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“From this position” –

“From this position,” says the fat guy sitting in the chair, “there’s six, from this position there are six defenses.” He’s holding a soft brown briefcase in his lap, buckle clinking as he fondles it.

“There are seven working defenses from this position,” says the tall guy standing behind him, scissors in his hand wavering over the fat guy’s scraggly hair.

“And one of ’em hurts,” says the fat guy with a guffaw. He’s wearing a khaki-colored T-shirt printed with a faded picture, a bearded man holding up a pistol. Damage my calm, it says.

“Hold still,” says the tall guy, snipping a wisp.

“Man, they don’t, they just don’t make comics like that anymore, do they?” He sighs. Wraps his arms more tightly about the briefcase. “All blood and thunder. Goddamn. Not too short, right?” He leans forward, looks back, the tall guy rolling his eyes as he lifts his scissors up and away. “Not too short, okay, Abe?”

“Not too short,” says the tall guy, nodding.

The fat guy sits back. “Just, neaten it up a bit,” he says. “Make it look good, though.” Wrapping his arms again about the briefcase. “But quick, quick,” he says, leaning forward again, looking back again, and again the scissors lift away. “She could be here any minute. Queen of the fucking world, man.” Sitting back. The buckle clinking again. “Queen of the fucking world.”

“Timmo, hey,” says Abe. “Hold still.” Snip, and snip.

“Any minute now,” says Timmo. “Come on, man, come on.”

“Hold,” says Abe, snip, “still.”

“It’s gonna be incredible,” says Timmo. “You don’t mind, do you? Stepping out for a bit? When she gets here?” Undoing the buckle with a click, snapping it shut again. Open, close.

“I’ll just go get another key from Zach,” says Abe. Snip. “Hardly nobody here anyway.”

“Because it might, she might just,” squirming in the chair, and the scissors lift up and away again. “She might just, I mean, right out of the gate, you know?” Clink. Snap. Open, shut.

“You think,” snip, “you think I want to stick around for,” and then there’s a knock at the door.

Abe looks up, Timmo sits up, briefcase clutched to his chest, “Shit,” he says, and “Yeah, yeah,” says Abe, stepping back, swatting wisps of hair from Timmo’s shoulders, Timmo shrugging him off, batting his hands away, briefcase in his other hand now, by his side. The knock again becoming a pounding, a muffled Hey! Timmo!

“She knows your name, man,” says Abe.

“Of course she knows my name,” mutters Timmo, heading past the two rumpled queen-sized beds for the door there by the picture window, curtains drawn. Undoes the chain lock and the deadbolt, the briefcase still in his other hand. Opens the door.

“God damn man can I come in? It is fucking crazy out here.” Stomping the snow from her running shoes sweatpants a long green coat a hoodie under it throwing it back from her head her hair scraped down to patchy stubble around a floppy mohawk. Snow caught in the parking lot light, bright white and pink and orange out there swirling, dissolving the rusty black parking lot behind her. “Timmo? Hey? It’s fucking Arctic out here.” A fluttery laugh. “Global warming, right?”

“So is that her?” calls Abe from inside the room.

“Mel,” says Timmo, and she says, “So can I come in?”

“Hey,” says Abe, coming up behind him. “That’s Mel.”

“Yeah,” says Timmo.

“That’s not her.”

“No,” says Timmo. “It’s not.”

“Who,” says Mel, and then “Come on, aren’t you freezing?” and then, frowning, “What’s with the briefcase?”

Table of Contents

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, written and drawn by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley, © 1986 DC Comics.

a House that looks Much Like the Others – Tango milonguero – What matters, and what Doesn’t – Respects –

A house that looks much like the others all along the one side of the street, low, demure, set close to the curb. “Pull in there,” says the Duke, pointing out the shallow curl of driveway before a closed garage. “Just get it off the street.”

“Yeah, okay,” says Jessie, spinning the wheel, backing and filling. “So we’re here?” she says. “Leo?” He’s opening his door, planting his cane, hauling himself out of the car. “I guess we’re here,” she says. She shuts off the engine.

Flakes of snow light on the brim of his red-brown derby hat, the shoulders of his camel-colored topcoat. Catch the edges of paving stones set in a meander across the scrap of yard, dead leaves and dying grass. Climb in lacy drifts against the front steps, cling to the panels set in the yellow door. “It’s always years between snows,” he says. “You ever notice that? Proper snows. I miss them.” He takes in a deep breath through his nose and lets it out, a ragged cloud lit up white by the harsh bare bulb there by the door. “This one will be proper. Can you smell it?”

“I don’t like it,” says Jessie.

He turns to look at her back by the car in her grey chauffeur’s jacket, her long black socks, her red Keds dark against the feathery snow. “It mislikes me,” he says.


“You,” he says, and then “Nothing. Never mind. Too chilly?”

“Depends,” she says, arms about herself. “We going inside?”

He stoops, grunting, leaning heavily on his cane, free hand peeling up a corner of the doormat to find a key, small and coppery. “Not sure the heat’s on,” he says, pushing himself back to his feet. “But the view’s amazing.”

Echoing footsteps down a long hallway, sharp pops of floorboards and creaks in the dark, the drag and thump of the Duke’s limp, his cane. “Should be a light switch,” he says. “Back by the door?” Muffled swipe of a hand along the wall, sudden thick click of a switch, his back’s lit up, yellow-tan against the blackness ahead. “And another one up here,” he says, lurching drag and thump into the shadows. The echoes shift and open, deepen, flatten. She follows, creak and pop down the hall. Clank of his cane-tip against something, then the clinking scrape of a pull chain, a lone bulb, clear glass, the filament glowing amber hotly dangles above him, above an overstuffed armchair, a low table beside it, out in the middle of an otherwise empty room. Reflections hang dimly in the air beyond, that filament glowing again out in the blackness, a wall of glass, a great window stretching up and around before them. “Give it a minute,” says the Duke.

“I’ve,” says Jessie.

“Yeah?” says the Duke.

“I’ve, I, uh,” says Jessie, staring at the overstuffed armchair. Behind her, far off down the dark hallway, the yellow light by the door. “No, it’s,” she says, “stupid. It’s just, it’s. Weird. Déjà vu. Is that,” she’s pointing, “the Throne?”

“Yes,” says the Duke.

“Oh,” says Jessie.

“Go on,” says the Duke. “Sit.” He’s undoing the buttons of his topcoat with his free hand.

“Don’t,” says Jessie, an edge in her voice, “don’t fuck with me.”

“It’s just a chair,” he says. “Go on.” Leaning against an arm of the chair he lays his cane on the floor beside it. “Probably the only stick of furniture in the joint.” Working the coat off his shoulders. “Sit.”

“What am I doing here,” she says, words quivering under a weight.

“You mean,” he says, taking off his hat, “why you.”

“Why me.”

“Do you trust me?”

“It’s not that.”

“It’s not.

“You don’t always seem to know,” she says, “what you’re doing,” and he chuckles and says, “Ability, and intent,” he says, and then, “I mean well. I swear to you, Jessie Vitaly, that nothing in no wise might happen in this house that will ever cause you to be harmed.” Letting go of the chair, taking her hands in either of his. “There is nothing on this earth or under the sky that could make it otherwise.” Then he grins, at her wide eyes. Lifts her hands to his lips for a kiss. “How’s that for an oath?”

“You always,” she says, “fuck it up, at the end.” Stepping close to him, pressing against him, her arms go about him, his about her, her face to his shoulder, knocking her grey cap loose, and he fumbles for it, misses, it falls to the floor. “Jessie,” he says, “Jessie. My beautiful girl. My California girl.” Stroking her yellow hair. “Bikinis,” he says.

“What?” Lifting her head, pulling back to look him in the eye.

“I should’ve had you wear more bikinis,” he says, hands on her hips. “Should’ve had a house, with a pool. Let you lie out in the sun. Made you mojitos. Rubbed coconut oil all over you.” He kisses her, lightly, and she catches his head in her hands and kisses him back. “Maybe in Laurelhurst,” he says.

“This is what I’m talking about,” she says. “Should’ves and ought to haves. Like something’s over.”

“Isn’t it?” he says. “Hasn’t it been?”

“What are you doing here, Leo?”

He lets go, steps back. Leans again against the chair. “What are we doing here,” he says. “It takes two to tango.” Limping away, off toward the big dark window beyond, his reflection there before him and above, the curl of the glass, hers behind him picked out in light and past them both and through them more lights now, like stars, and he turns, saying, “I’ve already doffed my coat. My shirt’s next, my pants. Shoes, of course. Socks.” Stars that glint in the glass behind him, fixing themselves in rows and lines now against the blackness. “You, you take off that cunning little jacket. Or maybe it’ll all be vicey-versa? The particulars don’t so much matter.” Stars limning blocks, buildings, towers, stars caught in the corners of windows, a thousand thousand of them. “We’re going to enjoy each other, you and me, and when the moment’s right,” and he lurches back toward the chair, and out there swooping arcs and nets of light define bridge after bridge marching away along the river far below, and each is far grander and more glorious than the one before. “When the moment’s right,” he says, “I’ll sit the Throne, and either vanish from this earth, or be made King of all that’s at my feet.” He shrugs. “Not sure just yet if we’ll be able to tell the difference, honest,” he says.

“It’s been a while,” she says. Fingers at her throat, unbuttoning.

“Since Tommy,” he says.

