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“Does it hurt?” – before the Sun – her Grace; his Lady – Back-slaps & Glad-hands – the Candidates –

“Does it hurt?”

“What?” says Jo, a dark shape turning away from dark windows. Over on the futon a rustle, Ysabel ghostly sitting up, “Does it,” she’s saying, and then, “you’re up.” And then, “You’ve been smoking.”

Jo shrugs. On the sill by her hand a glass ashtray, a scrumble of ash, a single filterless butt. Ysabel’s feeling about, lifting blankets, tipping over to peer at the floor, and “Down at the foot,” says Jo. Ysabel leans up, hands and knees, reaches out, sits back against the pillows with something glossily white in her hands. “Time is it,” she says.

“Almost five,” says Jo. “Luys’ll be here, any minute.” Red shirt in the shadows nearly as black as her kilt.

“Of course,” says Ysabel, bunching up the stuff in her hands, pulling it over her head, a shimmering fall of chemise. “The Samani.”

“Knights gonna knight,” says Jo, and Ysabel chuckles, leans back, her head against the wall. “While Queens cannot be bothered to sleep in their own beds,” she says.

“You know I don’t mind.”

“Still,” says Ysabel. “It’s not as if we must, anymore?” Something glitters under her eye, a smudge of gold.

“Anyway,” says Jo, getting to her feet, “I was gonna go see if the coffee was ready yet – ”

“Of course it is,” says Ysabel, absently picking at the smudge, peeling away a lacey scab.

Jo’s hand on the knob of the door to the room. “Right,” she says. On the wall by the door a sword, slung from a leather strap, the scabbard of it plain and black, the simple hilt wrapped in wire, swaddled in a basket of wiry strands. Above it from the same nail a painted skull-mask, teeth crudely chiseled, black mane falling almost to brush the floor. “Want a cup?”

“Bible-black,” says Ysabel, “and sweeter than sin,” but she opens her eyes. “Jo?” she says, sitting up, “you do,” and leaning on that word, she’s weighing what she might say next, but Jo with a dismissive shake of her head’s already interrupting, “You know,” she says, and she opens the door.

The unlit hall, then the kitchen, shadowy grey and blue. There’s a slender vase tucked full of cornflowers, and beside it a stainless steel carafe, a couple of travel mugs. Jo thumbs back the lid of the carafe for a sniff, a smile, “I’m sorry I ever doubted you,” she murmurs. Frowns. Cocks an ear, looks sidelong at the door to the apartment.

Opening the door Jo leaps back with a yelp as the woman lying across the threshold flops over, tan raincoat, clumsy wedge-soled sandals scraping for purchase, blond hair hung severely straight, a thready whisper, “Ysabel?” A cough.

“Chrissie?” says Jo. Hands on her shoulders, helping her sit up, lean back against the jamb. “What the hell. Are you, okay? Chrissie?”

“Chrissie,” says Ysabel, there in the mouth of the unlit hall.

“Ysabel,” says Chrissie, pushing shuff and clomp to her feet, “I didn’t mean to wake you,” and “You can’t,” says Ysabel, looking up to Chrissie towering in those heels, and “I thought you sent her home,” says Jo, as tottering Chrissie drops to one knee, raincoat lopping about a silvery cocktail dress, “I just wanted,” she’s saying, as Ysabel, arms folded, steps back, and Jo says, “You said you sent her home.”

“Chrissie,” says Ysabel. “You mustn’t.”

“She was out there all night?” says Jo.

“I’m sorry,” says Chrissie. “But I just couldn’t leave.”

“Jesus, Ysabel,” says Jo. “Did you ask her?”

“You need to go home, Chrissie,” says Ysabel, carefully, but “I don’t want to!” cries Chrissie, crumbling, and Ysabel, arms still folded, looks up to Jo. “Could you?” she says.

“Could I, what, no. Ysabel, I’m leaving. In, like, as soon as Luys gets here.”

“Of course,” says Ysabel, “he can drive you. It’s on your way.”

