Slopping two fingers of bourbon into a coffee cup he makes a face, eyes wide, head bobbing, “They fight,” he says, his mouth within his salt-and-pepper Van Dyke twisting around the words. He sets the bottle on the edge of a long table lost under haphazard stacks of books and piles of paper, picks up the cork and jams it home, then picks up the coffee cup and throws back one long swallow. His other hand a metal hook at the end of a beige prosthetic attached just below his elbow. He sets the cup down, snaps off the light.
Past the double doors under a frosted fanlight a wide deep room the far end lost in shadows, one wall lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. She stands in the middle of it threadbare slipper-toe worrying at an X of blue masking tape stuck to the floor, her hair a great crown of tiny braids wound about with colored thread and beads all held up atop her head by a blue silk scarf. A half-dozen kids lined up roughly between her and the mirrors, sweatpants and yoga pants, gym shorts over longjohns, a brown sweater vest over a white T-shirt. She looks up at them, a hank of hair slipping from the scarf and slithering down her shoulder. “They fight,” she says quite loudly.
Over by the doors he snorts. He’s tugging loose with his hook the twine about a bundle of swords.
“Shakespeare was never much of one for stage directions,” she says, “but here we are, at the climax of our play, our Harry and our Hotspur have finally met on the field of battle, and how does the Bard frame the epic action of his climax? ‘They. Fight.’” A murmur of chuckles, someone laughs. He’s clutched the swords in his right arm, pulling the twine free. “So we will need,” she says, “to write our own scene of actions, to complement the words. But.” She holds the moment then, until all of them are still, are looking at her, even the laughing girl in the T-shirt that says Bard with Bite. “The blocking – the choreography – we devise; that’s just as words on paper.” She looks down then at the X, smiling. “Just. You all need to become as adept with a sword as you are with your voice: to know, Shaquina,” to the laughing girl, “how to riposte as surely as you know how to tell him you’ll no longer brook his vanities. To know, Jason,” to the boy in the sweater vest, “not only that you must drive her up and stage left, but how Harry would do it.” She turns then with a magnanimous sweep of her hand introducing him there by the doors. “Vincent Erne has been the fight director for every Serpents Tooth production that’s needed one.”
“Almost every,” he mutters, walking toward the line of kids, swords rattling.
“He’ll train you in stage combat, and work closely with me in blocking the fights, but most importantly he’ll work with each of you to become comfortable with this admittedly strange way to move – with these weapons, on your hips and in your hands.” He’s offering the bouquet of swords still tucked under his arm to them, tapping the bundled hilts with his hook. “Go on,” he says. “Until,” she’s saying, “you know, in your bones, how to move, how to strike, as Harry, as Hotspur, as Falstaff, or the King.”
“Judith is too kind,” he says. “I’ll settle for none of you putting out an eye.” And they laugh, swords in hand, fingering the blunted tips, whipping the swords about, striking poses in the mirrors. “It’s been two hundred and sixty-seven days since our last workplace incident,” he says, and there’s chuckles now instead of laughs, and the swinging stops. “All right. It looks like you all know which end to hold, so we’ll skip straight to lesson two – ” One of the double doors creaks open. Judith turns her head sharply, beads clattering. “Excuse me,” she says, “this is a closed rehearsal.”
“I’m sorry,” says Jo Maguire, one hand on the doorknob. “I didn’t have the phone number.” She limps into the room, her short brown hair sleek, her army-green jacket dark with rain. Under her left arm a bundle long and thin, wrapped in towels. “I could come back.”
“Please do,” snaps Judith, not yet turning back to her kids.
“We’re done, you and I,” says Vincent.
“Yeah,” says Jo, “I just, I wanted to talk about – ” but Vincent’s started across the room toward her, the doors, the last sword in his hand, toward Ysabel stepping up beside her, pushing back the hood of her yellow slicker, coils of black hair glossy tumbling free, Vincent head ducked dropping to one knee at her feet, Ysabel’s feet, the sword laid to the floor hilt first before her, his hook tucked up in the small of his back.
“Majesty,” he says.
“Highness,” murmurs Ysabel, smiling just.
“Of course,” says Vincent, sitting back on his heel. “Lady.” Looking up at her, the ugly bruise swallowing her eye, the scrape along her cheekbone. “What,” he says, and he swallows, “what happened?”
The sanctuary’s dark. Pink-tinged streetlight leaks through high narrow windows, a false dawn staining white columns that loom over the aisles. Jo’s sitting toward the front slumped down, her mismatched Chuck Taylors black and grubby white propped up on the back of the pew before her. A click of a door latch somewhere in back. A man steps out from the shadows under the white-railed balcony, his hair a shock of pinkish-orange bobbing as he comes down the aisle, his eyes bulging over an uncertain grin. “There you are,” he’s saying. His leather jacket creaks as he folds himself elbows and knees into the pew across from her.
“Just needed to, I don’t know,” says Jo. “I’m such a fucking idiot.” Forehead in her hand, elbow braced on the knee before her. “You’d think I’d’ve figured it out by now. Never go anywhere with her. Not without a fucking army.”
“We could keep waiting,” he says. He’s looking down at the bottle in his hands, green glass dark in the dim light.
“For who, the Duke?” says Jo. “Roland? Anybody’d help us has to get through them out there, same as the Anvil. Might as well wait for her to show up herself, and her goddamn nineteen names.”
“She wouldn’t cross the river,” he says, sloshing the bottle at her.
“What else has she got that would?” says Jo.
He shrugs, unscrews the cap. Swigs. “So don’t wait,” he says, looking up at the ceiling. “He’s under the, the damn bridge.” His eyes slide over in a smile at her. He points back over his shoulder. “Maybe ten blocks or so. You can’t miss it.”
“You’re right,” says Jo. “We won’t.”
“Jesus,” he says. “Christ. It’s not like I’m ducking out on you or anything. I’ll take you there.”
“Last week,” she says, still looking not at him but up at the dark altar, “a two-ton boar took out the east-bound lanes of I-84. Smashed ’em to bits. Can you take me there, too?”
He frowns, looks down at the bottle. “I don’t, I mean, sure, of course – ”
“Because maybe he’ll be there under the bridge, and maybe he won’t, you know? I just don’t trust anything where you people are involved.”
“Me people? My people?” He laughs and takes another swig. “Jesus, Jo. Here I am, sitting in a church, drinking gin from the bottle…”
“Is that supposed to make you more like me, or them?” says Jo. “Because there’s a roomful of them in the basement, and Ysabel drinks like a fucking fish.”
“Sure,” he says, “but they aren’t up here in the, the, she does?”
“Yup. The Duke, too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him unloaded.”
“Huh.” Eyes goggling, he grins around snaggled teeth. “Guess there’s a difference between ‘can’t’ and ‘don’t usually’.” He holds out the bottle. “You sure you don’t want a taste? Before we take off?” Jo takes it from him. “I mean, if they are me people – if I am like them, and I go out there, you’d know soon enough. One touch from those spooky motherfuckers and I’d be toast.”
“But you’re like me, Ray,” says Jo, “so it’ll be nothing but kisses and love-taps.” She sips, screws up her face. He laughs. “Fucking turpentine,” says Jo.
“Clears the noggin,” says Ray, tapping his temple.
“You’re plenty clear,” says Jo. She hands the bottle back to him. “Let’s go.”
“Okay, okay,” says Ray, climbing wobbly to his feet.
Becker’s waiting in the shadows under the white-railed balcony, arms folded, licks of hair sprung out by his ears, on top of his head. Jo says, “He ready?” as she comes up the aisle toward him. Ray behind her stumbles over a ruck in the carpet.
“Are you?” says Becker. Ray laughs and makes a show of shaking out his left foot, then his right.
“We’ll be fine,” says Jo. “We just have to run. You get downstairs with the Princess.”
“Sure,” says Becker. “She can help me keep Guthrie calm.”
Off away through brick dimly a roar and shrieks, the belling scrape of metal. “There he goes,” says Jo. She puts a hand on Becker’s arm. “Whatever happens,” she says, “whatever happens,” squeezing his arm, “don’t set foot out there. Not till it’s over. He’s gone for sure if you do.”
Ray’s kneeling by the double doors leading outside, one hand on the crash bar. He pushes gently, cracking the right door open. A swarm a flurry a half-dozen bicycles down on the street circling circling, bicycles all painted white, gleaming white smooth and patchy white uneven daubs and once-bright racing stripes and brand names lost under foggy coats of sprayed white paint, white-walled tires and grimy whitened treads, blank white cards tucked ratcheting in spokes, a fluttering train of xeroxed notices on white paper. Dried flowers the only washed-out colors, wired to a whippy pole clamped to the back of a white-taped banana seat, dead green and pale yellow flowers piled in a white-painted handlebar basket, flowers once red and blue draped about this rider’s neck, that rider’s wrists, riders in grey sweatshirts, a hood up here, a grey helmet, a brown helmet there, grey sneakers pumping white pedals as they swoop to peel away left and right, chains and cards clacking, flowers rustling, speeding away to the back of the church.
“It’s working,” says Ray. He stands, lets the door close, claps his hands and rubs them quickly together, tilting his head to one side and the other. Nods.
