Sanaam Meets Calliope (81)

Sanaam closed the door of the taxi behind him and found Erik, Maggie and Hyacinth sitting on the porch steps. A green boy with short pants and a metal eye, a brown girl with braids and a dark blue dress, and a tanned woman with frayed blonde hair who was already smirking. They grinned and stood up, all three of them, like they were joined at the hip. Nobody offered to help him with his things.

He cupped a hand to his mouth and called over. “All right, what is it?”

“I’m not telling!” Hyacinth replied.

Now Erik and Maggie scrambled down the steps to the plywood gate. Maggie yanked it down, making way. “You have to come in and see!” she declared. Erik just nodded and kept nodding.

“Don’t you even want presents, you two?” Sanaam said, wide-eyed.

Erik paused for a moment and then nodded again.

“Well, yeah, I mean, eventually,” Maggie said. She took his large hand in both of hers and started pulling.

“Maggie, I have to pay the man,” Sanaam said.

“You’re leaving your stuff in the back, he’s got hostages,” Maggie said. The taxi-driver had gotten out and was watching the proceedings over the roof of the car with a bemused expression. The fact that his enormous black passenger apparently lived in a puzzle-piece-themed funhouse with magicians had left him ready for just about anything. He did hold out hope of being paid — the terrifying man had proven quite friendly.

Sanaam allowed himself to be manhandled by a pair of children. Honestly, he was not too interested in his boxes of things or settling up for the cab ride, either. He already knew about all that stuff. “Is it a pet?” he asked, smiling. “Do we have a pet now?” It couldn’t be a cat or a dog, so he was picturing something really interesting. Like a sulfur-crested cockatoo. Or a shark, in a tank. Or maybe something Milo made! Although, that wouldn’t have to be a pet or even something friendly…

Erik was shaking his head.

“It’s not very well-behaved,” Maggie said.

“…Housebroken,” Erik offered.

They opened the door.

The General was in one of the nice chairs in the front room and Mordecai was in the other. She had availed herself of a hardcover book and appeared interested in it. He hadn’t bothered and he stood up when Sanaam came in.

Mordecai was smiling. There was an awful lot of smiling going on today!

Sanaam could see no evidence of a shark, unless one counted all the teeth.

The General nodded to him. “Captain. Welcome home.”

“They’re in the kitchen,” Mordecai said.

Cookies? Sanaam thought. Guinea pigs? House gnomes?

Just then, one of them came out of the kitchen and Sanaam absorbed the constitution of the new pet. It was a very pregnant young lady with straight dark hair who appeared to be wearing Milo’s clothes — including the glasses. She took them off and tucked them in her shirt pocket.

Calliope had a good look at the large dark gentleman with no hair and gold tattoos. She pointed at him, “I’d like to do you nude.”

There was a metallic clatter from the kitchen and Milo poked his head out of the doorway with a frown. Something esoteric had been done to his hair. It was slicked back and gathered into a ponytail. He was wearing a tie and a faded jacket from a thrift store, but not his glasses. Perfect vision was not required to discern Sanaam. All he needed to make out was blackness and teeth.

Milo’s frown deepened. She never asked to do me nude!

Ann had a laugh like an opera singer. It was super annoying, especially when he was the only one who could hear it. Milo! Would you?

No, but I’d like to be asked!

“Hang on, I need a pencil sharpener,” Calliope said. She looked back at Milo, “Babe, get back in the trash can, okay? I’m not done with that last pose.”

Milo reluctantly withdrew to the kitchen and picked up the trash can. He was pretty sure Calliope didn’t intend throwing him away — she just wanted him in a soup can and they didn’t make them that big — but he especially didn’t like being in the trash can if she would rather draw Sanaam.

Nude.

“Is it a… a girlfriend?” Sanaam said, back in the front room. He was staring at the half-open door to Room 103, where the apparition in suspenders had disappeared. Could… Could Milo possibly have done that? How long have I been gone?

