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Nobody expects the last card up your sleeve to be from the tarot.

Lucien rips their shirt open. Their hair is tall and ruffled with static and sweat. To kiss their cheek would be to lick a battery. To kiss their lips would be to know the hour of your death.

Kids are scared of clowns. Kings are scared of Fools.

This is where the chaos sings purest, and Lucien is in the mood to dance to the beating. This is different from being subsumed in the role of Fool of the Sky Court, in the place of mushrooms and angels where reality was at its thinnest. They were safe as long as they did not think of the past or future - They lived in the moment, between concepts.

Lucien is the Fool Inverted, a role of his own making. He will dance through the chaos, though the role grants him no power that was not already his own. Reckless, daring, stupid - and he's got a bloody gun. He knows his future and he thinks only of it. He will land his punchline. There will be no encore.

Lucien shoots ᴇᴠɪʟ ᴊᴀᴄᴋᴅᴀᴡ point blank in the spine, through the place where her heart should be. This is no great challenge. She is so focused on Ailee, the real threat. His gun is a joke. Everybody knows that. It is a work of moments to walk behind her, silent under the impossible thumping music. There was no way this could have killed her, everyone knows that too. It doesn't need to. It ends the fight.[1]

She will hold the clown's attention better like this, anyway. The old saw about the tiger and the running shoes comes to mind. "Surely you can't shoot all the clowns?" "I don't have to-" The clowns flock to the feast.

Lucien is standing in ᴊᴀᴄᴋᴅᴀᴡ's silhouette as she crumples, and stands eye to eye with Ailee. Are those tears in them? Or are his own eyes watering, staring into her power like this. Let her see him and know what he has done, and what he will do, and for all the love he has ever held for her, let her understand.

But we aren't finished yet, are we? The bouncers are walking towards the table. Nothing to hold back now, there will be no rainy days left to save for after this. It is time to cheat.

Surma had a book on her, oh yes she did. What kind of Bookhunter doesn't domesticate their most useful catches? It's just one of those things that caught his eye, made him so immediately cautious about hiding a spine from her - har har, a running gag.

Wouldn't it be such a shame if she had lost that book when the word of Regret hit her? Dropped it, even, in the scuffle. Wouldn't it be a shame if Lucien had picked it up? Wouldn't it be miraculous if it was just the thing he needed?

As any card-counter knows; good cheating is indistinguishable from good luck. What was it he told the professor about his ability to extrapolate? He had tapped into the ultimate nexus of bad luck in the Heart, and he's had plenty of time to think about it. He'd been right in the thick of it when it blew up - able to learn from both cause and effect. It's a damned shame he didn't get more of a chance to practice.

As it is, he'd just learned enough to see the thrum of the thread leading Ailee and Surma to himself at just the wrong moment, and for the spiral out of control since. Just hit after hit of bad luck and awful coincidence. Enough to form a pattern. Enough to extrapolate.

"Tell Coleman to hug Sasha for me, she deserves it, and tell Jackdaw to always remember me fondly. Please." His voice breaks too hard to say anything more to Ailee. He's crying. How can he be crying, when he is also laughing and smiling? He laughs at that, too. This is all very silly, isn't it? Yes, it is.

He takes Surma's book from his pile, opens it to a black-velvet bookmarked page, and hurls it at Ailee's chest. It's a panic button. It's a safe escape. And, if Surma was especially clever and good at her work - which Lucien suspects she is - she will have linked herself to it, so she will go wherever Ailee is as well.[2]

Somewhere safe.

There is only one last thing to take care of. The ringmaster is still here, and Lucien still has five bullets. The clowns will only be distracted feeding on ᴊᴀᴄᴋᴅᴀᴡ for as long as she keeps squirming. After that, there is him and the professor.

ᴊᴀᴄᴋᴅᴀᴡ is live bait. Let them get closer. Lucien has five bullets and a target.

Lucien moves through the clowns in a blur of burlesque, ballet and boxing. Leap, lunge, kick-in-groin, spin, twirl, stomp-on-foot, shoot-in-kneecap, two, three, four.[3] The professor is dragged behind him, when he’s not being pushed ahead of him. The clowns are ripping into the mockery of their friend, and there is a heavy spray of blood in the air keeping their attention.

He does not have to fight the clowns. He just has to push through them. Any that get funny ideas about the weaponized professor he carries with him is dispatched in hilarious fashion. The clowns do not see a kick to the genitalia as a threat, they see it as a joke, because that's all Lucien is, remember?

