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20 or 30 floors Below – “Is that a good thing?” – something Nice –

Twenty or thirty floors below the river a sheet of noontide gleaming, bridges marching out into the brightness until, far-off, the great arch of the northern freeway, laden with crawling traffic, and off to the left a cluster of towers, stepped red brick, high and white with darkly narrowed windows, glassy and green-clad, topped by a slanted deck of solar panels, and away beyond them all one lone tower of coppery pink glass framed with pinkly amber stone, stood up tall against the green hills beyond. “It is a matter of some delicacy,” says Agravante, somewhere back behind him. “Hence, the apartment.”

“My lord?” Pyrocles turns away from that wall of glass, the city below, his brow quizzical. “There is some issue with the construction?”

“No, no,” says the Viscount, shaking his head, white locks brushing the shoulders of his slate-grey suit, “all is well here, finally. No; our matter is for elsewhere, and tonight – but its delicacy dictates that our meeting not be marked.”

Pyrocles in his pale blue blazer looks about the empty room, the sweep of glass, the stretch of glossy dark wood floor to the clean bare kitchen island there, between him and Agravante. “How would it be that meeting m’lord in his new tower might go unmarked?”

A nod from Agravante then, and something of a smile. “It’s always been a source of some small consternation, that you are sworn to Southwest, yet live three blocks north of Burnside.”

“An accident of geography, m’lord,” says Pyrocles, “the garage, is – ”

“Of course, your garage,” Agravante holds up a hand, “I do not mean for you to lose your garage. But you are one of my, grandfather’s, finest and most true of knights. You deserve an address within the demesne,” and that upraised hand swings wide, encompassing the space about them both.

“You would have us move, here,” says Pyrocles, still frowning.

“If you like,” says Agravante. “Keep the loft as a pied-à-terre,” he says, setting a ring with a single key on the island, clink. “Or stay there; use this for entertaining. The occasional night away from your boy. I’d have it known: the care I take, of those who serve the Hound. The Sapper’s just across the hall,” he says, “and the Trident a few floors down. The Serpent, too.”

“He’s not a boy, m’lord,” says Pyrocles, stepping toward the island.

“Not a boy?”

“Becker,” says Pyrocles. “Is not a boy.”

“Of course,” says Agravante. “Your very own Gallowglas. Well!” Pushing the key across the island toward Pyrocles’ hand. “Now that our reasons for meeting are established. I’ve work for our low friends, and arrangements for you to make.”

“But delicately,” says Pyrocles, without reaching for the key.

“Anvil,” says Agravante. “Pyrocles. I know you’ve no taste for skulduggery. I assure you, were there any other way,” and he elaborately sighs. “The insult to the King, the Queen, but most of all our new Princess, Annisa – and in my own house! My very sitting room! But made by one without the niceties of our court – ”

“Who,” says Pyrocles, taking up the key.

“Medardus, the Lake Baron,” says Agravante. “I will tell you what must be done.”

“You should come away upstairs,” he says, the scabbard in his hand. He leans close, and after a moment sitting there on the polished concrete she looks up. “Yeah,” she says. “Okay.”

“Leave it,” he says, but she shakes him off and picks up the slender glittering curl of bone, a rib, tarred along the edge there with something thickly black. Looking about as she gets to her feet, turning away from the hand he offers once more. The garage about them empty, otherwise.

Down there in the open room, Iona all in yellow, and Chrissie a shimmer of white there beside her, and also Ysabel, looking up as they step through the door, “Jo!” she cries, but Luys’s arm’s about her shoulders, he’s steering her through the kitchen, into the short dim hall, pushing open the door to her room, and the daylight cooled by white curtains. She wavers in the doorway, his arm still about her. Before them the sword, sunk half the length of its whorled steel blade in the wall, and the gleaming hilt of it even now seems to thrum. On the floor below it the painted skull-mask, tipped over on the black coils of its mane, grinning up at them with those crudely chiseled teeth.

“Does this,” says Jo, “I don’t get it. Does this mean. Did I, is that, is that a good thing? Did I break it? Is it done for? Is it gone?”

Luys kneels there to pick it up. “It merely fell, from the wall,” he says.

“So I just, it,” says Jo.

