story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
This wasn’t the first time Caren had worn dampening bracers—though by now it had actually been years. Heavy goddamned things, she was remembering, and freezing fucking cold. Even in her fleece-lined leather jacket, sitting in a cramped, heated car with three other warm bodies, the ratcatcher was covered head to toe in goosebumps.
“Caren Paige Balarao Navarrete.”
“Yo.” Caren sat sprawled against the damp wall of her cell with one knee propped up, rubbing the cold-iron bracers on her wrists against each other over and over to make them click.
Her eyebrows shot up at the sound of a key in the lock. “Word? Am I free to go?”
The two Ordinators marched into the cell, hauled her to her feet.
“Fuck…is this it? Y’all ’bout to scramble my eggs?”
They gave her no explanation. Just led her to a waiting room—a pretty nice one, with a leather couch—and left her sitting there while they stood guard over the exit.
Eventually, the door to one of the offices opened, and possibly the hottest girl Caren had ever seen appeared. “Okay, Dad. I’ll see you tonight,” she called back into the office behind her, then turned around with a toss of her long, maple-hued mane. Caren could have sworn the girl looked her over head to toe before walking out.
Caren sat gawking after her—and almost jumped out of her skin when a booming baritone spoke her name from the office doorway. “Caren Navarrete?”
It was a big, fancy office with fancy-ass furniture. Caren sat down in the big fancy chair across the big fancy desk from the bald white man in the fancy suit and robe who, after shutting the door behind him, settled into an even bigger, fancier chair behind the desk. A gilded name plate in front of him read, MASTER-GEN. ABRAM SAUVAGE, in a fancy, hard-to-read script.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
Caren wondered if it was a trick question. Pointed at the name plate. “Going way out on a limb here, I’d guess you’re ‘Master-Gen Abram Sausage.’”
Master-Gen Abram Sausage folded his hands on the desk front of him, fixed her with an inscrutable stare.
“Ms. Navarrete,” he said, “how would you like to have those adamantine bracers taken off your wrists for good?”
Caren shifted, sighed, started punching her thigh. Ran through a few worst-case scenarios in her head. Meillassoux’s guys hadn’t bothered to pat her down when they’d taken her weapons—so she still had Peri’s goodies tucked in hidden pockets in the lining of her coat. A well-timed lightning stick, lunaria flare, or Morphean miasma bomb would come in pretty handy, she figured, if things went wide. She really wasn’t thinking it would come to that…but then again, hard to say. The Betancourt kid seemed almost sweet—not at all your stereotypical career criminal. But Zhao was a bona fide freak. Made Caren think of a three-year-old pulling the legs off bugs—except this three-year-old was in a ripped-af thirty-year-old’s body, and instead of bugs it was probably people.
Betancourt’s music and friendly chitchat were a welcome diversion from what otherwise would have been a tense ride—but after a physical altercation involving Zhao playing “Sit on You” by Tim and Eric, there was only silence, and not even anything to look at, thanks to the blindfold. Caren’s fist beat against her thigh hard enough to bruise—which was barely a distraction from what had become an unrelenting throbbing in her chest, and visions of Sylvan’s dumb sad-puppy face that kept flashing in her mind.
Daddy’s Boy, she couldn’t help but notice, didn’t utter a peep the whole ride. Didn’t even move a muscle, as far as she could tell. She wondered if his stoic little Old-World ass had finally ossified.
Their journey finally came to an end in what had to be a parking garage, judging by the light level, the climate and the echo. Betancourt helped Caren exit the Trans Am in a respectful, almost gentlemanly manner. She tried to listen for what might be going on with Grenville and Zhao—caught only snatches of the latter whispering and laughing his weird sicko monkey laugh. Felt a small surge of annoyance that he might be giving Grenville a hard time again. The rookie was already scared stiff.
Caren couldn’t help wondering if she’d made a mistake bringing him along.
Whatever. That one’s on Abram fucking-smart-guy Sausage, for assigning Daddy’s Boy to a case like this in the first place.
