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a Knock – happening at Once –

A knock. “Majesty?” pitched to carry through the door. “I mean to come within.” Ysabel, sat naked on the closed lid of the toilet, looks up as the door opens, “You would dare,” she says, “come gowned and trammeled to my presence, here?”

“Your pardon, lady,” and a rush of taffeta underskirts as Annisa kneels on the bathmat, bowing her black-scarfed head. “Needs must. You’re required below.”

“Required,” says Ysabel.

Butterflies of silver thread sparkle through that scarf as Annisa looks up. “Requested,” she says. “I’d help my lady dress, if such were to be your wish.”

“And are you now my mistress of the robes, or of the stool?” says Ysabel, as Annisa plucks up a scrap of lace and satin. “I am my lady’s servant in all things,” she says, brushing one bare foot, and when Ysabel deigns to lift it, slipping the underwear on and up, hands brownly warm against cool olive shins. “Your point is made,” says Ysabel, getting to her feet, pulling the underwear up about her hips. “It’s him, isn’t it,” she says. “He’s come back.”

“Yes, ma’am,” says Annisa, fetching the chemise, trailing pale gold ribbons. “He waits without, in his car.”

“Persistent,” says Ysabel, pulling the chemise over her head.

“And is he really not the Pinabel?”

“He really isn’t,” says Ysabel, tugging and settling.

“And the King is not the King.” Annisa gets to her feet.

“And the medhu will not turn,” says Ysabel, “and the Court still has no Bride.” Looking to Annisa then, all in purple and black under the yellow light. “Yet you’re still here. Is that not strange?”

Annisa blinks slowly, once. “Do you mean to say that we are rivals, now?”

Ysabel laughs.

Downstairs a crowd fills the long hall, Sovnya and Fouchard, Chariot and Pilot, Gladius, Byne, Oubliette, hands filled with pole arms and with swords. “My lady!” they cry, as Ysabel appears, her briefly loose chemise trailing undone ribbons, “Majesty!” they cry, and “Hail! Hail, the Rose!” She lifts a hand. They fall silent. Annisa, rustling down the stairs behind her. “How many has he brought with him?” she says. A moment passes before the Chariot speaks up: “Three cars’ worth, ma’am. More than a dozen.”

“And what has become of our Mason?” she says, looking about. There’s the Gaffer, the pole in his hands topped by a heavy brass hook. “Left, ma’am,” says the Fauchard, her pike leaned against the padded shoulder of her maroon jacket. “To resume his search for the Gallowglas,” says the Guisarme, in his linen suit.

“And the Mooncalfe?”

“Gone, to bring word to the Helm, my lady,” says the Chariot.

“No one thought to lend her a phone?”

“My lady,” says the Guisarme, soothingly, stepping close, “it’s only a few Houndsmen, and some from the Lake, or over the hills. My brother Rhythidd is among them – let me go to him, and with him to the Count. I might yet speak a word in his ear, to cool the heads of those without, that – ”

“There’s to be no congress with the thing that calls itself our cousin,” she says, and he nods quickly, stepping back. “It is not the Hound Pinabel, restored to health; the Count is gone, eaten up by that – thing.” Shivering she folds her arms about herself. “It bedeviled us last year. Our sudden loss of, power, this morning, is, doubtless, due to its return. It means to extinguish us. Iona,” and the Chariot nods, “put out the call to our knights not here, the Patch, Escuchon, the Sequin and Seax, and have them come presently. Welund,” and the Guisarme looks up, “speak your word in the ears of the Helm and the Mason: have them come, in strength, as soon as they might. Gaffer Boggs,” and the Gaffer blinks, surprised, “if any others from the North might come, let it be now. Some of you, go: rouse the domestics, and set them at the windows, to keep watch – incredible as it may seem, our neighbors have been bewitched. Soon enough, that thing will goad them into striking this house, or it will strike, itself. So.” Looking up to meet the eyes of him, then her, “Hold,” now him, and him, “this,” she says, and looks back, over her shoulder, “door.” Turning to Annisa, holding out a hand, “Princess,” she says.

“But my lady,” says Annisa. “You are hurt.”

She’s looking, they’re all looking, at the glistening cut across Ysabel’s palm, edges of it puckered, scabbed with white.

“But a scratch,” says Ysabel, turning to offer her other hand. “Come.”

Out into that wide, now empty room, the two of them under the great glass wall, Ysabel staring up into the cloudless sky, and Annisa trailing after. “I reached out, I squashed it, with these fingers,” mutters Ysabel, curling shut her white-crusted hand. “Why did it not stay dead?”

A squeak, a shift, a shock of pink-orange, peering around the back of the armchair. “Just, ah, letting you know, you’re not alone in here.”

“Get,” snaps Ysabel, “up,” starting across the room. He shrinks back in the chair, hands up, “whoa, whoa,” says Ray, “hey, it’s the only place to sit!”

“It is the throne,” she snarls.

“Oh,” he says, sitting up. “Oh.” Getting to his feet. “Sorry.”

“Did you leave Chrissie alone down there?” says Ysabel, heading past Annisa toward the glass balustrade about the stairwell to the porch.

“What? No!” throwing up his hands. “She left hours ago.”

“She – did,” says Ysabel, turning back. “Why are you still here.”

