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“What I think is maybe” – Modern and more Equitable – the Strong Hand – on the Strand – Unreservedly –

“What I think is maybe this time Jo comes with me,” says the Duke, his arm hooked over the headrest, looking over at Jo and Ysabel in the cramped back seat. “If you’re worried about the Princess, killer,” he says, “don’t. Everybody knows my car. Just about the safest place in the city – especially in my demesne? Back seat of this very automobile.” He gets out of the car, levers his seat-back forward, leans in to offer Jo a hand. Ysabel scoots over as Jo climbs out and follows her, hauling herself out of the car. “Thought I’d sit up front, with your driver,” she says to the Duke’s arched eyebrow. “More pleasant place to spend the five minutes or so you’ll be inside.”

“You guys were gone at least twenty,” says Jo, looking at the brick block across the street. Over the front door square in the middle of the façade a small model of a three-masted sailing ship, a little red metal banner frozen in a snap of wind. Letters carved into the lintel below say Vitula Arms.

“An exaggeration,” says the Duke. “Shall we?”

As she slides into the front seat Ysabel says to Jo, “Don’t forget.” She pulls the door shut against the gently seeping rain. Watches Jo jog and the Duke hop limpingly across the street and along the sidewalk to the building’s front door. The Duke reaches past Jo to open it for her. “How long have you known him?” says Ysabel.

The door closes, Jo and the Duke inside. The woman behind the wheel in her grey chauffeur’s cap and her grey chauffeur’s jacket looks over at Ysabel sitting beside her. “About a year almost?” she says. “More than that. First time I talked to him was around Christmas last year, but I’d see him at the club before that.”

“Is it a little stuffy in here?” Ysabel works one shoulder then another free of her white trench coat and wriggles it off. “The heater’s been working overtime.” The blond Batgirl bunched up in the wrinkles that crease her tight T-shirt dress. “Mind if I crack a window?” The woman behind the wheel shrugs, and Ysabel cranks the window down a bit. “That’s better, don’t you think?”

“You’re going to marry him, aren’t you.”

“I’m the Bride. I have to marry someone.”

Wavering rain glazes down the windshield before them. “I’m not just his mistress,” says the woman behind the wheel.

Ysabel props her elbow on the seat-back, rests her head in her hand. “I’m not the one you should be telling,” she says.

“He knows,” says the woman behind the wheel, looking Ysabel in the eye from beneath the brim of her chauffeur’s cap.

Ysabel says, “Oh, this will be fun.” Reaching along the seat toward that cap. The woman behind the wheel pulls back a little, away. “I think,” says Ysabel, “you missed a move or two in the game.”

“What game?”

“Tell me,” says Ysabel. “Do you think I’m beautiful?” The woman behind the wheel catches her breath. “Ah,” says Ysabel. “Did he tell you what that means?”

The woman behind the wheel frowns, and starts to shake her head. “I,” she says, “don’t know what you,” and Ysabel shushes her, shifts closer along the seat to her, says, “It’s all right.” Takes off the cap. The woman doesn’t pull away this time. “You already answered,” says Ysabel, leaning in to kiss her mouth.

Jo leans back, opens her eyes. Hands on the Duke’s hips. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Really?” says the Duke, hands on her shoulders. He leans close, forehead brushing hers. “I’ve been wanting to do that all week.” They kiss again there in the foyer, the door closed behind them. The Duke pulls back suddenly. “You didn’t call,” he says.

“I don’t, I don’t have your number,” says Jo.

“You didn’t ask.”

“I didn’t know you had a number to ask for,” says Jo. “Anyway you’re a Duke. What are you waiting around for the girl to call?”

“Is this not a modern and more equitable age? Are we not now either of us capable of waiting for a phone call?”

Jo smiles. “You make it sound so romantic.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“Is that really a conversation you want to be having? Here? Now?” The walls of the foyer a yellow floating dimly in the shiftless cloudy daylight. “Isn’t there a thing we’re supposed to do? Or go? Or was this just, what?”

