“Yes?” she says. “I guess.” Looking over to him, a shrug. “Who wouldn’t.” And he smiles. He’s smiling already, thinly, lips unparted under his long thin nose. The black patch over one eye. He takes her hand, the other woman’s hand, in his. “You see?” he says to her. Light swoops, shadows rush over them, leaping up walls to hang a moment swirling as the massive speaker stacks begin to groan a thrumbling beat. She leans back, spangles in her black hair snagging the light that blares her pink bangs, shadows under hollowed eyes etch disgust, revulsion, and he laughs, the sound of it swallowed by the revving song, let’s go, chirps a vocoded voice, let’s go, he lifts that hand, the other woman’s hand, to his thin drawn lips, let’s go, the gesture isn’t at all a kiss, let’s go, let’s go, oh, I wanna scream at the top of my lungs –
She steps back from the canvas tautly stretched before her. Somewhere outside a siren whoops, squeals, cuts out, a shiver of rain. A window’s open, a door cracked, somewhere. Her black hair unbraided now, spangles gone, pink leached from her bangs. The brush in her hand. Her feet, her thick legs bare, specked with gooseflesh. Her T-shirt grey, and black letters across the front say Outing, Thunder in parentheses. She drops the brush to a makeshift tabouret. The room behind her cavernous, laddered with rafters trussed and hung over unlit bulks, boxes, equipment, whatever it is lost in the glare of the trouble light that dangles over her head, shining on the canvas stretched, slathered black and red the suggestion of an arm, a sleek line there a throat, a chin, a head tipped back, pillowed in madly scribbled hair. She’s picked up a tube of paint, she’s squeezing it, a dollop of green out onto her fingertip, bright, electric, poisonously pure. Leaning forward to press it carefully, there, and twist: an eye. She steps back. Sniffs.
“Fucking Flashdance,” she says.
Stooping in the harsh light, squatting to pry open the rubber-handled clamps that hold the bottom stretcher of the canvas fixed to a straight-backed paint-splattered chair, the canvas bouncing gently, stiffly dangled, stretching up on her toes to undo the clamps holding the top of it fixed to a cable hung across that corner of the space, knocking the trouble lamp, swooping the shadows about as she struggles with the weight of the canvas, the bottom whacking the concrete floor. Turning it about on one corner, letting it fall, clattering against a stack of canvases all of them tacked to stretchers, each of them spattered, crusted with paint, blacks and reds, arms and hands, torsos, breasts, cheeks and noses, throats, all of them anchoring, framed by explosions of hair, and glimmering in each somewhere a single bright green eye.
“Shit,” says Gloria Monday.
Up from a cigarette hissing in the damp grass threads of smoke until she crushes it with her slippered foot. Gloom yellowed by little lights strung from the branches of young trees, newly leafed, placed here and there in wooden tubs. A hammered bronze chiminea on spindly legs, a couple of Adirondack chairs, on the arm of one an empty wineglass, stippled with rain. She steps back inside, shuff and snap of slippers, long white cardigan trailing, her black hair short, swept up in front, a tidy stack of curls.
Candlelight licks bedroom walls, gilds petals, leaves, daffodils and hyacinths in a vase atop the dresser. She opens a small brass box and drops a pack of cigarettes inside, a ragged matchbook. “Still raining?” says the woman on the bed, without looking up.
“Well,” says Ysabel, stepping out of her slippers. “It’s not not.” Shedding the long white cardigan, slither of satin pyjamas golden in the light of all those candles blazing along the shelves, the windowsill, the footboard of the bed. She lifts the comforter and climbs in next to the woman sitting up against a heap of pillows, chin-length yellow hair severely straight, her face, her breast paled eerily in the light of a laptop. “You’re chilly,” says the woman, as Ysabel leans close, pressing a kiss to her shoulder, then impish reaches up to poke a nipple bluely pinked, laughing as the woman jerks away, a giggling shriek, “Ysabel! Stop. I promised, I said to Ettie I’d look these over.” The laptop screen is tiled with thumbnails, wedge-soled sandal puddle splash, wet hand filthy, lipsticked mouth, two faces, cheek by cheek, and framed by the same severely yellow hair, the same striking noses, the same blue eyes, one looking down, one up and out. “Grimy,” says Ysabel. Pointing. “I like that one.”
“Derivative,” says the blond woman, dragging some images into a folder. “Why do you go outside?”
“What,” says Ysabel, “to smoke? The smell. Jo. She’s trying to quit.”
“Oh,” says the woman. Her lips sour. “Jo.”
Ysabel sits up, draws back.
Ysabel’s opening the door to the apartment, “You’re busy,” she’s saying, “I’m distracted, really, it’s best,” as pulling on a long brown coat the woman with yellow hair comes down the hall. “You can make it up to me tomorrow night,” says Ysabel, as the woman steps out onto the landing, “at the dinner. Christienne?”
Turning, and under that straight yellow hair as she steps back in, steps close, that scowl twists into a pointed little smile, dipped in to kiss Ysabel’s mouth softening, opening, starting to return the kiss when Chrissie pulls away. “It’s tonight,” she says. “The dinner’s tonight.”
“What?” says Ysabel.
“The clock?” says Chrissie, headed down the stairs.
Ysabel looks back, into the dark kitchen. Green numbers shine over the stovetop, 12:17, striking gleams from a glass half full of milk there by the sink. She shakes her head. “Pedant,” she says, closing the door.
In the dim hall she pauses, there by the doorway flickering, candlelit. She turns away, stepping into the other room, unlit, across the hall. There to one side a sword’s slung from a leather strap in a plain black scabbard, and the hilt of it netted in wiry strands. From the same nail driven in sheetrock hangs a painted skull-mask, crudely toothed, black mane falling from it almost to the floor. She doesn’t touch the sword or the mask but turns to sit on the bed, a low futon opened flat. Over the head of it a shapeless collage, taped and pasted to the wall, post cards, scribbled notes, pages ripped from magazines. Through the closed windows a sigh of traffic, the wash of rain. A click, there in the room, metal against leather. She looks up. The mask on the wall, wobbling, the rustle of its mane. The scabbard beneath it swaying, empty, the hilt, the sword, now gone.
She looks down. She lays herself down, head on a pillow, pulling a corner of the blanket up and over about her shoulders. Hand on the other pillow there beside her. Closing her eyes.
“Be careful,” she says.
He shuts off the engine, looks across to her. She’s looking out her window rainwater lurid in the light cast from an Oregon Lottery sign, red and blue and yellowed white. KJ Rice Noodle Shop & Restaurant, say the letters underneath. “What does your grace intend?” he says.
A rip of velcro as she adjusts her fingerless cycling gloves, black and grubby grey. She’s all in black, black jeans, black shirt buttoned to her throat, a long black coat. Her short hair dyed a cherry red to match the red Chuck Taylors on her feet. “Well,” she says, a gesture at the glass door out there, warmly lit up under the blue and red and white. “We go in there, we get the Harper, we come back out. In that order.”
“You make it sound easy,” he says.
“Well, hell,” says Jo Maguire, shoving her door open. “I’m the goddamn Duke, right?”
“Let’s Go,” written by Tiesto and/or Icona Pop, copyright holder unknown.
With his own hands, the King pours from a cut glass pitcher five generous dollops of orange juice into tulip goblets of eggshell porcelain, leafed with scuffed gold whorls. “Wednesdays,” he says, and he chuckles. “Hump day,” he says. His caftan white, his dressing gown of black and gold brocade, his pinkish orange hair bobbing upright in matted coils and tangles as he moves about the table. “I’d like to acknowledge,” he says, “the extraordinary circumstances,” setting a goblet before the Marquess in her black leather jacket, hair close-cropped, gunmetal grey, “that have brought us all together again,” and another before the Soames in a green tweed jacket, plaid trilby on the table before him, “so soon.” A third goblet before the Viscount in his soft blue suit, matted white locks tied into a thick spray at the back of his head. Out past the credenza laden with pitcher and plates, a dish of scrambled eggs, a red clay tortilla warmer painted with white flowers, the vertiginous drop, black trees and wet rooftops soaked in dull grey clouds, the drip of fallen rain. “Your alacrity’s a credit to this court,” says the King, taking up the last two goblets, stepping around, down to the head of the table. “As well you know. Something happened last night. This morning. Early,” and another chuckle, “earlier.” Setting a goblet before Jo, still in her black coat, black shirt buttoned to her throat. “Southeast will fill us in.”
An electronic bong as she opens the door, as they step inside, the front room dim, empty, a handful of plastic chairs haphazardly set about a couple of small tables. Blue Chinese characters written on a dry-erase board tacked over a doorway, English translations crowded off to one side, fresh rice noodle, fresh rice noodle rolls, fresh shrimp rice noodle roll, the prices in green, $0.95, $1.00, $1.60. A woman ducks through the doorway from the brighter kitchen beyond, “We’re closed,” she says, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Wu Song?” says Jo.
“The Gallowglas,” says Jo. “To see Wu Song. He called us. Me.” Looking over to Luys, beside her, his hands in his pockets. “Yes,” says the woman, ducking back through the doorway.
“Huh,” says Jo.
“It is late,” says Luys.
“He called us,” says Jo.
“Yes,” says Luys.
“He’s got fucking Chilli.”
“Yes,” says Luys.
“I’m not leaving without him.”
“Of course,” says Luys. His hair a cap of glossy black, his shortwaisted jacket softly brown. Past him against the wall a pile of woven plastic sacks of rice, piled up about waist-high, Elephant Brand, Product of Thailand, Net Wt. 25 Lbs. Shadows shift, shuff of sneakers, a man’s stepping out of the kitchen, blank white T-shirt taut about his chest, his thick belly, his shoulders softly round with unflexed muscle. Tattoos at his temples, blocky hexagrams, blurred by the silver stubble of his hair. His brows as lush and dark as his mustache. “Wu Song?” says Jo, and then, “It’s good to meet you.”
He folds his arms, there behind the glass-fronted counter, the display shelves lined with empty stainless steel trays. “Again,” he says, after a moment.
“Again?” says Jo. “I, we – I’m sorry, have we – ”
“How long have you held the Hawk,” says the man in the T-shirt.
