“Check them for weapons at the door, confiscate any you find,” I instructed the group of rebels. “Offer them nothing. When you’re done and they’re settled, stand at the edges of the room.”
“Spaced out, or…?”
“Spaced out, sure. Then keep quiet. If you make eye contact with them, don’t be the person to break it. If they say anything, ignore them. They’re going to react, they’ll push, they’ll say things, and they’ll threaten you. But you’re the ones with power, alright?”
That got me a series of nods from the rebel soldiers.
“If you absolutely have to say something, keep it short, firm, along the lines of ‘I’m going to need you to be quiet’, and make sure they can see your weapon in its holster. If you’re losing your nerve, if you can’t stay firm, or if anything comes up, I want you to use gestures, alright? Two fingers extended while your hands are in front of you, as if to cover your watch, like so. We’ll be watching from around the corner and we’ll call you out of the room.”
I didn’t miss the fact that they glanced in Jessie’s direction to confirm that it was okay to listen to me.
“If they’re not cooperating, then show them the door. If they don’t cooperate there, then, hm, one of them should hang back so they can run to us, shouldn’t they?”
The question was aimed at me.
“Yeah,” I said. “The chances there are a problem are slim. You’ll be fine.”
Jessie gave the confirmation, and the students headed to the door.
Lillian and Helen caught up with us around the time that we were hearing the commotion at the door. One loud voice with crisp enunciation stood out from the rest.
“Duncan, Ashton, Mary and the younger Lambs are on their way, and your lieutenants are heading over there to replace them. Nora is hanging back there so we know if anything happens.”
“Sure, Sy,” Lillian said.
“You can give them orders and they’ll listen.”
“That’s good,” she said.
“Well, I mean, you’ve always wanted to run an Academy, and Jessie and I worked hard to get to this point. Mary’s taking to this and she’s enjoying having soldiers to order around, I think.”
“And this is something we should share and do together,” I said. “I get if this is bittersweet, but it’s not an entirely bad thing and-”
Lillian reached up and covered my mouth.
“Is this usual?” Lillian asked Jessie, as Helen stalked around me, giving off all of the ‘danger’ vibes, her eyes on me. She reached out and fixed my hair.
“I think he’s agitated because he’s happy,” Jessie said.
“Nuh, inf urhrifahd,” I mumbled into Lillian’s hand.
“Or he’s agitated because he’s terrified.”
“Ihm affy oo, hoh”
“Sy sounds like this man I knew once,” Helen said. “It was a long time ago, I don’t know if Jamie took notes on it, so I’m not sure if you know about it, Jessie. It was a man with a beard. I sucked his tongue out of his mouth, it took some doing, but it came off at the root.”
“I had the notes. MacPaul.”
“Macpaul! Yes! The deserter. Yes, he was lovely.”
“And he sounded like Sy?” Jessie asked.
“Well, I had my hand over his mouth after I pulled my head away, and there was a lot of snorting and gurgling because of the blood, but yes. I’m feeling nostalgic now. It’s making me even more restless now.”
“If this discussion goes badly, we’ll give you a chance to work out that restlessness,” Jessie said.
The group was entering the sitting room. Lillian dropped her hand from my mouth and we stepped out of the way while they got settled.
The sitting room was a middle-point in between three separate areas for the girl’s dormitories, separated roughly into the younger years, the middle years, and the senior students, at the south, west, and north walls of the building, respectively. The room was divided into stages, with roughly the same intended hierarchy, scattered chairs, seats, tables, and bookshelves serving to make the space comfortable.
I peeked and confirmed there were ten aristocrats present, but many of them paired off in husband wife pairs, and I had the impression the men would mostly do the talking. Tradition took more of a hold when moving into the upper ranks of society.
The position of the chairs gave some indication of the hierarchy of those present. They didn’t all sit as a cluster – we’d arranged chairs on the upper level so they could, but if they’d taken that bait then they would have been huddled. It implied weakness.
Still, they didn’t space themselves across the whole room. Had they been nobles, I could imagine they might, confident enough to protect themselves without the benefit of their herd.
They did, I noted, avoid sitting down, with the exception of several of the wives. They stood by chairs, claiming them, but they weren’t letting their guard down.