Jo kicks open the doors.
The First Part of King Henry the Fourth, written by William Shakespeare, in the public domain.
He’s a big man straining the shoulders of a dark blue jacket, sitting back in one of the leather armchairs beneath the large copper letters that say Barshefsky Associates: Quality Assured. Long grey mustaches droop to either side of his mouth. He flips over and over in his hands a white business card. When the side door swings open with a sudden wash of questioning voices and clacking keys he climbs to his feet and those mustaches spread around a smile. Becker steps out into the lobby, a big striped shirt unbuttoned over a yellow T-shirt, thin brown hair licked up here and there at the top of his head.
“It’s Becker!” says the big man. “You manage a phone bank.”
“I’m, sorry,” says Becker. “You’re very – Do I know you?”
“Of course,” says the big man. “Pyrocles.”
“Pyrocles,” says Becker. About to nod, he shakes his head slowly instead, his face settling toward a frown. “Is that, what, is that Greek?”
“No, I’m from Vergina, where the Argead ruled. But they have heard of me in Byzantium.”
“Huh. I didn’t know there was a Byzantium left.”
“Goodness,” says Pyrocles. “I certainly hope so.”
“And you’re here because…”
“Oh! Jo Maguire. I need to speak with her. Briefly, of course.”
“Had to be one of those two,” mutters Becker.
“You see, I must examine her hands.”
“I’m making,” says Pyrocles, and then he holds up the business card. “Forgive me, is this appropriate? As her sigil?”
“Her what?” The card’s printed with a stylized B, rounded, with furled serifs. “That’s the Barshefsky logo.”
“This is her house, isn’t it?” says Pyrocles, and one of Becker’s frowning eyebrows goes up. “She does work here, doesn’t she?”
“Sure, but she’s not – ”
“Oh but I should ask her myself,” says Pyrocles. “Not waste your time like this, I’m sorry.”
“Thing is,” says Becker, “she’s off. Today.”
“Not working. Don’t know where she is, in fact.”
“Not that I could tell you if I did.”
“I see,” says Pyrocles.
“I mean, it’s not. Regulations. Nothing personal.”
“I wouldn’t think to take it personally.”
“If there’s anything else?”
“No, no, I’ve taken up quite enough of your time – ” says Pyrocles, as Becker says “I’ll be sure to let her know, I’m sorry, you were here – ”
“I guess I’ll have to come back, then,” says Pyrocles.
“All right,” says Becker. “Whenever. Although – five’s a good time. Weekdays. Usually taking their first break right around then.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Jo sits tailor-fashion midway along a line of bookshelves. By her side a stack of books, old, clothbound, titles written on the spines in white ink, a big flat paperback with a glossy photo cover, a figure in a white outfit anonymous behind a mesh mask foil held up en garde, the tip obscured behind a barcode sticker. A book splayed open in her lap. Her right arm stretched out to one side she looks down its length to her hand, relaxed, palm down. “Pronation,” she says. She rolls her arm over her palm now facing up. “Supination,” she says. Curls her fingers into a loose fist and rolls it back and over again.
“Wouldn’t that be easier with the sword?” says Ysabel, her back to Jo. Idly running her fingers along book-spines.
“I’m sorry,” says Jo. “Did you say something?”
Ysabel tips a book from its place on the shelf with a finger, tips it back. Jo’s still eyeing her fist now moving in a little square, up here, up there, down there, down here. Palm up, palm down.
They come down the wide sweeping stairs into the lobby one after the other, Jo her books stacked in her arms, Ysabel’s long patched denim skirt swaying like a bell, frayed hem brushing the dark stone steps. “You’ll never learn a thing of value, reading those,” she says.
“I know you can’t be talking to me,” says Jo. “What with swearing a mighty oath just this morning never to speak to me again.” She’s headed past the self-serve kiosks to the high dark counter running down one side of the lobby, where she drops her books by a librarian’s flat-screen monitor. “I need to take care of some fines,” she says, pulling a wodge of cards and paper from the pocket of her army-surplus jacket, undoing the purple hair-tie holding it together. She peels a grubby white library card from the middle and hands it over. The librarian scans it and hands it back, not looking away from his screen. “Been awhile,” he says. His hair is sandy, his eyes red-rimmed.
“How much,” says Jo. She’s counting through the bills clamped in a medium-sized binder clip.
“Y’know, you could always give us your email address,” says the librarian.
“How much,” says Jo.
“Because that way we could send you email when your books are due. And you can renew online. Which – ”
“Which would be great if I had a computer instead of having to come here to get online, which kinda defeats your whole point. How much. Do I. Owe.”
“Twenty-seven seventy-five,” says the librarian. He starts scanning Jo’s stack of books.
“What,” says Jo sidelong to Ysabel beside her. Hands in the pockets of her skirt leaning back against the counter Ysabel lifts her head a little, pointing with her chin. Jo turns. A short, heavy man in shapeless green coveralls stands by the self-serve kiosks. He isn’t looking at them. He isn’t looking anywhere else. Turning over and over in his hands a blue meshback cap. “Highness,” he says.
“Shit,” says Jo.
“Highness, we’re meeting tonight, and we wonder, our Soames wonders, if you’re willing and able to attend.”
“Attend?” says Jo. “Who the hell are you?”
“Twice Thomas,” he says, and he ducks his head. His thick black hair shines with grease.
“I’d love to,” says Ysabel.
“You have any idea who this guy is?” says Jo.
“I know all my mother’s subjects,” says Ysabel. “And who are we, Twice Thomas?” He looks puzzled. “The we, who’ll be meeting?”
“The Local Two Three Five, lady,” he says.
“Ah,” she says. “The Hare.”
“No, lady, I’d never – ”
“Please,” says Ysabel.
“Just a fucking minute,” says Jo.
“You know, Thomas,” says Ysabel, “it would be so much easier if you’d challenge her to a duel.” His laugh’s more of a hiccup. “Ysabel,” says Jo, sharply. Ysabel’s smiling. “She can’t fight, you know. Has to read about it in books. Defeat her, and all her offices are forfeit. There’d be no impediment to my attendance.”
“This is way past being funny,” says Jo.
“You are a glory to behold, lady,” says Twice Thomas, “but my hand’s not fit for the likes of yours.”
“Oh, well said,” says Ysabel. “You see, Jo, he knows his place.”
“I should just let you go,” says Jo. “Fart off where the fuck ever. Get kidnapped again. I’d be done with you.”
“All right,” says Ysabel, and she steps up to Twice Thomas and takes his arm.
“Oh, fuck me,” says Jo.
“Um,” says the librarian. “The, uh, they’re due back the twenty-sixth.”
“Right,” says Jo. She scoops up the stack of books. “I’ll write it down somewhere.” Jo heads off after Ysabel marching away, Twice Thomas stumbling at her side, mouth slack eyes wide at the sight of her hands tucked in the crook of his elbow.
Jo leans back against the long table lost under haphazard stacks of books and piles of paper, wincing, rubbing her hip. “You should sit,” says Ysabel, leaning forward in the office chair to put her hand on Jo’s. Jo shakes her head. “If I’m gonna be a knight,” says says, “I should get used to that whole chivalry thing, right?” The poster on the wall behind her says Gorboduc – Ferrex and Porrex.
“Don’t be an ass,” says Ysabel, squeezing Jo’s hand, sitting back in the chair. The door to the office opens. Vincent’s there in the doorway, the cable running along his prosthetic jerking, the hook snapping open and shut, open and shut. “Well?” he says.
“I need to learn how to fight with a sword,” says Jo.
“Why come to me?”
“Because you know why I need to learn how to fight with a sword.”
“Mr. Erne,” says Ysabel.
“Highness,” he says, “I’d never question your judgment, but – ”
“Good,” says Ysabel.
His hook snaps one last time. “Where’s the épée, girl. That piece of shit I gave you.” Jo’s stooping to pick up the long thin bundle, undoing the rubber bands, unwinding the towels. Careful with her left hand, the palm gone red and raw. “Were you trying to keep it dry?”
“Out of sight,” says Jo. “Cops’d jack me for a butter knife in my back pocket.”
Vincent snorts again. “What good is this gonna do you? I told you. You get in a fight with these people, you lose.”
“I’ve done pretty well so far.”
“Have you,” says Vincent. “You lose with a sword in your hand, you die.”
“I know.” Jo balances the sheathed sword tip balanced on the duct-taped toe of her shoe the loose hilt with its dull and battered bell lightly in one hand. The other, raw, distractedly rubs her chest, there where her jacket’s parted over a T-shirt that says Farmers and Mechanics Bank. “But they’re making me one.”
“They are,” says Vincent, flatly. His hand held open at his side, his thin sweater hanging loosely from his shoulders.
“Jo Maguire is to be made a knight,” says Ysabel, leaning back and crossing her stockinged legs, primly careful of her short tweed skirt.
Vincent steps back, his hand on the doorknob. “Come with me,” he says. He nods at the épée. “Bring that.”
