a Seamless Sky – her Packing’s done – a Season’s worth – Dour men in Rich Black suits – a Heavy limping step –
A seamless sky grey-white floats over an ocean milky green like well-worn jade, the yellow white sand rippled, wind-swept, empty. The big picture window specked with dead raindrops. She sits in a recliner angled back, staring out at it all, legs wrapped in a rug made from rags in colors from old magazines. A cardigan buttoned up to her chin, her head leaned against the heavy shawl collar. Every now and then she closes her eyes as if she has finally fallen asleep, but sooner, later, they blink open again, she shifts a little in the recliner, folds her arms about herself more tightly, tucks her hands back under her elbows, or under the rug, stares out at the ocean through mud-colored eyes.
A huge figure of a man comes into the airy little room, soft blue denim shirt and a moleskin vest, his face a couple of dark eyes, a daub of forehead in an explosion of wiry hair all grey and peppery black and coiling sprigs and shoots of white. In one hand a thick yellow mug that he sets steaming on the tray table by the recliner. His other’s not a hand but a hand-shape, cast in bronze and beaten with whorls of puckered dots. Standing there a moment he watches her as she does not lift a hand for the tea, and then with something like a shrug he turns to walk away.
“Wish we could open the window,” she says.
He stops there by the low shelf buried under a great bouquet of chrysanthemums, heavy heads of yellow and gold and bronzey orange. “Yis builden,” he says, a roughly woven voice, “it’d fall. Yon light’s’ll can be mannered.” Over his shoulder a portrait of a jowled and scowling president from many years before.
“I can almost smell it,” she says, closing her eyes. “And the sound…”
“Ull, that,” he says, tching. “That’ll be, n’manner when nor where, and naught’s to lay by any’s name. Old as ever, it is.” And then that gap in his hair about his eyes narrowing he steps back up to her, lays his metalled hand on the back of the recliner. “Ut,” he says, and she opens her eyes.
Out there struggling against the wind a woman, her grey houppelande too heavy to billow, her hair hidden away in a wimple, both hands on the arm of a young man short and limping beside her, wrapped in a heavy bearskin, on his head a simple round cap of the sort favored by bankers. Bent under the weight of an iron bound chest he’s balanced on one shoulder, steadied with his free hand. Black padlocks clamp the face of it to either side.
“I’ll see to the kettle,” says the huge man, pushing away from the chair.
“Coffey!” cries the Duke, coming through the door in his camelhair coat. Behind him Jessie in her chauffeur’s jacket, a sack of groceries cradled in either arm. “Your Grace,” says the huge man gruffly, directing Jessie with his metalled hand toward a swinging door at the other end of the room. The Duke coming around to kneel, wincing, his weight on the arm of the recliner. “Jo,” he says. “How are you?”
“Cold,” she says, the yellow mug steaming in her hands.
“You know, I think he likes you?” says the Duke. His chin resting on the back of the hand draped over the arm of the chair, his other hand wrapped about the stern hawk at the head of his cane. “They’re pretty much done at your place,” he says. “You might want to look it all over before it’s moved. Just in case. Not that there’s gonna be any problems. And, you’ve got time. Days if you need them. So you don’t have to, it’s not like I think you should be worried about any of it. Just – whatever you need, Jo.” She looks at him, then, his brown eyes sparked with green and gold. “For as long as you need. I’m gonna take care of you, Jo, I – ” She’s turning away, thumping the mug down on the tray table. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Poor choice of words. I didn’t mean.”
“Let’s go,” she says. “Leo.” Lifting the rug from her lap. “Let’s go.”
