Go to content Go to navigation Go to search

Table of Contents

the Two ways This might go –

“There’s two ways this goes down,” she says. Bared fingertips grip a hilt wrapped in dulled wire, simple, straight, and above it quillions clean straight bars, and over about it all and her gloved fist a glittering net of wiry strands that meet in thick round worked steel knots all gathered together in a cord that swoops to end at the great silvery clout of a pommel. “That’s it.”

“No,” he says, “no, it’s not.” All in black, black slacks rolled up at his shins, black turtleneck, his pink hands held out empty to either side, and his bald head pinkly shaking, no. “There’s but one way we might go out from this moment we have freely, each of us, entered into. Our terrible, freighted moment will come to its ending only when you stick me with your steel, and down I crumble, into dust. For if you will not do this,” and one of those hands is lifted, up, and even in this harsh light, bright light flares between his curling fingers. “I will let out your life,” he says, drawing down a sneering curl of cutlass from the air.

Her right foot slips back, blade of her sword dipping as she holds her free hand up between them. “That’s not,” she says, “nobody’s, done anything yet, that can’t be undone.”

“Oh, but Huntsman,” he says, a sliding shuffle-step toward her, cutlass angled up and back, above his head. “One of us will.”

Another step back, and she settles into her stance, sword up, en garde. His chest swells with a growling breath. A concussive whump shakes the entire room, everything, staggers them both, sends him to his knees, billowing dust, the lamps swaying high above, and one blows in a burst of raining sparks, filing cabinets tipping banging crashing down, the clatter of dropped blades, rising smoke, a scream

Table of Contents

“Does it hurt?” – before the Sun – her Grace; his Lady – Back-slaps & Glad-hands – the Candidates –

“Does it hurt?”

“What?” says Jo, a dark shape turning away from dark windows. Over on the futon a rustle, Ysabel ghostly sitting up, “Does it,” she’s saying, and then, “you’re up.” And then, “You’ve been smoking.”

Jo shrugs. On the sill by her hand a glass ashtray, a scrumble of ash, a single filterless butt. Ysabel’s feeling about, lifting blankets, tipping over to peer at the floor, and “Down at the foot,” says Jo. Ysabel leans up, hands and knees, reaches out, sits back against the pillows with something glossily white in her hands. “Time is it,” she says.

“Almost five,” says Jo. “Luys’ll be here, any minute.” Red shirt in the shadows nearly as black as her kilt.

“Of course,” says Ysabel, bunching up the stuff in her hands, pulling it over her head, a shimmering fall of chemise. “The Samani.”

“Knights gonna knight,” says Jo, and Ysabel chuckles, leans back, her head against the wall. “While Queens cannot be bothered to sleep in their own beds,” she says.

“You know I don’t mind.”

“Still,” says Ysabel. “It’s not as if we must, anymore?” Something glitters under her eye, a smudge of gold.

“Anyway,” says Jo, getting to her feet, “I was gonna go see if the coffee was ready yet – ”

“Of course it is,” says Ysabel, absently picking at the smudge, peeling away a lacey scab.

Jo’s hand on the knob of the door to the room. “Right,” she says. On the wall by the door a sword, slung from a leather strap, the scabbard of it plain and black, the simple hilt wrapped in wire, swaddled in a basket of wiry strands. Above it from the same nail a painted skull-mask, teeth crudely chiseled, black mane falling almost to brush the floor. “Want a cup?”

“Bible-black,” says Ysabel, “and sweeter than sin,” but she opens her eyes. “Jo?” she says, sitting up, “you do,” and leaning on that word, she’s weighing what she might say next, but Jo with a dismissive shake of her head’s already interrupting, “You know,” she says, and she opens the door.

The unlit hall, then the kitchen, shadowy grey and blue. There’s a slender vase tucked full of cornflowers, and beside it a stainless steel carafe, a couple of travel mugs. Jo thumbs back the lid of the carafe for a sniff, a smile, “I’m sorry I ever doubted you,” she murmurs. Frowns. Cocks an ear, looks sidelong at the door to the apartment.

Opening the door Jo leaps back with a yelp as the woman lying across the threshold flops over, tan raincoat, clumsy wedge-soled sandals scraping for purchase, blond hair hung severely straight, a thready whisper, “Ysabel?” A cough.

“Chrissie?” says Jo. Hands on her shoulders, helping her sit up, lean back against the jamb. “What the hell. Are you, okay? Chrissie?”

“Chrissie,” says Ysabel, there in the mouth of the unlit hall.

“Ysabel,” says Chrissie, pushing shuff and clomp to her feet, “I didn’t mean to wake you,” and “You can’t,” says Ysabel, looking up to Chrissie towering in those heels, and “I thought you sent her home,” says Jo, as tottering Chrissie drops to one knee, raincoat lopping about a silvery cocktail dress, “I just wanted,” she’s saying, as Ysabel, arms folded, steps back, and Jo says, “You said you sent her home.”

“Chrissie,” says Ysabel. “You mustn’t.”

“She was out there all night?” says Jo.

“I’m sorry,” says Chrissie. “But I just couldn’t leave.”

“Jesus, Ysabel,” says Jo. “Did you ask her?”

“You need to go home, Chrissie,” says Ysabel, carefully, but “I don’t want to!” cries Chrissie, crumbling, and Ysabel, arms still folded, looks up to Jo. “Could you?” she says.

“Could I, what, no. Ysabel, I’m leaving. In, like, as soon as Luys gets here.”

“Of course,” says Ysabel, “he can drive you. It’s on your way.”

“The hell it is,” says Jo. “We have to be in Forest Park before the sun comes up. Ysabel, goddammit, answer me. Did you ask her.” Something’s chiming.

“I’ll play the game, I swear,” says Chrissie, thickly, looking up. Something’s chiming, getting louder. “Whatever I have to do.”

“Jo,” says Ysabel.

Jo pulls her phone from her shirt pocket, swipes at it, yanks it to her ear. “The hell can’t you learn to text like a normal person,” she snaps, then stuffs the phone away. “Luys,” she says. “He’s here.”

“Then it’s settled,” says Ysabel.

“The hell it is,” says Jo, stepping around Chrissie. “Call a cab, call her sister,” past Ysabel, down the unlit hall, “hell, wake Iona up, I don’t care.”

Chrissie’s hands on Ysabel’s hips, fingers gripping the glossy chemise pulling Ysabel close. “Please,” she says, face pressed to Ysabel’s belly. “Let me stay. For the day.” Looking up, at Ysabel, looking down. “I love you.”

And Ysabel, shaking her head, her hands on Chrissie’s hands, pulls them loose, pulls out and up, a step back as Chrissie slowly stands, hands in hands to either side. “No,” says Ysabel, leaning close, “you don’t,” against Chrissie’s lips.

“Shit,” says Jo, in the hallway behind them, and Ysabel breaks off the kiss, lets go. “Okay,” says Jo, “fine. Chrissie.” The sword slung from her shoulder, and in her other hand the mask, the mane of it twitching restlessly, looping, coiling across the floor. “Let’s get you home.”

No one looks up as he leaves. On the television screen, a man with greasy hair sews up a bloody gash in his arm.

Outside, the darkness, and low houses. He hunches under the hood of his grimy sweatshirt, heads quickly down one side of the street, avoiding cars and pickups parked along the margins of the regular, unkempt yards. Lights switch on with an audible clunk as he passes one house, chain-link fence about it hung with signs that say Posted and Beware of Dog, and sinuous bars of white wrought iron on the windows of it, and the front door. He ducks away, heads on. The lights switch off.

An overpass ahead, a close horizon brightly lit, and busses snore beneath. A driver leans against one, smoking the end of a cigarette. Past that another overpass, more slender, more dim. He crosses under, looking up, a sculpture on the other side, smooth blue stalks twining up and topped by thistled fronds of plastic about slumbering solar panels. Head down he climbs a stairway along the embankment to train tracks above.

Daylight threatens half the sky up here, off past the houses and low trees. Two hills rise, one there, spangled even now with houselights and with streetlights, the other a hole cut in the burgeoning light. He stands with his back to it all, looking over a ticket machine that’s blinking to itself, Select Passenger, it says, Select Passenger. He shrugs and sets off over the walkway across the tracks to the empty platform. No Smoking, says a sign. Fare Paid Zone, Proof of Payment Required.

The train when it arrives is only a couple of blocky cars long, squealing, groaning to a stop. Doors open on a recorded voice that says, This is a Green Line train to Portland City Center. Another look up and down the platform. In the priority seating area, you are required to move for seniors and people with disabilities, and then another voice, En el área de prioridad, and he steps onto the empty train, ceda el asiento a personas de edad avanzada, past the couple of seats right there by the doors, y personas con discapacidad, and up a couple of steps into the end of the car, grabbing a pole to swing himself into a seat, but he stops short, blinks, looks back, looks outside. Then Christian Beaumont, pushing back the hood of his grimy sweatshirt, reaches down and picks up the shoe from that orange plastic seat, a shining oxblood monk-strap shoe, a bit of dried mud clinging to the sole.

Doors are closing, says the first voice. Train departing. Please hold on.

Greenery climbing steeply either side, abrupt high wall of it coolly shadowed close on the left, lit up over across a deeply shadowed gorge to the right by the rising sun, a tunnel ahead, white numerals set in mossy stone above, 1940, briefly glimpsed before it closes over them, lamps strung down the spine of it and green daylight at the end of it yawns them out. “You maybe what to slow down?” says Jo.

“We’re late,” says Luys, leaning the car into a curve.

“We get pulled over, we’ll be even later,” says Jo. “Look, I’m sorry about the, joggers, joggers!” On the gravel shoulder by a low stone wall bouncing ponytail, light blue jacket, balding shirtless long white socks and gone, another, tighter curve, a demure bit of bridge, another tunnel. “If I might advise your grace,” says Luys, sunlight flashing, dappling, “do not apologize.” One hand on the wheel, one on the polished wood knob of the gearshift. A bit of leather tied about his wrist. Jo says, “It’s my fault we’re late. Taking her home.”