The Ringmaster doesn't fall for it. He makes his way for Lucien, not the carrion. The Ringmaster knows a good joke when he sees one, and he doesn't want to be the butt of it. The Ringmaster is here to escort Lucien from the table and drop the curtains.

One last bit of sleight of hand. As long as he's looking at Lucien, he's not looking at the Professor about to drop him into Crows. There will be consequences for this. They are in the middle of the clown mob, just as planned, and he's played all the cheap tricks he's had. There's no way out of this one.

Lucien smiles as he thinks: Fried pickles are a hell of a last meal, aren't they? He can still taste them on his breath. Lovely.

The bath water takes some time to heat, but the rising steam is a pleasure all its own. Tristan already feels pores thick with dirt and sweat begin to open for the first time in days. His expression softens with his skin.

"I have thought long and hard, these last few minutes, about the best way to prepare you for the trials to come," Tristan intones solemnly. "Arduous test of your mind and spirit that they may be, I feel it's only appropriate we have a big snowball fight, and Mort and I shall gang up on you most ruthlessly. For your sake, of course. The bath should keep warm for that long. Then we must see about fattening you with your favourite sweets, to ready you through this harsh winter, and then we shall find some children to play hide and go seek with, so that they might share with us their knowledge of the best hiding places in the castle. And then I plan to sleep for a thousand years, and wake up early to go watch the sunset, and you're free to join me."

He nods grimly. "Yes. This is a most able plan, I feel. Nothing short of your duty."
Everything Sir Harold said is interesting, probably worth interrogating, definitely worth investigating... later.

Tristan jumps and whizzes around the rooms, inspecting everything. He'll have to start to heat water for the tub first, which is to say, immediately. And the bed! When he falls back into it with open arms, it's like being swallowed by a marshmallow! He bounces, laughing. He can read by the fire!

Reading wouldn't normally be such a priority, but he's sore and tired and books are lovely and is there a library, he wonders.

He should probably introduce himself to the place, too, find somewhere quiet to listen to the world...

Tomorrow. Definitely tomorrow. First he most definitely wants that hot bath.
Tristan grimaces, but he's said his piece and more, and the fight leaves with his anger. The emotional expenditure here is bleeding into his physical exhaustion, and he has been overly-thorough in his job of patrolling and scouting for their travelling party. For every mile Constance has ridden, he has ridden three. Blessedly Mort had taken up Tristan's share of setting up camp as he made the perimeter, or else the poor boy couldn't keep on his feet right now.

He thinks about all the luxuries a room affords. A hot bath. A feather-stuffed mattress, if he's exceptionally lucky. A breakfast of eggs-over-easy and cured meats, if his stomach has a say in his dreams. It does, and it rumbles in his ear; when's the last time he's had ice wine? It would be in season, wouldn't it? And posset! Stars above keep his hand, the things he wouldn't do for posset by an open fire.

What the Lady Sauvage has given Tristan is a gift beyond measure: She has given him a deadline for duty, a near moment he must be ready for. That means there must be no training too exhausting, no exercise so strenuous as to fatigue him or risk serious injury. He must conserve and build his strength until that near moment, and be as sharp and as well-rested as it is possible for him to be.

The Lady Sauvage has given him a fortnight's holiday to make merry.
Lucien realizes he is about to die.

The word of regret flows through him, and yes, it is true, he has wined and dined this fine company time and time again. But a gentleman always dances with the one that brought him, and he came here with his regrets long before he met the Professor.

The blood on his hands has been literal far too often, when he was a young soldier. But isn't that a joke down here? Not only is he all talk down here - and only talk - but the idea he was ever scary, ever a mastermind of anything, rings absurd, and it has for a long time.

Sharks are only scary in the water. Drop a great white a kilometer inland, and watch what happens. See if it matters what it used to be.

And you know what? It's been wonderful, to be a bit of a harmless old joke, hasn't it?

He got ousted from his house by a bloody parliament, and now he's going to get stomped by the floppy shoes of every clown in the damned circus in a spot of the old ultraviolence, and for some reason that sounds exactly correct to him.

