A screaming cuts the silence of the car, right through the engine’s rumble, the hum of tires, the tocking turn signal. She’s kicking digging her feet into the backs of the seat ahead fighting to free her arms from the men on either side the car lurches, a grind, a thunk and to her right Leo winces, sparing a glace at the front seat, “Don’t do that,” he says. Streetlight flickering, flashes lighting his camel-colored coat, lost again in the gloom.
“Out of practice,” says Luys, up behind the wheel.
“Jo,” says Marfisa, leaning over the back of the front seat.
“Take me back,” says Jo, her quickly heaving breath.
“Jo,” says Marfisa again, reaching back and down for her hand, her knee, and “Look,” says Leo, and “Take me back,” says Jo, “right the hell now,” and Orlando’s hand snaps up to backhand her, she growls, kicks again, wrenching her arm from Orlando’s grasp, Leo’s holding grimly on, buffeted by blows as the car wobbles, wavers, Orlando’s hand coming up a fist and Marfisa lunging to grab at it, “Don’t!” cries Luys, gripping the wheel, ducking a flap of her sheepskin coat, and Jo’s screaming again. “Why,” bellows Leo, and the car is quiet, again. Engine-rumble, tire-hiss. Jo’s panting breath, too quick. Orlando’s hands, in his lap. “Why,” says Leo, “must we,” looking at her, past her, to Orlando, “what in blazes,” he says, and then, “what happened.”
“I was not told what happened;” says Orlando, and Jo’s saying, a burr in her breath, “You, you know,” as Orlando says, “merely where to find her.”
“And why were you asking where to find her,” says Leo, as Jo’s saying, “You know, she, she was,” and Orlando snorts. “Again, this,” he says.
“Let her speak,” says Leo.
“Ysabel,” says Jo, and then again, finding her voice, “Ysabel. The – Queen. Princess.” Faltering. “The Bride,” she says.
Loudly, getting louder, Leo says, “There is no” and Marfisa says “Leo” and he breaks off, glaring, “Sit,” he says. “Buckle your seatbelt. Jo,” he says. “Gallowglas. There is no – ”
“No,” says Jo, shaking her head.
“ – no Bride,” says Leo.
“No,” says Jo.
“Our curse, all this time. We knew this day was coming, but – ”
“No,” she’s saying, “no, no, no,” her face screwing up around the word, and Marfisa’s leaning over the back of the front seat again, reaching once more for a knee, a hand, “Please,” she’s saying, “Jo. For the love I bear you, if nothing else. Please.”
Jo looks up to fix on Marfisa, her wildly white-blond hair, “The love,” she manages to say, “you bear,” before the words are strangled in a sob and she kicks again, and Leo’s grabbing for her, Orlando falling on her, snarling, Luys yelping, and “Mooncalfe!” cries Marfisa. “Harm her and we will come to blows!”
“I await,” says Orlando, struggling, “your pleasure.” Jo screams again, elbows his gut, clips Leo’s chin, the car wheeling right, left, lurching leaning forward lifting and settling on its haunches Marfisa banging against the dash Jo piling into the seats before her Orlando grabbing at her pale coat and Leo his face in his hands. Luys shuts off the engine, and silence swallows the car, the rustle of cloth, the squeak of leather and jingle of metal, the ragged edges of breath.
“We’re here?” says Luys.
Leo leans forward, a hand on Jo’s shoulder, her forehead against the back of the seat. “Jo,” he says, gently. “Jo. Can you.” Leaning close, stroking her wine-red hair. “You need,” she says, her face hidden. She sniffs. “You need to take me back.”
“Can you get out of the car,” he says. “Come inside. Please.”
“I can’t,” she says. “I can’t lose.”
“I can’t lose her,” she says. “Please. Take me back.”
Easing her coat the color of butter from her shoulders, down her motionless arms. Pausing as he takes the weight of it dragging the one side down in his hands. “What have you in your pocket?” he says. She doesn’t respond. He folds the coat over, careful of the weight of it, and lays it on one of the folding chairs there by the wall. “If you were to sit,” he says, “I might remove your boots.”
“Luys,” she says then, looking away from nothing to meet his eyes.
From out in the hall there’s Leo striding into the high-ceilinged room, white T-shirt tucked into houndstooth trousers and a paper cup in either hand. “Since dawn,” says the squat man following behind, a black leather vest over a black T-shirt, his long dark hair in a gleaming braid.
“So,” says Leo, gesturing with one of the cups at the lightening windows high and narrow that line the opposite wall. “Since now.”
“An hour or more. The first train got there at twenty of.”
Leo’s still looking out at the blue-grey light. “I have got to stop coming home so early,” he says.
“It’s the Prince, m’lord,” says the man in the vest, and over against the other wall Jo falls into one of the folding chairs, staring at him. “He means to sit the Throne. I’d stake your hoard on it.”
“All that?” says Leo, and a sip of coffee from one of the cups. A shrug. “Let him stand back up, Tommy. Then we’ll have a ball game. Gallowglas!” Coming across the room to her, kicking away a crumpled red plastic cup. Luys is kneeling before her, busy with the laces of her boot. “Leave us,” says Leo, and lips pinched Luys pushes himself to his feet. Jo catches his hand, the one with a bit of leather about the wrist, but does not try to hold it as he steps away.
“We need to talk,” says Leo.
“Here?” says Jo.
“You gonna,” he spreads his hands, both cups steaming, “start screaming again? Damage any more upholstery?” He hands her one of the cups. She’s shaking her head. “I’m safe,” she says, “for the moment.”
“The two of you,” he mutters, and sips. “He’s in the library, he’s sworn to stay put. But he’s determined to fight you. What is this, what. Jo. What is it.” She’s scowling at her cup. “It’s really, really sweet,” she says.
“It’s just,” he says, “it’s how you like it. Sweetloaf!” he bellows. “Black, four sugars,” he says. “Just like you like it.”
“I,” she says, “I don’t,” and from the hall there’s a boy in a brown bomber jacket and his matted hair swept up and back. “Yeah?” he says.
Leo’s looking down at Jo. “You want, what do you want. You want a different coffee?” She’s shaking her head. “You want my coffee? Never mind!” he bellows. Sweetloaf shrugs and heads back out to the hall. Leo says, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do, the two of you,” and then, “the Mooncalfe. Orlando.”
“Yeah,” she’s saying. She’s set the cup down. She’s pulling the boot from her grubby foot. “Is this over me?” says Leo. “This can’t be over me, not now. You’re actually stupid enough to go through with it, you need to find a pretext. The three of them, together, pestering Miss Cheney,” and he trails off as he leans over to tug something free of the weight of her folded coat, a mask, its eyes empty, the chiseled teeth crudely inked, the mane dangling. “The hell did you dig this up,” he says.
“I,” she says, tugging off her other boot, “you,” and then, “you had the party, on Thanksgiving? Your accustomed feast?”
“Yeah?” says Leo.
“The next morning,” says Jo. She’s looking off past him, at the man in the black leather vest, there by one of the windows. “I went to see Vincent,” says Jo.
“Erne? Had this?” Leo tosses the mask back onto Jo’s coat, flump. “I know what he’s said, Gallowglas. How much he means to you, but we talked about this. You can’t be my Huntsman. It’s not the image I need to project. Not now.” A thoughtful sip. “But connect the dots for me here, between this and the Mooncalfe, because I’m not – ”
“The hole you leave when you’re gone,” says Jo.
“What?” says Leo.
“I need a shower,” she says, the words half-strangled.
Pipes knock, water chugs and gurgles, resumes, under its stream lilting slightly side, to side, one hand held up and out against the grimy tile festooned with suds, the other a fist against her breast, knuckles to sternum as soap slides around them, down her arm, her belly, her thighs to her knees, dripping to the bottom of the tub where the water about her feet’s a rusted foaming brown. Leaning back her head to let the water as it slows to a trickle soak her hair, shaking it out when the stream once more resumes, her one hand still pressed to her chest, over her heart a fist, and water dripping soapy from her elbow.
Wrapped in a towel, holding it closed, her other hand scrubbing her dark wet hair. The only light the wide-screen television hanging over the wide low bed, a Technicolor desert, yellow sand, white sun, a muscled buttock floured with dust, a brassy plate strapped to a delicate hand deep brown, a pink cord trailing away, humming over the dust, sloughing it to reveal the clean skin red and brown of thigh, of hip. My lord. You are filthy.
In the gloom at the edge of the fitful light a dressing table, and her reflection in the mirror atop it, the ghostly towel, her shoulder, her cheek, the sheen of her eyes. Leaning over the table, the jackets laid across it, the snarl of neckties, she peers at herself in the glass, dark eyes to either side of her nose, that nose, her mouth a thin flat line, her fist holding up the towel at her chest white-knuckled. Having someone give you a clean-up like you were a little kid is the most sensuous thing in the world, I think, says the television. Does it feel good?
Yeah, says the television.
She closes her eyes. She lets go, lets the towel drop to the floor. With your back to me, says the television. No, like that. Her fingers caress the skin over her sternum, over her heart. Wait a minute. Eyeing her reflecting, turning to present this angle, that. Fingertips, then the heel of her hand, pressed between her breasts.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, the television filled with a rough brown hand wrapped in a glove of black ribbons, stupid, stupid, stupidity, a process, not a state, a new voice is saying over the stupid, stupid, stupid, she steps over, a human being takes in far more information than he or she can put out, stupid, stupid, she reaches up to the television, turns it off.
“I was watching that,” says someone from the bed. A low white lamp on one of the nightstands clicks on and there, nestled on the brown sheets, the mounded pillows, naked from painted toe-tip along to the arm draped languidly above a head of yellow hair severely straight. “It was you got him out of bed.” Sitting up, stretching, yawning and a dainty laugh, “Oh, mon poussin,” as Jo grabs at a shirt from the table, “how delightful.” The woman’s sitting on the edge of the bed now. “Shall we surprise him? He’ll be back.” Head tipped winsomely. “Though I don’t know long he’ll be, mon chouchoute. Do you?” And Jo leaves off trying to button the rest of the shirt, heads off, into the gloom, followed by a pealing laugh. Finding a door she pulls it open on a short white hall too brightly lit, and a silence that muffles the door-slam.
