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a House that looks Much Like the Others – Tango milonguero – What matters, and what Doesn’t – Respects –

A house that looks much like the others all along the one side of the street, low, demure, set close to the curb. “Pull in there,” says the Duke, pointing out the shallow curl of driveway before a closed garage. “Just get it off the street.”

“Yeah, okay,” says Jessie, spinning the wheel, backing and filling. “So we’re here?” she says. “Leo?” He’s opening his door, planting his cane, hauling himself out of the car. “I guess we’re here,” she says. She shuts off the engine.

Flakes of snow light on the brim of his red-brown derby hat, the shoulders of his camel-colored topcoat. Catch the edges of paving stones set in a meander across the scrap of yard, dead leaves and dying grass. Climb in lacy drifts against the front steps, cling to the panels set in the yellow door. “It’s always years between snows,” he says. “You ever notice that? Proper snows. I miss them.” He takes in a deep breath through his nose and lets it out, a ragged cloud lit up white by the harsh bare bulb there by the door. “This one will be proper. Can you smell it?”

“I don’t like it,” says Jessie.

He turns to look at her back by the car in her grey chauffeur’s jacket, her long black socks, her red Keds dark against the feathery snow. “It mislikes me,” he says.


“You,” he says, and then “Nothing. Never mind. Too chilly?”

“Depends,” she says, arms about herself. “We going inside?”

He stoops, grunting, leaning heavily on his cane, free hand peeling up a corner of the doormat to find a key, small and coppery. “Not sure the heat’s on,” he says, pushing himself back to his feet. “But the view’s amazing.”

Echoing footsteps down a long hallway, sharp pops of floorboards and creaks in the dark, the drag and thump of the Duke’s limp, his cane. “Should be a light switch,” he says. “Back by the door?” Muffled swipe of a hand along the wall, sudden thick click of a switch, his back’s lit up, yellow-tan against the blackness ahead. “And another one up here,” he says, lurching drag and thump into the shadows. The echoes shift and open, deepen, flatten. She follows, creak and pop down the hall. Clank of his cane-tip against something, then the clinking scrape of a pull chain, a lone bulb, clear glass, the filament glowing amber hotly dangles above him, above an overstuffed armchair, a low table beside it, out in the middle of an otherwise empty room. Reflections hang dimly in the air beyond, that filament glowing again out in the blackness, a wall of glass, a great window stretching up and around before them. “Give it a minute,” says the Duke.

“I’ve,” says Jessie.

“Yeah?” says the Duke.

“I’ve, I, uh,” says Jessie, staring at the overstuffed armchair. Behind her, far off down the dark hallway, the yellow light by the door. “No, it’s,” she says, “stupid. It’s just, it’s. Weird. Déjà vu. Is that,” she’s pointing, “the Throne?”

“Yes,” says the Duke.

“Oh,” says Jessie.

“Go on,” says the Duke. “Sit.” He’s undoing the buttons of his topcoat with his free hand.

“Don’t,” says Jessie, an edge in her voice, “don’t fuck with me.”

“It’s just a chair,” he says. “Go on.” Leaning against an arm of the chair he lays his cane on the floor beside it. “Probably the only stick of furniture in the joint.” Working the coat off his shoulders. “Sit.”

“What am I doing here,” she says, words quivering under a weight.

“You mean,” he says, taking off his hat, “why you.”

“Why me.”

“Do you trust me?”

“It’s not that.”

“It’s not.

“You don’t always seem to know,” she says, “what you’re doing,” and he chuckles and says, “Ability, and intent,” he says, and then, “I mean well. I swear to you, Jessie Vitaly, that nothing in no wise might happen in this house that will ever cause you to be harmed.” Letting go of the chair, taking her hands in either of his. “There is nothing on this earth or under the sky that could make it otherwise.” Then he grins, at her wide eyes. Lifts her hands to his lips for a kiss. “How’s that for an oath?”

“You always,” she says, “fuck it up, at the end.” Stepping close to him, pressing against him, her arms go about him, his about her, her face to his shoulder, knocking her grey cap loose, and he fumbles for it, misses, it falls to the floor. “Jessie,” he says, “Jessie. My beautiful girl. My California girl.” Stroking her yellow hair. “Bikinis,” he says.

“What?” Lifting her head, pulling back to look him in the eye.

“I should’ve had you wear more bikinis,” he says, hands on her hips. “Should’ve had a house, with a pool. Let you lie out in the sun. Made you mojitos. Rubbed coconut oil all over you.” He kisses her, lightly, and she catches his head in her hands and kisses him back. “Maybe in Laurelhurst,” he says.

“This is what I’m talking about,” she says. “Should’ves and ought to haves. Like something’s over.”

“Isn’t it?” he says. “Hasn’t it been?”

“What are you doing here, Leo?”

