“If you want it, you have to tell me. Water,” I said. I moved my hand, three fingers extended, in a horizontal direction.
Poll Parrot looked down at his wings. No hands to gesture with. I waited, expectant, as he moved his wings.
Finally, he extended a wing, twisted so only three of the pinion feathers at the tip extended. He swiped it sideways.
I smiled, and he smiled back in a nervous way. I gave him a little salute and backed away from the bars, saying, “Give me a moment.”
There was a sink at the far end of the little alley of cells. I headed to it, glancing and paying attention to each of the experiments along the way. Little Bo Peep got my attention, palm out, hand toward me.
She did the gesture for water, then touched her mouth. Her facial construction was different, with a pronounced groove of the philtrum at her upper lip, a faint darker coloration there and at her upper lip. Her hair was a shaggy growth of wool.
“Coming right up,” I said.
I rinsed and filled two cups. Helen was just off to my right, reaching through the bars and playing some finger game with one of the smaller ones.
Bo Peep took her cup, then paused before gesturing. Aggression. Then she pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead, wincing.
“Headache?” I asked.
Bo Peep managed to nod at me while drinking from her cup. Then she moved her hand. Three fingers together, pointed up, she waggled her hand as she shook the tower to pieces.
It wasn’t the way a Lamb would’ve done it, but I quite liked it.
Given a chance, people were damned good at finding ways to communicate.
“Thinking, thought, brains. Gone to ruin. You can’t think clearly?”
She nodded. She raised three fingers, separate this time.
“Can’t see clearly? Senses fuzzy?”
“That’ll be the drugs. Just like the ones they used to keep you from speaking or making noise. When they stop experimenting on you and start getting you to practice, they’ll cut back on the drugs. They might give you others, if they need you to be able to speak so you can act or sing, or to make you more compliant.”
She made the gesture for thinking, except she pointed it down, reversing it, and she made a confused face.
“What confused you?” She couldn’t answer, so I tried the scattershot approach. “Did I get something wrong? Was it the mention of practice? The drugs? Do you want to know what the other drugs are? The singing? Making you compliant-”
At that last bit, she gestured again. She used the other hand to drink more, greedily gulping water down, one eye watching me.
“Compliant. It means obedient, doing what they want.”
The reversed ‘tower’ of three fingers flipped up. Understood.
I reached through the bars and gave the three fingers a squeeze. “Need anything else?”
She shook her head. The mop of white wool flew left and right.
“Alright,” I said. “Give me the glass back, or people will wonder how you got it.
She gave me the glass. As I turned away, she reached for and grabbed my sleeve.
She gestured. Alert. You. Body. Mind. Alert.
The look in her eyes was dead serious.
I reached through the bars and brushed my hand down the bangs of her mop of hair and the front of her face. “Stop fussing. I’ll be fine.”
Fingers brushed down my sleeve and fingers as I withdrew my arm. Prolonging contact.
Not because of any attraction, I was pretty sure.
Just a desire for a friendly face to stay a little bit longer.
I headed for Poll with his glass of water. Mentally, I made a note that I would have to be careful, lest I develop a fondness or soft spot for any of them. Bo Peep was a frontrunner, and the stylistic tie didn’t help. I’d already run into that snag with Mary.
I put my hand and the other cup through the bars for Poll Parrot, and tipped the cup back for him so he could drink.
He snorted, and I moved the cup away.
Hand made a blade, I held it up at my sternum. “Means I’ve heard you, I recognize you, I understand, or thank you.”
He did his best with his wing-arms. He was like Avis in her outfit, but without the ability to lose the outfit, no hands hidden in the rigging of his wings. Better to have him do his best and if all went according to plan, perhaps there would be an opportunity to teach him tap code later.
“Good lad,” I said. I turned, showing others in earshot the gesture.
I heard Helen speak, and I saw her making the same gesture. Passing it on to others who couldn’t see me, closer to the end of the hall.
He curled his wing, setting his jaw. It was hard to track what I’d taught them, but I knew that I had taught them the core gestures that the Lambs had used to generate all of the rest. It was fairly simple to work out what gesture he was attempting by process of elimination.
“That might not be so clear to the others. Try your foot,” I said.
He shifted his weight to one foot. He clenched his talon in a particular way. Aggression, pain, force.
“Soon,” I said, echoing my statement earlier. “And honestly? I don’t plan to use you guys to fight. I don’t want a battle in that sense. Even in the best case scenario, if I had ninety percent control over the situation, I don’t know if you’ll be in cages, drugged, fresh from surgeries, or whatever else. Okay?”
