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Naked he sits – no longer Blank – how to be Gallowglas – her Mother’s daughter –

Naked he sits upright in the big white bed, back against the pillows, idly scratching his thick-furred crotch. “You left,” he says. His feet tangled in the white sheets. “You took the covers.”

“Get up,” says Jessie, unwinding the comforter, dumping it on the foot of the bed. She ducks into the closet to one side of the alcove. He yawns, stretches, sweeps back his thick dark hair, gathering it into a stubbly little tail. Pulls on a pair of baggy black jeans, wiggles into a tight T-shirt printed with some baroque siege engine. Yawns again. “What was that all about,” he says.

“You have to go,” says Jessie, buttoning up a grey chauffeur’s jacket, her yellow hair swept back under a grey chauffeur’s cap.

“No time for coffee, I take it,” he says, rubbing his darkly stubbled cheek. “Walk you to my coat?”

She’s sitting on the foot of the bed, “I have to,” she says, “please, just, I have to drive him somewhere,” working a thick black sock up one leg. “It’s kind of an emergency.” Up over her knee. He kneels there before her as she’s bunching up the other sock. “You’re driving him?” he says. His hand on her bare thigh.

“He’s very particular,” she says, “about what I wear,” her breath catching as his fingers slip up under the skirt of her jacket, “when I drive,” and then he kisses her, straightening as she leans back, arcing over her, following her down.

“Jessie!” roars the Duke, somewhere a room or two away. She pushes him off, over, sits up, “Go,” she says, “you have to go.” Pulls the other sock up her other leg. “Please,” she says, as he sits up beside her. “Come back. Tonight.”

“Of course,” he says, and he kisses her again.

She watches him walk away down the long and airy room, past the red jacuzzi, the long empty table. She leans down to pick up one of the shoes kicked carelessly to the foot of the bed. A red Ked, laces loose, tongue lolling. Hesitantly she pulls it on. It fits. She tugs the laces tight, ties them, reaches for the other red shoe. “Luys!” bellows the Duke, from somewhere further away. “Jessie! Any day now!”

Buzzing the phone’s almost walked itself off the glass-topped table when he fumbles out a hand to catch it. Hauls it in to peer at its little screen. David, it says. He sits up on the couch and doesn’t manage to catch the heavy raincoat that falls from his legs to the floor. He flips the phone open. “Yeah,” he says, running a hand through what’s left of his hair.

“Rise and shine,” says Kerr.

“I categorically refuse,” says Becker, digging at the corners of his eyes with a pinkie.

“Yeah? You headed back for seconds after I left?”

“What?’ says Becker, frowning. On the low table where the phone had been a fat leather wallet, a folded booklet of bus tickets, a couple of key rings clipped to a purple carabiner, a stiff white card. “No, I went home, pretty much, right after. I fell asleep on the couch?” There’s something written on the card, in blue ink.

“You know the Bijou Café? Downtown?”

“Yeah.” He’s picked up the card, he’s kicking over the raincoat.

“Meet me there in twenty minutes.”

He’s feeling around on the floor. “What?” he says. “Why?” Coming up with a blue-capped pen in his hand along with the card.

“So I can buy you breakfast. Where the elite eat to meet and greet.”

“You gave me a card last night,” says Becker, setting the pen on the table, clicking against the glass.

“I did.”

“It was blank. Which was kind of weird.”

“Not blank anymore, is it.”

“No,” says Becker, looking up from the card.

“Says Pyrocles, doesn’t it.”

“It says Remember Pyrocles.” Becker sits back against the couch. “In my handwriting. My pen.”

“Neat trick, huh.”

“How, how did you – what the hell does that mean?”

“Better make it half an hour,” says Kerr. “You’ll want a shower and a shave.” He hangs up. Becker folds his phone slowly, sets it back on the table. The card beside it, fnap.

“Things keep happening,” says Jo in her butter-colored coat, the mug still in her hands. She’s sitting in an office chair under a painted-over window, down at one end of a long table lost under haphazard stacks of books and piles of paper. She sips, then throws her head back draining the mug, sets it on the sill behind her. “I’m sorry. I don’t know where to start.”

“Are you drinking more,” says Vincent, leaning against the table, arms folded. A black sweater vest over a loose white T-shirt. Jo squints, lips pursed, brow cocked, then shrugs, sitting back. “You’re plying me with whisky before breakfast,” she says. The chair creaking as she hitches over to one side, “The, the losing days,” she says, “not knowing what time it is,” pulling her phone from her pocket, “that’s not the booze. I know what that does. I know my limits, there.”

“Yeah?” says Vincent. “You smoke. What was it,¬†meth?”

The phone’s clock says 08:21. Friday, November 25. Jo looks up, her face quite flat. She blinks. She swallows. “Yes,” she says.