He lets go, steps back. Leans again against the chair. “What are we doing here,” he says. “It takes two to tango.” Limping away, off toward the big dark window beyond, his reflection there before him and above, the curl of the glass, hers behind him picked out in light and past them both and through them more lights now, like stars, and he turns, saying, “I’ve already doffed my coat. My shirt’s next, my pants. Shoes, of course. Socks.” Stars that glint in the glass behind him, fixing themselves in rows and lines now against the blackness. “You, you take off that cunning little jacket. Or maybe it’ll all be vicey-versa? The particulars don’t so much matter.” Stars limning blocks, buildings, towers, stars caught in the corners of windows, a thousand thousand of them. “We’re going to enjoy each other, you and me, and when the moment’s right,” and he lurches back toward the chair, and out there swooping arcs and nets of light define bridge after bridge marching away along the river far below, and each is far grander and more glorious than the one before. “When the moment’s right,” he says, “I’ll sit the Throne, and either vanish from this earth, or be made King of all that’s at my feet.” He shrugs. “Not sure just yet if we’ll be able to tell the difference, honest,” he says.

“It’s been a while,” she says. Fingers at her throat, unbuttoning.

“Since Tommy,” he says.

Her hands stilled there, at her breast, what might have been about to be a smile folding itself away.

“What,” he says.

“Tommy?” she says.

“What would you have said,” he says. “What did you think.”

“I would’ve,” she says, “since, since the, since your leg. You broke your leg.”

“My leg,” he says, leaning on the chair. “You think my leg could keep me away from you.”

“Something did.” Her hands, falling away.

“Do we actually have to talk about this?” he says. “You and me, we actually need to talk?” She reaches up, pulls the collar of her jacket closed. “You have any idea, the slack you picked up?” he says. “When he died?”

“I didn’t come with you to pick up slack,” she says.

“I need that,” he says. “I depend on it, far more than I – you didn’t, you don’t begrudge me Luys. Or Chrissie, or Laúru, or the adorable little moppet that you, I might add, picked up from behind the counter of that comic-book shop – ”


“The Princess,” he says.

“Well of course I wouldn’t,” she says, “I couldn’t, she’s your – ”

“I don’t begrudge you the Princess.” He’s stepping around the chair between them.

She says, thickly, “I gave her up.”

“One does not simply,” and gently strokes her cheek, her hair, “give up, the Princess Ysabel.” Undoing the bottommost button on her jacket, then the next one up. “How’s your wizard.”


“Locke,” he says, “Luke, Lake – ”

“He’s not a,” she says, stepping back, “not a wizard – ”

“Nice shoes,” says the Duke, looking down at her Keds, a rich red in the pool of light. “Little kiddie for you, but it works. When’d you get them?”

“These?” she says, clutching her jacket closed again. “I’ve always, they were – my sister’s – ”

“And see?” he says, a heavy step toward her. “I did not know you had a sister.”

“Leo,” she says. “I know. Okay? You were straight from the start. This has never been more than a job, for either of us. That’s always been very clear. It’s just,” and she undoes the last button. Lets her jacket hang open, loosely, over bare chest, bare belly, bare thighs, the plain white underwear, low about her hips. “It was a different job, before.”

“I was clear,” he says. “I told you, that night. Dancing there on the stage. Rain. The most beautiful girl that ever I saw.”

“I was the most beautiful girl you saw that night,” she says.

“That night a year ago. Almost a year ago.” Limping back, away, turning away, sweeping an arm wide back toward her. “And here you still are.” Her hand on the chair. “It is really coming down out there,” he says.

And then she says, “It’s not the Solstice.”

“No, it’s not,” he says. “It might be, though, by the time we get out of here. Wouldn’t that be something.” Turning away from the window. “Did you have somewhere to be tomorrow? Next week? A pressing engagement?”

“Leo,” she says.

“Sit,” he says. He’s begun to unbutton his shirt.

“Why are you doing this,” she says, her hand still on the chair.

Another sweep of his arm, pointing past her now, back, at the yellow light down the hall by the door. “Lymond, Prince, returned,” he says. “The Hound’s whelp and a shove from the Guisarme. Jo Huntsman, leading whosomever she might by the nose and the Queen cheering them on. When they’ve made their hash and settled their play, come the Solstice, or tomorrow morning, bright and early, to take the Throne, they must come through that door and when they do.” Lowering his hand then. Rubbing his thigh with a wince. “They will find here me, King before them, or gone at last from this world. Now, please. That we might, while away a pleasant interlude, until I work up the nerve. Sit you down.”

She steps around the chair, her hands on the arm of the chair, leaning forward her jacket lopping open, she’s perching herself gingerly on the cushion. Letting out a sigh. “Okay,” she says. Sitting back. Looking about. “Now what,” she says. “You gonna give me a lapdance?”

“I might,” he says. “I might just, rabbit.”

“Take off your shirt.”

“I’m working on it,” he says, undoing buttons, lips pursed in a wry smile, teeth worrying his bottom lip he sways his hips, tock tock, wincing. Hands stilled there about his belly. “There is,” he says, “no conceivably sexy way for a man to untuck his shirt.”

“Sure there is,” she says, a black-socked knee hooked over an arm of the chair, red Ked dangling. A hand in her lap, fingers idly stroking white cotton. “Just, you know. Rip it open. Tear yourself free.”

“Which, I’d have to button it all the way back up for that,” he says.


“It just doesn’t feel sexy.”