“Why?” says Ray. “Your brother’s had my carcass up here the past however the hell long, and I doubt he was paying my rent. I got nowhere to go, nothing in my pockets, and no idea where my next meal’s coming from. Why not stay?”

“You should’ve left,” says Ysabel. “It’s too late, now. It’s here.”

“What?” he says. “What’s here?”

“Majesty!” cries Annisa.

Up from the porch below Agravante white locks swept back rushing past the balustrade, “Lady,” he says, quickly across the room, “do not cry out,” seizing Annisa’s wrist, pulling her rustle-stumble to him with a shriek she swallows as he brandishes a dagger. “Do not cry out,” he says, again. “Whoa, shit,” says Ray. The Serpent’s slipped up after Agravante, and with footfalls that shake the glass the Guerdon, silver-headed hammer in his hands. “We would not harm you,” says the Viscount, to the Queen.

“Then put up your weapons, my Handle,” she says, heading toward them both, pale ribbons trailing. “I see it in your eyes,” she says. “You know that’s not your Grandfather, but you don’t know what it is. You don’t know what it means to do.”

“My lady, what I know,” he says, holding Annisa close. “I know today things are not as they were the day before. I know our power is lost. And I know we will do whatever we must to keep you safe. Both of you,” looking to Annisa beside him. “Come with us, I beg your majesty. Fighting will only peck the world to pieces.”

Ysabel steps back, takes in a breath, “My knights!” she cries. “To me!”

Several things happen at once. The Serpent leaps from behind Agravante slender sword up and back, bellowing Chariot and Gladius pound into the room, whip and clang of steel, Agravante’s withdrawn, Annisa with him, the Pilot, the Byrne, the Oubliette pole arms rattle and clank, the Guerdon’s hammer brightly high. More knights spill into the hall, Sovnya and Guisarme, but looking back, her sword swept back, his hands up ducking as men in blue suits scramble after, Sapper and Coltello, Trident and Arbalest, Basilard, Anvil, Euric and Alphons, Clothilde, the Gaffer stumbled among them all, and “Okay!” a roar, the other pushing through the fray. “Enough! That’s it!”

Blades stilled, some lowered, some warily held. The Pilot sits heavily, gripping the ricasso of the blade stuck through his belly. The Serpent a hand to his throat, wet stain spreading down his denim jacket. Agravante still tightly holds Annisa, glaring at the spears that bar his way. Ray’s crouched by the armchair, hands up, looking about in terror. The Coltello and the the Chariot sink in each other’s arms, rapier through a shoulder, knife sunk to the hilt in a thigh. Ysabel untouched stands in the midst of it all, glaring at the other, who stoops over a groaning Gaffer and says, not unkindly, “You did fine. You did what was asked of you.” Clapping the Gaffer’s shoulder, “It wasn’t enough, but that’s not your fault.” Straightening, looking up just as the baseball bat takes the Guerdon in the back of the head.

He topples not even a hand flung out to catch himself. Marfisa in her sheepskin coat springs over him catching his silver hammer as it clangs to the floor, bat in her other hand swung to catch the knees of Sapper and Arbalest, doubled back to thrust the butt of it into the Trident’s groin. She darts through the gap their falling makes, skidding on one knee beneath phalanxed pole arms across the polished floor to spin up on both feet hammer out and bet, fetched up before Agravante, Annisa shoved behind him, his dagger held high.

“Boo,” says Marfisa.

“Outlaw,” snarls Agravante.

“My lady!” cries Marfisa, turning away from him, hammer and bat at the ready against all those weapons lifting, turning, pointing toward her, a ragged arc about her, before her, between her and the long hall dimly yawning, between her and the stairwell yonder. “Somebody get her!” the other hectoring sing-songs.

“My queen,” says Marfisa, with a smile for Ysabel, her arms about herself, and stricken with a most wondrous look. “All is not lost,” says Marfisa.

“Anybody?” says the other.

Marfisa hurls the hammer gleaming at them stumbling back in disarray, tosses the bat to Ysabel, then flings herself shoulder against the armchair, shoving, groaning, scraping, pushing as Ray scampers away she’s picking up speed almost at a run one final desperate step that slams the chair into the great glass wall that rings and shivers a gong but does not break.

“Get her!” the other screams.

Ysabel swings the bat wildly at Agravante neatly sidestepping, Ray crouches ducking his pink-shocked head, the knights set to, too close together to hack and swing lurching forward, yanked back, tripping over each other. Marfisa grunting plants her feet, seized the chair by its overstuffed arms, hauls it up, leaned way back against the weight of it tottering forward slam the base of it stubby legs crack against the glass and one long uncertain step back she plunges forward again to crash the chair against the great sweeping window that

bursts –

Shards of glass pelt the trees below the floor Marfisa lets the weight of the tumble dropping chair away and gone she wobbles staggers back from the bouncing clattering smashing edge, turns, glass glittering on her sheepskin coat, shining in the white cloud of her hair, and in the middle of all that holds out her hand.

Scuff of slipper clatter of bat to the floor Ysabel kicks off across the room. Agravante white locks flying lets go of Annisa, lunges after, comes up short, and the seething surging knights, the other stood among them, the slumped white crown of hair and the rage and the dismay struck through those black eyes watching her hurtle herself into Marfisa’s arms, Marfisa already leaning back, over and out the topple and down, clutching Ysabel close, coat wrapped about her as twisting turning they fall through snap and cracking branches to the glass-littered slope below.

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