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falling – if Even this

falling slumping shoulder fetching up she jolts awake, she blinks. Out there lights flash, red and red over a line of parked cars, a pickup truck, a minivan luridly purple in that light. She sits up, and a rough grey blanket slips away. There in her lap her hand, bare, and in her hand a hand, Ysabel’s hand, Ysabel wrapped in a rough grey blanket and Jo’s black hooded jacket. “Hey,” says Jo, softly.

Stirring Ysabel smiles before she opens her eyes. Squeezes Jo’s squeezing hand. “Hey,” she says, sitting up, leaning over, tipping together the two of them, shoulder to shoulder, wine-red hair spangled with gold against glossy black curls streaked, here and there, with white.

Red lights still flash. The ambulance is parked at an angle in the lot, right up by the long single-storey line of motel units. Jo drops out the back of it, black boots heavy splashing a runnel of melting snow, her shirtwaist dress, black and grey, white and pink, arms pulled in tight for warmth, tugging a glove onto her hand, grey and fingerless, wrapping the velcro about her wrist. Looking up at the blue-black sky, featureless in the glare of worklights. Over there at the back of the lot, by the corner of the detached set of motel units, a reddish brown car, a black stripe along its side, the driver’s door open, a man sitting there, his feet on the pavement, and a woman leaning against the trunk of it, wrapped in a sheepskin coat, her wild hair yellow-white. “How is she,” she says, as Jo slowly approaches.

“Sleeping,” says Jo. “You should – ” but Marfisa shakes her head, lifts her chin, a gesture back toward the main building of the motel. “He’s in there,” she says, and then, as Jo turns to look, “Gallowglas.”

Jo turns back. In the front seat Luys leans against the doorframe, head hung low, looking at his shoes. Marfisa traps one of Jo’s hands between both of hers and holds it a moment, looking her wordless in the eye. Jo’s free hand comes up, laid gently atop Marfisa’s, and Marfisa nods, once, and lets go.

That long low line of motel units, red doors, curtained windows, the dark maw of an air conditioner under each, over and over again until that room there, just past the hood of the ambulance the frames about the shattered window and the missing door scorched black, the dregs of snow before it stomped into sooty puddles that flash red and red and red. In the doorway, leaning on his cane, Leo in his camel-colored topcoat, and no hat upon his head, looking at something inside the room. “Where is everyone,” says Jo.

Smiling he reaches a hand for her, the small of her back, her hip, pulling her close there in the doorway, leaning in to kiss her mouth. “Hello to you, too,” he says.

“No, I mean,” says Jo, and then, gloved hands up on his shoulders, she kisses him, lightly. “It’s so, quiet.”

“We have some little time,” he says, straightening. Letting go. “Welcome back.”

“This,” says Jo, she’s looking into the room, “Timmo and Abe, they were staying here.”

Leo points to the one bed, a spavined, cinder-furred hulk under a frozen wheel of smoke-stain printed over the wall, the ceiling, dripping with grimy water. What once was a laptop at one end, warped, the screen of it burned white. “He was holding what was left of a, ah, briefcase,” he says.

“But we were, on, top of Big Pink,” says Jo, looking back, out into the glare. “And then, the – tub?” Looking inside, a shake of her head.

“Probably saved you from the blaze,” says Leo.

“No, I, what I, what I’m – how – how did we, how did we end up,” and she takes a deep and shaky breath, “how the hell did you know? How?”

“That’s the thing,” says Leo, looking out, to the ambulance. “Or, at least, a thing.” There in the shadow of it, leaning against the side of it, Orlando in his long dark skirt, his white shirt, his feet bare.

“You,” says Jo, starting forward, “you get away from there – ” and Leo’s hand on her shoulder, “Jo,” he says, gently. “He knew where you’d be, and when. He knew there’d be a fire. If he hadn’t told us – ”

“What do you want,” says Jo, and Orlando, pushing up off the ambulance, says, “Dust or blood, my nemesis.”

“Jo?” says Ysabel, there at the back of the ambulance. Marfisa behind her. “A brief affair, my lady,” says Leo. “Over quickly, and done.”

Ysabel looks from Jo, to Leo, and the briefest inclination of her head. “I won,” says Jo. “I beat you, two out of three, however you want to count it, we’re done,” and he laughs, and taps the patch over his eye. “A blow to each, but we both yet stand,” he says. “And our first, of three? A technicality. You really want to’ve won on points? My blade was in your back, Gallowglas.” His hands spread, smiling mildly. “And you took my love, and I took yours, but now he is King, and she is Queen, and for us there’s nothing left but blood, or dust.”

“I will not fight you,” says Jo.

“Why then is your sword there in your hand?” says Orlando.

