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those Scrawny arms – the Semblance of a Hound – Up under; high Beneath – 157,185 SF – a Delicate clink –

Those scrawny arms of his folded about himself as if for warmth, Christian Beaumont in a stained grey hoodie stands with one foot on the pallet, looking over the great wooden tub, staves of it worn yellow oak sawn off about knee-high, closely fit together and bound about by riveted iron hoops, wide enough across that he might lie down his full length within it, were he so inclined. The blues and indigos that usually plane his hunched cheekbones have ablated to oranges and reds in the candescent light of all the golden dust that fills it. “Go on,” says Cackletub beside him. “Take some.”

“And do what with it,” says Christian.

“Have it,” says Cackletub, taken aback. “Hold it. Let it warm the bones. Light the way. Shew again the colors we did lose. Crowd the mouth with flavors, the air with odors, that we forgot we ever knew. And the songs that can be heard, the deeds it makes it possible to do?” a gnarled finger lifts, thick-nailed tip of it pressed quick to Christian’s forehead, and he rocks back from the touch of it. “Once you’ve known that, the old and deep and true of it, why – the world without seems cold and small, and empty, as it is.”

“That’s, um,” says Christian, “yeah.”

Someone steps up to the other side of the tub, the Stirrup in his brick-red vest, to dip a pyrex measuring cup in the golden dust. He holds it up, eyeing the level, pours back a slithering handfall, holds it up again. Shakes the cup to settle the owr.

“He’s his obligations, as a knight,” says Cackletub, leaning close. Christian starts. “You, you’re the Porter’s. He’d bring you your portion, but he’s famously pledged: not one drop, nor yet a pinch.”

“I’m the whose, now?”

“Gordon. The Porter. Who carries the mace, and opens the door.”

“I’m not,” says Christian, “his, I’m not nobody’s,” but “Wisht!” from Cackletub. “Not so loud. Not even in this room, so loud.” Leaning close, “Gordon won’t bring your portion, but you might take it for yourself.” Christian’s edging away, but Cackletub presses close, “You’ve been here a week, yet you haven’t begun to wonder at why,” a bony elbow in Christian’s ribs, “go on. Her majesty’s said.”

Christian looks up and away at that, to the raised stage at the one end of the cavernous warehouse. Empty now but for the nubbled pea-green couch, where the Queen and her favorite hold court, the one sat up at one end, arm stretched along the back of it, the other laid the length of the couch, bare feet coquettishly crossed over the arm of it, black curls spread over the pillowing lap, and only the black lace and silver ribbon, the white silk and gold satin, to tell the two of them apart. Laid on cushions at their feet the twins in stockings red and black, Chrissie on her belly and her elbows, pinching and poking the screen of a tablet computer, Ettie perched over her shoulder, pointing and commenting. Synthesizer chords chime brightly cheerful from an unseen speaker, take me to the desert, someone’s singing, take me to the sand, show me the color of your right hand. On the floor before them, some few knights and others mingle, chatting quietly. Far off to the side of the stage, where the makeshift tabouret’s been dragged, a woman in a black leather jacket is sat upon a stool, reading a tattered paperback. A greatsword sheathed and leaned against the wall behind her.

A bustle ruffles the disparate crowd, someone stepping in from the daylight, stooping under the half-raised overhead door, straightening, the Guisarme in a light linen suit, his lemon shirt, his tie of lime. With him, towering over him, the Sovnya, shoulders of her white blouse crimped by a shining silver bevor. The Guisarme bows, deeply, to the stage, the couch, the Queen, then turns toward the tub on its pallets.

“A moment, Guisarme,” says the Queen, voice pitched to carry. The milling comes to a sudden, jerking halt. The Guisarme, with a breath, swings back, the Sovnya close by his side. “My lady,” he says, and bows again. “As always, it’s ever a pleasure.”

“Your third such, in but a sennight,” she says, stroking the Starling’s hair. “One should, perhaps, beware,” and she looks from him to the tub behind him, “the risks, that attend to overindulgence,” and now she looks to the Sovnya by his side.

