Bitter Pill – 15.16

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“Fray actually came,” Jessie said.

I raised my binoculars and peered through them.  I could focus my magnified view on Fray’s hands, then her feet, move the view up to look at the lines of her body and posture, before moving up to her face and expression.

“I thought you were full of it,” she said.

“Never,” I said.

“Never?  Sylvester, I could list the times you’ve been full of it in the past year, in chronological order.”

“Each and every one of those instances had a rationale and explanation, I guarantee you,” I said.

“Yeah.  You wanted to get my goat,” she said.

“When you say it like that, it sounds like a reference to something dirty.”

“That’s less to do with how I’m saying it and more to do with how your twisted brain hears it,” she said.

Steam hissed and metal clanked as the train settled in at the station.  Academy quarantine officers lined up at the doors.

I focused the binoculars briefly on the windows.  I could see the Lambs within, talking to one another.  From their tone, they were talking strategy.  Helen, Mary, Lillian, Duncan, and Ashton.

The doctors boarded the train.  My focus turned back to Fray, my binoculars-augmented view of her provided details that nobody in the crowd was paying sufficient attention to catch.  The way that she shifted her weight from one foot to another.  The fact that she was sticking closer to those ready to board, but was one of the only people in that particular crowd who didn’t have some luggage with her.

She was trying to act like she was calm.  The agitation still shone through in parts.

“See what I meant, about the human side of her?”

“I’m not looking at her.  I’m focused on the quarantine team.  They’re barely stopping as they move through the train car.  This train stops only once between Radham and Laureas.  There have been no reports of outbreaks, I don’t think they’re too fussed.”

“If Fray is right, things are a little trickier than that.  The plague is spreading even now.  It just needs a battle before it finds its roots.  She said it reacts to blood, gunpowder, ash.  Something punitive, vengeful,” I said.

“Speaking of,” Jessie said.  She finally turned in Fray’s direction, looking over her glasses at our adversary and benefactor of the day.  “More agitated.  I haven’t seen Fray at the top of her game yet, so it’s hard to compare.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You wanted to be here to know her decision and possibly interfere in it.  You weren’t sure if you wanted to go through on what you threatened her about.”

“I’m not sure about her feeling,” I said.  “I’m wondering if even Fray is sure about her feeling.”

Her feet were planted like she might turn and leave at a moment’s notice.  More than once, she had looked at her escape routes, ones that included a break for the exit and a run through the crowd.  There was a dimension to this where she couldn’t be sure the Lambs would step off the train and simply bring her into custody.  There was a risk that Mary would hurl a knife, or that Crown soldiers would recognize her, point a gun at her and pull the trigger.

What happened then?  What did she do?  What did I do?

“Sy,” Jessie said.  “We talked once about allying with Fray.  As peers, not enemies.  We don’t have an abundance of allies, and she’s probably the most capable one that qualifies.  I’m not saying you should save her, but if you’re going to make a decision, it’ll have to be soon.  People are getting up to get their luggage.  The Lambs won’t be the last out, either.”

“When we aren’t talking long-term plans, you defer to me a lot,” I said.  “You say this is my decision.  Don’t you get a say?  We’re peers, you twit.”

Jessie turned her binoculars toward Fray.

I continued, “I covered a lot of the key points.  She’s not responsible for the plague.  She is responsible for primordials.  She’s got something else going on, a grander plan.  She might be a potential ally, but she told me she identifies as an Academy Doctor.  She didn’t say it outright, but I know that she takes substantial pride in the fact that she was nearly a professor and would have qualified if it weren’t for the fact that she knew too much.”

“I don’t think fast in crisis situations,” Jessie said.  “It’s why I usually defer.  I can trust you to make a call I can understand and mostly agree with, outside of the times and occasions when you’ve lost your mind entirely.”

“One time,” I said.

“I help set the broad strokes for the next stage of things.  I coordinate and counsel.”

“Well quit it.  Tell me, what do we do about Fray?  I’m not asking you to make the decision, but you get half of the say.”

“What happens in the event of a tie?” Jessie asked.

The quarantine team stepped off of the train.  They signaled the all-clear, and the first passengers made their way down the steps carefully, lest the weight and awkwardness of their luggage pull them off balance.

“We should get rid of her,” Jessie said.  “She’s inscrutable, and she’s inscrutable to the both of us.  She keeps escalating.  She’s a danger to us and a danger to the Lambs, and she’s a danger we can’t properly solve.”

I listened to Jessie while I watched Fray with my binoculars.  Fray shifted her weight again.

“The problem is,” Jessie told me, “She has answers we don’t.  She opens doors.  There’s going to come a time when we need to know something, and Genevieve Fray might be the only proper resource we have.  More than any other factor, that might be key.  You said she feels a measure of guilt, and that has to count for something.  Room for something better, like you saw in Lillian.”

“Nothing like what I saw in Lillian,” I said.  I turned my attention to the window.  I only caught the briefest glimpse of Lillian before she was too far forward in the car to see.  She would be amid the luggage racks, possibly with the conductor or another employee helping her with her medical bag and luggage.

“A chance that Academy science might be used for sincere good?” Jessie asked.

“I wonder,” I said.  “And I have a hard time visualizing a scene where her greater plan unfolds, and I say yes, those primordials, those sterilized people, that chemical leash, the casualties, the wars, they were all worth it, Fray was undeniably a force for good in the world.”

“Then instead of good, what about a force for change?” Jessie asked.  “If I had to decide, I would say to save her, because we might not succeed, Sy.  We might need someone to carry on, if we can’t make something happen in the next year or so.”

What does Genevieve Fray’s change matter, if she’s willing to ask everyone but herself to make the necessary sacrifices?

That, more than anything, had been at the heart of why I’d been so angry with her.  Why I still was angry, even.  Because it felt like it was no different from Crown or Academy.

I put my binoculars down.  I watched the scene from afar instead of taking in the narrow view.  The Lambs stepped off the train, talking among one another.  Still talking together, the Lambs moved through the initial cluster of families eagerly waiting for departing husbands and daughters.

The amusing thing was, they weren’t looking at the train platform.  Mary’s eyes scanned the buildings along one side of the station.  Helen’s scanned buildings on the other side.  All while they were trying to look casual.

I was preparing for Mary’s searching eye to move more in my direction, having covered the most likely spots for me to be lurking, and I saw Fray shift position again.

The tension flowed out of her.  The footing had gone flat, no longer poised to pivot at a moment’s notice.  Her chin dropped a fraction.  Fray had seen the Lambs, and she was poising herself not to run, but to surrender.

I reached out for Jessie, and I pulled her down and away, tumbling to the ground.

Raising my fingers to my mouth, I whistled.

Lambs all across the rooftop hesitated, and Helen said the word, “Sylvester.”

Mary looked at Lillian, then off in Fray’s direction.  She said the word firmly, making a decision for the group.  “Fray.”

They moved as a unit.  Even the new Lambs who hadn’t been on the train followed – Abbie, Emmett, Nora, and Lara.

Phantom images that vanished as they passed the threshold of the roof.

“What if they come for us?” Jessie asked, quiet.

I shook my head, a tight gesture.  I was tense, listening, my ears straining.

I heard shouts in the street, and I relaxed some.

“They’re gone,” Jessie said.

I nodded.

“They might catch her,” Jessie said.

“So be it,” I said.  Then I thought for a moment.  “She had a bit of a head start.”

“The Lambs have Mary.”

“Yeah,” I said.

I tried to think about what Fray might do, the path she might take, the ways she might fight.  She had said that she focused a lot of her attention on being elusive.  I wondered what that entailed and the realms it touched on.  What solutions would she devise?

So many of my thoughts had been wrapped up in Fray that it didn’t surprise me in the least when I glanced up and saw Evette still on the rooftop, with another figure standing behind her.

It wasn’t a complete image, and it resembled things that Evette had seen in the depths of her breakdown.  Painted with broad, incoherent strokes, it was a perfect image of Fray, but it fell to pieces in the emulation, in the dance, the movements, and the other things.

I had nowhere near the connection to Fray that I had in the Lambs.  Any of the other Lambs, I could have danced with them, in the natural and instinctive understanding of how they moved, how they thought, and what they might do in any instant.

I didn’t have any of that with Fray, and so the image of her that stood before me was a contrary one.  Three complete Frays packed into one image no larger than Fray actually was, each one running contrary to the others.

“No,” I spoke to the image.  “Away with you.”

She didn’t listen.

“Sylvester,” Jessie said.

Her breath was hot on my cheek, and that realization should have been enough to stir me from this nightmare image.  The realization that in pushing her down, we’d landed in a heap, and we’d remained that way while I interpreted the situation.

Go,” I whispered, my voice nonetheless firm.

Evette turned, and she reached for the Amalgam-Fray’s hand.  Simultaneously gripping fingers, hand, and sleeve of the different Frays at once, Evette led Fray away.  Off to the side, or into the background, but not gone.

As this Fray walked away, the different faces turned.  In one instant, all three found alignment.  One Fray, blurry around the edges, a satisfied smile on her face.

Having seen it here, I might as well have seen it in the instant she fled the station.  Satisfaction, as if that moment of surrender had been an act, calculated in timing and detail.

Jessie exhaled, and it was very controlled.  I had the sense she had been holding her breath, and having reached her limit, she chose to still maintain control, so as not to disturb.

“Are you back?” she asked.

I nodded.

“In my role of counsel and long-term strategy, I should remind you that we should get back to the hotel, make sure everything is square, and make sure Warren and his group are prepared to help us make our way here.”

I nodded again.

She continued, “He’ll be willing to help if we say we let Genevieve Fray go, but we have to assume the Lambs will either catch her or lose her trail.  They might come back here.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“This feels like a one-sided conversation,” she said.  “And you’re not moving.”

I raised myself up, checked, and saw that the Lambs were gone.  Duncan was still there, watching the luggage, while looking in the direction Fray and the Lambs had gone.

Jessie, thinking I was getting up, started to raise herself up as well.

I dropped back down, and Jessie’s head bumped against the roof of the train station’s ticket booth.

“Ow.”

“I’m supposed to give you your answer about you and me, aren’t I?” I asked.  “If I wait, then we’ll have the crowd of students to think about, the train, accommodations, we’ll be tired, other things might come up.  It has to be now, doesn’t it?”

“While you’re on top of me, almost pinning me down?”

“I’m stuck, Jessie.”

“Unless something else has gone wrong with that brain of yours, I think you’re capable of moving,” she said.

“I’m stuck because I like you a lot.  You’re the most important person to me.  I look at you and I think hey, Jessie looks nice today, just about every day.”

“Two and a half out of five days, you even say so,” she said.  “Somewhat platonically, but you say so.”

“At your worst, you’re on my case, you’re critical, you’re stubborn and you’re slow.  It probably says a lot that I’d miss all of those things if you got fed up with me and left tomorrow.”

She nodded.

“I think it would be easy, being with you.  I feel like we could be close, I feel like we could be friends at the same time.  I know what makes you tick.  I know your strengths and weaknesses and all of that’s fine.  And it would be really nice to have another Lamb close to me again.  Like, actually close.”

“There’s something tripping you up.”

“I hope you don’t mind if I compare to others.”

“Inevitable.”

“With Mary, if there was anything, it would be that there was the dance.  We worked well together and a lot of the barriers just weren’t there.  I’m a manipulator and she’s a puppet, and she wanted someone to pull her strings.  I could have gotten away with anything.  In another world where neither of us were Lambs and nothing made us special, yet our personalities were the same?  I could have been the boyfriend that hits his girl and she might have been the girl who wouldn’t immediately leave.”

“I don’t think that’s-

I hurried to beat Jessie to the punch.  “Not that I would ever, and not that she would stay forever, but for all her strength and determination, she didn’t have those walls up, and would need to learn to put them up before she told me to fuck off.”

“Okay,” Jessie said.

“Lillian wouldn’t take it.  Didn’t.  She liked it, to an extent, if I was a bastard to her.  But there was a boundary, a line, and with the way things are now and the way things are going to stay, it involves her sacrificing too much to even test it.”

“I heard all that.”

“But I could get away with a lot.  I stalled myself, using Wyvern on my brain to tweak some things, and kept things in stasis, but it all made sense to me on an intrinsic level.  On my personally warped level.  Push, pull, manipulator, manipulated.”

Jessie nodded.  She reached up to fix her glasses, and her hand brushed my chest.  She shied away from the contact a little, as if recognizing that it might make me move away, or break the spell, or whatever it was that was going on.

If she had an idea, I hoped she’d tell me later, because I wasn’t entirely sure, for once.

“I’m sorry if talking about them makes you jealous.”

Jessie shook her head.

“No?”

“No.  Keep talking.  Let’s get this over with.  We have things to do.”

I snorted, smiling.  Jessie smiled, too.

“And,” she added, her voice dropping, “I’m scared you’re going to tell me to take my feelings and shut them away again, because I will, and I’ll replay this conversation in my head over and over, and I’d really rather it wasn’t very long.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Can’t have that.”

She nodded.

I paused, thinking, and in the doing, I seemed to take too long, because she used one hand and lightly punched me in the gut.

I grunted.

“Next time will hurt more,” she said.  “Talk.

“I’m not very good at manipulating you, Jessie.  I mean, yes, there are some ways.  I understand you, I can do stuff to tease you, but in the romantic sense of boundaries and intimacy and getting close?  I’m not sure what the tricks are.  I want to say or do something to you to open the doors and I don’t know how to sweep you up in my spell or dance past the boundaries.  You call me on my bull.  It’s completely unfamiliar territory, and it’s territory I can’t cover using Wyvern because there’s no way to practice it.”

“You hesitate.”

“Yes.”

“You’re nervous.”

“Admittedly.  I don’t want to wreck our dynamic.  I’m not sure how to get closer.  I’m only this close right now by accident, and the reason I haven’t moved away and gotten off you is I’m afraid if I do, I won’t be able to get closer again.”

Jessie nodded.

“Something’s not working,” I said.  “Gordon said I was fluid and you were solid.  I’ve thought that some of the Lambs had natural affinities for one another, and some had natural conflicts.  Gordon was never going to fully understand me, and I was never going to fully get him, Mary and Helen struggle to find that natural dynamic, and you and I-”

“Sy,” Jessie said, interrupting.

“I’m babbling.”

“Sy, what you’re talking about isn’t it.  I’m afraid it’s worse.”

I read her expression and tone, and I poised myself.

“This is going to be a groaner, isn’t it?” I asked.

“It’s almost as if you’re a sixteen year old boy, and I’m a seventeen year old girl, and so long as I’m on the alert for your tricks, you’re feeling and facing most of the same sorts of worries that most boys your age do in the opening stages of a relationship.”

I bowed my head, eyes screwed shut, and I made sure to groan before I said, “Oh lords, no.  That’s worse than everything else I thought put together.”

“If it makes you feel better, I’ve been bottling up a lot of those same anxieties and worries for months now.  That’s on top of an entirely different sort that I’ve been bottling up for years.

“You poor creature,” I said.

“Entirely my fault for falling for the most unpredictable sixteen year old in the Crown States,” she said.

“Numbskull,” I said.

She punched me lightly in the stomach, again.

“A liar, too.  You said the next one would hurt more.”

“Don’t tempt me,” she said.

“See, I’m not sure if I should tempt you or not.  I don’t have a proper roadmap, here.  I’m lost!  I’m still stuck!”

“You said you’re stuck because you’re afraid if you move away you won’t be able to move closer again.  So…”

Jessie raised herself up, and she moved her face closer to mine.

She gave me a peck on the cheek.

“On the cheek?” I asked.

“Shut up,” she said.

“You’re so lame!” I accused her.

“Let me up.  We have work to do,” she said.

“Just like that,” I said.  “Waving the white flag?”

Teasing aside, I did climb off of Jessie.  The two of us stood, glancing back in the direction of the station platform, where Duncan was talking to quarantine officers, still guarding the bags.

“Your move next,” Jessie said, not making eye contact.

“Oh, is that how we’re doing this?  Back and forth?  A game of one-upmanship?”

Jessie sighed.  We made our way down from the roof to the ticket booth proper.

I asked, “One of us makes a move, the other has to work up the courage and top it, or she gets made the subject of merciless teasing?”

She?

“Well I’m not going to lose, Little Miss Ewesmont.  I’m frankly interested to see where this goes.  Unless you cry uncle, I’m imagining this escalating to the extent of a Fray-esque web of goings-on involving a trapeze, an Academy-engineered spider monkey that has actual spider in its makeup, a choir, and an actual uncle to cry out to.  It’s an elegant lose-lose situation you’re walking into here.”

“It really, really is,” Jessie said.  She’d lifted up her glasses to rub at her eyes, as if I was already giving her a headache.  I knew the truth.  She was trying to hide that she was laughing.    She found her composure.  “For a moment, I entertained the fantasy that we might have something resembling an ordinary little romance.”

I shifted position as I walked, giving her shoulder a bump with mine.  “We’ll find a middle ground.”

“That would be nice,” she smiled at me.

“Can that count as my turn?  A heartwarming bit of compromise?”

“No, Sy.”

But she pulled the same maneuver and she bumped my shoulder with hers.  I took the opportunity to throw my arm around her shoulders, giving her a one armed hug.

I could feel the tension fall away from her shoulders with my arm there.

“How about this?” I asked.  “Does this count?”

Oh, look at that.  The tension came back, just like that.

“I’ll take that as a no,” I said.

“It doesn’t count if you were doing it before today.”

“That puts me at a natural disadvantage, my memory being what it is.”

“And here I thought you weren’t going to lose,” she teased.

“Oh, I won’t.  But if I win despite it not being terribly fair, I’m totally going to rub it in.”

“That’s allowed,” Jessie said.

We made our way to the hotel.  The outside was devoid of students, the doors boarded up, the area nondescript.  After checking the coast was clear, we let ourselves in.

The students were there, waiting and ready, virtually all with luggage in arm’s reach.  The gang leaders were there.  Virtually all of the strays were absent.

I looked for and found all of my major players.  Rudy and Possum were off to one side with Second Gordon.  They’d collected Jessie’s and my luggage for us.  My Lambs were present, as was Fray.  Fray, distorted, stood next to Warren.

Something had changed in Frederick’s eyes.  I wondered if it was newfound respect or resentment.

I glanced at the musclebound Warren, who stood off to one side with his collection of Fray’s hirelings, Wendy, and Avis.

“We gave her a signal,” I told him.  “She’s on the run from the Lambs.  She’ll probably want help.  Keep them busy, give us a chance to board our train, you’ll get no further interference from us, and we’ll be on good terms the next time we meet.”

I saw his expression twist, and he momentarily looked as if he’d stomp toward me and smash me into the ground.

Avis touched his arm, and he stopped.

“We should help her,” Avis said.

They hurried to leave.

The door slammed behind them, in a way that only a bruno of a man like Warren could slam doors.

Perhaps we won’t be on good terms the next time we meet, then, I thought.

I looked at the room, and I could see that the nervousness had set in.  This was the hardest step to take, the last chance to turn back.

“Are you ready to go!?” I called out.

I got a cheer in response.

“To make a name for yourselves!?”

Another cheer.  Not louder, but more unified.

“Ready to cut loose for once in your lives!?”

This response was louder.

“Say a very special fuck you to all the students, people, and parents who looked down on you!?”

Even the ones who’d been holding back joined in for this one.  Gang members, even.

“Then let’s go!”

It was the loudest outcry yet.

Out the hotel, around the corner to the stable with waiting carriages, where we stowed the heaviest bags, the strays that had decided to come, and two students who would move slower.

The rest followed behind.

It was momentum now, keeping them moving.  I broke away from Jessie, moved through the group.  I encouraged students, made sure stronger ones carried heavier bags, and touched base with each of the group leaders.

We didn’t go to the train station, but to the outskirts of town.  The train tracks cut north to south, and we found the tracks at the northwest edge of town, as they emerged from the mountain.

Jessie touched the track and sensed the vibration.  She looked at me.

“Right on time,” she said.

“Perfect,” I said.

The train emerged from the tunnel, already braking.

It didn’t stop at the station, but here, waiting for us.  A cargo train, meant to hold timber, grain, and meat.

At a nod from the driver of the train and a signal from me, the students began boarding the train, piling into the enclosed compartments.  I followed up the rear, taking an uncomfortable non-seat on the floor of the compartment, sitting across from Mabel the sheriff’s daughter, Possum, and Rudy.

Jessie plopped herself down next to me.

We left the door of the train car open.  It hardly mattered, and there was something freeing about it that the students in our car seemed to like.

With that as our vantage point, as we crested the hill, I could take in Laureas from a distance.  The city sprawled, not a lot of it attractive.  A port at the north end, ships coming to and fro, with dilapidated slums where we’d found the strays and set up our headquarters.  A ferry crossed back and forth across the bay itself.

I thought about the Lambs.  I wished I could talk to them, even as I knew it was the worst idea.

I said a silent goodbye to city and the Lambs both.

Next time, I thought, for the Lambs.

We won’t sacrifice you before we sacrifice ourselves, I thought for the city, and all the other ones like it.

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Bitter Pill – 15.15

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Jessie was waiting outside of the hotel.  Students were scattering, leaving the building and walking through the streets.  I walked down the street, holding my cigarette and not really puffing on it.  My thoughts tumbled over one another.

That was fine.  They needed to get themselves ready.  Clothes and personal belongings needed to be gathered.  They would come back with luggage.

She told me, “I sent for some carriages.  We’re going to need to assist, because the Academy is going to have recovered and they’ll react to a mass exodus.”

I nodded.  I leaned against the wall beside Jessie and puffed, still thinking.

She gave me a curious look.  “It didn’t go well?”

I had to think before I answered that question.

“Depends how you look at it.  Am I that easy to read?”

“You’re smoking.”

“That’s not a tell,” I said.

“You don’t usually smoke more than one or two cigarettes a day.”

“I smell?”

“You smell like you had more than one, yeah.”

I wrinkled my nose, then bit my lip.

“If the outcome of the meeting depends on how I look at it, share some perspectives,” Jessie told me.

Some of the students walked out of the hotel.  A group.  There was a bit of excitement in the air.  They were taking a massive leap of faith.  For some of them, it was the first time in their lives that they had really moved beyond their pre-set paths.

“She touched a nerve,” I said.  “One I didn’t realize was there.”

“If this were a ‘there’s good news and bad news’ explanation, that’s the bad news, then.”

“No,” I said.  “Because it isn’t that kind of explanation.  It’s muddled.  Lots of gray area.”

“I see,” she said.

“She wasn’t who I wanted her to be, and I saw that, and a lot of accumulated stresses and disappointments came out,” I said.  I pulled back on the cigarette.  A pair of male students walked past, one gave me a nod, and I gave him a nod in turn.

“You look a little scary, for the record,” Jessie said.

“Noted,” I said.

“What’s the gray area?”

“Being able to see that Fray wasn’t who I wanted her to be meant I got more of a glimpse of her, I think.  I was able to stop myself, but… chose not to.  Because I saw an in.”

“Past the facade?  You once described Fray as a demon wearing an angel’s mask.”

“Did I?”

“To Jamie, once upon a time.”

“Huh.  I like that.  Good for me.”

“I’d point out that you said it once, forgot about it, and then said it again later like it was the first time, and then you did it again but it was the matron and the ogre, but you seem like you’re not in the mood for any playful jabs,” Jessie said.

“Thank you for not pointing it out, then,” I said.  I smiled a little, then I puffed thoughtfully.  What had I been saying?  It was hard to recall particulars when my thoughts were this scattered and the things I was considering were this big.

“You saw an in,” Jessie reminded me.

“Yes,” I said.  “Thank you.  I didn’t penetrate past the angel to the devil inside, though.  I think I glimpsed the human.”

“Something exploitable?”

“We’ll find out in less than forty-five minutes, I think.”

“What an interesting timeframe.”

“The Lambs are coming,” I said.  “In forty-five minutes.”

“Ah,” Jessie said.  She pushed her glasses up her nose.

I nodded.

“That’s bad.”

“I’m not so sure,” I said.  “Gray areas, remember?”

“Of course I remember, Sy,” Jessie said, clearly annoyed.  “Why is this gray?”

“Because I’m suspicious that when the train pulls up and the Lambs get off, Fray is going to be standing there, ready to turn herself in.”

“I see.  This goes back to what you were saying about your valiant fight against the primordial, does it?  It’s really my facade you’re trying to crack.”

“Jessie-”

“Do you expect to find an angel, a demon, or a human when you chip away my mask?  I assume that’s why you’re chipping away at my reason and sens-”

I flicked my fingers, striking the arm of her glasses with a fingernail, interrupting her.  “Chip.”

She gave me a sidelong glance.

I did it again.  “Chip.”

“I’m armed, Sylvester.”

“And I’m being honest.  Really.  The Lambs are due.  Sixty-forty odds that Fray will be there.”

“That must have been a fascinating conversation.  If I hadn’t seen you walk off with Fray, I might have thought you were losing your mind again.”

“Maybe I did, just a bit.  But I’m pretty sure on this one,” I said.  I reached into a pocket, and I withdrew a piece of paper.  I handed it over.  “Warren Howell arrived with the last train-”

“-Twelve minutes ago.”

“Twelve minutes ago.  Fray will be talking to him.  He’ll cover us from the Lambs and he’ll cooperate, as will the rest of the people he brings for help.  That paper has the addresses of our first contacts.  Fray was kind enough to supply the next part of her plan.  We’ll be able to room and board our army while we get the next pieces of our plan underway.”

“I’m usually content to let you do your thing, and I keep up, but I’m going to need more information on this one.”

“The dark cloud that’s hanging over all of this and making it look a lot grayer is that our standing plan may not work.  Fray thinks others have tried, or others have done similar things.  She knew and she didn’t try.  The Crown is a sore loser, Jessie.  She believes that if we move forward and spread the word, the Crown will sooner erase the Crown States from the map than allow the mask to be pulled off.”

Jessie nodded, taking that in.

Even irritated, with me flicking at her face, she was calm and sure.  It was a panacea of sorts.  It made the sentiments Fray had stirred easier to handle.

I continued, “In my ire, I convinced her that if she doesn’t turn herself in and show that she really does take this that seriously, I might move ahead with the plan regardless.  That I’m a sore loser too.”

“How much of that was truth?”

I smiled.

She reached out and flicked my nose.

“That’s annoying,” I commented.

“Oh, is it now?”

“You’re terribly immature,” I told her.

“I am.  And I’m curious, too.  This fear that you think will put her on the train platform, was it the glimmer of human you saw in her?”

“Sixty percent chance she stands on that platform, mind you,” I said.  “Completely made up number, but it’s approximately where my feelings are on it.  And only to a degree.  Both the devil in Fray and the angel are practical monsters.  If she extends the same arithmetic to  the hunting of us, practically speaking…

“Practically speaking, it’s not out of the question that she ends up on that platform.”

“But that’s only a small part of that.  If it was that alone, it would account for perhaps five percent of the chance.  It was two things that stood out to me in particular,” I said.  “Two things that make me see Fray in a different light than I did before today.  The first, really, is when and how the crack appeared in her shell.  It was when I got angry.  When I accused her, arbitrarily, she started listening to me.  I accused her again, still angry, of being responsible, and she got angry.  I made unreasonable demands, and she bargained.”

“The crack in the facade.”

I finished my cigarette, mashed it against the wall, joining other dark spots from other days and nights Jessie and I had both stood here outside our hotel, plotting what came next.

“She actually felt guilty,” I said.

“Despite no direct involvement?”

“Indirect involvement.  She took Wyvern, which was tested on me and others like me.  She ran from us very effectively for a very long few months before she let us catch her.  She probably had moles, and she didn’t give any tells, but she didn’t actually ask any questions or raise eyebrows about to my repeated references to Lacey, and I’m wondering if she would have if there was nothing going on there.”

“Indirect involvement, then.  Maybe.  Your interpretation of Lacey was very different from Jamie’s.”

I nodded.

“Guilty,” Jessie ruminated on the word.

“A bit of fear, a bit of genuine guilt, as I let my facade down and pulled a bit of hers down in the process, some practicality, and, maybe a bit of it had to do with her being spooked.”

“Spooked?  This is different from her being scared?”

“Flustered.  Put on her heels.  In all of that, my ranting and railing against her, I went with my instincts.  In the midst of it all, I asked her to make a sacrifice for once.  I think it hit home.  Prey instinct, gut feeling, and a bit of the raw on my side to break past the civil veneer.  We should run after these students.  Talk while we walk.”

I put my hand on Jessie’s shoulder, bringing her with.  She had to bend down to grab our bags, which meant my hand slipped away.

“You’re going to need to elaborate on that last point,” Jessie said.

“Of course,” I said.  I took my bag from Jessie.  I glanced back at the hotel.

“If you wait and try to make me impatient, it won’t work,” Jessie said.  “I’ll remember, and you’ll forget, and you’ll be more annoyed and inconvenienced in the end than I am.”

“You’re my foil,” I said.  “It’s why we get along so well.”

“Of course,” she said.  “Is this a new realization?  Stemming from the fact that Fray turned out not to be who you thought she was?”

“No,” I said.  “Hardly.  I’ve known you and Jamie were natural fits for me for a long while.  Fray was… something else.  When I called on her to make the sacrifice for once, she was flustered.  I was musing on it while I walked back here, and I’m left thinking, you know, the Crown, awfully sore losers.  Destroy a continent to hide the fact they actually lost once.”

“You’re going to need to elaborate on that, too.”

“So needy!” I waved my hands at Jessie, as if shooing a pesky fly or an annoying small child.  She pulled my hands down.

