this in good faith,” he said. “Pay isn’t good enough, I love my Crown and country, but I like living too. So I want you to know I could’ve stayed quiet and you mightn’t’ve noticed.”
I would have noticed, I thought.
“Out with it,” I said.
“It’s in my forearm. Metal, grafted to the bone. They have seahorse-eye things that look through my arms and read the numbers. Has to be the right metal too.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That sounds about right.”
“This was my last trip,” he said. “Ever since this black shit started springing up everywhere, it’s misery distilled. Of course something like this happens when I tell myself it’s my last trip before I find another way to make money. Of course.”
“You’re fine,” I told him. “We’ll try to minimize the damage.”
“Tooting,” Helen said.
I raised my eyebrows behind my mask, and then winced as she raised one hand, trumpet attached to the end of her hose, and blew.
It wasn’t a lips-on-trumpet noise, but something more artificial, a braying note that changed as she adjusted the keys.
The sound carried.
Helen took her time before stopping.
Helen made a smaller ‘bwat’ sound.
“Damage?” the driver asked.
“Well,” I said. “Can’t trust you to take me where I want to be without saying anything, so… best way to go about this would be to borrow your arm.”
“Then we can keep you for a while, we’ll reunite you and your arm as fast as we can, and then you’re sort of complicit, or we let you go and you can go home, and maybe you get pity points, but you also have to scrounge up to get a replacement arm, and that’s a whole mess, and there’s a third option where you kick up a stink and we put you down.”
“Uh,” he said. “I’d kind of like my arm back sooner than later.”
“Perfect!” I said. I was still fairly excited at the victory. “Perfect, good. That even means I can share the dirty details on what we’re up to, and I can ask you questions without having to mask what I’m asking. Let’s talk about your cargo, and what they tend to do with it when you arrive.”
“Are you going to hurt people with this?” he asked. “Is it going to be another one of these black wood bombs? Inside the city?”
“No,” I said. “And if you want, you can watch what we do. We’re just going to take a barrel we’ve got stashed away somewhere not too far away, and it’s got a label on it that’s of the type that makes people want to keep it sealed-”
“Stow it somewhere dark with a lot of ventilation,” Helen added.
“-and I can tell you, it’s going to be me, her, and one other person in that barrel,” I said. “We just want into the city, Mr. Driver, and they’re being rather ridiculously paranoid about letting people in or out.”
“You want in the city,” he said. “What does that matter? What’s that going to do? Who’s that going to hurt?”
I woke, and my arm was numb. It spawned a dozen small moments of terror as I wondered if Wyvern had prematurely started to physically affect me. There was a pressure on my chest, too. The numb left arm and the pressure coupled with an almost nauseous twist of my stomach made me think heart attack.
But it wasn’t. It was Jessie, lying beside me with her head on my shoulder. The covers were thick, down-filled, and heavy, and the two of us were relatively small given the massive size of the four-poster bed.
I almost hated to get up when I had this. This was entirely new. I knew part of it stemmed from insecurity, but having Jessie this close wasn’t so usual.
Her hair was so messy, and I was just about the only person who got to see it like that. She had dents on her nose where her spectacles usually sat, and she had scars reaching around her neck and at her chest where her nightgown didn’t wholly cover her, and I knew that again, I was one of the rare few that got to see it.
Moving glacially slowly, I began to extricate myself, moving the pillow, trying to get it so her head transitioned to the pillow. She was a fairly light sleeper, all considered, so it took extra caution and carefulness.
I didn’t manage it. Jessie stirred and woke up.
She smiled, and that smile was nice to see.
“Tried not to wake you,” I said.
“You did a terrible job,” Jessie said, yawning. She stretched.
I reached over, grabbing her stretching hands, and stretched myself, waving her arms one way and the other, while she collapsed back on the pillow, rolling her eyes at me.
“Come on,” I said. I tugged on her hands. “Up. We’ve got so much to do.”
“All day, every day,” Jessie said.
I let go of her hands, and we both rolled off of opposite ends of the bed.
There was a folded towel on the dresser, and I grabbed it, slinging it over one shoulder before pausing at Helen, who had curled up in an armchair, contorting herself. Her face was only partially fixed. I nudged the chair, being careful.
I trusted Helen when she was awake and in full control of her faculties. I didn’t trust sleeping Helen. Sleeping Helen had broken my hand two weeks ago.
Helen didn’t wake so much as she transitioned smoothly from rest to animation. She uncurled and stepped off the chair, heading straight for the little kitchen in the corner of the room, to prepare tea and likely to raid the pantry for breakfast cookies.
All good. There was a lingering feeling of dread at this point, of Jessie waking up blank, or Helen being even more troublesome on being woken, even pouncing from the chair, but this? This was perfect.
I walked into the adjunct bathroom, which was far too white for my liking. I walked past the woman in the tub, moved a bowl beneath the sink, washed my face, and fixed my hair as best as I could without wax or oils.