Hyacinth pressed her lips into a thin line and rapidly shook her head. “Please don’t say ‘girlfriend.’ It makes Ann and Milo nervous. He doesn’t have enough gears to run ‘girlfriend.’ He hid for a week when she moved in.”

“Yeah, but then he drew flowers,” Erik said.

“Ooh, Dad, you gotta see the flowers!” Maggie broke in. “And Calliope’s room! There’s paintings! Mom got rid of the smell!”

“…and she got him to go shopping,” Erik finished. He frowned. “Calliope did.” He knew about the General taking Milo to the fabric store to fix the uniform, but that was a lot less nice.

Mordecai drew nearer and spoke quickly, “She also made hash brownies and got him stoned at work, but Ann thinks I made them and we’re letting her be mad at me instead.”

“Milo doesn’t know the brownies had drugs in them,” Hyacinth added. “Just… don’t mention the brownies. It’s complicated.”

“I… Okay,” Sanaam said.

“We are covering her rent,” the General told her husband.

“I do not want any rent!” Hyacinth snapped.

“We are covering any and all household expenses which may arise,” the General said. “She was fired and evicted from her previous situation due to the pregnancy. She is living off of her savings, which I would like her to conserve.” Even if the attempt to get Calliope a bank account had not resulted in a bank account per se.

“What happened to her husband?” Sanaam said.

“She decided against one,” the General replied. “Hyacinth and I have explained the utility of contraceptive charms, to prevent future complications.”

“Why is she dressed up like Milo?”

“Kismet,” Mordecai said.

“She is more concerned with practicality than the constraints of fashion,” the General said.

Erik shook his head. “Cousin Violet has a sense of humor,” he said. (Although, if his uncle had explained ‘kismet’ to him, he would’ve understood it was basically the same thing.)

Calliope came out of Room 103, leaving the door ajar behind her. She had tied back her hair. She was clutching a pencil and a tiny sharpener shaped like a fish. “Your ears are kick-ass,” she informed Sanaam as she jammed the pencil into the fish’s open mouth. “Can I see one of those or are they stuck on there?”

Sanaam closed his mouth, which also seemed to be inviting a pencil. He managed a smile. “You know, I’ve never had occasion to try that but I suppose my wife might manage it.”

The General was better-versed in Calliopese. She removed the wooden plug from Sanaam’s left ear and offered it. Calliope stuffed both pencil and sharpener into her pocket with the glasses and enthusiastically accepted. “So intricate,” she said. “I’d like to do a charcoal rubbing, but I’ve got Milo in the trash can and I don’t wanna leave you with a flat tire. Are you Sanaam?”

“Reasonably sure,” Sanaam said. He wasn’t going to entirely rule out being a confused patient of Hyacinth’s with a head injury. He reached up a hand and self-consciously fingered the deflated cartilage of his earlobe.

Calliope gave him a thumbs up and a grin. “Awesomesauce. I’ve got some time. I’ll do Milo first.”

“Awesomesauce,” Sanaam said, considering it.

“Here’s your coaster back.” She handed it to the General. “Thanks, Glorie.”

Glorie?” Sanaam said, breaking into a grin of his own. He regarded his wife.

Do not,” she said tightly.

Calliope inquired of Hyacinth on her way back to the kitchen, “Hey, Cin, d’you think I might get a smile out of Milo if I put him in a can of spaghetti? He likes spaghetti, right? I think pasta cans are okay, they’ve got that little guy with the tomato hat…”

Glorie!” Sanaam said. He spread his arms for a hug.

“If you persist, I am perfectly capable of excising that pejorative from your brain,” said his fiercely-compacted maniac of a wife. “Along with basic addition and the concept of cheese.”

“It’s against the Florentine Conventions, sir,” Sanaam said, feigning injury.

“No tribunal in the world would convict me,” the General said.

“They wouldn’t dare,” Sanaam agreed.

“Now that you have been brought abreast of current events, if there is nothing further…?” the General said archly. She laid her hand on his arm.