Lights flicker to life in the wide deep room, the far end still lost in shadows. Practice swords laid in a serried row on the floor. Vincent stoops to pick one up. “You arrive promptly at eleven o’clock in the morning for an hour or two of instruction, depending on my schedule. Monday through Friday.” Jo, limping, pulls her jacket off, lets it drop to the floor. “You pay me two hundred dollars a month. In advance.”
“Is that how to change your mind,” says Jo, drawing her sword.
“That’s less than ten dollars an hour for me,” says Vincent. “For private instruction. Not exactly lining my wallet.” He slashes the air once, twice, turns to face Jo. Ysabel’s lowering herself to the floor, her back to the mirrors. “Has to cost you something, girl. So you aren’t ever tempted to fuck off and not come in one fine eleven o’clock. Money spent tends to focus the attention.”
“How long does it take?” says Jo. She’s turned her right foot toward him, looking at him over her right shoulder. The tip of her sword touching an X of blue masking tape stuck to the floor.
“To learn how to fight with a sword. The Vincent Erne way. How many months do I have to focus my attention with two hundred bucks?”
“To learn?” He smiles, a sour twist in his salt-and-pepper Van Dyke. “I’ll teach you everything you need to know tonight. Four simple lessons. The rest is practice. We’ll know in six months how good you’ll ever be.”
“Okay,” says Jo, lifting her blade, settling herself, knees bent a little. Her left arm hitched up and back, crooked over, her left hand dangling over her shoulder. “Four lessons. First is which end to hold it by, right?”
“No, girl,” says Vincent. “That’s a joke, for theatre students who aren’t learning how to fight. First lesson’s a question.”
“A question. Where are you, girl?”
The basement room is brightly lit. A felt banner hangs on the back wall, an abstract blob of a dove, green leaves, a rainbow hanging over a folding table laden with a coffee urn, paper cups, corrugated paper jackets, packets of sugar and non-dairy creamer, a plate of crumbs and a couple of donuts. A baby grand piano on giant casters under a quilted brown cloth. A rack piled high with folded chairs, more chairs unfolded in a rough circle, men and women standing around them and beside them, coveralls in blue and green, overalls and dungarees, denim jackets, meshback caps in hands. Jo over by the coffee urn in army green, beside her pink-haired Ray in his black leather jacket. In the center of it all stands Ysabel next to a very small woman wearing a pink T-shirt that says Choose a Job. The very small woman holds a tarnished metal tray. On the tray a dozen or more small clear glasses. In each glass glimmering in the bright light a pinch of golden dust.
He stands at the head of the low flight of stairs leading into the room, a blue-black cloak thrown back from his shoulders, his arms and head bare, his dark hair shot through with white, flopping about his eyes and ears, his lean face roughened by a half-grown grey-black beard. His cuirass milky white and edged with silver, though it is shadowed with dents, and the edging pitted. His right hand rests on the hilt of a long knife stuck through a belt of greenish silver links. Shining around his neck a polished silver torc.
“I do not know you, knight,” says the very small woman. Her face is worn, her cheeks round and ruddy. She wears small round spectacles with a thin chain that droops about her neck and her yellow-white hair’s pulled back in a tight bun. “But you must know this is hallowed ground, made sacral by their long use and habit. There’ll be no fighting here.”
“And if I were to draw my blade?” He pulls the knife from its sheath. “The one you’d call, who’d see I keep the peace, it’s her bidding I’m about. Take one more step, Gallowglas, and I let loose my arm. People will get cut.”
Jo hasn’t moved. Her fists are clenched.
“I know you,” says Ysabel, stepping away from the very small woman, her long patched denim skirt sweeping the floor. “And I can tell you, Dagger, neither you nor her – ”
He comes down in a rush then, a sudden squall of chairs scraping, men and women stepping back away as Jo steps up between Ysabel and the knight stopped still at the bottom of the stairs. His hand up knife reversed in his fist blade flat back against his forearm. “Not any more,” he says, and he spits. “Just Sidney now, plain Sidney. Your mother’s seen handily to that.”
A shell of glossy white paint flecking from the doorframe Becker’s leaning against. He picks at it crackling under his nails. The door opens slightly, Guthrie peering around the edge. Becker clears his throat. Guthrie jumps. “Sorry,” says Becker.
“Fuck,” says Guthrie, opening the door. His black T-shirt says Mai Pastede Hed in white letters. A guitar strums through cheap speakers from somewhere further in. I would like another way to breathe, sings a girl over the guitar. Keep my eyes wide open in my sleep. ’Cause when I’m underwater, you keep me under glass…
“You haven’t showed up in almost a week,” says Becker.
“To work,” says Guthrie.
“You’re here about work.”
“Yeah,” says Becker.
“You getting paid for this? Come to my place and wake me up for, for uh, to what exactly?”
“You haven’t showed up. You quit? Did you find something else?
“Because, I mean, you don’t show up at Burger King, the manager doesn’t come to your place and ask, you know, what’s up, where you been.” Becker says “Manager at Burger King isn’t your friend,” as Guthrie’s saying “They just fire your ass. And Tartt never would have showed up here or anything.”
“Tartt wasn’t your friend either. You want me to fire you? Did you find something else? Because I’m seriously covering your ass on this.”
“I didn’t ask you to – ”
“Dammit, Guthrie!” Becker runs a hand through what little of his hair is left. “Just shut up a minute, okay?”
“What is it,” says Guthrie.
Becker’s looking up at the flaking ceiling. “You remember those two guys. That you, that you wanted to talk to me about. That one time. And we never, I mean, the two guys,” but Guthrie’s shaking his head. “We did,” he’s saying. “You forgot.”
“Forgot,” says Becker. “Did one of them have a mustache? Long, and, uh, grey, and – ”
“No,” says Guthrie. A pale hand a sleeve the color of oatmeal snakes around his waist. “No mustache.” A confetti-colored cap over two eyes bright and blue smiling as she stretches up bare feet tiptoed to lick at Guthrie’s ear. “Come back,” she says, and kisses his cheek. “Come back.” Her legs bare beneath the ragged hem of her sweater. Over the cheap speakers a woman’s singing I’m in a backless dress in a pastel ward that’s shining, think I want you still, but it may be pills at work. She sees Becker then, and her blue eyes corner under pinched brows. Still pressed against Guthrie she lifts an arm across the doorway two fingers pointing to just so touch his nose. Becker jolts back.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she says.
“The hell?” says Becker, rubbing his nose.
“Didn’t anyone tell you? You’ll spoil it all!” She steps out into the hallway.
“Um,” says Guthrie, “hey – ”
“We have to get him where he’s supposed to be,” she says.
“I mean,” says Guthrie, “um, pants – ”
“No time,” she snaps, and she stomps a foot clomp ringing from the heel of a worn workboot, laces undone, tongue lolling, spinning about shimmying her hips hands smoothing a fall of orange pleats, a heavy corduroy skirt. “And you’re already wearing pants!” She stomps her other foot flatly flop a dirty green and yellow running shoe. “We have to go now.” And turning again she clomp-flops down the hall.
“What,” says Becker, staring after her, “just happened?”
The woman in the pink T-shirt beams up at them through her small round glasses. “I can’t say, Highness. A tremendous honor.”
“Yes,” says Ysabel. “And you are..?”
“Nell,” she says, bowing her head slightly, “the Soames. Welcome, lady.”
“And this is,” says Ysabel, turning as Jo says, “Excuse me,” and walks away across the basement toward the coffee urn, there on the table in the back.
“That was Jo,” says Ysabel behind her. “My Gallowglas.”
The man standing by the coffee urn straightens, lifting a paper cup. His hair’s a shock of pink and orange. “Hey,” says Jo. “It’s Ray, right?” His paper cup stops halfway between the table and his quirked mouth under goggling blue eyes. “I’d like to think,” he says, “I’d’ve noticed if I’d seen you here before.”
“No, from the Zoobomb. Roland’s friend.”
“Friend?” he says, and his cup salutes her. “That’s, that’s good. About time he got one of those.”
“He said you were a friend of his.”
“Did he.” Ray lifts the cup, lowers it again. His smile’s gone apologetic. “I know him. Roland doesn’t have any friends.”
Jo picks up a cup of her own. “He also said you weren’t like him.”
“Well, I do have a couple of friends…” His cup floats back towards his lips again. “Hey, Sproat,” he says.
“Hey,” says the little man with the extraordinarily large nose, pouring himself a cup of coffee.
“I mean,” says Jo, “you’re not, you’re not one of his people. You’re not from wherever it is they’re from.”
“The West Hills?”
“Ha. You’re like me, is what I mean.”
He cocks an eyebrow over one of those bulging eyes. “I hope I’d’ve noticed that, too.”
“I know why I’m here, is what I’m getting at,” says Jo, twisting the spigot on the urn, filling her cup. “Because of her. Why’re you here?”
“Her?” says Ray. Ysabel’s stooped to listen to the Soames, who’s ticking points on the palm of her hand. “Really? Huh.” His cup makes it this time. He sips. One of those eyes screws shut and his lips pucker. He fishes in a pocket of his leather jacket, pulling out a green glass bottle with a silver cap. “Is that why you’re being such a dick?”
“What?” says Jo.
