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a Big Man straining – What she Owes – Four Simple Lessons –

He’s a big man straining the shoulders of a dark blue jacket, sitting back in one of the leather armchairs beneath the large copper letters that say Barshefsky Associates: Quality Assured. Long grey mustaches droop to either side of his mouth. He flips over and over in his hands a white business card. When the side door swings open with a sudden wash of questioning voices and clacking keys he climbs to his feet and those mustaches spread around a smile. Becker steps out into the lobby, a big striped shirt unbuttoned over a yellow T-shirt, thin brown hair licked up here and there at the top of his head.

“It’s Becker!” says the big man. “You manage a phone bank.”

“I’m, sorry,” says Becker. “You’re very – Do I know you?”

“Of course,” says the big man. “Pyrocles.”

“Pyrocles,” says Becker. About to nod, he shakes his head slowly instead, his face settling toward a frown. “Is that, what, is that Greek?”

“No, I’m from Vergina, where the Argead ruled. But they have heard of me in Byzantium.”

“Huh. I didn’t know there was a Byzantium left.”

“Goodness,” says Pyrocles. “I certainly hope so.”

“And you’re here because…”

“Oh! Jo Maguire. I need to speak with her. Briefly, of course.”

“Had to be one of those two,” mutters Becker.

“You see, I must examine her hands.”

“Her hands?”

“I’m making,” says Pyrocles, and then he holds up the business card. “Forgive me, is this appropriate? As her sigil?”

“Her what?” The card’s printed with a stylized B, rounded, with furled serifs. “That’s the Barshefsky logo.”

“This is her house, isn’t it?” says Pyrocles, and one of Becker’s frowning eyebrows goes up. “She does work here, doesn’t she?”

“Sure, but she’s not – ”

“Oh but I should ask her myself,” says Pyrocles. “Not waste your time like this, I’m sorry.”

“Thing is,” says Becker, “she’s off. Today.”

“Off?”

“Not working. Don’t know where she is, in fact.”

“Oh.”

“Not that I could tell you if I did.”

“I see,” says Pyrocles.

“I mean, it’s not. Regulations. Nothing personal.”

“I wouldn’t think to take it personally.”

“If there’s anything else?”

“No, no, I’ve taken up quite enough of your time – ” says Pyrocles, as Becker says “I’ll be sure to let her know, I’m sorry, you were here – ”

“I guess I’ll have to come back, then,” says Pyrocles.

“All right,” says Becker. “Whenever. Although – five’s a good time. Weekdays. Usually taking their first break right around then.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Jo sits tailor-fashion midway along a line of bookshelves. By her side a stack of books, old, clothbound, titles written on the spines in white ink, a big flat paperback with a glossy photo cover, a figure in a white outfit anonymous behind a mesh mask foil held up en garde, the tip obscured behind a barcode sticker. A book splayed open in her lap. Her right arm stretched out to one side she looks down its length to her hand, relaxed, palm down. “Pronation,” she says. She rolls her arm over her palm now facing up. “Supination,” she says. Curls her fingers into a loose fist and rolls it back and over again.

“Wouldn’t that be easier with the sword?” says Ysabel, her back to Jo. Idly running her fingers along book-spines.

“I’m sorry,” says Jo. “Did you say something?”

Ysabel tips a book from its place on the shelf with a finger, tips it back. Jo’s still eyeing her fist now moving in a little square, up here, up there, down there, down here. Palm up, palm down.

They come down the wide sweeping stairs into the lobby one after the other, Jo her books stacked in her arms, Ysabel’s long patched denim skirt swaying like a bell, frayed hem brushing the dark stone steps. “You’ll never learn a thing of value, reading those,” she says.

“I know you can’t be talking to me,” says Jo. “What with swearing a mighty oath just this morning never to speak to me again.” She’s headed past the self-serve kiosks to the high dark counter running down one side of the lobby, where she drops her books by a librarian’s flat-screen monitor. “I need to take care of some fines,” she says, pulling a wodge of cards and paper from the pocket of her army-surplus jacket, undoing the purple hair-tie holding it together. She peels a grubby white library card from the middle and hands it over. The librarian scans it and hands it back, not looking away from his screen. “Been awhile,” he says. His hair is sandy, his eyes red-rimmed.

“How much,” says Jo. She’s counting through the bills clamped in a medium-sized binder clip.

“Y’know, you could always give us your email address,” says the librarian.