He nods. “Alcohol,” he says, “numbs your ability to notice, it, or care about how it ain’t there anymore. Nicotine – lets you focus, on the task at hand, shuts out distractions –¬†”

“It, it,” Jo’s saying, “the meth? The wanting the, that’s, that’s not how it works, it’s – ”

“Okay, forget, forget meth,” says Vincent. “It was just, I was pretty sure you weren’t the heroin type. You, you’re gonna bull your way through, not shut it all out. Trouble is when it’s twenty years from now and you’re, you’re across the world somewhere, you’re in New York, you’re still pushing, only it isn’t there, not anymore.”

“And, and,” Jo’s saying, “that’s the other, thing, you say it’s pushing, but sometimes it’s like,” her hand up, stirring the air, “sometimes somebody says something, and it’s about to, it would have made it all fit, but I missed it – ”

“Presque,” says Vincent with a shake of his head.

“What?”

“Presque vu. The three vus?” His hook clicks them off. “Déjà. Jamais. Presque.”

“It’s not, it’s not déjà vu,” says Jo. “Jamais?”

“They’re all related,” says Vincent. “Side-effects. Symptoms. Jamais’s the opposite of déjà, you know, I see this all the time, but suddenly, I don’t know it. Which can really fuck you up in the middle of a fight. But presque, presque’s the worst. I’m about to see something that will let me know – everything.” Spreading hand and hook apart, a slow shrug. “But it never comes. It passes. Or if it doesn’t, if you catch it, just for a, a moment,” his hook click-clacks, “it turns out there’s something else. Something more. Something further on, just around the corner again, and if only – ” He sighs. “So you drink. You smoke. You run away. You go mad.” A snort. “Well. Madder.”

“I’m not crazy,” says Jo.

“You talk to people who aren’t there about things that don’t exist,” says Vincent. Jo leans forward at that, opens the paper bag at her feet. He says, “I don’t know what the technical term is for that – ”

She’s pulled out a white mask large enough to swallow half a head, crudely painted with thick black lines that mark out a skull’s teeth, a skull’s dark and empty eye sockets, a mane of straight black hair floating out in the air. “This is real, isn’t it,” she says. “It exists.”

He doesn’t reach out, doesn’t try to touch the mask. Shifts a little against the table. Doesn’t step back. “Where did you get that,” he says.

“The Duke had it,” says Jo, sitting back, the mask in her hand, her hand on her knee. “Luys, the Mason. One of his knights, he wore it, the night I got knighted. He fought Marfisa instead of me. He lost.”

“She is good,” says Vincent.

“This is yours, isn’t it.”

He looks up from the mask’s eyes to hers.

“You were the Huntsman. I’m right, aren’t I. I mean – I thought, Gallowglas was an office, like, like Chariot, or Anvil, but, it’s just, anybody can be a Gallowglas. My ex-boyfriend was a Gallowglas, for fuck’s sake. You just have to be at the right place at the right time.”

“Wrong place,” murmurs Vincent. “Wrong time.”

“But the Huntsman,” she’s saying, as she turns the mask to face her, that mane rippling, a wake in the air, “if it does what I think it does, you’d want a Gallowglas for that.” The mane eddies about her knees. “You loved her,” she says. “I can see it, she looks so much like her mother, and whenever you look at her I can see it. You loved her, and you were her Huntsman, and something happened, and now you’re here, and she doesn’t want to have a Huntsman anymore.”

“She was the only woman I will ever love,” says Vincent, hoarsely, “and he was the best friend I will ever have.”

“He who,” says Jo. “The King?”

“John,” says Vincent.

“King – John? Her father’s name was, was John?”

“No,” says Vincent, “he wasn’t her father. That’s not – ”

“You’re her father?” says Jo, blinking, and he smiles and lowers his head, shoulders loosening, “No,” he says, looking up again. “No. I’m Lymond’s father.”

“Who?” says Jo.

A grey box on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator says Diet Coke, a smattering of withered lemons beside it. A skinny jar of olives in a cloudy yellow paste. A tiny loaf of what the label says is rye and a half-dozen individual plastic cups of yogurt, all French vanilla. She plucks one up, peels it open, digs in with a spoon as she’s shutting the door with a hip, turning, jumping back, startled. The man who’s standing there’s quite tall, his narrowly sombre face lit by extravagant gin blossoms. His suit is crisp and black, his white shirt collar turned up about his chin. “You’re to dress,” he says, “and see your mother in the parlor. Immediately.”

“I am dressed,” mutters Ysabel, looking down at her oversized yellow T-shirt, her yellow and pink plaid pyjama pants.

The parlor, paneled in dark wood, loomed over by enormous oil paintings of dour men in rich dark suits. The Queen all in black sits on an ornate framed cream-cushioned sofa, her hands folded in her lap. In a high-backed chair pulled close by her a man in a brown pinstriped suit, his bald head brown with sun, a wide yellow tie loosely knotted under his grizzled chin. On the table to one side of him, the one crowded with knick-knacks, faint steam floats over a teacup on its matching saucer. On the other little table, between him and the Queen, nothing at all but a round aluminum mixing bowl and a small knife with a slim bone-colored blade. “What is that,” says the Queen.

