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Against the mirror – her Empty hands – “She isn’t here” –

Against the mirror shoulders pressed to shoulders looking over at himself in the mirror opposite, a big guy in a black suit, the knot of his skinny black tie lost somewhere under a beard the color of mahogany furniture, shoulders back against his shoulders looking over at himself in the mirror further back, a stainless steel thermos in his hands, leaning back against himself in the mirror after that, looking over at himself through black sunglasses, one lens written over with spidery white words. Down the hall the ding of an elevator. He tips his head to one side, the other, working his neck.

She wears blue and yellow running shoes, dark stockings, a pink skirt and jacket under a tan raincoat, one hand dragging a pink rolling backpack by its extended plastic handle, the other gripping a net sack bulging with miniature gumball machines. She doesn’t even look at the thing he’s studiously avoiding there in the middle of that low and narrow room, the great block of crumpled chrome-plated steel higher than her head, a statue planted on the dull brown carpet, dividing the room into two narrow aisles on either side of itself and all its reflections full of weird shadows, too-bright ripples of cold yellow light, the shapeless shifting blobs and pink and tan, black and rich dark brown.

She stops, suddenly. Shifts to toe a rumple of black pants, black jacket, white shirt inside the jacket, skinny black tie still looped under the collar. Black shoes gleaming, thin black socks slopped out of them. She turns, slowly, looks back at him against the mirror in his black suit, and he lifts a hand, fingers crooked, a gentle wave, move along, move along. She shrugs, hoists the backpack, steps over the empty suit, past the reflection of the little naked guy, and trundles on down the hall out of the narrow room.

The shadows and colors in the rumpled chrome are still moving, turning, a slow churn resolving about two points chest-high, about where the reflection in the mirror across of the naked guy is pushing against, against something. The chrome’s started to bulge, there and there. The big guy steps over, careful of the suit, unscrewing the thermos. The chrome bubbles and bursts, a fist opening a hand, another, coated in gleaming roiling quicksilver boiling away in the air. The reflection opposite’s gone blurry, smeared, the hands, the arms, its head ducking and whittering away as a forehead slick and bare breaks free from the rumpled chrome, his wide eyes empty, silvered, that stuff strung dripping from his chin, his bulging cheeks. The big guy stoops to hold the thermos under his lips and gut heaving, shuddering, the little guy vomits up a wisp of thin white smoke, blowing it into the thermos. The big guy slaps the cap on, screwing it tight. “Okay?” he says, stepping back.

“Cwicemuk,” says the little guy, shaking his head, annoyed, climbing into his pants. “Hleahptein,” he says, a cough of a word, cinching his belt under his hard round belly, worming his way into his mostly buttoned shirt.

“Quickly,” says Mr. Keightlinger, eyeing the hall.

“Fuck,” says Mr. Charlock, rolling upright, “you.” Kicking his bare feet into his shoes. Stuffing his socks in the pocket of his jacket. Standing his hand working a moment still in the pocket, jerking, looking back at the statue, the rumpled chrome gone still again, blobs of his reflection black and fish-belly pale, skipping and pooling from ripple to ripple as he steps back, orange, a flash of blue and white.

“What,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“Who puts a thing like this down here.”

“Timber barons,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

The elevator dings, the doors open. They step out onto the floor of a parking garage, dark shadows soft relief from the chill grey daylight washing in. “There’s never a right time of day to pull a stunt like that,” says Mr. Charlock, putting on a pair of sunglasses, a feather tied to one side, “but it is too damn early in the day for a stunt like that.” He heads off down the aisle of parked cars.

“Shouldn’t’ve mentioned your Army buddy,” says Mr. Keightlinger, following along.

“And of course he wants this shit right the fuck now,” says Mr. Charlock. He squeezes between a white panel van and a luridly orange low-slung car with a dusty black ragtop.

“We can drop it on the way,” says Mr. Keightlinger, coming around to the driver’s side, unlocking the door.

“Don’t see how,” says Mr. Charlock, opening his door, climbing into the car, “what with the gallon of coffee and the two dozen bagels we need to stop and get before we go sit outside that goddamn house all day again.” Settling himself on the broad bench seat, Whipping around, hand braced on the back of the seat, two fingers curled back against his palm, two fingers extended, thumb cocked. “Told you we shoulda painted this fucking thing by now.”

“Huh,” says Mr. Keightlinger, leaning against the driver’s door.

The man in the back seat yawns hugely and stretches out a languid hand to push Mr. Charlock’s fingers to one side. “You would still be as conspicuous,” he says.

