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Stockings, red and black – cooling Their heels – a timorous Glaive
 – the Question – the Color it is –

Stockings, their red and black stripes tugged out of true by someone else’s fingers that close suspender straps, smooth the blackly satin garter belt, tug the red coatee into place. She lifts her arms as they do up golden buttons, heavy like the gold braid burdening her cuffs, spattering the glossy bill of her red cap, set at a jaunty angle. Those fingers settle the golden hawks pinned to either point of the coatee’s collar, straighten with a tsk her cap. She laughs, lips expertly red. Her sister sat beside her, lining her lips in a blazing mirror with a burgundy stick, her legs stockinged and gartered with polished boots laced up her shins, her coatee slung on the back of her chair, her cap on the counter before her. “Smile!” says Chrissie.

“No,” says Ettie, capping the stick with a disdainful moue.

“Go on,” says Chrissie, and Ettie does, a sudden, glorious grin, ostentatiously effortful, blatantly cruel, washing away to strand her stony affect. Costurere with a last pat for Chrissie’s coatee leans between them, rustle of white, bloomers and camisole, mob cap on her mousey hair. She takes up a little pot and a tiny brush, kneeling there by Ettie, who holds her half-done lips quite still as brilliant red’s applied. “It was easier, when we had the screen,” says Chrissie.

“It was easier with the owr, miss,” says Costurere, with a last deft twist to shape the Cupid’s bow. “If I’d be permitted to say so.” Standing, she reaches for the coatee, but Ettie pushes her chair back, “Go on,” she snaps, “I can put on my own damn jacket. Go help her,” an irritated gesture flung away to the Starling there among the candles, laid out on rugs and pillows and clouds of gauzy black tulle, Aigulha knelt beside her, sheer white shift and a mob cap of her own, painting a bare brown thigh with lines of icy silver. Ettie’s working an arm into a sleeve of her coatee, turning about, wrestling with the other until Chrissie shifts the shoulder of it just, lifts it into place, steps close enough to begin to button it up. Ettie submits with a grimace.

Light approaches, away across the basement, a fluorescent lantern swaying in the hand of Big Jim Turk, and the silent lightning of Petra B.’s camera, capturing in stutter flashes white robe loosely belted, silver shot through short black hair, Ysabel against the darkness, colors about her warming, softening as she steps into the nimbus of those blazing lights. “Ladies,” she says. “They’re here. Five minutes.” Aigulha steps up to unbelt the robe and draw it from Ysabel’s shoulders. Costurere gathers a handful of underwear, a fold of something demurely striped. The Starling gets to her feet, working her head from side to side, shaking out her flashing arms and legs. Big Jim holds his lantern high, a pair of mallets in his other hand, his kilt of khaki corduroy. Chrissie does up the last button. Ettie rolls her eyes away, “The hell is she getting us into.”

“It’ll be fun,” says Chrissie, pressing close, bills of their caps clicking, tipping, lips brushing carefully painted lips. “Spectacle.”

“Under the goddamn lights,” mutters Ettie, and then, as Chrissie steps away, “and we aren’t getting paid!”

“Let me guess,” says Anne Thorpe slyly, and across the stage Anna shudders. “You.” Pointing to Welund, sat at the one end of the nubbled green couch, linen discreetly rumpled. “You’re a lawyer. But you?” Craning over, looking past to Rhythidd at the other end, resplendent in a lustrous blue coat over pink and white stripes, a slender silver watch about one wrist. “I mean,” sparing a glance for the Serpent and the Shield, watchfully still behind them, “y’all’re easy. You’re muscle.” Mousely in pink, sat on the couch between the brothers, silver briefcase in her lap, pillbox hat on her head. “And you’re the help. But you?” Rhythidd favors her with a sidelong look. “You’re the money,” says Thorpe, “but not, like, middleman money. You are the money. I can smell it from here. Which rather demands we ask the question,” pressing her hands together, “why are you,” pointedly ignoring Anna’s bespectacled glare, “cooling your heels for the likes of her?”

“A fair point,” says Welund, with an indulgent smile. Rhythidd looks away with the slightest roll of his eyes. “I’m certain her majesty will only be a moment longer,” says Anna, smoothing her houndstooth skirt.

“Don’t let’s forget Miss Wilson,” says Thorpe with a smirk.