A moment there, hand to her forehead. The door behind her, painted white and a shining nickle knob. The shirt she’s taken a warmly iridescent grey. She buttons another button. Her fumbling hands. She tugs it down, ripples of orange and red hinted in the light, and the door at the other end is blue, and a gleaming brass push-plate, and her hand to her mouth, her chin, her hair.
The blue door opens on a cramped kitchen, butcher’s block in the middle of it, and a squat man drying a plate by the sink there under a window filled with grey-pink light. “Jo,” he says, mildly surprised. “Something wrong?” A black leather vest over a black T-shirt, his long black hair in a shining braid.
“I,” she says, the door swinging shut behind her. “I,” she says again, hands at her sides, empty, still.
“Is something wrong? Leo,” he sets the plate down, “was gonna bring you some clothes. Did he,” watching her face, tilting his head, “he must’ve got distracted.”
“Tommy,” she says. “Tommy Rawhead.”
“Yes,” he says, the edge of a question in his voice, hoarse from hard use. He takes down a couple of glasses from the cabinet above. “Jo,” he says, “I know it’s been hard.” He heads around to the refrigerator, and she shifts a jerky step to the side, keeping the butcher’s block between them. “Past few days. But I’m real glad you’re back.” Filling a glass with water from the spigot in the door. “He loves you.” Filling the second glass. “Very much.” He sets one down on the butcher’s block and says, “He’s a better man when he’s with you.” Pushing the glass toward her, her hands, empty and still. “He’ll be a better King.”
“I need to get,” she says, “some sleep?” Stepping back.
“Of course,” he says, setting his glass down, “sorry,” he says, “dragging this out when you’re so obviously knackered. We’n talk when you wake up,” as she’s blundering back through the swinging door into a long, high-ceilinged room painted a lurid red, and black trim about the tall and narrow windows set one after another in the wall before her. The plank floor under her bare feet slowing, stopping the color of dark chocolate. Off to one side white sheets draped against the walls soften a corner, and great lights and silvery reflectors and a camera or two on stands and tripods, waiting. To the other a square of sofas, brown leather strewn with madly clashing pillows and cushions about a low wide table littered with empty bottles and glasses, mugs, plastic cups, a pizza box and a couple of cardboard sandwich boxes and a plastic tray with a veggie roll left in a corner and some shrimp tails battered, congealed, cigarette butts here and there and an ashtray mounded high, and in the middle a hookah. And beyond it the other end of the room an alcove, a huge sleigh bed tucked away back there, and bare arms in an embrace about a sheepskin jacket, a wild cloud of hair. “Marfisa?” says Jo, and then, quietly, hesitantly, “Jessie?”
“Jo?” says Marfisa, turning. The woman her hand on Marfisa’s hip, athletically heathered grey tank top and briefs, yellow hair, straight, severe. “Hey, killer,” she says.
“You,” says Jo, “you’re,” and then, mouth pinching, looking away, “your sister.”
“Oh,” says the woman in the tank top, and “What’s she done,” says Marfisa, stepping away, and then as Jo heads toward them, past them, “Jo? What did Ettie do?” But Jo’s climbing the ladder, up to the dark corner of a loft under the high unfinished ceiling.
“Let her sulk,” says the woman in the tank top, her hand reaching for Marfisa’s. Marfisa shakes it away. “Jo,” she says, at the foot of the ladder. “It’s Sunday. You were gone for two whole days. Jo?” Marfisa starts to climb.
Breasting the loft there’s Jo, on her knees in the middle of the dust-furred space. Down by the milky window scabbed over with brown paint a length of two-by-four worn grey, askew on the floor by a cracked cinder block. Marfisa stays there, on the ladder, “He was out of his mind,” she says. “The Mason went to ask Miss Cheney where you were, for him. I went because,” a deep breath before the next words, “I had to know. I was worried.” Silhouetted in the haze Jo hasn’t moved, doesn’t respond. “He interrupted us, Jo, the Mooncalfe, to ask a question of his own. He’d come to learn from her where he’d meet his, particular, end.” She leans over the top of the ladder toward Jo. “He was told where to find you,” she says. “Don’t you see? You will win.” She raps the dusty floor before her. “You will end him, and his hold over the King. Jo, this is – ”
“Her banner over the city,” says Jo, “her Gallowglas by her side. She was Queen for a night, and a day, and I was there for a minute?” The shadow of her head shifting, turning. “Fuck prophecy,” says Jo. “You loved her so much you left the court for her and now you don’t even know her name.”
“I left the court for you,” says Marfisa, but Jo’s on her feet, headed hunched over for the ladder, and Marfisa jerks back, leans to one side out of the way as Jo grabs the one upright of the ladder and kicks over the edge of the loft, dropping to the floor in a crouch and a whuff of dust. “Jo?” says Marfisa, coming down after. Jo’s around the corner, in the alcove, and the woman in the tank top’s saying, “Wait, Jo, hey – ”
“Where’s my stuff,” Jo’s saying, “my clothes, my boxes, my fucking futon – ”
“Maybe your room?” the woman in the tank top’s saying. She’s put on a pair of jeans, she’s grabbed Jo by the arm, Jo her other hand to her chest, in that warm grey shirt, in the doorway of the closet there under the loft. “My, room,” she says, looking around, looking up, at the loft, “this isn’t,” and then, “the, the balcony, that he made, that he had made, for – ”
“Jo,” says Marfisa, and “Balcony?” says the woman in the tank top, and “Jo,” says Marfisa again. But Jo isn’t looking at either of them, she’s looking past them both to the brown leather sofa out in the long high-ceilinged room, the bundle neatly folded at the foot of it, leaned against it, her sword, her mask, her coat the color of butter. “You left it in the ballroom,” says Marfisa, seeing what she sees. “I was bringing them to you, Jo,” she says, stepping toward her, but she’s shivering, Jo, and the hand to her chest’s a fist, and “Hey,” says the woman in the tank top, letting go, “Jo – ”
She’s pushed past Marfisa, she’s there by the sofa, she’s scooping up the coat, knocking the mask aside, she’s reaching in a pocket to pull out not much bigger than her hand a dull black barrel the grip of it wound about with black tape and the letters Kel-Tec stamped in pebbled metal. “Jo,” says Marfisa again, and “Jesus,” says the woman in the tank top, and a rustle, a scramble, Jo’s up, past the mess, over there by the swinging door a sink bolted to the wall and another door, white, paned with frosted glass thrown open into a cramped bathroom where she swipes at the shower curtain hanging stuck she yanks, “Shit,” and down it comes curtain rings and rod into the empty tub, she staggers back, half in, half out, catching the doorframe, face caught there in the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet, her face and shoulder, warm grey shirt as she pulls herself up and in, as she lifts the gun, as she points it at the reflection of her breast, as she points it at the reflection of itself.
“Jo?” says Marfisa, still back there by the sofas, by the table laden. “Jo – ”
A bang. Splintering glass and something falling, a shelf, brass dancing across the floor and the echo still a wave that founders endlessly on far-off rocks, the next room, receding, Jo lowers her arm, her hand, the gun. Blood welling to trickle drip from the gash along her brow. Marfisa’s saying something, hands up, pleading, Jo’s walking away unsteadily down the length of the room, red walls, high narrow windows filling with clouded morning light. She opens the door down there by the waiting cameras, the dark lights on tripods. Out into the hallway, bare feet on a white-painted floor, down a skinny switchbacked flight of steps, wiping at the blood with her free hand. Into a room lined with high shelves stuffed with books and comics and here and there a shelf swarming with homunculi, brightly colored figures roaring at each other or nothing at all, and a murmur of voices somewhere away around a corner angling past an overstuffed chair in tufted oxblood leather and painted canvasses and sheets of Bristol board stacked against an arm of it, and someone’s saying “on a Monday,” Leo’s saying, his back to her draped in a gown of paisleys, purple and maroon, gold and brown. “Dubbed on a Tuesday. Wedded on Wednesday. She’s coming, Lando. On the Empire Builder. Two days by rail.”
“An eternity, mortgaged,” says a voice highly pitched, rich and bitterly smooth. “Roses fed to Engines, evermore.” A hand, lifted from the paisleyed shoulder, fingers stroking Leo’s cheek, his hair. “Needs must,” says Leo, taking the hand in his own.
“Need I must then be kept rustically? Stalled up with your other oxen?”
“Keep yourself where you like,” says Leo, tilting his head for a kiss, and there’s the long black hair, the thin nose, the black patch over an eye. “As you would,” says Leo, “if she weren’t,” and another, “on her way.”
“I mislike a bed so crowded,” says Orlando, unpatched eye opening, glinting. Jo’s hand tightens on the grip of her gun. “Dancers, jugglers. Freaks.”
“Who doesn’t like a circus?” says Leo.
“And your biting something of fragility, Ieraks?” says Orlando, with the slightest smile. “The bitter draught you pour to salt your jaded palate?”
“My,” says Leo, drawing back, “are we still on my bed? Because – ”
“He means me,” says Jo, raising the gun in both hands, and Orlando steps back, and Leo between them turning and turning about again “Wait” he’s saying, “wait,” and Orlando his hand on the lacquered scabbard of his sword says “But a word, m’lord. Before she pulls the trigger I’ll have her gutted.”
“No!” cries Leo, both arms up, hands out, stop, stop. “You’ll do no such thing. Either of you.”
“The worst is the shit that hasn’t changed,” says Jo, shifting to keep the gun on Orlando. “How’s your leg, Leo?”