“Breakfast,” says Ysabel, taking another bite of yogurt.

“You were out late yet again last night,” says the Queen. Over across the room there’s a young man in a rose-colored suit, his pale hair knotted in dreadlocks that brush his shoulders. “At the Duke’s? His – feast?” The young man’s looking up at one of those dark paintings, a man all in blacks and browns, an antique suit of clothes, frowning in an elaborate frame of muttonchops and mustaches, pointing across his body to where, far off in the distance, a little cabin can be made out in the murk.

“No,” says Ysabel. “No, your champion wouldn’t – ”

“He isn’t here, you’ll note,” says the Queen. “The Duke. Nor our sister’s ambassadour, neither.”

“Your sister has no part in this,” says the man in the pinstripe suit, his attention on the teacup he’s lifting from the table.

“And the Duke knows his place,” says the Queen. The young man in the rose-colored suit coughs once, lightly, without turning from the painting.

“This isn’t necessary,” says the man in the pinstripe suit, teacup delicately pinched between his thick fingers.

“We agree, Guisarme,” says the Queen. “Withdraw your question.”

He sips. “Surely,” he says, “even you can see that’s not an option.”

“Ysabel,” says the Queen. “Remove your shirt.”

The teacup clinks quite loudly as the Guisarme sets it back upon the table.

“What,” says Ysabel.

“Majesty,” says the young man, turning from the painting, and the Queen stands abruptly. “You question our fitness,” she says, “by questioning hers. We would have it out for all to see. Take off your shirt.”

“I will not,” says Ysabel, turning to leave, but there in the foyer stands the Majordomo, his cheeks and nose quite red, his eyes downcast. “You can’t possibly,” says Ysabel, turning back, the Queen right there before her, the bone knife in her hand. “Mother,” says Ysabel, and the tip of that slim blade dimples her yellow T-shirt just below the collar of it. The little cup of yogurt falls to the rug with a plop.

The Queen grunts. With a whick the knife’s cut through the T-shirt’s collar and Ysabel jerks back and the Queen snatches a loose flap of cloth a sudden whipping tear Ysabel flailing tangled in the remains of her shirt tripping over her own foot unable to catch herself headlong falling the Queen in her black skirts ballooning sinks to her knees alongside, leans over to slice the last of the shirt away, stripping it from Ysabel’s arms as they curl closer, tighter, her breath gone quick and ragged. The Queen sits up, wipes her mouth with the back of the hand that holds the knife. Ysabel trembling looks out from her hands folded over her face.

“Pants,” says the Queen.

Ysabel flinches. “Why are you,” she says, “doing, this,” each word a husk. The Guisarme’s picked up his cup again. Agravante’s resumed his study of the painting. The Majordomo unmoving, hands behind his back. The knife drops with a thump to the rug and the Queen’s grabbed those pink and yellow pants by the waist, holding tight as Ysabel kicks up bucking the Queen leaning over her against her pressing her back against the floor saying “Ysabel Perry. You may be, the King’s Bride,” yanking the pants over her hips, “but you are, my daughter,” down her legs, “and you will hold. Still,” whipping them from her feet skirts rustling. She tucks haywire tendrils back into her carefully arranged hair. “Turn over,” she says, with one last look to Ysabel curled on her side. “Gentlemen. Gentlemen, look!” A flourish of that bone blade. “She is whole, unblemished. Look. The bond remains unbroken. We are yet Queen.”

“It was not in doubt,” says Agravante, still there by the painting. “But weeks will turn to months.” The Queen’s dark eyes on him. “Ma’am.”

“The mood of this city is bitter and foul,” says the Queen, and the Guisarme’s cup clinks against the table again.

“Of course,” says Agravante soothingly. He flicks an arm out, shooting his cuff, holding up his hand to undo the link. “It’s why we asked to have the knife brought.”

“And the bowl,” says the Guisarme, bunching up his jacket sleeve, folding back the shirtsleeve beneath to bare his forearm.

“You would have me perform,” says the Queen.

“We merely wish to help you,” says Agravante, “to isolate this poison. To be certain.”

“It takes some time,” says the Queen. “Even for something so small as this, it could take,” and she spreads her hands, struggling with what she might say next, but Agravante’s stepped around the sofa, he takes her hand in his, he takes the knife from her hand. “We’ve no pressing obligations, ma’am,” he says.

The Guisarme’s squatting on the rug. “Get up, Princess,” he says, patting her bare foot. She sits up on an elbow, looking down herself at his gently grizzled smile. “Get dressed, lady, and go.”

A sharp “No” then from the Queen. “No, she will attend us.”

Still squatting the Guisarme looks up to her. Agravante pauses, his bare forearm over that aluminum bowl, the bone blade against his forearm. “Surely you have someone for that.”

“We did, but had to let her go,” says the Queen. “The mood, of this city. Ysabel. Get up.”


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