“Of course,” says Welund. Rhythidd looks at his watch. Mousely jumps, startled, the Serpent stiffens, the Shield shakes out a hand, as from somewhere above an unearthly alto note is lifted, held out over the empty warehouse, a note that fluting modulates, becomes a word, a phrase, “A thogha na mban,” and Rhythidd tips back his head, “ná tuig-si féin,” Welund leaping to his feet, “do shlad go n-déanfainn air æn t-slíghe,” stepping out to the very edge of the stage, peering up. On the walkway above, in a gown of greens and purpled blues, Carol strains to shape those words, “le cam, le cleas, ná beartaibh claona,” eyes shut tight, and stood beside her in a baggy grey suit coat Marfisa, white hair undone, a set of pipes under an arm and Carol’s hand in hers, fingers intertwined. As the song rings out, from all those stalls below step hobs and clods, domestics, in boilersuits and yoga pants, denim jackets and work shirts, blouses and paint-drabbled coveralls, “tu-sa agus me-si bheith,” and Marfisa lets go her hand, hikes the sack of the pipes up under her armpit, the drone back over her shoulder, “a mhaighdion mhaordha,” the mouthpiece to her lips and the chanter in her hands, “air feadh ar saoíghil,” and she begins to play.

The arch at the other end of the warehouse flares and pulses now with licks of light, with the rising pop and thump of drums, the whip and lash of Christienne and Étienne in coatees and caps high-kicking, flames streaming from the torches they thrust and withdraw, thrust and withdraw to the cracking rhythm of the Bullbeggar’s bodhrán, the sonorous thump of Big Jim’s big bass drum. Following after a tall figure wrapped in a black hoodie, skirted in black tulle, marching with stiff precision as Petra B. darts about, camera snapping away. Pipes and drums climb to a summit that collapses, beats redoubling, notes tumbling, somewhere a tinwhistle joining the fray, and the hoodie’s whipped away, black gauze a cloud unspooling, the Starling leaping, twirling, black hair twisted in a bun, silvered limbs flashing in the sunlight and the fluorescent light, battling swords a-clash, bright spears leaping to a shout, moonlit hind brought shining down in a clearing as the song of them falls to a halt with her, and only the drone of the pipes, the tinwhistle’s eerie echo, mallets and tipper held high, those torches, all of them motionless but for their labored breath, the glisten of sweat, those candescent flames.

Ysabel steps from the neon-brushed shadows of that arch.

Short black hair brushed back, her coat dress of sombre chalkstripe, black Chuck Taylors laced upon her feet. A smiling benison to either side as she makes her way up the aisle, and to either side then heads begin to bow, Sprocket and Manypeny, Bellman, Lustucru, Teacup Tall and Templemass, knees are taken, Fell Swinton, lucent Himmelbirb, trembling Charlichhold, Getulous and Trucos and looming Meg Greentooth, and on the stage Rhythidd, the Glaive, stands up from the couch, “Majesty,” he says, so loud in that rustling silence. Taking a knee by the Guisarme Welund, already kneeling, and the Serpent and the Shield bow their heads as Mousely scrambles to bow without getting up or letting go the case. Anna ducks her head. Thorpe smiles behind her hand.

“Welcome!” cries Ysabel, as they all about her stand back up again. “Welcome, to our guests,” lifting a hand, “and to our host!”

Up on the walkway the painted door swings open and out she steps, Gloria Monday, stately, plumped in a black high-waisted gown, jet-black hair threaded with white ribbons and gathered in two great hanks, short bangs freshly pinked, arms socked in black and white stripes one gripping the railing, the other hitching her skirts so she might make her way down the skeletal stairs.

“Miss Wilson!” cries Rhythidd, as loudly as before. Gloria stops, halfway down, scowling. “We would not trouble you,” he says. “We’d happily meet with you upstairs, within.”

“You wished an audience, gentlemen,” says Ysabel. “You shall have it, before our court. Press your suit.”

Glaive Rhythidd takes a breath, almost a shrug, very well, and steps back to sit on the nubbled couch where the Guisarme’s already sat, Mousely all elbows and knees between them. “We have broken with the Mason, ma’am. He’s agreed Southeast shall release the properties at the top of the block to us, that we might work with you, Miss Wilson,” looking over and up, “to help you make your father’s dream come true.”

A look comes across Gloria’s face at that, and she begins to laugh, a soundless rippling quiver that hitches her shoulders, tips back her head, erupts in a glittering spray, whooping as she lurches, slapping the railing, “My God,” she says, and the light catches the letters embroidered in silver thread over her bosom, OKBUMR. “My father’s dream,” and she waves a hand over them all, “was to flatten the whole damn block, pour a big flat concrete pad, float a couple-four storeys of cheap-ass shitty balloon-frame condos, with cheap-ass shitty vinyl siding, and those cheap-ass fucking windows, and, and, my father’s dream,” she sneers, “was bullshit.”

