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Easing her Coat – stupid stupid stupid stupid – Prophecy – Salt for a Jaded palate –

Easing her coat the color of butter from her shoulders, down her motionless arms. Pausing as he takes the weight of it dragging the one side down in his hands. “What have you in your pocket?” he says. She doesn’t respond. He folds the coat over, careful of the weight of it, and lays it on one of the folding chairs there by the wall. “If you were to sit,” he says, “I might remove your boots.”

“Luys,” she says then, looking away from nothing to meet his eyes.

From out in the hall there’s Leo striding into the high-ceilinged room, white T-shirt tucked into houndstooth trousers and a paper cup in either hand. “Since dawn,” says the squat man following behind, a black leather vest over a black T-shirt, his long dark hair in a gleaming braid.

“So,” says Leo, gesturing with one of the cups at the lightening windows high and narrow that line the opposite wall. “Since now.”

“An hour or more. The first train got there at twenty of.”

Leo’s still looking out at the blue-grey light. “I have got to stop coming home so early,” he says.

“It’s the Prince, m’lord,” says the man in the vest, and over against the other wall Jo falls into one of the folding chairs, staring at him. “He means to sit the Throne. I’d stake your hoard on it.”

“All that?” says Leo, and a sip of coffee from one of the cups. A shrug. “Let him stand back up, Tommy. Then we’ll have a ball game. Gallowglas!” Coming across the room to her, kicking away a crumpled red plastic cup. Luys is kneeling before her, busy with the laces of her boot. “Leave us,” says Leo, and lips pinched Luys pushes himself to his feet. Jo catches his hand, the one with a bit of leather about the wrist, but does not try to hold it as he steps away.

“We need to talk,” says Leo.

“Here?” says Jo.

“You gonna,” he spreads his hands, both cups steaming, “start screaming again? Damage any more upholstery?” He hands her one of the cups. She’s shaking her head. “I’m safe,” she says, “for the moment.”

“The two of you,” he mutters, and sips. “He’s in the library, he’s sworn to stay put. But he’s determined to fight you. What is this, what. Jo. What is it.” She’s scowling at her cup. “It’s really, really sweet,” she says.

“It’s just,” he says, “it’s how you like it. Sweetloaf!” he bellows. “Black, four sugars,” he says. “Just like you like it.”

“I,” she says, “I don’t,” and from the hall there’s a boy in a brown bomber jacket and his matted hair swept up and back. “Yeah?” he says.

Leo’s looking down at Jo. “You want, what do you want. You want a different coffee?” She’s shaking her head. “You want my coffee? Never mind!” he bellows. Sweetloaf shrugs and heads back out to the hall. Leo says, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do, the two of you,” and then, “the Mooncalfe. Orlando.”

“Yeah,” she’s saying. She’s set the cup down. She’s pulling the boot from her grubby foot. “Is this over me?” says Leo. “This can’t be over me, not now. You’re actually stupid enough to go through with it, you need to find a pretext. The three of them, together, pestering Miss Cheney,” and he trails off as he leans over to tug something free of the weight of her folded coat, a mask, its eyes empty, the chiseled teeth crudely inked, the mane dangling. “The hell did you dig this up,” he says.

“I,” she says, tugging off her other boot, “you,” and then, “you had the party, on Thanksgiving? Your accustomed feast?”

“Yeah?” says Leo.

“The next morning,” says Jo. She’s looking off past him, at the man in the black leather vest, there by one of the windows. “I went to see Vincent,” says Jo.

“Erne? Had this?” Leo tosses the mask back onto Jo’s coat, flump. “I know what he’s said, Gallowglas. How much he means to you, but we talked about this. You can’t be my Huntsman. It’s not the image I need to project. Not now.” A thoughtful sip. “But connect the dots for me here, between this and the Mooncalfe, because I’m not – ”

“The hole you leave when you’re gone,” says Jo.

“What?” says Leo.

“I need a shower,” she says, the words half-strangled.

Pipes knock, water chugs and gurgles, resumes, under its stream lilting slightly side, to side, one hand held up and out against the grimy tile festooned with suds, the other a fist against her breast, knuckles to sternum as soap slides around them, down her arm, her belly, her thighs to her knees, dripping to the bottom of the tub where the water about her feet’s a rusted foaming brown. Leaning back her head to let the water as it slows to a trickle soak her hair, shaking it out when the stream once more resumes, her one hand still pressed to her chest, over her heart a fist, and water dripping soapy from her elbow.

