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Marfisa falls – Just two Blocks away –

Marfisa falls sprawling greaves striking sparks from the bricks sword bouncing from her hand clattering away as she clambers after it sandal-soles slapping for purchase when the kick catches her in the gut lifting rolling her arms tucking about her head tumbling after the blade that skitters down the slight slope toward the glass doors away across the plaza. Cries from the crowds on the great sweep of steps, the low walls to either side of the brick-paved plaza, the balconies hung with banners slack in the still night air, the hawk and the hound and shining above them both in the harsh white light the bee. On her side Marfisa her head cradled one curled arm eyes swollen shut yellowing lip split the ravages of a blow. Leaves of her armored skirt askewed a dent bashed into the edge of her breastplate crimping broken links of torn mail beneath dug into ripped silk and an ugly, milky wound. Groaning rolling her free arm over she plants her hand by her face. Names are cut into the bricks beneath her fingers, James Elkins and Michael Lynn Tinnin and Marie Equi. The crowd gone quiet again. The footsteps nearing echo starkly, sharp metallic clacks. Muscles clench under a darkening bruise she pushes herself up hissing armor chiming to her hands and knees and stooping into loping strides arms back and wide for balance footsteps ringing faster now behind her and louder, closer, there the sword her hand on the hilt lifting turning swinging to catch the blade sliced at her knocked to one side ducking her shoulders beneath the slice her arm slipping up under the massive gauntlet driving her sword inside to stop suddenly screeching blade-tip caught against the greened bronze disk strapped to his bare chest.

He staggers back one step, two, his battered boots heavy on the bricks. The painted skull-mask swallowing half his head its upturned mane of black hair rippling slowly in some unfelt tremor of wind. Beneath the crudely chiseled mask-teeth overhanging his lips twist in an ugly smile. She’s half-bent over still her sword yanked back before her at an angle shoulders heaving with the effort of dragging in gulps of air one slow tentative step at a time backing away chime and smack of skirt and sandals in the breathless air of the plaza ringed by hundreds of people limned by sharp white streetlights, hundreds of mouths half-open waiting to howl or cheer or gasp or cry again. His free hand wrapped in a knotted leather thong pressed to that greened disk his sword twirls once in his gauntleted hand that mask lifting black mane floating weirdly in the light and the empty shadowed holes where eyes should be looking away from her crouched before him looking up and over the balcony above the glass doors where the banners hang limply hound and hawk and bee and beneath them the Queen in her black dress standing, behind her on the balcony Jo in a simple dress long and grey with yellow piping, her hand white-knuckled in Ysabel’s white-knuckled hand.

“End this,” says the Queen.

“You’re changing the subject,” says Jo, pushing through the crowd after Ysabel who’s through the door and darting to the right, singing “Ever survive, ever so I, honest of mind most of the time!” Twirling arms flung wide in her bulky pea coat. “Ysabel!” calls Jo. “The line’s gonna be fucking ridiculous.”

“So?” says Ysabel. “I want a donut.”

“I asked you a question.”

Ysabel’s smiling eyes shining, black curls swept back beneath a grey watch cap. “Could it possibly be more important than a chocolate donut with chocolate frosting and those horrible little chocolate cereal puffs all over it?”

“I said wouldn’t it be better if she won.”

Ysabel’s smile sloughs away. Jo there before her the crowd pressing about them, Jo shoulders hunched hands stuffed in the pockets of her careworn jacket grey-green in the lurid neon light, cuffs of her baggy houndstooth pants rolled over her mismatched Chuck Taylors. Jo saying, “You could go home, or at least a fuck of a lot closer.”

“You’d be dead, Jo,” says Ysabel.

“Which is a downside,” says Jo, looking to one side.

“And I’m fine, here, with you. You know?” That smile slinks back. “I’ve seen more shows the past couple of months than I ever saw in a year with Roland.”

“Ten dollar covers,” says Jo, “and shitty well drinks. For this I’m supposed to beat your girlfriend in a sword fight.”

“Ex-girlfriend,” says Ysabel.

“I hit her with a sword – if I manage to hit her with a sword – that’s it, right? A duel counts? She’d be gone, like Tommy Rawhead.” Ysabel nods. “I don’t want to do that again,” says Jo.

“If you don’t – Jo, that’s why she’ll kill you. And not just beat you. To be sure.”

Jo’s shaking her head. “I could just not. Say no when she gets in my face. Drop the sword. Walk away.”

“But,” says Ysabel, “your honor – ”

Jo barks up a bitter laugh. “Fuck that. Seriously. I’ll be able to walk, is the thing. And anyway I don’t give a shit about my honor, remember?”

“I said,” says Ysabel reaching up as if to touch Jo’s face, “you held it lightly enough.” She stops, lowers her hand. “I was wrong. Wasn’t I.”

“Let’s, you’ve got to be freezing.” Jo’s looking at Ysabel now, her legs below her short pea coat in black stockings whorled with fronds of clocking. “You forgot to wear pants again.”

Ysabel claps her grey-gloved hands. “I know what to do!” She grabs Jo’s hand dragging her back through the thinning crowd spikey heels clicking on the sidewalk. “Whoa,” Jo’s saying, and “what the hell” around the corner past the club Ysabel saying “It’s literally I mean just two blocks away, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before” at a half-run across the street and through a narrow empty parking lot, under a colonnade and over the light-rail tracks to stomp to a stop in a little cobbled plaza. Another colonnade freestanding across from them says Ankeny Square in mottled gold letters rimmed with old water stains. Behind them a grand old building, laser-printed signs saying No Sitting or Sleeping in Front of the Windows taped over and over to the glass along the first floor. In the center of that plaza a dead fountain, a low octagonal pool. Two caryatids in the center of the empty pool stand back-to-back a great basin held over their heads. “Do you have a penny?” says Ysabel.

“A penny.” Jo flips open her jacket to dig in her pants pockets.

“Any coin will do. But a penny’s best.”

“You gonna chuck it in and make a wish?” Jo drops a penny into Ysabel’s outstretched hand.

“Something like that,” says Ysabel, holding it up between them. “Okay,” she says. A metallic clang somewhere behind her, then a rising gurgle. “Tell me. What is it,” and she takes a deep breath, “what do you like best about, our situation.” The spout in the basin is trembling.

“Our situation.”

“If – if you were to walk. What would you miss the most?” Water’s bubbling up and out of the spout, splashing into the basin. More clanking, and the bubbling redoubles.

“The promise,” says Jo. “I made a promise, and I’m keeping it. And I don’t want to break it now or fudge it, and get out on a technicality. You know?”

“I,” says Ysabel, “okay.” She nods quickly, shivering. “It is cold.” Water’s seeping out over the edge of the basin, here and there and there, drips becoming trickles that spread into falls joining all around the rim to become a glimmering curtain splashing into the dead dry pool. Ysabel’s unbuttoning her coat.

“Ysabel?” says Jo. “What are you,” and then Ysabel’s handing her the coat. Tugging off her cap. Holding out her hand, turning and lifting a foot up onto the edge of the pool. “I want to do this before it gets too deep,” she says.

“You’re nuts,” says Jo, helping her step up onto the edge.

“Not my rules,” says Ysabel, and she steps gingerly into the water. “Oh, fuck me, it’s freezing.” Hugging herself in her minidress shining silver and white wading a couple of steps up to the waterfall. “Ysabel?” says Jo, but Ysabel ducking her head and closing her eyes steps through the water with a shriek. “Ah geeze,” says Jo, holding the pea coat. Behind the waterfall Ysabel’s reaching up to grab a caryatid’s upturned arm, stepping onto its plinth, balancing on her toes against the statue ducking under its arm to press the penny to its expressionless lips, to whisper something in its ear and follow it with a kiss, to drop the penny in the stony drape of scarf across its impassive breast. Stepping off the plinth and ducking back through the waterfall, gasp and sputtering, leaping tottering up on the edge of the pool as Jo reaches up to help her down.

“There,” says Ysabel, brushing water from her face as Jo wraps her in the coat. She huddles into it. Jo rubs her arms. “That’s that,” says Ysabel. “Say yes if she challenges you. Fight her if it comes to that. It’ll all end up okay.”

“Yeah?” says Jo. “What’d you wish for?”

“I can’t tell you that!” says Ysabel. “It wouldn’t come true. Surely you must know that much at least.”

Table of Contents

El Sincero,” written by Wheat, copyright holder unknown.

He’s stepping out – a Boon – his Treat – something Wet & Ruined –

He’s stepping out of the elevator before the doors have fully opened, ducking his white-hatted head and lifting a white and ivory brogue over the inner doors opening vertically, swinging his shoulders draped in a long white coat to sweep through the outer doors opening side to side. Behind him a big guy and a little guy in black suits and skinny black ties, the little guy on his heels, thinned hair vainly trying to launch a curl between his brow and the top of his skull, a fiendish little basket-box in his hands carved from a single chunk of dark red wood. The big guy gives the chain that opens the doors one last tug and follows them. His beard’s the color of mahogany and bushy enough to bury the knot of his tie.

The floor about them wide open and dark, plastic sheeting hung here and there lofting and popping in occasional gusts of wind. Bright light from caged lamps leaves deep pools of shadow in corners and along the white-patched drywall. On a folding chair sits a man in a soft blue suit his arms folded, his white hair touched with gold in dreadlocks hanging down about his face, brushing his shoulders, “Leir,” he says.

