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the Blue room – Bottles & Cartons & Tubs & Boxes –

The room is blue, and dark, and very quiet. At the foot of the pallet mounded with white pillows under the angled ceilings he’s sitting, and dark hair eaves his shoulders, a great beard brushes his chest, his back and upper arms are hatched with more hair curling with the curves of sagging muscle, down to his thick round waist. His legs are folded tailor-fashion, bare feet tucked under bare thighs, hands held loosely open on his knees, his cock a-jut, tip of it darkly swollen, glistening, there before his thick-furred paunch. Mustache wide in a simple smile beneath eyes simply, gently closed, there between his beard, his hair, serenely still, so very quiet.

Explosions rip the television screen, chatter of gunfire, Angels comin thick an fast Sarge, and the guy on the beanbag leans back and forth, thumbs and fingers frantically working the controller in his lap. The view on the screen wheels, jerks, dials and meters in the corners whirling, flashing, galloping along in a tight-packed herd of wildly colored centaurs, garish pastel zebra stripes, neon leopard spots, Appaloosa rainbows, all wrapped in khaki saddlebags, human torsos draped in bandoliers, big guns in their outsized hands, Get to cover! Under the cable! Your six, your six! and another explosion. “Shit!” he yelps, tap-tapping, laughing, “Shit!” Over across the room a woman’s headed toward a grand dark staircase, and the other man in the room looks away from the screen, starts after her, “Ellen,” he says, dodging around a dark wood column, “hey, Ellen, wait up.” She stops, a couple steps up, looks down at him. “How long, exactly,” he says, “is he gonna be staying here,” and he points, up the stairs, past her. She shrugs. More explosions, more gunfire, the guy on the beanbag whoops. “Long as he needs,” she says. Her black hair spiky short, the inky lace of tattoos edging the collar of her running shirt.

“It’s just,” he says, at the foot of the stairs, tall and heavyset, cardigan blue. “The occasional overnight guest is one thing, but – ”

“My room, my friend, my business,” she says. “You won’t even know he’s there, Dan, unless you go out of your way.” The loudest explosion yet, and “Shit!” yells the guy on the beanbag. The television’s gone red. She’s turning to climb the stairs. “Ellen!” says the man in the blue cardigan, starting up, “Ellen, he was, what the hell was he doing, wearing my shirt?”

She looks down at him again, and maybe shrugs. “Looks better on him,” she says, and up she goes, up another flight, up under the very peak of the house. At the end of a cramped hall a door, cut at an angle the top to fit the slope of the roof.

The door to that blue room opens, and she steps in, a shadow dressed in black, flashes of silver piping, “Phil?” she says. “You’re, ah, oh.” Stretching out a foot to prod the black huddle of a discarded suit, there on the floor by the door. Splash of yellow within, and blue and white, a rumpled aloha shirt. “Hungry?” she says. “I was gonna go for phở.” Still in the doorway, hand on the jamb. “Did you want some?” Creak of a floorboard as she steps back, out into the hall. “I’ll bring some back,” she says. “You’re welcome to half the bed, if you need it.” The door swings shut. The latch clicks, quietly.

Rattle of glass, yellow bin in his hands, blue letters along the side say Portland Recycles! Clang and clink he sets it down, chock full of bottles, brown glass and green, clear, four or five of them wine bottles long and slender, the rest soda bottles, beer. Squatting he pulls out a wide-mouthed jar, the label mostly torn away, and holds it up in the light. “Fuck,” he says, setting it down. Smacks it, topples it, sends it rolling a hollow rumble away down the linoleum clunk against the wall. “Fuck,” he says, again, rattle and clink, and “shit,” and then “damn.”

Over by the floor-length curtains a brown and green sleeping bag, someone in it, rolling over, a voice, sleep-muzzled, “What.”

“Bits,” he says, “of pickle,” waving a hand, and dark hair swings about the shoulders of his warm-up jacket, blue and grey.

“So rinse it?” The sleeping bag hunches and flops open, whoever’s in it sitting up, a woman, wrapped in a puffy pink and orange parka. “Why should I,” he’s saying, “why couldn’t they,” and he shoves the bin, a chiming crash. “We’ll just have to get some. Bread-and-butter pickles. Trader Joe’s.”

“You want to,” she says, and she’s pinching the bridge of her nose, “you want to buy a new jar of pickles, and, what, eat them all, or throw them out, and the rinse the jar, because you don’t want to rinse the jar?”

“The label on that one,” he says, and then “dammit! It’s the perfect size.” Stomping the length of the room to snatch up the jar, and then through the door. Clomp and clatter, a squawking wrench, the rush of water.

She sighs, crawls out of the sleeping bag, long yellow hair a-dangle from the parka’s fur-lined hood. She slips on a couple of red canvas shoes and heads off carefully through the garbage strewn across the floor, more bottles, empty, all sizes and colors, glass and plastic, quart-sized cartons and half-gallon cartons and little pints and half-pints, cereal boxes and pasta boxes stacked and wrapped together with blue masking tape and black friction tape, towering masts of emptied rolls of plastic wrap and toilet paper, paper towels, plastic tubs tall and squatly broad, whole ranks of them that say Nancy’s in letters of various hues, all laid out in a relatively tidy grid, narrow paths between and through them all where she places her feet, aglets of her undone laces clacking against the floor, until she reaches a wide cleared curl of an aisle of sorts, edges marked with long strips of more blue tape.

He’s at the sink, fiercely scrubbing the jar, “Basic civic duty,” he’s saying, “think of other people, come on.” Slamming the jar on the counter by a dozen or more empty jars and bottles, scrubbed clean, gleaming. Yanking the faucet to shut off the water. “Luke,” she’s saying, “Luke,” and he looks up to see her there, hands stuffed in the pockets of her parka. “The hell you wearing that for,” he says, scooping wet shreds of label from the sink.

“It’s freezing,” she says.

“You know why it’s cold,” he says, dropping the mess plop in a swollen garbage bag that yawns there on the floor.

“So I’m wearing this.”

“You look ridiculous.” He shakes the slop off his hand.

“There’s still a smell,” she says. He’s headed past her, out of the kitchen. “Luke,” she says, following, “Luke. We’re gonna need – ”

“Don’t,” he says, kneeling by an untidy patch of garbage.

“We’re gonna need money,” she says. “Rent. The fifth. It’s next week.”

“We’re always,” says Luke, “gonna need,” plucking up a cereal box, “so get a job,” he says, grabbing another, a clownishly colored bird on the front of it.

“I had a job,” she says.

“Jessie,” he says, “don’t, just,” and he looks up, a shrug. “Your sister’s gonna be here soon. Right? So maybe she’ll have something for you. For us.”

“My,” says Jessie, frowning. “Luke, now is not the – ”

“Don’t,” he says, leaning over to place one of the boxes right next to a yellow plastic jug.

Table of Contents

Gæa, Titanides, Angels, etc. created by John Varley. Trader Joe’s® is a registered trademark of Trader Joe’s® Co. Nancy's™ is a trademark of Springfield Creamery, Inc.

“The first order of Business” – at This table – antique Punk bullshit – the Basics of Security –

“The first order of business,” says the man at the head of the table, “in any face time we take with potential occupancy partners, we need to assess how the anticipated anchor’s gonna impact their appraisal and availability approach.” It’s a long table, a slab of wood the color of pale flesh, polished to a striking gleam that’s broken here and there by a phone or a computer tablet laid before this person or that, until down at the very other end of it, a couple of comb-bound reports bristling with post-it flags, a spill of colorful diagrams, a worn redweld holding a couple of file folders upright, a small black notebook splayed open, the wispy scratch of a fountain pen, APPRAISAL written in ruddy black ink, AVAILABILITY, then three sharp underscores. “It’s not,” the man at the head of the table is saying, “that we anticipate an antagonism toward the anchor, on the part of any potential partners?” His flat grey suit’s a touch too big, the collar of his soft blue shirt’s undone, his sparse beard neatly trimmed. “But by anticipating,” he says, “their respective stances vis-à-vis their individualized brand engagement profiles which, let me assure you, we will be reviewing in a thorough manner before we, we take up any,” he’s trailing off, “tête-à-têtes,” blinking quizzically. The room about them’s walled in cool sheets of green-tinged glass on all four sides and more beyond refracting, reflecting, shimmering desk lamps and fluorescents, computer screens, heads popping up over cubicle walls, turning, following the figure swimming up through them, one glass door after another opening before her, “I,” says the man at the head of the table, “excuse me,” as the final glass door swings open, she’s sweeping into the room, Ysabel in her long white coat. “I tried to tell her,” someone’s saying, a receptionist maybe, bobbing in her wake, and “Do you mind,” says an older man, halfway down the table, a hand on his phone on the wood, but she’s glaring at the very other end of the table. “How dare you,” she says.

“Sorry, folks,” says Lymond, screwing the cap onto his fountain pen. “Think we might have the room a minute?”

“I, um,” says the man at the head of the table, “we just got started?”

“And we’ll get right back into it,” says Lymond. “I’m really looking forward to hearing more about this brand engagement. Now,” pushing back his chair, “if you don’t mind,” but already they’re filing out, shirts and blouses of dull green, milky blue, an intrepid puce, awkwardly around past Ysabel all in white. “Um,” says the man who’d been at the head of the table, in his flat grey suit.

“Thanks,” says Lymond, cheerfully. The green glass door swings shut. “How dare I?” he says, to Ysabel. “I’m the King. A certain latitude’s expected.”

“You could’ve gotten her killed,” says Ysabel.

“They’re watching, you know,” he says, tucking a report into the redweld. “Go on. Lean over the table. Slap me. That should be enough to undo all his sacrifice secured.”

She blinks at that, draws back. “Sacrifice,” she says.

“He thought of it as such,” says Lymond, stacking up those diagrams, tapping their edges against the wood. “Now. Slap me, or turn about, and go home.”

“Not until you explain yourself, brother.”

“Oh, Ys,” he says. “If you would play at this table,” he’s tucking the diagrams into a file folder, “you must pay attention.” A wince, as he sets the folder aside. “We find ourselves upon a crux: the duel between the Devil and the Huntsman redounded to our favor, yet the wound’s but freshly healed. Any sudden shift might tear it right back open.” His hands, folded together before him, a thumb pressed tight against a knuckle. “Is that what you would have?”

“I’ve seen the wound,” she says. “He nearly cut her through. The owr does what it can,” and she looks up from the tabletop to meet his eyes, one brown, one blue, both cold. “She sleeps. She’s been asleep since the Mason brought her home.” Leaning down now, both hands planted on the glossy wood. “I’m doing you a courtesy, by answering a question I assume you would eventually have asked?”