The four of them piled into an elevator. As the doors chimed shut and the floor started to rise, Caren’s blindfold came off. She squinted, adjusting to the light. It was a fancy elevator, ornate beveled mirrors making the space seem to go on endlessly. She could see the whole party duplicated ad infinitum: Betancourt pocketing the blindfolds, then standing quietly, his folded hands fidgeting in front of him, eyes glued to the floor. Zhao running a comb through his pomp, cheesing it and making finger guns at his reflections. Grenville standing perfectly still, staring blankly ahead, fingers interlaced, the veins in his temples seeming to stand out more than usual.
Caren watched the numbers over the doors light up in sequence, floor after floor—and when they didn’t stop at the twenty-first, which was the top floor, all the numbers abruptly vanished, replaced by a set of red-glowing runes.
The elevator slowed to a halt. The doors slid open. Betancourt led the way into a spacious entry hall decorated in a style Caren could only think to call modern gothic: ornate accent pieces, floor lamps, statues, et cetera, all of which she was willing to bet were bona fide antiques, complementing an overall aesthetic that was somehow a bit on the minimalist side—stark black-and-white with tasteful silver accents, splashes of blood-red in places like the pattern on the rug and the tassels on the damask blackout curtains, which she noticed were all currently drawn, maybe to obscure the view, since their hosts seemed to have gone to lengths to mask the location.
A pair of male-model-looking guards in three-piece suits, black with red ties bisecting perfectly steamed red shirts, bowed slightly to Betancourt and Zhao. “Maréchal. Mr. Zhao.”
“Wilhelm. Teodoro,” Betancourt greeted them each in turn. “Wilhelm, would you let the Conseiller know we’re back with the guests? Thank you.” Wilhelm again bowed, then disappeared down the hall.
Caren watched Wilhelm go. Surveyed Teodoro, who remained.
Turned to Betancourt. “So is it true literally everyone in this gang is a hot gay dude?”
“Actually, I’m bi,” said Betancourt.
“I’m extremely pansexual,” said Zhao. “Extremely.”
“Of fucking course you are,” said Caren.
Grenville continued to stare straight ahead, his expression inscrutable.
Wilhelm returned and once again bowed. “Le Conseiller instructs that the guests should be escorted into the drawing room.”
“Thanks, Wilhelm. Lead the way,” said Betancourt.
Betancourt followed Wilhelm down the hall. Caren moved to follow Betancourt.
“Let’s go, Lil’ Pidgie.” Zhao reached for Grenville’s arm.
“He’s a big boy, bruh. He can walk by himself. Don’t be a fucking hentai.” Caren made sure to put just enough warning in her tone.
“Madam! Are you implying…?” Zhao grimaced. “… With Lil’ Pigeon? I’d never! I prefer older. Waaay older. I trawl for tail at the AARP convention.”
“Vernon.” Betancourt sounded tired.
They continued down the hall in silence, between rows of flickering candelabra sconces and framed oil portraits of fine-featured men, till they arrived at the drawing room—a huge, dome-ceilinged, luxuriously furnished chamber. Here, too, all the curtains were drawn, the space dimly lit by sconces and lamps. The focal point of the room was an ever-burning fireplace, which Caren knew had to have cost a fortune—pale blue Greek fire roaring tirelessly within a perimeter of pure adamantine, the only known substance in existence it couldn’t burn through. The overmantel—which she realized must also be made of adamantine—featured a detailed, high-relief depiction of various wild animals locked in combat.
On the wall opposite the fireplace, a little incongruous with the rest of the decor, hung a larger-than-life-size portrait of a woman with sparkling blue eyes, wearing a flowing, off-the-shoulder white dress, seated in a sunlit garden, in a frame of silver cherubim. Nearby, a black Oriental Shorthair cat was curled up asleep in its velvet bed, which levitated in midair.
On prominent display in the room were a pair of lavish shrines: bowers with incandescent blacklight rose vines overflowing, and dozens of floating alchemical globes casting their soft glow onto two framed oil portraits of beautiful men. Signs beneath the portraits read, respectively, Takayuki Murakami, Cherished Companion and Wyatt Winter, Beloved Brother. Caren saw Grenville survey the shrines briefly. He turned and shot her a questioning look.