“Needs must, my lady,” he says. “And your majesty’s gracious generosity does see to our every need.”

“Our charitable concern, my lord,” she says, “is it’s your brother’s needs that drive you, not your own.”

He spreads his hands, he bows his head. “My brother’s needs are my own, majesty.”

“Your brother’s coat’s still blue, Welund,” says the Queen.

“He does yet serve the Hound,” says the Guisarme. “Would your majesty not agree that loyalty, that commitment, must, however difficult the course, stand firm against the lashings of such – ”

“What he does serve,” says the Queen, and her words ring in that cavernous room, “oh, it cringes when it’s whipped, yes. It does bite the hand that feeds, though its yipping bark’s more piercing than its teeth, and there can be no doubt, no doubt at all, it does return to its own vomit, for it is sick, quite sick – but not with gratitude, my lord. No. It has obtained the semblance and the seeming of a Hound, down to a trick, and it would have its day – but look into its eyes. Look deep within. You’ll find no warmth, no adoration, and nothing of the Pinabel. Our cousin, Frederic? Is no more.”

The Guisarme opens his mouth, but does not speak. All those gazes of the crowd, patiently impassive, yet focused all on him, those knights and others there before the stage, and the smattering behind him, there about the tub, the Buckler, the Stevedore, the Sequin and the Jackstaff, the Axe, the Flynn and Jenny Rye, Goggie, Luchryman, even the Sovnya at his side, chin ducked behind the shining bulwark of her bevor, and also Chrissie, and Ettie, chins in hands, and the Queen, her arm still stretched across the back of the couch, and only the Starling as she sits up from the Queen’s lap’s looking down, with a secret smile. The woman at the far end of the stage has not yet looked up from her book. He closes up his mouth, the Guisarme, and he swallows, and tries again. “Your majesty,” he says, “cannot possibly be wrong, but is it not – ”

“Are you not sworn to the Hive, Guisarme?”

He blinks. “Without question, ma’am.”

“And your brother, the Glaive – is it possible he stands now at your side?” She makes a show of craning her head about, “But we do not see him. We haven’t seen hide nor hair of him, in fact, for ten days and nine nights. Is it possible, that in that time, he’s come to serve our Helm? Or salve our wounded Hawk? Can it be he’s seen the light, and does now seek to soothe the Hare?” Leaned forward, elbows on her white-draped knees. “Or does his wind yet blow Southwesterly?”

The Guisarme, head bowed, says, “It is even as her majesty would have it.”

“Until your brother changes his coat for a color we like more. Until he does come before us, and makes amends for his loyalty, his – commitment – to our bitterest enemy. Until such time. He will take no part of our bounty, with his hand, or any other’s. This,” she says, sitting back, “is how we,” crossing one leg over another, “would have it.” Shifting her arm from the back of the couch to the Starling’s shoulders. “You may go.” At their feet, Ettie ruffles Chrissie’s hair, and Chrissie, annoyed, strokes it back in place. The Guisarme nods. They’re all turning away from him, knights and hobs, domestics, peers, and only Sovnya with a nod for him in return, falling in smartly as he heads for the overhead door.

“Well, wasn’t that a thing not to have missed,” says Cackletub, turning away from the stage, but Christian isn’t there.

Blue sky a seamless ceiling high above. Holding up a hand a moment to shade his eyes he peers across a half-empty parking lot. A simple arch at the far corner, a green sign that says Springwater Corridor, hung over a narrow path between the railroad tracks to the left, the fenced-in yard of a gravel plant to the right, towering tanks and pipes, the lines and slants of conveyor belts silent, still. He sets off, thin robe loosely flapping, stripes of it in various colors that might once have been brighter, some few launderings ago, brown hair long and damply lank, redder beard quite full. Under the arch without a pause and past another sign that says Stop! Please Use Caution – Heavy Truck Traffic.

