“It’s late,” says the little guy in the dark suit, ticking off a point on his fingers. “It’s trying to rain.” He leans against the front of a black car. Meticulous lines of hand-painted white letters whorl up and over the fender. “There’s, what, a half-dozen knights in there?” He begins counting off on his other hand. “The Chariot, of course. The Axe. I’m pretty sure the Mooncalfe. The Mason and the Helm. You said yourself you saw the Shield. And a dozen more in shouting distance.” He looks up, frowning. “Did I mention the rain?”
“Swords,” says the big guy in the dark suit. He stands on the hood of the car, both feet primly within concentric rings of cramped white letters.
“Yes, they have swords,” says the little guy. “That’s another problem right there.”
“They’re bringing out swords.” The big guy peers through a pair of black sunglasses at the ramshackle house on the corner across an intersection clogged with traffic waiting on a red light. The left lens of the sunglasses is covered with spidery words painted in white ink.
“So I have to ask why they’re bringing out swords to find out why they’re bringing out swords?” says the little guy. Somebody’s trunkthumping stereo kicks up a rattling bass line.
“The Chariot has gotten himself into a duel.”
“All the more reason to ske-fuckin’-daddle. It’s the Calfe again, isn’t it.” The light changes. The trunkthumper recedes down the street.
“It’s the girl.”
“The girl.” The little guy looks up, alarmed.
“The girl from the café.”
“You’re shitting me. The Bride? He’s going up against his own goddamn – ”
The big guy looks down at the little guy over the rims of lowered sunglasses.
“Oh,” says the little guy. “The girl. Right. The what, the gutterpunk. That girl.” And then, “Oh,” he says. “Oh.”
“Precisely,” says the big guy, peering at the house on the corner.
“She can’t win,” says the little guy. “There’s no way she can win.”
It starts to rain a little harder.
“Let the record show,” sighs Robin, “that your body has entered the lists to make proof of your appeal, and so your pledges by law are discharged. Will you have grease, ash, and sugar?”
“I will not,” says Roland.
Ysabel leans against Jo, one hand on her shoulder, murmuring in her ear. “Don’t worry. He can’t hurt you. It’s against the rules. He won’t let you hurt him. It’s only a game.”
“And who will stand as your second?” says Robin, looking up at the ceiling.
“I will have none here in that office,” says Roland. Robin nods perfunctorily. A brief flurry of whispers and titters sweeps the room.
“And do you swear,” says Robin, taking a deep breath, “you come no otherwise appointed, with naught but your body and the merits of your quarrel, that you have not any knife, nor any other pointed instrument, or engine small or great, no stone or herb of virtue, no charm, experiment, nor other enchantment by whose power you believe you may the easier overcome your adversary?”
“I do so swear,” says Roland. His eyes calm and mild.
“A game,” says Jo. Swallowing. “Great.”
The party crowd has raggedly ordered itself along the walls, leaving clear an aisle that crosses diagonally from the foot of the stairs where Jo and Ysabel stand to the door into the bright toothpaste-colored kitchen, held open by the piper, sitting on her heels, offering up a bottle of something-or-other to Roland. Robin’s walking down the middle of that aisle toward Jo, passing the barefoot boy in bone-white khakis holding two crossed rapiers on a fat velvet pillow. “Jo Maguire,” he’s saying, “save your honor and come in to your action which you have undertaken this day. Will you have grease, ash, and sugar?”
“She waives them,” says Ysabel. “It’s okay,” she says to Jo. “A formality.”
“And do you swear you come no otherwise appointed, naught but your body and the merits of your quarrel, not any knife nor other pointed instrument, no engine, stone, herb of virtue, no charm, experiment, or other enchantment?”
“Yes?” says Jo, as Ysabel says, “She does.”
“And who stands as your second?”
“I, uh,” says Jo.
“I will,” says Ysabel. Another flurry, of whispers and gasps, and not so brief. Ysabel shrugs. “It’s as good a way to discharge my debt as any.”
“You may choose your blade,” sighs Robin, snapping, and up comes the barefoot boy with the fat velvet pillow. Jo stares at the swords. “They are of a length,” says Robin.
“Yeah, they’re long,” mutters Jo. “And sharp.”
“It’s only a game,” says Ysabel.
“It’s insane,” says Jo.
“Don’t worry,” says Ysabel. “You’ll lose. But he won’t let you hurt him.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” says Jo.
“I told you: he can’t hurt you. It’s against the rules. It’s for honor,” says Ysabel. “Your honor, nothing more. Which you hold lightly enough.” Jo frowns, looking sidelong at Ysabel, who smiles. “Trust me,” she says, as Robin says, “Your blade, Jo Maguire?”