Sanaam stammered incoherently and pointed towards the door. “I… have… taxi… Boxes!” He sounded like his Great Aunt Lelisa, who had never quite grasped the fact that they’d been a Marselline territory for about a hundred years. You no take candy! Bad boy! Put back! Put back!

“…Then I suppose I shall assist you,” the General allowed. “I don’t suppose you will be kind enough to tell me which box contains my present so that I may handle it with… extra care?” Now she grinned.

The attic stairs put in exclamation point on their departure, falling with a clamorous clatter. Barnaby descended a few and then leaned down the rest of the way. His hair was jutting out from the sides of his head like a halo of corkscrews. “Did I miss it?”

“Yes,” said Hyacinth.

You don’t even know what I’m talking about,” he disdained.

“Sanaam met Calliope about five minutes ago and now he’s unloading boxes from the taxi.”

Barnaby’s expression resisted all effort to keep it deadpan and screwed into a savage frown. “Damn!” he cried to the heavens. The stairs closed after him.

Mordecai lifted a finger, “Didn’t he already know exactly how that was going to go?”

“I think he just likes seeing the looks on people’s faces,” Hyacinth said. She shrugged away the mystery of why Barnaby ever came out of his room for anything besides confectionery and snagged Mordecai by the arm. “Come on. Let’s see if we can stop the General from setting her new tiara on fire before anybody gets a chance to see it.”

———

It was not a tiara. It was a lacy red negligee and it was lying crumpled on the floor next to a pair of rough canvas trousers with double-stitching. Let a tasteful veil be drawn over whether she consented to putting it on before throwing it at him.

Sanaam laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back. The bedframe creaked in protest, but he was quite used to it. It was cozy, like being back on the ship. And much less lonesome. And much less stressful than having his wife actually on the ship.

“Calliope Marshmallow Otis,” he said. He pronounced it with a short O, like opposite.

“It is a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?” the General admitted from beside him.

“It lacks the grandeur of ‘General Glorious D’Iver,'” Sanaam said.

“It suits her,” said the General.

“It does that.” Sanaam sat forward and grinned. He scooted nearer to her like an eager little kid at a slumber party. “So, did you notice how much I was enjoying our first daughter and decide to go out and steal me another one? That was thoughtful of you.”

The General frowned and folded her arms across her chest, which was no less standoffish for the lack of a dress. “It is not stealing when the item in question has been thrown away. …Unless it has been deposited in a designated municipal waste receptacle, with lid,” she added. “Regardless, I am given to understand she maintains a cordial relationship with her own parents, they are just inconveniently distant.”

“So you’re like a babysitter?”

“She does not require one of those. Yet.” The General could not suppress a smile. She was practically salivating at the thought of another bright young mind to teach — once the bright young mind grasped language, syntax, and the basic function of toes.

Sanaam felt a frisson of terror, perhaps even a premonition. It was not difficult to picture his wife reconstructing her army from scratch, one unfortunate child at a time. He was damn grateful that the blue fellow who lived under the bridge was running his own school, and that she seemed satisfied to let him have charge of most of the local urchins.

He cleared his throat and rubbed a hand on the back of his neck to stop the flesh there from creeping. “Yes. Ah… I noticed she doesn’t seem to have any baby things in that room of hers. Cribs and diapers and little booties, you know. Do you think we ought to help her out with that?” He had saved a few of Maggie’s things, for sentimental reasons (his wife certainly wasn’t going to do it), and he’d be happy to donate those, but he also thought he could spare the money for one ridiculous shopping trip. Provided they kept mostly to second-hand stores.

Now the General sat forward, but not eagerly. She sighed. “I will raise no objection to your leaving behind whatever items of Magnificent’s you may have been carting around… barring the metalized baby shoes which are completely useless.” She shook her head. “But I would advise you against going overboard in the other matters. This is Calliope’s first pregnancy and up until now her medical care has been sporadic. All appears well, but we cannot be certain of anything until the baby arrives. It is hard enough losing a child without coming home to a roomful of diapers and tiny outfits.”