A bitter something of a smile. “How is Jo,” he says, “how Jo is, I know how is our Gallowglas: loyal, and effective. I trusted her to do what needed doing, and she went and got it done. Now,” over her sharp intake of breath, “I ask, once more. You know what is at stake. Do you mean to stand against any particular point of our plan?” Leaning in close. “Slap me,” he says. “Or go home.”

She steps back, she turns away. Before she can open the green glass door he says, “Take care, sister, where and when you might vent any further displeasures?” Looking down, at his folded hands. “Our tantrums are expensive.”

“You’ve no idea,” she says, “what could’ve spilled from her heart, had his stroke been a whit more true.”

She opens the door. He shifts his thumb. The thin line of a neat straight cut along the edge of his forefinger, sewn with tiny beads of dark red blood. He lifts it to his lips. “Um,” says someone, the man in the flat grey suit a touch too big, peering into the room. “Everything good?”

“Paper cut,” says Lymond, waving him in. “C’mon, let’s go. Take it from the top.”

Well and I don’t know, dim voices floating up through floorboards loosely laid across the joists, not what we discussed, poets and junkies, epic, like some, there’s a mirror, there’s no one in the mirror, there’s a crack in the glass of it jagged, chased and dappled, splotched with gold, a spangled haze, such a history, working together, that didn’t work, a drip-drip trickle from the faucet, puddles on gold-streaked marble about the sink, but there, it’s gonna be epic, dust gone dark to grey, to black, a lump of it mucked up under the mirror, with the shreds of a burst plastic baggie, this, or this, or this. There’s music, too, loud but languid, strummed guitars, a melodeon, but she’s sitting up in the dark, her head in her hands, and there is no mirror, no light, no sinks or water, no marble countertop, but there is the dust, spangled, glimmering in the milky cloud of her hair, and still the music.

“Well if we have to have a name,” says Gloria Monday.

“It’s something to put on a poster,” says the woman sitting on the nubbled pea-green couch, one hand braced on the curled handle of an orthopædic cane, a big brown scaley purse in her lap.

“Well if that’s all we want,” says Gloria, wrestling to one side a great stretched canvas, a twirling figure calligraphed in slashes of black, to reveal another propped behind it, the next wild scribble of dance. She steps back, behind a tiny silver camera atop a stolid tripod, stoops to peer through it. “We could call it the Lawn,” she says, snapping a picture. Straightening, she looks back and forth, from the painting, to the image of it, now on the enormous white-framed monitor behind her there on the worktable.

“As in get off the?” says the woman standing off to one side, her long black coat done up with brightly silver buttons, and a little grey snap-brim hat on her head.

“That’s not what we discussed,” says Anna in her houndstooth trousers, narrow black-rimmed glasses glaring in the light.

“The house,” says Gloria, taking hold of the canvas. “Run-down and falling apart and poets and junkies and twenty bedrooms to one bathroom and full of,” lifting, “epic,” hoisting it aside, “legend, and, and art,” to reveal the next. “The Lawn,” says Gloria Monday. Her feet are bare, laddered tights printed with overlapping gears, her vast white T-shirt says Robot Fightin’ Boots.

“I liked Weatherall’s,” says Anna. “If we’re going to change it.”

“Yeah, well,” says Gloria, stooping behind the camera again.

“Sounds like some Harry Potter shit,” says the woman in the long black coat.

“Jilting of,” says Gloria, snapping another picture. “Granny Weatherall? Been a while, since you been in high school?” The woman on the couch snorts up a laugh, sits up, hefting her cane. “How about,” she says, pointing the wide rubber foot of it out, toward the cavernous space beyond, “this building,” the boxes, equipment, the bulks of whatever it is under tarps shoved off to either side, stacked in the stalls that one by one march down the long high walls, “the history,” soaked in soft grey light depending from up under the rafters, the windows there scrubbed clean of filth, scraped clear of paint, “a name should honor that.”

“It was a warehouse for vegetables,” says Gloria.

“A farmers’ market,” says the woman on the couch, “built by Italian immigrants, working together. Cooperatively.”

“Snot Market,” says Gloria, “Grime Market, that didn’t work,” grabbing the next canvas, “Pus Market has a certain punch,” hauling it aside, “but Anna didn’t like any of those, and anyway it’s antique punk bullshit. Effluvial Plane I kinda liked, but that’s too, much, y’know?”

“How old are you?” says the woman all in black.

“Fuck you,” says Gloria. “That’s how old I am.”

“Gloria,” says Anna.

“No, fuck this,” snarls Gloria. “We got the space. We’re doing the thing. It’s gonna be epic. And you can either get on board, get your, people, involved,” the woman on the couch, clutching her purse, “you can write about it like you know what’s gonna happen,” the woman all in black, hands in her pockets, smirking, “or you can scramble to catch up after, like everyone else.”

“Ms. Thorpe, we must apologize,” says Anna, after a moment, but “No, no,” says the woman all in black, “tempers run hot and you let them out and that’s fine, and then you stop and you take a deep breath and you think. Maybe you do this, or maybe tomorrow you’re kicked out for squatting. You don’t – ”

“Hey, Anna!” says Gloria. “What’s the owner got to say, about us being here?”

“There are no objections,” says Anna, but Thorpe looks away, rolling her eyes. “I did my homework,” she says, lifting her little grey hat, “or I wouldn’t be here at all,” scratching her head, her dark hair short, swept back. “You’re Suzette Wilson, you’re Tom Wilson’s daughter, and I’m sorry for your loss, but the title to this pile is hardly as clear-cut as,” but Gloria’s saying, “This, this is my place,” as Thorpe says “that’s before we even get into the questions of insurance, and zoning, and inspections,” but Gloria’s shouting “S1! Last Thursday! The Teahouse! You think they waited around for fucking paperwork?”

Anna and the woman on the couch, watching them both, Gloria seething, Thorpe settling her hat on her head, “Well,” she’s saying, tucking her hands in the pockets of her coat, “S1 is street-legal now, yeah, and the Teahouse? That was in Sellwood? Long gone. And you have any idea how much the merchants on Alberta pay the city for extra cops?” A shrug, and that smirk warms to something more sympathetic. “You want to beg forgiveness instead of ask permission and I can respect that, but there’s this delicate balance. You gotta be big enough to get noticed, but you can’t be so big you get noticed, you know?” Looking out, over the cavernous space below. “And all this you want to do in a week.” Turning back, hands spread in a hapless shrug, a burble of sound, “I like you,” she says, “I do, I like the idea,” looking up. It sounds like someone’s singing up there.

Up there, up at the edge of the planks laid across the joists, up by the brief ladder bolted to the wall a couple of long bare legs kicked over and orange underpants, ee, ee-oh nor, the keening voice a grunt, doo da-da dee, doo da-da dee, down the ladder to the walkway up there, a wild mad cloud of white-gold hair, “and quickly was received, enthusiastically,” and Thorpe looks down, over at the paintings leaned, at the image on the enormous monitor. “Some say that it had more to do with her,” the singer’s making her way, hand on the railing, “improper sense of dress, than her talent, or her diligence,” opening a door up there, painted with letters that possibly once said Ranchers, or Gardeners, and closing it muffles her song. “I’m sorry,” says Anna, drawing back their attention. “It seems Marfisa forgot we were meeting this morning.”

“I’ve seen,” says Thorpe, “I’ve heard her, before.”

“Salt and Straw,” says the woman on the couch, but then, lifting a finger, “no, that’s the ice cream.”

“She kinda came with the place,” says Gloria. Up there a crash of water, flushing, that door opens, Marfisa’s stepping out, “Cartier Bresson!” she shouts. “Max Ernst, Paul Eluard, George Bataille,” as she’s making her way back along the wall above them. “Their misogyny really irritated her, but she wasn’t, she,” stopping, standing there, wavering a little, looking down at them. Absently scratching just beneath a breast, and sunlight flashing from the gold dust spangling her skin.

“I heard you play once,” says Thorpe, abruptly.

Her wide smile spreading, Marfisa tips back her white-gold head, “Lee, ee-oh nor!” she sings, reaching for the ladder. “Lee, ee-oh nor!” Climbing back up toward the makeshift floor above.

“Stone and Salt!” says the woman on the couch. “That was it.”

Ding the microwave, she opens the door of it, reaches in with a hot pad for a steaming pink mug that says Sophia & Dorothy & Blanche & Rose. In she dunks a purple octopus infuser, dandling its delicate chain a moment. Color blooms.

Out of the kitchen, across the living room, dark wood paneling, grey-green shag, shuff and snap of her slippers into a nook of a hall, too brightly lit. She nudges open a door left ajar, into a small dark room lit only by sunlight staining the edges of heavy curtains drawn, and almost entirely filled by a great wide bed. “I’ve brought tea,” she says, setting the mug on the nightstand in the corner. “Hey.” Sitting on the edge of the bed. “I called Reg,” she says, reaching along the margin of the thick dark comforter, and a gentle stroke for the blond head there, turned away. “Told him we’d need another week. He wasn’t happy, but hey. Fuck him.” Tucking a lock of her own hair, as blond, as straight, behind her ear. “Chrissie,” she says. “Chér.”

“I don’t want any tea.”

“Yeah, well,” says Ettie, and she gets to her feet with a sigh. “This would be why I stick with men. They can’t break your heart.”

The door swings open, for a moment all’s revealed, scarred floor and drifts of grit against the bar, peeling dimpled paint along the front of it and its cracked vinyl bumper, dust furring the bottles along the top shelf, the washed-out flyspecked neon lights, the bartender, spiky hair flared palely to a golden brown, hand up against the raw daylight, skinny arm festooned with shadowy tattoos, “Jacks?” says Jessie, blinking, but the light’s swallowed away as the door swings shut, and dimness closes about the warm neon, the sparkle of glass, the rattle of drums and a couple of jangled chords, bubbling bass, “Jackie?” says the bartender, his hair gone black. “Ah, naw. She ain’t here.”

“Oh,” says Jessie, in her puffy pink parka. “Sorry. I thought,” and she shakes her head, Americans were thus denied, someone’s singing, with the guitar and the drums, all right to travel to the other side. “She usually works mornings,” says Jessie. “Any idea when she’s in next?”

“No, see,” says the bartender, “I mean, she’s not here? Anymore?” Folding those skinny arms, leaning his elbows on the bar. “And we can’t be giving out people’s schedules, come on. Basic security.”

“I’m a friend,” says Jessie, and then, “I used to dance here? About a year, year and a half ago. Went by Rain?”

“If you’re a friend,” says the bartender, “I mean, she left, what, right after the holidays? Two, three months ago? So, I mean,” and he spreads his hands. “Want something to drink?”

