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A black Duffel, dragged – Three out of Five – with Her in the room – not King nor Court –

A limp black duffel dragged across carpet. Dust swirls in diffident light. A pair of pants, withdrawn, a couple shirts, a black leather sheath the length of a forearm, silvery glinting, wire-wrapped handle of a long straight knife. Reverently laid aside. The pants, taken up again, and sniffed. A judicious squint. Pulled on. The louvered doors of a closet half-opened, and a mirror hung inside, the glass of it pasted over with stickers black and grey, and red, but mostly black, and letters white and silver and black in shapes like lightning bolts, like blades, like the printing in old Bibles, White Doom, they say, Hyborian Philharmonic, King-in-Ice, Four Twenty, Iron Thule. Ducking, scooting over, he finds enough of a reflection cleared to smooth his hair, brush down the front of his black T-shirt.

All in black and brown he stands on that awkward corner landing, behind a heavy bannister. Low morning light pours through the windows over the sink, the rush of water, a silhouette there, the XO, nodding, shutting off the faucet. Off back that way there’s this drawn-out, reedy groan, cut short by a meaty smack. The XO’s drying his hands on his old white T-shirt. The front of it sprinkled here and there with drips of red. “Not mine,” he says, his grin skewed by that white scar along his cheek. A querulous voice lifts up off back that way, through the half-open door, loud enough to drive home a couple of words, God’s green earth!

“Need any help?” says Moody, coming down the short staircase, careful of the ramp.

The XO shrugs. “Dad’s got it in hand,” he says. Paid us? from back there. Paid us! “I was gonna maybe get some breakfast, change my shirt. Get some sleep.”

Moody’s shaking his head. “I’m good,” he says. Peel a number off a clock, that voice, what good, any of us, another smack, another groan. “There is a thing today, about lunchtime,” says the XO. “Dad said maybe you should tag along.”

“Tag along,” says Moody.

Rip City! howls that voice from off out back.

“Anyone?” says the King, sitting in the passenger seat, looking up in the rearview mirror at the rest of them behind, Viscount and Soames in captain’s chairs, the Marquess on the bench at the back, and beside her, in the furthest corner, Jo. The Viscount’s leaning forward, elbows on knees, his white-gold locks a-dangle. “I think,” he says, “we’d best be served, perhaps,” looking up, “by viewing this within the broader context.”

“Context,” says the King. Outside an engine’s turning over, whir and rumble muffled by thick doors and tinted glass. A sleek sedan slowly backs out of the space beside them.

“Consider, majesty,” says the Viscount. “This, the first Accolade of your reign, a Samani that sees the court extended to an admirable degree, and yet: we sadly lack for candidates from every fifth. Also.” He’s holding up two fingers, a second point. “Just this past week your sister had to turn a second portion, to replace what had been stolen by a thief as yet uncaught. And now?” A third finger. “Under the strain of such an effort, our Queen’s been led astray by elements without the court to provoke such a display of defiance, as we’ve seen.” Those three fingers held up a moment more, then folded away. In the mirror up there those eyes, one brown, one blue, look from the Viscount to Jo, in the back, her head against the window. “You’d speak of weakness within our ranks,” says the King.

The Soames shifts in his seat, sucking his teeth. The Marquess with a scrape of metal lays one hand over the other. “In this context, sir,” says the Viscount, with a nod, “it’s unavoidable.”

The King looks over his shoulder, at the Viscount direct. “You’d’ve done things differently,” he says.

“Sire?” says the Viscount.

“You negotiated the dowry with the Court of Engines, did you not? That we then paid down at once, a swoop most fell?”

“That’s not,” says the Viscount, “majesty, what I mean – ”

“It’s the root of our insecurity, is it not? The specter of our empty coffers, that’s led the Barons to press you to press their point to me, so forcefully?”

“Sir, I never meant – ”

“It’s also, I’ve no doubt, a source of effortful strain? That’s led the extensions of this court, that you so richly laud – Marquess, Soames,” a nod to each, “to beef over who might best oversee, what is it? A cobbler’s shop?”

A cough, from the Soames. “If it’s a free house the Porter would keep,” he says, but the Marquess, leaning forward, says, “That’s not an invitation, excellency.”

“The both of you. The three of you. All of you,” says the King.

“Majesty, if I might,” says the Viscount.

“You might’ve enough, by now,” says the King. “Next time? Try,” and a fillip of his fingers, “not to twirl your mustaches so theatrically. Anybody else? Anyone? No?” He’s looking over his shoulder again, at them all, and none of them looking back. “We go on. This is not a setback; we will have everything we want. My sister – our Queen – we do know her, I should trust, more better than some banneret, so soon come back from death?”

