“The professor is ambulatory,” Helen commented, as Professor Ferres emerged from the bathroom.
The woman wore a towel and a black silk bathrobe. She looked thirty, though I would have pegged her as being sixty or so, and she moved as though she was ninety, with shuffling steps and clear pain. She had done up her hair in rollers and put on makeup, but it was an incomplete portrait.
“Did you sleep well?” I asked.
The professor ignored me. Clutching the front of her bathrobe with one hand, she used the other to help her ease down into a kneeling position. She pulled the drawer open, and she stopped, staring down.
“We moved in for the long term,” I said. “It made more sense to have our clothes in the dresser.”
“I see,” she said. She was quiet for a moment. “Where are my clothes?”
“Linen cupboard,” I said. “I did dust before I put them away, we can’t have you looking out of sorts.”
“Yes,” she said. She looked like she was going to say something, and then defaulted to, “Can’t have that.”
She was slow in raising herself to a standing position.
“Your day starts at eight sharp,” Jessie said. “Most students get their first glimpse of you by eight o’five. You should hurry, or you’ll be behind schedule.”
“Noted,” the professor said.
She failed her first attempt at standing up, and fell to her knees, hunched over.
“If you’re shooting for pity, you won’t find any here,” I said.
“I’ve been sleeping in the bathtub night after night. If any part of me presses too hard into a part of the bathtub, I bruise, I get sores.”
“Helen turns you,” I said. “She should be, anyhow.”
“Every two hours,” Helen said. “I give her a push or change her position. I slosh water on her if she’s messy.”
I gestured, indicating Helen for the Professor’s benefit.
“Yes. Less sores, but as you might imagine, the sleep quality leaves much to be desired.”
“Tell us what we need to know about the Academy and it’s operations and we’ll get you a cot. You’ll get three square meals a day, and the only injections you’ll get will be the antidotes,” I said.
She turned her head, an she gave me a venomous look. I gave her my best one back.
“I’ll endure,” she said.
“Then endure,” I said. “And do it fast. The clock is ticking, and if you don’t at least look like you’re in full control of your faculties and maintain business as usual, then we have to escalate.”
“As you’ve told me, again and again,” she said. “Is this the same as what you were saying earlier? Are you repeating yourself to try and batter down my mental defenses with repeated blows to the same points? Are you like the Reverend Mauer or the Crooks of yesteryear? Will you threaten me with your best attempts at hell on Earth? Every day almost exactly the same but for the fact that it’s a little worse, hope just out of reach?”
Reaching up, she gripped the knobs of the drawers and she hauled herself halfway to her feet. She panted.
“I don’t know the Crooks,” I told Jessie.
The professor hauled herself the rest of the way to a standing position and made her way to the cupboard with the bedsheets and towels.
Jessie supplied the answer, “Crooks as in shepherd’s crooks. Young, clandestine religious group. Mostly farmers. The parents passed on religious knowledge in secret, very fervent in portraying the Academy and its doings as wrong and vile, much like the actual church in its last days. They were found out, the parents were imprisoned, three of the worst offenders were executed. The youths fled, spent a year staging covert strikes on the aristocracy. They made a point of torturing anyone they got.”
“They were quite creative,” Helen said.
“They only lasted a year?” I asked.
“Academy intervened, the Crooks made a move and failed in the face of overwhelming opposition. The captured gave up the rest.”
“Ah,” I said. “That’s a shame.”
“I wouldn’t say that. They were a closer analogue to Cynthia than to Mauer. Mauer has a mission, but the Crooks and Cynthia devolved. No cooperation, not building anything, no beliefs. Only wrath, rape, torture, drawing blood by any means necessary. Even if innocents got caught in the crossfire.”
“They made pretty displays with the corpses and biblical passages,” Helen said. “I wish I could have seen them.”
“Pretty displays or no, it sounds like it’s still a dang shame, just a shame on a different front.”
“Yes,” Jessie said. “They were organized, they were capable, but pressing forward when you’re facing a force this daunting means having to dig deep inside yourself for more strength, more reserves. They dug up something that was awfully ugly and in pain.”