“Where’d she go?” says Jessie.

“I don’t know, Eugene or something? But even if I did I couldn’t tell you, because, security, you know. Coffee? Anything?”

Betcha my life, there’d be no violence there, and she opens her mouth to speak but everything lights up again, washed out, as the door swings open, two women, raincoat, trench coat, gym bag and backpack, nodding to the bartender who waves hello as they head through empty tables past the empty little stage, toward the nondescript door back there. “How about Chilli,” says Jessie. “He back there?”

“He, naw, Chilli, we’re,” the bartender jumps as she walks away, “we’re under new management,” he calls after her, “so,” but there’s confusion by that nondescript door as it opens, those women stepping through around and past a man who’s stepping out, brown leather vest and rich red hair flopping from a widow’s peak, “I need you to,” the bartender’s saying. Jessie waves him off. “It’s Gaveston,” she says. “I know Gav.”

But Gaveston’s holding the door for someone else, a tall woman in a white track suit, short hair greenly yellow, and Jessie stops short, in the midst of the empty tables. “Chariot?” she says. The tall woman’s saying something to Gaveston, as she heads off past the little stage. “Iona?” says Jessie, and the tall woman looks over to see her there in pink. “Oh,” she says, stopped short. “Rain.”

“Is she here?” says Jessie. “The,” a cough, “the Princess? Uh, Queen? Ysabel?”

Iona’s shaking her head, “I’m merely here on her behalf,” she says, stepping away, but “Iona,” says Jessie, “Chariot, tell her, please,” and Iona stops, looks back. “Yes?” she says.

Jessie looks away. “Nothing,” she says. “Don’t tell her anything. Not even, that you saw me.”

“As you wish,” says Iona. Jessie’s still looking away, there among the empty tables. I’d want the giddy-up, the guitar jangles, I’d want to live it up, I’d want the pick-me-up, and the nondescript door back there’s now shut. The bartender isn’t behind the bar that flares, scoured once more by daylight as Iona opens the door outside. She steps through, the door swings shut, the darkness returns.

Nox Sea Raid say the letters punched in light across the screen. Choose Your Squad swooshes in below. A husky contralto says Set em up Sarge over the speakers, and the guy on the beanbag thumbs and clicks the controller in his lap, wheeling the view on the screen about a motley crew of centaurs, each stepping up to present arms as the focus settles fleetingly on them, uttering a catch-phrase, Rock an roll, rack em and pack em, they will fear my song, buzzbombs why’s it have to be buzzbombs, reportin for beauty! rock an rack em rock an pack em why’s it have to fear my rock an roll an reportin! “This is gonna suck,” says the guy on the beanbag, “I need more’n one tank for this.” Wrinkles about his eyes and gingery stubble along his jaw. “Whaddaya think,” he says, looking away from the screen, “would a Mixolydian,” but there’s nobody beside him, there’s a man headed away, over toward the grand dark staircase, dodging around a dark wood column, his sweater bulky, red, he’s looking up to the woman stopped there on the stairs, black trousers, a bowtie unclipped about her winged collar. “Long as he needs,” she’s saying, and “Oh,” says the guy on the beanbag, turning back to the screen, “Ellen’s home.” Clicking through the figures on the screen, rock an roll, reportin for beauty, they will fear, “The hell was he doing, wearing my shirt?” and the guy on the beanbag looks up again at that, the man in the red sweater a step or two up the stairs, and Ellen above him, maybe a shrug, “It looks better on him,” she’s saying, turning away. Why’s it have to be, says the centaur on the screen. Rack em!

Table of Contents

Post-it® Brand is a trademark of 3M. “Leonor,” written by Katell Keineg, copyright holder unknown. The Original Girls Mug is available from the Diesel Sweeties store. “Dancin’ at the Bains Douche,” written by August Darnell, copyright holder unknown.

“Quite distressing” – well as She might – taking Any hand – Something falls –

“Quite distressing,” says the older man, there in the wingback chair. “Though one does not wish to play the churl. A certain degree of disarray must certainly be allowed, given the shocks – the challenge, the duel – ”

“Allowed?” says Agravante, there by the yellow stone fireplace, an elbow up on the mantel, and the older man takes a sip of milky tea from a thin bone china cup. “How is the King’s champion, by the way?” he says.

“Death’s door,” says Agravante. There on the mantel by his elbow a fiendish little basket-box, carved from a chunk of dark red wood. “Shame,” says the older man, shaking his head, stiff grey curls swept back, and the collar of his shirt undone, a blue scarf knotted tidily about his throat. “Though it is distasteful, how they might linger, on that threshold? Neither here, nor there,” and another sip of tea.

“What is it that distresses you, Medardus,” says Agravante. White-gold locks tied neatly black, his grey suit shot with blue.

“It’s a delicate question I’d have answered, Pinabel,” says the older man, setting the cup in the saucer on his lap, clink. “Does the King yet mean to pursue his bold vision?”

Agravante’s brow pinches. “Of course,” he says. “Insofar as I know.”

Medardus smiles. “Delicately put,” he says. “It’s been two days.”

“These things take time.”

“Two days,” says Medardus, “since he took from me mine offer,” knobbled fingers closing in a fist, drawn up by his yet-mild smile. “And not a word said since.”

“There’s much to be considered,” says Agravante. “Four of you do vie for her hand.”

“Please, Pinabel,” says Medardus, dropping his hand, and a clatter of cup and saucer. “It’s an indulgence to pretend the choice isn’t manifestly clear – that mine is not the best offering.”

“The best, perhaps,” says Agravante. “But sufficient?” A slatey shoulder shrugs.

“The King would demand more?”

“How can I answer that,” says Agravante, “when I know nothing of what you’ve promised, or he might require.”

“Nothing,” says Medardus, still smiling. “Such a delicate word.” Setting cup and saucer on the low table between them. “I would hope,” he says, “it could always be said that the Hound has done well by Medardus,” and he knots those knobby fingers in his lap. “Much as it can be said, to a surety, that Medardus has done well by the Hound.”

Rather carefully, Agravante does not smile at that, or nod, his shoulders do not move, nor does his arm, there by the basket-box. “Of course,” he says.

“But it’s also said,” says Medardus, “that a fear grips your court: that the line is not unbroken. That the Queen, despite her, prodigious recovery, has no Bride of her own. That your King’s hand, howsomever reluctantly, is forced. That he means,” and here Medardus leans forward, elbows on knees, “to take the Princess for himself, and that is why our offers go unanswered.” Sitting back, a dismissive fillip of his fingers. “Or so it’s said.”

“By some,” says Agravante.

“Indeed,” says Medardus.

“But not to me,” says Agravante.

“Ah.” Medardus pushes himself to his feet. “Tell me,” he says, as Agravante leads him out of the little drawing room, “how fares the Count?”

“Grandfather?” says Agravante, pushing open the sliding wood-paneled door. “He sleeps.” Beyond, a narrow hall, in the shadow of a long straight staircase.

“Oh,” he says. “It’s you.” A glass of wine in his hand, something dark. “She isn’t here.”

“She will be, soon enough,” says Marfisa, muddy boot up on the side porch step. “Jason, can I just, wait inside?” The collar of her sheepskin coat turned up, loose white hair stirred by a gust. He steps back, the door held open, his lips a sour purse between his mustache and his dull red beard.

Up the steps into a mud room, painted blue, forgotten coats and a tangle of umbrellas, a scooter, a chalkboard palimpsested with to-dos and shopping lists, “Ah ah,” he’s saying, pointing, thick-lensed glasses blanked out by the ceiling light, and she scrubs her boots against a mat before stepping up into a kitchen to the left there, ruddy stove and a steaming pot of something, stainless steel refrigerator hung about with coupons and note cards, a calendar, a math test festooned with red checks and gold stars, past a breakfast bar sloppily piled with newspapers and a box of soda cans, into a narrow sitting room, a low brown couch, a girl tucked at one end of it, under a red and yellow blanket, and pink headphones startling against her dark hair, watching something on the tablet on her lap. “Grace,” says Jason, still in the kitchen, but she’s already snatching off the headphones, a burst of chirpy music, as Marfisa steps about the low coffee table. “Hey, Mar,” says the girl on the couch, and “Grace,” says Jason again, “upstairs,” as Marfisa sits herself at the other end. Something bulky’s tucked in her coat, she leans over the table, pulling it out, a flat paper sack that spills out a sheaf of handbills, goldenrod pages splashed with black lines, a dancer rendered in calligraphy, and each marked by the green dot of an eye. “Oh, hey,” says the girl, springing from under the blanket, all elbows and knees and clattering headphones, “is that,” says Jason says “Grace!” again, but she’s already scooped up a handbill, turning it over and back again, nothing else to it but little pull-tabs at the bottom, each printed with an elaborately arabesqued question mark. “You’re putting these up?”

Marfisa shrugs. “You’ve seen them?”

“Yesterday, at Mississippi Pizza?” says Grace. “Did you hang ’em there?” Marfisa shrugs again. “The Mercury just had a thing about these things, like how nobody knows what they are, or who’s, it’s, it’s you! You’re doing it! Is it like, are you putting the band back together?”

“Grace,” says Jason.

“What,” snaps Grace, rolling her eyes away.

“Upstairs,” he says, “now. Flashcards till dinner.”

“Jason,” she says, but she’s kicking off the couch, scooping up the tablet, stomping around the table when back that way there’s a clatter and a squeak of hinges from that side porch, “I’m home!” cries someone, and “Carol!” cries Grace, turning on a dime, scampering off past Jason, through the kitchen, “Guess who’s here!”

Marfisa leans forward, slipping the handbills back in the sack, not looking up at Jason looking down at her.

And there’s Carol, by the breakfast bar, setting a brown leather book bag on the carpet. Draped in a brown and yellow striped serape, her dark hair neatly short. “Mar,” she says. “How are you.”

“Well as I might,” says Marfisa, looking up, pushing back a wave of white-gold hair. “What would you say to a chance to sing again, together?”

A hallway narrow, dim, dark doors to either side, silvery numerals set in the walls by each, slender 1s, a wiry 7, great round-bellied 6es, an 8, a 9. Iona in her yellow track suit leads the way around a corner, stops before the door at the end of the hall. 620, the numerals beside it. She plucks a white card from a pocket, holds it up before slipping it into the slot above the knob. “I miss keys,” she says, as the lock chunks, a green light flicking on. “These may be better, but not in any way that matters.” She opens the door. “Go on,” she says.

Within brown walls and gold, bathed in daylight hazed by yellow curtains drawn over corner windows. A comfortable yellow chair, a reading table and a lamp, unlit. A wide bed draped in blue and brown and at the foot of it, sat tailor-fashion, Ysabel, in a white chemise, and soft white leg-warmers thickly rumpled. “Starling,” she says, with a smile.

