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Harsh Light on Steel – it Should be Looked at – Perquisites – “Just hope it’s enough” – what One does –

Harsh light on steel, his blade the length of it broadening from pointed tip to palm-width ricasso, there about the flatly cruciform hilt held lightly in both his gauntleted hands, hers a shorter, slender thing, needle-whip and wick about in her one hand netted by the glittering silver guard of wiry strands, thrust and thrust and slipping slice, and each assault brushed off by the merest twitch of his long impassive blade, that here and there tips forward, a simple riposte, wildly batted back, and every steely strike another clang wrung from some antique carillon.

She steps back, away, around, feet bare on polished concrete. Restlessly jagged slashes at the air. Her free hand in a fingerless cycling glove held up against her chest, her plain black T-shirt, her black tights, her wine-red hair. His bootheels click a stately tempo toward her, his blade held up and straight ahead, the flat of it parallel to the floor, tip of it squarely toward her eyes, one of his elbows crooked up at an angle, tight white tank and brown jeans and his cap of black hair shining. Jo springs right, jogs left her shoulder dipping, swing and up a thrust he bats aside with a slight twist, his sword still high, still flat, still stepping toward her, click and click as she scrambles back. “You let me control the field,” says Luys.

Another long step back and right again a straight hard thrust scraped off the tip of his blade turned to parry, to slice past, to poke at her. A leap back, her back toward the big white SUV parked near the wall, her blade up at an angle, guarded, “Like a goddamn tank,” she says.

“At least make me work for it,” he says, “my lady,” click and click, blade up, elbow cocked.

She bounces up on her toes arm high a cut over the top at his head and he yanks his grip up to catch with the forte of his blade but she pivots her cut licking under, a thrust that shoulders dropped he dodges just head back arm snapped straight, a riposte, and “Shit!” yelps Jo skidding a stumble-step back her shaking sword swept around and up, and trembling up between them. His blade still high and flat, his elbow cocked, eyes dark over his impassive mouth.

“Does it hurt?” he says.

“Yes!” she snaps, blade dipping, jerked back up again.

He nods. He claps his hands together, stepping close, tugging one of his big cuffed gauntlets free to slap to the floor. He reaches out to take her arm as her blade-tip dips, drops, and his bare hand peels back the sleeve of her T-shirt, careful of the darkly trickling blood. She hisses. “It doesn’t look so bad,” he says. “Come, let’s sit you down.” Leading her back toward the SUV, and the low-slung car beside it, reddish-brown, with a black stripe along the side. She lays her sword on the roof of the car, and he helps her up to sit on the hood. He’s let the other gauntlet fall, and in his hand a plastic baggie, an eggshell’s worth of golden dust. “You’ll need to take that off, my lady,” he says. “Your shirt.”

“Just,” she’s saying, fingers curled to tug finickily at the sodden sleeve, hissing, “work this up,” and “It’s too high, on your shoulder,” he says. “Take it off. I can help,” and “No,” she says, “no,” a hand up, “give me a sec,” sitting forward, wriggling the T-shirt up and over, “shit,” she says, T-shirt clutched to her chest, blood seeping darkly down her arm. “Go on,” she says.

He leans close, a scoop of shining dust in his fingers that he presses to the hole in her shoulder. She sighs, a long and settling breath that leaves her slumped on the hood of the car. He lifts his hand, gently brushing a wisp of something from the smooth unblemished skin. The blood already drying.

“My lady,” says Luys. “Let me see it.”

She lifts her head, and something of a glare.

“My lady, please.”

“You stuck me, just so you’d have an excuse – ”

“No,” he says, quickly. And then, “Please,” but she’s already dropping the shirt to the floor as she sits up straight, and running up her belly from the waistband of her tights a faintly puckered seam, pinkly pale and up, up to where, canted in the middle of her breast, an ovoid pucker maybe about the size of a thumb, sheened with a faintly rainbowed slick against the rippled skin about it. “Well?” she says. “What do you think? Any bigger? Smaller? Well?”

