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a Long and Narrow flight of Stairs – the Duel on the Bridge – One of her Many Names – If –

A long and narrow flight of stairs angles down from the grey pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks. A wide path heads off away along the riverbank, a branch of it there floating on pontoons, the snarling lanes of stalled traffic on the freeway overpass alongside it and above. Another path heads down to the dark bulk of the bridge, the bottom deck of it low over the water, railroad tracks and a footpath under an upper deck busy with cars, busses, a truck, a MAX train rumbling away toward the towers of downtown, lit up against the red-black sky. “Where do we,” says Ysabel, “Jo, how do we,” as they turn about at the base of those stairs. “How are we going to lose him?”

“I don’t know?” says Jo, shrugging the duffel back up on her shoulder. “I thought there’d be more people. There’s usually more people. If we,” pointing, “just head over the bridge – ”

“He’d see us,” says Ysabel wincing, an arm about her belly. “All the way across he could see – ”

“Are you okay?” says Jo, and Ysabel shakes her head quickly, and “What is it?” says Jo, and Ysabel shakes her head again. Jo takes her free hand. “It’s the most direct way home. You want to go back up and catch a bus or a train? It’d be no better,” pointing down the riverbank, “he could see us all the way along there, too, unless you want to squat under those bushes and hope he doesn’t come down looking. Hell, maybe he’s just on his way to Mississippi or something – ”

“Princess!” cries Roland at the top of that flight of stairs, silver piping shining in the dusky streetlight.

“Well, hell,” says Jo, as Ysabel tugging her hand heads for the bridge.

“Princess!” He’s taking those stairs two at a time.

“The hell,” says Jo, “are we running,” and a metal plate on the bridge’s footpath rings under their feet. “Please,” says Ysabel.

“Wait!” cries Roland, halfway down that long and angled flight. “Lady, wait!” At the bottom of those stairs. “We must speak!” Clanging over the metal plate, beating a tattoo against the brick-paved footpath. Jo looks quickly back to see Roland running from splash of light to splash of light the flare in his hand shining in the shadows and “Shit,” she says, letting go, turning, clawing the duffel from her shoulder, dropping to one knee, “Ysabel, run!” The box thumping and clattering as she fumbles at its flaps.

“No!” cries Roland, feet scraping to a stop, left foot forward in its spotlessly white outlandishly puffy shoe, left hand empty, the sword in his right hand held behind, pointed low, at the bricks. “I mean you no harm.”

“The hell with the sword, then,” says Jo, kneeling, her own blade still in its scabbard half out of the box. Ysabel behind her, leaning against gripping the railing low over the water.

“Draw, Gallowglas,” says Roland, gently. His legs bent just, a ready stance, under the low-hanging light. “We cross steel once, a single exchange, and then, unharmed, you lower your arm and walk away, your honor satisfied. I would take the office, and the Princess, from your hands.”

“You’re mad,” snaps Ysabel, before Jo can say anything at all.

“I would merely accept the offer she made before the court,” says Roland. “My own honor is as nothing to the danger facing you, Princess. Facing us all. I have been to see the Duke. He,” and Roland’s left hand squeezes into a fist, “he sent the monsters after you, that night, on the train. He means to frighten you, to drive you from any other solace, to bind the Bride more tightly to him, trusting only him – ”

“You have proof?” says Ysabel, clear and cold.

His fist relaxes, his hand opening, closing again. “I would prove the merits of my quarrel with my body and my own right hand, lady. But say the word.”

“So you have no proof,” says Ysabel.

“You are in grave danger, Princess. You must return with me to your mother’s house. Should the Duke discover what’s been done to you,” and he’s straightened from his stance now, sword held loosely at his side, and kneeling still between them Jo looks from Roland back to Ysabel, who’s let go of the railing, who’s folded her arms tightly about herself, whose white parka’s gone yellow-pink in the bridgelight, who says, her voice flatly quiet, “What has been done to me, Chariot.”

“The, the line, lady,” he says. “The line’s been broken, in you. We broke it, that night, to save you from yourself.” Breathing heavily as he says it, swallowing when it’s done, and that and the lapping of the water are the only sounds about them. Nothing from the deck of the bridge above. Not a growl or rumble from the lights of the empty freeway behind him. “If he learns that you can never be Queen – ”

“You are mad,” says Ysabel, each word a shard. Jo shoves the box from her sword still in its scabbard and stands, slowly, between them.