“Which one?” snaps Leo, and then, “You’re bleeding. Gallowglas.” Gentling. “What have you done.” She’s stepping to the side, and again, Orlando his other hand on the hilt of his sword, rough black cloth wrapped about a bone-white grip. “Give me the gun,” says Leo. Her back’s to the shelves, now, and he’s still between them. “We’ll go back to our room – ”
“I don’t,” says Jo, “want to sleep, alone, or with any, I don’t,” she says, “I’m not hungry, I’m not thirsty, I don’t, God help me,” lowering the gun, “I don’t want to hurt him. I could care less if he stubbed his fucking toe.”
“Your head,” says Leo.
“I just want to go back, Leo. Can you do that?”
“Where,” says Leo. “Go back where.”
“Ysabel,” says Jo, and Orlando with a jerk bares an inch or so of blade.
“I don’t know what that means,” says Leo.
“I know,” says Jo, and she turns and heads for the door. Orlando’s hand is stopped by Leo’s, he’s looking after Jo as she’s leaving and in the doorway past her, in the hall outside, a grey flicker, the heel of a mole-grey shoe, stepping, gone, “Jo?” he says. She’s left. He lets go of Orlando’s hand, and the rasp and thock of the sword driven home as Leo steps out into the hall, unlit but for the buzzing red bulk of the Coke machine. Down the wide white-painted steps dressing gown floating purple and gold as he doubles back down and into the black-and-white tiled foyer. It’s empty. The door to the bar is locked, and the vegan diner, and he throws open the front doors and out, onto the brick steps, the street beyond filled with thin light, a truck snorting to itself in the intersection, a cartoon on the side of it, a muscular, mustached man with a guitar. Dave’s Killer Bread, it says. Someone’s inside the bus shelter, leaning against a shopping cart loaded with empty bottles and cans. She isn’t there. She isn’t anywhere.
Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand, written by Samuel Delany, ©1984. Technicolor® is a registered trademark of Technicolor Trademark Management. “Solomon Grundy,” traditional, within the public domain.
The grey man’s standing in the black-and-white tiled foyer as she makes her way down the wide white-painted steps, his mole-grey shoes, his gravel trousers roughly flecked, his ashen shirt, his rumpled face like old oatmeal.“Tell me you know who Ysabel is,” says Jo, “or I’m blowing right the hell past you.”
“The Queen in her folly,” he says, “who refused her crown. Put the gun away.”
Jo says, “She’s here?”
“One thing at a time. Put the gun away. Put it down. Then open your shirt.”
She’s stopped on the third step up, the gun in her hand at her side. “There’s something there, isn’t there,” she says.
“We must make certain,” he says.
“I can’t touch it,” she says, sitting on the steps. “I can feel it. It’s cold, a little. Numb.” The weighty clink of the gun as she sets it down. “But no matter which way I turn, or the light,” as she undoes a button, and another. “I can’t see anything there.” He hitches up his trousers to squat before her, her bare knees pressed together. “Who are you?” she says.
He looks up, his eyes grey blue a-swim in yellow grey. “My name is John,” he says, his voice lugubrious, “and once I was King of the City of Roses.”
“Oh,” says Jo.
That hand parts her shirt and within what might be a soapy blur. When his fingers press there her eyes go wide head thrown back shoulders hunched and she howls, and falls back, against the steps.
“Quicksmoke,” he’s saying, sitting on the steps beside her. Her elbows on her knees, her head hanging down. “Echoes of the world before, its last foul airs and vapors.”
“There was,” she says, “the sorcerer had a thermos, and the thermos – there were two of them.” A drop of blood from her brow splats between her feet. “One in black, one in white? And one of them had a thermos.”
“Mirrors hold it,” he says, “and certain chambers, far underground. It can be, directed, by lenses, or sound, or, if one is obscenely careful, the breath.”
“Or me,” she says, sitting up.
His grey head slowly, back and forth. “It makes a shell for itself, of what it takes from the world. It makes a shell, of scales, and when it’s done, it plants itself.” He looks down then, from her mudded eyes, to her chest, her shirt hung open. “It will slumber there for months, or even years.”
“I was thinking,” she says, blotting her brow with the heel of her hand, “it was, that maybe it got me, too. That all this was like, my life, flashing, my brain misfiring, just before – like a bad dream.” Her hands, one blooded, one not, folded over her breast. “And when it stops?” she says. “When it wakes up?”
“It will,” he says, “bloom. Things, and people, you’d thought were long since gone, forgot forever, will begin to return to you – ” Her shoulders rise, shuddering, she’s closing her eyes, swallowing a sob. “Ghosts,” he says, and before he lays a rope-veined hand on her knee he closes it in a fist and puts it back in his graveled lap. “Bad dreams,” he says.
“But,” she says, opening her eyes. Looking over at him. “You remember her.”
His grey head lifts, and drops. “She shouldn’t be here,” he says. “Not yet.”
“But, she is,” says Jo, “she’s here.”
His head lifts again, and his shoulders, “An hour ago,” he says, “or a day, a star,” and his fingers draw a line in the air, from his eyes down to his lap, “fell. I can show you where.”
Unsteady she climbs to her feet, “Then what are we waiting for,” she says, and shaking she kneels on the steps, a click and scrape as she picks up the gun.
“You need clothing,” he says, standing beside her. “Shoes.”
“I’ve got,” she says, wincing, wiping a bit of oozing blood away from her eye, “stuff, upstairs,” turning, a gesture with the gun. “Not here,” he says, stepping down, stepping out onto the black-and-white tiled floor.
“Not here?” she says. Slowly, gingerly down the steps, following. “John?”
“It’s cold, outside,” he says, his hand on the crash bar that opens the front door. “If I had a coat.” He pushes it open. “But it’s not far. What I have in mind. Three blocks away.” And he steps through.
Night outside, but not dark. “Jesus,” she says, forcing her bare feet out onto the frost-rimed brick of the porch drifted in the corners with snow. More snow blankets the sidewalk where the grey man waits by the bus shelter, and snow stretches deeply soft unbroken by tire-track or footprint up and down the street, and all of the snow shines with reflected light where it isn’t an eerily luminous blue. Across the street the building on the corner climbs floor by floor up fifty or seventy storeys or more, and the building behind her, and behind them and around them more buildings, the regular, edged trunks of some cyclopean forest, eighty storeys, a hundred, two thousand feet, twenty-five hundred or more, the tops of them lost in the shining bellies of the clouds above. And every storey lined with windows, in every window a lamp, and every lamp is lit.
“Him, I loved,” says the grey man, slowly, wearily, “as my hand; her as my very breath.” His arms folded he leans on a glass-topped counter, the shelves within lit up, laden with piles of dice in lucite and bright chrome, a couple of silvery hip flasks, a hollowed-out book safe whose tattered jacket says Bright Orange for the Shroud, a neat little silver and black crossbow pistol, uncocked, tilted to one side. “He could give her, something I could not,” he says. “That’s all.”
“Is this, what, a son thing?” says Jo, from over there, a line of louvered saloon doors one after another past the racks of clothing. The one there at the end, lit up yellow and red. “Daughters, don’t count?”
“It could as easily have been a daughter,” he says, a crease shifting the rumples of his forehead. “As I understand it.”
“But Ysabel,” says Jo, her head appearing over the top of the saloon doors, red hair dark in that light.
He looks up. “The Bride?” he says. “The mysteries of Bride, and Queen, have nothing at all to do with, birth.” He pushes back from the glass. “Her belly, distended;” his hands shaping a curve before him, “the sweats, the sickness; the changes to her tongue – she could no longer bear the taste of fennel, or of tarragon. The sight of, eggs, revolted her. She, demanded, roasted peppers, in yogurt. And the pain.” That face of his twisting itself into an expression, trying it on, a grimace that falters, into a snarl, and then is smoothed away as he heads down the length of the counter. “The body, feeling what it will; doing, even saying, what it would.” Past a mechanical cash register with an elaborate cameo painted on the back of it, a display of knee socks printed up the sides with slogans that say Whiskey, Bacon, Kosher, Brooklyn. “When she was delivered of the boy,” and he steps around the end of the counter now, to the other side, there by the electric cash register, its dark monitor, the oblong little card swipe, “she could once more stomach eggs. The whites of them, at least. With tarragon.” He’s looking over a set of shelves there in the shadows behind the counter, untidily stuffed with boxes, baskets, redwelds of papers and folders. “But as the boy grew – at first, I thought, perhaps, she’d merely become – subdued? The stress of it all.” He pulls from a shelf a wooden box, shallow and wide, the top of it inlaid with pale ivory and fitful gleaming gold. “But as the years turned themselves about, it became clear: Duenna’s joy. The mischief, that led her once to ask my Huntsman for a dance, so long ago. Echoes of them yet ring in Ysabel – how could they not? – but in my Queen they were not, muffled; they were – not. Gone, and never to return.” He sets the box on the counter, tink of wood against glass. “And then the stories, from the Northeast Marches, of a loathly lady all in black, who entered houses, hurt women, who brought trouble upon children, whose eyes were like stars, whose hands of iron. And her laugh, and the nails of her fingers, like sickles.”
“She has nineteen names,” says Jo, stepping through the doors of her fitting room.
“She has but one name,” says the grey man, “and it is no more her own.”
“But, I mean,” says Jo. She wears a shirtwaist dress, in black and grey, with pink and white dots here and there, over black leggings and black boots. “I’ve seen them both, together. The Queen, and the lady.” Pushing one arm and the other into a heavy black jacket with a wide hood to it that lies back, crumpled about her neck like a scarf. “At the same time.”
“And the Gammer,” says the grey man, and the crease has returned to his forehead. “And the Bride, also.”
She’s come up to the counter opposite him, her hands on either side of the box there on the glass. “They’re,” she says. Then, “She’s.” Under a curl of her wine-dark hair there’s a couple of white butterfly bandages, holding shut the red gash across her brow. “I,” she says, “I didn’t know – ”
Bang his hand comes down on the glass, and she jumps at the sound. “There is so much,” he says, “left out, when one word is chosen, instead of another, over another, but – also, as well, so much I had not,” both hands folded together atop the box, the irregular honeycomb picked out in white and gold on the lid, “considered, takes shape, risks rushing in to overwhelm, the more I speak of this – ” and “John” Jo’s saying, “John. Please. Pull it back. What does it, what does this have to do, with finding Ysabel, with bringing her back – ”
“You must understand,” he says, and he’s taken her hand in his. “I do not know, what it is, to father a child. I could not tell you, what it would have been, to have loved him as he were my own.” He lets go, and she pulls her hand back to herself. “It was to Vincent that he turned, as he grew, to find a father. It was in Vincent, my true friend, that he found a bitterness, to brace the sweetness of his boyhood.”