“The coffee,” says Ray, “not that it’s any of your business.” He pours a slug of something colorless into his coffee. “Was that too rough? ‘Dick’? If that was too rough – no, that’s weaselly. It was too rough. So I apologize. No ifs.”
“The coffee?” says Jo. “I don’t – ”
“It’s free,” says Ray. “To answer your question. Shitty, but free. And this is free, this meeting, as in speech, as in beer. So again. I’m sorry. But you’re the one who leaped in demanding answers.”
“I didn’t – ”
“You did a lousy job of hiding how badly you wanted me to justify myself.”
“Yeah?” says Jo, her voice gone low and fast and quiet. “Well I got dragged here on her whim with some guy I never met and I don’t know what’s going on and usually, I go places with her, usually, I end up on a horse or getting assaulted or, or I’ve been stabbed, and here you are that I’ve actually met once before, and maybe you come here every night, I don’t fucking know, but maybe you can tell me something so yeah, I’m gonna ask questions.” Her hand a fist on the table by her discarded cup.
“Every month,” says Ray. “I mean, I haven’t. Just twice. But the first Wednesday of every month, Saint Patrick’s under the bridge. We’d better get chairs.” He heads over to a couple of empty chairs in the ring that’s filling up, chairs about them squawking on the linoleum floor as they’re pulled out, pushed back, settled here and there, the men and women taking their seats, coveralls, overalls, dungarees, denim and flannel and chambray, yellow-brown boots and white-wrinkled black boots, meshback caps in their hands. “See, Open Mike,” says Ray, leaning over to murmur in Jo’s ear.
“Open Mike?” says Jo. A long and lanky man in a black T-shirt’s clapping Twice Thomas on the shoulder.
“He’s about to corral everybody, all the stragglers. Usually about twenty, maybe two dozen. Although I should say that when I say twice what I mean is this is my second time here, so I should say more like one and a third or maybe a fifth or so, and you should take all this with a grain of salt. But next…” He leans closer, those eyes bulging over a smile tucked into the corners of his mouth. “What,” says Jo.
“Biscuit’s about to play the piano.”
A man in brown coveralls has lifted the keyboard lid of the baby grand piano and with his left hand plays a low thick chord once, then rapidly one two three, letting that last beat hang in the air a moment before snapping the lid closed and dropping the edge of the quilted dust cover back over it. They’re all standing, Ray too, and after a moment Jo, and they’re humming that chord from the piano, and the Soames standing there by Ysabel still sitting alone of all of them, the Soames throws wide her arms and opens her mouth to sing “Arise,” and they all join in, “Arise, ye workers from your slumbers, arise ye prisoners of want! For reason in revolt now thunders, and at last we end the age of cant!”
“And then they sing!” says Ray in Jo’s ear.
“So comrades, come rally,” they’re singing, “For the struggle carries on! The Internationale unites the world in song!”
“Brothers and sisters,” says the Soames, as the echoes of the last chord of the chorus die away, faintly ringing the strings in the closed-up baby grand. “I call this meeting of the Order of American Mechanicals United, Local Two Three Five, to order.”
“I’m in your practice hall, your dojo, whatever the fuck,” says Jo.
“Where are you, girl?” says Vincent.
Jo’s brow crinkles. “Second floor? Park and Oak? Northwest corner. In, uh, in Southwest, I mean downtown. Which is whatsisname’s. The Count’s. No, wait – it’s open. Unclaimed. Right?” Ysabel eyes closed smiles, her head resting back against the mirror.
“Where are you?” Vincent steps his left foot forward hips and shoulders swiveling head still locked his eyes on Jo. His prosthetic crooked up before him right arm loose at his side, hand canted, sword tilted up, back, away.
“Here?” says Jo, settling her knees, wincing. “Here. Standing here. In front of you.”
“Where’s your feet, girl?”
“Under my shoulders.”
“Where’s your shoulders?”
“Where I left them,” she growls. “Edge-on. To you.”
“Your hands?” he says, but she’s already saying “My left hand’s up and back like a queer-ass dandy pirate to balance a lunge and it itches like a motherfucker. My right hand’s up, wrist in seconde.”
“You’ve been reading,” says Vincent. “Who? What? Naldi? Talhoffer? The Abbé?” His head up, back, his sword twitching.
“I don’t know,” says Jo. “I just got some books from the – ”
“Forget it,” says Vincent, snapping his hook. “Throw ’em away.”
“I left them in Twice Tom’s truck. Probably never see them again.”
“Four lessons, girl! Then practice. I don’t want anything else cluttering your pretty little head.”
“Four,” sneers Jo. “And number one’s I tell you where I am.”
“Number one is knowing where you are, girl.” Vincent steps back, his left foot in line with his right. Lifts his blade to point at her. “Know it in your bones, without doubt, without fumbling for words to describe it. Know where you are. Without that, you’ve got nothing.”
“And I wouldn’t want to walk into a room like that,” says Jo.
Another twist in his Van Dyke. “Lesson two,” he says.
“Another question. Where am I?”
“Then her sister finished us off.”
She stands at the head of the low flight of stairs leading into the room, the folds of her blue-black cloak parted just over a long gown of watery mail marred by shadowy blooms of rust and here and there some broken unsprung links. On her head a plain round metal cap from which her hair does not escape. Shining around her neck a polished silver torc. “Be about it quickly, Sidney, that we might more quickly take our leave.”
“Can’t I take a moment instead, Linesse? To savor this strange new experience?” He looks back and forth along the ragged arc of men and women standing before him, the knife still in his hand, his hand before his face. “I’ve never bearded rabbits in their den.”
“It’s there they are most dangerous,” says Linesse, but he’s stepping further into the room. Jo draws herself up there between Sidney and Ysabel, her eyes wide, her breath shallow. He licks his lips. Nell looks up at Ysabel through her spectacles. Open Mike behind them squeezes his hands into fists but does not lift them.
“Well, Plain Sidney?” says Nell then. “What is her bidding? What would the Cailleach with the likes of us?”
“With you?” says Sidney. “Nothing, with you. You have this once a choice: stand up, fall back. As you like.”
“We stand with the Bride,” says Twice Thomas, there by Open Mike.
“Will you?” Sidney’s laugh’s a snapped-off syllable. “Even though she’s dallied with the Axe, and sullied the gift she’s meant to give the King when he returns? Put down your fists. She’s in no danger. Our mistress doesn’t care what lips she’s kissed, though it pleases me, to use her as our bait. No,” and he moves his hand then, slowly, pointing the hilt of his knife at Jo, “it’s her bulldog we’re about – who’s killed our lady’s boar, who’s made her laugh most cruelly. Who has no place at her sister’s court, and yet.”
Ysabel says, “Dagger – Sidney – ” and with a roar he steps to the right to pass Jo who rushes to block him but his next step’s left, pivoting around her the hilt of his knife swinging to catch the side of Ysabel’s head. Twice Thomas rushes to catch her as Jo yelling grabs Sidney’s cloak hauling him back “You fucking motherfucker” as he’s stumbling bellowing “Gallowglas!” and she slaps a hand on his mailed shoulder. There is a sudden hiss. Jo screams. The tarnished metal ghosted with dew about the hand she jerks away, a ripping sound, the flesh of her palm and fingers red.
Sidney turns, slowly. Twice Thomas on his knees by Ysabel on her side her hands to her face, Open Mike over them both, fists ready. Jo stumbling back falling to the ground cradling her hand. Nell glasses clinking on the tray she hasn’t put down. “It’s not about fighting you, girl,” says Sidney, but he’s looking now at Nell, at the trembling tray. “It’s about making you watch.” And then, to himself, “This farce,” he says. “You all deserve what’s coming.”
Linesse at the head of the stairs shakes her head. “Sidney!” she cries, an admonishment.
He whips his knife around and across a short chopping swing that slams the flat of his blade among those glasses, scattering them, driving the tray from Nell’s hands. A golden glittering cloud explodes around them. His other hand’s aloft, holding a bicycle bell. He thumbs it, twice, chiming sharp and clear. “You all deserve what’s coming!” He pushes his way out of the crowd, up the stairs after the swirl of Linesse’s cloak. The glittering cloud’s collapsing, settling on the tiled floor, the shards of glass, their boots and shoes, on Ysabel a-sprawl, on Thomas’s knees, his sheltering hands. Then the lights go out, and they all begin to holler at once.
“Acetone,” written by Lauren Laverne and Marie du Santiago, copyright holder unknown. “A&E,” written by Alison Goldfrapp and Dougal Wilson, copyright holder unknown. “The Internationale,” written by Eugène Pottier and Pierre De Geyter, in the public domain.
“Turn up there,” says Guthrie from the back seat.
“It’s going the wrong way,” says Becker behind the wheel. A flock of cellos scrapes and squalls from the stereo.
“It’s on Nineteenth!”
“Which is one-way the wrong way. I’m going to go up and double back. If it’s even there.”
“It’s there,” says Guthrie, as beside him in the back seat the woman in the confetti-colored cap says “It’s under the bridge. Right where it touches down.” Guthrie’s holding one of her hands in both of his. “I swear it’s on Nineteenth,” says Guthrie. “You go up too far, you’ll have to come down Twenty-third, which, I mean, fuck.”