“You did as her majesty desired,” says Luys. The car bottoms out, then soars, a ripple in the road, leans into another curve. “There is no fault in that.”

“Jesus, Luys, slow down,” says Jo. The engine whines, swallows, growls as he works pedals and gearshift. She leans forward, gripping the armrest, the car’s slowing, slows further. The tock-tick-tock of the turn signal. “Your grace,” says Luys, turning the wheel, “should not apologize.”

Gravel crunches as the car noses down into a crowded little lot, a couple of dark blue SUVs, a white one, a boxy jeep atop enormous tires, the long taupe tail of a coupe de ville. Luys wheels abruptly into a space at the end, by a lone black motorcycle. Opens his door, looks over to Jo, who hasn’t unbelted herself. “Shall we?” he says. “Your grace?”

“See, but there’s the thing,” she says. “It’s gonna be a your grace kind of morning. Not so much my lady.”

Couple of signs on a wooden post, Wildwood Trail, this way and that, Audubon yonder. Jo leads the way down rough log steps, red shirt billowing unbuttoned over her blacks, black T-shirt, kilt, leggings, her red Chuck Taylors squelching muddy down the slender trail, cigarette in her hand. Luys behind her all in browns, ducking his dark head under low branches. Down they go, and down, switching back along the wall of that deep gorge, into all that green. Far below a chuckle of water, a glimpse of wooden bridge.

Someone’s standing on the bridge, thick bare legs and a cloak of fur about hips and shoulders, leaning on a massive cudgel half his height. Jo scowls, dropping her cigarette to the ground. “I’m thinking I’m maybe underdressed,” she mutters, grinding it out.

“Your grace is fine,” says Luys, and when she steps up onto the bridge he stoops to pick up the half-smoked butt. The man on the bridge lifts his ruddy bald head, wide fur-wrapped chest a-swell with a great inhalation. “Southeast!” he booms. “The Huntsman, and the Mason!” Cudgel-tip banging the planks of the bridge, once.

“Yeah,” says Jo. “Sorry we’re, uh, late.”

Luys closes his eyes, and opens them again. The man on the bridge steps aside, “Your grace,” he says, and a sweep of his arm, “is merely the last to arrive.”

Across the bridge the trail follows the bottom of the gorge, running along the bank of the creek. Up ahead Jo red and black stumps over rumples of rock and root, and Luys and the fur-cloaked man following after. “You’re to take office, then?” says Luys. “But not as Porter, surely.”

“Gordon’s with us yet,” and a shake of that ruddy head, “and as stubborn, and as selfish.” A glance spared, back at the bridge. “The Soames thought it best, though, to have someone stand where he won’t.”

“You swear to the Soames?”

“Four of us,” says the fur-wrapped man, “and three to the Marquess. And the Hound’s brought a weaselly fellow, all in blue.”

“A crowded field.”

“But none for the Hawk?”

One boot up on a hunch in the trail, Luys leans an elbow on his knee, “Her grace,” he says, “thought it best to wait.” Jo’s forging on ahead, red hair licked bright by the sun.

“How is she,” says the fur-wrapped man, “as, well,” but from away up the trail a rumor of astonishment, applause, a distant clang of steel. “They’ve started without us,” says Luys.

“They must not a heard me,” says the fur-wrapped man, “I got to warn them,” sandal slipping in the mud as he pushes to climb the hunch, but there’s the Mason’s hand, reached down, and a tight smile sits the Mason’s mouth as he hauls him up, “I look forward,” he says, “to calling you brother.”

The fur-wrapped man nods, and sets off at a run, cudgel in both hands, “Gallowglas to the field!” he bellows. “Gallowglas!” Jo stepping to one side as he barrels past. “Gallowglas approaching!”

The trail bends around a buttress of gorge-wall, turning into the rising sun, climbing up away from the creek. Ahead, the ruins of an old stone house, thick walls softened by vivid green moss and topped by stark gables at either end, shingles beams and rafters long since gone, and with them doors and frames, shutters and window-glass. A new metal railing’s been bolted along the edge of what once was a second floor, and braced against it flagpoles bearing banners brightly limp: blue, green, red, white, their emblems glimpsed in listless folds, a hound, a hare, a stark black hawk, an empty helm. Highest and largest of all a yellow banner, a glowering bee, plump stripes and slender wings. A crowd of mostly men’s pressed up against the railing, suit coats and sweaters, rain gear, dull greens, dark blues, greys and blacks and browns. Below them, where the trail pools before the ruin, the fur-wrapped man’s bent over, hand on knee to catch his breath, and a handful of figures wait, weapons in hands, watching as up climbs Jo, and the Mason at her heels. “Huntsman!” rings a cry from the railing, pink hair bobbing, slicker brightly yellow: Lymond, the King. “You’ve brought the sun!”

“Yeah, you know,” she calls up to him. “So. This is the, thing. The Samani.”

“It will be, once you’re up here, and safely off the field.”

“Oh,” says Jo, “right. That.” She heads for the steps that stagger up the side of the ruin, but one of those armed figures, a fencer in black trousers spinning bare feet slapping whip-snap of rapiers in either hand beads clacking in her hair, leaps at a man in long white robes his scimitar swung wide to knock aside her first blade but the second, “Hold!” cries someone, the King, and “Zeina!” someone else, and that second thrust’s stopped, whicked aside. Jo’s hand on the mossy stone corner, a foot on the first worn step. The man in the white robes steps back, lowering his sword. The fencer laughs. “Aw,” she cries. “I only wanted to see what would happen!”

They climb the steps, Gallowglas and Mason, up and through a stolid arch onto the second floor, open between those gables, grey stone rusty with moss and lichen, scrawled over with neon-bright graffiti. The crowd mills about, back-slaps and glad-hands, cheers and laugher as with grunts and shouts the clangor resumes below. Jo looks about, arms folded, Luys behind her, nodding, waving someone over, a boy in a brown bomber jacket, brown hair popped in a matted pompadour. “Boss!” he cries, arms flung wide. “They was starting to worry.”

“Let ’em,” says Jo, still looking about.

“How’s the banner look?” says the boy. “I think the old buzzard needs a fucking stitch-up, you ask me.”

“Did you find him,” says Jo.

“Did I fucking find him. Fuck yes I found him.”

“Not so loud, Sweetloaf,” says Luys.

“You wouldn’t a fucking sent me if you didn’t fucking think I could get it the fuck done,” he’s muttering.

“He isn’t here,” says Jo. “What did he say.”

“What he said was, he already told you. No. He said fuck no. That was him, the fuck no. Not me.”

“Your grace,” says Luys. Coming through the crowd there, yellow and pink, the King, big wide smile and a red plastic cup in either hand. “We were starting to worry!” he says, offering one to her.

“Yeah, well,” she says, and takes a sip. “It’s loaded,” she says, blinking.

“We’re not going to not have fun,” says the King. “You’d rather a mimosa?”

“Let’s just get it over with,” says Jo. And then, “Majesty.”

“You make it sound such the chore, Duchess.” Clapping a hand to her shoulder. “But come!” Steering her into the thick of it, “People to meet, flesh to press. We’ll start with the Lake Barons.”

“The who the what now?”

“Alphons,” says the King, pointing, “Alans, and, ah, Medardus, and, well. Good morning, Euric.” A grunt from the throat of a stone-faced man, slope-shouldered in a pale green coat, handing a small square envelope, blankly white, to the King. Jo nods once to that impassive face as she’s led on through the crowd. “What you have to remember,” the King’s muttering, “if you ever speak with Alans,” as he’s prying the envelope open, “he styles himself an Earl.” Peering within. “Annoys us all no end, but what will one do. Lighter?”

“What?” says Jo, lifting her cup for a sip.

“Your lighter. Or a match? You still smoke?”

She opens a silvery lighter, flicks it to life, and he touches the small square envelope to the flame, dropping it as it flares. Grinding the curling ash underfoot. “But really,” says the King, “unless you’re speaking with Alans? Baron is fine.”

“Lake Barons,” says Jo.

“Well,” says the King. “Anything west of the hills. Beaverton and such.”

“They have their own court?”

“What? No. No, no no. Medardus! You know our Huntsman?”

“Have not had the pleasure,” says an older man, quite tall, head canted as if stooped under some low ceiling.

“Good morning, your, ah, grace,” says Jo.

“Oh, dear me no,” says that tall man with a cheerful magnanimity, swiveling to one side, looming over the woman beside him, wearing a blue satin baseball jacket much like his. “We’re much too low for grace,” he says, as she rips a sheet from a notepad and hands it to him, and swiveling back he hands it in turn to the King. “Lovely morning for it,” he says.

“We do try,” says the King, already stepping away. Jo, hastening after, bumps into someone, thickset, softly rounding a navy jacket, and at his temples blocky hexagrams tattooed, blurred by the silver stubble of his hair. “Duke,” he says, with a nod.

“Wu Song!” she says, and then, as he lifts an empty hand, “You don’t,” she says, but his brow furrows, lips pursing under his mustaches in a frown, and her free hand leaps to take his, give it a shake. “Good to see you,” she says, and then, looking off, after the King, “I should,” she says.

“Of course,” he says.

Off through the crowd, that yellow slicker, bent over the sheet ripped from the notepad. “So,” says Jo. “Lighter?”

“No,” says the King, folding it in half, and half again, “this one’s good. For now.”

“He’s not playing, is he. Wu Song,” says Jo. “Whatever this is.”

“I told you,” says the King, leaning close. “Lake Barons. West of the hills.” Polite applause ripples about them, at some shift in the ringing clash below. “You’re certain,” says the King, “you’ve no one to propose today, for Southeast?” The crowd, milling about them both, pressing closer to the railing. “Jo,” he says.

She looks up at him, those bulging eyes, one brown, one blue. “I got nobody,” she says. “Your majesty.”

“Okay,” he says. “All right. Let’s go.”