“Why does that sound so familiar?” the professor asked. She had found the clothes for the day in the linen cupboard. “On an entirely unrelated topic, should I dress myself here, in plain view, so you can degrade me further, or should I step into the washroom so you don’t have to see the bedsores and bruises?”
“Sarcasm doesn’t become you, Professor Ferres,” I said.
“If you intended to bait me with irony and force me to keep quiet as yet another form of pressure, then so be it. I can endure that as well.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. I waved her off. “Helen, will you watch her? Jessie and I will get ready.”
Jessie and I retired to the washroom. We washed up quickly at the sink, scrubbing our faces and wetting our hair. I dried my hair and then turned, hip resting against the sink as I faced Jessie. My fingers combed through her wet hair and broke it into three plaits, which I set to braiding. She, meanwhile, set to work with my hair, reaching over to a jar without looking and then setting everything in place.
It took more than a little coordination, but it was nice to bond, my fingers were quick with the braiding and my hair tended to stay in place better when Jessie did it.
“Remind me about her schedule for today,” I said.
“You should remember that much.”
“Except I don’t.”
“Do you not remember because I’m serving as your memory?” she asked. “You shouldn’t lean on me that heavily.”
“It’s temporary. I need to focus my brain on other things. There’s a lot to coordinate.”
“There is. I just worry.”
“I’m remembering. I’m just remembering peripheral details. I’m trying to stage the entirety of Hackthorn Academy in my head for the day everything goes to pieces. I’m putting the main thrust of things aside, for you.”
“I’m going to have a bad day sooner or later, Sy. You can’t go to pieces then. You keep moving. See things through.”
“I’ll try,” I said. I reached up and scraped a bit of gunk that lingered in the corner of one of her eyes.
“Trying isn’t good enough.”
My hands still up near her face, I put my palms on her cheeks, holding her face, then kissed her.
Helen and the professor were talking in the other room, I noticed, now that our own conversation wasn’t overlapping them.
I paused mid-kiss, holding the edge of Jessie’s lower lip between my own, and turned my head a fraction toward the door.
Jessie pulled her lip free, then murmured, “Ferres said that the thing that bothered her most about this situation was that it was very possible she’d die at the hands of one of that cretin’s creations. Ibbot’s. Helen took offense.”
“Ah,” I murmured. “How nice to know I have your full attention.”
“Speak for yourself, Sylvester. I pick up on all of the background details.”
“Most, not all,” I said. My fingers dropped from her face, and my hand went straight back up to find a loose thread on her nightgown. I gave it an exploratory tug, and she batted my hand aside. “Now I’ve got to ask, did you tell me the schedule and I completely forgot about it already, or did you forget?”
Jessie used scissors she had picked up from the shelf above the sink to snip the loose thread. “She’s checking in with her pet students and bringing them as a cohort while looking after the master’s birthday party, then she’s meeting with a group of would-be grey coats about their ongoing projects, all followed by lunch, if there’s time.”
“We haven’t seeded the grey coats.”
“No we haven’t,” Jessie said.
“What’s the location?”
“Her office. Which is actually quite inconvenient, because there’s traffic all around it.”
“Hiding under the desk?” I asked.
“Wrong kind of desk for that.”
“What if it was Helen?”
“Not even Helen.”
“We haven’t had many situations come up where we couldn’t seed, spy on proceedings, or verify everything was sufficiently crooked in our favor after she’d passed through.”
“Not any so far. We talked about having her cancel a few days ago.”
I sighed in the same way she had, mocking her.
“Yes, we did. Your instinct at the time was that things are too precarious for her to break pattern, graduate students are too invested in their projects to suddenly be ignored by the headmistress, she can’t delegate, and people would grumble.”
“And six abstract units of grumbling becomes one abstract unit of difficult questions. My instincts sound about right, so I’ll trust them.”
“Any bright ideas?” she asked. “And did you actually tie my hair in a knot to secure the braid?”
“It’s fancy,” I said, waving the end of the braid in her face. “And pretty.”
