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“The least little thing” – an Apportionment – her Case – Ebb-Tide, Cinnamon Twist, All-American Girl – Fénius –

“The least little thing,” says Anna, fingertips against her forehead, pushing aside a wing of russet hair, “sets it off.” On the table between her elbows a round white cup full of steamed milk marbled with coffee and cocoa. “And I’m right back there, that moment, the moment she asked. Time stopped, you know? And everything about her that I’d noticed, without noticing, her smile, the way she holds herself, those – eyes,” her own hand dropping, gripping her upper arm, glasses flashing as she looks up, a wan smile for Gloria sitting across from her. “The smell of sunlight, in her hair. It all came crashing down, and I know, I knew,” she looks back down, shaking her head. “There was no other answer, there was nothing else to say. There will never be another.”

Wrapped in Gloria’s hands a pale green mug of red tea, steaming. “It was,” she says. Behind her rows of shelves neatly lined with books. Romance, says a sign at the end of a shelf. Paranormal Romance. Humor. “It wasn’t anything like that,” says Gloria. She sips. “I never met her before. But the lights, and the music, everybody, I just, it was an impulse. I said yes. And, and it was like, everything,” she looks away, she licks her lips. Another mouthful of tea. “I can’t get her out of my head.”

“The,” says Anna, “the taste of her.”

“We, I, ah, we never,” says Gloria quickly.

“I’m sorry,” says Anna, sitting back. Adjusting the drape of her houndstooth skirt over her crossed legs. “It’s not easy, talking about it. I, um, it’s – ”

“I paint,” says Gloria. “It’s what I do, with the money. Most of it. Paints. Canvases. I keep, doing the same one? Over and over. I, I can’t,” setting her mug down, looking away.

“Does it help?”

Gloria shakes her head. “But I can’t stop,” she says.

“I’d like to see them,” says Anna.

Rhinestones flash under fluorescent lights as the man in the peach nudie suit twists and shoves, and the man with the big blond beard goes stumbling thump against a white SUV, squeak of brown boots on polished concrete. “Draw,” snarls the man in the nudie suit, “or shut your bleeding mouth.”

“Hey,” says the man in the grey sweatsuit, a can of soda in either hand.

The fourth man, his coat of red velvet worn and stained, puckered with intricate embroidery, reaches for the man in the nudie suit, and more flashes and sparks. “Do not,” snarls the man in the suit. “He is a churl, and will answer as a churl, or I will have satisfaction.” The blond man, Chillicoathe the Harper, pushes up off the SUV to spit at the feet of the man in the suit, who says, “Oh,” and lifts his glittering arm, light gathering itself in his curling hand.

“Hey,” from behind them. “Hey!”

Chilli looks down, scowling, and the man in the nudie suit shakes the flare from his hand. “Your grace,” says the man in the grey sweats, ducking his head. Jo’s marching across the parking garage in her black coat, her sombre chalkstripe dress, a sleek aluminum briefcase in her hand. Behind her Luys in his nondescript brown jacket, and Christian in his softly yellow suit. “Your pardon, ma’am,” says the man in the nudie suit, “but we have business, the Harper and I – ”

“Do I look like I care,” says Jo, headed past the SUV, to the reddish brown car parked beside it. Hefting the briefcase up onto the trunk, thumbing the combination locks, clicking open the latches. “Okay, boys,” she says, opening the case, and golden light washes over her as they gather around. The man in the red velvet coat whistles. “Most of this is to replace what got stolen last night,” says Jo. “But we got some extra.”

“I’ll say,” says the man in the grey sweats.

“Her majesty provides,” says Jo. “Okay. It’s portioned out, but since this one kinda took us all by surprise, we’re gonna deliver, instead of waiting for pickup. So. Medoro?” Holding up a plastic freezer bag bulging with dust. “This one goes to the – ”

“It’s Astolfo, ma’am,” says the man in the grey sweats.

“You’re kidding,” says Jo. “You guys’re just fucking with me at this point.”

“I assure your grace,” he says.

“This to the rabbits,” she says, holding out the bag. He looks around. “Anybody want some?” he says, holding up the cans. “It’s Mexican Coke.”

“Um, sure, hey, thanks,” says Christian, stepping up to take one, but Chilli puts out a hand to block him, “Sworn knights only, at an Apportionment!”

“Horseshit,” says Jo, and they’re all looking at her. “Unless Sweets has been hiding a badge in that head of hair he has?”

“Your grace,” says Chilli, “this boy should not – ”

“He’s a friend of mine, Harper, so tread careful. Conary?” She tosses a bag to the man in the nudie suit, who catches it, alarmed. “How do you feel about the Marquess.”

“As, as well as I might, your grace,” he says.