Her hands stilled there, at her breast, what might have been about to be a smile folding itself away.

“What,” he says.

“Tommy?” she says.

“What would you have said,” he says. “What did you think.”

“I would’ve,” she says, “since, since the, since your leg. You broke your leg.”

“My leg,” he says, leaning on the chair. “You think my leg could keep me away from you.”

“Something did.” Her hands, falling away.

“Do we actually have to talk about this?” he says. “You and me, we actually need to talk?” She reaches up, pulls the collar of her jacket closed. “You have any idea, the slack you picked up?” he says. “When he died?”

“I didn’t come with you to pick up slack,” she says.

“I need that,” he says. “I depend on it, far more than I – you didn’t, you don’t begrudge me Luys. Or Chrissie, or Laúru, or the adorable little moppet that you, I might add, picked up from behind the counter of that comic-book shop – ”


“The Princess,” he says.

“Well of course I wouldn’t,” she says, “I couldn’t, she’s your – ”

“I don’t begrudge you the Princess.” He’s stepping around the chair between them.

She says, thickly, “I gave her up.”

“One does not simply,” and gently strokes her cheek, her hair, “give up, the Princess Ysabel.” Undoing the bottommost button on her jacket, then the next one up. “How’s your wizard.”


“Locke,” he says, “Luke, Lake – ”

“He’s not a,” she says, stepping back, “not a wizard – ”

“Nice shoes,” says the Duke, looking down at her Keds, a rich red in the pool of light. “Little kiddie for you, but it works. When’d you get them?”

“These?” she says, clutching her jacket closed again. “I’ve always, they were – my sister’s – ”

“And see?” he says, a heavy step toward her. “I did not know you had a sister.”

“Leo,” she says. “I know. Okay? You were straight from the start. This has never been more than a job, for either of us. That’s always been very clear. It’s just,” and she undoes the last button. Lets her jacket hang open, loosely, over bare chest, bare belly, bare thighs, the plain white underwear, low about her hips. “It was a different job, before.”

“I was clear,” he says. “I told you, that night. Dancing there on the stage. Rain. The most beautiful girl that ever I saw.”

“I was the most beautiful girl you saw that night,” she says.

“That night a year ago. Almost a year ago.” Limping back, away, turning away, sweeping an arm wide back toward her. “And here you still are.” Her hand on the chair. “It is really coming down out there,” he says.

And then she says, “It’s not the Solstice.”

“No, it’s not,” he says. “It might be, though, by the time we get out of here. Wouldn’t that be something.” Turning away from the window. “Did you have somewhere to be tomorrow? Next week? A pressing engagement?”

“Leo,” she says.

“Sit,” he says. He’s begun to unbutton his shirt.

“Why are you doing this,” she says, her hand still on the chair.

Another sweep of his arm, pointing past her now, back, at the yellow light down the hall by the door. “Lymond, Prince, returned,” he says. “The Hound’s whelp and a shove from the Guisarme. Jo Huntsman, leading whosomever she might by the nose and the Queen cheering them on. When they’ve made their hash and settled their play, come the Solstice, or tomorrow morning, bright and early, to take the Throne, they must come through that door and when they do.” Lowering his hand then. Rubbing his thigh with a wince. “They will find here me, King before them, or gone at last from this world. Now, please. That we might, while away a pleasant interlude, until I work up the nerve. Sit you down.”

She steps around the chair, her hands on the arm of the chair, leaning forward her jacket lopping open, she’s perching herself gingerly on the cushion. Letting out a sigh. “Okay,” she says. Sitting back. Looking about. “Now what,” she says. “You gonna give me a lapdance?”

“I might,” he says. “I might just, rabbit.”

“Take off your shirt.”

“I’m working on it,” he says, undoing buttons, lips pursed in a wry smile, teeth worrying his bottom lip he sways his hips, tock tock, wincing. Hands stilled there about his belly. “There is,” he says, “no conceivably sexy way for a man to untuck his shirt.”

“Sure there is,” she says, a black-socked knee hooked over an arm of the chair, red Ked dangling. A hand in her lap, fingers idly stroking white cotton. “Just, you know. Rip it open. Tear yourself free.”

“Which, I’d have to button it all the way back up for that,” he says.


“It just doesn’t feel sexy.”

“Like that matters,” she says. “Work it, baby.”

He yanks at his half-open shirt, there’s a rip, a button clattering away in the shadows, and she laughs with a clap of her hands. Shirt billowing he falls to his knees before her with a grunt, catching himself hands on the arm of the chair, her knee, slipping under her thigh, hands on her hips, hooking the waistband of her underwear. She isn’t laughing. She’s shifting herself, lifting her leg up over his head, knees together as he tugs up and up her thighs, jackknifing her legs she reaches to help him pull them down and off and she grunts as he levers her legs apart, hands on her thighs, forearms on the cushion of the chair, her underwear hanging from the one hand dangling over the arm of the chair, her other hand clamped to the back of his head curling into a fist full of his hair when he opens his mouth.

Striped sheets clenched in her shivering hand a rough growl climbing from her chest, through her throat, breaking open in a shapeless howl. She lifts her head black hair flopping curls unspooling along her shoulders, down her arced back heaving as that howl collapses into harshly ragged breaths that wind up in a groan, her head lowering, a grimace, her hips jerk, “Hah,” again, “hah,” and her quivering arms fold abruptly at the elbows, she drops, back between the upraised knees, one wrapped in a soft black fabric brace, one bare, a pale smear in the darkness.

There’s a light, growing, in that darkness.

“Oh,” she says, “Petra,” muffled, those elbows popping up, “are you,” pushing herself up, over, falling back to the striped sheets rumpled, lit up now with a brightly golden warmth, a steady shine that flickers shadowed only as she draws her legs together, sits up, eyes wide, a hand to her mouth. The woman beside her, on her back knees up, one arm flung up over her head, hand dangling limply from an upturned wrist, the face of her, hair, breasts and throat, the pillows beneath her, the sheets there covered, caked, soaked, matted with golden light.

“Petra?” she says, leaning over, trembling hand a shadow brushing at the stuff about the nose, the mouth, not dust but sludge, clumps of it crumbling wetly under her sweeping fingers, “Petra!” Scooping it up, flinging fingerfuls to the floor with bright heavy plops, clearing, darkening the mouth, the nose, the closed eyes rimmed and lashed with gold. “Wake up,” she’s saying, “wake up, wake up, don’t be, don’t be – ”

Petra’s hand wobbles, the fingers clench. Her chin jerks. Her mouth opens, her shoulders hike her throat and breast drawn up and up as she sucks in a ragged whoop of breath and the light trickles and runnels down her belly and her flanks. Her other hand coming up to slap against Ysabel’s shoulder, Ysabel’s arms about Petra dimming the light, shadowing the room as she covers her laughing weakly. “Wow,” says Petra, the barest stroke of a word, before Ysabel crushes her mouth with a kiss.

Petra’s hand, falling away from Ysabel’s shoulder.

“Petra?” says Ysabel, pulling back, sitting up, the room brightening again, that light spread over the high wide bed, the littered nightstand, the blank black glass of the window gleaming. “Don’t,” says Ysabel, “don’t you dare,” shaking Petra’s shoulder. Petra’s head lolling over in that puddle of light.

Pushing back scrambling back bare foot finding the edge of the bed tumbling over it to stand there shivering, looking about, the door there, ajar, and she takes a step and then another and leaning forward another, catching herself, clinging to the doorframe. Looking back. The shape of her still and limp in all that gold.

The hallway’s dark, but she is not, gold splashed along her thighs and belly, smeared over her breasts, her mouth, her one hand soaked in it. She holds it up, peering as she takes a step and another down the dark hall, a closed door in the wall ahead of her, beyond the darkness opening up, the empty suggestion of a room. Turning, turning back, back past the bedroom door the hall ends in another door, and she falls against it, clings to it, the doorknob rattling in her hands as she opens it, staggers through, the knob left wet with light. Her dark hand and her bright patting the walls about her. The sudden thick click of a switch and there she is, blinking, naked under the harsh white light from the ceiling, leaning against a sink in a white-tiled bathroom.

Fumbling the taps hot and cold hands shoved under the sudden rush of water hissing, scrubbing, scrubbing them one over the other, cupping them, filling them with water, leaning over to splash her face, and again. Rubbing her face, her eyes, lifting herself back up to meet herself in the mirror, wild black hair, red eyes, gold streaks. She takes a deep breath that hitches, caught, her trembling suddenly stilled. Behind her a tub, the pale translucent shower curtain drawn closed. Through the curtain a grey shape dimly, a shadow, someone. Standing in that tub behind her.

She lets the breath out, shaky, slowly, lowers her hands to lean again against the sink. “Are you here for her?” she says.

“No,” says a voice, “I am not,” lugubrious, as chill and grey as old concrete.

“For me, then?”

“In a manner of speaking. Do not turn about. You should not look upon me, not yet.” In the mirror the shadow shifts, what might be the inclination of a head. “I am here to, pay my respects. To Your Majesty.”

She chokes on the laugh, bites her lip, closes her eyes. “What,” she says. “Just like that?”

“There is no Throne for you to sit,” says the voice. “No banner to seize. One day, you are not the Queen, and the next? You are.”

Table of Contents

“Who did you say you were?” – any Rule – Investiture – Ecclesiastes, chapter 10 –

“Who did you say you were?” The door ajar, the security chain taut, a slice of face behind, a frown, a gingery mustache.