The crowd parts, stepping back, aside, as they head up to the railing. Jo stands at the King’s left hand, there by the Marquess in a long grey gown, her one hand shelled in a polished steel gauntlet. To the King’s right, there’s the Viscount in a blue and white striped suit, and the Soames in tweedy greens, a yellow meshback cap on his head. The King lifts a hand, and stillness settles, a last few thwacks and clonks as the donnybrook below clatters to a stop. Combatants lower arms and weapons, lift shoulders, feet drawn together, favoring perhaps a leg, here or there, a wince, but “Hup!” and a punch of steel driven through skin, the fencer in black trousers crouched low, one rapier back, a counterweight, the other buried half its length in the belly of the bald man wrapped in fur. Gathering herself her ropey muscles tensing the fencer yanks her blade free, “La!” she cries, and Jo

“Enough,” says the King, looking down at Jo beside him. Her eyes closed. Her hands in fists. Her breathing shallow, quick. “Enough,” says the King again, his hand laid gently over hers, withdrawn at her flinch. “You have done as we expected, which is to say, you have done well. Let’s introduce you all, before tests and games and oaths! Soames! Tell us, who would the North put forth today?”

“Majesty!” says the Soames, leaning out over the railing, adjusting his cap, and his smile. “And such the crowd of gentles here assembled. Hoy! To join the Stevedore and the Gaffer in our service, and see to such Apportionment as we are due, we’ve drawn lots to propose, to you, these four: the Kamali!” The man in white robes, scimitar still in his jeweled gloves, bows. “The Luthier!” A bow from a man in a black leather jacket, thick chain looped about his fists. “Jackstaff!” A man in a long leather coat, a long staff in his hands. “And Bullbeggar!” The bald man, all in fur, leaning on his cudgel, one hand pressed to the hole in his belly, chuckling as claps politely smatter.

“Viscount!” says the King. “Who from Southwest?”

“But one, majesty,” says Agravante, with a sweep of his striped arm. “The Serpent!” A young man all in blue denim holds up a shining squiggle of a blade, another flutter of applause.

“For Northwest!” says the King, and again, that stillness. “We’ve no one to put forth today. Duchess?” Looking to Jo beside him. “Who from Southeast?”

“No one, your majesty,” she says. And then, in a hitch of that stillness all about, “My men,” she adds, “my, knights, are as fine a company as anyone could ask.” She drinks down what’s left in her cup.

The King nods, looking past her. “Marquess!” he says. “Who would the Northeast Marches have put forth?”

“Three candidates, your majesty,” she says. “A Dagger!” A man in a pearly grey suit, a long-bladed knife in his blue-black hand. “A Javelin!” A woman in a skirt of bronze sheaves, and a quiver rattling with short-bladed spears. “And a Mooncalfe!” The fencer throws wide her arms, swords high, crossed above her upturned face, and Jo steps back from the railing, opens her mouth, as if to say something, or shout, or

“All right!” cries the King, catching her arm. “A banner day,” he’s saying, “eight new knights!” Lifting the Viscount’s hand, and Jo’s, in his own, and the Viscount lifting the Soames’, and the Marquess raising up both her own hands gauntlet shining as cheers break out, and applause. The candidates below take their knees, duck their heads. “Now!” says the King. “I believe,” loud and clear, “before the oaths, we were promised tests and games?” Whoops at that, whistles and cheers, bottles and cups held high, but faltering there toward the back, stuttering the applause, falling away as with rustles shuffles scrapes the crowd of mostly men parts to one side or the other. Someone calls out, again, “Your majesty!” There under the stolid arch in the one gabled wall a tall man, pinkly, hatlessly bald, and no coat over his black turtleneck. “A word, if I might, slipped edgewise, before you begin to commence?”

“Devil,” says the King, still smiling. “How fares our mother.”

“Wordless, sir,” says the Devil. “Our house is free; the word I bring’s my own.”

“But weighty enough it could not wait?” The King spreads his hands. “By all means, then. Go to. Unburden yourself.”

“There is an absence, sir,” says the Devil, “its presence keenly felt.” Hands clasped behind his back be comes a little way down the ad hoc aisle dividing the whispers and murmurs that roil to either side. “And once again the perquisites of my office lash me forth, to speak those words that fret on all our lips: where is our Queen?” His pink head cocked to one side, smile widening. “Your sister, sir. Is she upset?”

The King steps away from the railing, into that ad hoc aisle. “Okay,” he says. “I can guess what my next line should be, Chazz, but you’re working off a script I haven’t read. After this? I might need prompts.” He folds his arms. “Why, no,” he says, perfunctorily. “She’s not. Whatever could you mean.”

The Devil’s smile has curdled. “To stop you, sir,” he says. “To leave the Ramp intact. To have Old Tom’s weird drawings stay, where anyone might see them, and thwart the dig of any new foundation, along Lovejoy.” Unclasping his hands, both gloved in black leather. He sets to tugging one free. “Your sister, sir, our Queen, came just last week to see your mother, and hers, and was most upset about your plans to cede the Ramp. She’d see you stopped, sir, and I?” He holds up the glove he’s taken off. “I stand with her,” he says, and lets it fall, and the slap of leather against stone when it lands in the aisle between them. “I will await your response, majesty,” says the Devil, and no one stops him as he turns to go.

Table of Contents

A black Duffel, dragged – Three out of Five – with Her in the room – not King nor Court –

A limp black duffel dragged across carpet. Dust swirls in diffident light. A pair of pants, withdrawn, a couple shirts, a black leather sheath the length of a forearm, silvery glinting, wire-wrapped handle of a long straight knife. Reverently laid aside. The pants, taken up again, and sniffed. A judicious squint. Pulled on. The louvered doors of a closet half-opened, and a mirror hung inside, the glass of it pasted over with stickers black and grey, and red, but mostly black, and letters white and silver and black in shapes like lightning bolts, like blades, like the printing in old Bibles, White Doom, they say, Hyborian Philharmonic, King-in-Ice, Four Twenty, Iron Thule. Ducking, scooting over, he finds enough of a reflection cleared to smooth his hair, brush down the front of his black T-shirt.

All in black and brown he stands on that awkward corner landing, behind a heavy bannister. Low morning light pours through the windows over the sink, the rush of water, a silhouette there, the XO, nodding, shutting off the faucet. Off back that way there’s this drawn-out, reedy groan, cut short by a meaty smack. The XO’s drying his hands on his old white T-shirt. The front of it sprinkled here and there with drips of red. “Not mine,” he says, his grin skewed by that white scar along his cheek. A querulous voice lifts up off back that way, through the half-open door, loud enough to drive home a couple of words, God’s green earth!

“Need any help?” says Moody, coming down the short staircase, careful of the ramp.

The XO shrugs. “Dad’s got it in hand,” he says. Paid us? from back there. Paid us! “I was gonna maybe get some breakfast, change my shirt. Get some sleep.”

Moody’s shaking his head. “I’m good,” he says. Peel a number off a clock, that voice, what good, any of us, another smack, another groan. “There is a thing today, about lunchtime,” says the XO. “Dad said maybe you should tag along.”

“Tag along,” says Moody.

Rip City! howls that voice from off out back.

“Anyone?” says the King, sitting in the passenger seat, looking up in the rearview mirror at the rest of them behind, Viscount and Soames in captain’s chairs, the Marquess on the bench at the back, and beside her, in the furthest corner, Jo. The Viscount’s leaning forward, elbows on knees, his white-gold locks a-dangle. “I think,” he says, “we’d best be served, perhaps,” looking up, “by viewing this within the broader context.”

“Context,” says the King. Outside an engine’s turning over, whir and rumble muffled by thick doors and tinted glass. A sleek sedan slowly backs out of the space beside them.

“Consider, majesty,” says the Viscount. “This, the first Accolade of your reign, a Samani that sees the court extended to an admirable degree, and yet: we sadly lack for candidates from every fifth. Also.” He’s holding up two fingers, a second point. “Just this past week your sister had to turn a second portion, to replace what had been stolen by a thief as yet uncaught. And now?” A third finger. “Under the strain of such an effort, our Queen’s been led astray by elements without the court to provoke such a display of defiance, as we’ve seen.” Those three fingers held up a moment more, then folded away. In the mirror up there those eyes, one brown, one blue, look from the Viscount to Jo, in the back, her head against the window. “You’d speak of weakness within our ranks,” says the King.

The Soames shifts in his seat, sucking his teeth. The Marquess with a scrape of metal lays one hand over the other. “In this context, sir,” says the Viscount, with a nod, “it’s unavoidable.”

The King looks over his shoulder, at the Viscount direct. “You’d’ve done things differently,” he says.

“Sire?” says the Viscount.

“You negotiated the dowry with the Court of Engines, did you not? That we then paid down at once, a swoop most fell?”

“That’s not,” says the Viscount, “majesty, what I mean – ”

“It’s the root of our insecurity, is it not? The specter of our empty coffers, that’s led the Barons to press you to press their point to me, so forcefully?”

“Sir, I never meant – ”

“It’s also, I’ve no doubt, a source of effortful strain? That’s led the extensions of this court, that you so richly laud – Marquess, Soames,” a nod to each, “to beef over who might best oversee, what is it? A cobbler’s shop?”

A cough, from the Soames. “If it’s a free house the Porter would keep,” he says, but the Marquess, leaning forward, says, “That’s not an invitation, excellency.”

“The both of you. The three of you. All of you,” says the King.

“Majesty, if I might,” says the Viscount.

“You might’ve enough, by now,” says the King. “Next time? Try,” and a fillip of his fingers, “not to twirl your mustaches so theatrically. Anybody else? Anyone? No?” He’s looking over his shoulder again, at them all, and none of them looking back. “We go on. This is not a setback; we will have everything we want. My sister – our Queen – we do know her, I should trust, more better than some banneret, so soon come back from death?”

“What,” says the Soames, “of the insult? The Devil’s, insult?”

He smiles, the King, to light up his face. “Oh,” he says. “It will be answered.”

And there, at the very back, her head against the glass, Jo closes her eyes.

