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Jo, crumpled – God buy you – Kissing, and Kissing again – no Promise broken – Blood; Sweat; Tears –

Jo crumpled to white tile dusted over all about with gold, hand pressed to her breast clenching, relaxing, lifting, as she opens her eyes, “Ow,” she says. Reaching for the rim of the tub, and the skin between her breasts left clean, pale, dust falling as she pulls herself up, dust crunching under her fingers, squeaking under her thigh, her knee as she shifts, crusts of it clinging, wetly, dropping in darker clumps. The tub filled with dust, wet, a shoreline rippled, trembling, crumbling up as fingers wriggle free, “Ysabel,” says Jo, a croak, grabbing the hand, pulling, a chin appearing, lips spitting, working, eyes blinking, arm pulled free, shoulder, chest and throat a spilling hiss of dust that slithers under around behind her as she sits up shaking, sobbing, laughing soundlessly. Jo’s brushing dust from those eyes, those cheeks, the glinting stubble of that hair, that mouth, and Ysabel presses a kiss, triumphant, to the tips of her fingers.

Unsteadily Jo makes her way through buttery summer light to the robe that’s hung from a hook on the wall, the wall of white tile splattered, spangled in a great jagged bloom of gold all about the tub. Gold, shaken from plaid folds as she digs into a pocket of the robe, pulling out a crumpled orange pack of cigarettes, a book of matches.

Pop and spark Jo lights a cigarette, sits on the rim of the tub. Shakes out the match. Offers another to Ysabel straining against that softly golden weight to take it in her lips. Jo holds out her own, touching the bright coal of it to Ysabel’s, and Ysabel puffs until with a crackle hers is lit. Tips back her head, both hands resting limply on all that gold.

“We’re gonna need a bigger tub,” says Jo, and sputtering, coughing, Ysabel begins to laugh.

Signing her name, Jo Maguire, her hand hangs a moment, pen above the heavy, gilt-edged page. Three names written, above hers, “Thomas Thomas?” she says. Luys beside her looks back along the hall, flocked yellow wallpaper, brass chandeliers brightly lit, a spray of flowers atop an old mahogany hutch, lilies pink and white, spears of pale green gladiolus, there by the flashing lights of a cable modem. The doorway before them hung with red curtains, and light glaring from soffits all about the room within, green-cushioned pews in tight rows facing a white-draped catafalque. The casket softly taupe, with coppery fittings, lid of it propped open, laid within a man in a sober grey suit, his long hair brushed to a dark gleam over the pillow. Pale hands folded at his breast, just so.

In the second row a woman, hunched in a puffy winter coat, head ducked, short hair the color of iron. At the back of the room the only other figure in a green jacket zipped up to his chin, a maroon meshback cap that says Freightliner over the bill, and he’s looking out from under it directly at Luys, who nods, crisply, turns back to Jo, to the body resting before them. His brow lifts, his lips purse. “I know him,” he says, quietly, but his deep voice carries in the hush. “The Duke’s jape.” Whispering, now.

“Frankie,” says Jo, quietly. “Reichart.”

Luys steps back. “I,” he says, “I’ll just,” and another step back. He turns. He makes his way down the aisle, he sits at the back of the room, across from the man in the green jacket, who leans over to say, quietly, “A good evening to you, sir.” Jo’s holding a crumpled orange pack of cigarettes in her hand.

“Your grace,” whispers Luys. The man in the green jacket shakes his head. “Address me direct, sir, if you please. It’s only myself, and the union, after all.”

“Soames,” says Luys. Jo’s reaching into the casket, tucking a cigarette into the breast pocket of that suit.

“Uncanny,” says the Soames. “How they linger, when they’ve gone.” Luys doesn’t nod at that, or shake his head. Jo’s stepped into the aisle, she’s kneeling now, creak of her boots, hand up on the pew as she says something to the woman hunched there, unmoving as Jo leans in, looks up, repeats herself.

“She must understand,” says the Soames. “Her grace, I mean. It was an accident. He thought to defend his friend; Swift thought only to defend himself – when he saw the blood, red, on his blade,” and he shakes his head. “There’s no retaliation to be called for,” he says, “is what we’d have her understand.” Jo’s stopped, in the middle of what she’s saying, as the woman begins to speak, lifting her iron head to make a point, and another, and only a few words can be made out of her brittle voice, “didn’t,” and “you,” and “fault.”

“Mrs. Reichart, please,” says Jo, standing, stepping back. The woman in the pew looks away with a shake of her head, and Jo leaves, abruptly, red curtains flapping in her wake as Luys pulls himself to his feet.