“You don’t really think she…” Sanaam said. “I mean, she’s not…” Climbing in and out of trenches and shooting at people, he had almost said, but that implied fault where there was none. He reached out and put a hand on his wife’s back, but she stiffened and he took it away. “Hyacinth would’ve noticed something by now if it wasn’t okay, wouldn’t she?” he said.

“Things tend to be okay right up until the moment when they are not,” the General replied. “And Hyacinth’s… method is notoriously subjective.” ‘Touch-know,’ which most magically-abled physicians still did, was rooted in chakra theory, which had been disproven decades ago. Sanaam and Hyacinth were both aware of this, of course. The General had made sure of it. “But even if fetal development remains perfectly normal, childbirth itself is hazardous. There is no way of knowing whether Calliope or her baby will be come through it whole and alive until they have.”

“…It’s a little late to be leaving the crib and the diapers,” Sanaam managed finally. His wife obviously didn’t want to hash over the past again, and he didn’t particularly want to, either. (He hadn’t been there. The entire process had been over the space of two letters, “Yes, definitely,” and then, “No, but I am fine.” By the time he got there and might actually do something, she was already over it and ready to try again.) “In Tollakland they give out a box of baby things right at the hospital,” he added, “and the baby can sleep in the box, but we’re not that bothered about public health in Marsellia.”

“We are bothered about independence,” the General said, frowning. “I doubt Calliope intends on going to a hospital when she lives with an ex-medic, at any rate. It is probably a sound decision.” She had grave doubts about the sanitation and quality of care at the nearest hospital, which was run on a combination of church funds and donations. It seemed as if Hyacinth was often cleaning up their messes, or dealing with their overflow. They had been known to close their doors entirely when riots got near.

“A trip to purchase diapers and some sort of a bed would not be unreasonable,” she went on. “I am merely cautioning you against bringing home a playpen, an automatic swing, a high chair and a dozen soft toys… and whatever else you think looks amusing. If you’re going to take Calliope shopping, keep it practical.”

“Um,” Sanaam said. He had once been caught short with a dozen soft toys that he didn’t know what to do with and later followed that up with buying Maggie two dozen all new ones when she arrived and was fine, so it wasn’t like his wife was wrong… “I was sort of hoping you would come along, you know,” he said. He smiled. “And keep me reasonable. Bring Maggie and maybe Erik and make a day of it.”

“Ice cream and birthday candles again?” the General said dryly.

“Maybe ice cream… Do you have a crystal ball or something?” he demanded. He was damn sure Maggie didn’t tell her about sneaking in a tenth birthday party at the ice cream parlor, and Erik wasn’t on speaking terms with the scary lady in Room 202.

“I have a functioning brain,” the General said. There had been broken candles in the bed that night. He’d forgotten to take them out of his pants. “I think you would do better to take Hyacinth with you, so she can warn you before you make any purchases she’s liable to take apart… and not to make too big a deal of it. If you want to have ice cream, make it about Erik and Maggie new friends, not the baby.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Sanaam said. It was uncharacteristically sensitive of her, but not without reason. She always had reasons, it was just that this one was a little more personal than most. “What do you think of the beach?” he asked her.

“It is strategically difficult to defend,” she said, “lacking dunes or other natural bulwarks and with the terrain too unstable for trenches. Papillon ‘Island,’ being a peninsula, makes it all too easy for an invading force to set up a base of operations, although the narrow passageway could theoretically be bombed into impassibility, forcing any attack to be made from the water.” She smiled at him and narrowed her eyes, “But as an amusement, I find it uncomfortable and smelly and I assure you I will not enjoy myself in the least.”

“Sun’s Day or Sigurd’s Day?” he said with a grin.

She waved a hand. “I leave it to you. The magic rides are closing after this weekend, so it is bound to be crowded and miserable in any case.”