“My Queen,” says the Starling, a shadow there by yellow Iona, black jeans, black sweatshirt, the hood of it up. “This is not our usual Thursday,” she says, in not much more than a whisper.

“This isn’t a Thursday,” says Ysabel, nodding to Iona, who steps out, closing the door behind her. “This is a whole weekend, if you’d like.”

“But I must dance, ma’am,” says the Starling. “Today and tonight, at the club, and Saturday – ”

“It has been cleared, with your, manager,” says Ysabel. “You’re free, till Monday.”

“Free to be here, with you,” says the Starling. And then, “If it’s just to be the two of us?” Her words worn thin.

“If you’d like,” says Ysabel. “Or, step back through that door. The Chariot will happily take you anywhere in the city you may wish to go.”

The Starling reaches for the strap of the black gym bag slung from her shoulder. “I don’t mind,” she says, “being with you. I’ll just go change,” but “No,” says Ysabel, quickly, “Starling, no. Put that down. Sit with me.”

“My Queen,” says the Starling. “I am not who I am, when I’m with you.”

“Please,” says Ysabel. “Sit.”

The gym bag slumps to the speckled brown carpet. Stepping over, the Starling stands a moment before the foot of that bed, and Ysabel sat there, smiling up, but then she turns, the Starling, and finds the yellow chair behind her, and sits, a darkness in that weak light.

“I’m glad you came,” says Ysabel.

“My Queen desired it,” says the Starling.

“I thought,” says Ysabel, looking away. “I’d thought today that I might dance for you. I have danced, you know. At a party. She said I was quite good.”

“Of course,” says the Starling.

“I settled on an outfit,” says Ysabel, looking down at herself, “nothing too elaborate,” and “Good,” says the Starling, “but,” says Ysabel, “I’ve been flummoxed by my lips. What should the color be?” A hand, lifted to her mouth, her hair, “White?” she says. “To go with the ensemble? Or would that be too much? Would a simple red be enough?”

“No one pays attention to the lipstick,” says the Starling.

“You do,” says Ysabel, quickly, even sharply, and then, “You take such care, with yours.”

That hood shifts, down, to one side, dim light passing over her chin, the tip of her nose. “White’s better for the stage,” she says. “Too bold for such close quarters.”

“A simple red it is.”

“Your majesty is sad,” says the Starling, then. “Why should that be?”

“I,” says Ysabel, shoulders lifting, and her chin, a retort swelling but then suddenly pricked, deflating, and she looks away. “Affairs of the city,” she says.

“Not the heart, then?” says the Starling. “Nor the hips?”

Ysabel untucks herself, a bare foot lowered to the carpet, and her hands on the edge of the bed. “Tell me,” she says. “Do you know the smell, of blood?”

That shadow sits up. “I do, ma’am,” says the Starling.

“She sleeps,” Ysabel’s saying. “Peacefully. Her wound is poulticed with a fief’s portion. The bleeding’s long since stopped, but,” and she takes in a deep breath, shivering at the top of it, a sigh, “wherever I go in those rooms I still can smell it, that – tang, like an armor hot from the sun, and I,” but the Starling’s standing, stepping over, she kneels at the foot of the bed, reaches for a hand that Ysabel lifts away, “here I am,” she says, “holed up in a hotel across town.”

The Starling sits back on her heels. “Would you rather go to her?” but Ysabel’s shaking her head, “The Mason,” she says, “watches over her. She wants for nothing. I am,” but then she stops, and the Starling catches her hand, draws it down, covers it with her own. Ysabel says, “My brother once told me,” but then she stops again, blinking rapidly, looking down at the Starling looking up from under her black hood. “He was once a little boy,” says Ysabel. “Did you know that?”

“The King,” says the Starling, “yes, ma’am, of course. I remember those days.”

“Not even a Prince, just an infant, he came to me, in the little garden, and took my hand, and asked me, sister, why are you crying?” Turning her hand in the Starling’s hand, taking hold of it, squeezing. “And I said, because I do not wish to wed. But I am the Bride, I said, and one day a King will come, and I must take his hand. Whether I will or no, I must, but he,” looking away, “he swore to me, then and there, most earnestly, that he would one day be the King, that I might never need take anyone’s hand.”

The Starling says, “And he did just that.”

“My brother,” says Ysabel, “the King, this,” and her eyes close, the lashes of them shining, “city,” she says, and her mouth closes about another, unsaid word, she swallows, and a lick at her lips. “Jo,” she says.

“My Queen,” says the Starling. “I will go, and change, and dance for you, to take your mind,” but “No,” says Ysabel, leaning forward, her hands on the Starling’s shoulders, “do not change, do not dress, do not perform,” lifting a hand, right to the very hem of that hood, but then pulled back, withdrawn. “I would see you just as you are,” she says, her hands once more in her lap.

“But, my lady,” says the Starling, and she reaches up to draw back that hood. “I am always as I am.” Black hair uncurled, slicked back, clipped down to stubble along her temples, about those ears. Her cheeks, the line of that jaw. The nose. Those eyes, only a hazeled hint of green. Thin lips unpainted, upturned, parting as Ysabel leans close to say, “And you are with me,” and then a feathery kiss, tugging at the Starling’s hands, lifting, the Starling who stands up before her, and her hands fall to the Starling’s hips, rough black denim, the belt loops, her thumb, the wide leather belt, looking up, those green eyes. She yanks at the bulky black sweatshirt, “Get this off,” she says, and the Starling lifts it up and off and tosses it aside. Bare now from the waist up, and the torso of her lean and long, and her long arms sinewy lowering, curling, Ysabel’s darkly hands caught up against the smooth pale chest of her by those wide white hands, and the backs of them snarled with thick blue veins.

“Now would you have me go and change?” murmurs the Starling.

“But you are beautiful,” says Ysabel, slipping her hands free, reaching for the tongue of the belt. The buckle jangles. “Majesty,” says the Starling, “I am many things, but,” and a gasp, at the kiss pressed there below her shadowed navel, as those black jeans loosen, lop, as Ysabel’s fingers dip within to uncurl a palely slender cock, and a stroke for the lengthening lift of it, “oh,” says the Starling, “my Queen, you needn’t,” as her hand cups Ysabel’s face.

“But do you want me to,” says Ysabel, and the Starling, shivering, nods. “The principles, I should think,” says Ysabel, “are essentially the same?” And a lick of a kiss for the tip of it, there on her palm.

Pinned to the pole a mulching bark of posters, flyers, handbills, postcards, lapped and shingled one over another, rain-dimpled, sun-faded, twisted, torn, defaced, Thrash or Die, April Showers Burlesque, Snap! at the Holocene, Anodyne Presents, Missing Dog, Laughing Horse, Drum Circle Saturday Rain or Shine, Cinco de Mayo on the Waterfront, big black letters on an enormous sheet, Grupo Samurjay, Grupo Maravilla, Los Supremos de Los Hermanos Flores, Woodburn Rocks. As the bus pulls away she’s pushing back her black hair looking up toward the top of that slithery bristling treeline, there where handfuls of old notices have been ripped away leaving crowded dozens of denuded staples, glinting, by a metal sign that says No Parking This Block, a relatively fresh sheet of goldenrod paper, mad black scribbles limning a dancer, a single eye of bright green ink. She reaches up, to the pull-tabs fluttering the bottom of it, each printed with only an elaborately arabesqued question mark. Her other hand holds fast a black leather knapsack slung from the shoulder of her slick black jacket. Her glasses with thick black frames. With a sudden yank she rips the handbill down.

A broad porch with four front doors set one right next to another, and she unlocks, slips through the third of them, and up an immediate steep staircase, narrow between dark walls, unlit, that yellow page bright in her hand. Around the wall at the top of the stairs through an open room a couch the floor before it piled with cardboard boxes into a long hall once painted white, some time ago, lit by daylight seeping in from somewhere else. At the end of it a dark room, curtains drawn, and she closes the door behind her, a shadow in the shadows. Flump of the knapsack, dropped to the floor, creaking footstep, the thick click of a switch. Light blares from naked bulbs in the fixture in the middle of the ceiling, pink springs from the walls all whorled curlicues and faded bouquets, the bed there, skewed bedclothes striped dull brown and beige, and on the floor at the foot of it a great conical pile knee-high or more of gleaming golden dust.

She steps around it, jacket half-unzipped. A ridge of the pile has settled, slumped, dust trailed over the floor away from it, and the goldenrod poster drops, crumpled, from the hand she’s lifting to her throat, to the bit of black lace tied there. Steps back, around the bed. She grabs a little hand broom from the nightstand. Kneels down by the pile. Begins to sweep up the goldstuff, careful with each thread and grain.

Eyelids a-twitch, lips parting just to say not even a whisper, maybe a number, counting, nine or ten, eleven, those lids blink open over mud-colored eyes that swivel, narrow, try to focus, a gleaming edge there, mirror-bright, shifting as she blinks the length of it flat and smooth and slender, somehow deep within it coiling whorls of light and dark chased up and down a shallow groove that cleanly stretches up and up to a glittering net there on the pillow, wiry strands that knot a cage about a simple hilt she jerks away, kicks back sitting up, “Shit,” she says, as the sword’s tangled in the sheets, teetering at the edge of the futon. She’s bent over, thin white T-shirt, wine-red hair, rubbing her shin, a thin dark line of blood beading down by her ankle, “Shit,” she says, again. Snatching the hilt she whips the blade free from the sheets, “this fucking,” but it turns in her hand, a wrench and away it flies across the room to crack and a wibble it’s stabbed the white wall there by the plain black scabbard, hung from a nail, and the painted skull-mask also, the mane of it stirred by that thrust. Jo blinks. “Okay,” she says, to herself.

Without, the hallway’s dark, the little lights strung along the ceiling unlit. The kitchen beyond is empty, only glancing daylight and shadows. Jo leans over to knock at the door across the hall, “Ysabel?” she says, turning the knob. The room within all yellow and white, gauzy curtains, big bed neatly made, the armoire shut, and nothing draped over the dressing screen in the corner. “Ysabel?” says Jo again, but something, she looks down. Something lightly, barely there, faintly wisps, like down, like ash, falling from, brushing her foot, past her knee, caught there in the hem of her T-shirt, falling from, she lifts it, peering down at her belly beneath, and the line that climbs it packed with an ashen crust and a last few spangles of gold and, she touches it crumbling, flaking away, the pink skin taut beneath.

