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6 - Apologies Part 2

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Jo had to stop the sigh from jumping out of his mouth. Jay was right. The brooch was hotter than a tuned-up furnace. What in all the Downs had he been thinking about returning it unaccompanied? Of course, whoever Phillens was running from would be interested in whoever he had given the heat to. For all he knew the street had been looped the moment he had walked into it.

“Be mindful the offer has an expiry date,” the first man — Crimson Beard — added. “Whether you oblige or not.”

“The ‘I don’t want to fight’ isn’t going to cut ice is it?” said Jo.

“Time’s going,” said the fourth, rolling back sleeves to reveal forearms decorated with leaves, blossom and apples.

“You must have other things that you want to do: walk in the park; shine your shoes; afternoon tea?”

Malachite-Rims looked at Crimson Beard who turned to Rolled-up-Sleeves.

“Time’s up,” the tallest roared, covering the space between himself and Jo with not much more than a blink. First two fist strikes moved almost as quickly, followed by a leg sweep he did not want to be at the end of. Trouble was Crimson Beard followed up where Tallest left off; more
close-down punches, and not one, but two kicks.

Not that they made contact, but Jo didn’t want to be on the end of either chaps’ gloved and booted weaponry. Nor Rolled-up- Sleeves ’ entrance-maker, right for the side of his face. Or
would have done had Jo not taken to the ground, flowed into an on-all-fours back spring, and landed on a safer pavement. A pavement that happened to have Malachite-Rims and a lemon boot-kick. Kick connecting with Jo’s raised forearms, knocking him back against a house wall,
then forward into a second kick from the same leg.

A second connection with the wall, but he fell sideways on the return third, as the other lemon boot came in at crouched-head height like a back-push stomp. Malachite-Rims flew out onto the road, which meant Jo could get back onto his feet. Or he began to, but was stopped by a shoulder-grab by Tallest, then swung-launched into the road. The road, and the twirl back fist of Crimson-beard that sent him backwards onto the dancing stars’ surface.

“Can’t evade forever,” Crimson-beard grinned. “Only makes it worse.”

“He shouldn’t have been able to avoid any,” said Malachite-Rims, testing his wall-spring leg. “That was my finisher.”

“I’d - hate to see your starter…” Jo gasped, getting to his feet. Nevermind stars. That back fist was going to leave a bruise.

“Glad you asked,” said Rolled-up-Sleeves, lunging in with two strikes, followed by a high third and lower fourth.

As each one drove in, Jo flowed into a retreat; each strike met with a circular block. Save the low fourth that he jumped back from. Not only from Rolled-up but a side strike from Crimson-beard that went into the former. Leap taking him into the path of bull-like charge by Tallest and a new attack by Malachite. Enough time to jog to meet the latter: one, two, a third - no side - spin out of the path of Malachite’s fluorescent fist; followed by a return shove on the fourth. A shove to aid the attacker on his flight toward the bellowing -.

“Not this time,” Tallest said, not from the would-be collision but a somersault above it; bringing him to ground and back on course for Jo. Or Jo if he hadn’t been upsidedown and sailing over Tallest. Sailing, cradling by the shoulders whilst still in mid-somersault - then launching
him back the way he had come with a twin-foot plunge kick. A kick that sent Jo back the way he had come towards the pavement. A pavement he had to himself for a moment; before Crimson-beard brought a brocade of flowers into his path. Or it looked and smelt like one as he sank out of its path and leg swept its launcher.

“You’re not supposed to do -,” Crimson-beard began, before connecting with the ground. Not that Jo could turn to see the landing; Rolled-up-Sleeves not so much cutting but stamping in with a leg sweep, then plunging forward with a projectile knee. A knee Jo only fell away from by a hand’s breadth. Onto a not very forgiving ground, despite a couple of rolls towards an awaiting Malachite-Rims.

“This ends now,” he hissed, bringing a lemon foot down in another fierce stamp. Jo rolled the other way, landed on all-fours then sprang at Malachite before the follow-kick could dart forward. One strike for set-up. A second that sent Malachite and Rims towards a meeting with road and dreams; and, upon landing, face-to-face with-

“Surprise,” Mr Orchardé spread his arms.