“You can think of something more important?”

“Okay,” says Jo, and she takes a step back. Hands still on his hips. “Okay.” His hands fall to her sides, the pale leather of her coat. “Then first things first.” Brows puckered. “I need you, I, sorry. But. I need to know what the deal is with her.”

“The Bride?” says the Duke.

“Jessie,” says Jo. “Your, your driver.” Ahead a long dark staircase leads to the apartments on the second floor. “I had,” she says, “the most awkward conversation with her, back at the club. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what she knows, what she thinks is going on, I don’t, I don’t know what I know. I don’t know – this morning.” She looks down at her black boots on the threadbare rug, his worn brown brogues, the scratched copper ferule of his cane. “Was that something you wanted to do all week, too?” Lifts her head to look him in the eye. “Or was it just an itch, and we walked in while you were getting it scratched.”

It’s a long thin moment before the Duke says, “I’d like to,” and then he coughs to clear his throat. “Object. I’d like to object to the framing of that question – ”

“Yeah?” says Jo. She doesn’t let go of him. He doesn’t let go of her. His laughter’s soft and brief and he looks away a moment with a puckered smile. “I have a question, too, long as we’re all trying to figure out what it is we’re standing in.” Looking her in the eye. “Where were you during the coup? The attempted coup.”

At that Jo steps back again and lets go, and his hands fall away, find the stern hawk at the head of his cane leaning against the wall. “What?” she says. “Coup. I don’t – ”

“Did Her Highness not receive a jar or bottle or vial of medhu from the Soames Nell?” says the Duke, and Jo’s shaking her head, slowly. “Come on,” he says. “Did you or did you not go to visit the rabbits? And did she or did she not suddenly have such a flask, after your visit?”

“She didn’t say where she got it,” says Jo. “I didn’t ask her where she – ”

“And did she or did she not try to turn the medhu once she had it?” Partway along the hall beside that staircase burns an incandescent bulb, but its light doesn’t seem to fall anywhere. “Fact you’re not asking me what that means is enough to tell me she did.” The Duke shifts his weight, rubbing his leg, wincing as he says “Catch up. She’d done that, turned the medhu to owr, that’s Queen-stuff. She’d done that – not that she could, not without a King, but if she’d gone and usurped the rightful ruler – ” His cane raps smartly against the rug – “that’s a coup.”

“But she can’t do it,” says Jo. “Right? So what’s the problem?”

The Duke looks away a moment, the rustle of his tweed jacket loud in the foyer. “Do you know, Jo Gallowglas, the one thing that’s more upsetting to order, and routine, and a regular day you can take as it comes, than scarcity?”

“I bet you’re gonna tell me,” says Jo.

“Abundance,” says the Duke. Leaning heavily on his cane he sets off down the hall.

Jo watching doesn’t follow, doesn’t move from her spot by the door, lifts a trembling hand clawing slowly into a fist opening her mouth finally calling out exasperated “Duke!” and hurrying after. He’s saying “a consummation devoutly to be wished, but there’s gotta be a strong hand on the plow.”

“Yours,” says Jo.

The Duke turns there in the narrow hall lifting his cane the stern hawk up by his smile. “You see anyone else?” The door they’re standing beside opens suddenly. The woman in the doorway has long loose hair the color of steel and she wears a thick cardigan over a blowsy white chemise. The light behind her grey and chill. She wraps her arms about herself and shivers a little. “Your pardon, Your Grace,” she says. “I couldn’t help but hear you in the hall, your voice, and thought, now why make him knock, and wait?” There’s laughter behind her, and the sudden pound of footsteps, “Gotcha!” cries a girl, and “No! No! No!” cries another, and “No fair, Thya! No fair!” The woman in the doorway sighs and smiles tightly. Her cheeks blotched, her eyes rimmed red. “Girls!” she bellows. The giggles stifle. “Granddaughters,” she says. “But if you’d like to come in, Your Grace, I’d – ”

“Not today, Nan,” says the Duke.