In the little hallway kitchen cabinet doors left open drawers pulled out empty, all empty, the refrigerator door ajar and dark inside. A cardboard box full of garbage in the doorway to the bathroom, dust and shards of glass and crumpled paper towels. The window on the far wall of the main room of the apartment stripped bare, no curtains, no shade, outside the skinny white faux balcony weirdly sharp in the flat grey light. Folded as a couch the bare wooden frame of the futon, pillows stacked ungainly to one side. A steamer trunk on the bleach-stained carpet, a couple of wooden crates beside it, both of them nailed shut. The glass-topped café table with a couple of spindly wrought-iron chairs set legs up on top of it. In the corner the bulky blond wood armoire stands open, empty, a contraption of thin metal tubing hanging from one side that racks nothing at all.
“Not much, all packed up like that,” says Jo, her black leather reefer jacket buttoned and zipped to her chin.
“You want any of the furniture?” The Duke nudges the refrigerator closed.
“That was all,” Jo waves a hand at the armoire, the glass-topped table, “that came with her. Guess she didn’t want it.” Her hand coming to rest on an upturned chair leg. “The futon was mine, but it’s a piece of shit. I guess they chucked the mattress?”
“Probably?” says the Duke. “There’s a, it’s like a queen-sized bed, it’s all – ”
“No,” says Jo, “but the blankets, I mean, there’s this one blanket.” Toeing a bleached spot on the carpet with her big black boot.
“Probably in the crates. Want to check? Jo?” She looks up, over at him. “If there’s anything about this you don’t like,” he says.
“What else am I gonna do?” she says, with an unsteady laugh.
“Is it the loft?” says the Duke. He limps into the main room. “Is it too close? Too soon? I’m not, it doesn’t, it’s just a convenient,” and Jo’s saying “No, no,” as the Duke says, “Give me a couple of days. We’ll find you an apartment somewhere, a house, whatever. Or.” He pulls something from a pocket, an envelope, unsealed, fat with bills. “I was gonna give this to you anyway, but you could – ”
“The hell’s that,” says Jo, her hands in her pockets.
“Walking-around money,” he says. “It was gonna be. Go on. Should be enough in there, you could call a cab. Get a hotel room. Call me in a week or two. If you want.”
“This is real?” she says, riffling through the bills.
“As any promissory note,” says the Duke. He’s smiling when she looks up sharply. “Every piece of paper in there passed through a printing press, if that’s what you mean. And did time on someone’s hip. Except maybe some of the fifties, those were pretty new.” His smile softens. “Anything you want, Jo. Anything you need.”
She steps away from the table, envelope in hand. “Anything,” she says, looking out the window, out over the little parking lot across the street, the gullied freeway off to the left, the towering arc of the great bridge far off over the rooftops ahead. The dark hills green and black, draped in gauzy shreds of cloud. “I need to talk to her.”
“That,” says the Duke, “that’s not going to happen.”
“Christ, Leo,” she says, turning away from the window. “Does she even know I’m alive.”
He looks away at that. “No one’s,” he says, “I don’t, ah, she hasn’t left the house. Not since he took her. But there’s to be a dinner, for the court. Tomorrow night. I’ll see her then. I’ll tell her whatever – ”
“I need to see her.”
“That’s not – ”
“I could go with you.”
“Jo,” says the Duke, his cane-tip thumping the carpet. “You lost. Your office was forfeit and he took the keeping of her. He took your sword, Jo. You aren’t a knight,” and as Jo’s saying “That, that doesn’t” the Duke says, “You have no place. Without a weapon, you’re no more a knight.”
The envelope crinkles in her hand. “So that’s,” she says, and she turns toward the trunk, the crates. “That’s it, then. It’s all over.”
“You lost,” says the Duke again.
She turns back, tossing the envelope onto the table, between the chairs. “So that’s,” she says, “what, the payoff?”
The Duke, blinking, twitches his head as if shaking off a fly. “Excuse me?” he says.
“She said,” says Jo. “The Queen said. When she, when Ysabel tired of her dalliance. That would be the end of it. That I was out. That’s what this is.”
“Now why,” says the Duke, quietly, “would I pay anyone off for Her Majesty, when I could have saved myself a season’s worth of owr.”
And then he’s the first to look away. “No,” he says. “That was rude.”