“I’m a sore loser.  How sore a loser remains to be seen, of course.  It depends on Fray, on you, on my mental health, and a few other factors.”

“A lot of that going around.”

“Oh, but see, it goes further.  Mary, oh our Mary was holding a grudge.  Lillian too.  Didn’t take too kindly to my betrayal.  There were heavy feelings there.  Not happy about the gunshot to the knee, or the way the breakup went.”

“I’m not sure I’d call that being a sore loser.  Especially in Mary’s case.”

I shooed Jessie again.

“You get very immature when your emotional defenses are down,” she remarked.

I fought with her for a moment, as I continued shooing her, while she pulled and swatted my hands down.

I was feeling better than I had.

“Cynthia.  I don’t think I need to say more.”

“I’m seeing where you’re going with this.”

“Mauer?  What do you think, Jessie?”

“He wears an agony-inducing symbol of his grudge against the Academy.  I think he qualifies in your pattern.”

“So… We all put our chips in, paid the price of admission.  And I’m left wondering about Fray.”

“She lost her career.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “She has a restricted schedule.  Not as restricted as mine, damn her, but she has a limited timeframe to work with.  And I have to wonder, where’s the grudge?  Why doesn’t she care that we just spoiled Beattle for her, when this is supposed to be all she has?  Why is she such a cool customer when she’s working with limited time and we just cost her cumulative weeks or months of work that she’s been doing in the background?  And no, I don’t think it’s Wyvern.  I think it’s that she doesn’t have stakes in this.  Not here, not this particular job or what follows, or maybe not even what in comes before.  I called her on it, asked her about the sacrifices and in that moment… ”

I didn’t need to finish.  I’d already spelled it out.  Jessie had all of the pieces.

“She’s playing another game.”

“I think so,” I said.

“Fifty fifty chance she ends up on that train platform, totally made up number, tilting slightly one way for reasons you’ve already elaborated on.  Fear, maybe guilt, the fact that the Crown States might hinge on it, depending on how sore of a loser you are.”

I nodded.

“But the real reason it would go one way or the other…” Jessie mused, as we walked.  “Is the scheme she’s working on in the background.  Does it need her?”

My step bounced a little with excitement.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see if she turns up there.”

I threw one arm around Jessie’s shoulders, making her stumble a bit.  I hugged her with that arm.  “We’re on the same page, there.”

The assembled gang leaders joined Jessie and I in watching the students moving out of the dorms.  There were Academy uniforms nearby, but a scattered few, mostly interested in trying to figure out what was happening and where the students were going.  They had sent for help, and help would arrive.

They mustered their forces, and we mustered ours.

“You really kicked up a fuss, huh kid?” Frederick asked.

“You’re still doing that condescension thing,” I pointed out.  “I think the rest of us moved on past that a long time ago.  It only makes you look bad.”

“I look fine,” Frederick said.

“Frederick gets all of the girls,” Clay said.

I gave the man a curious look.

I wasn’t sure he ‘got it’.  But Clay didn’t seem to get much of anything.

“Key thing is to get the kids back to the hotel,” I said.  “We blitz the uniforms.  They don’t have guns, only clubs.  Which of you have guns?”

Archie raised his hand.

Right.

“I have the shotgun we got from the punk kid at the lab,” Otis said, showing me.

“Take the ammo out,” I told him.  “I don’t want you shooting my kids.”

The middle aged, grizzled gang member stared me down.

Finally, he relented.  He tossed the thing at me, and reached out in the direction of one of his many subordinates.  They passed him a stick.

“I’d rather have a weapon I can use over one I can’t.”

“Good enough,” I said.

I indicated the places to occupy and lay in wait, with Jessie consulting.

Students began to drift away, my de-facto lieutenants lurking here and there.

Jessie and I moved through the area, checking on students here and there.  The ones who looked like they might be having second thoughts, the ones who were having trouble.  Here and there, we paired up students, told older ones who looked responsible to look after younger ones.  Most were over fifteen, but a few weren’t.  The younger ones would bear looking after.

“I feel like we might lose some.  Ones who want to follow, but who get caught up in things.  It’s an awful thought.  Like, if I’d been stopped and dragged back to the Academy just when I’d committed to leaving?”

“I know what you mean,” Jessie said.

“Yeah,” I said.

I spotted Rudy and flagged him down.

“We’ve blocked off the streets you said.  If they come after us in carriages and wagons, it’ll slow them down.  There were a few gates and bridges, like the big one over Spider street.  We blocked those off.”

“Good,” I said.  “Where’s Possum?”

“With the Strays.  I don’t think they’re coming with, are they?”

I shook my head.  “Only a few.  Is Possum going to stay with them?”

“Nah.  She’s with us.  She wants to be a part of this.” Rudy said.  He was a bruiser of a fella, but there was meaningful concern on his face.  “She’s going to hate leaving them.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Was just thinking about something along those lines.  Maybe if you pull her away?  Ask her to help you hunt down any students who might otherwise get left behind?  Pull up the rear, and be mindful, because the gangsters and the uniforms might start scrapping soon.”

He nodded.

“Good man,” I said, as he hurried off to find Possum.

I took it all in.

We were mobilizing, getting ready to leave.  I’d planned to take a boat, but Fray’s evacuation plan was the train.

There was a fuzzy area, however, between now and then.

“How long until the Lambs arrive?”

“Thirty minutes.  It’s going to take us ten to get to the train station.”

“We have to do this fast, then,” I said.

“Yeah,” Jessie said.  “But our people are capable.  Most of these uniforms are security officers for the Academies, doing night patrols and breaking up a few scuffles a month.  I don’t think they want to cause a stir.”

“But there are some, like those ones over there, who have more experience.  Sharper, more up to date uniforms, even though they don’t wear the uniforms that often.  I think they wear something fancier.”

“Yeah,” Jessie said.  “Like the ones who were hunting Avis.”

“How long until our guest shows?”

“No idea how fast he moves, but going by my measure of the walk from here to the train station taking ten minutes… he should have turned up three minutes ago.”

I frowned.

“We can run,” Jessie suggested.  “Do more here, then run there.”

“We can.  I don’t want to.  Running attracts attention.”

She nodded.

“And you’re slow,” I added.

She punched my arm.

We continued encouraging and helping students for another few minutes, before Jessie touched my arm.

Warren, and Warren had help.  I was disappointed that Dog and Catcher weren’t among the help.

It felt like Warren had grown.  He was a proper Bruno, but he was an exemplar among them.  A living statue, carved rather than grown, but he had been grown.  The muscle was real, standing out against the fabric of his clothes, with grooves running deep between the individual muscles.  He didn’t wear a jacket.  I suspected his body was such an efficient engine that he didn’t truly need one.

Fray did good work, really.

The lack of proportion between his head and the rest of him was odd to see.  His hair was slicked back, and he had muttonchops.  The color of his eyes was particularly intense as he stared me down.  I probably weighed as much as one of his legs did.

Just his approach and arrival seemed to bother the uniforms.  They talked among themselves.

Warren’s help included various other experiments and ex-soldiers.  Mauer’s discards possibly, and back-alley doctors.  There was a trend to the clothes they wore, with jackets in a military cut that rarely touched on the colors of the Crown or the Crown’s favored style.  Blue and silver rather than gold and red, or black and silver.  It wasn’t an absolute trend, but I had the sentiment that this group of people had spent enough time among one another to start becoming a group.

I had questions and I was curious, but I didn’t want to pry.

“No Wendy?” I asked.

Warren shook his head.

“You’re cooperating?” I asked him.

He didn’t nod or shake his head.  I watched him work one fist, as if rolling the knuckles, testing the joints and the strength of his hand.

Finally, he nodded.

“I need someone that’s willing to help me handle an errand.  Any eager beavers, looking to stretch their legs or limbs after a long train ride?”

The group of doctors and experiments and grizzled normals exchanged looks.

It seemed they deferred to Warren, here.

A leader that wouldn’t talk.

“Warren, then?”

Again, that long pause, and then the reluctant nod.

“Great.”

Jessie and I led him around the back of one building.

“Just around the corner,” I said.  “Group of men.  You’re going after the leader.  Tall, blond hair.  He’ll have a weapon, but no gun.  We need to catch him off guard, grab him.  We’ll want him for information.”

Warren gave me a dispassionate look.

“We’re working on a schedule.  If you waste time, then Fray suffers and we suffer, and Avis suffers.  Students might even get hurt.  Let’s just… accept you’re doing this under protest and move on.  Fray asked you to because she thinks it matters.”

Warren frowned, then turned away.  He flexed his fists again.

“Capture, don’t kill or harm,” I said.

He sighed without looking at me.

Then he charged.  One hand gripped the corner of the building to help him swing in, as he ran from the back of one building, around the corner, and into the alley.

I heard the shouts of surprise and alarm.  I heard the swears, the grunts.

Jessie and I moved in sync, without even needing to signal one another.  We knew the moment.

Warren stood in the midst of Frederick’s group.  One hand held Frederick’s weapon arm.  The other gripped Frederick by the face, fingers wrapped around Frederick’s head as someone of a normal scale might hold a cricket ball.

“I want to see his face,” I said.

The hand moved from Frederick’s face to his neck.  He was already beet red, which stood out marvelously with his blond hair.

“Ah, false positive,” I said, with a bit of levity.  “I thought you were the informant who tipped off the Academy about us.  But I don’t see it in your eyes.”

“You knew darn well that I wasn’t,” Frederick said.

“I’m really glad I told him not to kill.  Dust yourself off.  If you’re still in, then get ready, plan goes forward as intended shortly.  Just one quick thing to take care of first.”

“Otis?” Frederick asked.

I smiled.  “Afraid not.”

Their rivalry wouldn’t die here.  Otis wasn’t the snitch.  He’d been at this for too long.

“Archie?” Jessie asked, quietly.

I gestured for Warren.

He looked even more disgruntled than before.

“Need to find the informant before any fighting starts, or important people get offed, and the other side gets too much information,” I explained to Warren.

“Next alley,” Jessie said.

“This time… just level them.  There are less of them this time,” I said.  “No students, if any students happen to be with them, but there shouldn’t be any.”

He wasted no time.  Frustration might have been an element.  He swung around into the alley, and from the sound of it, he picked something up and threw it.  I heard the sound of a bone breaking.

We rounded the corner, me slightly in the lead this time.

Clay’s men lay on the ground, broken.

“You were too eager to go run our errand, earlier,” I said.  “The one I ended up sending Otis on.  It would have been a prime opportunity to pass information to the Academy.  What I don’t get is how someone as thick as you are managed this.  Are you that good an actor?”

Clay coughed blood.

“Come on now,” I told him.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.  His teeth were stained red.  He looked up at Warren.

“If it wasn’t for just how dumb you are, and the fact that you and your buddies here are all brothers, or look like brothers, I would have immediately pegged you, based on how new you are to the city.  Some background, but only inasmuch as it can be faked.”

“Please,” he said.

“I’m going to kill all three of you shortly, whatever happens,” I told him.  “So… it’s really just a question of sating my curiosity.”

“Don’t,” he said, his eyes widening.  “Please.  Not like this, not now.”

“Not now?”

“They give us a drug.  Alderbenzarine.”

“Memory drug,” Jessie said.

“They give it to old people.  Kick in the ass, gets you going, and helps with memory retention.  But it makes you foggy, less good judgement.  I take a lot.  Helps to be dumb, people say things around dumb folks.  Then I go to my bosses, I go off the drug, and tell them particulars.”

“You found us awfully quick.”

“We’re so close to New Amsterdam and Lincolnshire and other places.  They tap cities like this for people if they need bodies for a gang or somethin’.  We hang here, keep a thumb on the pulse, wait to get recruited, and report in.”

“Just have to put on a show, be dumb, be available, and you draw your wage, huh?”

“It’s a good wage, but,” he said, and he paused to close his eyes, wincing at the pain he was already feeling from being soundly smashed.  “There are risks.  I don’t want to die while I’m dumb.  Please.”

His still-conscious brother nodded.

I stared down at him, aware of the gun at my side.

“Some students who heard your speech will decide not to follow along,” Jessie said.  “He can’t share that much more than them.”

“Fair bit more,” I said.  “But point taken.  What if I take your tongue and your hands, Clay?”

He nodded eagerly.  He tried to make a pleading gesture, but one of his wrists was already fairly messed up.  “Please.”

I drew my knife.

“Warren, you want to go back to your buddies?  Tell them they’re hitting the group by the blue-painted wagon with the horses.  Wait one minute, then attack.  From there, you can go…”

I fished a piece of paper from my pocket.

“…here.  Avis will be brought to you.”

He took the paper, then stomped off.

I knelt before a broken Clay, knife in hand.

“I know what it is to not want to go out with your brain in the wrong place,” I said.

He nodded.  Then he stuck out his tongue and his hands – one bent at an odd angle, and he screwed his eyes shut.

We could hear the far off train whistle as we approached our hiding place.

“Enter the Lambs,” Jessie said.

“Yeah,” I said.  My eyes scanned the platform.

“Do you want to see them?  I’m sure we could contrive a way.  A brief visit, an exchange of words.”

I shook my head.

“It might not even be all of them.”

“I can’t imagine Lillian or Mary not coming,” I said.  “Helen wouldn’t miss this unless she had another job.”

“So we just let them come?  Get a glimpse, see what happens with Fray, and then leave?  Just like that?”

“Each parting gets harder,” I said.  “If I have to deal with that, I want it to be worth it.  I’d just be talking to them to talk to them.  If you wanted to do different, I think they’d let you go.  You could tell them things, get them up to date.”

Jessie looked down at the train station from over the top of the wall.  Jessie’s camaraderie with the station employees had earned us access to a prime vantage point, the wall that framed the ticket booth.

Again, the train hooted.  Far closer this time.  She shook her head.

“No?” I asked.

“Nothing new to share.  I guess we’re on the same page.  I feel like if I shared anything, it would be negative.  The positives aren’t things we want them to know right off the bat.”

I nodded.

Jessie looked at the crowds of people on the train station.

She walked up the slight slope to the actual platform.  She was utterly still as people milled this way and that, making room for the people who would depart and eagerly forming lines and queues with their luggage next to them, ready to board.

Fray stood alone in the middle of the two groups, stiff necked, hands clasped in front of her.

“What’s going on in that head of yours?” I asked, under my breath.

The train hooted one more time, and the tracks rattled as it pulled into the station.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.14

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

We walked a distance away from the building, and as Fray indicated a direction, I didn’t object.

“Terms and expectations,” she said.  She walked with her hands in her pockets.  Her jacket was buttoned up to the point that the collar touched her chin.  Her bearing was confident enough that it didn’t seem to bother her, where others might have found it got in the way.

“Terms and expectations?”

“For our discussion here,” she said.

“Ah,” I said.  I paused.  “Do we need those?”

“First of all, I’m not leading you into a trap as we speak.  I have no intention of harming you, misleading you, taking action against your… burgeoning faction, or allowing others to do so.  That’s not how I operate,” she said.

“I’ve gathered as much.”

“And I would appreciate if you didn’t wrap up your business here by severely inconveniencing me.”

“Ah,” I said.  “For someone as secure as you are, I’m surprised you’re that worried.”

“The Lambs are on their way, Sylvester.  They’ll be in the city before the day is out.  They’ll likely be mired in your business and mine before midnight, given the chance.”

I blinked, then began working things through in my head.  Jessie would have a better idea of timing, train schedules.  Then there were permutations: how the Lambs interacted with the wounded and dying Beattle Academy and the Horse that led it, the vectors by which they would trace their way to Jessie and me, their methods, the likelihood of attack, their interactions with local gangs, the stray children, the students, the truths and lies they could tell those same students and stray children…

And Fray, with their interactions with her, and everything that could unfold from that.

“I’m still surprised you’re that concerned.  Were we really such a nuisance for you before?”

“The Lambs were more predictable before, and one is right here, walking and talking with me, less predictable than he once was.  Obviously, given how today went.  What’s the old adage?  You don’t have to outrun the bear…”

“You have to outrun the slowest member of your camping troupe.  You’re afraid I’ll hamstring you and leave you as a nice, tied-up present for the Lambs, to better cover my retreat.

“And to better their circumstance,” she said.

Before she’d even brought up the bear analogy, I’d had the mental image of Fray in a locked room lingering in one corner of my brain.  She’d been banging on the door, while I said something witty and watched the Lambs approach at a run through the window.  I hadn’t decided on the witty thing to say, so the thought had been unfinished, a scattered image waiting to be rounded out.

Reluctantly, I banished the thought from my head.

“I’ll play along,” I said.  “No using you as bait for the bear.  Assuming you’re playing fair too.”

“I’ll play fair and try to make the concession worth your while,” she said.  She blew into her hands and rubbed them together.

My thoughts were on the Lambs, now.  It took some effort to compartmentalize them, and to keep thoughts from sprawling out from those individual points.  Too tempting, too complicated, too distracting.

Fray was my focus now.

I glanced at her hands as she rubbed them together.

She caught me looking.  “Syringes built into my fingers.  It affected my circulation and my extremities run a hair colder than normal.”

“Well maybe you shouldn’t hide syringes in your fingers, then.”

A part of me wanted to get a rise out of her, to see if she could be made flustered, and if any insights could be gleaned.

“I was pleased to see Jamie,” she said.

I gave her a sidelong glance.

“Whatever his or her name is now.”

“Her,” I said.  “Jessie.”

“I was pleased,” she repeated herself, affirming the fact.  “I really believed it when I read that Jamie had died.”

“That was the intention,” I said.

“Of course,” she said.  Then, abrupt, she said, “You’ve grown.”

This was a side of her I’d forgotten, as Fray had devolved into a greater series of schemes.  Of plots and things I had to account for, a lifeform that had been stitched together in the background, extending its reach and producing plague here and primordials there, nudging rebel groups into life.

I’d nearly forgotten I could talk to her and she could put me off balance so adroitly.  Possibly without even meaning to.

“Was a tense moment, back there,” I said.  “Thought I might not grow at all, but it happened.  I’m still short for my age.”

“You’ve grown in other ways,” she said.  “How you function, how you approach the world.”

“And you haven’t?” I asked.

“The last few years have felt like a blur.  I’ve been working on things, I’m still setting the stage for what I want to do in the future, and the weeks melt into the months, and months melt into seasons.  Time passes quickly.  I’m not sure how much I’ve changed in the meantime.”

“I’m not sure either,” I said.  “I saw a glimpse of something ugly during our first meeting, and I’m not sure if that brute of a woman that sterilized twenty-five million Crown citizens and hooked them on the water supply is the same that made the primordials or started the spread of the plague of ravage.”

“That wasn’t me,” she said.

I raised an eyebrow.  “Which?”

“The ravage.  Red plague, reminiscence, whatever you want to call it.  I wasn’t responsible.”

I stopped in my tracks.  She progressed a few more steps, stopped, and turned to face me.

“Really,” she said.

I studied her, looking for any clues in body language.  She wasn’t a proficient liar, but she was guarded.  Some of it had to do with how she kept a part of herself at bay, a weapon hidden beneath the clothes, that wasn’t a blue ringed octopus named Dolores.

“Talk to me about it,” I told her.

“I studied the plague.  Because I did think I might be able to use it, find the source, or disable it and leverage the cure for my agenda.  It’s elegant.  Elegant enough that we probably already know the name of the culprit.  ‘We’ being the doctors and scientists of the Academy.  He’ll be one of the geniuses, on par with Helen’s creator, Professor Ibbot.  I would actually like to find him, because I think he has an agenda.”

“An agenda?”

“The plague has spread far, far further than they’re willing to admit, Sylvester,” Fray said.  “There’s a part and parcel of it that remains dormant for nine to seventeen days.  The plague has erupted in Mauer’s wake and Cynthia’s wake for some time.  After violent confrontations, including the one you witnessed in New Amsterdam, we see outbreaks.  It looked like human agents, trying to make a point, pin something on Mauer.”

“Looked like?  But it isn’t.  It’s part of the design.”

“It’s punitive.  Rebels appear and fight for a city, and in the aftermath, hours, days, or two weeks later, the plague hits.  It likes the taste of battlefields, fresh or old, it flourishes, and it spreads like a wildfire, carpeting the area.”

“People are going to catch on, and when they do… the rebellion will become something they fear.  Is this the Crown?”

“I don’t know,” Fray said.  “But I’m keeping my lips sealed.  I’m waiting for the Crown to find someone to fight with that isn’t the rebellion.  Because if a cure emerges… or if the flowers don’t bloom in the wake of their battles, then it was likely them.”

“What if it isn’t the Crown?”

“If the Crown wages the war and the cure doesn’t emerge, if the plague is indiscriminate and follows them, then it’s someone else’s play.  Someone that might hold a high rank who also has an agenda of aggressive peace, even if that peace means that countless millions die or are succumbed to quarantine.  If every war means plague follows, with everyone losing the city they fought for, war loses its flavor, even for the Crown.  Things settle into an ugly stasis, with nobody making more ground, and the plague still erupts now and again as people accidentally activate the necessary trigger elements.  We get regular reminders that it exists, until such a time that it’s cured and eliminated.”

My mind ticked over the permutations, the ways it might have unfolded, with this new information.

“If that person with that agenda exists, I need to find them.”

“What if that’s not the agenda?” I asked her.  “What if we don’t settle down into a kind of peace?  What if we’re not capable?”

“Then it’s all the more punitive, isn’t it?  It might be a punishment that takes decades or centuries to recover from, if we ever recover fully from it,” Fray said.  “It would be all the more important that I find the person responsible, because he won’t stop here.  We need the answers he can provide, whatever his motivations.”

“What if they aren’t around anymore?  What if he fled to other parts of the world?”

“I don’t know, Sylvester.”

“Is this the part where you ask me to help you?  You’ve outlined the stakes, something we should all be concerned about, and now’s the part where you say that the best and brightest are Crown and Academy, that they’re people you can’t access, and you need me to infiltrate and help you access and figure out who it might be?”

“No, Sylvester.  I wouldn’t know the first place to start looking.  Keep your eyes open.  Communicate with me.  Communicate with everyone, frankly, short of telling people that this is a plague that primes itself on blood, ash, and burnt gunpowder, among other things.  Because telling them-”

“-Will kill any and all rebellions.  Including mine.  I can’t use my shiny new rebellion for anything bloody, or it’ll spread plague?  Fine.  I don’t plan to kill more than a handful of people anyway.”

“Sylvester,” Fray said.  “This is only one thing at play.  It’s a minor thing, but it’s significant.  I wanted to talk to you about what you found in New Amsterdam.  The Block.”

Which you supposedly knew about from the beginning.

“Out with it, then,” I said.

“Can we walk?” she asked.  She sounded exasperated.  “It’s chilly, and we’re standing in the middle of the street, talking at each other.  At least if we’re walking, there’s a semblance of camaraderie.”

“No traps?  You’re not trying to get me away from my people so the Lambs or the Academy can raid them?”

She sounded even more exasperated.  “Your short-term memory shouldn’t be that bad, Sylvester.  No.  I pledge that to you.  I wanted to turn the students of Beattle into a force for a reason.  If they’re yours, then it’s a distant second to what I hoped for, but it’s still preferable to them being captured or destroyed.  Really.”

I stared her down, trying to find the angle.

“What did you hope to use them for?”

“That would be telling, Sylvester.”

“More than just taking a bite out of the Academy.  You had a plan.  Was it more primordials?”

“The student body knows full well what that involves, and they would buck and rebel if I pushed for it.  I wanted to loosen the Crown’s hold.  An underground Academy that could then disseminate a greater number of back-alley doctors across the Crown states.  I was going to equip them with the truth as I understand it.”

“What you were looking for with Mauer?” I asked.  “What you supposedly knew all along?”

She gestured, indicating that we should walk.

I reluctantly started walking.  She walked beside me, rubbing her hands for a moment before sticking them into her pocket.

“I put the pieces together very early on.  Where students go, the rise of nobles, where other professors go, and where I was slated to go, should I want to work in service to nobles.  The investigation into my background, the teams of doctors poring over my work, to my Wyvern-altered mind, there were systems behind the systems.  I think they knew I knew, they felt I was too clever for what they wanted.  I happened to be looking at the Lambs and what was happening behind the scenes when someone higher up turned their attention to me.  Before I knew it, I was no longer a consideration.  The Wyvern business came out soon after.”

I studied her.  “There’s more to it, isn’t there?”

“Indiscretions,” she said.  “I was not perfect, and Wyvern was the sanitized, widely-recognized part of it.  But every student gets involved in the politics to some degree, the backstabbing, the behind-the-scenes dealings.  All of that is beside the point.  The point is that you’ve stumbled on what I stumbled onto.”

“That the nobles aren’t anything more than glorified experiments.”

“Yes,” Fray said.  She said it in such a way that I knew there was no surprise.  She had known.

“If the word gets out, the myth will be shattered.  People will be disgusted with them.  It will taint everything the nobles touch.  Legitimacy, their seeming immortality, their grace, their power and control.”

“Absolutely,” Fray said.

“Yet you decided not to use that information.  And it wasn’t because the timing was wrong.”

We walked, and we crossed from empty street to a busier one with some crowd.  Fray indicated a turn, looping back in the direction we’d come.  I obliged.

“Did you think they wouldn’t cover their weakness, Sylvester?  I put other pieces together.  I was uniquely positioned to see the greater chessboard.  My grave concern is that you are the most dangerous element possible.  Smart enough to see the truth, yet not informed enough to see that for any piece we could take, the cost is far, far too great, and reckless enough that you might take that piece regardless.”

“Flattering,” I said.  “Uniformed Sylvester.”

“You’re focusing on the wrong aspect of this.”

“Then please, inform me,” I said.

“You’re already informed, Sylvester.  This is where the recklessness comes into play.  You know exactly what the reality is.  It’s a common saying among anyone from families at dinner tables to rebellion leaders to members of the Academy.  The Crown does not lose.”

“There’s a first time for everything.”

“This wouldn’t be the first time, Sylvester.  I’m sure this has happened.  Other people, groups, and nations have devised the means by which to deliver fatal blows, in times where the Crown was younger and more vulnerable, when events conspired against it.  It isn’t easy to grow an empire, so soon after the upheaval required for the Crown to become what it is now, so soon after the rise of the Academies and everything they meant.  There have been other opportunities.”

“Yet the Crown doesn’t lose?” I asked.

“It feels wrong, doesn’t it?  Or when you consider the sheer power of the biological science and the military at the Crown’s disposal, yet pay mind to the fact that the Crown has only seized a quarter of the world?”

“They move slowly, establish their Academies, secure every region before moving on.”

“Absolutely, they do.  But Sylvester, there’s more to it.  There are regions, places I’ve borne witness to, which are sealed off.  They use things like the same cloud seeding we see at Radham, only to ensure death rather than parcel out leashes.  They use grown walls like you no doubt saw at Tynewear, only far taller, and they flood the areas on the other side with biological agents, parasites, and weapons.  They tell people that these were the places where disasters happened.  That this is why only the Academy can be trusted with the knowledge the Academy disseminates.”

I looked over at Fray.  She seemed somber.

“The Academy is the sorest of losers, Sylvester.  They suggested to us that the places they showed us were several of a handful.  I have reason to believe they number in the hundreds.  Places where primordials were loosed, where academies were reclaimed, knowledge disseminated, weapons turned against the Crown and Academy…”

“Places where people spoke of secrets that could cause irreparable harm to the Academy.”

“Yes, Sylvester.”

I fell silent.

“They have laid waste to continents, in whole or in part.  If they can’t win, then they ensure nobody can.  If they rule a world that they’ve reduced to a half the normal size, they still rule.  Given science and sufficient time, they can fix what they leveled.  When they do, the world will be theirs.  Unopposed.  The Infante, the Judge, is someone who oftentimes handles these sorts of decisions.  Even nobles like the Duke are rightly terrified of what he might decide.”

“Just like that,” I said.

“You can’t ever speak of what you’ve learned, Sylvester.  The revelations might outpace the wrath and ruin, but only to the coasts.  You will see exactly the kinds of results you desire, a breaking of the nobility’s back, and then they will use countermeasures.”

I stared off into the distance.

I looked off to the side, at the other Lambs, who were gathered around us.  For an instant, I wasn’t sure if they were my hallucinations.  Even as I looked at Evette, I wasn’t wholly sure.

I ran my fingers through my hair.

“I’m sorry,” Fray said.  “But this is the nature of the enemy I’m trying to fight.  They’re a threat which can’t be dealt too heavy a blow.  They must be battered until cracks become visible, and only then can wedges be set into place.  Then the wedges are tapped.  From the global scale they look down on things at, the taps seem comparatively minor.  You and I know the end result of that.  I even read something in your case files, about the use of makeshift wedges to topple a bookshelf and give your doctors a headache.”

I shook my head.

She sounded like she was coaxing me.  Trying to sell me on this plan.  Inviting me in, making it sound familiar.

It sounded more manipulative than anything I’d known her to do, and that was a manipulation that might have stemmed from genuine fear.

“I suppose you wouldn’t remember,” she said.  “It stuck with me.  I felt as if I got to know you when I read that in the file.  I thought at the time about having tea with you.  Something I’m still hoping for, to be honest.  I would like to be on the same side, to have tea with you before you go, before the Lambs arrive.  With Jessie too.  We could talk about more minor things.  If you knew of a cafe nearby, I would enjoy the chance to warm up these hands of mine and get to know you two better.”

