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1510 – what She has Done – where He Might Be – a Palate’s purpose –

1510, says the scrap of paper in her hand, and 201. Across the street a small sign elegantly plain over demure glass doors says 1510 – the Hawthorne. “Huh,” says Ettie, in her black shorts, her cropped blue sweater.

The doors are locked. A small black speaker on the wall beside them, and a keypad, she presses 2, then 0, then 1. The pound key, after a moment. A click, and the timbre of the stillness shifts, opens with a faint hiss. The loud burr of something ringing, then another click. That hiss still tugs the air. “Hello?” she says. “Starling? It’s, ah, Stephanie. Étienne Limoges?” A truck sighs down the side street, chasing its morning shadow. “Hello?” she says.

A beep, and the latch of the glass doors disengages with a thunk.

Up a switchbacked flight of stairs to a courtyard mezzanine, and more doors of demurely clouded glass, a bicycle hung upright, a rainbowed parasol furled against an unlit grill. The door at the end, opening slowly as she approaches, has the numerals 201 set in the brick beside it. The woman stood there wears a blackly simple maillot, trimmed in lurid pink, her dark hair pixie-cut. “Starling?” says Ettie. “I would’ve called,” but the woman’s turning away. “Can I come in?”

Past an unused coat closet an emptily spotless kitchen, bamboo and stainless steel. A sturdy pole’s been bolted floor to the low ceiling’s edge. Ettie steps around it into an open space that leaps two storeys up or more, the front wall unbroken glass that looks out over the street below. In the sunlight a couple of sleekly angular chairs, and sat to the left a thick-set woman in a white lab coat, black leather satchel on the floor by her sensible shoes, and to the right a young man, shirtsleeves gartered, scissors and thread-hanks and papers of pins tucked in the bib of his leather apron. A beat thumps quietly somewhere, and an airy drone of pipes, a crooning monotone, these are your broken arms, all a the legs a Irish kings, these three sad things. “Starling?” says Ettie.

Smack and squeak of skin on steel the woman in the maillot’s grabbed the pole and leaning away spins about it, follow me now, this is me and the dead boy talking, twisting and dip and smile, this is me when I’m ten. When she comes back around her hair is blond and severely straight, this is me lying in bed when I’m old, mountainous veins in my hands, bracing she hoists herself upside-down to clamp her thighs about the pole, give me an inch and I’ll go for your throat, Ettie’s looking from pole to chairs and back again, “Hello? Starling?” Up the wall to the left a minimalist flight of steps, concrete planks bannistered by slender cable, leads back up to a bedroom lofted over the kitchen. “Hello?”

The woman in the lab coat turns over an empty hand. The front of the young man’s apron’s dusted with powdery ash, a torn plastic baggie crumpled on his knee. The woman in the maillot’s upright again, curling an arm, legs more tightly gripping the pole, leaning back and back, free arm swooped offhandedly to slow her spin, lowering the yellow flag of her hair to the floor. “I need to speak with you,” says Ettie, looking up, pitching her voice up and out. “It’s about my sister.” The music’s come to an end. “I know,” says Ettie, “you’ve seen her, with Ysabel. I know you can get to Ysabel.” The woman in the maillot’s pulled herself back upright and in, spinning faster now and faster, scraping thump the trembling pole. The man in the apron leans forward in his chair. The woman in the lab coat’s looking out the window. Faster, as Ettie takes a step away from the stairs, toward the pole, faster clang and squeak a clap of closing air the woman’s gone, pole still thrumming in her wake. Something clack a bounce across the kitchen floor, a bit of bone, and Ettie shrieks. The man and the woman still in their chairs, and her eyes are closed, his cheeks wet.

“Oh my God!” cries Ettie, climbing the steps too quickly, stopping halfway up, “my God, if you just, if that,” starting up again, toward the bedroom loft, “Starling? Starling!”

