17/09/2016: Orchard: The Gordian Knot, Part Two

(Part One is here. Sequel to The Burning Lily and the Midnight Thieves.)

5. Somewhere Else

He sits on, or within, his wheelchair, slouched like a dying man, but the glare in his eyes, the pride, and the power, turns it into a throne, as well as a funeral shroud.

“We’re compromised,” Jo tells him, pacing, running a hand through their hair furiously, “I don’t know what Briony is up to…”

“I do,” the enthroned man says, mildly, and tosses a globe of light from one palm to another. Jo looks at him, curious, but he does not expand upon the statement, and so they let it drop.

“…she could very well be ready to leave us. I’ve said, since day one, Briony is not cut out for this sort of work.”

He laughs, then, a young-sounding laugh in an old body.

“Jo, Jo, Jo. When I found you, you were weeping from your first kill. Now? You’re a sword, or a shield; cast through the fires of hell to forge you into a weapon of war. Few creatures are made in such a manner. If I tried to recruit solely beings like you, our ranks would be minimal indeed. We might as well join the Hoods.”

Jo makes a sound: somewhere between acknowledgement and dismissal.

“Must you turn every argument into a fucking poetry reading?” scowls a voice off to the side, “I’m tired.”

“I know, Craig,” coos the enthroned man, “Simply keep us safe a little while longer; I want to make sure Jo was not followed.”

“Of course I wasn’t.”

“You are our most obvious and most public member.”

“I’m also your most capable.”

“And most valuable,” and something in the way he says valuable makes Jo back down, arms folded, dismissed. He says it in the same way an art collector might say “the last of it’s kind” or “exquisitely rare” or “unutterubly fragile”, and all of those connotations linger in the air.

“Victor,” says Jo after a pause, “What are we going to do about Briony?”

“She’s choking at the bit, clearly,” says the man in the wheelchair with a dark, twisted smile, “Eager to prove to you that she hasn’t been slack. Let her attempt it.”

“She’ll fail.”

He smiles at Jo, the way an art curator might smile at a favorite art piece: something beautiful and worthwhile but still, ultimately, an object to be owned or possessed. Jo as always, notices the possession, the hunger, and is silent.

“Then you, my young Alexander, must be there to cut the knot and claim your prize.”

6. First Meeting

Briony watches Aaron for a week, making sure – absolutely certain – that Jo hasn’t reached out to him.

When she’s certain that Jo has done nothing of the sort, she waits until his last dance of the evening, and walks towards him. His eyes are bright and wary.

“I know you,” he says, “You’re a Scarlet. One of their pimps, right?”

She flinches a little at the word, but takes a deep breath and plunges on.

“You’re Aaron. You’re trying to stop the Scarlet smuggling ring. I think I can help you.”

He looks, briefly, like a caged animal.

“And why would you want to help me?”

She leans forward, presses her lips to his ear; he can smell her violet perfume.

Because I’ve seen the Orchard, too.”

They sit in an all-night coffee joint. He has a hot chocolate; she drinks hers black as sin and bitter as broken hearts.

He tells of how an autumn-hued garden appeared before him one day when he was practicing his fire routine; how the answer “knowledge” tumbled from his lips before he could think; how he set the abandoned lot he was in on fire; how he knew, then, that he could stop the child smuggling, if he was patient enough.

“Good thing for you,” smiles Briony, “We can work together on this.”

Her heart thrums with tension. She needs to get this right. No, not right; perfect.

7. Moments

“…and that’s their plan,” Victor tells Jo.

“It’s atrocious,” she says, horrified.

“Then you know what to do.”

“Jak,” whispers James, as he cuts and carves patterns into his flesh. Jak gently removes the knife from his nerveless fingers, “Jak, you will need to be at the unconsecrated church on Manners tomorrow night. It is a matter of great urgency.”

“You mean where the Scarlets keep their smuggling ring? Why?” he asks, puzzled.

Don’t question me!” begs James, before his eyes roll, and he falls into darkness.

“This is so cool!” coos Jasmine as Briony walks her through the plan yet again, “It’s like you’re superheroes!”

Briony smiles, faintly.

8. Cut the Knot

It is dark; the night air is cold and clammy as Briony lies, awkwardly on a nearby building, looking down a sniper rifle.

The plan is simple; from here she will pick off the guards of the church; then she will run in, save the children, and Aaron will ignite it.

Simple.

She’s settling into her breathing pattern when she notices something; the guards are all already dead, and she breaks out into a cold sweat.

Looking at the street below, she spots Jo, striding, unconcernedly, down the street. Jo draws a handgun and fires in the air, sending what few people are around running for cover.

She wets her lips, frightened, when she spots Jo aim their handgun at her, and has enough time to pull back when pain blossoms in her left eye, and she’s suddenly tumbling backward from her rifle.

There’s a crunch of concrete beside her that she barely registers, and through a haze of tears, Briony spots Jo, who strides nonchalantly over and, brutally, bandages up Briony’s shot left eye. Then, before Briony can figure out what’s happening, Jo has grabbed Briony’s radio and told Aaron to ignite the church.

“No…!”

But it’s too late. Down on the other side of the church from her, Aaron snaps his fingers, and the church goes up in flames.

The screams.

Oh, god, the screams.

And then…

…it is as though the very street itself were on fire.