“It’s been there for over a hundred years,” she says. “The bridge is no older than you are. They built it to close the circle but it was too late.”
“You’ll end up having to double back through all those, uh, parking lots. Where that company is.”
“You’ve been there before?” says Becker. “What’s the cross street? Which letter? R? S? U? What the hell is U, anyway? Is there a U?”
“I don’t know,” says Guthrie. “Upshur,” says the woman in the confetti-colored cap. “Hurry. Hurry!”
“What’s the deal with that?” says Becker, cranking the car through a quick right turn against a red light. “What is it I’m gonna spoil, anyway?” The cellos thundering now. Becker snaps the stereo off. “Huh?” She doesn’t say anything. “Guthrie. What’s her deal?”
“You know,” says Guthrie. He’s looking down at her hand in his. “She sees things, sometimes. I think sometimes that includes, you know. The future.”
“The future,” says Becker, stopping for a stop sign. “This is why you haven’t been coming to work?”
“You never believe me,” mutters Guthrie.
“Don’t stop!” cries the woman. “What’s wrong? Go! Go!”
“Why?” roars Becker, glaring at them through the rear-view mirror. “What’s going on? Who the fuck are you, and what are you doing to Guthrie?”
“You – don’t?” says the woman.
“He forgets,” says Guthrie. “He’s forgotten again.”
“Forgotten what?” Becker snaps around, eyes ugly, mouth screwed tight. The woman trembles under her confetti-colored cap. “What am I forgetting? What?”
“Go,” says Guthrie. “You’ll see.”
Growling Becker jerks the car into gear jolting forward into the intersection lurching to a stop as something thump-rumbles over the hood, a figure white in the streetlights.
“Shit,” says Becker. “Oh, fuck me.”
The woman in the confetti-colored cap screams.
“Shut up!” says Becker. “Shut her up.” He climbs out of the little red hatchback. There’s a bicycle on its side rear wheel canted up spinning clicking loudly, a white bicycle, handlebars twisted, flowers scattered on the pavement, over to the side someone face down, grey hoodie and grimy white jeans and black sneakers still. “Hey,” says Becker. “Hey. You okay?” He steps toward the body slowly, hands held up before him. “You’re not dead. Please don’t be dead.” Stooping over the body, reaching down for the hood. “Honestly please.”
“You’re far too late, my friend.”
Becker looks up. Walking toward him across the intersection a big man in a dark blue suit. To either side of his mouth droop mustaches, long and grey. Behind him off to the right there above the trees behind a row of houses the swooping curves of onramps, the great towering arch of the bridge hazy in the dimming blue and gold and rose, the red-roofed tower of a church.
“Pyrocles?” says Becker.
The body at his feet scuttle-rolls away hands and feet scrabbling on pavement swarming over the bicycle hauling it upright as Pyrocles leaping forward hands up over his head swinging down a greatsword cracking the pavement striking sparks where the bicycle’d been and Becker stumbling back loses his balance falls on his ass oofing out his breath. Pyrocles takes a long lunging step swinging the sword sideways skimming the hood of the car to slice through the grey hoodie collapsing into a twist of rag of nothing at all as the bicycle riderless falls again to the pavement with a clatter and a clacking thump.
Pyrocles straightens. Wipes his hands on his thighs. “Need a hand?” he says.
“I hit that guy,” says Becker, climbing slowly to his feet. “Where did he go? What just happened?” Pyrocles raps on the windshield of the car. “Didn’t you just have a sword? Hey! Are you listening to me?” Guthrie’s opened the car door, craning his head up to peer out over it.
“We must hurry,” says Pyrocles. “They won’t follow us into a church. There’s one a few blocks that way.”
“That’s where we were headed,” says Guthrie.
“We’re not going anywhere,” says Becker. “We’ve got to call the cops or something.”
“The police can’t help us,” says Pyrocles. Guthrie’s helping the woman in the confetti-colored cap out of the back seat.
“I can’t just leave my car,” says Becker.
“That car,” says Pyrocles, “will kill the next person to drive it. Quickly! They never travel alone.” He strides away down the darkening street, followed quickly by Guthrie hand-in-hand with the woman in the confetti-colored cap.
“Would someone,” says Becker, staring after them, “please tell me what just happened?”
They’re sitting again, the twenty or twenty-four of them, Ysabel feet tucked up asprawl across two folding chairs by the Soames, Twice Thomas behind them, his cap resting on his knee. Across the circle Jo sits by Ray, who’s leaning over to murmur something in her ear. Open Mike stands in the center of the circle, arms wide, saying “With all due respect – ”
“Seven days and a day, Brother Mike,” says an old man with a big white beard, an American eagle embroidered on the back of his worn denim jacket.
“With all due respect, Brother Templemass,” says Open Mike. “I’m well aware of our terms.” He looks about the circle, his thin brows drawn together in a single line. “You’ve all heard Sister Jenny’s report. Our reserves were depleted by the clean-up and repair of the mall. His payment for that bill was almost enough to cover the subsequent repairs to the freeway in Sullivan’s Gulch. Until he covers that, brothers and sisters, we’re tapped. I only ask that you look to the future.”
“I don’t like the future after we’ve needlessly antagonized the Duke,” says a sharp-chinned woman in grey coveralls that say Jenny Rye over the left breast.
“How can even he pay such steep freight twice in a month?” says a small-featured man with fox-red tufted hair and a goatish beard.
“Seven days and a day,” says the Soames. “We press the issue Sunday morning, not before. Unless – ” she inclines her head, bright light sliding up the lenses of her spectacles. “Is Brother Michael’s proposal seconded? That the Local seek restitution immediately from the Duke, for the repair of the freeway in Sullivan’s Gulch?”
“Let me get this straight,” murmurs Jo, leaning over Ray’s shoulder. “They fixed the fucking freeway?”
“I guess so,” he says.
“I don’t know.”
“Because I was there. It was totaled.”
“But it’s fine now, right?”
“With that,” the Soames is saying, as Open Mike takes his seat, “unfinished business is concluded. I should like to introduce our guest this evening, who has done us an incalculable honor by attending on such short notice.” Jo snorts. “Our Princess, the intended Bride of the King Come Back.” A rustle sweeps the room as caps are removed, heads bowed, hands placed palm down on knees. The Soames still standing says, “I’ve asked her to tell us of a matter that bears directly on Brother Michael’s concerns. In a word, lady,” turning then to speak directly to Ysabel sitting upright now, legs crossed under that voluminous denim skirt, “the Apportionment. It has been rather lean of late.”
And then the Soames sits.
Ray, catching Jo’s eye, hikes a brow, shrugs his mouth.
Ysabel uncrosses her legs, sits forward as if to stand, stops. Then with a deep breath pushes herself to her feet. “Thank you, Nell,” she says. “This is all something of a surprise to me. I’m afraid,” and then she shakes her head a little, to herself. “I can tell you,” she says, “that when the King comes back, and I am sat as his Queen, you will find in me a true and constant friend.”
For a moment nothing is said.
“Thank you, lady,” says the Soames, “but might you speak to your mother, and tell her of what you’ve heard here tonight?”
Ysabel starts to say something, but does not. Her hands folded one wrapped in the other. “No,” she says. “My mother knows your plight, as she knows everything that happens in her city. If your portions are lean, it is because times are lean. You’ve seen it yourselves – a Duke’s as pinched as a charman – ”
There’s grumbles at that, groans. “Oh I doubt it,” someone mutters. Rustling, shifting. “I,” Ysabel’s saying, “I don’t, you must understand.” The Soames gets to her feet. Ray’s hand is on Jo’s arm. “Brothers and sisters,” says the Soames, pleading.
“Settle down!” booms Open Mike.
“I am not yet Queen,” says Ysabel as the room quiets. “I am not my mother.” She lifts her hands to her face, fingers fencing her mouth, and her eyes closed she lets out the breath she’s been holding and lets her hands drift back down before her, once more folded together. “I can’t do anything about the Apportionment, not now, not yet. But I can do this.” One hand unclasped slips into the pocket of her skirt to pull out a small plastic baggie, swollen with gold dust.
“What is she,” says Jo.
“This,” says Ysabel, “is the last of my reserves. Times are what they are. But I know the, the importance of the work you do.”
“Oh,” says Ray.
“And so, because I am, and will be, your friend.”
“Ysabel,” says Jo, but quietly.
“I offer it freely to you.”
“Oh, wow,” says Ray, and chairs scrape, shoes squeak, the room climbs to its feet, surges toward Ysabel, arms reach out, some push away, some are pushed, and Jo’s shoving her way through the middle between Biscuit and a kid in a grey T-shirt. “Hey!” calls Ray, lost in the hubbub of thanks and pleas and cries of “Lady! O, lady!” Ysabel’s stepping back from them, eyes wide, and stepping back again, hemmed in by the piano, the baggie in both hands up over her head. The Soames beside her, arms wide, “Brothers and sisters!” she cries, but they’re reaching over her head. “Hey!” cries Jo, in the thick of it, “Gallowglas here! I’m the fucking Gallowglas coming through!”