Sitting up amidst a bewildering tangle of color and pattern the Starling lifts a corner of satiny pink to her shoulder, across her breast. “Leave,” she says.

“Oh,” says Ettie, a hand, both hands to her mouth. “Oh, what has she done to you.”

“Done?” the Starling growls. “What has she done? Withdrawn her favor. From us all.” Leaning forward on the bed, “You would go to her? Foolish mortal. Your sister,” reaching down to snatch up a blue-black garment, a bulky hoodie, “has been let go, as have we all. She is free, or lost, and gone,” pulling it over herself, settling the hood over short black silver-shot hair, “so go. Leave me to myself.”

“No,” says Ettie, stood there, unmoved. “No.” Lifting a hand, an offer, a welcome, a request. “There’s, some people you should maybe talk to,” she says, quietly, but firm. “Come on. I can take you to them.”

Stumbling over meandering stones, “Hey!” he’s frogmarched across a scrap of yard, “Not so rough!” up to a yellow door, of a house much like the others on this side of the street. The Chariot Iona, hands on his shoulder, his belt, hauls him up onto the threshold, his dark hood falling back from an upthrust shock dyed orange-pink. Shuff of slipper, click of heel they follow, Ysabel a briefly loose chemise of white, laced and hemmed with pale gold ribbons, and Chrissie all in black for dancing, reaching to catch a hand, tug Ysabel to a stop, there before the house. “What are we doing here?” she murmurs. “What’s going on?”

Ysabel smiles as if to reassure, steps close, a hand to Chrissie’s chin. “When I find out,” she says, “I’ll put a stop to it.” Chrissie looks away. Ysabel presses her kiss to a cheek. Parked along the curb across the narrow street a couple of SUVs in black and stern brick red, a silvery grey roadster, a blocky hybrid blue and white, and the high stone wall rising, and tangled thickets and trees, half-glimpsed gardens that climb the slope above.

“Ma’am,” says Iona, a meaningful hitch her her hands occupied by his shoulder and hip, and a pointed glance at the door. “Of course,” says Ysabel, stepping onto the threshold, but before she can reach for the knob it’s swung open, “Majesties!” cries the woman stepping out, into morning light that sets off in the purple of her gown a seemly riot of yellows, greens, reds and sheening blue, dazzles the silver thread picked through the black scarf binding her hair. “You’ve come with the sun, to resolve a most uncertain night.”

“Yeah,” says the man in the hoodie. “About that.” Wincing as Iona shakes him, once. “Highness,” says Ysabel, and a gesture within, “if we might?”

The woman all in purple steps back, door held open, but her smile has faltered to a frown. “Ma’am?” she says. “My lord? Lymond? Is something here amiss?”

“My, sister,” says the man, “is,” with a jerk to free himself from Iona’s clutch, “understandably!” brushing, resettling his hoodie, “overreacting, perhaps, a tad, to the, uncertain, uh, nature, of what’s, occurred,” trailing off as the woman in purple with a rustling drag steps close, looks up, into his blue, blue eyes. “My lord,” she says. “What is it you call me?”

“I, what?” He blinks. “Call you?”

“When we speak together, lord. After court, or over breakfast.”

“We, ah,” another blink, and again. “You, and I.”

“You did send for me, sir, from the Court of Engines, did you not? Surely you have not forgot my name.”

He looks away, and something comes over his face, those eyes, his mouth cast slyly wry.

“Âna Annisa hight,” she says, and offers him her hand, “Ray,” he says, and takes it with a shrug.

“A pleasure to meet you, sir. What has become of your brother?” she says, to Ysabel, who looks down, to Chrissie’s hand in hers. “We do not know,” she says. Looking up. “We begin to think he doesn’t, either.”

“Actually,” he says, but she’s kept on, “His majesty left to meet our Gallowglas last night, who was, distraught.” Letting go of Chrissie’s hand. “Now she is gone, and he is gone, and this,” a sidelong look, “is all that’s left. We mean to bring him within, and examine him closely, to learn what we might before this news might spread.”