“We, I, I don’t,” says Jo, and then, “three months. Four. Months.”
“You cannot mean to suggest,” he says, “that in all that time you have not yet thought to meet with me. Sit down with me. See me.”
“I, well, it’s,” says Jo, “been busy. I – ”
“You hunt, as your King commands?”
She looks down, at her red shoes, looks up again, head canted. “The Harper,” she says. “Chillicoathe. A knight, in my service. You called. You said you have him. I want him back.”
“Four corners, to your year,” says Wu Song, unfolding his arms. “At each, I get a dǒu. Enough to fill a hat.”
“Yeah, I know,” says Jo, a hand up to wave, dismissively, “Chilli was – ” The hand stops. “Oh,” says Jo.
“Stolen?” says the Soames.
“The owr?” says the Viscount.
“Yes,” says Jo.
“By whom?” says the Marquess.
“When?” says the Soames. “And why did he go see him anyway?”
“The bandit wore a mask,” says Jo.
“So what are we to do,” says the Viscount.
“If I could just,” says Jo, but “Do?” says the Soames. “It’s only a hatful.”
“It’s a big hat,” says the Marquess.
“It’s kind of a,” says Jo, as the Viscount says, “There must be a response.”
“Please,” says the King, and quieting they all look to him.
“Gallowglas,” he says. “If you’d continue.”
“He is not unharmed, but safe,” says Wu Song, then, raising his voice, “not a finger laid on him was ours,” over what Jo might’ve said. “Only helping hands.”
“So help him on out,” says Jo. “We’ll be on our way.”
“No,” says Wu Song.
Luys jerks a hand from his jacket pocket, but holds it there, arm an awkward crook. Neither Jo nor Wu Song look his way. He straightens his arm, lowering his fingers twitching into an anxious fist. “Yeah, well,” says Jo. “Didn’t think this was gonna go easy, you calling in the middle of the night and all.”
“It goes very easy,” says Wu Song. “I get my dǒu. You get your man.”
“That,” says Jo, “that’s not how it’s gonna go.” And then, “We need to talk, him and me. Figure out what happened. I’m a little behind the curve, here – ”
“A dǒu was stolen. Not my dǒu. Fill another. Bring it to me.”
“I,” says Jo, “now, you have our assurances, Wu Song, that – ”
“You cannot mean to suggest you could not fill one with what you have, now, in the trunk of your car.”
“So,” says Jo. “That’s what this is about.”
Something settles in Wu Song’s stance, his shoulders, just, his jaw, his mustache. “You are a child,” he says, and Luys sucks in a breath. “Yeah?” says Jo, lifting her hand. “Maybe. Still.” Her fingers close about nothing at all there before her. “I hunt, for the King.” She yanks and light blares washing over the blade appearing sharply bright as Wu Song steps back, a percussive “Ha!” as he claps, turning between his hands a slender staff of dark wood polished spinning green ribbons tied to one end fluttering snapping over up and around to come down stopping suddenly, firmly, fast, ribbons swayed a-dangle. Jo isn’t facing him, isn’t holding her blade up en garde, she’s laying it down carefully on the table to one side, the blade of it whorled with waves of dark steel and light, the hilt of it simple, straight, wrapped in dulled wire, guarded about with a glittering net of wiry strands. “This,” she’s saying, “isn’t how it’s going down, either.” Straightening, ducking under to one side the ribboned end of that staff, lifting a hand to shift it, gently, aside. Wu Song’s lips snarl under his mustache, a snagged smile as he lifts the staff up, away. “The agreement, Wu Song,” says Jo. “Between you, and the Duke. And the King. The trust they’ve placed in you. What you’ve done, to earn that trust. That’s why you get the hat. Not the man. Not the threat. The agreement. That trust.” A step closer. “Now. Maybe.” Another. The ribbons tremble. “Maybe what you mean to say with this, this threat. Is maybe you don’t. Trust. The agreement. The King. Me.” Tilting her head. Looking up at him. “It could go down like that,” she says. “Or?”
Wu Song steps back, claps his empty hands together. Nods once, to Jo, and looks back over his shoulder into the kitchen. “Mang nó cho tôi,” he says, and a clink, a clank, some shuffling footsteps, a woman in greasy whites bowed under the weight of the man leaned against her, limping heavily, one arm slung in a white napkin folded, tied about his neck, one eye swollen yellow and green between a tangle of blond hair and the verge of a big blond beard.
“Chilli,” says Jo.
“Come back tomorrow,” says Wu Song. “With my dǒu.”
“What’s still unclear to me,” says the Soames around a mouthful of egg, “is why we’ve been called in.”
“We were robbed,” says the Viscount, folding a tortilla just so.
“Southeast was robbed,” says the Soames. “With no disrespect,” pointing his fork at Jo, who only blinks. “But I do not understand why we’ve been called to make her whole.”
“It’s the court’s obligation,” says the Marquess, reaching for the marmalade.
“It’s our agreement,” says the King.
“Satisfaction of which was entrusted to her hands,” says the Soames. “It’s a hatful!” Sitting back, throwing up his hands. “After you made your well-put point,” he says to Jo, “why not just scoop another up and hand it over?”
“A doe,” says the Viscount, and the Marquess says, “Döe,” as the Viscount’s holding up his hands. “About a salmanazar, Thomas,” he says.
“Just over a peck,” says the King.
“A,” says the Soames, looking from one to the other, “peck.” Holding up his fingers, looking to Jo, “Four a year.”
“He gets a brace of pins?”
“While I was gone,” says the King, “Wu Song did signal work that helped to keep this city safe, work that continues to this day.”
“The court has a great many obligations,” says the Marquess.
“And we do honor them, all,” says the King. “So!” He sets a folded parchment sealed with yellow wax beside his plate. “I’ve drafted an edict for her majesty my sister. If you all,” but the Marquess has already pushed a little plastic tub out into the middle of the table, sloshed with something inside thickly viscous, and the Viscount sets a silver flask beside it. Jo’s pulling out a small glass bottle, and maybe a finger within of milky stuff tinged with gold, laced with froth. “Sure,” the Soames is saying, “of course,” as he sets a paper cup capped with plastic on the table. “But so much, again, so soon – ”
“How did you know,” says Luys, quietly, “to call his bluff?”
“He wasn’t bluffing,” says Jo, laying her bare sword in the trunk, over behind the cardboard box, the brown glass growler wrapped in a garbage bag.
“But he didn’t hit you,” says Luys.
“I’d already put mine down,” says Jo. “I mean damn, Luys. You know I can’t fight for shit with that thing.” She’s opening the cardboard box, feeling about inside.
“What if he had,” says Luys.
“Hit me?” says Jo, plucking an empty plastic baggie up from the floor of the trunk. “You’d’ve hauled me out. Patched me up.” She’s tapping the box, tilting it, daubing up a pinch of golden dust from a corner. “We’d’ve figured something out,” she says, letting it trickle from her fingertips into the baggie.
She tosses the baggie into the back seat, where sprawled in his bulky sweater, one arm held close in a napkin sling, Chillicoathe the Harper catches it with his free hand. “So,” she says, as Luys climbs into the driver’s seat, “Chilli,” as she settles into the passenger seat, buckling her lap belt. “Who was it.”
“Wore a mask,” says Chilli, with a grunt, smearing a bit of gold over his yellowed, puffy eyelid.
“Just one? Was it a crew?” says Jo, as Luys starts the engine.
“Just the one,” says Chilli. “Had a baseball bat. Kneecapped me. Sweetloaf ran, and the other one. Whatsisname. New kid. And then bam! Boot to the head.”
“Where,” says Jo.
“Right back there,” says Chilli, sitting up with a wince, looking back. Blinking golden dust from his unswollen eyes. “I was just about to knock.”
“Think it was him? Wu Song?”
Chilli slumps, rubbing his shoulder.
“Doesn’t smell right,” says Luys.
“But you don’t know,” says Jo, to Chilli.
“It was a horse mask,” says Chilli. “Covered the whole head.”
“And a bat,” says Jo, blowing out a sigh, “and a boot. Okay,” she says to Luys. “Take him home. And then we go see his majesty. You got anything else for us?” she calls back, pulling a glassy black phone from her pocket.
“Whoever it was,” mutters Chilli, scowling, “had a real nice coat.”
“Ysabel?” says Jo, in the kitchen steeped in grey morning light. A cardboard box in her hands, packed with a plastic tub, a silver flask, a glass bottle, a paper cup, her unsheathed sword tucked under an arm. “You up?” Setting the box down on the counter by a mound of tulips, heavy heads of purple and red and golden orange a-bob, fleshy green stems stuffed in a boxy green glass vase. “You even here?” Leaning her sword against the counter she picks up the glass left by the sink, eyeing the ring of milk left at the bottom. Rinses it out, leaves it in the sink.
Knocking softly on a closed door, she opens it a crack. The room beyond is whitely bright, daffodils and hyacinths a-bloom on the dresser, pillows an orderly stack at the head of the well-made bed, a long white sweater neatly draped over the dressing screen in the corner. “Okay,” says Jo. Closing the door. Opening the other, across the hall. Beneath the skull mask, hanging there from the nail, that plain black scabbard, slung from its leather strap. With her free hand she takes the throat of it, the color of a thundercloud, and fits the tip of her sword to it, slipping it home with the faintest of clinks.
“Jo?” says Ysabel, sitting up on the futon.
“I still,” says Jo, hanging her head, “don’t have the faintest idea how to put it back.”
“Are you all right?” says Ysabel. “Are you hurt?”
Jo turns away from the wall, the mask, the sword, “I didn’t,” she says, “I just – I needed it, to make a point.” Looking up. “We have, I brought, there’s. Another batch, to turn. Today. Ysabel, I’m sorry, I – ”
Ysabel, wordless, holds out a hand.
Shoulders shaking breath quickening Jo steps to the futon, kneels bending over curling formless in her long black coat to lay herself in Ysabel’s lap. Ysabel’s arm in white satin settles over her shoulders. Jo lets out a single, strangled sob, and Ysabel bends over her, gently, lowering her head to kiss away a tear.