The doors of that white SUV open, front and back, down at the end of the lot, and Luys stands up from leaning on the fender of a ruddy brown car. They’re climbing out, the peers, the Soames, in his tweeds, headed for the long taupe coupe de ville, the Viscount in his blue and white stripes climbing into the back of another SUV, smaller, midnight blue, and sweeping toward Luys, past him, the Marquess in her grey gown, gathering up her skirts to straddle the motorcycle there, and settling a plain steel helmet on her head. Luys still watching the white SUV, the doors of it standing open. A flash of red, there’s Jo, climbing down, backing away, turning away. Luys lifts his head, lifts a hand, not quite a wave, she’s looking down, at her feet, arms folded. That big white SUV lurches, there’s the King’s head, pinkly orange, popping up over the roof of it. He calls something to her, and she’s nodding. She isn’t looking back.

“You won’t be going home?” says Luys, as she takes hold of the handle of the passenger door. She shakes her head. In her other hand she holds a lone black leather glove. “Over the river,” she says, yanking the door open. “Clown House.”

“Of course, my lady,” he says, sitting down behind the wheel.

He scoops up the silicone chopping mat and taps chopped onions into the pan a-foam with butter, stirs them about with a wooden spoon. A couple of cracked eggs wait in a silver bowl. He pours in a plop of half-and-half, and a whisking clatter joins the sizzle and spit till he tilts the bowl over the pan, egg-and-cream smoothly poured to smother it all with a satisfied sigh. Shake and jiggle the pan to round it out.

“Yogurt would’ve been fine,” says Pyrocles, behind him.

“What, you thought this was for you?” Becker grinds pepper into the pan, sprinkles on a pinch of salt. “I mean,” he says, “I could make another, if you want this one,” as Pyrocles’ arm slips about his waist. “Yogurt,” he says, “will be – ”

“Wait,” says Becker, and a shake and jerk of the pan, “hup!” The omelet lofts, flopping a twitch of the pan beneath it folding shook out slop, a browned gold circle rippling pocked with crisped onion, shushing on the flame. “Ha!” belts Becker.

“Finally,” says Pyrocles, and a kiss for Becker’s cheek. The pewter weights dangling from his mustache-tips brushing Becker’s shoulder. “Finally?” says Becker. “I’ll have you know I am six for ten, good sir, and,” another shake of the pan, settling it all, “the last four in a row.”

“It looks delicious.”

“Say the word, I’ll go seven for eleven.” Another kiss, for his mouth. Becker hoists the pan over a plate, and a shimmy lops the omelet in a perfect semicircle. “All right,” says Pyrocles, but there’s a booming knock.

Pyrocles with a sigh pads away, shirtless and barefoot in loose white trousers, to the door to the loft, a mighty thing of beams and planks and a lever that he yanks back clank a grinding screech that cuts off with a thunk. Revealed there on the landing in his blue and white striped suit the Viscount Agravante, smiling. Pyrocles dips his head, a bow. “Well, hell,” mutters Becker, shutting off the flame.

“Anvil,” says Agravante, stepping inside. “Lovely space,” he says. He stomps the white-painted floor once, a muffled thud. “And solid,” he says. Looking over to Becker in the kitchen-nook, wiping his hands on a towel, grey boxer briefs and a white T-shirt strained by his bit of a belly. “Bet you can’t hear a thing up here when he starts banging away down in the garage.”

“How went the colée, m’lord,” says Pyrocles, still by the door.

“You’d know if you’d went,” says Agravante. “It didn’t, in point of fact. Interrupted, by a challenge to our King. The candidates will swear their oaths another day, I suppose. And whatever was intended to placate our friends from over the hills?” A hand, lifted from a pocket, a one-sided shrug. “They are more skittish than before. An entire morning, worse than wasted, all before a second cup of coffee.”

“A challenge, sir?” says Pyrocles, unmoved.

“The Devil, of all has-beens,” says Agravante. “Something about the Queen, and property. Fret not: the Huntsman’s on his scent.”

“His,” says Becker, still by the stove, and then, “the Huntsman? Jo?” But Pyrocles still looks to Agravante, who still smiles, and says, “As to my purpose, here and now.”

“M’lord?” says Pyrocles.

“Your liege has need of your – presence,” says Agravante. “This very day, an hour past the noontide. A car will be sent.” A hand, slap against Pyrocles’ shoulder. “Dress to impress,” says Agravante, and then he leaves.

“Well,” says Becker, as Pyrocles leans into the lever, shoving the big door noisily shut. “That was, well. He could’ve just called.” Pyrocles is heading away down the loft, through all that light cascading down from the clerestory. “Is,” says Becker, “is Jo really going to, fight?” Pyrocles draws back a white curtain to reveal a rack hung with coveralls, white dress shirts, a couple of suits in different blues. “I mean,” says Becker, “a challenge, is that, to the King, that, that sounds serious?”

“What did I do with my white bucks?” says Pyrocles.

Becker looks down, at the omelet cooling on the plate. “How about dinner,” he says. “When do you think you’ll be back?”

“Go on,” says Jo, opening the door of the car.

“My lady,” says Luys, his hands on the wheel.

“Don’t,” she says. “Just, don’t.” One foot out on the sidewalk, looking up to the house they’re parked in front of, peeling pink siding, mud-red trim. The welter of bicycles chained together, along the edge of the yard. “Start the car. I get out, you drive away.”

“Lady, I cannot leave you.”

“What are you gonna do? If he’s here.” A rip of velcro as she loosens one of her cycling gloves, flexes her fingers. “Talk to him? About what?” Closing it up again.

“The Devil’s tongue is hammered silver, and his very breath weaves lawyer’s nets,” says Luys. “Speaking’s not what I had in mind.”

“Like hell I let you go at him, with me in the room.”

“Jo,” he says, closing his eyes. “Lady,” he says, beginning again. “I could go in first, alone, to see if he’s within.” She leans in, across her seat, against his, her hand on his shoulder. “To save you time and,” he says, but she kisses him, softly, “trouble,” says Luys. “But what if he is not here.” His voice a husk.

“Then I’ll find out where he is,” murmurs Jo, “and go to there.”

“But I must take you,” he says. “I am your right hand. I do what you need done.”

She kisses him, again. “You’re the Duke’s right hand,” she says, pushing back, “but this,” climbing out of the car, “this is on the Huntsman. And that’s all on me. So go, get out of here,” she says, a hand on the door of the car. “I’ll call you if I need you.” But then she leans down, looks in through the open door. “Actually, pop the trunk first,” she says. “I wanna grab something.”

The front door’s opened by a hugely shaggy monster in a ragged burlap cassock, great glassy yellow eyes under a single black hedge of brow, a waggling felted nose, red thick-lipped mouth with two white dagger-teeth jutting from the lower lip. “Jesus!” yelps Jo.

“You got me mistaken,” booms the monster, that lower lip yanked up and down and up again.

“Yeah, okay,” says Jo, “nice costume,” as the monster steps back, right hand jerked into an awkward welcoming sweep. “Actually, more of a puppet,” he says, not so deep, and muffled by the lip no longer moving. “Transfer’s still tricky,” he says, “between mouth and arm,” as those big furry paws pry open the lips. Within, blurred by a screen of black mesh, a wry grin. “But how else’m I gonna get to Carnegie Hall? Whoa.” Hiking up as Jo steps inside, pressing his face to the mesh for a closer look. “Killer mask.”

“Yeah,” says Jo, the skull mask in her hand, the coarse black mane of it brushing the floor. “They inside?”

Past the hall butler, its old mirror pocked and grimy, hung about with light coats and a slicker, through the wide doorway, the dim, high-ceilinged room beyond. In the shadows along the picture molding ragged lines of faces, plastic mannequin heads, styrofoam wigstands, each of them painted, expressions of wonder and delight, joy, and here and there a glare, or glum regret, calligraphed in black and red and blue and yellow, round eye-shapes and mouth-shapes and noses, cheeks harlequinned with diamonds and teardrops, and nowhere any two of them alike. A dining table’s pushed against one wall, and in the open space afforded a contraption’s being built on laid-out newspaper, gears and chains and bicycle wheels and a couple of frames, welded together, leaned up against a sawhorse. A little round man kneels before it, cargo shorts and a tatty sweater, cranking a ratchet back and forth, whir-click, whir-click. At the other end of the room a sofa, brownish pink, pulled close beside the cold dead hearth, and white heads at either end. “Hello?” says Jo. “Ma’am? Could I, speak with you? Ma’ams?”

Neither head moves. The little man’s still cranking away, whir-click.

“It’s, it’s Jo? Ma’am?”

A clatter as the little man sets the ratchet aside, spins the whirligig he’s bolted to the frame. Contemplates it. A whickering slither of mane-tips on newspaper as Jo drags the mask up to her chest, a deep breath, and then up over her head. “Jo Gallowglas,” she says, lowering it. “Huntsman,” as she fits it over her face, and the mane shivers, lifts. “Duchess of Southeast,” she says. The little man at her feet looks up, scrambles back. Shadows flit over the floor, the walls, the ceiling, bare branches tossed by a silent storm. “On the King’s business,” she says.

Down the other end of the room those two white heads turn to look at her over the back of the sofa, the one of them her long white hair left loose, unbound, and the other her long white hair bound up in glossily ruthless braids. “You have our attention.”

“The mask’s a bit much.”

“Command; do not demand.”

“I’m, sorry,” says Jo, lifting the mask from her head, and shadows flee as the mane collapses. The little man at her feet hold up an arm against the falling pattering strands. “I don’t,” says Jo, stepping toward the sofa, “I don’t know the protocol, I mean, do I kneel, or – ”

“As you wish, child.”

“It’s dangerous, giving old women airs.”

The mask in her hands before her. “I’m sorry,” she says, “it’s just – ”

“Don’t apologize, child.”

“I wasn’t,” says Jo, “I only – ”

“Never complain,” says the one, and “Never explain,” the other.

“Right,” says Jo. “Except. I mean.” Looking from the one, to the other, wild tangles, taut braids. “You named me. You gave me this, ah,” the mask, turned about in her hands. “Office.”

“I did not give you that.”

“That, you took yourself.”