Barreling out the front door of the funeral home head down hood up hands jammed in her pockets Jo heads down the front steps into the mostly empty parking lot. The front door bangs open again, there’s Luys, coming after her, and she quickens her pace, around the corner of the big brick home, where she stops, suddenly. Behind a screen of hedge the reddish brown car, the black stripe down the side, and parked beside it now a white SUV, gold trim, tinted glass, the back of it opened, a woman there in a yellow track suit, and a man in blue coveralls, handing her a white plastic bucket. Skirting them Jo makes her way around to the other side of the SUV, the rear door open there, demure interior lights, a grey-trousered leg, a lemon and grey pump, “You’re late,” she says, heated, a hand on the doorpost, and her eyes wide, her face slack, “Jesus fucking Christ,” she says.

“I do apologize,” says Ysabel, sitting back in the white leather seat, her cheeks, her forehead still blotched with traces of color, her jacket rent, her camisole stained. “I promised I would be here for you.”

“You cut off your hair,” says Jo, a hand to her chest.

“I had it cut,” says Ysabel, her green eyes immense. “How was,” and she shakes her head, “how are you,” she says.

“Oh,” says Jo, looking away. Luys is out there, by the corner of the home, waiting. “My ex-boyfriend’s mother just told me to go to hell, at his funeral. But hey,” lowering her hood, turning back to Ysabel, the flash of the white dressing taped to her brow, “apparently I’m running half the city?”

“A fifth,” says Ysabel, but Jo’s shouting, “Why didn’t you say something! Why didn’t you tell me!”

“I wanted,” says Ysabel, and the SUV shakes as the tailgate’s closed. Out there, at the edge of the shadowed lot, the Soames half-listens to what the man in the blue coveralls is telling him. “I wanted you,” says Ysabel, “to have a chance to say goodbye, before you were caught up in all of this.”

“You should’ve asked,” says Jo, stepping back.

“I didn’t think I had to,” says Ysabel, closing her eyes.

“Where do you wish to go?” says Luys, signaling a turn, working the clutch and the gear shift with some concentration. And a block or so later, Jo says, “I don’t know. What does a Duke do, time like this?” And then, “Duchess.” And then, “What do I do.”

Luys signals another turn.

“Will there be anything else, ma’am,” says the Chariot all in yellow, setting the bucket down by the tub.

“No, Iona,” says Ysabel in the hall. “I’ll see myself to bed.”

“Of course,” says Iona. “I’m right downstairs, should you need anything.”

After a moment, Ysabel nods.

“Hell of a view,” says Jo, leaning back against the hood of the car. Past the fence a dizzying fall of steps to an inky reservoir below, and then the lights, house lights and porch lights, signs and storefronts, streetlights an awful grid broken, gentled here and there by blank dark clusters and thickets of tree-shadow, all of it lipped by a dark low line of a ridge, blocks and blocks away. Past all that the glowing downtown haze, clusters of light piled up under the blank black sky, and there a lone tower off to the right, a silhouette dotted with windows irregularly lit, and lined at the top bright red and green. “We need to talk,” she says, and she drops the spark of her cigarette to the sidewalk. “I can’t,” she says.

“Milady?” says Luys, sitting beside her, work boots up on the bumper.

“I am never gonna get you not to do that, am I.”

“I will,” he says, big hands on his knees, a bit of leather thong tied about his wrist. “Withstand oppressor’s power, with arm, with puissant hand. Recover right, for those that wrong has grieved.” Looking up, at her. “Battle guile, and malice, and despite.” Those eyes, big, darkly brown. “And I will show my liege the respect that she is due.” One of his hands on the leaden pommel of a very long sword, the hilt of it and the ricasso wrapped about in leather, the tip of it against the sidewalk, and he bows his head, tilting the weight of it toward her, and trembling Jo lets out the breath she’s holding and leans over, leans down, gently to kiss his knuckle.

On the counter by the mound of roses a blue glass bottle sealed with pink wax, a white card propped on the counter before it, a simple drawing in blue ink of a hound’s head. Ysabel lays the card flat, shaking her head at it. Stepping out of her pumps she picks up the bottle and carries it off, padding down the dim hall to the bathroom shining white at the end of it, where she sets it on the floor by the lidded bucket, the plastic milk jug, the tureen, wrapped in foil.

Skinning off her camisole she leaves it maroon and yellow on the white tile. Leans against the sink, green eyes blinking in the jagged oblong of mirror set in the wall. Fingers to a delicate chin, lifted to brush sleek black fuzz. She looks out suddenly, into the dark hall, blinking. Waiting a moment. Says something, a barely shaped breath, not even a whisper, “Jo?”