“Were they, um, both killed in the…you know. The other day?” Caren asked Betancourt quietly.
“Yes, ma’am.” There was a small hitch in his voice.
Zhao went over to the cat, which was floating at just below average-human-head-height, and started talking baby talk to it, vigorously rubbing its big bat-ears. The animal seemed startled out of its sleep at first, but when it saw Zhao it extended its long body in a luxurious stretch and rolled onto its back, slowly blinking its emerald eyes while he scratched its belly.
Caren noticed Grenville watching the exchange. His eye then seemed to settle on something in the corner beyond the cat—an ornate old piano-like instrument with two rows of keys. “Is that a harpsichord?” It almost startled Caren, hearing his voice. He hadn’t spoken a syllable since before the car ride.
“Indeed it is,” replied a lyrical tenor with a crisp Old-World accent.
“Mon Capitaine.” Betancourt bowed.
Caren turned and saw standing in the doorway a trim, clean-shaven, elegant-looking man in, she guessed, his late thirties or early forties, wearing a tailored dark gray suit over a black shirt and tie with a red rose boutonniere, soft chestnut-brown hair combed back off his face and resting gently on his shoulders. He was flanked by six equally well-dressed men—every one of them GQ cover model material like himself, which was totally consistent with the rumors Caren had always heard about Meillassoux’s Boys…except that most of them were visibly injured. On the leader’s left, a young man wearing black kid-leather gloves and gold-rimmed spectacles on a chain, the long strap of a satchel brimming with books and newspapers draped diagonally over his torso, leaned on a pair of crutches, his left leg wrapped in a full cast. Toward the back of the retinue, another young man’s head was wound around with gauze, while another wore an eyepatch, and another’s right arm ended in a bandaged stump. Only the tall, bearded statue of a man on Meillassoux’s right appeared to be unscathed—though he was holding a cane, so Caren couldn’t be sure. But he didn’t seem to be leaning on the cane, and it looked more like a fashionable rich-guy cane than a walking aid—polished ebony wood with a silver hawk’s head for a handle.
The ganglord himself—consistent with Sylvan’s account—had a trio of roughly parallel scars down the left side of his face from forehead to chin, mostly already healed thanks to, Caren assumed, a timely and liberal application of restorative panchrest—but they were pretty gnarly scars nevertheless, on what otherwise would have been a flawlessly symmetrical visage.
Jesus…Megyesi’s circus freaks really did do a number on them.
“Do you play?” The ganglord continued to address Grenville as he and his entourage advanced into the room.
Grenville showed no evidence of having heard the question. For a moment, Caren thought he might have powered down again.
But then, finally—“No,” he replied. “I mean…not really.”
“Ms. Navarrete, I presume.” Meillassoux turned to Caren, inclined his head. The four men in the back of the retinue, whose clothing Caren realized more or less matched those of the guards who’d greeted them in the entry hall, took up positions surrounding the group.
Caren bobbed her head. “How’s it going.”
“As you’ve likely surmised, I am Soren Dreyfus-Meillassoux. I believe you spoke with my Conseiller, Ishaan Ram, on the telephone.” He indicated the bearded man on his right, who offered a slight bow. “You’ve already met my Maréchal, Nathaniel Betancourt, and my colleague Vernon Zhao. And please allow me to introduce Miles Winter.” Meillassoux gestured to the young man on his left, the one with the big bag of reading material, who only blinked, pushed his spectacles up his nose, and shifted his weight on his crutches.
The ganglord’s eye settled on Daddy’s Boy. “I believe you failed to disclose to Ishaan,” he continued, to Caren, “that your companion is Ashton Grenville.”
Caren eyed Meillassoux. “… Why? What about him?”
“By all reports”—the ganglord arched one manicured eyebrow—“he’s a dangerous man.”
Caren blinked. Jerked a thumb at the five-foot-two bespectacled waif standing a few feet to her right. “… Him?”
Zhao, at the same time, shot his boss an exaggerated puzzled face. “… Lil’ Pigeon?”