Back against the jamb. Dropping the hem of the shirt her hand to her breast, and quick wincing shallow breaths. Lurching up across and over to the dresser, a bouquet of heavy-headed peonies pink and yellow, she grabs a small brass box and pries it open, frees a cigarette, and a ragged book of matches.

The hall, the back room, dark, the back door and out, outside, out in the grass, under the sky, sunlight and blue sky, and glowering clouds behind, white and blue and grey and blue and greenly black, swollen with the coming rain. Fitting the cigarette to her lips but even as she opens the matchbook she’s falling to her knees in the lushly green, soft grass out to the parapets to either side, and she coughs up a sob, another, doubled over on her shaking shuddering self, her hand a fist to her chest.

The cigarette falls white to the grass before her. Feathers of grey-white ash caught about it, and sparks of gold.

A call behind her, muffled by walls and doors. Sitting up she catches, holds her breath. Swallows. A slam back there, distant, bump of a footfall, she wipes her eyes with the back of her hand and leans forward getting her feet under herself but the back door bangs open boot-thump someone shouting and she springs up turns her arm flung out the sword

The sword in her hand –

Her hand, her arm extended shoulder dropped her torso sidelong and her front foot planted, off leg leaned back straight and true, off hand slung back to balance the thrust that’s ended sword-tip snagged in a corner of his unzipped shortwaisted jacket yanked up one side he’s twisted, turned away from it, both arms flung up and alarm gently folding his face.

“Oh God,” says Jo, dropping the blade, the ring of it soft on the grass.

“You’re awake,” says Luys, lowering his arms. Brushing the front of his soft brown jacket, his finger finding the hole punched there. “Your coat,” says Jo, “I’m so, sorry,” but “No sin espinas,” he’s saying, almost to himself, holding out a hand, “You are awake,” he says, but she rushes past that hand to crash into him tumbling her arms about him there on the rooftop under the clouds, she’s kissing his throat and then as he lowers his head she looks up to kiss his mouth, his mouth.

Table of Contents

Eyelids a-Twitch – Played again – How she Might hear – “The hell with the milk” –

Eyelids twitching over mud-colored eyes that widen, startled, but then she smiles, stretching under the comforter, lifting her bare arms up and out and sighing deeply, turning on her side. There’s Ysabel sitting on the floor by the futon, chin on her folded hands. “You’re awake,” she whispers.

“Yup,” says Jo, reaching out to stroke her cheek, leaning in for a kiss.

“He isn’t,” mutters Ysabel, against her lips.

Jo rolls back. There on the other pillow a cap of black hair turned away, a broad brown back, hillocks and bunches of muscle soft and still. “Poor tuckered boy,” she says.

“This must be the first he’s slept since you were struck.”

“He stepped out, just for a minute, and that’s when I woke up. He was, so apologetic,” her hand laid gently on that great shoulder.

“Come,” says Ysabel, getting to her feet, and Jo rolls back, looks up to her standing over the futon, a bulky fisherman’s sweater over a loose white gown, a hand held out. “I’m,” says Jo, the comforter clutched to her chest, “I need to,” and Ysabel steps back, “If you must,” she says, headed for the door. “But come.”

Jo sits up. Drops the comforter. Luys doesn’t stir. She’s looking down, at the clean pink line drawn down her skin, and her fist pressed over her heart.

Up the thin white T-shirt from the floor and over her head she’s standing, the light about uncertain, shrouded in the doubting rain outside. On the wall there by the door the painted skull-mask and its mane hung motionless, and slung from its leather strap the plain black scabbard, and snug within, her sword.

“Ysabel?” she says, hand on the knob of the door across the hall, under the little yellow lights, but a wrenching screech from the bathroom, the crash of water, the light bright within. Jo lets go of the knob.

Ysabel’s already doffed her sweater. “Go on,” she says, over the rushing water, wrestling with the gown she’s tugging up over her head, letting it drop, and only a bit of mushroom-colored silk and ivory lace about her hips. “You,” says Jo. “You want to. Turn, some owr.” Sitting with some care on the edge of the tub, her hand, hovering uncertainly before her breast. “Look, if this is about replacing what you had to, I mean, for me, there’s still, the surplus? From a couple weeks ago?” Ysabel’s stepped away, toward the sink, the jagged oblong of mirror set in the wall above it. “Unless – Christ, Ysabel, how much did it take to sew me up?”

Ysabel’s picked something up, a small blue balloon tied off at one end, swollen with liquid weight. She slops it into Jo’s hand, and “This,” says Jo, poking it with a finger, “this is a condom.”

“I’ve been,” says Ysabel, “with the Starling.”

“Oh,” says Jo.

“We must do right by her.”

“Okay,” says Jo, the condom in her hand. “But – ”

“With all that we’ve been able to do, with the turning, with surpassing our mother and restoring the, the city,” and she sighs. “We,” she says, quietly, under the churn of falling water, “I, wronged Chrissie. I would not do that, to the Starling.”

“Okay,” says Jo.

“I would give this back to her as gold, and set her free.”

“But,” says Jo, “I mean, right now. You want to do this.”

“Are you up for it?” says Ysabel. “Are you still in pain?”

Jo leans back, over the steaming tub, twisting the faucets squeak and groan. “Eh,” she says, as the flow of water gurgles to a stop. “Mostly tired. Shaky, weak-as-a-kitten tired. Which, I mean, I just woke up, you know?” One last twist of the faucet.

“You were strong enough to bear the Mason’s weight,” says Ysabel, in the silence.

Jo sits up. “The fuck is that supposed to mean,” she says.

“Show me,” says Ysabel. “Your wound.” Stepping close, taking Jo’s hands in her own, and that small blue egg clutched between them. “Show me how it healed.”

Jo steps back, lifts up the hem of her T-shirt, and Ysabel kneels then on the white tile before her, and strokes that faintly puckered seam, stitched up from crease of thigh and up across the belly. “Your skin,” she says. “It remembers.”

“This time,” says Jo, letting the shirt fall, but Ysabel catches it, lifts it up again, “don’t,” says Jo, but “Show me,” says Ysabel, and “I did,” says Jo, stepping back, away, but Ysabel stands, tugs, “the rest of it,” she’s saying, “what did it do,” and Jo catches Ysabel’s hand, “hey” and “stop” and “don’t” as she yanks and twists, “I must see it!” cries Ysabel, “What is over your heart!” and that little blue balloon squirts free to arc to fall to burst there on the floor.

“Shit,” says Jo.

The deflated condom, darker now, the knot skewed by a rent, the milkily viscous splotch frothed desultorily with bubbles popping as it spills lazily into the grout between tiny hexagonal tiles.

“Shit,” says Jo, again. “I’m, I’m sorry.” Stepping back. “Can you, I mean, but you can just, get more. Right?” One small step, a shift of weight, back in. “Right?”

“Gallowglas,” says Ysabel, quietly, still looking down at the mess. “Leave us.”

“Gah,” she says, shutting the big front door on a dripping susurrus, shaking herself from her sodden coat. “Wasn’t it, like, seventy-five yesterday, or something?” Unwinding a gauzy stretch of scarf. There in the open collar of her white shit a thicket of black ink, leaves and branches, a songbird’s beak.

“Hey,” says the big man coming up to her, there by the grand dark staircase, “we need to talk.” An explosion rattles the windows, and “Aw, crap,” she says, “is he playing that again?” Leaning past him, “Hey!” she yells, at the guy on the beanbag before the garish television screen. “Turn that down!”

“Ellen,” says the big man before her, shawl-collared sweater over a T-shirt that says Dave’s Dog Dave. “It’s about,” and he points up, at the ceiling, “him.”

“Yeah?” The receding rat-a-tat of gunfire.

“How long, exactly, will he be staying?”

She shrugs. “Long as he needs, Dan.”

“I don’t mean to tell you your business – ”

“So don’t,” she says, stepping up onto the stairs, but he moves in close, “None of the rest of us know him,” he says. Another dulled whump of explosion. “My friend,” says Ellen, “my room, my,” she frowns, looks away, “business,” she says, taking another step up.

“Ellen!” says Dan, starting up behind her. “Ellen, what the hell was he doing, wearing my shirt?”

She’s still frowning, looking down, at her feet on the stairs, at him below. “You know what he was doing, Dan,” she says, and up she goes.

A single glass vase, a singular stalk of artificial pussy willow, and bolted to the wall above a wooden sign, scrolled edges and gilt letters that say Rooms 201 – 209, Rooms 221 – 232, and frilly arrows pointing left and right. She scoops her phone out of her pink and orange parka, flips it open, thumbs to a text message that says only 213. Snaps it shut, heads off to the left, pink and orange and white yoga pants, red canvas Keds, her yellow hair loose about her shoulders.

Cream doors to either side down dull beige walls. She stops by the one that gilded says 213. Tips her head back and forth, shakes out her hands. Unzips her parka, and underneath a white sports bra, her midriff bare. She knocks.

The man who opens the door’s a tangle of blond hair and a big blond beard, and his white blouse half undone. “Not here,” he says, and then, relaxing, “Oh?” he says.

“Harper,” says Jessie, her smile tight, her lips shellacked a glossy pink, her eyeshadow pink and a glittery silver frost.

“Rain,” says the Harper. “Been a while.”

“I went, last week, down to the club,” she says, and “New management,” he says, with a weary shake of his head. “I know!” says Jessie. “The Stirrup. Can you believe it?”

He steps back, opening the door. “Wouldn’t give you a slot, would he.”

“He told me where to find you,” says Jessie, stepping in.

“You smell like a lollipop,” says the Harper.

“Like it?” Past a bathroom and a closet the room opens up under bright ceiling lights, a low dresser, an exorbitant television set, a couple of queen-sized beds, one mounded with stacks of white boxes, and on each of them a photo of what’s presumably inside, keyboards, music players, remotes, phones, and the other bed a rumpled mess of blankets and pillows piled, a plate of crumbs, an empty soda bottle clinked beside. The Harper in that white blouse and his bright green boxer briefs, his bare legs blondly furred. “Did I wake you?” says Jessie.

“You, who worked your way up under a Duke, a Queen,” he says. “Must you now go trawling for humble knights?”

“Chilli,” she says, “can we just do this?”

“Do what, my – ah, forgive me.” He combs his fingers through his beard. “Away from court as I am, I’ve no idea of the current fashion in addressing former concubines.”

“Rain,” sighs Jessie, “is fine.” Her hands in the pockets of her parka.

“Then, my rainy Rain,” says the Harper, “a hundred other clubs await, and none of ’em run by me; go! Dance!” and a magnanimous sweep of his hand toward the door. “You have my blessing.”

“But I need the money, now, is the thing.”

“Now?” A scuff of laughter. “I’m not a bank.”

