They picked a small café, The Petite Bouchée, to meet. As previously agreed, each brought two others with them. The Marshal chose Sergeant Gendarme Arpin and the Watchful Chevalier. Old Man whom Arpin met before, was accompanied by two nondescript people. Each leader nodded, then sat at a table on which a tray of cheese and bread was set along with a pitcher of water.
“We have much to discuss,” said the Old Man.
Arpin and the Marshal sat while Watchful stood behind them.
“Please have something to eat, the bread is freshly baked,” said the Old Man.
“No thank you,” said the Marshal.
“They aren’t poisoned,” added the Old Man, “If that’s what concerning you.”
“Amongst many things,” replied the Marshal.
“He’s telling the truth,” said Arpin, who then took a bite from a thick slice of bread, “At least about the food.”
“Marvelous, your sense of smell can detect lies!” exclaimed the Old Man.
“I can also smell poison,” added Arpin.
“Of course,” said the Old Man with a smile.
“I did not agree to this parley to make idle chit-chat. What is it that you want?” said the Marshal.
“Right to business then, very well. You have an object that belongs to us, we’d like it back.”
“The Penultimate Machine?” asked Arpin.
“Making a claim on a legendary and obscure artifact is legally tricky. Do you have any proof?” asked the Sergeant Gendarme.
“Are you asking for a bill of sale?” asked the Old Man.
“Documentation would be quite useful.”
“Do you wish to aid this malefactor?” hissed the Marshal.
“I am here in the service of the truth,” said Arpin.
“A worthy cause,” said the Old Man.
“Please do not mistake manners for approval. You and your organization have committed many crimes, including the most recent events at the Manoir de la Lune.”
“Young Thibault needed specific care.”
“Small comfort for those who were injured,” said Arpin.
“You are all villains and scoundrels! Your claim means nothing,” said the Marshal, “You and your cabal have been responsible for thefts and bloodshed going back centuries.”
“The same might be said for the Coterie du Honor,” observed the Old Man.
The Marshal’s eyes narrowed at that.
“Our causes are always just. We defend those who cannot defend themselves. Every Chevalier lives their lives by a code of conduct. You do as you please. We are nothing alike.”
“Have you not sent Chevaliers on quests that might end in their deaths? Did you not go on them yourself in the past?” asked the Old Man.
“Hardly the same. A Chevalier will give their lives to save others, we do not spend them as freely as you do.”
“You have no idea what we do for…, “began the Old Man.
“Do not try to justify your crimes!” shouted the Marshal.
A shrill sound cut through the argument. Arpin put away his Gendarme whistle and said, “Apologies, but this feels an unproductive use of this parley. The League of Spiders requested this, we should listen to what they have to say. Let us put philosophies aside for the moment.”
“Very well,” said the Marshal.
“Agreed,” said the Old Man.
“Now, if I may ask how you claim ownership of the Penultimate Device?” asked Arpin.
“It’s a rather long tale,” said the Old Man, “But the short version is that The Huygens entrusted it to us, many years ago.”
“Quite a statement,” said the Marshal.
“I assure you that it true.”
The Marshal fixed her stare at Arpin, “Is he lying?”
“No, he’s not.”
The Old Man smiled.
“However, that does not mean it is true.”
“Are your acute senses faltering?” asked the Old Man.
“Not at all. You believe what you are telling us. That does not mean it is objectively factual.”
“I see,” replied the Old Man thoughtfully.
“Please continue with your story,” said Arpin.
“As I said, we were entrusted with the Penultimate Device by The Huygens. He knew that it was extremely dangerous and he did not want it to be used for immoral purposes.”
While the Marshal said nothing at that last part, Arpin noticed that she gripped the arms of her chair tightly.
“And we had done so, maintaining it as per The Huygens’ instructions. However, approximately twenty-three years ago the Penultimate Device was stolen from us. There was a concerted effort to recover it but unfortunately, we were unsuccessful, clearly. It was never offered to collectors nor was whispered about in less savory circles. It effectively vanished.”
“You should’ve been more vigilant,” remarked the Marshal.
“I agree. We have since tightened our defenses,” replied the Old Man.
“Understandable,” said Arpin.
The Old Man shrugged and said, “Yes, well barn doors and horses.”
“Then you heard about Mademoiselle Couture’s inheritance.”
“Yes, did you know her semi-aunt was the infamous jewel thief, the Golden Kraken? It was said that she could charm a roomful of people while removing their jewelry and bilfolds with no one the wiser. Until after she left of course.”
“You sound as if you admire her,” said Arpin.