“A friend,” says the man in the hall, pressed close. “Your daughter’s. Gloria.” His hair is long and black and wet, his shapeless jacket grey. His bare foot red and raw, jammed between door and frame.

“That’s, not,” says the voice behind the door, “her name, isn’t,” and “I know,” says the man in the hall. “It’s what she’s called.”

“Daddy?” says someone, someone else.

“She’s dead,” says the man in the hall, lifting his head, cocking it, an ear to the gap. The faintest creak, the door, a floorboard. He wears a black patch over one eye. “I killed her.”

“You need to go,” says the voice behind the door. “I’m calling the police.”

“Daddy, what is it?” says someone else.

“Suzette, get back, go to your room,” says the voice behind the door, and “Suzette,” says the man in the hall, delicately. He brushes the security chain with a fingertip. A pop, a dull red spark, the chain snaps two ends leaping apart to clink against jamb and door. He throws his shoulder against a meaty thud, a grunt, the door shivers, comes unstuck swinging into an open room, wanly yellow, a thickset man fallen back against a leather couch, bare legs kicking slippered feet for purchase beneath the sprawling skirts of a satiny white robe, “Get back,” he’s saying, pushing himself upright. Scrape of the couch against the floor.

The man from the hall, two quick long steps, leans in hand snapping about a thick throat, lifting, turning, smack of shoulders against the yellow wall. Heels kicking. A slipper, falling. He leans back away from a swatting hand the back of it freckled. The white robe’s printed with kanji in thick black strokes. “Please,” says someone else.

Still holding the thickset man against the wall Orlando turns his head. Over across the room past the couch the coffee table the low shelf neatly lined with books she’s standing, jet black hair unbound, unribboned, bangs bright pink, hands clutched one above the other about her belly in a big white T-shirt. “Put him down,” she says, her voice quite small, her eyes rimmed black and red. The T-shirt says dem toten Hasen in big purple letters. “I went,” she says, “I went home,” and her voice finds itself under that word, lifting, stumbling, “how, how did you even, how could you – ”

“Home,” says Orlando, turning back to the man he’s holding against the wall. Those freckled hands trying to pry his away. Cheeks and forehead blotching red about jerking eyes. “What’s home to such as me. I break every rule.” Under the ginger mustache the mouth opens on a gurgle as one hand falls away. “Any rule,” says Orlando.

“Don’t,” she says.

“Don’t what.” He opens his hand. The thickset man drops knees buckling to collapse unstrung behind the couch. Her hand to her mouth she takes a step out toward him and another but stops, dead, when Orlando says, “They took my sword.”

She looks from her father sitting on the floor hauling in a wheezing breath to Orlando over him, both hands clasped behind his back. “The one I killed you with,” he says.

Her father coughs. Tries to clear his throat.

“It still hurts,” she says.

“She ran away,” says Orlando. “She tricked me, and she ran away, and they did not like that, not one bit. Place,” he says, “and time. They took my sword.”

“Get out,” says her father, rubbing his throat, “of my house,” and she says, quickly, coming around the shelves, the couch, “I’ll go with you, I swear. Let me get my coat.”

“But we both know,” Orlando’s saying, “I have another.”

She shouts, she lurches toward him crashing into the arm of the couch his hand’s leaping out away from her lifting as he falls to a knee coming down a short and shining arc her father grunts. Her hand on the back of the couch. His hand about a bone-white hilt wrapped in rough black cloth, the heel of his other hand on the butt of it pushing a soft wet sound, her hand slapping his shoulder, shoving, knocking him to the floor. He looks up at her, blinking blood from his eye. The long knife left upright in her father’s belly.

“It’s snowing,” says Orlando, climbing to his feet as she gropes for the narrow table against the wall, knocking a bowl away, scattering coins. “What?” she says, stepping back, a phone in her hand.

“It’s snowing,” says Orlando, turning, heading out into the hall, away. “You’re welcome, Gloria.”

In this washed-out streetlight at once too bright and pale the marmalade cat is difficult to see, fluttered by falling snow. Leather jacket creaking the man squats, “Tch-tch,” he says, holding out a hand. “Puss puss.” Pink hair bobs, dulled by that thin light. The cat hikes up on its rear legs, bumbling against the wheel of one of the bicycles parked at the edge of the yard. “Not usually so skittish,” says the man up on the cramped front porch.

“What’s he called?” says the man on the sidewalk.

“Don’t know,” says the man on the porch. Lit by tiny white lights strung along the railing he’s draped in a dark sagging jumpsuit. “Tim?” His hair slicked with sweat or gel and a thick dark line smeared under each of his eyes. The cat’s weaving away through the welter of bicycles, pausing to daintily shake snow from a paw. “Tim,” says the man on the sidewalk, pulling himself to his feet.

“You’re Ray, right?” says the man on the porch. “Pretty much missed the to-do. Been a while, hasn’t it? How’s it doing for you?”

The man on the sidewalk’s tipped his head back. “Yeah,” he says, blinking, shaking his head, looking down to thumb flakes of snow from eyes one pale, one dark. “I’m here to see the Devil,” he says.

The man on the porch lifts a cigar in a white-gloved hand. “The Devil,” he says. “I didn’t know you played guitar.” On the railing among the tangle of lights a mask, grey fur, limp rabbit’s ears, the face of it an ugly metallic skull.

“The Oxys, maybe,” says the man on the sidewalk. “The Bullbeggar? Wicht?” To one side of the porch a figure in shadow leans against peeling pink siding, a crude suit of wicker armor, snow filling the corners of its warp and weft. “Even the Frittening Boneless,” says the man on the sidewalk, “if you could,” and then he shrugs. “You aren’t dead yet.” Those eyes bulging over a snaggletoothed grin. “You’re just a clown.”

The cigar comes down, comes away, “Just?” says the man on the porch in his furry grey jumpsuit, and smoke curls around the word.

“It’s not a bad thing,” says the man on the sidewalk, a gust of snow swirling about him. Up on the front porch the dull red front door opening, swinging back into shadow. “But really, the Devil, or the – ”

“There is no Devil,” says the woman stepping out on to the porch. Close-cropped gunmetal hair almost black in that light. The clown’s shrugging, “Or the what,” he says, as the man on the sidewalk says, “Helm?” His smile gone, his eyebrow climbing. “Aren’t you cold?”

“Not really,” says the clown.

“There is no Helm,” says the woman, light dappling her bare skin, sheening the polished torc about her throat.

“Was, though,” says the man on the sidewalk. “Will be again.”

“You’re, tipping toward the obscure, here,” says the clown.

“I’m back,” says the man on the sidewalk. Squeezing one eye shut, then the other, back and forth. “We’re not all in it, are we,” he says.

“Like I said, you missed the to-do,” says the clown, and “Who are you,” says the woman, “that being back,” as the clown’s saying, “but if you want to come in out of the snow,” that cigar waving airily, and the woman says, “being back means anything at all?”

“You just want to be quiet,” says the clown. “Going in.”

“Linesse, wasn’t it? Isn’t it?” Lymond steps off the sidewalk, across the yard, up toward the house. “Pledged to the Hawk, you rode with, the Dagger, the Harper, the Shrieve – ”

“Dagger’s no more, neither,” says the woman. “People are sleeping it off,” says the clown.

“It’s okay,” says Lymond, one foot on the bottom step. “It’s all right. I’m back.” Snow slithers down the creases of his jacket as he reaches for the zipper at his throat and yanks it down, with a flourish. Working one shoulder free, the other, “Here,” he says, leaning forward. Holding up that jacket hung from his hand. “Take it. But know,” he says, “that when you do,” tightening a fist now about the collar of it, “you take also from this our hand, these, our Northeast Marches.”

She pulls back. The clown’s looking from the foot of the steps to the head of them and back, Lymond in his purple T-shirt in the snow up along his bare skinny arm to that black jacket heavy and still. “There’s this whole story,” says the clown, wreathed in smoke, “you got going on here, isn’t there.”

“Highness,” says Linesse.

“There is no Highness,” says Lymond. The clown snorts.

“You can’t possibly,” says Linesse.

“You heard what we have said.”

“You are too generous.”

“Oh,” says Lymond. “This is no gift.”

Her hand on the jacket then. The clown pushes away from the railing, straightens, watching the jacket loft into the air as Lymond’s hand drops away, “You,” says the clown, the jacket swinging around to settle over shoulders, the arms of it wriggling, inflating with the weight of arms, “how,” says the clown, hands slipping from the sleeves to grab the bottom of the jacket, tug it closed about hips, “you weren’t,” says the clown. “How.”

Lymond’s springing up the steps. “She is within?”

“She is,” says Linesse, and the sound of a zipper.

“And with her?”

“But three remain.” She smooths the jacket’s collar over polished silver.

“So few,” says Lymond. And then, “Come Marquess! You’ve made your choice.” He sweeps a hand toward the dull red door ajar. “Lead on.”