“Not what I meant,” says Mr. Charlock. “What do you want.”

“You do not pretend not to know me.” His white shirt half unbuttoned, his jacket grey and shapeless, his long straight hair a black curtain about his narrow face. One eye glinting there behind it. “Refreshing.”

“Not now,” says Mr. Keightlinger, looking up over the roof of the car. Mr. Charlock points his fingers one more at the Mooncalfe’s face. “The fuck. Do you want,” he says.

“I’m bored.” Orlando sighs, then smiles. “I have a proposition.”

Her cuff buttoned she strokes the veins blue-dark along the back of her hand, takes up the last of the folded white towels and rubs it, rubs both her hands, scrubbing, blotting, dropping the towel to the floor with the others, crumpled, damp. Smooths her black blouse, her black skirt. Pushes her tangled black hair back from her face, off her shoulders, leaving it loose, undone. She steps into her black pumps there by the door.

In the parlor the Guisarme looks over a pile of green and white fanfold printout spread open on the couch beside him, circling something with a fountain pen, scratching a note in the margins. Agravante stands up from where he’s been sitting on a flowery overstuffed chair as the Queen totters into the room. He coughs, lightly, as she lays a hand on the elaborately carved frame of a high-backed chair. The Guisarme looks up.

“Your hands are empty,” he says.

“My hands,” says the Queen, “are empty, yes.”

The Guisarme looks down at his printout, ticks something off. “You must write, as we discussed,” he says, ruling a careful line through a cluster of numbers, “the Court of Angels, the Court of Engines – ”

“It wasn’t so much a discussion,” says Agravante.

“They have the likely candidates,” says the Guisarme. “My people have drafted letters. You need merely seal them and have them delivered. We’ll still need a King.”

“That, we have discussed,” says Agravante.

“I will not have Southeast upon the Throne,” says the Guisarme.

“If we had more time,” says the Queen then. “Gentlemen.”

The Guisarme screws the cap onto his pen and sets it aside. “Have your people pack your things, whatever you would take,” he says to the Queen.

“Take,” she says, “where would we take anything.”

“We cannot maintain this house any longer. You, your daughter, your mother will be provided for – ”

“Even if a Bride proves true,” says Agravante, “it’ll be a full round of seasons before she’s established – ”

“Or two,” says the Guisarme. “We will be stretched to the very limit.”

“You will do no such thing,” says the Queen, letting go of the chair. “We will not leave this house.” But Agravante’s raised his voice, “We have time, is my point,” he says. “We won’t need to sit someone right away – ”

“We cannot go cap in hand without a King,” snaps the Guisarme.

“I will not sit the Throne, Welund!” says Agravante, just as hot.

“This is insurrection, gentlemen,” says the Queen, a question almost to herself. “You have a knight you’d vouch for, who might stand it in your stead?” the Guisarme’s saying. She turns away then, walks away out of the parlor. In the foyer the Majordomo stands waiting, hands behind his back. “Ma’am,” he says, as the Queen sets foot on the stairs.

“Sluice,” she says, stopping there, a hand on the newel. “Sluice the tub,” she says. “Into buckets. Do not let the water into the drains. Cragflower will know where to dump it. Burn the towels, the robes. I must.”

“Ma’am,” says the Majordomo. And then, “The Princess, ma’am?” But she doesn’t seem to have heard him, her eyes on her feet as they step carefully, deliberately up the stairs.

The water placid, coated with a thinly pale grey grease that’s here and there congealed in frothy clots. Hung below it cloudy cobwebs of milk but also smoke, strands of stuff the color of old blood that drift from her nostrils, her mouth limply ajar, that shadowy coil about her breasts, her arms, that lighten the tangled darkness of her hair.

The pad of bare feet, the click of a ring perhaps against those tiny hexagonal tiles. A smooth slim hand held over the still water, the middle dipped, dimpling that scrim of grease, a sudden hiss, “Ice,” says someone, surprised. Those clouds like blown smoke roiling away from the fingertip. A glimpse within the water of a blinking green eye.

Both hands plunged in the water, that sheen melting away dissolving mixing with those torn clouds in a dirty haze, a grunt of shock, of effort, splashing thumps and a squeak of flesh against enamel, an arm about a slippery torso, a squall of water falling free hand catching lolling head tipping it up against the dead weight of all that hair. A gentle kiss pressed to slack lips and a gush of air’s sucked in through nose and retching, she’s coughing hacking wetly catching herself against the rim of the tub as that arm slips way.

