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“Who did you say you were?” – any Rule – Investiture – Ecclesiastes, chapter 10 –

“Who did you say you were?” The door ajar, the security chain taut, a slice of face behind, a frown, a gingery mustache.

“A friend,” says the man in the hall, pressed close. “Your daughter’s. Gloria.” His hair is long and black and wet, his shapeless jacket grey. His bare foot red and raw, jammed between door and frame.

“That’s, not,” says the voice behind the door, “her name, isn’t,” and “I know,” says the man in the hall. “It’s what she’s called.”

“Daddy?” says someone, someone else.

“She’s dead,” says the man in the hall, lifting his head, cocking it, an ear to the gap. The faintest creak, the door, a floorboard. He wears a black patch over one eye. “I killed her.”

“You need to go,” says the voice behind the door. “I’m calling the police.”

“Daddy, what is it?” says someone else.

“Suzette, get back, go to your room,” says the voice behind the door, and “Suzette,” says the man in the hall, delicately. He brushes the security chain with a fingertip. A pop, a dull red spark, the chain snaps two ends leaping apart to clink against jamb and door. He throws his shoulder against a meaty thud, a grunt, the door shivers, comes unstuck swinging into an open room, wanly yellow, a thickset man fallen back against a leather couch, bare legs kicking slippered feet for purchase beneath the sprawling skirts of a satiny white robe, “Get back,” he’s saying, pushing himself upright. Scrape of the couch against the floor.

The man from the hall, two quick long steps, leans in hand snapping about a thick throat, lifting, turning, smack of shoulders against the yellow wall. Heels kicking. A slipper, falling. He leans back away from a swatting hand the back of it freckled. The white robe’s printed with kanji in thick black strokes. “Please,” says someone else.

Still holding the thickset man against the wall Orlando turns his head. Over across the room past the couch the coffee table the low shelf neatly lined with books she’s standing, jet black hair unbound, unribboned, bangs bright pink, hands clutched one above the other about her belly in a big white T-shirt. “Put him down,” she says, her voice quite small, her eyes rimmed black and red. The T-shirt says dem toten Hasen in big purple letters. “I went,” she says, “I went home,” and her voice finds itself under that word, lifting, stumbling, “how, how did you even, how could you – ”

“Home,” says Orlando, turning back to the man he’s holding against the wall. Those freckled hands trying to pry his away. Cheeks and forehead blotching red about jerking eyes. “What’s home to such as me. I break every rule.” Under the ginger mustache the mouth opens on a gurgle as one hand falls away. “Any rule,” says Orlando.

“Don’t,” she says.

“Don’t what.” He opens his hand. The thickset man drops knees buckling to collapse unstrung behind the couch. Her hand to her mouth she takes a step out toward him and another but stops, dead, when Orlando says, “They took my sword.”

She looks from her father sitting on the floor hauling in a wheezing breath to Orlando over him, both hands clasped behind his back. “The one I killed you with,” he says.

Her father coughs. Tries to clear his throat.

“It still hurts,” she says.

“She ran away,” says Orlando. “She tricked me, and she ran away, and they did not like that, not one bit. Place,” he says, “and time. They took my sword.”

“Get out,” says her father, rubbing his throat, “of my house,” and she says, quickly, coming around the shelves, the couch, “I’ll go with you, I swear. Let me get my coat.”

“But we both know,” Orlando’s saying, “I have another.”

She shouts, she lurches toward him crashing into the arm of the couch his hand’s leaping out away from her lifting as he falls to a knee coming down a short and shining arc her father grunts. Her hand on the back of the couch. His hand about a bone-white hilt wrapped in rough black cloth, the heel of his other hand on the butt of it pushing a soft wet sound, her hand slapping his shoulder, shoving, knocking him to the floor. He looks up at her, blinking blood from his eye. The long knife left upright in her father’s belly.

“It’s snowing,” says Orlando, climbing to his feet as she gropes for the narrow table against the wall, knocking a bowl away, scattering coins. “What?” she says, stepping back, a phone in her hand.

“It’s snowing,” says Orlando, turning, heading out into the hall, away. “You’re welcome, Gloria.”