“Viscount Pinabel,” says Mr. Leir, doffing his hat. His face quite young beneath all that white unruly hair. “I hope the season finds you well? Above us ascends a woman of good face and habit; two men strike at her, and their blows bring about comeliness, beauty, but also all manner of strife and treachery, deceit, detractation, and perdition.”

“Charles. Wentworth. Leir,” says Agravante, and plastic sheeting rustles in a sudden gust. “Tell me why I am sitting in a half-finished building.”

Mr. Leir smiles, hands his hat to Mr. Keightlinger, then slips his coat from his shoulders. “Such a quaint superstition,” he’s saying.

“I told you to tell me,” says Agravante. “What went wrong?” Plastic rustles and pops again.

“To believe that, because one knows the full and true name of a thing, or a person,” says Mr. Leir, folding his coat and draping it over Mr. Keightlinger’s outstretched arm, “one might then control it. As if all that I am, my blood, my bones, every book I’ve read, the sandwich I had for lunch and the two thousand dollar shoes on my feet, the old friends I’ve loved, and betrayed, the vectors of every desire and necessity that have brought me here to stand before you at this moment – as if all that could be summed up and bent to your will with twenty letters written on a piece of paper filed away in the Breathitt County Courthouse.”

Agravante’s standing, chair pushed back. “I don’t care about your shoes” he’s saying but Mr. Leir folds his arms there between Mr. Keightlinger and Mr. Charlock and says “Oh, but you should. It’s precisely the knowledge of these little things that grants us the control we seek. That you, for instance, Viscount,” and he untucks a hand to begin ticking points with his fingers, “chafe under the thumb of your grandfather, that you’ve no stomach ever to try and sit the Throne yourself, that you’ve set aside money and property in an attempt to position yourself with respect to those you see as most likely to become the King Come Back, that – and this may seem the important fact, but it’s not, for you are prudent and adaptable though your current suppositions in that regard are wrong, all wrong,” and four fingers ticked off Mr. Leir now folds three back and lifts his index finger, a final point, “no, the important fact for our purposes here and now is that despite your care and preparation you’ll be terribly surprised by what your sister plans to do in two weeks’ time.” Mr. Leir spreads his hands, and all about them plastic sheeting billows out, blown taut. “Is all that somehow wrapped up in a name I’ve known for years – Agravante Pinabel, Axehandle to Her Majesty’s Court?” He shakes his head. Mr. Keightlinger’s impassively keeping watch over the hat in his hand. Mr. Charlock’s holding that basket box up and out and away from himself. Agravante’s slowly sitting back down. “A name however true and full,” says Mr. Leir, “serves merely to marshal these facts, to bring them to the forefront of my thoughts when I require.”

“You spoke,” says Agravante, “of my sister. And a terrible surprise.”

“But one year and one day ago, Viscount,” says Mr. Leir, “you asked me to intercede on your behalf with certain powers to ensure the success of a construction enterprise.” Looking about the unfinished floor. “These riverfront condominium towers, which were presented in every particular detail drawn up in meticulously beautiful plans.”

“Tell me what you know of my sister, sorcerer!” says Agravante, and all about them the plastic’s snapping taut again, and the lights tremble in their cages splashing shadows about.

“These buildings,” says Mr. Leir, “are not the buildings those plans described. Not in every particular detail.”

“You,” says Agravante, “you must mean, you can’t possibly.” Plastic rustles, flutters, collapses. “Elements had to be changed, I was told, yes, you’d be mad to think – ”

“Compromise,” says Mr. Leir, “is ever the death of art. Had those buildings been built, the ones presented to me last year in those plans, the ones on whose behalf I interceded – your success would have been assured.” He beckons to Mr. Charlock, who steps up with that fiendish little basket-box. “I have fulfilled my end of our agreement. You in turn did deign to grant a boon.”

“I did,” says Agravante, quietly.

“I would have you take this from me, Viscount,” says Mr. Leir, lifting the box from Mr. Charlock’s grasp. “Keep it safe and undisturbed until I ask that you return it. Tell no one that you have it. If you fail me in this, know that not even the grave would keep me from making my displeasure known.” Harsh light shines from where it’s caught in the polished gloss of the dark red wood. “If it is in your power to do this thing for me, our agreement is satisfied, and we will be quits.”

Agravante puts a hand on the box but does not take it. “You must tell me, sorcerer, what it is my sister’s planning to do.”

“Please,” says Mr. Leir, smiling. “Call me Charles.”

“Hup,” he says and she steps forward knee bending deeply sword flashing forward and down whipping to thwap against the red heart pinned to the dummy before her. Her trailing leg a long straight line from planted foot to hip her off arm flung back along it. “And up,” he says, and she pulls back settling her weight on that planted foot knees bent a little, sword-arm crooked the blade at a slight angle before her tip about the level of her eyes, off arm tucked close to her dingy padded jacket empty hand held palm out before her chest. “Hup,” he says, and she lunges wrist flicking blade down whap against the red heart, “and up,” he says, and back she settles waiting. “Hup,” he says again, and then “okay,” he says, “okay,” thoughtfully stroking his salt-and-pepper Van Dyke. “Tell me what you’re doing wrong.”

“She’s chopping,” says Ysabel sitting back to the mirrored wall, not looking up at either of them but down at the small thick book in her lap, legs curled under the stiff pleats of a corduroy skirt.

“Please, lady,” he says. “Less kibitzing. But you were,” he says. “Chopping.”

“Yeah,” says Jo, standing relaxed upright looking down at the épée in her hands. The bell of it dull and dented, the hilt wrapped in grubby red tape.

“What have I told you about chopping?” He steps over to the rack of foils by the dummy and wraps his fingers around a complicated grip with odd bends and hooks like some obscure medical instrument. “Not to do it,” says Jo, as he plucks the foil from the rack and swivels to glare at her down the wiry length of it scored with dings and nicks its dull black rounded rubber tip shivering there before her eyes. “This is a needle, girl. Not a damn cleaver. The reason the tip of it’s padded is that’s the part that’s dangerous. You chop like that and all the power in your legs and hips and arm is wasted. All you bring to the table’s the flick of your wrist. Not nearly enough. And if you do wind up for a decent cut,” he swings the blade back and up and over his head, elbow up and out to one side, “you pull your blade away and leave yourself wide open for acres of time. Anybody could step in here and do whatever the hell they wanted and my one way to stop ’em’s otherwise engaged.” He lowers the blade en garde and then with a little fillip of a salute dips the tip to the floor. Jo’s saying, “I guess I’m just, I keep thinking of how Orlando was coming at me.”

“Mooncalfe’s on a katana,” says Vincent, tip of his sword whicking over a ragged X of blue tape on the floor. “Anybody uses a katana’s a damn fool thinks a saber’s really a scalpel. Every now and then, someone like him’s crazy enough to pull it off.”

“Marfisa wields a rapier,” says Ysabel.

“Well, yeah,” says Vincent. “Many knights do.” Looking back and forth, from Jo’s suddenly pursed mouth to Ysabel still not looking up from her book. “Four times out of five a heavy old-school Italian rapier beats a jumped-up Ginsu knife, all else being equal. Something you want to tell me?”

Jo shakes her head. Ysabel turns a page.

“Goddammit,” snaps Vincent, turning away, slashing at nothing. “What have I told you about keeping a low profile?”

“She pounded down my door while I was making breakfast in my underwear,” says Jo. “That low enough for you?”

“It’s okay, Mr. Erne,” says Ysabel, setting her book to one side, as Vincent’s saying, “You aren’t nearly ready. Not nearly.”

“It’s okay,” Ysabel’s saying.

“The Axe is fast, lady. She’s beaten the Chariot, three for three.” He turns back to Jo. “You cannot keep this shit from me, girl. The hell were you thinking?”

“She hasn’t formally challenged Jo yet,” says Ysabel. “Just said she would. At the Samani,” and Vincent’s saying “Okay, well,” as Ysabel says, “Besides, I made a wish.”

“I,” says Vincent, and he swallows a grimace, not looking away from Jo. “Okay. Well. When she pops the question, then, you dumb enough to say yes?”

“The fuck do you care?” says Jo. “I say yes, I’m dead. I say no, I’m out. Either way you lose your two hundred bucks a month.”

No one says anything. No one moves, until Vincent slams his rapier back onto the rack. “Lady,” he says, hand braced on the edge of the rack, “please. Leave. Take your Gallowglas with you.” His shoulders rise and fall around a sigh. “Come back Monday.” Jo’s kneeling over by the door, shoving her épée into its soft leather sheath. Bundling it up in a couple of folded towels. “Before somebody says something we all end up regretting.”

“Honestly, the two of you,” says Ysabel, walking towards the door. “I made a wish.”

“That’s a pepper bacon with cheese basket and a Black Forest shake, a colossal basket and a Pibb Xtra, two regular burgers no ketchup and a large Diet Coke, an Oregon Harvest with cheddar basket and iced tea. Those regular burgers want any fries?”

“Nah,” drawls the driver, leaning out his open window. Slap ’em up and shake ’em up and then you know, says the car radio over a loping beat. Let ’em off the flow then bait ’em with the dough, you can do it funk or do it disco. The fat man in the back seat leans forward a little face still hidden in the shadows back there. “Get us some a them sweet potato fries. My treat.”

“You want a large order?” says the speaker on the post by the lit-up menu board.

“Sure,” says the driver. His chin is enormous, stained by red and green and orange light from the menu board. His eyes are very small and sleepy.

“Thirty dollars thirteen cents,” says the speaker. “Pull up to window two.”