I made it home in time for the magic rides?” Sanaam cried, pressing hands to his face. “Can we go now?”

“You are not finished with this ride yet,” she replied.

“Do I need another ticket?”

“You will need another charm.”

He reached into the dresser drawer and presented one. Contraceptive charms came in little square packets that were quite ticket-like. “Cancel it for me, sir?”

She tore it in two.

———

With both burners and the oven going, the kitchen was far too warm for the season, which remained sporadically hot and humid well into October. Regardless, everyone including Barnaby had crammed themselves into it, in anticipation of dinner and seeing Sanaam interact with Calliope some more. It was not as impressive as it might have been. They were more like hot dogs and potato salad than nitro and glycerin. Both were far too easy-going to goad each other into true insanity, they just engaged in meandering conversation with frequent jokes and misunderstandings — which neither of them minded. Calliope did manage to exact a promise that Sanaam would pose for her at some point — clothing dependent on where she wanted him to do it.

Erik and Maggie were sitting at the table, along with most of the others, with a pile of small toys between them. Sanaam had picked up a few things, and when it became evident he was going to get home with a decent profit (barring a total catastrophe), he designated a box, went through a few marketplaces and filled it. The trinkets inside were therefore primarily from Iliodario. Erik was particularly fond of the figure of a donkey made from painted beads and string that collapsed in a humorous pile when you pressed in the base of it and reverted to strict attention when released. Maggie preferred a simple wheel fronted with colored glass that sparked when it spun. This sort of thing was called a ‘Merlin’s Wheel’ and had resulted from some of the very first attempts to anchor magic to gears. Maggie’s version was much smaller and less impressive, and needed only a thumb on a plunger to get it going. She was more interested in its potential flammability than its historical significance. It would do until Cloquette Day (which her daddy was intending to be home for, so he had not included any fireworks in the box).

Mordecai was up cooking, dinner was going to be spaghetti and meatballs and a chocolate cake, and Hyacinth was alternately helping him and making his life miserable. Ann was kneeling on the floor over the washtub with a towel around her shoulders, out of the way of tangled chairs and walking feet, and trying to remedy what Milo had allowed Calliope to do to their hair. Soap did not seem to be adequate to the task.

Dammit, Milo, in the future, could you please try to bear it in mind that we share a HEAD?

Oil is good for hair, Ann. I read it in ‘Teen Jean-Jacques Monthly.’

Not COOKING OIL, Milo!

Ann was a little out of sorts for dinner, with her head wrapped in a dripping turban and an occasional frown. She got along famously with Sanaam, but Calliope and Mordecai, especially Mordecai, were distrusted. Also, Calliope wanted Milo for more posing after dinner and social interaction had been dealt with.

“Just for the jacket and tie… We can be in my room alone if he wants, or with all the people if he misses Sanaam like you do.”

“I am capable of wearing a jacket and tie, Calliope.”

“Yeah, but you’re stacked, Ann.” Calliope made a heavy gesture over her chest — which was also not inconsiderable, but that was a situational thing.

Ann looked down the front of her own dress. The lace edging of the corset was visible from above. “I mean, I don’t have to have… I can take them out…”

Calliope frowned. “I guess that’s okay. Do you have a dress with a collar like that?” She indicated her own collar and adjusted an invisible tie. “Shirt collars are such a pain in the ass. Almost as bad as shoes.”

Ann sighed. “No, I do not.” And one of Milo’s shirts and a gray jacket and black tie was getting to be a bit much, even if she put it all on over a dress — and that was liable to make her look like a stuffed scarecrow. Ann protectively touched the towel over her hair. “No more cooking oil, Calliope. Promise me. Milo likes posing for you and he lets you take advantage.”

“I like it, too!” Calliope said, smiling. “He’s good at it! He freezes like I’ve got a gun to his head and he’s gonna die! He’s like the stuffed animals at the natural history museum!”

(Milo’s heart leapt up, Oh, wow! We can go there and draw things together! I can show her how the dinosaur is wrong! Tiw’s Day afternoons you get in free!)