“Mr. Meillassoux,” spoke up Grenville, with a deep bow.
“Mr. Dreyfus-Meillassoux, if you please.”
“My apologies.” Caren wondered was she imagining it, or was Grenville’s Old-World accent stronger when addressing the ganglord. “Mr. Dreyfus-Meillassoux: I’m a Martial Magus in the employ of Ordo Arcanus. As you’re surely aware, Philadelphia and its suburbs are AM-designated neutral territory. So, even without these”—Grenville displayed the bracers on his wrists—“my hands are tied. I’m no threat to you, unless, of course, I find you in violation of interfaction law—or you put me in a position where I’m compelled to defend myself.” Grenville directed his expressionless stare at Zhao. “Which I don’t recommend.”
“I guess you heard the young man, Vernon,” said Dreyfus-Meillassoux.
Zhao grinned with every one of his perfectly aligned teeth. “Yeah, I copy, Chief.”
“Maréchal,” said Dreyfus-Meillassoux to Betancourt, “you may remove their bracers.”
Caren breathed a sigh of relief as the cold, weighty metal lifted off her wrists, and warm mana resumed flowing through her channels. Grenville, she noticed, as soon as his wrists were freed, pressed his left palm against the wool of his pea coat and closed his eyes, a slow intake of air swelling his skinny chest. A faint red glow emanated from the tattoos peeking out of his left sleeve.
“Please take their coats,” said Dreyfus-Meillassoux to his servingmen. “And send to the kitchen for the apéritifs. Ms. Navarrete, Mr. Grenville, please do sit down and make yourselves comfortable. Dinner will be served within the half-hour; we’d be most honored if you would join us.”
“Oh—yeah, for sure.” Caren surrendered her leather jacket to a guy—Peri’s goodies wouldn’t be needed, she was pretty sure at this point—and plopped down on a fancy, deep-blood-red embroidered couch.
“May I ask how you heard of me, Mr. Dreyfus-Meillassoux?” Grenville picked a small accent chair and sat down on it in that awkward arms-right-up-against-his-body way of his that somehow made him look even smaller than he actually was.
A servant entered with a drink tray. Dreyfus-Meillassoux selected a wine glass full of steaming dark liquid with a warm thank-you, then seated himself in an ornate wing-backed chair. “Despite having defected from Ordo Arcanus many years since, I remain a religious reader of the Delphi Moon Post.” He took a sip of his drink. Miles Winter limped over to a chaise lounge, arranged himself on it with his injured leg raised, laid open a few of his books and papers, and sat peering back and forth between them through his spectacles, tracing lines of text with the forefingers of both gloved hands. Betancourt grabbed a couple of drinks and handed one of them to Caren, then settled himself on the other end of the same sofa as her, while Ishaan Ram took up a silent post to the right of the ganglord’s chair. “Your council hall demonstration, Mr. Grenville, dominated the front page the morning after. Combat alchemy is perhaps the greatest innovation the arcane world has seen in decades, and I do not speak such praises lightly. Your father must be very proud of your accomplishment.”
Grenville waved away the drink tray, seemed to consider his response. “My father…knows little of alchemy. He concerns himself mostly with my standing in the Black Pyramid.”
If the mention of Fraternitas Mercurii troubled Dreyfus-Meillassoux, he didn’t show it. “Surely the Brotherhood has duly recognized and rewarded your talent.”
Again, Grenville appeared to deliberate before speaking. “I’m not sure talent is the primary criterion for advancement in the Pyramid these days. But…I’m sure you’re aware it’s not my privilege to speak further on these matters in present company.”
“Indeed, I am aware.” Dreyfus-Meillassoux’s gaze lingered on Grenville for a moment. He then turned to Caren. “Ms. Navarrete, did you enjoy your ride in Nathaniel’s new Trans Am? Our Maréchal takes great pride in his refurbished antique automobiles.” Betancourt puffed up a little at the mention.
