I took a step forward. I saw Warren react, lowering his head a fraction. Avis, however, stiffened, taking a step forward.
I stopped where I was. If I went any further, Avis was going to act.
“When I first heard of Fray, I thought of her as a sister,” I said.
“Don’t,” Avis said.
“Don’t?” I asked.
“Don’t try to relate to us, don’t try to form a connection. We know who you are, we’ve kept an eye on you all for a long time. We were there for Brechwell, where the various rebel factions met, we saw what unfolded during and after. Whatever you’re going to say… don’t.”
“Considering you tried to kill us earlier today, I think the fact that I’m talking to you and not actively ambushing you is darn magnanimous,” I said.
Warren turned his head, looking at Avis. I didn’t have the best recollection of him, but I did have the impression that was to some degree his usual expression. I tried to formulate an impression of what he was expressing, with the baseline being a barely suppressed fury.
Even with all of that in mind, he looked bothered by what I’d said.
Warren and Avis weren’t on the same page, it seemed.
“There was also the events that led to you being imprisoned, before you found your way to Fray,” Mary said.
“The tried and true tactic of driving in a wedge,” Avis said.
She spoke like someone with a broken spirit, as if she was farther away than she was.
“I don’t think it’s driving in a wedge to remark on the fact that you assisted in the kidnapping of hundreds of children, so they could be used to create Percy’s army.”
Avis nodded slowly. Warren’s eyes still bored into her.
She took a few steps to the side, then slumped down, sitting on the edge of the fountain.
“No answer?” I asked.
“You acted against us, alerting the Crown before we could get properly underway,” Avis said. “If Percy had succeeded, if I hadn’t been caught, you wouldn’t be standing there, I wouldn’t be sitting here, and the sun wouldn’t be setting on the Crown States. Maybe in that situation, I could have argued it was necessary.”
“Maybe,” Mary said. “Maybe not.”
“Maybe not,” Avis said.
“Would you do it again?” Lillian asked.
Avis didn’t move.
Lillian went on, “I’m asking because I’m standing here, I left the Crown behind, I’ve taken one side in a war, and we sent soldiers into… this. We attacked them. Guns, knives, acid, parasites. Worse things. You have your Tangle there. We had ours. They were soldiers fighting for what I feel is the wrong side, but they’re people. I’m wondering what the distance is between you and me.”
“You’re nothing like her,” I said.
Lillian pursed her lips.
“It’s not about right and wrong,” Avis said.
“It is,” Duncan said. “It has to be.”
“That war was fought and lost long before you were born, Lambs,” Avis said. “You’re-”
“What?” I asked. “What are we?”
“You’re children,” Avis said. “If you’re even thinking in those terms, it’s because it’s something the Crown hasn’t fully stamped out of the storybooks and the children’s games. We leave it behind as we become adults. Most of us. They stamped out good and evil as concepts. They’ve left it so far beyond them that it’s almost forgotten. There’s only their truth and those who reject it, now. If we try to drag right and wrong into it, good and evil, then we’re already lost. That’s why Mauer lost.”
To her right, our left, Warren shook his head.
As for me…
She’s not wrong. This ceased being about that a long time ago.
The voice had a different tenor to it, now. A different sound.
We were free. We were so close. We’d slain one god. I felt like I was almost in a position to give that voice what it had bargained for. I could give it what it wanted, and… and maybe, just maybe, I could get what I’d asked for.
“Fray surprised you, didn’t she?” I asked.
“Please, none of this prattle,” Avis said. “The head games, the machinations. You’re right, I’m wrong. I fought for what I believed, and I’ve been defeated. The only fight I had in me was purchased with drugs and a heavy toll on my mind and body. I haven’t realized what it was costing me until today. That she asked me to pay that price, without ever asking.”
“She does that,” I said. “I think, anyway.”
“Do you think?” Avis asked. There was an almost sarcastic, condescending tone to her voice. “Really?”
“I haven’t seen any evidence to the contrary.”
“Ever since we met, I’ve been trying to convey to you that you’re blind, that you’re children. That you don’t realize your place in things. Nothing you’ve done has changed my mind.”