He straightens, steps back. “You should have that looked at,” he says.

“Yeah?” says Jo. “You got somebody in mind? A quicksmoke specialist? Good with parasitic shit from before the dawn of time? Give me their number, I’m all ears.”

“You must take care,” he says, turning away.

“We were just banging around with live steel!” she says. “You stuck me,” her hand on the tacky blood on her arm, “less than a foot away from that thing? That’s taking care?”

He looks back with a small, tight smile. “My blade goes where I will it, lady. We were in no danger.”

She grabs his hand, yanks at him, “So you did stick me on purpose!” she says.

He takes her hand. “An opponent,” he says, “will make a cut like that to weaken you, and distract you with the pain of it.”

“I’ve been cut before,” she says, wryly sour. “Once or twice. I know what it feels like.”

“But this time,” he says, her shoulders in his big hands, “you raised your blade up after, ready for what I’d do next.”

“Yeah, I did, didn’t I,” slipping from wry to sly. “And that over-under feint!” His elbow, in her gloved palm. “I finally got you with that.”

“I could not parry it, but I did dodge it,” he says, as she tugs him closer.

“You had to stick me to get me to back off,” she says, her hand on his hip.

“That you did, my lady,” he says, just before she kisses him.

“Your grace should not be skulking in a basement,” he says, stooping to reach for his jeans.

“Well I wouldn’t call this skulking,” she says, sprawled naked on the hood of the car.

“You should have a hall,” he says, stepping in one foot, the other, “for sparring, for revels, and for holding court,” tugging them up about his hips.

“I don’t know,” she says. Tearing open the velcro on one of her gloves, “It’s actually,” she says, resettling it, closing it up again, “I like it down here. It’s, oddly, it’s private. In kind of its own way. We can do the Apportionment stuff down here. And Bruno doesn’t mind me using his office, when I need it. And we can, spar here, whenever,” sitting up with a stretch and a flash of that pearly scar, and a very contented grin. He’s tucking in his white tank top. “Any other revels, I mean, really, that’s more Ysabel’s department?”

“You’ve revels of your own to keep,” he says, buttoning up his fly. “With your men.”

“I wish,” she says, sitting up abruptly, scowling, “you wouldn’t,” feet on the bumper, and then the polished concrete, “you know,” she says, grabbing her T-shirt from the floor, “they aren’t mine, Leo’s the one who – ”

“You are the Hawk, now,” says Luys. “You’re the Huntsman. You are Southeast, lady, and her men are yours.”

She closes her eyes at that, she opens her mouth. She bites her bottom lip, and a deep breath in, “I,” she says, “am starving.” Picking up her tights. “What about some breakfast. Jam, up the street.” Stepping into her underwear, pulling them up. “Waffles,” she says. “I’m buying.”

Stepping out of the shower stall, drying his armpits, crotch and thighs, his buttocks and the small of his back, up to ruffle what’s left of his hair, and then wrapping and tucking the white towel about his hips. Opening the medicine cabinet, reaching past a blue plastic pillbox for the shaving bowl, the safety razor in its plastic case, when he stops. Closes the cabinet up again. Eyes his reflection, fingertips rasping the stubble that darkens his cheeks.

He slips through the white curtain drawn about the toilet, the sink, the glass-walled shower, out into the white-painted loft, and the clerestory high above, shining down the length of it. At the far end by the bed in all that light there’s Pyrocles, pulling on a blue shimmer of jacket over his dazzling white shirt, “Oh,” says Becker, resettling the towel about himself, tucked below his bit of belly sucked in, “you’re not working the garage today?”

“Unrest, between North, and Northeast;” says Pyrocles, as Becker pads toward him through all that falling light, “my lord has called for his gentlemen.”


“Bluster only, and again, but we are to meet on it, nonetheless.” Pyrocles smiles, and those pewter weights at the ends of his mustaches sway as he shakes his head. “I’m only in danger of boredom.”