A stillness seizes the cavernous room, as a smile quirks the corner of Ysabel’s lips.

“Child,” says the Guisarme, “do not be so quick, to spit on opportunity. The monies to come from realizing even one such dream are enough to leave one in comfort the rest of one’s natural days,” but Gloria’s shaking her head, “I’m already rich,” she says. “Asshole.”

“You are to be commended, gentlemen,” says Ysabel. “Placing these buildings in Gloria’s hands will go a long way toward securing what’s been built here. A truly generous gesture.”

“Ma’am,” says the Guisarme, “it’s not that we,” faltering, looking to the Glaive, who smoothly takes up the thread, “I am afraid, majesty, it’s not so simple as that. We cannot freely make a gift of these properties to the girl – there are obligations to fulfill, investors that must be satisfied – ”

“Twice now,” says Ysabel, “Glaive Rhythidd, in this audience, have you said you are afraid.” Stepping closer to the stage. “We might begin to doubt your courage, were we not confronted by this insinuation, that you might not do as we have said you would.” Her smile is guileless, open. “If such is so,” she says, “you would be right, to be afraid.”

“We may not, ma’am,” says the Glaive in his blue coat. “Not might. Cannot. There are laws, that must be followed.”

“Bonds of mortal toradh, ma’am,” says the Guisarme, “if you will.”

“You are also,” she says, that smile quite gone, “to cease any efforts to demolish, dismantle, or destroy the Lovejoy Ramp.”

The Guisarme moves to respond, but shuts up his mouth at the Glaive’s slightest gesture. “Of course, ma’am,” he says, they both say, and bow their balding heads.

“What I will, is done,” says Ysabel. “Now go, and be about the doing of it.”

An ugly snort from above. “Fucking yahoos,” says Gloria, and then, as that entire room looks up to her on the stairs, “what, did I say the quiet part out loud?” Flinging a gesture over the stage below. “Look at them! Second they get out the door, they’re gonna figure out a way to fuck us.”

“There, actually,” says the Guisarme in his linen suit, “there is,” getting up from the couch, kneeling before Mousely, sat stock still. “There’s but one matter more, ma’am,” he says, resolve a-firming as his patter smooths. “We’d prove detestable ambassadours, to leave without leaving a gift.” Squatting, tugging the silvery case from Mousely’s rigid grip.

“Brother,” says Rhythidd, so quietly.

“It’s all right,” murmurs Welund, laying the case flat on Mousely’s knees, undoing the latches, click and clack. The sighs that thrill that cavernous space as he lifts the lid, spilling golden light.

“We know,” says Welund, turning, standing holding aloft a couple of plastic bags, brightly full. “We know what it means, to see golden promise turn to ashes in our hands. When first the Apportionment thinned, and threatened to wither altogether, we devised a plan, my brother and I: a storehouse, without the city, where we might set some of our portions aside against another such day,” and he thrusts up his laden hand. “It survived!” Swaying those bags from side to side, a beacon bright enough to warm those upturned faces, the hands that lift, that reach. “Enough to support the court,” he says. “Enough to return you all, and keep you, as you ought be kept, enough to – ”

“Enough?” cries Ysabel, and the swoop of the room’s attention, down from his hand to her before them all, pressed close to the stage. “For how long?” says Ysabel, and some of those raised hands falter, drop, even as the Guisarme lowers his bags. “As you portion it out to peers, week after week, and they to their stewards, seneschals, and knights,” turning to look to the crowd of them thronged about, “and they to their henchmen, housekeepers, cooks and valets,” catching the eye of one, then another, Iemanya and Bluelock, Glenn, the Dinny-Mara, Little Conway Coolidge, “to janitors and chambermaids, plumbers and electrickers, gaffers, tapers, bootblacks and chimblesweeps, scullery boys,” smiling when someone cries “Yeah!” and another, “Oh, yes!” and “A portion! Give us a portion!”

“How long!” she says again, and then, cutting through the rising clamor, “How many times?” Speaking to them all from her little space before the stage. “Even at just a mean pinch for each, a crumb at a time, how often could it all be handed round until you’re left to sweep that one last golden speck from the corner of a cold and empty vault?”