“Let me show you. Today. Give me a chance.”
She shook her head. “I’m not the one to give you that. Whatever you’re going to say, there’s no need for it.”
“You could walk away, if you don’t want to hear me out,” I said. “You could fly away, if you had anywhere to go. You don’t.”
She was silent and still.
I turned my focus to Warren. “Fray led you this far and… whatever happened, she’s dropped you. Surprise! You’ve clearly got family here, big guy, but… where do you take them? The Crown States are nearly gone. Wherever you were hiding before, it’s probably been swallowed up by the devastation and decay that’s eating this nation, now that you’re not there. Where are you going to go?”
He glared at me with very blue eyes.
I was aware of the eyes that were watching. They’d mounted an attack. Then what had happened? Fray had moved on to the next step of her plan.
Where was she?
When he spoke, his voice was deep, though not as deep as I might have expected it to be. He almost resembled the man he must’ve been, once upon a time.
“With you?” he asked.
I spread my arms.
“No,” he said.
I let my arms fall to my sides.
“No,” Avis said.
“Okay,” I said. “That’s regrettable.”
“Is that a threat?” Avis asked.
“No,” I said. “It’s just… regrettable.”
“Perhaps,” she said.
Duncan put a hand on my shoulder. He cleared his throat. “What can you tell us about Fray? Where is she?”
“She’s off saving humanity,” Avis said.
“Saving humanity?” Lillian asked.
“It’s what she said, when I met her on the hill outside this city. That hill, off in the distance,” Avis said. She raised one arm, so it extended outside of the covering she wore, pointing. “Now she acts.”
“What’s she doing?” Lillian asked.
“Destroying everything else,” Avis said, the words nearly drowned out by the sound of the rain.
There was no surprise on Warren’s face, which only drove the statement home. The other Lambs were silent, the bystanders weren’t close enough to have heard. Avis had said the words with a volume that hadn’t been meant to reach any ears that weren’t ours.
“How?” I asked. “Where is she?”
Avis shook her head.
Lillian stepped forward, raising her voice, “If there’s any part of you that feels guilty for what you were complicit in-!”
Avis shook her head again.
Lillian clenched her hands. She still held Jessie. Mary stepped forward, taking one of those clenched hands in her own.
Avis seemed oblivious to it all. Oblivious to everything.
“When you acted against us,” I said. “When you drew the attention of the soldiers, and tried to get us killed. Had Fray already abandoned you then?”
There was no response. She seemed to be getting more and more stubborn, not less. There were no chinks in the armor because the armor was gone, destroyed.
I suspected I was right.
“What was it Avis said back at the roof?” I asked.
“We’d only get in Genevieve Fray’s way,” Ashton volunteered.
I nodded to myself.
“She was talking about what Fray is doing now. She wants this, on some level, or she’s not opposed to it. She’s a lost cause,” I said. “And she’s lost.”
Avis didn’t move or respond.
“Warren,” I said, with a tone and urgency that betrayed renewed enthusiasm and desperation both. Changing targets. “You can’t want this. You’ve got family there. Whatever this is, you’ve seen the plague, you know these things are never neat and tidy.”
“You don’t know who I am,” Warren said.
“You’re a person who didn’t deserve what happened to him,” I said. “In a world where an awful lot of things happen to people who don’t deserve those things. Tell me I’m wrong about that.”
“Tell me I’m wrong,” I said, cutting into his thoughts.
“You’re not,” he said.
“If you’re both telling the truth about this, it’s going to be horrendous. Are you going to help those things happen? Wrongs, meted out to people who don’t deserve it?”
He took his time responding again. It was as if he was so unused to talking that it took him time to find the words. “I was born into the wrong world. I studied cars, not horses. But the horses won before I even started studying. Living horses, dead horses, horses in name only. This world chewed me up and spat me out.”
This world, he’d said. He had the power to tell us what we needed to know about Fray. Faced with the question of whether he was willing to stop her from destroying ‘everything else’, he was caught in an existential mire. The world hadn’t been kind to him. He hadn’t seen enough of it that he wanted to preserve.