Mordecai cleared his throat. “Calliope, Ann would like you to promise no more cooking oil. She didn’t like that.”

“Oh.” The smile faded and she turned her head aside. “I’m sorry, Ann. I wasn’t thinking about you, I just wanted it shiny. Like a businessman. I won’t do it again. Is Milo mad, too?”

“No,” Ann admitted. Although he was getting rather upset with her for making Calliope unhappy like that. “But he likes art,” and you, “and it’s a new thing for him,” as is liking you, “and he gets distracted and stops caring about practical things like washing oil out of hair.”

“Me, too!” Calliope said proudly.

———

Most of the household had moved into the front room where it was cooler by the time Milo came down in the jacket and tie. His hair was still shinier than normal and lacking its usual loft, but he didn’t seem to mind. He presented Calliope with a card as regarding the stuffed animals at the natural history museum.

“Ooh, that’s a good idea,” she said. “Lemme know when you’re gonna have Tiw’s Day off. I’ll make some sandwiches, we can picnic. Museum food’s terrible, anyway. And expensive.”

Given that the museum was still trying to recoup the losses from shells and explosions during the siege, this was understandable. They were just lucky their animal collection was inedible, unlike the zoo.

Sandwiches! thought Milo. He nodded eagerly, which was almost as good as a smile. His ability to eat a sandwich around Calliope was strictly theoretical, but he liked the idea of it.

“You wanna come to the beach with Sanaam and everyone?” she said. “We could draw people after they come off the roller coaster and practice the colored pencils.” She frowned. “But it’s the weekend and the magic rides are gonna close after, so it’d be lots of people.”

Yes, thought Milo.

No, thought Milo.

Yes, thought Milo, but sadly. He liked the idea of it, like he liked the idea of sandwiches, but he knew he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t even pretend. It wouldn’t just be Calliope and some moms with loud kids doing Free Summer Tiw’s Days at the museum, it’d be the whole city. Noise and color and eyes, mainly the eyes, and shoulders and elbows and feet knocking into him. He’d get too scared and he’d have to leave and everyone would be upset. He only liked the boardwalk when it was dark after midnight and everything was closed, and he could just look at the machines. He’d detoured through there a couple of times after Ann’s shows at the Black Orchid. The machines were nice to look at, but it was all sort of sad, too. Misty and melancholy.

He sighed and shook his head. He pointed back upstairs and made the motion of hair at the sides of his head and brushed an imaginary skirt in front of him. Ann will go with you.

“Is she still mad at me, though?” Calliope asked weakly.

Ann did still seem to be mad and suspicious of Calliope for some reason (Gods, Ann, it’s only cooking oil!) but he didn’t think she should be and he definitely thought she should go to the beach with everyone. He shook his head.

Calliope beamed at him. “Really? Oh, I’m glad!”

Ann, you stop being mad at Calliope for real right now, I am so serious about this…

Mordecai peeked out of the kitchen, saw Milo, and decided to go ahead and grace the front room with his presence. Milo wouldn’t be cold and uncomfortable like Ann. And the General doing her crossword over there was an unavoidable arctic front. He cleared his throat. “Milo? I’m sorry.” This was automatic. Milo did not like people sneaking up behind him to say ‘hi,’ no matter how carefully they did it. “Do you want a piece of cake as long as I’m over here?” Ann had not wanted a piece of cake.

Milo nodded, he even managed the ghost of a smile, then he stiffened like when Mordecai had sneaked up behind him to make the cake offer — or like one of the stuffed animals at the natural history museum. His hands came up, crossed in front of him, and he staggered a step back. He looked to one side, then the other, with wide-eyes seeking purchase. Then he took off down the basement stairs.

There was a thud and a rattle from below.

“That was Ann,” said Hyacinth dryly.

“That was Ann,” said Mordecai sadly. He shook his head and touched a hand to his brow.