What's he going to do? Take on the clowns? Take on Ailee and Surma if they survive ᴇᴠɪʟ ᴊᴀᴄᴋᴅᴀᴡ, or ᴇᴠɪʟ ᴊᴀᴄᴋᴅᴀᴡ if she can take them out? And even if he could, then what? Would Coleman and Jackdaw be faring any better right now? Besides - there never was anything in the Heart for him anyway.

Alright. So he's dead then. What a hell of a way to go.

But if this old shark hasn't left the table, yet, he's going to keep dealing the cards and playing with the house's money until he's escorted from the premises. Wouldn't want to throw one last regret to the pile, would he?

Lucien takes "A Victory of Crows" from his pile of books and gives it to the Professor. Thrusts it into his chest, more like.

"Who wants to live forever?" Lucien demands of him. "It'd be worse if you got taken alive. And if you've got anything to live for, you better say it now, because I'm working out a grand finale, here. We're gonna keep dancing 'til the curtain falls!"

He draws his revolver. Powder dry.

What's he going to do? Face the storm. Greet his audience. Help his friends and die trying.
Has this come up before? It must have, for all the brooding and stalking and melancholy - and yet it must not have, for her to ask him this now, for her to have only be releasing herself of this burden now. He takes Constance's hand and squeezes it reassuringly.

"Constance, I was with her much of the night, and you did not fail, you were failed. It was Sandsfern who boiled her blood, and Sandsfern who pushed her to the last, and Sandsfern who would not tolerate a moment's hesitation or thought. When they compelled me to fight with them, her words felt reasoned and true, and felt right until she spoke in triumph over the deed. You were only there to see the axe as it fell - yours was not the hand that lifted it, and you were not the one to place the axe in hand to begin with."

Louder, he asks of Sauvage: "Will the Lady Sandsfern be here as well, to shoulder her share of the responsibility? For how she goaded a friend to act against themselves?"

The execution of Pellinore is something that Tristan is more ambivalent about. What stirs him now is the realization that this has been a crime against loyalty, the sin of being a bad friend. That causes him to tremble with indignation.

It's also now that Tristan realizes just how deep it would have cut him had he allowed the pair to goad him into attacking the hunting party as they had intended. He had stood his ground to the last to only shoot out horses and shout warnings. He had felt overwhelming pressure to act otherwise, and in the moment, he had wondered if he was simply an ignorant child for his resistance to the two world-weary and war-wizened veterans. How close he was to actions he would have come to be ashamed of, too, a shame he would have carried for the rest of his life.
This Tristan can answer with conviction. "That was very beautiful. If your question's not rhetorical, I do have an answer. We will whither and fade. I mean, I apologize for my bluntness, but we will. Would you convict parents for having children, that they would grow old and die as we will? I love mine, who gave me life, even knowing it must end. And I hope our children love us as much, and theirs even more. And if we can't make the world safe for them, let them forgive us that we tried."

Tristan smiles easily. There's no heat in his voice, no scolding or coldness. He speaks as if to a baby bird fallen from its nest and held in his hands - aware the bird is so much greater than him. He also says it simply because he believes it, truly. "There is hope such as we make of it, such as we are here to have it and to inspire it. And since we are here, Lady Sauvage, thank you for this kindness. Sir Liana is wonderful, and I am humbled to have been audience."
The word is relief - Lucien's feeling sentimental.

'Follow my lead' means 'I have worked out you are useful, but inferior'. It means Surma probably hopes that Lucien is going to get himself killed doing something relevant, and her problem will fix itself thereby. He won't, but as long as she thinks that, she's an unquestioned ally.

And evil twin means this is not Jackdaw. This is ᴇᴠɪʟ ᴊᴀᴄᴋᴅᴀᴡ, which makes this so much simpler.

Still, she's Ailee's +1, those two can do a couple's waltz. Lucien's got to be the gentleman and dance with the one who brought him.

The bolas are in the air. Lucien's still touching the Professor's shoulders gingerly - first to help position him between himself and Surma, now so he can make a friendly shoulder squeeze, ground him in the moment.

"Hey, Professor, we've got plenty of clowns in the circus right now if we need one," Lucien is the angel on his shoulder, reason to madness, "but not many brilliant academics. I need you to tell me everything you know about what that ᴊᴀᴄᴋᴅᴀᴡ is, and keep talking. You said you could be a repository of knowledge here, right? Prove it."

The information he gets out the Professor might be useful, it might not be. What's important is that he's now put the Professor's pride in the way of the Clown Madness. Pride enough to rival Ailee's.