“Animals!” bellows Twice Thomas, and suddenly it’s still again.
“Little better than rude beasts!” he says.
“Tommy Tom,” says someone, and “Hey, I” says someone, and “Shut up” says someone else. Twice Thomas working his way along the front of the crowd says “That’s what they say about us. That’s why, they say, they must portion it out. To each his own, they say, but on their terms, and in their own sweet time, and if they take the lion’s share for their troubles, who are we to complain?” He’s standing by Open Mike now, before Ysabel and the Soames. “So a Duke will never feel the pinch the way we do. That’s no excuse to prove them right.”
“Your gift,” says the Soames, catching her breath, “is very generous, lady.”
“I hadn’t,” says Ysabel, leaning close to her, “I didn’t plan on this, I don’t have scales or little bags or – ”
“There’s glasses and measuring spoons in the kitchen,” says the Soames. “Brother Michael, if you’d be so kind?”
Jo doesn’t say anything in response. She straightens her right arm wrist rolling clockwise the épée in her hand a line pointing shoulder to tip at Vincent’s chest. He nods and without unlocking his eyes from hers he steps his left foot out to the side his weight shifting right foot following and again. The tip of her blade smoothly follows. His left foot crosses behind his right swiftly doubling the step and twice more quickly now, his prosthetic still cocked between them, his sword still down and away. Her blade-tip swinging to follow she’s stepping her left foot back to the right her shoulders swinging to stay edge-on. “What else,” says Vincent.
“What else is here?” He lowers his left arm, relaxing his right arm, shoulders lifting and settling, his feet planted. “It’s not just me, girl. There’s the light.” His left arm gesturing, harsh light glinting from the hook. “The shadows off to the side. The mirror. Those swords by the door behind you, ready to trip you on your ass. There’s a lot in this room besides me.”
“Okay,” says Jo, her arm bent again, her épée back in its guarded angle, “okay. Number two is where’s everything that isn’t me. Got it.”
“You’re sure,” says Vincent.
“Yeah,” says Jo. “On to number three.”
“So you’re in a hurry,” says Vincent. “Okay.”
“Wait – ” says Jo, but he’s taking three quick loping steps to plant himself before Ysabel hitching her feet back out of his way, hiking herself up, back against the mirror. His left arm’s up between them hook snapping once turning his head toward Jo his blade coming up knees settling there between Jo and Ysabel, and his smile is now quite clear and sharp. “Well?” he says. “Now what?”
On the floor on her side in the dark her left hand held close in her right, Jo’s worming around tucking as a boot crashes down next to her head as someone else trips crashing over her legs.
On the floor on her knees her face in her hands Ysabel’s crying out to the floor unseen, Twice Thomas huddled over her his cap long gone, gold glittering the backs of his hands. The darkness sparked by flickering spindrift swirling in the wake of scooping hands pinching fingers tumbling legs to limn shirt-creases and pant-cuffs, chair-backs and upended chair-legs, fingertips, lips, the edge of a face. “Jo!” she cries again, and “Jo!” as all about them ring sobs that billow atomies of gold, moans and cries of “No, oh no!” and “Lady, please!” and “The owr! Save the owr!” In the midst of it all stands the Soames stock still, her hands empty before her, at her feet the bent tray, the litter of broken gold-shot glass.
A click, a buzzing hum, lights flash to life in the ceiling here and there, the basement once more pinned beneath that harsh white light that silences them all. They’ve stopped where they are, then slowly they turn, slowly look about. Biscuit rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands, his fingertips gleaming. Sproat curled into a ball in a litter of fallen chairs, Rye Jenny crouched beside him, her fingers in his glittering hair. Jo’s hunched over an upright chair by Ysabel, on her feet, looking up to the head of the low flight of stairs leading into the room.
“Anvil,” she says. “Welcome.” Her voice flat and calm, her face expressionless. Her eye swollen red and purpling, a red weal down her cheek.
“Lady,” says Pyrocles. “You’re hurt.” Behind him Becker, panting, behind him Guthrie and the woman in the confetti-colored cap.
“Sidney,” she says. “The former Dagger.”
“He’s shown his face,” says Pyrocles, coming down the stairs, reaching into an inner pocket of his suit jacket.
“He’s turned his coat,” says Ysabel. “Gone over to my mother’s sister, and the Helm with him.”
“They’re the ones who’ve called the ghost bikes,” says Pyrocles. “The church is surrounded.” He’s pulled out a small plastic baggie, a thimbleful of gold dust. “We only just made it.” He stoops to peer at her face, working the baggie open with his fingers, but she shakes her head. “Jo’s hand,” she says. “She touched him.”
Jo’s holding her left hand tightly in her right, the skin of it tightly swollen, red, blotched here and there with black blisters. “My motherfucking Christ but he was cold,” she gasps.
“Please,” says Ysabel to Pyrocles, cupping her hands together. He tips the dust into her hands. “I do not know that it will suffice,” he says.
She folds her hands together and lifts them to her lips, whispering something eyes closed into the steepled hollow of her fingers. She sinks to her knees by Jo. “Hold still,” she says. She opens hands over Jo’s palm, and Jo hisses. She takes Jo’s hand between hers, rubbing the dust into the flesh. Jo’s shoulders jerk. She bends over Jo’s hand and presses the palm to her lips as her heavy black hair slides from her shoulders to curtain the kiss. Jo lifts her head face clenched gasping then slowly, slowly relaxing, her breath slowing, deepening.
Ysabel straightens, brushing dust from her lips. “It wasn’t enough,” she says. “It’ll sting, for a few days yet.”
“And you’ve got one hell of a shiner,” says Jo.
“I’ll be all right,” says Ysabel, and then, with an uncertain little laugh, “I can’t have a one-handed knight.”
“We are so sorry, lady,” says the Soames. “We should never have put you in such danger.” They stand together now, before the folding table laden with the coffee urn, beneath the banner with the dove, the leaves, the rainbow. Hands at their sides, folded together, clasped behind their backs. Caps on heads. “We must get you out as quickly as possible.”
“Don’t be foolish,” says Pyrocles. “What do you mean to do? Batter your way through the cordon of ghosts? Touch one with anything but a weapon and not even your dust would be left.”
“How many are there?” says Open Mike.
“Dozens!” says Guthrie, as Becker says “Ten or so.”
“Eleven,” says Pyrocles.
“So call for help!” says Open Mike. “A handful of knights could scatter them in minutes!”
“That’s what they want,” says the Soames. “Certainly, they could be scattered. But one or more knights would die.”
“That’s what they’re for,” mutters Open Mike, as Jo’s saying, “And it’d be my fault. Again. This touching thing,” she says to Pyrocles, wincing as she opens and closes her hand. “Is that for everybody? Or is there a Gallowglas exemption?”
“You might feel a chill,” says Pyrocles.
“All right. And there’s three of us here, now – ”
“Four,” calls Ray, sitting in a chair over by the piano.
“It would not suffice, Gallowglas,” says Pyrocles. “Even if you locked arms to shield her with your bodies, they’d ride into you, knock you down, touch her. I could perhaps surprise them, attacking from inside their cordon – if I cut enough of them down – ”
“There’s another way,” says Ray. “Bust them up without knights. Without putting any of you in danger. This church,” he says, looking up at the low ceiling, “is practically smack dab under the biggest bridge in town.”
“Oh!” says the woman in the confetti-colored cap.
“She’s got a clue,” says Ray. “What is it, folks, that lives under bridges? In fairy tales?”
Jo kicks open the doors and runs through them onto the porch down the stairs Ray after her. Becker catches the door, watches through it as they run down the street between the boles of the great concrete pillars holding the onramps above them.
From away behind the church another crash of metal. “Back door,” says Becker, and he lets the front door close.
In the basement they’re mostly sitting again. Open Mike’s pacing by the piano. Ysabel’s turned sideways in her chair, her blackened eye faced away off toward the rack piled high with folding chairs. Beside her the Soames her shoulders to Ysabel’s back, her spectacles in one hand, squeezes the bridge of her nose. “I should be out there!” cries Open Mike, pounding the quilted piano with a balled-up fist.
Twice Thomas stands and walks across the ragged arc of chairs and men and women, his cap on his head, hands cupped carefully before him. He drops heavily to one knee before Ysabel. “Lady,” he says. “I would never spurn so rich a gift, but I must do something to – ”
“It’s spoiled,” she snaps. “Gone dead. Wrung out. No better than the lint in your pocket, rabbit.”
He stands then, turns, and walks away, clapping the dust from his hands.
“He was wrong,” says the woman in the confetti-colored cap. She’s squatting on a chair back by the coffee urn, legs folded under her orange skirt, nibbling on a donut.
“Who was what now?” says Guthrie, worrying at a thumbnail with his teeth.
“When he said there were four. There’s only three from the track.”
Becker’s coming down the low flight of stairs. “They’re off,” he says. “Why isn’t he back inside yet?”
“He’s enjoying himself!” cries Open Mike, banging the piano again.
“Okay,” says Becker, “where’s the back door?”
Hands shoot up to point out the door behind the rack piled high with folding chairs. “Back there” says Templemass and “There’s some stairs back there” says a woman in white coveralls and “Up those stairs” says Rye Jenny. “I’ll show you!” says Open Mike.