Dark inside, and close. She takes his hand. A hall butler mounded with coats and scarves that overlap a speckled mirror, boots and shoes piled over and around its low bench. Stumble and thump the clown behind them, “Shit,” he says, wrestling the rabbit-head under an arm. To one side a wide doorway, a ruddy, high-ceilinged room, a long dining table, a woman sitting at it lit up starkly blue and white by the laptop open before her. Lying the length of the table asleep among a litter of glasses and mostly empty bottles a round little man in a leopard print bikini, his thin beard curded with white paint. A hiss, the red light and yellow throbbing about the room, past the table a man’s crouching, poking at the stone hearth, blowing, coughing. Over him a narrow figure untouched by the firelight until it turns, yellow and red like embers edging her nose, her cheek, unveiling the white streaks twined through her mad black mane. “You’re ugly,” she says, and there’s rust in her words.

“And you,” says Lymond, “are beautiful.” There in the wide doorway, Linesse behind him, and the clown. “A great many things are turned about from where they ought to be. You, hiding behind walls, sending flunkies to answer the door that I pound. You, bootlessly drunk,” his voice rising, stepping into the room, “and I am at last quite not. A great,” and then he stops, his hand resting on the table. “Many things.” The woman across from him’s shutting the laptop, changing, dimming the light in the room, pushing back her chair. Her cheerleader outfit green and yellow. “Wait,” the clown’s saying, reaching for her arm, “you gotta, Ray, he just, he pulled the most amazing trick, out on the porch, she just, out of nowhere,” and the cheerleader pats his grey-furred shoulder. “You’re an idiot, Glenn,” she murmurs, and she leaves.

Lymond says, quietly, “I don’t want to fight, Mother.”

The man by the hearth straightens, wiping his bald head with a filthy hand, the poker still in the other. His suit unbuttoned over a bare and sunken chest. Polished silver gleams about his throat. Shuffle and step the narrow figure before him with a rustle of tattered cloak a hand emerges, and pale and rough-nailed fingers brush the top of the table. The man lying the length of it stirs. The clink of glass. “What does it matter,” she says. “What you want. You will be fought.”

“I’ve already won,” says Lymond. “I am returned. I will be King. Your daughter, Queen. We will all go on. How,” and his head shakes slowly, side to side, “how is this not a happy day?”

“You are not mine,” she says.

“Yet you are as much my mother as she,” he says.

“You left,” she says.

“He left,” says Lymond. “I only went ahead, a little ways. I saw – ”

“Nothing!” she cries, and a glass falls shattering to the floor.

“I saw,” says Lymond, “where we’re going. Every street a corner, every corner a tower, every tower ten thousand windows and in every window a lamp. And every lamp was lit, and every street was empty, and it was all so quiet,” he’s leaning over the table, over the man lying asleep on the table, “so quiet, you could hear the snow stop falling.”

“You saw nothing,” she says.

“If we go on,” he says.

“And you.” She lifts her nose, her chin, looks past him to Linesse behind him. “All it takes to turn your coat again’s the gift of another?”

“I was cold,” says Linesse, and Lymond lifts a hand, “Chazz,” he says. “A King needs his Devil.”

The bald man chuckles, lowers the poker in his hand to thump the tip of it against the floor. “Further be it from me than anyone else of us in this room to so thoroughly embody an aphorism, but,” and thump again of the poker-tip, “the temptation’s too delectable. For if the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth,” and he hefts the poker up in his hand, “great offences.”

Lymond nods at that.

Scrape of a chair and that narrow figure rustling sits, heavily. “I do not know what you thought to gain, by coming, here, but you have not,” and she coughs, bends over, wheezing, Chazz a hand on the back of the chair leaning over her. “You,” she says, bracing herself against the table, bottles shivering, “you don’t even look like your – ”

“A clown,” says Lymond, and “What?” says Glenn behind him. The man on the table lifts a hand, knuckles his eye. “We have a clown, now,” says Lymond. “We have a peer. And we have already won. This house, Helm,” and he looks up, turns about. “This house.” Up in the shadows licked by firelight along the picture-molding lines of faces, of styrofoam wigstands and mannequin heads clumped in crowded lines all around the room and each of them painted, thick lines and curls and calligraphs in red and black and blue exaggerating eyes and mouths, cheeks and chins, fixed rictuses of joy and wonder and delight and here and there a glum recrimination, and no two of any of them alike. “It is subject to an agreement made with the King before us, and much like Goodfellow’s house across the river, or, or the,” frowning as the man on the table sits up abruptly, and a bottle thumps unbroken to the floor. “Where we left our mother,” says Lymond. “A free house, and open, where she might be safe. Within your demesne, Marquess, but not your purview. And when she smelled the first hint of snow in the air, she came straight here.” Crackle and pop from the hearth, and Chazz turns to it, poker at the ready. The man on the table snorts, and shivers. Her leather jacket creaking, Linesse looks from the figure at the head of the table to Lymond there at the other end. “She hopes,” says Lymond, “but cannot bring herself to ask, that I hew and cleave to that agreement.”

“Snow,” says the man sitting on the table, tugging the top of his bikini back into place. “Dammit, Ray, did you say snow?”

“Well hell,” says Glenn, “I was only telling everybody half an hour ago and nobody wanted to go out and look at it.”

“What time is it,” says the man on the table, blinking owlishly, scooting to the edge of it, clink and chime and another bottle falls, smash. “Shit.” Glenn’s stepping forward, shuffling side to side as Lymond’s turning this way, back about, “Ah,” he’s saying, “it’s Saturday, Saturday morning,” Linesse reaching past him to offer a hand to the man hopping down from the table. He’s tugging his bikini bottom up about his hips. “Very early Saturday,” says Lymond, turning about again. Down the table those pale, pale hands cover the sharp-edged face, and the white threads tangled within the thick black hair are stained red and pink by the light. “And the next day is Sunday,” he says. “A Zoobomb day. And, snow or no snow, we shall have,” and he spreads his hands, and his snaggled smile beneath beaming, bulging eyes, “the greatest, grandest, most astounding Zoobomb ever.”

The clown in the bikini’s still blinking, rapidly, scratching the back of his neck. He shrugs. “Yeah, sure,” he says. “We could do that.”

“Now,” says Lymond, and he clasps his hands together. “We have what we had come for. Marquess? Glenn? Attend me,” and he turns to leave the room.

“Sunday, the Sun’s day,” says Chazz, “the day we all might rest. But not, that day, the Solstice. The sun will not stand still for you, tomorrow.”

Lymond stops, there in the doorway. “Has it really been so long, Chazz,” and he speaks that name quite carefully, “since you have spoken to a King?”

“There is always a King, boy,” says Chazz.

“Then you must know,” says Lymond. “The Solstice is not the day the King comes back. The day the King comes back, is the Solstice.”

The snow’s falling more thickly now. In his purple T-shirt Lymond wraps his arms about himself, ducking pink hair bobbing as he heads out into it, down the steps. “Majesty,” says Linesse, at the top of them. Glenn behind her, the rabbit’s head still clamped beneath his arm.

“The cold,” says Lymond in the yard, speaking over the stuttering snow. “You feel it, now.”

She nods, shivering in her jacket, looking down, her bare legs, her bare feet. Lymond says, “And you would know what we’re about,” and her shivering stills, and she looks up, and nods once, crisply. “Yessir,” she says.

“I will always speak my mind to you Marquess,” says Lymond. “You have but to ask. One peer alone does not a quorum make.” He turns away west, speaking into the teeth of the snow. “We go to call another banner to our hosts.” Looking back to them up on the porch, and his grin is back. “It’s not far. But I’m sure we’ll find something along the way to keep us warm.”

“Are we, uh, so, we’re walking?” says Glenn, following Linesse down the steps.

“Do you see a car?” says Lymond, away off down the sidewalk.

Table of Contents

The Book of the Preacher, written by the son of David, King in Jerusalem, within the public domain.

Gently brush the Dust – so Small a life – how Different, he looks – “Is that it?” –

Gently brushing dust from that sleeping face, fingertips dredging a crumbling pile from pillow to palm, both hands together now cupping the fitful glow, lifting to lips pursed to blow, gently, dust that lofts in great slow billows that do not fall, that coil and glitter, a thousand thousand golden stars, a galaxy of atomies that lights them both lain on the high wide bed, bodies shadowed shapes atop striped sheets drifted with more dust. “I kissed her, once,” says Ysabel. “For a cup of coffee. And tonight, she, she,” a heavy hank of curls dislodges with a shrug.

“She wanted you. She did not know what having you entailed.”

“I didn’t know,” she says, thin wisps of words. “I had no idea.” A gold-flecked hand strokes a shining, sleeping cheek, brushes spangled short black hair. Her other hand laid across the bare gold-dusted breast, fingertips against black lace still tied about the throat. “Will she wake?”

“She will wake.” Past the yawning door in the lightless hall a shuffle, a change in posture perhaps, a shift of clothing. “She will wake, when day has broken, and if she does not see you here she will wonder why her bed is full of sand. She will curse the need to sweep her floor, and wash her only linen, and she will scour herself in the bath, and at brunch with her friends when stray specks yet catch the light at her cheek or the corner of her eye she’ll make empty jokes about glitter and glue and grade-school art. And in the days and weeks to come she will find herself from time to time to’ve been staring at nothing at all, and her chest cracked open, and the heart of her cored right out, and nothing to hand but stones that might fill the hollow ache, and she will not know why. But these will pass; they will come to her fewer and fainter and further between, as time passes. But they still will come, till the end of her days.”

Bending down she presses a simple kiss to those sleeping lips, then sits up. “I should go,” she says. She pulls at sheets and blankets to free them, drape them over the body beside her, sloughing more glimmering clouds.

“You might. But where?”