She looks down, to see her hand in its glove about a plain hilt wrapped in dull wire, within a glittering net of wiry strands that meet in worked steel knots, twining down to the great silvery clout of a pommel, and stretched before her straight and true the shining blade. “I,” she says, and no scabbard in her other hand, nor at her hip. “I didn’t, I,” lowering the sword, and the tip of it chiming against the charred sidewalk.

“I’ll need a blade myself, Ieraks,” says Orlando. “Careless, I know, but one of mine’s held by a wizard, now, and the other by the father of my latest inamorata.”

“Leo,” says Jo as he limps sourly past, hefting a longsword by the strong of its blade, “If it must needs be done,” he’s saying, extending the heavy-pommeled hilt of it toward Orlando’s waiting hand, “it were best to get it done.”

Orlando takes the hilt and swings the blade away from Leo, a high sweeping cut, and another, settling into his stance. “Are you frightened?” he says, looking to Jo.

“Yes,” she says.

“Good,” he says. “I’d hate to be the only one enjoying this.” And then, when she doesn’t lift her sword, “Your cue, Gallowglas.”

She’s looking from Leo beside her, hands on the stern hawk at the head of his cane, to Ysabel there at the back of the ambulance, wrapped in blankets and her black jacket, and Marfisa’s hand on her shoulder.

“Think of your anger,” says Orlando. “Those senseless murders. The Gammer, the Shootist. The Soames. Gloria, and her father. You, perhaps. Almost. Think of Billy, Gallowglas. Little Billy Maguire.”

She opens her eyes. She lifts her sword up at an angle before her, slides her left foot back, tucks her free hand up against her chest. Waiting.

He sighs. “Fear alone will have to do,” he says, stepping forward, leaping forward blade coming down a hammer blow Jo catches and throws off, rocking Orlando back. A peal of blows then, his wild swings met by jerks and yanks, her sword moving only enough to catch and block and catch again as he falls back and strikes and falls back, with each pass turning a circle like a ratchet that carries him away from the back of the ambulance, away from Ysabel. One last overhead cut parried by Jo settling back in her stance as he lifts his sword up and away, pointedly leaving himself wide open. “Strike me!” he cries. “Are you not the Huntsman? Were you not tasked?”

Her blade at an angle before her, her free hand over her heart.

His shoulders slump. He shakes his head. “What will it take,” he says. His one eye catching hers as she looks up from his lowered blade-tip.

He says, “I wonder if even this.”

“Jo – ” cries Ysabel, and “Mooncalfe!” cries Marfisa, and Jo breaks screaming into a run blade up hilt back for a thrust, and “Lando?” says Leo, looking down at the sword. Looking down at his sword. At the strong of the blade of it there between the lapels of his camel-colored topcoat, at the torn edges of the hole it’s made in his soft shirt of some nameless harvest gold. At Orlando’s hand on the hilt of it, and the look in Orlando’s eye, the sweet smile on his face as the tip of Jo’s sword punches through his throat, and at the lacy darkness falling all about, like ashes.

“You’d rather a Duke, not a Prince, for a King,” says Lymond. The sky above them a softening blue grey.

“I’d rather a Queen,” says the Soames. “I was promised a Queen.”

“You expect wonder hard on the heels of a miracle,” says Lymond. And then, “But do you think me the only Perry?”

“Ysabel, the Bride?” says the Soames. “Your Bride?” Frowning as he marches along, close beside Lymond down the quiet winding street. “Then the line’s not broken, as we were told.” The bicycles winding behind them, and the trundling pickup and its hangers-on.

“We shall see,” says Lymond.

Heading to the edge of the street, across the sidewalk and the scrap of dying grass, up to the yellow front door, followed by Marquess and Soames and Viscount, and the clatter and clank and ticking spin of bicycles. He pulls out a padded envelope, and from it a gold credit card, and he works the card into the gap between door and frame, jimmying the lock, a click and a clunk and he opens the door. “My house,” he calls out to all of them, “is yours,” and he steps inside. Down the long hall, the thunder of dozens of footsteps, out into the big room empty but for an overstuffed armchair, a low table beside it, a great window, the shapes of the city uncertain in the shining haze, and the mountain beyond a pale shadow of blue and rose against the first rays of the rising sun.

“Well,” says Lymond, as those footsteps settle, the rustle of coats and scarves and gloves, blue suits, green coveralls. All that motley crowd beneath the window, uncertain whether to look out, or in. His back to them, his hands on the arm of the chair, “Mark this,” he says, and turning, sits him down.

The silence, as everyone in the room takes in a breath.

And then a rustle once more, of heads lowering, of hands lifted to hearts, to brows, as here, there, there and there again, and again, a knee is taken, as the King stands up from his Throne.

“There is much to be done,” he says, smiling under his bulging eyes, one brown, one blue, his pinkish orange pompadour a-bob. “Let us begin.”

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