Jo put a hand to his head. “The Herald I guess…”

“I’d let you have another try, but some of us don’t have all day,” Mr Orchardé glittered, raising a palm at the circling Rolled-up-Sleeves and turning sideways-on. “It shall end as it began: Between Us.”

Jo blinked. Not once. But twice. Neither blink dispelled the single petal floating in the spot Orchardé had been standing in. Nor the flow of air to Jo’s left, telling him to turn into a sequence of back-steps and rotating blocks to the heron-strikes of his new opponent. Each strike coupled
with one or two petals of feather blossom. Jo made a strike of his own but blinked again as Orchardé sprang away and circled him. Unblinking the entire time. Even as he cut in with two overheads followed by a punch.

Well, it had to have been the way the impact rippled out from Jo’s centre and stopped any part of him from stopping a sweep that took both feet from under him. Although it was more a snail crawl as Mr Orchardé flowed into a more horizontal angle whilst a crowd of blossom formed a
twirling arch. An arch through which Orchardé struck with a flying kick. A kick that saw the launcher and the blossom recede and be replaced by a burst of stars as a vertical surface connected with Jo’s back and shoulders; flinging him onto a just as unfriendly pavement. More stars, and impact ripples, darting across his vision.

Through a film of water came the notes of applause. Plus starlight that was in a debate on whether to leave or stay. Although the crimson and lime boots had not lost their clarity. Or the glitter in Orchardé’s emerald - no ruby - sheened eyes as two sets of hands dragged Jo to his feet. Ruby, with a flutter of apple blossom.

“I made my apologies before, Mr Jones,” he said from the midst of the road as Rolled-up-Sleeves and Crimson-Beard held Jo between them. “I give none now,” as a second wave swept Jo from an impact from Crimson-Beard to the ribs. “Or mercy to those who would protect the town of Delcorf.”

“…Delcorf?” Jo whispered, trying to blink the stars and water out. “That’s - on the -.”

“That’s right, Ice-lights,” Rolled-up-Sleeves whispered. “He recognises it, Your Grace.”

“What in the world was Martens thinking giving it to a wisp such as you?” Orchardé said, stepping closer. “Does he not know that the greater the collection, the greater the abilities?”

“I’ve - never heard of the - Del - Place,” coughed Jo. “But what he gave me - is not mine - to give to you.”

“I’ve got one too if that helps,” said Orchardé, taking out a twinkling, blossom-starred brooch. Only the cabochoncentre was as deep a ruby as the twinkle in his eyes; yet with a highlight of emerald. And across the motto flowed letters swept in crimson-veined gold:


“My Love,” Orchardé whispered. “My Home.”

“None equal her,” Crimson-beard whispered.

“All dim beside her,” Rolled-up-Sleeves added.

“The Ruby Star to which all others bow,” said Orchardé, stepping closer as more blossom fluttered past. “All will acknowledge the strength of our claim. And any who get in the way of what we seek will not find us merciful.”

Jo didn’t blink this time. Not at the source of the blossom descending from Orchardé’s outstretched hand. But the blade of a sword. Surface a mirror for the snow petals; single-edged and gently curved. With a point that sparkled in its ruthless beauty, as much as Orchardé’s
smile was anything but benevolent.

“Think of your folly, Mr Jones,” he whispered. “Think well and -”


Jo saw Orchardé turn to his left. Turn, then disappear to the right before Jo could make another blink. Had that - really been - a barrel-sized-.

“Chief!” Crimson-beard exploded, releasing Jo and running in the same direction. “Chief!”

Jo began to fall but was caught. By the hair, complete with stinging fire. “Get-off me-” he yelled, trying to grab around but coming face-to-face with a half-version of the sword Orchardé had been about to…

“He won’t mind me ending it,” Rolled-up whispered. “This was always going to be the final — Oww!”

Jo fell forwards away from the twirling short sword. Turning he saw - no stared - at Suzé, running toward Rolled-up-Sleeves with her arm outstretched as if she had thrown something;

Beyond, and to the side, the unmistakable form of Jay returning into an en garde whilst Crimson-beard landed on the road like a spread-winged eagle and:

Further away again, and still yelling, Mr Orchardé: head, arms and legs sticking out from a spinning,
golden russet,

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