I took a minute or two to preen while the washbasin filled up, before I turned my full attention to the woman beside me.
Her eyes were wide enough to show the whites, and they looked in different directions, which was a nice touch, I thought. Her mouth was ajar, her breathing shallow, and she sat there like a broken doll. Her hair was in disarray, normally short and carefully curled, a natural brunette, and her nightgown was soiled at the lower parts. She had relieved herself in both senses at some point in the night, and it left a runny trail that painted a line in the direction of the drain, but hadn’t actually made it all the way down.
Collecting the bowl of water, which proved heavy, I carried it over to the tub, and I splashed it into the tub. It got all of the urine and only some of the other mess.
“Good morning,” I told her.
She didn’t respond.
“This can end at any time,” I said. I put the bowl back under the sink and set it to fill again. Grabbing a spare towel, I threw it over the woman’s head, and then began relieving myself in the toilet. “You don’t get anything by being stubborn.”
I finished up, pulled the chain to flush, and used the bowl of water to wash the rest of the mess down the drain of the tub.
Opening the medicine cabinet, I got the small case of syringes out. There were three.
“I know the spinal injection goes in the spine, but I get the rest confused. Muscle relaxant, it goes in the muscle of the leg or buttock, antidote, it goes in the bloodstream. Or is it the other way around?” I asked.
“You say that every morning, Sy,” Jessie said, from the other room.
“Every morning,” Helen echoed.
“You guys are no fun. I’m doing it for effect.”
“I think you’re the only one that appreciates that effect,” Jessie said.
I made sure there was no air in the syringe, then jammed the muscle relaxant in the woman’s throat. I depressed the syringe. I left it there while I stuck the other syringe into her leg.
“You get to live another day,” I said, leaving the second of the syringes in place.
The syringe that went into the base of her skull, however, needed more caution. I inserted it as gently as it warranted.
“There,” I told her. I plucked the syringes out, and I cranked the tub on. “Now get yourself cleaned up.”
I stepped out of the bathroom, and I joined the others as they prepared breakfast.
Tea, and bacon, and eggs, and mystery meat. I used a hot ring to toast bread directly.
“That’s a fire hazard,” Jessie pointed out.
“Yes, but I really like toast,” I said. “Do we have butter?”
“I remembered the butter,” Jessie said. “Give me some credit.”
We carried on, and Jessie stepped away to get our clothes sorted out. I was letting her pick my outfits, which she seemed to like, and it seemed today was a waistcoat.
A knock at the door made us all freeze.
“Mail!” the voice on the other end called out. “Leaving it outside!”
Jessie signaled. High Building Girl Queen.
Rooftop girl queen. Bea.
Checking first on the woman in the tub, making sure she hadn’t gone and drowned on me, I saw that she had enough wherewithal to sit up straighter and grip the sides of the tub. I closed that door, then quietly slipped out into the hallway. Jessie and Helen made more noise in the kitchen to cover me.
I moved quickly and quietly as I hurried to catch up with Bea. She startled as I put my hand on her shoulder.
“Sy,” she said.
“Bea,” I said. “Everything going smoothly?”
“Smoothly enough. There’s some mutterings, people wondering about new faces, but… better than I thought.”
“Good,” I said, smiling.
She gave me a soft, one-note chuckle. “They were talking to me about it. As if I’ve been here for longer than I have. They were complaining about newcomers.”
“Mailroom is invisible, and it implies status and trust,” I said. “None of this is accidental.”
“Keep things on the down-low, don’t try to push people to tell you anything, but do listen. We’ll meet later and I’ll tell you how to get people to want to confide in you.”
“Okay,” Bea said.
“And while we’re at it? Tomorrow, if there’s any mail that looks official-ish, you can knock and insist she sign for it. There’s probably something that looks like it should be signed in the mailroom, but make an excuse to see her face to face and show her your face.”
“You’re going to build up trust. At a later date, if things go smoothly, which they probably won’t, we’ll want to give her opportunities to try and get a message out. You’ll be that opportunity.”
“Happy mailing,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “Really what I wanted to do with my Academy know-how.”
I scooped up the mail on my way back into the room, and very carefully closed the door behind me. Helen and Jessie were conversing at the stove. I listened, and I could hear the splashing of the tub.
I picked through the mail and found what I was looking for.
“Here we go,” I said. “Took its time.”
Both of the others turned to me, expectant.
“And she said no. Politely, but it’s a no.”
Both looked a touch crestfallen.
“It might have been a hard sell, pushing the Lambs thing,” Jessie said.
“Might’ve,” I said. “I thought my read of Lillian was that she’d say yes, even or especially with that in mind. I wonder if things went badly somehow, or if she got another offer, or…”
“There could have been a hundred different factors,” Jessie said.
“Dang it,” I said.
“Sorry,” Jessie said.
“Probably wouldn’t have worked out that neatly anyway,” I said. I put the stack of Professor Ferres’ mail to one side. “Now. What are the priorities for our Academy today?”