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7 - Apples

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That wasn't all that Jo wanted to say. If it wasn't for the light that forced eyelids to close again. Only for the stings to return on the side of his face.

"Stop it," he said, getting up, then finding himself being pushed back into cushions.

"Not a chance Mr I've-got-it-all-under-control," Suzé replied, hand still applying the salve, whilst two more held him down.

"You can't have three hands," he said, trying to move again but releasing more sub-surface fires instead.

"You'd only be breathing if I did. Mr Martens is providing assistance."


"Please call me Phillens," the source and cause of all this said overhead. "It's the least I can do."

"You're too Rayport Right about that," said Jo, wincing and squirming. One or two bruises were already surfacing on Phillens' face. Things hadn't been too cosy for him either.

"There," said Suzé, taking the salve away and standing up. "Now, will you lie there for two minutes, without trying to stand up?"

"As long as you don't put - that - on my face again," Jo mumbled, staring at the decorated ceiling.

Suzé nodded and the hands released their grip. Any other day Jo would have been on his feet. Any other day he would have been shaking Martens until his teeth could play piano notes. Instead, he stared at the ceiling; knowing that this was a day when any such movement could ignite more fires and stings than what was already in his frame.

"My, you aren't in the best of health," Suzé said as she alighted on a floral lounger. "Usually Mr Jones would be off that couch and tackling you to the floor, Martens."

"I wouldn't blame him, Madame. But please, call me Phillens."

"Not...My Lord Delcorf?" said Jo.

The sound of a glass being filled with water stopped as a knock came from one of the front windows.

"Delcorf's the Town," Suzé said as Phillens dashed outside. "Although it might be Delbarestivale on the maps."

"Delba-what's-it?," Jo coughed, "What a mouthful."

"You'll know more after," said Suzé as Jay entered, followed by Phillens.

"You're awake," Jay beamed, "That's a relief. Although they're going to hurt in the morning."

"Like they aren't now," Jo grated.

"Did you see anyone, Jay?" Suzé asked.

"Not a sign," said Jay, settling on the other couch. "Except for a flock of pigeons having an all-you-can-eat on the super-sized apple."

"That gives you till tomorrow to find a new location, Phillens," said Suzé. "If a scout who wasn't involved doesn't return sooner."

"Just as I was starting to put down a few roots," Phillens sighed, sinking onto a footrest that doubled as a seat.

"Sounds like this isn't the first time either," said Jay.

"I've been here for over six months," said Phillens. "Not a sight, sound or sniff until a chance collision a fortnight ago. And they were following a rumour about Elstar rather than me."

"So, there's a collection," said Suzé.

"A brooch for each town: Cox, Braeburn, Elstar; Gala, Glockenapfel and Delcorf."

"Don't forget Akane," said Jo.

Phillens stared at him. "How...did you know..."

"Mr Orchardé had a sparkling brooch; with an apple-shaped ruby and the word Akane on what would be the motto."

"Hang on," said Jay. "Aren't Cox, Gala and Braeburn apples?"

"Quite right," said Phillens. "The name of the Apple Towns. Although some have been known to replace Apple with Cider."

"Oh, you'd have a few more visitors with that name," Jay grinned. "Does that mean you supply your varieties to shops across the Patchwork?"

"Shadows of the real thing," said Phillens. "But some are closer than others. The town I come from, Delbarestivale — or Delcorf for short — used to have a following on Ernettselles. But I don't remember seeing so much as a stalk whilst I was in Ernsmera."

"You're talking about cider or apples?" said Suzé.

"Apples," said Phillens, "although the cider's never really dropped off, especially in the case of Akane. Their sphere has always been to the west of what is now Tialatvalles. Only at great need do their goods, or themselves, come into the Patchwork.

"A need such as this?" said Jo, managing to lift out the sparkling wonder that was Delcorf.

Phillens nodded. "Every four years the Towns hold a contest. It involves the contestants collecting as many of the Town Brooches as possible; followed by a showdown between those who have the most. The winner is called 'Prince of the Apple Towns' and 'Champion of Finslarnné'. But there's more to it than the title. Each brooch gifts its bearer with abilities that would seem beyond the reach of the every day. Run, jump-"

"Kick through blossom halos," said Jo.

"Why yes," said Phillens. "By the time of the Showdown, the would-be Champions are the equal of any Knight alive or dead."

"Meaning the winner, and the town they belong to, stand head-and-shoulders above the others and could force them to supply goods and services," said Suzé.

"Always been a dream rather than reality," said Phillens. "Mainly due to the point that the Showdown can be triggered as soon as a contestant has three brooches or more. Plus there aren't as many towns as there were at the beginning, and their brooches are said to have gone along with the lost town. But, even if the town has gone, the brooch will have lost none of its power."

"So, if there were enough missing brooches, you could just find those, not fight anyone and sit back for the final," Jay hummed.

"Or have your three and anything else is a bonus," said Jo.