“You’re the one that’s untying the thing.”
“Naturally. And yes, I have bright ideas. Not all are applicable to this situation, but give me my due.”
“If she passes on one message by way of the grey coat prospects, all of this falls apart.”
“Yeah,” I said.
I would have liked to have more control over this situation than we had. There was a chance we could come out ahead if we happened to lose control, but I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to go there. Blood would be shed, not all of it theirs.
“What are you thinking?” Jessie asked. “You’ve got this tiny frown line between your eyebrows.”
“I’m thinking… I need to break her down more. If she’s our puppet, I don’t want her pulling against the strings.”
“Break her down how?”
“I might scare her.”
“Whatever you need to do. And the prospective grays?”
“We could take cards we aimed to play later and play them now, audaciously.”
“Is this a normal person’s take on audacious, or is it the take of a certain black haired, shorter-than-average gentleman who has normalized audacious, who is then calling this particular play audacious?”
“Shorter than average?”
“Don’t get hung up on labels.”
“It’s just heartless of you to make a point of it. You called me a gentleman?”
“Don’t get hung up on words. And focus. If you lose track then I have to start this conversation over from the beginning.”
“You don’t ever have to do that. Exaggerator.”
“It’s something even I would call audacious, when I’m very comfortable with things the average person would call audacious.”
“Right. If someone was to sketch out all of your thoughts as they were right this moment, how large a share of those thoughts are trying to find other solutions?”
“Um. I think the share is the size of a large cat.”
Jessie gave me the look.
“They’re thoughts. I’m not going to assign a number or percentage to thoughts. They get away from me and then I sound wrong. I don’t want to set myself up for failure.”
“Fine. How large a share is already devoted to finding a way to make the audacious happen?”
“Take your pick of any animal large enough to sit on the medium sized cat and kill it in the process.”
“Come on,” I said.
We stepped into the other room, and I headed straight for my pile of clothing. Helen and the professor were still talking.
“No. But the gnawing muscle makes a T-shape connection to the biting muscle and the T feels weak, and there’s an ‘x’ connection between the grimace muscle and the snake-mouth muscle group that’s pulling more than it should.”
“You need to make more sense, dear,” the professor said.
“You’re a terrible influence on her,” Jessie whispered in my ear. Helen had turned her head. She pushed her hair aside and drew lines on her cheek, illustrating.
The professor had done good work so far. Helen looked almost like she always had. Her face was intact, no damage apparent, no scars. The only problem was that her expressions weren’t there. Our perfect actress was struggling to act. Her only face was the dead-eyed one from yesteryear.
“You two, take the bathroom while Jessie and I get dressed,” I instructed. “Leave the door open. I want to talk to you, Helen.”
“What about?” Helen asked, as the pair stepped into the bathroom.
“How is my father doing?”
“Your father is… coming together,” Helen said.
“I kind of want him today.”
“Your father would decline any invitations today,” Helen said.
“I kind of really want him today,” I said. “What if he was drunk?”
“Your drunk father would possibly show his face for a short time, not staying for too long out of fear of embarrassing himself,” Helen said.
“That’ll do,” I said. “Maybe he could be morose drunk.”
“Shall I fetch him when we’re done here?” Helen asked.
“Dab some whiskey behind his ears.”
“He’s a scotch man,” Helen said.
We dressed, with Jessie donning a uniform while I dressed up in the clothes she had set aside. She made sure my hair was fixed, then gave me a peck on the lips.
The professor emerged from the washroom, donning her black lab coat. She looked well put together, and except for some small issues in how she moved, nothing looked amiss. Helen practically flew out of the Professor’s apartment.
“My dad was probably enjoying the good life, sleeping in,” I said.
“Probably,” Jessie said.
“He’s in for a rude awakening.”
The professor was quiet. I saw her eyeing the stove. Only scraps and scrapings remained.
“What time is it?” I asked Jessie.
“Seven fifty eight.”
“Two minutes to eat,” I told the professor.
There was no hesitation. No grace, either, even for a woman who was normally immaculate. She paid no mind to the fact that some fruit had bites taken out of it or that the pieces of meat too small to be worth picking out now sat in seas of congealing grease.