“Lady,” he says, and then, “Ysabel,” and she flinches at that. “It’s over,” he says. “There’s been no Apportionment, not since the, since before the Samani.”

“That is my mother’s problem, and none of mine,” says Ysabel, “and you forget yourself, Chariot.”

“Come with me, please,” says Roland, quietly. Holding out his empty hand. “Don’t you see? It’s over, it’s all over. You’re free. Just as you always – you could, you and I could go together – ”

“I could what?” says Ysabel, and his mouth snaps shut at that. “You and I could what, knight? Grow old? Together? In a flower-draped cottage somewhere, no doubt, North Portland, maybe.” Her arms still clutched about herself, her voice tight and quiet and low. “But those low, low monthly payments – how would we afford them? If it’s all over, and our offices and titles gone, their prerogatives with them, all of it down to dust. Would you dig ditches, for so small a life? Would you sell, insurance? Or annuities? Would you go every day to sit at a computer for hours at a stretch, and speak with strangers on a telephone? You idiot,” snaps Ysabel, one hand leaping to grab the railing, and Jo her free hand starts to reach for her but stops. “In the few short weeks this mortal girl has been my champion she has,” clinging to the railing Ysabel looks now from Roland, his expression dumbstruck, to Jo, who’s blinking, shivering, whose hand about the throat of her scabbard’s steady and white-knuckled, “she has worked such wonders as you’d never dare. She brought me the tongue of Erymathos and you will hear me out,” and Roland does not take that step toward her, does not say what he’d been about to say, looks away from her, looks down at the bricks, his sword useless at his side. “She brought that monster’s tongue to me,” says Ysabel, “and I ate it, and saw what’s yet to come. I saw my banner over this city, Chariot. I saw myself in my mother’s house, my house, and I saw my Gallowglas by my side. Tell me, then, oh prognosticator, oh chopper of logic, how all this might yet come to pass, if I cannot be Queen?”

Water laps beneath them. A buzzing whine, faint, from the bulb of the lamp over Roland’s head, his head that shakes, slowly. He says, “I do not know, my lady.” Looking up then. “But even I can see you are not well. Come with me, please – both of you! Come, with me, to your mother’s house. Let’s all make sure we know what’s happened to you. Or, or not.”

Ysabel straightens, lets go of herself. Lets go of the railing. “No,” she says. “No, we will both go home, to what is our house for now, and you, you will, go back, to skulking in the shadows. Go wait for someone else to notice how helpful you might be.”

“Lady,” he says, the word bent beneath a terrible weight.

Ysabel turns away from him and carefully walks away down the footpath. Jo stoops, her sword still in one hand, and begins to gather up the duffel and the box. She stops when the point of Roland’s sword presses against the bag before her, then lifts, slowly, toward her face. She lets go of the bag and stands, slowly, and his sword follows her up. “Princess,” he says. “I can still defeat your champion. Take up the keeping of you, once again.”

“You might try,” says Ysabel. “You’ll lose. I’ve seen it.”

“Do you think I’ll lose?” says Roland to Jo. “A month with even the notorious Erne is hardly enough to make you a creditable swordsman.”

Jo spares a glance over her shoulder for Ysabel in the shadows, then takes the hilt of her sword in her hand. Steps back, and back again. “All right,” says Roland, “a single pass, as I proposed,” as she yanks the scabbard from her blade and settles in a stance sidelong to him, the scabbard in her left hand held behind, her blade up and at an angle before. His left hand tucked against his chest leaning back just, his sword arm canted up the blade angled down a little and a little to the left and sliding his foot forward kicking the duffel to one side his sword-tip lazily swinging toward her when he flicks his wrist and it leaps up and over her blade a looping cut she catches with a jerk of a parry, clang. “There,” he says, and steps back, lowering his blade. “Put up.” Shaking out his left hand. “You’ve fought for her, and we can both agree I’ve won. Honor’s satisfied.” And then, “Gallowglas.”

Jo’s blade’s still there between them, up, and at an angle.

“I would not hurt you, Jo Maguire,” says Roland.

“You’re gonna have to,” says Jo. Her hand settling and resettling itself about the hilt.

