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Table of Contents

Hand in Hand – two Storeys, or three – how it Works – Commitment – the What of the Bandit –

Hand in hand from glaring sunlight wisp of bare feet thump of shoes, a sudden swell of darkness as the door swings shut behind them, shadows to foil yellow hair and gleaming shoulders, arms limned with the last of that thin-stretched light. “Wait,” says Ettie, pulling Chrissie back to her, pulled close, and arms folding about and cheek by cheek, an embrace there before a washer and a dryer, hidden away under a drape of patterned cloth. And then, “How could you,” she says, stepping back.

“She asked.”

“It’s been two weeks.”

“I know.”

“How could you possibly.”

“It’s been two weeks.”

“God,” says Ettie. “You smell like a piña colada.”

“We burn so easily.”

“You’ll spoil the look.”

“It’s, like, SPF 150 or something.” And then, “You could lay out, too – ”

“As if,” says Ettie. “You left!”

“She asked.”

“She’s asked a lot of people!” cries Ettie. “Whatever it is. I’ve met some of them. They all,” and then, throwing up her hands, “dammit, she broke your heart!”

“But my heart isn’t broken,” says Chrissie. On her side, there just below her breast, an exaggerated lip-print drawn in a red gone black in the shadows. Ettie shakes her head. “You’re, you’re under a,” she says, “it’s like, she casts a – ”

“Magic?” says Chrissie, catching her hand. “C’mon,” she says. “I’ll show you some magic.”

Hand in hand out into a hallway under strings of little yellow lights, a confusion of doors, Chrissie’s hand on the knob of the one to the left when one of the ones to the right pops open on white tile and Jo, blinking, all in black but her red Chuck Taylors, her wine-red hair, frowning as she takes in the two of them, severe yellow hair and blue eyes startled, Ettie in a black tank top and yellow tights, and the pale bare length of Chrissie, opening the door. “Oh,” says Jo, “um, hi,” but Chrissie’s pulling Ettie in after her, “so you’re, ah,” Jo’s saying, but Chrissie slams the door, leans back against it.

“Who was that?” says Ettie.

“That was Jo,” says Chrissie. “You know Jo.”

“Right.” Looking about, the white walls, the high wide bed piled with white pillows, long white curtains drawn over the windows. “The surly housemate.” Ettie parts them just enough to look out, down, the cars parked along either side of the tree-lined street below. “So this is where the magic happens,” she says, letting the curtain fall from her hand, turning back to Chrissie, leaned against the foot of the bed. “Where’s your things? Your clothes? Your underwear, dumped all over the floor? The lavender oil, the wobenzyme, you left all your supplements, I don’t even want to think what you’re doing to our hair,” but Chrissie’s saying, softly, “I have a shelf in the medicine cabinet, a drawer in the dresser, and I have,” standing, stepping across the white rug, “we have,” she says, laying her hand atop the dressing screen there in the corner, a simple frame of whitewashed wood, and panels of plain linen. “This,” says Chrissie.

“I don’t,” says Ettie.

“Watch,” says Chrissie, slipping behind it, ducking behind it, a rustle, a thump, and then from the other side of it slips a shining black boot, planting its outrageously thick sole, wobbling a moment shift to find a balance bared knee thigh up the hip a black skirt shinely vinyl clinging corset-tight about her breast and up a hood to swallow head a blank glass diver’s mask that’s sweeping, back and forth, arms held out in tight black sleeves stretched down and down, past hands and down to join an empty swaying loop swung back and whirling forth and up, a tottering wide-hipped step, that cyclopean eye tilting, tipping, looming close. Ettie takes hold of the mask with both hands, tugs it awkwardly up, there’s Chrissie, blinking, holding still as Ettie peels the bottom of the hood down past her chin, freeing a delighted smile, “See?” says Chrissie. “See? Baba Yaga!”

“La cabane sur des pattes de poule,” murmurs Ettie.

“Allegro con brio!” cries Chrissie, lurching back, those thick soles clomping in time. “We can even,” swinging the loop of her arm again, “have the sleeves linked, like a chain. The twisting and binding dance? All seamless! They won’t rip! And the quick-change, at the end?” Quick mincing steps close to Ettie. “Think of something. Anything.” A hunch of a shoulder, offering the loop of her arms for Ettie to take. “Don’t tell me. Just, keep it in mind, and come on. Step back with me.”

Ettie lays a hand on the slick black sleeve.

Together to the screen, then, and Ettie leads the way, backing behind it, “There,” says Chrissie, sidling sidelong in those boots, stooping, and a rustle. The curtain stirs before the window, the merest shift of air in that white room, and the afternoon light.

First one, then the other, out from behind that screen, their yellow hair quite long now, past their chins, brushing bare shoulders and down, each in the same brief chemise, bluely translucent, skirling about their hips, their buttocks bare, and their long bare legs, their bare feet soundless on that rug, their faces hidden by black domino masks, eyes covered over by wide white lenses, wickedly surprised, laughing, and a fluttering rush of words between them, “comic strip” and “yes, indeed” and “exhibition!” and “inappropriate for dinner” and “but a dance?”