I looked at her, dumbfounded.  I felt like I was in the middle of the sea, drowning, momentarily not sure which way was up.  Who was this person I was talking to?  I still couldn’t keep my footing while talking to her, and I still wasn’t wholly sure if she was this guileless by design or by intent.

“No,” I said.  Too blunt.  I softened it with a, “No thank you.  I should be getting back to my nascent rebellion.  I have students to look after.”

“I understand,” she said.  She rubbed her hands together, blowing on them, then worked one of the hands, as if the fingers were stiff.  “Could I walk back with you?”

I weighed the option.  I badly wanted to think, and I suspected I wouldn’t get another chance between leaving Fray and getting my rebellion settled.

But she’d been fair, and there were still points to cover.

“Alright,” I said.

The countless thoughts that were thrumming through my head redoubled, as I tried to juggle particulars of the rebellion with my processing of what Fray had told me.

“This is a battle we can win, Sylvester.  If you even wanted to stay with me for a little while, I could help you get your rebellion situated, introduce you to some people, show you some things.  I wouldn’t interfere.  You could do with them as you wished.  But let me show you where to best create the cracks.”

I didn’t want to give an answer, tempting as it was, when I wasn’t sure what to do.  I didn’t want to not answer either, because that showed insecurity and weakness, and I didn’t want to bare my neck to Fray on that level.

“Give me a way of contacting you,” I said.  “I’ll get back to you on that.”

Fray extended a hand, holding a card she’d pulled from one coat pocket.  I hesitated before taking it, and she shifted her grip, holding one corner between two knuckles, so no theoretical syringes could snap out and drug me.  She took hold of her sleeve and twisted it so Dolores couldn’t reach through.

I casually swiped the card out of the air, checked it, and pocketed it.

Jessie and I had found out how to gravely injure the Crown.  We had a gun pointed to their heads.  The problem was that the report of the gunshot would bring an avalanche or rockslide down on our head, or the spark would ignite the gas that thickened the air here.

Fray and I kept on walking, back toward the hotel where my rebellion was set up.  My thoughts grew more agitated as I considered the situation.  I reached for a pocket and withdrew a half-collapsed box of cigarettes.  “Want one?  Warm up some?”

She shook her head.  “No.  But it’s curious seeing you smoke like that.  A part of me still imagines you as a boy years younger, standing by the snow-dusted railing, looking out over the water.”

“You said something back then.  You asked me if I was a slave.”

“I talked to you about several things.  Your enslavement to the Academy was one.  Your beliefs were another.  When I said you had grown, I meant it.  You’ve found your way forward.”

Have I though?  I can’t pull the trigger.  I’m still cowed by the Academy and Crown.  My beliefs…

“Thank you for saying so,” I said, with false congeniality, gesturing with a cigarette between my fingers.

“There are more pleasant habits, however,” she said.  “Healthier ones.”

I shrugged and lit one with a match.  “I figure I don’t have that long on this world anyway.  My brain will reach its limit with the drugs I’ve injected into myself, and something will give.  A bit more poison doesn’t hurt.  If you have an expiration date anything like mine, then the same philosophy should extend to you.”

“Yes, I’ll pay the price for taking Wyvern eventually, but I have a lot to do, and giving up even one percent of my time feels like a shame.”

I mulled that over, thinking about what my future looked like.  I’d glimpsed it back at New Amsterdam, when Evette had taken the reins.

My mind caught on one word in what she’d said.

I glanced at her, quirking an eyebrow.  “Eventually?

“The deployment of Wyvern on you was different from my own deployment, Sylvester.  Mine was more focused, partially because of my age, partially by my design.  The benefits and consequences more narrowly defined.”

I drew a deep breath of smoke, not quite sure what to say to that.

“Does that bother you?” she asked.  “There are tradeoffs.  I’m not capable of the same improvisation you are.  I may dig deeper into other areas.  I get less benefit than you do, I suspect.”

“That’s not why it bothers me, exactly.  I thought we were more similar than that,” I said.  “That you started from near the same point I did and you walked to a different destination.”

“Does it really matter?”

‘There’s an experiment I talked to once.  They talked about how lonely it was, being the only one.  The divide that separates the likes of them or the likes of me from the ordinary Jacks and Jills.  So there was this thought, always lingering, that, hey, at least Genevieve Fray is out there.  There are commonalities.  We’re not related by blood, but at least we inject the same agony-inducing poisons into our brains on a regular basis.  Common ground, ahoy!”

I’d raised my voice a little at the end there, jogging my arm for emphasis.

“I never really thought of myself as an experiment, Sylvester.  The woman who faced me in the mirror was always a doctor, first and foremost.”

I nodded.  I drew in a breath, then said, “Maybe I see myself as an experiment because I was started young.  It’s always been my identity.”

“I would think the Lambs were your identity,” she said.

“I knew about our expiration dates within a few months of being old and learned enough to obtain and read my own file.  It’s all intermingled.  Part and parcel.  I sat there in that lab with the file in front of me, and I wrote down the words that were too long to understand.  Then I went, and I looked them up, or I asked Jamie.  Then I’d piece it together, or I’d remember the definitions and go back to the files and I’d try to decipher it all.”

I puffed for a second.  Fray didn’t speak, so I went on, “I grew up around the orphans.  I know for a fact that when ordinary kids were the age I was then, they’re still capable of being convinced that eating dirt is a good idea, or they’ll maybe sometimes once in a blue moon still pee their pants.  Or maybe that’s just orphans with their issues.”

“I imagine the point still stands.”

Point is,” I said, picking up the word and the general thrust of her statement and making it mine, “I was young as dangit when I sat on the floor of that lab and read my file by candlelight and tried desperately to figure out if there was any other possible way to read it, that didn’t say that by the time I was nineteen, twenty, or twenty-one, I was bound to be stark raving mad.  Trying really hard not to imagine my older self, unable to distinguish reality from fiction, nonverbal, whimpering at the darkness.  Unable to remember anything moment to moment, except maybe that he once had people close to him and that they’re gone.”

“I read your file before fleeing the Academy, Sylvester.  It didn’t go into quite that much depth on the last point.”

“I was nine!”  I raised my voice.  I’d surprised myself as much as I had surprised her.

Under Fray’s coat sleeve, Dolores stirred at the disturbance.  Tentacles reached out, wrapping at her fingers.

I composed myself while she calmed the octopus that lurked under her clothing.

“I might have been seven or eight, even,” I said, calm again, no hint of the anger, “It’s hard to tell, with my growth stunted as it was.  But I’m not stupid, and I’ve had time to mull it over.  It was pretty dang formative, Genevieve.”

“Of course.”

“Twenty years, Genevieve, give or take, with seven to nine of those years already spent.  Twenty years, and then as the months go by, you start thinking… well, ho, taking Wyvern once every month?  I’m out of commission for nearly a week, aren’t I?  Sometimes less, sometimes more, but it averages out that way, especially when you account for time spent in the labs, getting blood drawn.  Time doing the tests or interviewing with my disgruntled doctors or the too-nice redhead who smiles and acts nice to make up for the fact that she’s read the same dang file I have and she wants to downplay those same things that keeps ten year old me staring up at the ceiling at night.  Ten year old me grows to resent them, even damn well hating them for what they represent.”

I was gesticulating a little too much, cigarette between my fingers.  I put it back.

“A quarter of your time lost to the labs and the injections.”

“Exactly!  Ten year old me goes through the weeks and the months and he isn’t exactly one for mental accounting of numbers, but that deadline is there, always looming, and he can’t help but feel like he has only so much time, and he’s losing some of it.  And somewhere along the way, it clicks.  You get what I’m saying?”

“Best you finish your thought.”

“This ten year old, his mind runs on multiple tracks, he’s good at juggling a few lines of thought at once, and there’s been this persistent one that’s been ticking around in the back, that he can’t quite riddle out.  How can they do this?  How can they fucking justify it?  And despite not being a mental calculation type, two thoughts connect.  Twenty years, minus twenty five percent, give or take, and you have fifteen.  That’s thought one.  Then he thinks back to how they’ll handle the tormented, lonely young man who talks to his hallucinations, and he imagines sedation, a last batch of experiments on him, to squeeze out the last bit of usefulness, and then one final dose, before they give him merciful oblivion.  What am I describing, Fray?  Gets fifteen years if lucky, then a mercy killing?”

“A dog.”

A dog!  I’m treated no fucking better than a dog, not given any more years, kept on a leash.  I realized that pretty early on too, eh Fray?  Are you starting to get it?  How this plays out?  How I arrived to the conclusion that no, I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scoundrel, I’m not a charlatan or a child genius or a protector of mice or any of that.  At the start and end of the day, I’m an experiment.  So I’m glad for you, Fray, if you’re free to see yourself as a doctor.  How good for you, there.  Do tell me the difference, with you getting the care of a talented wyvern-augmented professor to help you along every step of the way, while I got students working on a side project.  Let me know what this means for you.  How many years do you really have left?”

“I talked of cracks and wedges before, Sylvester.  You’re asking me to place the wedge between us.”

“That’s an answer unto itself, you know.”

“It is,” she admitted.  “If you must know, I’ll see another five to seven years.”

“No, no, there’s a rule, isn’t there?” I asked.  “With diagnoses.  Terminal ones.  They marked it out on the charts for the Lambs with the expiration dates, so this was a lesson I learned pretty damn early.  Part of a formative memory here, and I try to hold on to those.  Given predictions on Academy advancement, for every seven tenths of a year you last, you get more time.  It inflates the expiration dates.  Your ticker due to go in three years?  Now it’s four, because medicine advances that fast.  Now, the dates the Lambs got already account for that.  But you?  I feel like you’re being disingenuous.”

“Five.  A heart due to fail in three conventional years with non-Academy medical aid can last five with the Academy’s help.  There are diminishing returns, but it folds into itself too if you reach certain benchmarks.  There are other factors, advancements I’m keeping my eye on.  My estimation is that I’ll suffer the true effects of Wyvern in eight to eleven years.”

I chuckled.  “Listen to that.  If you started a new kid on Wyvern, same regimen I got, he might expire at the same time you do.  A whole ‘nother lifetime.”

“Sylvester-”

“No,” I said.  I extended my finger.  “No.  Fuck you, Fray.  You don’t get to claim the rights and wisdom of being doctor and experiment both.  You don’t get to be the savior.  You’re as bad as any of them, because if the cards had fallen down differently, if you hadn’t been caught looking too hard at things they wanted to keep secret, you’d be one of them.  And you probably would have gotten your damn tea party with the Lambsbridge Orphans, and I probably would have enjoyed it!  Hell, it might have been everything I needed for me to stay with the Lambs and stay at the Academy, having a like mind, Helen getting that tea party you seem so set on, and if you could work half the miracles you seem set on promising, you could have saved Jamie and Gordon.  Perfect!  Hunky dory!”

“Sylvester, that’s not-”

Don’t,” I said, sharp enough to cut her off.  “Don’t talk.”

She fell silent.

My eye stung where tears had welled out to touch the slice at my lower eyelid.

“You don’t get to tell me to heel, Fray,” I said.  “You’re no different from the ones who made me and the ones who condoned me, so you don’t get any more say than they do.  Now, I’m going to consider matters.  I’ll think about this threat of retaliation, but I’ll make the decision, and I’ll probably make a decision you won’t be happy with.  You’ll put up with it, because I’m a reality no different than the primordial you created and put out there.  The only difference is that I slipped the leash.”

She clenched a fist.  I could see that her hand really was stiff.

She could deal.  She had another decade to deal with it and a thousand other minor inconveniences that naturally came about during the spans of sanity, life, and companionship.

“I can make better use of your army of students than you can, Fray.  I’ve got no time left to be scared, for myself or for others.  I’ve got no time to be stonewalled or told no by people who have no right to say boo to me.  You call the Crown a sore loser?”

I spread my arms, chuckling.  I gestured at myself.

“Sylvester,” she said.  “No.”

“They say a dog resembles its master.”

“I’ll bargain with you,” she said.

“You’ll try.  I’m not backing down on this.”

“The accommodations for your new army.  I was going to arrange for you to have them from the time  asked you to go on this walk with me.  I’ll give you what you need to take care of them.  Because I meant what I said.”

“Gracious of you,” I said.

“As for the actual bargain, the Lambs are coming within the hour.  They’ll arrive before the vehicle you’ll want to take to leave Laureas does.  Give me time to get affairs in order-”

“Time to work against me?” I asked.

“I have no bloody idea,” she said.  “I don’t know what to do with you.  I hardly know what to say, because I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing and make you more upset.  But give me a few months, tend to your new rebellion faction.  I’ll give you Warren and all of the resources I planned to use to safely and discreetly make my exit from this city with hundreds of students in tow, just for the day.”

I thought about it.

I shook my head.

“What do you want, then?  I can give you attention.  Buy you a few months, maybe years.”

“No,” I said.  “Could you revive the caterpillar project from scratch?”

I watched her eyes move.

“That’s a no, then?”

“Sylvester,” she said.  “You were going to look after the Beattle rebellion regardless.  You’d be trading a few words and a restriction on schedule for everything you need.”

“Nah,” I said.  I looked past Fray at the Lambs who were witnessing the scene.  I extended an arm, gesturing at them.  “I’ve got to look after them, don’t I?”

Fray turned her head.

“There’s nobody there.”

“The Lambs, Fray.  They’re there.  If you’re going to start making concessions to me, for the way you and others have treated me, you owe the rest of the Lambs something too, don’t you?”

“You said-”

“I said I wouldn’t render you bait for the bear.  I’m not.  I’m telling you to make a damn sacrifice for once.  Show me you can actually follow through for once, when it counts.  Voluntarily hand yourself over.  It’ll be a nice checkmark in their files.  Something that pacifies the higher-ups, keeps the Lambs project running smoothly.”

She was silent.  I finally got to see her flustered, agitated.

“It’s your choice, Fray.  Only you, me, and Jessie will know you made it.  You stated the stakes yourself.  You can go, turn yourself in, let them lock the restraints on.  Tell them whatever you want, tell the Academy that I know things, and use that information to stave off whatever treatment they have planned for you.  That’s fine, but you’ll be theirs.  Or don’t go, and spend every day dreading that everything and everyone you like and care about might be taken from you by a force beyond your control.”

“You have no idea what you’re really doing,” she said.

“You wanted time, Fray?  You really believe in this threat?  Convince me.  These are the terms.  The accommodations for my army of students, Warren’s help, and you, waiting politely on that platform when the Lambs emerge from their train.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.13

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Jessie and I made our way up to the halfway point on the stairs so we could look down at the crowd.  We took in the scene.

Two hundred students, with more arriving by the minute.

The leaders of each of the individual groups were all present, by our request.  Pierre had told them to gather.  As such, we had Ralph and Mabel for the Greenhouse Gang; Davis and Valentina for the student council; Junior, Rita and Posie for the Rank; Bea and Neck for the rooftop girls and delinquents.

There were others.  Clay’s men, Otis’, Archie’s, and Frederick’s.  The prisoners hung near them.  Some of the recently released prisoners were affiliated with one group or the other.

Rudy and Possum stood off to one side, near the Stray children, while Gordon Two stood near Pierre and Shirley.

I used my notebook to help keep track as I indicated each of the people and giving Jessie the names she hadn’t already been told.

“…that’s Rudy and Possum over there.  Possum’s a nickname.  I think we’ll be able to count on them.  Then Gordon Two.”

“Gordon Two?” she asked, archly.

“Also Gordon the Second, if you want to go that way.  Felt fitting.”

“We only just got over the new Jamie-old Jamie confusion, and you start this?”

“Don’t get all fussy now.”

“You tend to bring fussiness out in people, in the same way that being an arsonist brings out the ‘fire is bad’ attitude in others.”

“I’m an arsonist too,” I pointed out.

“Yes you are,” she said, sighing a little.  “We should get this under control.”

I nodded.

We were out of earshot of the assembled students as we had our conversation, but we had their full attention.  Ears were strained.  Eyes were on us.  The buzz of conversation was minimal at best.  They were agitated.

I could look at the crowd, fuzz out my vision, and focus on movement and spacing, and I could intuit, to a degree, the restlessness and degree of motion.  I could see where people remained turned toward friends, looking at Jessie and me over or along their shoulders.  They appeared in clusters, in places where groups mingled.  The Greenhouse Gang was among them.  The patterns and shapes made by those clusters looked like cracks and fissures running through the collected mass of students.  Suspicion, dissent, and the vast pool of anger and frustration threatening to turn toward Jessie and me.

I could imagine that some had talked and already found out that my story didn’t add up, or that I’d told different stories to different individuals.  Had I been in their midst as it happened, I could have steered it.

But I’d been tending to Jessie, because Jessie was more important than this small army I was building.

Those veins of dissent running through this body of people would make this next bit hard.

Better to address this on a smaller-scale level.

I indicated each of the people I’d named, and indicated for them to come upstairs.  The leaders of the student groups, the people I’d singled out, and then Mr. Unhappy from the group of prisoners I’d released.

We gathered ourselves in one of the hotel rooms.  The leaders of the student groups, the gang leaders, our assistants and helpers.

Many of them found seats around the room.  Jessie and I did too, turning two chairs around.  Shirley stood in the corner behind us, while Rudy and Possum stood off to one side.  The gang leaders took standing positions at various points around the room.

A decent crowd unto itself, this.

“Introductions are in order,” I said.  “My name is Sylvester Lambsbridge, this is Jessie Ewesmont, and the most important thing to get out of the way is that we have no association with Genevieve Fray at all.”

I saw mixed reactions, across the board, mostly among the students.  Junior was smiling.  He’d known.  Others looked more confused, including Rudy and Possum.  The student council looked shocked, and the Greenhouse Gang looked resentful.  Ralph in particular, the round, glasses-wearing head of the Greenhouse Gang, looked angry.

“You lied to us,” he said.  He’d known before I’d even announced it.  There was no shock or processing period that absorbed the initial impact of my admission.

“Absolutely,” I said.  “I’m sorry I had to.”

“You lied,” he said, getting angrier.  “We’ve been misled all this time, first by the Academies, ultimately this, the school shutting down, and now by you?

He took a short step forward, pointing a finger.

As he did, Otis and Frederick moved, as if to intercept him.  Ralph’s scowl deepened as he retreated that same step.  He very dramatically flung his pointed finger down and out of the way, as if discarding it, the anger and accusations by no means gone.

“The fact of the matter is,” I said, “Fray dropped the ball.  We picked it up.  We intend to keep every promise she made.  The plan stands.  It’s just a plan with different leadership.”

“It’s a fucking lot different!” Ralph said.  His face was red now.  I could see the student council picking up on his energy.  The anger was spilling over and they were absorbing it.  Given a moment, they would join their objections to Ralph’s.

“You didn’t even want to go with the students,” Jessie said.

“I didn’t and I don’t, especially not now!” Ralph said.  “But these students you’re preying on, they’re students I care about!  Students I tried to help!  I joined the student council to help them, and even after I dropped out of the council, I committed!  I stuck my neck out to ensure the best and brightest wouldn’t get sabotaged or cut down with interference and petty politics!  So they wouldn’t get used!”

“You actually care about your fellow students?” Junior cut in.  “No wonder you ended up on a bottom-rung Academy like Beattle.”

“Talk to me about success and failure when you’re in the top ten of students here, R.J.,” Ralph said.  “Until then, shut up and stay out of this.”

“Ow.  But I’ll concede the point,” Junior said.

“Ralph,” I said.

Ralph turned his attention to me.

“Genevieve Fray is very good at sounding like she cares.  Even through intermediaries.  I don’t know exactly what she said to you, but I imagine it something along the lines of how she plans to save the world, and I know she tells every individual soul along the way that she’ll save them, making promises to each and every one about how she’ll solve their medical issues, save their lives, save their minds, or cure them of everything that ails them.”

I glanced at Junior as I said that.  He nodded, and the motion got glances from others.

I continued, “…But as brilliant as she is, she’s only human.  She can’t grant every wish.”

“And you can?” Ralph asked.  It was a question meant as something retaliatory or accusatory.

“No, no I can’t, and Jessie can’t either,” I said.  “But there’s a reason you’re in this room with Jessie and me and not Fray and her people.  We’re paying attention.”

I paused, letting that sink in.

It didn’t quench or answer Ralph’s wrath, but it didn’t stoke it either.  It seemed to be reason enough for the student council to hold their tongues, when they were ready to join Ralph in cussing us out.

“She’s working in other cities,” I said.  “She’s making promises to others.  She’s spreading herself thin, with too many pokers in too many fires, and some are being forgotten, others neglected.  She’s not so different from the Academy in this respect.”

“She was here today,” Ralph said.

“Her messenger was,” I said.  “But we were here weeks and months ago, planning and watching.”

I indicated the gang leaders.

“Who are you, then?” Davis, the student council president asked.  “Who are you really?”

“I’ve spent more time working for the Crown and the Academy than many of you have been in school.  I’ve killed on behalf of the Crown while working for them, and I’ve killed members of the Crown nobility since leaving that role behind.  I’ve witnessed the start of wars and I’ve personally ended them.  So trust me when I say it’s no mistake that I’m standing here in front of you now.”

I paused for effect.

“Jessie is nearly as experienced as I am, and far more capable in a number of areas.  She’s also harder to explain, because she lurks more in the background, as a planner and coordinator.  That’s who we are.  For every day you’ve spent studying, we’ve spent a day immersed in the darker, bloodier side of the Crown’s and Academy’s dealings.  Today, our individual worlds have collided.  The students need the kind of help we can provide in navigating that dark underbelly of Crown and Academy.  We need the knowledge, the influence, and the voice the students have.”

Jessie spoke, “You can turn us down, say that you’re not interested in what we have to offer.  But know that you’re our first priority, and you’ll have our full attention.”

“The plan stands,” I said.

Bea’s leg jiggled up and down.  The student council president and vice president were rigid, upset.  Ralph still had red in his face.  Only Junior looked calm, but none of this was news to him.

“What’s next?” Mabel asked.

Ralph looked at her, aghast.

“We don’t have other options, do we?” she asked, in response to his look of outrage.  “What do you think we’re supposed to do, Ralph?  Go out there and tell the students that they shouldn’t hear Sylvester out, that this was all a bad idea and there really isn’t anyplace to go?  They’d tear us to pieces.  Then they’ll leave.  Go home or go elsewhere, or try to make their way on their own.  And that doesn’t help anyone.”

“If he hadn’t interfered, then the students could have gone with Fray.  Someone we know,” Ralph said.

“No,” I said.  “Because the Academy is already here.  Fray was too slow.  There were agents in place, eavesdropping, already moving against her.  Gordon-”

Jessie put a hand over my mouth.  She turned to Gordon Two.  “What’s your real name?”

“Nicholas.”

Jessie removed her hand from my mouth.  She gave me a pointed look.

I cleared my throat.  “He can testify.  We had a run-in with two of the agents.”

“We did,” Gordon the Second said.  “Sylvester killed the both of them.  I heard the bird woman talking to the headmaster.  I didn’t exactly go running off after her to join up with her side when I heard it, either.  It didn’t really sound like the students were a factor.”

“Naturally,” Ralph said.  “She was talking to the headmaster.  She’ll say different things depending on who she’s talking to.”

“Including us?” Mabel asked him.  “Come on, Ralph.  Don’t pretend it’s any different.”

“She was a student once.  She sounded genuine when she talked about that period in her life.”

“She was a bureaucrat too,” I said.  “One who helped orchestrate the trafficking and recycling of children into experiments, working with a rebel group.  I was there when she was brought into custody.”

“And we’re just supposed to believe you?” Ralph asked.  “You’ve already admitted you’re a liar.”

I believe him,” Mabel said.  “Maybe it’s silly or I’m being misled because I’ve actually looked into his eyes and talked to him while Fray only sent a representative, but I feel better about working with Sy than I felt when we were talking to Avis.  Something about her unnerved me.”

“I don’t think you’re processing this with your head, Mabel,” Ralph said.

“You think I’m going with my heart?”

“Parts below the belt, Mabel,” Ralph said.

She struck him, open palm, across the face.  He rose out of his seat, and she did the same.

The two of them stopped short of an outright scuffle when Frederick moved closer to them, ready to break it up.  Both breathed hard, incensed.

Ralph abruptly turned away, striding toward the door.

Otis blocked his way, keeping him from exiting.  The middle aged, grizzled gang leader glanced at me, and I gave him a gesture, telling him to stay where he was.

“I was never going to stay,” Ralph said.  He didn’t look at anyone as he said it.  “So I don’t have to stick around for the rest of this discussion, right?”

“It’s a problem if you leave and say the wrong things,” I said.

“Mabel said it, didn’t she?” Ralph asked.  “If I tell the students down there what really happened, they’ll riot again.  Then… there’s nothing.  Nowhere for them to go.  It doesn’t benefit anyone.  But I certainly don’t have to stand there and say this is a good idea.  I won’t lie to them either.  I’ll use the back door.”

“Alright, Ralph,” I said.  “Good luck in your future studies.”

“Keep your ‘good luck’ and go fuck whatever pit you crawled out of, Lambsbridge,” he said.

“We’ll have to give you an escort to make sure you don’t cause a stir,” I said.

“On it,” Clay said.

“Nah,” I said.  I had to do a bit of guesswork on this one.  The funny thing was, Clay would have been my choice if he hadn’t spoken up. “Otis?  Pick out one of your men and send him with?”

Otis opened the door for Ralph, gesturing at a lieutenant of his.  He closed the door once the two had left.

Mabel remained standing.  Her hand went to her hair, tucking it behind one ear.  I could see the tremor in her fingertips.  She probably didn’t like confrontation.

“You can sit down, Mabel,” I said, quiet.

She didn’t sit down.  She didn’t meet my eyes, either.  She did meet Jessie’s briefly.  It took a moment before she shook her head.

“Listen,” she said.  “Ralph and I, and all the rest of the Greenhouse Gang, we talked to Avis.  She talked about where she came from, she talked about being part of the Academy, and she was good at that, she had good stories, she made us laugh.  And she talked about what she does while working for Genevieve Fray, the sorts of things Fray is doing, and she made it sound good, hopeful, and exciting.  But she looked hollowed out, like she hadn’t slept enough over a long time.”

I touched my cut eyelid, “I’m not sure I look much better.”

“It’s more than just that.  She talked about her birds, and even brought one outside of that cloak she wrapped herself in, keeping one hand over its head like it was a bird of prey, and she didn’t talk much about anyone except Fray.  Like the lady who only has her cats and one friend that sometimes visits.”

“She didn’t seem healthy?” I volunteered.

“She really didn’t,” Mabel said.

“She really isn’t,” I said.  “After the incident with the children that I mentioned, she was taken into a dungeon and tortured for three-quarters of a year.  She’ll likely never be well again.”

“Did Fray promise her a fix, like she promised me?” Junior asked.

“You need a fix?” Neck asked.

Junior only shrugged.

“I don’t know what Fray promised,” I said.  “I wouldn’t be surprised.  But I think Avis knows it’s not entirely possible to fix what’s wrong with her now.  Maybe Fray wouldn’t have wanted to insult her intelligence.”

There were a few nods here and there.

“I just-” Mabel started.  She glanced up, met my eyes for a fleeting moment.  “I just wanted to make sure you all knew that I reasoned my way to my current position.  It had nothing to do with what Ralph said was going on below my belt.”

“I can’t think of a diplomatic way to say this,” Valentina said, “Except that I think what Ralph said had more to do with what was going on below his belt than yours.  It wouldn’t be the first time, in his case.”

“So you knew why he joined the student council?” Mabel asked.  “And why he left?”

“I figured it out very quickly.”

Mabel nodded.  Then she took her seat very quickly, as if she was very uncomfortable continuing to stand and be the center of attention.

“I should have joined the Academy, by the sounds of things,” Frederick commented.  “Young romance, girls in pleated skirts, more going on below the belt than I got to enjoy before I was eighteen…”

“You’re not helping matters, Frederick,” I said.

The pale-haired, brown-skinned laborer and gang leader only smiled, showing off the white of his teeth.

“Bea.  You’ve been sitting there and bouncing your knee for a while now,” I said.

“I always said I cared more about actions than words,” she said.  “Your actions stack up.”

“Okay,” I said.  I suspected that wasn’t the end of it.

“At my first school, I was told to do this, do that.  I tried.  I ended up worse off than I was before.  I took advice from older students, and I picked a professor and I did the best work I could for him.  That… didn’t work out.  I found another professor willing to be my mentor, a woman, and she promised she would back me.  When it counted, she didn’t follow through.  I came here, because people said it would be better, and it wasn’t.  I faced dropping out, and one more person came along, promising a fix.  I told them I wasn’t prepared to just believe someone anymore.  They told me to wait until today, see for myself.  I did.”

I waited, giving her time to sort out her thoughts.

“I’m stuck, now.  Because in all my life, only two people have ever said they’ll do something and actually followed through.”

“I’m one,” Neck said, to the room and not to her.

“And Fray isn’t the other,” she said.  “But now this thing I’ve always said, when I was helping talk other girls through tough times and relationship troubles, that actions matter more than words?  That guys and professors and parents can say whatever they like, but it’s what they show you that counts?  I’m feeling like I have to stick by it, because you’ve been dishonest, Sylvester, but you showed your stuff when it mattered, with the prison especially.  I’m not happy about feeling like I should stick by my old stance, and I’m not sure what I should do.”

“Give me a chance,” I said.  “I’ll ensure you’re happy with this course.”

“Tall order, promising me any kind of lasting happiness,” she said.

“The prison break was a tall order too,” I said.

“Point,” she said.  She glanced at Neck.