“He’s under the table again,” Calliope said. She took a step forward, but Hyacinth laid a hand on her arm and stopped her, “Don’t. Let me. He’s used to me.”

Calliope nodded, but she was frowning.

Hyacinth’s grip reflexively tightened as she addressed Mordecai, “And will you please take the first available opportunity to explain to her about the damn brownies? Both of you,” she added, before turning her attention and her ire back to Mordecai, “You cook everything and I’d like Milo to be able to eat more than canned pasta from unopened containers without Ann screaming at him!”

Mordecai folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the kitchen doorway. “No,” he said. “I like it better when Milo can act silly over a nice girl without Ann screaming at him. He eats. If he wants cake, he can go to a bakery.” …with Calliope, he added silently to himself.

“I don’t like that we have to pick,” Calliope said. She looked down and edged her shoes from side to side on the tile floor. Not that she could see them, but it was something to do. “I think Ann is still mad at me, too; Milo just doesn’t get it and he wants her to stop.”

But she had a card in her pocket about going to the natural history museum to draw stuff and she didn’t want Ann to take it back and tear it up.

Sanaam put a hand to his mouth and spoke sideways to the General, “Is it just me, or does this situation seem like it’s going to turn around and bite multiple people in the ass? Are you picking up on this, sir?”

“My brain still functions, Captain,” the General said. She filled in 14 down, Wakokuhito disaster: T-S-U-N-A-M-I. “But this is in no way my mess to clean up. Nor yours. All parties involved are adults.”

“I think Milo and Calliope are borderline.”

“She does very well for herself,” the General said. Milo, apparently, was beneath notice.

Barnaby looked up from rearranging the books on the shelves and said, “The issue is not the brownies or the kidnapping, it is the roses and the hole in the roof.” Of course, no one was qualified to comment on this and he had expected no reply. He removed a copy of Thin Thighs in 30 Days— which Sanaam had purchased for the General ages ago — with a flourish. “It’s not the ninth today, is it?”

“The eleventh,” Sanaam said.

“Twenty-eight days,” Barnaby muttered. He lobbed the book underhanded into the closet under the stairs, which nobody really minded.

Mordecai approached and put his hand on Calliope’s shoulder, replacing Hyacinth — whom he nudged towards the basement with a hip check. “It’s the best we can do for right now, that’s all. When Ann has some time to feel better about it and notice we’re not trying to hurt Milo, we’ll see if we can fix it a little better.”

“She’ll be mad at me again for lying,” Calliope said.

“I’m the liar,” said Mordecai.

“I’m an accessory,” Calliope said.

Mordecai blinked. He did not know about Marigold-Muse Law, nineteen years of stacked textbooks and case files, and flashcards at the dining room table. (“…a person who assists in the commission of a crime, but not as a joint principal!”) He was picturing Calliope as a diamond brooch. The pin would be enormous. “You’re a very nice person and eventually Ann will give up and admit it,” he said finally.

Calliope smiled. “You’re an optimist.”

Erik broadly shook his head. Maggie glanced at him and then nodded her agreement.

“He is merely ignorant,” the General opined. Erik frowned at her.

“If the solution to this problem were to run it over with a cannon and then plants flags in it, I would’ve engaged your expertise days ago,” Mordecai said. “As it is, I think my vaunted ignorance will result in fewer casualties.”

“Running things over with a cannon,” said the General. “What a novel idea. And to think I have been shooting things with them for most of my career. I can see how you offer a unique perspective, rather like looking into a funhouse mirror. Or consulting a ball of lint.”

“It is shameless how you flirt,” Sanaam said.

Erik sidled over to Calliope and offered his input, patting her hand, “I think you’d be a really pretty pin. I bet Auntie Hyacinth could make one.”

This was enough to shut everyone up. Usually it was Calliope saying things like that. Not that Erik was any slouch at being weird, he had just been sidelined since the artist with the lobster painting moved in.

An accessory, Calliope thought. She snickered. She leaned down with difficulty and hugged Erik. “Thanks, kid.”

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