“John,” she says.
“Vincent,” he says, “my good right hand, who could find no more trace of the Duenna he had loved in my Queen, in her loathly shadow. It was Vincent, my Huntsman, who told him of his mother, that Duenna, so long since gone.”
“Sir,” she says.
“We lost him!” cries the grey man, and Jo takes a step back, blinking. “He left us, to find her!” Those big grey hands hovering uncertain, settling over his face. “He ended,” he says. “He ended. Up. Here.” Lowering, shaking, to press against the glass. “Here. Here. There was no here. Not then.” A breath drawn sharply in through his nose, and, “Then,” he says, a slow stone of a word, “then, in my grief, my towering rage, I dropped a glove at the feet of my bitterest best of friends, and, I lost, myself.”
And when he doesn’t say anything more, Jo says, “John,” and then, “majesty. Where are we?”
He looks up, at the dark ceiling close above. He lifts his hands, spreads them, a benison for the dark racks of clothing, the framed posters unseen on the walls, the windows full of mannequins in outlandish costumes looking out over the snow, the great stuffed tiger lounging on the shelf above the doors. “A place,” he says, “where we might come to rest, when we are done with the world.”
“So I’m,” says Jo, “am I, are we, I’m, I’m not done, I’m not done with anything – ”
“Do you love her, Gallowglas?” says the grey man.
She looks down, leaning against the glass. Looks up, meeting his gelid eyes. “With all my heart,” she says.
“Then there is yet a chance,” he says. “Open the box.”
And Jo lifts the white-gold lid.
The inside lined with yellow velvet here and there worn a darker almost orange, and it’s filled with a jumble of things. She looks up at the grey man, lifting the first of them out, a telephone headset with a single earpiece, the microphone askew, the cord of it only a few inches long, and copper wire peeking from the frayed end. She sets it on the glass. Next a bottle cap, silver, that says Snapple on the top of it, Made From the Best Stuff on Earth. She turns it over. Real Fact no. 95, it says, The red deer inhabits most of Europe, the Caucasus Mountains, Asia Minor, parts of Western Asia, and Central Asia. A slender pack of cigarettes, the label of it orange, Djarum, it says, Sigaret Kretek. A ticket stub that says SECRET SHOW, Sept. 30. “That was,” says Jo, setting it by the bottle cap, “that was a good show. That was the night we killed the boar.”
“Erymathos,” says the grey man.
Jo plucks out a bus transfer, and then a folded page torn from a magazine some time ago, and careful of the delicate creases she opens it up. “The hell,” she says, smoothing it flat against the glass. A photograph fills the page, a woman lying back, her orange jacket opened, dark stocking gartered halfway along her thighs, underwear striped blue and white stretched taut between her knees.
“What’s in the box is yours,” says the grey man. “You’ve seen it before?”
“There was a,” she says, “a satchel. A briefcase. One of the, we were attacked, on the MAX, by some – guys. One of them had it. The Duke ended up with it somehow, and it was full of,” she flicks the page with a fingertip, “this. And I,” and she lays a hand on the glass, a finger on a corner of the page.
“Yes?” says the grey man.
Jo reaches into a pocket of the jacket she’s wearing and pulls from it her gun. Cradles it a moment in both her hands, and then, carefully, sets it snugly in the yellow velvet lining of the box. She closes the lid. She pushes the box back over the glass to him, and gathers up what she’s taken out, the transfer, the ticket, the bottle cap, the headset, into this pocket or that. The page, folding it back up again.
“You’re certain?” says the grey man.
She nods, then stops, the folded page in her hand. “Can I,” she says, “could I, ask for one more thing?” She’s looking down through the glass at something on one of the shelves.
“You might,” he says.
She points. “The gloves?” she says. By one of the flasks a pair of fingerless cycling gloves, grey and black. He stoops to pull them out, then lays them on the glass before her, flat. As she works her hand into one it’s clear they’ve never been worn before.
She tugs them both home, tightens and closes the velcro about her wrists. “Okay,” she says. “Let’s go.” The grey man nods.
“None of this,” he says, lifting a grey hand, “was here when I first came.” His shoes, her boots squeaking in the blue-white unmarked snow that blankets the street. “And now,” he says, “look,” lifting his grey face. The skeletal branches an empty canopy above and up and up beyond them behind the dark trees thronging the sidewalks buildings loom, darkly shadowed blue, pricked with windows lit up weakly white and yellow. “All of them, every one, ready and waiting for someone I might save, someone I’ve caught, kept, held fast.”
“But not,” says Jo, “not Duenna,” the word a tattered fog of breath blown back from her hood.
“When her time comes,” says the grey man. His hands clasped behind his back. He wears no coat, and his ashen shirt’s still open at the throat. “Lymond – is still very much a boy. He is, impatient. He certainly was, when he brought himself here, and when he refused all that I might do to help him home.”
And then, a block or so later, he says, “How he managed that remains a mystery, to me.”
They’re at the top of a ridge now, and at the next intersection the trees thin out, fall back, and the buildings about them drop with the street down and down to the cluster of overpasses there at the edge of the river, and rising over across it towers, more towers, towers climbing a mile or more into the thinning eddied clouds, and the thousand thousand sparks shining gleaming flickering in the windows of them. Coming down the slope of the ridge the view opens even further, swooping arcs and nets of light, the bridges there, and there, marching along the river, each grander and more glorious than the one before. There to the right, where the clouds thicken, stained with color, a smoldering yellow edged with red in all that blue-black and blued white, the buildings below shining reds and oranges and even mirroring silvers, reflections and refractions, and Jo slows, she stops there in the snow, staring at the lone tower a mile or so away, higher than everything about it, the amber glass of it glaring in the too-brilliant light framed by bright pink stone flaring white as the sparks, the drops of yellow-white light, fall and splash and splattering bounce from the top of it gone, the corner of it broken, eaten away, a crater there at the top of the city, a bowl overflowing, too bright to look upon.
“Christ,” says Jo.
“A star, fell,” he says. “See what it’s done.” And then, “I will go no further.”
“But,” she says, looking to him, the buildings about them, “what do I, I just,” the river, the burning tower, him again, “so I walk up there? By myself? And find her? And then we just, what, leave?”
He’s pointing to her breast. “This,” he says. He’s pointing to her but he’s looking away, to the burning tower. “This, and what’s been built here,” and his hand sweeps now, his gaze to encompass the buildings all about, “these were enough perhaps to catch her, to hold her, to keep her from melting away.” The grey of his face unwarmed by the far-off light. “What you found in the box should be enough to bring the both of you home. But. Little enough’s the stock to be put in shoulds.” He’s holding out to her a small silvery coil of a horn, the bell of it oval, and dented, the finish scratched. “Sound it, if you must,” he says. “If you absolutely must, I will come then, and see the both of you home.”
“Why don’t you come with me? Make sure?” she says. “Why don’t you go yourself?”
“It is given that you might see me but three times, only,” he says, still holding out the horn. “You might see me twice more, yet. She’s seen me once already.”
“Oh,” says Jo, and then she takes the horn from his hand.
“Jo Gallowglas,” he says, as she tucks it away in her jacket. “Jo Maguire. You are not what I would have chosen, but.” Looking her up and down, from her hood to her boots and back. “But you are, I think, what is needed.”
“I, ah,” says Jo. She nods. “Okay.”
She turns away, sets off, down the middle of the snow-filled street. Traffic lights click above the next intersection, blinking blue over the street she follows, white over the cross street. As she passes under them she looks back, over her shoulder. He can’t be seen, against the dark trees, the dark ground floors of the buildings left behind.
Bright Orange for the Shroud, written by John D. MacDonald, ©1965. Romanian fairy tale cited in At the Bottom of the Garden, written by Diane Purkiss, ©2000, from “Two Thousand Years of a Charm Against the Child-Stealing Witch,” by Moses Gaster. SNAPPLE, REAL FACTS, and MADE FROM THE BEST STUFF ON EARTH are registered trademarks of Snapple Beverage Corp.
wrenched away from hand and white fur billowing “Jo!” she cries, slap of her bare feet now on tile, click of a ring about her toe. Small white hexagonal tile, lapping a low dais before her, and on the dais a white slipper tub that rests on clawed feet, and a silver bowl on a copper tray, and a slim knife with a blade the color of bone, and she stands beside them, naked, a hand on the curl of the rim of the tub, her black hair glossy swept up, pinned back to fall behind her shoulders in artful tangles.
“Mother?” says Ysabel, clutching her white fur closed.
“Perhaps?” she says, stepping down from the dais. “It’s hard to say, in here, which way you’ve turned.” Holding out a hand. “You, yet to come?” Fingers, brushing white fur, matted there, an ivory stain, sticky, wet. “Oh, my lady,” she says, “my girl,” taking her hand in her hand, turning it over, the ragged gash torn in the edge of it, weeping milky gold. “You’re hurt,” she says, and she presses her lips to the wound, a kiss, and Ysabel with a gasp closes her glimmering eyes. When she lifts her mouth away her hand is whole, the cut a smooth faint line.
“My lady,” says Ysabel, opening her eyes, and “Yes,” she says, her hands on the fur. “Lady,” says Ysabel, “what’s happened? Where are we?”
“Hush,” she says, parting the fur, baring her shoulders, her breast, a hand to her breast, slipped up along her throat to her cheek, the nails of it cut short and painted a creamy honey color.
“Where’s Jo?” says Ysabel, and then she kisses her mouth, lightly, gently, and the slither of that white fur down her arms to crumple about her feet.