It was the eye of a surgeon in a moment of crisis, now turned to picking out the least bad pieces of food. Her steady hand focused now on keeping any mess from dripping on her clothes, stripping meat from a length of bone. She did what she could and then turned to the largest offerings. A hunk of bread end-piece that I’d burned and left aside after toasting my bread, a glass of milk that had been mostly finished. She alternated the two to get the bread down.
She didn’t finish either before Jessie cleared her throat.
Ferres hesitated, and for a moment, I wondered if her composure would break, if she would snap at us, or if she would abandon sense and go for the food.
Instead, she drew a handkerchief from her pocket, and she gathered herself together. A lady in the non-noble sense, as if composure in the present could erase the desperation of moments ago.
She was in the midst of daubing at her face when her body rebelled. She gagged, bending over, and froze, holding that position.
Twice more, she gagged, but managed to keep from retching.
Not the food so much as the gorging, if that could even be called gorging.
She straightened, resuming her act as the lady, and she gave us a nod.
We left the room as a trio. It was a short trip down the hallway, and then we passed through a set of doors.
Spring air blew in our faces, but it was a mixed thing. A breath of fresh air, but with a bad aftertaste. Flowers and dewy grass and bitter death on the wind.
Hackthorn had been constructed with a particular aesthetic, because it was an Academy very focused on the aesthetic. A project from many years past had been placed as the centerpiece of Hackthorn, and if it had ever been truly alive, it would have been a half woman, half spiderweb counterpart for Helen’s brother. As tall as any building I’d seen, she was a connection of strands and shelves that supported one another, some shelves vertical and others horizontal, akin to a bookshelf, but always with the outer form in mind, and the outer form was that of a woman. Akin to builder’s wood, but no external walls had been put up to guide the growth. The story was that it had all been calculated in advance.
It was her crowning achievement, her master stroke. She had pitched it as her specialist project and they had allowed it with the expectation she would fail. Instead, she had stepped up the scale. A work so impressive they had no choice but to give her a professorship, despite the fact that she was a woman. To say no at that point would have risked her walking away and leaving the edifice to fall to pieces.
It hadn’t been her only play over the years.
Care had been given to the face, which turned skyward, and it looked like a pale woman’s face, eyes closed. The shelves were now beds for plant life and growth, or walls had been put in place at the exterior, allowing for them to be used as pens or prison cells. Bristling plant growth and walls formed her exterior skin, while trees that grew down formed her hair. She draped back, with the buildings of the Academy itself as her recliner, and we walked along the bridge that was one of her arms, reaching out to the main Academy office and the apartments of headmistress and visiting dignitaries.
Even from a distance, I could see students and staff already at work with tending to this and that.
Green and thriving, against a backdrop of cliffs and ocean.
But looking in the other direction was something else entirely. The walls of hackthorn, and then wasteland, out to the horizon. Once forest, burned and then patrolled by beasts grown just for this purpose, who found everything that the blaze hadn’t utterly destroyed.
The black woods were only just barely visible in the distance, unable to reach Hackthorn with the wasteland of ash between us and it.
We were isolated, and entry to Hackthorn meant traveling through the woods and wasteland or it meant visiting by boat and ascending the cliffs to access Hackthorn by way of the reclining woman’s backside.
I’d gotten a good laugh out of Jessie the first time I had pointed that out.
The headmistress of Hackthorn smiled at students, and she greeted some by name. That in itself wouldn’t have been surprising, as the students on this bridge were both early risers and notable students. I could see the light in her eyes, and while I could see a weariness that hadn’t been there when we had first appeared in her bedroom, I believed that she was doing a good job of playing it off.
Students liked her. They respected her. They knew her in the sense that they could greet her. We hadn’t stopped long enough for her to do it yet, but I knew she was willing and able to make small talk with them. Each of those things was to her credit on its own and surprising when taken in tandem with one of the others.
But oh, that wasn’t what I was watching for.
