“Who are the three lions?” says Marfisa.
“What?” says Roland, headphones down around his neck. On the table a thick white mug half-filled with coffee, a scatter of gel caps, a little toy car, silver and green.
“The three lions,” says Marfisa, pointing back to the words painted on the window by the door. “I was just wondering who they were.”
“Haile Selassie,” says the woman sitting across from Roland. “Richard Nixon. Luke Skywalker.” She’s hunched in a sweater the color of flour, a floppy brown hat pulled low over her yellow hair. Roland snorts. Marfisa looks about, the gleaming barista station, the long glass case full of brightly lit pastries, the blackboard clouded with palimpsests of old menus. “What?” says the woman. “Was it a rhetorical question?” Her face tics sourly, her eyes darting under the brim of her hat.
“Here,” says Roland, scooping up the caps. “Hold out your hand.” She does. The fingers tremble, just a little. He sets the pills in her palm, one by one, picks up the toy car, folds her fingers over it. Marfisa pulls a spindly chair over from an empty table. “I was wondering how you were keeping up your rounds,” she says. She drapes her blue rainshell over the back of the chair.
“Thank you, Miss Cheney,” Roland’s saying. The woman in the floppy brown hat stands, stuffing her hand in the pocket of her corduroy skirt. “Thank you, Chariot,” she says. “May you be fierce and proud, precise and steady, proper, unified, vigorous, nimble-handed, swift, ardent-coursing, very dextrous, and unhesitating.” She takes up the red-tipped cane leaning against the table and tapping it before her makes her way out of the café.
“I didn’t ask you here to speak about my business, Axe,” says Roland as Marfisa sits.
“Of course not, Chariot,” says Marfisa, looking back from Miss Cheney’s exit to Roland’s frown. His track suit crisp and white with green and yellow stripes down the sleeves. “The four fifths know I’d’ve died last night if you hadn’t happened by. I owe you,” and she tilts her head back a little, jaw working, “my life.” Curls the color of clotted cream unsprung from her tightly bunched ponytail. “So I guess you want to tell me what I must do to see that debt discharged.”
Roland’s picking at the velcro on his bicycle gloves. “We hunted the boar together with a Gallowglas. A joint effort. Either of us could have died then. I’m not,” and then he looks up and says, “You must do it because it’s right. Not because of a debt.”
“What,” says Marfisa, after a moment.
Roland’s laid his gloved hands flat on the table. “Stop seeing her,” he says.
“Who?” says Marfisa.
“You know,” says Roland, and then he stops himself and says, “the Princess.”
“How can I not see her?” says Marfisa. “Should I put out my eyes?”
“She’s the Bride.” Roland’s glaring, leaning over the table. “Promised to the King Come Back. You’ll do nothing to jeopardize that promise.” His voice low, the words bitten short.
“Jeopardize?” says Marfisa. “How could I do that? Tell me, Chariot. Spell it out for me.”
Roland sits back. “The Dagger,” he says. “As mild and temperate a knight as you could ask, for all that he was the Duke’s man. This knight would have struck your head from your shoulders last night. Would have wiped you from this world.”
“So we’re back to the debt,” says Marfisa.
“Why?” says Roland, his eyes burning. “Why would he try to do something like that?”
“I don’t know,” says Marfisa, but she looks away from him, down at her hands, curled in her lap. Roland drinks his coffee. “You must stop,” he says. “Now. I won’t be able to allow it when she’s under my protection once more.”
Marfisa looks up. “You must worry,” she says, “about facing a Gallowglas, to win her back. Jo’s a friend of yours, isn’t she?”
Roland finishes his coffee and sets the mug on the table. “The Queen will tire of indulging her daughter’s whims soon enough.”
“Without a fight, huh?” says Marfisa, standing. “Is that what Miss Cheney told you is going to happen?”
“Stop,” says Roland. “It’s the right thing to do.”
“Yeah,” says Marfisa, putting on her rainshell, “try telling her that.”