Jo looks back, over one shoulder, the other, there’s the man in the red velvet coat, rubbing his hands. “Pwyll,” she says, handing him a bag, “go annoy the Viscount. As for the King’s, I’ll see to that, and our own cut has been divvied up, we’ll hand it around the next couple of days. Chilli.” He’s reaching for the briefcase, but she snaps it shut. She’s holding up a bag, noticeably smaller than the others. “I’ll need you to walk this over to Ladd’s. Tonight.”

“But, your grace,” says Chilli, and a gesture at the briefcase.

“But?” says Jo, still holding up the bag.

“The theft’s on me, your grace. I’d set it right.”

“Then do as your Duke commands,” says Jo.

“All due respect, your grace,” says Chilli, “but – you’ve been upstairs? With the Queen?” and Jo lets the bag drop to the trunk. “What the who?” she says.

Mouth fixed within that big blond beard he says, “You’ve been drinking.”

Jo blinks.

“Ma’am,” says Chilli.

“What of it, Harper,” says Luys, hands on his hips.

“Mason,” says Chilli, “I mean no disrespect to her majesty, but – ”

“Or anyone else?” says Jo, as off that way, toward the ramp leading out of the garage, someone whoops. “Do yourself a favor, Chilli,” she says. “Take the bag, shut up, and go.”

“So where’s the party?” someone’s calling, and they’re all falling still, Conary in his glittering suit and Pwyll, hanging his head, Astolfo, soda in one hand, bag in the other, looking about, and Luys folding his arms as Christian ducks back. Off that way, pinkish-orange pompadour a-bob, comes Lymond in a trench coat over a dull green suit, a black tie loosely knotted about his undone collar. “Did I miss it?” he says.

“Kinda fizzled, a little early,” says Jo.

“Gentlemen!” says Lymond. “Always an honor. Don’t let me keep you.” They’re already turning away, Astolfo and Pwyll and Conary, bags in hand, and Chilli picks up the little bag from the trunk of the car, heads after them for the ramp, up and out. “I didn’t need that,” mutters Jo.

“What,” says Lymond brightly. “That? That was nothing. I find myself with a sudden hankering for noodles. Heard you might be making a run.”

“Luys?” says Jo, turning away, beckoning him over. Christian throws back the last of his soda. “Get the others. Follow Chilli,” says Jo.

“You’re certain,” says Luys, hands in his pockets, eyes on his boots.

“It’s personal,” says Jo, quiet, close. “The bandit doesn’t want the owr, she wants him. Look,” a hand on his shoulder, and he looks up to meet her eyes. “Follow him. He delivers without a hitch, I’m wrong, and you can hightail it across town because we’ll maybe need your help. Okay?”

He nods.

“And take Christian with you. Just in case.”

“You’re off?” says Christian.

“Don’t get hurt,” says Jo, “but this time, don’t run.” And then, to Lymond, “We’re taking my car.”

“Sure,” he says. “But I’m driving.”

The room now dark, the table gone, the candles and the chairs, the sofas returned beneath the windows left and right in walls that narrow to a point, and there the great maroon chair where she sits curled up in white and gold, a wine glass in her hand. “It isn’t locked,” she says, and the door to the apartment opens. “I wasn’t expecting you back,” says Ysabel.

“She was his date,” says Chrissie, uncertain on spindly heels, shoulders draped in fake white fur. “I’m yours.”

“But still,” says Ysabel, sitting back, lowering her bare feet to the floor. “You had to see him off.”

“Investment has its perks. Should I go?” Click of a heel, as she comes down a step, and “No,” says Ysabel.

“Are you angry?” says Chrissie, letting the fur slip from a shoulder. “We’re very grateful.” And the other. “He’d never’ve gone that high without you.”

“Yay, me,” says Ysabel.

“You are angry,” says Chrissie, lowering a hand, letting the weight of the wrap draw itself slinking through the crook of her elbow and down to pool whitely on the steps. “Don’t be angry.” Heel-clack as she comes down another step. “You can still give us whatever you want.” Undoing a knot at her shoulder, and an asymmetrical panel falls away, baring a ghostly breast to the dim light of those windows all about.

“How very generous of you,” says Ysabel.

“Whenever you want,” says Chrissie, unhooking a flap at her hip, opening a zipper, another click of her descending heels. Her little black dress falls away to the floor.

“Give me a reason,” says Ysabel, and on those heels quite steady and sure comes Chrissie toward her, streetlight from those windows oblongs and rhombuses slipping up and over naked swooping sway of legs and belly, arms and breasts, “make your case,” says Ysabel, and Chrissie stands herself before the chair, between Ysabel’s white-draped knees, yellow hair severe about her almost-smiling eyes, lips parting, a breath taken in as Ysabel leans forward, hand on a bare knee, nose brushing belly and lips a briefest kiss the lightly gooseflesh hand against a thigh, fingertips nestle the crease sloping up to hip, thumb beside the sleekly pout of vulva. “I could,” says Chrissie, “answer your – ”

“No,” says Ysabel.