And Jo picks up a sword, looking down at the candlelight and Christmas-light winking and chasing the basket of steel ribbons woven around the hilt. “This is,” she says, “insane.”
“Duelers!” calls Robin from the center of the aisle, and up comes Roland in his green track suit, blue and white headphones still clamped around his neck, planting his soft and spotless white shoes one before the other, his hips edge-on, his left arm up and back, bent so his fingertips brush the air behind his head, the tip of his blade fixed to a point in the air before his eyes. “Salute!” cries Robin. Jo in her plain black T-shirt, her hacked-off khakis, her grubby longjohns, fixes her duct-taped Chuck Taylors one before the other, her left arm back and out, her sword held up before her like a stick. Roland fluidly swirls his wrist and his blade in a circle, his head dipping. Jo nods in return. “Engage!” cries Robin, throwing up his hand, and everyone begins to cheer. Roland lunges. Jo leaps back, stumbling, ducking her head, yelling “Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa!” She drops her sword clattering to the floor, arms crossed over her face, crying “You win! You win!”
The cheers wither into whispers and mutters.
“Pick up your blade!” says Roland.
“No!” says Jo. “You win! I yield, I surrender, that’s it. Uncle.” There are giggles at that. A stifled guffaw. Jo peeks out from under her crossed arms. Roland still in his stance has pulled his sword back to fix the tip at that point in the air before his eyes. “Congratulations, big fella,” says Jo. “Way to go.”
“You insulted me,” says Roland, pulling up out of his stance, his arms relaxing, his blade dipping.
“And now I’m leaving,” says Jo. “Deal.” She turns her back. Becker and Guthrie and Ysabel stand waiting at the foot of the stairs. “Where’s my coat?” There’s a collective gasp as she catches herself mid-step. Arms up and out suddenly, grasping at nothing. Frowning, she looks down. The tip of Roland’s blade has ripped a hole in her black T-shirt. A good two inches pokes out of her chest, a little to the left of center. “I,” says Jo.
With a twist and a jerk Roland pulls the blade back out of her body.
Jo turns unsteadily to look back at him. One knee threatens to give but she does not fall. “I,” she says. “Jo?” says Becker. She puts out a hand for something, anything, for balance. It isn’t there.
“Ow,” says Jo. She falls.
The outer office is dark except for the spark of a halogen desk lamp. The woman behind the desk wears a shapeless linen dress and narrow spectacles on a fine chain draped around her neck. She looks up from a yellow legal pad when the big guy in the dark suit opens the outer door. “Mr. Charlock and Mr. Keightlinger,” says the little guy in the dark suit. “To see Mr. Leir.”
“He’s expecting you,” she says.
The inner office is dark except for a white-shaded banker’s lamp shining on a leather-topped desk. On the desk a silver pen and an ivory-handled knife with a wide blade of tarnished bronze. The man looking out the window at the street below has thick, unruly white hair, and wears a white shirt and a white tie. A cigarette is pinched unnoticed between the thumb and forefinger of his pale right hand. The window is open. Up from under the drip of the rain comes the washing susurrus of a street-sweeper.
“Well?” says Mr. Leir. His face is quite young under that white hair.
“Well,” says Mr. Charlock, “the Chariot went and got himself into a duel. With a girl. A mortal girl. Which, well. He lost.”
“Lost,” says Mr. Leir.
“Struck her from behind. Yeah. He lost.”
“There is now,” says Mr. Keightlinger, idly twirling a lock of his beard, “a Gallowglas.”
Mr. Leir looks over his shoulder at them. Frowns. Looks down to discover the cigarette in his hand, which he lifts. Takes a drag, blowing smoke out the window into the rain.
“Well,” he says.
“You,” calls the old woman over her shoulder, her eyes on her fingers running along a brightly lit shelf of orange plastic prescription bottles, “have done a wicked thing.” Finding the one she wants she plucks it down. Wrestling the top off she taps two pills into a mortar. “Sit up straight. You’re indecent.”
Ysabel does not sit up straight. Out in the darker bedroom she’s curled up sideways in a wing-backed chair by the fireplace, her head leaning back against one wing, her legs folded up and tucked against the arm opposite. “You should concentrate on waking her up.” Still in her mushroom-colored slip rucked carelessly up revealing the dark bands at the tops of her pearly stockings. “Assuming you can, of course.”
“Oh, I can,” says the old woman, huffing into the bedroom from the bright white bathroom, holding the marble mortar and pestle in both hands. She wears a heavy pink robe with a tangled garden of tea-roses embroidered on the thick shawl collar. Glossy white hair hangs loose before and behind her shoulders. “She’s just shocky, is all. You’d be yourself, if you was her.”