“You gave me the, you named me. Huntsman. And, I went about your business. And now, for the King. I’m about his – I’m sorry, that didn’t, that sounded – ”

“Speak plainly, child. As you would to anyone.”

“Whom do you hunt.”

Jo swallows. “Chazz,” she says. The mane ripples. “The Devil. Is he here?”

They look at each other then, and it’s possibly a smile that passes between them. “What would you have of him.”

“What has he done.”

“He,” says Jo, “he claims the Queen’s against the King, and that he’s gonna stand with her. Is he here?”

This time, perhaps, a frown.

“Can you tell me where he is?” says Jo.

“It’s not without the realm of possibility.”

“Will you tell me,” says Jo.

“Do you ask.”

Looking down at the mask, those teeth, the empty eye-holes. The limp mane. “Gammers,” says Jo, looking up. “Tell me, the Huntsman of this court. Where will I find the Devil.”

“Why do you do this, child.”

“What is your reason.”

“Not the court’s.”

“Not the King’s.”

“Is it for honor?”

“For Ysabel,” says Jo, and then, as they share another look, “what,” says Jo, “what is it, what’s – ”

“We were wrong about you, child.”

“You were wrong about her. I’ve said she’s trouble from the start.”

“I don’t,” says Jo, “what does that, what do you – ”

“Out by the airport.”

“One of those abandoned markets, left to rot.”

“A Circuit World, or – ”

“The Best Buy.”

“Its livery was blue and gold, as I recall.”

“More of a yellow.”

“He’d spend time there, days on end, when we wandered in the wilderness.”

“When I wandered.”

“I spoke in a general sense.”

“The Best Buy,” says Jo. “Out by the airport, okay. Okay. Thank you – ”

“Never offer thanks, child.”

“Gratitude has no place in this.”

“What is done as you command is merely what should be.”

“What we do has no reason but our own.”

“Right,” says Jo. “Okay.” And then, “I’m not a kid.”

“Of course not, child.” They both begin to laugh.

His watch chimes softly, and he pushes back the white cuff of his shirt to look over the face of it littered with three or four ticking dials, each hashed with tiny numerals and over them all a single majestic sweep hand quivering as it holds itself still, pointing out, away toward the front of the bus, where someone’s stepping through the opened doors, holding up her phone, a woman in black leggings and a short black skirt and a baggy red shirt. In her other hand she’s holding a bundle of coarse black hair. He frowns as she swings into an empty seat down toward the front of the bus, shakes his head, looks outside. There’s no one else waiting at the bus stop there on the corner, a repurposed gas station behind it, a tall red sign on the corner, Al’s Auto Repair, it says, & Towing, Se Habla Español. “That’s, odd,” he says to himself, twisting the golden bezel of his watch. The sweep hand spins wildly about to catch up to where it should be. The bus doors close.

His watch chimes softly.

He pushes back his cuff again. Every hand, not just the sweep, trembles, pointing out as he lifts it, beside the bus, tracking the burly figure there, a big man in a black suit pounding on the doors that open with a sigh. He steps heavily onto the bus, brown hair in crimped eaves about his shoulders and an enormous brown beard, and an aloha shirt under his black suit coat. He waves a piece of paper at the driver, blundering past, past Jo Maguire looking out the window at the traffic, up to the well there by the back door to the bus, where he plants himself, one big wide-fingered black-haired hand gripping the pole right there before him where he’s sitting, twisting the bezel of his watch again, covering it with his hand.

“Well, shit,” breathes David Kerr, very much to himself.

Table of Contents

across the Lot – what Needs must – Duty –

Across the empty parking lot a looming box of a store, the façade of it a great oblong thrust above the high flat roof, and stained across the front of it where a sign once hung, and now just holes punched in sheet metal where once were struts and electrical conduits. By the blankly dark front doors a sheet of plywood’s nailed to a frame of two-by-fours, and a plastic sheet tacked to the plywood, Future Home, say faded black letters, Columbia River Campus Advanced Disaster Management Simulator. A heavy chain is looped about the handles of the doors, and a padlock, bulky with a keysafe. She brushes a finger down the keypad set in the front of it, and it falls open with a clunk. She starts back, looks around, Leans in, twisting the lock free of the chain, and it clanking falls away.

Dust within, and darkness. Light scraped by scratched door-glass falls to thinly flop against a stack of drywall, a couple of buckets that say Sheet Rock All Purpose Joint Compound. Past that, across stained concrete, a shadowed mound of gutted cardboard boxes, glinting with shucked plastic clamshells. What might be a desk lamp’s shining beyond, somewhere behind a curling row of slender columns in all that enormous darkness, and the faintly tinny chirps of music playing to itself. “Hey, hello?” calls Jo. “Chazz?”

They’re filing cabinets, those columns, a dozen or so in a wide circle about the warm glow of that lamp, tall, five drawers each and each of them painted a dull institutional green, dented, scratched, rusted along the corners and edges. Some of those drawers hang open, crammed with manila folders stuffed with sheets of onionskin and glassine all protecting photographs, glossy photos stuck up, haphazardly tucked away, and more spilled on the dusty floor about, dozens of them, hundreds, and on the desk in the middle of the cabinets, stacks of photos piled atop folders and more folders stacked atop the piles, and a high thin voice singing over stinging strings and piano, William William William Rogers put it in its place, blood and tears from old Japan, and he leans forward to shut off the little radio, dressed all in black, his pink head gleaming.

“Devil,” says Jo.

“Why,” he says, “that makes of this the storied Inferno, where it’s said I rule, and do not serve.” Pushing back his chair, an echoing scrape, and shadows swoop as he stands, hands braced on the littered desk. “Huntsman. Welcome! But we cannot have you skulking in such a dismal Abaddon.” Looking up, he cries, “Yehi-or!”

And chunk, chunk, chunk, that big dark room lights up, great bulbs hung from the ceiling in bells switched on row by row, the glow from them strengthening, brightening, blooming a blue-white glare that swallows the warmth of the lamp. Jo steps out from between a couple of cabinets, red shirt bright, blacks dusty, the mane of the mask in her hand listless. “Vayehi-or,” says the Devil, smiling, but his smile folds away as she tosses a black leather glove to slap on the desk. “Dropped that,” she says.

“Most deliberately, as well you are aware,” he says. “Right!” He claps his hands together. “Where shall we have it. Here, on the desk?” He bends down to press hands and chest against the spill of photos, twisting his head to peer up at her, still there by the cabinets. “There’ll be no stain, nor sticky mess, I assure you. Just a bit of dust, easily swept away. But no?” Pushing himself back up. “You’d rather we were out in the open,” he says, stepping around the desk, a gesture toward the cabinets, and beyond, “where there’s room to swing! Of course. I might kneel, to afford the best blow?”

“What are you doing,” says Jo.

“I yet provide whatever assistance I might,” he says, and frowns. “You do know why you’re here?”

“You went and tried to pick a fight with somebody who doesn’t have the time,” says Jo.

“Even so!” says the Devil. “Where, then, do you mean we should have it? The neck’s traditional,” his hand at his turtlenecked throat, “though a blow from you to breast or belly should suffice, or even thigh.”

“We’re not,” says Jo, “that’s, not what’s gonna happen.”

“Isn’t it?” he says, theatrically quizzical. “Then all this way you’ve come, merely to return to me my glove?” He leans over to pluck it up from the desk, limply black. “I must say I am touched, that you would take such time from what is a doubtless busy schedule to see personally to the restitution of my wardrobe. But,” he shakes it, the fingers of it jiggling, “thus am I made whole; the matter need trouble you no longer, and nor must I.” Then, when she doesn’t turn or step away, “Unless?” A broadening of his smile. “Is there, perhaps, some other task to be discharged?”

“You,” says Jo, and a sigh. “You need to apologize.”

“Apologize!” cries the Devil. “For leaving this behind?” He lets it fall, plap to the photo-strewn floor. “Or rather more, perhaps, the insult done the King, the honor of the Queen – but what are airy words that might suffice to heal such grievous harm?”

“Just, say you’re sorry,” says Jo, and a wave of the mask in her hand. “No need to make a big deal out of it.” The mane of it, lazily a-sway. “Tell me, we’re done, I’m gone, it’s all good.”

“Is it? Really? All of it?” He leans back, against the desk. “But what of it if I don’t?” His smile fades. “For there’s the rub of the green, you see: I won’t.”

“Apologize,” says Jo. “Say you’re wrong, Chazz. Because you’re wrong.”

Looking down, his pink hands clasped before him, “Mine office,” he says, “was restored to me, when off the yoke was struck from about this very neck – by none but our very King.” Looking up, to her. “We would do well, Huntsman, to address each other thus, and what we’d be about.”

“Well,” says Jo. “Okay. Devil. But I’m not going to kill you.”

“A truth, in point of fact. You must destroy me, rather. I’ve been dead; death didn’t still my tongue.”

She lifts her hand, the mask in it, fingertips glimpsed through the eye-holes, thumb curled between two crudely chiseled teeth. Then tosses it aside, the mane of it trailing a dark comet falling to hit the floor, an echoing clack, a puff of dust. “I’m not,” she says, “that’s, not gonna happen.”

Blinking, he looks up from the crumple of mane to her hand that threw it. She’s turned away, to flip idly through the folders and photos in an opened drawer. “Perhaps,” says the Devil, “his majesty was, unclear, in his remit?” And then, “This matter must be settled!” he cries. “Without my contrition, only my silence will suffice!”

“Or mine,” says Jo. She’s tugged a photo free, sepia-tinted, creased, a group of men in sweaters and padded breeches posed about the landing of some great staircase, mustaches and center-parts, a bowler hat, and the one in the center holds a football, white letters painted over its seams, PFCC. “It is supposed to be a duel, right? Trial by combat?” Peeling translucent tissue from another photo, yellowed, two women in aproned dresses on a sidewalk before a storefront, the hand-painted sign above the door that says Eat. “Not an execution. So I might lose.”

Hoarsely, hushed, the Devil says, “Unthinkable.”

