“An utter disaster,” says the woman with the pince-nez perched at the tip of her nose. She purses her lips. “We may well be forced to raze it to the very ground and start from scratch.” She adjusts her pince-nez with knob-knuckled fingers taloned by sharp black-painted nails. “Perhaps,” she says, “some sort of wig?”
“You are not,” says Jo, “touching my hair.” She’s standing on a faded burgundy footstool wearing a short white chemise, lifting her arms so the old woman in her heavy pink robe can wrap a tape measure about her chest. Ysabel smiles, sitting on her bed in a short white robe, her hair heavily damp, one bare leg crossed over the other.
“Your first address to the Queen should be as ‘Your Majesty,’ which thereafter ought be scaled back to ‘Ma’am.’” The tall man’s narrowly somber face is lit by extravagant gin blossoms appling two-thirds of his nose and his sunken cheeks. His chin is restless behind the high white gateposts of his upturned shirt-collar. “Never avail yourself of that horrid redundancy, ‘Your Royal Majesty’; it smacks of arse-kissery.”
“I’m stumped,” says the old woman, folding the measuring tape into her fist.
“As am I,” says the woman with the pince-nez.
“She may well refer to herself via the accepted fiction of the royal ‘we,’ or may just as well stoop to the first-person singular; our Queen is rather charmingly erratic on this point of protocol. She has as yet shown no proclivities toward the third person, for which I suppose we ought give thanks.”
“There is the dress the Princess wore to her cotillion. We could take in the bosom – ”
“Too much crinoline,” tuts the woman with the pince-nez.
“You, however,” says the tall man, “must keep in mind you address not merely a person but the people she rules. When addressing our Queen directly, restrict yourself to the second-person plural: ‘you’ and ‘your’ as decidedly opposed to ‘thou’ and ‘thine.’ I do not,” and his face cracks then into a small wry smile, “anticipate this point, at least, proving difficult for you.”
“Whatever,” says Jo. “Look, I’m not about to turn down a free outfit. But maybe you could keep it simple. You know? Jeans? A pair of pants, a nice shirt?”
“Out of the question,” says the woman with the pince-nez.
“Couldn’t possibly, dear,” says the old woman.
“Not before the Queen,” says the woman with the pince-nez.
“Actually,” says the tall man, “it’s not entirely without precedent, but I should advise – ”
“The new girl, the amanuensis,” says the old woman, snapping her fingers. “She ought to have a skirt and jacket that – ”
“I think,” says Ysabel, “you’ll find what she’s asking for in my brother’s trunk.”
A moment of silence follows, broken by a quiet “Your brother?” from the woman with the pince-nez.
“Also,” says Ysabel, “a pair of boots.”
The woman in the pince-nez turns abruptly then and mouth moued stalks out the door, followed after another silent moment by the old woman, bustling in her heavy pink robe.
“Thanks,” says Jo.
“Cigarette?” says Ysabel.
“Dear God yes,” says Jo, stepping down off the hassock.
“If I might be permitted to pick up the thread of my instruction from the moment I was forced to leave off?” says the tall man with the narrow face. “When the presence begins, Miss Maguire, you will wait in the back of the room until you specifically are called before our Queen.” Ysabel opens a rattling drawer in a cluttered dresser on spindly legs and roots around, pulling out a small wooden box. “Allow her to direct the conversation where she will; she may well wish to make small talk.” The tall man allows himself another narrow smile. “It is not without precedent.” Ysabel opens the box and plucks out a slim brown cigarette, which she tosses to Jo. “Answer whatever questions she might have with candor, discretion, and wit, and you shall do fine.”
“Clove?” says Jo, sniffing the cigarette.
“We are not entirely unpredictable,” says Ysabel. “Majordomo, if you don’t mind?”
“Actually,” says Jo, “a light?”
The tall man turns his back on them, facing the bay window looking out on a small green yard, a lightening street. Ostentatiously adjusting his black frock coat. “A light?” says Ysabel. “Of course.” She unbelts her robe and lets it fall, then fishes a matchbook out of the wooden box and pads across the room toward Jo. Clear crystal catches the dim light and flashes from the gold pin piercing her navel. The match pops into flame. “Where was I?” the Majordomo is saying. “Yes. She will broach the subject at hand in, ah, whichever way she chooses.” Ysabel smiles as Jo leans forward to touch the cigarette to the match. The cloves crackle as they light. “Said subject, the matter upon which all this hullabaloo hangs, being the question of whether or not you accept the keeping of the Princess.” Ysabel blows out the match and lets it drop, walking back across the room to the dresser as Jo takes a deep crackling drag. “That answer, of course, will be, ‘No.’” Ysabel opens another drawer and pulls something filmy out of it, a handful of lingerie. A teddy. She lifts it over her head and shimmies into it. Tugs it into place. “The Queen will then exile you, and that will be that.” Turns, arching one leg tiptoed bending a little awkwardly to snap the crotch.