Caren peered dubiously into the dark, frothy beverage Betancourt had given her. “The car was pretty sweet. Nathaniel’s chill.” She jerked a thumb toward Zhao, who was currently rolling around on the floor with the cat. “But if I’m being real, Sicko Mode over there was an interesting delegation to your welcoming committee.”
Grenville’s eyes bulged. Betancourt muffled a snort. Caren glimpsed what might be smiles tugging at Dreyfus-Meillassoux’s and his compatriots’ lips—with the exception of Zhao, who sat up and gave her a Bambi-eyed look, pronouncing in a flute-like falsetto, “Who…me?”
“Vernon, were you impolite to our guests?” said Dreyfus-Meillassoux.
“Why, Daddy dearest, I would never.” Zhao effected a Southern-belle twang, pressed his palm flat to his heart. When the ganglord looked away, he fixed Caren with a Trollface grin.
Dreyfus-Meillassoux gazed into the black, swirling depths of his drink. “Indeed, Ms. Navarrete, until now it hasn’t been my custom to appoint Vernon to the ‘welcoming committee,’ as you so aptly put it. But; setting aside the fact that my usual appointees are either no longer with us”—his gaze traced the shrines—“are fulfilling roles recently left vacant by those who are no longer with us”—he gestured faintly to Ram on his right—“or are recuperating from grievous injury”—a faint nod toward Miles Winter—“recent circumstances necessitate making it abundantly clear to my guests precisely what will befall them in the event of a breach of trust. This is a task at which Vernon shows exceptional skill.”
Caren recalled Sylvan’s account of the Megyesi ambush. “That…makes sense,” she had to admit, and finally tried the drink. It tasted alcoholic enough. Also kind of pleasantly floral. She took a second, longer gulp, wiped the foam from her lip with the back of her hand.
“Your understanding is appreciated.” Dreyfus-Meillassoux inclined his head. He nursed his drink; fell once more to studying Grenville, who was again staring at the harpsichord. “Mr. Grenville, are you sure you wouldn’t like to give us a tune?”
Grenville swung his head back around to face the ganglord, eyes round. “Oh, I…well. I really don’t…don’t really play.”
“Not even ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’?”
Grenville hesitated. “I…guess I wouldn’t mind a closer look. If that’s all right.”
“Be my guest.”
Grenville stood, approached the instrument. Sat down on the bench, silently trailed his fingers over the keys. “Exquisite… How old is it?”
“Well over four hundred years, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Holy shit.” Grenville instantly blushed, like he hadn’t meant to let that one slip.
Dreyfus-Meillassoux cracked a smile. “It’s been in my family for generations.”
“And it’s fully playable?”
“Indeed. Usually it’s Nathaniel who plays it. He’s our resident accompanist, a very talented pianist and guitarist. I’m a musician as well, but I’ve barely touched a manual since I was a boy.”
Grenville positioned his hands on the keys, tapped out a quick arpeggio. “Oh—my God. It’s so cool.”
Again, the ganglord smiled. “Seems to me you know your way around a keyboard better than you’re letting on.”
Grenville hesitated, closed his eyes. Lengthened and took a deep breath.
Out of nowhere, he was a blur of pale hands and wild, whipping curtains of hair, as waves of frenzied notes came rolling out of the instrument. Caren felt her whole body electrify, her jaw literally drop.
“Whooooooa!” Beside her, Betancourt clutched his skull, his feet rising off the floor like he was on a roller-coaster drop.
The whole company listened, rapt. Even Sicko Mode and the cat sat spellbound.
Everyone remained motionless as the last notes of the piece lingered in the air, as Grenville’s body finally slumped, visibly heaving like an idle animation.
As soon as the last traces of sound died out, they all broke out in applause. Betancourt whistled; he and Dreyfus-Meillassoux both set their drinks down and sprang to their feet. Winter and Ram clapped politely—Winter a bit awkwardly, Ram with a strong enthusiastic energy. Zhao cranked his fist in the air, yelling, “Beast it, Lil’ Pigeoooooon!” and let out a series of wild whoops. The cat, looking annoyed, jumped back up into its bed.