“What,” says Jo, “that you might be right?” Tucking the photos back in their folders. “What are you trying to do, here,” she says, turning about. The circle of filing cabinets about them. “What the hell is all this?”

“Huntsman,” he says, “forgive me,” his voice returning, “I’ve not followed your career with the avidity that it perhaps deserves, but: I can’t possibly be your first?”

“You aren’t,” says Jo, flatly.

“Then you must know, the quarry is most dangerous when cornered in its den. Yet,” he’s headed back behind the desk, stiff black wingtips placed among the scattered photos with exaggerated care, “in you walk, daisy-fresh, cucumber-cool, you spurn my last request, demand of me my reasons, why – my garters, stars, and coronets!” He stops there, the desk between them again. “I almost begin to think you hope, against all hope, to talk me out of that which I needs must, now I’ve taken the wheel.”

“If I haven’t got a hope,” says Jo, “you might as well humor me. I mean, we can spare a few minutes?”

A single bark of a laugh from the Devil, and he turns to open a drawer in one of the cabinets behind him. “If the minutes be but few,” he says, flipping through the folders within, “I’d better show, not tell. I am often accused of verbal imprudence,” and he tugs a folder free, “of slathering a dozen over what’s best said with one,” laying it open on the desk, “but I ask you: what use parsimony, when something so simple as this is worth a thousand of them, or more?”

She reaches over to take the photo he holds out to her. Three women, all in black, walk down a meander of paving stones set in a scrap of yard, the first the youngest, black dress shortly tight, eyes hidden behind black sunglasses, long dark hair beneath a broad flat hat, the next in a black suit, flared trousers and a smartly tailored jacket, a bit of veil about the brim of her black slouch, and finally the eldest, white hair done up under a trim black pillbox, and a nondescriptly sensible black dress. Jo turns it over. On the back a worn black-letter stamp says Oregonian, and under that in red ink a date, 4/6/73. A strip of typescript peeling loose from ancient blotches of paste, a caption: L to R Duenna Perry, d. – Mrs. Richard Perry (Arabelle) – Isobella Perry / Richard Perry funeral (departing). She looks up to see him, smiling, arms folded, pink hands tucked away. “What is this,” says Jo.

“This,” says the Devil, a gesture about, “is aptly enough termed a morgue, though the singular designation is, perhaps, misleading: these were painstakingly secured from the archives of two dozen newspapers, or more – ”

“Why this one.” She holds it up. “Is it that she’s, I mean, it’s a recurring thing?” She drops it to the desk between them, the folder laid open on the desk, the other photos within, three women in rich pastels about a banquette table, three women in sepia’d, antique blacks, three women, three women. “I kinda got that already.”

“One of our great mysteries,” says the Devil, “and already you kind of get it.”

“What does it have to do with you stepping to the King,” says Jo.

“The King?” says the Devil. “Huntsman – have you spoken with the Queen?”

“What,” she says, “today?”

“Since morning broke.”

“I haven’t had the, I had to go and, and, I don’t, have to,” she says. “You’re wrong. Flat-out.”

“You’ve spoken with the Gammer, though.”

“She, they, told me where to find you.”

“Of course. But tell me: have you spoken with the Bride?”

Jo’s scowling, now. “I think I’ve maybe said two words to her, since she got here – ”

“I do not mean the charming lepidopterist from Detroit,” says the Devil. “I mean, and here I speak quite plainly: the Bride.” And then, as she looks away from him, down to the photos on the desk, he says, “Are you starting, now, to rather kind of get it?”

“Well,” says Jo, “that’s, that,” and a rip of velcro, one hand worrying at the cycling glove about the other, “that’s not, what you said this morning, which, that she wants to stop the King. She doesn’t. That’s what you’ve got to walk back.”

“Then prove it!” He pounds the desk. “With your blade! Upon this body! Let there be no doubt!”

“Not gonna happen,” says Jo.

“Hunts end in death, Huntsman! Or do you think to set aside your duties as lightly as you do your badge?”

“Apologize,” says Jo.

“No!” roars the Devil.

A deep breath, and she shakes her head. “Okay,” says Jo, “all right, then I guess we’re at an impasse,” and the Devil leaps.

He leaps, pushing up over the desk in a tidy tumble, hanging there an instant impossibly arms spread wide and legs drawn up, and then his shoulder dips a dancer’s roll to sweep a shining black shoe round and out a kick that doesn’t landing crouched hands slap the floor for balance head a-tilt, ducked aside, drawn back from the tip of the blade she’s pointing at his throat.

“There it is,” he says. And then, a careful swallow, “Such clarity, pressed into the moment by the enormity of what’s to come.”

She lifts her sword away, long, straight, harsh light chasing down the edges of it, swirling the basket that guards her fingers lightly gripped about the wire-wrapped hilt. “You startled me,” she says. “That’s all.”

“That’s all?” he says, drawing back as he stands. “That’s all? You pulled steel from the very air. What might you produce if you were, let’s say, alarmed?”

Jo closes her eyes, her sword leaned up and back against a shoulder. “All right,” she says, and opens them. “Thank you,” she says, “Devil, for your apology. The King will be pleased.” And with a shrug she turns and walks away, out between a couple of cabinets. The Devil stands quite still a moment, then, with a shiver, starts forward, “Huntsman!” he cries, heading after.

She’s marching away across the enormous, empty, bright-lit room. “Huntsman!” he cries again. “You cannot do this!”

“Watch me!” she calls back.

“It is a lie!”

“So?” She stops, turns back, “Whatever it is you’re trying to prove, Chazz, nobody gives a damn!” Dropping her arms, her sword held loosely at her side. “Everybody’s, embarrassed – they’re gonna jump all over the slightest chance to get back to business as usual. And one way, or another, I’m gonna give ’em one.” Jabbing a finger at him, across the emptiness. “That is my fucking duty,” she says.

He rushes at her, but stops as she steps back, free hand held up. “I will call you out,” he snarls. “Before court and Queen I will name you a liar. As you love her – as you love her, Huntsman! Think! How it will crush her, to see you as you are!”

And she tips back her head, a shudder of laughter boiling up to a whoop. “You!” she cries. “You don’t know a goddamn thing! About me, about her, about any of this! Not a goddamn thing!” Walking away, turning about again, pointing her sword back at him, “Just say you’re fucking sorry. We’re done.”

“As you love her,” he says, and his brow knits, his eyes blaze, “half so much as I do, strike. Me. Down!”

“No!” she bellows back. Lowering her sword. “You apologize,” she says, “or I go out there,” sword swung back, pointing to those bright front doors, “and tell them all you did. There’s two ways this goes down – that’s it.”

Table of Contents

Paris 1919,” written by John Cale, copyright holder unknown.

“Put that away” – a Scream – unfinished Business –

“Put that away,” says the XO.

“She has a name, you know,” says Moody, elbows on the table, delicately fingering the pommel of the poignard balanced on its blade-tip before him, turning it slowly about, the long and tapered edge of it gleaming, and the wire wrapped about its handle.

“You named your knife,” says the XO. He’s in the doorway there, looking out from the dim little cabin onto a porched bit of yellowing deck, the placid river just beyond, greyly green. His anorak dappled in chocolate-chip camouflage, the furred hood of it laid back, a ruff about his shoulders.

“Boat has a name,” says Moody.

“It’s a boat,” says the XO. “They’re coming. Put it away.”

“Lucinda,” says Moody, twirling the knife about again. “Why are we on a boat, anyway.” His black T-shirt plain, his worn jacket of army-surplus green.

“I’m not gonna ask you again, dammit,” says the XO.

“A few manners go a long way,” says Moody, tilting the knife back and forth, the tip of it dimpling the table’s dark veneer. Footfalls clomp the dock without. The XO says, “Moody, please. Put Lucinda or whatever the hell away. There’s that old saying, about knives, and gunfights?” A tinny electric bell ding-dongs, and “Come on in,” the XO calls out, without taking his eyes off Moody. Moody slips the blade back in its sheath. The XO nods, turning away to greet the first man stepping onto the deck, tall and broad, straining the shoulders of a shiny blue suit. Long mustaches droop about his mouth, the tips of them weighted with a couple of heavy grey beads. He nods once, stepping aside as the second man enters, shorter and more slender, Agravante in his blue and white striped suit. “You must be the Executive Officer,” he says, with a quick squeeze for the XO’s proffered hand.

“Yessir,” says the XO. “Chad.”

“And I am the Viscount Pinabel. This, the Anvil;” a nod to Pyrocles beside him, “you will take instruction from him, when I’ve instructions to give,” and Pyrocles’ mouth tightens at that, a pinch of a frown.

“I,” says Moody, “am the Dread Paladin.”

They turn to look at him, sitting there, at the table. The XO clears his throat. “One of our jefes, sir,” he says.

“Ah,” says Agravante. “Well. The Anvil, here. Rest assured: when he speaks, it is with my voice.”

“All due respect, sir,” says the XO, “but it’s your money we’d be listening to, mostly.” He gestures toward the table, and his tight white scar lopsides his welcoming smile. “Something to drink?”

“We’re familiar with the broad outlines of your arrangement with the Duke,” says Agravante, who doesn’t move to take a seat. “We see no need to alter the particulars.”

“Well, see,” says the XO, “that arrangement with the Duke, we hadn’t altered in quite some time. Being an established relationship.” He folds his arms, leans back, half-sitting on the table, and Moody behind him. “Market being what it is, we’d want to talk about upping the retainer.”

“And we’d propose something of a trial run, as it were, before commitment,” says Agravante.

“Well, without a retainer, prices do go up a bit.”

“As you require,” says Agravante, a dismissive wave of his hand, but Moody’s leaning forward, “Hang on,” he says. “Viscount, that’s like a Vice President, right? And used to be we worked for a Duke?” Looking up to the XO. “What are we, getting demoted?”

White-gold dreads brushing his shoulders, blue eyes weirdly pale in the dimness, “It really is quite simple, Paladin,” says Agravante. “The Duke’s now gone, and the Duchess too wrapped up in court intrigues to find your services to be of any use.”