“I was – ”
“We were both rude,” he says, shoulders hunched, scuffing the carpet with an oxblood wingtip. “I could care less what the Queen said, or wants. What I want,” and those shoulders lift and relax as he straightens with a sigh, “I want you, with me. The Princess? Any fool could see she isn’t done with you. Let me, let me go to this dinner. Find out how things stand, before we,” and then he frowns. “Jo?” he says. “What’s that?”
Leaning against the bit of wall hiding the refrigerator a long black spear-haft angled, the head of it like a mirrored leaf resting the tip of it touching there the corner where the ceiling meets the walls.
“Shit,” says Jo. “We never could get it out of the way with all our stuff in here. Kept tripping over the damn thing. It’s, the Dagger’s spear,” she says. “From the hunt. Remember?”
“If it were the Dagger’s spear,” says the Duke, “it would have been destroyed with him. No, I gave it to you.” His smile’s gone slyly sidelong. “You still have a weapon. Come over here. Take it up.”
“Just go take it in your hands,” says the Duke, and Jo heads around the table past him, puts a hand on the black spear-haft. “Go on,” he says.
“What are we doing here,” says Jo.
“Do you trust me?”
“About as far as I could throw you.”
He shrugs. “Okay. Fair enough. Offer it to me. Offer it now, before one of us realizes how monstrously stupid this is.”
Careful with the heavy thing, ducking under it, she turns and pushes it still angled between floor and ceiling at him, the head of it up there winking in the flat white light from the window. He grips the haft of it there between her hands. “Joliet Maguire,” he says. “Gallowglas.” His voice gone gentle now, and his smile is almost gone. “Do you swear before us all, to withstand oppressor’s power with arm and puissant hand? To recover right, for such as wrong did grieve? To battle guile, and malice, and despite? To kick ass and take names for me, your liege?”
And with a shake of her head, blinking, a laugh, “Sure,” says Jo, and then, “Yes. I do.”
“The Hawk,” says the Duke, letting go the haft, “welcomes the Squirrel.”
“The what?” says Jo, leaning the spear-tip against the wall again.
“The T-shirt? You were wearing? At the restaurant that night, when we were, never mind.” He scoops up the envelope from the table. “Welcome to my company.”
Clear plucked notes a chiming descant over spidery strumming all from a big-bellied guitar wrapped up in the arms of a kid with a blue streak dyed in his bleached white hair. “Weave a circle round him three times,” he’s singing in a rough high voice, “you have to plan your moves at these times. Our hearts are breaking; one more song to go.” Jessie in her grey chauffeur’s jacket, bottle of soda in her hand, clear glass that says Dry Rhubarb in a splotch of red, at the edge of a crowd in the low back room, wool and lycra, satin and fleece, painted cheeks, drooping feathers, a long cardigan vest and a T-shirt and shorts, a lurid sari glittering with colored glass and bits of mirror, sagging jeans and a dinner jacket. “We had some good machines,” the kid’s singing, “but they don’t work no more. I loved you once. Don’t love you anymore.”
She sees him as they’re all applauding politely, as the kid’s ducking his head over his guitar, as she’s lifting the soda for a swig. His face all cheekbones and nose and eyebrows jutting, a white watch cap rolled down over the tops of his ears. A tight ringer T-shirt with a flying contraption printed on the front, all bat-wings and spiraled screws. His bare arms strung with wiry muscles and veins. He smiles at her, nods, as the kid starts picking out a new song on the guitar. “You look,” says Jessie, leaning toward him, “familiar?”
“Sorry,” he says, shaking that head of juts and angles.
“Or not,” says Jessie, shrugging.
“Lough,” he says.
“I’m Rain,” she says.