“Yes,” says Gloria Monday, tapping a credit card once against the countertop, “my name is Suzette Wilson? I called this morning about an order for some canvases and paints and there was a problem with my card?” Her jet-black hair tied up in a sloppy ponytail, long black coat pulled over an untucked striped dress shirt. “Yes, right,” says the man behind the counter, “eight stretched canvases, plus delivery. The card wouldn’t go through.”
“I know,” she says, “can we,” tapping the card again, “try it here?” Holding the card out to him. He takes it, shimmering grey, looks up from it to her, frowning. “It’s my father’s card,” she says.
“It’s a nine-hundred dollar order,” he says, poking the screen of a tablet computer.
“Can we just, try it. Please. It’s a platinum card.”
He shrugs, swipes. One of the buttons pinned to his red apron says Happen Things Makes Art. The tablet bleeps, he looks up, holds out the card with an apologetic shrug.
“Maybe, try it again?” says Gloria Monday. He’s still holding out the card. She takes it back, a snap of her wrist, and opens her purse, a gutted teddy bear slung from a rhinestone-studded strap. “I guess,” she says, tucking the card away, “they finally figured out he’s dead.”
“Dead?” says the clerk.
“I gotta go talk to my lawyer,” says Gloria Monday. “I’ll be back. For the stuff.”
A golden haze of summery light swirls disturbed as a hand sweeps up, claps the rim of the big white tub with an echoing bong. Jo hauls herself up on her knees, clinging to the tub, head hung low, and gold dust settles on her maraschino hair. Dust shimmering in the tub, shifting as Ysabel hoists a knee, sits up, sloughs brilliant tumbles over the stuff beneath, darker and yet damp. Groaning. “You okay?” says Jo.
Ysabel’s nodding, face in her gold-caked hands. “Is it enough?” she says. “Did I make enough?”
“It’s plenty,” says Jo, sitting back on her heels. “More than enough.” Clink as she picks up a silver flask from the tiled floor, then a crumpled paper cup, tossing them both into the cardboard box against the wall. Squeak and an echoing thump, a grunt from the tub, Jo whirling, grabbing at Ysabel awkward arms a-tangle rubbing her chin, “ow” she says, and “Ysabel, are you okay?” says Jo, and “I’m fine,” says Ysabel, “just slipped,” pushing herself back up, a squelch and squeak of dust. Eyes weighted, cheeks drawn, face pale. Teetering there. Jo offers a hand, and after a moment she takes it, climbs out, shivering. Sits, heavily, on the floor. “I just,” she says, as Jo drops a white robe in her lap, “need to sleep for a hundred years.”
“Right there with you,” says Jo, pulling on a white robe of her own.
“But we can’t,” says Ysabel, elbows on her knees. “We can’t.” The hair at her temple brushed a stroke of white. “What are you,” says Jo, and then, hanging her head, “fuck. The dinner. The fucking goddamn dinner.”
“Indeed,” says Ysabel.
“Can’t we cancel?” Jo leans against the wall, there by the window of frosted glass.
“That would be rude.”
“I just, I don’t know if I can deal with those two, tonight.”
“Did you speak with Bruno yet?”
Jo tips her head back against white tiles, eyes closed. “Not yet,” she says.
“You know how important this is.”
“Ysabel, please.” Jo pushes off the wall. “Luys is running down the guys who were with the Harper, last night, and I gotta talk to them, figure out why it is he doesn’t want to tell us who it was that ripped us off, and – ”
“Jo,” says Ysabel, “you promised,” and Jo looks down. “Yeah,” she says.
“Well,” says Ysabel, sitting up, stretching, “I confess I haven’t spoken with the Glaive yet, either.” Twisting about to reach into the tub.
“So, what, we’re both procrastiwhat are you, what’s,” as Ysabel turns back, wiping golden crumbs from her lips, “So it’s a good thing,” she says. Smiling. “That I made extra.” Holding up a hand, a dollop of wet dust glimmering on her fingertips.
“Really,” says Jo, kneeling.
“I won’t tell if you won’t,” says Ysabel.
Jo bows down to take the laden fingers in her mouth.
“Wait,” says Jo. “What?” In her hand a cigarette, doldrummed in smoke. Under her head a tasseled pillow, propped against the slatted wooden arm of a sofa. A man’s standing by the desk, just outside the light of its lamp. “This isn’t an investment,” he’s saying. Dark blue bowl of a tea mug in his hand. “That might be leveraged, against anticipated returns?” Rumpled corduroy trousers, moleskin vest. “It’d be a gift, a donation to the Sœurs Limoges.” He sits on a pinkish-grey armchair, there by the sofa. Jo sits up, smoke swirling about her, frowning at that cigarette, “Isn’t there,” she says, “aren’t there, ah,” and she takes a quick drag. “Won’t there be, tax benefits?”
“A mitigating factor,” he says, lifting his mug to his lips, “nothing more.” He sips. “Which assumes their paperwork’s in order. But even so – you have to have it, before you can give it away.”
“I don’t,” says Jo, “understand, we’re, we’re rich. Right?”
“Wealthy,” he says, “but not liquid. You’ve been most generous, to the King.”
“And this is for the Queen,” says Jo. “How much could, could I, could we, offer?”
“It’s not,” he says, and sighs, looking up, lips pursed. Blinking. There’s a knock. He looks to the door, exasperated, “I’ll tell you,” he says, and again a knock. “I’ll tell you three,” he says, standing. “Because you want to tell her majesty five.” He heads for the door lit with a stippled pane of glass that says, reversed, Bruno’s, in an arc over Investments.
“And if I do tell her five?” says Jo.
“I’ll do what I can,” he says, his hand on the knob, “to make it work, your grace.” He opens the door.
It’s Luys, in his softly brown jacket, and Jo leans over to stub out her cigarette on a saucer on the arm of the sofa. Bruno’s nodding, saying something about the weather. Luys steps inside, followed by a kid, a boy in a brown bomber jacket, brown hair popped in a matted pompadour, and another boy, a young man not much older, grey hoodie stained, ragged cuffs, Jo’s sitting up, his dark hair’s tightly curled, dark cheekbones hunched like shoulders under squinting eyes, “Christian,” says Jo, but Luys is saying something about Sweetloaf, and slick pavement, and the boy in the bomber jacket laughs. “Christian,” says Jo again. The man in the hoodie’s looking down, at his hands, his filthy blue running shoes, the intricate rug laid over the plain grey office carpet. “Chickie chickie,” says Jo, and he looks up, and Bruno looks up, Luys is frowning, and “The fuck? Your grace?” says the boy in the bomber jacket.
“Hey,” says Christian Beaumont. “Jo.” A shrug. “How long’s it been? Six months?”
“Well?” says Ysabel, dressed in white, sitting back in a low chair, beige leather slung from a sleek steel frame, there before a wide slab of desk, powerfully empty. Standing behind the desk a tall man, and rotund, a rough linen suit over a shirt of pearly green, his knit tie plain pale gold. He’s looking out the sweep of window, brimmed with dull grey cloud. “Your brother, majesty,” he says, scratching the back of his head, rough salt-and-pepper stubble atop his thick neck, the sheen of his collar. “He has been most rash.” Turning to face her, an apologetic cast to his mouth, his eyes. “Demanding what’s been properly apportioned, that he might throw it at a debt already well in hand.”
“You mean the owr,” says Ysabel. “I’m asking after cash.”
“The court’s reserves are stripped, majesty,” he says. “And without collateral?” He spreads his hands. “There can be no loan.”
After a moment, Ysabel says, coldly, “Owr is not collateral.”
“Of course, ma’am,” he says.
“Even if it were,” she says, “you cannot doubt what I produce.”
“Of course not, ma’am,” he says, looking down, his hand loosely curled on his desk.
“So I can’t but think you mean to speak to me of something else,” says Ysabel.
He pushes his own chair back from the desk, a high-backed throne of pale brown leather, and gently sits him down. “All right, majesty,” he says. “One might speak of good will. Our agreement with the Court of Engines was soberly negotiated, prudently arranged. To cast it all aside, in one debilitating swoop – ”
“We never agreed,” says Ysabel, flatly. “Not my brother. Not I.”
“Nevertheless,” he says, “it was made.”
“For a Bride we did not want, and do not need!”
Soft hands spread flat atop his desk, about one wrist a watch, a slender, silvery thing. “The transition, ma’am, was fraught, as I’m sure you will recall. We did what we felt necessary, at the time, to see to the city, and its people.”
“Not,” says Ysabel, “me. Not the King.”
“The court, ma’am,” he says.
She looks away, about the office, the two walls of glass, the two of dark wood paneling. “What of the house,” she says, after a moment.
“Blast it, Rhythidd! Our house! Our house!”
“Your father’s house, ma’am,” he says. “And then the bank’s. The foreclosure is complete; I understand an historical society has expressed some interest?” She looks away again, something bitter on her lips. “Now,” he says, pushing back from the desk, and standing, and a gesture to the door. “If there’s nothing else that I might do to help?”
Gloria Monday black hair swaying turns away from the windowed wall, filled with flat grey sky, back toward the broad conference table neatly set with empty yellow pads, a pen laid at an angle across each, and before each an empty leather chair. She picks up one of the pens, heavy and thick, a burgundy casing printed with precisely serifed letters of cream that spell out Welund Rhythidd Barlowe Lackland. She tucks it away as a glass door opens there in the wall of glass and a woman steps through, a pencil skirt in a windowpane check, crisp black blouse, russet hair framing a narrow pair of glasses with black rims. “Ms. Wilson,” she says, as she sets a redweld of files on the table, “I’m Anna Nirdlinger. I work closely with – ”
“Where the hell is John,” says Gloria.
“Mr. Barlowe,” says Anna. “He’s in depositions this afternoon. I – ”
“Well get him out. This is about my, my father, his money, my money, that I need to – ”
“I assure you, Ms. Wilson – ”
“ – I am not about to get palmed off on some fucking secretary – ”
“Ms. Wilson. Gloria Monday.” And Gloria blinks, falters, slumps a little. “I am a paralegal,” says Anna, “and intimately familiar with every aspect of your father’s estate. That I am meeting with you – that anyone is meeting with you, when you show up unannounced, without an appointment – this is a sign of how very important you are, to this firm. Now.” She pulls out a leather chair, sits down, pulls files from the redweld, one two three. “What might we do, for you.”