“They’re not even here to greet us, hm?” one man spoke. He had dark hair and a prominent chin that might have owed to Academy science. He looked athletic. He wore a suit and bore a tidy pencil mustache, and he was one of only two men present who didn’t have a wife with him. “You’re not going to respond to me?”
There was only silence.
“Burner, you know how these games are played,” said one of the husbands. A near-peer of the man who’d taken the lead and the best seat in the room? He talked to the other with a familiar tone.
“I know, believe me, but there’s a certain decorum to be expected. There’s absolutely no need or benefit in disrespecting people after they’ve waved the white flag.”
“I feel the same way, but we gain nothing by allowing them to agitate us.”
“I’m far from agitated. If I was agitated, blood would have been shed already.”
“You’ll put us all at risk if you keep that up, Burner,” a lady spoke. Interesting, that she spoke and her husband was silent, almost deferential. I noted a harsher note to her voice. A rebuke.
The conversation continued, shifting to milder observations of the space, and a few attempts at getting responses from the guards we’d assigned.
“When are they coming?”
“What did they offer to get you to betray your King and country? I’m curious what a young man’s patriotism is worth.”
That she’d come or been sent… I wondered if she represented a different faction.
As far as expendable messengers went, those connected to the rest by paper or by blood would cost too much to lose. The celebritas wouldn’t be sent nor would they be willing to go. Government, military, or commerce, then.
There were four players worth paying attention to, now that I was reading the room. Sir Burner Lisburn was the loud, brusque one. His friend, apparently, was a John Salford. Government and military in some proportion there, between the two of them.
The young lady was Mrs. Derby. Burner and John were friends, but Derby wasn’t a friend of theirs. She belonged to a different faction and occupied a different space in the greater structure of it all. Money, if I had to guess.
The fourth was a fat man. He didn’t speak, he wasn’t named, and the sole reason he caught my eye was that the others kept a distance from him, and he seemed content to sit in the lowest tier of the room’s stepped floor.
He was harder to peg. I had my suspicions, all the same.
A rebel approached us, leaning close to Jessie’s ear, then to Lillian’s.
Not that it was wholly necessary. By the time the sentence was fully uttered, Jessie’s hand was moving, gesturing, explaining.
Duncan and Mary were back. There was a number, and Jessie had already drawn and retrieved a lady’s pocketwatch.
She gestured the start of the countdown, then abandoned the task, leaving us to count in our heads as she saw to my cuffs. I was free. I was fairly sure that even with my mind intentionally turned to the task, I couldn’t do an abundance of damage.
Jessie resumed the countdown without glancing at the watch.
As a unit, we stepped into the sitting room, interrupting our guests mid-conversation. Duncan and Mary’s group entered from the opposite side, coordinated. The little ones weren’t present.
“And here they are. The Lambs. I must say, the Gages had a great deal to say about some of you,” Burner said.
“They’re not among our guests, as I recall,” Jessie said.
“We’ve heard the stories. There was other talk when we were cooped up in that building over there. You’re a known element.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said, being sure to smile.
We’d finished crossing the room. I stood between Jessie and Lillian, Mary stood next to Lillian. On the other side, Ashton, Helen, and Duncan formed a trio.
“Well,” John Salford said. “I hope this can be a civil discussion.”
“Barring incident, I do believe the plan is to have a discussion and send you back, to report to your betters,” Duncan said. He glanced at Jessie and I. I saw Jessie’s hand move in confirmation.
Burner was the first to take his seat. It was positioned so he could look down on the rest of the room. “Then here we are. I recommend everyone who’s going to take a seat should do so. This is liable to take a while.”
“Not too long,” Jessie said. “This will take a little while to digest, so we’ll send you back and discuss the minutiae in a bit.”
“I’m just going to interrupt before we get too far underway,” I said. I turned my head, looking at the nearest guard. “Would you go to the kitchen? Get tea? Food? Something hearty. Sausage, perhaps, and that fried onion mince.”
I moved my hand as I spoke, on the pretense of fixing the button at the front of my vest.
“Yes sir,” the guard said. “Understood.”
John Salford smiled. “And to think you were said to be the least civil of the Lambs. Sylvester, was it?”
I smiled. “Yes.”
“You’re the ringleader of this…”
“I’d call it a maneuver,” Mary said. “He and Jessie spearheaded it.”