“The hell it is,” says Jo. “We have to be in Forest Park before the sun comes up. Ysabel, goddammit, answer me. Did you ask her.” Something’s chiming.

“I’ll play the game, I swear,” says Chrissie, thickly, looking up. Something’s chiming, getting louder. “Whatever I have to do.”

“Jo,” says Ysabel.

Jo pulls her phone from her shirt pocket, swipes at it, yanks it to her ear. “The hell can’t you learn to text like a normal person,” she snaps, then stuffs the phone away. “Luys,” she says. “He’s here.”

“Then it’s settled,” says Ysabel.

“The hell it is,” says Jo, stepping around Chrissie. “Call a cab, call her sister,” past Ysabel, down the unlit hall, “hell, wake Iona up, I don’t care.”

Chrissie’s hands on Ysabel’s hips, fingers gripping the glossy chemise pulling Ysabel close. “Please,” she says, face pressed to Ysabel’s belly. “Let me stay. For the day.” Looking up, at Ysabel, looking down. “I love you.”

And Ysabel, shaking her head, her hands on Chrissie’s hands, pulls them loose, pulls out and up, a step back as Chrissie slowly stands, hands in hands to either side. “No,” says Ysabel, leaning close, “you don’t,” against Chrissie’s lips.

“Shit,” says Jo, in the hallway behind them, and Ysabel breaks off the kiss, lets go. “Okay,” says Jo, “fine. Chrissie.” The sword slung from her shoulder, and in her other hand the mask, the mane of it twitching restlessly, looping, coiling across the floor. “Let’s get you home.”

No one looks up as he leaves. On the television screen, a man with greasy hair sews up a bloody gash in his arm.

Outside, the darkness, and low houses. He hunches under the hood of his grimy sweatshirt, heads quickly down one side of the street, avoiding cars and pickups parked along the margins of the regular, unkempt yards. Lights switch on with an audible clunk as he passes one house, chain-link fence about it hung with signs that say Posted and Beware of Dog, and sinuous bars of white wrought iron on the windows of it, and the front door. He ducks away, heads on. The lights switch off.

An overpass ahead, a close horizon brightly lit, and busses snore beneath. A driver leans against one, smoking the end of a cigarette. Past that another overpass, more slender, more dim. He crosses under, looking up, a sculpture on the other side, smooth blue stalks twining up and topped by thistled fronds of plastic about slumbering solar panels. Head down he climbs a stairway along the embankment to train tracks above.

Daylight threatens half the sky up here, off past the houses and low trees. Two hills rise, one there, spangled even now with houselights and with streetlights, the other a hole cut in the burgeoning light. He stands with his back to it all, looking over a ticket machine that’s blinking to itself, Select Passenger, it says, Select Passenger. He shrugs and sets off over the walkway across the tracks to the empty platform. No Smoking, says a sign. Fare Paid Zone, Proof of Payment Required.

The train when it arrives is only a couple of blocky cars long, squealing, groaning to a stop. Doors open on a recorded voice that says, This is a Green Line train to Portland City Center. Another look up and down the platform. In the priority seating area, you are required to move for seniors and people with disabilities, and then another voice, En el área de prioridad, and he steps onto the empty train, ceda el asiento a personas de edad avanzada, past the couple of seats right there by the doors, y personas con discapacidad, and up a couple of steps into the end of the car, grabbing a pole to swing himself into a seat, but he stops short, blinks, looks back, looks outside. Then Christian Beaumont, pushing back the hood of his grimy sweatshirt, reaches down and picks up the shoe from that orange plastic seat, a shining oxblood monk-strap shoe, a bit of dried mud clinging to the sole.

Doors are closing, says the first voice. Train departing. Please hold on.

Greenery climbing steeply either side, abrupt high wall of it coolly shadowed close on the left, lit up over across a deeply shadowed gorge to the right by the rising sun, a tunnel ahead, white numerals set in mossy stone above, 1940, briefly glimpsed before it closes over them, lamps strung down the spine of it and green daylight at the end of it yawns them out. “You maybe what to slow down?” says Jo.