“Ha,” says the fat man, settling back as the driver puts the car in gear. “Tell him there’s a boom in child prostitution, when he show up at the stroll give him lead restitution.” Singing over the radio. “Ha!” Slapping the beat on bare knees below the ragged hems of his cargo shorts. The girl in the back seat by him sits pressed close against the door her elbow on the window-ledge, head in her hand, light from the drive-through window sliding across her closed eyes. Her hair scraped down to patchy stubble around a floppy mohawk. “Put a fifty in the barrel of a gun, yeah he try to suck it out well you know this one!” Shifting back and forth, scraggly hair wobbling as he bobs his head. Up front the driver’s leaning over, poking the guy in the passenger seat, hand out, palm up. “The fuck,” says the guy in the passenger seat. “His treat. He said.” Dark hair hanging lankly down to his shoulders. Windbreaker zipped all the way up to his narrow throat.

“Timmo’s only picking up the fries,” says the driver. “Ante up.”

“Five million ways, motherfucker!” bellows Timmo, shaking the back of the passenger seat. “You catch Mel’s, too. You owe her I’m pretty sure. I know you’re good for it.” Grumbling to himself the guy in the passenger seat digs through his pockets. The clerk’s handing drinks through the window and the driver hands the shake back to Timmo, then takes some money from the guy in the passenger seat and hands him a couple of large paper cups. “They used to call it Mr. Pibb,” he says. “Pibb Extreme’s a dumbass name.”

“Call it whatever the fuck you want,” says Timmo. He jabs a straw into his shake and takes a slurp. The driver’s taking bags from the clerk and dropping them in the lap of the guy in the passenger seat, who’s holding those cups up and out of the way. “We good?” says Timmo. “We good? Let’s go, let’s go, we divvy it up back at the house. Come on Abe let’s go already.”

“Problem,” says the driver.

“What problem,” says Timmo, leaning forward. Beside him the girl’s stirring, lifting her head, opening her eyes. In front of the car a figure one hand on the hood long black hair lofting in a gust of wind face hidden in the shadows flung from headlight beams. “Fuck her,” says Timmo. “Gun it.”

“I ain’t running her over,” says Abe.

“Him,” says the guy in the passenger seat.

“Him?” says Timmo. “Frankie? You know this fucker?”

The figure’s walking beside of the car now, trailing that hand along the fender. White dress shirt half-unbuttoned, black hair settling about his shoulders. One eye’s not lost in shadow but hidden under a black eyepatch cupped there beside his sharply angular nose. “Go,” the guy in the passenger seat’s saying, “go, go! Go!” Leaning back away from the door as the figure lifts a pale hand to knock on his window.

“He’s in it,” says Mel, scratching at her mohawk. “He’s one of them that’s in it.”

“You want to tell me about this, Frankie?” says Timmo.

“Ho,” says Abe. That pale hand’s around a hilt now, rough black cloth wrapped over a bone-white grip, the butt of it tapping against the glass. “Shit!” Frankie’s saying. Abe’s got a gun in his hand, an ugly little revolver, barrel barely long enough to poke out over the knobby finger curled around the trigger. “Put that fucking thing away!” says Frankie.

“Well maybe you ought to get out of the car and talk to him,” Timmo’s saying. “Seems to me this is all on you and none of ours.”

“You can’t just leave me here,” says Frankie. Timmo shrugs. “How the fuck am I getting back?”

“When you do,” says Timmo, reaching up to snag the bags of food from Frankie’s lap, “you best come talk to me.” The barrel of Abe’s gun pointing at Frankie’s belly now. “Fuck,” says Frankie, yanking the handle of his door, shouldering it open. Even as he’s putting his feet on the pavement something grinds and chunks in the car and as he’s turning to close the door, “Hey!” he yells, it leaps away engine snarling red lights flaring as it slows suddenly whipping right and squealing away down the street. “My burger!” he’s yelling. “You shits!”

“Frankie,” says Orlando, his sword held low at his side.

“Fuck you,” says Frankie, turning to walk away. He stops mid-step. The bare tip of the blade’s resting on his shoulder. He turns back, ducking out from under the sword even as Orlando’s lifting it and pulling it back. “You’re her ex, Frankie. Jo Maguire. Jo Gallowglas. You know a great many things about her, I’m sure. You know whom it is she loves.”

“What?” says Frankie.

“Before,” says Orlando, “I would not have cared how she was removed from court, so long as she was removed. But now – ” He scratches his cheek by the eyepatch, tugging at the skin there a glimpse of something wet and ruined beneath. He lifts the sword with his other hand. “I cannot allow Marfisa to kill her in a duel. Not now. Not before I’ve had a chance to do terrible things to her.” He strokes Frankie’s cheek with the dulled back of the blade. “Things you will help me with.”

“Kill?” says Frankie, voice a squeak, eyes on the sword there brushing his face. “Duel?”

Table of Contents

de occulta philosophia, written by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, within the public domain. Five Million Ways to Kill a CEO,” written by Boots Riley, copyright holder unknown.

Raw Green Peas – three Questions only – “Subparagraphs and shit” – Tarnish –

Raw green peas at the bottom of a teacup set to one side of the scarred linoleum counter. A fat red candle slumped in on itself guttering in a pool of melted wax, a couple of blue-tipped matches scattered before it. A blackened matchstick smoking in a shot glass blazoned with a Tlingit eagle. An old key blurred by rust, a splintery chopstick, a damp bus transfer in a plastic pot that says Oxygen Bleach Cleanser. A threadbare little rabbit on a leash of string nibbles at a page ripped from a pornographic magazine. More pages spread across the linoleum, lozenges of skin like brushed suede, like toasted caramel, like slick beige plastic. Gauze like drying sea-foam, lace like rotten ice, black vinyl shining tight. “Salt,” says the woman sitting at the counter. The rabbit-string tied about her wrist. She flicks her head from side to side and wrinkles her nose. “Dried sweat.” Hunched inside a sweater the color of flour, a floppy black hat pulled low over her yellow hair. Under the brim her eyes squint milkily.

“Okay,” says the man sitting on the stool across from her. His coat is long and camel-colored. A derby reddish brown in one gloved hand, his other on a soft brown briefcase flat on the counter, buckles undone. A wooden cane leans against the counter, its handle a stern, rough-hewn hawk.

“Sea air,” she says, “and bleach, and. Jelly?” That head-flick again, annoyed. “Old socks. Corn chips.”

“Suggestive,” he says. “First question, then?” She nods once, sharply. “How old are they?”

She shrugs, hat-brim dipping to meet her shoulder. “Old and old, Leo. Twenty-two days? Twenty-three?” On the wall behind her a number of paintings, one of spaceships on black velvet rigged with blinking lights, one with a shimmering tumble of light suggesting a waterfall behind translucent plastic. The tinny whine of its little motor in the silence. He sets the derby on the counter next to the briefcase. “Not old at all for a magazine,” he says then, “not especially.” Tugging his gloves off a finger at a time. “But old and old indeed for a bit of byblow.”

“I didn’t say it was byblow,” she says, tugging the rabbit’s string.

“Didn’t ask,” he says, stirring the pages about. “Three weeks ago the Princess and her guardian were attacked on a MAX train that came to a stop about a chain away from where this bag was finally found.”

“Finally?” says the woman, rubbing the rabbit’s nose.

“I didn’t hear the details at first, didn’t bug me for a while, I’ve been busy. Duke stuff. So Northeast went for somebody. So Northeast got distracted and didn’t go hard. Happens all the time. Right?” He tugs one of the pages from the spread. “Only Northeast has plenty and plenty of monsters. Northeast doesn’t need to make ugly hollow men from dried jizz and bad dreams.” On the page in his hand a woman lying back tight orange jacket unzipped short skirt flipped over her belly dark stockings gartered halfway up her long long thighs striped underwear stretched taut between spread knees. “This is wizard-stuff. Witch-stuff. Red-blooded fool-stuff.”

“You get three questions,” she says, hauling the rabbit into her lap. “Not a lecture.”

“I’m not the only one can put two and two together on this, Miss Cheney. Of course, most of them will think I commissioned the hit.” He lays the page back on the counter. “I tell the Queen to make the Gallowglas a knight, she says no, this thing happens, the Gallowglas steps up. Voila! Her royal hand is forced. Looks nice and neat to the politically unsophisticated.”

Her eyelid trembling she says, “You’re trying to clear your name.”

“Haven’t the chance of a hope in hell, there,” he says. “But forget the two shits I could give what people are saying. I want to know what they’re doing. Second question. Who’s touched this bag but me?”

Her mouth jumps open, snaps shut. The rabbit starts squirming. She leans over to let it down from her lap. “I couldn’t say,” she says, straightening.

“You couldn’t say,” says the Duke. “Well. There’s a number of reasons maybe why you couldn’t. You failed, say. It’s beyond you. Or you can, but. You’re under a geas. It violates the strictures of a promise you’ve made to someone else.” His elbows on the counter, his chin in his hands. “The moment I ask whether or which, there’s my third question. At least it’s not like you could’ve, and chose not to, papered it over with rhetoric – ” He smiles. “I almost said ‘right?’ then, with a questioning lilt like that. Boy, that would’ve been stupid.”

“Ask your third question,” she says, hat-brim hiding her eyes and her nose but not her soured mouth.

“What have you got in your pockets?” says the Duke.

She tips that floppy black hat back, her milky stare aimed squarely at him. Reaches down shifting her bulky sweater to dig into a pocket and come up hand closed around something she carefully places on the flesh-colored pages. Lifts her hand away. A little toy car, silver and green, sheened with weak afternoon light strained through the tall dusty windows behind him.