Tucking blankets about shoulders she doesn’t look up, doesn’t turn around. “With you?” she says.

And a hiss of intaken breath from out in the hall, and the light all about the room quivers. “Not yet.” A sigh, and the light begins to gyre. “Not for some time yet.”

“How,” she says, but the next word’s just a shape of her mouth, and she swallows, and starts again. “I have nothing,” she says. Turning on the bed, light swimming about her. “Not a thing.” Lowering a foot to the rumpled shadows strewn along the floor, but she does not stand. “Even my clothes are someone else’s.”

“I hope the coat is warm, Majesty.”

She looks up, into the darkness, arms around herself.

“It snows. Do you not hear it? An inch or more already, while you were,” and another hiss of breath then, colder, softer, “otherwise,” as she says “Fucking” sharply. “While we we were fucking. Say it. It’s a perfectly fine word, for what we were doing.”

“Majesty. This is unseemly,” but she’s turned away again, stirring the syrupy light with a dismissive hand. “So this is the great mystery?” she says, her voice rising. “This is how Queens might be quickened? Because the wonder then is that it hasn’t happened a hundred times over already.” Leaning over the body asleep beside her, hair falling a curtain before her face. “Is this woman, then, Petra B, does this make her King of Roses? And am I now her Bride?” Pushing her hair up and back over her shoulder, a gesture that sets off another glittering pavane in the air, she looks up and past it all into the darkness. “Or is it to be the cocktail waitress I kissed tonight, or the dancer? The Starling? And a fine return on the Duke’s joke that would be.” Up then and unfolding herself by the bed to stand in an awful slow collision of light, knotting sparks that flare and pop about her, here and there, and there. “Or that appalling girl who cut me, laid me open and started it all, welling up. Who’s dead now, but no matter! All hail her! All hail the King, come back.” The light’s settling, glittering in her hair, limning her shoulders, her breasts, her hand on her hip, her knee cocked, so. “Or must,” she says, “the King be a king? Is it then to be the Mooncalfe? He did sweep me so adroitly off my feet. Will he now sit the Empty Throne? Is that where this all ends?”

A creak, a floorboard, perhaps. “Your brother,” says that voice, slowly, and lugubrious.

“Wait for the King,” she’s saying, “wait for the King, wait for the King to take my hand and gallantly lead me to my wheel. My wheel; my burden, my guí and toradh; his hand. My brother? He,” but the next word stumbles, and she closes her eyes. Bites her lip. Sits back again, against the edge of the bed. “Ys, he said, Ys, there once were queens, wild queens, in the mountains, who spun whatever gold they liked from straw. If we might only learn their secret, that mystery, why, you can be Queen, Ys, and I can be your King, and you, you will never, have to take, anyone’s, hand…”

“He loves you, very much.”

“He left me.”

“Majesty – ”

“Do not call me that,” she says, quietly, and calm.

“But you are now the Queen.”

“Because of this,” she says, scooping up a handful of dust. “What do you think, a firkin? Or more?” Letting it shimmer through her fingers. “A Queen’s ransom,” she says.

“Or a city’s.”

She flings the dust then, toward the open door, but it blooms in swirls and useless puffs of light that do not reach the shadows. “You’d leave it here, like sand, for her to sweep,” she says.

“You will make more.”

The light sifting out of the dimming air. Sullen glows lick the edges of things, the blankets hillocked behind her, the crowded nightstand there, wineglass and plastic tumbler, bottles and jars of lotions and creams, an alarm clock topped by little bells, a dull pale fluted phallus, a jumble of keys on a ring. The artless tangle of her hair as her head bows. The bare slopes of her shoulders. “I broke,” she says. Arms folded in her lap, elbows cupped in her hands, feet on the gilded floor crossed one over the other. “I need a,” and then she shivers, shakes her head, fending off what might have been a laugh. “I don’t even have any cigarettes,” she says, and then, “I saw, today, what I hadn’t seen, that morning. When I ate the tongue.” Looking up now, up and up in the darkening room. “I’ve told anyone who might listen that I’d seen myself, as Queen. And Jo, at my side, and, and no King at all, that I was mindful of.” She’s closed her eyes. “But,” she says. “I was not sumptuously dressed. Jo wore, one of her T-shirts. One of those awful T-shirts. And it was, a glorious day, a blue sky, and only one great cloud, white and gold, and,” she opens her eyes. “It was shaped, it was a shape one might’ve taken for a Hind, for the banner, of the Bride. But it was just, a cloud, and her hand, I held, her hand. And all about us,” and she takes a breath, and looks down, back out into the shadowed hall. “All about us people, just people, went about their business, and took no notice.” A hand to her forehead now, her eyes. “And I hadn’t noticed, until, it hadn’t occurred to me, before. I was just, we were just.” Another breath, deep, shaky. “So small a life,” she says, “but still. And now – you’ve come, to tell me I am Queen. And she will wake. And I must go.” Both hands in her lap again, and her head hung low. “I need a cigarette.”

“I – can’t help, with that.”

“Then what use are you,” she says, and pushes herself back to her feet. Dust kicked up from the floor glimmers over the shapes of discarded clothing. She stoops, to snatch at something.

“But little enough, except at times. When I might pass on some scrap of message, or such little news, as might, for instance, be about your brother.”

“Petulance does not,” she snaps, “become,” but then she looks up, a T-shirt pale in her hands, and “you,” she says, a sliver of a word. “Lymond?”

“Even he. He has returned.”

“You let him go.”

“I never held him, child. He’s none of mine.”

“No,” she says, looking down.

“He is about the city, gathering banners to his own. He would be King.”

“I would,” she’s saying, “he would’ve found me. He would’ve come for me. I would, I would be, he, he promised.”

“Whatever I might think, he will be King. And you, his Queen. And everything you wanted, everything, despite all our misgivings. It will come to pass.”

“No,” she says, and she lifts the T-shirt up above her head, working one arm then the other up and into and through the sleeves.

“It snows, but snow will melt. We will go on.”

“No,” she says, tugging the T-shirt down about herself. A thump from out in the hall then, a step toward her, or away. “Ysabel.”

“No,” she says, and then more loudly “No” and “No” and “No.” A rustle of blankets behind her, a bedspring’s groan, a snort, a snoring sigh. She tugs her black hair from the neck of the T-shirt, and light fluffs into the air. “No,” she says, quietly, again. Letters scrawled in black ink across the front of that shirt say The Gloomadon Poppers.

“We must go on.”

“I broke,” she says. “Today. I,” and then, “for as long as I can remember,” she says, “I have held above my head this crown, and waited, patiently, until the day that I might put it on. But, today.” Kneeling in that sagging T-shirt on the glowering floor. “Today. This,” and a hitch in her breath before the next word, “terrible, day, I, I put it down. And I’m, you can’t see it. But I’m trembling, with such, such relief? It was too heavy. You must know. Far too heavy. And I can’t take it up, again.” Looking out once more through the empty doorway. “No one could.”

“Ysabel. Child.”

“I think,” she says, “I’ve changed my mind. I’d rather you showed the deference you think I’m due.”

“But you have just said you refuse it. You would not take it up again.”

“You would have us want it.”

“You can no more not be Queen, Ysabel, than not – ”

“Not spin your straw to gold,” she says. She blinks, and then looks down, at her hands, lain flat upon her knees.

Another rush of breath sucked in, and when it’s let out bright dust skirls in flickering devils, a dozen candles or more, wavering, guttering, dying, stripping away what little light is left. “Why then did you flee?”

Her one hand crosses over the other and wraps about it.

“Why did you run from the Mooncalfe? If you’d stayed, let him take you with him to whatever hell he’s planned – it will all end much the same.”

“For the city, perhaps?” she says. “But not for me.”

The room is dark, now, almost as dark as the hall outside. The window in the wall past the bed’s no longer so blank, so black, a sense within of something falling, softly, gently. Or else the whole room floating, rising dizzily, up into the air. And a feathery scratching, faint against the glass.

“Then, Majesty, we have returned to our impasse. And there is nothing left for me to do but hope the coat you have is warm.”

“Wait,” she says, looking up, pushing up, to her feet, a groan and a pop from out in the hall, floorboards, a footstep. She heads for the wall there by the doorway, whick and whisp of her hands on the wallpaper, the sudden thick click of a switch. Light blares whitely from naked bulbs in the fixture in the middle of the ceiling. The walls are suddenly all pink arabesques and faded bouquets, the tangled bedclothes striped dull brown and beige, the clothing on the floor still black, the window harshly glazed now with reflections, and everywhere the drifts of yellow dust. And out in the hall the floor a ruddy wood, the walls of it painted white some time ago, a man, and his pants the color of gravel, and his shirt of ash, and his face is cold and colorless in that light caught wide eyes black a mouth held open under a shapeless nose, jaw set, fixed, a word unspoken, held back with great effort.

“You look,” she says, a hand on the door frame, “so, different…”

And, he closes his eyes. His mouth. He opens his eyes and that face has softened, his shoulders in that ashen shirt pulling back, lowering as he straightens, and his hands held empty, useless, at his sides. He says, in that voice grey, and drear, “You will see me twice more yet.”

“Twice,” says Ysabel, “once, two three – if I, do this,” and the light switch clicks again, the light’s gone, snuffed in ink, “does it count,” she says in the darkness, and click again, the light, too bright, returns, beaming, “as a second time?” But the hall is empty now. There’s no one there.