“Avis and I are very different people. But I think we’re similar in one thing,” Warren said.
I didn’t want to ask. I didn’t want to help him down this course. I asked anyway, because I suspected the answer, and I knew he’d need to get it out of his system if he was going to ever listen to us. “What’s that?”
“We were hurt. We suffered beyond imagining, and we had almost nothing left to lose.”
I wished I could remember more about Avis’ fate. The memory had been so close to the memories of Jamie that they were complicated to handle. I’d let them atrophy.
They were too far away, in too many senses.
What had I said, before? When I first heard of Fray, I thought of her as a sister?
I’d seen a commonality there. Now… now, I felt as though I was facing down these people. Fray had picked up two of the most unlikely, ill-suited people to join her. She wanted to save humanity and she’d collected a man who lost his connection to humanity, and a woman who’d been tested and found that humanity wanting.
Now they were looking at me, and I wondered if they saw Fray. If my words could never reach them because Fray had burned that bridge.
I turned away from Warren. There might have been something in my expression that the others saw, because their expressions shifted in kind.
Well, not Ashton’s. Not Jessie’s. Looking at Jessie was my reminder about what I wanted to preserve in the now, what I selfishly wanted to have with me in the present moment. Lillian was what I wanted to fight for, divorced from what the voice was pushing for.
Some of my warmest moments with Mary were in the past. That I ‘danced’ so well with her was because of that background, the steps and patterns that I’d engraved into a brain that held far less permanence than most.
We were the people we surrounded ourselves with. Maybe that was why I had such a hard time understanding Fray, when these people seemed to reflect so little on who she was and what she seemed to be striving for. When I saw her like I saw the Snake Charmer, Cynthia, or the Primordial Child, I hallucinated a fractured face, looking in multiple directions, where nothing pulled together.
“Sy,” Lillian said. There was urgency in her voice.
My eyes stopped roving over the group.
“It’s okay,” I said.
I stepped past Ashton, mussing up his hair on the way.
I took two hands, met another set of eyes, and jerked my head in a direction.
It was Bo Peep and Red, who I presented to Warren and Avis. Red stopped when Avis tensed, while Bo Peep made it several steps deeper into that open territory.
Abby, Ashton, and Emmett joined the pair. Abby stood closer to Bo Peep. Emmett, Nora and Lara hung further back, closer to Red.
“I was hurt too,” Bo Peep said.
“It’s different, I’m sure,” Avis said, with emotion. “They ripped out my sense of time. I experienced eternity. The Lambs would like to say I’ve done wrong, but I’ve repaid that wrong by experiencing hell.”
“I don’t really know what that is,” Bo Peep said. “I don’t understand. I’m sorry.”
“Then shut up,” Avis said. “Go away.”
“I can’t. Not when… you’re talking about someone destroying everything?”
“Almost everything. Yes.”
“Then I can’t.”
Avis looked away from Bo Peep, meeting my eyes. “If this is an attempt to elicit sympathy-”
I started to shake my head. Bo Peep beat me to it with a, “No.”
“You don’t understand,” Avis said. “There’s no point discussing.”
“There is a point,” Bo Peep said. “They’re going to hurt everything that isn’t humanity? It would hurt me. I haven’t done anything. I want to live.”
Avis shook her head.
“I want to live,” Peep said. “Please.”
“Ask Warren. He actually cares.”
“Please,” Bo Peep said.
Warren was staring Emmett down.
They were something of a pair. A difference mainly in ages. Two taciturn Brunos.
“Please,” Bo Peep said again. “Warren?”
I wondered what was going through Warren’s head, as he looked at his counterpart.
Ashton took a step forward.
“Don’t,” Avis said. “Don’t try. I have weapons. Hurting you will take the last ounce of strength I have, but I’ll do it. I’ll signal our forces and they’ll shoot from the flanks.”
“Okay,” Ashton said.
He shifted his grip, then held Helen up and out. Arms straight, Helen held so that the bottom end of her was just above Ashton’s head.