9. River of Fire

Jo, annoyed, looks down at Briony, writhing and miserable on the ground. Their rarely-used phone starts jingling an annoying little tune.

“Jo,” they snap into the phone.

“What in the fuck is going on out there?” Jak snarls down the phone line. Jo glances down the alleyway and spots Jak, looking terrified.

“New recruit. Figuring out how his power works.”

“And you say I’m unsubtle?”

“Well, yeah, this holocaust will mean that no one will notice the fifty-odd kids the Scarlets had in the building.”

“…your logic is both impeccable and terrifying.”

“Alas, we should stop this blaze.”

“We?”

“Well, your blades are invincible, and while I can recover from third-degree burns, I’d rather not spend two weeks hurting like hell.”

Jak mutters something incoherent, before motioning to Jo to join him. They leap off the building, and the two make their way to the center of the fiery streets where, in the center, it is just possible to make out a weeping Aaron.

Jak draws his blades; Jo takes a deep breath and seems somehow to become…more real. Then, like a boat casting into the waves, he presses the tips into the fire, creating a space for himself and Jo.

Slowly, the two make their way to Aaron; as they do, Jo notices the strain on Jak increasing.

“Are you okay?” they shout.

“I’m fine!” he yells back; but, for the first time, Jo notices one of the blades crack, and blood start to drip down Jak’s wrist.

After what seems like a fiery eternity, they reach Aaron, and Jo pushes off of Jak, swinging her foot around to knock Aaron out; as he falls down, unconscious, all of the fire expires.

Panting, singed significantly less than they should be, Jo and Jak stare at each other for a moment that seems held far, far too long.

10. Aftermath

You shot me in the fucking eye!” Briony yells.

They’re all back at Jak and Jo’s place, with Jasmine redoing Briony’s bandages delicately. Aaron, exhausted and spent, lies on the couch nearby.

“Yup. Yup, I did.” replies Jo, taking a long drink of beer. If they were ever in a fire, all signs are gone; they look perfectly normal and unsinged now.

“You. Shot. Me. And. Killed. Children.”

Fifty children to be precise, and, although your gift does grant you  some degree of enhanced strength, you cannot carry fifty children at once,” snaps Jo, “Be reasonable. Furthermore, exactly how would your act have stopped the child-smuggling? Granted, they would be down one large building, but all it would take is a shift in power, and the child-smuggling would start up again. This way, there is going to be an investigation, corpses will be found, and the Scarlets will be too worried about losing any influence they have in City Hall to start the child-smuggling ring again, especially with Senator Heron winning votes again.”

Briony grinds her teeth and slams her fists against the table.

I don’t need you.” she shouts suddenly.

Yes. You. Do. And contrary to popular belief, 90% of the time, I need you too. So sit the goddamn hell down and shut the goddamn hell up.”

Briony swallows, hard, her lower lip trembling as she bites back tears and, abruptly, Jo, normally hard and eternal as Prometheus’ chain, softens.

“Rest,” they advise, “Cry, if you need to. Tomorrow we’ll take you and Jak to see Siobhan.”

“Who’s Siobhan?” asks Jasmine, puzzled.

“Never you mind,” snaps Jo, all hard edges again.

Yes, I mind! You never tell me anything!” Jasmine is practically vibrating, “Why did you stop this ring anyway? Isn’t Briony a Scarlet? Why are you helping each other?”

They pause, startled.

“I mean, you told me: the gangs of the city are the Scarlets, for their scarves; the Hoods, for their jackets and hooded jumpers; the Punks, because they recruit mainly teens; and the Crazy stable, because they wear smiley faces. So why are you two trying to work against your own gangs?”

Jak, gently massaging his bandaged wrist, looks at Jo in a significant manner.

“There are two more gangs,” Jo says, eventually, “But nobody talks about them. Most people don’t believe in them. Entrance is based off something you cannot buy and shouldn’t wish for. They are the Tats, and the Thorns. Members come from every gang and every walk of life, and is dependent on one thing.”

“What?” asks Jasmine.

Jo looks at her for a long time, and then silently leaves.

11. Calls in the Night

The first call Jo makes when they reach a telephone booth three blocks away is to Mick.

“Hey,” he mutters sleepily, “I’d just got to bed.”

“Don’t worry about the child-smuggling ring,” says Jo.

“Wha…what happened? Is Aaron okay?”

“He’s fine.”

“What did you do?”

“I cut the knot.”

Jo hangs up, not knowing that Mick is suppressing the feeling that someone has walked over his grave.

Their second call is a number that, if anyone other than them called, would go nowhere.

“Yeah,” they say, “Yeah. It failed, I had to step in. Mm-hmm. Yeah, just like you said: linked to his emotions. Also turns out, his flames are the only thing that can harm Jak’s blades. Yeah, tell Siobhan she’ll have two customers by tomorrow. Oh, one last thing.”

There’s a long, drawn-out pause.

“Is Jasmine a spy?”

Whatever Jo hears satisfies them, because they hang up, nod to themselves, and vanish into the darkness.

12. Epilogue

That night, Jasmine dreams of an orchard of beauty, where no sorrow or pain could hope to  penetrate. A beautiful woman in white approaches her, and holds out a hand, and, smiling, asks

Knowledge or love?

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