“You hurled your sword away with such force,” says Luys. He holds up the mask to her hand that reflexively takes it, and as she looks down to see what she’s holding, he stands, he seizes the hilt of her sword there, “If you don’t mind, ma’am,” he says, bracing his other hand holding the scabbard against the wall, and pulls it free with a clatter of bits of sheetrock.

“Don’t,” says Jo. The mask falls to the floor with a soft clack. “Don’t call me ma’am,” she says, turning away, the futon there, sinks to her knees on it. The bone she’s still holding, glittering, stained.

“As my lady wishes,” says Luys. He holds up the sword, angled to peer down the flat of the blade in the light, turning it over. “Don’t,” she says, “call me,” as he’s wiping the length of it clean on the sleeve of his T-shirt. “Just,” she says, but there’s Ysabel bursting into the room, stooping by the futon, reaching for Jo’s hand, “What happened!” she cries. “What’s wrong, Jo, talk to me, are you hurt,” and Jo says, simply, “I killed somebody.” Luys slips the sword into its scabbard, and leans it there against the wall.

“The Harper?” says Ysabel, a hand on Jo’s shoulder.

“Connie,” says Jo.

“Conary, the Cater,” says Luys.

Ysabel looks from the one to the other, and neither of them looking back at her. “What did he do?”

“Nothing!” says Jo. “Not a goddamn,” as Luys is saying, “He stood against your grace with steel in his fist, and did not put up when told.”

“He shouldn’t’ve,” says Jo, leaning forward, away from Ysabel, “I didn’t have to,” as she sets the rib-bone down on the nightstand, clack. “I know,” she says, “we’re not, gonna call the cops, for this sort of, but, so, I mean, your brother?” Looking back, over her shoulder, at Ysabel in gauzy white, a gown loosely draped about her white satin shift. “Only I’m the one he calls, when he needs to, when somebody, and I have to, but I can’t, so, I mean, who do we call?”

“Jo,” says Ysabel, gently, “I don’t understand what you – ”

“I murdered him,” says Jo.

“Forgive me,” says Luys, “but your grace did no such thing.”

“There wasn’t,” Jo’s saying, “I didn’t,” lifting her hands to her face, “they were just, fighting each other, I told them to stop but they were striking at each other, around me, and I, I just,” her hands pushing up and back, through her wine-red hair, “and they all just stood, there, all of them, staring,” and “I’m sure it was an accident,” says Ysabel, stroking Jo’s cheek, but Jo starts back from the touch.

“Your grace is Gallowglas,” says Luys then, “the Huntsman of the Court, the Hawk’s Widow, and the Queen’s Champion. You are the Duchess, ma’am. You are Southeast. Sunward of the river, below Burnside Street, your word is law. Your sword is law. What you do, is law.”

Jo blinks. “I can’t, just,” she says, as he steps away from the wall, toward her, kneels beside her. “Yet you have, my lady,” he says, taking her hand.

“Christ,” she snaps, jerking away from him, “can’t you just, listen, for once,” pushing up to stumble off the futon, away from both of them, “and talk to me, like a goddamn, normal,” looking wildly about, heading abruptly for the door, the hall, Luys lurching to his feet but stopped, suddenly, by Ysabel’s hand laid softly on his arm. He looks down at her, those green eyes, those lips flatly determined, and then he looks away, he steps away, but doesn’t follow after. Out there, a door slams.

A pale hand waved before his face, and nicked about the knuckles with old cuts, a dozen or more, red and dead-skin white and tiny and precise, and something older, darker, a burn healed long ago, perhaps, down by the wrist, close to the face of a heavy gold watch. So Becker sighing sits up, leaning with the motion of the bus, thumbs something on his phone, plucks the buds from his ears as Kerr swings into the seat next to him. “So how’s Intro to Early Education and Family Studies going, huh? Did you get Washington, or Lopez? Because I hear Lopez can be a real hardass.”

“I hadn’t said your name,” says Becker. “Not once. So whatever you think is going on – ”

“Can’t I see an old friend who happens to be on the same bus and just come over and say hi?” Kerr’s grin is sharp, his eyes bright, his curls coming unsprung in his slicked-back hair. “Geeze,” he says, loosening the knot in his bright green tie. “So paranoid.”

