“What about this one?” I pulled up the next post on Hostr. “Perfect for our Halloween in December party.”

Missy wasn’t convinced—frankly, she hadn’t been convinced that “Halloween in December” was a good idea, even though I had a great spreadsheet showing how much money we’d save on party supplies and a suitably spooky host. “Nah.”

“Why nah?” I said. “Look at him. He’s perfect, and 75% off for the month of December!”

“Sweetie, he’s a werewolf and the party isn’t on a full moon,” Missy said. “He’d just be really hirsute and angry, it would be like hiring an Italian uncle.”

I popped over to the almanac site in another tab, then shrugged. “Granted. Okay, how about this one? He is 95% off and a full-blooded vampire from the Cluj-Napoca line.”

Missy scrolled down to him. “I mean, yeah, that is pretty cheap for a vampire from one of the Old Houses, and he has great reviews. But did you see his requirements? Count Erdély requires ‘one living meal per two hours.’”

“We’ll hire him for an hour and give him half a meal,” I said. “What about Suzie? He could eat half of Suzie.”

“We are not inviting Suzie to our party just so she can get half-eaten by our hired vampire host,” Missy said.

“Why not? Nobody likes Suzie.”

“We’ll like her even less as an immortal creature of the night.”

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The largest and best-fortified of the Seitselin, Jalav, might have become a proper dukedom already if not for the constant unrest among its populace and the bitter enmity between its rulers, the House of Luostari, and the Emperor. Lady Annika’s grandfather was banished for his (real or imagined) part in a plot to overthrow the Emperor’s father. She, as well as her mother before her, have sought to make Jalav an Imperial Free City in all but name, but their efforts have constantly been stymied by the restive population. Many are only a generation or two removed from the Empire’s seizure of their lands, and resent Jalav’s attempts at cosmopolitanism.

Also known as the Crossroads for its central location, this commanding fortress overlooks a crucial meeting of east-west and north-south roads, which has grown into sprawling and unruly settlement. Other than collecting tolls and maintaining the roads via a corps of Pavers, the rulers show little interest in the property; they live in the Empire proper and are absentee landlords. A vicereine, the Lady Juna, rules in their stead.

Duke Timant is well-known for putting on airs, and the only ruler to insist on being referred to by his full title. His modest hold, the fortress of Timant, controls a river crossing but is otherwise modest. Timant has invested lavish sums in attempting to attract settlers and tradesmen to bring more of the Empire to his hamlet, but with limited success. To his credit, Timant does maintain a corps of well-drilled rangers, and the roads of Timant are rather safe–though the same cannot be said for the wilderness itself.

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The Seven Castles, also known as the Seitselin, are the primary fortified settlements of the wild region known as Zalissia. The name Zalissia literally means “the forest beyond” in Old Imperial, just as Seitselin is a corruption of the Middle Elvish phrase “the seven forts.”

Each of the Seven is technically the seat of a dukedom, and their rules are properly dukes and duchesses of the Empire. And, indeed, they can and often do request small detachments of Imperial troops for minor issues, and send elements of their own men-at-arms on those rare occasions when the Empire is at war. But in practice, each of the Seitselin is an independent fief, and they compete bitterly with one another for trade and the opening of further frontier lands.

The largest and best-fortified of the Seitselin, Jalav, might have become a proper dukedom already if not for the constant unrest among its populace and the bitter enmity between its rulers, the House of Luostari, and the Emperor. But even Annika Luostari herself is rarely referred to as a duchess, with most in her fief simply referring to her as Lady Annika. Every other ruler, save the famously pompous Duke Timant, is cut from the same folksy cloth.

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“Say it.” Falco was facing Schultz now, advancing slowly and deliberately. The gun was still in his hand, less the two slugs he’d put into Lombardi, or whoever. Lowered, but with Falco’s finger still wrapped around the trigger.

“How…how can you expect me to perform right now?” Schultz cried.

“This is why I hired you,” Falco said. “That other stuff? Warmups. Most of you comics from the app don’t make it this far.”