Beyond the plant the fence to the right swaddled in a heavy coat of vines, crowded leaves broad and darkly green affording only glimpses of the river, a muddy grey too gently smoothed to sparkle in the sun. To the left, past the rails, a slope rises steeply, shaggily, wildly green. Shadows ahead under a high bridge, and traffic booming and growling over it, the concrete pillars of it tattooed with graffiti, signatures, sigils, cartoons. “You could’ve,” he’s muttering to his trudging sneakers, “you could’ve been with me. Up above the river.” He looks up, in the shadow of the bridge. “Under the earth,” he says.

Calved from the bridge an offramp on spindly pillars curls through the air above to merge with a freeway along the top of that steep slope. “Echo,” he says, “echo,” eyeing it, and the bare fence between himself and the rails, “three, not ten,” he says, and then, as he passes the last pillar upholding that ramp, “one,” he says, “two, three, not ten, ten, six, eleven,” he’s counting fenceposts, “seven eleven, twelve,” skipping ahead, “fourteen!” A hole’s been cut in the next panel of cyclone fencing, close to the lush grass, where a green plastic bowl’s been placed, and a clear reservoir with a bit of kibble still within wired to the pole. He stops, a faint breeze stirring the loose skirts of his bathrobe. Faintly happy cheers and a whoop from someone unseen on the river. Away ahead a cluster of bobbing dots, joggers growing as they approach. Grabbing the fencepost wire ringing under the kicking slipping soles of his sneakers he clumsily throws a leg over the fence, rolls himself over, drops to the tracks. Unsnagging his trailing robe with an irritated jerk. “You could’ve been with me,” he says, and sweeps back his hair, combs his fingers through his beard, tugging loose a snarl. “Up under,” he says, looking along the railroad. “High beneath.” Darting across, into the brush, and up and up the grassy slope.

He finds a path, halfway up, half-hidden along a brow of earth. Shaggy trees lean heavily green out over the railway, the little herd of joggers passing by so far below. He braces himself against a crooked trunk, a balustrade to clamber the last steep hillock of path, onto the narrow top of the slope, between the trees and the shadowy galleries under the freeway so close above, regular bays between concrete walls that uphold the deck of it, floored with gravel-studded hardpack. A great eye’s been painted on a wall of the first gallery, the iris of it elaborately paned, red paint squiggled over the pupil. He passes it quickly, stumbling over a low flat rock at the edge of the overgrown path, “One,” he says, passing the next gallery, empty but for dust and what’s left of a couple of dirt-raddled empty black garbage bags, “one, one, two!” and a dismissive wave for three kids clustered in the next, back denim and brown-tinged leather and red, hair shaved and sculpted in grimy hanks, ragged braids, in drooping petalled spikes, an unevenly gravid joint making its way from one hand to the next, “two!” he shouts again, scurrying past, “three!” as he jerks to a stop, there, this gallery empty but for a beige and brown dome tent pitched a-kilter in the sharp dark shadow of the freeway just above.

“Three!” he barks, under the rush of unseen traffic. “Not ten, fourteen, but three!”

Stood there, waiting, bathrobe snapped out behind by a sudden gust. Some baroquely intricate siege engine’s printed across the front of his T-shirt.

“She could’ve been with me!”

Up past the tent, where the earth rises up to meet the deck, the dirt’s been tumbled, piled, a yawning mouth scratched up against the concrete piling. Hauling his robe back about himself he steps off the path up toward it, stomp, stomp, when the rolling wash of sound from above is cut by the drawn-out rip of a zipper. He stops, looks back to the tent, flaps of it parting just enough for a peering eye, “Hey!” he yells. “What are you, hey!” The tent shivers, flaps close up. “What are you doing here? Can’t you smell it? Hey!” One last thrashing shiver, and the tent is still.

“Well,” he says. “I can smell it.”

Up to the empty darkness of the tunnel, laying a hand on the lip of it, thrumming freeway a ceiling too close. A deep breath. He ducks into the darkness.