In this washed-out streetlight at once too bright and pale the marmalade cat is difficult to see, fluttered by falling snow. Leather jacket creaking the man squats, “Tch-tch,” he says, holding out a hand. “Puss puss.” Pink hair bobs, dulled by that thin light. The cat hikes up on its rear legs, bumbling against the wheel of one of the bicycles parked at the edge of the yard. “Not usually so skittish,” says the man up on the cramped front porch.

“What’s he called?” says the man on the sidewalk.

“Don’t know,” says the man on the porch. Lit by tiny white lights strung along the railing he’s draped in a dark sagging jumpsuit. “Tim?” His hair slicked with sweat or gel and a thick dark line smeared under each of his eyes. The cat’s weaving away through the welter of bicycles, pausing to daintily shake snow from a paw. “Tim,” says the man on the sidewalk, pulling himself to his feet.

“You’re Ray, right?” says the man on the porch. “Pretty much missed the to-do. Been a while, hasn’t it? How’s it doing for you?”

The man on the sidewalk’s tipped his head back. “Yeah,” he says, blinking, shaking his head, looking down to thumb flakes of snow from eyes one pale, one dark. “I’m here to see the Devil,” he says.

The man on the porch lifts a cigar in a white-gloved hand. “The Devil,” he says. “I didn’t know you played guitar.” On the railing among the tangle of lights a mask, grey fur, limp rabbit’s ears, the face of it an ugly metallic skull.

“The Oxys, maybe,” says the man on the sidewalk. “The Bullbeggar? Wicht?” To one side of the porch a figure in shadow leans against peeling pink siding, a crude suit of wicker armor, snow filling the corners of its warp and weft. “Even the Frittening Boneless,” says the man on the sidewalk, “if you could,” and then he shrugs. “You aren’t dead yet.” Those eyes bulging over a snaggletoothed grin. “You’re just a clown.”

The cigar comes down, comes away, “Just?” says the man on the porch in his furry grey jumpsuit, and smoke curls around the word.

“It’s not a bad thing,” says the man on the sidewalk, a gust of snow swirling about him. Up on the front porch the dull red front door opening, swinging back into shadow. “But really, the Devil, or the – ”

“There is no Devil,” says the woman stepping out on to the porch. Close-cropped gunmetal hair almost black in that light. The clown’s shrugging, “Or the what,” he says, as the man on the sidewalk says, “Helm?” His smile gone, his eyebrow climbing. “Aren’t you cold?”

“Not really,” says the clown.

“There is no Helm,” says the woman, light dappling her bare skin, sheening the polished torc about her throat.

“Was, though,” says the man on the sidewalk. “Will be again.”

“You’re, tipping toward the obscure, here,” says the clown.

“I’m back,” says the man on the sidewalk. Squeezing one eye shut, then the other, back and forth. “We’re not all in it, are we,” he says.

“Like I said, you missed the to-do,” says the clown, and “Who are you,” says the woman, “that being back,” as the clown’s saying, “but if you want to come in out of the snow,” that cigar waving airily, and the woman says, “being back means anything at all?”

“You just want to be quiet,” says the clown. “Going in.”

“Linesse, wasn’t it? Isn’t it?” Lymond steps off the sidewalk, across the yard, up toward the house. “Pledged to the Hawk, you rode with, the Dagger, the Harper, the Shrieve – ”

“Dagger’s no more, neither,” says the woman. “People are sleeping it off,” says the clown.

“It’s okay,” says Lymond, one foot on the bottom step. “It’s all right. I’m back.” Snow slithers down the creases of his jacket as he reaches for the zipper at his throat and yanks it down, with a flourish. Working one shoulder free, the other, “Here,” he says, leaning forward. Holding up that jacket hung from his hand. “Take it. But know,” he says, “that when you do,” tightening a fist now about the collar of it, “you take also from this our hand, these, our Northeast Marches.”

She pulls back. The clown’s looking from the foot of the steps to the head of them and back, Lymond in his purple T-shirt in the snow up along his bare skinny arm to that black jacket heavy and still. “There’s this whole story,” says the clown, wreathed in smoke, “you got going on here, isn’t there.”

“Highness,” says Linesse.

“There is no Highness,” says Lymond. The clown snorts.

“You can’t possibly,” says Linesse.

“You heard what we have said.”

“You are too generous.”

“Oh,” says Lymond. “This is no gift.”

