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The Music’s Loud – as Gentlemen Settle – the Second Thrust – the Nighttime City, Filled with Light –

The music’s loud. Jo in her leering devil T-shirt slumps in the dark red booth, laying her head back against the pillowy vinyl. Ysabel slides in next to her, her heavy black hair swinging as she leans over the table. Roland leans his sword against the table and slides into the booth across from them, ripping open the velcro of his fingerless gloves. A woman’s voice is singing about how you can make dew into diamonds, and pacify the lions, but you know you can never love me more. Roland tugs his gloves off and lays them flat on the table. Looks up at Ysabel. Lifts his eyebrows, tries on a smile. Her expression doesn’t change. “My lady,” he starts to say.

“You really killed him, didn’t you,” says Jo, her head still lying back against the booth.

Roland looks down at his gloves on the table and tries again. “My lady. I am sorry I have not been with you directly these past few days.”

“It’s no longer your office,” says Ysabel. She holds one of her hands in the other, her thumb absently stroking a wet red patch, rubbed raw, on her palm.

“It is no longer my office,” says Roland. He looks directly at her again. “And, I am sorry I was not with you sooner tonight.”

“We got by,” says Ysabel.

“You really did kill that guy,” says Jo, glaring at Roland. “He’s dead.”

“You should not be forced to ‘get by,’” Roland’s saying. “My only defense is that it should have been inconceivable for the Duke to act so openly, so quickly.” He looks down at his gloves again. “A sad excuse, I know.”

“What will you guys be having?” says the waitress.

“Vanilla Stoli and Diet Coke,” says Ysabel crisply, putting her hands in her lap.

“Water for me,” says Roland. “Thank you.”

“And you?” says the waitress, turning to look at Jo and knocking Roland’s sword over. “Oh,” she says. “I’m sorry!” bending down to pick it up.

“That’s a real sword, you know,” says Jo.

“I’m, um,” says the waitress, propping the sword back up against the table. “What?”

“That’s a real sword. That’s why it’s so heavy. If you pull it out there’s blood on it. He just killed somebody with that sword.”

The waitress looks over at Roland, who’s looking down at his gloves on the table. “You know,” she says to Jo, “state law won’t let us serve anybody who’s visibly intoxicated.”

“I’m not drunk,” mutters Jo. “Yet.”

“Well?” says the waitress.

“You buying?” says Jo to Roland.

“I suppose,” he says.

“Then bring me one of those fishbowl drinks,” says Jo. “Whichever one has a lot of rum in it. And umbrellas. And those little plastic mermaids.”

“Okay,” says the waitress.

Let the rain pour down, the woman’s singing, let the valleys drown, still, you know you can never make me love you more.

“Look,” says Jo suddenly. “I want out.”

“You want out,” says Roland. Ysabel’s looking away, over at the bar, a dim confusion of shadowy people and light-struck glass.

“Yeah,” says Jo.

“You were warned,” says Roland. His eyes are a pale blue that washes away to nothing in the dim light.

“I don’t care,” says Jo. She covers her face with her hands and digs at her eyes with her fingertips. “I don’t care,” she says, her hands falling in on themselves to rest on the table. “I’ll just, challenge you to a duel or something. I’ll lose, I’ll let you win. You can have her back. Take her back. I’m sorry,” she says to Ysabel. “But.” Ysabel doesn’t say anything.

“It doesn’t work like that,” says Roland, looking up. The zipper on his jacket flashes, pulled up to his chin.

“Why not?” says Jo. “It’s how I got into this mess.”

“The Queen would never – ”

“Fuck the Queen,” snaps Jo.

Roland’s hands curl into tight fists on the table. Ysabel blinks and turns her gaze slowly on Jo.

“Okay?” says Jo. “I mean, what’s going to happen to us? To me?”

“Happen?” says Roland.

“With the cops!” says Jo. “And,” she frowns, “and the cops!”

“It’s none of their concern,” says Ysabel.

“None of their,” says Jo. “He killed that guy!”

“No, Jo,” says Roland. His voice is gentle. He looks down at his fists, pursing his lips. Looks up at Jo. “I didn’t,” he says. “You did.”

“What?” says Jo.

The Mooncalfe runs to meet the Chariot’s charge as car alarms wail and yowl around them. The Stirrup scrabbles for the sword he’d left under the railing. The Mooncalfe swings his Japanese sword with two hands, hunkering low, his hips twisting this way, that. The Chariot takes his stand sideways, head leaning back and away, his off-hand tucked against his chest. Every now and then a straightforward cut is blocked by a solid parry ringing like a great bell cracked and sinking out of tune. More tentative ripostes and probing thrusts swatted aside sound like someone banging to clear the pipes of a steam radiator. “Roland!” cries the Stirrup, hefting his sword. “Roland! Surely we can settle this as gentlemen?”

“We are,” snarls the Chariot, his blade scraping against the Mooncalfe’s as they push and shove.

