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“I have told Your Grace” – a Most dangerous opponent – He’ll come – North it is –

“I have told Your Grace,” says Vincent Erne, a towel in his hands, “as I have told her, repeatedly: I cannot teach someone who will not learn.”

“It’s a poor craftsman,” says the Duke in his camelhair coat, tugging an oxblood leather glove from his fingers, “blames his tools, Mr. Erne.”

“I’m not talking about tools,” says Vincent, turning a pointed look at Jo there by the mirrors that reach from floor to ceiling, épée in her hand, mismatched Chuck Taylors on her feet. “I’m talking about material.”

“Then let us test that mettle,” says the Duke, slipping out of his coat, looking about a moment, then laying neatly on the floor by the front wall. He starts unbuttoning his dark red shirt. Vincent tosses the towel to Jo. “I’ll get jackets and masks,” he says, headed for the door. “Foils are – ”

“No,” says the Duke, laying his red shirt atop his coat. Smoothing the front of his white T-shirt. “None of that, and none of your stoppered toys, neither. I said we’d test the mettle.” Pulling his gloves back on, he takes the cane he’d tucked under an arm and lets it fall on the shirt and the coat, leaning now on the heavy pommel of his unsheathed longsword.

“Not here, Your Grace,” says Vincent.

“You’d rather we took it to the street?” says the Duke. “Your sword, Gallowglas.”

She’s already crossing the room to set her épée down in a serrated row of practice swords laid out along the floor. Wiping her hands with the towel, her face, blotting sweat from her chest. At the end of the row her leather jacket’s haphazardly flumped and beside it another sword in a plain black scabbard, the hilt of it simple and straight, wrapped in dulled wire, the guard a glittering net of wire and worked steel knots. “It ain’t talent or skill that’s in question,” says Vincent. “At the current moment.” He clacks the hook at the end of his prosthetic arm. “It’s discipline. It’s respect. It’s not making promises she forgets the moment she walks out that door. It’s not disappearing for weeks at a time and going over my head to Your Grace in the hope of avoiding difficult questions. Do not pick up that sword.”

Jo looks up at him with a shrug. “That sonofabitch is my liege,” she says. She picks up the sword.

“Your, you,” says Vincent. Clack.

She draws the sword from its scabbard. The Duke’s limping into the middle of the room, his sword in both hands at an awkward angle before him, the heavy pommel braced against his belly. “I don’t see the problem, Mr. Erne,” he’s saying. “I won’t hit her. She can’t hit me.”

“An untrained amateur,” says Vincent, “can be the most dangerous opponent in a duel.”

“A wonder, then, that anyone manages ever to become proficient,” says the Duke. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Watch your stance,” mutters Vincent as Jo marches past him. “Strike him, not his blade.” She plants herself shoulder toward the Duke, blade up at an angle before her, free hand tucked up against her chest, almost under her chin. “You’re annoyed,” says the Duke. Turning his back almost to her, his sword still braced awkwardly both arms tight against his torso.

“You said you were gonna go for a walk,” says Jo. “Leave us alone. Let us work. Hadn’t even been ten minutes.”

“I got bored,” says the Duke.

“We’re two blocks from Powell’s,” says Jo.

“I’m gonna go to Powell’s, it’s gonna be my Powell’s,” says the Duke. “You can’t hit me from all the way over” as she takes two quickly scuttled steps and a third kicking into a shallow lunge sword arm up blade-tip down thrust at an angle the Duke turns to catch hilt up blade down over his shoulder the thrust aside a clang and a scrape. She shuffles back. He lurches around, facing her, pommel braced again against his belly, arms in tight. “It’s more than that,” he says. She lunges, thrusts high and to the right, rolling the tip over his blade to come in suddenly low and to the left but with a flick he knocks it aside. “You had a mad on for me all morning,” he says.

Another thrust, parried. “I woke up at eleven,” she says. Darting in low and outside, rolling under to jab up at his chest, he torques his wrist hair flopping blade spinning around and down to swat it away. “I have no idea,” she says, “if I slept ten hours,” another thrust, another whipping parry, his shoulder to her now, hilt in one hand pommel braced against the other, head down, and she’s saying “or if it was five in the morning when I went to sleep” as she swings at his head and he ducks with a sidestep. “I don’t,” her blade wavering, he steps back as she leans in for a thrust, another parry, clang! “I don’t have any idea what the fuck day it is,” she says, a feint, a thrust, a parry and the Duke steps forward with a bellow as she’s trying to swing her sword back, up, trying to catch his thrust before it whicks over her shoulder past her ear.

“That it?” he says, wincing, hobbling back.

“You didn’t kill him,” she says.

“Wednesday,” says the Duke.

“What?” says Jo.

“November sixteenth,” says Vincent. “If you actually feinted at him, rather than near him – ”

“Christ,” blurts Jo, turning away, her blade coming down with a whipping snap of her arm as something ugly masks the Duke’s lips curling nostrils flaring brows crashing together he wrenches his sword up over his head steps limping the blade brought down a heavy chop as Jo’s shoes squeak her arm-snap carrying her tottering around turning sword twisted up to just catch his like a falling bell.

