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Pounding, pounding
 – non sum qualis eram – thrice Setebos –

Pounding pounding, hurling herself against the demure brown door, “You must!” she cries. Adjusting her baggy grey coat she rattles the knob that will not turn. “Open!” she roars, kicks, hurls herself again. It shivers inward, tripping her staggering into a stairwell with a spray of splinters. “Hello?” she calls, pushing back her cloud of white-gold hair. Something saggy flops in her other hand.

Up the stairs then, pounding, back along a balustraded hall past the first door, ajar, to the second. She smacks it with the heel of her hand. “Open!” she calls. “I must speak with you!” Pounding. “Hello!” A deep breath. “I know you are within,” she says, more quietly. “It is of vital importance that I speak with you.”

Clack and scrape, the rattle of a bolt. The door opens enough to show a man peering over a taut-stretched security chain. “You shouldn’t be here,” he says, low and close.

“But I am. I bear news of utmost importance.”

“I don’t give a shit if it’s life or death,” he hisses, “if you wake her, I’m gonna,” but then he catches himself, deflating.

“It concerns the roof over her head,” says Marfisa, “the floor, beneath her feet.”

He leans close to the gap, scowling. “How did you,” he says. “Who are you.”

“Eddie?” a querulous voice from somewhere behind him. He sags even more, shaking his head, dwindling hair of it clipped close. “Nothing, ma’am,” he says. “Solicitor. Go on, now. You need your rest.”

“Nothing, hell,” that voice. “Go on. Let ’em in.”

She lifts a hand, the one with its floppy bundle, as he gently closes the door, but the chain scrapes loose, the door opens again, wide now, he’s stepping back out of the way, careful of the shelves, and all the books.

The walls of the room are lined with shelves dark and pale, unpainted, brightly varnished, a stretch of metal shelving painted industrial mint, all filled stuffed crammed with books, with hardbacks wrapped in tattered jackets, glossy library plastic, pebbly leather, with paperbacks stacked and piled, spines curled and cracked and scored into illegibility, page-edges rumpled, foxed, rigidly cut, greying with old ink, covers creased and flaking, torn, stained, faded, dulled, worn away, but the names, still, the names, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Andrea Hairston and Begum Rokheya Sakhawa Hossain, declaimed in block capitals, Mrs. H.A. Dugdale, Suzette Haden Elgin, Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, curling in fanciful scripts, Mariame Kaba, Xiaolu Guo and Nalo Hopkinson, Mikki Kendall, Vandana Singh and Nnedi Okorafor, worked into elaborate designs, painted into the illustrations, Tanith Lee and N.K. Jemisin, Benjanun Sriduangkæw, P.C. Hodgell, shaped with tiles or threads or circuitry, Tananarive Due and C.L. Moore, Octavia Butler, Shalija Patel, some of them written in the same peevishly careful hand on spines repaired with duct tape, friction tape, masking tape. Out in the middle of it all a grandly overstuffed love seat piled with pillows and boxes and stacks and pads of paper and primly sat at one end of it a tiny woman bundled in a pale blue quilted housecoat, a pad of yellow foolscap on her lap, her bare brown feet tucked into a shallow tub, the water in it bubbling about them.

“Ma’am,” says Marfisa, stock still before her.

“What is so all-fired important,” that voice now loudly creaky, those eyes peering up through Coke-bottle lenses, “has you banging down my door like this?”

“My lady,” says Marfisa, “Abby Tinker,” sinking to one knee there on the cluttered carpet. “I love your stories,” she says, an elbow on her knee.

“Yeah, okay,” says Eddie by the door, starting toward Marfisa, “let’s go,” laying a hand on her shoulder. She stiffens. “Next time, write a letter,” he says. Abby Tinker on the loveseat shakes her head, and he lifts his hand away. “You had something to tell me about my apartment,” she says, leaning forward. The thrum and chuckle of the water in her bath.

“This building,” says Marfisa. “The men, who hold it. Have the keeping of it. They will come to you, and say to you, that you must leave. What I would tell you,” she looks down a moment, takes in a breath. “What I am here to tell you, my lady Tinker, and also you, Edward – this building,” she says, “now belongs to us. And these rooms, your rooms, we’d give to you, that you might freely stay, so long as you would wish. No matter what those men might tell you.”