He didn’t look happy at that. He clenched his talon again. He struck at his chest with the leading edge of his wing, what I might otherwise have called his forearm.
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Believe me, I know.”
He had been altered to be beautiful, and he was. The ruby red and indigo feathers only accentuated the image. He was twelve and he was very much an idealization of a boy his age. If Lillian and Jamie had found something attractive in me when I was younger, then it was present in Poll. He was fine boned and athletic, and could have been a ballet dancer in another course of events, and all of that stood in stark contrast to how very angry he was.
If I hadn’t grown up with equal parts beauty and bloodthirst, I might have been given pause by the image.
There was a stirring at the end of the hall closest to the entryway. Rustling of arms against bars, movement, scuffs and light bangs.
“Want to help?” I asked Poll.
“Can I throw water at you?” I asked, showing him the cup.
He paused, then nodded.
I smiled, and I allowed my entire bearing to change. I raised my chin, and I made the aggression gesture, hard, before throwing the water in his face.
Then I laughed, and it was a mocking, hard laughter.
I saw the shock on his face as he backed away, there was confusion and momentary hurt that hurt me in equal measure just for seeing it. Then his eyes moved to my hand, which was still gesturing.
Feathers rustled, and he threw himself forward, kicking the bars, hard.
I’d pulled away just in time. I continued laughing.
Now that I’d changed my position, I could see the approaching person the other prisoners had been reacting to. One of Ferres’ favored students. Betty, the girl of Ferres’ group, or she had been before Jessie turned up. I turned to her with a smile on my face.
She wore a boy’s haircut, her hair considerably shorter than my own, combed in a part, but she wore makeup and white pearl earrings to match her Academy blazer and skirt. Bold, modern, attractive, and very, very dangerous.
Poll backed away, then repeated the attack, hurling himself forward, kicking the bars with one taloned foot.
“Stop!” Betty barked out an order to Poll. “You’re accomplishing nothing, and you’ll only hurt yourself.”
Poll stood there, and the anger I’d seen moments before was out in full force. He panted, glaring, lines standing out in his neck, feathers bristling. One of his talons clenched, the talon-tips digging at the floor of his cell. His face dripped.
On seeing the young lady, Poll’s face contorted in what should have been a scream. I could only barely hear the strangled squeak from his throat.
“Stop now, Poll,” the student said. “You know the consequences.”
Poll stopped, still heaving for breath. He coughed, having hurt himself in his attempt to scream, and he turned away, sitting down very forcefully on the floor of his cell.
“What are you even doing here?” Betty addressed me.
“I wanted to see how the sausage gets made,” I said, smirking. “Call it morbid curiosity.”
“You’ve agitated them,” Betty.
“Only having a little fun,” I said.
“If your interference leads to problems with training them, it’s going to cause problems for everyone,” she said. “It’s why access is supposed to be restricted.”
“If they’re cranky then give them more drugs,” I said.
“It’s not that simple. We’re weaning them off for training in the coming week.”
“You’re clever,” I said. I sauntered a bit as I approached Betty. I gave her the most patronizing pat on the cheek as I could manage, “You’ll figure it out.”
She reached up to seize my wrist.
My condescending smile didn’t budge.
“You’re not that big,” she said.
“I’m big enough that I’m over here and the Hag of Hackthorn isn’t dragging me out herself,” I said. “Like she said, politics.”
Her hand had tightened on my wrist when I said ‘hag’. She was wholly in the professor’s corner.
“I can play that card too,” she said. “My father is Harry Washburn.”
I moved my face closer to hers. “I. Don’t. Care.”
“You should,” she said. She was steeling herself now that I was invading her personal space again. Her rebuttal didn’t have as much force behind it as it should have.
“Do you not know how to deal with someone who doesn’t shit their pants when you mention daddy, Bets? Because that name drop might end a conversation with some commoner student, but I’m willing to carry that conversation to a proper conclusion.”
“There’s no conversation to be had,” she said. She let go of my wrist, pushing my hand away. “And there’s no conclusion.”
“You’ve been queen of every clique, you’re the top student type. So tell me, why aren’t you attending one of the better schools, hm?”
“I chose this school.”
“Ah, so you felt inadequate elsewhere? Did you have a scare somewhere along the line?”
The faintest of flinches.
I smiled. “Better to be big fish of a medium-sized pond rather than risk attending at the Capitol proper and not measuring up.”
“You’re an embarrassment to the aristocracy,” she said.