Shuffle-step, twirl, hands catch hands to pull close, each archly looking away, a push apart to spin about, but there, oh there, under an upraised arm, she stops, a sudden hitch in the works. Seize and yank to crash together arms about pressed tightly, masks clacking nose to nose, their lips a fierce quick kiss. Then Ettie shoves away, turns away, steps away, toward the window.

Chrissie peels the domino from her face. “We can do it,” she’s saying, “we can do it all.” Tossing the mask to the bed. “Maybe she can’t give us nearly as much money, but think of what we won’t have to spend!” Holding out her hand, but Ettie’s white-eyed mask turns back to her, that blank gaze a bit downcast, and Chrissie follows it back along her outstretched arm to her side, the lip-print there, just visible through the gauzy chemise. “Oh,” she says, “oh, that isn’t, we were just, it was a game, this morning, she drew it there, with a marker, it’ll wash off,” and then, “I can fix it.” Looking about. “I can fix it.” Over to the dresser, lifting aside papers, a glossy contact sheet, thumbnails of bridge-columns circled in red, “Aha,” she says, and holds up a fat red marker. “Go on,” she says, to those empty eyes. “Take it off.”

Ettie crosses her hands, tugs the chemise up and off, drops it to the rug. That mask still fixed in place. Holds her arm up and out of the way as kneeling Chrissie leans close, a hand on her belly, marker hovering, “Here we go,” she says, and sketches quick a curve of lip. “Just the same,” she murmurs, and another stroke of the marker. “Just the same.”

“Huh,” says the woman in the long, silver-buttoned black coat, stopped on the landing, a hand on the railing of the next flight up. “I would’ve sworn, in court, this building? When we were outside, it only had two storeys.”

“Three one two,” says Ettie below her. “Third floor.”

That next flight ends in a narrow landing, just large enough for the both of them to stand before a plain brown door. Black numerals, 312, hung above a peephole, the rim of it pitted with rust. The woman in the long black coat lifts a hand to knock, but reaches instead for the little grey hat on her head, resettling it, dimpling the pinch in the crown. “Ready?” she says to Ettie behind her, in a pale blue ski jacket, yellow tights. Ettie just reaches past to rap smartly on the door.

It’s opened by Iona, tall and broad, her close-cropped hair a virulent chartreuse, a white bolero jacket over a white and gold maillot, and golden basketball shoes on her feet. “Goodness,” says the woman in the long black coat, and then, “Hi. Anne Thorpe, to see Ysabel Perry.”

“Her majesty’s expecting you,” says Iona.

“Majesty,” says Thorpe, with a hint of a smirk. And then, “This is my assistant,” with a gesture back to Ettie, “Stephanie, ah, Stephanie – ”

“Halliwell,” says Ettie. “Stephanie Halliwell.”

“They’re in the garden,” says Iona, stepping back to let them in.

“Garden?” says Thorpe.

Down a hallway under strings of yellow lights, opening the last of the doors at the end there, and through a narrow dark room, bulky machines stacked up under patterned cloth, and opening a door at the other end on a blare of light that washes over as they come out on a little wooden porch, a single step down to lush grass spread out to low parapets, here and there islands of the building’s infrastructure, a ventilator hood, chimney pots, the bulky box of a fan. Wooden tubs hold small trees brightly green, and a raised bed there bubbles over with flowers, pale daffodils and tulips red and violet, a froth of pansies orange, yellow, pink and white and just past that two Adirondack chairs, unpainted, draped with thick white towels. On the one laid out on her back is Chrissie, eyes closed, shining slickly pale, the other Ysabel, a gleaming golden brown. “Oh, hello,” she says, sitting up on her elbows. “I wasn’t expecting you so soon.” The both of them quite nude.

Thorpe struggles with her smirk. “We can, wait inside,” she says, “or come back later,” but “No,” says Ysabel, “no,” reaching for a pair of smokey aviator sunglasses. “Unless this makes you uncomfortable?”

“Just trying to figure out if this is more Helmut Newton, or LaChapelle,” says Thorpe, watching as Iona drags over a couple of floppy white hassocks. “Oh,” says Ysabel, “you know these first really sunny days. The temptation’s always to overdo it.” Thorpe drops heavily into one of the hassocks as Iona adjusts the fit of her bolero. “Something to drink?” Ysabel’s saying. “Shall we take your coats?” Thorpe shakes her head. “How about you, Ettie?”

Chrissie opens her eyes. The shadow looming, blue ski jacket, Ettie fiercely haloed, and whatever her expression might be lost in all that glare.

“It is good to see you again, Ettie,” says Ysabel.

“Her assistant,” says Ettie, abruptly, stepping out of the light. “I’m her assistant.”

“Of course,” says Ysabel.

Chrissie sits up, an arm folded under her breasts, hand pressed to her side, as Ettie lets her blue jacket drop to the grass. “I’ll have one of those,” she says.

On the table between the Adirondack chairs a couple of cocktail glasses, something palely green in each, though much less in the glass on Ysabel’s side. “Gin and absinthe, darling – a Dortmunder, isn’t it?”