Abby Tinker takes up the pad from her lap and sets it to one side, screws the cap back on her pen, “Now,” she says. “Setting aside for a moment the question of whether you can do such a thing.” Leaning forward, closer than before. “Tell me why you would,” she says.

“I heard you read once.” Marfisa unfolds her floppy bundle there on the carpet. “The Whorlagig Road. Planet Chooseday, Klaatu Gawd. The Excellent Canopy. Cynara – the Herd!” Smoothing it flat, her rubbery horse-head mask, the limp snout of it, those bulging eyes. “Your stories are my favorites,” she says.

“You heard me read?” says Abby Tinker, those glasses turning up to look to Eddie. “You must have been a bitty little thing.”

“When I learned that you lived here,” says Marfisa. “You’re why I stayed. You’re why I’m here.” Her hand on the mask. “You’re why I wear this.”

Abby Tinker lifts a bare foot dripping from the tub, plants it on the carpet, bracing herself to lean down from her perch to take up the mask in a leathery hand. “I am not as I was,” she says, half to herself, “in the reign of good Sinara. Would you look at this, Eddie?” Holding up the mask. “She wants to be a Horse.”

“Fuck you, you’re not here, fuck you, you’re not here, you’re not here. Fuck you,” wetly shredding the fricative, “fuck you, you’re not her, you’re not fucking here!” Wiping his wrist across his mouth, dragging in a hissing breath, shoving away the hand she lays on his shoulder. She sits back on squalid cardboard, wrapped in a purple rain shell, grey-callused feet pinched by lime green flip-flops, flat little bottle clutched to her chest. Pit River Vodka, says the label. Blue plastic tarp snaps and rattles overhead. She takes a swig. “Moody, baby,” she says, “you got to stop this. It ain’t good for you.” Another. “Tell me,” she says, “where’d you go. Where you been the last couple weeks.”

He wheels, eyes wide, mouth snarled. “Where’s Lucinda?”


“Lu! Cin! Da!” Shoves her toppled rolling through the blue tarp with a grunt. She stiffly gets to her feet, bottle still in one hand, pebbles and wet grass clung to a knee. The blue tarps slung from a slender tree to the pole of a No Parking sign, a makeshift tent between street and sidewalk. She lifts a flap to see him frantic, rummaging through a bucket, dumping filthy clothing from a garbage bag. “Moody,” she says, all her wheedle gone to steel. “Stop.”

“The Sikes-Fairbourne!” he says, breathless. “About yay long,” holding up his hands, a span between them. “Only fourteen of them, Ada? Ada!” Snapping his fingers under her nose. “The hell you staring at?”

“That’s a nice watch,” she says.

Loosely golden, heavy about his wrist, he shoves back the cuff of his army-surplus jacket to gawp at it, the wide flat face, three small dials set within the largest, each of them hashed with tiny numerals, letters, other inscrutable symbols, the slenderly filigreed hands of them held quivering still, pointed this way, that, but for the single majestic sweep turning slowly above them under the crystal of it. He gingerly settles his thumb and middle finger on the golden bezel of it, forefinger stroking the face, and it chimes, softly. His fingers leap away. The hands of it swing wildly about but for the sweep, which has stopped, pointed right at him.

He looks up at her.

Gasping she drops the curtain, blotting out the sunlight, leaving only the bedside lamp in that dim room, all beige carpet and vaguely striped wallpaper. Blots her forehead with the back of her hand. Tucks a sprig of corkscrew curls behind an ear. She steps to the foot of a queen-sized bed draped with blankets a touch more brown than the carpet and opens a glossy laptop, looming over the light of its screen. Types a brief command. A graph appears, a flat red line crossing from left to right with a hiccup there, a scurry of green and red and orange unknotting, retwining, wobbling winding tipping until at the right edge it explodes, a luridly unskeining rainbow leaping and diving for asymptotes. She touches the screen and the lines dissolve to clouds of points, diamonds, crosses, exes, lurching to the left as the graph updates, and again, as numerals appear in and about the thronging constellation. She picks up a phone from the bedside table, dials a number, then another. “Setebos,” she says, and then, “Setebos, and Setebos.” Waits a moment. “It’s back,” she says, and terminates the call.