Down and down the hill, and as the buildings close about her again they block off the view of the bridges and the river and all but the most immediate towers ahead and about her, but all of it’s touched by that light now, the glare of it in the sky. Another intersection, another traffic light, clicking, and again the lights are blue this way, and white the other. Jo looks up and down the empty streets, the snow about her only marred by the path she’s made.
Up ahead past the next intersection the street climbs, a ramp up onto a bridge over the streets below to the whirl of off-ramps and on-ramps feeding the freeway by the river. She crosses it at an angle, making for the sidewalk, which splits here, one line of it running up along the ramp, the other down, along a narrow branch of street that ducks under the bridge, into the darkness there. At the point of the split, bolted to the guardrail, a warning light, two white lamps set one over the other, blinking, blinking, click and the snow’s a bright white field about her, click and it’s gone, blued shadows steeping into black.
She takes the left fork, up and onto the ramp, up onto the bridge.
The windows now in the towers she’s passing are three and four storeys off the ground, and in each window a light, and the walls through the glass of each are blank and white, no shelves, no art, no photographs or television sets, no cabinets, no shadows. A movement – there? She stops, a silhouetted head, an arm, falling. She waits there, on the sidewalk, but whoever it is doesn’t get back up.
Ahead off to the right an off-ramp from the bridge, feeding into the snarl of freeway to the right, to the north. and there, just before the mouth of it, a staircase leads down to a pedestrian underpass, the steps of it clear of snow except the corners, drifted over. On the other side of the ramp another staircase leads back up to the sidewalk that continues on beyond. She’s standing, one hand on the railing, looking back at the empty streets, ahead, over across the river to those impossible towers, and the glare of the highest of them, burning, a torch.
As she descends the steps a stillness closes over her, there beneath the deck of the ramp, and it’s clear how noisy the quiet had been before. Footsteps somewhere below, the clap of a hand, the crisply snap of a fire burning. At the bottom of the staircase the girders and concrete beams of the bridge and the ramps loom above in the space under the deck. The railing’s a concrete rampart well up above her waist. The underpass itself a narrow span, choked with garbage, snow drifted over a pile of clothing there, filthy sweatpants and a grimy pink T-shirt, food wrappers crusted, a single flip-flop grey in the darkness, one of its plastic straps sprung. The way is mostly blocked by a shopping cart filled with swollen garbage bags and all of it swaddled in a blue plastic tarp. Jo’s leaning up against the rampart, feet still on the last step, to look past the cart, there’s a roll of industrial felt tucked flat against the inner wall of the underpass, a sleeping bag laid out atop it, a ghostly smear of hair, poking from a dark stocking cap.
Jo leans out, looking down through interstices of column and beam and truss to the street below, and train tracks, a bonfire burning under the bridge, red and orange, yellow and white, striking gleams from the polished rails. A handful of figures, someone small there directly before the blaze, a slight silhouette even in a bulky coat, scrape of gravel tock of heel another figure stepping away from something, bulk of white rock shaped a hint of an eye, a beak, a wing fixed, spread in the firelight. That figure’s long coat swings open, head bare, hair a mop of artful tangles, black, bobbing as he lifts a black-gloved hand to forestall anyone from following, he’s looking up, peering up, stopping as he sees her there on the underpass.
She pulls back, against the rampart on the other side of the stairs. The steady crackle of the fire below. She looks over the shopping cart barricade, the makeshift bed, the figure asleep, the garbage, fingertips pressed to the butterfly bandages on her brow. And then stuffing her hand in her pocket she heads back up the stairs, into the drifted snow, the stulted air.
At the sidewalk she looks back the way she’s come, and then she leaps out into the mouth of the on-ramp, plunging across it, kicking up snow, grabbing the railing on the other side to stop herself, swinging about. Shreds of breath flying from her hood.
She trudges across the mouth of the next on-ramp, the one that feeds from the freeway into the city, and up and onto the empty bridge. The snow that swallows her boots is blushing now, pinks and pale gold and then a strident orange chasing the blue into hollows and backsides. She looks up. The tower’s closer, higher, the cauldron of light atop it bubbling over, the air about it hazed, the faces of the buildings about it too bright, all whites and light-struck chromes, the rest of them flung into blackness. Along the river the trees the river itself lit up like day, and each long shadow starkly drawn. She looks back then, there at the top of the arch of the bridge, back past the tangle of freeway ramps, the buildings looming stretching off to the east and the south and the clouds above streaming away, breaking against them, the starless night sky opening up beyond, and there far away to the east at the edge of it all the pale tooth of a mountain, the snow of it mottled only here and there with dark bare rock scraped clean, and the western slopes of it even now warming with sunrise colors, pinks, pale gold, the merest edge of orange, so far away.
She steps back, letting go of Ysabel’s hand. “Do you see?” she says, and wiping her lips with the back of that hand she neither nods nor shakes her head. “Yes?” she says, after a moment.
“Until it’s done, it can’t be spoken of,” she says. “And once it’s done,” a shrug. “Why speak of it?”
“I thought I’d broken!” she cries. “I was told. I’d broke.”
“And you were told you hadn’t. Yet until you knew, how could you know?” She lifts a hand to her cheek, to brush at the tear that trembles at the corner of her eye. She leans back from the hand, blinking, sniffing. “It was so hard,” she says.
“It always is.” She steps back, away, toward the dais, the tub.
“Where’s Jo?” she says.
“Jo. Jo! Don’t pretend you do not know her. She was right beside me, just before I ended up in here.”
She lifts a porcelain lever on the faucet, and water spits and splashes into the tub. “Why,” she says.
“She came back.” Stepping away from the fur, toward the tub. “She was there, on the bridge. She slew the sorcerer. She came back, when everyone else had left, to save me.”
“No one left you, lady,” she says, sitting against the rim of the tub.
“Mother,” she says. “Walked away. When I didn’t turn it quickly enough, she left me to drown.”
“The last thing we could ever do, is drown,” she says.
“The Gammer hurled herself on the nearest blade,” she says, and she says, “She was coming to your” but she’s saying, “just as Father, in his duel, so long ago.”
She snorts. “And what do you care for that vain and jealous man.”
She says, “Lymond left. To go find him.”
“No one left!” she cries, standing, a hand pressed to her belly, and a scowl on her face. “You walked away. You leaped after your doom. You slapped at every offered hand and smiled as you ripped yourself out of the world. And now,” she says, “here,” and she swallows, “we are.”
She says, “Marfisa – ” and she cries, “You – ” but her knees buckle and she falls one arm catching the side of the tub ringing a muffled bell-thump, she heaves, doubled over, retching, a choke and a bolus of slurry slithers glistening from her lips to plop to the tile. She’s coughing, she’s hauling in breath. She’s leaning over her, an arm about her, catching her as she falls back, trembling. Holding her. She’s scooping up a handful of water from the tub, she’s splashing her face, wiping her chest, sluicing away the dregs of muddy gold. She’s relaxing, settling, her breath slowing. Shivering. Reaching up and back, her arms about her, the two of them dark heads together clinging to each other at the foot of the plashing tub.
“Jo,” she says.
“She isn’t here. Look up.”
She does. She closes her eyes. There is no ceiling, no roof above them, and the wheeling sky is full of stars.
She stands as she slumps against the side of the tub, and steps around her to the faucet. “How many rounds of the year,” she says, “have we kept this city, Kingless, balanced between petulant Dukes and senile Counts. Waiting.”
“Father says our brother has returned,” she says, pushing her hair back up out of her face, behind her shoulders.
“Father, brother,” she says, lowering the lever, “husband, son,” shutting off the flow of water. “Our wait is over. The King’s come back. Take up the knife.” And when she does not move, “Pick it up, or I will. Only one of us might leave this place.”
She looks up at that, startled. She’s smiling serenely, sitting on the rim of the tub. “How did you think it all began,” she says, lifting one foot, then the other, over the edge and in. A spark falls, hissing, popping when it strikes the water, blackening, sinking, and another, cracking when it strikes the tile, flaring, skittering away. Chiming pop as a spark hits the copper tray. She picks up the knife, the handle of it polished wood, the blade the color of bone. “I’m dizzy?” she says, standing.
“We fell,” she says, holding out her hand. “We’re falling.” She takes her hand. “We will fall,” she says. The light a steady rain now, pattering, sizzling, flaring in her black hair loose, undone, her black hair pulled back, a tendril of it worked loose, crackling like a fuse. “Tell me this is the end of it,” she says. Light brightly the edge of the blade dapples her arm steadied against the edge of the tub, light splashing to dapple her thighs as she lowers herself into the water, light snuffed to mottle with soggy cinders a-float about them, hunched over knees to her chest at the one end of the tub, the knife in her hands, sitting at the other end leaning forward away from the faucet, legs outstretched, her feet tucked one on either side of her hips. “This doesn’t end,” she says.
“Tell me we will go back,” she says. “Tell me we will be Queen.”
“We were already Queen,” she says. “We can’t go back.”
“We can only go on,” she says, and “I can’t,” she says. Her forehead against her hands about the hilt. “We will,” she says. Water sloshing as she leans close, and a kiss for her fingers. “Look,” she says. “Look at us.” The crackle and hiss of the falling light. The blade lowering, between them now. Hands on her shoulders, foreheads pressed together, green eyes blinking green. “What we do is wrong,” she says.
“Magic, is wrong,” she says, her hands about her hands.
“I’m frightened,” she says, and “I’m terrified,” she says. “Look me in the eye,” she says, “look me in the eye and ask yourself this – ”
“Do you love me?” she says.
And in her hands about her hands about the hilt the knife turns and, pressing together, with a sigh, sinks home.