[Talk Sense - Appeal to emotion, Wisdom, 5, 2, +2 = 9 - he does as I ask, but I owe him.]
Tristan has made an easy friendship with Mort. This did not come immediately. He did lie about his service, for starters, but after the initial wounded pride, it allowed Mort to see him more as an equal. What was important about Tristan was not a facade: He is loyal, he is determined, and he puts service to the common good above all. And, besides, Tristan just really likes him.

It helps that what he's taken from Robena is a renewed sense of wonder and playfulness. When push came to shove, it was not martial prowess that failed - not Tristan's or Sandsfern's or Robena's - it was spirit. A subtle wrongness to Sandsfern that he would not be able to pin down until he saw her again. And Robena...

He still believed Robena did what needed to be done. This is why he kept her axe with him, clean and sharpened, for the day they met again. What failed is that she could take an action she couldn't believe in, did what she felt was wrong.

To Tristan, this meant that it was not enough that he could act in the moment, but that he would always act as he should in the moment.

This new insight has alloyed him into being a playful showoff.

Is it, strictly speaking, a survival skill for him to be able to wear a tunic upside down, walk on his hands, and pretend that nothing's the matter? No, but it made Mort snort beer out his nose laughing when he managed to balance a hat on Tristan's bum, and Tristan doffed it with his feet.

Was it, strictly speaking, making him a better warrior to practice birdsong for birds that didn't exist? To invent stories for the children about what they looked like, the impossible fruits that they ate in the fantastic places they came from? (Of course it was all true; how else could he know how they sounded like?)

It didn't. It made him a warrior who was accountable to children and their sense of right and wrong, though, the harshest and most insightful of moral arbiters. And it made him happy.

The training is rigorous, as always. He can allow himself to soften, but not to blunt. When his muscles are too sore to test, when his mind is too foggy to fill, he takes longer and longer meetings with the spirits of the world, shows more and more concern. It is not insulting to rest like this. These are his most vulnerable moments that he shares with them.

So, when it was time to travel, he did not comment on Constance's exacting choice of wording. The implication that the three who go out will not necessarily be the same three that return. He pretends he does not notice this even as he takes Robena's axe with his pack, already suspecting.

He challenges his horse to a race, and mounts it a run just as it starts to overtake him at a hundred paces.

And he laughed.

He doesn't laugh now, but neither does he bow to Constance's grim decorum. He bows to the lady in the green dress upon the throne. "Thank you, again. I humbly ask if you would you have any musicians in your court? Or instruments, if no one to play them? The journey has been too quiet. It would warm us as much as any fire."

As Constance's silences become more grievous, so too has Tristan's ways of breaking their tension.

This has, unfortunately, left Lucien alone with Surma's attention while Ailee is biting ᴇᴠɪʟ ᴊᴀᴄᴋᴅᴀᴡ. Which is funny, because it was the second most likely matchup of this oeuvre he'd run the hypotheticals for - the first was good Jackdaw vs evil Ailee.

SWOT; Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

The threat's the obvious one. Surma's terrifying. That she's down an arm only means she's survived something able to rip and tear it off - without the arm at the time. ᴊᴀᴄᴋᴅᴀᴡ is secondary.

So that leaves him with a gun that is useless as a weapon (W), and a friend that is only useful as one - (S), for now.

O: "Professor," Lucien draws the clown's attention to Surma, and neatly steps so that he is between Lucien and Surma, "I don't think this one's here for the Heraclitus."

Don't try for the gun. It signals an escalation you're just going to lose. Pull it out to get put down harder. Keep her talking. Keep-

[Talk Sense - Appeal to emotion, Wisdom, 4, 6, +2 = 12]

"Surma, a moratorium until the more overt threat is dealt with? A fight on two fronts kills us both - no room for doubting each other right now, let's both of us live long enough for you to kill me, if it comes to it? But for now, we are allies." He glances at Ailee to emphasize who is included in 'we'.

This isn't a mind game. This isn't a double bluff. Maybe if he was younger, and spryer, and there were less collateral damage. But he is none of those things, Ailee is in biting distance of the threat, and he doesn't even know if this is a scenario where Jackdaw has been turned evil, or a scenario where it's an evil clone!

He's scared that honesty works against him here. He's more practiced at manipulation, where he can afford an emotional distance. Anyone who believes sincerity really matters hasn't spent a day in a courthouse.

Ah, well. Aileea iacta est.
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