“Like that matters,” she says. “Work it, baby.”

He yanks at his half-open shirt, there’s a rip, a button clattering away in the shadows, and she laughs with a clap of her hands. Shirt billowing he falls to his knees before her with a grunt, catching himself hands on the arm of the chair, her knee, slipping under her thigh, hands on her hips, hooking the waistband of her underwear. She isn’t laughing. She’s shifting herself, lifting her leg up over his head, knees together as he tugs up and up her thighs, jackknifing her legs she reaches to help him pull them down and off and she grunts as he levers her legs apart, hands on her thighs, forearms on the cushion of the chair, her underwear hanging from the one hand dangling over the arm of the chair, her other hand clamped to the back of his head curling into a fist full of his hair when he opens his mouth.

Striped sheets clenched in her shivering hand a rough growl climbing from her chest, through her throat, breaking open in a shapeless howl. She lifts her head black hair flopping curls unspooling along her shoulders, down her arced back heaving as that howl collapses into harshly ragged breaths that wind up in a groan, her head lowering, a grimace, her hips jerk, “Hah,” again, “hah,” and her quivering arms fold abruptly at the elbows, she drops, back between the upraised knees, one wrapped in a soft black fabric brace, one bare, a pale smear in the darkness.

There’s a light, growing, in that darkness.

“Oh,” she says, “Petra,” muffled, those elbows popping up, “are you,” pushing herself up, over, falling back to the striped sheets rumpled, lit up now with a brightly golden warmth, a steady shine that flickers shadowed only as she draws her legs together, sits up, eyes wide, a hand to her mouth. The woman beside her, on her back knees up, one arm flung up over her head, hand dangling limply from an upturned wrist, the face of her, hair, breasts and throat, the pillows beneath her, the sheets there covered, caked, soaked, matted with golden light.

“Petra?” she says, leaning over, trembling hand a shadow brushing at the stuff about the nose, the mouth, not dust but sludge, clumps of it crumbling wetly under her sweeping fingers, “Petra!” Scooping it up, flinging fingerfuls to the floor with bright heavy plops, clearing, darkening the mouth, the nose, the closed eyes rimmed and lashed with gold. “Wake up,” she’s saying, “wake up, wake up, don’t be, don’t be – ”

Petra’s hand wobbles, the fingers clench. Her chin jerks. Her mouth opens, her shoulders hike her throat and breast drawn up and up as she sucks in a ragged whoop of breath and the light trickles and runnels down her belly and her flanks. Her other hand coming up to slap against Ysabel’s shoulder, Ysabel’s arms about Petra dimming the light, shadowing the room as she covers her laughing weakly. “Wow,” says Petra, the barest stroke of a word, before Ysabel crushes her mouth with a kiss.

Petra’s hand, falling away from Ysabel’s shoulder.

“Petra?” says Ysabel, pulling back, sitting up, the room brightening again, that light spread over the high wide bed, the littered nightstand, the blank black glass of the window gleaming. “Don’t,” says Ysabel, “don’t you dare,” shaking Petra’s shoulder. Petra’s head lolling over in that puddle of light.

Pushing back scrambling back bare foot finding the edge of the bed tumbling over it to stand there shivering, looking about, the door there, ajar, and she takes a step and then another and leaning forward another, catching herself, clinging to the doorframe. Looking back. The shape of her still and limp in all that gold.

The hallway’s dark, but she is not, gold splashed along her thighs and belly, smeared over her breasts, her mouth, her one hand soaked in it. She holds it up, peering as she takes a step and another down the dark hall, a closed door in the wall ahead of her, beyond the darkness opening up, the empty suggestion of a room. Turning, turning back, back past the bedroom door the hall ends in another door, and she falls against it, clings to it, the doorknob rattling in her hands as she opens it, staggers through, the knob left wet with light. Her dark hand and her bright patting the walls about her. The sudden thick click of a switch and there she is, blinking, naked under the harsh white light from the ceiling, leaning against a sink in a white-tiled bathroom.

Fumbling the taps hot and cold hands shoved under the sudden rush of water hissing, scrubbing, scrubbing them one over the other, cupping them, filling them with water, leaning over to splash her face, and again. Rubbing her face, her eyes, lifting herself back up to meet herself in the mirror, wild black hair, red eyes, gold streaks. She takes a deep breath that hitches, caught, her trembling suddenly stilled. Behind her a tub, the pale translucent shower curtain drawn closed. Through the curtain a grey shape dimly, a shadow, someone. Standing in that tub behind her.

She lets the breath out, shaky, slowly, lowers her hands to lean again against the sink. “Are you here for her?” she says.

“No,” says a voice, “I am not,” lugubrious, as chill and grey as old concrete.

“For me, then?”

“In a manner of speaking. Do not turn about. You should not look upon me, not yet.” In the mirror the shadow shifts, what might be the inclination of a head. “I am here to, pay my respects. To Your Majesty.”

She chokes on the laugh, bites her lip, closes her eyes. “What,” she says. “Just like that?”

“There is no Throne for you to sit,” says the voice. “No banner to seize. One day, you are not the Queen, and the next? You are.”

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