She takes her hand from the switch, her face quite still, and sere.

Behind her a rustle, and a creak of bedsprings, a hoarsely sleepy voice, “I just had the strangest,” and a cough. “What time is it? Ysabel?”

Ysabel doesn’t answer, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t turn, doesn’t move.

Petra B sits up in her bed, dust sparkling in the harsh light as it falls from her shoulders. “Are you leaving?” She reaches over to the nightstand and finds a phone and thumbs its screen to life. “It’s not even almost three,” she says.

When Ysabel doesn’t say anything again, “Hey. Beautiful. Come back to bed. Stay a while?”

And then, “Ysabel?”

Lurching buttocks clenching spasms tremoring up to jerking shoulders slap and again of flesh on flesh and he barks, the heel of his hand on her hip thumbing the burning heart at the base of her spine and she groans, her hands braced against the other arm of the overstuffed chair and “greh” she says as blowing out he pushes back a single unsteady step reaching out to catch at the back of the chair, his other hand about his cock, her yellow hair heavy with sweat she pushes grimacing the cushion rolling onto her hip on the arm of the chair as he barks and “hanh” he says, a strangled yelp and pale stuff gouts across the chair-back falling to glisten on the cushion and another stream of it jetting from the darkly swollen head of his cock over the other arm of the chair to patter to the floor beyond and she’s off the chair entirely half-falling to a crouch before it looking up at him in that ruddy amber light, head back, braced, clenched, a yowl, and one last dollop, plopping.

“Leo?” she says.

Slumping, buckling, clutching the side of the chair as he sags to his knees, hauling air in, shoving it out, “Nothing,” he says. Shivering.

“Leo,” she says, wincing as she shifts herself a closer crabwise step.

“Not a thing,” he says, looking up, pulling himself grunting to his feet. “All right.” Reaching down a hand to her. She takes it shaky in her own and lets him pull her up. “Maybe it wasn’t, whatever. That’s it. It’s time.” The words a mutter he’s pushing her backwards before him around to the front of the chair. “Forget the car, they’re gonna come looking for the car. Forget the money. Don’t go back to the hall at all. I should’ve thought of that.”

“Leo,” she says, a third time.

“You can’t trust them. You can’t trust anybody.”

“Not even you?”

Pulling her into his arms tight about her, his forehead to her shoulder, “Especially not him,” he says, muffled. Then he leans back to say, “Leave the city,” and she kisses him. “Go,” he says, turning his mouth to one side away. “Plane, train, automobile, gravel barge by dead of night. Get out.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” she says, and lays her cheek against his chest.

“You will,” he says, stepping back from her embrace, turning to face the chair. “Give it a minute.” Leaning forward, bending over, both hands planting on the ends of the arms of the chair.

“Hey,” she says.

“Blood and milk, and jism,” he says, “and honey, and not a mark,” breathing in as he straightens slowly unrolling his spine lifting his shoulders, his head, letting go of the arms of the chair, and then turning his back to it, and facing her again. “Don’t,” she says.

He opens his eyes. Out there past the dim reflections in the great sweep of window the lights of the city spread out below, and the snow, falling. “I am King,” he says, “or I am nothing,” and he lowers himself to sit upon the chair.

And naked before him she shudders violently as he does.

“Huh,” he says.

Naked before him, shivering, arms wound about herself, fingers to her lips, she’s looking down at him naked in the chair, armrests gripped by hands unclenching, bare feet crossed at the ankles. “Is that,” she says, “is that it?”

He looks up from himself his brown locks spilling back from his face and there a slyly sidelong grin, an eyebrow cocked, “Is that it,” he says, “Your Majesty.”

A gasp of a laugh from her and she looks away, a jerk of her head, fingers falling, and laughing himself he snatches her hand and pulls her, stumbling, into his lap, a tangle of knees and elbows, and he kisses her, and she squirms about settling herself, folding her legs together to stretch them out over an arm of the chair, and she takes his face in both her hands and kisses him back.

“You know,” he says.

“What,” she says.

“I am, unutterably hungry.”

“Am I not enough,” and a giggle, “for His Majesty?”

“Ah, ha ha,” he says, “supping my fill of you’s what’s left me ravenous.”

“It’s, what time is it.” She sits up, pulls back. “Three? Four?”

“Or noon, or tea, or quitting, who knows?” he says. “Who cares? There’s one place in town that’s always open.”

“You want hot cakes,” she says, getting up off his lap.

“I could go for some hot cakes,” says the King.

Table of Contents

Orange doors – “Every tool known to man” – Careful; Twilight; Knee – Dropping off – her Majesty’s smokes –

Orange doors, wide segmented overhead doors set one after another down the white walls either side of the alley, all of them that color too luridly deep for the milky light, and a couple of them lifted opened on unlit storage units packed with boxes, furniture, the bulbous rear of a midnight-blue sedan, and the trunk lid’s up, and climbing from it a confusion of pastel taffetas, a striped sock, a plaid plimsoll delicately crushing the snow that’s drifted over the threshold. Straightening a fluff and crinkle of skirts beneath a large black hooded sweatshirt leaning over the fender to offer up a folded bundle soft and grey to Linesse, in her black leather jacket, in a folding lawn chair, legs draped in an afghan, pink and yellow, blue and green.

Squeak and crunch of snow, a man in a knee-length parka and a knit cap, thermos in one ungloved hand, fingers of the other threaded through the handles of mismatched clinking mugs. He offers up his mugged hand to the woman in the skirts, her face still hidden by that hood, and she takes a yellow one that says Is It Friday Yet, and then he swings to offer them to Linesse bent over, she’s unfurled that bundle, sweatpants, and now she looks up, tucks herself back under the afghan, takes a white mug printed with a drooping cartoon mustache. He sets the third on the fender, a black mug that says I’m Not Lost, I’m Locationally Challenged, and pours something richly red and steaming from the thermos into each. He lifts his, and the woman in the skirts lifts hers, and then with the slightest tic of her gunmetal head Linesse lifts hers, and then a nod, and she drinks, and they drink.

At the one end of the alley a pickup truck, and Lymond sitting on the rear bumper in his purple T-shirt, his pinkish-orange hair laid back, dark with sweat, or melted snow. Over the edge of the truck’s bed lopped a couple of shaggy rabbit ears, Glenn’s curled up back there, asleep under a tarp. A creak, a rattle, a bang and another orange door is hoisted, opened, a woman in a pale blue quilted robe shuffling from between a wall of cardboard boxes and a glass-fronted cabinet. A sludgy drone of pipes erupts, counterpointed by bass, and drums, someone’s set an old boom box on a crate, clamoring with the rattle and bang of another door thrown up, someone else stepping out, here, and there, a nod perhaps, a wave.

A short and heavy man climbs out of the cab of the truck, shapeless green coveralls and a battered tweed jacket, a blue meshback cap that says Vanport 15. “He’s here,” he calls out, and Lymond peers around the back of the truck. Trudging down another alley quiet and still, the orange doors all closed and locked, an old man in a pea coat his dark head bald and bare, bent under the weight of an olive duffel. Lymond nods, then sits back against the tailgate. “Gordon,” says the man in the meshback cap.

“Soames,” says the old man with a nod. “That this Prince?”

A brisk nod from the Soames, a jerk of his thumb. “But it’s her,” he says. “Down past Biscuit.”

The pipes and the drums and the bass climb to and end and a guitar jigs out from under it all, a clattering bodhrán, and voices in a harmony distorted by those overpowered speakers sing they’re changing the guard at Buckingham Palace. A man in a worn barn coat’s doing a little dance, there’s a laugh, and a clap, and a whoop. The man in the knee-length parka’s headed back toward the truck, thermos in his hand, and back behind him there’s Linesse in her black leather jacket, her grey sweatpants, one bare foot in the snow and the other lifted to rest against her cocked knee, a tree, her back to the truck, and her mug held up in both her hands.

Gordon stops, dips his shoulder to let the duffel fall, then leaning in lowers himself first one knee then the other beside it.

“She needs shoes,” says the Soames.

“I know what she needs, Tommy Tom,” says Gordon, opening the duffel, digging among a jumble of shoes to pull out a long boot, grey wool and brown leather straps and a buckle, chiming. “Fetch the bolt cutters.”

The Soames Thomas says, “What?”

Up to the shoulder in that duffel Gordon scowls. “Every tool known to man in that truck of yours,” he says. “So reach in and fetch me out a set of bolt cutters.” And then, “You think anyone else of you is gonna do this.”

Around the back of the truck Lymond’s gotten to his feet.

Thomas opens the driver’s door, leans in, working something loose. Up in the back Glenn in his furry jumpsuit sits up as the truck rocks, rubbing at eyes slitted against the thickening light. Thomas pulls out all long dinged yellow levers and snubbed pincers brown with rust and holds them close to himself, frowning at Gordon, who’s pulled the mate of that boot from the duffel. He reaches for the cutters, and Thomas lets them go. “You’re still wearing that hat,” says Gordon, and then he heads off down the alley, past Biscuit, toward Linesse.

“Forgive him, Highness,” says Thomas. He’s taken off his cap, smoothing his thick black hair. “It’s been an extraordinary time.” Biscuit’s putting the thermos in the cab of the truck. “This weather,” says Thomas, putting his cap back on, favoring Biscuit with the briefest look, the merest shake of his head. Biscuit shuts the door, leans back against the truck, blowing on his hands.