“The Chariot,” says the Duke. “Can’t say I’m surprised.”

“It’s not what you think,” says Miss Cheney.

“Didn’t ask,” he says, setting the toy car to one side, scooping up the pages limp and slick, heavily awkward. “I find it’s best when consulting an oracle to know what you want to know going in. Saves on sleepless nights afterwards, whittering over ambiguities.”

“You’d know more,” she says, head ducked again, “if you’d asked anything else with your third question. The tenth word on page twenty three, sixth book from the end. The name of my rabbit. When next you’ll see the Bodach Glas,” and the Duke says “Don’t” as he’s stuffing pages into the briefcase, and she says “Who’ll win the duel between the Axe and the Gallowglas,” as the Duke’s saying “Don’t even make a,” and then he stops, one hand still holding the briefcase open. Frowning he says, “The who the what now?”

“Come back Monday,” says Jo as the elevator doors close. “Monday’s the fucking day.” One hand carrying a long thin bundle wrapped in towels. The other’s holding a foil-wrapped burrito in a red-and-white check paper boat.

“The Samani’s not till midnight,” says Ysabel, nibbling on a salad roll wrapped in rice paper.

“Great,” says Jo. “Plenty of time for a pep talk before I stand up and get myself killed.”

“It’s not like you were going to learn that much in the next few days,” says Ysabel. “What?” The elevator doors open and Jo stomps out and down the orange-carpeted hall. “You’ll be fine,” says Ysabel, following after. “You have to trust me on this.”

Jo’s unlocking the apartment door, burrito in her other hand, bundle leaning against the wall. “I don’t have a problem trusting you,” she says, opening the door. “It’s my lizard brain.” Looking back at Ysabel. “Gets all fight-or-flight just thinking about it.” Stepping in her leading foot slips forward suddenly and she falls back on her butt.

“You okay?” says Ysabel.

Jo sits up still holding the paper boat, inside it still the huge burrito wrapped in foil. “Ow,” she says. On the floor a manila envelope with a label that says JO MAGUIRE 407. “The fuck?” says Jo, climbing to her feet.

Ysabel squeezes past her there in the little hallway kitchen, out into the main room past the glass-topped café table to crank open the window. Sits on the floor tapping a cigarette against a gold cigarette case. Still in the kitchen Jo’s tugging a binder-clipped bundle of paper from the envelope, peeling up the first page or two with one hand, picking at the foil wrapping her burrito with the other. Ysabel lights her cigarette, then leans back to breathe smoke out the window, smoothing the stiff pleats of her corduroy skirt.

“Well,” says Jo, letting the pages fall from her hand. “Shit. Turns out you aren’t a houseguest. Turns out you’re a member of my household. And because I didn’t inform them of a change in the size of my household, they have no choice but to revoke my housing voucher.”

“We weren’t supposed to get that,” says Ysabel. “Don’t worry about it.”

Jo looks over at her, eyebrows up. “We weren’t supposed to get this.”

“Yeah, he said there was plenty of time yet to stop the notice going out and there shouldn’t be any hiccups. I guess he was wrong about – ”

“Would ‘he’ be,” says Jo, flipping up a couple of pages, “Tim Carroll?”

“Yes,” says Ysabel.

“Who’s no longer employed in a management capacity at the Gretchen Kafoury Commons?” says Jo.

“Well,” says Ysabel, sitting up, “okay, but he gave his word. And he wrote it all out and gave me a copy. I didn’t want to worry you, is – ”

“That’d be,” says Jo, flipping to another page, “the agreement should in no way be considered binding, and then it goes on to list all the, the things it’s in violation of.” She flips up another page, and another. “Subparagraphs and shit. It’s an impressive list.” She looks up from the document. “What the hell did you do to this guy?”

“Jo,” says Ysabel, “I – ”

“Christ, it never occurred to me I had to tell you not to talk to the fucking landlord about how you live here. I never thought you’d even see them without me around. Hell, that you even had the slightest idea what they were for.”

“Do we need to,” says Ysabel, leaning forward, “leave? Now?”

“Thirty days,” says Jo, stuffing the document back into the envelope. “Gonna be one hell of a Thanksgiving.”

“Well, then, there’s time,” says Ysabel, standing, flicking her cigarette out the window. “I just need to, I guess, talk to whomever’s his boss – ”

“You need to not, okay? Just,” both hands on her head pushing her short hair back, “don’t. Okay?”

“Jo, I can fix this,” says Ysabel.

“How?” says Jo, throwing her hands in the air. “You gonna do somebody else what you did to Carroll that got him fired? That stirred up all this,” picking up the envelope, “shit?” Dropping it to the counter again. “Is that how you’re gonna fix it?” Ysabel’s looking down, away, hands useless at her sides. “Make another goddamn wish maybe?” Ysabel slams her eyes shut, and her hands ball into fists.

“Tell him to stay down,” says the man kneeling in the shadows.

“Stay down, Mike,” says the very small woman standing by the gunmetal desk. Her face worn, her cheeks round and ruddy even in the dim light from the reading lamp on the desk.

“Not,” a groan from the shadowed floor, a bubbling cough, and then “not a problem.”

“I don’t understand, sir,” says the very small woman. A thin chain about her neck holds a pair of spectacles she lifts and fits over her eyes. “What offense have we caused?”

Something small and glinting arcs from the kneeling man that she catches awkwardly against her chest, a small glass jar, empty, filmed with some whitish residue. The spectacles fall from her eyes. She pinches the bridge of her nose. Sets the jar on the desk by the overflowing in-box. “You must be running low,” says the kneeling man. “Send for a bucket, to catch what’s spilling from him.” He shifts, lifts an arm a wet sound slicing his hand in the light from the desk lamp, grubby fingerless bicycle glove, heavy golden pommel a sword gleaming swiveling in the light to point at her and sink back into the shadows again.

“I imagine you laughed long and loud together when she came to you with this,” she says, “and told you what I thought I’d planned with her. But then you went and poured it straightaway into the Queen’s pots. We’re all running low these days, and watery-weak, and sour, waiting for a King who hasn’t come.”

“The Princess did not laugh at you, Soames,” says the kneeling man. “The Princess is, naïve.” Shifting, standing, his face rising up into the light. “That jar was empty when I found it.” His hair a close-cropped white-blond fuzz. About his neck a pair of blue and white headphones.

“Then she turned it,” whispers the Soames, hands clasped before her face.

Roland shakes his head. “It went bad on her. I had to cut it out.”

“You – ” Her face gone blank, head pulling back and up as her shoulders sag. “You could have destroyed her. You may well have crippled her.”

“Then there will one day be another Princess,” says Roland. “But had she been found poisoned? Or had your mad plan worked, and she’d turned it on her own, usurped the Queen – ”

“A Queen who’s let this city starve,” says the Soames, suddenly fierce.

“You’d rather see it ablaze?” says Roland.

And as suddenly she sags again. “I suppose, then,” she says, “it’s to be exile for us both.” She picks up the small glass jar, turns it over in her hands. Roland in that slice of light says nothing. “Oh,” says the Soames, setting the jar back on the desk. “Of course. You’d have to clap the Princess in irons, too. Whatever treason we’ve committed’s just as much on her head.” One hand up in a fist before her mouth. “There’ll be a fire, won’t there. We’ll have been tragically trapped by the blaze. Working late, as we were, no one else to hear our cries for help.”

“I must make certain, first,” says Roland, looking down at the shadowed floor, taking a step back, and another. “Your name is Open Mike, isn’t it.” Both hands on the hilt of his sword.

“Yeah,” says Mike from the floor.

“Forgive me, Open Mike,” says Roland, lifting his sword above his head.

Mike retches. Something splatters. Both of the Soames’ hands up over her mouth. “Fuck you, boss,” says Mike.

Roland brings the sword down in a sudden savage chop.

The Soames shakily says “Tell me, sir. Will you next go to burn down the Axe’s house, and strike her brother’s head from his shoulders? She has tarnished more than the Bride’s name in the eyes of the King, if he ever does come back – ”

“Would you have those as your last thoughts, Soames?” says Roland, straightening.

“No,” says the Soames, “no,” and then as he tightens both hands on the hilt of his sword, “I had a dream, last night. Tell me, sir, are you young enough that you have always slept, and dreamed?” Roland doesn’t nod. He doesn’t shake his head. “I can remember when we didn’t need such things,” she says. “When I have them they are so terribly vivid, but so weightless, so inconsequential – last night I was somehow back in my little mountain hut. I could see the colors of the mismatched glazes of the tiles pressed into the mud walls so very clearly. Someone was serving me chestnut cakes hot from the griddle. Wrapped in wet leaves the way we used to, to keep them from scorching. Over and over they dropped to the table before me, and I peeled them and gobbled them, down every one.”

When she does not say anything more, Roland says, “Stand to the side of the desk there, Soames Nell. And lift your chin.”

“I should have known,” she says, her words just loud enough to be heard. “They are the blandest things you can imagine, with not even a pinch of salt to be found.” She steps away from the desk, hands at her sides, head high. Not looking at him. “But how I’ve missed the taste.”

“My blade is sharp, and I am strong,” says Roland. “If you do not flinch, it will be clean and quick.” Lifting his sword, arms back and to one side. “Forgive me.”

Table of Contents

an Indecisive Cream – a Change of Clothes – one Hell of a Cue – the Sound & the Light –

The office painted an indecisive cream just big enough for a desk and a couple of chairs. Neither of them sitting. Jo’s leaning against one of the closed doors still in her careworn jacket, army-surplus green. Over her shoulder a poster, a photo of the full moon that says Shoot for the moon… Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars. “You can’t do this to us,” she says.