Jo, blowing smoke, frowns. “Exile?” she says.
“Of course,” says the Majordomo. “Refusing the office must be taken as an insult. But: the Chariot will be returned to his rightful place. The Princess will once more be held by someone who can keep her. And you will be free to go wherever else you may wish: that, as I said, will be that.”
“Okay,” says Jo.
In the long narrow office with indecisive cream walls and skinny green carrels each with a computer screen and a telephone and most with a waiting or chattering or yawning dialer, Becker sits behind the big desk up at the front, a cup of coffee in one hand, a telephone handset wedged between ear and shoulder. “What I’m seeing,” he says, “is a room where Rob’s here, and TJ, and Dorfman and Denice and Christian’s here. Guthrie’s here. Hell, I’m here. What I’m not seeing, Jo, is you. You aren’t here. Why is that?”
On the edge of Ysabel’s massive dark bed on the deep white comforter sits Jo, wearing a pair of tight black trousers and black knee-high motorcycle boots and an open white shirt with billowy sleeves and a wide flat collar. “Um,” she says, into the gold and ivory handset of a princess phone on a silver tray held by a boy half-swallowed in an off-white tabard edged with gold braid.
“Um?” says Becker.
“Yeah, see, there was this thing. You remember the party? Last night?”
“And the fight?”
“You got into a fight.”
“Yeah. With the guy? In the green suit? You tried to, ah, anyway. I have to sort some stuff out, this morning, which is why I’m running a bit late, and, um. What time is it, anyway?”
“Oh. It’s later than I thought. Um.” Jo frowns. “Can I, just – how did you get this number?”
“From the schedule.”
Jo blinks. “The schedule.”
“Yeah, Jo. We tend to keep all our employees’ phone numbers on the schedule. So we can call them, if they don’t show up for shifts.”
“Oh,” says Jo.
“Are there, are there cops involved? Do you have to see the cops about this fight?”
“What? No. The guy. You remember the guy? Who wouldn’t leave that girl alone? And there was a, um. There were swords?”
Becker rolls his eyes. “Jo, just. Stop. I don’t appreciate being screwed around with like this.”
“I’m not trying,” says Jo.
“If you can’t make it in here by noon, then don’t bother to come in at all today. Okay?”
“Becker, listen to me, I’m not – ” Jo sighs, then reaches up to drop the handset back onto its gilded cradle.
“But five minutes remain until the presence, Princess, Miss Maguire,” says the Majordomo.
“Yeah,” says Jo, “thanks. Could you guys just, ah, leave me alone? For a minute? I mean, not Ysabel, obviously, it’s her room, but – ”
The Majordomo is holding the door open for the woman with the pince-nez, who sweeps out, full burgundy skirts clutched in one black-taloned hand, followed by the pudgy page with the phone on the silver platter. “I will send someone to fetch you both,” says the Majordomo, closing the door behind him.
“Well?” says Ysabel, sliding a dark red chopstick into the base of her ponytail.
“What the fuck is going on?” says Jo, tugging her blousy white shirt closed. “Becker doesn’t remember the duel. At all.”
Ysabel adjusts her tight black blouse, checks the fall of her somber grey skirt in the three-way mirror.
“Well?” says Jo. “He calls my number and reaches me here.” Running a hand through her short, short hair, ruffling the random dark locks. “Are you forwarding my calls or something? And it was daybreak, what, an hour ago? Tops? And now it’s almost noon?” Tugging the shirt again. “What is all this? Who are you people? And how the fuck do I keep this shirt on?”
“The ribbons,” says Ysabel.
“At the bottom. Wrap them around your waist and tie them off.”
“Oh,” says Jo. She reaches for the long ribbons trailing from the shirt’s tails and ties them into a floppy bow over her left hip.
“How’s that?” says Ysabel.
“I feel like a pirate.” Jo looks down. Reaches up to touch the skin between the folds of the blousy shirt still hanging open. “A T-shirt would be nice.” There just to the left of her breastbone. “Or a button, up here. Maybe a bra?”