“So that one’s Jessie?” the man asked. He seemed to digest that. “Curious, but I can already see my friend here getting riled up. Shall we tack up?”
“We can move to the business at hand,” I said.
“Then I won’t waste time. You’re a few steps away from wrapping this up neatly, Lambs. There was discussion and it was decided that the most adventurous of us would step up and approach all of you, so we could start negotiations.”
“The most adventurous?” I asked. “You mean the most expendable?”
I saw them bristle. Burner was the most bristly in the moment.
“Semantics, Sylvester,” Mary said. “As they say in the warzones, first into the breach. The brave are often the easiest to discard.”
“Perhaps,” I said. “But we’re getting sidetracked. I wouldn’t say the conclusion is even questionable at this stage. It’s close to being wrapped up. The Nobles aren’t going anywhere, you all know your circumstances now. Things aren’t liable to change.”
“If that’s the case, then after this afternoon’s discussion, we’ll return to the other building, and we’ll see how the current situation plays out. If it’s already wrapped up as you say, then there’s nothing lost. If we still have a way to put up a fight, as the massed collection of Professors and some of the most well-to-dos of the Crown States believe we do, then we’ll prove that the case, and you’ll have missed your chance.”
“So this isn’t even a serious discussion, you’re still clinging to illusions,” I said.
“We’re opening dialogue. I think we can agree it’ll be helpful, whatever direction things take.”
“Ah,” I said. “Well then, as the ones to call the truce, I think we’ll hear you out? No complaints, Lambs?”
There were no complaints.
“As of right now, the situation could go either way, Lambs. The Nobles are out there, and you can’t hold them at bay forever. You will run out of materials for gas and you’ll lose that advantage.”
“We might not have infinite materials for gas, sir,” Duncan spoke, “But you’re even shorter on supplies when it comes to food, water, and medicine. We’re equipped to keep going for some time. You’re going to perish before we do.”
“We have other weapons and tools in reserve. We’ve got things in the works for ensuring we can get by. Don’t underestimate what the great minds of the Academy can put into motion.”
“Oh, believe me, we know full well what the Academy can do. It’s why we’re here,” I said.
“In more than one sense,” Jessie said.
“We’ll fend for ourselves for a while yet, Lambs,” Burner said, his voice low.
“Bravado,” Mrs. Derby said, addressing him.
“Watch yourself,” Burner said.
“You can tell the others I didn’t put up a strong front when we’re back, Burner. But we’re licked. They know we have resources and our ability to turn our warbeast stock into waste recycling and a food supply is only going to go so far.”
The aristocrats didn’t have a response for that, and the Lambs didn’t volunteer anything.
She was a willowy woman with straight black hair and long lashes, and she moved with a kind of precision as she folded her hands in her lap. Her husband reached over to put his hand over hers.
When she looked up, I could tell that she wasn’t bluffing. A measure of fear shone through.
“How does this maneuver of yours conclude?” she asked.
There was a subtle effect that played over the assembled group of ten. I might have said they were steeling themselves, but not all of them were steel. An internal furnace was stoked in Burner’s case, finding a vented release in the movements of his fingers. John Salford almost did the opposite, going still. He was the introvert of the pair.
I spoke, “When all of this began, for the Lambs, we were plucked from bad circumstance. We were put to work in service to the Crown. We were exposed to a lot of ugliness, we dealt with many forces that operate in places where ordinary citizens don’t get or want to look.”
“We lost several of our own,” Lillian said.
“You want revenge?” Burner asked, interrupting. He sounded galled.
“No,” Jessie said. “Nothing so crude as that.”
When we’d discussed this, we hadn’t arranged who would say what or when, we hadn’t rehearsed. But we’d talked it out, we’d decided what we needed to do, and in the course of that discussion, each of us had found certain points that resonated with them. More by instinct than by plan, we would take our turns speaking, voicing those points from the heart, or speaking when our individual voices reflected the tone and sentiment that we wanted to strike. Jessie was the gentlest of us, in a lot of ways.
When the others weren’t jumping in, I’d say what needed to be said, because I liked to talk.
“We lost our own,” Lillian said. “We saw tragic circumstances for a lot of other experiments, for children, and for child experiments.”
“Every one of those realities, I’d be willing to bet, served a purpose. Call it evil, but it wasn’t wholly wrong,” Burner said.