“We’re late,” says Luys, leaning the car into a curve.

“We get pulled over, we’ll be even later,” says Jo. “Look, I’m sorry about the, joggers, joggers!” On the gravel shoulder by a low stone wall bouncing ponytail, light blue jacket, balding shirtless long white socks and gone, another, tighter curve, a demure bit of bridge, another tunnel. “If I might advise your grace,” says Luys, sunlight flashing, dappling, “do not apologize.” One hand on the wheel, one on the polished wood knob of the gearshift. A bit of leather tied about his wrist. Jo says, “It’s my fault we’re late. Taking her home.”

“You did as her majesty desired,” says Luys. The car bottoms out, then soars, a ripple in the road, leans into another curve. “There is no fault in that.”

“Jesus, Luys, slow down,” says Jo. The engine whines, swallows, growls as he works pedals and gearshift. She leans forward, gripping the armrest, the car’s slowing, slows further. The tock-tick-tock of the turn signal. “Your grace,” says Luys, turning the wheel, “should not apologize.”

Gravel crunches as the car noses down into a crowded little lot, a couple of dark blue SUVs, a white one, a boxy jeep atop enormous tires, the long taupe tail of a coupe de ville. Luys wheels abruptly into a space at the end, by a lone black motorcycle. Opens his door, looks over to Jo, who hasn’t unbelted herself. “Shall we?” he says. “Your grace?”

“See, but there’s the thing,” she says. “It’s gonna be a your grace kind of morning. Not so much my lady.”

Couple of signs on a wooden post, Wildwood Trail, this way and that, Audubon yonder. Jo leads the way down rough log steps, red shirt billowing unbuttoned over her blacks, black T-shirt, kilt, leggings, her red Chuck Taylors squelching muddy down the slender trail, cigarette in her hand. Luys behind her all in browns, ducking his dark head under low branches. Down they go, and down, switching back along the wall of that deep gorge, into all that green. Far below a chuckle of water, a glimpse of wooden bridge.

Someone’s standing on the bridge, thick bare legs and a cloak of fur about hips and shoulders, leaning on a massive cudgel half his height. Jo scowls, dropping her cigarette to the ground. “I’m thinking I’m maybe underdressed,” she mutters, grinding it out.

“Your grace is fine,” says Luys, and when she steps up onto the bridge he stoops to pick up the half-smoked butt. The man on the bridge lifts his ruddy bald head, wide fur-wrapped chest a-swell with a great inhalation. “Southeast!” he booms. “The Huntsman, and the Mason!” Cudgel-tip banging the planks of the bridge, once.

“Yeah,” says Jo. “Sorry we’re, uh, late.”

Luys closes his eyes, and opens them again. The man on the bridge steps aside, “Your grace,” he says, and a sweep of his arm, “is merely the last to arrive.”

Across the bridge the trail follows the bottom of the gorge, running along the bank of the creek. Up ahead Jo red and black stumps over rumples of rock and root, and Luys and the fur-cloaked man following after. “You’re to take office, then?” says Luys. “But not as Porter, surely.”

“Gordon’s with us yet,” and a shake of that ruddy head, “and as stubborn, and as selfish.” A glance spared, back at the bridge. “The Soames thought it best, though, to have someone stand where he won’t.”

“You swear to the Soames?”

“Four of us,” says the fur-wrapped man, “and three to the Marquess. And the Hound’s brought a weaselly fellow, all in blue.”

“A crowded field.”

“But none for the Hawk?”

One boot up on a hunch in the trail, Luys leans an elbow on his knee, “Her grace,” he says, “thought it best to wait.” Jo’s forging on ahead, red hair licked bright by the sun.

“How is she,” says the fur-wrapped man, “as, well,” but from away up the trail a rumor of astonishment, applause, a distant clang of steel. “They’ve started without us,” says Luys.