Night falls. They come around the corner of the building and duck out of the rain, three of them, under a dull burgundy awning that says Fada Salon. Already fishing for cigarettes. Jo’s lit, she flicks the match away into the rain and shakes open a newspaper. Ysabel, unlit cigarette in her fingers, turns to the short older woman with a loose wattle under her chin. “Do you know,” says the older woman, thumbing open a lighter, “a young man insists I am from India.” Her voice rough with old smoke. Ysabel leans over her small flame. “I asked him, how is it so, and he said, you have an accent. Of course. I am from France. He says no one in France must call people for money.” The older woman shrugs. “So now I am Indian.”
“Fuck,” says Jo, rattling her paper shut. The window behind them dark. Rows of shampoo bottles catch what little light. She steps under the next awning down, dark grey over a glass door lit up inside, a beige hall, a row of dented mailboxes. Holds the paper up in the light, turns it inside out. “You know, Crecy,” says Ysabel, “Jo says there’s a difference. Between spam, and what we do.”
“Of course, darling,” says the older woman. “Spam is on the internet.”
“Phone spam,” says Ysabel. “Sales calls,” says Jo, scowling at her paper.
“We don’t do sales,” says Crecy.
“But it is a transaction,” says Ysabel. “It’s not a sales call,” growls Jo.
“We don’t ask for money,” says Crecy.
“We ask for their time,” says Ysabel. “A piece of their life. And isn’t time money? Why does this make you so angry?” she says, turning to Jo.
“What do we sell?” says Crecy. “If we are selling.”
“Your answers,” says Ysabel brightly, “will help Pet Depot better determine where and how to improve their service to ensure our clients and their people will have the best possible Pet Depot experience. What was it we said for Winthrop Bank? Your answers will enable WinBank to better assess the service they provide? It’s a good deed,” she says. “A chance to help. Attention. That’s the transaction. Time, for attention.”
“Sales,” says Crecy. “No, sales we go to do when we can’t do this. Out to Market Solutions in Beaverton, hour and a half by bus, and we sell. Or worse, to a customer service farm.” She lets her cigarette fall to the sidewalk and mashes it with her heel. “No one trusts a phone anymore. All the sales and the robots, and the Indians. So many surveys done on the internet now.”
“Like spam,” says Ysabel.
“You are being difficult,” says Crecy.
“Not a goddamn thing,” says Jo, dropping the newspaper. She flicks her cigarette-spark into the rain. “Get your things.”
“There’s an hour left in the shift,” says Ysabel.
“I don’t care,” says Jo. “There’s something I need to see.”
“What?” says Ysabel, as Crecy shaking her head says “With Guthrie out again, and Dorfman – what will you tell Becker?”
“That I feel like shit,” says Jo. “What else?”
Leaning against the dingy fridge, head down, long black hair to one side like a curtain drawn back. Rings glitter on his fingers, an ankh, a skull, dice. “Wow,” he says, hauling himself upright, scratching his ribs. Black drawstring pants hang from his narrow hips, cuffs lapping his bare feet. He pulls a clear plastic pitcher from the fridge and pours water into his mouth.
“Guthrie,” she says. The hall behind her’s dark. Hard rattle of rain outside the half-closed window. Her black T-shirt tight says A Mysterious Chunk of Space Debris. Her hair lost under a confetti-colored patchwork cap.
“You never take that off,” he says. “Do you. The hat.”
“I have my reasons,” she says.
“I, see, have no idea how you pulled that shirt on over it.”
“Same way you took it off, except.” Her hands spin about each other. “In reverse.”
“That’s one of my shirts,” he says. “Your shirt buttoned up the front. Unbuttoned.” He runs his fingers up the T-shirt to brush her chin. She bites at them. “Like your sweater. And your other sweater. And your jacket unzipped. So.”
“My skirt,” she says, “and my other skirt,” and she kisses him.
“And your bicycle shorts,” he says, “and those goddamn granny panties,” and he kisses her chin. “But not the hat. Is it a thing? If I take off your hat, do you leave and I never see you again?”
“Such questions,” she says, kissing his throat. Her hand in his pants. He spins her around bare feet shuffling and lifts her shrieking with laughter to sit on the edge of the sink. The hem of her shirt rucked up past her hips, the hair crowning her thighs dull brown and glossy auburn, fiery red licking the edges, coiled springs of gold here and there, white glistening, thin black shading a ghostly line up her belly under the shirt. “If you’re supposed to make me forget,” he says, as she leans forward, reaching for his pants, “I remember everything.” He helps her push them down. “The window and the boar and the swords and.” She stops his mouth with a fingertip. “Do you want to forget?” she says.