Vincent lets out the breath he’d taken in.

“All right,” say the Duke, stepping back. Jo’s sidelong to him, free hand back against her chest, sword settling between them, before her, at an angle. “Mr. Erne totally telegraphed that last.”

“I was paying attention,” snaps Jo.

“Indeed,” says the Duke. Smiling. Clapping his hands together. “One step at a time. Our first goal was only ever to get your sword back.” Nodding as she lowers her sword, pulls her foot back in toward herself. Wipes her mouth with the back of her free hand. “You’re useless to me without it.”

“For what,” says Vincent.

“Five weeks remain,” says the Duke, “until the – ”

“For what.”

“ – the turning of the, please, Mr. Erne, the year. Our next step – ”

“Oh, no,” says Vincent.

“ – is to, Mr. Erne, please.”

“Hell no, you son of a bitch.”

“Why do you think that to be such an insult?” says the Duke.

“Leo,” says Jo.

“Oh, Leo, is it,” says Vincent.

“Five weeks remain,” says the Duke, “but there is something, next week, we must prepare for.”

“It’s Shakespeare,” says Becker into the phone.

“What is,” says Jo in his ear.

“His old accustomed feast. That’s like Romeo and Juliet.”

“I don’t think he was quoting Shakespeare. If anything I think maybe Shakespeare was quoting him. You know?”

“He what?” Becker’s frowning at a spreadsheet on the computer screen, entering numbers from a handwritten column on the piece of paper in his lap.

“Never, never mind. Anyway. Are you, do you already have plans?”

“For Thanksgiving.”

“Yes, for Thanksgiving.”

“You call me up for the first time in weeks – ”

“Since you fired me.”

“Since I laid you off because we had no work, and you’re asking me whether I want to come to your new, your friend’s place, for turkey and trimmings.”

“No turkey,” says Jo.

“No turkey?”

“He’s kind of a, I mean he’s a vegetarian. Maybe there’ll be turkey. There might be turkey. Is that a deal-breaker? Is this too weird? Is that what you’re saying, this is too weird?”

Becker sits back, phone clamped between shoulder and ear, one hand still on the piece of paper in his lap. A low murmur of voices, four or five backs hunched here and there in the couple dozens kelly green carrels set up atop the long folding tables along the indecisive cream walls. Out the two tall windows across from him the last outriders of downtown’s tall buildings, mostly older brick, a refurbished hotel, a stark new-build apartment block hanging over the highway’s gully, and past all that the hills, black and green and lost in a low grey fog of cloud. “It’s weird,” he says. “But I wasn’t gonna, I didn’t have anything.” He sighs, runs a hand through what’s left of his hair.

“So you’ll come?”

“What the hell.”

“Cool,” says Jo. “You guys were there at the start of this whole thing, I mean, you know? He said I could ask whoever I wanted, but there’s not, I mean, anybody else, really, that I’d want to bring into this, you know?”

“Guys?” says Becker. “What whole thing?” The door behind his desk opens, a woman steps through, “Our phone bank,” she’s saying to someone, a man behind her. “We’re running a bee-to-bee, a business to business right now, it’s a little quiet, but there’s thirty-six stations we can fill with a day’s notice.”

“You know,” Jo’s saying, “it’s, ah, don’t worry about it. A thing. Thirty-ninth and Hawthorne, there’s a, it’s the old Masonic temple? With the Indian restaurant. Upstairs. There’ll be signs, or lots of people, I’m sure. Like five o’clock?”

“While I’ve got you,” he’s saying. The man who’s come through the door, he’s tall, his shirt striped blue and gold with crisp white cuffs and collar, a yellow tie, his hair an untidy mop of shining black curls. “We’ve got a, a thing, a political thing starting up. So it’s residential work. Finally. I could use you and Ysabel on this.” The man in the striped shirt’s looking away as the woman’s saying something about rigorous training and quality assurance protocols, he’s looking down at his wrist, at the heavy golden watch there. He looks up, his dark eyes meeting Becker’s, and Becker blinking looks away, at the computer screen.

“Yeah, well,” says Jo, “that’s, that’s great, but. The situation’s changed.”

The man in the striped shirt’s smiling to himself. “So that’s a no,” says Becker.

“Sorry,” says Jo.

“And Ysabel, too? You guys still a package deal?”

“Like I say,” says Jo. “Situation’s changed. Thanks, Becker. See you for turkey or whatever.”

“This is Arnie Becker,” says the woman as he’s hanging up the phone. “Our Lead Field Supervisor. He has a great deal of experience running surveys of, ah, all different sorts. Arnie, this is David Kerr, who’s overseeing the survey for the commissioner.”

“The committee to elect,” says the man, smiling broadly. “An important distinction. Good to meet you, Arnie.”

“Call me Becker,” says Becker. “Everybody does.”