Gloria still standing plops her teddy bear onto the table, unzips the belly to spill out a handful of credit cards. Tosses one shimmering grey across to Anna. “It’s getting declined,” she says.
“A number of issues can occur with the winding down of some of the ancillary accounts,” says Anna, taking it up, looking it over. “This isn’t your allowance account.” Setting it down with a snap. “It’s been closed, Ms. Wilson.”
“I,” says Gloria, “could you, could you stick with Gloria? I’d appreciate it.” Folding her arms.
“You have an allowance, Gloria. Two thousand dollars a month, for miscellaneous expenses.”
“It isn’t enough,” says Gloria. “Not for what I need to do – ”
“The terms are quite clear.”
“Look,” says Gloria. “I know what the game is.”
“The game,” says Anna, looking up through her narrow glasses.
“You want to hold on to as much of the money as you can for as long as you can and I get that, I do. I don’t want to get in the way of that. I just, I need – ”
“Gloria, I can assure, you,” says Anna, but Gloria’s blinking, looking past her, out the glass wall of the conference room into the lobby and Anna, turning, sees there all in white Ysabel storming past, headed for the elevators. “What,” says Gloria, stepping back from the table, “what is she,” back again, a booming thump against the window, and the grey sky.
“She’s a client,” says Anna.
“No,” says Gloria. “You know her.”
“I used to work,” says Anna. “For her mother.”
“And one day,” says Gloria, “she asked you.”
Anna swallows. “Yes,” she says.
“And you said,” says Gloria.
Anna says, “Yes.”
“So,” says Christian, looking down, looking over, at the row of filing cabinets behind the desk. “You’re, like, the boss, now.”
Jo waves out the match, drops it to the saucer on the arm of the sofa, “It’s not,” she says, taking in a drag, letting out a smokey sigh, “not really.”
“That guy, Mason, he’s like Sweetloaf’s boss? And then Mason, he was all like – ”
“The Mason,” says Jo. “It’s, a title. His name’s Luys.”
“It’s, okay,” says Christian, “whichever. He sure jumped when you said boo.” Looking over to the door, the pane of frosted glass, the letters, reversed. “And Bruno? He, what, besides letting you kick him out of his own office. Handles your money? You have money?”
“It’s not,” she says, and “Yeah it is,” he says. “You either got money, or you don’t. And you,” he’s shaking his head, looking at his shoes, “you in it. All the way with them that’s in it.”
She’s shaking her head, a puff of a laugh, “Most I’d say is maybe I’m next to it.”
“You’re like a Queen or something. Admit it.”
“They, ah,” she says, “they did make me a Duke. Duchess. Whatever.”
“Fuck you,” he says, with a chuckle.
“The Queen’s my housemate,” she says, and they’re both laughing. “Yeah,” she says, “we got a great little place, Hawthorne and Twentieth. Little garden, up on the roof there?”
“Must be nice,” says Christian.
“So what kind of mask was it,” says Jo.
“What kind a, whoa. Well. Turned a corner, there.”
“Just, what’d it look like,” she says.
“One a those fucked-up floppy horse-head masks, they make, stupid videos with ’em, you know?”
“Why’d you run?” says Jo.
“You were there, with Sweetloaf. Back-up. Muscle. You were,” and she looks down, at her cigarette, the lengthening ash on it.
“Run?” says Christian. “He told us to go.”
“He.” She looks up. “Chilli?”
“Told us to get the hell out. It was personal, none of our business.” His brows pinched, a considering frown. “Whoever it was, they got a real mad-on for each other.”
“Shit,” says Jo. Reaching up to rub, absently, at her chest. Leaning over to tip her cigarette against the saucer, there on the arm of the sofa, but then she grinds it out. “Trying to quit, anyway,” she says.
“Jo,” says Christian.
“Dammit,” she says. “I went looking for you, goddammit. After what went down. Nobody knew where the hell you went.”
“Home,” he says, looking down, sucking his teeth. “I went home.”
“Oakland?” he says, put out. “Holidays at my Gram’s, what can I say.”
“And now you’re back.”
“Holidays are over,” says Christian. “Besides. I don’t know anybody down there anymore.”
“But here, you know Sweetloaf.”
“And you,” he says. “I know you.”
“Yeah,” says Jo. Her hand still at her chest, thumb against her sternum. “Hey,” she says. “Christian. What are you doing for dinner.”
Sprigs of something green, mint, float among cubes of ice, a glass of water, tall and narrow. Black cords looped about it, wound together in a single hank that dangles over to a bulky headset clamped about his ears, over unruly dreadlocks, fuzzed white dully brushed with gold. “After this morning,” he says, “I think it’s clear; they are not worried – or, at least, aren’t mindful, of their precarity.” He picks up the glass of water. “If it’d come to that, I’d’ve made you whole myself.” He sips. “All right,” he says. “All right.” Setting the glass down. “I detest email,” he says, and presses the switch hook on an upright telephone console, silver and black. Drops the headset clattering beside it.
On the sideboard there a rack holds but a single slender glass tube, capped with cork and sealed with pale blue wax, a thread of golden dust within. He opens a drawer, clink of glass as he pulls out an empty tube, and reaches past the rack to lift a weighty plastic freezer bag, careful of a fiendish little basket-box, carved from a single chunk of dark wood. Dipping the tube into the bag, tapping in just enough.
A hallway, and the light diffuse, clouded, morning or midday, getting on toward evening, his footsteps soundless on a long pale rug.
Curtains drawn, and no lights lit, a bed surmounted by a rounded mass of blankets. “Grandfather?” he says. A great pillow, dimpled by a wispy crown of limp white hair. “I’ve brought your medicine,” he says, sitting on the edge of the bed, but in his hand, he looks, the basket-box, black in this dim light.
Back up the hall, down it again, his footsteps muffled thumps. The tube a spark in his fingers.
“Here you go,” he says, peeling back blanket enough to reveal a nose, the eyes squeezed shut in all those wrinkles, the mouth, thin lips he presses a thumb against, prying open as he carefully taps the golden owr from the tube, falling a glimmer to dust the bubble of spit that swells and pops. Blankets shift , lift, a breath drawn fluting through that nose, a rumble somewhere under the blankets, and Agravante draws back as the jaw swings open beneath his hand, and a mighty lumbering eructation, a snarl of a cough. Lips smack, relax, settle half-opened. The eyes still closed.
But there’s a rattle of keys at the door to the apartment, it’s opening, there’s Jo, black coat swinging and bright red hair, saying something to someone behind her, Luys, his brown short-waisted jacket, loose brown check trousers, “Jo,” says Ysabel, “you’re late,” but there’s someone else, after Luys, a young man in a soft yellow suit that swallows his narrow frame. “Sorry,” Jo’s saying, tucking her jingling keys away. “Had to find some clothes for Christian. Nice clothes.”
“Hey,” says Christian, shooting his cuffs, “it’s me makes this look good,” even as his narrowed eyes dart about the kitchen, the steps down to the open room, where a long table’s laid with rich yellow cloth, set with gold-rimmed white dinner plates under gold-rimmed soup plates, bread plates, gold-plated forks and salad forks, soup spoons and teaspoons, broad-bladed knives, water glasses and wine glasses and crisp white napkins, and in the center of it all a glass bowl filled with white and yellow roses. Ysabel stands at the head of the table, there where the windowed walls of the open room narrow to a windowed point, a hand on the back of a chair swathed in beige. White flared pants, a shimmering golden drape of camisole. “Christian, Ysabel,” says Jo, and “Ysabel Christian, but I bet you both remember each other.”
“Yeah,” says Christian, “yeah, the Bride, the Queen, I mean, hey. Highness.” He nods. “Majesty,” says Luys. “Yes,” says Ysabel, and then, to Jo, “We need to talk?”
“Sure,” says Jo, “let me just catch a shower, get changed,” and “Jo,” says Ysabel, coming down the length of that table, as Jo’s saying, “won’t be ten minutes.”
“Jo,” says Ysabel, coming up the three low steps into the kitchen.
“You’ve been smoking,” says Ysabel, as she closes the door to her room.
“Ysabel,” says Jo, sloughing her coat.
“I can smell it.”
Jo tosses her coat on the bed. “I went, I was at Bruno’s,” she says.
“You asked for my help with this,” says Ysabel. Then, “What is he doing here.”
“What,” says Jo, hand at her throat. “Christian?” Undoing the top button of her shirt. “Apparently, he’s working for me now.”
“So you invited him to dinner,” says Ysabel.
“He’s,” says Jo, “yeah, just, we can set an extra place at the table or something. Seriously, Ysabel, give me ten minutes – ”
“They’ll be here in ten minutes. Jo, you know how important this – ”
“Ysabel,” says Jo. “Ysabel. We can only do, five thousand.”
“This is,” says Ysabel. “But that’s, not enough. Not nearly.”
Jo says, “So I’m guessing that you didn’t have any luck, either.”
“There must be more.”
“Bruno,” says Jo. “It’s complicated. Bruno says – ”
“It’s your money. He doesn’t tell you. You tell him.”
“It’s not,” says Jo, and then, “it’s all we can do. Even that’s a stretch.”
Ysabel looks away, turns away, all in white and shimmering gold.
“It’s not nothing,” says Jo, undoing another button of her shirt. “They can raise more money off of this. It’s – Ysabel – ” Reaching for an arm, a hand. “Let me shower and change and we’ll go out there and we’ll – they’re not gonna say no, Ysabel. It’s a lot of money.” Squeezing her hand. “How could she be disappointed?”
Ysabel brushes back a hank of matted bright red hair. “You need more than a shower,” she says.
“No,” says Jo.