Grenville peeked sheepishly over his shoulder, his face flushed. Dreyfus-Meillassoux laughed out loud with childlike delight. “‘I don’t play,’ he says! Ah—bravo—magnifique!” The ganglord glanced back to his right. “Oh, Tak! Wasn’t that just—?”
He stopped short, staring blankly at Ram, who stared back at him a moment, then averted his eyes.
The whole room went suddenly, painfully silent.
‘Tak’? wondered Caren.
Her eye drifted to the first of the shrines.
Dreyfus-Meillassoux lowered his gaze. Stood silent for several seconds, while everyone waited.
At last, he spoke. “It was a…transcendent performance, my dear young man. A very precious friend of mine adored Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Minor. Today, you have honored his memory. I thank you.” He inclined his head.
Grenville nodded mutely. Sat very still on the bench, like he was unsure what to do.
A manservant appeared in the doorway, bowed. “Dinner is served, mon Capitaine.”
Dreyfus-Meillassoux nodded slowly to himself. “Well, then.” He lifted his head, smiled warmly. “Let’s to the dining room, friends.”
Betancourt flashed Caren a weak smile, which she took as an apology for the awkwardness, then offered a hand to help her up.
As they all started moving into the hall, she glanced back and saw Grenville paused in front of the cat bed, offering the animal his fingers to sniff. It obliged, then dragged the corner of its mouth across his fingertips. He began to scratch under its chin very gently, his big deer eyes glued to its blissed-out face, as if tuning in closely to every nuance of its reactions.
Dreyfus-Meillassoux approached him. “His name is Puck.” Puck flopped over onto his back. “As you can see, he’s very friendly with guests.”
Grenville trailed his fingers over the cat’s belly, oh-so-gently. “He’s beautiful.”
“Indeed, he is. And he knows it.”
A smile touched Grenville’s lips. Which was something Caren was pretty sure she’d never seen before.
Kid fits right in around here, doesn’t he? She smirked to herself. Maybe bringing Daddy’s Boy along wasn’t such a bad move after all.
The dining room was, unsurprisingly to Caren, every bit as opulent as the drawing room. Dreyfus-Meillassoux sat at the head of a long black marble dining table, beneath a huge chandelier of soft-glowing white translucent-glass doves, while servants brought out cheese boards for the first course, with an accompanying wine in crystal decanters. Ishaan Ram sat on the ganglord’s right, Grenville—at Dreyfus-Meillassoux’s invitation—on his left. Caren sat on the other side of Grenville, with Sicko Mode across from her and Betancourt on her left. Miles Winter sat next to Sicko Mode, across from Betancourt.
Grenville declined the cheese course, except for a small handful of the nuts and vegetables that were served alongside the cheeses. The next course—salmon tartare with a microgreen salad—he did eat, after measuring out portions on a small scale he apparently produced from somewhere on his person. Caren overheard him reciting his laundry list of dietary restrictions to Dreyfus-Meillassoux.
“If only you’d informed me earlier!” the ganglord was saying. “I would have had my chef accommodate you, and will gladly do so in the future. I admire your discipline, Mr. Grenville. I’m not an alchemist myself, but I do seem to notice my gnostic clarity improves, the more attentive I am to my physical condition.”
“Yes, exactly,” said Grenville. “It’s a crime they don’t emphasize nutrition more in the Arcanus Academy curriculum.”
Oh, lord. Caren forked a big mouthful of salmon tartare and stuffed it in her face.
When the second course was being cleared away, and the servants started bringing out the third, Dreyfus-Meillassoux turned to her. “Ms. Navarrete—I understand there’s something you’d like to ask of me in exchange for your turning over the ‘rat.’” On the word rat, just briefly, she thought she glimpsed a flash of anger in his eyes.
“Grenville and I are angling to bring down Lex,” Caren informed him. “I just figured, assuming we could get your attention, maybe you’d be interested in teaming up on that.”
Dreyfus-Meillassoux nodded to himself. “An intriguing prospect. Eliminating Lex is certainly a goal we share; I’ve been gathering intelligence for quite some time with that aim in mind. However—I will confess I’m uncertain whether I should trust you as a potential ally, given that, these past few years, you’ve been responsible for the capture and handing over to Arcanus of no inconsiderable number of my best foot soldiers.”