Her hand on the jacket then. The clown pushes away from the railing, straightens, watching the jacket loft into the air as Lymond’s hand drops away, “You,” says the clown, the jacket swinging around to settle over shoulders, the arms of it wriggling, inflating with the weight of arms, “how,” says the clown, hands slipping from the sleeves to grab the bottom of the jacket, tug it closed about hips, “you weren’t,” says the clown. “How.”

Lymond’s springing up the steps. “She is within?”

“She is,” says Linesse, and the sound of a zipper.

“And with her?”

“But three remain.” She smooths the jacket’s collar over polished silver.

“So few,” says Lymond. And then, “Come Marquess! You’ve made your choice.” He sweeps a hand toward the dull red door ajar. “Lead on.”

Dark inside, and close. She takes his hand. A hall butler mounded with coats and scarves that overlap a speckled mirror, boots and shoes piled over and around its low bench. Stumble and thump the clown behind them, “Shit,” he says, wrestling the rabbit-head under an arm. To one side a wide doorway, a ruddy, high-ceilinged room, a long dining table, a woman sitting at it lit up starkly blue and white by the laptop open before her. Lying the length of the table asleep among a litter of glasses and mostly empty bottles a round little man in a leopard print bikini, his thin beard curded with white paint. A hiss, the red light and yellow throbbing about the room, past the table a man’s crouching, poking at the stone hearth, blowing, coughing. Over him a narrow figure untouched by the firelight until it turns, yellow and red like embers edging her nose, her cheek, unveiling the white streaks twined through her mad black mane. “You’re ugly,” she says, and there’s rust in her words.

“And you,” says Lymond, “are beautiful.” There in the wide doorway, Linesse behind him, and the clown. “A great many things are turned about from where they ought to be. You, hiding behind walls, sending flunkies to answer the door that I pound. You, bootlessly drunk,” his voice rising, stepping into the room, “and I am at last quite not. A great,” and then he stops, his hand resting on the table. “Many things.” The woman across from him’s shutting the laptop, changing, dimming the light in the room, pushing back her chair. Her cheerleader outfit green and yellow. “Wait,” the clown’s saying, reaching for her arm, “you gotta, Ray, he just, he pulled the most amazing trick, out on the porch, she just, out of nowhere,” and the cheerleader pats his grey-furred shoulder. “You’re an idiot, Glenn,” she murmurs, and she leaves.

Lymond says, quietly, “I don’t want to fight, Mother.”

The man by the hearth straightens, wiping his bald head with a filthy hand, the poker still in the other. His suit unbuttoned over a bare and sunken chest. Polished silver gleams about his throat. Shuffle and step the narrow figure before him with a rustle of tattered cloak a hand emerges, and pale and rough-nailed fingers brush the top of the table. The man lying the length of it stirs. The clink of glass. “What does it matter,” she says. “What you want. You will be fought.”

“I’ve already won,” says Lymond. “I am returned. I will be King. Your daughter, Queen. We will all go on. How,” and his head shakes slowly, side to side, “how is this not a happy day?”

“You are not mine,” she says.

“Yet you are as much my mother as she,” he says.

“You left,” she says.

“He left,” says Lymond. “I only went ahead, a little ways. I saw – ”

“Nothing!” she cries, and a glass falls shattering to the floor.

“I saw,” says Lymond, “where we’re going. Every street a corner, every corner a tower, every tower ten thousand windows and in every window a lamp. And every lamp was lit, and every street was empty, and it was all so quiet,” he’s leaning over the table, over the man lying asleep on the table, “so quiet, you could hear the snow stop falling.”

“You saw nothing,” she says.

“If we go on,” he says.

“And you.” She lifts her nose, her chin, looks past him to Linesse behind him. “All it takes to turn your coat again’s the gift of another?”

“I was cold,” says Linesse, and Lymond lifts a hand, “Chazz,” he says. “A King needs his Devil.”

The bald man chuckles, lowers the poker in his hand to thump the tip of it against the floor. “Further be it from me than anyone else of us in this room to so thoroughly embody an aphorism, but,” and thump again of the poker-tip, “the temptation’s too delectable. For if the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth,” and he hefts the poker up in his hand, “great offences.”

Lymond nods at that.