“I dunno,” says Moody, as the XO mutters something tersely pungent. “A Duchess,” says Moody. “Sounds like more fun.”

“Jo Gallowglas is many things,” says Agravante, “but I’d hardly call her fun,” as he turns back to the XO, but there’s a pop of a laugh from Moody. “Danny,” says the XO, a warning in his tone, but “Jo?” says Moody. “That’s the Duchess? Jo?” And then, when no one answers, “A girl named Jo. Isn’t that funny?”

“Maybe now’s not the time,” says the XO.

“I used to once know a girl named Jo,” says Moody. “Jo Maguire.” Looking past Agravante to Pyrocles, whose mouth’s set between those drooping mustaches. “Wouldn’t that be funny,” says Moody.

“I believe,” says Agravante, “that is the name inscribed on the cards she carries in her purse,” and Moody laughs again, leans back, looks up to the XO. “I get it, now, why your old man wanted me along.”

“You mean to tell us that you know the Duchess of Southeast?” says Agravante.

“Oh,” says Moody, grinning, “me and Jo, we go way back.”

“Hold still,” says someone, the clatter of dropped blades, rising smoke, a scream, get her down, she’s on her knees, her belly, cheek pressed to polished concrete streaked white with dust, mud, the door flare brightly shadow bulked is walking across the ceiling toward her, where she’s lying, on the falling massive bell-shaped lamp up from the floor behind him crashing fountain sparks that drift quite lazily back up and up she makes me dizzy turn about, flip over, this is she’s the one the gunshot, yes, does she could she I don’t know, black shoes trousers squatting, blue and white and yellow flowers, idiot, reaching for her sword-hilt, get herself killed, hold her, roll her on her back and black smoke whirls before her eyes, about her wrists and arm, her shins and shifting lifts her yanking over and she kicks, she can hear us, black smoke whips about her ankle, hear us she can see us, as he’s leaning over, black smoke trails and tatters of it swirl about the crimpled eaves of hair untouched left still and calm in the ruffling fluttering shut up hold her is it yes it’s open up, make sure, make sure, those thick-fingered hands push her chin to one side grip the placket of her red red shirt and once more there’s a scream, she’s screaming, and as he yanks a button popping free he says, Mr. Keightlinger, his mouth full of black smoke, “Hold still.”

Dull whump, and he shivers, but when dirty smoke billows from the front doors, the roof, he steps out of the grass, into the empty lot, his eyes on the heavy gold watch about his wrist. Every hand on the face of it pointing quivering at that big box of a store.

“Shit,” says David Kerr.

Breaking into a jog, a lope, a flat-out run for those doors hung slackly open in that great oblong thrust above the high flat roof, and behind it, the towering pillar of smoke. Wading over the threshold through that smoke, slapping at tatters of yellow-white flame that lick at his sleeve and trouser-leg, toss his unruly hair, he yelps, ducking, stumbling out into the enormous open empty room, sparks everywhere and the sizzle and popping bangs of dying lamps. A scrap of paper flies past, another, more, he grabs one out of the air, a photograph stiffly glossy, two men in a canoe before a grand stone arch. More photographs, and more, tumbling, skirling, scraping the floor, here and there burning, flaring, wild shadowy flocks of them lofted, sculpting the gusts and blasts of a raging windstorm and there, in the eye of it, over toppled cabinets and the fallen bell of a lamp, hangs a man all in black his feet churning the air, reaching, grasping, wailing, yanking himself about with the effort of clutching the photos that whirl just out of reach.

“Hold still,” says someone loud enough to carry over the wind. A zipping rip of cloth. A big man kneeling darkly crouched over something, red shoes kicked out a-sprawl to one side of him, the gleam of a blade. “Well, do something,” that loud voice again, and Kerr, reaching for the bezel of his watch, finds his feet no longer on the floor, turned about his hands whipped back a grunt and slap, photos against his chest, photos clinging to his arms, the side of his face, a yelp from the Devil over across that room. More photos flutter snap to press against him trembling, he’s lurching himself around in the howling wind. Mr. Keightlinger below spreads that undone red shirt, that ripped black T-shirt, Jo’s eyes wide mouth working a word unheard, and those spatulate fingers press and twist her skin. Kerr hung above a lapped and bristling mass of photographs plastered to his torso, more photos slithering his arms one bending lifted close a hand to grab to peel to rip away the photos crumpling themselves into his mouth, a desperate gulp of air, a single shout, “Lu!” or maybe liu, or leu, it echoes, a distorted clang, and Mr. Keightlinger looks up, startled, as the wind

Kerr’s feet hit the floor, he stumbles to his knees, an elbow, clang and crash the Devil falling from the air, the rustle flutter patterfall of hundreds, of thousands of glossy photographs dropped all at once. Scrape and squeak of shoe on concrete Mr. Keightlinger standing, looking about that enormous, empty, silent room. “Where!” he cries, a forlorn yelp, and then, “Come back!” a ragged shout. Kerr pushes himself to his hands and knees and “You!” roars Mr. Keightlinger, rounding on him a kick to his belly over and tumble, grunt. Hauling him up, handfuls of beige fleece, “I’ll,” says Kerr, but an arm swings back for a punch to his gut, “What did you,” Mr. Keightlinger’s howling. Kerr says, “I’ll speak another,” and then the next punch lands. Kerr grunts, coughs. “You couldn’t,” Mr. Keightlinger’s saying, arm cocked.

“Sure I would,” says Kerr, grin crooked.

“Hey. Fucko,” says Jo Maguire.

Mr. Keightlinger drops Kerr, backs away. Jo’s marching toward them, rent shirts hung open, sword in hand. “Come back,” says Mr. Keightlinger once more, to none of them in particular. “Please.”

“What the hell,” says Jo. Over behind her a scrape of metal pop and clatter, the Devil, rolling over.

“You have it,” says Mr. Keightlinger. “You’re the one that has it.”

“That’s not all I have,” says Jo, lifting up her free hand.

Something rustles in the drifts of photographs, and Kerr looks back and forth, from her to him, to her again, but there, by the toppled cabinets, the skull mask lifts itself, the mane of it drawing itself together as it leaps across all that empty room, a thunderbolt to her hand.

“My morgue!” the Devil’s roaring, kicking over a tumult of wrenched and broken cabinets.

“You,” says Mr. Keightlinger, to Jo as she fits the mask over her head, as the mane climbs up and up, a great black banner flying. “Stay alive,” says Mr. Keightlinger, backing away. “And you,” he points to Kerr, who lifts a useless hand. “I won’t forget,” says Mr. Keightlinger, turning, loping away, off toward the broken doors.

“Your heart!” cries the Devil, staggering, slipping on photographs, stooping to snatch up his cutlass, “in my hand!” as he levels the blade at Mr. Keightlinger’s retreating back. “Now!” And slashing the air with it leaps over the photos after him at a run.

And Kerr, Kerr’s fallen, scrambling back, Kerr’s staring jaw dropped at Jo Maguire, Jo Gallowglas, Jo the Huntsman of the Court of Roses, under that swelling thunderhead that roils the bells of the remaining lamps, swallowing the light, lifting, pointing her flashing blade, “Devil,” she says, and the word booms. And as the Devil stops, looks back, eyes widening, she says, “We ain’t done.”

And he smiles. “Of course,” he says. “The knave will keep.” A jaunty salute of his cutlass, and he sets off, charging back across the room toward her.

That mane hangs in the air above them, lazily coiling about as she ducks, sidesteps his first wild chop, his second, clang and scrape she catches the third, steel screeching as she pushes, he shoves, she stumbles blade whipped wide as both hands gripped his next cut slashes her shoulder to hip she’s falling, heavily, a gasp, and all that mass of mane drops from the air. The Devil steps back, panting, blinking. Swallowing as he takes in the basket of wiry strands a-bob in the air before him, at the end of the blade jammed through his chest. It sinks with him as he falls to his knees, reaching. The blade wobbles, shifts, drops suddenly in a spatter of something wet and black to the floor, by an angled jawbone bristling with golden teeth. The mask falls from Jo’s face with a horrid echoing clack.

Blood wells from the long clean slash across her breast and belly, dark slicks of it already swamping the photographs crumpled beneath her. Kerr kneels over her, looking about, hands hovering uncertainly over throat and wrist, she jerks, a bubbling splat of a cough, and he yelps. Wisping up from her chest the barest tendril, to faint to have any color at all. “Oh, shit,” says David Kerr. “That’s it. That’s what he meant.”

Jo drags up her sodden hand, presses the heel of it a squelch to her breast, tamping it back down.

“I can’t,” says Kerr, “I’m sorry, there’s no way I can call an ambulance. They’re not equipped. I should be running for the fucking hills,” but her head’s rolling back and forth, no, no, as her other hand wrestles something up, her phone, lighting up under a film of red. Holding it up to him. “Luys,” she just manages to say. “The Mason. Call,” her voice catches, “Luys.”

And now the blue is almost gone from the sky, a lemony pale above that shades down through lime and lavender to oranges, to wild magentas that cling to the bottoms of a shadowed flotilla of clouds, down and down to the molten gold still burgeoning over beyond the roofs and towers, the far-off hills, and off behind it pinkly greens through purples unearthly, stately, down into a rumor of the darkness that’s to come. He slips around the corner of the low white warehouse as across the way a streetlight flickers to life. The empty street, the bare sidewalk, the warehouse wall painted over the length of it with a sprawling mural, figures and scenes that lap one over into another, masks and blocks, flames, a gnarled and squamous root-shape crowned with a forest, all the rich colors of it leached away in the deepening dim. Another wall over across the street, grey and blank but for a simple sign, Multnomah County Department of Community Corrections, it says, Probate and Parole. He hunches under the hood of his grimy sweatshirt, hands wrapped around whatever it is he’s carrying, and heads quickly down the open stretch of sidewalk, toward the row houses at the end, the cluster of recycling bins, but even before he’s halfway along there’s an engine-chug, a pickup truck turning the corner ahead, and he stops in the glare of its round headlights. It’s an old truck, an aqua blue weirdly luminous in the gloom, fenders scabbed with rust. “Hey,” says somebody, the driver, through the window rolling down, “hey,” as the truck stops there beside him. “Christian? The hell you doing over here? You know my word only goes so far.”