“Why not?” A deep breath, pink-shaded eyes a-squint, “You forget, Chilli. I’ve seen the dukedom’s books. I know what you bring in, running girls.”

He folds his arms. “You want me taking care of you.”

“I want you to give me two thousand dollars,” says Jessie, and he guffaws. “Tonight,” she says. “And then, this weekend, I work for you. Whatever I make, it’s yours. Send someone with me,” she says, as he rolls his eyes, “if the word of the Hawk’s widow isn’t enough. Come on, Chilli. If you have half an idea what you’re doing, it’s,” and her pocketed hands open up the parka, “a sure thing,” in a shrug of a display. “What do you think?”

He steps over to that enormous television, and the dresser beneath. Kneeling, his hands on the knobs of the bottommost drawer, “I think I got it covered,” he says, and with a grunt he pulls it out.

Within a cloud of taffeta fluffed about a length of smoothly gleam like polished wood, and when it rustling moves Jessie gasps, there’s an ankle, a foot, a thigh and hip, a figure jackknifed forehead to knee lifting up and up a leg unfolding elbow wrist a hand stretched up and out and Jessie’s stepping back, a groan, a pop of wood, silver glitters, pushing rolling turning standing up, a woman in a cocktail dress of mirrored sequins, smiling woozily, blond hair in squiggled curls. “It’s time?” she says, a breathy squeak.

“A couple hours yet, sweetling,” says the Harper, still sat on the floor, holding up a pair of silver slingbacks. “I thought you might like a walk about the lobby, or the lot?” She’s leaning back, lifting a foot, slipping on a shoe. “See what you turn up on your own.” He holds up a white keycard. “Use the room next door.”

“Nifty!” she says, turning to go, a couple inches taller now, and a strut in her step. “Hello,” she says, smiling brilliantly at Jessie.

“No more than an hour,” calls the Harper after her. And then, “So,” he says, still sitting on the floor, to Jessie, still staring. “Two thousand dollars, or,” a nod at the door, swinging shut, “just the wear and tear. Which do you think?” The drawer, still open beside him, fluffs of taffeta drifting about the depression left crushed in that nest. The drawer above it, closed, the same width, the same height. “Well,” she says. “You could,” and she shudders, looking about, the bed mounded with boxes, the other bed messily rumpled, the Harper on the carpet in his bright green briefs. “Leo,” she says, and a scowl creeps over his face, “Leo,” she says again, “tolerated your pimping, but this – ”

“The Duke is gone,” snaps the Harper, “and desperate times call for measures desperate. If they will not let me fight for my honor,” and a hand on the carpet now, and he’s leaning on that hand, “I’ll buy it back, instead.”

“Buy it?” she says. “Even Bruno would, would balk at this. What were you thinking, what, that Jo, would have anything to do with this? With you, after she heard about this?”

He lifts that hand from the carpet, a fist now about the stubby golden hilt of the sword he swings around and up as he pulls himself to his feet. “And how would her grace come to hear about it?”

“What,” she says, “what’re you,” as he steps close, as she steps back, brought up thump against the door, “kill me?”

“A step, a shift of weight,” he says, the scalloped tip of his sword slipped between the pink and orange placket of her parka, there to crease the gore of her bra. “I won’t just,” she says, looking right into his pale blue eyes looking right back at her. “There’ll be blood,” she says.

He rocks back, sword-tip slipping free. “A tragedy’s been writ, and played out many times, that ends with a woman’s body in a dumpster. And here’s you, dressed for the part! The police might not even bother to file a report.”

“Oh, Chilli,” she says. “Chilli, you damned fool. It’s not the police.” Shaking her head as he pulls back another step, and his sword with him. “It’s Ysabel,” she says. “The Queen. Falling on you, to avenge, her love.” But her voice quavers as she says it, and the corners of her eyes do shine.

The demure brown of the door melts into the brickwork about it as he closes it, and locks it with a key on a lanyard about his neck. Works his head back and forth, shakes out his arms, couple-few jogging steps in place there on the sidewalk. Turning about to set off he yelps, leaps back, “Excuse me,” says Marfisa, stood not an arm’s length away, hands in the pockets of her sheepskin coat.

“You always,” he says, hand to his chest, deep breaths, “sneak up, like that?” Taller than he seems at first, his dwindling hair clipped close.

“I wanted to let you know,” she says. “Tomorrow night, we’re hosting a,” and then she stops, frowning, as away off a block or so a clattering crash, “a, ah,” she says, “a sort of, gallery opening,” and he shakes his head at that. “You make any noise,” he says, “we call the cops.” There’s another rumble and crash. “The hell?” he says, looking away toward the corner.

“There’ll be,” she says, looking off away too, at the echoes, “live music,” but he’s waving a hand, “If there’s any kind of a disturbance,” he says, “I don’t care if you own the block, we’re calling the cops. Okay? Thanks for the warning and all, but – ”

“This isn’t,” she says, sharply, and then a shake of her white-gold head. “I’m here to invite you,” she says.


“Both,” she’s saying, but a rapid thumping’s started up, around that corner. “Excuse me,” says Marfisa, turning, striding away, and “Both?” he says, frowning, but she leaps at a yelp from faintly off that way, around the corner, down the slope along the looming blue-grey bulk of the warehouse, that thumping getting louder, a roll of cyclone fencing leaned up against the wall there, and an old worn sign tipped on its side that says Wilson Properties, and someone’s screaming. Marfisa kicks off the bundle of uprooted fenceposts ringing under her bootheel up to crouch on a shallow threshold jutted beneath the door cut into the wall there, three or four feet up, and her fist a clang of a knock, and still the banging, the screams, the roaring rush, like wings. Gripping either jamb, leaning back knee cocked and up the sole of her boot, boom, another, pop the door. She shoulders her way in.

Dust and litter and pieces of paper, a tarpaulin skirling, madly rips of wind through all that cavernous space, she throws up a hand, “Hey!” she hollers, “Anna?” and over by the green couch another shriek. She bulls her way through the flapping hurricane, “Gloria!” An answering “Mar!” from there in the corner.

“What happened!” she cries, stooping beside them, huddled under a stretched canvas borne up on Gloria’s broad back.

“She didn’t get the milk!” wails Anna, head on the floor, hands over her head.

“The fuck with the milk!” roars Gloria, and they’re pelted with handfuls of nuts and bolts. Marfisa ducks as her bright white hair flies up, a turbulent cloud that skeins itself into knotted hanks and “Damn you!” she bellows, “You dare!” At that the litter all about them drops, and a thunderous silence. Marfisa stands there, panting, as Gloria heaves the canvas up and over, helps Anna to her feet. “Hempen!” cries a voice out there, and “Hampen!” another, over that way, and “Hempen! Hampen!” again, and again, Gloria peering wildly about, that first voice crying “Neither!” over the boxes tumbled, tarps askew, “Neither no more!” and “No more tread!” and “No more stampen!” echoing about, and “What the hell?” says Gloria.

“Shut up,” says Marfisa.

“Hempen!” this voice, and “Neither no more!” that, and “No more tread nor stampen!”

“Where did they,” says Gloria, and “Shut up,” says Marfisa, and “Hempen!” cry the voices now in unison. “Hampen! Neither no more tread nor stampen!”

“Shut up!” roars Marfisa. “Now!” Grabbing the handrail of the skeletal staircase, those voices a cacophony again, “Outlaw!” and “Bandit!” and “Exile!” echoing as she climbs, steps clanging, “Enough!” she hollers, up there on the walkway, a hand on a rung of the brief ladder bolted to the wall. “I will show you the law!” she calls down. “I will show you who’s without it!” She starts climbing, up toward the makeshift floor of planks above.

“We are so fucked,” Gloria’s muttering, “we are so fucked, we are so fucked,” and “Would you please stop,” snaps Anna.

“Hilda’s here in an hour, in an hour to load in,” says Gloria, kicking at the trash. “How the fuck are we gonna, how the fuck, how – ”

“Perhaps,” says Anna, still looking up, “next time, you will remember the milk.”

“The hell with the milk,” says Gloria, and the light changes.

The light changes, softly golden falling now to warm away the shadows, gloss Gloria’s black hair, to ruddy Anna’s mousey brown and glint her glasses. Down there, out in that cavernous space, things move and shift as people stand, three four five of them stepping out, looking up, lit by a seeping summer twilight. Up on the walkway there’s Marfisa, holding up a shallow wooden box, and the lid of it open, and all that light within. “Here!” Her free hand scoops up sunlight, flings it out, clouds of buttery sparks that arc, that fall, an afternoon in fireworks. “Take it up!” The box snaps shut, light shifting as the brightness starts to melting settle. “Clean up your mess with it,” she says, setting the box at her feet, “tread it, and stamp it,” as she stands back up, a wooden bat now in her hand, “and what is left, is yours!” Clang the bat against the railing, as toppled boxes rustle upright, as tarpaulins loft into place, as those scraps of paper and canvas sullenly sweep themselves away, as Gloria’s turning about, eyes wide, as Anna turns away, her hand to her mouth. Light congeals to wisps of glistening fog, streaming, swirling, and one more clang of the bat against the railing. “There is more,” cries Marfisa, “where that came from!”

Table of Contents

the Question mark – la Différance – Laissez-majesté – what She might Ask –

The question mark’s elaborately arabesqued, a boteh of curlicued ink on the goldenrod tab he holds up, fingers glittering with silver rings, an ankh, a skull, and the nails of them a deep chipped purple. “But where’s the question,” he says, turning it over. Setting it down on the bedspread by the handbill, a slashed sketch of a dancer, and one green dotted eye. “The answer’s pretty clear, tomorrow night, Southeast, Italian Public Market, Gardeners’ and Ranchers’, what does that even, you’re, you’re rubbing off, you rubbed off on me. Ranchers.” He sighs. “Ranchers’ what. No. The question.” He hasn’t looked up yet, his long black hair hung about like curtains. “Where is it, when is it, no. Am I, no, no, not that, not am I going, if it was then the answer.” His black T-shirt says Good-bye Robot Dinosaurs in round white letters. “The answer would be,” he says, looking up. Past the handbill, spread out one atop another a pair of neon green tights, some stockings lacy black but also bright pink fishnets, a tumble of skirts, blue denim and calico patchwork, emerald crinolines, and propped in the corner where the bed’s been jammed a fluffy orange sweater, a yellow slicker, an unlaced corset printed with faux-embroidered flowers. Set atop it all a pink meshback cap, the front and bill of it a hash of pink-and-black camouflage. “You could go,” he says. “You should go. Go on,” he says. “Go. Go.”