“You can’t, you can’t wear that suit,” says Becker, frowning. “I had it out, I was gonna make a run to the dry cleaner’s on my way,” but Pyrocles holds up a hand, “It’s all right,” he says. “It’s all taken care of.”

“Huh,” says Becker, stopped there at the foot of the bed.

“Yours, too.” Pyrocles smooths lapels, checks his cuffs.

“My clothes?”

“All taken care of,” says Pyrocles. “Something of a perquisite.” Stepping close, a hand to Becker’s shoulder. “And there’s breakfast on the counter, if you’d like,” and he leans close for a kiss that Becker distractedly returns. And then he’s off, pale shoes clacking, past the kitchen nook, the white curtain about the bathroom, to the loft’s door, that mighty thing of beams and planks.

“Breakfast?” says Becker, frowning, to himself.

A thready stream of smoke pulled up and up till there, up there, just out of reach, a sudden curl, a spill of it seeped in a light-struck haze that can’t relieve the gloom. “Why come to me?” says the man leaned back against the desk, his vest and trousers of an understated plaid.

“Well,” says Jo, laid out across the sofa, pillow under her head against the slatted wooden arm, “I figure, if he’s got a phone, you’ve got the number.” Lowering the cigarette to her lips for a long slow crackling drag.

“Your grace,” and he takes in a hiss of a breath, weighing words. “It’s not so simple.” On the desk by his hand a tumbler of ice and brown liquor. “To go to such trouble yourself, in such a matter? It would seem,” and he picks up the glass. “Unseemly,” he says, and sips.

“A phone call,” says Jo. “So, what. I should have Luys do it?”

“Much the same? He does speak with your voice.”

“Neat trick, that,” mutters Jo. And then, hiking up to look over the arm of the couch at him, “Are you seriously telling me, Bruno, that one of the, ah, my guys, my knights, I can’t just, call him? On the phone? When I need to tear him a new one?”

“There are protocols, ma’am,” he says, with a shrug. “People will talk.”

“I want people to talk about this.”

“You want them to tell the right story,” says Bruno, and another sip. “If there were a function, you were both to attend? So that the arrangement of the meeting doesn’t overshadow the reason for it.” Setting the glass back down. “The Samani would’ve been ideal.”

“Yeah, or, I could go down to the Devil’s Corner, maybe buy a drink, bump into him coming out of his office except, wait a minute,” she sits up, “oh, yeah – we fired his sorry ass.”

“We had our reasons,” he says, brushing down the front of his vest. “Perhaps,” looking away, “if your grace were to unfold a few more particulars?”

Jo stubs out the cigarette on a flower-rimmed saucer scarred with old burns. “I need to find out exactly what he got up to, with the dancers, while he was running the club.”

Ice clinks as he lifts the glass again. “The usual, I suppose.” And then, as she looks at him, “Your grace is hardly naïve.”

“I’m not a chump, either.”

“Of course not.”

“The Starling,” says Jo, still giving him that look, and his glass halfway to his lips, “told the Queen,” and that glass droops, “that the Harper came to her, once.”

“Came to her?” Up the glass again, and this time he drains it. “What does that mean?”

“That’s what I’m gonna ask him.” Standing abruptly, “Tell you what,” she says, checking the time on the screen of her phone, tucking it away in the pocket of her jacket. “Her majesty dropped this in my lap, so I’m gonna drop it in yours.” Heading past him, toward the door there, lit with a stippled pane of glass that says, reversed, Bruno’s. “Tell him whatever you want, he’s won the fucking lottery, I don’t care, just get the Harper in a room with me by, let’s say, tomorrow night?” She opens the door. “Call me when you’ve got something.”

He’s looking down, hands on the edge of his desk, and a judicious nod. “Of course, your grace.”

On the screen a photo, Jo and Ysabel, cheek to cheek, black curls trapped lopping over the upturned collar of Ysabel’s white coat, and she’s almost smiling sidelong at Jo, her short hair brown and tufted up every which way, her eyes crinkled, smiling wide, directly into the camera, out of the phone she’s holding in her hand. The clock over their head says 15:48. Tuesday, April 10. She thumbs it, and the screen goes black, and she tucks the phone away again in the pocket of her butter-colored jacket. An elbow on the standing table that runs the length of the sunstruck store window, and a big red cup of cappuccino, the leafily patterned foam of it already disturbed. “Hey,” says somebody behind her, but gently. “How’re you doing.”