“Of course you’d say that.”

Kneeling by the tub the woman’s a splattered mess of dark wet stuff that streaks her skin and clings in gobs to her long dark hair. Her smile is crumpling into something that can’t hold back the onrushing tears.

“But that wasn’t the question,” she says, thickly.

Ysabel chest heaving water sloshing wet hair slapping the side of the tub as she fights to clear her throat, to clear her eyes of slime with the heel of her hand, shivering violently, clinging to the side of the tub, reaching over it for a towel. Wrapping the towel about her shoulders. Rolling over the edge of the tub to fall with a grunt in a crouch on the edge of the dais. “Mother?” she says with a cough that echoes in that empty room. The grimy tile floor smeared with water, littered with rumpled wet white towels. Her white robe puddled there, by the sink.

“Gallowglas!” bellows the Duke as he lurches up the stairs, tweeded shoulder bouncing off the slick green walls.

“In here” comes the call from somewhere above, maybe behind those dark double doors standing open at the top of the stairs. The Duke looks back down at Jessie all in grey on the landing below. “Wait there,” he says.

“What, in case she makes a break for it? You want me to trip her or something?”

“I want you should maybe yell or something. Alert me? Let Luys know? You think you could do that?”

She flumps back against the railing, head tipped back against the wall.

“Thank you,” says the Duke.

The whole of the wide deep room is lit up brightly, all the lights in the ceiling switched on blazing, cardboard boxes piled at the far end, U-Haul, say some, and Iron Mountain, and Loch Dhu and Redbreast and Casa Noble. A wheeled clothing rack hung with padded white jackets and a cluster of mesh-faced masks. Standing there his wiry arms and legs at odds with his broad chest in that black sweater vest Vincent holds in his hand a sword, a long and straight and slender thing, pointed like a needle, the hilt of it wrapped in white leather, its simple guard just quillions bluntly flared.

“That’s not one of your toys,” says the Duke.

“No,” says Vincent, striding up the dark floor marked in a dozen spots with Xes of blue masking tape. He holds the sword lightly upright before him, a finger curled above the quillions, crooked about the tang. “It’s not.”

“Been a while,” says the Duke. “Okay. Where is she.”

“Not here,” says Vincent.

“Come on,” says the Duke.

“She isn’t here,” says Vincent, stopping there before the Duke in the doorway, right foot before his left, angling the blade before his body. The Duke sucks his teeth, turns away, “Shit,” he says, pounding his cane once against the floor.

“She’s been gone over an hour,” says Vincent.

“Wrack and ruin upon all oracles,” says the Duke. “Ash and smoke in their eyes. You’d think I’d know by now.”

“Ask me where she went,” says Vincent.

“The last place I’d look,” mutters the Duke. “You’d think I’d remember, when it mattered.”

“Ask me,” says Vincent, forefoot stepping toward the Duke, rear foot sliding after.

“This,” says the Duke, eyes narrowing, “what is this?” Cane tocking he limps into the room around Vincent to one side watching the blade-tip as it tracks him. “Okay. I’ll bite. Where’s she gone?”

“You wanted her to find that mask,” says Vincent.

“I wanted,” says the Duke, rocking back as he rolls his eyes, “I swear, if I were half as crafty as everyone seems to think, I wouldn’t be standing here asking you a second time. Where did she go.”

“I’m not going to tell you,” says Vincent.

The Duke biting his lip thumps his cane against the floor and turns away, shoulders shaking, a laugh bubbling up out of him, “You want to fight,” he says. “Oh, that’s, that’s,” headed for the door, “she left, what, five minutes ago? Ten?”

“Dammit, Barganax, I can beat you,” snarls Vincent, shuffle-stepping one-two closer an angled thrust the Duke catches with his cane, thwock, and they stand there a moment. The Duke still smiling. “With a sword, yeah, probably,” he says, lowering his cane. “Today’s not your lucky day. Or I don’t know, maybe it is.”

“Why did you keep that thing,” says Vincent, not lifting his blade, not stepping forward.

The Duke shrugs. “A King must have his Huntsman,” he says, and he hoists his cane in a salute.

“Hawk!” roars Vincent, leaping after him. “Dammit, get back here!” The Duke’s laughter echoes up from those green-walled stairs.

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“Free-Standing Sculpture, 8'x5'x2', Pressed, Formed, and Chrome-Plated Steel,” sculpted by Bruce West, copyright holder inapplicable.

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