“Yes,” says Ysabel. “You’ll look fabulous. Go on, get out of this,” undoing the next button of Jo’s shirt, Jo’s shaking her head, stepping back, pushing Ysabel’s hands away, “get back there,” says Ysabel, pointing to the dressing screen in the corner, a simple frame of whitewashed wood, and panels of plain linen. “Don’t make me issue a royal decree. And, Gallowglas?” as Jo strips off her black shirt, wads it, drops it to the floor. “Try not to peek, this time?”
Christian in his yellow suit, sitting at the table, laughing at something, Luys beside him smiling ruefully, sitting up when he sees Ysabel coming into the kitchen, pushing up to his feet with a clatter of plate and clinking glass, “Ma’am,” he says, and Christian half-standing beside him, “Majesty,” he says, “I don’t mean to put anybody out. I can be on my,” but Ysabel’s saying “Please. Of course you’re welcome.” At the foot of the table a powerfully built woman in a wing-collared shirt, a black string tie, pours something from a cocktail shaker into a low square tumbler. Her short hair dyed a virulent chartreuse. “As for what happened, last year,” Christian says.
“Don’t mention it,” says Ysabel. “This is to be a pleasant dinner, with friends.”
“Okay,” says Christian, and Luys leans toward him, “Ma’am,” he says, quietly, and Christian says, “ah, highness.” The woman in the string tie’s pouring the last of the liquor from the shaker and setting it down. “Ma’am,” says Luys to Christian again, and Christian nods as he reaches over the table to take the drink from her hand.
“Jo will be ready shortly,” says Ysabel, “and our other guests should be here any moment. Iona,” and the woman in the string tie looks up, a cube of ice in the tongs in her hand, “if you’d like to join us, as Christian’s companion?”
“What of the service, ma’am?” says the woman in the string tie.
“Finish what you’re making, there,” says Ysabel, “but otherwise, let’s let it take care of itself? Mason, if you’d be so kind as to switch places,” and Luys nods, standing, and Christian’s standing beside him, a clink again of glasses, “Hey,” he’s saying, “if you need help with the,” looking about, “table,” and he frowns. “I thought there was just the six places.”
“There’s eight of us, tonight,” says Ysabel, “with yourself and the Chariot.” There’s a loudly definite knock. Christian, sitting, starts to stand again, but Iona pushes past him, up the three low steps toward the door to the apartment, another knock, and she opens it, a man there on the landing, not too tall, somewhat stout, a grey cashmere topcoat and a great big smile, “This the place? Is this the place?”
“This is the place,” says the woman sweeping past him, slipping off her wrap of fake white fur to reveal a brief dress, black, and asymmetrically cut. Her yellow hair chin-length, severely straight. A second woman, also wrapped in white fur, clings to the man’s arm, her yellow hair as long, as straight. The first woman with a clack of her heels steps up to Ysabel, a hand for her cheek, a kiss for her mouth, and “Well,” says Ysabel, stepping back. “That was nice. But Ettie, I rather imagine you’re his date, tonight?”
Ettie laughs, her hand on Ysabel’s hip. “You know,” she says, “I do get the two of us confused.”
“Told you,” says Chrissie, squeezing the man’s arm, letting go. Slipping out of her wrap to reveal a dress as brief and black as Ettie’s. “How the hell can you tell them apart,” says the man in the topcoat.
“I pay attention,” says Ysabel, taking Chrissie’s hand. “Ysabel Perry. Pleased to meet you.”
“Davies,” he says. “Reginald Davies. Reg, to my friends.”
“Well,” says Ysabel, “Mr. Davies, ladies, if you’d let Luys take your coats, and Iona there can make you anything you’d like to drink, and this is Mr. Christian, Christian…”
“Ah, Beaumont,” says Christian. “Ma’am.”
“Mr. Beaumont, an associate of our Jo Gallowglas, who’ll join us in a moment. Why don’t we all sit down.” And they move and shift about the table with a scrape of chairs, rattle of plates, clink of ice in glasses, “Vodka martini,” says Reg, “dirty as you like,” and “Vodka tonic,” says Ettie, and Iona nods. Chrissie shakes her head. Christian pulls out a chair for her, and “Christian,” says Ettie, letting Reg squeeze past, “how charming. My sister’s name is Christienne.”
“French?” says Christian.
“Of a sort,” says Chrissie, as she sits.
“Tell us, Mr. Davies,” says Ysabel, as she takes her seat at the head of the table, “as the person here of whom we know the least. What is it that you do?”
Down the hall Luys, white fur and grey wool draped over his arm, and a door to either side of him, the one to the left ajar, and the room beyond dark, the one to the right closed, and light shining beneath it. He knocks. “Jo?” he says. He opens it, gently.
She’s sitting back against the high wide bed, the soft comforter smoothed across it, and the pillows piled at the head of it, white, all of them white. Her dress a sombre chalkstripe, tailored like a suit coat tightly buttoned down the front, and her bright red hair cut short, slicked back. On the floor by her bare feet an insubstantial pair of shoes, all narrow black straps and slender, pointed heels. Her hands tugging closed the lapels of the dress, the top button of it quite low. “I didn’t get anything,” she’s saying, “to wear under it, I was about to raid her drawers for something,” and “My lady,” he says, laying the coats across the bed, “please, let me,” taking her hand in his, and the bit of leather about his wrist. He tugs her to her feet. “Let go,” he says, “let me see it,” smoothing the lapels as she takes a deep breath, lowering her hands. “It is a fine dress,” he says.
“Of course you’d like it,” she says.
“It was made for you,” he says.
“Well, yeah, I mean – literally – ”
“Tú eres hermosa,” he says, and she looks away, biting her lips. Smiling, a little. “Still,” she says, toeing one of the shoes. It topples over click against the floor. “I’m gonna fall on my ass in those fucking things.”
“I think,” says Luys, kneeling before her, “a compromise is possible.” Fishing one of her red Chuck Taylors from beneath discarded jeans, the other out from under the bed. Loosening the laces, tugging it open, he fits it to her lifted foot. “There,” he says, tying it off, and “Luys,” says Jo, “you’re a prince.”
“It’s hardly that simple,” Reg is saying, as Iona hands him his drink.
“It’s marketing,” says Chrissie, stating a fact.
“Darling,” says Reg, not unpleasantly. “You know how I feel about that word.” She smiles, sipping her water. “At Maieutics,” says Reg, “we’re helping clients see how it is they’re seen, in the world, and determine how they wish to be seen.”
“What, so, like, branding?” says Christian, there beside Chrissie, and she lets out a honk of a laugh. Ettie across from her says, “Oh, now there’s a word he definitely does not like.”
“It’s been sucked dry of any meaning,” says Reg, but at the head of the table Ysabel’s pushing her chair back, standing, and then Iona, after a moment Christian, Chrissie, Ettie tossing her napkin to the table and nudging Reg, there in the kitchen Luys is handing Jo in her dark dress down the three low steps into the open room. “At last,” says Ysabel, smiling, “our Jo Gallowglas. The party may begin.”
“Something to drink?” murmurs Iona, and “Uh, whiskey sour?” says Jo, letting Luys pass behind her before pulling out her chair at the foot of the table. “Nice shoes,” says Christian, wryly.
“Yeah?” says Jo. “You know me. All about the personal branding.”
Another honk from Chrissie, and chuckles ruffle the others. “See?” says Reg, holding up a forestalling hand, as Jo takes a tumbler from Iona. “See?” he insists, but he’s smiling. “It’s a joke, you laugh, but: it’s important to you, isn’t it. Red. The color. Do you always wear something red, somewhere about you? You’ve dyed your hair – there’s a reason, to go to that trouble. A way you wish to be seen. At Maieutics, what we do is help to articulate those reasons. Refine them. Make them legible, at the right time, in the right way, to the right audience. So.” Sitting back. “That’s what I do.”
“And people pay you for this, service?” says Ysabel.
“Handsomely,” says Reg.
Ladled into soup plates creamy white, and sprinkled with green and black pepper, floated swirls of golden oil, “Delicious,” says Ettie.
“Is it, it’s a bisque?” says Reg.
“The wine,” Ysabel’s saying, as Iona pours from a rough clay container into waiting glasses, “is an Albariño, from the rainy northwest of Spain.”
“You need seafood, for a bisque,” says Ettie.
“You can have a vegetable bisque,” says Chrissie.
“I know why,” says Jo, looking at Reg.
“I’m sorry?” says Reg.
“Jo,” says Ysabel.
“The reason,” says Jo. “I can articulate it just fine.” Ice clinking as she lifts her half-empty tumbler. “He wore red,” she says, and she tosses back the rest.
“He?” says Reg, looking from the foot to the head of the table and back.
“Red, and brown,” says Jo, “though sometimes he’d put on black and gold, or purple. He had the most knights enfeoffed and ruled the biggest fifth of this damn town and he’s gone now, and he isn’t coming back, so it’s left to me to carry it all, for her,” and Jo lifts her wineglass to Ysabel. “The Queen of the City of Roses,” she says. Luys lifts his glass, and Iona, and Christian, looking back and forth, lifts his, and Ysabel inclines her head. “So,” says Jo. “There you go.”
“Well,” says Reg, “that’s, yes.” Chrissie’s taken Ysabel’s hand in hers.
The pasta’s cloudy knots of translucent, hair-thin strands, stained green with pesto, tumbled with slivers of cheese. “It’s rocket, isn’t it?” says Ysabel.
“Ramps, I believe, ma’am,” says Iona.
“So,” says Reg. “Portland has a queen.”
“It’s like a game,” says Ettie.
“A game?” says Ysabel.
“With the titles,” says Ettie, “and the etiquette. I think it’s charming.”
“Leo played it,” says Chrissie.
“Leo,” says Reg. “Leo Barganax?”
“The Duke,” says Jo.
“You knew him?” says Luys.
“We worked together, or rather,” Reg smiles, “our money did, in a number of joint ventures. He introduced me to Ettie, and of course, her lovely sister.” Looking about the table. “I was saddened, to hear of his passing.”
Yellow-glazed ramekins, and within them custards stuffed with dark mushrooms, wilted spinach, and beside each a couple-three halves of baby artichokes, the edges of them charred. “Tofu?” says Chrissie, spooning up a bite.
“Chawanmushi,” says Iona. “Egg, and bean curd.”