Down the long mall of a lobby her footsteps echo from empty storefronts to either side, cut metal letters over the doorways spelling out Freddie Browns, Plaza Teriyaki, Players Zone. Pink granite columns under the mezzanine almost brown in this dim light. An enormous poster, a woman akimbo, West Side Athletic Club. The mall opens into a lobby, the hulk there of an abandoned security desk, dark halls beyond leading to the banks of elevators, Floors 18 – 30, Parking, say letters gleaming above each in the polished stone, Floors 30 – ∞, Floors 1 – 17. A television monitor, blankly cerulean, under a sign that says US Bancorp Tower, and a poster beside it, Portland City Grill it says, On the 30th Floor, and the glass over it cracked, trembling. The floor under her boots shivering, a growing hum, a moan, a rising, scraping groan as the building all about her and above begins to thrum, a bell struck, a note plucked from one great steel and granite string, and “Oh, shit,” says Jo, pitching forward scrambling to grab hold of something, the desk, things are falling sparks and pops and the rattle and slither of falling dust as it all slows, it all stops, it all begins to settle. She lets go of the desk.
Light’s moving, shifting, shining the walls and the floor down the hall of the middle bank of elevators, light crawling, falling still as the rumbles die away. She heads across the cracked floor, past a broken plaque popped loose from the wall, US Green Building Council, it says, LEED Silver. A bang and she throws up a hand, a sudden flood of brightness burning down the length of the wall washing all the colors away to white and gold and the shadow of something, a door burst loose, pirouetting, falling as the light shades to orange now, reddens to a sullen glow that steeps the walls, the floor, leaks out over the browned pink granite and Jo there, rusting her black jacket, light spattering from the gaping mouth of that last elevator, flares bouncing, wobbling, pooling on the floor there, formless white and shaded just with yellows, oranges, and gold. She steps into the hall, and shadows shift, take flight about her as more light falls from the shaft to strike the roof of the fallen elevator car, the confusion of cables and wheels, and slops out onto the floor. She kneels there, at the edge of that sluggish lake of light, and the buckles and seams of her boots, the folds of her jacket, the hood lowered over her shoulders, her chin and her nose and those bandages, the wisps and sprigs of her hair, all of her limned in yellow and orange and coruscating red. She holds a gloved hand out over the light and it streams up over her spread fingers, thickening the air, flaring as she lowers it and the shape and shadows of it swallowed in that brightness. A hiss, a sizzle, she gasps, lifts up her hand out of the light to her mouth, and her fingers drip with glitter. “Okay,” she says, lips shining, smiling, “yeah.” She rubs her wet eyes with the grey-gloved heel of her hand, she’s sagging, almost laughing. “Okay,” she says.
Another rumble building, and more light splashes down, in curds, in gobs, dollops plopping audibly into that settling heap of itself, oozing over the wreckage of the elevator car, flowing treacly out over the floor, over her boots, and everything’s gone yellow-white, her hands ripping sharp black shadows as she pulls her hood up, ducking, the brilliance fading, the rumble dying. Boots squelching she steps toward the gaping elevator shaft, ducking her head, peering up. The light surging up over her ankles now. Somewhere far above a speck of what might be an opening. She wobbles, clutching at the warped and broken jamb of the elevator door as with a sucking schlorp of a sound a boot lifts free of the light, then the other, lifting and tipping her forward and over on her side soles shining, blazing as her feet lift up and faster up, “Shit,” she says, and a grunt as her hip hits the top of the elevator doorway her feet swinging up to thunk against the ceiling one hand gripping the frame her feet scrabbling slinging light about, and glitter, “Shit” she says again as she’s slowly rolled, “oh shit stop, stop” one foot kicking bumping down and through the elevator doorway momentum turning her over her other leg swooping faster and through and up in the shaft yanking reaching wildly both hands catching gripping the frame, “Oh, God,” she says, echoing up the shaft, and light still falling behind her from above to below. Her hands straining. Grip shifting grunting and heaving she’s levered a forearm under the top of the frame and there’s her face eyes wild as she pulls herself down her elbow slips, her hand slips, her face is gone again, just the one hand clinging, slipping, “Oh hell,” she says, and she’s gone, up and up, and up.
Stepping into grey jockey shorts with thick white seams he pulls them up and snaps them into place below his hard round belly, furred white like his thighs, his forearms, dashed with black. Sheer black nylon socks with garters snapped about his calves. A shirt of fine white broadcloth, and he fastens the lowest three buttons up to its pleated bib already smudged with ash. The trousers black, simply cut, the outer seams masked by plain black satin ribbon, and he climbs into them, tucks in his shirttails, wrestles the braces up over his shoulders, does up the fly. He fishes silver and black enameled studs from a little bowl on the dressing table and closes up his shirt, leaving the cuffs undone. And then from the table, careful of the ash that dusts the top of it, he lifts a black silk tie, slender but for the butterfly bulges at either end.
“Shit,” says Mr. Charlock, Mr. Leir, weighing the tie in his hands.
“You think she let you skate with a clip-on?”
“You ain’t here,” says Mr. Charlock, lifting his collar, draping the tie about his neck.
“Here as you. How here is that? Doctor Charley fucking Leir.”
“You’re dead,” says Mr. Leir, intent on crossing the one end over the other. “I shot you.”
“Whole damn time it was you. Whole damn time, and you, sitting in the car, next to me.”
“It was so obvious,” says Leir, lifting his chin to tuck one end under and through, “I couldn’t even let myself know. Shit.”
“Turn the fuck around.”
The man behind him wears a grey suit and a white shirt buttoned all the way up to his throat, and three neat black-edged holes punched through the front of it. He grabs the ends of Leir’s tie and saws it back and forth, deftly passing over and under, tucking it through, pulling it tight. “Never could take care of yourself,” he says.
“How’s Phil?” says Leir. “Okay?”
“Phil?” says Bottle John, adjusting, neatening. “The fuck is Phil?”
“Mr. Kay,” says Leir. “Dr. Kilo.”
Evening out the ends of the bow he checks the width of it with his finger. “Now why you think,” he says, “I know anything about your Dr. Kilo.”
“You’re a figment of my imagination,” says Leir. “I can’t keep track of everything myself. Figured you maybe saw something, in the confusion.”
“A figment,” says Bottle John. “You know what I been asking myself, ever since, what I been trying to untangle?” He steps back. “How it is a wisp a smoke buried in ice since the dawn of time gets such a hard-on for Charley Wentworth Leir, outta Fugate Fork Kentucky.”
“I get around?” says Leir, sitting on the stool, taking up a silvery shoehorn and working it into a black patent leather pump.
“What you gotten yourself into this time,” says Bottle John.
“What, this?” Leir slips his foot into the shoe. “Nothing I can’t get out of.” He picks up a pair of sunglasses from the dressing table as a flaring, dying spark drifts down. “The rules are always less stringent than you think.” Blows ash from the lenses, the feather tied to the arm of it fluttering. “Fucking phantasmata.” Puts them on.
Reflections in the gold-mirrored panels of the elevator walls, a hundred hundred Leirs one behind another all about. They lift hands to brush back grey tufts of hair almost precisely midway between brows and tops of skulls, and wind those strands about their fingers twisting, helping the curls along. “Now although many apparent byways shewed themselves, yet would I still proceed with my compass, and not budge one step from the line it set before me. Motherfuckers.” Each Leir takes off his black sunglasses and all of them squeeze their eyes shut, rubbing at them with fingertips and thumbs. “But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farms, another to his books, and the rest closed up about the messengers, and slew them.” Heads dip, look up again. “And he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city,” he says. “The wedding is ready, but them which was bidden weren’t worthy. Friend,” he says, “how camest thou, in here, without a wedding garment?” Those sunglasses lifted in a hundred hundred hands, and hands take hold of all those feathers, rip them free. “I am as without speech,” he says. A rumble, a shudder, the sound of the elevator changing pitch, speeding up, thinning out. “Woman, what have I to do with thee? – mine hour is not yet come.” Those hands open, those sunglasses drop, fall below the mirrored panel, a single pair there on the carpet at his feet. “Piker,” says Leir, and he stomps them, shattering the lenses, snapping the frame in two. Another shudder, the grinding slows, clunks, stops. “For Art is but the Priestess of Nature,” he says, “and Nature the Daughter of Time, and Time?” The Leirs before him split down the middle and withdraw, as the doors open. “Fuck time,” he says, light pouring over him, “there is no time, but now, and now, and now,” and lifting one of those patent leather pumps over the threshold he steps out.
Crunch of glass underfoot, cubical nodules of powdering amber, silvery white, sheets of it sagging from frames there and there, pink crazed mirror-white and orange with heat, webbed by tremendous blows, past them a ruddy black emptiness and a buffeting wind, and light, all about light, a confusion of brilliance, shadows leap and climb and skitter over jagged drywall, bare steel struts, sprung cables, wrenched pipes. The ceiling’s gone. The floor above is gone. The walls upreaching distended, twisted, broken, gone. He holds up a hand, the feather pinched in his fingers, against the punishing light. A crater before him, above him in the wreckage of the building, a seething caldera, light slopping over the edges of it, sloshing, starspume tossed by the wind, the howling, the roaring, sobbing wind.
“I ascend!” he cries, and sets his hand and foot to a gap in the wall, prying himself up, higher into the wreckage. “The form of a man,” he says, careful of a sharp prong of broken rebar, “armed in a coat of male.” Testing his footing on a sloping bit of concrete floor scraped clean. “I hold in my hand,” he’s pulling something from the pocket of his jacket, “a naked sword.” Working his way about the crumbling wall at the edge of the floor there, braced clumsily, feather in one hand, cloth wadded in the other, squinting down at all that light below, thrusting both hands up, the feather, the scrap of underwear striped blue and white. “My operation!” he bellows. “Is for boldness! Malice! Liberty!”
Within that shapeless light a shape, a curl, a curve. A back. An arm, about a folded leg. A shadow there, hair, black hair.
“My lady,” says Leir, lowering his hands. "You are mine.”