“Maybe not,” Lillian said. She paused. “That’s meant to be a distant maybe. But we stand where we stand because of how we were made to serve a purpose. The skills we learned, the things we took away from the monsters and Doctors we hunted. And now you sit where you sit because of all of those same things too.”
Our rebel students entered the room, carrying trays of tea, as well as plates of breakfast. I hadn’t specifically requested greens, but steamed greens sat on one side of the plate. Likely Possum doing her utmost to keep us in good health.
For all their breeding and all of the games they’d played, the aristocrats weren’t used to doing without. Their eyes followed the food as the food came to us, was placed on small tables, the lids pulled off of trays to reveal the feasts within.
It was the gravest of wrongs, in the highest society and at the very bottom rungs of it, to refuse hospitality.
But that refusal, in part, was a point we aimed to drive home.
The Lambs ate, standing by the tables, working their way through their meals, serving the tea, cutting sausage, aromas filling the room.
“No civility after all,” Burner said, when it became clear that we weren’t providing them a bite to eat.
“No, I suppose not,” I said.
“I’ll guess we’re not here for your justice either,” Salford said.
“It’s likely,” Lillian said. She dabbed at her mouth with a kerchief, her fork in her other hand. “But it would be as a bittersweet accident, not the goal.”
“The path we walked,” I said. “Jessie and I walked it as a pair for a time, while the others did what they needed to do. We besieged a prison and we claimed your prisoners, bringing them under our banner.”
“We discussed that event with others before we came to speak with you.”
“They were only a few of the exceptional friends that joined us. Last year, we acted against Beattle, and we absconded with the student population, turning them rebel.”
“And you put them to effective work here, it seems,” John Salford said.
“We got our ducks in a row, developed resources, and we came here, yes,” I said. “We claimed Hackthorn and its headmistress.”
“Claim,” Mrs. Derby said. She hung her head a little. “You’ve made it a refrain. I see where this thread of conversation goes, now.”
“You’ve claimed us,” John Salford said.
“That’s a part of it,” Mary said. “We’ll have to execute some of you. But some of you will work for us, yes.”
“You can’t imagine we’ll turn coat,” Burner growled.
“You’ll serve us for however long you serve us at gunpoint,” Mary said. “Or knifepoint. It might involve poisons in your veins that we hold the antidotes for, or parasites living in you that sleep for only as long as we supply you the right treatments.”
“But you’re wanting to bring us under your control?” Mrs. Derby asked. “You’re collecting us?”
“The Crown States are being swallowed by plague and black wood,” I said. “The Infante is preparing to leave, and when he does, he won’t be looking back. We’ll send a ship ahead with a message saying that all parties who’ve gathered and who were preparing to leave as a group are holding back while a possible incidence of plague in their number is being investigated. You- and I do mean all of you who are present here, you become question marks. All considered, especially given they don’t plan to return until much later, and given no communication is really extending outside of this little patch of oblivion… I don’t think they’ll investigate the question mark. You’ll be dead without being dead.”
That statement filled the air. They were tense now. The facades were breaking down, for all but the fat man in the corner.
The room was very quiet. In the distance, we could hear gunshots. They might have been trying something at the other dormitory. We had enough good people and resources there to stall – if something had happened, it was better to look unconcerned and in control than to strive to respond to it.
Posturing mattered here. It was why we’d concerned ourselves with the layout of the chairs.
Jessie spoke, “We’ve been steadily advancing what we’re doing, but the pattern is the same. We took your prisoners. We took your students. We took your Academy and Professor. What comes next follows from there.”
Ms. Derby spoke, “The next step is that you’re taking-”
“-The Crown States,” Jessie said.
“You’re mad,” John Salford said, without a moment’s pause. It was a statement I might have expected from Burner, for its vitriol and emotion, when Salford had been so collected before now. The man’s eyes were wide. As loud as Burner had been at the beginning, he’d fallen silent.
The patter of gunshots in the distance had stopped. Either it had been nothing serious and there was no reason to shoot, or it had been very serious, and the shooters were dead.
“Mad? More than a little,” I said, my voice soft.
Ashton spoke up for the first time. “I read in books once that we were supposed to treat others how we wanted to be treated. Isn’t it only fair?”