“You can’t win,” says Roland. Lifting his sword somewhat. “Put up your blade.”

“If you were in my shoes,” says Jo, and she takes a deep breath, “would you?”

And behind her, in the darkness, leaning against the railing over the water, Ysabel is smiling.

Rattle and clack of cassette tapes in a shoebox. He holds one up, clear shell, black label, white scribble of handwriting. He kicks his wheeled office chair down the length of the table lost under haphazard stacks of books and piles of paper. Down by the painted-over window under a poster that says The White Divel, or, Vittoria Corombona, a Lady of Venice, he shoves a teetering stack away from a dusty black tape deck. Punching the eject button with the back of his hook he slots the cassette and twists a couple of large silver knobs. Punches play. Twiddles one of the knobs as big round rubbery bass notes tumble through the room, fluttering and thumping about. Sits back a moment, leans forward and twists another knob as those bass notes stumble into a quick-paced, strutting vamp. Pushes himself to the middle of that table where he works the cork from a bottle of sooty whiskey and pours a healthy dollop and then another into a coffee cup. Sits back in the chair as a tambourine begins to shake. A cymbal shimmies and off in the distance a trombone’s blowing a sinister fanfare and he closes his eyes, the coffee cup swaying in his hand to the beat. As more horns join in his eyes still closed he lifts the mug, swirling the whiskey, and then his hand jerks to a stop short of his lips.

“That’s the point,” he says, and pulls the cup toward himself, lifts it, takes a small brief sip. “Well if I thought we were gonna have an actual conversation and all I might just turn it down.” He sets the cup on the table. There’s a piano ringing in among the horns now, and the bass vamp has settled down with the drums. “Why!” he says, and then, “Why did you come all this way? What could you possibly have to say to me? It isn’t enough you send your daughter to me every – every fucking day, with her ridiculous girlfriend –

“Don’t, don’t give me that sister-daughter crap. Sister-self, goddammit! She is every inch as much yours as – ”

He stands, suddenly, the chair rolling back a little away from him. “Why did you,” he says thickly, leaning his hand against the table, “what the fuck did you, what do we possibly have to say to each other about that! Why are you even – ” His head droops, shoulders sag. “About him,” he says, quietly. His hand closes about the cup. He looks at his shoulder, then up a little, past it, a ghost of a smile framed in his salt-and-pepper Van Dyke. He frowns, a little. “Our?” he says, and then he nods, looks back to the table. “Oh. Ha. She – ” looking at the cup in his hand, “is every gesture, every curl of hair, every sniff and smirk, she’s you, she’s very much you. On the night we first met.”

His chair rolls aside though he does not touch it. “You’ve grown into your beauty,” he says. A smoothing ripples the wrinkles down the back of his T-shirt, wrinkles that are suddenly pressed flat as he leans forward against the table and takes in a sharp deep breath. “Don’t,” he says, “Duenna, please. No.

“Well of course I’m thinking of him. Christ, I, every day, you have no idea.” His hook clacks. “I miss him, so much –

“Do I. Well. I am a selfish man.”

He lets go of the cup, pinches the corners of his eyes, wipes them with the heel of his hand. Steps back suddenly, to the side, a stack of papers tumbling in his wake. “Lymond,” he says, his voice worn thin and pale under the tumult of the horns and the bass and the drums. Blinking. “He means to try for the Throne,” and then his head snaps to one side and he lifts his hand to his cheek. “I’m going to ask you to leave if you –

“Well he picked a lousy fucking time – Unsettled? There’ll be war in the streets, the Count, the Duke, and the Bride out in the open with only a thoughtless slip of a –

“Duenna, she’s terrible. And you, you’ve gone and given her a sword. How could you – Duenna – Duenna?” Shivering, tipping his head back, eyes squeezed shut. A deep breath. He sways a moment, raggedly, not at all with the music, and then he lifts the cup.

“The King is dead,” says Vincent Erne. “Long live the King.” And he drinks the whiskey down.

“I know this building,” says Orlando.

They’re standing before a big pale yellow house that comes right up to the sidewalk. Red double doors in the middle of a skinny porch, great bays to either side rising to erratic clusters of gables and dormers dotting the steep black roof, the dark green trim gone black as well in the dim light. “It’s named for some old judge,” says Gloria. “With enormous muttonchops.” Her hands in their black and white striped arm socks fluffing to either side of her face. “There’s a picture in the lobby. But it used to be called the Lawn.”