“It snowed,” says Glenn, up in the back of the truck. “It never snows.”

Down the alley in their heavy coats and coveralls, their loose black rubber boots, wrapped in blankets and one of them a sleeping bag all splotchy camouflage of pink and red and white and dirty grey, they keep their distance but still, circling about, as Linesse turns to see Gordon there beside her, and his head bowed. She lifts a hand but he stoops away, sets the cutters on the pavement, kneels, heavily, there before her, the boots in his hands, and the music’s now a ringing, chugging guitar riff, a fusillade of drumbeats, a wailing harmony, true love, true love, true love. “And here you are, nevertheless,” says Lymond then, “up with the sun, to see to the needs of your people.”

“My, people?” says Thomas. “Domestics, who can’t keep a hearth? Mechanicals without a purpose? Highness, these, they – these are no one’s people.”

“But,” says Lymond, “when our little band is once more on its way, you’ll have Biscuit open up the truck, and you’ll bring forth the last of my sister’s gift to you, and dole it out to them.”

And Gordon’s buckling a boot about Linesse’s calf.

“Give me your rabbits, Twice Thomas,” says Lymond.

“My rabbits,” says Thomas, toeing a frozen rut.

“The Hare, then,” says Lymond. “A fine emblem it’ll make, on a banner, in the sunlight.”

And Gordon’s tugging the other boot up over Linesse’s foot.

The Soames Thomas, still looking down, hands in the pockets of his jacket, says, “You can’t give us the North, Highness.”

“Can’t?” says Lymond, lightly.

“You can’t,” says Thomas, “make a gift, of what we already hold.”

“A point,” says Lymond, “a fair point,” and Thomas nods, “Highness,” he says. Gordon’s leaning away as Linesse steps back from him in her new boots. He’s climbing slowly to his feet, waving away the hand she offers.

“What you don’t have,” says Lymond, “is a place at court,” and Thomas starts to say, “We’d never,” but Lymond’s speaking over him, “What you don’t have,” he says, “is a full share in the Apportionment.”

Thomas looks up at that. Over to Lymond. “There must be a Queen,” he says.

“Yes,” says Lymond. “There will.”

The cutters in one hand Gordon’s saying something with great force, holding up his free hand, throwing it to one side, and he repeats himself, redoubled, shaking the cutters at her, and when he’s said what he’s saying she reaches out and lets the mug in her hand drop. She unzips her jacket just enough to pull aside the collar and reveal there polished silver. Black Betty, Black Betty had a baby, that wailing harmony’s chanting around itself, Freddy’s dead, that’s what I said.

“It’s not for me,” says Thomas. “It can’t be for me. We won’t allow it. We’ll send who we send to court, and divvy up our share as we see fit.”

“A Count, a Duke, a Marquess,” says Lymond, watching as Gordon levers the cutters open, bites the polished silver with those snubbed brown jaws. “Why not a President, too? The office is yours to fill.”

“I was just thinking,” says Glenn, up behind them, “I mean, are the busses running today? With the snow? We should probably try to figure that – ”

Flare of light and a hollow roar almost a voice and a thump of impact rattling the orange doors in their frames, sending more than one of them clattering crashing closed and closed, and the crowd turns ducking falling away, hands up, shading eyes, and Gordon bellowing staggers back, dropping the cutters smoking to the snow, as Linesse with a slow twist peels the silver torc from about her throat.

“Shit,” says Jessie, working the gas and the clutch, one hand gripping the steering wheel, one hand the gear shift, the car slewing left, juddering, whipping back and settling as speed’s picked up, engine snorting climbing down from its redline howl, snow popping under the tires rolling under the traffic light, past the palatial movie theater on the corner, Bagdad says the big sign in ornamented letters. Careful, says the unlit marquee. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 1030. Cowards Bend the Knee. “Leo,” she says, both hands on the wheel now to steady it through a shudder. The roar of the heater swallowing her voice. “Leo. Almost home.” He’s slumped over against the passenger door, eyes closed wobbling with the car as it whines over another slick patch.

She brakes in stages approaching the snow-draped temple, those high mullioned windows up between white columns capped in green, and turns with a crunch of snow, gunning up into the little lot between the temple and the glass-walled restaurant, and noses to park at a sloppy angle under the blank brick wall. She shuts off the engine, keys clinking in the sudden thunderous silence. “Leo,” she says, and then she’s overtaken by a mighty yawn. He’s blinking, still slumped, thumbing the corners of his eyes. “Time is it,” he says.

“I don’t know,” she says.

“Sun’s up,” he says. “I think?”

“Took a while to get across town,” she says, “what with the snow,” and he’s leaning over, “Hey,” he says, “that’s not what I was getting at.” His hand in her lap. “Leo,” she says. His eyes squeezed shut, his shoulder leaning heavily against her. “I feel,” he says. “Weird? All bloated and starving at once.”

“Given what you ate,” she says.

“Not talking about food.” He frowns at his hand on her thigh, fingers on bare skin between sock and jacket-hem. “You’re cold,” he says.

“I’m freezing,” she says. “I want to get inside and climb into bed and sleep for two days.”

“Only two,” he says, and then, “okay,” and lifts his hand away.

“I like it when it’s snowing,” he says, opening his door, pushing himself to his feet as she opens hers. “Not so much when it has snowed.” Leaning on his cane, limping a step or two away from the car. “What time is it?”

“Leo.” She’s looking over the top of the car at him. “You feeling okay?”

“Something hurts,” he says. “We got something wrong.” Turning about in the empty lot, lifting his cane, “Nineteen,” he says, with a sweep of his arm, “eighteen – seventeen knights, and who’s here the break of a Saturday dawn, jars and bottles in hand?”

“The snow,” she says.

“Fuck the snow.” He stomps around the front of the car. “Sixteen.”


“You think Luys is coming back? You think any of them are coming back?”

“Your Grace?”

There at the corner by the sidewalk a man in a puffy cream-colored coat, rich red hair flopping from a high widow’s peak, and in his hand a cloudy plastic bottle with a bright red lid, and Leo leaning into it cane-tip squelching in the snow swarms up to him, “You will address my Majesty,” he snarls, slapping the bottle away.

“Leo!” says Jessie.

“Sir?” says the man in the cream-colored coat.

And he draws back, both hands on the head of his cane now, looking from the one to the other, biting his lip. “Let’s go inside,” he says, the words clipped, small, and when the man in the cream-colored coat steps over to reach for the bottle, “Leave it.”

Around the corner then, and up the steps, and through the double doors.

Through the double doors, and across the black-and-white tiled foyer. Up the wide white-painted stairs. She leans against, presses herself against the buzzing red bulk of a Coke machine as his hand on the faceted glass knob he leans close to the plain white door and says, “And Farquahr will be two.”

Down the dark hall, past the big room washed in thin light from those high narrow windows, through an odd little corner and into the cramped kitchen, where she stops, looks back. “Leo?” she says. By the sink a single glass turned upside down.

Through a swinging door into the airy white room, the small round table there in the middle of it, the three absurdly high-backed chairs about it, the white ridge of a sectional sofa down at the one end, the plain translucent shower curtains lining the other, and slowly a hand up before her she walks up to them, and parts them, and steps between racks of clothing, dresses, jackets, a phalanx of skirts, a platoon of jeans, clouds of lingerie. At the end of it all she sits on a low stool before a three-way mirror, in her grey chauffeur’s jacket, her yellow hair swept back under her grey chauffeur’s cap, reaching down her black-socked leg for the laces of her red shoes, those bright red Keds, but her hands fall away and up to wrap about her knees, and when she looks up, her eyes screwed shut, her mouth a twist, her cheeks shine.

Squeal and a scrape of rings as she pushes through shower curtains, clear but rippled with triangles in loud colors. She’s wearing a long white sleeveless T-shirt, and her eyes are clear, and her feet bare. There before her a queen-sized bed in a pool of soft light from the corner windows, piled high with white comforters and pillows. The man in the bed sits up on one elbow, and his smile is rueful, and he says, “I’m sorry. I had nowhere else to go.” His dark hair brushes his shoulders, and his new beard’s neatly trimmed. His chest a thicket of lush dark curls. His eyebrows cock, his smile quirks, “You did ask me to come back,” he says.

“I haven’t slept,” she says, climbing into the bed. “I have got to sleep.” Settling on her side, her back to him. Folding a pillow under her ear.

“So sleep,” he says. “I’ve kept the bed warm for you.” He leans over her, kisses her shoulder, and when she closes her eyes and doesn’t lift her face to him he leans over even more to kiss her cheek. “Kings die,” he says. “They die; it’s what they do.” Stroking her shoulder once more, then rolling over on his back. “Magicians don’t.”

Some time passes before she says, “Lake,” without opening her eyes. “I don’t have a sister.”

His hands clasped together just beneath his chin, those dark eyes gazing up at the unfinished ceiling, he sighs. “Tell me about her,” he says. “Whatever you like. Just until you fall asleep.”

“Certain ancient megaliths,” says Mr. Charlock, “were said to go down to the nearest stream for a drink, at astronomically propitious times of the year.” He’s stretched out the length of the back seat, empty sleeves of his black suit yanked tight around and beneath him, and wound about with orange electrical cord. “Their dead were buried upright, facing west.” He’s looking up, working his shoulders, his neck, trying to see out the window above him. His shoelaces have been tied together. “It is suggested,” he says, straining, “the experimenter, face himself, to the east.”