Rustle and scrape of cardboard against the floor, stiff paper crinkling, he lays his head back down, dark hair lankly coiling among the cartons, the boxes, the denuded tubes of plastic wrap and tinfoil, jugs and tubs and bottles stood up about him. “Ten years,” he says, “it wasn’t ten. It was three.” Holding up a hand above his face, turning it over, indistinct in the darkness. “The chair,” he says. “The chair. Only fourteen, ever,” lowering his hand, wiping his lips. “Made,” he says. “Was it even three?” A key rattles in a lock, a knob turns, a latch disengaged, his hand slips to his throat where a shadow’s suddenly slashed, dark enough in this light to be red. He sits up, hacking, gagging, “Luke,” Jessie’s saying, she’s there, all white and pink and orange, “Luke, are you okay?” Leaning over him, there in the wide clean curl of aisle through all that sorted trash.

“Yeah?” he says, both hands tentatively pressed to his unblemished throat.

“What were you,” she says, her hand on his shoulder, but then, leaning close, “you found it?”

“Maybe,” he says. “It might be.”

“It’s so close, to the river,” she says. “You said it was Eastside, but this, this is right here, so, close,” looking out over the wide grid of garbage, stretched out to the floor-length curtains there along the wall, and her lips purse, quivering.

“I don’t know for sure,” he says, but her quiver’s become a giggle she’s trying to stuff back in with her hand to her mouth, “What,” he says, “what’s so funny?” and then, “Why are you dressed like that?” Her parka’s fallen open about her white bra, her bared belly. “What have you gone and done,” he says.

“What’d I do?” She pulls a manila-wrapped brick from her parka and tosses it into his lap. He starts back, hands up, “What,” he says, and “Rent,” she says, “a couple weeks’ groceries, at least. That’s what I did.”

The crackle of the glossy clear tape wrapped about it. “Oh,” he says.

“Pretty sure it’s a one-time deal, though.” Her smile’s faded away. “So there’s still work to be done.”

“Well,” he says, “it’s like I told you,” but then he stops. “It wasn’t you, was it.”


“It was her. I told her, that maybe, when you got here, you’d have something for us.”

“Her,” says Jessie, flatly, frowning.

“You look so much alike,” he says. “The makeup – you look, older.” He sets the paper-wrapped brick aside. “Just about her age,” he says. “Just like her. I should’ve known. You would try to pull something like this.”

“Luke,” she says, but he lurches forward, hand up, a finger before her lips, “No,” he says. “Call me Lake.”

“Lake,” she says, still so flat, so seamless and so smooth.

“So I know it’s you,” he says.

“It’s,” she says, “me,” and then, a hitch in her voice, “Lake,” she says, “Luke, Lake,” and a flutter of that laugh returning, uncertainly settling in a mouth that curls in a slowly sidelong smile. “Hi,” she says. “Should’ve known I couldn’t fool you,” and a shake of her head, her yellow hair pale, the flash of glitter about her eyes. “How’s,” she says, and a deep breath, “my sister. How’s,” blink, “Jessie.”

“Your sister,” he says, and his smile’s a gentle, softening thing. “She,” he says, “came along, at just the moment I needed her, and she gives me,” his hand, on her knee, “she gives me just what I need.”

“So that’s the difference,” she says. “I don’t, I don’t give. I take.”

“Take what,” he says, but she pounces tackling toppling him, crumple of cardboard squeak and crackle of plastic crunch she’s kissing him, he tears his mouth away, “The city – ”

“Fuck it,” she snarls, hand tangled in his hair, yanking his head back to bite at his neck, he yelps, he sighs, he whoops as she kisses him, his bearded chin, his mouth, his hands at her shoulders to haul at that parka, she sits up, shrugs it off, tosses it away, crash a taped-together tower of towel rolls and egg cartons, “Luke,” she says, then “Lake, Lake” as he grunts “Lake,” and “no,” she says, “get out of there,” slapping the fingers he’s slipping into her pants.

“I should maybe give,” he says, “if you’re gonna take,” and she laughs. Pushes herself up out of his grasp to loom over him, slinking her hips side to side, thumbs in the waistband of her pants tugging swaying curving over and down, and down, stooping to free this foot, that, in her flat red shoes. “Careful,” he says, but standing athwart his hips she winds up and whips her pants away, and crash an enfilade of plastic bottles, “Shit,” he says, sitting up, looking over, but she grabs the back of his head, fingers twining in his slickly heavy hair, wrenching him around, “Fuck it,” she says, dragging his face to her belly, “go on,” and she closes her eyes as he opens his mouth, as his hands grip her buttocks, sprawl over the glistering rays of red and yellow bursting from the burning heart on the small of her back. Shivering she rocks her hips, shaking out her yellow hair, but he twists his head free, she slaps at him, lets out a seething groan as he pulls away, looks up, his beard askew. “Hey,” he says, and “Dammit!” she snaps, and “She never told me, what do I call you? What’s your name?”

And panting through a churlish snarl, her pink and silvered eyes unsqueezing, opening, she unbites a glossy lip that gathers itself for a disappointed moue, or maybe a smile, she looks away, opens her mouth to say a word she doesn’t speak, shakes it away with a cough of a laugh, “Lake,” she says.

“Tell me,” he says.

“Okay,” she says. Looks back down to him, and all trace of anything gone from her expression. “How about,” she says. “Call me Jezebel.”

That skinny, tattooed arm doesn’t move from across the nondescript door, “Not backstage,” he’s saying, “no, you’re not.”

“I have something to give her,” says Ysabel. Up on the little stage behind her a woman in a silvery bikini’s hanging upside-down from the pole, spinning up and up and a bellowing chorus huffs over skittering handclaps, let them all talk and discuss what they want, until she hikes up her carouselling legs to plant her lucite soles on the ceiling, I’m gonna do what I like, ’cause I’m free! The audience is roaring, stomping, cheering. “Do you know who I am?” says Ysabel, leaning in, looking up.

“Not a dancer,” he says, applauding with everyone else, letting out a piercing whistle. Ysabel in her long white cardigan watches him a moment, looks to the door, then reaches out, opens it, steps through.

A narrow hall, quite dark, the crowd’s roar and the music thumping, dulled, “Hey!” the guy with the skinny, tattooed arms, crashing in after her, grabbing at her, “You can’t come back here!”

She says, “Let. Go.”

A moment there, the two of them, Ysabel’s white-draped arm in his fist dark with ink that sweeps and curls around the wrist, the forearm, twining waves like teeth, like dark flames, like the shadows of the bones beneath. “You can’t come back here!” he says, again, finally. Still holding her arm. “We can’t have any disruptions!” From off down the end of the hall behind her a derisive snort, there’s women in the doorway there, lace and plaid and spangled sequins. “Let go,” says Ysabel, again. The light about them shifts, the door behind him’s opening, “Look, lady,” he’s saying, “I gotta,” but “What is this,” says someone else, gruffly, behind him.

“Sorry, boss,” says the guy with the tattooed arms, shifting his grip on Ysabel’s arm, reaching back for the knob to the nondescript door. “I’ll have her out in a – ”

“Your people need educating, Stirrup,” says Ysabel.

That man back there steps out, not especially tall, his face fleshy, his red hair dark in the shadows flopping from a widow’s peak. “Majesty,” he says, and the tattooed guy whips his head around at that, “Oh you have got to be,” he says, but the man with the widow’s peak doesn’t blink, or shrug, “Jeffers,” he says, “collect your things. Get on home.”

“Aw, boss,” says the tattooed guy, “you can’t fire me. Not over – ”

“Fire you?” says the Stirrup. “Heavens forfend. We’ll call, as soon as the schedule opens up again.”

Jeffers flings Ysabel’s arm away, and a stomp, “Bitch,” he snarls.

“Jeffers,” says the Stirrup.

“Fuck,” says Jeffers, and then the nondescript door swings open on the applause of the crowd, the thumping banging music, the dancer in her silvery bikini, mopping her forehead, and a wad of money in her hand, “Gina!” she yells, bumping into Jeffers, “You’re up!” Turning about, looking about at them all crowded together in the dark and narrow hall, “Shto zhe?” she says, as a woman in a short kilt and a tight white blouse squeezes past Ysabel, the sweaty dancer, glares pointedly at Jeffers in the doorway, and the faltering applause behind him.

“Jeffers,” says the Stirrup again. “If you’re not working, you shouldn’t be backstage. Go on, Gina. The rest of you, get out there, work the room. You too, Rocky.”

“Dammit, Gav,” says the silvery, sweaty dancer, as the woman in the kilt heads out into the club. “I just got done!”

“So I’m sure half the room wants to buy you a drink. Go on.”

A bustle of confusion, then, as they all make way around each other in the narrow hall, heading out one by one past Jeffers watching each of them pass by, into the press of the crowd, the whoops, the sneering jangle of guitars, with their government grants, someone’s crooning, and my IQ, they brought me down to size, academia blues, the door swings shut, thump and dull, and only the two of them left, Ysabel all in white, and the Stirrup in his leather vest, his red tie half undone.

“I’ll only be a moment,” she says.

He says, “As your majesty requires.”

The dressing room is small, the walls of it black, and lamps ablaze about a row of mirrors. At the end there against the far wall, sitting on a short red velvet chaise, the Starling, her black hair short, swept up in front, a tidy stack of curls, and her eyes a startling green. She’s smiling, lips painted lushly gold to match the gold streaked up her arms and daubed about her nipples, and a thick stripe of it down her belly, gleaming against her darkly olived skin.

“I see you’re dressed,” says Ysabel.

“I’m never not, my Queen.”

“The,” says Ysabel, her hand comes up, a cup in the air, “breasts, are maybe a little small?”

“Better for dancing,” says the Starling.

“Is that my problem.”

“I’m certain it’s but mine.” The Starling turns back to her reflection, framed in a clutter of stickers and notes. “I hadn’t thought to see you again so soon.”

“Is it only of a Thursday I’m to see you?”

“Your majesty may see me as you wish,” says the Starling, tilting her chin, lifting a tiny brush to her brow. “I quite enjoyed our weekend.”

“I’ve something for you,” says Ysabel. In her hand a plastic baggie, stuffed with golden dust.

“But,” says the Starling. “I’ve already, I received – I already have, so much.”

“This,” says Ysabel, “is, yours,” setting the baggie on the counter beneath the mirror. “None other’s. No liege to portion it out, no knight to cede it to you. Yours alone.”

“You,” says the Starling. Setting down the brush. Reaching out to stroke the plastic with a gold-nailed finger. “You took. This.” Looking up to Ysabel. “All this came from what you took?”

“It happens, at times,” says Ysabel, looking away. “Such an abundance, at the first few turnings.” Her smile is tight. “This is your banner, Starling. Freedom. Beholden no more, not to anyone.”

“But when it’s gone?”