“Ysabel,” hisses Jo from her perch at the top of the steps leading to the church’s side door. Still clinging to the gate there she leans out, calling to Ysabel at the foot of the stairs. “Get up here!”

Ysabel looks up at Jo and shakes her head. At the corner on their side of the street stands Tommy, arms folded, his eyes on the fight. The Mooncalfe stumbles against the curb behind him. Ducking under the Chariot’s slash sends him almost to his knees. “No quarter!” roars the Chariot. “Come at me as you like!”

“Surely we deserve to hear the nature of our crimes?” says the Stirrup, shifting his weight so one leg leads, his sword held low at his waist, away from the Chariot. “We only sought to protect the Princess!”

“Liar!” bellows the Chariot, backing away from the Mooncalfe. “I call you a liar, sir. And I will make good that claim upon your person.” And as the Chariot lifts his blade and takes his first running step toward the Stirrup, as the Stirrup crouches, his sword still down, waiting, as Tommy stands there on the sidewalk, halfway between the corner and the church steps, his arms folded, watching the fight, the Mooncalfe steps up on the fender of a little round compact car and launches himself twisting into the air, his sword up above his head for a final blow. The Chariot’s second step buckles as he ducks, rolling onto his back, his sword up.

“Hurk,” says the Mooncalfe.

He crouches over the Chariot. Stuck on the blade passed clean through his body. His Japanese sword clatters dully as it falls to the pavement.

“Are these the Nazis, Walter?” says the nervous little guy on the big flat television hanging on the wall.

“They’re nihilists, Donny,” says the big guy. “Nothing to be afraid of.”

His Grace on the brown leather couch in his paisleyed dressing gown chuckles. The blond woman at the other end of the couch sits under the only light in the room. She’s wearing black stockings and a black teddy, and she’s reading a thick yellow paperback book. There’s a muffled shout outside. Footsteps pounding up the stairs. “Baby?” says His Grace, scooping up a remote. The television freezes on the image of a man doubling over, clutching his crotch, his face a cartoon mask of pain. The blond woman doesn’t look up from her book. “You might want to,” says His Grace, and then down the hall the door bursts open. His Grace leaps to his feet. The blond woman rolls her eyes and fiercely turns the page.

“Gaveston?” calls his Grace.

It’s the Mooncalfe who’s first into the room. The Stirrup, his tie loosened, his shirt open, is next.

“Well?” says His Grace. “Is she here?” He looks from one to the other and back again. “Well?” He frowns. “Where’s Tommy?”

The Stirrup looks over at the Mooncalfe, who isn’t really looking at anyone.

“Where the fuck is Tommy Rawhead?” says His Grace.

The Stirrup reaches into his rumpled linen jacket and pulls out a bone. It’s a good-sized bone, thick and long, the tibia of a short man. It glitters.

“Oh,” says the blond woman, peering over the back of the couch. “Oh, no.”

As His Grace takes the bone in a trembling hand, gold dust shivers into the air, sparkling. He lifts the bone in both hands and rests his forehead against the knobbed flange at one end, his eyes closed. The Stirrup looks away. The Mooncalfe is still looking at no one in particular. Then with one hand His Grace brushes up some of the gold dust still clinging to the bone. His eyes still closed he touches his fingers to his lips and murmurs. Then he opens them.

“Who did this?” he says.

“Hurk,” says the Mooncalfe.

The Chariot reaches up to plant one hand on his chest and pushes him up as he pulls the blade down and out of his body. The Stirrup’s running up, lifting his blade –

“Hey!” yells Jo.

– and the Chariot rolls to one side as Ysabel looks up startled at Jo at the top of the church steps and Tommy standing beside Ysabel reaches up to grab her arm and the Stirrup’s blade swings down in a mighty blow to clang against the pavement where the Chariot had been lying. The Chariot on his feet blade up backs away. The Mooncalfe clutching his belly stomps angrily over to the curb. “Fuck!” he yells up into the pink-hazed night sky over the piercing car alarms.

“Let me go,” Ysabel’s saying. “Let me go!”

“Hey,” says Tommy, easily holding her arm in his big hands. “Roland.”

The Stirrup and the Chariot circle each other, blades wary between them.

“Hey,” says Tommy.

The Chariot suddenly breaks for the church steps as Jo lets go of the gate. Startled, the Stirrup starts after him, as Jo runs down the steps toward Ysabel. Tommy hauls Ysabel over to one side away from the Chariot’s wild lunge, throwing up one long arm to protect himself, as Jo scrambles on the steps to turn, reaching out for Ysabel’s hand. Tommy knocks the first thrust aside letting the Chariot’s blade slide along his forearm as Ysabel takes Jo’s hand and then looks up to see her there and then cries out, “Oh, oh no. Jo – Roland!”

The Chariot’s second thrust hits home, and everything is suddenly quiet.

Tommy looks down at the metal that’s stuck in his chest. Opens his mouth. Something dark and wet falls out of it to spatter onto the sidewalk.