“They must not a heard me,” says the fur-wrapped man, “I got to warn them,” sandal slipping in the mud as he pushes to climb the hunch, but there’s the Mason’s hand, reached down, and a tight smile sits the Mason’s mouth as he hauls him up, “I look forward,” he says, “to calling you brother.”

The fur-wrapped man nods, and sets off at a run, cudgel in both hands, “Gallowglas to the field!” he bellows. “Gallowglas!” Jo stepping to one side as he barrels past. “Gallowglas approaching!”

The trail bends around a buttress of gorge-wall, turning into the rising sun, climbing up away from the creek. Ahead, the ruins of an old stone house, thick walls softened by vivid green moss and topped by stark gables at either end, shingles beams and rafters long since gone, and with them doors and frames, shutters and window-glass. A new metal railing’s been bolted along the edge of what once was a second floor, and braced against it flagpoles bearing banners brightly limp: blue, green, red, white, their emblems glimpsed in listless folds, a hound, a hare, a stark black hawk, an empty helm. Highest and largest of all a yellow banner, a glowering bee, plump stripes and slender wings. A crowd of mostly men’s pressed up against the railing, suit coats and sweaters, rain gear, dull greens, dark blues, greys and blacks and browns. Below them, where the trail pools before the ruin, the fur-wrapped man’s bent over, hand on knee to catch his breath, and a handful of figures wait, weapons in hands, watching as up climbs Jo, and the Mason at her heels. “Huntsman!” rings a cry from the railing, pink hair bobbing, slicker brightly yellow: Lymond, the King. “You’ve brought the sun!”

“Yeah, you know,” she calls up to him. “So. This is the, thing. The Samani.”

“It will be, once you’re up here, and safely off the field.”

“Oh,” says Jo, “right. That.” She heads for the steps that stagger up the side of the ruin, but one of those armed figures, a fencer in black trousers spinning bare feet slapping whip-snap of rapiers in either hand beads clacking in her hair, leaps at a man in long white robes his scimitar swung wide to knock aside her first blade but the second, “Hold!” cries someone, the King, and “Zeina!” someone else, and that second thrust’s stopped, whicked aside. Jo’s hand on the mossy stone corner, a foot on the first worn step. The man in the white robes steps back, lowering his sword. The fencer laughs. “Aw,” she cries. “I only wanted to see what would happen!”

They climb the steps, Gallowglas and Mason, up and through a stolid arch onto the second floor, open between those gables, grey stone rusty with moss and lichen, scrawled over with neon-bright graffiti. The crowd mills about, back-slaps and glad-hands, cheers and laugher as with grunts and shouts the clangor resumes below. Jo looks about, arms folded, Luys behind her, nodding, waving someone over, a boy in a brown bomber jacket, brown hair popped in a matted pompadour. “Boss!” he cries, arms flung wide. “They was starting to worry.”

“Let ’em,” says Jo, still looking about.

“How’s the banner look?” says the boy. “I think the old buzzard needs a fucking stitch-up, you ask me.”

“Did you find him,” says Jo.

“Did I fucking find him. Fuck yes I found him.”

“Not so loud, Sweetloaf,” says Luys.

“You wouldn’t a fucking sent me if you didn’t fucking think I could get it the fuck done,” he’s muttering.

“He isn’t here,” says Jo. “What did he say.”

“What he said was, he already told you. No. He said fuck no. That was him, the fuck no. Not me.”

“Your grace,” says Luys. Coming through the crowd there, yellow and pink, the King, big wide smile and a red plastic cup in either hand. “We were starting to worry!” he says, offering one to her.

“Yeah, well,” she says, and takes a sip. “It’s loaded,” she says, blinking.

“We’re not going to not have fun,” says the King. “You’d rather a mimosa?”

“Let’s just get it over with,” says Jo. And then, “Majesty.”

“You make it sound such the chore, Duchess.” Clapping a hand to her shoulder. “But come!” Steering her into the thick of it, “People to meet, flesh to press. We’ll start with the Lake Barons.”

“The who the what now?”