A hiss of a breath. “Thank you, then, for – ”

“Don’t,” says Ysabel.

Chrissie’s almost frowning, mouth still open about the words unsaid, until another sharp breath, through her teeth. “I was,” she says, “pleased, you didn’t,” her hands lifting, floating at her sides, “push, things, with Reg,” and a shiver, a jerk, trying to keep her balance, one and and the other hand coming about to Ysabel’s head, fingers among the black curls. “You,” says Chrissie, “you, you’re not,” and another breath, “you’re not going to make this easy,” she says. “Are you.”

“Stop,” says Ysabel against that skin, “asking, for what I’ve already given away, and yes.” Looking up. “I will.”

He shuts off the engine, looks across to her, “Chilly?” he says.

She’s leaning back in her seat, eyes closed, collar of her black coat up about her throat. “Exposed,” she says. The aluminum briefcase on the floorboard between her red shoes.

“You ready for this?” he says, brow furrowed over bulging eyes, one blue, one brown.

“We ain’t getting jumped,” says Jo. Sitting up, and a sigh, shaking her head. “It’s been a day,” she says. “I found out, this, old friend? I’d been looking for, for months? He’s, well, he’s working for me. Has been, for a couple weeks.”

“Yeah?” says Lymond.

“I didn’t know,” she says.

“But now you do. And he’s okay? You’re taking care of him?”

“Ray,” she says. “I didn’t know.”

He smiles. “Welcome to upper management. The shit I don’t know,” and he shakes his head. “You could write a book.” Looking down, at his hands. “How’s my sister,” he says.

“How’s the new Bride,” says Jo.

“She’s not,” says Lymond, and then, a deep breath, “she’s no one’s Bride,” he says.

“You’re just keeping your options open,” says Jo.

“And you didn’t answer my question,” says Lymond.

Jo looks away, out the window, spangled with neon rain. “She tried to give ten thousand dollars we don’t have to her goddamn girlfriend.”

“She,” says Lymond, “tried, ah,” his hand up, reaching for a word. “So, she didn’t. Which is good. And if she had, actually, I’m sure – you would’ve figured something out.”

“I have to figure out too many goddamn things,” says Jo. “You better know what the hell you’re doing.”

“Funnily enough, I don’t?” says Lymond, leaning over the steering wheel, looking up through the windshield at the sign, KJ Rice Noodle Shop & Restaurant, it says, under the lit-up Oregon Lottery logo. “I mean, do we just walk in the front door, or what?”

“Works for me,” says Jo, shoving her door open, hauling up the briefcase, kicking her red shoes out to the pavement.

An electronic bong as he opens the door, as they step inside, the front room brightly lit, and there by the empty glass-fronted counter a thickset man in a tight black T-shirt, shoulders softly round, and faded tattoos at his temples. “You have a new man,” he says.

“What, Ray?” says Jo, looking over at Lymond. “Don’t mind Ray.”

“A new man, and you brought it yourself,” Wu Song folds his arms over his chest. “Troubles?”

“I ever want advice,” says Jo, setting the briefcase on the counter, “I’ll be sure to ask.”

“Of course,” says Wu Song.

And Lymond says, “Wait. That’s it?”

“Until next quarter,” says Jo.

“But I was,” says Lymond, a theatrical pout, “I wanted some noodles.”

Wu Song shrugs, then smiles. “Best in town,” he says.

Here and there, close to the grass, small signs planted that say, white letters on black, Ebb Tide, Barbra Streisand, Cinnamon Twist, All-American Girl, The Kincaid. Behind each, serried ranks of new green upright rose canes, sprouted from the stubbled nubbins of deadheaded bushes. She stands before them, waiting, wrapped in a big coat, sheepskin collar upturned, and on her head a floppy, goggle-eyed horse-head mask, and a baseball bat in her hand. “Harper!” she bellows, muffled by that mask.

He’s coming down the middle of the tree-lined street, arms wide, “I want my coat!” he bellows, breaking into a run. That horse head wobbles and flops, a muffled gibber of laughter, and she plants her feet, lifts the bat, but a grate and skid of his boots he stops just short of the square and she’s turning away, swinging the bat up whock to catch Luys’s sword and shove to send him staggering back, “Mason!” cries Chilli, aggrieved, as the woman in the mask ducks under the whick of a dart flung by a figure all in black. “Ambuscade!” she roars through the mask, dancing back between the rows of roses. “Banditry!” yells Luys, sword up, following her. “Gerlin?” says Chilli, as a portly man in a brown and black ski jacket rushes past him, waving a long square-pointed blade above his head, followed by that figure all in black. “Cheat!” the muffled voice, and “Coward!” Crunch and whip and chunk, another pass of sword and bat, more whicking darts, “Spadone!” yells Luys “Cut her off!”