No, it was when we stepped indoors again, off the bridge and into the armpit. The labs. Students were waiting. Professor Viola Ferres’ select. Her favored students, taken under her wing.
They were the closest to her, they were sharp, and they were very unhappy with our existence.
“First thing this morning, we make sure all is on track for the young master Baugh’s birthday celebration,” Viola Ferres said. “First lab.”
She indicated with her hand, and the gaggle of students formed a herd around her. Jessie and I walked side by side, joining them. I could see her talking to the students. More important than any of the students’ views or reactions to the professor was the professor’s reaction to her students.
She was built for this. However much we ground her down and applied pressure, so long as she had this, I wasn’t sure I could truly break down her defenses. We were positioned, we had laid out the groundwork for a move on the largest scale, but we lacked information, and so we groped in the dark.
Helen had taken too long. We descended the stairs to the first lab. It lay at the heart of the complex. Students who ascended and descended the stairs to reach any other part of the facility passed by the lab, and in the doing, they passed by branch-framed panes of glass that looked at the work in progress.
Fairy tale monsters and monsters of fantasy done to scale. The sea serpent and the maiden, the big bad wolf and red riding hood. The larger members of the cast remained in the vast, open-concept laboratory with its arched ceiling. The big bad wolf rested with the half-goat, half-fish of the zodiac. A horse as large as any I’d ever seen stood with spine bared, burn scars on either side of the bloody schism where its mane was supposed to be. Its bone of tail flicked left and right as it ate from its feedbag. A giant -hardly giant in comparison to Helen’s brother- slumped against the wall, using his long-fingered hands to shovel mountains of loose, dry cereals into a wide mouth.
I didn’t mind those ones, not in particular.
I wandered, and I heard one of the members of the group comment at my wandering, though I didn’t catch the words, as my focus was elsewhere. For all its fairy tale nature, all I could smell were sweat, blood, and offal.
“Leave him be,” Ferres said.
“I don’t see why he’s even here. No offense, miss Montague.”
“I’ve heard all the complaints a hundred times already,” Jessie said. She ignored the implicit meaning in his statement that he didn’t see why she was there either.
“I have as well,” Professor Ferres said. “I’ll hear no more of it, unless you have other projects you’d like to be working on.”
“I- no,” the student said.
“It’s politics, Damian. And forcing a superior to justify her politics is not good politics on your part.”
I didn’t listen to the rest. Most of the members of the group had commented in some fashion already. If everything was the way that it was supposed to be, she might even have welcomed the questions and challenges. She was unconventional in a variety of ways, and her treatment of subordinates was one of them.
Even now, she was turning the topic around, talking about the delegation of tasks, and posing challenges to Jessie and her favored students.
I passed around a wall that blocked part of the lab off from view of the stairs. Hidden in plain sight, a thousand students would walk by and look through the windows with excitement and wonder, but actual access to the lab was more limited.
Actual access to this area was rarer. I had the keys to unlock the doors.
I passed by the cells. They hadn’t all had cots before Jessie and I had arrived. At our insistence, Professor Ferres had ordered them to protect her investment and work.
I passed by red riding hood, who would have been at home among any mouse of Radham or West Corinth. No older than twelve, her face had been altered into something to resemble a deer or a rabbit. An attempt at contrasting to the wolf. Something had been done to her arms and legs. To better enable her to run when and if the scene called for it, I supposed.
I walked past goldilocks, who was closer to my age, who had locks of actual gold. Rapunzel reached out to touch the bars of her cell with one hand and a lock of hair. Past Jack and past ones I couldn’t put names to.
We had sought her out because of her tie to Ibbot, and because Lillian had been taken with her. A part of me had hoped the woman would vindicate Lillian’s opinion of her. In some respects, she had.
In others, the complete opposite. As bad as Ibbot, as bad as Hayle. She was a major purveyor of the Block, an artist who worked with children.
Now playthings. Toys.
I looked up and saw Helen standing in the shadows. If she was here, so was my ‘father’.
I turned my eyes to the people in the cells.
“Soon,” I said, and even though my voice was soft, no less than thirty pairs of ears listened.