“Alphons,” says the King, pointing, “Alans, and, ah, Medardus, and, well. Good morning, Euric.” A grunt from the throat of a stone-faced man, slope-shouldered in a pale green coat, handing a small square envelope, blankly white, to the King. Jo nods once to that impassive face as she’s led on through the crowd. “What you have to remember,” the King’s muttering, “if you ever speak with Alans,” as he’s prying the envelope open, “he styles himself an Earl.” Peering within. “Annoys us all no end, but what will one do. Lighter?”

“What?” says Jo, lifting her cup for a sip.

“Your lighter. Or a match? You still smoke?”

She opens a silvery lighter, flicks it to life, and he touches the small square envelope to the flame, dropping it as it flares. Grinding the curling ash underfoot. “But really,” says the King, “unless you’re speaking with Alans? Baron is fine.”

“Lake Barons,” says Jo.

“Well,” says the King. “Anything west of the hills. Beaverton and such.”

“They have their own court?”

“What? No. No, no no. Medardus! You know our Huntsman?”

“Have not had the pleasure,” says an older man, quite tall, head canted as if stooped under some low ceiling.

“Good morning, your, ah, grace,” says Jo.

“Oh, dear me no,” says that tall man with a cheerful magnanimity, swiveling to one side, looming over the woman beside him, wearing a blue satin baseball jacket much like his. “We’re much too low for grace,” he says, as she rips a sheet from a notepad and hands it to him, and swiveling back he hands it in turn to the King. “Lovely morning for it,” he says.

“We do try,” says the King, already stepping away. Jo, hastening after, bumps into someone, thickset, softly rounding a navy jacket, and at his temples blocky hexagrams tattooed, blurred by the silver stubble of his hair. “Duke,” he says, with a nod.

“Wu Song!” she says, and then, as he lifts an empty hand, “You don’t,” she says, but his brow furrows, lips pursing under his mustaches in a frown, and her free hand leaps to take his, give it a shake. “Good to see you,” she says, and then, looking off, after the King, “I should,” she says.

“Of course,” he says.

Off through the crowd, that yellow slicker, bent over the sheet ripped from the notepad. “So,” says Jo. “Lighter?”

“No,” says the King, folding it in half, and half again, “this one’s good. For now.”

“He’s not playing, is he. Wu Song,” says Jo. “Whatever this is.”

“I told you,” says the King, leaning close. “Lake Barons. West of the hills.” Polite applause ripples about them, at some shift in the ringing clash below. “You’re certain,” says the King, “you’ve no one to propose today, for Southeast?” The crowd, milling about them both, pressing closer to the railing. “Jo,” he says.

She looks up at him, those bulging eyes, one brown, one blue. “I got nobody,” she says. “Your majesty.”

“Okay,” he says. “All right. Let’s go.”

The crowd parts, stepping back, aside, as they head up to the railing. Jo stands at the King’s left hand, there by the Marquess in a long grey gown, her one hand shelled in a polished steel gauntlet. To the King’s right, there’s the Viscount in a blue and white striped suit, and the Soames in tweedy greens, a yellow meshback cap on his head. The King lifts a hand, and stillness settles, a last few thwacks and clonks as the donnybrook below clatters to a stop. Combatants lower arms and weapons, lift shoulders, feet drawn together, favoring perhaps a leg, here or there, a wince, but “Hup!” and a punch of steel driven through skin, the fencer in black trousers crouched low, one rapier back, a counterweight, the other buried half its length in the belly of the bald man wrapped in fur. Gathering herself her ropey muscles tensing the fencer yanks her blade free, “La!” she cries, and Jo

“Enough,” says the King, looking down at Jo beside him. Her eyes closed. Her hands in fists. Her breathing shallow, quick. “Enough,” says the King again, his hand laid gently over hers, withdrawn at her flinch. “You have done as we expected, which is to say, you have done well. Let’s introduce you all, before tests and games and oaths! Soames! Tell us, who would the North put forth today?”