“There’s an insight into how your mind works,” I said. “I say ‘not measuring up’ and you jump straight to embarrassment. Is daddy embarrassed of you? Come on, Bets. Do you really think he’d put any effort in at all if he got a nice pleading letter from you? How likely is it really that he makes the three day trip, hops on a boat and passes through the asshole of the reclining lady of Hackthorn?”
That might have struck too close to home, right there. It was a cheap shot, really. The vast majority of youths who were away from home and out of contact with mom and dad weren’t one hundred percent sure of their parents’ love. Betty didn’t give me the impression of someone in the minority.
But there was a problem with the cheap shot that hit close to home. Home was home, a place someone lived. It was the familiar, and very often people were comfortable there, even if it wasn’t pretty or tidy.
“Listen,” she said, asserting herself in spite of everything I’d said, “You shouldn’t be here.”
Returning to the central argument. She had the sense to do that, and avoid letting me drive things further away. “And you’re here to escort me out.”
“No,” she said. “No, you shouldn’t be here, in this Academy, in Professor Ferres’ classes, watching over your fiancee to make sure your family’s money is being well spent, throwing your weight around.”
“If you stick to that mindset, you’ll find yourself floundering when you leave the Academy, if you don’t already struggle in that world, Betty. The constraints of should limit only those who allow themselves to be limited by them.”
I paced as I talked, and in the doing, I was able to look down the length of the row of cells. Helen was no longer at the end of the hall. The door there was too obvious for her to have used.
“Tradition exists for a reason,” Betty said.
Helen’s absence was concerning. Had she not been real? If she wasn’t real, that meant I needed to get things in order for the grey coats. It meant other things, but I didn’t want to touch on them.
“Hypocritical, that,” I said, absently, my mind not wholly on the argument.
“People are happy to push for tradition and forget what came before. It was once traditional for violence to be the be-all and end-all. It was once tradition for slavery to be commonplace, and for every man to face the possibility of being shackled. It was once tradition, my dear hypocrite, for women to bow their heads and listen to the men, and if you wanted to stick to the shoulds and shouldn’ts, then women shouldn’t wear coats, be they white, grey, or black.”
Betty rolled her eyes.
“When it’s convenient, then?” I asked her.
“I don’t think I’ve ever hated someone as much as I hate you,” she said. “You’re being reductionist.”
“And you’re being a hypocrite. But by all means, cling to ‘should be’ when it serves you, and ignore it when it doesn’t.”
“The distinction is that tradition and establishment serve as a backbone. We hold to them when they make us stronger as a whole.”
“When it’s convenient,” I said. I extended an arm. “Hey. Look at this. It used to be established that communities looked after their children, but hey, it’s convenient to imprison them, drug them, alter them.”
“Them?” Betty asked, incredulous, indicating the cells.
“Hey, look at me,” I said. I spread my hands. “Not complaining.”
“You’re twisting things around,” Betty said. “They volunteered. The drugs mean they’ll forget all of this. At worst, they’ll walk away richer with vague recollections of a fairy tale fantasy and the best party of their lives. Everyone benefits.”
“Come on now,” I said. “And the cells?”
“Expedience. We can’t have children running around, especially with the drugs we pumped into them for surgery and to keep them compliant.”
“Is that what Professor Ferres tells you, or did you conjure up that particular shade of horseshit yourself?”
“It’s fact,” she said. “Any operation looks ugly when you sneak a peek at the proceedings halfway through. There’s no reason to expect this is any different.”
I shook my head.
“I can’t believe I’m missing time I could be spending with Professor Ferres to talk to you,” she said. She looked at the youths in the cells, then shook her head. “Don’t interfere with them. Let them be.”
With that, she strode off, back to the central area of Lab One.
“Yeah,” I said, my voice softening. I let the aristocratic bearing slip away, lowering the chin I’d been holding a notch too high. I hoped the transition was obvious enough to the eyes watching to let on that I’d been acting. I turned, looking at each of the prisoners I could see. My voice was soft as I spoke, “I’m going to get you guys out of here soon.”
Three of the five prisoners nearest me made the gesture I’d shown to Poll Parrot.
Glasses still in hand, I walked over to the sink, putting them away, and I used the mirror over that sink to check my hair was fine.
I looked over at the cell where Helen had been playing with the children.
She was inside the cell. The three smaller children were lying down, two with heads in Helen’s lap.
“Are you real?” I asked Helen.
“Yes,” Helen said.
“Wouldn’t you say that if you weren’t?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. I’m very honest,” Helen said.
“You are, aren’t you?” I asked. “Okay. How did you get in there?”
“Squeezed through the bars.”
“Of course,” I said. The bars that kept children who looked to be eight within their cell.
“I would have liked to be the aristocrat,” Helen said. “I would have been better at it.”