Wrapped in a towel, holding it closed, her other hand scrubbing her dark wet hair. The only light the wide-screen television hanging over the wide low bed, a Technicolor desert, yellow sand, white sun, a muscled buttock floured with dust, a brassy plate strapped to a delicate hand deep brown, a pink cord trailing away, humming over the dust, sloughing it to reveal the clean skin red and brown of thigh, of hip. My lord. You are filthy.

In the gloom at the edge of the fitful light a dressing table, and her reflection in the mirror atop it, the ghostly towel, her shoulder, her cheek, the sheen of her eyes. Leaning over the table, the jackets laid across it, the snarl of neckties, she peers at herself in the glass, dark eyes to either side of her nose, that nose, her mouth a thin flat line, her fist holding up the towel at her chest white-knuckled. Having someone give you a clean-up like you were a little kid is the most sensuous thing in the world, I think, says the television. Does it feel good?

Yeah, says the television.

She closes her eyes. She lets go, lets the towel drop to the floor. With your back to me, says the television. No, like that. Her fingers caress the skin over her sternum, over her heart. Wait a minute. Eyeing her reflecting, turning to present this angle, that. Fingertips, then the heel of her hand, pressed between her breasts.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, the television filled with a rough brown hand wrapped in a glove of black ribbons, stupid, stupid, stupidity, a process, not a state, a new voice is saying over the stupid, stupid, stupid, she steps over, a human being takes in far more information than he or she can put out, stupid, stupid, she reaches up to the television, turns it off.

“I was watching that,” says someone from the bed. A low white lamp on one of the nightstands clicks on and there, nestled on the brown sheets, the mounded pillows, naked from painted toe-tip along to the arm draped languidly above a head of yellow hair severely straight. “It was you got him out of bed.” Sitting up, stretching, yawning and a dainty laugh, “Oh, mon poussin,” as Jo grabs at a shirt from the table, “how delightful.” The woman’s sitting on the edge of the bed now. “Shall we surprise him? He’ll be back.” Head tipped winsomely. “Though I don’t know long he’ll be, mon chouchoute. Do you?” And Jo leaves off trying to button the rest of the shirt, heads off, into the gloom, followed by a pealing laugh. Finding a door she pulls it open on a short white hall too brightly lit, and a silence that muffles the door-slam.

A moment there, hand to her forehead. The door behind her, painted white and a shining nickle knob. The shirt she’s taken a warmly iridescent grey. She buttons another button. Her fumbling hands. She tugs it down, ripples of orange and red hinted in the light, and the door at the other end is blue, and a gleaming brass push-plate, and her hand to her mouth, her chin, her hair.

The blue door opens on a cramped kitchen, butcher’s block in the middle of it, and a squat man drying a plate by the sink there under a window filled with grey-pink light. “Jo,” he says, mildly surprised. “Something wrong?” A black leather vest over a black T-shirt, his long black hair in a shining braid.

“I,” she says, the door swinging shut behind her. “I,” she says again, hands at her sides, empty, still.

“Is something wrong? Leo,” he sets the plate down, “was gonna bring you some clothes. Did he,” watching her face, tilting his head, “he must’ve got distracted.”

“Tommy,” she says. “Tommy Rawhead.”

“Yes,” he says, the edge of a question in his voice, hoarse from hard use. He takes down a couple of glasses from the cabinet above. “Jo,” he says, “I know it’s been hard.” He heads around to the refrigerator, and she shifts a jerky step to the side, keeping the butcher’s block between them. “Past few days. But I’m real glad you’re back.” Filling a glass with water from the spigot in the door. “He loves you.” Filling the second glass. “Very much.” He sets one down on the butcher’s block and says, “He’s a better man when he’s with you.” Pushing the glass toward her, her hands, empty and still. “He’ll be a better King.”

“I need to get,” she says, “some sleep?” Stepping back.

“Of course,” he says, setting his glass down, “sorry,” he says, “dragging this out when you’re so obviously knackered. We’n talk when you wake up,” as she’s blundering back through the swinging door into a long, high-ceilinged room painted a lurid red, and black trim about the tall and narrow windows set one after another in the wall before her. The plank floor under her bare feet slowing, stopping the color of dark chocolate. Off to one side white sheets draped against the walls soften a corner, and great lights and silvery reflectors and a camera or two on stands and tripods, waiting. To the other a square of sofas, brown leather strewn with madly clashing pillows and cushions about a low wide table littered with empty bottles and glasses, mugs, plastic cups, a pizza box and a couple of cardboard sandwich boxes and a plastic tray with a veggie roll left in a corner and some shrimp tails battered, congealed, cigarette butts here and there and an ashtray mounded high, and in the middle a hookah. And beyond it the other end of the room an alcove, a huge sleigh bed tucked away back there, and bare arms in an embrace about a sheepskin jacket, a wild cloud of hair. “Marfisa?” says Jo, and then, quietly, hesitantly, “Jessie?”