“It’s not a game,” says Ettie, knife and fork busy with an artichoke.
“Isn’t it?” says Ysabel. “What you do is art, isn’t it? And isn’t art a game?”
“She has you there,” says Reg.
“No,” says Chrissie.
“It’s prurient,” says Luys.
“Now there’s a word,” says Reg.
“I cannot see the artistry in what they do. What you do,” he says, to Chrissie, across the table. “Forgive me for speaking bluntly.”
“So,” says Ettie, “you think you could,” as Reg is saying, “You’ve seen them perform?”
“I don’t mean to deny the skill,” says Luys, “the, the work, that goes into it. It’s all very,” he sighs, he takes up his fork. “It’s an appeal to a gross, simple appetite. A reflex. I don’t see, art.”
“Maybe you don’t see it,” says Ettie, leaning around Reg, who’s lifting a hand, “You say simple,” he says. “You say gross. I say direct. Primal. Universal.”
“But it isn’t universal,” says Luys.
“Everyone loves a beautiful woman,” says Reg, and “No,” says Jo, “we don’t,” and Ysabel snorts.
“But think,” says Reg, “of, all of the, art, over the years, the poetry, the painting, the songs, the emblems they’ve employed, all dedicated to, dependent on, the beauty of a woman – ”
“So?” says Jo.
“It’s there,” says Chrissie. “Already. Why not use it.”
“Why not add to it,” says Jo.
Small salad plates loaded with thick wheels of blood-red tomato, glistening with juice and oil, sprinkled with yellow chunks of roasted garlic, with grey salt and black pepper. “This is fantastic,” says Jo, to Iona.
“Actually,” says Reg, “you should be looking at video.”
“We have,” says Ettie, and Reg says, “I’m not talking about the amateur stuff, the stuff filmed by the audience, or whatever.”
“This, to me, is magic,” says Iona, a wedge of tomato speared on her fork.
“I’m talking professional video,” says Reg. “Trailers, teasers, for your overall concept. Your semblance.”
“The taste of August,” says Iona. “In March.” She takes her bite.
“Shit!” says Christian, and then, “sorry, no, I didn’t recognize, but – I saw one of those, once. You were both up on a bar, with the hula hoop?” and Ettie nods, a half-shrug. “Damn,” says Christian.
“See?” says Reg. “Your ideas, your art, but professionally shot, edited – ”
“But we don’t do film,” says Ettie. “We do theatre, we do dance – ”
“Burlesque,” says Chrissie.
“Then hire people, for the things you can’t do,” says Reg.
“Which takes money,” says Jo.
Ettie’s fork clinks against her plate, and Ysabel sits back, her wineglass raised. Christian coughs. “Yes,” says Reg. “Most things do.”
“We’ve been trying,” says Chrissie, and Ettie says, “We’ve been raising funds to get our show off the ground, the Ecdysis – ”
“Yes,” says Reg, “strippers and a symphony, right. It’s a great hook, but that’s all it is. Maybe you make a splash, maybe you don’t, but – if the show’s the culmination, of a campaign, something you make everyone anticipate,” and he spreads his hands.
“We’d have to start all over, from square one,” says Ettie, as Chrissie says, “We don’t want to make commercials.”
“Twenty-five thousand sets you up pretty nicely on square one,” says Reg.
Luys takes a bite of tomato as Iona stands, and begins to clear emptied plates. “Oh,” says Ettie. Ysabel polishes off her wine. “Is that an offer?” says Chrissie, to Reg.
“It’s a round number,” says Reg. “Enough to get you into trouble. Figure out if any more will help.”
Christian lets out a low, breathy whistle. Ettie laughs, a shake of her head. Ysabel sits up, leans forward, reaching for the clay decanter. “Ten thousand,” she says, pouring herself more wine. “Right here, right now.”
“Ysabel,” says Jo.
“But for the show you want to do,” says Ysabel, taking up her brimming glass. “The orchestra, the concert hall. Not these pornographic films.”
“I’m not talking about porn,” says Reg.
“Aren’t you?” says Ysabel.
“Ysabel,” says Jo. “Your grace,” murmurs Luys, reaching for her hand. She shakes him off. “That’s very generous,” Chrissie’s saying. Christian’s looking from Jo to Ysabel, to Reg, to Jo. Reg says, “Look, you have options, is the point.” Ysabel’s drinking her wine, big, gulping swallows. “It’s a testament,” says Reg, “to what you’ve already accomplished. We wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t something there.”
“Tell me, Mr. Davies,” says Ysabel, setting down her empty glass. “Reg. Answer a question for me.”
“Okay,” says Reg, the world half a laugh, “your, you, you’re a queen, so, I should, what, say your majesty? Is that appropriate?
“Do you think I’m beautiful, Reg?” says Ysabel, and he frowns, and opens his mouth to speak, but glass clatters and forks tumble as Chrissie leans over the corner seizing Ysabel’s hand “Don’t” she cries, pulling, and Ysabel blinks, looks down, away from Reg to her hand in Chrissie’s, to Chrissie, her blue eyes, her painted lips, “please,” she’s saying. “Don’t.”
“The least little thing” – an Apportionment – her Case – Ebb-Tide, Cinnamon Twist, All-American Girl – Fénius –
“The least little thing,” says Anna, fingertips against her forehead, pushing aside a wing of russet hair, “sets it off.” On the table between her elbows a round white cup full of steamed milk marbled with coffee and cocoa. “And I’m right back there, that moment, the moment she asked. Time stopped, you know? And everything about her that I’d noticed, without noticing, her smile, the way she holds herself, those – eyes,” her own hand dropping, gripping her upper arm, glasses flashing as she looks up, a wan smile for Gloria sitting across from her. “The smell of sunlight, in her hair. It all came crashing down, and I know, I knew,” she looks back down, shaking her head. “There was no other answer, there was nothing else to say. There will never be another.”
Wrapped in Gloria’s hands a pale green mug of red tea, steaming. “It was,” she says. Behind her rows of shelves neatly lined with books. Romance, says a sign at the end of a shelf. Paranormal Romance. Humor. “It wasn’t anything like that,” says Gloria. She sips. “I never met her before. But the lights, and the music, everybody, I just, it was an impulse. I said yes. And, and it was like, everything,” she looks away, she licks her lips. Another mouthful of tea. “I can’t get her out of my head.”
“The,” says Anna, “the taste of her.”
“We, I, ah, we never,” says Gloria quickly.
“I’m sorry,” says Anna, sitting back. Adjusting the drape of her houndstooth skirt over her crossed legs. “It’s not easy, talking about it. I, um, it’s – ”
“I paint,” says Gloria. “It’s what I do, with the money. Most of it. Paints. Canvases. I keep, doing the same one? Over and over. I, I can’t,” setting her mug down, looking away.
“Does it help?”
Gloria shakes her head. “But I can’t stop,” she says.
“I’d like to see them,” says Anna.
Rhinestones flash under fluorescent lights as the man in the peach nudie suit twists and shoves, and the man with the big blond beard goes stumbling thump against a white SUV, squeak of brown boots on polished concrete. “Draw,” snarls the man in the nudie suit, “or shut your bleeding mouth.”
“Hey,” says the man in the grey sweatsuit, a can of soda in either hand.
The fourth man, his coat of red velvet worn and stained, puckered with intricate embroidery, reaches for the man in the nudie suit, and more flashes and sparks. “Do not,” snarls the man in the suit. “He is a churl, and will answer as a churl, or I will have satisfaction.” The blond man, Chillicoathe the Harper, pushes up off the SUV to spit at the feet of the man in the suit, who says, “Oh,” and lifts his glittering arm, light gathering itself in his curling hand.
“Hey,” from behind them. “Hey!”
Chilli looks down, scowling, and the man in the nudie suit shakes the flare from his hand. “Your grace,” says the man in the grey sweats, ducking his head. Jo’s marching across the parking garage in her black coat, her sombre chalkstripe dress, a sleek aluminum briefcase in her hand. Behind her Luys in his nondescript brown jacket, and Christian in his softly yellow suit. “Your pardon, ma’am,” says the man in the nudie suit, “but we have business, the Harper and I – ”
“Do I look like I care,” says Jo, headed past the SUV, to the reddish brown car parked beside it. Hefting the briefcase up onto the trunk, thumbing the combination locks, clicking open the latches. “Okay, boys,” she says, opening the case, and golden light washes over her as they gather around. The man in the red velvet coat whistles. “Most of this is to replace what got stolen last night,” says Jo. “But we got some extra.”
“I’ll say,” says the man in the grey sweats.
“Her majesty provides,” says Jo. “Okay. It’s portioned out, but since this one kinda took us all by surprise, we’re gonna deliver, instead of waiting for pickup. So. Medoro?” Holding up a plastic freezer bag bulging with dust. “This one goes to the – ”
“It’s Astolfo, ma’am,” says the man in the grey sweats.
“You’re kidding,” says Jo. “You guys’re just fucking with me at this point.”
“I assure your grace,” he says.
“This to the rabbits,” she says, holding out the bag. He looks around. “Anybody want some?” he says, holding up the cans. “It’s Mexican Coke.”
“Um, sure, hey, thanks,” says Christian, stepping up to take one, but Chilli puts out a hand to block him, “Sworn knights only, at an Apportionment!”
“Horseshit,” says Jo, and they’re all looking at her. “Unless Sweets has been hiding a badge in that head of hair he has?”
“Your grace,” says Chilli, “this boy should not – ”
“He’s a friend of mine, Harper, so tread careful. Conary?” She tosses a bag to the man in the nudie suit, who catches it, alarmed. “How do you feel about the Marquess.”
“As, as well as I might, your grace,” he says.
Jo looks back, over one shoulder, the other, there’s the man in the red velvet coat, rubbing his hands. “Pwyll,” she says, handing him a bag, “go annoy the Viscount. As for the King’s, I’ll see to that, and our own cut has been divvied up, we’ll hand it around the next couple of days. Chilli.” He’s reaching for the briefcase, but she snaps it shut. She’s holding up a bag, noticeably smaller than the others. “I’ll need you to walk this over to Ladd’s. Tonight.”
“But, your grace,” says Chilli, and a gesture at the briefcase.