“I’m really good at being a shitty person, though,” I said.
“Shhh,” Helen said. “Let’s not talk like that around them. They’ve been through so much.”
She ran her hand through the hair of one of the children with his head in her lap. His eyes were open – he wasn’t sleeping. Somehow I thought he wouldn’t sleep, that he might drink this up.
“You’ll be okay?” I asked Helen.
“I’ll visit everyone who’s hard to visit, and Jessie asked me to scout the armory. She also asked me not to kill for fun, because people are getting concerned.”
“Stitched. Experiments that make satisfying crunches when I squeeze them.”
“When I tell these kids soon, I mean it. Can you hold back long enough if you know there’s something bigger coming up?”
“I can,” Helen said.
“Good. Good. And visit these guys when you’re free? They’ll need a friendly face.”
Helen turned her cold expression my way.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said.
It didn’t look like she was going to get started with her day right this second, the children positioned where they were.
I turned around, gathered myself up into a more aristocratic bearing, and strode for Lab One.
I heard bone crunch and snap behind me. Stopping in my tracks, I turned.
Blood sprayed, painting the wall of Helen’s cell.
I remained where I was, listening to the continued crunch, grind, snap of popping bone and gristle. Here and there, there was another spatter of blood. Some reached into the hallway by the sink and mirror.
I closed my eyes, holding my breath.
I couldn’t close my ears so easily. I heard the wet noises, the dry noises, and the rustling, and my very agile mind filled in the blanks.
I pressed my hands to my ears, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to happen. I wanted the sound to be all in my head and for the noises to continue with my hands over my ears at the same time I didn’t want to hear any of it at all.
But the sounds stopped.
I exhaled, and my breath hitched. I opened my eyes at the same moment I pulled my hands from my ears.
Crunch. A trickle of blood seeped into the hallway.
I blinked, and the blood was gone. The noises stopped, replaced by Helen’s whisper-soft humming.
The children in the cells who weren’t looking at me were looking in Helen’s direction, listening.
My hands trembled, so I put them in my pockets. I made sure my pose and posture were right, and I shot a smile at the nearest prisoners, reassuring them as best as I could.
Evette smirked at me as I walked past her.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said to her.
I left the cells behind, stepping out into Lab One. Jessie had joined other students in working on the horse with the mane of nothing, set in a bed of scars. When it was active and alive, the black horse’s mane and hooves would be alight with fire, its eyes glowing red.
Entirely impractical, but this was art.
“Is your curiosity sated, Simon?” Professor Ferres asked me.
“Never,” I said.
“A shame you aren’t one of my students,” she said.
I smiled wider. Careful there.
“I was about to leave to look after my prospective grey coats. I was under the impression you wanted to join me?”
“I did,” I said. “In fact, there was something I wanted to talk to you about.”
“You’re always particularly… engaged, after studying my work in progress,” she said.
“An operation halfway through,” I said. That got me a glance from Betty, who had donned a mask and scrubs.
I looked over at Jessie. “I’ll catch you later, hon?”
“After class,” I said.
“I’ll look forward to it,” she said.
I left her to it. I joined the professor in heading upstairs.
“You’re tense,” I commented, once we’d reached a point in the flight of stairs where we weren’t in earshot of anyone.
“Somewhat,” the professor said.
“You’re thinking that you’re due for a meeting in your office with the prospective greys, and I would seem particularly out of place there.”
“You’re out of place here no matter the office or corridor, Sylvester,” the professor said.
“But see, I’m borrowing your power. You could make the sky crimson over Hackthorn, and if you said it was fine, it would be accepted as fine.”
“Perhaps,” she said.
She gave a nod and a smile to a student who was descending the stairs. Conversation paused for a moment, and then more students appeared, and the conversation came to an outright halt.
In those students, I saw a pair of mine. They didn’t act like anything was amiss as they walked past me, but one did glance my way.
Ferres and I made our way up to the top floor. As we reached it, I saw her bearing change, much in the same way mine had.
She was a little taller than me, and so she had been afforded a better view of the people on the top floor a moment before I had. That, and I’d been watching her more than I’d been watching others.
The smile was gone, the geniality she’d offered her students stripped away. She went cold in a way that wasn’t so distant from how Helen did it. Because she was in the company of more common students, and because a heavyset man with fine clothes was there.
“Ibbot knew you once, didn’t he?” I asked.
“You know this.”
“He studied some of my ideas and even asked for my thoughts at one point while creating your friend with the injured face. He didn’t use my thoughts, which would be helpful in the here and now, but that’s beside the point. Yes, we’ve interacted,” Ferres said. She sounded annoyed at the distraction.