“East,” says Mr. Keightlinger, stirring from behind the wheel, leaning down to look up and out the passenger window. Outside the snow’s steeped in pale blue shadows, but light sharpens up behind the big house across the trackless street. A broad porch, there, and four front doors each set one right next to another. “Okay,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“He didn’t sing,” says Mr. Charlock. “They sing, in the snow.” Wriggling against the cords. “He didn’t beat his wings against our shields.”

“Keep still,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“Low, keep low,” says Mr. Charlock, “hell yes I did, like a worm in the,” and he frowns, shoulder rolling as he pulls against something, “snow,” wriggling again, “all those wings, and eyes.” Jacket bunching up under the orange cord and there where his white shirt’s showing his hand, twisting about. “He didn’t see us, but he wasn’t even looking. He was, he – was.”

“What,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“Sad,” says Mr. Charlock.


“Sad. Still. As near a miss, as I’ll, ever want.” The car rocks as he kicks, jerks, kicks again. His hand down by his hip clawing at a loop of cord.

“Stop,” says Mr. Keightlinger, leaning even further down. “Be still.”

Out there the third of those four front doors is opening and stepping out there’s Ysabel, black moccasin boots and thin black coat, white fur trailing from the cuffs, white fur about the hood of it framing her face. Mr. Charlock kicks again, hand wrenching free enough to flop against his belly. “Stop,” says Mr. Keightlinger, crouching along the front seat. Ysabel’s turned back, facing the woman wrapped in a long heavy robe the color of wine, her black hair short, and tied about her throat a strand of fine black lace, and the air glimmers about them as she reaches out for Ysabel’s hand. Mr. Keightlinger clucks his tongue.

“What,” says Mr. Charlock, kicking, rocking the car. “What!”

Ysabel says something, lifts her hand away, and Petra leans forward abruptly to snatch a kiss at her fingertips. “Burgundy,” says Mr. Keightlinger, and a jingle of keys. “The hell does that even mean?” says Mr. Charlock. Ysabel’s taken Petra’s face in both her hands and leaned in for a long swallow of a kiss, and light blooms in the shadows about them, and a burning limb of sunlight crests the roof far above. “Around the block,” says Mr. Keightlinger, ducked below the wheel, slotting a key in the ignition. “Get some distance.”

“From what?” Flicking the fingers of his free hand, crossing them index and middle, pinkie and ring, Mr. Charlock twists it about and curls it into a white-cornered fist. Mr. Keightlinger turns the key, and nothing happens. Ysabel lets go of Petra, steps back, steps back again, and Petra B reaches after her, clutching her parting robe, saying something, pleading. “Let go,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“Where,” says Mr. Charlock, fist still tightly curled.

“Wait and watch,” says Mr. Keightlinger, turning the key again, and again, pounding the wheel with the heel of his hand. “Let go.”

“She’s alone,” says Mr. Charlock, rocking the car with another kick. “She has no one! Grab her and be done with it!”

Ysabel’s coming down the steps. Still reaching out her face crumpling Petra sinks to her knees, and light falls from her hand as it closes on nothing. Ysabel careful of her booted feet in the stiff snow, looking up to see the low-slung orange car parked across the trackless street, snow falling from its faded black ragtop as it rocks from side to side.

“We coulda had her last night!” says Mr. Charlock, and Mr. Keightlinger’s muttering “Bind, bind and stop.” Mr. Charlock’s rolled over on one side, his other hand squirming there at the small of his back, fighting free of his rucked-up jacket, fingers jabbing, rigid, a sizzle, a long slash ripping through the vinyl seat-back, and old yellow foam rubber popping from the slit. “We coulda been back in Schenectady by now!”

“Never been,” says Mr. Keightlinger, leaning over the front seat, raising a hand.

“It’s a figure of speech!” shrieks Mr. Charlock, and someone’s tapping on the window, and they freeze.

“Well?” says Mr. Charlock, after a moment.

Mr. Keightlinger ducks back down, peers up through the window. Ysabel’s squinting through the scratched and dirty light-struck glass.

“Go on,” says Mr. Charlock, relaxing his fist, stretching out his fingers.

Mr. Keightlinger leans across to roll down the passenger-side window a couple of inches. “Do you have any cigarettes?” says Ysabel through the gap. “I could really use a smoke, and I don’t, I don’t have any,” and she shrugs. Mr. Keightlinger shakes his head. “No,” he says.

“Okay,” she says, looking away, blinking at the light. “You’ve been following me.”

And a single loud flat bark of a laugh from Mr. Charlock.

“All this time,” says Ysabel, looking back into the car, at Mr. Charlock sprawled across the back seat. “The two of you. All this time.”

Mr. Keightlinger doesn’t say anything. “She’s got us, dead to rights,” says Mr. Charlock.

“And that was you, last night,” says Ysabel. “And on his machine. Place and time. The club. He was going to sell me to you.”

Mr. Keightlinger doesn’t say anything. “Give, more like,” says Mr. Charlock.

From behind her across the street a plaintive cry, “Ysabel!”

“Show me,” she says, and she opens the passenger door. Mr. Keightlinger presses himself back against the driver’s door, “Wait,” he says, as she climbs into the car. “Show me what would’ve happened,” she says, “if he had. If I hadn’t.”

“Observe!” cackles Mr. Charlock. “Wait and watch her climb right in!”

“Ysabel!” wails Petra B.

She pulls the car door shut, and glitter settles on the seat about her. “Go,” she says. “Before that woman wakes the whole neighborhood.”

“Do not engage,” says Mr. Charlock. Mr. Keightlinger turns the key. The engine rumbles to life. And the Queen leans over, punches a button, twists a knob, and the heater roars to life. She holds her hands over the vent in the dash. “Come on,” she says. “Show me what I’m for.”

“Just watch,” Mr. Charlock’s chanting, as Mr. Keightlinger puts the car in gear, “Just watch, just you watch – ”

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Mammoth No Arms,” written by Rare Air, copyright holder unknown. Buckingham Palace; Dunford’s Fancy,” written by A.A. Milne, arranged by the Flash Girls, copyright holder unknown. True Love, Pt. #2,” written by John Doe and Exene Cervenka, copyright holder unknown.

Clank, and up

Clank and up he sits, owlish, fuddled. Puts out a hand bang against the side of the tub and clatter the ducting clamped about his forearm, the pot lid cupping his shoulder, wound about with grubby grey tape. The colander rakishly precarious on his head tilts over the bridge of his nose and his running shoes squeak on the enamel and the ducting and stove pipe crimping his filthy jeans a kitchen cabinet spilling into a sink. Scrape and thump. One hand bare finds the edge of the tub and grips it, the other a club in a thick hockey glove bats the colander, knocking it back, there’s his dark unfocused eyes, his unwashed hair that lankly shines, the stubble blotching his chin.

Leaning over the toilet rush and splatter of piss that bulky gloved hand braced against the wall. Scrape and jangle. Red plastic cups lined up along the back of the toilet and a couple of cans that say Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Cola, Real Kentucky. Pushing back wavering from the wall both hands gloved and bare pawing at the fly of his jeans “Shit” he says and hisses and then frustrated shakes the glove loose, flings it thump to the floor and catches himself from falling. Buttons himself up.

“Fucking hell,” says Frankie Reichart.

Clamor and clunk down a flight of stairs too many at a time, wrenching himself to a stop before the bottom, leaning out over the railing, the dark hall below, to one side a wide doorway, high-ceilinged room, a ruddy flicker struggling with daylight muted by drawn shades. At the foot of the steps is sprawled a woman in a green and yellow cheerleader outfit, dozing with a laptop on her chest. She doesn’t stir as he gingerly steps over.

In that room past the long dining table littered with dirty glasses and mostly empty bottles a fireplace, and crouching before it a bald man all sharp corners draped in a charcoal-stripe suit. He doesn’t look up as Frankie crashes to a halt. Keeps poking the dying fire as Frankie says “Hey,” and “Hey” and “Where is everybody.” Clanking further into the room, and all those painted faces up along the picture-molding, just beneath the ceiling, looking out upon each other. “The party’s over? You got me all dolled up like this, marched me half across town, now what.”

“She’s left us here, arreared, to join herself to the Changeling’s court,” says the bald man by the fire. “Yourself is free to go, or not.” On the pale hearth by his knee in a splash of char a tarnished snake of silvery metal, not much longer than two hands laid one after another.

“What happened,” says Frankie, “what happened to your – ”

“Stay, or go,” says the bald man, “as you’d prefer.” Levering up a log with the poker, he blows into the gap he’s made, and sullen flames lick out from underneath. “You’ll find it makes no difference.”

A hand up against the brilliance of the white outside, the seamless snow, the faintest blue tingeing the cloudless sky. “Christ,” says Frankie Reichart, looking back through the door stood open on the darkness of that house. A gassy snort, a climbing whine of a rumble dropping suddenly to climb again and the clinking of chains, a bus bulling its way down the street, and wet black ruts in its wake. A peal of laughter from somewhere, a block away, or two, and water ticking, dripping, a plop and splash from the eaves. “Well, hell,” he says, and yanks the colander from his head, whips it skimming out into the yard. “It’ll all be gone by two, anyway.” Banging a stumble down the steps from the porch, and way up above, the ghost of a crescent moon, looking back toward the rising sun.

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