Low, cramped, the floor unevenly rolling up into a wall he brushes with a shoulder, patterfall of loose dirt, he shakes that shaggy silhouette of a head. Shoves a hand in a pocket of his bathrobe, yanks it out, snap! A spark enough to show where he’s stepping down and down and deeper within, stopping once, stooping, his unlit hand against the cleanly scraped wall for balance, face screwed up with disgust in the harsh glare. He snatches a fold of his robe up over his mouth and nose.

Shadows pool and spill ahead of his lit hand. The tenor of the dulled thrum hollows, opens, a space cleared off to the right where the wall falls away. He pauses. Coughs behind his robe.

The room unfolds itself from shadows in his light, back wall of pitted concrete, floor of it a sea of bags and sacks and plastic crates, a demolished cardboard box stuffed with blankets and trousers, coats and more, unidentifiable parcels and bundles and wads of fabric about, and so many empty cans and bottles, and bundles of newspaper trimly tied, and a body splayed atop it all, arms and legs at uncommon angles, torso bloated and collapsed all wrong beneath the pasted, blackened clothing, steeped in something long since dried and flaking crackled.

“I thought you got,” he says, that one bright hand held high. “You thought,” he says. “You thought he got the chair.”

His hand drops, and darkness falls, complete, obliterate. Rustle and shuff, another pattering scrabble of falling dirt, crinkle of plastic, he’s sitting, perhaps. A sigh. “You kept her safe,” he says, to himself. “But.”

And then, quietly, “This’ll do.”

A blue sky, utterly bereft of clouds, but nonetheless a haze has risen from some unfixable middle distance to diffuse itself between clearly here and soft, indefinite there, somewhere past the distant line of trees that edge the vast field to the right, still crisp, still sharp against the paling blue beyond, but somewhere yet before the mountain there, a single cuspid smaller, somehow, than it should be, to seem so much closer than it is, blued edges of its fading snowcap blurred by the bluing haze, its summit more inferred than certain, slipping away off behind those trees. More trees more closely planted not too long ago separate this narrow sidewalk from the field, this haphazardly patched seam-sprung walk that’s more of an afterthought, really, too close to the wide straight cleanly painted road, where panel trucks and a tall van speed past, only a couple of feet away. Behind these trees, a low and temporary fence of two-by-fours and startling orange plastic sheeting’s been pitched, one more straight line along with trees, sidewalk, road, relentlessly converging on a point off in that unseen, uncertain middle distance. A sign’s erected awkwardly ahead, the framing lumber of the same fresh yellow provenance as the fenceposts. For Lease, it says. 157,185 SF. Call Now. It’s close enough to the sidewalk she can slap it as she passes.

Her duffel’s black, her jeans are black, her shirt is black, and across the front of it a devil’s leering face, marred by silkscreen craquelure. Pause as a car whips past, dully grey, wind in the wake of it tugging at her, ruffling her hair, browner now, perhaps, indifferently cut. Starts out again, stops again, lifting her white shoe to kick it against the sidewalk. A pebble’s dislodged from the cracked and duct-taped toe.

A semi blows past, one lane over, followed by another car, too close, too fast, top-heavy with a matte black cargo shell. She skips off the sidewalk at that, through the line of trees, past tummocky grass and raw bare earth, kicks a leg up over that startling orange fence and steps out, away from the traffic, out into the sun-bright field.

Flat and open and wide, but so much longer, stretched out alongside the road, grass of it thick and green and yellow, up about her shins, lined the four sides with greenly dark trees, exuberantly thicker at the ends and down the far side to the right, to the left that regimented rank all of the same tensed upthrust shape, branches too nervous yet to settle and relax, spaced with room enough between to grow, yet close enough to muffle passing traffic. She picks her way over roughly lumpy ground, one arm out for balance, the other tucked close, holding fast that shoulder-slung emaciated duffel. One last half-leaping step from deep grass to a rutted track, freshly churned by tires, or treads.