“Jo?” says Marfisa, turning. The woman her hand on Marfisa’s hip, athletically heathered grey tank top and briefs, yellow hair, straight, severe. “Hey, killer,” she says.

“You,” says Jo, “you’re,” and then, mouth pinching, looking away, “your sister.”

“Oh,” says the woman in the tank top, and “What’s she done,” says Marfisa, stepping away, and then as Jo heads toward them, past them, “Jo? What did Ettie do?” But Jo’s climbing the ladder, up to the dark corner of a loft under the high unfinished ceiling.

“Let her sulk,” says the woman in the tank top, her hand reaching for Marfisa’s. Marfisa shakes it away. “Jo,” she says, at the foot of the ladder. “It’s Sunday. You were gone for two whole days. Jo?” Marfisa starts to climb.

Breasting the loft there’s Jo, on her knees in the middle of the dust-furred space. Down by the milky window scabbed over with brown paint a length of two-by-four worn grey, askew on the floor by a cracked cinder block. Marfisa stays there, on the ladder, “He was out of his mind,” she says. “The Mason went to ask Miss Cheney where you were, for him. I went because,” a deep breath before the next words, “I had to know. I was worried.” Silhouetted in the haze Jo hasn’t moved, doesn’t respond. “He interrupted us, Jo, the Mooncalfe, to ask a question of his own. He’d come to learn from her where he’d meet his, particular, end.” She leans over the top of the ladder toward Jo. “He was told where to find you,” she says. “Don’t you see? You will win.” She raps the dusty floor before her. “You will end him, and his hold over the King. Jo, this is – ”

“Her banner over the city,” says Jo, “her Gallowglas by her side. She was Queen for a night, and a day, and I was there for a minute?” The shadow of her head shifting, turning. “Fuck prophecy,” says Jo. “You loved her so much you left the court for her and now you don’t even know her name.”

“I left the court for you,” says Marfisa, but Jo’s on her feet, headed hunched over for the ladder, and Marfisa jerks back, leans to one side out of the way as Jo grabs the one upright of the ladder and kicks over the edge of the loft, dropping to the floor in a crouch and a whuff of dust. “Jo?” says Marfisa, coming down after. Jo’s around the corner, in the alcove, and the woman in the tank top’s saying, “Wait, Jo, hey – ”

“Where’s my stuff,” Jo’s saying, “my clothes, my boxes, my fucking futon – ”

“Maybe your room?” the woman in the tank top’s saying. She’s put on a pair of jeans, she’s grabbed Jo by the arm, Jo her other hand to her chest, in that warm grey shirt, in the doorway of the closet there under the loft. “My, room,” she says, looking around, looking up, at the loft, “this isn’t,” and then, “the, the balcony, that he made, that he had made, for – ”

“Jo,” says Marfisa, and “Balcony?” says the woman in the tank top, and “Jo,” says Marfisa again. But Jo isn’t looking at either of them, she’s looking past them both to the brown leather sofa out in the long high-ceilinged room, the bundle neatly folded at the foot of it, leaned against it, her sword, her mask, her coat the color of butter. “You left it in the ballroom,” says Marfisa, seeing what she sees. “I was bringing them to you, Jo,” she says, stepping toward her, but she’s shivering, Jo, and the hand to her chest’s a fist, and “Hey,” says the woman in the tank top, letting go, “Jo – ”

She’s pushed past Marfisa, she’s there by the sofa, she’s scooping up the coat, knocking the mask aside, she’s reaching in a pocket to pull out not much bigger than her hand a dull black barrel the grip of it wound about with black tape and the letters Kel-Tec stamped in pebbled metal. “Jo,” says Marfisa again, and “Jesus,” says the woman in the tank top, and a rustle, a scramble, Jo’s up, past the mess, over there by the swinging door a sink bolted to the wall and another door, white, paned with frosted glass thrown open into a cramped bathroom where she swipes at the shower curtain hanging stuck she yanks, “Shit,” and down it comes curtain rings and rod into the empty tub, she staggers back, half in, half out, catching the doorframe, face caught there in the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet, her face and shoulder, warm grey shirt as she pulls herself up and in, as she lifts the gun, as she points it at the reflection of her breast, as she points it at the reflection of itself.