“What,” says the Soames, “of the insult? The Devil’s, insult?”

He smiles, the King, to light up his face. “Oh,” he says. “It will be answered.”

And there, at the very back, her head against the glass, Jo closes her eyes.

The doors of that white SUV open, front and back, down at the end of the lot, and Luys stands up from leaning on the fender of a ruddy brown car. They’re climbing out, the peers, the Soames, in his tweeds, headed for the long taupe coupe de ville, the Viscount in his blue and white stripes climbing into the back of another SUV, smaller, midnight blue, and sweeping toward Luys, past him, the Marquess in her grey gown, gathering up her skirts to straddle the motorcycle there, and settling a plain steel helmet on her head. Luys still watching the white SUV, the doors of it standing open. A flash of red, there’s Jo, climbing down, backing away, turning away. Luys lifts his head, lifts a hand, not quite a wave, she’s looking down, at her feet, arms folded. That big white SUV lurches, there’s the King’s head, pinkly orange, popping up over the roof of it. He calls something to her, and she’s nodding. She isn’t looking back.

“You won’t be going home?” says Luys, as she takes hold of the handle of the passenger door. She shakes her head. In her other hand she holds a lone black leather glove. “Over the river,” she says, yanking the door open. “Clown House.”

“Of course, my lady,” he says, sitting down behind the wheel.

He scoops up the silicone chopping mat and taps chopped onions into the pan a-foam with butter, stirs them about with a wooden spoon. A couple of cracked eggs wait in a silver bowl. He pours in a plop of half-and-half, and a whisking clatter joins the sizzle and spit till he tilts the bowl over the pan, egg-and-cream smoothly poured to smother it all with a satisfied sigh. Shake and jiggle the pan to round it out.

“Yogurt would’ve been fine,” says Pyrocles, behind him.

“What, you thought this was for you?” Becker grinds pepper into the pan, sprinkles on a pinch of salt. “I mean,” he says, “I could make another, if you want this one,” as Pyrocles’ arm slips about his waist. “Yogurt,” he says, “will be – ”

“Wait,” says Becker, and a shake and jerk of the pan, “hup!” The omelet lofts, flopping a twitch of the pan beneath it folding shook out slop, a browned gold circle rippling pocked with crisped onion, shushing on the flame. “Ha!” belts Becker.

“Finally,” says Pyrocles, and a kiss for Becker’s cheek. The pewter weights dangling from his mustache-tips brushing Becker’s shoulder. “Finally?” says Becker. “I’ll have you know I am six for ten, good sir, and,” another shake of the pan, settling it all, “the last four in a row.”

“It looks delicious.”

“Say the word, I’ll go seven for eleven.” Another kiss, for his mouth. Becker hoists the pan over a plate, and a shimmy lops the omelet in a perfect semicircle. “All right,” says Pyrocles, but there’s a booming knock.

Pyrocles with a sigh pads away, shirtless and barefoot in loose white trousers, to the door to the loft, a mighty thing of beams and planks and a lever that he yanks back clank a grinding screech that cuts off with a thunk. Revealed there on the landing in his blue and white striped suit the Viscount Agravante, smiling. Pyrocles dips his head, a bow. “Well, hell,” mutters Becker, shutting off the flame.

“Anvil,” says Agravante, stepping inside. “Lovely space,” he says. He stomps the white-painted floor once, a muffled thud. “And solid,” he says. Looking over to Becker in the kitchen-nook, wiping his hands on a towel, grey boxer briefs and a white T-shirt strained by his bit of a belly. “Bet you can’t hear a thing up here when he starts banging away down in the garage.”

“How went the colée, m’lord,” says Pyrocles, still by the door.

“You’d know if you’d went,” says Agravante. “It didn’t, in point of fact. Interrupted, by a challenge to our King. The candidates will swear their oaths another day, I suppose. And whatever was intended to placate our friends from over the hills?” A hand, lifted from a pocket, a one-sided shrug. “They are more skittish than before. An entire morning, worse than wasted, all before a second cup of coffee.”

“A challenge, sir?” says Pyrocles, unmoved.

“The Devil, of all has-beens,” says Agravante. “Something about the Queen, and property. Fret not: the Huntsman’s on his scent.”

“His,” says Becker, still by the stove, and then, “the Huntsman? Jo?” But Pyrocles still looks to Agravante, who still smiles, and says, “As to my purpose, here and now.”

“M’lord?” says Pyrocles.

“Your liege has need of your – presence,” says Agravante. “This very day, an hour past the noontide. A car will be sent.” A hand, slap against Pyrocles’ shoulder. “Dress to impress,” says Agravante, and then he leaves.