Becker shrugs in his big flannel shirt, half-sitting on the edge of the desk. “My hands are tied. Client pulled the survey early. Tartt’s as pissed as any of you and now Sales is out there scrambling,” he jerks a thumb over his shoulder at the other closed door behind him, “because there’s nothing in the hopper till Pet Depot comes back online in a couple of weeks.”

“Come on, Becker! You got three people out there dialing a bee-to-bee right now. Give us a couple of phones. You know me and Ysabel can rack up completes like nobody else.” Becker shrugs again, runs a hand through what little of his hair is left. “Becker, come on! You need the numbers.”

“I need reliable people is what I need,” says Becker. “You and her, you knock off early, you don’t show up – ”

“I call! I give you notice!”

“You play by the rules, yeah,” says Becker. “And I can cut you slack on a night shift. But for the commercial stuff I need people in seats I know will be there. I mean, are you ever even conscious at six in the morning?”

“Fuck you, Becker,” says Jo. “You know the shit we have to deal with.”

“I know the what now?” says Becker.

“Fuck it,” says Jo, slumping against the door. “Never mind.”

“The job’s unreliable, Jo. You know that. We had a good run but there’s always downtime. Pet Depot’s a sure thing in a couple of weeks. Until then, you know, apply for unemployment, hang tight, go find something else, I don’t know. I can’t tell you what to do here.”

“It’s just one more goddamn thing I have to – ”

The door behind Becker pops open and a woman sticks her head through topped by a tricorn hat edged with frilly lace and red ribbons. “Arnie, I need that old WinBank file. I think it’s on top of the monitor there?”

“Sure, Donna,” says Becker, “just a second.”

“Oh,” she says, stepping through, seeing Jo. “Sorry. Didn’t know you had someone in here.” A garish red low-cut blouse that’s slipped from both her shoulders held up by a shiny black corset. She points a short plastic cutlass at the desk. “Actually, I left it right there. If you could just.” Becker scoops up the file and hands it to her. “I’ll get out of your hair.”

“Scrambling, huh,” says Jo as the door closes.

“Halloween party,” says Becker.

“Yeah? What are you going as?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” He spreads his hands grinning ruefully. “Phone room supervisor.”

Jo splashes water over her face, runs wet hands through her hair. Hangs a moment over the sink hands braced to either side. “Come on,” she says to herself. “Come on. You can do this. Whatever the fuck it is. Do it.” Pushing up and there she is in the mirror over the sink. Short brown hair water-darkened, slicked back. Muddy eyes to either side of her nose, that nose, flat cheeks warmed by big round yellow bulbs around the mirror, mouth a thin flat pale-lipped line. The cords in her throat leap out, fall back as she swallows. A simple dress long and soft, heathery grey, yellow and white piping down either side. Splashed water mottles the fabric of it here and there. A black bra strap peeps out to one side. She tucks it back with her thumb, scoops up more water, splashes her face again, slicks her hair again, stops there both hands on her head. “Okay,” she says. “Okay.” Shaking water from her hands. On the floor by the stainless steel bathroom stall tangled clothing a pair of jeans one leg flung out a grubby T-shirt a blue sweatshirt half inside-out a careworn jacket, army-surplus green. Atop the pile in its soft leather sheath the bell of it dull and dented her épée. She squats there, roots around, comes up with one and then another of a mismatched pair of Chuck Taylors, black and white, toe swaddled in grubby duct tape. She’s tugging one open loosening the laces when she stops, sets them both by the épée on the pile of clothes. Stands, flexing her bare feet against the wide white tiles. The nail of her left big toe a dead grey ridge.

Up a narrow high-walled switchback staircase of poured concrete Jo pads into the darkened coffee shop chairs upended on tables all about the lights above all dim in pale glass globes like emptied honeycombs. On all sides the walls are windows floor to ceiling filled beyond with a mass of milling shifting waiting people half-seen in the confusion of light-struck reflections and shadows dazzling the glass. Past a dim glass cabinet filled with signs for pastries and donuts by empty plates the Queen in her black dress stands by a rack of CDs under a sign that says A Wynters Nightes Pastime. Her hand on Ysabel’s shoulder leaning forward to tell her something, their two dark heads bent together. Cardboard ornaments red and white that say Hope and Faith and Wish hang on strings from the rafters all about them. To one side a man in a black suit hands behind his back chin restless between the high white gateposts of his upturned shirt-collar. A chair’s been set down by a table for an old woman in a glittering gown and jacket of pink and red and white her glossy white hair done up in an elaborately braided bun. Past them all the barista bay where under the weak light on the counter is laid a sword.

The scabbard plain and black with a beaten metal throat and chape the color of thunderclouds. The hilt of it simple and straight, wrapped in dulled wire, the quillions clean straight bars almost as long together as the hilt. Over and around them a glittering net of wiry strands that meet in thick round worked steel knots all gathered together in a single cord swooping down the length of the hilt to end at the great silvery clout of a pommel.

“Whoa,” says Jo approaching, more a breath than a word.

Behind the counter the big man straining the shoulders of his soft blue coat says, “Welcome, Gallowglas.” About his mouth gently smiling droop two long grey mustaches. “As my Queen has asked, a sword made to your hand.”

“Is it okay?” says Jo. “To look, I mean? It’s not like a bride and groom thing, right?”

“Feel free,” says Pyrocles. He takes the hilt in one hand and the scabbard’s throat in his other and tugs free about six inches of blade. The surface of it polished shining but within deep waves of dark and light steel chase the spine of it. “The steel was folded over eleven times,” he says.

“That’s, ah, that’s good, right?” says Jo.

His smile widens. “This sword was once a leaf spring from a 1972 Buick Skylark,” he says. “The car belonged to Peabo, an old friend of the mechanicals, though never a member of their union. It was a beautiful car, a lovely deep red color, and he took great pains to keep it so.” He sheathes the sword with a whisp and a snick. “It never went as fast as it wanted.”

“You mean you made this from a car?”

“Part of a car,” says Pyrocles.

“Wow,” says Jo.

“Aren’t your feet cold?” says the Queen, her black dress rustling up to them.

“Majesty,” says Pyrocles, ducking his head, and “Ma’am,” says Jo.

“Thank you for your hard work,” says the Queen, “it is we are certain a fine blade and true, Anvil. If you would take your leave. Now,” she says, turning to Jo as Pyrocles ducks his head again and steps out from behind the counter. “Let’s be straight about something. You are only being granted your spurs ex officio. The moment my daughter tires of this dalliance, and sets you aside, is the moment you will no more be welcome in this our court.”

“I wouldn’t dream of imposing, ma’am.”

“And yet you would say yes.” The Queen lays a hand on the sword’s scabbard. “These decorations,” she says, looking up a moment at the ornaments. “Do you people not know what season it is?”

“I’m surprised they waited till Halloween, honestly,” says Jo.

The Queen smiles. “Our daughter will gird you herself with her own two hands, before,” she says, and wraps her pale hand about the black lacquer scabbard, lifting it. “I find it helps to keep the fumbling to a minimum during the colée. When you hear the trumpets.” Turning she rustles sword under her arm to the front doors of the coffee shop, where Pyrocles and the man in the black suit push them open. The crowd settles and grows still out there as she walks through them around the glass-walled coffee shop to a balcony lit up with harsh white lights under banners slack, a hawk, a hound, a bee.

“You look beautiful,” says Ysabel. Her gown a clattering fall of amber and gold beads over a short ivory slip. In her hands she holds a limp black belt.

“You got a strange idea of beauty,” says Jo, lifting her arms as Ysabel wraps the belt loosely about her hips. “We’re both gonna be chilly out there.”

“It’s not that cold tonight,” says Ysabel. “And it won’t take long. She will strike you gently on the shoulders, three times.”

“You went over this already.” Outside they’re cheering something the Queen has said to them.

“She will tell them all to remember your honor and your bravery.” Jo rolls her eyes at that, and Ysabel jerks the belt tighter, an admonishment. “She will tell you to remember your oaths and obligations, and she will ask that you hew to the Apportionment and likewise to keep all our feasts and revels. And then she will tell you to rise, lady knight.”

“And then Marfisa calls me out.”

Ysabel adjusts the angle of the belt. “Do you believe me? Do you trust me?”

“That it’s all gonna work out fine?” Jo shrugs. “Something’s got to go right today.” Outside a sudden rush of trumpet notes, a fanfare harshly bright as the spotlights. “That’s one hell of a cue,” says Jo.

“You will not lose,” says Ysabel, both of Jo’s hands held tight in her own. “You will not destroy her.”

“Okay,” says Jo, nodding. “Okay.”

“I’m right behind you.” She opens the door before Jo, and outside the crowd begins to applaud as Jo walks through them around the glass-walled coffee shop to the balcony under the banners. Ysabel stands and watches, holding the door still open.

“Hey, Ys,” says a voice from the otherwise empty shop, and she jumps and lets the door swing shut. She does not turn around. Quiet and calm and flat she says “You son of a bitch. Where the fuck have you been.”

“The Gallowglas has coarsened your tongue.” A deep voice, rough, slurred a little. “Is that any way to speak of Mother?” Maybe a shadow by one of the pillars between dazzled crowd-filled windows shifts something that might be a head, a shoulder.

“I have been left here alone without you,” she says, something filling swelling her words until they almost burst, but he says “You love her, don’t you?” and she stops. Leaning her head against the glass. “And she doesn’t know, does she?” he says. Outside more applause shakes them all like wind.