“No!” cries someone, and someone else moans. “A Queen might come,” says the Glaive, patting Mousely’s knee. “Whenever she wished,” standing, “to plenish our stores again.” Stepping up, beside the Guisarme, who lifts the bags again, to cries of “Yes!” and “Now!” and “Oh, yes!” Chrissie’s jostled as the Primo Rivas shoves past reaching for that light, Herwydh there, catching her balance in Umlauf’s wake, and Lupe Lupita, the tears in Christian’s eyes, Gordon’s scowl, Biscuit clapping his big hands together, the pop of them loudly, slowing, stopping when no one else joins in.

“She might,” says Ysabel, and there are whoops, “but when she does, if she does,” and at that a stillness raggedly settles over them all. “If we did,” she says. “Those who serve our enemy? Would find themselves without.”

“My lady,” says the Guisarme, tenderly. “There is no enemy.”

Ysabel steps into the crowd that makes way before her. “What if she doesn’t, though,” she says, and though her voice has quieted, her words still carry. “What if we, what if, what if I, cannot.” Turning back to them on the stage, and Gloria on the stairs, Marfisa and Carol high above. “That’s the question, isn’t it. Why you cling to the skirts of that monster, and pack up those last few dimming scraps in a stiff steel case. What if this,” looking now about her, “is it?” Bwbach and Cherrycoke, Offa and Ssidi Kur and stoop-shouldered Quilibet. “Our reign’s been brief,” she says, “not six full moons, and yet,” closing her eyes with a shiver as a hand takes one of hers, Chrissie slipped through them all behind her, “I’ve already lost my King, my Huntsman,” opening quickblink eyes, “the throne itself,” squeezing Chrissie’s hand as more of them press close, Alanbam, Meguis, Botté and Jeaneatte with her wildered eyes, Guytrash and thick-necked Brether Ned, Petra B. her camera forgotten about her neck, little Sproat and Schuka reaching for her hands, her fingers, her shoulders, the sleeves of her coat dress. “We have no Bride at our left hand,” she says, “but two bent Crones do shadow our right,” gazing up at them, Welund agog, Rhythidd looking away. She takes a step back toward the stage, and all those reaching hands fall away. “If the very wellspring of our toradh has run dry,” she says, “if the bond is truly broken – are we yet a court?” Folding her arms about herself. “Are we not a Queen?”

A moment, and another. Rhythidd coughs. “My lady,” he says, “you – ”

“Pack up your dross and go,” she says.

The vehemence, then from the crowd, she flinches, “No!” and “Oh, no!” and “Stop, my lady! Wait!” the surge of them desperate pressing her stumble-step close, hands braced on the edge of the stage, “Or, or stay!” she shouts. “Stay! Stay! Stay here,” she says, to Welund, to Rhythidd there above her, as the shouts and calls falter away. “With us. Make do, with us. See what comes next.”

“Majesty,” says the Glaive, but he’s looking out, over, past the crowd in motion behind her. She turns, Ysabel turns, but they’ve already stepped aside, stepped back, cleared a path. Stood in the slice of sunlight under the big main overhead door, all in black, hands in her pockets, “Uh,” she says, “hey,” says Jo, Jo Maguire, Jo Gallowglas, Widow of the Hawk, the Queen’s favorite.

Slap and squeak of footfalls pelting Ysabel flings herself past all of them, and Jo steps up to meet her, colliding, twirling, stumbling, leaning, laughing, together.

Leaned against the column a dozen canvases or more, almost as tall as she is, awkwardly wide. The painting on the first one’s stark enough to make out in the darkness, slathered black and red on white the suggestion of an arm, sleek lines there a throat, a chin, a head tipped back, pillowed in madly scribbled hair, and gazing out the lone green dot of an eye. She tips it forward enough to see the next one, similar, a leaping gesture, an imperturbable green dot, the next, a twirl, the next, clack of the wooden stretchers loud in the shadows.

“Huh,” says Jo Maguire.

The shadows wheel and sway as cold light blooms behind her, and she lets the canvases drop back to the column, turning away. Out past the blazing mirror of the dressing table someone in coveralls hoists a trouble light on a tripod, over the dying candles, and two more, three approach through the copse of columns, hauling in long flat cardboard boxes that they set down by the rugs and pillows with weighty thumps. Someone kneels, unfolding a clever little knife, and sets to slitting the boxes open. BRIMNES, says one of the flaps, in simple blocky letters. The others pull out long dark planks and set them precisely on the floor in a choreography of lift and step and swing and duck. “Uh,” says Jo, taking a step closer, “I don’t, ah, Ysabel, I mean, her majesty,” as they set to work about those planks, inserting dowels, turning cams, fitting them together in a broad shallow box, “she was supposed to – ”

“Excellent,” says Ysabel approaching, her brief coat dress, those flat-soled shoes, “though the headboard should point north.” One of them licks a thumb, holds it up, then points, nodding, and they all stoop and lift and turn the frame a few degrees, hup! Two more approach with a mattress wrapped in plastic, “Oh,” says Ysabel, “it’s not quite ready, set it there,” gesturing, and more of them now with plastic-wrapped stacks of bedding, great soft unslipped pillows, an enormous white duvet, “careful,” she says, “the floor’s not perfectly clean. I told them to get white,” she says, “it seemed easiest,” turning with a smile toward Jo, “but we can always change it later,” her smile, furling, “if we,” falling away, as she takes in the look on Jo’s face.