“I’m with you, love,” he said.  There was no love in the word, only loyalty.

She nodded at that.  Then she looked at me, nodded, and dropped her eyes.

“Student council?”  I asked.  “Davis?  Valentina?”

I’d left them to last, in hopes that influencing them would influence the student council along the way.

The reality was that my read on the student council was by far the most lacking.

“What I find myself asking,” Davis said, running his fingers through his brown hair, “is what would have happened if you hadn’t turned up today.”

“Avis would have showed.  The letters would have been written and distributed, the headmaster wins out, the Horse-”

“Horsfall,” Jessie supplied.

“-loses, badly, despite being much liked by a large share of the student body.  The riot unfolds, and Avis and Fray stand by, letting it happen.  Things are carefully orchestrated, people are swept up in it all, and by the time matters settle, the students are whisked away on Fray’s errand.  The casualties are easily forgotten or lost in the shuffle.”

“Casualties?” Davis asked.

I avoided looking at Rudy and Possum.  “The students who couldn’t bear the reality she’d rushed to conclusion.  The students sequestered in jail.”

“You don’t think a woman as smart as Fray had a plan in mind?”

I started to answer.  Jessie beat me to it.

“We’ve been following Fray since the start of her career.  We were there when she started her rebellion.  I know Sylvester had a private chat with her once, while we were pursuing her.  She wanted to recruit us, once upon a time.  Her focus was always on humanity.  Preserving humanity.  But as time goes on, she’s slipping more.  She’s finding it easier to overlook the small losses, to win a skirmish that involves moderate stakes.  Overlooking moderate losses to win a battle that involves major stakes.  Then overlooking major losses to win a battle that involves national stakes.”

“Releasing the primordials,” I said.  “Then the red plague.”

“Primordials?” Mabel asked.  “Released?”

The questions seemed to be reflected in the faces of everyone present that was wearing an academy uniform.

“This is a bigger concern than the fact that you’re saying she created the red plague?” Neck asked.

“It’s a bigger concern,” Bea said.

“And both are a long story,” I said.  “I’m actually not so sure on the plague, but things add up, and it feels like her, which should say it all.”

“Listen,” Jessie said.  “For what it’s worth, as much as Fray slides down that slippery slope, and whether she stops there or she decides that she’s willing to stake a nation to win a contest with global stakes, Sylvester is scaling up that same slope, going the opposite way.”

I tilted my head, giving Jessie a surprised look.

She said, “He wasn’t always the gentle soul you see before you now.  There was a time when it was just him and his fellow experiments, myself included, and the rest of the world didn’t matter.  That’s changed.  Fray says she wants to protect humanity, but it feels like she’s forgotten the individual humans along the way.  Sylvester’s found them, in the meantime.”

“I can testify that that’s the case,” Shirley said, from the back corner of the room.

“Yeah,” Rudy said.  Possum nodded beside him.

“Beautifully put,” I murmured to Jessie, teasing.

“Shut up,” she said.  She pushed my shoulder.

But, among this crowd of very individual humans, it seemed to be what they needed to hear.  It seemed to have won over Bea, who had been less than wholly enthusiastic, and it seemed to have gotten the attention of the student council leaders.

“Then I’ll echo Mabel’s question from earlier,” Valentina said.  “What’s next?”

“Next, we address the two hundred or so students that are down in the lobby.  Because they want and deserve answers,” I explained.

“Without Ralph,” Valentina said.

“The Greenhouse Gang knew that he was leaving.  He made no secret about it,” Mabel said.  “It should be fine.”

“Good,” I said.  “Great.  Any final comments?  Dissent?  Questions?”

There were none.  It seemed we had them on board, more or less.

I stood, and they stood from their seats alongside me.

Our collected allies backing us, we headed for the stairs.  We walked halfway down.

“Three hundred and twenty students,” Jessie said, leaning in closer to my ear.

The tone of the hubbub and chatter changed as more caught sight of us.  The change in the sound of the room drew more attention, and more people came in from outside.

“Three hundred and sixty students,” Jessie amended her statement.  “And…”

“I see her too,” I said.

At the back of the room, filtering in among the students, was Genevieve Fray.  Black hair fashionably styled, crimson lipstick, black coat, and heeled boots.

She folded her arms and settled in, seemingly to watch the proceedings.

I drew in a deep breath.

“Students of Beattle!” I addressed the room, raising my voice to cut through the chatter.  “I see several citizens of Laureas here, and other esteemed guests.”

The room was silent, as I paused, assessing the tone of things.

“My name is Sylvester Lambsbridge.  Behind me stand several key members of Beattle’s student body.  Student council, disciplined academics, troublemakers, and free spirit alike.  Several of the men you see are local gang leaders.  Others are my partners, employees, and assistants.  We stand together in this, and if you’re willing, we’d have you stand with us.”

Fray was silent, watching with a steady eye.  Her body language was hard to read.

“Many or most of you students of Beattle don’t want to go home.  Not now, maybe not ever.  Many don’t want to let your academic dreams die here.  Many of you don’t want to turn in papers, books, and uniform and sit down for that speech or assembly, where they tell you that you cannot continue your studies or use any of what you spent the last several years learning.”

The cracks I’d seen in the ranks weren’t as bad, now.  The agitation wasn’t there.  The people standing clearly askance had clearly relaxed, their backs or shoulders no longer turned away or to one side, their gazes less suspicious or antagonistic.  Having the student groups clearly behind me helped.  Many of these students were ones that were recognized and known among the student body.

“I’m offering you work, using the knowledge you have.  I’m offering you the freedom to find your own way, on the side opposite that which promised you an education and snatched it away at the last minute.  If you’re angry at them, then I can give you a role which will let you vent that anger.  And if you just want to find your own way, I can position you to do that.”

I glanced at Jessie, then back at the students and assembled men, women, and rabbits behind me.

Then I addressed the crowd again.  “There’s a lot to be said for being done with the uniform.  There’s more to be said for being unified.  No longer being rank forty or rank sixty or rank one hundred, looking at fellow students as opposition.  No more fancying a girl or fancying a boy and wondering how courting them would affect your grades, or calculating how it might affect theirs.

“We’ve seen civil war across the Crown States in recent years.  We’re going to see more.  I suspect it may be perpetual, lasting as long as the Crown does.  I just explained to the students behind me that I want your voices and your talents, and I’ll pay you for those things, in actual payment, but also in helping you to navigate the world that exists beyond the Academy…”

I explained, the crowd listened, and Fray remained where she was, unreadable.

I walked through the crowd with purpose.  People talked to me as I did so, reached for my hand, and commented, and I tried to recognize each of them.

I forged through to Fray, who didn’t make her way to me, but who didn’t retreat either.

I gestured to students to stay back as I approached her.  We walked outside, standing a short distance outside.

“Hello, Genevieve,” I said.

“Hello, Sylvester,” she replied.  She uncrossed her arms and put her hands in her pockets.  She sighed.  “I was just telling Dolores that I’ve had the most surreal day.”

“Oh, you’ve got her there with you?”

“Of course.  She’s getting old, yet she remains a good listener.”

“Surreal day, you said?”

“My day started as expected, but somewhere along the way, the Academy found me with unerring accuracy, multiple events coincided to keep me from making my way to the Academy, the gang of youths I’d conscripted outright disappeared while my back was turned, and when I finally made it to the Academy, neither my messenger nor any of the student groups I’d planned to meet were there.  Every student I talked to either had no interest in what was happening or they outright lied to my face, trying to lead me on wild goose chases.”

“I suppose I should apologize.”

“It was almost amusing when I realized what was happening and who the culprit was.  Almost,” she said.  She didn’t smile.  “We should talk.”

“Shall we go upstairs?” I offered.

“I don’t feel like braving that crowd,” she said.  “Will you walk with me?”

“No tricks?  No ambush?” I asked.

“That’s how you operate, Sylvester,” she said.  She allowed me one small smile, this time.  “I talked to Mauer.  I’m worried you’re on a dangerous path.”

I glanced back at the body of students.

“Not them.  Not this.  It’s about what you found back in New Amsterdam.”

I read her expression, listened to her tone, and concluded, “Either you don’t know and you want to know, which is a bit of a shot in the dark, possibly with a fair amount of generous bargaining, which I’d be willing to entertain, or you do know.”

I could see it on her face as I said those last three words.

“You do know,” I repeated myself.

“I’ve known from the beginning.  Some of it was deduction, using what I learned as I was offered the position of esteemed professorship.  Not just any professorship, but the sort afforded to professors of note, when they were trying to decide if I’d walk a path where I’d soon run an Academy of my own, or if I’d tend to a noble.  It’s part of why they’re so bent on finding and killing me, which, in turn, is why I’ve had to devote so much mental architecture to being elusive with the Academy’s dogs on my heels.  Yourself included, once.”

That same elusiveness doesn’t help if your enemy deduces your path and lies in wait on the path ahead of you.

“So you’ve known all this time, and you haven’t used it?  What was that thing with Mauer then?”

“Walk with me,” Fray said.  “There’s a great deal to cover, and some will be unpleasant.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.12

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The pent-up aggression of the students was clear, and not helped by their brief incarceration.

They had listened to me as I’d outlined where to go and what to do.  The uniforms had come in, and the students had swept in.  Out of hiding places, out from around corners, and cutting off escape routes.

The guards had truncheons, the students and other prisoners had improvised weapons and sheer numbers at their disposal.

“Take them to the cells,” I said.  “Strip ’em, lock them in.”

“Strip them?” the student council president asked.

I indicated the adult prisoners, who hadn’t been part of the riot.  “You guys are free to get lost, but if you want some money or a position with the rebellion, I can provide that.  Get you lot off to a better start than you’d have on your own.”

I watched as they exchanged looks between them.  Some looks were more wary than others.  I measured them in length and intensity, making a mental note.

“I’ll pay you right now to drag the bodies.  You can decide where you go from there,” I said.

They took a moment to decide.  While they did so, I withdrew my wallet and nudged one injured guard with the toe of my boot.  “Five dollars each.  You and you.”

The men I’d pointed to bent down and started dragging the body back toward the cells.

“Then these two.  You look like big fellas.  Eight dollars to each of you, but each of you drags one person.  Gently.

They took about as long to decide as the first two guys had, but they started dragging the fallen guards.  A student who’d checked on one of the unconscious guards backed off as a prisoner started dragging the man, while the other guard had been only mildly injured.  He was stiff necked and tense as he was taken back to the cells.

In this way, I set most of the adult prisoners to work.

“Hey,” Gordon Two said.  He’d been in one of the back cells.

“Hey,” I said, not taking my eyes off the men doing the carrying.  “Glad to have you with.  It would have been a pain if I had to go find you.”

“Sure thing,” he said.  “The other students were talking about you, you know.  While they were in the cells.”

“Probably,” I said.  I watched as one prisoner ran his fingers through the hair of an unconscious guard, fixing it, as a parent might do for a sleeping child or a child might do for a doll.  “We’ll talk about it later?  I’ll explain then?  Unless you’re going to tell me I have a problem.”

As I said the last bit, I focused on Gordon Two, staring him down.

A problem, in this case, would be him saying that things didn’t add up.  Even calling me out in front of the others.

“If I’m part of this, I want a raise,” he said.

Ah.  Not a problem, exactly.  He wasn’t going to out me as someone independent of Fray.

“We’ll talk about that when I explain everything later, Second Gordon,” I said.  I smiled.  “But that might be something we can arrange.  You’ve been vital.”

He nodded, and he stepped back out of my way as I stepped forward.

I followed the prisoners back in the direction of the cells, while they dragged guards that were varying degrees of beaten, unconscious, and surly.

I took in the scene, watched a few of the jailed men stripping down the uniformed guards.

I drew my gun.

Reaching out, I slammed a jail door shut.  The adult prisoners jumped at the sound, heads turning.

I wheeled around and aimed at another one of them, the prisoner from before, now busy using a bit of cloth to dab at the blood on the unconscious guard’s face.

The lot of them froze.  Students at the door at the end of the hall stared.

“Gut feeling about the two of you is pretty bad,” I said.  “Now I’m asking the other people who’ve been here longer than a day… how right is my gut?  How happy or unhappy would you be to work with the guy I just locked in and the guy I’m holding at gunpoint?”

The reply wasn’t immediate.  Being a narc wasn’t a good thing, even in a jail that wasn’t a proper prison.

“Unhappy,” one man said.  He was the youngest of the non-students.

“Unhappy,” I repeated.

“You can go fuck yourself,” the man who’d been cleaning the guard’s face said.

“There was a reason Hagan was alone in his cell,” Mr. Unhappy said, as if emboldened by the cussing.  “And why the guards handled him in threes and fours.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I looked at Hagan.

Hagan turned, staring me down.

“Yeah, I believe that,” I elaborated.

The look in his eyes was one I tried to dig for when I was making myself look scary.  The cold, dead look, not so far from the look that had been in Rudy and Possum’s eyes.  A look where Death was present.

Except Death wasn’t alone, here, and Death was facing a different direction.

I pulled the trigger.  There were shouts and screams, more shouts from the prisoners, screams from the students at the end of the hall.  Hagan fell over, hollering about the hole in his foot.

“Twenty dollars each to the two men willing to go in that cell and drag the guard out.  Shut the door behind you,” I said.

Good money was good money.  The young guy who’d volunteered the information was quick to jump to the task.  Another guy from another cell joined in.

Hagan swiped at one, and then tried to grab at the body.  As they hauled the uniform back, with Hagan dragged as part of the process, I took hold of the door.

When just Hagan’s hand was sticking out of the door, I swung the door shut.  Hagan pulled his hand back just in the nick of time.

“And this guy?” I asked, indicating the cell with the hangdog-looking prisoner that I’d locked within.  He wasn’t putting up a fight.

“Him?” Mr. Unhappy asked.  “He’s just an asshole.”

Other prisoners and even a number of the students who couldn’t have been in the jail for an hour nodded.  Hangdog continued looking hangdog.  Hagan cussed and swore about the hole in his foot.

I looked over the other prisoners and even gave a glance to a few students.  Nobody stood out.  There were no wary glances that were too long, nor were there any wide berths or odd gaps where people gave others too much space.

“Good enough,” I said.  I turned to go, and the men fell in step behind me.  I watched the students in front of me for reactions, rather than look overly nervous by trying to keep an eye on the prisoners I’d released.

There would be problems with others, some problems that would come up later, but I could count this as another ten recruits, on top of the students I was looking at bringing on board.

I paged through bills and handed out the appropriate amounts to each of the men who’d done the transporting of the guards.  Half of them had pulled on uniforms, others had uniforms with them.

“Stay put,” I said.  “There’re deeper cells, right?”

There were a few nods.  Someone pointed.

“Yeah.  Stay where you are.  The next wagon of officers and rioters bound for jail won’t arrive for a short while, and we can deal with them if they do,” I said.

I took the stairs, descended part of the way, and reached a locked door.  I had to fumble with the keys for a little while before I could make my way through.

A few creatures snarled at me.  Others remained where they were.  The area was built into the foundation, with thick stone walls as long as my arm was from shoulder to fingertip.  The grates at the front of the cells were woven like a basket might be, with one span of space between them for every five spans of metal.  I could stick a finger through, but nothing more.  Each gate had a stack of paper hanging from the wall next to it.  Two different handwriting styles across all of the various stacks, but each detailed the exact nature of the prisoner within.

I found Avis, and I read the notes carefully.

I found the right key and let myself within.

She was bound, still, wings and arms to her body, a metal mask on her face.  Chains attached her to the wall.  She couldn’t even lie down.

She looked up at me.

I sorted through the keyring for one of the smaller keys, the one for handcuffs, and used it on the mask at her face.

The tangle of machinery came free.

“The paper said you had the device removed from your neck,” I commented.

“Yes,” she said, her voice strangled.

“Do you want out, Avis?”

She took in a deep breath, then exhaled.

“If you don’t, I can just leave.  If I was a real asshole, I would, too.  But I didn’t wholly forget how things were when the Duke had you in the cell in Radham.”

Darkness crossed her face.  She shrunk into herself, as much as one could be expected to with the bonds that secured her.

“I would like out,” she said, eyes fixed on some point between my feet, her expression tight.  “Please.”

“I don’t want this to be a continuation of our last encounter.  I don’t want to fight, and I believe you’re capable of it.  That you might have other things or trick secreted away.”

“I don’t remember our last encounter,” she said, staring into space, through my chest.

“I’m talking about at Beattle.”

“So am I.  The combat drug,” she said.  “I take it so I can fool myself into believing I’m still a pacifist in some form.  I become someone else.”

“And you aren’t responsible,” I said.

“So I tell myself.”

I sighed.  Avis did much the same.

“I’m willing to let you out,” I said.  “But I want concessions.  I won’t ask you to betray Fray, but I need you to help me a little.”

“I’ll betray Fray.  She knows I would, in this same circumstance.  But don’t drag this out,” Avis said.  “Don’t waste so much time talking to me that you get us both caught down here.”

“I have a small army upstairs,” I said.  “But fine.  All I need from you is this: you’re going to put your mask back on, and you’re going to play along.  I’ll get you out of here, assign you guards, and…”

I paused, trying to figure out how things unfolded from there.

Avis watched me expectantly, warily.

“…You can escape at that point if you must.  But it would be appreciated if you didn’t.  When Fray and I have exchanged words, I’ll point her in your direction.  You’ll be free to go, and you can carry on doing what you’re doing.”

“That sounds deceptively simple.”

I spread my arms.  “I’m your enemy today, but not in the grand scheme of it all.  We might be allies tomorrow.”

“That sounds deceptively optimistic, incredibly manipulative, and far too philosophical given how very material matters at hand are.”

“I’m cursed to always sound dishonest when I’m telling the truth,” I told her.  “But if you want material, how about I just say this.  I’ll get you out if you play along for now.”

“Please.  I’ll be in your debt.”

“That’s not a condition,” I said, exasperated.

I’ll be in your debt,” Avis said, with an emphasis that strained her already strangled voice.  “You don’t know what it is like to fall into their hands.  To be one of their enemies.  I hope you never do.”

“I’m not long for this world, Avis.  I’ll lose my mind regardless, whatever they end up doing to me.  There’s a mercy in that, maybe.  Or maybe it’s that I’ve been in their hands, and that was bad enough, that’s why I’m not long for this world.  I’ve been their enemy, too, and I’ve just been lucky enough to avoid both being true at the same time.”

“Luck runs out, Sylvester.  Don’t lean on it.”

“I’ll try,” I said.  “I’m going to put your mask back on.  Anything to say or ask before I do?”

She shook her head.  “I’m just glad it’s not a living gag.”

I took the gag and I slipped it back into place.  It had a system for pouring water into so the wearer could be hydrated, but that meant tubes and an arrangement of things to have in place.  I figured it out and locked it.

Freeing her from the wall, I helped her into a standing position.  Then I led her down the hallway to the stairs.  I was careful to support her so she wouldn’t trip with the leg restraints and tumble down the stairs.

Eyes widened as we approached the group of students.

“I need two able-bodied men,” I said.

Two volunteers stepped forward.

“Support her.  Be ready in case she has a fit and starts struggling,” I said.

“What happened to Avis?” the student council president asked.

“She took a combat drug,” I said.  “She, by her own admission, should stay in restraints for at least another few hours.”

I glanced back at Avis, who had a look of faint surprise in her eyes.  Then she nodded.

“That’s a long-lasting drug,” a student remarked.

“None of us do things by halves,” I said.

I indicated that we should walk, and we started making our way toward the exit.

“You two with Avis, and… four students.  You, you, you and you.  You’ll all get a wagon and you’ll head off to… this address,” I said, scribbling on a back page in my notebook and tearing it off.  “Sit with her, wait.  I’ll send a rabbit your way with further notes and instructions.  Keep her in restraints, be patient, you’ll be rewarded for your time.”

I got wary nods in response.

The men didn’t look too eager or happy at the prospect of babysitting her, so I figured we were safe.  The combat drug would likely spook them as well.

“The rest of you prisoners will go to the Academy.  Some of the students here will go with you.  The… six students here.” I said, indicating a group.  “Act like you belong.  Go where the rest of the people in uniform are.  They’ll be holed up in a building somewhere.  Probably with a lot of papers and higher-ups.  Start a fire there.  Stables with stitched horses and Academy or Crown wagons?  Start a fire.  If you think you can get away with it, start talking about being from another group of men who were leveled with gas and parasites.  You’re passing on a warning.  If they get any large batches of students arrested and start heading back to the prison, maybe hitch a ride, saying your wagon burned.  So long as you act like you believe it, keep your gaze steady and your head tall, and keep moving like you’re going someplace and you’re concerned about everything, you’ll be fine.”

“Who is this kid?” one of the prisoners asked, gesturing at me.

“This guy,” I said, “Is Sylvester Lambsbridge.”

“He has wanted posters up in post offices and police stations across the Crown States,” the girl from the Greenhouse Gang said.

“He does,” I said.  “He’s also had to deal with hired mercenaries, hitmen, and experiments when he was out in Tynewear, over in the west coast of the Crown States.  Now, I won’t say that he’s responsible for the fact that Tynewear wasn’t really standing when he left, but I won’t say he’s not responsible either.  Rest assured that he’s a fellow that earned that wanted poster.”

“He also seems to talk about himself in third person,” one student said.

There was a titter of nervous laughter there.  I turned my head to give the student a nod of acknowledgment , smiling.

“Greenhouse Gang,” I said, still walking.  “Where are you?”

Some students stepped forward in the midst of the herd, or they raised hands where they couldn’t find a path to navigate amid the walking group.

“Ralph around?”

“No,” was the reply.

I looked for the sheriff’s daughter and found her.  Brown haired, with hair tucked behind one ear.  “Your name?”

“Mabel.”

“Mabel.  Can I trust you with a task?”

“You can,” she said, and she said it very quickly too.

I drew the second envelope out of my jacket and handed it to her.  “Read it, spread the info, show the envelope for proof if you have to.  It’s time the other students know what’s really going on.”

She nodded, not opening the envelope but tucking it away.  She glanced down at the ground, then up at me.  Before her eyes dropped again, I saw a quick wink.

For all my ability to read people, I couldn’t tell if that was an interest wink or if it was a ‘I know we’re fabricating this whole thing against the Academy’ wink.

I would think about it later.  Whichever it was, I could trust her to do the job well.

“Counting on you,” I said.

That got me a smile, and any further read on her was obstructed as someone inadvertently moved into just the position required to block my view of her.  I had to fight back the instincts fostered by my annoyance, that made me start analyzing that student as a potential enemy.

I was too keyed up.

We stepped outside, and I sent the adult prisoners off to get changed and to infiltrate the officers on the Crown side of the rioting.

I also sent Avis off with the contingent I’d assigned to watch her, being sure to do so before the rooftop girls came.

Hopefully there wouldn’t be too many questions there.

All that done, I gestured, beckoning for others to come.  Slowly, the rooftop girls and other delinquents made their way to us, joining my small army.

“When the officers went rushing in, we thought maybe we should go in after them and help,” Bea said.  “I had to discourage the others, bring up the fact that you said you used the gas for the Greenhouse group, you gave me some, and you might be using more in there.”

I smiled.  “Discouraging them was right.”

“You really did it,” she said, as if she didn’t wholly believe it.  She looked curious, “You even got her.”

Avis.

“If you’re loose about definitions about prisons, this isn’t even my third prison break at this point,” I said.  Then I looked to distract.  “In the interest of keeping things moving, can I give you something to handle?”

The queen of the rooftop girls shrugged.  “I’ll do whatever.”

A boy  made a comment amid the group of students behind me.  There was a half-hearted series of amused chuckles through the group.

“Someone hit that boy upside the head,” I said, without looking back.

I heard the smack.

“Someone else, do it harder.”

I heard the second smack, followed by cussing.  I wasn’t sure if it was harder, by the sound of it.

I glanced back, and I caught a glimpse of one student rubbing the back of his head.  He looked young.

“We’re all on the same side,” I said, turning around.

My voice was hard, and there was no room for ambiguity.  “Get that into your heads.  Alright?  Our success and failure from here on out is our collective success or failure.  If we do this right and we don’t start doing stupid things for stupid reasons, it’ll be a success.  But if you get greedy for yourself instead of greedy for the all-of-us, or if you start thinking small then we start failing.  Get over whatever ideas you had about how you or any of the rest of us are divided.”

I was gauging things as best I could, trying to figure out how much I had them, and how much I could push them before I lost them.  These people had seen me at near peak performance, but showing them Sylvester Lambsbridge at his darkest would be the fastest way to lose things.

I dropped the stern appearance, smiled, relaxed, and then turned back to Bea.  I held up another envelope.  “Third letter.  Courtesy of the student council.”

Bea gave the student council a glance.  “Should I wait?”

I shook my head.  “Tell your people first, let them disseminate the full package.  Because this?  This is something to get angry about.  The student council had this, they already talked about it.  The measures taken against students, the security forces, the campaign against the student’s reputations, it’s something that has to be factored in.”

She nodded.

“Also, be warned, there are experiments in play.  You saw me dealing with one.  The Academy will have a few.  If anyone starts asking questions and they aren’t a student, make sure people know they aren’t to get the time of day, or they should be lied to.  When you slip away to the meeting place, you do it discreetly.”

“Alright,” she said.  She took the letter.

I asked a question I already knew the answer to, “Where’s Neck?”

She indicated a direction, then got Neck’s attention.

I walked with Bea in Neck’s direction, away from the group.

“Spread it slowly from a different direction than Mabel did.  Far end of the school,” I said, murmuring.

“Alright,” she said.  “Thought there would be something like that.  How hostile should we be when reacting to anyone asking questions?”

“Don’t be.  That’ll get them riled up.  Spread false information.  None of the major groups are around, so give them false locations.  Have others give false information.”

She nodded.

“Good luck,” I told her.  “Stay out of trouble.  If I have to break people  out of prison again, it gets harder.”

“Thank you,” she said.

I raised an eyebrow.  Neck looked surprised too.

“For standing up for me.”

“Ah.  Cracks are going to show sooner or later.  Students here were set against each other from the first attendance.  I’m glad to have a chance to start telling people how dangerous that is now.”

She smiled a little.

“And you’re welcome,” I said.  “Bring everyone you can when you’re done.  I gave you the meeting place?”

She looked like she was going to say something, then smiled and nodded.  “Yes.”

“Good,” I said.  “I’ll see you later.”

She turned back toward the group.  “Roof girls, troublemakers, delinquents, with me!”

I turned to face those who remained.  The student council, some members of the greenhouse gang, and some of the angrier protesters who’d gotten themselves arrested.

I opened my notebook, and I made some notes.  One for Bea.  One for… what had her name been?  Mildred?  Maple?  Mable.  I drew her head, with the straight hair down one side of her face, tucked behind her ear on the other side.  Sheriff’s daughter.  Happy triangle above her head.  She was sharp, and she was sharp in a way I liked.

I put a circle with a happy triangle in one corner above her head, then put a question mark there.

I checked my destination, and was happy to see I’d included notes on how to get there, with a few sketched landmarks.

I looked up at the group, closed the book with a slap, and then used it to point the way.

Pierre fell into lockstep with me as we made the final approach to the building.  The thirty students in my entourage seemed a little taken aback by it.

“I found your students,” the rabbit-headed man said.  “Was the most curious thing, their choice in graffiti.”

“Oh?”

“Something about rabbits.  Then when I approached to ask them about it, they said they were waiting for me.”  He scratched his head, between the ears.

“I was thinking we could have that be a signal from here on out.”

“Signals only work if they’ve been communicated to the person receiving them, Sylvester,” Pierre said.  “Or if they at least make some degree of sense.”

“Well, it’s been communicated now.”

“I’ll never understand how your head works, boss.  Jessie’s at the rendezvous spot, for the record.  Fray has run into some trouble.”

One side of his mouth moved in what might be intended as a smile, but looked more like the twitch of a dying muscle on a severed rabbit’s head.

I raised a hand, two fingers extending, interrupting Pierre before he could say anything more.  “I assume she’s still managing?”

Pierre didn’t miss a beat.  It helped that his face betrayed zero tells for those who hadn’t known him for a few weeks already.  “She’s managing.  Trouble with the Academy.  Jessie can tell you more.  But I should run- I’m running interference, keeping our foes from the prize for just a little while.”

Our foe being Fray.  Perfect.

“Thank you, Pierre.  You’re a gent.”

He swept into a bow, taking his initial steps backward.  A moment later, he was running at a speed that could rival a speeding carriage.

We approached the rendezvous point.  It was an old, magnificent building, set at the intersection of two major roads near the edge of town.  Not that we lacked for a good exit.  The town sprawled around a bay, and was surrounded by dense forest and mountains.  There were regular ships coming and going, mostly fishing vessels and some cargo boats.

I pulled on the board, and the door opened outward, the boards not actually nailed into anything.

The building was an old hotel.  The ugliest bits of furniture had been removed, the rest of it, mostly wood, had been left within.

The Rank and the stray’s children were present within.  The Rank were strewn here and there, lounging, while the children were clustered around the bar in the corner where some initial amount of food had been laid out.  Rudy and Possum were closer to the children than to the Rank.  All watched as I entered, the rest of the students behind me.

“Sylvester,” Junior said.  “And the student council.”

“Be good.  Look after them.  Don’t say anything we’ll all regret.”

Junior leaned back, smiling.  “I’d be more worried about their reaction to the Rank than the Rank’s reaction to them.  Last I heard, there were sore feelings.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” the treasurer said.  “We don’t devote that much energy to thinking about you.”