“You know what that would cost me,” she says, quiet and flat and calm again.

“She’s.” A little hitch in his breath that might be a chuckle. “She’s surprising.”

“She’s fierce,” says Ysabel. “And so loyal and true and so,” and she stops to let the air out of her words again, “beautiful,” she says, “but Mother told me I will not be the one to break her heart. She’s seen it, she says.”

“Pay no attention to what Mother says.” The shadow leans back, folding itself into the sharper shadows of pillar and rafter and window frame. “The next few weeks will be hard,” he says, his voice fading, falling away. “Harder than what went before. But I promise you this – ”

She looks up. Steps over toward the pillar. There’s nothing there, nothing at all. But outside the crowd’s gone still, stock still and silent.

Ysabel pushes open the doors walking out along the side of the glass-walled coffee shop the clatter of the beads of her gown startling in the silence of the crowd all about her peering and craning to see what can be seen in the plaza below. Clear as a bell then the Queen says, “If this is a joke, it is in poor taste.”

Pushing between the last few people Ysabel steps out onto the balcony there beneath the banners where Jo’s standing looking down at the sword hooked to her belt. No one is looking at Jo, or the Queen, or at Ysabel even as they step out of her way. Everyone in those still and silent crowds on the great sweep of steps to the right, the low walls to either side, staring at the figure in the center of the otherwise empty brick-paved plaza, a broad-shouldered man in leather trousers and battered, dusty boots. Broad leather straps about his shoulders fix a greened bronze disk over his bare chest. A mask white and blocky crudely painted with thick black lines to resemble a grinning skull hides his face. An upturned mane of black hair rippling slowly in the otherwise still air. His arm outstretched he holds in his gauntleted right hand the hilt of a longsword pointed at the crowd on the low wall there, the crowd that has pulled back away from where the sword is pointing to reveal Marfisa standing in her breastplate and her armored skirt and her greaves.

Ysabel takes Jo’s hand.

Marfisa steps down from the wall and pulls her sword from the air sandals slapping the bricks as she strides toward the masked man who settles on slightly bent knees both hands now on the hilt of his sword held ready.

He falls backward ripping the sword from her hand the sword that’s buried half its length or more through his side at an angle to burst its glittering tip from his back scraping against the brick as half on his side he tries to roll over push himself up throwing his gauntleted hand across his body for momentum. The upturned mane of black hair about his mask falling gently as if dropped to settle about his shoulders. Marfisa panting plants her sandaled foot on the bronzed disk strapped to his chest and pushes his body back against the bricks. Wraps her hand about the hilt of her sword and wrenches it free. She says something to him that is lost in the cheering and whooping and the thunderclap rush of applause sweeping the crowds all about them. Steps back and offers her left hand. He takes it in his bare hand, and she pulls him to his feet.

“Well fought, O Axe,” calls the Queen effortlessly over the roar of the crowds, settling them all and quieting them again. “We had not thought to celebrate this investiture with a passage at arms. Your willingness to rise to this unknown warrior’s bait is most commended. And as for you, sir.” No hint of a smile upon her face. “Your sense of humor is perhaps too rarified for an audience so large. The office of Huntsman is anathema to us – take solace, then, in this: should I in some dark day that’s yet to come seek out a knight to fill that role, all you’ve done tonight is to remove your name from our consideration.” Until now, perhaps, that relaxation of her mouth, the settling just of her chin. “Whatever that name might be. My city!” And she throws wide her arms as if to take them all in. “All of you who call these streets your home. When first we came here many years ago we brought with us a light that had not shone until that day, a color that had not before been seen. We said an unspoken word, and made music where once had been only silence. Tonight!” Sweeping through the crowd another sound, the rustle of hands in pockets, of plastic baggies in hands, of candy-tins and cigarette cases, pill bottles and ampoules, of gel caps snapped between thumbs and forefingers, as hands lift up above their heads glittering and gleaming with golden light that shines and builds and fills the empty brick-paved plaza. “Tonight, my people! Lift up your voice with mine and show this world that light has not gone out!”

And behind her Jo caught tight in Ysabel’s embrace her chin on Ysabel’s shoulder says, “I didn’t lose,” All about them the crowds have begun to sing, a slowly rising nameless vowel that rises till it slips dizzyingly at once into an ululation ringing back from the buildings towering over them. And Ysabel in Jo’s ear says, “Nor was she lost.”

Leaning back in Jo’s arms Ysabel begins to sing with them all, with the Queen, another round of that simple swooping phrase from a thousand throats filling the plaza and the streets about it, the blocks beyond, all glowing now with a golden hazy light that drifts in curls and tendrils like a fog, clinging to streetlamps and neon signs. Jo reaches out away from Ysabel for a droplet of it skirling up out of her grasp, light tumbling and eddying the wake of her hand. The bricks beneath her feet have taken on a dull red glow as falling light seeps into them. The ivy twined about the pillars smolders with a green and yellow light. The pillars themselves gleam as if newly made, and the green band about the coffee shop sign too bright to look upon rings an unbearably portentous sigil of a mermaid mired in black ink.

“Let’s go dancing!” cries Ysabel, and Jo begins to laugh. All about them the song falling away as people take down their hands from the lofting light, a shirtless boy in a three-piece suit, a heavyset woman in cycling tights blazoned with angry cartoon cats, an old man in a cardigan and plaid pyjama pants leaning on the shoulder of a woman in a shiny yellow sou’wester, putting away bottles and vials and cases and little plastic baggies, cupping still-glowing hands like candles to their chests, a man in a peppermint seersucker jacket stuffing his hand into a pocket that becomes a dim lantern, and one by two and three they turn and take their leave.

Table of Contents

Ava,” written by David Byrne, copyright holder unknown.

Bare branches, Dead leaves – Sorry We’re Closed – a Chivalrous thing – when We are Queen –

Bare branches toss and clatter, dead leaves patter down the street before sudden gusts of wind. Candles and Christmas lights wink and flicker from every window of the big white ramshackle house on the corner. A thin young man pushes open one of the two front doors and staggers onto the porch, letting out a burst of music, a fiddle, sharp popping drums. Rings glitter from his fingers as he beckons to someone inside. His black T-shirt says Bobu Magurasu in white letters. “See,” he’s saying loudly and then he shushes himself. “I think I know.”

“What?” says the woman following him onto the porch. Her serape striped in browns and yellows. On her head a confetti-colored patchwork cap.

“Why it was three. Why it was only three.” Guthrie leans close and whispers, “I think I’m just like you.”

“There’s an easy way to find out,” she says.

Inside the big front room the drum kit set up between the fireplace and the keg. The drummer’s head sweating as he works furiously over a snare drum, throwing off parade-ground fusillades. A red-headed man kneels before him swaying, sawing a soaring theme from his fiddle. Behind him on a stool a kid clutching a big-bellied acoustic guitar taps his foot. A woman with short dark hair one hand on the neck of a bass guitar the other on Marfisa’s shoulder leaning close together singing into the same microphone, “Suntower, asking – cover, lover – June cast, moon fast – as one changes – ” Marfisa swallowing a laugh as she fumbles a couplet. Her armor gone she wears a tight red dress, quite short. In one hand a flute. A dozen people or more pressed close together along the wall below the stairs heads bobbing tossing a feathered headdress a big black hat jeweled hands and bare hands and hands smeared with clayey colors waving in time, someone tossing gauzy scarves by Roland in a green track suit with white and silver stripes scowling as a boy in a brown bomber jacket his hair a matted pompadour pushes past him up the stairs where Becker in his big plaid shirt sits leaning back against Pyrocles a step or two above him soft blue jacket somewhere else his pale blue shirt unbuttoned over a white undershirt. “Of course it’s Yes,” says Becker.

“What?” says Pyrocles leaning over him, smiling between mustaches a-dangle.

“Yes!” laughs Becker, settling back against him. “Yes I said yes. A thousand times yes!”

In the bright toothpaste-colored kitchen Jo’s wedged into a corner by a big blue garbage can overflowing with empty bottles brown and green, hugging herself in her long grey dress her sword about her hips. Ysabel before her beaded gown clacking side to side a cigarette tucked between two fingers of the hand wrapped about her wineglass. With a crash the band in the big front room takes up the soaring theme, bass and drums now churning under fiddle and flute and over them all the clear crisp vamping guitar folding in on itself. “I want to dance!” cries Ysabel.

“You didn’t tell me she was gonna be here!” snaps Jo.

“I didn’t know,” says Ysabel, waving the wineglass between them, slopping red wine to the floor. “She isn’t going to – Jo, you don’t have anything to worry about – ”

“Because it’s Robin Whatsisname’s house, right? And nobody ever gets hurt in Robin’s house.” Shivering her hand on the hilt of her sword she pushes out from the corner past Ysabel walking a little wobbly to the fridge. “I need another cider.”

“Are you,” says Ysabel, taking a drag from her cigarette, “aren’t your feet cold?” Jo’s bare feet filthy on the black and white check floor by the fridge without looking back she lifts a hand middle finger extended and Ysabel shrugs and stubs out her cigarette on an empty bottle in the garbage can. 72, says the label. Absinthe Verte de Fougerolles. That soaring theme has collapsed out in the big front room and from the wreckage a calypso beat’s assembling itself with what sounds like a real steel drum. Jo closes the fridge bottle in hand and turns to see Becker there in the doorway, gawping at her. “Oh, hey,” he says, “oh, hey, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t,” says Jo, padding across the kitchen towards him.