“Majesty!” says the Soames, leaning out over the railing, adjusting his cap, and his smile. “And such the crowd of gentles here assembled. Hoy! To join the Stevedore and the Gaffer in our service, and see to such Apportionment as we are due, we’ve drawn lots to propose, to you, these four: the Kamali!” The man in white robes, scimitar still in his jeweled gloves, bows. “The Luthier!” A bow from a man in a black leather jacket, thick chain looped about his fists. “Jackstaff!” A man in a long leather coat, a long staff in his hands. “And Bullbeggar!” The bald man, all in fur, leaning on his cudgel, one hand pressed to the hole in his belly, chuckling as claps politely smatter.

“Viscount!” says the King. “Who from Southwest?”

“But one, majesty,” says Agravante, with a sweep of his striped arm. “The Serpent!” A young man all in blue denim holds up a shining squiggle of a blade, another flutter of applause.

“For Northwest!” says the King, and again, that stillness. “We’ve no one to put forth today. Duchess?” Looking to Jo beside him. “Who from Southeast?”

“No one, your majesty,” she says. And then, in a hitch of that stillness all about, “My men,” she adds, “my, knights, are as fine a company as anyone could ask.” She drinks down what’s left in her cup.

The King nods, looking past her. “Marquess!” he says. “Who would the Northeast Marches have put forth?”

“Three candidates, your majesty,” she says. “A Dagger!” A man in a pearly grey suit, a long-bladed knife in his blue-black hand. “A Javelin!” A woman in a skirt of bronze sheaves, and a quiver rattling with short-bladed spears. “And a Mooncalfe!” The fencer throws wide her arms, swords high, crossed above her upturned face, and Jo steps back from the railing, opens her mouth, as if to say something, or shout, or

“All right!” cries the King, catching her arm. “A banner day,” he’s saying, “eight new knights!” Lifting the Viscount’s hand, and Jo’s, in his own, and the Viscount lifting the Soames’, and the Marquess raising up both her own hands gauntlet shining as cheers break out, and applause. The candidates below take their knees, duck their heads. “Now!” says the King. “I believe,” loud and clear, “before the oaths, we were promised tests and games?” Whoops at that, whistles and cheers, bottles and cups held high, but faltering there toward the back, stuttering the applause, falling away as with rustles shuffles scrapes the crowd of mostly men parts to one side or the other. Someone calls out, again, “Your majesty!” There under the stolid arch in the one gabled wall a tall man, pinkly, hatlessly bald, and no coat over his black turtleneck. “A word, if I might, slipped edgewise, before you begin to commence?”

“Devil,” says the King, still smiling. “How fares our mother.”

“Wordless, sir,” says the Devil. “Our house is free; the word I bring’s my own.”

“But weighty enough it could not wait?” The King spreads his hands. “By all means, then. Go to. Unburden yourself.”

“There is an absence, sir,” says the Devil, “its presence keenly felt.” Hands clasped behind his back be comes a little way down the ad hoc aisle dividing the whispers and murmurs that roil to either side. “And once again the perquisites of my office lash me forth, to speak those words that fret on all our lips: where is our Queen?” His pink head cocked to one side, smile widening. “Your sister, sir. Is she upset?”

The King steps away from the railing, into that ad hoc aisle. “Okay,” he says. “I can guess what my next line should be, Chazz, but you’re working off a script I haven’t read. After this? I might need prompts.” He folds his arms. “Why, no,” he says, perfunctorily. “She’s not. Whatever could you mean.”

The Devil’s smile has curdled. “To stop you, sir,” he says. “To leave the Ramp intact. To have Old Tom’s weird drawings stay, where anyone might see them, and thwart the dig of any new foundation, along Lovejoy.” Unclasping his hands, both gloved in black leather. He sets to tugging one free. “Your sister, sir, our Queen, came just last week to see your mother, and hers, and was most upset about your plans to cede the Ramp. She’d see you stopped, sir, and I?” He holds up the glove he’s taken off. “I stand with her,” he says, and lets it fall, and the slap of leather against stone when it lands in the aisle between them. “I will await your response, majesty,” says the Devil, and no one stops him as he turns to go.

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