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Marfisa falls – Just two Blocks away –

Marfisa falls sprawling greaves striking sparks from the bricks sword bouncing from her hand clattering away as she clambers after it sandal-soles slapping for purchase when the kick catches her in the gut lifting rolling her arms tucking about her head tumbling after the blade that skitters down the slight slope toward the glass doors away across the plaza. Cries from the crowds on the great sweep of steps, the low walls to either side of the brick-paved plaza, the balconies hung with banners slack in the still night air, the hawk and the hound and shining above them both in the harsh white light the bee. On her side Marfisa her head cradled one curled arm eyes swollen shut yellowing lip split the ravages of a blow. Leaves of her armored skirt askewed a dent bashed into the edge of her breastplate crimping broken links of torn mail beneath dug into ripped silk and an ugly, milky wound. Groaning rolling her free arm over she plants her hand by her face. Names are cut into the bricks beneath her fingers, James Elkins and Michael Lynn Tinnin and Marie Equi. The crowd gone quiet again. The footsteps nearing echo starkly, sharp metallic clacks. Muscles clench under a darkening bruise she pushes herself up hissing armor chiming to her hands and knees and stooping into loping strides arms back and wide for balance footsteps ringing faster now behind her and louder, closer, there the sword her hand on the hilt lifting turning swinging to catch the blade sliced at her knocked to one side ducking her shoulders beneath the slice her arm slipping up under the massive gauntlet driving her sword inside to stop suddenly screeching blade-tip caught against the greened bronze disk strapped to his bare chest.

He staggers back one step, two, his battered boots heavy on the bricks. The painted skull-mask swallowing half his head its upturned mane of black hair rippling slowly in some unfelt tremor of wind. Beneath the crudely chiseled mask-teeth overhanging his lips twist in an ugly smile. She’s half-bent over still her sword yanked back before her at an angle shoulders heaving with the effort of dragging in gulps of air one slow tentative step at a time backing away chime and smack of skirt and sandals in the breathless air of the plaza ringed by hundreds of people limned by sharp white streetlights, hundreds of mouths half-open waiting to howl or cheer or gasp or cry again. His free hand wrapped in a knotted leather thong pressed to that greened disk his sword twirls once in his gauntleted hand that mask lifting black mane floating weirdly in the light and the empty shadowed holes where eyes should be looking away from her crouched before him looking up and over the balcony above the glass doors where the banners hang limply hound and hawk and bee and beneath them the Queen in her black dress standing, behind her on the balcony Jo in a simple dress long and grey with yellow piping, her hand white-knuckled in Ysabel’s white-knuckled hand.

“End this,” says the Queen.

“You’re changing the subject,” says Jo, pushing through the crowd after Ysabel who’s through the door and darting to the right, singing “Ever survive, ever so I, honest of mind most of the time!” Twirling arms flung wide in her bulky pea coat. “Ysabel!” calls Jo. “The line’s gonna be fucking ridiculous.”

“So?” says Ysabel. “I want a donut.”

“I asked you a question.”

Ysabel’s smiling eyes shining, black curls swept back beneath a grey watch cap. “Could it possibly be more important than a chocolate donut with chocolate frosting and those horrible little chocolate cereal puffs all over it?”

“I said wouldn’t it be better if she won.”

Ysabel’s smile sloughs away. Jo there before her the crowd pressing about them, Jo shoulders hunched hands stuffed in the pockets of her careworn jacket grey-green in the lurid neon light, cuffs of her baggy houndstooth pants rolled over her mismatched Chuck Taylors. Jo saying, “You could go home, or at least a fuck of a lot closer.”

“You’d be dead, Jo,” says Ysabel.

“Which is a downside,” says Jo, looking to one side.

“And I’m fine, here, with you. You know?” That smile slinks back. “I’ve seen more shows the past couple of months than I ever saw in a year with Roland.”

“Ten dollar covers,” says Jo, “and shitty well drinks. For this I’m supposed to beat your girlfriend in a sword fight.”

“Ex-girlfriend,” says Ysabel.

“I hit her with a sword – if I manage to hit her with a sword – that’s it, right? A duel counts? She’d be gone, like Tommy Rawhead.” Ysabel nods. “I don’t want to do that again,” says Jo.