“You’re enslaving us,” John Salford said. “You’re trying to build something here? In plague-ridden wastelands? With who? How?”
“You mean the who of you that we’re not forcing to stay behind? The who would be anyone who wants to stay,” Helen said. “Anyone who would rather take the risk of dying to plague, if it means being free until then, instead of being safe but shackled.”
“As for how,” Lillian said. “We have some brilliant minds and people available to devote to the task. I think we’ll manage some headway against the problems of plague and black wood.”
“I’d say you were arrogant, holding yourselves in that kind of esteem,” Mr. Salford said. “But you’re not talking about you and your rebels. You’re talking about us. We’re supposed to be your great minds.”
“All those people in the admin building? Brilliant. Capable hands, educated, driven. With the right incentives, the guns to heads, poisons and parasites, they’ll do what we need of them,” Duncan said. “The nine of you will contribute as well, unless you’d prefer grisly ends.”
“There are ten of us,” Salford said, quiet.
“There are nine of you,” I said. “And whatever else you want, whatever else you’re pushing for, you’re not quite at the point where you’ll want to use him.”
Burner rose from his seat. He placed his hands on the quarter-circle of railing that bounded the upper stage of the tiered room.
He looked at the heavyset man, who sat with his hands folded, fingers of one hand drumming on the back of the other.
“He’s insurance, isn’t he? A way to guarantee that if we had plans to shoot you messengers, you could at least take some of us down with you. They might even have asked you to consider eliminating all of us in one shot if you could. If you’re loyal enough to the Crown and what it means.”
Burner set his very defined jaw.
“You’re not that loyal,” I said. “You have ways forward. You have doors open to you, even when faced with life under our thumbs, rather than the Crown’s. You have hope, still, that there’s a way to break our siege and return to your old lives. Unless you’re going to admit that Mrs. Derby was right, and you have no chance at all?”
He was considering it. Giving the order that would bring their Trojan horse into play.
I turned my head, taking in the Lambs. All stood straight, and all wore their individual variations on expressions of grim satisfaction. I kept my eye out for hand signals, and saw one.
“You can give him the order if you want,” I said. “Just know what it costs you. If we bring this to a close, we’re going to be the most powerful people on the Western hemisphere. Do you really want to be on our bad side?”
Burner tensed, and then he turned. He strode from the room so suddenly that the rest of the group that had accompanied him had no time to react, no sycophants keeping stride with him or supporting him as he made his exit. They hurried to catch up.
Our soldiers hurried to accompany and escort them.
It was Salford who indicated the fat man. “Cross. Come.”
The man in the corner didn’t respond.
The fat man reacted, sluggish.
Ashton’s hand signal had indicated the experiment that was dressed up in an aristocrat’s skin was reacting to him. They’d dosed the aristocrats who were going to be in our company, but they hadn’t been able to effectively dose him, or whatever they’d used had been of limited effect, and Ashton had overwhelmed that effect.
The man trudged off, joining the rest of the aristocrats who were leaving, preparing to convey this reality we’d proposed to the rest of the people in the main building.
It was Mrs. Derby and her husband who lingered behind. She waved her husband on, bidding him to leave her alone with us.
She might have had enough character that she could meet our eyes and both think and talk clearly in the midst of all of this, but she wasn’t fearless. Far from it. She looked even more scared now.
“They won’t agree so easily,” she said.
“But you agree?” Lillian asked.
“Saying I did would… I can’t just voice my surrender so simply,” she said. “But I haven’t been left many choices, have I?”
“They’re riled up and the others will be too,” Jessie said. “They’ll try something, the nobles will coordinate with them, one final attempt. You could hitch your cart to that wagon.”
“Would you?” Mrs. Derby asked.
Jessie shook her head slowly.
“I may be willing to offer my cooperation. I assume it would position me and my family better, when the dust has settled?”
“You can assume,” I said.
“You seem to be taking this in stride,” Duncan said.
Mrs. Derby opened her mouth, as if to respond, then closed it, giving us a single nod. She paused before speaking, “Out with the old, and in with the new? Isn’t that what they say?”
“It is,” Duncan said.
“No difference between the two,” she said. She glanced down, fixing her dress, before clasping her hands before her. “I’ll adapt.”
She curtsied slightly, and she left the room.
No difference between the two.