“Well if you’re in a hurry I understand, there’s a lot of folks waiting themselves I’m sure – ”

“Not. Today,” says the Duke again, and she blinks as his words sink in, the blotches fading suddenly from her cheeks gone pasty white. “It’s just,” says the woman in the doorway, “even a pinch – with the Samani already this week and all – ”

The Duke lays a hand on her folded arms. “You got a little set aside,” he says. “You’re gonna have to make it do till next time.”

“Next time?”

“The very next. I swear it.”

There’s a toppling crunch of crockery and a mighty splash and shrieks of laughter now. “Girls!” bellows the woman in the doorway. “Artemita! Thyatira! Dionysia! Meganissi!” Turning in the doorway to glower back into the apartment. “You put that back right now!” The Duke grabs Jo’s hand and yanks her after him further down the hall. “Wait,” says Jo, “wait!” The door slams shut behind them. The Duke lets go. “If it’s such a problem,” says Jo, looking back at the closed door.

“You really want to be having this conversation right now?” He knocks on the next door down, two sharp raps with the head of his cane. “Right here?” The door opens, the frame of it filled with a huge figure of a man in a yellowed shirt and an unbuttoned charcoal pinstripe vest. Heavy eyes and a wrinkled daub of forehead planted in a nest of wiry hair, all grey and peppery black and coiling sprigs and shoots of white. A plump-bowled meerschaum pipe juts from somewhere below the eyes. One furred-knuckle hand swallows the doorknob, and leaned against the jamb the other’s not a hand but a hand-shape, cast in bronze and beaten with whorls of puckered dots. “Your Grace,” says a thick-napped voice around the stem of that pipe.

“Coffey,” says the Duke.

“Wasn’t expecting yez. Come in, come in. Mind you step.” He backs away and they step through, the Duke, then Jo, into an airy little room with white walls and pale blue carpeting, a long and angular sofa, a low shelf buried under a great bouquet of wildflowers. By the flowers a little stir of knickknacks, a glass ball with a wooden salmon suspended inside, a leather tobacco pouch, a ring of keys, a small framed photo of a bare-shouldered woman looking away from the camera, one hand up as if to hide her wrinkled neck. On the wall above a plain and simple compass rose in red and black, and the portrait of a jowled and scowling president from many years before. There’s a muffled thump from somewhere on the other side of that wall. Coffey waves at it. “All hours those girls drive old Nan hard,” he says. “What brings yon by.” His brass hand tucked under his arm.

“Lewis David Coffey,” says the Duke, “might I present the Gallowglas – ”

“You might,” says Coffey.

“ – the, ah, the newest knight,” says the Duke, “at court.”

Coffey takes the pipe from his mouth. The bowl of it’s a mermaid running a comb through her hair. “You want a medal for that?” he says to Jo, who’s still standing by the door.

“No,” says Jo.

“Good,” says Coffey. “They don’t alot me to give out the medals.” The pipe-stem’s back between his teeth. The Duke’s handing him something, a little plastic baggie. “What is it you’re looking at?”

“It stopped raining,” says Jo.

“Was it raining, then?” says Coffey, tucking the baggie into the pocket of his shirt. “Go on,” he says, and Jo gingerly walks across the parlor toward the great picture window in the opposite wall.

There are no trees in the window. There are no houses, no cars. There’s nothing but a seamless haze of blue-white sky over a yellow-grey strand, dull under light that falls from no particular direction. Beyond it out and out to a sharp edge stretches a cold and restless grey-green sea. The Duke watching smiles as Jo eyes wide lifts a hand to her mouth and “Oh” she says. “Oh wow.”

“Articulate, these new knights,” says Coffey.