“Brother Michael,” says the Soames. “I thought we were to leave this to the knights.”
“I must do something!” cries Open Mike, pounding his fist against his open palm.
“It’s what they’re for,” says the Soames.
“I’ll go with you,” says Ysabel standing, walking over to Becker. “It’s okay,” she turns to say to the Soames, her smile hampered by the welt on her cheek. “He’s my boss. And I promise I’ll stay inside the church.”
They’re all staring at Becker. “Um,” he says. “I manage a phone bank. She works there with Jo.”
“I’ve even been given a paycheck,” says Ysabel, and she takes Becker’s arm and walks with him toward the door behind the rack piled high with folding chairs, her denim skirts brushing the dusty floor.
In the stairwell Becker says, “So you’re a Princess.”
“Yes,” says Ysabel.
“And Jo’s your, uh, whatsit.”
“Because I keep forgetting, see.”
“Not to Jo.”
“Perhaps I don’t let her forget,” says Ysabel.
“Don’t tell me you’re paying attention to Guthrie, too.”
“Some of you find it easier this way.”
Becker at the top of the stairs his hand on the doorknob turns to face her. “Am I gonna remember this at all? Or tomorrow am I gonna wake up, all this, it won’t even be a dream, like I shouldn’t’ve eaten those armadillo eggs I never had.”
“Open the door,” says Ysabel, and he does.
The alley outside runs along the back of the church, paved with gravel, lined with a straight trimmed wall of greenery. Beyond that another ringing crash of metal, grunts and labored breath, pounding feet, and thump and tumble. “Can’t see a thing,” says Becker.
“He’s to come back when he can,” says Ysabel. “He knows he’s just buying time.”
“But maybe he,” says Becker. “I’ll just go and. Signal him. You know? Let him know. I’ll stay out of sight except, I’ll wave or something,” and he steps out onto the gravel, heads down along the wall of greenery, bent low, looking for a gap.
“No,” says Ysabel. “Don’t. Stop.”
Becker bent double pushes between the shrubs. Beyond a parking lot lit up a pale and buzzing white, streetlights here at the corner of the church and there across the empty lot. A half-dozen white bicycles gears clacking circle as Pyrocles his suit jacket in tatters crouches low his greatsword in both hands angled before him swinging back the tip around whipping to catch Sidney a dark shape leaping knife before him gleaming he crumples around the sword-blow driven into the pavement rolling hands flopping knife clattering away.
“Sidney,” calls Pyrocles, his voice worn to a rasp. “Don’t tell me you want to rest.” Lurching over he plants his greatsword point-first chinking the pavement next to the dark huddle of Sidney’s cloak. “Sidney?” Leaning on the hilt like a crutch he pokes. The cloak collapses.
Pyrocles looks up sharply to see Becker’s face in the bushes. “Go!” he roars. “Back inside!” Tilting over alarmingly into a churning run. The keening that’s been rising resolves into another dark-cloaked figure white light gleaming from a silvery helmet one arm up and back a short broad sword mouth open in a wordless howl of rage. Becker pops back through the bushes falling backwards half-catching himself rolling over to scrabble toward the door as Pyrocles crashes through the bushes big feet crunching gravel slamming fists-first into the wall of the church pushing off spinning to scoop hands on Becker’s jeans the back of his plaid shirt hauling up and through the back door ajar as that short broad blade hacks through the greenery striking sparks from the ruddy grey stone. Becker in the stairwell tripping down three steps four and catching the handrail as Pyrocles crashes to the floor shoulders against the wall kicking the door shut bracing with his feet as a blow shivers it from the other side.
“Go on!” yells Pyrocles. “Take his dagger back to the Badb Catha. Tell her how you failed!” The door shudders. “You’ll not cross this threshold again! Go!”
“Hey,” says Becker, when the door is still. “You okay?”
Pyrocles on his back looks down at the tatters of his dark blue jacket his ripped white shirt the gashes hacked across his chest and upper arms oozing something thick and milky yellow. He begins to laugh. “I’ll heal, Becker,” he says around rough chuckles. “Glad he didn’t land one of those while you were standing there.”
“I,” says Becker, kneeling on the steps, bracing his hands on the landing by Pyrocles, “I’m going to wake up in the morning and I won’t remember anything that happened. Which I think,” and he leans forward, “is the only reason I can do this,” and he kisses Pyrocles on the mouth.
Pyrocles brushes Becker’s cheek with battered knuckles. “I hope you remember something,” he says, and he pulls Becker to him and they kiss again.
“Well?” says Jo, standing in the middle of a dark and silent street far above her the deck of the freeway raised up on concrete pillars made slender by their height, the rush of engines, rolling tires, lights seen passing back and forth that do not illuminate what’s so far below. Behind her tall grass rustles down to the river black and empty beyond. “We’re out of fucking bridge, Ray!” Ray in the middle of the cross street hunched over hands on his knees struggling for breath. “Where’s the fucking troll?”
“I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“What’s it look like, huh? How big is it? Maybe it ducked out for a drink or something?”
Ray’s shaking his head, fishing his green bottle from the pocket of his leather jacket. “I don’t know,” he says, and he takes a swig.
“Have you ever even seen the goddamn thing?”
“It’s a bridge!” snaps Ray. “There’s supposed to be a troll!”
“I can’t believe I listened to you,” says Jo. “We’ve got to get back. Jesus fucking Christ.”
“Wait,” says Ray. “Wait a minute.”
“That?” Ray’s pointing his bottle up at the cross bar high above bracing two pillars. Perched there a dark shape, a bird, much too large to be a bird, smooth rounded shoulders with not a suggestion of feathers but great angled chevrons carved in the broad breast.
“A statue?” says Jo.
The statue turns its head silhouetting an eagle’s downturned profile. A blink and something that might be an eye glaring at them. Its wings open with a grate of stone on stone and flap once and settle slowly with a grinding rumble.
“That’s not a troll, Ray,” says Jo, subdued.
“No, but it sure as hell is something.”
“You wanna climb up there? See if it wants to help us out?”
Ray grins and shrugs and his eyes slide past her over his shoulder. “Shit,” he says, as the clacking sound gets louder and closer, the white bicycle slipping from streetlight to streetlight grey and black and white bicyclist hunched over handlebars lurching from side to side pumping the pedals for speed.
“Oh, hell,” says Jo.
Ray pulls one more time from his green bottle then tosses it clinking to the pavement. He flings out his arms, cracks his knuckles, takes in a great draft of air through his nose, and starts to run.
The bicyclist swerves at the last instant but Ray jinks and broadsides him and the bicycle upends pinwheeling over their sprawling bodies, the bicyclist’s helmeted head bouncing off the pavement, Ray’s feet kicking up in the air, the bicycle crashing to the ground. Jo heads toward them as Ray rolls over on his hands and knees letting out ragged whoops of what turns into laughter. “It worked!” he cries.
Jo crouches over the bicyclist hands hovering over his grey sweater. “Hey,” she says. “Hey.”
“I never tackled a bicycle before,” says Ray.
Jo touches the sweater jerking her fingers back then slowly touches it again. “He’s not too cold,” she says. The bicyclist’s head shifts a little, his eyes flicker open, milky in the pale streetlight.
“Who are you?” says Jo. “What are you doing out here?”
“John,” says the bicyclist. “John Milus. I’m not where I’m supposed to be.”
“Where’s that, John Milus?” says Jo.
“Jo?” says Ray.
“Ankeny and Sandy. Southeast. Coming downhill, making that turn – there’s flowers. There’s usually flowers. My sister, you know?” Those milky eyes squeeze shut, and when they reopen they’re a little more clear in the uncertain light. Maybe blue. “Will you take it back?”
“The bike?” says Jo “Sure. Now – ”
But there’s no one there.
“Jo!” says Ray. Jo stands. “Where’d he go?” says Ray. Jo grabs the white bicycle, sets it upright. Wheels it back and forth. “Jo?” She kicks one leg over the white-taped saddle and finds the white pedals with her feet. She wheels it clack-clacking around in a tight circle, reflectors smudged with white paint, white vinyl seat, grubby white tape on the handlebars. “Jo!” yells Ray. “What the fuck!”
“I’m gonna go break the siege,” calls Jo over her shoulder, lurching from side to side as she starts to pump the pedals for speed.
“What will you do, girl?” says Vincent. “That’s the third lesson. You’re there. You forgot your Princess was in play, and here I am, between you. What will you do about it? Make your decision.”
“Okay,” says Jo, “I’ll – ”
“Don’t tell me!”
“Okay,” says Jo, “I won’t.”
“The fourth lesson, girl,” says Vincent. “Decide. Then do it. Monday through Friday, here on out, that’s supposed to give you the reflexes so you can put the point of that sword wherever you need it to be without thinking. It’s what every fencer learns, more or less. You want to fight, you gotta be stepping through these four lessons all the time, over and over, a cycle. Like a heartbeat. Where are you? What’s around you? What are you going to do? Then do it, and back again: now where are you? Now what’s around you? Now what are you gonna do? Huh?”