Scrape of a chair and that narrow figure rustling sits, heavily. “I do not know what you thought to gain, by coming, here, but you have not,” and she coughs, bends over, wheezing, Chazz a hand on the back of the chair leaning over her. “You,” she says, bracing herself against the table, bottles shivering, “you don’t even look like your – ”

“A clown,” says Lymond, and “What?” says Glenn behind him. The man on the table lifts a hand, knuckles his eye. “We have a clown, now,” says Lymond. “We have a peer. And we have already won. This house, Helm,” and he looks up, turns about. “This house.” Up in the shadows licked by firelight along the picture-molding lines of faces, of styrofoam wigstands and mannequin heads clumped in crowded lines all around the room and each of them painted, thick lines and curls and calligraphs in red and black and blue exaggerating eyes and mouths, cheeks and chins, fixed rictuses of joy and wonder and delight and here and there a glum recrimination, and no two of any of them alike. “It is subject to an agreement made with the King before us, and much like Goodfellow’s house across the river, or, or the,” frowning as the man on the table sits up abruptly, and a bottle thumps unbroken to the floor. “Where we left our mother,” says Lymond. “A free house, and open, where she might be safe. Within your demesne, Marquess, but not your purview. And when she smelled the first hint of snow in the air, she came straight here.” Crackle and pop from the hearth, and Chazz turns to it, poker at the ready. The man on the table snorts, and shivers. Her leather jacket creaking, Linesse looks from the figure at the head of the table to Lymond there at the other end. “She hopes,” says Lymond, “but cannot bring herself to ask, that I hew and cleave to that agreement.”

“Snow,” says the man sitting on the table, tugging the top of his bikini back into place. “Dammit, Ray, did you say snow?”

“Well hell,” says Glenn, “I was only telling everybody half an hour ago and nobody wanted to go out and look at it.”

“What time is it,” says the man on the table, blinking owlishly, scooting to the edge of it, clink and chime and another bottle falls, smash. “Shit.” Glenn’s stepping forward, shuffling side to side as Lymond’s turning this way, back about, “Ah,” he’s saying, “it’s Saturday, Saturday morning,” Linesse reaching past him to offer a hand to the man hopping down from the table. He’s tugging his bikini bottom up about his hips. “Very early Saturday,” says Lymond, turning about again. Down the table those pale, pale hands cover the sharp-edged face, and the white threads tangled within the thick black hair are stained red and pink by the light. “And the next day is Sunday,” he says. “A Zoobomb day. And, snow or no snow, we shall have,” and he spreads his hands, and his snaggled smile beneath beaming, bulging eyes, “the greatest, grandest, most astounding Zoobomb ever.”

The clown in the bikini’s still blinking, rapidly, scratching the back of his neck. He shrugs. “Yeah, sure,” he says. “We could do that.”

“Now,” says Lymond, and he clasps his hands together. “We have what we had come for. Marquess? Glenn? Attend me,” and he turns to leave the room.

“Sunday, the Sun’s day,” says Chazz, “the day we all might rest. But not, that day, the Solstice. The sun will not stand still for you, tomorrow.”

Lymond stops, there in the doorway. “Has it really been so long, Chazz,” and he speaks that name quite carefully, “since you have spoken to a King?”

“There is always a King, boy,” says Chazz.

“Then you must know,” says Lymond. “The Solstice is not the day the King comes back. The day the King comes back, is the Solstice.”

The snow’s falling more thickly now. In his purple T-shirt Lymond wraps his arms about himself, ducking pink hair bobbing as he heads out into it, down the steps. “Majesty,” says Linesse, at the top of them. Glenn behind her, the rabbit’s head still clamped beneath his arm.

“The cold,” says Lymond in the yard, speaking over the stuttering snow. “You feel it, now.”

She nods, shivering in her jacket, looking down, her bare legs, her bare feet. Lymond says, “And you would know what we’re about,” and her shivering stills, and she looks up, and nods once, crisply. “Yessir,” she says.

“I will always speak my mind to you Marquess,” says Lymond. “You have but to ask. One peer alone does not a quorum make.” He turns away west, speaking into the teeth of the snow. “We go to call another banner to our hosts.” Looking back to them up on the porch, and his grin is back. “It’s not far. But I’m sure we’ll find something along the way to keep us warm.”

“Are we, uh, so, we’re walking?” says Glenn, following Linesse down the steps.

“Do you see a car?” says Lymond, away off down the sidewalk.

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The Book of the Preacher, written by the son of David, King in Jerusalem, within the public domain.

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