Behind him a rustle, a thump, crackle and drag, “Fuck,” says someone, someone else, “oh fuck,” and he looks back, careful of his perch. Movement there in the ruined elevator bank, a glimmer in the shadows cast by all that light, nodules of glass clinking as she claws herself on her belly out of the hole in the floor, dripping light, smearing it into the carpet. Her boot finds solid purchase and she stops a moment, breathing deep and slow. Gathers herself, pushes over on her back blinking, looking up into a night sky cloudless blazing full of stars everywhere except the black slash looming, the blocky silhouette, him leaning over her, holding out a hand to her, pointing his hand at her, two fingers curled back against his palm, two fingers extended, thumb cocked. “Don’t move, chickie,” he growls. “Don’t even breathe.”
“Okay,” says Jo.
“This is serious,” says Leir.
“This will fuck you up.”
“I believe you.”
“Okay,” says Leir. “Okay.” Squatting, those two fingers pointed still at her face, her throat. Not too close. His face, his shoulders and arms, his smudged white shirt lit in harsh slashes shifting as he looks her over, her clothing soaked in light. “God damn,” he says, looking away, off toward the edge of the floor. Those fingers unwavering. “You’re covered in the stuff.” Looking her over again. “How’d you get up here?”
“I don’t know,” says Jo. “I fell.”
“Okay.” His hand lifts, those two fingers still pointed at her. Clutched by the fingers curled back against his palm a single feather, dark in the uncertain light. “Here’s what’s gonna happen. You pick a hand. You reach up nice and slow with that hand, you unzip your coat. You open it up for me. I see the slightest twitch I do not like, I’m just gonna have to learn to live with the agony of never knowing what it was you thought you might’ve done. We understand each other?”
“I think so,” says Jo.
“Pick your hand,” says Leir.
Jo slowly, carefully slides the zipper of her jacket down, the click of each tooth clear, distinct until at the end she disengages it with a tug. She’s reaching up to pull it open when he bats her hand away, jabbing her cheek with those extended fingers, cocked thumb straining, feather trembling as he pushes. His other hand wrapped in something, a scrap of fabric, striped, flipping open her jacket, careful of what he touches. “What is that, somebody’s,” she says, and he leans on her, pressing the side of her face to the carpet. “Asking questions,” he says, “that’s moving, that’s breathing. What is this. This isn’t the gun.” In the hand wrapped about in stuff striped white and blue he’s holding the small silvery coil of horn, the finish scratched, the bell dented. “Talk to me. You got a special dispensation to answer this one.”
“A horn,” says Jo, wincing as he presses again. “It’s supposed to, supposed to get us back home – ”
“Back?” He jerks upright with a laugh, taking those fingers with him. “Why on earth would you ever want to go back?” He hurls the horn into the air, “Wait,” she says, but he’s tracking its arc with those fingers, dropping the hammer of his thumb. A throaty exhalation, a tinny crump, the horn, smashed flat, falls away out of sight. “In case,” he says, smiling down, “you were thinking I was maybe crazy. With the fingers. And all.”
“No,” says Jo, and the merest shake of her head. She’s looking at the other hand, the striped hand, then away, blinking. “Where’s,” she says, “what have you done with,” and she swallows, “Ysabel.”
“Done with,” he says, and those two fingers stroke his chin. “Always important, chickie-babe, to get it straight who it is who’s gone and done zoomed who. It’s what she’s done to me.”
“You’re still here,” says Jo.
“For which I will ever eternally grateful be. Come on, get up.” Those fingers pointing at her again. “Get up! I figured out how you can help me.” She rolls onto her side, her hands and knees, pushes back and up a little, into a crouch. Light flaking and drifting from her. “Kinda bridesmaid type a deal. Maid of honor.” Shadows crawling over him as light erupts and falls about. “Wedding at the end of the world.” His grey tuft jerking, caught in the gusting wind. He closes those fingers into a fist, working it back and forth with a grimace, then waves the feather at her, pinched now between index finger and thumb uncocked. “Come on,” he says. “On your feet.”
Past the elevators, out to where the floor ends abruptly, cracked and jagged concrete, rebar yanked, walls and what once were walls angled around them, the floor below a lake of incandescence that banishes the stars, that surges in the wind, slops out broken windows, through doorways, that falls in showers of sparks, and there in the middle of it, Jo’s hand to her mouth, “Ysabel,” she says, the curve of a back, the arm about the folded leg, the shadowed curl of hair.
“Thus, my dilemma,” says Leir, and Jo looks from the light to him. “That,” he says, and a gesture of the hand wrapped in blue and white cloth. “I ain’t about to go wading out into that shit.”
“It’s owr,” she says. “It’s just owr.”
“Just.” He looks down, head shaking, shoulders shaking, a chuckle. “Just. That much, this close, to the source? It’ll drown a body out, shuffle it off to the choir ineffable. But.” Looking her over, her light-scummed boots, her spangled hair. “Maybe not. So go on.” Waving the feather out over the blaze. “Hop to it.”
She says, “Hop what?”
“Climb down there,” he says, “and go, and get her. Bring her back. Play the hero, girl. You don’t make it, I’ll just have to think of something else.”
She says, “And if I do?”
He sucks in an exasperated breath. “I kiss her, I wake her, and I join myself to her in wedded bliss.” The feather tilts back to her. “You’ve got to see this as a win, however limited. I was gonna eat her.” Looking back out over the simmering light. “Get all of that inside me. Can you imagine?”
She says, “What if, what if she doesn’t, want to get, married?”
“You think she has any idea what she wants? What she can do? What she’s for?”
“And,” she says, and she shivers, “and you do?”
He closes his eyes, tips back his head, “You smell this?” he says. “This is what gods breathe.” Lowering his head, looking over at her, eyes pale over his dimpled cheeks. “Wait till I open my seventeen eyes.” And then he laughs, loud, percussive barks, “Don’t,” he says, “don’t even, Joliet Kendal Maguire.” Another laugh. “I swear. You’d jump in front of a semi truck to save a damn ice cream cone, because this time, this time maybe Mommy or Daddy might notice. I know you!” She’s staring at him, hands in her gloves at her sides, out where they can be seen. “I followed your every waking move for three damn months, girl. I kicked the tires of your dreams. You’re going down there, and you’re fighting your way to her side because you will cling to the slenderest hope in hell you can find that maybe, just maybe you might see some way of turning this back on me, and saving the goddamn day. Because who knows. This time, maybe this time, it’ll bring your brother back.”
“I don’t,” says Jo, not lifting her hands, “I don’t,” and a swallow, “I don’t have a brother – ”
“Right!” he snaps, leaning close. “Your little never-baby boy. I know you!” Rearing back as she takes a step away, unsteady on the broken floor. “So I see you start to do the least little thing I didn’t know was gonna happen, I bite the top off this fucking building. Do you hear me.”
“I,” she says, “yes, I,” looking down, “I, could I,” hands opening, closing, a shudder, “do you smoke?”
“Just a quick,” she says, “cigarette. To steady, my nerves?” Her hands, carefully not moving. “You, ah, do you want one?”
The two of them, limned and cloaked by that tumult of light, his white shirtfront streaked with ash, her grey skirt dotted white and greyly pink, snapped and rumpled by the wind.
“Yeah,” he says. His hand curling about the feather, tucking it against his palm. “Yeah, sure.” Two fingers extending. His thumb, cocking. “Okay.”
“They’re in the,” she says, lifting a hand, slowly, “front right pocket, I’ll just,” crinkle of plastic and a twitch of his hand, “Cigarettes,” she says, “cigarettes,” in her hand, trembling, a slender orange pack. “I have to,” she says, “it’s a new pack, I have to open – ”
“I almost wish you had tried to what’s that,” he says. In the hand that’s holding the pack as she’s ripping at a corner of it something else, a piece of paper crumpled, folded, a page torn from a magazine. “That’s a,” he says. She’s taken the pack into her other hand, she’s holding up the folded page, just above her fingers a cartooned figure, a sketch of a woman, opera gloves and stockings. “That’s a femlin,” he says. “Why do you, what are you doing with a centerfold in your pocket?”
“I found it in a briefcase,” she says. “You want it?”
“Unfold it,” he’s saying, “you unfold it, open it up, now, now dammit, show me,” and she’s carefully peeling the corners away and shaking it out, turning it over to hold it up, the photograph filling the page, the woman lying back, the orange jacket, the dark stockings, the blue and white underwear, stretched taut. “What is this,” he says, his voice gone quiet, flat. “A joke, what is this. You think this is funny.”
“No,” says Jo. “No, I don’t.”
“You’re mocking me,” he says, as if two or three voices are fighting for the words in his mouth, and lifts his hands to sweep the feathers from his face, the great mane of feathers brown and white and black and dull brick red, and smoke is curling from the bottom of the page. She lets it go, lets it flaring fall, she turns as he opens his eyes, all of them, she lunges away a step full-tilt and another out past the jagged edge of concrete leaping as he opens his mouths, all of them, roaring, bellowing, and a throaty punch of a sound. Cartwheeling over herself she screams, falling, plowing a wake in all that light.
Rolling and tumbling coated in dripping with caked-over glitter, sodden with light, gasping shimmering spittle the waves of it sloshing about her elbows, her knees and behind another soaring splitting howl and all around the wind, and everything’s starting to shake. “Ysabel!” she screams, up on her feet in slurry, waves of it building breaking brilliant slush of it drifting the wreckage and ahead the figure still on its side, black curls strung with light. A howl rises to a screech and everything drops a foot or more to hang there one long frozen moment Jo pitching forward before it all of it falls again and under she goes the crashing surf of light that slops and rolls and settles as stone falls, as glass cracks, as flames rip and climb.
There by Ysabel she surfaces shoulders heaving clinging her arms about her, looking back at the rim of the floor above, the wings spreading there like thunder, the fire, and all those eyes. “Ysabel,” she says. “Wake up. Ysabel. We’ve got to.” Another shrieking chorus and she hunches herself up over Ysabel’s back as everything drops once more, and a sob as it’s all brought up short again, a boom.
“Ysabel,” she says. Ysabel’s head cradled in her arm. Wiping light from closed eyes, slack mouth. “I’m here,” she says. “The sky’s falling,” she says, and a laughing sob as another howl climbs up above them, “but I’m here,” she says. “I’m here.”