White coat about her shoulders, clutched to her throat, past the blank glass portholes of washer and dryer, through the door out under the low canopy. A fire’s burning in the patterned bronze chiminea, and someone’s sitting up in one of the Adirondack chairs, long legs gathering themselves to push up a shadow, a silhouette haloed blazing white and gold in the firelight. “My Queen,” says Marfisa.

Kissing him, and kissing him again, his breath catching as she reaches a bare arm out from under her white coat parting, gripping her arm, pulling her close, and he grunts, her gloved hand under his down vest, inside his shirt, gripping his wide brown belt as she kisses his throat, as she presses a delicate kiss to her shivering lips, uncertain what to say.

“Yes,” he says, when she looks up at him, and then, thickly, “please,” as she falls heavily to her knees in the dying grass, sheepskin coat draped over stockinged feet, and he’s hiked himself up on the hood to give her room, leaning back on an elbow as she undoes his jeans, belt lolling in her hand, her hand in that white-gold hair as she kisses her there, at the top of her thigh, “Yes,” she says, “yes, please.”

“Oh hell yes,” she says, wrenching the car door open as her white coat falls from her shoulders, gasping as she’s caught in arms laid back along the grass, sitting heavily in the back seat as he looms in over leaned against the front seat levered up, hands at the buttons of her jeans she kisses him once more before rolling over on her hands and knees, kisses that skim her belly, that lick at a nipple, that meet her mouth left slack and a weak laugh rolling over in the grass, kicking free of trousers tangling her legs as he helps her tug her black jeans over her hips, as she reaches down to pull her up, “It’s cold,” she says.

Her hand on his between her thighs, his boot scraping pavement as she skips away laughing, as she lunges to her feet, he hisses, she bites her lip, her cheek grinding digging the heel of her hand in the vinyl as one door crashes open and the next, thump and squeak after slithery whick and the car rocks, his hips pump shoulders arm spread out against the roof head wedged at an awkward angle, “Wait,” she’s saying, and a whoop of delight as slap her hand catches her arm, “hold it,” she’s saying, panting, he falters, whirling about in the hall to spin to crash together, “there,” she’s saying, “try,” then she groans, she lets her turn her about, leaning back as she reaches around the sheepskin coat, and his face is set, his hand braces her hip, grunting, her fingers unzipping her pants, worming under, in, her cries, muffled by the seat, her sigh, in her arms.

The screen door croaks, he holds it open with his foot, he’s patting his coat, his pants for his keys. The hand on his shoulder, the heavy gold watch. “I, could,” says Kerr, a small sly smile.

“You could,” says Becker, looking down, and that hand shifts, lifts away, as he says, “but.”

“But,” says Kerr. Leaning back against the siding weirdly pale in the streetlight.

“I have,” says Becker, and he sighs, “this job? In the morning.”

“Hey,” says Kerr. A finger under Becker’s chin. “There’s the basic deal of this world. Right?” Becker, looking up at him. “You take,” says Kerr, “or you get took,” and he kisses Becker, stepping back, smile widening at Becker’s smile. “Start taking.”

“Tomorrow,” says Becker, and, stepping back, again, “All right,” says Kerr, nodding. “Tomorrow.” Turning, heading away, down the stairs.

Unlocking the front door, stepping inside. There by the low glass-topped coffee table Becker empties his pockets, pants and coat, setting down a wallet, a phone, a ring of keys, a plastic baggie, a handful of change, he stops, quarter twirling down to clatter flat against the glass. Picks up the baggie. Looks at it, there in his palm.

“It is what’s within,” he says, leaning over her, yellow shirt unbuttoned, her boot in his lap. “What we weep, what we sweat, what we bleed,” and “I know,” she’s saying, “I get it, I do,” laid out across the back seat, jeans lopped open, “I just,” she says, shivering, arms wrapped about herself, “I didn’t, get it.”

He shifts, closer to her, jangle of belt buckle, slur of his down vest against the vinyl. The one hand held over her, two fingers crooked, sheened with something glimmering in the darkness. “It fades, rapidly, unless it’s fixed,” he says.

“Turned,” she says, shaking with something that might be laughter.

“Yes,” he says. “But.” Gently nudging aside the bit of gauze askew on her brow, the tape peeleing away. “Freshly spilled,” he says, intent on his fingers, dabbing at the wound there, ugly, open, darkly red. “It’s as puissant as any pinch of dust,” he says.