That track crests a barely perceptible rise to angle down the vaguest of slopes, but this slight change in perspective’s enough to reveal a broadly section of the field scraped clear of grass and rumples, excess earth piled indiscreetly here and there along the edges of it, and corners and points of perhaps some future interest marked with stakes, strips of that startling orange plastic tied to flutter and dangle about the ends of them. Traces of the track cross a corner of the lot, past overturned earth dried dustily dull, to where grass springs up again. The track, less freshly used here, angles further across the field toward that other bordering line of trees, thicker, more wildly lush, past a second lot much smaller, less officious, defined by trampled grass in a roughly ring about the charred remains of a bonfire, and a scattered detritus of food wrappers, discarded clothing, a lone heel-sprung running shoe, an untidy spill of unopened mail, stained and swollen by old rain, and above it all swirling silent eddies of flies and midges. The track resumes its parallel course, thick dark wall of trees to the right, the murmuring, whining road a ways off to the left.

Midges scatter, a dragonfly slicing their midst, stitching zip from point to point before her and she freezes to see it hung there, shivering, depended from the rainbowed whir of lacy wings. She tenses as it swoops quite close, then leaps away, a fleeting scrap too fast, lost in the soft blue sky.

There’s someone away up ahead.

A quarter-mile or so up the track, not yet to the trees that cap that far end of the field, a cluster of half a dozen cars or so, and trucks, parked on the grass, and somebody there before them, arms swung in soundless claps, leaned forward, echoing after, a distant shout, “Oy!” And again, “Hey, Oy!” Or maybe “Roy!”

Something bounds from flailing grass onto the track, making for her with alacrity, low shape galloping, a dog, much too slender for a dog, and brightly streaming. One or two others have stepped out from among the vehicles to watch. The shouting somebody’s set off running down the track as well, after the spindly, long-legged whatever-it-is. She steps off track, kneeling in the grass, unshouldering fumbling open her duffel. “Roy!” the closer cry now, definitely “Roy! Wait!” as sharply patterfall too sharp for paws that cutting soil crisply little thunder wire-wrapped hilt in her hand but rocking back her heels she’s blinking hand held up against a brightness not the sun but, but iridescent shimmering galumph a tiny horse not even a pony scampering past to wheel a tight curl whirling snorting halt, her one arm up and braced the sheathed poignard tucked behind her forearm, “Hanh!” she blurts.


The horse, that tiny horse, leaps into the grass behind her and springs back out again, bucking on the track before her snort and whinny, four hands, maybe five at the most, dark-tufted fetlocks over dainty cloven hooves, pale glossy rose-grey coat, a skinny nearly hairless tail but for a sudden puffball shock at the end of it, as brightly shining as the mane, and iridescent, red in it, and yellow, shocks of green and sudden flares of blue as it tosses its head again, and its horn.

“He don’t bite,” calls the somebody, a boy, young man in jeans, denim jacket a-clatter with buttons. “Roy. Leave her alone. C’mon, Roy.”

The unicorn, that tiny unicorn, takes a hesitant step closer to Jo. Trembling, flanks a-bellows from the effort of his galloping approach. The wire-wrapped hilt still in her hand, sheath still tucked behind her arm. She’s lowering her other hand, reaching for the drily grassy earth before her, without taking her eyes off the unicorn taking another closer step, stretching out his neck, those black eyes liquid blinking, white-spotted lips, fine silky hairs about the black-rimmed nostrils, close enough his blown breath stirs her hair. She swallows. “Hey,” she says.

“He’s okay,” says the young man in denim. “C’mon, Roy.”

The horn of him’s helically ridged, translucent as the inside of a shell, chased with as many colors as the mane but paler and subdued. It rises from just above his eyes, as long again as his neck, the tip of it trembling fixed to a point she has to look up from his eyes to meet. “Wow,” she says. “That’s, uh – ”

The unicorn snorts, and lowers his head.

“Wait,” she says.

The unicorn lowers his head, tip of his horn stretching just a bit further, just, to touch, to dimple her T-shirt there, above the devil’s leering eye, to press. There’s the faintest and most terribly delicate clink, and then a sudden extravagant flash of light.

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You have Placed a Chill in my Heart,” written by Annie Lennox and David A. Stewart, copyright holder unknown. Moonwise, written by Greer Ilene Gilman, ©1991.

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