“How can it hatch,” the kid’s singing, “if it didn’t get laid. Well there’s Vera Lynn, on the violin, Elvis Costello, well he’s playing the cello…”
“A generous shot of heavy rum,” says the old man, “something fermented from the third boiling of the sugarcane, with a good Jamaican dunder.” Ivory hair like a wild crown about his pink head. “To that,” he thumps his four-footed cane against the rug, “a third again of Fernet – the Jelinek, if you have it – and the same of John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum.” His pale blue suit baggy over a pink shirt, a white tie loosely knotted. “A dash of bitters, Angostura if you must, stir with ice and let it sit, this is very important! Let it sit a half-minute before straining.”
“Very good sir,” says the tall man, his chin nodding behind the high white gateposts of his upturned collar.
“Soda water,” says the young man, a hand on the old man’s shoulder, “and a straw.” His pale pale hair just touched with gold hangs in tangled dreadlocks to his shoulders. “The same for me,” he says, “but with ice, and orgeat, and cream. No straw.”
“Indeed.” The tall man all in sombre black walks softly across the dark wood-paneled room, loomed over by enormous oil paintings of dour men in rich black suits. Here and there high-backed chairs with elaborately carved wooden frames and jewel-colored cushions, little tables with barely enough space for their nests of knick-knacks. On an ornate sofa the Duke slouches in his blue and brown striped suit at one end, Jo in her bone-colored gown stiffly upright at the other. “Negroni,” says the Duke.
“More of a summer’s drink, isn’t that, sir?” says the tall man.
“Is it?” says the Duke.
After a moment, the tall man turns to Jo. “Miss?” he says.
“I, oh,” she says, “water?”
“Try the soda,” says the young man with the dreadlocks. “Water and fizz, cream, flavored syrup.” His suit’s a deep rich blue over a white shirt shimmering like silk. “No alcohol.”
“What he said,” says Jo.
“I am touched,” says the young man, helping the old man to sit in a comfortably overstuffed armchair, “to see someone so committed to the ideal of second chances.”
“Sorry?” says the Duke, leaning forward at that.
“Merely complimenting what must be your new knight, Hawk.”
“How’s your sister?” says the Duke. “Viscount.”
“Louder,” says the young man. “His hearing’s not what it was.”
“Pinabel!” calls the Duke, to the old man in the chair. “Hound! How goes the war?” and as the old man looks up and barks, “As expected!” the Duke lurches to his feet, says in a voice pitched low, “That’s twice you’ve presumed in as many words, Axehandle. In the Queen’s own parlor. Have a care; my second is the Gallowglas.”
“We’ve forgiven what might be forgotten,” says the old man to the room, his head bobbing. The young man, smiling, murmurs “Threats, Your Grace?”
“That’s the best you’ve got?” says the Duke, still low, still fierce.
“And we’ve forgotten,” says the old man, faltering, “what we can forgive.”
“But Excellency,” says the Queen, in the doorway at the other end of the parlor. “That’s nothing.” A black high-waisted gown, her shoulders bare, her long black hair swept back. The Count smiles broadly, his bobbing head settling in a nod. The Duke steps back. Agravante’s dreadlocks rustle as he wryly shakes his head. “Gentlemen,” says the Queen. “How good of you to come.” Ice clinking as a man in a trim black uniform moves among them, offering drinks.
“Nonsense!” bellows the Count.
“Nonetheless,” says the Queen. Beside her a man whose sun-browned head’s quite bald, his cheeks grizzled with a dusting of white beard. The wide knot in his yellow tie at odds with his trim tuxedo. In his hands a delicate flute of some clear liquor, much the same as in the Queen’s, and he lifts it as she lifts hers in a toast. “We salute you,” she says, and all about the room their drinks are raised, then sipped. Jo looks at the thinly milky stuff in her glass, shrugs, downs some more. “That was bracing,” the Duke mutters.
“So who’s her escort?” says Jo, leaning close.
“He’s no escort,” says the Duke. “That’s Welund, the Guisarme. A shark.”
“Welund?” says Jo. “Where’s Roland?”
“Not the best time for questions. Just, keep up. You’re doing fine.” And then, looking past her, “Hello,” he says.