“Why, then,” says Ysabel, “I’ll, turn you more. Whatever you need. Whenever it’s needed. Think of it, Starling,” she says, stepping close. “You wouldn’t have to dance.”

“I like to dance,” says the Starling, reaching down to her gym bag.

“But you wouldn’t need to,” says Ysabel. “Dance whenever you want, wherever you like.”

“I like it here,” says the Starling, pulling handfuls of darkly filmy stuff from the bag, winding it about. “I like an audience.”

“Then stay, if you like. But because you like, and not because you must.”

She’s draping the smokey stuff about her arms, arranging the fall of it over her lap, “I have never known of a gift so rich,” she says, looking up, and those green, green eyes. “I can’t possibly accept.”

“Of course you can. How could you not?”

She lifts the stuff up along her shoulders, lays it over her breast. “Time passes, my Queen,” she says. “Time was, my liege was the Dagger, when he was Sidney, and he came to me often, in this very room. But time passed, and my allegiance was passed to the Harper, and a better knight, by far, than the Dagger: he came to me only the once.” Her gold-streaked fingers find ties there by her collarbone, and begin neatly to knot them. “And now, but these last two weeks, I am the Stirrup’s,” she says. “And he is as much better a liege than the Harper, as the Harper was the Dagger.” She stands then, the Starling, and the shadowy stuff drapes about her, a gown that falls from her shoulders to brush her feet. “Or as your Duchess, my Queen, is, than the Duke was, before her.” The gold paint beneath it glimmers as she takes a step toward Ysabel, limning curls of breast and belly, shining brightly where the gown parts there about the pout between her thighs. “Time passes,” she says, “and with it, fancies pass. What would become of me, my Queen, if I took up this banner,” a touch, for that golden baggie, “only to find when it had gone that yours had, too?”

“I would, never,” says Ysabel, and then, “as I told you. Whatever you need, whenever – ”

“My lady, I,” says the Starling, loudly, “would always,” more quietly, and a deep breath, “kiss your mouth, when it is turned to me, and pillow your head on my lap, but can you as you stand there answer true, that you do love me?”

“That,” says Ysabel, so quietly, so carefully, “is not a question for you to ask.”

“And this,” says the Starling, pushing the baggie away along the countertop, “is not a gift for me to take.”

She slips past Ysabel then, her loose gown trailing, a wake of smoke, settling a-float about her as she stops in the doorway, looking back to Ysabel unmoved, a hand on the counter by the baggie. “I’m on after Gina,” says the Starling.

Ysabel nods. “Of course.” Taped there to one side of the mirror, larger than the notes about it, a sheet of goldenrod, a handbill, printed with a single scribble of a dancer, and one green-inked dot of an eye. “Your hair,” says Ysabel.

“Ma’am?” says the Starling.

Ysabel turns away from the mirror, all in white, her long white cardigan, her blouse of lawn, and her white jeans. “It should be long,” says Ysabel. “I’d see myself as once I was, and will be again.”

That gown shifting, flowing as she lifts her hands to her hair, those black curls pushed back and back, and down, and down, pushed back and out and up, and tugged, and let to fall then, an artful tangle of curls about her shoulders. “As your majesty wishes,” says the Starling.

The explosion rattles the speakers, and the sound of the door opening’s lost in the din, but he sees her there, turns his head to look, then the rest of him in that bulky grey hoodie that says RCTID. He heads off across the low room columned and beamed in dark wood to where she’s mounting the steps of a grand dark staircase, “Hey,” he says, rat-a-tat of gunfire behind him, “hey, Ellen. Ellen!” and she stops up there, a hand on the railing, looking back, tattoos like a lace of ink about the collar of her sweater. “What the hell was he doing, wearing my shirt?”

“What?” says Ellen, after a moment.

“When he showed up pounding on the door last,” and he stops suddenly, blinking, “last,” he says, again. Another explosion from the television set, and the guy on the beanbag yelps. “Last week?”

“What are you, what are you saying, Dan,” she says. “What the hell.”

“I almost got it” yells the guy on the beanbag, “God damn, man, God damn!”

“Why is he, why was he wearing my shirt, Ellen?” says Dan, but he’s looking away, off at the television screen.

“You want your shirt?” says Ellen. “I’ll go get your fucking shirt.” And up she goes, and up another flight, down a narrow hall beside the stairwell, fingers rap-tapping impatiently on the banister, at the end of the hall a dark doorway, and the next flight up, she steps in, steps up, stops, “Wait,” she says, “who – how?”

A shadow’s sitting on the steps there, swathed in pearly grey, a woman looking up, her dark hair all in tiny screws swept back, pinned up, her big eyes sleepy. Reaching up for the railing bolted to the wall, pulling herself to her feet with a grimace of effort, waiting a moment, pointedly, for Ellen to step back, to clear the doorway.

“Who are you,” says Ellen.

The woman in pearly grey looks back, clutching a bundle of black cloth. “You’re welcome,” she says, her voice at once both rich and hoarse.

“What?” says Ellen, but that woman’s walking away down the hall, along the stairwell, her heavy gait listing to one side. Ellen looks away, up the next staircase, heads up them quickly, up under the very peak of the house. At the end of a cramped hall a door, cut at an angle to fit the slope of the roof, that she opens on a blue room brightly lit, and the only shadows on the clean and gleaming depthless cloudless color of it from the pallet out in the middle, pillowed in white, and the big man stood up naked before it, brown hair in eaves about his head, and the great ruddy beard brushing his brown-furred chest. “Phil,” says Ellen. “Phil, what the fuck. Phil.”

“Ellen,” he says. “I needed time. I am so sorry, but I needed time, and it is so quiet here.”

“Who was that,” she’s saying, stepping into the room, past the aloha shirt left by itself on the floor, “the woman, what’s, what the hell,” and “It’s all right,” he says, “It’s all right. I did it. I did it.”

“Did what?” says Ellen.

“I quit,” says Philip Keightlinger.

Table of Contents

“No Strings (calypso mix),” written by Bobby Nio, ©2004 Parapsych Records. “Perfect Skin,” written by Lloyd Cole, copyright holder unknown.

Boom & Bang & Rattle & Crash

Booming banging rattling crash she yanks down the overhead door to close with a clang, driving home the bolt with a shove, snapping shut a conspicuously shiny padlock. Up out of the dying echoes a slender guitar-line picks its way to a shambling arpeggio, out in the cavernous space all around the low walls of the narrow stall about her, lined with framed, postcard-sized drawings of street corners, storefronts, houses hatched in ink with fiendish care. She stumps her way through confetti and bobbing drifting balloons, blue and white and silvery mylar, skirts of her high-waisted gown bobbing and belling, her long black hair threaded with silvery ribbons and gathered in two great hanks.

Next stall over, the door’s already closed, an enormous photo hung over it, all silvery black bared legs and buttocks bunched and ropey with muscle in a plié, filmy skirt lifted high by a rusted hook at the end of a heavy chain. A woman stands before it, black jeans, a slick black jacket, turning at the rustle of skirts, “Oh,” she says, “are you closing? Is it time to go?”

“We’ll probably shut the lights off, in a bit?” says Gloria Monday, and off behind her that guitar’s settled into a swaying round of strums and plucks, climbing and falling and back again. “But we’re not yet kicking anybody out.”

“Okay,” says the woman all in black, and then, “but, do you need any help? Sweeping up, or anything?”

“What, this?” says Gloria, kicking a blue balloon away. “Nah, we got this, thanks.” She bustles out into the open cavernous warehouse, her skirts dragging glitter across the concrete floor, shining in pools of harsh light from the fluorescent bars racked here and there, the ceiling far above, lost in shadow. The raised stage at the end of the space ablaze in spotlights shining on the canvases displayed there, leaned up against the worktable, a couple of stools, the nubbled green couch, each other, the splashing dancing figure leaping twirling spinning from one to the next. “Actually,” the woman all in black is saying, hurrying after, “I was, curious? Some of the galleries, are, ah, empty,” she looks back, at the stalls that brightly lit march one by one down the long high walls, “I was wondering, who do I talk to? About, about maybe showing something? Sometime?”

“What?” says Gloria, and then, “Oh! Oh, yeah, no, that would be me. Any of us, really.” There’s a kid sitting on the edge of the stage, curled about a big-bellied acoustic guitar, and Marfisa sits beside him in her sheepskin coat, swaying back and forth, a hand up to hold onto Carol’s hand, Carol stood behind them in a gown of greens and purpled blues, her eyes closed as she harmonizes with Marfisa, no woman, no cry; no woman no cry. “What do you do?” says Gloria. “What is it you want to show?”

“Photography,” says the woman all in black. “Stuff I shoot, that I see, when I’m walking around the city. I’m trying to play with color?” She holds out her hand. “Petra,” she says.

“Well hello, Petra,” says Gloria, taking it. “Gloria Monday. Bring ’em by sometime, there’s pretty much always somebody here. Because that’s what this is all about, you know? Working for each other? Those of us who know?”

As Petra heads off to climb up on the stage, gazing up at all those canvases, Thorpe saunters up, that trim grey snap-brim hat on her head, and silver buttons winking down the front of her long black coat. “Was that an actual sale?” she says.

“Somebody else to show,” says Gloria.

“You had, what, a dozen people here tonight? And how many of them want to hang here, too?”

“It was damn well more than a dozen,” says Gloria. “You better not put that crap in your column.”

“I’ll write whatever I damn well please,” says Thorpe, with a smirk. Pointing. “But hey, looks like Hilda’s maybe chatting up another new exhibitor for you.”

Over by the big main overhead door, half-raised, an older woman’s sitting in a wheelchair, a big brown scaley purse in her lap, speaking with a wave of her hand and a shake of her head to a tall woman in a pale blue ski jacket, her blond hair chin-length, severely straight. A spotlight shining on the wall behind them lights up a giant curl of a question mark, painted with elaborate fronds and spots over a much older sign, faded, worn, that once said Eastside Italian Market & Grocery. “Hello,” says Gloria, heading over, “Ms. Donovan, hey.”

“Gloria,” says the woman in the wheelchair.

“Are you in charge here?” says the woman in the ski jacket.

“Sure,” says Gloria. “Why not. Gloria Monday.”

“Stephanie,” says the woman in the ski jacket. “Stef, Stef’s fine. So, so this. This is all about her, right?” She holds up a crumpled goldenrod handbill. “You’re doing, something? About her?”

Gloria nods. “She asked you? So you know?”

“Know?” says Stef, says Ettie. “Know what? It’s my sister. She has my sister, and I don’t, I don’t know. What to do. At all.”

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“No Woman, No Cry,” possibly written by Vincent Ford, copyright holder unknown.