She fills the glass up to the brim, then sets the bottle of milk back in the refrigerator, closing the door, shutting out the harsh white light of it. Leaving the full glass there by the sink she takes up the tray and heads back down the hall, glasses clinking, into the flickering yellow and white room, the curls and pools of light from serried ranks of candles aflame along the dresser there, the windowsills, and she sets the tray on the bed by Marfisa on her side, propped up on an elbow. Shucking her bulky sweater Ysabel clambers naked under the blankets, careful of the tray, “This cordial,” she’s saying, “you must try. An eau de vie,” plucking up one of the high narrow glasses of something faintly in that light just barely green, “infused,” and Marfisa takes it from her, “with an essence of fir.”

“Fir,” says Marfisa, dubious, and then, “what is this supposed to be,” with a gesture of her glass over the rest of the tray, the heel of bread, the cheese, the dish of olives, purple and black and grassy green. “I thought,” says Ysabel, “you might, perhaps, be hungry.”

“Lady,” says Marfisa, and she drains her glass, and carefully sets it back on the tray, by the wooden salt cellar. “I didn’t come here to come back.”

“But you haven’t left,” says Ysabel, her glass in her hand.

“I tried,” says Marfisa, and Ysabel closes her eyes. “I did try. I walked out into the woods until I forgot my words,” and her hand on Ysabel’s still hand. “I woke up in a Gresham motel. I thought about, flying – I set a foot on the steps of a bus. My brother, my own Handle, gave me money to go.” Her hand, pulled away. “I threw it in his face.”

“You tried,” says Ysabel, the words half-voiced, lifting from a whisper, “and you failed. And now the King’s come back. And you, you might kiss me,” and she’s smiling, “in the street, for all to see,” reaching over the tray for Marfisa’s hand. “And not a promise broken.”

“Your brother can’t be King,” says Marfisa.

“He sat the Throne,” says Ysabel.

“What does that matter, lady, when he’s sat a mechanical at your deliberations! With my brother, and faithless Linesse, and Southeast’s empty chair – ”

“The Gallowglas,” says Ysabel.

“As?” says Marfisa, and then she looks away, slumping at Ysabel’s nod, white hair a cloud, massed on the pillows. “Speak your mind,” says Ysabel, sipping her cordial.

“You will not hold this city long,” says Marfisa. “Even if you might turn the owr.”

“I can,” says Ysabel. “I will.”

“They will turn on you,” says Marfisa. “My brother has written to other courts, seeking any spare Princess – ”

“We know,” says Ysabel.

“A new Bride,” says Marfisa, looking to Ysabel, “for the King to come.”

“So come you back,” says Ysabel. “Take up your sword again. Help us.”

Marfisa sits up, leaning on an elbow. “I was told,” she says. “I will never kneel to another King.” And then, “Lady, leave with me.” Ysabel drinks off the rest of her cordial, and sets her glass down, clink. “Come away with me,” says Marfisa, and then, “Ysabel,” she says. “Do you love me.”

And Ysabel leans over to kiss her, Marfisa starting back, and Ysabel pursues her, heedless of the tray, kissing her over, over and down.

“I wanted,” she says, headed around to the trunk of the reddish brown car, “to talk.” Bare arms about herself.

“Yes,” he says, leaned against the open door. “You said. Aren’t you cold?”

“Before,” says Jo. “I wanted to talk before we, did, that.”

“If we get back in the car,” says Luys, “I might turn on the heater,” but “Nope,” she says. Holding out her hand. “Give me the keys.” And then, “Luys. Mason.” And stepping to the rear fender, he hands them over. “Last week,” she says, jangling through them in her hand. “That night. When we, the three of us.” Shivering, her other arm still wrapped about herself.

“Yes,” says Luys.

“I wasn’t entirely honest,” she says, holding up one of the keys, darkly brassy bronze against her fingers.

“That’s, a key to the car,” says Luys, after a moment.

“To the trunk,” she says. “Jessie had the car keys, or Sweetloaf. This one he always kept, in a pocket, on his person, safest place, he said, in the city,” and she fits the key to the lock of the trunk. “Only reason I was in that bed that night was so when he went to sleep.” Looking up. “When you went to sleep. I could get it, and come down here. See for sure.”

“See, what?” says Luys, his hand leaned on the trunk, and then, when she does not look away, he does, shifting, lifting his hand away. “The mask,” she says. “That you wore, that once.”

“I did not want to do that,” he says, the one hand rubbing the other.

“Don’t get me wrong,” says Jo. “I’m glad you did.” She turns the key in the lock. “But. I saw it, that day, when he introduced me to the crew? I saw it, or thought I saw it. I was pretty sure I saw it.” Her hands on the lid. “But it wasn’t till that night, last week. Frankie was there. Did you know that? Washing dishes. It was the last, time.” Shivering she takes in a breath. “It wasn’t, until he said – anyway. That I got up the nerve,” and she opens up the trunk.