“Jo?” says Marfisa, still back there by the sofas, by the table laden. “Jo – ”

A bang. Splintering glass and something falling, a shelf, brass dancing across the floor and the echo still a wave that founders endlessly on far-off rocks, the next room, receding, Jo lowers her arm, her hand, the gun. Blood welling to trickle drip from the gash along her brow. Marfisa’s saying something, hands up, pleading, Jo’s walking away unsteadily down the length of the room, red walls, high narrow windows filling with clouded morning light. She opens the door down there by the waiting cameras, the dark lights on tripods. Out into the hallway, bare feet on a white-painted floor, down a skinny switchbacked flight of steps, wiping at the blood with her free hand. Into a room lined with high shelves stuffed with books and comics and here and there a shelf swarming with homunculi, brightly colored figures roaring at each other or nothing at all, and a murmur of voices somewhere away around a corner angling past an overstuffed chair in tufted oxblood leather and painted canvasses and sheets of Bristol board stacked against an arm of it, and someone’s saying “on a Monday,” Leo’s saying, his back to her draped in a gown of paisleys, purple and maroon, gold and brown. “Dubbed on a Tuesday. Wedded on Wednesday. She’s coming, Lando. On the Empire Builder. Two days by rail.”

“An eternity, mortgaged,” says a voice highly pitched, rich and bitterly smooth. “Roses fed to Engines, evermore.” A hand, lifted from the paisleyed shoulder, fingers stroking Leo’s cheek, his hair. “Needs must,” says Leo, taking the hand in his own.

“Need I must then be kept rustically? Stalled up with your other oxen?”

“Keep yourself where you like,” says Leo, tilting his head for a kiss, and there’s the long black hair, the thin nose, the black patch over an eye. “As you would,” says Leo, “if she weren’t,” and another, “on her way.”

“I mislike a bed so crowded,” says Orlando, unpatched eye opening, glinting. Jo’s hand tightens on the grip of her gun. “Dancers, jugglers. Freaks.”

“Who doesn’t like a circus?” says Leo.

“And your biting something of fragility, Ieraks?” says Orlando, with the slightest smile. “The bitter draught you pour to salt your jaded palate?”

“My,” says Leo, drawing back, “are we still on my bed? Because – ”

“He means me,” says Jo, raising the gun in both hands, and Orlando steps back, and Leo between them turning and turning about again “Wait” he’s saying, “wait,” and Orlando his hand on the lacquered scabbard of his sword says “But a word, m’lord. Before she pulls the trigger I’ll have her gutted.”

“No!” cries Leo, both arms up, hands out, stop, stop. “You’ll do no such thing. Either of you.”

“The worst is the shit that hasn’t changed,” says Jo, shifting to keep the gun on Orlando. “How’s your leg, Leo?”

“Which one?” snaps Leo, and then, “You’re bleeding. Gallowglas.” Gentling. “What have you done.” She’s stepping to the side, and again, Orlando his other hand on the hilt of his sword, rough black cloth wrapped about a bone-white grip. “Give me the gun,” says Leo. Her back’s to the shelves, now, and he’s still between them. “We’ll go back to our room – ”

“I don’t,” says Jo, “want to sleep, alone, or with any, I don’t,” she says, “I’m not hungry, I’m not thirsty, I don’t, God help me,” lowering the gun, “I don’t want to hurt him. I could care less if he stubbed his fucking toe.”

“Your head,” says Leo.

“I just want to go back, Leo. Can you do that?”

“Where,” says Leo. “Go back where.”

“Ysabel,” says Jo, and Orlando with a jerk bares an inch or so of blade.

“I don’t know what that means,” says Leo.

“I know,” says Jo, and she turns and heads for the door. Orlando’s hand is stopped by Leo’s, he’s looking after Jo as she’s leaving and in the doorway past her, in the hall outside, a grey flicker, the heel of a mole-grey shoe, stepping, gone, “Jo?” he says. She’s left. He lets go of Orlando’s hand, and the rasp and thock of the sword driven home as Leo steps out into the hall, unlit but for the buzzing red bulk of the Coke machine. Down the wide white-painted steps dressing gown floating purple and gold as he doubles back down and into the black-and-white tiled foyer. It’s empty. The door to the bar is locked, and the vegan diner, and he throws open the front doors and out, onto the brick steps, the street beyond filled with thin light, a truck snorting to itself in the intersection, a cartoon on the side of it, a muscular, mustached man with a guitar. Dave’s Killer Bread, it says. Someone’s inside the bus shelter, leaning against a shopping cart loaded with empty bottles and cans. She isn’t there. She isn’t anywhere.

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Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand, written by Samuel Delany, ©1984. Technicolor® is a registered trademark of Technicolor Trademark Management. Solomon Grundy,” traditional, within the public domain.

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