“I’ve got it,” says Ysabel, stepping into the closet. Coming out with a black vest, the front of it heavy with dense gold embroidery. “Put this on and button it up. You look fine.”
Jo slips into the vest. “Your mother’s a queen,” she says. “And you’re a princess.”
“Yes,” says Ysabel, adjusting the Jo’s collar as Jo begins buttoning the vest.
“The city,” says Ysabel. “Well. This much of it, anyway.”
Jo looks up into Ysabel’s eyes. “So what is this? Some kind of family thing, some kind of old-country thing, like the Mafia? Or gypsies?”
Ysabel steps back. Folds her arms. “‘Who are you people?’” she says with a faintly mocking lilt. “‘What the fuck is going on? What is all this?’”
“Pretty much,” says Jo.
“It’s none of your concern, Jo Maguire.” Ysabel reaches out tuck a wayward black-dyed lock of Jo’s hair behind one ear. Smiling she says, “Just go out there and say no and that will be that. Over and done. As if it had never been.”
“Yeah,” says Jo.
The music wherever it’s coming from shimmers like falling water. Cascades of quiet fluting bells ring changes on a simple theme that’s lost in all its mirroring roundelays. Jo stands to one side of the big back room, eyes closed, listening. Down two shallow steps on a soft white leather jetty of sectional sofa sits a wiry woman all in black with long black hair in glossy, artful tangles. A small black pillbox of a hat cocked at a jaunty angle. The Majordomo leans with some dignity over the back of the sofa to murmur in her ear as a big man straining the shoulders of a shiny blue suit waits patiently. By French doors opening on a small shaded garden stands Ysabel picking at the gauzy curtains. “You,” says Roland, quietly, “are a disgrace.”
Jo opens her eyes. Roland stands beside her, arms folded, his eyes on the Queen all in black. He wears a white shirt and a yellow tie and blue jeans and he looks down at Jo’s gold vest, her blousy white shirt, looks up to meet her eyes. “In those colors,” he says. “Do you know what it takes to wear those colors?” Jo says nothing. “To do what I do? To be what I am?” He does not raise his voice. “You must with shield and rod save yourself from nine spears cast at you all at once. Could you do that? You must shake off the hunt in a forest and come from among the branches unwounded, without a loosened strand of braided hair, and you must while running leap over a branch the height of yourself and stoop under one the height of your knee. You must be able to tune a poem by the rhymes and rhythms that make the worth of it.” His smile is thin. “Can you do any of that?” he asks. “Mortal?”
“Comes now before you,” says the Majordomo then, “Jo Maguire; and your knight, Sir Roland, the Chariot,” and Jo pushes off the wall ahead of Roland, past the big man in his shiny blue suit, his face beaming, on his way up and out, down the shallow steps and around the white sofa to stand before the Queen. Jo frowns, looks over her shoulder to see Ysabel there by the French doors, her hands now clasped behind her back. “Miss Maguire?” says the Queen.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. Your Majesty. I just – ”
“The resemblance is remarkable,” says the Queen, her head tilted just so towards the Majordomo’s murmur. “Still. She is my daughter. What else would one expect? Thank you,” she says to the straightening Majordomo. “I trust our Gammer Gerton has you fully recovered?”
“Ah,” says Jo, “yes. Ma’am. Unless there’s some side effect to that goop she used.” Jo reaches up, touches the top button of her vest. Pinches it. Lowers her hand.
“Roland,” says the Queen.
“Your majesty,” says Roland, “I was intemperate – ”
“You were a fool. Were it not for the prowess of your sword, we might grow tired of cleaning up your awkward messes.”
“Ma’am,” says Roland.
“Nonetheless, here we all are, and I have a lunch to attend. Miss Maguire. Through no fault of your own, you find yourself with the charge and office of our daughter’s safety. This is yours to accept or reject.” Wherever it is, the music trickles slowly to a halt, like a wound-down music box. “What say you?”
And Jo says, “Yes.”
The Queen looks up to the Majordomo, whose Adam’s apple bobs in a swallow behind the upturned gateposts of his collar. “You accept,” she says, to Jo.
Jo looks at Roland, who stands unmoving, eyes closed. Ysabel behind her has covered her mouth with her hand. Jo takes a deep breath and looks the Queen directly in her dark, dark eyes. “I accept,” says Jo.
The Queen sighs a short sharp sigh. “Very well.” Roland shakes his head. Behind her upraised hand, Ysabel is smiling.