“You hold my money,” says Christian, tipping back his head, looking out from under his hood. “Not my feet.”

“I hold your money,” says the XO, companionably enough, “and you know if you need anything, all you have to do is ask. Just like I know if I ask you for something, you’ll bring what you got to the table.” There’s a shadow just past him, someone else in the cab. “Now get over here,” he says. “We been looking for you all afternoon.”

“Who’s we,” says Christian. “Who you got in there with you.”

A chuckle from whoever it is, the shadow in the passenger seat. “Oh,” it says, “oh that’s Shizzt, all right,” and Christian closes his eyes with a shiver. The passenger door opens with a scrape. Christian hurriedly takes the shoe he’s holding, wrapped in his hands, the oxblood black in the darkness and the buckle of it gleaming, and stuffs it into the pocket in the front of his sweatshirt, and his hands in after. Moody steps around the front of the truck, lit up suddenly by the headlights, “Shizzt the Drow,” he says, his hands spread wide, welcoming. “How the hell are you.”

“We ain’t got nothing to say to each other,” says Christian, looking down, hunching over the bulge of the shoe in the pocket of his shirt.

“Now don’t be like that, man,” says Moody. “You know I didn’t do half a what they said I did. That’s why I’m out so early. Good behavior, and all kind and manner of false pretenses and shit.” A step closer, and Christian lifts his head up, glaring out from under his hood. “Now you,” says Moody, a hand up against the light, “you ain’t changed a bit. But Bambi Jo?” And there’s that chuckle again. “You seen her, lately? God damn.” Another step closer, and there he is, right there by Christian, one foot up on the curb. “Tell me,” says Moody. “How the hell you think she’s doing, these days?”

Table of Contents

the Silhouette in the doorway – echoes

Ysabel, a silhouette in the doorway, and behind her the hall, stellated by those strands of little yellow lights. “Jo?” she says. “Are you awake?”

From the mounded white comforter, blued in the darkness, a sigh resolves itself into a word: “Yes.”

“I wish you had come,” says Ysabel, stepping down as she kicks off her shoes, clump-thump. “The piano, in this one song,” and she twirls about, white coat slipping from her shoulders, flump to the floor. Careless drips of golden glitter spangle her bared arms, her thigh, down about her knees. “It was magnificent,” she says, sitting at the foot of the futon.

“There’s the, Samani? In the morning? Knighting of knights? Luys is gonna be here in, stupid early,” grabbing her phone from the clutter on the table by the futon, ghostly flash of her face in the light of the screen. “Three hours,” she says, putting it back.

“You might’ve brought him with you. Made a night of it.”

“Some of us need our sleep, your majesty?”

“Sleep, your grace, is highly overrated.” Ysabel undoes a knot at the back of her neck, and peels the lacey overlay of her brief dress from the glossy chemise beneath. “As well you know,” she says, dropping the overlay to the floor. “Do you still mean to propose your friend for office?”

“Ah, he said no, and took off, but,” and Jo rolls over, under the comforter. “I got Sweetloaf out looking for him, just in case.”


Darkness shifts as Jo sits up a little, “Yes,” she says, “Sweetloaf,” and then, falling back, a shadow on the pillows, “the hell do you care, you’re not even going.”

“I do care,” says Ysabel, leaning back against the wall, closing her eyes.

After a minute or two, another sigh from under that comforter, “Christ, if you’re staying, get under the damn covers. Make me nervous, just sitting there like, what are you, Ysabel?” Jo sits up again, switches on the anglepoise lamp on the table by the futon. There at the foot of it Ysabel’s squirming out of her chemise. “I’m not sleeping in this,” she says, dropping it on the comforter. “Besides,” a brow cocked at Jo’s bare shoulder, her breast, “when in Rome.”

“And of course, you went commando,” says Jo, as Ysabel crawls up the futon. “And you reek, of cigarettes, of booze, of, of pussy – ”


“You do!”

Ysabel leans close, to nuzzle Jo’s cheek, “Intoxicating, isn’t it,” she murmurs. Stroking that red hair spread out in the lamplight. “Don’t,” says Jo, gone suddenly still.

Ysabel lets go, sits up, “Jo,” she says, “I would never,” and “I know,” says Jo. “I know.” Looking up to Ysabel, those short black curls touched here and there with white. “What,” says Jo. “Ysabel. What is it.”

“I,” says Ysabel, looking away.

“Is it Chrissie? Did you leave her in your room again, or – ”

“I sent her home,” says Ysabel, “but, I, I,” the dim glow of the hallway out there, past the half-closed door. “Does it hurt?” she says, turning back to Jo.

“Does, what – hurt?”

“Your,” and Ysabel waves a hand, vaguely, over Jo, “condition. Does it hurt?”

Jo says, “That’s what this is about?”

“Well, I, I worry, I do.” Her hand laid gently over Jo’s heart. “I do care.”

“So you can’t bear to let me sleep.”

“You owe us, Southeast.” Stern words belied by a gentle smile. “You told your Mason, before you told your Queen.”

“Well, I, yeah,” says Jo, “he is my, ah, my, my – ”

“Your lover.”

“ – I was gonna, more like say, lieutenant?” The sour twist of her mouth. “What’s that Mafia word. Consigglesomething. Consorleoni?”

Ysabel, pressing softly with her hand, says again, “Does it hurt?”

“Sometimes?” says Jo, looking down at Ysabel’s fingers. “Mostly, it’s just, like, a chill. But I can forget it’s even ow, okay, yes, you do that,” laugh and tussle, rustle of bedclothes, a shimmer of falling gold knocked loose from Ysabel’s skin, “that’s not it, you can stop! Now!” the last words spiking, slap and shove and tumble, and Ysabel gasps, “What,” says Jo, hands lifting away as Ysabel sits back, “I saw it,” she says, “I think.”


“A glimmer.”

“Like soap.”

“A rainbow.”

“But you look at it.”

“There’s nothing.”

“Sometimes,” says Jo, reaching out, “it’s easier to see,” switching off the lamp, “in the dark.”

“I don’t,” says Ysabel, black hair lost in the shadows, her hand a shadow on the pale, blue-tinged ground of Jo’s chest. “It’s gone,” she says.

“Quicksmoke,” says Jo, her hand covering Ysabel’s.

“The whirlwind, in a bottle.”

“Christ,” says Jo. “Don’t remind me.”

“The fire enfolded, from before the world was the world.”

“Echoes,” says Jo. “Your father called them – ”

“I have no father.”

“Okay, uh, John, John said – ”

“The King Before.”

“The King,” says Jo, “Before. Yes. Called them echoes.” Her hand, clasping Ysabel’s. Fingers twining. “I am,” she says, “so fucking sorry.”

“What on earth for,” says Ysabel, with wonderment.

“That he went after you,” says Jo. “The magician. I – you, you shouldn’t’ve had to – if I’d told you, but,” as Ysabel stretching out lays herself down, her head on Jo’s shoulder, “I should’ve told you. I should’ve. Before he – but I didn’t – ”


“ – I had no idea he was even still here – ”

“Jo, it’s only logic, that he’d come to look for it first in me,” and “I know,” says Jo, “but if I’d, I,” her arm coming up about Ysabel, “I’m so sorry,” and Ysabel’s saying, “he hurt no one, he barely even spoke: mostly bluster. It’s all right. It’s all right. I was more concerned,” a little laugh, “with what my mothers meant to do.” Her hand, squeezing Jo’s. “I am all right,” she says. “But you should know. He’ll come for you, next.”

“Yeah,” says Jo, looking away. The shadowed walls, the windows streaked with streetlight.

“All this time,” says Ysabel, “you’ve carried it,” her thumb, lightly stroking, there between Jo’s breasts. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

And Jo says, “I was scared.”

“Oh,” says Ysabel, pushing up, “oh, Gallowglas,” leaning over, a hand to that red hair, black in the blackness. “How could you ever be frightened of me.”

“Not of,” says Jo. Looking up, past Ysabel’s shadow. “For.” The dim ceiling above. “You were,” she says, “gone.”

“I fell,” says Ysabel.

“It, this, stuff. This smoke. It eats things, out of the world. People.”

“I fell, into myself.”

“You were gone.”

“I fell, but you came for me.”

“Before that,” says Jo. “Before that. Before your, the King, before he found me, you were – nobody, they all, didn’t know you. Luys. Marfisa. The, Mooncalfe, and, and Leo, nobody – ”


“Sweetloaf! Nobody, no one,” pulling her hand free, sitting up, away from Ysabel, “you were gone.”

“Jo,” says Ysabel.

“This, stuff,” says Jo, and her wavering hand closes in a fist, presses knuckles sharply to her sternum. “Lenses, he said. And mirrors. Breath. That’s what holds it, he said. But it also,” that fist, twisting, and she winces, “makes a shell, for itself? From what it takes. It makes a shell, and plants itself,” her eyes, her face crumpling, shoulders hunching, knuckles digging and she groans, “it’s sleeping, here, in my heart, and I don’t know what will happen when it wakes,” shuddering, “up,” and a hiss of breath, but Ysabel’s grabbed her arm, pulled that fist away, pulled Jo close her arms about her, “But I’m here,” she’s saying, “I’m here, Jo, I’m here,” kissing her, her forehead, a hiccuped sob. “I’m here,” she whispers. “Jo. Know this.” One hand slipped between them, laid against Jo’s breast. “I am,” says Ysabel, “so much bigger than that.”

Jo pulls her close, arms tight about her, crushing Ysabel’s hand between them, “It’s just,” she says, eyes squeezed shut, “I, I love you,” a breath, in Ysabel’s ear.

And Ysabel’s arms about Jo, and her mouth turns to find Jo’s mouth, and a kiss, and another kiss, another, and just the barest motion of her lips against Jo’s lips: “Thank you.”

Table of Contents

Rude Love,” written by f(x), copyright holder unknown.