Guthrie shakes his head.
“Am I safe here?” she says.
He shrugs, his face torn between a frown and a smile. “As houses,” he says.
“I have your word?” she says, and his face falls. He kisses her, a long rolling lick of a kiss, and closes his eyes, and lays his forehead against her chest. “Of course,” he says.
“Guthrie,” she says.
When he looks up she tugs the patchwork cap up and off and out spills her hair, tumbling over her shoulders, down her back, into the sink, across the counter, down, brushing his knees, coiling about his feet. “Wow,” he says.
She shivers as he touches her hair, takes up a heavy hank of it in his hand, lets it run through his fingers like water. “Oh,” she says as he sinks his fingers into her hair to either side of her face, his palms, his wrists. “Wow,” he says, and she nods and says, “Like that,” breathing quickly, her hair brushing his forearms, his elbows. “Wow,” he says, and he kisses her. The rain long since gentled to a hush.
The weirdly slender doll tosses an arch salute in the harsh light of the desk lamp. Its uniform a tight orange jacket and a short flippy skirt, dark stockings stretched halfway up elongated thighs. Mr. Charlock touches its head carefully, as if it might burn. “Week ago Wednesday,” he says. “The equinox. That’s where I’m putting my money. So he was out and about a week before you called us in? Still.” Mr. Charlock touches the doll again. “Seven confirmed sightings – five solos and a deuce. We cleared ’em all.”
“Seven,” says Mr. Leir. His eyes almost grey. His face unlined under all that white hair.
“Mr. Keightlinger’s sources back us up,” says Mr. Charlock.
“I don’t doubt it,” says Mr. Leir. “But seven is a rather… notable number.”
“Yeah,” says Mr. Charlock. “So’s three and five and twelve and nine and four.”
“And eight,” says Mr. Keightlinger, in the shadows behind Mr. Charlock.
“But this is seven,” says Mr. Leir.
Mr. Charlock shrugs. “Anyway, last night they run him out of the world and into a hunt. Being my understanding of your instructions was not to interfere, we didn’t.” Mr. Leir nods. “Bride was there,” says Mr. Charlock. He picks up the doll, fingering a long brown plastic ponytail. “On the hunt.” Tips the doll over, looking up its skirt. “Gallowglas, too.”
“On a horse,” says Mr. Keightlinger, leaning forward, his beard ruddied in the light. Mr. Charlock looks up at him, curl bobbing on his forehead. “Yeah,” he says, “there were horses. Point being, they pull this girl any closer, they’d have to knight her or something.”
Mr. Leir reaches across his desk, pale hand palm up.
“She’ll be as hard to peel off as one of their own,” says Mr. Charlock. “Harder, even.”
Mr. Leir’s fingers beckon once, twice. Mr. Charlock lays the doll in his hand. “What in hell are those things for, anyway?” says Mr. Charlock.
“Numquam sine phantasmate intelligit anima,” says Mr. Leir, standing. He opens a glass cabinet behind his desk and sets the doll on a shelf lined with more dolls, a schoolgirl in a kilt, a swordswoman in a chainmail bikini, a girl in a maillot climbing onto a blocky scooter, a magician in a top hat and bustier. “You think,” says Mr. Leir, and then, “I’m not certain what you think.” He closes the cabinet. “That you’re to help me by stealing the Bride from them?” He plants his fists on the desk, leaning over them. “You are to watch, and report, and that is all. You’ve watched. You’ve reported. I thank you.”
“Sure,” says Mr. Charlock, jerking his shoulder from beneath Mr. Keightlinger’s hand, “but what’s it all for?”
Mr. Leir smiles under those cold clear eyes. “She is exaltation,” he says. “She will cross each sign at its zenith. She is the morning that climbs into the sky and the rose that arises from tears. Her throne is a high mountain and from there the sky of light is beneath her feet, and her diadem the stars.” His smile leaves. “Would you like to ask another question, Mr. Charlock?”