“Ah, lady,” says Annisa, suddenly grave. “If such was your design, I fear you’ve come too late.”

Past her, down the hall its gleaming floor opening out into the wide room under the great curving wall of glass, the hush of conversations held in abeyance, and the Gladius, the Byrne and the Oubliette, the Sovnya, chin tucked behind a shining silver bevor, the Fauchard, the Pilot, all craning to peer back up the hall, and the Gaffer in his pea coat, clay jug in his hands, the Mooncalfe barefoot, holding a green plastic bottle, and the Mason all in brown, and a simple silver thermos, and taking one hesitant step into the hall, the Guisarme Welund in his linen suit, his yellow tie.

“They’ve come in fits and starts throughout the night,” says Annisa, “since that uncanny thunderclap.”

“If so,” says Ysabel, “so be it,” and she strides toward them all. “We’ve enough for a quorum. Come! Bring him, before my council!”

“It’s,” he says, waving his hands up above that shock of orange hair, “it’s, it’s either day or, or it’s night, or,” dark hood lowered, a cowl about his shoulders, “and when it’s night? There’s snow, feet of snow, snow like maybe back in Paul Bunyan’s day or something, I don’t know, but, when the sun comes up? It all, it melts. And there’s, the water, then, it’s like, a hundred feet deep? I don’t know. Five, six storeys downtown, whatever that is. And the days, the days last for, like, weeks, months, I don’t know. Not like I have a watch,” pushing back a cuff to show his naked wrist. “Not like it would do any good. And there isn’t a cloud in the sky, but until the sun finally, finally starts going down, and then it gets cold. Fast. Everything freezes. And it starts to snow.” Sitting back in his chair at the head of the table. Behind him, past the credenza laden with cold silver chafing dishes, the vertiginous drop, the dark trees, the rooftops gauzed in mists steamed away by the rising sun. “Anyway. That’s where I was, when I was him. So I figure, now I’m me again? He must be there.”

“And, forgive me: you are?” says Welund, sat to his right.

“Ray,” says Ysabel, stood to his left, leaned against the back of a chair.

“Yeah,” he says, leaned forward, and the heels of his hands against his eyes. Pushing back his shock of hair, “I’m on the ragged edge, here. Can I get something to drink? Some juice? Water?”

“How do we get there?” says the Gaffer, hunched over in his burly pea coat, “Or, I suppose, how does he come back?” and the Mooncalfe snorts. “You think he means to come back,” she says, beads clacking as she sagely shakes her head.

“Tell us,” says Ysabel, leaned over her chair-back, “who else was in the room, when you became you again.”

“I,” says Ray, and a sigh. “Like I told you,” he says. “The big guy, the one with the mustache. Whatsisname, was at the church that time.”

“The Anvil Pyrocles,” says the Mason, halfway down the table to the right.

“The Anvil. And that other guy, who was also at the church, laid out asleep on the floor. And, and it was, like, the saddest, the most terrible thing in the world, that he was,” a shrug, “asleep,” he says, looking up to Ysabel. “She wasn’t there,” he says. She looks way, to the Mason, who’s looking at the thermos set before him. “I haven’t seen her,” a breath, sucked in, “since the last time I was me.”

“My lady, we’ve gotten all we might, I fear,” says Welund, spreading his hands, “for now; for now, my lady, we must discuss what we’ll do next.”

“Time enough, yet, for that,” she says.

“Lady,” says Welund, gently. “Every ounce and drop of due respect, and more besides, but: your people need you, now.”

“Is that so,” she says. The table quiet a moment, the air quite breathless. Morning rises through the trees below. “Seriously,” says Ray, “a glass of water,” but Welund says, “My lady, you must know it is.”