Dammit. “What would it take to earn your trust?”
Dreyfus-Meillassoux seemed to consider for a moment. “I have an agenda or two that might be well-served by skills such as yours. One in particular you may be able to accomplish, which none of my men could…but it’s rather an important task. I’d prefer to have you handle some smaller jobs before I entrust you with it. You and Mr. Grenville, if that would be agreeable to you both—to the extent, of course, that Mr. Grenville, as a Martial Magus, would be at liberty to involve himself.”
“Whatever you need, man,” said Caren. “The Lex hunt is pretty much my whole agenda right now, and I’d certainly like you and your boys on board.”
“I can contribute as appropriate,” Grenville added.
The ganglord nodded. “Let’s go ahead and have the location of the rat, then, Ms. Navarrete. We’ll talk more about the work I have for you once I’ve acquired him.”
“Fair enough.” Caren took a deep breath. This was going to pan out, she was pretty sure, as long as she played her cards right—if only because Dreyfus-Meillassoux seemed to be a huge fucking stan for Daddy’s Boy. Now was the time to go for broke. “The old abandoned bank at Front and Norris. Y’all will find him bracered, Morphean miasma’ed, and tied up all neat and pretty for you in the basement.”
Grenville was looking at her now with apprehension in his eyes.
Don’t you dare fuck this up for me, Daddy’s Boy.
To her relief, he didn’t say anything.
Meillassoux gestured to two of his men, who bowed and left the room at once.
Sylvan’s sadboi face drifted up like a ghost in front of Caren’s mind’s eye.
… Then disappeared in a puff of smoke as she waved it away.
Whatever. It’s done.
The main course arrived in front of her. “What…is this?” She poked her fork at what looked like a pair of enormous turds next to a puck of fried apples.
“Boudin noir,” replied Dreyfus-Meillassoux. “French blood sausage, the very finest, imported from the legendary Terroirs d’Avenir in Paris. I like to serve it on special occasions.” He sliced open a link. Liquid fat oozed onto his plate from the cleft. “Enjoy.”
Caren liked the boudin noir more than she expected. It was creamy and dense with a strong, earthy flavor that paired well with the apples.
She shot the shit with Betancourt throughout the main course (“You can call me Nathaniel,” he told her with a grin). He went into detail about the modifications, both mundane and magical, he’d made to his car—a subject that didn’t interest Caren in itself, but his enthusiasm was pretty contagious. He asked her a few questions about her life as a ratcatcher, to which she gave well-rehearsed humorous/evasive answers. When she turned it around and asked him about his job as Maréchal, he glanced across the table at Miles Winter, then leaned closer to her, confessing in a hushed tone that Wyatt Winter, Miles’s brother who’d been killed in the attack, had been Maréchal—liaison to the rank-and-file—before Nathaniel, and Nathaniel himself had been appointed to the role only yesterday.
“Oh…Jesus,” said Caren.
Nathaniel stared at the table, bobbed his head in a slow nod. “Wyatt was…a true professional. And older, and way more experienced than me. I’ve got pretty big shoes to fill. And the foot soldiers will be looking to me for leadership, you know, after the shit that just went down.” He took a big gulp of wine.
Caren wondered why he was telling her all this. She supposed she should say something supportive. “Well, hey, I bet you’re up to the challenge. You’re a good leader, I can tell. Even Sicko Mode obeys you.”
Nathaniel almost choked on his sausage. “When he feels like it,” he corrected her through his mouthful, with an emphatic jab of his fork.
“I’m so eager for you all to try this evening’s dessert,” said Dreyfus-Meillassoux a few minutes later, as the main course was cleared away. “It’s Charlotte aux framboises—my personal favorite since I was a boy. Custard, whipped cream, and lightly cooked raspberries in a bowl fashioned out of thin biscuits soaked in brandy. So soft and sweet and delicious.”