“I don’t know what you think you, you’re getting, out of this stalker bonhomie, but trust me,” says Becker, “it’s counterproductive.”

“I told you,” says Kerr, and that grin softens, slips. “I need you for something. It’s a good place to be – my heart has only your best interests in mind.” His grin’s become a smile now, for Becker, Becker by the window in his soft plaid overshirt, his rusty red T-shirt. “And you, chasing yours – I gotta admit, I was wrong. It’s been good for you.” And then what’s left of Becker’s hair stirs as Kerr hauls himself to his feet, steps aside in the aisle, “Your stop’s coming up,” he says.

“Shit,” says Becker, grabbing a blue knapsack, climbing out of the seat. Kerr grabs his arm as the bus snorts itself to a stop. “Go ahead and grow the beard out,” he says. “It’ll look good.” Letting go. Becker backs away a couple of steps toward the door as others are getting up, shifting about them. “And treat yourself!” Kerr calls after him. “Something stupidly nice, okay?” The doors open, front and back. “Do that,” says Kerr.

“Well it’s a question of goddamn logistics,” says the XO, throwing his hands in the air. “This has to be done tonight?” And Pyrocles nods, there in his pale blue blazer, hands clasped behind his back. The XO leans forward, elbows on the table, his sleeveless workshirt, his red cap that says Game Redneckognize Game over the bill. “Why,” he says.

“The Viscount wishes it,” says Pyrocles. “Do you mean, then, to say you cannot do it? Or you will not?”

“Can’t, won’t, shit,” says the XO. “I got a street address. I ain’t never been there, I don’t know the ins and outs, I don’t even know what the guy looks like, I mean – ”

“You will know him, I am certain,” says Pyrocles.

“You know,” says Moody, over there, other side of the table, “a lot of people call this the Stars and Bars? But they’re wrong.” His back to them, he’s looking at that great flag pinned to the back wall of the cabin, a red that’s bright even in the shadows, criss-crossed with star-spangled bars of blue. “That was a flag looked so much like the ol’ Stars and Stripes they ended up shooting themselves, both sides, Second Battle of Manassas, you can look it up. So Stonewall Jackson goes and asks his right-hand man, one G. Gordon Georges, what’s the way to prevent such an unfortunate occurrence from ever occurring again, and Georges, see, he used to be second in command on the Monitor – ”

“You got a point, Danny?” says the XO, and a peevish look over his shoulder.

“He doesn’t like this,” says Moody, still looking up at the flag. “He doesn’t approve.” Turning then, and looking straight at Pyrocles, and he isn’t smiling at all, under the sharp beak of his nose. “He doesn’t want it done, at all.”

“What I wish is immaterial,” says Pyrocles.

“And this was a naval flag,” says Moody, a thumb over his shoulder at the flag now behind him. “Which, I mean, we’re on a boat. The house, at this address. Got a front door?”

“It does,” says Pyrocles.

“And is it right up on the street,” says Moody, “or set back, or,” and Pyrocles says, “Off to the side. There are trees.”

“Well there we go,” says Moody. “Easy-peasy!”

“That’s getting in,” says the XO. “How the hell we getting out?”

“It’s Lake fucking Oswego,” says Moody. “They won’t be looking for white boys pulling a home invasion. They’ll be looking for African-American thugs,” and he archly turns the phrase. “Hell, we got the truck – they’ll be looking for feral Mexican gardeners! We’ve got this,” he says, to Pyrocles.

“Whoa, hold up,” says the XO, leaning back from the table. “We ain’t got nothing, not a damn thing, not until we talk specifications, and payment. This shit is well outside the scope.”

Pyrocles loosens one hand from behind his back to set in the middle of the table a thick roll of bills wrapped about with a rubber band, and the XO eyes it, but doesn’t reach for it. “Same as with the shoe guy?” he says. “Smash shit up, take whatever’s valuable?”

“The house is to be burnt to the ground,” says Pyrocles, “and everything in it. No one is to be, killed. The man is to be beaten, but you are not to cut him, and do not strike him about the head.” He delicately tips the roll of bills over, toward the XO. “Another will be brought to you,” he says, “when it is done.”

“Well, shit,” says Moody. “Guess we’re gonna need some, whaddayacall it. Accelerant.”

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