I looked between the groups, and I said, “Do I need to separate you all?”

The answer was a unanimous silence, with only a few shaking heads.

“Ignore each other.  Please,” I instructed.

The students settled into their places.  The Rank had the center of the room, while the student council took a point off to one side, between the bar and the front desk of the hotel, where a battered old grand piano still sat.  There was a bench, and there were a number of stacked chairs off to the side.  They began pulling down the chairs and arranging them into a loose circle.

Other students found other points nearby.  Some gravitated toward the children, others toward the Rank, and others toward the student council.

Factions would form, inevitably.  I was just hoping we’d get that far.  The balancing act continued.

Gordon Two lingered closer to me, not sure what he should do.  Rudy and Possum approached, too.

“Where’s Jessie?” I asked the room.

“Upstairs,” Rudy said.  “We talked briefly.”

I nodded.

“This is bigger than I thought it would be,” he said.

“Cold feet?” I asked, wondering just how big he thought it was.

He shook his head.

“The children okay?”

“They keep taking food and stowing it in their pockets,” Possum said, voice a hush.  “Jessie sends them out in groups, and the group that was leaving when we showed up just came back.  They emptied their pockets while they were gone, and now they’re loading up again.”

“Let them,” I said.  “If they end up staying while we leave, they’ll be happy to have it, either to keep or trade.  If they stay with us, then it’ll take a while for them to realize that the food won’t run out.”

“That’s so sad,” Possum said.

“I’ll catch up with you all in a minute,” I said.  “Touching base with Jessie first.  Be nice to each other.  Talk.”

I looked back over the room, looking for any signs that things might boil over while I was gone, then jogged up the stairs.

I found Jessie at the end of the hallway.  I’d been worried she had drifted off.  She was only staring off into space.

“Hallo there,” I greeted her.

“You took your time,” she said, turning.  She smiled.  “Productive?”

“Very.”

“Good,” she said.  She feigned sternness.  “Because every minute of peace that you had to do your thing was hard earned.  Keeping Fray corralled and stalling her has been a heck of a task.”

I snorted.  “Watch your language.”

“She’s not stupid.  She started realizing that something was up when she turned around and the Rank had disappeared on her.  Shortly after that, I had to tip off the police.  The men we saw are Crown, by the way.”

“I’m already aware,” I said, smiling.

“I’ve been interfering with them, too.  We intercepted one group and got ahead of their messages.  I had to lead a raid on the post office.”

“Well look at you,” I said.

“It was a narrow scrape, but we were able to find someone she was communicating with and point people in her direction.  I assumed you didn’t want her outright captured.”

“Nope.”

“It was a delicate operation, keeping her under pressure and steering her away, without getting her caught.  Undertaken on a hunch, no less,” she said.  “I did beautifully, if I may say so myself.”

“You may.  Don’t let me stop you.”

“You went incommunicado for just long enough that I had to worry.  I heard some noise about the Academy and assumed it was you.”

“Extending trust, as a Lambsbridge orphan ought to do,” I said. I leaned against the wall on the other end of the window.  “I’ll have you know that I have co-opted the vast majority of her plan.  That army of six hundred I promised?  I predict we’ll be half or two-thirds of that amount by the day’s end.  We’re seventy-five or eighty percent of the way to being done already.  We just need to deal with Fray and actually mobilize, and we’re set.”

“That’ll do,” Jessie said.

“And I had to deal with Avis, who took a combat drug and murdered a few people.  Actually landed my shot, brought her down without killing her.”

“Good.”

And I saved a few lives that Fray would’ve probably missed as collateral damage in her plan.”

“Rudy did mention, in a roundabout way.”

And I orchestrated a prison break, and even broke Avis out in the process.  Work of art, really.”

“I expect nothing less,” she said.

“And of course there’s a noble in town.  Not even a lesser one, and I faced him down.  I had to fight dirty but I won.  I think I might have figured out the fighting thing.  Crossed a threshold.  There’s another noble out there, but I’m wholly confident I can duel her and win.”

“Excellent,” Jessie said.

“The noble had a primordial pet, can you believe it?  And I fought it hand to hand.  With tooth and fingernail, while it had fangs an armspan long and talons that could have cut a horse in half.  I had to use a combat vial I got from Avis and gnaw my way through the thing until I got to a vital structure.  It tasted horrible.”

“I can imagine.”

“But I had an epiphany, and I think I came up with a seventeenth Wollstone ratio-”

“There are fifteen.”

“I discovered the sixteenth too, Jessie, but that’s from one of the more minor adventures of the last couple of hours, and I’m covering the broad strokes here, don’t you see?  I came up with a seventeenth Wollstone ratio, divined the fundamental pattern of the primordial, and gnawed my way into the key parts to disconnect the greater whole, and thus killed an unkillable thing, all while fighting to keep the talons and fangs from eviscerating me.  Those moments of brilliance were with combat drugs fuzzing my brain, mind you.”

“That must be where these scratches came from,” Jessie said, reaching out to touch my lower eyelid.

“A very astute observation,” I said.

“Thank you, sir.”

“So, all in all, I think I win, but I’m not sure.”

“You’re not sure?”

“Well, you have some reason you’re hiding up here instead of staying down there.  I half expected to come up here and find you asleep again.”

“No,” she said.  “Not sleep.  Just thinking.”

“Thinking is important, when we’re doing what we’re doing,” I said.  “But you’ll have to share particulars, or I’ll be claiming victory in our game of one-upmanship here.  Killing a primordial and a noble a matter of minutes apart from each other is kind of hard to top.”

“You didn’t say it was a matter of minutes,” she said.  “That’s amazing.”

I bowed a little.

“But I can top it,” she said.  She said it in a way that made my heart sink.  I had an idea what she was going to say.  “I dropped a memory.”

I placed my forehead against the window.

“In his writing, Jamie described it.  This same experience.  The first one was a portrait.  He dropped three in total before…”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I remember the portrait during the Sub Rosa thing.  I don’t remember everything that clearly, but that really scared me when it happened, so I remembered it.”

“It scares me too.”

“I don’t remember the others, but I read about them enough times in Jamie’s journals.”

“I feel like it’s a countdown.  As if just like him, I’ll be allowed two more, over the next three or six months, and then time’s up, just a week or a few days after that.”

I swallowed, and it was a hard, awkward sort of swallow.

“Hey, Sy?” she asked.

“Hey, Jessie,” I said.  I managed to sound normal.

“I don’t have a lot of time.  I don’t want to kick up a fuss.  I don’t want to pressure, or force things, or ask things of you, and I definitely don’t want anything that happens between us to be an act on your part.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Except, I’m really wondering.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“And I’m sorry I have to wonder.”

“Don’t be,” I said.  I drew in a deep breath.  “I don’t know.  But there’s a jumble to sort through in my already unusually jumbled head.  Can we tackle this?  This big thing with Fray?”

Jessie nodded.

“And I’ll think about it harder and more clearly when I’m not thinking about Fray and how to stay on top of all of this.  Because I’ve told different things to a half-dozen groups and three of them are downstairs.  But I’ll give you your answer.  I promise.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Jessie was so often my rock.  Reliable, someone I could go back to.  My anchor in the storm that was ever active in my head and my immediate surroundings.

But she looked like she needed a rock, and I was happy to oblige.

“C’mere,” I said.  “C’mon.”

I wrapped her in a hug.  Not the first I’d given in the last day, but certainly the most important.

“Am I supposed to play along with the story and tell you you smell like primordial bile?” she asked.

“It was more stomach acid than bile,” I said.

She nodded, her head rubbing against my shoulder.  “Terrible.”

“Sorry,” I said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.11

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

I took notes in a notebook I had borrowed while I watched people come and go from the local jail.

We were a twenty minute walk from the Academy center and I could hear the noise the students were generating.  Smoke was rising from one point, and the riot was in full swing.  Only a few thousand students, all in all, but they weren’t happy.

The people I’d gathered for this particular task looked restless.  They wanted and expected to be out there, working alongside the rioters.

These were the delinquents, along with Rudy and Possum.  I’d given Rudy the task of finding Possum’s friend and told him to meet up with me later, and he’d ended up bringing her with.  The friend hadn’t been found, and she had decided to stick around.

I wasn’t sure I agreed with her being a part of this, but I could only do so much at one time.

A carriage pulled up.  Two security officers strongarmed someone who looked like they’d taken a combat drug.  They weren’t the first, and they wouldn’t be the last.  Combat drugs were cost effective for a small Academy like this one.

I made a note, circled the description and drawing of the guard driving the carriage, and drew lines connecting it to other mentions.  I drew a cross-hatch and made a line connect it to the cheek of his drawn face.

Looking around, I saw Rudy standing close by.  I moved his arm, checked his watch, and then went back to my notebook to add a note about the time.  Two o’clock shadow.

Rudy, looking over my shoulder, commented, “When I first saw you taking notes, I thought it was a good thing.  Then I looked and I saw what you were actually doing, and I lost all of the confidence I’d gained in you and then some.”

I looked down at my notebook.  There were drawn faces with key features for distinguishing the guards, with nicknames attached.  Text was organized into blocks, and shapes, symbols such as circles, diamonds and triangles served as shorthand.  Lines connected ideas, with some thinner, some thicker or reinforced, and some unintentionally sketchy.  More shorthand shapes surrounded or were drawn to intersect different parts of what I’d laid out.  It was a very crowded page.

I turned the page over, tilting my head to look at the image on the backside.  Lines extended to the edge of the page and wrapped around to refer to text and the sketched out image of the jail itself.

“It’s not that bad,” I said.  “My memory is a weak point, and sometimes when I’m juggling something bigger I’ll do this so I don’t need to devote as much brainspace to doing what I’m doing.  A representation of my thinking.”

“You have very disorganized thinking,” Rudy commented.

“It’s actually very organized,” I said.  “Look, see, this shape-”

“Upside-down ‘L’ shape?”

“A gun, come on,” I said, annoyed.  “See the trigger?”

“It’s very sketchy, so it’s hard to tell.”

“It’s sketchy because I’m not sure if the gun exists.  But the way the scowling man carries himself and wears his jacket, I’m reasonably sure, so it gets a mention.  So there’s a gun, and it’s drawn with a line connecting it to the block of text about his behavior.  He’s aggressive.  We’ve seen him three times.  Always the first one to the carriage, right?  He’s like a stitched fresh from the wire, despite the scruff on his cheeks suggesting he got up early this morning.  And the line passes through this text-”

“Which makes the text hard to read, I have to say.”

“Exactly!  On purpose!  Because that’s text about his buddy, and I put the text there in advance so I could sort of cross it out if I wanted to, which I suspected I might do.  Now look how it also touches the down-triangle.”

Rudy screwed his eyes into a fierce squint.

“Okay, so the down triangle is weakness.  Just like up triangles are strengths and diamonds are resources and so on.  All very logical when you think about it.”

Rudy stared at it, his eye searching the page.  I turned the page to show him how it connected to the back.

“Nah,” he decided.

“Yah!” I countered, emulating his tone.  “Now look, here’s the neat part.  Draw a curve, imagine a line, a course of action that touches on all these shapes in a row.  Down triangle, down triangle, down triangle, down triangle… all of it clustered around things that relate to this side of the building.  See where I’m going with this?”

“Nah.”

“This is how we break them.  The up arrows, their advantages, like gun, like this carriage tends to have a lot of uniforms, they flow this way.  It crosses here-”

“I think,” Rudy interrupted me, “That the longer you try to explain it to me, the less I”ll understand it or believe in you.”

I frowned at him.

“I think,” he said, very firmly, as if he wanted to soften the blow.

“I need you to concede that it’s actually a brilliant piece of work.  Then I’ll leave you alone,” I said.

“Hmm,” he said.  “I’ll give you the benefit of a doubt.”

“Okay,” I said.  I paused.  “Tell me it’s really quite sophisticated.”

“That might be stretching the truth.”

“Lie to me if you have to.  I just want to hear it.”

“It’s not a lie either,” he said.  “But fine.  It’s really quite sophisticated.”

I grinned.

I glanced at my delinquents, then turned a few pages in the notebook, looking over my notes for them.  A list of faces, names, nicknames, and some names underlined where I’d remembered them long enough to write them down.  Rudy was one.

“Why does someone as smart of you need a cheat sheet for the people working under him?”

“Like I said, my memory isn’t great,” I said.  I glanced at the delinquent king and the top rooftop girl, then checked the sheet.

“I have down triangles around my head.”

“Yep,” I said.  I moved my hand so my thumb blocked the associated text.  “You have up triangles too.”

“You don’t need to block the words.  I can’t read your handwriting,” Rudy said.

I snapped my head around to look at him.  “Hey.  Just struck me, how’s our Possum doing?”

“She’s good.”

“Why don’t you check on her?” I asked.

“If you want me to go away, I’ll go away,” Rudy said.

“No, no,” I said, lying.  “But why don’t you go check on her?  Help her keep watch.  I don’t want her to be alone for any long stretches.”

“Arright,” Rudy said.

“Glad to have you with,” I said, as he walked away.  “Really.  Thanks.”

His reply was unintelligible.

I looked down at the notebook, then made a note by Rudy’s face.

Honest.  Calls me on my shit.

I spent longer than I would have liked to admit when it came to deciding what kind of triangle to draw.  I ended up drawing two overlapping ones.

The delinquent king was Neck.  He made a pair with Bea, the top rooftop girl.  They were, by the whisperings I’d caught and a number of observations I’d made, a troublesome pair when put together, and hard to put apart.  From the moment that we’d gotten this show on the road, they’d been a pair.  Old colleagues, friend rather than fancy, and each one prone to making the other behave badly.

Bea was the top girl because the others were scared of her when she was alone.  She was far scarier when paired with Neck.  She had been over the top angry long before this whole thing unfolded, I suspected, and Neck was fuel on the fire.  She validated him and I suspected she knew him better than anyone and she remained fond of him, which had to matter a lot to him, when he was an odd sort.

When just about anyone he knew talked to him, they used a different nickname, with only Neck really coming up more than once or twice.  Neck, Cake, Ethel, Nook, Nookie, and one I hadn’t quite heard straight that might have been ‘Vamp’ or Van or Vam.  The ‘Neck’ nick was more to do with the slang for kiss than for being a thick-necked Bruno.  He was as skinny as I was, just as well dressed, but he was also tall and good looking.

I’d seen some of his type in Tynewear.  Unusual and he carried a knife to defend his unusualness.

Which was enough said.

“Neck,” I said.  “Bea.  How would you like to set some fires today?”

Bea smiled in response, eyes glittering.

“Or throw a can of gas and place it exactly where we need it?”

“My throwing arm is better than his,” Bea said.

“My girl is a chronic liar,” Neck said, putting an arm around Bea’s shoulders, closer to a headlock than a gesture of affection, pulling her off balance.  “I’ll do the throwing.”

“I was on a sports team, once upon a time,” Bea said, hand on Neck’s chest.

They could only easily and comfortably do the one-arm headlock and hug and the hand on the chest because there was no attraction between them.

“Once upon a time,” Neck ruminated on the words.  “I hate to break it to you, Bea knees, but you’re the furthest thing from a fairy tale princess, and I’m still better at throwing.”

“If you mess this up, I’ll never let you live this down,” she threatened him.

I retrieved the last of my gas canisters, a mason jar and a bottle, and handed them over.

“The jar goes at the base of that window there.  Throw it hard enough that it breaks.  Hold on to the bottle.  If they come in with horses, hm..”

I paused, looking over my notes.  I held the book so others couldn’t see it.

“What about the horses?” Neck asked.

“Okay, hold on to it for the second batch of horses.  I need you to go find a carriage with a stitched horse.  Pay the owner…”

I trailed off, grabbing my wallet, and I handed over a wad of bills.

“…And then wait.  When they pull up with a horse and carriage, that’s when we start.  You throw the jar, I’ll do my thing, and then we wait.  When we’re reasonably sure they’ve mustered their forces, you take the carriage you bought, and you get that horse riding straight for the carriage they parked out front.  Are you with me so far?  Collision course.”

“Doable.  We just set it going and hop off?”

“Yep.  Set it on fire at some point before it arrives.  It’ll be more dramatic.  Then scram, get that head start.  If they come after you with another carriage and horses, throw down the bottle.  It’ll muck them up.”

“Got it,” Bea said.

“I need some bodies stationed on rooftops.  Pick out your capable people, get them to figure out which ones they can access.  Spread them out.  The rooftops need to be ones where they can actually climb up, yeah, but also where they can hide until later or where they can easily un-access.  It kind of defeats the purpose of a jail breakout if half of us end up getting caught and imprisoned.  You get caught here, the odds aren’t good… not that they’re liable to keep anyone or everyone either way.  I don’t think they can afford to, with the hit they’re about to take.”

“You want the rooftop girls on the rooftops?” Bea asked, with a smile.

I blinked.  “I didn’t even make the connection.  Yes.  Absolutely.  Three major hand signs, like this, this, and this.  For danger, caution, and clear.”

“I’ll pass it on,” Bea said.

“Excellent.  We’ll make rebels out of you yet.”

Neck said, “We’re already rebels.  But if you make us rebellion and don’t make us regret it, then that’s perfect.”

“Perfect,” I said.  “I told you where to meet when all is said and done, if anyone gets split up, or when you’ve burned one horse carriage and smoked any pursuers?”

“This would be the third time you’ve asked,” Bea said.  “We got it.”

“Good,” I said.  I looked around.  “Get to it.  I’ll see you there.”

Rudy and Possum were together, approaching.

“A task for you, Rudy,” I said.  “I need you to go to this address.  Check the coast is clear, that you can go there without any fuss.  We’re going to start gravitating in that direction over time.  If there are any problems, then, hm…”

Rudy waited patiently.

I got my bag, rummaged in it, and got chalk.

“Big, bold, white letters on an easy to see surface.  Write ‘I love rabbits.'”

“Rabbits?” Possum asked.

“Absolutely.  Then just hang out around there.  The rabbit will find you.  Tell him what’s going on, and he’ll let everyone important know, myself included.”

Rudy gave me a long, critical look.

“The rabbit is real,” I said.  “I promise.”

“Okay,” he said.

“But don’t call him a rabbit.  I mean, he’s clearly a rabbit, but don’t call him a rabbit.”

Rudy returned to the long, critical look.

I avoided the look by turning my attention to Possum.  “How are you managing?”

“I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said.  Then she amended it to, “Really overwhelmed.”

“Don’t be,” I said.  “I won’t promise I won’t put you in the line of fire, because every time I say that, I do the opposite.  So just rest assured I have no plans to put anyone in danger that doesn’t want to be in danger.”

“Plans,” Rudy said.

I glanced at him, then back to Possum.  “I’ll have you know that I showed my plans to Rudy, and he said they were downright sophisticated.

“I did,” Rudy said, with zero enthusiasm.

Possum nodded.

“Want to be on watch?” I asked her.  “Or I can send you somewhere further away.”

“Can I go with him?” Possum asked.

I looked at her, then at Rudy.

Was there a line extending between them?  Was it sketchy or bold or both?

“I want to see the rabbit you’re talking about,” she said.  “Who gets very easily offended.  I’m imagining something adorable.”

I thought of Pierre.  Adorable wasn’t what came to mind.  The head that looked like a badly taxidermied rabbit head, expression that of a rabbit mid-stroke, eyes bugging out, the sheer height of him, and how it all made him an eerie figure…

“He’s a good friend and an excellent messenger…” I said, trailing off.  I tried to think of a way to put it politely.  Pierre was a friend, but he was a queer one, and I didn’t like to talk poorly of friends, in case it got around to them.  Especially when it came to dealing with more sensitive recruits, who would hear me say something negative about one person and then imagine me saying things about them behind their backs.

So, how to say that Pierre was a bit disconcerting, without calling him disconcerting?  How did I outright reject the notion that he was ‘cute’?

“Sylvester,” Bea said.

“Hm?” I asked.

“I gave the instructions to the girls.  They’re going to the rooftops now.  Neck is looking for the carriage.”

“Good,” I said.  “Other groups are in place?  Ready to cause a stir?”

She nodded.

“That should be my cue to get going.  I don’t want to let things get ahead of me.  Do buy the carriage, don’t steal it and pocket the money.  I’ll know.”

She gave one pocket of her coat a pat.  “There’s a reason I have the money.  I know Neck.  I’ll do things as instructed.  You’ve already stressed how important that is.”

I nodded.

I turned my attention to Rudy and Possum.  “Go on.  No need to hang around on my account.  Be good, be safe.  No need to be adventurous.”

Rudy nodded.  I watched them go, and saw how he talked with Possum.

That was nice.  They were probably talking about me, but that was nice.

I turned my attention to the jail, and looked down at my notebook.

I missed Jessie.  Jessie would have been useful here.  Timing, layout, it was the key element missing from my notes.  I could write things down and I could intuit, but I couldn’t do what Jessie did.  I couldn’t even approximate what Jessie did.

Jessie recalled things and was slow to adjust.

I was quick at adjustment, but I didn’t recall.

Let’s do this fast, do it well, and impress the new recruits.

I chose my angle carefully as I approached the station.  I crossed the street using a path that would let only barred windows see me.  The people on the other side would be the jailed rather than the jailers.  I then walked so my arm brushed against the side of the building, casually and calmly, too close to the ground to be easily seen from any of the windows overhead.

Grabbing the edge of a planter, I dragged it ten feet and moved it further from the building.  It made noise, but that was a minor thing.  It held a shrub, but the cold weather had stripped it of half its leaves.  The remainder littered the planter itself.

I did the same for the next planter, then another.

Through the wall and window, I heard the screech of a chair on floor and I ducked back and hugged the wall.  I moved on quickly, no doubt while curious eyes scanned the area and tried to figure out what the sound had been.

Delinquents and rooftop girls huddled on rooftops and standing in alleys across the street watched, puzzled.

I circled around to the other side of the building, and I found the side building of the jail where carriages were often parked.  There was only space for two carriages and their horses.  It was empty, the door to outside open, the door to inside secured.

I’d hoped that some of the horses here would be living ones, and that there would be hay and other things.  But the spaces where the horses would stand were unsecured, the floor hayless, and the wall set up with the wires and connectors required to provide a voltaic charge to the systems of a stitched.

I had to climb up a bit to get to a good vantage point to reach the wires.  I then started hauling them free of the wall.  They were secured into place with wooden pegs, which were nailed to the wall in turn, but the nails and the pegs were designed to bear the weight of the wire, not the weight of an adolescent male pulling in a complete other direction.

The peg popped out of the wall.  My weight dropping to the ground helped pull another two down.

From there, I had enough slack to free the remainder of the wire.  A bit of twisting, unwinding, pulling, and general abuse got the length of wire free.  It thrummed in my hand, sometimes even feeling uncomfortably thrummy, depending on where I touched the wire.

Awkward, awful stopgap technologies.

I went to work, rigging one coil of wire to the door handle, my heart pumping as I worked.  I wrapped the insulated part around first, then, working carefully, touching only the insulated parts, I guided the exposed end through to knot it, and into the gap between knob and door fixture.

The other set of wire, I worked to pin against the floor, using tools and other stray items.  I made sure that it was sufficiently exposed.

Then I emptied the buckets of chemicals for the stitched onto the floor of the stable, backing away swiftly as the puddle grew.

As the puddle reached the wire on the ground, there was a violent crackle, fizzle, and pop.  It continued making all sorts of little violent noises as I backed swiftly away, moving on.

Stepping out, I could see girls on the rooftops here and there.  They had arms out, and they were gesturing.

The carriages were coming.

I moved quickly.

The one proper exit that wasn’t through the front door had been booby trapped.  Next were the planters.  I piled up the leaves I scavenged from piles on the ground, containing them in the planters.  The dry fall leaves and the wood made for fine tinder.  The near-dead shrubs themselves would burn, hopefully.

The repositioned planters produced smoke, and the smoke blew near and in front of windows.  It made for a more dramatic effect.

I moved on.  Past the stable, circling around to the back of the building.

I could hear the curses and swears.  There were shouts.

The jar had been thrown.

I scaled the wall while the attention of the jail’s staff was on the front of the building and the smoke to the side.

There were only a few windows without any bars over them.  One was high up.  It was locked, but I could handle locks.

I had relied on intuition here, spotting the window and reasoning where it might lead, and intuition had served me well.  The office was nice, spacious, and had windows on two sides.  The door was heavy and fortified.  There were filing cabinets along the wall, and there was a great deal of paperwork across the desk, which had two different lamps on it.

I looted the drawers, found nothing, and moved on, unlocking and opening the door just enough to peer outside, before opening it wide.

With everything going on, the same people who would be staffing the jail would be handling the riot or getting the last few batches of people that had been put into custody.  Even with all hands now on deck, the staff being stretched thin and the distraction at the front and side meant that I had a clear path.

I walked through the staff area with no trouble.  I checked desks and the coats that were on pegs until I found a keyring.  With this many keys, I knew what it was for.

Outside, I heard the crash as the burning carriage collided with the other carriage.  I heard running footsteps, and stepped behind a filing cabinet as three men in uniform ran past.

Three men, I made a mental note.

I found the area with the cells.

Half of the occupants wore school uniforms.  Rioters.  Delinquents.

Some voices raised as they saw me, and I raised a hand, shushing them.  Too late.

“Shut up!” a guard called out.  He hadn’t left with his friends.  “Who’s there!?”

The ones inside were armed with sticks, not guns.  I stayed where I was, facing the man.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.  “Did you get out of your cell?”

I stretched a bit, rolling my shoulders, giving him my darkest stare.

He reached for his belt, and he drew his truncheon.

The student council president and vice president were standing at the bars of their cell, watching.  There were two members of the Greenhouse Gang that had been spreading the word, and there were others who looked more like delinquents.  Ones we’d had stirring the pot.

They’d done a good job to work against what we were trying to do.

“If I don’t get a good answer out of you, I’m going to have to take measures,” the guard said.  He smacked the truncheon into one palm, then, stone faced, stern, he added, “Don’t make me take measures, kid.  It’s been a shitty enough day already, I don’t want some kid with the teeth smashed out of his face on my conscience.

There was a progression.  Two access points to the building.  The disaster happened at the front.  The prison’s carriages were parked out front so that prisoners had the shortest possible walk to the front door.  The collision, with luck, would make accessing the door hard.  Fire had a way of scaring people.

They would realize what was up.  That this was a distraction, all arranged.  They would pass around the side, possibly running into others, who were investigating the burning shrubs, too far away from the building for the fire to actually set the building itself aflame.  The carriage out front might, but there would be enough people out there that they’d probably handle it before it got too bad.

They would reach the side of the building, and they would see the water, the wires, the crackling.

As a trap, it was mild.  But in terms of getting the result and effect I wanted…

I spread my arms, dramatic.

“What’s this?” he asked.

I waited, patient.

“Final warning, boyo.”

He took a step toward me, and when I didn’t scare, he took another.

Eight seconds had passed from when I’d raised my arms.

If this went on for too much longer, I was going to look so dumb.

The power went out, the lights dying abruptly, with nary a flicker.  Disabling the booby trap and freeing them to enter the building.

“There we go,” I said.  I chuckled, loud, mocking, and the prisoners picked up the sound, laughing as well, cheering.

The sound covered my running footsteps as I moved to one side of the man, using darkness and gloom to make myself hard to track.

He wasn’t looking at me.  His eye was on the walls of prisoners.

I stuck my elbow out, hand braced at my shoulder, and drove myself full force into his lower stomach.  He crashed into the bars of the nearest cell.

Hands reached out and grabbed him, pulling at uniform, seizing his arms.

“Hold him.  Keep him safe.  We’re going to want to use our hostages carefully.  Student council, if you’d take these?”

I threw the keys to the student council’s cell.  Then I got another ring of keys from the guard we’d secured.

By the time the three men returned to the cells with the rest of the group with them, half of the cells had emptied and more were in the works.

Standing with only the light from a scant few windows illuminating us, I gave the signal, and it got a response from both sides.  The guards ran, and the prisoners charged.

I tucked my notebook in between the waist of my slacks and my side, fixed my jacket to cover it, drew my weapon, and led the exodus from the jail.

A few more recruits, now.

The student council fell in step with me.

Time to check on Jessie and Fray.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.10

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Stop!  Stop!  Give me a chance to speak!”

His voice was nearly drowned out by the crowd.

“I’m as angry as you are!”

I wasn’t sure that was possible or likely.  The mass of students who had gathered in the street between the dormitories and the classrooms were pretty upset.

This was a special kind of hurt, to take someone’s hopes and dreams, already tested a number of times over, stretched out over years, dash them to the rocks.  That special sort of pain and loss demanded to be expressed, yet the very fact that it was being experienced by everyone here made it impossible to do so.

How could someone turn to a friend for support when that friend was in the exact same position?  How did one shout to vent their anger when they went unheard with so many other shouting voices around them?  How did they find release in tears when their tears were but drops in a bucket?

It was a situation that would have left countless students floundering and frustrated to begin with, and rather than feed into the anger, the crowd was feeding into that frustration.  It was an important and interesting distinction.

I wondered what Mauer would think or do here.

The student council vice president was standing off to one side, while the treasurer took the ‘stage’ – a set of stairs by one of the dormitories.  She was a very feminine and demure looking girl with straight black hair.  The sidelong glance she gave me said a lot, however, about the thought processes going on in her head.

She knew this wasn’t working, but she wasn’t getting flustered.

“Listen!” the student council treasurer belted out the word, pushing his voice to its limit.  But the body of students already had some who were shouting at that volume or close to it.