“Look down the beach,” says the Duke. “Back toward the front of the place.” Stepping behind Jo, looking over her shoulder, pointing. “See them?”

A snap of white in the wind a long loose gown caught tugging against her legs and her back Ysabel her face in her hands stands barefoot there her black hair streaming before her a flag in all that wind. Beside her looking out to sea one hand on Ysabel’s shoulder Jessie in a grey houppelande too heavy to billow her blond hair wrapped in a wimple. Her other hand on a pole planted, a banner above them both, orange with a russet hawk. “Oh I can smell it,” says Jo. “The ocean.” Ysabel and Jessie stand there unmoving, only the wind, tugging banner and hair and gown.

“Well it’s right there,” says the Duke.

“Yez might well to look yonder,” says Coffey. He’s holding out a pair of binoculars. The Duke drops a plastic bottle of something viscous and milky into his jacket pocket so he can take them. Coffey’s brass hand points to a fishing trawler stationed not far off, someone in dark rain gear at the prow, watching the women on the shore.

“Duke,” says Jo, pointing back up along the strand. He lowers the binoculars. A low two-wheeled car drawn by two slow-stepping horses trundles along the sand toward Jessie and Ysabel. Standing in the car one hand on the slack reins a figure in a long gleaming hauberk and a polished silver breastplate chased with green, face hidden by a slit-eyed bucket helm. Above the car a banner, white with a yellow bee.

“See?” says the Duke, handing the binoculars back to Coffey. “I knew we were being followed.”

“Hey,” calls the Duke, lurching onto the sidewalk. “Chariot.”

Roland in the rain his hands in bicycle gloves on the roof of the car across the street, the reddish-brown car with the black stripe down the side. He’s saying “Princess, please” through the half-open window. Ysabel in the passenger seat leaning down a little back against Jessie looks up through the window at him and shaking her head she’s saying “Go, just go” to Roland.

“Chariot!” calls the Duke again.

Roland looks up to see His Grace stepping into the empty street, to see Jo in the doorway under the small model of a three-masted sailing ship. He looks back down into the car and says “Please come with me.”

“Chariot!” The Duke leans on his cane in the middle of the street and mutters “What am I, chopped liver?” to himself.

“Roland, it’s okay,” says Jo on the sidewalk. “We don’t need any – ”

“You!” Roland pounds the roof of the car and inside it Jessie flinches. “A month ago he had you chased through the street like dogs and now you ride about with him in his car?” Coming around the front of it to stand there his green track suit dark with rain. “You have the keeping of her! She is to be safe in your hands! That is your office!”

“You want to talk safe,” says the Duke, “as in houses, as in better than sorry, as in questions that aren’t, well – where were you the night those two got jumped on the train?”

Roland’s face jerks, goes quizzical, chin lifting, his hands in those gloves balling into fists and opening up again.

“Cat kitten in your mouth?” says the Duke. “Your zeal in keeping the office you lost to the Gallowglas is well-known. It’s well-nigh a joke. Half of everybody figures it was you under the Huntsman’s mask, losing yet another duel to the Axe.” The rain’s stopped. It’s all gone terribly still. “The Princess calls, she coughs and you come running. Except.” Water beads the shoulders of the Duke’s tweed jacket. The blacktop under his feet gleams wetly. “That one night.”

Roland says “This is none of your – ” and the Duke cracks his cane-tip against the pavement and the sound is thunderous. “I. Am. Not. Finished,” he says. Pursing his lips. “Best I can figure,” he says, “it was shame.” Roland repeats the word, “Shame,” in an oddly lilted voice. Jo’s watching him, watching them both, the Duke impassive, Roland trembling there at the edge of the street. Ysabel leaning over Jessie both of them watching through the rain-flecked driver’s window.