“How much,” says Jo.

“Because that way we could send you email when your books are due. And you can renew online. Which – ”

“Which would be great if I had a computer instead of having to come here to get online, which kinda defeats your whole point. How much. Do I. Owe.”

“Twenty-seven seventy-five,” says the librarian. He starts scanning Jo’s stack of books.

“What,” says Jo sidelong to Ysabel beside her. Hands in the pockets of her skirt leaning back against the counter Ysabel lifts her head a little, pointing with her chin. Jo turns. A short, heavy man in shapeless green coveralls stands by the self-serve kiosks. He isn’t looking at them. He isn’t looking anywhere else. Turning over and over in his hands a blue meshback cap. “Highness,” he says.

“Shit,” says Jo.

“Highness, we’re meeting tonight, and we wonder, our Soames wonders, if you’re willing and able to attend.”

“Attend?” says Jo. “Who the hell are you?”

“Twice Thomas,” he says, and he ducks his head. His thick black hair shines with grease.

“I’d love to,” says Ysabel.

“You have any idea who this guy is?” says Jo.

“I know all my mother’s subjects,” says Ysabel. “And who are we, Twice Thomas?” He looks puzzled. “The we, who’ll be meeting?”

“The Local Two Three Five, lady,” he says.

“Ah,” she says. “The Hare.”

“No, lady, I’d never – ”

“Please,” says Ysabel.

“Just a fucking minute,” says Jo.

“You know, Thomas,” says Ysabel, “it would be so much easier if you’d challenge her to a duel.” His laugh’s more of a hiccup. “Ysabel,” says Jo, sharply. Ysabel’s smiling. “She can’t fight, you know. Has to read about it in books. Defeat her, and all her offices are forfeit. There’d be no impediment to my attendance.”

“This is way past being funny,” says Jo.

“You are a glory to behold, lady,” says Twice Thomas, “but my hand’s not fit for the likes of yours.”

“Oh, well said,” says Ysabel. “You see, Jo, he knows his place.”

“I should just let you go,” says Jo. “Fart off where the fuck ever. Get kidnapped again. I’d be done with you.”

“All right,” says Ysabel, and she steps up to Twice Thomas and takes his arm.

“Oh, fuck me,” says Jo.

“Um,” says the librarian. “The, uh, they’re due back the twenty-sixth.”

“Right,” says Jo. She scoops up the stack of books. “I’ll write it down somewhere.” Jo heads off after Ysabel marching away, Twice Thomas stumbling at her side, mouth slack eyes wide at the sight of her hands tucked in the crook of his elbow.

Jo leans back against the long table lost under haphazard stacks of books and piles of paper, wincing, rubbing her hip. “You should sit,” says Ysabel, leaning forward in the office chair to put her hand on Jo’s. Jo shakes her head. “If I’m gonna be a knight,” says says, “I should get used to that whole chivalry thing, right?” The poster on the wall behind her says Gorboduc – Ferrex and Porrex.

“Don’t be an ass,” says Ysabel, squeezing Jo’s hand, sitting back in the chair. The door to the office opens. Vincent’s there in the doorway, the cable running along his prosthetic jerking, the hook snapping open and shut, open and shut. “Well?” he says.

“I need to learn how to fight with a sword,” says Jo.

“Why come to me?”

“Because you know why I need to learn how to fight with a sword.”

Vincent snorts.

“Mr. Erne,” says Ysabel.

“Highness,” he says, “I’d never question your judgment, but – ”

“Good,” says Ysabel.

His hook snaps one last time. “Where’s the épée, girl. That piece of shit I gave you.” Jo’s stooping to pick up the long thin bundle, undoing the rubber bands, unwinding the towels. Careful with her left hand, the palm gone red and raw. “Were you trying to keep it dry?”

“Out of sight,” says Jo. “Cops’d jack me for a butter knife in my back pocket.”

Vincent snorts again. “What good is this gonna do you? I told you. You get in a fight with these people, you lose.”

“I’ve done pretty well so far.”

“Have you,” says Vincent. “You lose with a sword in your hand, you die.”

“I know.” Jo balances the sheathed sword tip balanced on the duct-taped toe of her shoe the loose hilt with its dull and battered bell lightly in one hand. The other, raw, distractedly rubs her chest, there where her jacket’s parted over a T-shirt that says Farmers and Mechanics Bank. “But they’re making me one.”