He’s tall, the man behind her, not looking at her but back, over his shoulder, at the rest of the sparsely dim coffee shop, the long wood tables, the quietly hulking coffee roaster in the corner there, and sacks of beans about it. He wears a beige fleece pullover, the half-zip open over a blue-striped shirt, and his dark hair’s slicked back, and he looks down at the heavy gold watch about his wrist before offering up a wryly tossed-off smile.

“David Kerr,” says Jo. “Boy Wizard. How’s it hanging.”

“I really,” he says, stepping close, “really,” elbows on the table, “don’t like that word. Wizard. Makes it all sound like some kind of roleplaying game which, I assure you, it is not.”

“So what would you,” says Jo, “I mean, what even is it that you do?”

“What the hell does anybody do? I try to stay comfortable. But you,” he sucks his teeth, “you make me uncomfortable.”

“It’s a gift,” says Jo, lifting her cup. “But now I’m wondering why you came over to say hi.” A sip, that he watches intently, following the cup back down to the tabletop. “How is it,” he says.

“The cut?” she says. “It’s healing. It’s healed, pretty much. The quicksmoke?” and Kerr looks up, sharply, at that, looks about, over his shoulder, “It’s, fine, it’s, you know,” she says, “it’s not leaking, or whatever. Nothing’s, gone, nobody’s gone.”

“Due respect, Duchess,” says Kerr, “but you’d never know. Whatever this shit touches, it’s not just gone. It’s like it never was. You could’ve walked into that warehouse with a whole crew backing you up and if they caught even the slightest wisp of that stuff,” he looks down at his watch, and up again at her, “it never happened like that. They’re gone, they never were, and you always went in there alone, and nobody’d ever be able to tell the difference because they. Never. Existed,” his knuckles knocking the table lightly with each word, “and no one could ever know otherwise.”

“Except me,” says Jo.

“Well,” says Kerr, after a blink or two. “You’re the shell. It’s not gonna eat you until it’s done, and ready to – ”

“No,” says Jo. “I mean,” and she lifts a hand, wrapped about in a fingerless glove, reaching for something, a moment, “when,” she says, “he dumped the stuff, the wizard, on the bridge – ”

“Lier,” says Kerr.

“Lier,” says Jo. “It took him. And Ysabel. Before it,” her gloved hand, closing in a fist, “got stuck, in me,” that fist, over her heart, “and for a while, it was like that, like she’d never been. Nobody knew. Except me.” He’s looking her in the eye now, and he’s frowning. “But she went somewhere,” says Jo. “They both did. A place, and, I, went there. And we came back. And everything went back to how it’d been.”

“So that’s why you’re so complacent?” says Kerr.

“I’m scared out of my fucking mind,” says Jo.

“Okay,” says Kerr. “Okay.” Leaning down, shoulders hunched. “Have you seen Keightlinger, since then?”

“Who, the one with the beard?” Kerr nods, and Jo shakes her head, “No,” she says, “no, thank God. What the hell did you do to him?”

“Something stupid,” says Kerr. “Just hope it’s enough.” Straightening, stepping back from the table, from her, “Look, here, let me,” he says, “in the, ah, just in case. If you, find you need help. Just, say my name. I’ll, I’ll be there.”

He’s turning to leave, but “David,” says Jo, and he looks back, “Well,” he’s saying, “actually,” but “Thank you,” says Jo. “For shutting him down, but also. For being there. To call Luys. Because I, I never think, about backup.”

“Yeah,” says Kerr, stepping away. “Well.”