Orlando nods at that, looking up at the windows above, some lit, some blank and black.

“Dad was, like, the third person to buy in, when it went condo? Been there for about, ten years. But it used to have, like twenty, thirty rooms for rent? And only two bathrooms. So it was hella cheap. Poets, and painters, and whole rock bands, and the Satyricon after-party like every other night, and when we moved in Dad told me that my closet? A junkie used to live there. And I had no idea what a junkie was. I kept imagining this monster, made of rusted pipes and old car parts, and a toilet bowl for a mouth. Scared the hell right out of me.” She grabs his hand then, both his hands, and pulls him close, and he leans his forehead down against hers as she swallows him in a hug. “Stay,” she says. He shakes his head. She kisses him, her arms about his neck, then her hands cupping the back of his head, kissing fiercely, both of them, his hands cupping her hips, her ass. “I can’t,” he says against her lips.

“Come upstairs. Now. Don’t think about it. Just follow me.”

“What would you tell your father.”

She laughs a sniffly little laugh. “Are you kidding? He’d give you a fucking medal. I’m fat and I dress funny and I never come home. I bring home a boy? Suddenly it’s like a problem he can deal with. You know?” Stroking his hair. “Though you are the strangest thing I think I’ve ever called a boy. Stay. Stay with me. You can live in my closet. My junkie lover.” She laughs. She’s crying. “My junk. They said,” she says, “they said I’d die if I stayed with you. That was what you asked. So stay with me instead.”

“You can’t,” he says, “have one, without the other.” Taking a step back, leaning back, until she grips his head again, pulls him close. “So fuck it,” she says. “Fuck it. You can’t, ethically you can’t force me to save my own life. If I want to, if I want to die, it’s my life. I can, I get to decide, whether it’s worth saving or not.”

“I can kill you now, if you like,” says Orlando.

She crumbles against him then, the whole of her sagging, staggering him back another step. “I want,” she says, a whisper in his ear, “what I want’s three days or just a day of what it was we did.”

He kisses her, gently, and then he says, “It’s not just you. If I stay, if you stay, if we are together, something happens to – everyone I know.”

“Snow in April,” she sniffs. “Christ, it barely snows in January.”

“If,” he says. “If, if, if. I never met a vision of the future but was couched with an if.” He wipes a tear from her cheek with the back of his hand. “Blast,” he says, “and rot all ifs. I will see you again.”

“Give me your hand,” she says.

“Where did you get that knife,” he says.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me. Give me your hand.” The blade of the knife is short and black as ash except the moon-bright edge of it, and the wood-grained handle’s stained with reds and yellows and purples. He opens his right hand there between them, and she lays the edge of the blade against his palm but before she can cut or even take a breath he snaps his fingers closed about it and hissing jerks his hand away down its length. His face creased with the pain of it he opens his fist there by her cheek, her lips, the long clean slash through the meat of his palm slowly weeping thick tears of yellow and white. She kisses his hand, and he hisses again as she licks it, once, pressing his hand to her cheek as he strokes her jangling hair. Then he pushes her away.

“I lied,” she says, as he walks away across the street. “My name. My name isn’t Gloria Monday.”

“But I know where you live,” he calls back to her.

He walks past a parking lot taking up a whole block behind a low stone wall, around the corner and down under big green highway signs that say 405, 26, Right Lane. Past Italianate townhouses, a great red brick apartment building, a low yellow building painted with cheerfully stylized flowers and a sign that says Antiquities and Oddities. He stops in the middle of the bridge over the freeway cut into a gully below and looks at the cut in his palm still slickly wet. He grabs the tail of his white dress shirt and with the long knife in his hand he slices at it, ripping off a long strip around the bottom all the way back around to the other side, and he wraps it over and over tightly about his palm. On the other side of the bridge, he raises that hand in a little salute as he passes a low red building that says Allen’s Radiator Shop in white script letters just below the flat roof. And as the rumble and growl of the freeway traffic fades away behind him, an odd sound can be heard ahead, growing louder – a rushing, clinking sound, the sound of glass on glass.

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“Haitian Fight Song,” written by Charles Mingus, copyright holder unknown.

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