A flash of green, as Ysabel opens her eyes
That flash of green, as she sits up in Jo’s arms, and reaches out a hand. Reaches out a hand, and catches there a moth between thumb and forefinger, a moth, wings spread, and the spots on its wings like eyes. That moth, trembling when she crushes it.
The green, shining, as the flames close in and she pulls Jo close, and everything drops once more but all the light about them, rising
The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, written by Anonymous, within the public domain. κατὰ Ματθαῖον εὐαγγέλιον, generally believed to have been composed between 70 and 110 by an author or authors unknown, within the public domain. The Gospel according to John, written by the disciple whom Jesus loved, within the public domain.
falling slumping shoulder fetching up she jolts awake, she blinks. Out there lights flash, red and red over a line of parked cars, a pickup truck, a minivan luridly purple in that light. She sits up, and a rough grey blanket slips away. There in her lap her hand, bare, and in her hand a hand, Ysabel’s hand, Ysabel wrapped in a rough grey blanket and Jo’s black hooded jacket. “Hey,” says Jo, softly.
Stirring Ysabel smiles before she opens her eyes. Squeezes Jo’s squeezing hand. “Hey,” she says, sitting up, leaning over, tipping together the two of them, shoulder to shoulder, wine-red hair spangled with gold against glossy black curls streaked, here and there, with white.
Red lights still flash. The ambulance is parked at an angle in the lot, right up by the long single-storey line of motel units. Jo drops out the back of it, black boots heavy splashing a runnel of melting snow, her shirtwaist dress, black and grey, white and pink, arms pulled in tight for warmth, tugging a glove onto her hand, grey and fingerless, wrapping the velcro about her wrist. Looking up at the blue-black sky, featureless in the glare of worklights. Over there at the back of the lot, by the corner of the detached set of motel units, a reddish brown car, a black stripe along its side, the driver’s door open, a man sitting there, his feet on the pavement, and a woman leaning against the trunk of it, wrapped in a sheepskin coat, her wild hair yellow-white. “How is she,” she says, as Jo slowly approaches.
“Sleeping,” says Jo. “You should – ” but Marfisa shakes her head, lifts her chin, a gesture back toward the main building of the motel. “He’s in there,” she says, and then, as Jo turns to look, “Gallowglas.”
Jo turns back. In the front seat Luys leans against the doorframe, head hung low, looking at his shoes. Marfisa traps one of Jo’s hands between both of hers and holds it a moment, looking her wordless in the eye. Jo’s free hand comes up, laid gently atop Marfisa’s, and Marfisa nods, once, and lets go.
That long low line of motel units, red doors, curtained windows, the dark maw of an air conditioner under each, over and over again until that room there, just past the hood of the ambulance the frames about the shattered window and the missing door scorched black, the dregs of snow before it stomped into sooty puddles that flash red and red and red. In the doorway, leaning on his cane, Leo in his camel-colored topcoat, and no hat upon his head, looking at something inside the room. “Where is everyone,” says Jo.
Smiling he reaches a hand for her, the small of her back, her hip, pulling her close there in the doorway, leaning in to kiss her mouth. “Hello to you, too,” he says.
“No, I mean,” says Jo, and then, gloved hands up on his shoulders, she kisses him, lightly. “It’s so, quiet.”
“We have some little time,” he says, straightening. Letting go. “Welcome back.”
“This,” says Jo, she’s looking into the room, “Timmo and Abe, they were staying here.”
Leo points to the one bed, a spavined, cinder-furred hulk under a frozen wheel of smoke-stain printed over the wall, the ceiling, dripping with grimy water. What once was a laptop at one end, warped, the screen of it burned white. “He was holding what was left of a, ah, briefcase,” he says.
“But we were, on, top of Big Pink,” says Jo, looking back, out into the glare. “And then, the – tub?” Looking inside, a shake of her head.
“Probably saved you from the blaze,” says Leo.
“No, I, what I, what I’m – how – how did we, how did we end up,” and she takes a deep and shaky breath, “how the hell did you know? How?”
“That’s the thing,” says Leo, looking out, to the ambulance. “Or, at least, a thing.” There in the shadow of it, leaning against the side of it, Orlando in his long dark skirt, his white shirt, his feet bare.
“You,” says Jo, starting forward, “you get away from there – ” and Leo’s hand on her shoulder, “Jo,” he says, gently. “He knew where you’d be, and when. He knew there’d be a fire. If he hadn’t told us – ”
“What do you want,” says Jo, and Orlando, pushing up off the ambulance, says, “Dust or blood, my nemesis.”
“Jo?” says Ysabel, there at the back of the ambulance. Marfisa behind her. “A brief affair, my lady,” says Leo. “Over quickly, and done.”
Ysabel looks from Jo, to Leo, and the briefest inclination of her head. “I won,” says Jo. “I beat you, two out of three, however you want to count it, we’re done,” and he laughs, and taps the patch over his eye. “A blow to each, but we both yet stand,” he says. “And our first, of three? A technicality. You really want to’ve won on points? My blade was in your back, Gallowglas.” His hands spread, smiling mildly. “And you took my love, and I took yours, but now he is King, and she is Queen, and for us there’s nothing left but blood, or dust.”
“I will not fight you,” says Jo.
“Why then is your sword there in your hand?” says Orlando.
She looks down, to see her hand in its glove about a plain hilt wrapped in dull wire, within a glittering net of wiry strands that meet in worked steel knots, twining down to the great silvery clout of a pommel, and stretched before her straight and true the shining blade. “I,” she says, and no scabbard in her other hand, nor at her hip. “I didn’t, I,” lowering the sword, and the tip of it chiming against the charred sidewalk.
“I’ll need a blade myself, Ieraks,” says Orlando. “Careless, I know, but one of mine’s held by a wizard, now, and the other by the father of my latest inamorata.”
“Leo,” says Jo as he limps sourly past, hefting a longsword by the strong of its blade, “If it must needs be done,” he’s saying, extending the heavy-pommeled hilt of it toward Orlando’s waiting hand, “it were best to get it done.”
Orlando takes the hilt and swings the blade away from Leo, a high sweeping cut, and another, settling into his stance. “Are you frightened?” he says, looking to Jo.
“Yes,” she says.
“Good,” he says. “I’d hate to be the only one enjoying this.” And then, when she doesn’t lift her sword, “Your cue, Gallowglas.”
She’s looking from Leo beside her, hands on the stern hawk at the head of his cane, to Ysabel there at the back of the ambulance, wrapped in blankets and her black jacket, and Marfisa’s hand on her shoulder.
“Think of your anger,” says Orlando. “Those senseless murders. The Gammer, the Shootist. The Soames. Gloria, and her father. You, perhaps. Almost. Think of Billy, Gallowglas. Little Billy Maguire.”
She opens her eyes. She lifts her sword up at an angle before her, slides her left foot back, tucks her free hand up against her chest. Waiting.
He sighs. “Fear alone will have to do,” he says, stepping forward, leaping forward blade coming down a hammer blow Jo catches and throws off, rocking Orlando back. A peal of blows then, his wild swings met by jerks and yanks, her sword moving only enough to catch and block and catch again as he falls back and strikes and falls back, with each pass turning a circle like a ratchet that carries him away from the back of the ambulance, away from Ysabel. One last overhead cut parried by Jo settling back in her stance as he lifts his sword up and away, pointedly leaving himself wide open. “Strike me!” he cries. “Are you not the Huntsman? Were you not tasked?”
Her blade at an angle before her, her free hand over her heart.
His shoulders slump. He shakes his head. “What will it take,” he says. His one eye catching hers as she looks up from his lowered blade-tip.
He says, “I wonder if even this.”
“Jo – ” cries Ysabel, and “Mooncalfe!” cries Marfisa, and Jo breaks screaming into a run blade up hilt back for a thrust, and “Lando?” says Leo, looking down at the sword. Looking down at his sword. At the strong of the blade of it there between the lapels of his camel-colored topcoat, at the torn edges of the hole it’s made in his soft shirt of some nameless harvest gold. At Orlando’s hand on the hilt of it, and the look in Orlando’s eye, the sweet smile on his face as the tip of Jo’s sword punches through his throat, and at the lacy darkness falling all about, like ashes.
“You’d rather a Duke, not a Prince, for a King,” says Lymond. The sky above them a softening blue grey.
“I’d rather a Queen,” says the Soames. “I was promised a Queen.”
“You expect wonder hard on the heels of a miracle,” says Lymond. And then, “But do you think me the only Perry?”
“Ysabel, the Bride?” says the Soames. “Your Bride?” Frowning as he marches along, close beside Lymond down the quiet winding street. “Then the line’s not broken, as we were told.” The bicycles winding behind them, and the trundling pickup and its hangers-on.
“We shall see,” says Lymond.
Heading to the edge of the street, across the sidewalk and the scrap of dying grass, up to the yellow front door, followed by Marquess and Soames and Viscount, and the clatter and clank and ticking spin of bicycles. He pulls out a padded envelope, and from it a gold credit card, and he works the card into the gap between door and frame, jimmying the lock, a click and a clunk and he opens the door. “My house,” he calls out to all of them, “is yours,” and he steps inside. Down the long hall, the thunder of dozens of footsteps, out into the big room empty but for an overstuffed armchair, a low table beside it, a great window, the shapes of the city uncertain in the shining haze, and the mountain beyond a pale shadow of blue and rose against the first rays of the rising sun.
“Well,” says Lymond, as those footsteps settle, the rustle of coats and scarves and gloves, blue suits, green coveralls. All that motley crowd beneath the window, uncertain whether to look out, or in. His back to them, his hands on the arm of the chair, “Mark this,” he says, and turning, sits him down.
The silence, as everyone in the room takes in a breath.
And then a rustle once more, of heads lowering, of hands lifted to hearts, to brows, as here, there, there and there again, and again, a knee is taken, as the King stands up from his Throne.
“There is much to be done,” he says, smiling under his bulging eyes, one brown, one blue, his pinkish orange pompadour a-bob. “Let us begin.”