The rain poured down, soaking Ashton, running down his arms, soaking Helen, running down blood-stained bandage. We’d changed the bandages not long ago.
Warren stared at Ashton and Helen. There was still so much anger in his eyes.
It was Avis who asked, “What’s that?”
“It’s my favorite person in the world,” Ashton said. “This is her, now.”
A frown creased the space between Avis’ eyebrows.
Warren looked away. Avis didn’t.
“What am I supposed to take away from that?” Avis asked.
“She’s my favorite person,” Ashton said. “I don’t think she would want to be left out.”
Avis stared at Helen.
Helen was just heavy enough that Ashton’s arms were already starting to tremble with the strain of holding her aloft.
“Please,” Bo Peep said.
Abby took her hand. Quinton stood between the two, moving his head so the top if it was beneath the edge of her skirt, as if it was a hat. Keeping the rain off.
“You keep saying that,” Avis said. “You can’t even articulate an argument?”
“I’m not good at arguing. All I know is that I want to live.”
“State demands at least, so I can make you go away.”
“Three things,” I said. I made sure my voice carried. Many of the younger Lambs turned their heads to look at me. “Whatever the means of controlling that Tangle is… we need it.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Avis said.
“Everything matters at this stage.”
“It won’t be any good for you. It uses scent markers. We designed a warbeast to draw the attention of the… you called them Tangles. It takes over. You’d need to fly to leave the right trails.”
“We’ll manage,” I said.
“Three things,” she said.
She’d made no move to give us the first. I wondered if this depended on us naming the right things.
“We’ll need some way to communicate with your other forces in this city. The attack on Radham has served its purpose. There’s no need for more people to die.”
“That’s one of the least important things you need to concern yourself with right now.”
“All the same,” I said.
“And the third thing?”
“If you won’t outline what Fray’s plan is, then give us Wendy,” I told her. “Wendy’s been there from the beginning. I presume she remembers some of it.”
“Wendy?” Avis asked. She turned her head.
“Oh, yes, hello,” Wendy said, in response. “I would offer you tea, but things are messy right now.”
Her head surveyed the devastation around us. A town that had been overturned to serve as a military outpost, shaken by infighting, scattered with dead and doused in acid and parasites. There wasn’t a single surface or expanse that was unaffected. No rooftop, no wall, no window.
“That’s alright,” Ashton said. He’d lowered Helen, and now cradled her against his chest. “It’s understandable. Thank you all the same.”
“You’re welcome,” Wendy said.
I glanced at the city, hearing the rain and the steady beat of the Tangle against the ship’s exterior.
“She hid it from us. That was the betrayal,” Avis said.
I nodded. The offer to abandon the Crown. The offer Gordon had almost taken.
“It was a plan with layers. Failsafes. You’re about to find out what was which. Everything served two purposes. The leashing and sterilization?”
I heard the voice, and I made the connection.
“Inoculation?” I asked.
Avis glanced at Warren, then shrugged. “Groundwork.”
There was a defeat in the statement. I’d thought of her as a crone before, but she withered a touch more, even admitting that much.
“Go with them, Wendy,” Warren said. “Tell them what they need. Help them if they ask for it.”
“Are you sure?” Wendy asked.
Wendy looked momentarily concerned.
“Go,” Warren said. “Be brave.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll try.”
Wendy approached the younger Lambs, because they were closer. Abby took her hand.
“Protect her from the dark,” Warren said. “No dark rooms. No closed spaces.”
“Alright,” I said. I immediately recognized what he was saying for what it was.
“She likes music. In all the years I’ve spent with Genevieve, I’ve been trying to help her find a song.”
I looked at Jessie, who rode piggyback on Lillian’s back, fast asleep. I reached out and beneath her hood to touch her hair.
“I was already thinking about a scrollphone for the music,” I said.
“The machine?” Warren asked.
“The machine,” I said.
Something in Warren seemed to ease. A burden off his shoulders, a thing long lost come to roost, perhaps, or a circle finally closing. The anger seemed to fade.
“That will do, thank you,” he said. He twisted around, beckoning.
Soldiers from the fringes approached.