“They are,” says Vincent, flatly. His hand held open at his side, his thin sweater hanging loosely from his shoulders.

“Jo Maguire is to be made a knight,” says Ysabel, leaning back and crossing her stockinged legs, primly careful of her short tweed skirt.

Vincent steps back, his hand on the doorknob. “Come with me,” he says. He nods at the épée. “Bring that.”

Lights flicker to life in the wide deep room, the far end still lost in shadows. Practice swords laid in a serried row on the floor. Vincent stoops to pick one up. “You arrive promptly at eleven o’clock in the morning for an hour or two of instruction, depending on my schedule. Monday through Friday.” Jo, limping, pulls her jacket off, lets it drop to the floor. “You pay me two hundred dollars a month. In advance.”

“Is that how to change your mind,” says Jo, drawing her sword.

“That’s less than ten dollars an hour for me,” says Vincent. “For private instruction. Not exactly lining my wallet.” He slashes the air once, twice, turns to face Jo. Ysabel’s lowering herself to the floor, her back to the mirrors. “Has to cost you something, girl. So you aren’t ever tempted to fuck off and not come in one fine eleven o’clock. Money spent tends to focus the attention.”

“How long does it take?” says Jo. She’s turned her right foot toward him, looking at him over her right shoulder. The tip of her sword touching an X of blue masking tape stuck to the floor.

“How long?”

“To learn how to fight with a sword. The Vincent Erne way. How many months do I have to focus my attention with two hundred bucks?”

“To learn?” He smiles, a sour twist in his salt-and-pepper Van Dyke. “I’ll teach you everything you need to know tonight. Four simple lessons. The rest is practice. We’ll know in six months how good you’ll ever be.”

“Okay,” says Jo, lifting her blade, settling herself, knees bent a little. Her left arm hitched up and back, crooked over, her left hand dangling over her shoulder. “Four lessons. First is which end to hold it by, right?”

“No, girl,” says Vincent. “That’s a joke, for theatre students who aren’t learning how to fight. First lesson’s a question.”

“A question?”

“A question. Where are you, girl?”

The basement room is brightly lit. A felt banner hangs on the back wall, an abstract blob of a dove, green leaves, a rainbow hanging over a folding table laden with a coffee urn, paper cups, corrugated paper jackets, packets of sugar and non-dairy creamer, a plate of crumbs and a couple of donuts. A baby grand piano on giant casters under a quilted brown cloth. A rack piled high with folded chairs, more chairs unfolded in a rough circle, men and women standing around them and beside them, coveralls in blue and green, overalls and dungarees, denim jackets, meshback caps in hands. Jo over by the coffee urn in army green, beside her pink-haired Ray in his black leather jacket. In the center of it all stands Ysabel next to a very small woman wearing a pink T-shirt that says Choose a Job. The very small woman holds a tarnished metal tray. On the tray a dozen or more small clear glasses. In each glass glimmering in the bright light a pinch of golden dust.

He stands at the head of the low flight of stairs leading into the room, a blue-black cloak thrown back from his shoulders, his arms and head bare, his dark hair shot through with white, flopping about his eyes and ears, his lean face roughened by a half-grown grey-black beard. His cuirass milky white and edged with silver, though it is shadowed with dents, and the edging pitted. His right hand rests on the hilt of a long knife stuck through a belt of greenish silver links. Shining around his neck a polished silver torc.

“I do not know you, knight,” says the very small woman. Her face is worn, her cheeks round and ruddy. She wears small round spectacles with a thin chain that droops about her neck and her yellow-white hair’s pulled back in a tight bun. “But you must know this is hallowed ground, made sacral by their long use and habit. There’ll be no fighting here.”

“And if I were to draw my blade?” He pulls the knife from its sheath. “The one you’d call, who’d see I keep the peace, it’s her bidding I’m about. Take one more step, Gallowglas, and I let loose my arm. People will get cut.”

Jo hasn’t moved. Her fists are clenched.

“I know you,” says Ysabel, stepping away from the very small woman, her long patched denim skirt sweeping the floor. “And I can tell you, Dagger, neither you nor her – ”

He comes down in a rush then, a sudden squall of chairs scraping, men and women stepping back away as Jo steps up between Ysabel and the knight stopped still at the bottom of the stairs. His hand up knife reversed in his fist blade flat back against his forearm. “Not any more,” he says, and he spits. “Just Sidney now, plain Sidney. Your mother’s seen handily to that.”


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