Not a proper unified body, but a collection of individuals.  The school had made it so, pitting them against one another.

I beckoned the vice president.

I was around a corner, so only a small few students saw as she came to stand a short distance from me.

“You either have a great deal of trust in me,” I told her, “Or you still feel you can seize control of this situation.”

With the clamor, I doubted she heard everything I said.  She seemed to infer my meaning well enough.

She had to lean in close to my ear to make herself heard, “About fifteen percent the first, eighty-five the second.”

I pulled out the letters, took a mostly blank paper and tore off enough that there was no writing on the paper that was left.  I scribbled a note on it, folded it in three, and showed her before leaning in closer to tell her, “Take over.  Tell them this to get their attention.  Say what I told the treasurer to say.  Then direct them.”

Speaking into her ear, I could see over her shoulder.  The student council president was standing by the stairs, watching us very intently.  He was a skinny guy, but with immaculate attention to his appearance.  Anyone else might have looked a little stiff with their brown hair so neatly parted and their academy so crisp, face like stone, but he managed to look regal.

Recruiting the student council had been easy as pie.  I’d headed over to the stretch of lawn by the water, told them things had started, and they had been mine.

Things were never all that easy, however.  I’d talked to Ralph from the Greenhouse Gang, who had once been a part of the student council, and things left unsaid had left a loose thread of thought untied in my head, drifting this way and that, grazing against everything I saw and everyone I met, looking for a conclusion.  Now I suspected I’d found it.

The groups of this particular Academy fell on a spectrum, and the student council was on the opposite end from the Rank.  The rooftop girls were close to the Rank in disposition and attitude toward the school, yes, but when Gordon Two had said that the student council and the Greenhouse Gang didn’t mingle much, there was likely more to it.

There was a gulf, and this petite, beautiful young lady of good grooming was likely the culprit.

“When you go up,” I said, “Bring the student council president with you.”

“United front?” she asked.

“Something like that,” I said.  “Take the paper.  Hold it, but don’t show them and don’t say there’s proof because that’s going to be letter number three.  But it’ll be something the crowd can fixate on.  Don’t swear, don’t incite them too much, and try not to point fingers.  They’re incited enough.”

She took the letter.  “I don’t cuss.”

“You might be tempted to in an effort to win over the crowd.  But it’ll be the whipcrack that sets the horse running, and you might get dragged down into that stampede.”

She gave me a nod, then walked off, still giving no evidence of the agitation that seemed to have struck everyone else.  For anyone else it might have looked curious that she could be so calm.  For her, it was part of her mystique.  I watched carefully as she put her hand lightly on the student council president’s arm, and he was brought along as if she was a giant with an iron grip.  His eyes, however, were on me.

Calculating, suspicious.

The vice president of the student council was a breaker of hearts, it seemed.  I could piece together where things stood.  Ralph, the heavyset, glasses-wearing member of the Greenhouse Gang was number two in the student rankings and the student council president there was number one, while this young lady was number four or five, and yet they were subordinate to her when it came to their hearts and her ability to toy with them.  Perhaps Ralph had escaped.  Perhaps he’d put some distance between himself and her because he knew he hadn’t.

The crowd drew a little quieter as the pair joined the treasurer at the top of the stairs.  They were joined by the secretary, boy’s rep and girl’s rep.

The vice president held up the paper I’d given her, pinching one corner of it so it stood up and out from her hand.  She waited patiently.

The shouting boiled down.

“Thank you,” she said.  She gave the paper a little shake.  A few hundred eyes watched it move, curious.  “The Academy knew what was happening and they prepared for it.  They invited security from other Academies to come here because they knew we would be upset.  Some of us have already seen a lot of unfamiliar faces wearing security uniforms and moving in large groups.  There were going to be more a month from now.”

The crowd was hers.  The scenario she was painting was clear in their minds.  The fact that she knew meant she had answers they wanted.  She could have told them the Academy planned to murder them all, and they might have believed her for a long moment.

She remained seemingly at ease as she laid out the facts.  “In the meantime, they planned to deal with any students who they thought might cause any particular trouble, lock down the labs so we couldn’t access our experiments.  They would have broken the news to us in a way that they could manage.  I can tell you this because we knew.  We put the letter up on the bulletin board, by way of a colleague.”

Murmurs and concern swept over the crowd.

Before it could take hold, before the crowd could direct that pent up frustration at the student council, the student council president took a half step forward, raising his hands.  The murmuring died down.

“We heard whispers before the semester even started, we found out for certain only a month ago.  We’ve been debating this for a long time and when we came to a decision, we decided to do it this way.  So you could all know and you could make your decisions instead of the Academy making it for you.”

It was so nice to work with people who were good at what they did.  Both student council president and vice president were people who had talked to crowds before.  They’d been filled in before this, and they adapted to new information and necessities easily.

Not on Mauer’s level, obviously, but I really liked how the vice president had worked the mention of the experiments being locked away in the middle of that one statement, then moved away from it.  I’d written it down to get her to drop that seed, but she had actually done it gracefully enough that she had to have known what it was I was intending.

“Our focus has always been you students,” the student council vice president said.  She raised her voice where I imagined Mauer might have lowered it to sound more intimate.  She clenched a fist and it seemed somewhat ineffectual.  But there was honesty in her not being perfect.  “I know that sounds sappy and lame, and a lot of you won’t believe me.  We have spent hours and hours down on the knoll where we meet, debating what we can do for you.  For a lot of you, we’re the only people who have rooted for you that aren’t your families, and we’ll be the only ones who root for you until you build a family for yourselves.  We wanted this school to be a good school for all of us.”

I winced a bit at that last segment.  Family wasn’t what we needed people to be focusing on when we were trying to get them to do the reckless thing and run away with Sylvester’s rebellion.

“With that in mind,” she said, speaking louder, “please take what I say with the deathly seriousness I mean it!  Stay together!  Be safe, but don’t take ‘safe’ to mean you have to be happy about this!  Believe me, your student council certainly isn’t!”

And with that, the crowd started shouting again.  More of a group than a series of individuals.

I saluted the student council and let them continue to reassure the students, drawing them together into a unit while shaping the frustration with the Academy and the nature of the danger.  The Treasurer started speaking again, talking about what to do in case of gas, if things went that far.

Things would go that far.

There was more to do, but it had to wait.  In the meantime, I moved through the outskirts of the crowd.

One fellow stood off to one side, arms folded, eyes on the ground, while he leaned against a wall.  A matter of three or four feet separated him from the rest of the crowd, but from his body language, it might as well have been a mile.

He was a muscular guy with a many-times broken nose that had flattened out at the bridge.  Those two things put together might have explained the distance and disconnection as people avoided the tough guy.  But if it did, then those people weren’t really paying attention.  The look on his face was painful to see.

He wasn’t seeing or hearing any of this.

The student council was breaking up, mingling at the front of the crowd instead of holding the stage.  The throng had leadership.  People were taking up a chant, and the student council let them.

Broken-nose pulled away from the wall as if he’d been stuck there with something tacky and he needed some force to do it.  I had to jog to catch up to him, at which point I started walking alongside him.  He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t even notice me right away.  When he did, he looked almost animal, and it was a kicked animal at the end of its tether.  One that was liable to bite.

“Want a job?” I asked him, raising my voice to be heard.

The bite didn’t happen.  Confusion crossed his features.

I shrugged.  “Making an offer.”

“Fuck you on about?” he asked.  A few heads turned to glance our way, he was so loud.

“I’m giving you an option.  I’m offering you work.  Do you have anything left to lose by giving it a shot?”

“What the fuck do you know about me?”

“I’m good at reading people!” I said, taking the foul language in stride.  I did my best to look disarming.

“Not thinking about that right now,” he said.  “Got family to go back to.”

I saw that look again.  He wasn’t staring blindly into empty space anymore, but the darkness was there.

“Fuck family,” I said.  “Look after yourself first.”

“Fuck family?” he asked, bristling.  “You don’t get to tell me that.  I’ve got a sister I care about.”

“With your parents?  Or is she alone?  Because we could look after her too.”

“With my mom and da.  They’re going to be ashamed of me for all this, even if it’sn’t my fault,” he said.  Then he came to, and went on the offensive, “What the fuck are you on my case about?”

“Trying to help,” I said.  “Fuck your mom and da.  You look after you.  Come on.  Put off going home.  Work for me, get some experience, you can leave at any time.  Travel some, spend some time with people your age.  Then when you feel like you can face down your da and your mom like a proper man, you go and you see your sister again.”

“Nah,” he said.  He shook his head like there was something clinging to it that he wanted to get loose.  “Nah, it’s not that simple.”

“It’s not!” I said.  I had to raise my voice to be heard over the crowd.  “How’s about you work for me for today only?  Just until it’s time to sleep?  Twenty crown dollars for a day’s work.  You can use some of that for yourself, some for a present for your sister, and have lots left over.  If you want more, you can stick around, keep working for me.”

He shook his head.

So much was happening, time was tight, and I couldn’t spend too much time on tasks like this…

Lillian would have wanted me to look after others.

I was patient.  I waited, thumbs hooked into my pockets.

“Twenty?”

“Twenty,” I said.  “You just have to put up with me for today.”

“Where’s someone your age come up with that much money?”

I reached into a pocket, and fished out my wallet.  I picked out the money in dollars and half-dollar bills, and showed him.  Then I split the twenty in half and pushed it into his pocket.

“Ten to start.  Ten when you finish for the day.”

“That’s a lot more than twenty in your wallet there.”

I grinned again, content that I’d changed his mind.  “What’s your name?”

“Rudy.”

“I’m Sylvester.  You work until we finish tonight, then give me your answer tomorrow about whether you want to keep working for me, yeah?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Say it.  So I know you heard!” I said, raising my voice again.

“I work until tonight.  Tell you tomorrow,” he said.

I indicated Rudy should follow, and started through the crowd again.

He followed.

I searched the crowd.  The shape of things made for a kind of geographic correlation to mental states and approaches.  The people nearer the front of the crowd were a very different type than the people at the back.  Some people banded together in groups, others stood apart, and others moved through the crowd, and all of that said something about psychology.

I moved around the outer fringes.  Among people who were invested enough to be here but disengaged.  They came in a number of varieties.  The witnesses who were here because something was happening, the skeptical, and those who came as part of a group and were seeing their friends go in a very different direction.  There were others.

Among those others was a narrower selection.  Those who’d come looking for an answer.  They remained on the very periphery because they hadn’t found it.  Rudy was one of them.  I walked around the entire left flank of the crowd, the rear side, and almost the entire length of the right side before I saw another.

A girl was fighting with a friend.  Her friend was frustrated with her, pulling at her arm while she was bent over as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders.

With the crowd being what it was, Rudy and I were able to draw within arm’s reach of them without them paying any attention to us.

“You’re being so lame.”

“Just leave me alone.  Go!  You want to go so bad, go.”

“I’m trying to be a friend.”

“Just go!  Please!  I’m okay.”

“Look me in the eye.  I want to see you’re okay..”

She looked up and moist but tearless eyes met her friend’s.  They were far from okay.

“You’re sure?” her friend asked.

The reluctant girl gave a one-shoulder shrug that hitched a little, as if she was so tense that there was a kink in the works.  “I’ll manage.”

“Really really sure?”

“Go.  Lust after your boy.  Be happy, be angry.  Do whatever.  I’ll manage.  But I don’t feel like getting lost in a crowd.”

“I’ll find you after, okay?”

“Okay,” the reluctant girl said.  She flashed a smile.

Her friend disappeared into the mob.

I gestured for Rudy to wait, and approached the reluctant girl, positioning myself to get her attention.

Her hands kept rubbing at a runny nose or grabbing at a strand of her long hair, oftentimes two hands at once.  It took her a second to see me, and she flashed a polite smile my way when she did.

“You don’t have to smile for me,” I said, leaning in to speak into her ear and be heard.

She gave me a look, as if she’d misheard or misunderstood me.

I leaned in again.  “It’s not right.  It sucks.”

As I leaned away, both of her hands were already at her hair, pulling one lock into strands as if she was going to braid it, but she couldn’t or wouldn’t devote the attention to the task.  She nodded and sniffed.

I leaned in once more, and as gently as I could, I asked, “Do you need a shoulder to cry on?”

She reacted as if I’d slapped her.

The tears followed soon after.

I didn’t want to offer my arms and spook her, so soon after tearing down the only layer of defense she’d had, even if it had been as fragile as wet paper.  I looked over my shoulder, looking for her friend.  I might have to send Rudy.

Then she lurched forward, one mini-step that crossed half the distance between us, before she bounced away, hesitant.

I put my arms out and wrapped her in a tight hug.

Odd, to offer such a thing.  Odd, for someone to accept the offer.  As the saying went, any port in a storm.

The storm was raging right now.

“S’alright,” I murmured.

Rudy stood off to one side, looking very puzzled.  I gestured for him to wait.  The crowd looked like it was moving, heading in the direction of the Academy’s main buildings.  If something happened, that was fine.  So long as the key elements remained in play.  They could lynch Yates for all I cared.  The Horse would probably avoid such a fate.

The rooftop girls and some delinquent groups would steer the destruction and keep things from getting too out of control, because they were the out-of-control element.

This was fine.

It took a couple of minutes for the girl to stop crying into my shoulder.  She’d noticed the mob leaving.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be,” I said.  “How do you feel?”

“My friend left.”

I nodded.  “Everyone’s preoccupied.  I wouldn’t blame her too much.”

“Except you,” she said.  “Who are you?”

“Sylvester,” I said.  “My buddy here is Ru…dy?”

“Rudy, yeah,” Rudy said.

The big, tough looking guy seemed to put her less at ease rather than more at ease.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.  “I’ll leave you alone.  Thank you for the shoulder.  I’m just going to go back to my dorm room and think.”

“The shoulder was freely offered, no need for thanks,” I told her.  “Listen, I’m walking in the same direction the crowd is.  How’s about I walk with you, and we go find your friend?  We’ll reunite you two, I’ll give her a smack upside the head, and she can give you that shoulder to cry on for a longer-term basis.”

The crying girl gave me a wary look.

“I’ve got a complicated situation going on and I’m not looking to pester girls, and Rudy here is more concerned about his sister than about the ladies, honest.”

“The way you say that makes me sound like I’ve got dishonest intentions about my sister,” Rudy said.

“No idea what you mean,” I told him.

“Who are you?” the girl asked, giving me a more serious look.

“A bystander,” I said.  “I heard you tell your friend you were alright, and it was a really, really bad lie, okay?  I’m good at sussing out truth from lie, and that one was child’s play.  I don’t think you should go back to your dorm room and be not-alright all on your lonesome there.”

She took that in, digested it, and then gave me a small nod.

“I’m Sylvester,” I reminded her.

“Helen,” she said.

“Oh, that’s going to confuse me,” I said.  “I know a Helen.  Do you have any nicknames?”

“Kind of?  Friends at my last school called me Possum.”

Possum?” I asked.

“It’s a long story, and we knew each other from prep.  We were immature kids and there were lots of long stories, and this one stuck.  I know it’s a bad nickname, but it was the first thing that came to mind.”

“See, now I want to get to know you, so I can hear that story,” I said.  “It’s not bad at all as nicknames go.  In my humble opinion, anyone worth knowing would agree on that.”

I could see something faint change in the region of her eyes as I said that.

“You couldn’t get it to catch on with your friends here, huh?” I asked.

“No,” she said.  “I didn’t say anything about that, though.”

“You didn’t need to,” I said.

“He’s good at reading people,” Rudy said.

“And the fact of the matter is,” I said, “Teenagers are dumb.  Really really dumb.  I and many scars I have and haven’t had removed can testify on that front.  And some, even some who might well be very good friends, can be really, really dumb and fail to see what a great nickname Possum is.  Right, Rudy?  Back me up here.”

“It’s alright,” Rudy said.

“Thank you.”

“My friend aren’t that good.  They’re sort of…”

“Boy crazy?  Distractable?  Oblivious?”

“Preoccupied, like you said before,” Possum volunteered.  “I think that’s the generous way of saying it.”

“Listen, would your friend-”  I paused pausing to interrupt myself, “One sec, would you walk with me, miss Possum?”

I offered my elbow.  She took my arm, latching on with both arms, much as she’d clung to me to cry on my shoulder.

We walked, with Rudy trailing a step behind.

“If I outright told your friend you needed a proper hug and cry, would she be a friend?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Possum said.  Then, quieter, shy, she added, “But I’d be embarrassed.”

“We’ll see about it either way,” I said.

With her clinging to me, I was able to set the pace, and I set a pace where we were able to catch up to the crowd.  Already, there were a few signs of broken windows on buildings with lettering marking them as being Academy.

Broken windows were fine.

“How do you do that?” Rudy asked.

“Do what?”

“Back when you said ‘you couldn’t get your friends to like the nickname’ or whatever,” Rudy said.

“What about it?”

“You did it with her.  Found her in the crowd, knew exactly what to say.”

“I’m just paying attention,” I said.  “That’s all.”

“You did it with me.  You didn’t offer me a shoulder to cry on.  But what you said, it’s like you read my mind.”

“Nah,” I said.  “The way you hold yourself.  Are your arms or hands up?  Probably guarded.  Hunched over or looking down?  Then there’s the way your expression changes, both the major parts and how they go together, and the small-scale changes.  A twitch here, a movement there, or tension in another place.  It communicates a lot.  Tone, word choice, context, and what your face is doing while you talk, there’s obviously a lot there.”

“I can’t tell if you’re an angel or a devil,” Rudy said.

I smiled.

“You don’t hear much talk like that nowadays,” Possum said.

“I grew up in a town so small we joke the Crown didn’t see us when it took over,” Rudy said.  “Some churching, still.”

“That’s marvelous,” Possum said.  “And so is being able to study all of those things.”

I smiled at her again.

It was a lie, though.  Yes, those things factored in.  Yes, they were something I’d seen in retrospect.  But I really hadn’t had to look that hard.  There had been something dark at play in their eyes.  I imagined Death was there.

There wasn’t much talk of that particular horseman these days either.  Jessie’s influence more than anything.  Or Jamie’s.  One of the books they’d been talking about at some point, though that one had had a different horseman as the focus.

There were more students walking in the opposite direction of us now.

“Greater concentration of students,” I said, indicating.  “Can you hear it?  A shift in the sound of the mob?”

“No,” Rudy said.  Possum shook her head, agreeing with Rudy.

“Look at the way those students are moving.  They keep looking back.  They keep their hands up, but it’s fleeting.  Reach up to tug at the uniform jacket, there.  Hand on head there.  Defensive, but not a steady defense.  They’re not sure what to do with themselves,” I said.

“Why?” Rudy asked.

“Something’s happening.  Thinking about context, that something is probably that the Academy is responding to the riot.”

“You say that, but we’re still walking in that direction,” Rudy said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Is that a problem?”

“Nah,” he said.  “Just making sure.”

Possum clutched my arm tighter.

My suspicions were correct.  The Academy was in play, and much as I’d observed outside of the library, there were more forces present than what Beattle should have been able to provide on its own.  The crowd was maintaining its own momentum.  It shed some of its people, yes, but others were joining in from elsewhere, trickling in from different places in this scattered Academy to vent their frustrations.  Things would change when student and Academy both brought their experiments to the table.

The Academy would have the upper hand then.  I’d need to turn the tables more decisively before then.  I was suspicious the student rebellion wouldn’t be quashed entirely, but we’d lose far too many people this way.

“Come on,” I said.  “We’ll find your friend, and then I’ve got work to do.”

“Work,” Rudy said.

“If you’re not keen on doing something like this in particular, it’s fine,” I told him.  “Take the ten dollars.  Buy your sister something nice, make that what you do tomorrow.”

“Nah,” he said.

“Nah,” I echoed him.

“I’m with you if you need me,” he said.

“Good answer,” I said.

And an answer I’m glad to have, I thought, as I disengaged from Possum and stepped up onto a short wall to get a better vantage point to see over the crowd.

The Academy security forces were in the process of dragging the student council into a carriage, while others held the students back.

“The student council went and got themselves captured,” I said, hopping down from the wall.  “We’ll track ’em back to wherever they’re holding people.  There’s someone else there I want to see to, while I’m at it.  Two people, if I’m lucky.  I went and recruited another person with the same name as an old friend of mine, and I left him behind.  With some luck he’ll be found there.”

“You want to break into a jail?” Rudy asked.

“Is it an actual jail-jail?” I asked.

“I imagine so.  Falls within the outer reaches of the Academy sprawl,” Rudy said.

I puffed out my cheeks for a moment, then nodded.  “I’ll manage.”

I spotted one of the rooftop girls in the crowd and signaled her.

I’d told them to keep an eye out.  They would have already touched base with a lot of the delinquents and questionable sorts the Rank hadn’t messed with.

The ball is rolling.  It’s going to take far, far more than this to stop it, I thought.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.9

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“That’s a fine way to treat someone that’s helping you out,” I said.  “Pointing a gun at them.”

“You’re an admitted part of the rebellion, and you’re a big part of why trouble is unfolding here,” the Horse said.

I turned around, facing professor Horse.  I wiped at my lower eyelid, and my finger came away with an unbroken line of blood on it.

“The actual fault lies elsewhere.  Mainly with your professor Y.  Now before emotions take over, I want to point out that you’ve got men bleeding over there, professor Y is preparing to run, and the riot is unfolding behind the scenes.  There are priorities here, and effective management of time is key.”

It wasn’t, but I was certainly hoping to move it along.

Horse glanced back at the injured men, who were being tended to.  He didn’t look very happy as he looked back at me.  The gun didn’t waver either.

“Now, speaking for myself, I’m very, very interested in learning who our captive here was talking to in the greenhouse.  So if you’ll let me go, give me an escort to march me along if it makes you feel more secure, I’ll go do that, you can tend to your people and our captive, and in a matter of minutes, we’ll converge to go together and get professor Y before he can disappear on  us.”

“You’re implying he’s not already gone.”

“He won’t be.  Not until he hears about the bodies.  I’m assuming that when you investigated, you didn’t send anyone to him to keep him in the loop?”

The Horse didn’t answer me, but his expression told me that he hadn’t.

He might have wanted our Professor Y to be a better person, but he wasn’t about to stick his neck out for the man to cut.

“He’s attached to his position.  He’d do an awful lot to get an even firmer grip on it, including removing you.  If he left without a dang good reason, it would run contrary to just about everything I understand about his character.”

“You really have been talking to the man,” the Horse said.

Lying on the ground, I heard a sound from Avis.

I realized that it was her laughing to herself, her voice muffled by the fabric and chain that encircled the lower half of her face, locked at the back of the neck with a simple padlock.

“Seems like she might know more than we do,” I said.  “Which is reason enough to move faster.”

I put a touch of emphasis on those last two words.

The Horse looked at two of his men, and indicated that they should go with me.

“Great,” I said.

“Shackle him,” the Horse said.  “And take his gun.”

I rolled my eyes as one security officer reached for my gun, and used finger and thumb to lift up my shirt to make it more visible.  No use making life harder and risking that they frisk me and find everything else.  The other officer pulled out a pair of cuffs.  They were a modern sort, which was doubly annoying – ‘u’ shaped bands of metal that both fit into bars.  The bar was ratcheted up to my wrist, then the key withdrawn.  Just tight enough that I could feel my pulse throbbing against the bar.

The security officer put the other shackle on his own wrist.

“I’ll find you,” the Horse said.

“Here?  There’s nothing to see here.  Keep eyes on things closer to the heart of the Academy, watch the exits of the offices, keep an eye on the crowds and see if there’s any stirring, anything being passed around,” I said.  “We’ll meet you at the library, and we’ll move on Professor Y together.  With luck, he won’t have any other hirelings, and this is all the bleeding I have to do today.”

Avis twisted around on the ground.  Veins still stood out, and her eyes were bloodshot.  Her expression, intense, one brow arched, was the body language equivalent of screaming, “I know you’re up to something!”

I remained calm, even as she struggled with the stitched who held her.  She was gagged with chain included as part of the gag.  Her hands were bound behind her, and a chain encircled her body, trapping her wings against it.  More binding secured her legs and the feet with talons built into them.

I would have liked to encourage professor Horse to keep Avis under lock and key, but I worried that it would have the opposite effect.

Besides, it didn’t matter too much.  The man was fairly firm in his convictions, and he actually seemed to care about the people who served under him.  The damage done and the deaths seemed to have left their mark on him, because he was distracted.

I wasn’t planning on sticking around, either.

“To the greenhouse, escorts!” I proclaimed.

The two men looked less than impressed.

But the Horse nodded, and I was led off.

Alright then.

This wasn’t a sustainable series of events, really.  Being shackled was bad, because it meant I had little chance of escaping the chain of events that would see me in Academy custody.

I could play along for a while, but I didn’t get the impression that I could change the Horse’s mind on things.

“He really doesn’t like me, huh?” I asked.

“You’re a rebel, he said,” said the soldier I was cuffed to.  The man was young, prematurely balding, and his short hair didn’t help hide it.  He had a nasty talon-wound on his forehead, but it had already had something applied to it – a quick daubing of some styptic.

“I’m just surprised at the depth of the Horse’s dislike, really,” I said.  Testing.

“Professor Horsfall fought them down south,” the officer said.

Not taking up the nickname, but jumping straight to professor Horsfall.  He was respected, then.

I could use that.

“So I gather he manages security and he’s the one the students like and go to, professor Y is part of things because he’s smart and opportunistic with some good manipulation skills, and the fat cat aristocrat has the final say when it comes to the purse strings.  Strength, cunning, and money, in three different corners of the power triangle?”

“Sure,” the guy said.

Laconic, this guy.

His right hand was cuffed to my left, and the soldier walking to my right was free, just keeping a mild eye on me while he walked, glancing around him.

I began playing up my limp, where my leg was already bleeding.

“Makes it hard for me.  See, I became a rebel because every professor I ran into was of Professor Y’s ilk.  I can’t stand the Crown because every person with any power that isn’t Academy is like that aristocrat guy who manages the Academy.  So I’m kind of really floored that I’ve run into someone who seems decent.”

“You talk a lot, huh?” Mr. Laconic asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Mostly when I’m nervous.  Or to think through problems.  Also, talking helps distract from the fact that I’m bleeding in twenty places and it kind of hurts.”

“We all are,” Mr. Laconic said.

“I’m just glad we were able to stop her,” I said.  “I’m not good for much else, but I can deal with that type alright.  I’m assuming Horsfall will be fair to her?”

“Fair as she deserves,” Mr. Laconic said.

“He’ll be fair,” the other officer countered.

I played up my limp more, and eyed a paving stone that lay slightly ajar on the path ahead.  If I kicked it with enough strength mid-stride, I could manage a pretty convincing trip and fall.  I wouldn’t fall all the way, but still, it would be a step.

I’d need another step to complete the maneuver.

“Yeah.  I got the impression he wasn’t the kind to abuse a prisoner,” I said.

Build rapport, reinforce ideas, us versus them, don’t hurt prisoners, we’re on the same page about Horsfall being a good guy.

The officer to my right lit up a cigarette.

Scratch that.  I might not need another step to my plan after all.

“May I?” I asked.

The man gave me a sidelong glance.

Then he tapped out another cigarette, handing it to me, before striking a match and holding a flame to the cigarette.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Goes a ways toward calming my nerves.”

“Yeah,” the man said.

He offered one to his friend.

Take it, I thought.  Take it.  You know you want it.

He reached out, taking the cigarette.  Because one of his hands was occupied with the shackle and my hand, his buddy leaned across me to provide the lit match.

I moved closer to the man I was shackled to to make room, reached across my lower ribs with my free hand, and paused, waiting a moment.

“Steady,” the other officer said, as they tried to coordinate.

In that moment, while their focus was elsewhere, I lifted Mr. Laconic’s gun free of its holster.  I held it by the handle, the chamber against my wrist, the barrel against my lower arm, in as casual a position as I could manage, and readjusted the strap of my bag on my left shoulder

Moving my arm back, I slid the gun between my bag and my back.  The bag was heavy enough and had enough stuff toward the bottom end that the gun was held in place.

Just fine, this.  Had I not had the opportunity afforded by the match, I could have kicked the stone and lifted the gun in the midst of tripping and climbing up the man to find my balance.  It might have required more of a distraction or a redirection of attention to my leg if I wanted to move the gun across me and into a temporary hiding spot.  Maybe to my injured leg.  Maybe I could have bumped into a wound.  Maybe I could have used exhaled smoke to cloud the movement.

Had that not been an opportunity I might have drawn a knife and timed it to knife one of the men as we entered the greenhouse.

But there was little use dwelling on it.  It was done.  I had one of two guns.  My gun had been handed off.

“You don’t suppose the Horse would go easy on me, since I’ve been cooperative, and since he seems like an alright guy?”

“Dunno,” the officer that had provided the cigarettes said.  “Most we’ve had to deal with is students poisoning each other, getting between two guys in a fistfight or two cats in a claw-fight, or having to shoot a project that gets too excited at being outdoors.”

“I hear you,” I said.  But what I took away from it was the distinct impression that these men weren’t experienced.  I’d suspected such from the fact that they hadn’t searched me, but now the sentiment had been reaffirmed.

We walked down the path to the greenhouse.   I saw one of the occupants at the glass, peering through to look at us.  The whites of his eyes were visible as they widened.

Cigarette-man opened the door to the greenhouse, and he led the way inside.

I drew the gun, and I pressed it between the man’s shoulderblades.

“Stop right there,” I said.

He did.

I felt my shackled arm go taut, and glanced back over my shoulder at Mr. Laconic, who was in the process of realizing he’d lost his gun.