“Not so much?” says Mr. Charlock, swallowing. He stands. “Maybe some other time.”
A white tray laid on the low broad ottoman. Two glossy cards lie on it, one white, printed with a stylized bee in black and yellow. The other brown, a hawk’s head in red and black. A small stone cup overturned, salt spilled from it on the tray. A clear glass saucer dotted with bread crumbs. A small brass lamp, low flame smoking at its tip. The Duke looms over it, leaning heavily on a cane. He blows out the lamp. Picks up the silver-handled knife on the ottoman before the tray and pushes himself upright. Drops the knife in the pocket of his tweed jacket.
“Thank you,” he says.
“There’s no need to thank me,” says the Queen. Dressed all in black, she sits at one end of the long white leather sofa. A little brindle cat beside her ducks its head to lick at its chest.
“Ah,” says the Duke, “but I would ask another boon of you.”
The Queen strokes the little cat’s back. “No,” she says.
“No?” says the Duke. “But you don’t – ”
“We will not ennoble Jo Maguire.” The cat slumps against her, lifting a leg to worry at its haunch. “Unless you had something else in mind?”
“No,” says the Duke, “no, that’s what, ah, I – ” He frowns. “Why not? You’ve a perfect excuse. She hadn’t done what she did, I’d be dust blowing down the highway, instead of that fucking pig. I don’t care what the Bodach said.”
“So offer her a street yourself,” says the Queen. “Sidney must have left something behind.”
“But I take her in, I get your daughter as well,” says the Duke. “That’s crazy. You give her the knighthood. That brings the Bride back here, safe and sound, away from clutching grasps like mine – ”
The Queen stands. The little cat freezes, then leaps from the sofa, scampering into the shadows. “You forget yourself, Southeast,” she says. “We will not have a Gallowglas in this house.”
After a moment, the Duke ducks his head. “Can’t say I didn’t try.” He turns to go, but stops, one foot on the shallow steps. “Duenna,” he says. “I will sit the Throne one day. Whether you’d will it or no.” He looks over his shoulder at her. She’s sitting again, the white card in her hand. “But this has nothing to do with that. This is me, trying to do what’s right. Remember that.”
She smiles to herself. “We will always have been who we are,” she says, laying the card back on the tray, next to the brown one.
She gets out of the car, a low-slung thing, and opens the passenger door as he lurches down the porch steps. She wears a short clear plastic raincoat over a grey chauffeur’s jacket. The Duke leans on the roof of the car and levers his left leg in, lowering himself into the seat. Pulls his right leg in, wincing. Tosses the cane over into the narrow back seat. She lowers the hand she’d put out to help him. “You shouldn’t be walking on that,” she says, climbing into the driver’s seat.
He runs a hand through his hair, shaking out the rain.
“You want to,” she says, starting the engine, putting the car in gear. He snaps on the radio. Guitars and a clattering drumkit crash into a slow keening verse, cymbal ringing like a bell, in a town, deep in the dark wood, there were streets of colored lanterns, there were musicians and juggling troupes, sticky baked things and booths and booths. “Want to do anything tonight?” she says.
“Go home,” he says.
“Because if you want, you know, to take it easy.” She steals a glance at him. He’s looking out the window. “You must be exhausted, so I was thinking, right? I could call a friend of mine. Penny? From the club?” She looks about, signals, eases over into the right lane. “We could put on a show, if you like.”
“Yeah, okay,” he says, still looking out the window.
“Yeah?” she says.
“You should go out. With whoever. See a show. I’ll be okay.” He smiles at her. “You went above and beyond last night, you know? Take the night off.”
“Oh,” she says. “Okay. Thanks.”
And then she says, “How’d it go?”
“As well as you’d expect,” he says. “Hey. Last night. Did the Mooncalfe finally show? Or was I dreaming?”
“Orlando?” she says. “Yeah, he showed.”
“What did he have to say for himself?”
“Just,” she says, “you know. Get well soon.”
He snorts, looking down at his leg. “Fat chance of that,” he says.
de anima, written by Aristotle, translated by Willem van Moerbeke, within the public domain. The Tarjuman Alashwaq, written by Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, within the public domain. “What He’d Just Said,” written by Paul Winkler, ©1997 Arms.