“But?” says Jo, still holding up the bag.
“The theft’s on me, your grace. I’d set it right.”
“Then do as your Duke commands,” says Jo.
“All due respect, your grace,” says Chilli, “but – you’ve been upstairs? With the Queen?” and Jo lets the bag drop to the trunk. “What the who?” she says.
Mouth fixed within that big blond beard he says, “You’ve been drinking.”
“Ma’am,” says Chilli.
“What of it, Harper,” says Luys, hands on his hips.
“Mason,” says Chilli, “I mean no disrespect to her majesty, but – ”
“Or anyone else?” says Jo, as off that way, toward the ramp leading out of the garage, someone whoops. “Do yourself a favor, Chilli,” she says. “Take the bag, shut up, and go.”
“So where’s the party?” someone’s calling, and they’re all falling still, Conary in his glittering suit and Pwyll, hanging his head, Astolfo, soda in one hand, bag in the other, looking about, and Luys folding his arms as Christian ducks back. Off that way, pinkish-orange pompadour a-bob, comes Lymond in a trench coat over a dull green suit, a black tie loosely knotted about his undone collar. “Did I miss it?” he says.
“Kinda fizzled, a little early,” says Jo.
“Gentlemen!” says Lymond. “Always an honor. Don’t let me keep you.” They’re already turning away, Astolfo and Pwyll and Conary, bags in hand, and Chilli picks up the little bag from the trunk of the car, heads after them for the ramp, up and out. “I didn’t need that,” mutters Jo.
“What,” says Lymond brightly. “That? That was nothing. I find myself with a sudden hankering for noodles. Heard you might be making a run.”
“Luys?” says Jo, turning away, beckoning him over. Christian throws back the last of his soda. “Get the others. Follow Chilli,” says Jo.
“You’re certain,” says Luys, hands in his pockets, eyes on his boots.
“It’s personal,” says Jo, quiet, close. “The bandit doesn’t want the owr, she wants him. Look,” a hand on his shoulder, and he looks up to meet her eyes. “Follow him. He delivers without a hitch, I’m wrong, and you can hightail it across town because we’ll maybe need your help. Okay?”
“And take Christian with you. Just in case.”
“You’re off?” says Christian.
“Don’t get hurt,” says Jo, “but this time, don’t run.” And then, to Lymond, “We’re taking my car.”
“Sure,” he says. “But I’m driving.”
The room now dark, the table gone, the candles and the chairs, the sofas returned beneath the windows left and right in walls that narrow to a point, and there the great maroon chair where she sits curled up in white and gold, a wine glass in her hand. “It isn’t locked,” she says, and the door to the apartment opens. “I wasn’t expecting you back,” says Ysabel.
“She was his date,” says Chrissie, uncertain on spindly heels, shoulders draped in fake white fur. “I’m yours.”
“But still,” says Ysabel, sitting back, lowering her bare feet to the floor. “You had to see him off.”
“Investment has its perks. Should I go?” Click of a heel, as she comes down a step, and “No,” says Ysabel.
“Are you angry?” says Chrissie, letting the fur slip from a shoulder. “We’re very grateful.” And the other. “He’d never’ve gone that high without you.”
“Yay, me,” says Ysabel.
“You are angry,” says Chrissie, lowering a hand, letting the weight of the wrap draw itself slinking through the crook of her elbow and down to pool whitely on the steps. “Don’t be angry.” Heel-clack as she comes down another step. “You can still give us whatever you want.” Undoing a knot at her shoulder, and an asymmetrical panel falls away, baring a ghostly breast to the dim light of those windows all about.
“How very generous of you,” says Ysabel.
“Whenever you want,” says Chrissie, unhooking a flap at her hip, opening a zipper, another click of her descending heels. Her little black dress falls away to the floor.
“Give me a reason,” says Ysabel, and on those heels quite steady and sure comes Chrissie toward her, streetlight from those windows oblongs and rhombuses slipping up and over naked swooping sway of legs and belly, arms and breasts, “make your case,” says Ysabel, and Chrissie stands herself before the chair, between Ysabel’s white-draped knees, yellow hair severe about her almost-smiling eyes, lips parting, a breath taken in as Ysabel leans forward, hand on a bare knee, nose brushing belly and lips a briefest kiss the lightly gooseflesh hand against a thigh, fingertips nestle the crease sloping up to hip, thumb beside the sleekly pout of vulva. “I could,” says Chrissie, “answer your – ”
“No,” says Ysabel.
A hiss of a breath. “Thank you, then, for – ”
“Don’t,” says Ysabel.
Chrissie’s almost frowning, mouth still open about the words unsaid, until another sharp breath, through her teeth. “I was,” she says, “pleased, you didn’t,” her hands lifting, floating at her sides, “push, things, with Reg,” and a shiver, a jerk, trying to keep her balance, one and and the other hand coming about to Ysabel’s head, fingers among the black curls. “You,” says Chrissie, “you, you’re not,” and another breath, “you’re not going to make this easy,” she says. “Are you.”
“Stop,” says Ysabel against that skin, “asking, for what I’ve already given away, and yes.” Looking up. “I will.”
He shuts off the engine, looks across to her, “Chilly?” he says.
She’s leaning back in her seat, eyes closed, collar of her black coat up about her throat. “Exposed,” she says. The aluminum briefcase on the floorboard between her red shoes.
“You ready for this?” he says, brow furrowed over bulging eyes, one blue, one brown.
“We ain’t getting jumped,” says Jo. Sitting up, and a sigh, shaking her head. “It’s been a day,” she says. “I found out, this, old friend? I’d been looking for, for months? He’s, well, he’s working for me. Has been, for a couple weeks.”
“Yeah?” says Lymond.
“I didn’t know,” she says.
“But now you do. And he’s okay? You’re taking care of him?”
“Ray,” she says. “I didn’t know.”
He smiles. “Welcome to upper management. The shit I don’t know,” and he shakes his head. “You could write a book.” Looking down, at his hands. “How’s my sister,” he says.
“How’s the new Bride,” says Jo.
“She’s not,” says Lymond, and then, a deep breath, “she’s no one’s Bride,” he says.
“You’re just keeping your options open,” says Jo.
“And you didn’t answer my question,” says Lymond.
Jo looks away, out the window, spangled with neon rain. “She tried to give ten thousand dollars we don’t have to her goddamn girlfriend.”
“She,” says Lymond, “tried, ah,” his hand up, reaching for a word. “So, she didn’t. Which is good. And if she had, actually, I’m sure – you would’ve figured something out.”
“I have to figure out too many goddamn things,” says Jo. “You better know what the hell you’re doing.”
“Funnily enough, I don’t?” says Lymond, leaning over the steering wheel, looking up through the windshield at the sign, KJ Rice Noodle Shop & Restaurant, it says, under the lit-up Oregon Lottery logo. “I mean, do we just walk in the front door, or what?”
“Works for me,” says Jo, shoving her door open, hauling up the briefcase, kicking her red shoes out to the pavement.
An electronic bong as he opens the door, as they step inside, the front room brightly lit, and there by the empty glass-fronted counter a thickset man in a tight black T-shirt, shoulders softly round, and faded tattoos at his temples. “You have a new man,” he says.
“What, Ray?” says Jo, looking over at Lymond. “Don’t mind Ray.”
“A new man, and you brought it yourself,” Wu Song folds his arms over his chest. “Troubles?”
“I ever want advice,” says Jo, setting the briefcase on the counter, “I’ll be sure to ask.”
“Of course,” says Wu Song.
And Lymond says, “Wait. That’s it?”
“Until next quarter,” says Jo.
“But I was,” says Lymond, a theatrical pout, “I wanted some noodles.”
Wu Song shrugs, then smiles. “Best in town,” he says.
Here and there, close to the grass, small signs planted that say, white letters on black, Ebb Tide, Barbra Streisand, Cinnamon Twist, All-American Girl, The Kincaid. Behind each, serried ranks of new green upright rose canes, sprouted from the stubbled nubbins of deadheaded bushes. She stands before them, waiting, wrapped in a big coat, sheepskin collar upturned, and on her head a floppy, goggle-eyed horse-head mask, and a baseball bat in her hand. “Harper!” she bellows, muffled by that mask.
He’s coming down the middle of the tree-lined street, arms wide, “I want my coat!” he bellows, breaking into a run. That horse head wobbles and flops, a muffled gibber of laughter, and she plants her feet, lifts the bat, but a grate and skid of his boots he stops just short of the square and she’s turning away, swinging the bat up whock to catch Luys’s sword and shove to send him staggering back, “Mason!” cries Chilli, aggrieved, as the woman in the mask ducks under the whick of a dart flung by a figure all in black. “Ambuscade!” she roars through the mask, dancing back between the rows of roses. “Banditry!” yells Luys, sword up, following her. “Gerlin?” says Chilli, as a portly man in a brown and black ski jacket rushes past him, waving a long square-pointed blade above his head, followed by that figure all in black. “Cheat!” the muffled voice, and “Coward!” Crunch and whip and chunk, another pass of sword and bat, more whicking darts, “Spadone!” yells Luys “Cut her off!”
Chilli kneels, his hand a fist he knocks against the pavement, and the twang of a snapped string pulls up out of a flare of light a short-bladed sword, stubby hilt and pommel of it golden, heavy. Standing. He steps up into the garden, picking up his pace, lifting the sword up over his head, shoving past the man in the ski jacket to Luys his sword back for a two-handed swipe and clang, scrape of blade on blade, Luys wrenched around by the unexpected blow, tripping over a line of roses. “She’s mine,” bellows Chilli, turning but not in time to avoid that square-pointed blade, a cut that rends his sweater, slashing from rib to hip, “my fight,” he gargles, falling to the grass, as roses thrash about.
“Gradasso,” calls Luys, his sword up and ready. “Kern!”
“Lost her,” the answering cry. The man all in black, coming up from the other end of the garden. “She went south,” he says, pointing with a dart. “That way,” shifting, “or that.”
“You lost her,” says Luys.