Chilli kneels, his hand a fist he knocks against the pavement, and the twang of a snapped string pulls up out of a flare of light a short-bladed sword, stubby hilt and pommel of it golden, heavy. Standing. He steps up into the garden, picking up his pace, lifting the sword up over his head, shoving past the man in the ski jacket to Luys his sword back for a two-handed swipe and clang, scrape of blade on blade, Luys wrenched around by the unexpected blow, tripping over a line of roses. “She’s mine,” bellows Chilli, turning but not in time to avoid that square-pointed blade, a cut that rends his sweater, slashing from rib to hip, “my fight,” he gargles, falling to the grass, as roses thrash about.

“Gradasso,” calls Luys, his sword up and ready. “Kern!”

“Lost her,” the answering cry. The man all in black, coming up from the other end of the garden. “She went south,” he says, pointing with a dart. “That way,” shifting, “or that.”

“You lost her,” says Luys.

“You had no right,” snarls Chilli. “Her quarrel is with me.” An arm clutched about his shredded sweater, breathing shallow, loud, quick. “She’ll name me coward, she’ll tell – ”

“She’s exiled!” cries Luys. Hand to his forehead. “Outlawed. She’ll tell no one a thing. But you.” Turning about, there among the trampled roses. “Kern, Spadone,” he throws a gesture off toward the other end of the garden, “go. Do what you can,” and as they head off, he kneels. “You,” he says, to Chilli. “Still have a delivery to make.”

“I’ll need a moment,” says Chilli, hands wet in his lap.

“By all means,” says Luys. “But take not a pinch, nor the slightest grain, to help it along.”

“I would never,” says Chilli, scowling over is big blond beard.

“But you would,” says Luys, pushing himself to his feet, “put a peck of it at risk, and our friendship with the East, the word of your Duke, all for your petty vendetta.”

“Duke,” says Chilli, with a barely hidden sneer.

“Be about your business,” snaps Luys, and he’s off through the roses.

“Who is it,” says Agravante, turning a page of the leather-bound book in his lap.

“A delivery, sir,” says the glumly narrow man in a black suit, chin tucked in behind a high white collar.

“Awfully late,” says Agravante, taking off his spectacles, looking up, the book now closed about a finger. White dreadlocks unbound, loose about his shoulders.

“He did not wish a word, but presented this,” and the narrow man holds out a shapeless parcel wrapped in brown paper, tied up with string. “With the compliments of Southeast.”

Agravante takes the parcel and turns it over, finding a corner of the paper wrapping to pry open, the pleasantly puzzled look on his face fading as faint gold light shines out on his fingers.

“Something amiss, sir?” says the narrow man. His nose and cheeks are appled with extravagant gin blossoms.

Agravante, closing the folded corner up, shakes his head, “Not as such,” he says. Setting the book aside. “I’ll be retiring now,” he says, getting to his feet, tightening the belt of his pale blue robe. The parcel in his hand. “Be so good as to alert the gentlemen: I’ll want them here a little before lunch tomorrow.” He smiles. “Briefly. Nothing untoward.” And then, as the narrow man’s turning to leave, “Do you know,” says Agravante, “what is worst, about answered prayers?”

“Prayer, sir?” says the narrow man.

“Indeed,” says Agravante.

Between the gateposts of that collar, his chin shifts from one side, to the other, and back, “I don’t, understand, sir,” says the narrow man.

“It’s all right,” says Agravante, clapping him on the shoulder. “Have a good evening.”

Up a long straight staircase in the front hall of the house, pale robe ghostly in the unlit halls of the second floor, Agravante parcel under his arm opens a slender door on a tightly winding spiral staircase.

A round room at the top of it, casement windows all about, cranked open to the night, an uncommitted drizzle stirring the dark trees without. Cardboard boxes full of clothes stacked here and there, and more clothing strewn about the bare wood floor, a wrought-iron bed there, a marble-topped table beside it, an alarm clock blinking 12:00, 12:00, and a reading lamp, unlit. A paperback book, swollen, rumpled with old rain, the edges of it flocked with mold, the cover faded, the title just legible that says Chanur’s Legacy. He lifts his arm to let his parcel fall, reaching for the book, but what’s landed on the pillow is a fiendish little basket-box, carved from a single chunk of dark red wood. He looks at it a moment. Pulls the chain on the lamp, lighting up its blue glass shade, and sits, gingerly, on the edge of the bed. Turning the basket-box over in the light, the knurled and seamless faces of it, the pips carved into each, a flame, a cloud, a drop of water.

“Fénius,” he says to himself. His big white head hung low.

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Chanur’s Legacy, written by C.J. Cherryh, ©1992.

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