“Yeah,” says the Duke. “Maybe you were so ashamed at paying off an Old Town witch to concoct the fucking ambush that you couldn’t show your face to save the day – ”

“Liar!” roars Roland stepping out into the empty street, jabbing a finger at the Duke who cracks his cane-tip against the pavement again. Roland jerks to a stop still pointing at the Duke in the middle of the street. The Duke says, “Are you so sure of that, knight?” In the car Jessie’s face is in her hands. “Would you have it proved upon my body?”

Roland lowers his hand slowly, open, loose, the palm facing the Duke, there by his side he stretches it and begins to close his fingers about something, the air, when he stops. Eyes widening just he’s looking past the Duke who turns then to see Jo, stepping off the sidewalk, into the street, her butter-colored coat flapping, her face firmly flat, her cold eyes squarely aimed at Roland. “Go on,” she says, her voice clipped. Between them now. Roland’s hand closed in a fist as she steps right up before him. “Do it. None of this fucking around. Go on!”

“Jo,” says Roland, trying to get by, “take the Princess, go, I’ll find you – ”

“He’s goading you, you dumb sonofabitch!” Jo blocks him, arms at her sides, ducking her head to keep his eyes on her. “You’re dumb enough to fall for it, then go ahead, but let’s do it right, okay?”

Roland steps back from her now, his hand still closed in a fist about something that isn’t there. “I did not do what he says I did.”

“I don’t care!” cries Jo, and Roland’s mouth curls and sets and he holds his fist out at his side and he says, “I do,” and light begins to leak from whatever it is he’s holding.

The Duke says, “I’m sorry, Chariot.”

Roland shivers opens his fist with a silent flash. There’s nothing there. “What?” he says.

Jo’s turning now to look at the Duke, both hands still on his cane, hair limply damp. “I voiced my suspicions,” he says, voice calm, cool, “I spoke in hypotheticals, and did so without thinking. Your anger is entirely justified, and for it I offer a complete retraction, and apologize, without reservation.”

And no one moves, and no one says anything more. Somewhere blocks away a car alarm begins to whoop. The slow rain’s seeping down around them again. Roland says to Jo, “Please go to the car, and take the Princess back – ”

“Just go,” says Jo. “Get out of here. We’re fine.” He’s shaking his head about to say something. “I know what I’m doing,” says Jo. And Roland’s mouth curls again, and sets, but he ducks his head. Off away down the street a couple of cars are headed their way. The Duke’s taken a couple of steps toward his car, one hand out now to Jo. She doesn’t take it. Roland turns and with a little skipping jump sets off across the street, down the sidewalk, at a half-run now around the corner and out of sight.

The Duke lowers his hand. “Took you long enough,” he says.

“Shut the fuck up,” says Jo. Digging in the pockets of her coat she comes up with an orange pack of cigarettes.

“Your concern,” says the Duke. “Touching.” He limps over to the car. Jo follows him, cigarette in her mouth, stuffing the pack back, coming up with a silvery lighter. “I had to know,” says the Duke. Jessie’s climbing out of the car, levering the front seat forward. “I could give two shits,” says Jo, fumbling the lighter, clicking and clicking it again before it strikes.

The Duke leaning on his car shakes his head. “You are not doing that in my car,” he says.

“Then we can fucking wait five minutes,” says Jo, and she takes a long drag and blows smoke out into the softly falling rain, “while I settle my fucking nerves.”

The Duke watches her smoke a moment, Jessie standing there beside him, then he ducks down. “Princess,” he says. “Could I maybe reclaim my seat? This leg.”

“Actually,” says Ysabel, leaning back against the passenger door, “if you wouldn’t mind riding in back?” The blond Batgirl smiling from her tight T-shirt dress.

The Duke sighs. “Today,” he says, “is a day for capitulation.”

Table of Contents

M.E.Traylor    13 September 2010    #

Man. Roland. I still have no clear handle on his motivations. I’m puzzled by the Duke’s allocation of the owr, and how they all need that to run.

It was cool to see the other side of this scene from Surveillance. So many pieces, some coming together, others not yet.

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