“Don’t try anything funny,” I told him.  “I shot her, I can shoot you two.”

“Sure,” he said.

“Cigarette man,” I said.  “Very slowly, with two fingers, pull your gun from the holster.  Toss it into the soil bed over there.”

He did as I asked.

“Now lie down on the floor, right here, arms out to your sides.”

He did.  In the process, he stopped blocking my view of the students of the Greenhouse Gang.

They looked more like Lillian’s crowd.  Some were attractive, but I didn’t get the impression that attractiveness was a priority.  They were tidy looking, in a school where a lot of students weren’t.  No major alterations had been made to their uniforms.   There was a roughly even balance of boys to girls, eight and seven.

“Good morning,” I told them.

“Good morning,” a few of them mumbled, as if I was a homeroom teacher at too-dang-early-o’clock in the morning.  They looked spooked and confused at this scene.

“I’m with Fray.  You might have heard the gunshots a bit ago.  We’ve run into a small snag,” I said.  I turned to Mr. Laconic.  “Lie down on top of him.  This arm behind your back, here.”

“You going to shoot us?” he asked.

“Not if I can help it,” I said.  “But you’ve got one of my wrists.  Let’s see about getting me free.  Lie down.”

Reluctantly, slowly, he lay down on top of the smoking man.  I twisted the arm I was shackled to behind him, so the chain extended up to me and gave me some freedom of movement.

“You,” I spoke to a boy who looked like the leader of this particular group.  He was heavyset to an extent that his cheeks pushed his eyes were slits, with a round face and glasses.  “Would you do me a favor and be an extra set of hands?”

He approached.

“Bag here,” I said, shrugging one shoulder out of the bag.  “Watch for the blades and syringes I have in there, the points and edges shouldn’t be exposed, but let’s not test our luck.  Dig deep for a jar.  Ridged exterior.”

He gave me a long, searching look, his face unreadable, and then did as I asked, lifting up the flap at the top and rummaging inside while the one strap dangled from the crook of my elbow.

He retrieved a jar of fluid.

“Would you grab my cigarette, and these men’s cigarettes?  That stuff might theoretically be flammable, and I’ve got friends who can’t know that I did something stupid and burned myself alive.  That’s good.  Thank you.  And step back, all of you get to the other end of the greenhouse…”

I waited while the crowd of students obliged.

“And throw that at the ground in front of us, hard enough to break it.”

“Oy!” the soldier on the bottom called out.

The boy threw the jar, and it shattered.  Bits of glass might have hit the face of the uniformed men I was shackled to.

This gas had a chemical odor, but it was invisible.  I saw doubt on the expressions of the Greenhouse Gang, before the soldiers began reacting.  They coughed, to start, and then they groaned.  The groaning was soon interrupted by coughing, and then the two things blended together into a unpleasant barking retching noise.

I was resistant to poisons, and even I coughed.  I realized where the groans were coming from as I felt every single one of my exposed wounds draw tight and then burn as if hot pokers were being pressed into them.

I could handle pain, but this was still bad.

Teeth clenched, I sat down hard on the second man, who was squirming.  Tendons and muscles all over my body tensed as I weathered the worst of it.

When the struggles of the two men stopped, I moved a hand, fingers twitching, to my bag, fished in the front pocket, and found my lockpicks.

The gas was a paralytic, with a little bit of added extra to keep it from paralyzing cardiac and respiratory systems, and it had had a small effect on me, making the lockpicking an interesting endeavor.  It didn’t help that the lock was more modern than some I’d fiddled with.

I started to speak, and coughed.

“How was your discussion with Avis?” I asked, when I was done coughing.

“Was fine,” the boy with the glasses said.  “Is she alright?”

“Nope,” I said, internally cursing the fact that my thumb had no strength in it.  “I tried to help her, but things got hairy.  I’m more of a problem solver than a fighter.  We’re accelerating the timetable a hair, here, and I might stumble a few times along the way since I only know part of it, but this is doable.  Are you ready to go?”

“Oh, I’m not going,” Glasses said.  “But I’m willing to help things along if it means less students going from here to Sprung, Wheelock, or Belltower.”

“Perfect,” I said.  I worked my jaw a bit and worked out the oddity in my lip I’d felt as I’d made the ‘r’ sound.

They’re going,” he indicated the rest of the gang.

“Even more perfect,” I said.  I freed my wrist, moved the shackle over to the other paralyzed fellow, and locked it to his wrist.  I stood and stretched, experiencing all sorts of funny things as a result of the mild nerve gas.  My rectum in particular was clenching as if it was trying to communicate in tap-code, and I had some concerns that it would stop dotting and start dashing.

Maybe I’d avoid dosing myself with this particular gas in the future.  I was very careful as I bent over to check the pulses at the throat of each of the men.  Grabbing the one on top, I rolled him off of his friend.

“You’ll be okay,” I said.  I said it to the men, but I addressed it to the Greenhouse Gang.

“Excuse me,” I said.  I put the gun away, and moved out of the area.  I couldn’t tell how far the gas reached, but the other students weren’t coughing.  “We’ll use the other door.”

The group joined me, and we left the greenhouse.

“Goodbye, greenhouse,” one of the boys said.  “I think this might be the last time we see you.  You treated us well.”

“I didn’t think about that,” one of the younger girls said.

“I know the feeling,” I said.  We walked around the greenhouse and headed in the general direction of Beattle’s library and main office.  “Leaving behind that familiar place.  I did it last winter, almost a year ago.”

“Yeah?” the younger girl said.

“But there were bad feelings tied to that place.  It was where I grew up, and I didn’t realize that as familiar as it was, there was an oppressive feeling whenever I was there.  The dark cloud that pressed down from above.  Happy memories, don’t get me wrong.  It was my family, my friends, my best friend, the girls I liked and a lot of good feelings.  But the bad that you don’t even realize was there…”

I drew in a breath.

“…You get away from it all.  You find a new place, and you bring the best of the good people with you, or you find new good people, and you get settled somewhere that’s good, without nearly as much of the bad.”

“Lambsbridge?” a girl asked me.  “The place?  It was the orphanage?”

I turned my head.  “Don’t tell me I’ve met you too.”

She shook her head.  “No sir.”

I’m a sir, I thought.

“My father is a sheriff,” she said.  “He’s a mean son of a gun.  And strict, makes me write home twice a week, or he comes over here and cusses me out at the entrance to the dorm.  I’m a compulsive reader, and I have a good memory, so I saw your wanted posters there when i went to drop off mail, and at my dad’s work when I went home for summer holiday, on the wall with all the rest, an’ I remembered them.  I saw them change it up now and then.  It was interesting to see how some of the descriptions changed as the seasons passed.”

“I’m quite impressed,” I said.  “Top student indeed.”

“Thank you,” she said, with none of the change in expression that I might have expected in response to praise.  She looked sadder if anything.

“Who is he?” the round-faced boy with the glasses asked.

“Sylvester Lambsbridge,” I said.

“Traitor to the Crown,” she said.  “Which usually means you were once in league with them.”

“More Academy than Crown, but yes.”

“Wanted dead or alive.  Killer, problem solver, devastatingly intelligent.”

I grinned.  “You remembered that?  Dang, I like you.”

She tucked her hair behind her ear, not making eye contact.  The tuck was a nervous thing, I suspected, not a flirty thing.  Or it was both.

“A killer?” the boy who’d lamented the loss of the greenhouse asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Was part of my responsibilities, once.”

I had to duck my head a little and use the cover of a few taller boys in the group to keep from being stared at by a cluster of students.  The peck marks and scratches would be bad, I imagined.

“Blood on your hands,” glasses said.  “Avis was a pacifist.”

I had to resist the urge to snort at that.  This was something that mattered to them.  They didn’t want ugliness and violence.  I wondered what the story was with that proclamation.

Instead, I nodded, and I put a sympathetic expression on my face.  “If we could leave Avis in charge of you and let her manage this, we would.  I’ll make freeing her a problem I solve at a later stage, not to worry.  Because if I can’t, then I’ve got to take over this project for Fray.”

“She isn’t in charge?” glasses asked.

“She wanted to be,” I said.  “But… snags.”

There were doubts.  The group looked anxious.  Enough so that I wondered if they would all be here if I left and came back.

“Part of the reason I’m here is I share common ground with you guys.  I came from a place not so different from here.  I had my own greenhouse.  I had my own Greenhouse Gang.  The most important thing?  More than the mission?  It’s going to be ensuring you all are free.  Nothing tying you down.  No dark cloud bearing down on you, no feeling like your best isn’t a guarantee.”

The people who had doubts still looked like they had doubts, but there was a little bit more light in the eyes of the others.  The sheriff’s daughter was among them.

“Tea, talking, sleeping in, music playing on a machine.  Resources to pursue passion projects.  Associating only with the people you want to associate with.”

“What’s next?” glasses asked.

I have no blinking idea, I thought.

“Where were you at with Avis when you left off?  From what I gathered, she was just rounding you up and making sure you were on board.”

Glasses nodded.  “We know which students we’re talking to and where.  We start the rumor about this being something that was in the works from last year.  We have the credibility.”

“Perfect,” I said.  “Okay.  I’ve checked on the rooftop girls-”

I didn’t miss the faint look of distaste on one or two faces.

“-And you lot.  Next is student council.  They meet in the office?”

“No.  Most of them handle things elsewhere.  Liasion with staff.  Only the president and vice president of the student council really spend time there regularly.  When they meet, they usually do it by the water,” glasses said.  He pointed.

“Ralph was a member of student council, once upon a time,” the sheriff’s daughter said.  “He quit to keep his grades up.”

Ralph the round-faced glasses wearer pushed his glasses up his nose, and folded his arms.  Defensive actions on both fronts.

That’s not why you left, I thought to myself, with a sing-song lilt.

“I want to walk around to the far side of the office,” I said.  “I’m suspicious they’re lying in wait.”

“This way, then,” one of the others said.

We took a right, then a left, and walked down a street.  The students and I watched to our left as we crossed the street.

We could see the library at the south end of the Beattle Academy office, and we could see the Horse’s men gathered on the back stairs.  Something was wrong.

The Horse had told me that the security forces he’d brought to Avis were the extent of Beattle’s resources.

Then why had those numbers tripled, even accounting for the losses to Avis’ talons?  Why were there suddenly sixty or more serious-looking men and women with uniform jackets and frames that looked like they exercised?

I thought of the two men who had died in the library.

Were these the rest of that particular group?

“Be prepared,” I told the Greenhouse Gang.  “We’re starting.”

“We’re starting?”

“They’re trying to stop the flood.  They won’t succeed,” I said.  I reached into a pocket, sorted through my notes, and said, “Oxham and Haigsbow.  Do what you need to do, we all rendezvous there.  Stay discreet in the meantime.  They’re looking for me and they’re looking for students like you, who are working with me.  Soon it won’t be possible to find either.”

The students nodded.

“Stay the course,” I said.  “I’ll make sure the system is rigged for you, not against you.”

The nods were slightly more enthusiastic.

Even among the ones who’d seemed most uncertain and most uneasy about the fact that Avis was out of the picture and that I was a killer.

I broke away from the group.  More free agents, cast out, while I was left to trust that they’d find their way back to me, that there wouldn’t be any disasters.

I found another entrance to the office, and I began navigating it.

There was no easy way to judge where things were, and my memory wasn’t good enough to know off the back of my head.  I would have really liked having Jessie around so she could tell me.  I had to judge by the colors of coats and the styles people wore, all the while looking out for the uniform jackets that suggested Academy security.

It was perhaps a stroke of providence that I stumbled on the little trick to identifying where I needed to be.  There were Academy security officers in the main office, and I steered well clear of them, taking the stairs, ducking into side hallways, even pausing inside an empty office at one point to let them pass.

And as I found the areas where the officers weren’t, I realized that they’d been told to stay away from Professor Y.

Which meant that in the course of avoiding them, veering more toward the places with more black coats, I found him.

I opened his office door and let myself inside.

Professor Y was within, sitting at his desk.  He jumped at my arrival, and looked very concerned as he took another look at me.

He was an old man, his back so stooped that the curve of it could graph to one of Wollstone’s ratios.  His hair was neatly groomed, but the fact remained that the top of his head was level with his shoulderblades.  The lines of his face were deep, his eyes deep set and very blue, his cheekbones rosy, which was really the only part of him that didn’t jive with my mental image of him.

“Who are you?”

I ignored him, rummaging for another gas canister.

“What do you want?” he asked.

I saw his right arm move very slowly.  He was opening a desk drawer.

I hurled the jar at him, and hurled myself forward in that same motion, putting myself against the base of the desk.

I listened, felt, and waited for the man to stop grunting, gagging, and jerking in his chair.

Once I was done, I investigated his desk.

Four letters and one document.  Each one with ‘Professor Horsfall’ on it somewhere.  The ones that were purportedly written by the man had forged signatures on them, clearly copied from the document that the old man had collected.

I checked the old man’s pulse, and found it weak.

I never brought more than one of the same kind of poison when I could help it.  It was easier on my system and tested my tolerances less if I spread stuff out.

Couldn’t remember off the top of my head what this one was.

“I wonder what Fray saw in you,” I said.  “Opportunity?”

Only his eyes moved.  Drool was already leaking out of his mouth.

I had limited time.  Horsfall would soon lose patience and decide they had enough in the way of forces to storm the place without me.

Still, I took the time to pen out a note.

Whatever else he was, whatever I was trying to do, the man seemed decent.  I’d meant what I’d said to his soldiers when I said I wasn’t sure how to handle him.  He was what I wanted to promote in the Academy.

For you, Professor Horsfall.  You may be my opponent in this but you’re not my enemy.  You earned my respect through your common decency and leadership.  I would have killed the man, but I sensed you wouldn’t want me to.

-Sylvester

I placed the note in front of the old man on the desk, so he could read it, and pushed his chair in with him in it.

Then, carefully, I rewrote the first of the notes, but changed names around.  I tore Professor Y’s copy into quarters, and I left it beside my note to Horsfall.

I made my exit, avoiding the uniforms.

I could hear the tramp of boots on floor as the massed uniforms started to make their way to Professor Y.  Other uniforms were gravitating that way too.

I made my way to the bulletin board, trying to stay mostly out of sight, knowing I looked a mess, and I put the first letter up.

Heads turned, looking at me and at the paper.

I touched one arm of the most curious looking of curious onlookers, pointing at the note, and that gave the person permission to take a look-see.  Others gravitated in that direction.

Ready.  Set.  Go.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.8

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

I approached a group of girls, hands in my pockets.

“No,” the lead girl said, the moment she spotted me.

“You didn’t even hear what I have to say.”

“Cheesy pickup line.  You look like the type to think he can get away with being a little sleazy and think it’s funny.”

“Wow,” I said.  I pressed my hands to my heart.  “Wow.”

I looked over the group of girls.  There were about nine of them, and they moved as a loose crowd, each with a unique style.  I saw a few body modifications here and there, some unconventional hair styles, and very loose interpretations of Beattle’s dress code.  Skirts were hiked or rolled up to show more leg even while they wore jackets and coats that looked like the sort of jackets Mauer’s soldiers would wear in cooler months – oversized and prone to drooping over hands, even when they were rolled up two or three times over.

Makeup was often heavy, often chosen to accent the body mods.  One girl had a lone deer antler at the corner of her scalp, and makeup had been staggered so it seemed to blend into her brown skin.  Another girl with goat eyes lined heavily with eyeliner was staring me down.

The leader wasn’t modded so heavily, but she’d foregone the academy jacket entirely to wear a black sweater with a layered collar beneath a double layer of jacket and military jacket.  I’d thought about clothing as armor as I got ready in the morning, but the fashion choice there was akin to plate mail where it covered her, and there wasn’t much beneath.  Her top three buttons were undone and her skirt was hiked up higher than any of the girls.  Chance more than choice that I couldn’t see anything worth seeing.

But her attitude, I’d seen it on some drunks and some fighters.  She was spoiling.  For a fight, for trouble, for… anything.  She was the queen of her clique here, and the crowd at her sides and back were more armor, on top of the layers she wore.  It let her expose more throat and belly, metaphorically.  Baiting others in even as she looked for a morsel to bite at herself.

“You’re not worth my time,” she said.

“You’re the rooftop girls,” I said.

“And you’re a kid who thinks that because he’s heard the rumors, he just needs to say the word, snap his fingers, and I’m yours?  Go away.”

“Are you sure you want me to go away?” I asked her.  “We had a meeting planned for later.”

She stopped in her tracks.

“You?” she asked.

“I saw your group walking across the campus, I figured out who you were at a glance.  I’m currently waiting for a few people, some things are going on, but I thought I’d say hi.”

She gave me a look, top to bottom.  “Hi.”

No apologies, no excuses.  I could appreciate that.

“I’m quite glad I was able to spot you.  It makes things easier.  Two people just died,” I told her.  “It happened in the library.  They know, they’re after us, and things are moving ahead of schedule, with different times and places.  Which is why you’re dealing with me, specifically.”

“Died?” another girl asked.

“Who are ‘they’?” the lead girl asked.

I waved her off.  “Our mess.  Our problem to clean up.  Two key players got greedy and went rogue.  The problem with doing as much as we’ve been doing long-distance is that it’s hard to assess who we’re dealing with.  But it’s a problem that can be handled.  Which it will be, in a matter of minutes.”

I gave her time to digest that, and looked in the direction of the greenhouse.  Avis was still there.

I turned and looked in the direction of the library.  No Gordon Two and no Horse.

“Minutes?” she asked.

“If you want to watch, you can,” I told her.  “If you wanted to leave and get us started, that’s even better, and would earn you a little drawn medal on this particular assignment.”

“A medal on my homework?” she asked.  “Please don’t treat me like a child.”

And in saying that, you make me think of you as more of a child than if you’d remained silent.

“As you wish,” I said.  “But you should decide now if you’re still in.  Everything is starting into motion now, and it’s up to you if you want to be one of the ones who go or one of the ones who stay behind.”

“Mm,” she made a sound.

The girl with the goat eyes was still staring at me.  The rectangular irises made for an interesting effect.  I quirked an eyebrow at her.

“Sylvester,” she said.

“Hm?” I asked.  “Yeah.”

“I’ve met him,” goat-eyes said, to the lead girl.

“Have you?” I asked.  “My memory isn’t the best.”

“I was one of the people sitting in the background while you were talking with Ronnie?  Before everything turned topsy-turvy?”

I shook my head.  “You have me at a loss.  I can think of ten things off the top of my head that that could apply to.”

“The start of the civil war?”

“Again, that’s like, three major events in my very shoddy recollection.”

“Dame Cicely’s?”

I snapped my fingers, “Got it.  Yes.”

She turned to the lead girl.  “When we first talked about this.  You brought up the rebellion head?  Genevieve?  And then I said I’d met her, and I shared my take?”

The lead girl nodded.

“He was there when it all happened.  He was there before it happened, even.”

“I often am,” I said.  “It’s a quality of mine.”

“And,” she said.  “He was hunting Genevieve.”

“Yep,” I said.

The lead girl gave me a look.  “Now you’re working for her?”

With her,” I said.  “Not under her.  I see it more as a partnership.”

“Really now?  How did that come about?” goat-eyes asked.

“It makes a lot more sense if you think about the two of us being siblings,” I said.  “Even when we were on opposite sides, we got along pretty well.  Then I left the Academy, and here I stand.”

The girls had relaxed considerably in the talk with me, which was interesting.  A clique who were very at home with the idea of imminent change.  They were in, committed to this path that Fray had outlined for them.

“Looks like whatever you anticipated happening is happening,” the lead girl said.

I turned to look.

On the back stairs of the library, a group of men flanked by stitched had emerged.  There were about twenty in all, some with weapons.  I could make out the man in the center of the group – average height, but good looking by most metrics.  His hair was parted to one side and grown long, and he had a rakish mustache.  He wore a lab coat of a very old fashioned style worn by people on the battlefield, old enough that I imagined it had been his father’s style more than his own.

“The Horse,” I said.  “Subtlety really isn’t his strong suit, is it?”

That got a nervous titter of amusement from the rank and file of the rooftop girls.

“Are you staying or are you going?” I asked.

“I’m watching,” the lead girl said.

“And are you staying or are you going?” I asked, again.

She gave me a curious look.  Then she deflated a little.

“No other choice,” she said.  “I’m in.  I’ll do my part when it all starts.”

“Good,” I said.  “If I have to run off and we don’t get a chance to talk after this, go downtown.  Uhhh…”

I fished in a pocket.  I found my notes.

“…Oxham and Haigsbow.  Meet us there when you’ve done what needs to be done and you’re not sure where to go anymore.  Because the dorms aren’t safe anymore, and Beattle is about to have a very interesting day.”

She nodded.

“This should be dramatic, and it’ll help leave people uneasy,” I said.

Leaving the girls with those parting words, I approached Gordon Two and the Horse.

The stitched were in uniform, and were warm enough I could see the heat of their bodies in contrast to the cool air around them.  They and the men who worked with them all wore Academy design and Academy badges.  They were Beattle’s security team.  The people who rounded up escaped experiments and broke up fights between students.

“I saw the bodies,” the Horse told me.

“Gordon,” I said, turning away from the horse professor.  “Do me a favor?  Keep an eye on the Greenhouse.  Let us know if she departs?”

Gordon nodded.

I turned my attention to the Horse.

“A word in private?” I asked him.

“Hm?  What do you need to say to me that you can’t say in front of these men?”

The Horse was proud, arrogant.  Good looking for those who liked men, I supposed.  I could see why Yancy hated him already.

“Because it has to do with certain… indiscretions on the part of one of your-” I cleared my throat.  “Partners.”

“Does it now?” the Horse asked.

I nodded.

He pointed, and put a hand on my shoulder, leading me off to one side and out of earshot.

I was really hoping Avis wouldn’t round the corner and see the gathered soldiers.

“Talk to me,” he said.

“Would it surprise you to know that at the same time that those men were slaughtered in your library,” I said, careful to make it his library, “That a colleague of yours was there?”

“A colleague.  You’ll have to be more specific,” the Horse said.

I smiled, but internally, I was scrambling.  I couldn’t remember Yancy’s real name.

Yorkie?  Did it start with a Y or a Y-sound?  Eustace?  No, it probably started with a Y.

“I don’t want to name names.  Let’s call him… Professor Y,” I said.

“Professor Y,” the Horse said.

“Do me a favor?  Can you move your soldiers out of sight?”

“Paulson!” the Horse called out.  “All of you step inside.  Keep an ear out.”

One of the soldiers nodded.

Good.

“The Academy is closing down,” I said.

“Within a few years,” the Horse said.

“You’d think,” I said.  “But no.  Today.  Functionally, anyhow, if Professor Y would have his way.  But it gets a little more complicated than that.”

“I see,” the man said.  “I can handle complicated.”

“Good.  The professor intends to leak information suggesting Beattle will close before the semester’s end.  The student body locked out of the classrooms, no credits, partial refunds.”

“That would mean a great many angry students,” the Horse said.

“That was the end goal.  There are rebellion forces in the area,” I said.  I cleared my throat.  “Ones that might like to recruit from among such a large body of Academy trained individuals.”

The Horse’s jaw hardened.  “Do you, young man with uncanny knowledge of current events, happen to be one of them?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

He nodded, frowning.

And, a few moments after that, I saw his hand move out of his pocket, thumb hooked into one corner of his pocket.  Nonchalant.  I couldn’t see it or see the bulge, because of the nature of the coat he wore, but I was willing to bet that it was a very easy maneuver to flick his coat aside and reach for a weapon at his hip.

So that was how it was.  Military background, perhaps, and a dislike of the rebels and insurgent groups.

I’d captured the rooftop girls.  Fray had Professor Y and the Greenhouse Gang.  If this went sour, then I’d lose ground, while Avis would be free to continue recruiting, gathering forces.

There was a critical mass at play that, should either of us achieve it, would mean that we could flip the stragglers and the questionable types.  It was a race to that scale and mass.  And if I could remove Avis from play, then I could grow our forces while Fray tried to figure out what was happening.

But doing that required winning over the Horse.

“We thought at first about bringing all three of you on board.  But the… dynamic made it very clear that it wouldn’t work.  That you were too noble for the task,” I said.  “That approach twisted around and bit us.  As it turns out, Professor Y is a greedy and black-hearted man.”

“I believe that of him,” the Horse said.

I nodded.  “He wanted to keep it to just him because it meant more money and more power for him, it meant he could make you the scapegoat of all of this.  And he wanted to keep things small and wholly under his control so he could turn the table on us.  Are you seeing where this is going?”

“Oh, I understand,” the Horse said.  His jaw set once again, but the steel in his gaze wasn’t meant for me.

“He hired someone, a monster who murdered our two men in the library.  Now he’s working with students to turn them against us and against you.  He wants a monopoly on the hearts and minds of the students here, and he’s frankly not capable of achieving either.”

I wanted to see a trace of bitter satisfaction at hearing about the failure of Professor Y.  Except I didn’t, and he wasn’t someone with a good poker face.  That satisfaction wasn’t there.  He hated the man, I was fairly sure, but… no joy at seeing the man fail.

Had I just made the mistake of trying at a clandestine deal with someone that was actually a decent person?  Someone who wanted his enemies to be better people?

“I know you don’t like us or our type,” I said.  “But Professor Y brought a monster among your students.  She’s there now, my agent there is watching out for her.  If we don’t handle this, then there may be more bodies.  Things are underway.  The riots are going to happen, and I think you and I both want this to be as bloodless as possible.”

The Horse stared off in the direction Gordon Two had gone.

“You said the two men in the library were yours?” he asked.

Something in his tone set off bells, tripwires and other trouble in my head.

He knew something.

“I said they were ours,” I said.  “Our mutual problem.  Just as the students are.  Just as the rioting that’s about to start is.”

I was doing my utmost to drag his focus away from that line of thinking, picking apart my wording and being pointed about the nature of those two men.

“Your riot.  To your ends.”

I shook my head.  “We were going to be gentler about it.  We planned for it to unfold some time from now, and we laid the groundwork.  Until things were underway, we wanted to milk the teat.  Collect the stragglers… see those girls over there?”

I indicated the rooftop girls more clearly.

“I see them.  I know the type.  Belligerent.  The ones at the bottom of the rankings.”

“They alter their bodies and distance themselves from authority like you because they want to be as far away from home as possible.  Some go back and they try to make lives for themselves.  Others… we wanted to milk that teat.”

“You’ve said that twice.  That implies things when you’re talking about young ladies like that,” the Horse said, stiff.

I blinked, put the pieces together, then reversed course swiftly.  “Oh, no!  No!  Not at all-”

-unless they were keen and Jessie was okay with it-

“-and never.  Rest assured.  I was building up to a greater metaphor, is all.  We aimed to collect the ones who weren’t going home.  Boy and girl.  Give them a focus and a place.  Apprentice them to back alley doctors who tend to those that can’t afford what the Crown asks, perhaps.  And we would keep our thumb on the pulse for when Beattle closed, and when there was a greater crop of the disaffected, frustrated, and aimless… a profit.”

“Interesting to see how the other side thinks,” the Horse said.

“Well, I’ll give you an insight as to how Professor Y thinks.  He wants to slaughter this cow early rather than milk it.  That’s the metaphor.  Bloody, messy, violent, and amateurish.  He started early, thinking we were too far away and too preoccupied with other things to notice him doing it.”

“He brought a monster into our midst to safeguard himself while he did it?”

“And he started already.  The rumors are out there.  The ball is rolling downhill.  Stop me if you want.  Arrest me, turn me in, take action.  But call the remainder of your security forces.  You’ll need all of them to stop this woman, or this will end badly, understand?”

“That was my security force,” the Horse told me.  “They’re waiting inside the library right now.”

I blinked.

“You have others, don’t you?  Stitched?”

He shook his head.  “Not for combat.”

“Warbeasts?”

“None combat ready.  Priscilla and Scythe, but they’re low with litters.  Spike is out to stud in another city.”

I blinked a few times.

Slight miscalculation.  I’d co-opted the Academy forces and found them wanting.

“My men are good at what they do,” the Horse said.

“I’m not questioning that.  I’m questioning their welfare if we don’t handle this well.  Do you have more?  Anyone watching the bodies?”

“Two men keeping students from wandering in on the scene,” he said.

“Anything else?  Containment specialists who can hold a pointed stick?  Any particularly fit teaching staff?  Secretaries you don’t particularly like?”

“Some of the men from the stable double as handlers when a student project gets ornery.”

“Get them.  Get nets, because this is a monster that flies.”

“Just how dangerous is this creature?” he asked, as he started walking toward the library and his waiting men.

That is a very good question.

Avis exited the Greenhouse alone.  She held herself differently now than she had.  She was calmer, a little more confident, and a little less worn around the edges.

She’d been Academy once.  Intelligent conversation, tea, and time with students had to be a balm for the soul.  She was a head and shoulders, and an obscure draping of a black cloak covering the form below.  All of my senses that I’d trained to keep an eye out for patterns that went with a concealed weapon were twitching instinctively at the sight of bulges here and there beneath her cloak.

She headed straight for what Gordon Two had suggested might be her next meeting place.  Students gathered sometimes at the bend near the river, and the student council office wasn’t far away.

I would have liked to go ahead and beat her to the punch, then see her expression when they weren’t waiting there for her, but removing her from the picture now was too important.

“Wings don’t leave much room for other things,” the Horse commented.