“Yeah,” I said.
Seeing her go cold, adopting a crisper, administrator’s bearing, it was a good reminder that she was someone with deeper reserves. She’d drawn something from less than a half hour’s time in the company of her favorite students, steeling herself, growing stronger. She’d reached this position through merit and calculation, and none of that was gone.
I needed things from her.
We approached the aristocrat, and Ferres extended a hand.
He took it and kissed it. I wanted to wince at that, but I would let it slide.
“Professor,” the aristocrat said.
“Good Sir,” she said, with no warmth at all. “What brings you here?”
I could smell the touch of whiskey.
“He’s my father,” I said.
Ferres’ expression didn’t falter in the slightest.
“Son,” Otis’ sole surviving thug said, with the paternal warmth of a dissected frog.
I could smell more of the whiskey now. I was suspicious he’d actually had some. A method actor, it seemed.
“I see. And what’s the reason for him being here?”
“He’s going to come along. He’s drunk enough to barge in and both notable and eccentric enough to get away with it,” I said.
“I find myself wondering about this.”
“Say it with me, professor. The sky is crimson.”
“The sky is crimson,” she said.
“Exactly,” I said. Then to my very confused father, I said, “Don’t worry about it. You’ll watch her?”
“I’ll watch her,” he said.
“Is this the latest in the series of indignities you’re bestowing on me?” Ferres asked. “Students will automatically link an old maid like myself with any man of roughly my age who I keep company with.”
“The horror,” I said.
“Is that the threat, then? He’ll be my paramour, and my reputation is ruined, or you kill me?”
“Oh no, professor,” I said. My eye moved through the crowd. I saw more of mine seeded throughout. Beattle students in Hackthorn uniforms. The fact that students were giving the professor a respectful berth meant I could talk without too much worry of being overheard. “Death is too merciful, isn’t it? Father, you’re under strict instruction not to kill her, mind you.”
He needed more acting lessons with Helen.
I looked up at Professor Ferres. “If you cross me, I’ll give you Wyvern, professor. It’s painful, you know.”
“Quite,” she said.
“But that won’t be the end of it. I will make your mind malleable, and I will batter it with words. I will play on your fears and your hopes, I will find your weak points, and I will create some. Then I’ll give you a week to recover before doing it again, and again, and again. I don’t have very long before I lose my mind entirely, and so this is my last real gambit. If this plan fails, then I’ll spend all the time I have left ensuring you lose your mind too.”
Her expression was hard to read, but as she glanced away, she moved her shoulder, one of the sore ones from the long night in the hard tub, with minimal movement on her part.
“I will make you stupid, professor. I will make your thoughts run in circles endlessly. I will tear you down until you’re a whimpering child in a sixty year old woman’s body. Pass on a message to the right person somehow, somehow avoid everything I’ve been putting into place for the past days and weeks, and I’ll still manage it. And you’ll let me do it, with scarcely any resistance at all.”
“I’ll let you?” she asked. Her curiosity sounded more intellectual than anything else.
“Because if I find you too hard to crack, on one particular night? I’ll turn my attention to your co-conspirators. To students and teachers you respect and admire. And you’re too proud of what you’ve built here to allow me to do that for your benefit.”
She nodded, absorbing that.
“You’re going to not only tell me what I want to know about Crown and Academy, but you’re going to help me do it.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “And I do see my prospective grey coats. Do I have your leave to join them, Sylvester?”
I almost wanted to retort ‘perhaps’, but it was because the word had caught on my brain.
I waved her off, and she offered her arm to my father, who took it, walking with her to the grey coats.
It wasn’t a hallucination like the one I’d had near the cells, but I had a distinct mental picture of the students I’d seeded into the student body in an out-and-out war with the other students. We were badly outnumbered, but the element of surprise was ours, our students were far more prepared to fight, and we were in the process of ensuring that the scales of that fight would be tipped in our favor, the weapons in our hands.
I really wanted that conflict to be at a time that suited us, not because someone had made a mistake or because the other side had gotten clever.
“Pierre wants to see you downstairs,” Davis said. He’d approached me from the flanks.
I glanced at the student council president. The student council president of Beattle, rather. He wore a white coat.
“Problem?” I asked.
“Countless small problems. I don’t know what exactly he wants you for.”
“Alright,” I said. “Davis.”
“David. Yes, what?”
“Are you free tonight?”
Because we need an in, and there’s not nearly enough time.
“I think the professor is about to have one of her favored students storm off and disappear on the next boat out.”
“I’ll gather some extra sets of hands,” he said.