A servant set a plate of the fluffy, bright pink dessert in front of Caren. It smelled amazing, and looked a little bit like tiramisu, Caren’s own childhood favorite. “Oh, wow,” she murmured.
“Looks wonderful, doesn’t it?” said Dreyfus-Meillassoux. “Enjoy.”
Caren took a bite, then flopped back in her chair, rolled her eyes and moaned. “Oh, fuck me. This shit’s amazing.” She immediately set to work wolfing down the rest.
“I’m afraid it may be too sugary for your diet, Mr. Grenville,” Dreyfus-Meillassoux said, “but perhaps you’ll try just one bite and let me know how you like it.”
Grenville eyed the wedge of dessert in front of him—Caren thought maybe a little bit hungrily. He picked up his fork, sectioned off a tiny sliver.
Suddenly, there was a commotion in the hall—a scuffle, and an almost-drunken-sounding wailing that made the hairs on the back of Caren’s neck stand on end. “What the—?”
The men Dreyfus-Meillassoux had sent out earlier barged into the room carrying two-by-fours, dragging a bruised, bloodied Sylvan between them. He was probably still a little out of it from the Morphean miasma, and now also from the beating they’d obviously given him. One of his eyes was swollen shut, blood pouring from his nose. He was missing teeth.
“Our guest of honor finally arrives,” pronounced Dreyfus-Meillassoux. “Mr. Zachry, so pleased you could join us.”
“Dude, you’re gonna do this here?” said Caren, but he didn’t seem to hear her.
Sylvan’s one bloodshot eye locked onto her. He struggled as his captors tied him down to a chair. “Caren! Caren, please! Please, help me, Caren, please. I know you don’t really wanna do this to me. Please.”
“What’s going on?” Grenville’s eyes were enormous.
“Caren, why…?” Sylvan wept. “Come on, come on, please…Caren… What did I ever do? Do you hate me this much?”
Dreyfus-Meillassoux gingerly scooped up a bite of Charlotte with his fork. Said to his men, softly:
“Make him hurt.”
Lifted the dessert to his lips.
One of the gangsters punched Sylvan in the kidney.
Caren’s heart thump-thumped.
Grenville sat frozen with his fork still in hand, staring with glassed-over eyes.
Caren fixed her eyes on her plate, tried not to hear the begging that soon crescendoed to blood-curdling screams, the dull sounds of increasingly forceful impacts to flesh, the crunching of bones. Dreyfus-Meillassoux’s top men went on eating their dessert around her, Nathaniel and Winter focusing intently on their food; Ram watching the display with apparent disinterest; Sicko Mode grinning like a kid glued to an adventure movie.
Grenville now sat with his head bowed so his hair hung in front of his face. His knuckles were bleach-white on the hand that gripped his fork.
Sylvan’s screaming soon dwindled to a wet, barely-human choking sound. And still, the sounds of impact continued.
Caren pushed her plate away. The sight and smell of her half-eaten Charlotte were making her want to vomit. She almost didn’t register Sicko Mode asking, “Are you gonna eat that?” and then, when she didn’t answer, dragging first her plate, then Grenville’s toward him with his fork.
Dreyfus-Meillassoux continued eating, so slowly, in such small, delicate bites, that Caren started to think he’d never fucking finish.
But, at long last, he set his fork down on his pink-stained plate, dabbed his napkin at his lips. “Delightful,” he murmured.
Caren finally forced herself to look.
Sylvan slumped in the now-half-wrecked chair, his fingers broken in multiple places, limbs weirdly bent, his face a bloody mess she could hardly stand to look at. His sobs of pain had given way to thin, rattling breaths.
“My Stradivarius, Maréchal,” said Dreyfus-Meillassoux.
Nathaniel got up, bowed, left the room; returned shortly carrying a black violin inscribed with glowing Aetheric runes. “Mon Capitaine.” He presented the instrument in its open case ceremoniously to the ganglord.
Dreyfus-Meillassoux stood, picked up the violin and bow. “Bring the rat,” he instructed the men holding Sylvan. “Let us retire to the drawing room,” he pronounced to the rest, “for the evening’s entertainment.”