“Okay,” says Jo. She hasn’t moved. Her knees still bent, her left hand up and back, her right arm extended but not stiffly straight, her sword canted up a little to the side.
“So do it already,” says Vincent.
Jo drops her arm, lowers the sword. Bends down to lay it on the floor. Straightens, hands held out to either side. Looking not at him but Ysabel behind him, who’s shaking her head, smiling, looking away.
“Why’d you do that?” says Vincent. “Show your work.”
“I saw the way you looked at her,” says Jo. “You can’t even bring yourself to pretend to threaten her. Just stand in front of her like that and glare at me.”
“So that’s her safety. What about yours?”
“If she asked you to jump off the roof, you would,” says Jo. “What’d you think I was gonna do? Attack you?”
“I thought maybe you’d try to surprise me during my little speech. That’s why I went on so long.” He steps his right foot forward, shifting his body, his right arm now with the sword up and out before him, his prosthetic tucked in up by his chest. “You really think you can depend on a word from her?”
“Put up your sword, Mr. Erne,” says Ysabel. “We’ve all made our various points.”
He laughs. Lowers his sword. Slashes it back and forth, the tip brushing the floor. “All right,” he says. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Eleven o’clock.”
“Tomorrow!” says Jo.
“It’s Friday, isn’t it?” He walks across the room to the serried row of practice swords on the floor. “Monday through Friday. No exceptions.” He lays his sword back in its place. “And bring the money.”
Linesse kneels in the middle of the empty parking lot where neither of the streetlights really reaches, shapeless under her blue-black cloak. In one hand she holds a silver torc as highly polished as the one about her neck. “I’ve done what I can,” she says, to herself, to the torc in her hand. “No one’s arrived to rescue her. The ghosts remain on station, but I lost the bell when Sidney was destroyed. And there’s more than one Gallowglas here.” The parade of white bicycles wheels past on its way around the church. One of the bicycles breaks free, a girl’s bike, a white wicker basket with plastic flowers clamped to the front, the rider in a grey skirt and a white rain slicker, arcing toward Linesse, looping a wide circle about her, then stopping, as one by one the other bicycles stop. Riders hop off their seats to stand waiting their bicycles balanced between their legs, lean their bicycles to one side, one foot on pedal, one on pavement.
Something’s still clacking, getting louder, growing closer.
Linesse slowly climbs to her feet and turns to look off away toward the street where all the riders are looking. Where Jo’s braking her white bicycle to a stop at the entrance to the parking lot, kicking one foot over the saddle, walking the bicycle toward them. Almost as one the riders dismount sweeping and kicking and climbing one leg over their saddles.
“Get back on,” says Linesse. She walks over to the mass of ghosts the torc still in her hands. “Get back on! Keep moving! Keep watch! They’ll be here any minute!”
Jo’s stopped before the ghost in the white rain slicker. “Hello,” she says, and “Hello,” says the ghost.
“What’s your name?” says Jo.
“Cindy Wojtowicz,” says the ghost.
“Where do you need to go?”
“Lovejoy and Ninth. They’ll take it away, but somebody always puts some kind of bicycle back.”
“Okay,” says Jo, and the white girl’s bike with the white wicker basket falls over to the ground. She plants her bicycle on its kickstand, then picks up the fallen bike and plants it, too.
“Stop!” cries Linesse.
“You,” says Jo, pointing to a ghost in a white turtleneck and white carpenter’s pants, standing by a slender white fixie.
“Stop!” cries Linesse.
“Or what?” snaps Jo. “What’s your name?” she asks the ghost. Linesse cloak flapping mail chiming head down slams into Jo knocking her to the pavement rolling struggling to end up atop Jo kneeling on her belly one hand pinning Jo’s shoulder. Her other hand shaking her sword free of her cloak, short and broad, a battered round guard rattling loosely. “Brian Northrop,” says the ghost, waiting there by his bicycle.
Jo kicks her legs tries to jerk an arm free. “Stop this!” she yells. “Just go! Leave!” Linesse tosses her sword to one side, goes back into her cloak and pulls out a long knife with a single-edged blade. “You lost!” yells Jo and then she tries to tuck her chin as Linesse lays the blade alongside Jo’s throat. “Damn the Mor Muman,” she mutters, and tightens her grip on the hilt of the knife.
“Stop!” cries Jo.
“I’d do as she says.”
Linesse is quite still, looking down at the sword-blade on her shoulder. She lifts the knife from Jo’s throat and holds it up and out to her side, loosely now between thumb and forefinger. The sword taps her shoulder and lifts away, and she stands and turns to see the Duke behind her, in a deep red cardigan and a white shirt open at the throat, his longsword in one hand to his side. “I owed you,” he says. “Or I’d’ve just lopped off your head and been done with you. But we’re square, now, you and me. I know you don’t have any say in the matter anymore, but have a care we don’t cross paths again.”
And Linesse turns and walks away quite abruptly. Jo’s sitting up, coughing. The Duke extends a hand to help her to her feet. “Well?” he says. “No love for my last-minute rescue? You were expecting maybe the Chariot? I sent him down to the basement already, or he’d’ve been picking fights with the ghosts.”
“Wise,” says Jo, and then she turns to the ghost by the fixie. “Where do you need to go, Brian?” she says.
“Forty-seventh, just south of Stark,” he says. “There’s a tree, in the front strip between the sidewalk and the street? Just chain it up there.”
“The ghosts,” says the Duke, as she catches the falling fixie. “I’m impressed. Ones up front ain’t moving either. I got the Mason watching just in case, but you look like you’ve got it well in hand?”
“Yeah, well,” says Jo, looking for a kickstand. “I’m wondering if maybe I can borrow your pickup truck?”
Dirty laundry piled on the futon, pillows tumbled to the floor. The doors to the bulky blond wood armoire stand ajar, more clothing piled on the floor there, leaking from drawers. On the glass-topped café table a straight green glass vase full of wilting spider mums has been pushed to one side to make room for an open pizza box empty except for a couple of nibbled crusts and a litter of petals. The sink in the little hallway kitchen is lost under a pile of dirty plates, glasses, bowls, a saucepan. A key rattles in the lock. Jo limps in shrugging a shoulder out of her jacket, flicking on the light in the little hallway kitchen. She shimmies her other arm free and lets the jacket drop to the floor. Heads across the main room stumbling over the black spear-haft stretching away under the table, kicking pillows out of the way to stand by the futon, her left hand gingerly opening and closing.
Ysabel’s in the little hallway kitchen looking down at Jo’s army-surplus jacket on the floor by the overflowing garbage can. She starts to say, “Could you at least,” but Jo snaps “Not now, okay? Not fucking now.” She’s unbuckling her belt. “And I don’t want to hear how it wouldn’t be a problem if I hadn’t opened my eyes when I shouldn’t have.” She kicks enough clothing away to free a space on the futon by the wall.
“It was more your big mouth,” says Ysabel. Jo’s yanking off her jeans, wincing, shaking out her left hand. “I told you it would sting a bit,” says Ysabel.
“Whatever,” says Jo, squirming under the blankets. Ysabel sits in one of the spindly wrought-iron chairs by the glass-topped table. “We’re going to see whatsisname, Erne, tomorrow,” says Jo.
“All right,” says Ysabel. “Does that mean you’re going to start carrying the sword?”
“Marfisa’s the Axe, right?” says Jo. “Her brother, he’s the Axehandle. Not the Axe.”
Ysabel looks over at Jo, half-hidden by the laundry, on her side, facing the wall. “You mean what the Dagger was saying. What Sidney was saying.” She pulls a gold cigarette case from her skirt pocket. “Does that change anything?”
“I don’t know,” says Jo. “Does it?”
“Of course not,” says Ysabel. She lights a cigarette and smokes it until it’s almost down to her fingertips, and then she stubs it out in the pizza box. When Jo starts to snore, she reaches into her skirt pocket again and pulls out a small glass jar and holds it up to the kitchen light. Inside a viscous, milky fluid, frothed with tiny bubbles at the top, touched with just a hint of warm yellow gold.
He’s a big man straining the shoulders of a faded plaid flannel shirt, sitting back in one of the leather armchairs beneath the large copper letters that say Barshefsky Associates: Quality Assured. Long grey mustaches droop to either side of his mouth. In one hand he holds a small notebook bound in blue leather. When the side door swings open with a sudden wash of questioning voices and clacking keys he climbs to his feet. Becker steps out into the lobby, a loose brown T-shirt over grey long-sleeved thermals, thin brown hair licked up here and there at the top of his head.
“Becker?” says Pyrocles.
“I’m, sorry,” says Becker. “You’re very – Do I know you?”
Pyrocles tucks the blue notebook into his shirt pocket. “Jo’s told me a lot about you,” he says.
“She has?” says Becker.
“Is she here today? I need to meet with her briefly on a personal matter.”
“I can,” Becker starts to say.
“You see,” says Pyrocles, “I never did get to examine her hands.”
“I.” Becker looks back over his shoulder at the side door. “I’ll just,” he says. “I’ll go see if she’s, uh, if she’s ready for her break.”
“And I’ll just wait out here,” says Pyrocles.