“It’s difficult not to be impressed with someone so gifted.”
“I see your point,” said Arpin.
“Really?” asked the Marshal.
“She was never caught. Most criminals slip up sooner or later. If I recall correctly, she never stole from anyone who could not afford it.”
The Marshal seemed scandalized, and asked tightly “Are you saying you would let her go?”.
“Absolutely not,” Arpin replied. “To capture the Golden Kraken would be the crowning achievement of any Gendarme. But I never had the opportunity.”
Arpin shrugged and then turned to the Old Man.
“So, you discovered the Penultimate Device was part of Ismay Fitz-Couture’s estate and then you attempted to retrieve the item by force.”
“Actually, we first attempted to purchase the entire inheritance through an advocate,” said the Old Man.
“You did?” asked the Marshal.
“Did she not mention this?”
“She did not.”
“A shame, this all could have been avoided.”
“It’s disturbing how easily you justify murder and chaos,” said the Marshal.
“As if your hands are not covered in the blood of your enemies,” countered the Old Man.
Arpin once more brandished his whistle.
“Do not make me use this again.”
The Marshal and the Old Man stared at the Sergeant Gendarme with a fury that quickly transformed into amusement.
“I yield,” said the Marshal
“As do I,” added the Old Man.
“Clearly you will not agree about the past, let us put that aside and discuss the future.”
The others nodded.
“Excellent. Let us name terms, perhaps if we all know what each other wants, compromise can be reached.”
“May I speak first,” asked the Old Man.
The Marshal nodded.
“We want the return of the Penultimate Device. That is all.”
“I see,” said Arpin, “That seems on its face, simple.”
“It is, that is all we desire.”
“Then let me ask you this. What is it? Why is it worth so many lives?”
The Old Man looked at Arpin and the Marshal.
“You have seen what is happening. The incident at Rue du Référentiel, the astounding growth of the Cure-dent de Déant, the de-aging of Willem Molyneux, and countless other events that have been going on all over the Arrondissement.
“Time is unraveling. As we’ve seen, it is wildly unpredictable and these episodes are accelerating. If we cannot re-align the Device, things will assuredly get worse. For everyone.”
This last statement hung in the air.
“I believe him,” said Arpin.
“He could be delusional,” said the Marshal.
“I think not,” replied Arpin, who gestured to the plate of bread and cheese that [had been placed] in the middle of the table. Pale green mold covered the food and its putrid odor rose making him repress a gag.
“Proof, if you needed more,” said the Old Man.
“Maybe so, but I still do not trust you,” said the Marshal.
“I can understand why, but sometimes you need to make a leap of faith.”
“Do you have an expert on the Penultimate Device?” asked Arpin.
“Yes of course. Until it was stolen, it was they who maintained it.”
“May I offer a compromise?”
“Please,” said the Old Man.
“Send your expert to make the necessary adjustments, under the protection of the Coterie du Honor.”
“That seems a little dangerous.”
Arpin turned to the Marshal and asked, “Will you swear an oath that if the expert acts in good faith, they will not be harmed or restrained?”
“I will,” she said.
“The Marshal would rather die than break an oath.”
“As would any Chevalier,” she said proudly.
The Old Man said nothing but looked at Arpin and the Marshal thoughtfully. Finally, he spoke.
“I will speak to my superiors and I will let you know if they agree.”
“You are not the leader?” asked Arpin.
“Everyone reports to someone.”
“I suppose so,” said Arpin.
Things concluded, at least for the moment, and they all stood in unison.
“I will let you know as soon as I have my orders,” said the Old Man.
“I will wait for your reply,” said the Marshal.
The Old Man snapped his fingers.
“I know you have trouble trusting me but let me make a gesture of good faith.”
From the back of the café, one of his nondescript men brought out Zsófia and Mr. Twig. They were both filthy and Mr. Twig was clearly the victim of a savage beating, but they were upright.
“Hostages?” spat the Marshal.
“They are both whole and mostly unharmed. Mr. Twig put up quite a fight.”
“That I did,” said the doorman.
“Before you go on a tirade about our honorless ways, consider this. We do nothing with malice.”
“I find that hard to believe,” said the Marshal.
“Bonsoir,” said the Old Man.
Watchful lead the two hostages out to the Velo-Pede and the Marshal brought up the rear. Arpin stayed and turned to the Old Man.
“If I may, I have one more question.”
“I imagine you have many.”
“True, but let me ask you this. If this truce works and the stewardship of Penultimate Device changes, what will you do?”
He smiled at Arpin.
“What makes you think that’s all we protect?”