“No, really,” he says, “you have to remember. I forget. I didn’t remember any of this, or about you, or, or. I didn’t remember him, can you believe it?”

Jo takes the empty bottle from his hands and tosses it into the garbage can. “Don’t.” Hands him her unopened bottle. “I, uh, I had no idea you were.”

“Were what?” says Becker, twisting off the cap. Swallowing some cider.

“Gay,” says Jo.

“Well, yeah,” says Becker, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Guthrie bursts into the kitchen one hand held before him in the other, headed for the sink. Yanking the faucet on he shoves the hand under the water yelling “Oh, ow, oh!” The woman in the serape and the confetti-colored cap drifts into the kitchen saying “You did want to know.”

“You bit me!” The water’s running red from his fingers. Becker shaking his head looks back to Jo who isn’t paying attention to what’s going on by the sink at all but staring out into the big front room where Ysabel’s dancing by the red-headed fiddler pounding steel-drum sounds from a little keyboard. The bassist and Marfisa singing into the same microphone again, trading verses and la-la-las, “We got a million dollars worth of ethyl gas, and a reservation for a room!”

“Hey,” says Becker, leaning close to Jo. “Like I say, I’m sorry. I’ll see what I can do to get you guys on the bee-to-bee – ”

“No you won’t,” says Jo. Not looking away from Ysabel dancing. “You’ll forget you ever said that come the morning.” One hand on the hilt of her sword again. The heel of her other hand rubbing an eye. “I’m gonna go find somewhere to lie down. If she comes looking for me. Okay?”

To the right of the door to the kitchen a dark hallway passes under the stairs. Jo heads down it one hand brushing flocked velvet wallpaper. In gaudy frames hang old paperbacks brightly colored with titles that say Go-Go Sadisto and Game Finger and The Merciless Mermaids. Past a closed door painted white with a sign that says Sorry We’re Closed. The music’s dissolved into a great thunderous drone lit up by stabs of tinny brass. Past photos now in clear glass frames of fruits and vegetables, close-ups in black and white of glossy curves and roughly pitted skin and strange hollow shadows, past a closed door painted white with a sign that says Sorry We’re Closed. Jo turns unsteadily music whooping and lurching around her. The kitchen a few steps back short stretch of hall green-black flocking sprawled across the dark magenta wall. One closed door, white-painted, with a sign.

Turning back. Pinned to the walls now scraps of parchment inked with illuminated letters, strange fleshy creatures crawling through the typographic underbrush. The next door down’s ajar, a puddle of warm light seeping out along the floor. A small room lined with books from floor to ceiling on dark wooden shelves lit up by unobtrusive spotlights. More books in roughly neat piles on rugs by a couple of wing chairs and narrow end tables bear up under the weight of more stacked books, leather-bound and dust-jacketed some wrapped in clear plastic, paperbacks tucked here and there and some books blankly featureless in wraps of plain brown paper. Jo steps carefully among the books bare feet sinking in the Persian rug, stopping to dig her toes in it eyes closed. Before her the broad high oxblood back of a tufted leather sofa pulled before the flickering glow of a fireplace. Something cracks and pops. She opens her eyes, steps up to the sofa one hand on the back of it. The Duke is kneeling before the hearth in a red-and-brown striped jacket, feeding kindling to a slowly dying fire. “Hello, Sir Jo,” he says.

“Oh,” says Jo, “I didn’t know,” turning to leave as he says “A little loud and crowded out there, huh?” and then reaching for his cane, pushing himself to his feet, “Oh, no, don’t worry about it. Feel free. Goodfellow’s house, right?” Scooping his long brown hair up away from his face. “Wouldn’t dream of telling someone where to go in it.” She’s still got a hand clamped on the back of the sofa, leaning against it now. “You okay?” She shakes her head, quickly. “Come on, come on. Sit down. Where’s the Princess?”

“Dancing,” says Jo, taking his hand over the sofa, stepping gingerly around it. The sword catches as she tries to sit and for a moment she stands there blinking at it until he helps her sit side-saddle knees tucked up toward the arm of the sofa. “Sorry I couldn’t make it to the colée,” he’s saying. “I heard there was a crasher. You look awful.”

“I’ll be fine,” says Jo.

“Hey,” says the Duke. “Hey.” She looks up at him. “Where’s your shoes?”

Jo’s laugh is low and shaky. “In the bathroom of the Starbucks on Pioneer Square. Along with my pants and my jacket and my smokes and,” she laughs again, sharper now, more certain, “my other goddamn sword and I cannot be doing this again.”

“Okay,” says the Duke, and “Sorry” says Jo and “No, no,” says the Duke, “don’t apologize, it’s okay,” turning to poke at scraps of kindling with his cane.

“I didn’t mean to,” says Jo.

“Of course not,” says the Duke. “Actually, I have a confession – I came here tonight to ask you something.” The copper ferrule scrapes against the hearth. “The Queen’s dinner, when I set this whole misbegotten juggernaut alight. You said you’d lose a challenge, throw a fight, if that’s what the Princess wanted. Yeah?”

“I did,” says Jo, “but – ”

“Hang on,” says the Duke, waving a hand, “that’s not the question I wanted to ask. My question, and it’s basically moot because you didn’t lose, hell, it didn’t even happen, but humor me. This duel that was supposed to happen tonight. You and the Axe, who’s out there singing like butter wouldn’t melt on her mike. You two cook that up so her and the Princess could get back together, only crazy mask-guy jumped the queue and queered your play? Because, and don’t let this affect your answer in any way, I’ll be really fucking pissed if you did.”

“I lost my job today, because of this,” says Jo. The Duke looks over his shoulder at her, his face shadowed. “Last week,” she says, “I learned I’m getting kicked out of the only apartment I can afford downtown. And I wouldn’t have had to cook anything up with anybody. If she had stepped up to me, I could have just said no.” One hand on the throat of the scabbard. “Fucked off.” The other on the hilt. “Dropped the sword and walked.”

He steps away from the fire. “I would have been incandescent if you’d done that.”

“Like I care.”

He’s leaning on that cane over her, the rough-hewn hawk at its head caged in his fingers. “She wants the Princess, she’ll come at you again. You gonna hope crazy mask-guy keeps coming back? Maybe drop the sword then if he doesn’t? Why wait? Go on. Fuck off now.”

“You aren’t listening,” says Jo. “I lost my job. I lost my home. All because of this promise I made that I’m going to keep. And if the Axe or anybody, or you, comes up to me and says I can’t do this, I’m not fucking worthy – ” She looks down, then back up at him. “I’ll cut you and, and I’ll watch you go down to fucking dust.”

“Okay,” he says, and then he stamps his cane once against the floor. “Good,” he says. “Good.”

“Good,” says Jo flatly. “This is good.”

“Good that you know it. Good you can say it.” He leans the cane against the sofa. “Good that it scares you.” He’s unbuttoning his jacket. Her hand relaxes on the hilt she does not let go. “Yeah,” she says. A sharp breath in through her nose. “Well.”

“Here,” says the Duke. “Sit up.” Jo doesn’t as he wriggles his jacket down his arms. “You look chilly. I’m trying to do a chivalrous thing here.” She reaches up then, takes his jacket, drapes it about her shoulders. Scoots closer to the arm tucking her feet under herself as he swings around to sit heavily next to her. Wincing he rubs his thigh. “There’s aspects,” he’s saying, “advantages of knighthood, of which I do not think you’ve taken account. Along with the weighty responsibilities. You were knighted banneret, which is the Queen fucking her daughter over, keeping you out of the Apportionment. Since you got no patron, and nobody obliged to give you medhu. There’s nothing I can do about that. But I can,” reaching into his vest pocket, “give you this.” Plucking out a gold credit card. “Go on. Take it.”

Gingerly she does. “This,” she says, “that’s my full name.” Turning it over in her hand. “And my signature.”

“Wouldn’t work otherwise,” says the Duke. “And it’s a lovely – ”

“Jo will do just fine,” says Jo. Turning the card back over again. “This is a thing, isn’t it.”

“Verily,” says the Duke.

“Bank of Trebizond?” she says, tripping over a breathless little laugh.

“I wouldn’t buy a car with it,” he says. “But otherwise. And you’ll never see a bill.”

“I don’t, I don’t know what to say,” says Jo. “I mean thank you, yes, sure, thanks so much, but I – ”

“Tough, isn’t it,” says the Duke. “These new problems that suddenly overwhelm you. Whatever shall you worry about now. However fill your days. Oh!” Lifting a finger. “The apartment you might yet lose. That card won’t help much there, but I might have a word with the landlord?” Smiling. “Some folks say I can be persuasive. You don’t consider him a friend, do you?” Jo laughs. “Put it away, don’t lose it. Obviously. But I want to have a look at your sword.” Jo tucks the card into her bra, then unhooks the scabbard from her belt. “Draw it,” says the Duke. “I trust you.”

She tugs the sword free a clean quiet scrape of steel against leather and metal the blade ringing faintly still as she turns it and holds it in the air before them firelight licking the dark whorls within its polished gleam. “May I?” says the Duke, holding out his hand.

“Okay,” says Jo, handing the hilt over to him. “I trust you.”

He tips the blade down, then back up again. “Nice,” he says. Leaning the blade away from her, laying it flat against his other arm, leaning over to peer along the length of it. Jo watches with a quizzical smile. “The Anvil’s a fine smith,” says the Duke, lifting it again and leaning it the other way over her lap, flat against the arm of the sofa. “He’s signed it, here.” Pointing to a crude little sigil stamped into the thickness of the blade above the quillions, a simple block shape with a horn to one side, the suggestion of a foot. “You ever figure out your banner, he can stamp it here,” rolling the blade over, “mark it as yours. What’s so funny?”