The parlor’s dark, the paintings high on the walls lost in gloom. A shadow moving through it, only the wide white collar at her throat the dimmest blue suggestion where she is, where she’s going. The collar, and a squeak of a floorboard, there under a rug. She freezes. A faint rustle of hair against that collar, the shadow of a head turning a little, tilting, listening. Light scuff of a shoe on the rug, a popping tock from the floor as her weight shifts. Another scuff, a step, the floorboards silent now, and another, another, headed for the broad doorway, the open foyer beyond steeped in murky streetlight from high thin windows to either side of the broad front door, light that sparks a moment as she steps into it, snagged on the lenses of narrow, black-rimmed glasses.

“Anna,” says Ysabel, ghostly by the front door in that light, white coat, white turtleneck, dark hair tied back. Holding out a hand. The woman all in black takes it, presses something into it, a crinkle, an envelope. “You’ll want to put that somewhere,” she says, opening Ysabel’s coat, “safe, it’s about five hundred – ”

“Don’t,” Ysabel’s saying, “it’s, I’ll – ”

“It’s all I could get on such short notice,” says Anna, stepping closer. “She won’t notice. She wouldn’t ever notice.” Her hand inside Ysabel’s coat. “I checked the bus schedules. There’s a fourteen every half hour till about one thirty. It’ll drop you right in front of the Duke’s place. Just get down to Madison on the Bus – Mall – ” Frowning she reaches up to adjust her glasses. “You aren’t going to the Duke’s,” she says.

Ysabel gently plucks the glasses from Anna’s face. “I’m not telling you where I’m going,” she says, folding the glasses, leaning close, kissing Anna, gently, and Anna squeezes her eyes shut, opens her mouth to kiss Ysabel in turn, and her hand falls away out of Ysabel’s coat. She opens her eyes as Ysabel steps back and looks down to see her glasses in her hand.

“It never occurred to me before to tell you,” says Anna, putting her glasses back on, “how beautiful you are.”

“I never asked, before tonight,” says Ysabel.

Outside on the sidewalk before the old green house up behind its low stone wall Ysabel alone shuts the gate, pulls her white coat tightly about herself, then slowly begins to step around in a tight little circle, one hand up, a pinkie to her lips. Lights here and there in the apartment block across the street, a guitar hollowed by distance, an echoing thump and pop of drums and what’s maybe a chant from the ramshackle house over across the intersection behind a low screen of trees, lit up with candles and Christmas lights. A smile stealing over her face she shuts her eyes spinning faster now until a laugh leaking out she spreads her arms wide and stops, suddenly. Opens her eyes. The music, the ramshackle house behind her, the green house unlit to her left. Ahead only deep shadows, lines of parked cars, dark houses.

“All right,” she says to herself. “North it is.” And she sets out along the sidewalk.

A shadow shifts ahead of her, detaches itself from the shadowed line of cars, only the little white flowers stippled along the pleats of his skirt the faintest suggestion who it might be on the sidewalk there before her. “Mooncalfe,” she says, stopping suddenly, and then, “I thought you were asleep.”

“Always with one eye open,” he says, stepping closer, a blacker shadow in the darkness ruddied by a streetlight back at the corner. “I am a conscientious guardian. It’s much too dangerous for you to be out here by yourself.”

“Dangerous for whom,” she says, and she starts past him, but he puts out a hand to stop her. His long black hair loose, framing the pale mask of his face, slithering over the shoulders of his shapeless grey jacket. “Where are we going,” he says, his hand sliding down one side of her coat. “Downtown’s back that way.” Sliding up the other side, stopping at a crinkle. She steps back, thumps against the side of the SUV parked there at the curb, but he’s already got the envelope.

“Give that back,” she says.

“Your mother’s far too generous,” he says, thumbing the bills stuffed inside. “All this for a night on the town? I’ll keep it safe for her.”

“You won’t need to,” says Ysabel, holding out her hand. “I find I’ve lost my appetite for an evening out.”

“But you stepped out almost every evening, when you were with your Gallowglas,” he says, reaching past her hand to take her arm by the elbow, tugging her more deeply into the shadows. “One might almost think you didn’t like me.”

Ysabel plants her feet, tugs her arm free. “Tell me, Mooncalfe,” she says, “and tell me true. Why do you hate the Gallowglas so much?” A step toward him, and then another, head down, tilting, tipping to look up at him. “Can it be you, want me? That you find me,” lifting her head, looking him squarely in the eye, “beautiful?”

He leans back from her, dark brows pinched together over his dark eyes. “In this light,” he says, absently, his thready voice still clear, but then a smile quirks the corner of his mouth and he looks away, just, and his laugh is a silken thing, and he closes his mouth on it and it shakes his shoulders, his chest, his throat jumping as he tries but not too hard to hold it in. “Forgive me, lady,” he says, swallowing. “I am a terrible romantic.” Taking her hand. “I have a friend. You must come meet her. Ask her your question. I want to see what happens.”

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“Aphrodisiac,” writer and copyright holder unknown.

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