“What my people need, Glaive Welund,” and she reaches for the jug there by the Gaffer’s elbow, and reflexively he lifts a hand, then draws back, sits back, chagrined, “is the owr,” she says, “that I provide.” Lifting the jug. “We may speak freely, here.” Setting it down, in the middle of the table, before them all.

“If you were to turn even a thimbleful, ma’am,” says Welund, the timbre of his words dropped, clipped, “it would tell us much, of what we face.”

“It would tell you whether I might yet make more,” she says. “We’ve not forgotten how my, how our mother was treated.” He pushes back his chair at that, gets half up out of it, “My lady!” caught in that moment, not sitting, not standing, a hand on the arm of his chair. “No one doubts your fecundity,” he says, pushing himself upright.

“She does,” says the Mooncalfe. Between her hands a squat plastic bottle, the label of it peeled away in strips that litter the table before her. “It’s why she’s so keen on her Gallowglas.” Looking up, to meet Ysabel’s green gaze. “You need your crutch,” she says.

“I need,” says Ysabel, cold and terrible, but then she closes her eyes, swallows, with a small tight smile. “We understand your office must be filled,” she says, to the Mooncalfe, “but must you fill it with such zeal?”

“If it’s amanuensis you require,” says Welund, “what on earth’s the matter with the blonde, upstairs?” Sitting him back down. “Why else bring her?”

“Accept, Glaive Welund, that there is much about which you know little enough, and that about which you know nothing at all.” Pulling out her chair, she sits, and winds up a trailing ribbon in her lap. “Today,” she says, looking up, “you find yourselves without a King, and a Huntsman. I have lost a brother, and my most beloved friend.”

The Gaffer leans close. “We do have you, ma’am,” he says.

“So, are we,” says Ray, “are we done?”

“No,” says Ysabel. “You saw something. You heard something. You know something, whether you know it or not. Something that might help. When you, when you became yourself again, and opened your eyes,” she shakes her head. “Before that. The moment before you came back. What’s the last thing you remember? I must know!” she cries. “If they’ve gone there, I must know. Was it hot? When you left? Cold? Day? Or night?”

“It, it doesn’t work like that,” he says, “and anyway,” he points down the table, finger crooked up, “I think she’s trying to get your attention?”

At the back end of the porch Iona’s stooped, halfway down the stairs, beckoning awkwardly, “Ma’am?” coming down a few steps more, straightening as she does. “Your pardon, ladies, lords: the Pinabel has come.”

“Southwest, at last,” says Welund. “Tell us, Chariot: has the Viscount come himself, or is it but another ambassadour with a bucket?” The Mooncalfe rolls her ostentatious eyes at that, and the Mason shakes his head.

“Neither, sir,” she says. “It is my lord the Count.”

“Oh,” says Welund, after a moment.

Up the stairs, out into the wide room under the great wall of glass, the Glaive, the Gaffer, the Mason, the Mooncalfe, and Ysabel behind them, paused on the top step as a voice floats to the top of the murmurous clamor, “poached in virgin olive oil, and grits simmered in cream.” She closes her eyes. “A salsa verde, perhaps,” that voice continues, “chopped herbs, and just enough oil to loosen them.” She sets off toward the armchair there, the little table by it, and Chrissie sat back against the arm of it, ankles crossed, phone in her hand. “Peppers and garlic, a bit of sugar, added to fermented fish sauce,” and Ysabel leans close to her, “You mustn’t sit on the throne,” she says, quietly, a hand on Chrissie’s elbow.

“How long’s this gonna take?” says Chrissie, getting to her feet. “He’s making me hungry.”

“Take yourself downstairs, to the porch,” says Ysabel, as quietly as before. “Go, now. Iona is below, you’ll be quite safe. Don’t worry,” and her fingers to her chin, but Chrissie steps back, “I wasn’t,” she says, “but I am, now.”