Inside a couple of boxes, one lined with a garbage bag, holding a big brown glass growler. She pulls out from between them a mask that could swallow half a head, white, crudely painted with thick black lines to resemble a grinning skull, and a mane of long black hair that stirs as she holds it up with a swallowed sob, her eyes shut tight.

“Jo?” says Luys. He leans into the car, comes out with her black coat, stands there holding it in his hands as unsteady she sits back against the lip of the open trunk, the mask held at her knee. “It was gone,” she says, head bowed. “Lost.” Her other hand a fist against her heart. “I dropped it,” and the mane of it rustles by her feet, “somewhere, else.” Looking up, looking back. “He gave you the key, didn’t he,” she says.

“He,” says Luys, frowning, “asked me to drive, yes.” Stepping closer, her coat in his hands. “To the motel. Jessie had left, unexpectedly and – ”

“That bastard,” she says, to herself. “He knew. How could he possibly have known.”

“Milady,” he says, “I don’t understand,” but shaking her head she’s turning, setting the mask back in the trunk, coiling its spill of mane in after it. “Milady?”

“Okay,” she’s saying. “All right. I’ll do it.” She’s peeling the garbage bag away from the neck of the growler, tugging at a sticky patch, and her face screws up, she draws back, “That, smell,” she says, waving a hand, looking for a word, “that, sour, that’s the, the,” and Luys beside her now says “It’s been in there a week, or more. It spoils, if it’s not fixed.”

“So it’s, worthless?” she says, stepping back as he nods, once, and she turns about, away, “Fine,” she says, and “okay, that’s not a, we can just,” she says, and “that’s fine, I will,” she says, and then she shouts, “I will!”

And standing there, her coat in his hands, Luys says, “What will you, my lady.”

“Freeze,” she says, with a laugh, taking her coat from him. Nodding toward the open trunk as she slips an arm into a sleeve, “We’re gonna find somewhere we can hose that out,” she says, “and then,” and she laughs, “we’re gonna go about the, the,” her hand waving again, “the realm? I guess?” Headed past him suddenly, she lurches for the trunk, slams it shut, “We’ll get some more!” she cries. Past the car now, up onto the sidewalk, “Somebody’s got to still be up,” she says. Turning back there, and behind her the fence, and beyond, below, the lights of the night-filled city, and her wet cheeks shine, but she’s smiling, laughing again, “That’s how it works, right? Blood, sweat? Tears? Our offering, to the Queen?”

And Luys, the Mason, nods. “Yes, your grace,” he says.

All that white gold hair spread over a bent knee not so pale as her wet cheek, fingers chilly white against the warm bare belly, gently stroking a scribble of hair, black hair longer than the fuzz that sleeks the scalp between her own spread thighs, and as she lets herself fall back to the tangled blankets, spilled salt, tumbled olives, she closes her eyes, she bites her lip, gripping that upturned hip now, fumbling, slapping the sheets, knocking a delicate glass to the floor, and out in the hall Jo’s lifted her hand to knock but there’s a whimper, a groaning sob, she opens her hand, lowers it. In her other hand the mask, the mane of it looped about her fingers. Past the closed door a rustle, a murmur, she steps back, the lilt of a question, an answering syllable, she stoops, hauls up in her free hand the weight of the growler, wrapped in a plastic garbage bag, sloshing faintly as she steps into the room across the hall, unlit, white walls. She sets the growler down.

She stands there, unmoving, for a time.

The light, changing, shifting and returning as traffic crawls by, outside, the sound of it distant, muted.

She lifts a hand, brushes back her hair. She’s smiling. She turns, hangs the mask there, on the wall, above the sword slung from its leather strap. She unbuckles, pries loose her boots, leaves them by the futon, shrugs off the black coat, wrestles her way out of black jeans that she lets fall to the floor. Pulls something from a pocket of her coat, her phone, and crawling under the covers thumbs it to life, shining a photo, Jo and Ysabel cheek to cheek, Ysabel with a hand to the upturned collar of her coat, looking sidelong at Jo, smiling widely, directly at the camera, the blur of her arm at the bottom, and at the top the phone’s clock. It says 03:07, Thursday, December 1. She swipes and pokes, sets the alarm for seven in the morning, lays the phone on the crate by the head of the futon. A sharp cry from across the hall through both closed doors and she stifles a laugh with the heel of her hand, shaking under the blankets, head nestled on the pillows.

Only a few more minutes pass before her shoulder slumps, her hand tips away, her breathing gentles, smoothed, into sleep.

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