“Well,” says Becker, as Pyrocles leans into the lever, shoving the big door noisily shut. “That was, well. He could’ve just called.” Pyrocles is heading away down the loft, through all that light cascading down from the clerestory. “Is,” says Becker, “is Jo really going to, fight?” Pyrocles draws back a white curtain to reveal a rack hung with coveralls, white dress shirts, a couple of suits in different blues. “I mean,” says Becker, “a challenge, is that, to the King, that, that sounds serious?”

“What did I do with my white bucks?” says Pyrocles.

Becker looks down, at the omelet cooling on the plate. “How about dinner,” he says. “When do you think you’ll be back?”

“Go on,” says Jo, opening the door of the car.

“My lady,” says Luys, his hands on the wheel.

“Don’t,” she says. “Just, don’t.” One foot out on the sidewalk, looking up to the house they’re parked in front of, peeling pink siding, mud-red trim. The welter of bicycles chained together, along the edge of the yard. “Start the car. I get out, you drive away.”

“Lady, I cannot leave you.”

“What are you gonna do? If he’s here.” A rip of velcro as she loosens one of her cycling gloves, flexes her fingers. “Talk to him? About what?” Closing it up again.

“The Devil’s tongue is hammered silver, and his very breath weaves lawyer’s nets,” says Luys. “Speaking’s not what I had in mind.”

“Like hell I let you go at him, with me in the room.”

“Jo,” he says, closing his eyes. “Lady,” he says, beginning again. “I could go in first, alone, to see if he’s within.” She leans in, across her seat, against his, her hand on his shoulder. “To save you time and,” he says, but she kisses him, softly, “trouble,” says Luys. “But what if he is not here.” His voice a husk.

“Then I’ll find out where he is,” murmurs Jo, “and go to there.”

“But I must take you,” he says. “I am your right hand. I do what you need done.”

She kisses him, again. “You’re the Duke’s right hand,” she says, pushing back, “but this,” climbing out of the car, “this is on the Huntsman. And that’s all on me. So go, get out of here,” she says, a hand on the door of the car. “I’ll call you if I need you.” But then she leans down, looks in through the open door. “Actually, pop the trunk first,” she says. “I wanna grab something.”

The front door’s opened by a hugely shaggy monster in a ragged burlap cassock, great glassy yellow eyes under a single black hedge of brow, a waggling felted nose, red thick-lipped mouth with two white dagger-teeth jutting from the lower lip. “Jesus!” yelps Jo.

“You got me mistaken,” booms the monster, that lower lip yanked up and down and up again.

“Yeah, okay,” says Jo, “nice costume,” as the monster steps back, right hand jerked into an awkward welcoming sweep. “Actually, more of a puppet,” he says, not so deep, and muffled by the lip no longer moving. “Transfer’s still tricky,” he says, “between mouth and arm,” as those big furry paws pry open the lips. Within, blurred by a screen of black mesh, a wry grin. “But how else’m I gonna get to Carnegie Hall? Whoa.” Hiking up as Jo steps inside, pressing his face to the mesh for a closer look. “Killer mask.”

“Yeah,” says Jo, the skull mask in her hand, the coarse black mane of it brushing the floor. “They inside?”

Past the hall butler, its old mirror pocked and grimy, hung about with light coats and a slicker, through the wide doorway, the dim, high-ceilinged room beyond. In the shadows along the picture molding ragged lines of faces, plastic mannequin heads, styrofoam wigstands, each of them painted, expressions of wonder and delight, joy, and here and there a glare, or glum regret, calligraphed in black and red and blue and yellow, round eye-shapes and mouth-shapes and noses, cheeks harlequinned with diamonds and teardrops, and nowhere any two of them alike. A dining table’s pushed against one wall, and in the open space afforded a contraption’s being built on laid-out newspaper, gears and chains and bicycle wheels and a couple of frames, welded together, leaned up against a sawhorse. A little round man kneels before it, cargo shorts and a tatty sweater, cranking a ratchet back and forth, whir-click, whir-click. At the other end of the room a sofa, brownish pink, pulled close beside the cold dead hearth, and white heads at either end. “Hello?” says Jo. “Ma’am? Could I, speak with you? Ma’ams?”

Neither head moves. The little man’s still cranking away, whir-click.

“It’s, it’s Jo? Ma’am?”

A clatter as the little man sets the ratchet aside, spins the whirligig he’s bolted to the frame. Contemplates it. A whickering slither of mane-tips on newspaper as Jo drags the mask up to her chest, a deep breath, and then up over her head. “Jo Gallowglas,” she says, lowering it. “Huntsman,” as she fits it over her face, and the mane shivers, lifts. “Duchess of Southeast,” she says. The little man at her feet looks up, scrambles back. Shadows flit over the floor, the walls, the ceiling, bare branches tossed by a silent storm. “On the King’s business,” she says.