In the shadows below a splintered wrack, torn upholstery, draggled filthy stuffing, yellowed spears of grass grown up and through it, and all the shards of glass. He’s stood in his dark blue suit at the edge above it, among juts and angles of more broken glass. She crosses the empty floor toward him, squeak of her golden basketball shoes, yellow blouse uncomfortably buttoned, but stops her long white skirt a-slosh at the sound of voices raised below, one fucking job, give a shit, growling up from the stairwell to a you! before muttering back to indistinguishable menace. She starts across the room again, more slowly, less certain, stopping suddenly when he looks back, a wry smile under his mustaches. “Chariot,” he says.

“Sir Anvil,” says Iona. Stepping up beside him, at the edge. “You overlook our wreck,” she says. “Someone should have cleared that days ago.”

“No,” he says, lifting his chin to point out over the light-struck trees, the city beyond, smoldering in sunset. “I look to him.”

“Him, good sir?” Her chartreuse hair gone weirdly pale in the uncertain light.

“My lord,” says Pyrocles. “My love. He has forgotten me,” a shrug, “he’s forgotten us all. But when the Queen’s brought back – when the owr’s returned,” he says, and again a growl from below, a shout, a screeching howl cut suddenly short. Iona steps back from the edge, looks up, away. Pyrocles, blinking rapidly, ducks his head, brushing his mustaches with a knuckle. “I will see in his eye once more that he knows me,” he says, as footfalls climb the steps from the porch below. There’s Welund in his linen suit, and Rhythidd frantically impatient up behind him, stumbling heedless past him, staring at what’s clutched in both his hands, a curve of bone, a rib, glittered with pink. “Go on,” snarls the other, coming up after them, sleek aluminum briefcase carelessly depended from one hand, “slink on out of here!” And then there’s Agravante, bringing slowly up the rear. “Next time,” the other’s saying, “next time you fuck up like this. Next time you lose your fucking nerve. Next time it’s gonna be one of you.”

“My lord,” says Welund, there in the doorway to the hall, and Rhythidd gone on ahead.

“Oh, don’t worry,” says the other, handing the briefcase off to Agravante. “It’s perfectly safe. Now go,” and that one word a thunderclap in this wide room, and for an instant sparks flare about that squat round body, crawl through the crown of ivory hair. And then the other’s smiling, “All right!” and pink hands clap. “What’s next?”

Iona looks to Pyrocles, who doesn’t look up. “Next, my lord?” says Agravante, briefcase cradled in his arms. That smile upends, a frustrated scowl. “Plan,” says the other, “C,” each syllable deliberate, a stone in a well. “What are we doing. To make it happen.”

“We, ah,” says Agravante, “must,” a breath, “reach out, to the peers, assemble vehicles, matériel – ”

“Then do it!” snaps the other. “Reach out! Assemble! Is that fucking thing leaking?”

The shine of the briefcase shifting, has shifted from colorless silver to buttery gold against the pink fingers reached out to touch it, snapped back when the light flares not from the case but the air about it, and “My lords,” says Iona then, hoarse with wonder.

Out there, past her, past Pyrocles and the broken wall of glass, past the silhouetted trees dissolving in the softly rising dazzle, the ruddy light of sunset swallowed by a light more brilliant and more gold, a gentle summer sunburst just across the river, fading even as it warms their faces, dimming, gone.

“Majesty,” says Pyrocles, the word a merest breath.

“Not again,” says the other, and then, an avalanche crash to fill the words, “not again!” Quasars scratch the air and shadows scribble, the hair unraveling, those pink hands loosed, that shirt too loud, “How!” The ringing echo of the cry and all that energy a breath sucked in, light and shadow collapsing to a hard round belly, white shirt a bit too bright, bald head flushed pink in an ivory crown. “Go and get her,” says the other, a simple exhortation. “Bring her to me. Now.”

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Non sum qualis eram bonæ sub regno Cynaræ,” written by Ernest Dowson, within the public domain. Cynara’s World, written by Abby Tinker, ©1979.

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