“It will all be over soon enough. And then you’ll eat.” A gentle push, to send her along, and Ysabel watches as Chrissie, haltingly, crosses the room between and among them chuckling and murmuring to stand a moment silhouetted by the climbing sun at the top of the stairs, and only when she starts down does Ysabel look to Agravante, suited in pale blue, and the other beside him, in navy. “Majesty,” that voice, “forgive us,” that pink-cheeked smile, that wild crown of ivory hair. “I was regaling the court with a hypothetical breakfast,” those round pink hands are neatly folded before that firm round belly. “To, maybe, restore us all, so we can work out what’s been done, and what we have to do.”

“We offer our condolences,” says Ysabel, to Agravante, “on the loss of your grandfather.”

“Loss?” says Agravante, and a cough, a swallow, “majesty, what, what an odd thing to say, when he stands awake before you, for the first time in months.”

“Does he?” She steps close, a hand up, against the light. “The face,” she says, “the face works. The hair is quite good. But the voice?” She shakes her head. “You’d have a sauce of fish, at our table?”

“Fish?” says the other, and then, “oh, the sauce: fish blood’s hardly blood, girl. It’s garos. Kê-chiap.” A sweep of one of those hands. “A palate expands, with age. What else is it for?”

“Do you hear?” she says, to Agravante. “It’s off. All,” stepping back, “just a bit, off,” and then, “some of you! Attend: we’d have this juggler removed.” Looking to them all, arrayed about that wide room, stiffly still, and silent. “He thinks he’s being wicked, but he’s actually quite dull. And small.”

“I know not what you mean,” says Agravante, and “We mean for him to go,” she says. “You might stay, if you wished.”

“It’s sadly clear,” says the other. “Her majesty’s been rattled by the ruptures of the day. The failure of the, the owr, the loss of the King – tremendous blows. Take a moment, child, and come back to yourself. Look at me.” Those pink hands pressed to a white-clothed breast. “You know me. You know who I am.”

“A princess,” she says, “might familiarly be a child, but a queen? A queen is never familiar. He knew that.” Stepping close again. “Of course I know you. I couldn’t say your name – I might’ve head it once, in passing, perhaps? I never bothered to learn it.” Close enough to loom, stooping, hands on her knees, and his pink cheeks splotched with red as he looks up to meet her cold green eyes. “But had you truly thought,” she says, “I could ever forget your stench?”

A roar swells up that’s swallowed, with a grunt. For an instant shadows seem to shiver from that squat form, lightless motes that leap and spin and dissipate, a glowering haze that’s gone even as it appears. “Lady!” cries Welund somewhere off behind her, but the other’s speaking words that grate as they’re pushed between those lips, “You will not speak to me in such a fashion,” but a crack of laughter, there’s the Mooncalfe dancing up, blade in either hand, tip of one of them chivvying, urging Agravante back, “how dare you,” and her second blade swung up to cross the both of them now a scissors parted for the other’s throat. “There’s no gallowglas about,” she says, “but I’m willing to work around that.”

“Fauchard!” cries Ysabel. “Gladius! Byrne! Shall Northeast’s ambassadour seize all the glory?”

Thump of boot, chime of mail, they step up, and sunlight brazing blade-edge and spear-tip.

“Sheep!” bellows the other, hastened back up the hall with Agravante, and Ysabel striding in their wake, the Mason racing ahead to the door, and the rest of them clank and rattle a thicket of pole-arm and spear-haft behind her. “Sheep, the lot of you! You don’t have the stones to leap after a new shepherd!” Shadows spill over the other’s face, his white shirt as the Mason opens the door, and sunlight sluices down the hall. “I look forward to the day you come to rue this moment, O Queen! Pray you do not fail your flock. Pray you do not falter any single step!”

“You have a choice,” she says, to Agravante. “You may stay, or you may go.”

“Lady,” he says, blinking in the sunlight, “please. Let us work together, to,” but she nods, and the Mason shuts the door between them.

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