Jo’s smiling broadly, shaking her head. “You.”

“Moi?” The Duke rears back, hand to his chest.

“You. You’re a piece of work, you know that? You set your goons on us, you shanghai my ex-boyfriend into a stunt that could’ve gotten him killed, you drag me on a hunt for a goddamn boar that could’ve gotten me killed, you insult me, you fuck me over, and you think you give me a gold card and maybe call the Housing Authority for me that means you still got a chance.”

The Duke still smiling licks his lips and lets loose a quiet little laugh. “No,” he says, “no, what’s funny is this. What’s funny is you get Tommy Rawhead killed. You let the boar loose in the first place and you nearly got me killed hunting for it and you broke my fucking leg. You lose me the Dagger and the Helm and when I reach out to you nonetheless as a newly dubbed knight, a member of the fraternity, you spit on my gifts and threaten my life and yet still, somehow, you’re the one who thinks you have a chance.”

Shoulder to shoulder neither of them not smiling Jo leaning a little closer the Duke lifting his head Jo frowning a little over her grin and about to say something when she closes her eyes for a swift soft kiss. “Huh,” she says, her nose by his. “I guess I do.”

“What a coincidence,” says the Duke. They kiss again.

“Enough!” roars Roland sword in hand the audience in the big front room falling back with shrieks and screams scrambling from dancing to running and ducking. The band stuttering to a stop the drummer and the bassist and the fiddler still singing “When we are Queen,” their doo-doo diddle oo-doos tumbling away into the tense shocked sudden panting silence. Marfisa lowering the tinwhistle from her lips glaring at Roland glaring back at her. “Enough,” he says.

Ysabel grabs his arm jerking it to one side and he tugs against her but does not push her away. “Please!” she’s saying. “Chariot! Put it away!”

“This madness of hers must stop,” he’s saying. He’s lowering his sword. She lets go of his arm. Marfisa’s standing still her arms at her sides whistle loosely in one hand. “If her brother were here,” says Roland.

“He isn’t,” says the short man all in black, pushing through the audience. “Is this now to be your party trick, sir?” His dark beard neatly trimmed a whisper of curls just past stubble along the line of his jaw. “Put up your sword.”

“They sing treason, Goodfellow – ”

“This is a free house, sir,” snaps the short man all in black. The band looking back and forth at each other sharply, except Marfisa who doesn’t look away from Roland. “All may speak freely here. And no metal’s drawn in anger. Not here. I would not have it.”

“It is an insult,” says Roland. Ysabel beside him shaking her head. “To the Queen, the Princess – ”

“I do not wish to ask again, sir,” says Robin Goodfellow, raising his hands arms out palms down a placatory gesture. The nail of one little finger a long curled black thing. “Not in my own house.”

Roland’s turning the blade back lifting the hilt with a sigh when Marfisa begins to sing in a high voice roughened by adrenaline, “There will be more dancing, and less worrying,” and Roland face twisting hauls the sword back up and out again, and Marfisa’s singing “more singing and less hurrying” as Ysabel cries “No!” and steps between them as a man in a grey flannel jacket calls “Princess!” and a woman in ragged white lace sleeves her hands before her screaming mouth and the bassist slinging her guitar up before her body steps up and a shirtless man turns and pushes back through the crowd and another man and another and a woman and more on his heels toward the front door banging open before them all and Roland stops his thrust just short of Ysabel’s throat his face stricken. Marfisa finishes in a sing-song voice, “but everything will still get done on time, when we are Queen.”

“Princess,” says Roland, and his hand is empty now.

“You stupid, stupid fool,” she says. “It’s just a song.”

“Is it?” says Marfisa behind her. Ysabel turns. “Is that all it is, Princess? Just a song?”

“You’re just singing a song!” says Ysabel. “To call it treason – ”

“It’s just a song,” says Marfisa. “Then these must be just words. This bread, that you have made for me.”

And under her wild black curls Ysabel’s face has suddenly gone pale. “No,” she says, her voice quite small and far away. “Don’t.”

“The bread that you have made for me!” cries Marfisa, and the crowd’s gone still and silent in that room. “I spit it out. Why shouldn’t I do this?”

“Because I ask you not to?” says Robin, but Marfisa’s saying, “It isn’t the song, it’s not the song at all. It’s me. I’m the insult that cannot be borne. This salt that you have given me.”

“Marfisa, please,” says Ysabel, and “That’s not true!” cries Roland.

“I spill it, and grind it in the dust!” says Marfisa. Ysabel grabs her shoulders. “Please!” she cries. “I made a wish!”

“Did you?” says Marfisa, quietly. Behind her the drummer’s gone the stool behind the drum kit tipped over on the floor. The kid and the bassist to either side of her watching wordless guitars hung useless at their sides. “Did you wish that I’d win the duel? Did you wish we could be together again?”

Ysabel’s slowly shaking her head. “I wished,” she says, “that you wouldn’t be hurt.” And then she says, “Either of you.”

“Either of us,” says Marfisa, and she takes Ysabel’s hands from her shoulders and holds them a moment. “Well I’m not hurt,” she says, and kisses Ysabel’s fingers. “And she isn’t even here. This lamp you have lit for me.”

“As you love me,” says Ysabel.

“I smother it,” says Marfisa, “and it gutters, and goes dark.”

She steps back from Ysabel then hands lifting into the air together drawing them apart right hand on the hilt of her sword left hand falling away from its tip as she swings it about once switching her grip both hands on the hilt now blade turned around and point down. She drives it with a great crack and a flash of light into the floor of the big front room.

“There,” she says, a little shaky, smoke drifting about her blade stuck upright through a scorched black mark. “I’m done. With all of you.”

And she walks past Ysabel away from the band and past Roland and past Robin his head in his hands and past the crowd stepping back and away as she passes them up to the open front door and through it out into the night.

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Siberian Khatru,” written by Yes, copyright holder unknown. Eldorado to the Moon,” written by David Nesmith, copyright holder unknown. It Won’t Happen Here (And if it Does, it Won’t Happen Here),” written by Monsieur Boche and Savage Henry, ©1979 Matt Howarth. When We Are Queen,” written by Issa, ©2008.

“What were you thinking?”

“What were you thinking?”

Ysabel stands on the sidewalk arms akimboed, face hidden in the shadows under the streetlights. A thin mist not quite rain seeps slowly out of the air to sheen the pavement and the cars parked up and down the street. Jo still in her long grey dress barefoot sheathed sword in her hand comes down the steps from the porch of the big white ramshackle house on the corner, its windows behind her all lit up with candles and Christmas lights. “I was thinking,” she says, “we’d take a taxi. Borrowed a phone from the drummer. I mean even if I was ready to walk home like this, you wouldn’t make it in those heels.”

Her beaded gown clattering Ysabel folds her arms together as Jo steps onto the sidewalk. “How are we going to pay for a taxi?” she says.

“That’s supposed to be my line,” says Jo, holding up the gold credit card. “So maybe I’ll cop yours and say don’t worry about it.”

“Where did you get that?” says Ysabel, taking the card slowly from Jo, turning it over and over again.

“The Duke gave it to me. Said it was one of the – ”

“The Duke?” says Ysabel, sharply. “The Hawk was here? Tonight?”

“Yeah,” says Jo. “I was talking to him, in the library. Which is where I was I guess when the whole thing happened, which, I mean, I’m sorry, but – ”

“This is a big deal,” says Ysabel. She isn’t looking at the card. She’s looking away across the intersection at a darkened green house on the opposite corner behind a low stone wall.

Jo’s hugging herself tightly, shivering a little. “Yeah,” she says, and lets out a shaky little laugh. “If it works like he says it really changes everything. We’ll be taking a lot more taxis, you know?”

“We could,” says Ysabel, holding the card out to Jo. “Did you fuck him for it?”

Jo doesn’t take the card her hands still tightly holding her bare arms. “He gave it to me because I’m a knight now,” she says, her voice leashed tight, her breath a clammy cloud about her face.

“Wonderful,” says Ysabel, letting the card fall to the sidewalk. “Did you fuck him because you’re a knight now?”

“What the hell,” snaps Jo, stooping to collect the card.

“Don’t tell me it’s none of my business, Gallowglas.” Ysabel grabs Jo’s arm and hauls her around, upright. “The Duke would sit the Empty Throne.” Jo shakes her arm free. “If he survives he’ll be the King. He’ll have me as his Bride. He’ll send my mother off to Gammer-hood, or worse.”

Jo says nothing, fingers curled around that gold card.

“Do you love him?” says Ysabel.

Jo’s laugh is short and flat. “No. Don’t be – ”

“Do you love me?”

Jo shivers. Wraps her arms back around herself. “You, you didn’t,” she says, “you said,” and then a deep sharp breath in through her nose. She closes her eyes. “I thought you understood,” she says in a small and quiet voice, and then she opens her eyes. “Not like that. Ysabel, I’m sorry, I’m not – Ysabel!”

Ysabel’s very slowly falling sinking to her knees there on the sidewalk as with sharp cold popping sounds fat raindrops start to splat about them. Jo kneeling there by Ysabel who’s on her hands and knees saying “Harder than what went before” to herself and then, looking up at Jo with blank dark eyes, she rocks back and says, “There.” Her hair gone flat in the thickening rain. “So nice and neat,” she says. “You’re his. And now I’m yours.”

“What?” says Jo Maguire.

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