The Horse, Gordon Two and I were gathered indoors, looking through a window at Avis.  The rooftop girls were nearby.  I’d told them to watch and wait at a nearby vantage point where they wouldn’t look too unnatural.

We’d rounded out our numbers, at my urging.

Fifteen soldiers, twenty stitched, some noncombat but capable of obeying orders.  Two men with nets and ropes who were used to dealing with unruly warbeasts.  One student project.

Five soldiers and ten stitched walked in a group down the left side of the path, toward Avis.  They left the way clear for her, and even through the window I could hear them talking and laughing.

I wondered how genuine they sounded.

“Overwhelming force, huh?” Gordon Two asked.  “Hitting her before she knows what’s happened?”

“This is going to end one of three ways,” I said.  “The best case scenario is that it’s over in an instant.  Everyone does what they’re supposed to, and they break her wings and legs in the initial hit.”

The group of soldiers and stitched were twenty paces from Avis.

If they tipped her off…

“What are the other two ways?” Gordon Two asked.

“She could fly away.  Then everything unfolds with the leak, Beattle falling to pieces, bloody riots, and she’s there behind the scenes, working against us.”

The Horse nodded.

“And the third result is that she wins.”

“Wins?” Gordon Two asked.

“She fought the Duke of Francis face to face,” I said.

I saw Gordon Two’s eyes widen.

“She didn’t win, but she fought him.  She did pretty well too, and that counts for a lot.”

“We were within five paces of someone crazy enough to fight a noble!?”

You’re within two paces of someone crazy enough to fight a noble and win, I thought.

Instead, I just said, “Yeah.”

My biggest hope here was that she wasn’t expecting trouble.  There were no warning signs.  Her thoughts would be on what came later.  The plan coming to fruition.  She had little reason to watch her back.

So as the soldiers drew within ten paces, and then five, I was chewing the side of my tongue, hoping that she wouldn’t.  The buildings on this part of the street connected above the street forming an archway or tunnel that foot traffic had to pass beneath.  It was the place where the soldiers would pass by Avis.

I heard the shout as the order was given.  The group that was now walking just to her left turned at a right angle to simultaneously face her.

In that same instant, she turned, backing away a few steps, her wings spreading wide, cloak cast behind her where it had encircled her before.  In the doing, she loosed her friends.

Her wings had been folded around her body, a perpetual self-hug.  Rigging and exoskeleton framework supported her body while staying light enough to allow her to fly.  And, it seemed, in addition to all of that, she’d had birds with her.  Perched on her wings.  perched on the exoskeleton.  Perched on her arms and settled on her clothing.

They had been bred to attack.

Lords-suckling mother-cunting birds! I thought, as I ran past Gordon Two and out the door.

She heard or saw me as I left the building and ventured out onto the street.

She turned to face me, and I could see the telltale signs of drugs at work.  Veins and coloration, the nature of her eyes, and the way she held herself as she breathed.

The drug was only just kicking in.  She hadn’t taken it overtly, which meant it was an implant she could activate with a muscle, or something contained within a tooth.  Nothing acted quite that fast, which meant she’d likely taken it when she saw the Academy security approaching.

“You,” she said.

I drew my gun.  I didn’t fire it as I pointed it at her.  Good thing, too, because she was quick, ducking low to the ground, wings flapping to cast her forward at an angle her legs weren’t suggesting.

I adjusted, aimed, and loosed a shot I knew would miss.

Men were leaving the building behind her.  One had a net.

With her back to me, I couldn’t see what she was doing.  I was only aware that one of the two men dropped to the ground as if he’d been shot.  He collapsed on top of the net he held.

She leaped, beating her wings twice while in midair to increase the distance at which she moved.  She kicked the second man in the face with a bare foot, and she managed to slash his face open as she did it.

No doubt anticipating that I might fire again, she performed an acrobatic maneuver in the air.  A flap of wings, a kick and a twist, to change direction while still airborne, hurling herself down and toward the ground, where she could land in a crouch.

I’d expected something like it, but I’d expected her to go the other way, where she had more room to move.

It only took a small adjustment.  I shifted my aim and I pulled the trigger.

It hit wing, which wasn’t hard to do given the sheer span of her wings, and it produced little more than a mist of blood and a puff of feathers in response.

The remainder of the men exited the building, collapsing in on her from every direction.

“Stitched only!” I shouted.  “Humans stay back!”

It didn’t look like they were listening, until the Horse called out from behind me.

“Obey the boy!”

But Avis heard me too.  She shrugged out of the cloak, and she got to work.  She hurled herself forward, caught one truncheon-wielding fist in her talon, and stepped on the same stitched’s shoulder.  A flap of her wings, just barely high enough to be out of reach of a swatting club, and she was able to move forward without kicking off or really using her legs.  It caught the man in front of her off guard, and she slashed his throat with a talon.

Every swing of a truncheon in her direction was a miss.  Considering that her wings together might’ve spanned a modest barn door, that said a lot.  She moved as if the stitched and humans around her were underwater and she wasn’t.  Twitchy, fast, with minimal resistance from the environment around her.

High kicks, strong considering how slender she was, wings tucked in close, then a swift unfurling of the wings and a flap to reposition herself, so she was never surrounded.

I saw the man I’d told to wait on the rooftop creeping forward, as she engaged in a fighting retreat, retreating directly toward him.  Slowly, quietly, he unfurled the net, readying it to throw.

And, in the moment I was recognizing that, I saw her pause in the midst of reorienting herself.  Wings around her, spinning in place, one leg in the air and the other down, as she prepared to bolt for it and find a vantage point from which she might take flight, her eye lingered a little too long on me.  I looked from the man on the rooftop to her.

And she looked from me to the man on the rooftop, twisting around to see him behind her.

I saw the muscles in her shoulder and neck convulse.

A dark mark appeared on the chest of the man on the rooftop.  A wound.

The birds, done with their initial prey, extended their attention to the rest of us.  Pecking, tiny talons scratching at eyes and hands.

Stitched and man alike flailed ineffectually at the birds, and Avis turned to run.  She’d fought her way clear of the tunnel and the soldiers that had surrounded her, and she was very probably faster than any of us.

I drew a deep breath, and I aimed my gun while a small black bird dug into the back of my hand with talons, doing its level best to get a grip on the tendons that extended to my fingers.

I aimed while a bird pulled at my lower eyelid with a beak as sharp as any knife.

I put pain out of mind and out of body, so it wouldn’t affect my shot, aimed, and fired, emptying my gun.

Somewhere in the midst of the shooting, she jabbed the point of her left wing far to her right, bent forward, and fell face-down onto the road.

I holstered my gun, and I strode toward Avis.

Drawing my knife, I grabbed the first bird, ignored the pain as it gnashed and clawed at my hand, and I cut its head off.

I killed a second, and then the remainder flew off.

They were trained to fly back to Avis, and they did.

She struggled to crawl forward, bit by bit, while birds settled on her back, head, and shoulders.

Then, hearing my footsteps, she struggled to turn herself over with the wings obstructing her movements.

I leaped forward to stand on her back, stepped on two birds I could reach without losing my footing, and waited.

“You’re an omen of bad things, Sylvester,” Avis said.

“Are you reading the entrails of birds for these omens and portents?” I asked.

“You could have talked to us,” she said.  “Genie would have been delighted.”

“We’ll talk later,” I said.  “Not to worry.  I don’t intend to leave you with the Academy or the Crown.  Not long-term.”

“She described you as having your own special rules.  Lines you wouldn’t cross and don’t allow crossing in others.  You had Percy killed for harming children.”

“Not quite me, but close enough, sure.”

“We didn’t cross those lines.  We’re working against the same forces you are.”

“Wrong line of argument, Avis,” I said.  “It’s because your plans are so in line with what I want to do that I’m here.”

She was silent at that.  I knew she was thinking it through, figuring me out.

I’d been on that side of things.  On the back foot, against an enemy who had been anticipating me far longer than I had been anticipating them.

A bird nipped a coin-sized chunk out of my leg.  I kicked at it, then aimed and fired at it, reducing it to a mess on the road.  Avis jumped visibly.

“I’m just better equipped to see this particular plan through to the end.”

“You think so?” she asked.  Then she spat, and then she coughed violently.

“Which reminds me,” I said.

I pulled off my jacket, wrung it up into a thick rope, and tied it around her lower face.  She hadn’t been able to aim at me with her face aimed at the ground, but I wasn’t ruling out the possibility for later.

“Not taking any chances,” I said.

She only glared at me out of the corner of her eye.

The Horse caught up, having checked on his security people, and he brought a few men with him.  Together, they worked to hold down a veiny Avis with a bullet in one thigh.  They secured a chain in place where I had the jacket, and moved on to other measures I didn’t particularly care about at this stage.  I was free to step off of her and away, and to walk away.

“I’m thankful for your help,” the Horse said.  “But where do you think you’re going?”

I heard the gun cock.

Yes.  There was definitely good cause for why Fray hadn’t worked with this sop.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.7

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“You’re asking for a lot, and you’re giving me very little,” the man said.  “You’re taking my Academy from me.”

“There’s room to negotiate,” Avis said.  “In another place, at another time.  Not here.  Not in neutral ground.  Keep in mind, if anyone overheard you talking like that, it would leave you less room to negotiate, not more.”

“You’ve delayed me three times, now.  I’ve played along, I’ve helped keep the pot stirred, I’ve lined up the targets for you to shoot down, but I’m running out of patience.  Don’t think I don’t see the direction the winds are blowing, I know what it means that you’re here and things are happening.”

“We never doubted your political sense, Albert.”

“You want my cooperation?  You have it.  But I won’t be delayed, not when I know that you’re in the final stages, and you won’t necessarily have a place for me when all is said and done.  If I wait too long to make sure I get what I need, you’ll move forward and I’ll be left in the lurch with nothing and no leverage to negotiate with.”

“Fine.  Shall we move to your office?”

“My office is the last place this conversation should be had.  My quarters aside, it’s the one room in this academy where I should feel like I have a modicum of privacy, so it stands to reason I have none at all.  We’ll talk in generalities.”

“Or we won’t talk at all?” Avis asked.  There was a pause, a non-verbal response.  She responded with a quiet, “Very well.  What do you want?”

Gordon Two shifted position, slowly moving into a sitting position with his back to the bookshelf that separated us from Avis and her conversation partner.  He stared into space like someone who was only beginning to comprehend the great mysteries of the universe: awed, horrified, and confused.

“I want to run my Academy, but I won’t have that, will I?”

“Generalities,” Avis gently reminded him.

“I want money enough to live comfortably for the rest of my life.”

“We’re not equipped to supply that, especially not up front, and I doubt you’d take a promised future amount any more than you’d accept delaying this conversation.”

“Quite right.”

The man I’d thrown a knife at gurgled a death rattle, gases and fluids warring for a place in his throat.  It seemed to scare the living daylights out of Gordon the Second.

“I assume you’ll keep asking for the moon, knowing we can’t or won’t deliver.”

“Mmm,” he said.

Avis lowered her voice, and I had to strain my ears and tilt my brain toward the task of hearing her.  “I’ll tell you what we can deliver.   We’ll move forward with this, you already have some idea of what’s at play, and we’ll cut some individuals out.  We know that the stables are… crowded.   As the flood occurs, the horse and the pig will be caught out in the cold.”

“The horse and the pig?  Oh.  Oh, that does tickle my shriveled black heart,” the man said, without speaking any quieter than he had been.  He sounded louder, if anything.

“We agreed to pay you a sum that we haven’t and won’t pay them, and we’ll pay you the remainder before anything else happens.  It will see you through the next year or two, we hope.  Enough time to get back on your feet and find another stable elsewhere.  You know my credentials, professor.”

“I do.”

“I’ve seen people rise and fall, represented in pins on a map as well as the addresses and titles on pieces of mail.  The number of birds that fly to and from them.  While the earthy beasts figure out what’s happening and turn their attention toward finding shelter and surviving the cold winter, you’ll be secure enough to focus on getting ahead.”

“The only reason I’m talking to you is that I know I won’t be getting ahead, dear.  I won’t get another, ah, stable.  Don’t lie to me and pretend I will.  The stable was built on floodlands.  It flooded.  I’ll be a stablehand elsewhere, not an owner.”

“Somewhere starting with an S, or a W.”

“Thereabouts.”

“Look at me, professor,” she said, lowering her voice even further, to the point that her voice distorted.  I leaned closer to the corner to hear better.  She went on, “Imagine that I’m a vulture that flies in circles over the dead and dying.  Those two places are among them.  A morbidly ill beast and another stable of creatures built on floodlands, respectively.”

“You have me so very excited for these prospects, my dear,” the older man said, lacing his words with sarcasm and even more venom.

“We will be in your neighborhood in the future, professor.  And in a way that isn’t traceable, a way that isn’t easy to connect to you, we will see that you have a stable of your own to run again.  If it is S, that ill beast, then you shall keep it, and we shall nourish it, because it suits your ends, and it suits ours.”

“A small war to bring some life to a warbeast with no purpose?”

“Something of the sort.  If you find yourself placed at W, then perhaps we’ll see if we can’t make it a repeat of what you’ll see happen here.  Acknowledging that two points make a line, and that line points at you, we’ll furnish you with a more comprehensive exit strategy.”

“No generalities,” the old man said.

“Money enough to make you comfortable for the rest of your life, professor.  At that point we’ll be prepared to provide it up front.”

“If that comes to pass.  But tempting me with imagined gnashing of teeth on the part of my enemies isn’t changing matters now, is it?  You’re still telling me to have faith that you’ll deliver on your promises.”

“Then I’ll give you something concrete.  You know what I’m asking.  We’ll both set this in motion, and in the earliest stages, you’ll be free to steer it or reverse course.  Your ability to do that is why we’re talking to you.  We need you to let this unfold.  Take the first step, ignore the first mutterings.  And you’ll have the horse kicking at your door, clearly upset about this.”

“A nice thought, but hardly enough to make me feel secure about this.”

“I’m not done, professor.  You’ll take the second step.  People will inquire, trying to find the validity of the rumor.  They’ll find it started at the horse’s stall.  He’ll be at your door again, angry.  He’ll wheel, he’ll deal, but it will be Sisyphean at that stage.  And all you’ll have to do to break him is wait until he’s on the brink of saving himself, the stone nearly hauled to the top of the mountain, and you give it one small push, to send it and him down with it.”

The old man chuckled.

Gordon Two was shaking his head.  I placed my hand on his shoulder, and he startled, as if he’d forgotten I was there.

“I think we might have a deal,” the old man said.  “If I get to see the horse’s back broken and the pig…”

“Crushed in the stampede, I assure you.”

“And all it takes is that I have to hasten a flooding that will inevitably happen?  Yes.  Worth it to see that happen, if nothing else.”

“You’ll watch it happen as you help us, I assure you, and we will follow through.  Even if the damage can’t wholly be stopped at that point, you’ll be placed to rake over some messes and allow certain others.  We want you to feel motivated to do that.”

“We have a deal.”

“Allow me to talk to some others.  We can ensure the horse is blamed for the break in the floodgates, so to speak.  I’ll send someone to you, and you’ll know it’s time.  In the meantime, get your house in order.  Not too orderly, but know that people will be looking at you.”

“Of course.  I’m an old hand at this.”

“It’s why we’re talking to you, professor.”

“How do I reach out, if I need to talk to you?”

“You can use the messenger we send you.  I’ll be checking in myself, to fine tune things as they play out.  If not me, then my employer will.  You know her.”

“I do.”

“Then until our next conversation about stables, floods, and drowned horses, professor.”

“Until our next conversation, my dear.”

I tensed, readying for Avis to come in our direction and find the bodies.  I held my gun and my knife ready.

She wasn’t pumped full of combat drugs, and the modifications to her body that let her fly also made her frail.  I’d have the opportunity afforded by surprise.

If I could do it without giving her a chance to scream, then I could make it look as though they’d died in a mutual struggle.  I could remove Avis from the picture, cause a stir, and use the paranoia of  the Academy, Academy staff, and Fray to eke out an advantage.

No, there were a lot of ways this could be done to my advantage.

I met Gordon the First’s eyes.

But the footsteps moved in other directions.

The tension slipped away.  I stood, and then I stretched.

I stuck the toe of my boot into the side of the body beside me.

“Come on, Gordon Two,” I said.  “We have a lot to do.”

He looked up at me as if I was speaking in tongues.

“The stable is about to flood,” I told him.  “I want a good vantage point when it does.”

“It’s not a stable,” he said.  “It’s the Academy.  What they said before they started talking about stables, the Academy is closing.  They didn’t even talk about the students.  That bit at the very beginning.  We’re a resource to them.”

“You predicted it would.”

“But they’re hurrying it along!” Gordon Two hissed at me.  “Do you know what that does to me?  To my friends?”

“Yes, absolutely,” I said.

“If it was a slow death, then they’d cut us in stages.  Maybe I’d get dropped, I’d be able to go to Sprung, but I’d have a chance.  If they cut us all at once?  That’s a few thousand students who’re looking for a place elsewhere.”

“Oh, I know,” I said.  “And I know who and I know why.”

He looked at the body.  “I helped you-!”

“Shhh!” the voice on the other side of the library shushed him.

“This day started so ordinary, and now I actually helped someone die, and I’m about to lose everything.”

“Gordon Two-”

“That’s not my name.”

“You were training to become an Academy doctor.  You likely had dreams of becoming a black coat, working with a noble, or-”

He was shaking his head.

“Running an Academy?  Did you have some creation you were eager to put out there?”

He continued shaking his head.

“Make mom proud?” I tried.

He shook his head.

“I give up,” I said.

“I just… wanted to work in a hospital.  Academy hospital, actual hospital.  I gave up on the other things a long time ago.  White coat.  Maybe grey.  Surgeries, clinics.  Cute nurses.  Maybe there would be one cute nurse I could date and eventually marry.”

He looked up at me like a small child who’d seen his favorite toy break.

“Oh man,” I said.

“If I got lucky, she could be a redhead,” he said.  “I had a chance.  Now I don’t.”

“You have a chance,” I said.  “Far slimmer chance, but still a chance.  However, it depends on you not getting caught here with two dead bodies.”

He lowered his eyes to the body.

“Yeah?” I prompted him.

“I really killed someone.”

“Don’t get too ahead of yourself,” I said.  “I’m actually sort of really proud I delivered both killing blows there.  Don’t take that from me.”

Again, that look, as if I was speaking in tongues.

I changed tacks.  “This can be salvaged, in a way.  But you need to keep moving.  You need to follow my lead.  Because what that woman said was right.  If this gets underway, there won’t be any stopping it.  But we can steer it.  Understand?  We need to move, Second Gordon.  Think about your mom.”

He turned his eyes back to the body.

I reached down, grabbed his arm, and tugged.

Reluctantly, he rose to his feet in response to the tugging.

Once I had him standing, I was sure to keep him moving.  I didn’t bother with the gun, and I didn’t really have to.  He seemed to have forgotten that I’d led him at gunpoint until now, and the sight of those men dying seemed to have left an indelible impression in him.

“You would have seen patients die at some point,” I said.

We navigated the library, walking until we reached a railing that overlooked the floor below.  The open space between us and the people below was bridged with a clear membrane.  There was a little bit of dust on the membrane, and the faint lines of blue veins webbing it, but it made for a remarkably clear picture of what was going on below, while absorbing a remarkable amount of the chatter and noise.  There were tables, groups gathered, and students drinking tea while sitting in chairs with books.  The levels above us were separated by more membranes, making for increasingly blurry views of each floor above.

It was, as scenes went, actually a lot nicer than nearly everything I’d seen at Radham.  The only part of Radham that had struck me as being as cozy and nice as this was the girl’s dormitory.  Most of my time in there had been with Lillian and sometimes Mary in nightgowns, Lillian and I or the three of us just sleeping together in Lillian’s bed.

That wasn’t the fairest of comparisons.

I spotted Avis at one of the doors.  She attracted a few sidelong glances as she walked past students, but nobody stopped her or commented.

“Stairs?” I asked.

Gordon Two pointed.

I walked briskly, bringing him with, hoping to catch up to Avis.

“Did you ever spend time here?”

“Sometimes,” he said.

“Tea, books?”

“Getting caught up on homework with my friends.  We’d nudge each other when a good looking girl walked in.”

“I don’t understand that mentality, but alright.  I know it all seems hopeless, but it’s not.  There will be days and moments like that again.  If you focus.  You wanted to be a doctor?  Today’s when you reach that crisis point when you have a dying person on your table, and you need to show that you have what it takes.  It’s just coming a little earlier.  Got it?”

“I had a dying person in front of me because I helped kill him.”

“Put that out of mind.  We’re talking hypotheticals.”

We passed other students, the counter where tea was being made and served, exchanged for money, and we exited into the chill outdoors.

No longer the warm interior, but amid the barnacles clinging to the rock.  Cold, damp, and briny.

“We just left those bodies there,” he said.

“Yep.”

“Someone’s going to find them.”

“Absolutely.  Can’t be avoided.  Unless you have really deep pockets or something, stow a body inside.  I’m not strong enough to drag a body that big, and there aren’t exactly any good hiding places there.  I think the conversation happened there because it isn’t a part of the library that gets used much, so it might be a little while.”

“It’s really sinking in,” he said.  “They’ll find the bodies, and then… things will happen, and the school will close.”

“Those two things aren’t linked.”

“But it’ll change things, won’t it?” he asked.

“Change happens.  This way,” I told Gordon Two, leading him off to one side.

“I thought we were following her?”

“We are,” I said.  “But she’s going between those buildings.  Not many others are.  If we follow, then there’s no place to go.  If she looks back over her shoulder, and she will, she’ll see us.  This is a case where we have to think a few steps ahead.”

We took another route, one that gave us glimpses of Avis as she walked with purpose, deeper into Beattle’s scattered topography.

There was a path with garden to either side, winding between buildings.  The building it led to was all glass and wood, surrounded by an expanse of grass and only a few low bushes.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“The Greenhouse.  There are a few, but that’s the Greenhouse.”

“And she arranged to meet someone there, clearly,” I said.  “The horse?  The pig?”

“The horse is pretty obviously Professor Horsfall.  I think the pig has to be Sir Mondy.”

“Sir?”

“Aristocrat.  He has a stake in the Academy.  Professor Horsfall was a wartime doctor.  Made warbeasts, earned an appointment, and he got stuck here.  Professor Horsfall, Sir Mondy and Professor Yates are the three people who manage Beattle.  Yates must have been the man who was talking to the woman you’re after?”

“Good.  This is useful,” I said.

“But Professor Horsfall and Sir Mondy wouldn’t be here.  Sir Mondy lives in the city.  North end.  He comes down twice a week, but otherwise doesn’t do much except lay down the law.  All the professors and instructors hate him.  Horsfall… would look out of place here.  He’s proud.”

“Who would look less out of place here?”

“I don’t know.  Some instructors.  But most times, it’s where one student group meets.”

“A student group.  Who?”

“Most just call them the Greenhouse Gang.”

“How imaginative.”

“They’re not really a gang.  They’re mostly top students who work together to stay top students.  Some are attractive or popular, so they bring other attractive and popular students in.  Very exclusive.  It’s the warmest place where there’s any privacy in the winter, and so long as they’re there and watching each other’s backs, it’s hard to mess with them.”

“If I asked you about the Rank, would that mean anything to you?”

“You mean junior’s gang?” he asked.  “Because they’re not like the Greenhouse Gang.  They’re actually a gang.  Sort of dangerous.”

“They’re a three out of ten on the danger scale,” I said.  “Barely worth rating.”

“What?  Junior’s group?”

“Yeah.  Nevermind.  Stay with me here.  Where is the horse’s stable?”

“The horse’s- Horsfall?”

He wasn’t very mentally adroit, as in shock as he was.  I couldn’t ask him to make those mental leaps of logic.

“Yeah.  Him.  I’ve got him figured out as a horse in my head thanks to that analogy.  It’s going to take a bit to break.  Where is professor Horsfall?”

“Back the direction we came from.”

I surveyed the scene.

Had the two men been Academy?  Cynthia’s?  Where would the old headmaster go from here?  How would they react to the bodies?  How would Avis react?

“Simon?” Gordon Two asked.

“One moment,” I said.

The bodies would be found.  People would inform those at the top.  The old headmaster, Yates or Yancy or whatever his name was, he would put two and two together, most likely, and he would strive to inform Avis.  She was recognizable enough that he could put someone on the task, or have trusted lieutenants ask questions.  Professor Horse would be clueless, more focused on the crime, while Professor Yancy navigated the greater picture.

If we went to Professor Horse, then everything else could unfold while my back was turned and my attention elsewhere.  The bodies could be found, Yancy alerted, and Avis clued in that something else was afoot.

If we stayed, then we lost ground.  I could maybe steer people away from Avis.  She could leave, and then what?  Where did she go?

Fray and Avis were already touching base with the Rank, with the headmaster, and now with the Greenhouse Gang.

I ventured, “The Greenhouse Gang.  The Rank.  What other student groups are there?”

“What?”

“Distinct student groups.  Who else?  Gangs, clubs?  Even individual, notable students who have followings.”

“The student council.  They’re mostly other top students, but don’t mesh much with the Greenhouse Gang.”

“Good.  Who else?”

“Um.”

“Athletics?”

He snorted.

“Girls?” I prompted.

“Some girl’s groups.  Um.  One, I don’t know their name, but they spend time on the roof of the dorm when it’s warmer.  I don’t know how to put it nicely.”

“They know they’re going to fail out.  So they enjoy their last moments of freedom.”

“That’s exactly how I would have wanted to put it nicely, yeah.”  He sounded surprised.

I’d seen the type at Dame Cicely’s.

“And there are the girls who aren’t failing out, who stick together because they’re girls, I guess?  But not super keen girls like you have in the Greenhouse or student council.”

“I’m getting the picture.”

I was starting to see the pieces on the board, the key locations.

“They’re going to leak the news about the school getting closed down,” I said.  “The student body will react just like you did, except their friends are going to be close by.  The riot is controlled, because these cliques and gangs already know.  They’ve been braced for it, and they’ve been told their options.  The smart ones might have opportunities elsewhere-”

“Doubt it,” Gordon Two said, sounding miserable.  “Being the top of Beattle isn’t much better than being in the bottom two rungs at a decent school.”

“Some are here because of circumstance,” I said.

“Oh, everyone is, if you ask everyone,” Gordon Two said.  “And prisoners in jail will all tell you they’re innocent.”

“Fair point,” I said.  “So even the top students don’t have much in the way of options.  They can give up on this and go home… or they can rebel.”

“Rebel?”

“As in join the rebellion.”

Gordon Two’s eyes widened.

“Would you?” I asked him.  “Ditch the uniform?  Disappoint mom?”

A frown creased his features.

I put my hand on his arm, steering him.  I turned him so he could see the nearest attractive girl.

“If she went?  What if everyone from student council and Greenhouse Gang to the Rank and the girls on the rooftop was leaving?  They say something like they know people who know people.  You’ll get money, you’ll get lodging.  You just… grab your stuff and go.  And there are none of the Academy rules.  No restrictions.  You can room with girls.  You can be angry, drink, and tell the world to fuck off.”

“Except it’s all manipulation,” he said.

“Well, you know that.  Pretend you didn’t.  Pretend that your alternative would be to stay.  To do nothing except accept that you’d failed.  You would have to tell your mom that you did so badly, collectively, that the school was shut down.  Would you go?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “But I don’t think I would.”

“No,” I said.  “But some would.  Enough would.”

“Yeah.  Probably.  That’s what’s happening?”

“That’s how I think it plays out.  And a crop of students get work tutoring the civilians who’ve received these mass-produced books with Academy knowledge, or they produce weapons, or they act as guerilla agents.  There’s a lot that could be done with all of this.  And it draws attention.  It takes a bite out of the Academy and it’s hard for the Academy to bite back.”

Gordon Two nodded.

“We’ll get you your cute nurse,” I said.  “We’ll get you your redhead, even.  It probably won’t be exactly as you imagined it, but we’ll see what we can do.  For that, I need your help.  Because I can’t cover enough bases on my lonesome, and my other allies are watching other people and getting stuff done elsewhere.”

“What do you need?” Gordon Two asked.

“You’re going to take a message to Professor Horse,” I said.  “Tell him that you’re a messenger, but… his fellow professor was going to betray Beattle Academy, and we were going to work with him to do it.”

“Us?  We us?  You and me?”

“Me more than you.  You’re just a messenger.”

Gordon Two frowned.

“Okay?  Are you with me so far?  Because we’re just getting started.  Professor Yancy-”

“Yates?”

Whoever.  He hired someone to fuck with us.  A bird lady.  He killed two of ours in the library, and Yatesy plans to pin it on the Horse.  So we’re extending the offer to the Horse now.”

Gordon Two nodded.

“Repeat it back to me.”

He did.

“Bring him to the library.  Show him the bodies.  People may have found the bodies already.  If so, you should tell them you’re a concerned student.  Once he realizes the gravity of the situation, bring him to me here.  I might be there at the library, depending on what happens out here and where Avis goes.  I might be gone.  If so, wait a little while.  I won’t be more than ten minutes.”

Gordon the Second nodded again.

“Repeat it back to me, with the last bit included.”

He did.

“Go,” I told him.

He made it two steps before he stopped.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Who were those two men?”

“Wrinkles,” I said.  Two of quite a number that could get in the way of this unfolding the way I hope it will.  Like Fray, or the fact that the Horse wasn’t Fray’s first pick for conspirator for a reason, the student groups, the informants, and the other top-quality agents who were no doubt waiting in the wings, watching proceedings.

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