"One that gets stronger with every addition," Suzé added.

"Akane haven't won for years. So long that they would often pledge their support to another town before the contestant had even declared. Glockenapfel well-nigh took it for granted, and both Towns benefited as a result. However, the first time Akane entered on a serious note, we - Delcorf - were the only town that gave them any support. Us and a town called Alkmene; a place said to have been burnt centuries ago."

"But still with a brooch," said Jo.

Phillens nodded. "Akane didn't win, lost to a vibrant Westfield. But at the next contest, they had Alkmene and a brooch belonging to Peasgood's Nonsuch; a town whose grounds now lie under a huge park."

"Looks like they did some collecting in between," said Suzé. "Are you allowed to keep the brooches afterwards?"

"All the brooches return to their true towns; except those whose towns no longer exist..."
"Sounds like a big head-start to me," said Jay. "If the Akane lot have two, plus their own to begin with, they don't need the support of the other towns."

"They've won four of the last five," Phillens sighed. "Just wait for someone else to get three brooches, then call the showdown. Some of the towns stopped entering; others just gave up and fell into Akane's slipstream. True, by forming an alliance with Elstar, Discovery, Glockenapfel, Cox and ourselves, Granny Smith stopped Akane from winning five. But their new leader, Mr Orchardé, has taken to hunting for brooches by fair means or foul and has formed an alliance with their one-time enemies, Gala."

"Drinlee", said Jay, looking up at the ceiling. "This could be a novel."

"In which 'Mr Orchardé winds up becoming Apple Prince by default," said Jo. "Since who knows how many brooches Akane have in their possession, and they could have an edge before a contest starts."

"Have any of the other towns thought about trying to beat Akane at their own game, Phillens," asked Suzé.

"Depends if Alkmene and Peasgood-what's-it are the only lost town brooches that they've found," said Jay.

"When Finslarnné was a Kingdom, there was said to be a King's Brooch that was linked to all the towns: lost or standing. The jewel itself has long gone; but in Ashmead, Hubbardston and Westfield, devices were made to show the final position of all the brooches from just before the Blight. Ashmead and Hubbardston have long faded from memory, but Westfield has always maintained that their device is damaged and can just about find its own brooch and that of Summerfree."

"It might not serve Westfield well if they did repair it," Jo mused. "I doubt that it would stay intact in their hands for long."

"The Council I belong to, and that of Glockenapfel, were working with Elstar to try and locate Ashmead's or Hubbardston's devices," said Phillens. "But, not even a day after the contest had been declared, we heard that Glockenapfel's would-be Champion had been killed, and their brooch taken."

"No prizes for guessing who," exhaled Jay.

"Hence the foul means," said Suzé, "Puts them on five brooches, including their own."

"My colleagues entrusted me with Delcorf's brooch and sent me into hiding. I can only guess that Elstar's did the same. They did add I could seek help from outside if I could, such is their concern of an Akane reprisal."

"That I've been at the receiving end of," said Jo, reaching out with the brooch, wincing, then noticing that Suzé was looking at him.

"You're giving it back?" she glittered.

"You think I wish to have a reunion with Mr Orchardé and his chums any time soon?"

"He'll be trying to find me, Mr Jones," said Phillens. "Thinking that you have returned it."

"Are you - both - crazy?" said Jo, trying to get up, but having to sit down. "He knew I had it."

"Could have been tailing Mr Martens to our establishment, then guessed that you were returning it afterwards," said Jay.

"You didn't fight him."

"He wasn't expecting us."

"I can pay triple," Phillens added. "As compensation for this afternoon's event. The whole of Delcorf will be indebted to all three of you and, for the first time, I will be able to sleep; knowing that the brooch is in safe hands."

"I don't want it," said Jo. "And I doubt the Insure will either after hearing all this."
"They've agreed, as long as the brooch is placed in the Void," Suzé replied. "Only the King's Brooch - or an operational Ashmead device - has a chance of finding it there."

"Which means it would be a good idea finding one of them to stop this being located," said Jo.

"Really," said Phillens, "You would do that? I would need to speak to the Council; but if you could find Ashmead or Hubbardston - or even the King's Brooch - you would be rewarded handsomely and would be saving a country, never mind a town."

"I was thinking aloud," said Jo. "We're sitting ducks as long as we have...this."

"Plus, we wouldn't have a clue where to look," added Jay. "And we have appointments to keep."

"You would have access to the archives," said Phillens. "Even the... interviews..."

"I don't want to think what that means," said Jo, noticing a luminous egg-shaped device closing in front of Suzé. A device with three signatures flowing across the screen, plus a triple seal.

"You didn't..." he began.

"Did," Suzé smiled. "Our first fruit case."

Jo let the brooch go one way, while he fell back on the couch in the other. Apples, he exhaled. All this for a brooch that looked like a blossom-haloed apple.

"Basket case," said Jay. "We'll need a bunch if we're going to stop Akane."

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