Down the other end of the room those two white heads turn to look at her over the back of the sofa, the one of them her long white hair left loose, unbound, and the other her long white hair bound up in glossily ruthless braids. “You have our attention.”

“The mask’s a bit much.”

“Command; do not demand.”

“I’m, sorry,” says Jo, lifting the mask from her head, and shadows flee as the mane collapses. The little man at her feet hold up an arm against the falling pattering strands. “I don’t,” says Jo, stepping toward the sofa, “I don’t know the protocol, I mean, do I kneel, or – ”

“As you wish, child.”

“It’s dangerous, giving old women airs.”

The mask in her hands before her. “I’m sorry,” she says, “it’s just – ”

“Don’t apologize, child.”

“I wasn’t,” says Jo, “I only – ”

“Never complain,” says the one, and “Never explain,” the other.

“Right,” says Jo. “Except. I mean.” Looking from the one, to the other, wild tangles, taut braids. “You named me. You gave me this, ah,” the mask, turned about in her hands. “Office.”

“I did not give you that.”

“That, you took yourself.”

“You gave me the, you named me. Huntsman. And, I went about your business. And now, for the King. I’m about his – I’m sorry, that didn’t, that sounded – ”

“Speak plainly, child. As you would to anyone.”

“Whom do you hunt.”

Jo swallows. “Chazz,” she says. The mane ripples. “The Devil. Is he here?”

They look at each other then, and it’s possibly a smile that passes between them. “What would you have of him.”

“What has he done.”

“He,” says Jo, “he claims the Queen’s against the King, and that he’s gonna stand with her. Is he here?”

This time, perhaps, a frown.

“Can you tell me where he is?” says Jo.

“It’s not without the realm of possibility.”

“Will you tell me,” says Jo.

“Do you ask.”

Looking down at the mask, those teeth, the empty eye-holes. The limp mane. “Gammers,” says Jo, looking up. “Tell me, the Huntsman of this court. Where will I find the Devil.”

“Why do you do this, child.”

“What is your reason.”

“Not the court’s.”

“Not the King’s.”

“Is it for honor?”

“For Ysabel,” says Jo, and then, as they share another look, “what,” says Jo, “what is it, what’s – ”

“We were wrong about you, child.”

“You were wrong about her. I’ve said she’s trouble from the start.”

“I don’t,” says Jo, “what does that, what do you – ”

“Out by the airport.”

“One of those abandoned markets, left to rot.”

“A Circuit World, or – ”

“The Best Buy.”

“Its livery was blue and gold, as I recall.”

“More of a yellow.”

“He’d spend time there, days on end, when we wandered in the wilderness.”

“When I wandered.”

“I spoke in a general sense.”

“The Best Buy,” says Jo. “Out by the airport, okay. Okay. Thank you – ”

“Never offer thanks, child.”

“Gratitude has no place in this.”

“What is done as you command is merely what should be.”

“What we do has no reason but our own.”

“Right,” says Jo. “Okay.” And then, “I’m not a kid.”

“Of course not, child.” They both begin to laugh.

His watch chimes softly, and he pushes back the white cuff of his shirt to look over the face of it littered with three or four ticking dials, each hashed with tiny numerals and over them all a single majestic sweep hand quivering as it holds itself still, pointing out, away toward the front of the bus, where someone’s stepping through the opened doors, holding up her phone, a woman in black leggings and a short black skirt and a baggy red shirt. In her other hand she’s holding a bundle of coarse black hair. He frowns as she swings into an empty seat down toward the front of the bus, shakes his head, looks outside. There’s no one else waiting at the bus stop there on the corner, a repurposed gas station behind it, a tall red sign on the corner, Al’s Auto Repair, it says, & Towing, Se Habla Español. “That’s, odd,” he says to himself, twisting the golden bezel of his watch. The sweep hand spins wildly about to catch up to where it should be. The bus doors close.

His watch chimes softly.

He pushes back his cuff again. Every hand, not just the sweep, trembles, pointing out as he lifts it, beside the bus, tracking the burly figure there, a big man in a black suit pounding on the doors that open with a sigh. He steps heavily onto the bus, brown hair in crimped eaves about his shoulders and an enormous brown beard, and an aloha shirt under his black suit coat. He waves a piece of paper at the driver, blundering past, past Jo Maguire looking out the window at the traffic, up to the well there by the back door to the bus, where he plants himself, one big wide-fingered black-haired hand gripping the pole right there before him where he’s sitting, twisting the bezel of his watch again, covering it with his hand.

“Well, shit,” breathes David Kerr, very much to himself.

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