“If you don’t – Jo, that’s why she’ll kill you. And not just beat you. To be sure.”

Jo’s shaking her head. “I could just not. Say no when she gets in my face. Drop the sword. Walk away.”

“But,” says Ysabel, “your honor – ”

Jo barks up a bitter laugh. “Fuck that. Seriously. I’ll be able to walk, is the thing. And anyway I don’t give a shit about my honor, remember?”

“I said,” says Ysabel reaching up as if to touch Jo’s face, “you held it lightly enough.” She stops, lowers her hand. “I was wrong. Wasn’t I.”

“Let’s, you’ve got to be freezing.” Jo’s looking at Ysabel now, her legs below her short pea coat in black stockings whorled with fronds of clocking. “You forgot to wear pants again.”

Ysabel claps her grey-gloved hands. “I know what to do!” She grabs Jo’s hand dragging her back through the thinning crowd spikey heels clicking on the sidewalk. “Whoa,” Jo’s saying, and “what the hell” around the corner past the club Ysabel saying “It’s literally I mean just two blocks away, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before” at a half-run across the street and through a narrow empty parking lot, under a colonnade and over the light-rail tracks to stomp to a stop in a little cobbled plaza. Another colonnade freestanding across from them says Ankeny Square in mottled gold letters rimmed with old water stains. Behind them a grand old building, laser-printed signs saying No Sitting or Sleeping in Front of the Windows taped over and over to the glass along the first floor. In the center of that plaza a dead fountain, a low octagonal pool. Two caryatids in the center of the empty pool stand back-to-back a great basin held over their heads. “Do you have a penny?” says Ysabel.

“A penny.” Jo flips open her jacket to dig in her pants pockets.

“Any coin will do. But a penny’s best.”

“You gonna chuck it in and make a wish?” Jo drops a penny into Ysabel’s outstretched hand.

“Something like that,” says Ysabel, holding it up between them. “Okay,” she says. A metallic clang somewhere behind her, then a rising gurgle. “Tell me. What is it,” and she takes a deep breath, “what do you like best about, our situation.” The spout in the basin is trembling.

“Our situation.”

“If – if you were to walk. What would you miss the most?” Water’s bubbling up and out of the spout, splashing into the basin. More clanking, and the bubbling redoubles.

“The promise,” says Jo. “I made a promise, and I’m keeping it. And I don’t want to break it now or fudge it, and get out on a technicality. You know?”

“I,” says Ysabel, “okay.” She nods quickly, shivering. “It is cold.” Water’s seeping out over the edge of the basin, here and there and there, drips becoming trickles that spread into falls joining all around the rim to become a glimmering curtain splashing into the dead dry pool. Ysabel’s unbuttoning her coat.

“Ysabel?” says Jo. “What are you,” and then Ysabel’s handing her the coat. Tugging off her cap. Holding out her hand, turning and lifting a foot up onto the edge of the pool. “I want to do this before it gets too deep,” she says.

“You’re nuts,” says Jo, helping her step up onto the edge.

“Not my rules,” says Ysabel, and she steps gingerly into the water. “Oh, fuck me, it’s freezing.” Hugging herself in her minidress shining silver and white wading a couple of steps up to the waterfall. “Ysabel?” says Jo, but Ysabel ducking her head and closing her eyes steps through the water with a shriek. “Ah geeze,” says Jo, holding the pea coat. Behind the waterfall Ysabel’s reaching up to grab a caryatid’s upturned arm, stepping onto its plinth, balancing on her toes against the statue ducking under its arm to press the penny to its expressionless lips, to whisper something in its ear and follow it with a kiss, to drop the penny in the stony drape of scarf across its impassive breast. Stepping off the plinth and ducking back through the waterfall, gasp and sputtering, leaping tottering up on the edge of the pool as Jo reaches up to help her down.

“There,” says Ysabel, brushing water from her face as Jo wraps her in the coat. She huddles into it. Jo rubs her arms. “That’s that,” says Ysabel. “Say yes if she challenges you. Fight her if it comes to that. It’ll all end up okay.”

“Yeah?” says Jo. “What’d you wish for?”

“I can’t tell you that!” says Ysabel. “It wouldn’t come true. Surely you must know that much at least.”

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El Sincero,” written by Wheat, copyright holder unknown.

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