Grunt and grunt and a guttural “shit” and a bubbling squeak of a giggle. Reflections flicker in the glassy dead expanse of a television screen in time with the shrilling jounce of bedsprings. There’s two in the room, queen-sized, heads against the wall there, and the one over closest to the window with its curtains drawn has piled atop it boxes small and glossy black, printed with swirls of stylized smoke in different neon inks, chartreuse and orange, leafy green, magenta, teal, and scattered among them plastic clamshells that seal up ranks of little amber vials, Red Tobacco, say the haphazardly pasted labels, Matcha Menthol, Grand Reserve Gold, Seabreeze Mojito. The grunting’s a groan now, low, drawn-out, the giggling a squealing breathless round of “Yes!” and “Yes!” and “Yes!” Chilli’s flat on his back on the other bed, eyes grimaced shut and blond hair dank with sweat, one hand knotted in the sheets and one hand up, holding tight the arm of the woman astride his hips, her blond hair bouncing in squiggled curls, a babydoll nightie slipping from her shoulders, “Shit,” he’s saying, “shit,” and “Oh, yes!” she cries, wide-eyed, but she stops with a jerk looking over her shoulder half-turning hunched up on a knee, “Hello,” she says, smiling brilliantly. “Shit!” roars Chilli, kicking scrambling back up the head of the bed, the weight of her gone, she’s gone, “Shit!” he’s yelling, swiping at the air, at the filmy stocking drifting in languid folds to his lap, the glossy page torn from some magazine he bats way, “shit,” he’s saying, “shit,” sitting up, bent over, panting.

“Harper,” says the man at the foot of the bed, a sword in his hand.

And screeching something incoherent Chilli naked uncoils to his feet the room lit up in a burst his hands above his head bring down the heavy blade of his short sword with a “hup” from the man who ducks to one side, his own blade coming up from under, piercing Chilli’s chest. He lets go, steps aside as Chilli blunders past to crash into the dresser, and the enormous television wobbles. He turns about, that blade stuck clean through, the elegantly simple hilt of it maybe a half a foot out from a wetly yellow wound, and rising and falling with his ragged breath. “Disarmed yourself,” he spits, but that man’s pulling a handkerchief from a pocket of his understated plaid vest, and as he steps close Chilli drops his sword from fumbling hands, reaches for that shuddering hilt, but that man’s pressed a hand to Chilli’s chest, the handkerchief wrapped about the base of the blade, and Chilli’s hands slackly fall as shove and a grating scrape the blade’s yanked free. Chilli slumps back against the dresser, and the television wobbles again. “You’re pathetic,” says the man, wiping his hands on the handkerchief.

“Bruno, come on,” says Chilli, panting. A hand up to that wound. “You didn’t have to do her like that.”

“You didn’t have to do it at all.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Chilli pushes past him into the space between the beds, falling to his knees. “Ever since that bitch –

“Harper,” says Bruno, quiet and cold. “Every time you’ve been given some responsibility, an opportunity, you’ve pissed it away. Come to find out today that the Duchess was right to demand your ouster from the club;” and, as Chilli looks back with a jerk of his head, cheeks angrily mottled over his yellow beard, “you only went and diddled the Starling,” says Bruno.

“That’s,” sputters Chilli, turning about on his knees, “that’s what you do!” The wound oozing stuff like honey, spun the color of milk, unheeded down his ribs to plop on his bare thigh. “It comes with the office!” In his hand that torn page, crumpled, thin and glossy.

“Not the Queen’s favorite, you blasted fool,” says Bruno. “Now. Here is what you will do.” His narrow shoes step close. “The Duchess has taken to sparring in the mornings, with the Mason. At the residence. You will go there, tomorrow, around ten of the clock. You will throw yourself at her feet, and you will take what you have coming.” Those shoes step back, away, leaving behind a faint imprint in the ecru carpet. A door opens, closes. Chilli’s spreading flat that page, smoothing the crinkles, a sumptuous boudoir, a woman, knee up on an overstuffed footstool, a brief nightgown, squiggles of blond hair, the words about her, lace-up corset-style, daring, dramatic, adjustable straps, matching panty, imported nylon.

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