Schultz looked at Lombardo, or whoever, who was on the ground. Given the neat entry wound, right between the eyes like a bindi, there was literally no doubt that he was dead as hell. “You hired me to watch you kill people?”

“Hell no,” Falco said. “My buddies do that for free. Look, kid. I’m a good soldato, eh? I do what my capo tells me to do, and sometimes, that means whacking people who ain’t so bad all things considered. Like Lombardi here. Nice guy. Went to church every Sunday. Has a baby girl. Shoulda thought of that before dealing behind the don’s back, but whatever. Point is, I need some cheering up.”

“I didn’t sign up for this,” Schultz moaned.

“Oh yes you did,” Falco said. “I read the EULA. You are here to provide wisecracks on contract, and you’re on the clock. You’ve seen too much, too, so if you don’t make with the funny when and where I want, it’s kablammo for you, capice?”

“On the clock or on the Glock,” Schultz said, miserably.

Falco chuckled. “Ha! See? It ain’t so hard. Now do me a better one. Get me laughing. Or join Lombardi here in sleeping with the snitches.”

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Luncherion and Dinnerius thought that their plan had succeeded, and they had finally managed to finish what they had begun. After the death of young Brunchey, they were confident that they had finally slain their great enemy, Breakfast, the first and most sinister meal of the day.

But as the sun rose the following morning, they heard–to their horror–the sound of sizzling bacon and smelled–to their astonishment–the smell of strong coffee. They hadn’t stopped Breakfast from coming; it came. And somehow or other, it came just the same.

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People never listened to Jared, despite his 25 years of experience and his name on the sign of his own exotic plant nursery.

“Just remember not to let more than 13 buds grow, or the singing reeds will start to form a consciousness. I remember there were some folks that didn’t listen to me, went on a year’s vacation, and when they came back the singing reeds were 150 buds strong. Poor people were psionically forced to tend to the plants day and night until the county called me in, I had to spend three days in the dirt wearing a psychic nullifier to get them all dug up.”

“I’m not allowed to sell Misters unless they’re potted. In out pots, we give them a specially nutrient-poor soil so that they can still release their rainbow mist but it won’t be toxic. If you replant them, that rainbow will contain paralyzing neurotoxins and you might starve to death in your own backyard.”

“You need to put that Fiberweb Rooter in a tungesten carbide pot, or its roots will break anything you put it in to get to the slightest drop of water. I mean it, even though they can’t survive without watering they will punch through the foundation of your house to get at the aquifer beneath if you let them.”

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6:33 PM – Rooftop of the New Yorker Imperial Club

Cradling the bird in his hands, Gus looked up. “Look. I know I really good pigeon surgeon.”

“Who does surgery on birds, much less pigeons?” Annabella said. “Look at poor Pidge. He gave it his all but there’s no way he’ll make it.”

“Trust me on this.”

9:11 PM – Room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel

At Gus’s knock, the door had been answered by a well-groomed old man after about twenty minutes of bumps, crashes, and muttering in a language Annabelle didn’t understand. Gus hadn’t even said anything, he’d merely held Pidge up to the peephole.

“Bring the bird in,” the man said. He was gaunt, with a mustache, and must have been about seventy-five at the youngest. “Lay him on the table, under the lamp.”

Gus did so. “Thank you, Mr. Tes-”

“NO NAMES. I do it for the birds.” The old man retrieved a small kit from another room and opened it, revealing an array of what looked like tools for electrical engineering. “These tools are not designed for such work, but they will do so long as I have steady hands, hmm?”

“Can you save him?” Annabelle said. “Can you save our Pidge?”

“Yes, provided I am not interrupted in my work. Please bear in mind that I am only doing this because my favorite bird is in danger.”

“The whole world is in danger if this plot comes to fruition,” said Gus. “We need this pigeon to stop it.

“I could tell you a thing or two about endangering the world, but only at the risk of breaking my concentration for this pidgery,” the man laughed. “There. A few pellets taken out, some sutures, and your bird will live. Allow two to three weeks for full flight recovery.”

“That won’t do,” Annabelle said. “We need him to fly urgently.”

“Well, then, step into the room here and let’s see what we can do for him.”

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