“Gallowglas!” bellows the Stirrup.

“I didn’t,” says the Chariot. He pulls his sword out of Tommy’s body, and Tommy sinks softly to his knees. The front of his black turtleneck is stained with something that glitters in the streetlight. “I didn’t know,” says Roland.

“Gallowglas!” The Stirrup is marching toward the sidewalk, toward Tommy falling onto his side, toward Jo, holding Ysabel’s hand. The Mooncalfe on the other side of the street is climbing to his feet.

“Ysabel?” says Jo. “What’s – ”

“Run,” says Ysabel.

“Gaveston,” calls the Chariot. The Stirrup doesn’t hear him. Doesn’t look down at Tommy as he marches past, headed after Ysabel, and Jo, running now for the corner. The Chariot swings his sword and knocks the point of the Stirrup’s sword down. “It’s over!” He grabs the Stirrup’s shoulder slamming him back against the church wall. The Stirrup gasps. “It’s over,” says Roland. An SUV jerks to a stop in the intersection, honking as Jo and Ysabel hand-in-hand run across the street in front of it. “Take him with you and get out of here,” says Roland.

“You will pay,” says Gaveston.

“Go,” says Roland.

“I’m a Gallowglas,” says Jo. With fumbling fingers she manages to get the miniskirt unzipped but working it down her legs she stumbles and falls onto her futon. She rolls over on her back. “I’m the Gallowglas. Hey. Hey. How come the other guy didn’t die?”

Ysabel sits on the edge of the futon with a glass of water in one hand. “You should drink some,” she says, holding it out for Jo.

“Need a towel.” Jo tries to sit up and rolls over on her side. “Just in case. How come?”

“You weren’t on the field of battle then,” says Ysabel. She sets the glass of water down and picks up the Spongebob Squarepants towel. She smoothes it out on the futon by Jo’s head. “It’s only when you’re actually fighting that, well.”

“I make them. I can kill them. They can be killed,” says Jo. “Makes no sense.”

“It’s not supposed to make sense,” says Ysabel.

“It makes perfect sense,” says Jo. “I fuck everything up.” She pulls her knees up to her chest. Worrying at the ripped knee of her tights. “I fucked up the fight. I fucked up that guy. I’m fucking up my job. I fucked up my life. I fucked up high school. I could have, I would have gone to Harvard. Did you know that?” She reaches out for Ysabel’s hand. “If I had the money. I would have gone to Harvard. Or maybe Berkeley.”

Ysabel strokes Jo’s hair. Smiles, a little. “You should drink some water and get some sleep,” she says.

“But I fucked that up,” says Jo. Closing her eyes. “And I’m fucking you up,” she says. She opens them, looking up at Ysabel. “I’m fucking up your life,” she says. “I’m fucking up your life, and I’m really sorry about it.” She closes her eyes again.

“Shh,” says Ysabel. Setting the glass down on the floor by the futon she stands up and steps carefully around the piles of dirty laundry and shoes, past the sink full of dirty dishes, to the front door of the apartment. Out in the hallway stands Roland, his hands in the pockets of his green and silver track suit, looking down at his spotless white shoes.

“Do you need anything, my lady?” he asks, quietly.

“Well,” she says.

“Anything I can bring you?”

“No,” she says.

“My lady,” he starts to say.

“Answer me this, Roland,” she says. “Did my mother set you to watching me?”

“Well,” he says. “I mean, well – ”

“Did she?” says Ysabel.

Roland shrugs. “Yes,” he says.

“In that case,” says Ysabel, stepping back into the apartment, “I’ll be seeing you around.”

“My lady,” says Roland, “I – ”

She shuts the door.

Inside, on the futon, Jo snores.

Ysabel stands there in the middle of the cluttered apartment, in her hip-hugging jeans, her peach tank top, the nails on her bare feet glittering with gold paint. She swallows. She closes her eyes and bites her lip and briefly, just for an instant, shudders.

Then she reaches out and snaps off the light.

She makes it to the windowsill without stumbling. Jo mumbles at the stiff croak of the window as Ysabel cranks it open. She sits on the sill, working one long leg out onto the faux balcony. Plucks a cigarette from a crumpled pack and lights it with a match. Jo starts snoring again in great bubbling snorts. Blowing smoke out the window, Ysabel looks out over the nighttime city, filled with light: the pink and orange haze of the streetlights, white-hot spots of arc light at a construction site, here and there rectangles of yellow still burning in buildings all around, neon squiggles in primary colors hanging in dark shop windows, billboards lit up like giant television screens. The stoplight below changes from red to green and with the change in color the whole world subtly shifts. Engines rumble and growl. Headlights and taillights start to move. A thumping bassline slides past. Ysabel leans back against the sill and closes her eyes.

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Love U More” written by Sunscreem, ©1993 BMG Songs, Inc. (ASCAP). The Big Lebowski written by Joel and Ethan Coen, ©1998.