“Go. Round up the other groups. Ceasefire all around.”
“You’re sure?” the soldier asked.
“You could come yourself,” Mary said. “It would make more sense.”
“No,” Warren said.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because,” Warren said, drawing in a breath. He looked in the direction of his family. “A long time ago, I pledged revenge. I need to put that to rest.”
“You pledged revenge against your family?” Lillian asked.
“No,” he said. “But I think I wanted it more than anything. If I walk away now, I won’t return. I won’t heal what made that wanting possible.”
Avis moved her coat, and revealed a long bandoleer of vials. She unclasped it, and pulled it free, so it was a strap, rather than a band. She swung it to one side, and I worried the tail end of it would smash against the fountain’s edge.
“Then… last question,” I said. “Where is she?”
“You know where,” Avis said. She swung the belt of vials the other way and released it, so it would fly through the air.
Duncan was the one who jumped forward to catch it in both arms. I would have, but I was fairly sure my legs were too tired, and I trusted the others to handle it.
I was standing close enough to him that when everyone had looked Duncan’s way, they could see me raise my arm.
We left the two people sitting by the fountain. Wendy walked with us.
The soldiers that had been sent with us weren’t ours, but they served our purposes. They knew roughly where their people had retreated to – the residents of this city. Lost, confused, they had been rallied by Warren’s relations, and they had fought for their well being.
Once they were taken care of, made to stand down, a scattered few joining us, we could find the others.
Pierre, Shirley. Junior, Davis and the Treasurer, Bea, Fang, Rudy, Possum, Gordeux, Mabel.
Some were in smaller groups. Some were being held prisoner. Some held others prisoner.
Too many of them were hurt. Acid burns, excision marks from scalpels. Davis was out of the fight, which was a damn shame. Possum hadn’t been in it from the beginning, a non-fighter. Rudy hadn’t been in it since the plague had gotten him.
There would be more Rudys before the day was over. I worried, looking at the work done to carve away the plague, throughout our soldiers’ ranks, that there were already another twenty or thirty, in varying degrees of intensity.
We only had a few hundred people here.
I wanted to make all of this worth what they had put into it.
“You did a good job,” Ashton said, his voice quiet. He was talking to Helen. “Good negotiating. Your finest performance yet.”
“In another light, that could be construed as insulting,” Duncan said.
“I think it’s very positive,” Wendy said. “Compliments are nice.”
“I like her,” Ashton said.
“Of course you do,” Duncan said. Wendy beamed at him, oblivious.
I stepped away, joining the others.
Mabel was taking point on the dispersal of Avis’ chemical markers. We didn’t have a means of flight, but we did have access to a scattered few warbeasts.
The Treasurer had been acting as Davis’ second in command for a while now, and Davis had been acting as our de-facto general, when Jessie and I were otherwise occupied, which we so often were.
Not in the rude way. Not always. We had other nefarious things that occupied us, being Lambs and all.
The Treasurer organized our troops, so to speak.
When I raised my hand, gesturing, and swept it down as though I was bringing the executioner’s axe down on a stretched out neck, it was the Treasurer who started shouting the orders.
The chemicals drew Fray’s Tangle away. Our army stormed the doors and other access points. We had already opened the one hatch in the front of the ship. Our chains were still dangling there. The defending forces were light.
What remained was to take every length of chain and rope we could acquire from the city, and enact a means of getting our army up and inside.
Lillian came to stand beside me. She hugged my arm. She didn’t have Jessie with her anymore. A task delegated to a stitched, again.
We stood there, watching. Mary passed us, limping, and shot us a brief smile. Not a happy one, but… she had always wanted her army to command.
Ashton was saying goodbye to his peers.
I was left with the impression that Lillian was enjoying a moment with me that didn’t have Jessie in it. She might even have engineered it. I wasn’t about to comment either way. Her head rested on my shoulder, even though we were roughly of a height with one another.
“You know what Fray is doing,” she said.
“I think I’ve known for a while,” I said. “A few of the threads, at least.”
“Can we stop her?” Lillian asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
But we aren’t going to, the voice rejoined.