On the bed pillowed in a deep down comforter lies Jo Maguire, naked, asleep. An old scab mars one knee. The nail of her left big toe is a dead grey ridge. A tattoo down the swell of belly from navel to the edge of dark curled hair, an angular thing, abstract, a suggestion of beak and eyes. Her right arm folded, hand on her chest, fingertips touching a dull red welt just to the left of her breastbone. The old woman sits on the bed beside her brushing a lock of black-dyed hair from Jo’s forehead. “I don’t know why you picked this one,” she says. On the nightstand by the bed is a glass of water. The old woman pours powder from the mortar into the water, which turns several colors too quick to be named. “She’s in your mother’s world, not yours. Or mine.”
“I didn’t pick her,” says Ysabel. Fussing with the lace that hems her slip. “I didn’t do any of this. It all just – ”
“It just happened?” says the old woman.
One of Ysabel’s narrow black shoes dangles half off a twitching foot. The other is on the floor before the wing-backed chair. “Yes,” says Ysabel.
The old woman dips her fingers into the glass of water and then flicks them at Jo’s face. Jo sits up suddenly gulping, the hand at her chest now a fist against that welt. The old woman sets the glass of water on the nightstand and picks up a small jar, a baby food jar with the label half-picked away. Jo doubled over heels kicking left hand clutching the deep soft comforter sucks down a ragged breath and another, her right fist grinding into the welt. There is another welt, larger, more diffuse, as red, on her back. The old woman sniffs the baby food jar and nods, then scoops out a two-fingered dollop viscous and translucent which she plops on the welt on Jo’s back. Jo jerks upright crying out, arms flailing, eyes wild. The old woman shushing her clamps one hand on her shoulder holding her still as she smears the rest of the stuff on the welt on Jo’s breast. Jo screams. Shushing her all the while the old woman holds Jo’s shoulders as Jo kicking tosses her head back hands digging into the comforter firmly in the old woman’s grip. And then with a hitch Jo stops. Opens her eyes. Takes a deep sobbing breath. Sinks forward, curling around herself.
“Fucking hell,” she croaks.
“There there,” says the old woman. “You don’t go through that every day.”
Jo coughs and shivering pulls up one end of the comforter she’s sitting on to wrap herself in. “My clothes,” she says. Coughs again. “Where are my clothes?”
“Burned them, dearie,” says the old woman. “Filthy things. You couldn’t possibly appear before the court in those.”
“There were holes in your shirt,” says Ysabel, who does not look up from the lace in her lap.
“You,” says Jo, seeing Ysabel sitting sideways in the wing-backed chair. “You. You lied. You said he couldn’t hurt me. You said. He – ” Jo frowns. “Stabbed me?”
Ysabel’s looking up and glaring at Jo as “There, there,” says the old woman. “I spoke the truth,” says Ysabel. “Roland made me a liar.” She looks back down at the lace in her lap. “There is,” she says, “a difference. I don’t see what you’re so upset about.”
“You don’t,” says Jo. Huddled under the awkwardly rucked-up comforter. “You don’t see.” Eyes closed. Deep breath. “I was stabbed. You. I have no idea where I am. Where am I?” she says, as the old woman says “There, there.” Jo shakes her head. “What time is it? What do I – need to – I was stabbed. He – ” Another deep breath, and something that’s half a chuckle. “Do you,” says Jo, and swallows, “have any idea how hard it is to find a decent plain black T-shirt for less than ten bucks?”
“You won,” says Ysabel.
“You won,” says Ysabel. “You bested him.”
“It’s true,” says the old woman, peeling back the comforter to peer at Jo’s back. “Struck you from behind – a grievous breach of honor and decorum. To say nothing of your skin.” The welt is gone.
“I won,” says Jo.
“You proved yourself against his honor,” says Ysabel, “and all his offices are forfeit for his blow. Including,” and she looks up to meet Jo’s eyes, “me.”
“Rather, my keeping,” says Ysabel. “He was my guardian. Now you are. I was his charge, his responsibility;” she shrugs. “Now I’m yours.”
Jo closes her eyes, and when she speaks her voice is quiet and steady. “I want my clothes. Any clothes. I want a cigarette. I want some coffee. I want – I want to go home. If you,” and she looks up at Ysabel, her voice rising, “think I am going to go along with this, with this – game – for even one minute, I – I – ”
“Well,” says the old woman, pushing herself with some effort to her feet. “That’s a relief, and I don’t mind saying so.”
“I – ” says Jo, frowning. “You. A relief?”
“Dearie,” says the old woman, leaning against Jo’s shoulder, “we were rather worried you’d accept.”