“You had no right,” snarls Chilli. “Her quarrel is with me.” An arm clutched about his shredded sweater, breathing shallow, loud, quick. “She’ll name me coward, she’ll tell – ”
“She’s exiled!” cries Luys. Hand to his forehead. “Outlawed. She’ll tell no one a thing. But you.” Turning about, there among the trampled roses. “Kern, Spadone,” he throws a gesture off toward the other end of the garden, “go. Do what you can,” and as they head off, he kneels. “You,” he says, to Chilli. “Still have a delivery to make.”
“I’ll need a moment,” says Chilli, hands wet in his lap.
“By all means,” says Luys. “But take not a pinch, nor the slightest grain, to help it along.”
“I would never,” says Chilli, scowling over is big blond beard.
“But you would,” says Luys, pushing himself to his feet, “put a peck of it at risk, and our friendship with the East, the word of your Duke, all for your petty vendetta.”
“Duke,” says Chilli, with a barely hidden sneer.
“Be about your business,” snaps Luys, and he’s off through the roses.
“Who is it,” says Agravante, turning a page of the leather-bound book in his lap.
“A delivery, sir,” says the glumly narrow man in a black suit, chin tucked in behind a high white collar.
“Awfully late,” says Agravante, taking off his spectacles, looking up, the book now closed about a finger. White dreadlocks unbound, loose about his shoulders.
“He did not wish a word, but presented this,” and the narrow man holds out a shapeless parcel wrapped in brown paper, tied up with string. “With the compliments of Southeast.”
Agravante takes the parcel and turns it over, finding a corner of the paper wrapping to pry open, the pleasantly puzzled look on his face fading as faint gold light shines out on his fingers.
“Something amiss, sir?” says the narrow man. His nose and cheeks are appled with extravagant gin blossoms.
Agravante, closing the folded corner up, shakes his head, “Not as such,” he says. Setting the book aside. “I’ll be retiring now,” he says, getting to his feet, tightening the belt of his pale blue robe. The parcel in his hand. “Be so good as to alert the gentlemen: I’ll want them here a little before lunch tomorrow.” He smiles. “Briefly. Nothing untoward.” And then, as the narrow man’s turning to leave, “Do you know,” says Agravante, “what is worst, about answered prayers?”
“Prayer, sir?” says the narrow man.
“Indeed,” says Agravante.
Between the gateposts of that collar, his chin shifts from one side, to the other, and back, “I don’t, understand, sir,” says the narrow man.
“It’s all right,” says Agravante, clapping him on the shoulder. “Have a good evening.”
Up a long straight staircase in the front hall of the house, pale robe ghostly in the unlit halls of the second floor, Agravante parcel under his arm opens a slender door on a tightly winding spiral staircase.
A round room at the top of it, casement windows all about, cranked open to the night, an uncommitted drizzle stirring the dark trees without. Cardboard boxes full of clothes stacked here and there, and more clothing strewn about the bare wood floor, a wrought-iron bed there, a marble-topped table beside it, an alarm clock blinking 12:00, 12:00, and a reading lamp, unlit. A paperback book, swollen, rumpled with old rain, the edges of it flocked with mold, the cover faded, the title just legible that says Chanur’s Legacy. He lifts his arm to let his parcel fall, reaching for the book, but what’s landed on the pillow is a fiendish little basket-box, carved from a single chunk of dark red wood. He looks at it a moment. Pulls the chain on the lamp, lighting up its blue glass shade, and sits, gingerly, on the edge of the bed. Turning the basket-box over in the light, the knurled and seamless faces of it, the pips carved into each, a flame, a cloud, a drop of water.
“Fénius,” he says to himself. His big white head hung low.
Chanur’s Legacy, written by C.J. Cherryh, ©1992.
Unlocking the door to the apartment she leans back against him, head against his shoulder, “It’s just,” she says, “a more, calculating knight, would’ve seen the King home. Not a lowly Duchess.”
“His majesty has no need of my help,” murmurs Luys, looking down on her red, red hair.
“You’re saying I do?” says Jo, looking up for a kiss. Arms about each other stumbled steps into the kitchen, kissing, he’s undone a button of her dress, she’s grabbing his hand, turning away from his mouth, “What,” he says, “my lady,” but she shakes her head. Looking down the dark hall, the closed doors. The light under the door to the left. Stepping away from him. “I didn’t leave a light on,” she says.
It’s the bedside lamp, an anglepoise affair pulled out to light the small thick book laid open on Ysabel’s lap. She’s sitting in the corner, pillows piled behind her, knees tenting the blankets, “I’m sorry,” she says, looking up to Jo in the doorway. “But her snoring’s terrible.”
“She came back,” says Jo, her red hair skewed, her hand holding closed her dress.
“She came back,” says Ysabel, and then, sitting up, “oh,” she says, “oh, Luys, he’s, you, Jo, I’m sorry,” setting the book aside as Jo says “No, it’s, just, it’s okay, stay. Stay.”
“No,” says Ysabel, lifting the blankets, “I can stand the noise, let me just – ”
“Ysabel,” says Jo. “It’s okay. It’s late, anyway. Just, give me a minute.”
Luys stands in the open doorway of the apartment, his hand on the knob of the door. “So,” he says, “my place, not yours? What’s that?”
She’s holding a small plastic baggie, a generous spoonful of golden dust. “I have to give Tommy Tom a call in a minute here,” she says. “When he tells me how much it’s gonna take, to fix the roses you tore up, I want to be able to tell him you’re on the way.”
“A vassal’s work is never done,” he says, taking the baggie from her hand.
“I’ll make it up to you,” she says. “Breakfast. We’ll have breakfast. Just the two of us. A proper meal.”
“There is nothing to make up, my lady.”
“Get out of here, with your my lady,” she says, and kisses him.
“Eres hermosa,” he says.
Jo closes the door to her room and stands there a moment, eyes closed, head leaned back against the jamb. “One down,” she says. Opening her eyes. “Ninety-eight to go.”
“Long day,” says Ysabel.
“More’n a day,” says Jo, setting her phone on the bedside table, a ring of keys, a money clip pinched about a sheaf of bills. “Since, yesterday? Morning?” Kicking off her shoes, letting her coat fall away. “I feel,” she says, turning away. Under the windows the three or four wood crates filled with clothing neatly folded. She’s standing there, swaying, a hand on her chest, there between the lapels of her dress half unbuttoned. “Just leave it,” says Ysabel, reading her book. “On the floor. It’ll be fine.”
“It looks good on you,” says Ysabel, as Jo undoes more buttons. “You should wear nice things more often.”
“Yeah,” says Jo, stooping over a crate, worming her way into a black T-shirt. “Sure.” A red devil leers across the front of it, marred by silkscreen craquelure. Shivering, she crawls under the blankets. Ysabel sits forward, tugs a pillow free, tosses it to the foot of the bed. Leans over Jo to set her book on the bedside table. Lays her head on Jo’s shoulder, as Jo switches off the light. “Your friend,” says Ysabel. “Christian. You need to do something about him.”
“He’s,” says Jo, “ah, he’s on Iona’s couch tonight? I think, I don’t – ”
“No,” says Ysabel. “I mean, he can’t keep running around with just, whomever. You made too big of a deal of him tonight.”
“Did I,” says Jo, shifting on her pillow to look down at those black curls. “So,” she says, closing her eyes, a yawn. “What do you suggest?”
“We need a new Shootist,” says Ysabel.
“I’m pretty sure,” says Jo, “he’s never held a gun in his life.”
“We’re also in need of a Dagger, if you’d rather.”
“So I can just, do that,” says Jo. “Just pick somebody, a freaking gallowglas, I can make him a knight.”
“You’re the Duke,” says Ysabel. “You can do whatever you want.”
“Good to know, your majesty.” Her eyes pop open, “Shit,” she says, switching on the light, reaching for the phone, “almost forgot, I have to call the fucking Soames – ”
Black hair loose, bleached bangs, red paint smudging one round cheek, grimy white T-shirt stretched out, handwritten letters distorted that say Miracle Rod and Those Amazing Trumpets. She drops her brush to the makeshift tabouret. Takes up a tube of paint, squeezing out a dollop on her fingertip, a brilliant green, apple and glass, a green like some weird flame. Stepping back, her T-shirt rides up, a roll of belly lopping pilled black satin about her hips. The canvas before her a scramble of hair in thick black strokes, a line of cheek, a mouth, all crowded at the bottom and an arm, a suggestion of an arm, the motion of a gesture of an arm reaching up, and up, a whoop from somewhere behind her, laughter echoing among the shadowed bulks, equipment, boxes, someone unseen in the flare of the trouble light dangled over her head as she turns, peers into the darkness, a hand up against the light, fingers shining with that eye-borne green. “Mar?” she says. “You get it?”
“Who cares!” The voice, contralto, brimmed with mirth, something bangs, clang a bat against a truss, “Who gives a good,” bang, “God!” clang, “damn!” and a peal of laughter, dancing up to her down the shadowed aisle, a figure in a coat, a sheepskin collar up about a mass of tangled curls that lighten paling as she prances into the light, a matted cloud of cream about her head. Dropping the bat to the floor, and the flop of an empty horse-head mask. “The oathless reprobate proposed to ambush me! A third of a dozen, against my wooden bat – but I led them such a chase!”
“Cool.” She turns back to the canvas, but her green-daubed fingers hesitate over the wild blurred face, there at the bottom of it. She straightens, picks up a rag to wipe them greenly smearing clean. “I went to see the lawyers today,” she says.
“Aren’t you cold?” says Marfisa, sitting on a nubbled pea-green couch, there at the edge of the circle of light. She starts to work a boot off of her foot.
“There was a problem with a credit card. I met somebody there. Anna Nirdlinger? She, she used to – ”
“I know who she is,” says Marfisa, setting the one boot on the floor. “The Queen’s amanuensis.”
“Well, now she’s a, a paralegal, there at the firm. She, she wants to come see the paintings.”
“Why did you tell her about the paintings,” says Marfisa.
“She’s, well,” that greened rag dropped to the tabouret. “She’s like you, Mar. She’s like me.”
“What does that mean, she’s like us.”
Biting her grinning lip, looking off in the shadows, “Fucked if I know,” says Gloria Monday.