“Leo,” says Orlando, and Jo whips around, steps back, out from between them. A white shirt open at the throat, a dark blue sarong stippled with little white flowers. There’s no glass in his hands. “The Queen has sworn,” he says, his dark eye bearing down on Jo, “never again to have another Gallowglas in her house.” She blinks but doesn’t look away.
“And she does not,” says the Duke. Over away behind him Agravante’s laughing at something Welund’s said. “She has me, and I’m the one has her.” Laying his hand on Jo’s spangled shoulder. Jo twitches. “A nicety, perhaps,” says the Duke, “but merely one such as the many we depend on every day. Captivity suits you, Orlando.”
Orlando’s expression doesn’t change as he shifts his gaze from Jo to the Duke. “I am my own man yet,” he says.
“Then be so good as to assert yourself!” says the Duke. “Call down your charge. Let’s launch whatever this is to be and steer it toward the table. I’m famished.”
“But one guest yet remains,” says Orlando, “though I think he’s just arrived.” Bare feet whispering over the rug he moves past them toward the Queen and Agravante and Welund, and Jo sags, closing her eyes, her breath gone deep and quick. “Drink some soda,” says the Duke, and she scowls at him. “Just three or four more hours to go,” he says, and then, “Well. I guess tonight is a night for bruising a few precedents.”
In the doorway to the parlor the Queen inclines her head, just, to a man in a charcoal-stripe three-piece suit gaping over a sunken chest. A polished silver torc clamped about his knobby neck, his bald head bare and streaked with old grime, his shoulders damp with rain. “We are pleased and honored,” says the Queen, “to welcome our sister’s ambassadour.”
“Forgive my graceless demeanor,” says the man with the torc, and “Chazz?” cries the Count still sitting in his chair, peering about the backs of the men before him. “The invitation came to my attention at the most penultimate of moments, and any resources of which I might avail myself to freshen, as it is said, up, are thin upon the ground.” He takes a heavy limp of a step. One foot’s bare, the nails of his toes quite long and jagged sharp. The other foot’s a wad of mud-soaked bandages, and the leg of his suit hangs in shredded tatters. “A bit of which, the ground I mean, I fear I’ve tracked across your lovely floors.”
“A passel of gimps,” mutters the Duke, and “What?” says Jo. “If that ain’t a metaphor,” he says.
“Gentlemen,” calls the Queen, then. Beside her a woman in a simple black sheath leans close to murmur something in her ear, and she nods. “If you would join me here in the hall to raise our glasses, once again.” And Jo looks down to see her hand in the Duke’s, looks up to see those brown eyes sparked with green and gold. He squeezes, once, and lets her go.
The Queen stands at the foot of a sweeping flight of stairs in marble, carpeted with a runner like a neatly trimmed waterfall of white and gold. “It gives me,” she says, raising her glass, and they all follow suit, Jo behind the Duke, her tall glass half drunk held up in her hand, “such pleasure as I cannot adequately express,” and there’s a rustle up there, a lick of white lace flashing past the bannisters above, a click of heels on marble, “to bid you welcome back once more,” and there she is, at the top of the stairs, in a long ivory slip under a draped and gathered froth of white lace, her black and tangled curls held back with a simple band, and she’s restlessly looking over all those bald heads looking up at her, smiling at the Duke’s flopping brown locks, and then at Jo wine-dark behind him, looking back at her. “My daughter, Ysabel,” says the Queen, and glasses are hoisted, lowered, sipped, as smiling the Princess takes one slow deliberate step after another down those stairs.
“Faded Flowers,” written by Shriekback, copyright holder unknown. Dry Soda® is a registered trademark used for Nonalchoholic Beverages, Namely, Carbonated Beverages, Drinking Water and Mineral Water and owned by Dry Beverage Inc. “Beginning,” written by Denis Jones, copyright holder unknown. Cocktail inspired by the Backyard Bartender.