“Leave us,” says Ysabel, the Queen.

And chime of tool and scuff of boot, clack and thunk of plank, they do.

“Oh,” says Ysabel, when they are alone. “My beautiful Huntsman.”

Jo looks down. “I broke the mask,” she says. “I lost the sword.” Stood there shadowed before the blazing lights about the mirror. “But you’re still here.”

“Of course,” says Ysabel. Stood there by the tripod, and every line and stitch of her chilly pricked by its argentine light. “Where else would I be?”

“Up?” says Jo. “Away?”

Ysabel steps toward her, and holds out a hand. Jo steps up to take it.

“Day?” says Ysabel. “Or was it night?” And then, “You look like you got some sun.”

“He’s back, isn’t he,” says Jo.

“You saw it?” Ysabel’s other hand grips Jo’s shoulder. “It didn’t harm you, did it?” Jo with a wince shakes her head, her other hand coming up between them, pressing a moment to her breast, there, just about the devil’s brow. “It’s terrible,” Ysabel says. “Everyone insists it’s just the Count. No one will believe me when I tell them. They put me off. They indulge me. But,” tipping back enough to look her in the eye, “you’re back,” hand lifting from Jo’s shoulder to her cheek, “you’re here, now,” hitching up to press a kiss to Jo’s forehead, tilting, tipping down, but Jo turns her mouth aside. “I can’t stay,” she says.

“Of course you can,” says Ysabel. “Don’t be foolish. There’s no one to take care of the apartment. Your things can be brought over as soon as there’s a place to put them. It needn’t be down here – there are so many rooms! Jo. Jo, you must.”

“I must,” says Jo, pointedly flat. Letting go. Stepping back. Her hands crumpled in her black T-shirt, twisting the devil’s leer. Yanking it up, higher, enough to show the nodule over her heart, the color a dulled mirror in this light, and Ysabel’s hand to her mouth, blinking quickly. “I can’t,” says Jo, and lets the hem of her shirt drop.

“Nothing will happen,” says Ysabel.

“It already has!” cries Jo. A sob hunches her shoulders, she wraps her arms about herself, squeezing as she dips her head, hauls in a breath, “two weeks,” she says, and another breath, easier, more of a sigh. Straightening as Ysabel steps close. Takes her hand. Jo’s looking past her, over her shoulder, the cold light, the half-built bed, “You were gone,” she says, the words small in her mouth. “You left.” Ysabel’s arms about her waist. “I chased you,” says Jo, “but you,” closing her eyes as closer still, cheeks brushing, lips, “took off,” says Jo, and a kiss.

“Then that is how I know,” says Ysabel, “it was but a bad dream.”

“I don’t know how I got back.”

“You woke up!” Ysabel wipes her cheek with the back of her hand, then Jo’s, brushing away a tear. Jo shakes her head away, “The magic’s gone,” she snaps, and Ysabel laughs, a giddy bark of surprise, delight. “Why then, your grace,” she says, and lays a hand on Jo’s breast, “we’ve nothing to fear.” Jo looks away, but doesn’t let go. “Ysabel,” she says. “Ysabel, the apartment. What, what color was it? The building?”

“The color?” Ysabel frowns. She’s looking at her hand, laid flat on that black T-shirt. The back of a finger a-glimmer, a golden spark caught in the fine hairs below a knuckle.

“Ysabel?” says Jo.

“It’s white,” says Ysabel. She sluices the corner of her eye with her little finger. “With green trim.” A cloudy droplet clings to the tip of it, and she reaches it to Jo’s cheek, dredging up the runnel of a tear-track there.

“What,” says Jo.

Ysabel shivers. Holds her hand between them, fingers curled but the smallest, and trembling there at the top of it a scatter of tiny, shining kernels of gold.

“Oh,” says Ysabel. “Oh, my.”


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Aisling an Óigfhir,” writer unknown, within the public domain.

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