“Dorflinger,” says Iona, stooping to pick up the jacket.

“Do make another,” says Ysabel, “for everyone,” but Thorpe’s shaking her head again, “Just water, for me,” she says, and “Of course,” says Ysabel, “certainly, but make her one anyway, in case she changes her mind.”

“I never drink when I’m working,” says Thorpe. Her smirk has curdled.

“Is that what we’re doing?” says Ysabel.

“In theory.”

“How does this work, then.” Ysabel lies back in her chair, reaching over to lift the lid of a small brass box, there by her glass, fingering out a cigarette, a ragged matchbook, and “Well,” says Thorpe. “I ask you a series of pointedly leading questions, which you just as pointedly ignore in favor of your own narrative, and whether that’s a meandering stream of consciousness, or a smoothly machined message that will not be derailed, I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Then, because this is entirely on spec, a couple weeks, a couple months, whenever I manage to place it, I’ll write something that paraphrastically bears little to no resemblance to whatever notes I bother to take today, which matters less than you might think, because whichever editor will massage the piece beyond all recognition to fit whatever they had in mind when they bought it. Now. If you’re lucky, they’ll spring for a round of fact-checking, but don’t let it fool you: what seems perfectly, straightforwardly correct by itself in a question comes out utterly, improperly off in an expository paragraph, and you’ll demand a correction, which maybe they’ll print, but who gives a shit, since nobody who reads the original piece will ever notice it, and anyway all anyone ever remembers is the headline spat out at the last minute by an intern who only ever skims the first couple of paragraphs of whatever the hell this will end up being. So.” She smiles, she shrugs. “Shall we get started?”

Ysabel tilts her head, blows out a stream of smoke. “What about pictures?”

“Pictures,” says Thorpe. “Is that why you went to all this,” a hand, waved about, a chuckle, “that, all that comes much later in the process. If at all. And the art director will set that up. If they even have one. Nothing to do with me; I’m just the writer.”

Laid back in her chair behind those amber glasses Ysabel lifts her cigarette for another drag, and the crackle of the coal at the end of it. “I meant,” she says, “pictures of the Ramp. The columns beneath it. The artwork, that I want to talk about. That we want to save. Even if you have no say over artwork, perhaps looking them over might help you focus your, what’s the word, pitch?” Another drag. “Is that the word?” And then, “I can go put on a wrap, if you’d rather.”

“No,” says Thorpe, and “no,” and then, “all right,” leaning forward on the hassock, “sure. Let’s see ’em, if you got ’em.”

“Chrissie?” says Ysabel, those amber glasses still fixed on Thorpe. “Could you hand them to me, please?”

Chrissie, still sitting up, still folded about herself, leans over, lifts her glass from from a crisp new manila folder on the table, the sheen of it blemished by a single drop of something, liquor, sweat, oil. Ysabel takes the folder from her and opens it in her lap, and within are five or six black-and-white photographs, pillars shadowed by the deck of a bridge overhead, set in cracked pavement, and murals on each of them, a scribbled bird perched on a bulbous nose grown from a scraggled sketch of a tree, a faded hint of a swan above a sheet of simple music, a monstrous owl of ribboned feathers, clutching a pen, above a scroll marked with words, till he dead. She hands one to Thorpe: a chalk-robed hermit pushing against the very edge of his column with a staff, a lantern held up by his shortened arm. “Huh,” says Thorpe.

“These are just a few,” says Ysabel. “I had them blown up, as examples.” Iona’s stepping off the porch, a tray in her hands laden with fresh cocktails. “There are seventeen distinct pieces, on a dozen columns, painted, or drawn, I suppose, some three generations ago – ”

“By Athanasios Stefopoulos,” says Thorpe, “who worked as a night watchman for the railroad, back in the day. Just passing time between trains.” A hand up, waving away the tray Iona proffers. “I’ve been known to do the occasional lick of homework.”

“We called him Tom,” says Ysabel.

“Did we,” says Thorpe, as Chrissie suddenly swallows what’s left in her glass, then lifts Ysabel’s away, clearing room as Iona sets down one by one filled glasses, astringently green in the sunlight.

“Back in the day,” says Ysabel, as Ettie snaps out a hand to Chrissie, “Come on,” she says. “The columns are well-known,” Ysabel’s saying, “an unofficial landmark of the city, appearing in a number of films, some quite famous,” but “Come on,” says Ettie, her hand still outstretched. Chrissie’s turned away, she’s handing the empty glasses up to Iona. “Let’s go,” says Ettie.

“I’m enjoying myself,” says Chrissie, laying back on her towel. “The Ramp,” says Ysabel, “well, the Viaduct, I suppose, to be pedantic,” but Ettie seizes one of the full glasses from the table and drinks it off at once. “There,” she says, daubing her lips with her wrist. “We’re even.” Her other hand still held out.

“The Ramp,” says Ysabel, “is due to be demolished in July.”

“By your brother,” says Thorpe.

Ysabel inclines her head, a point of order, “The Department of Transportation has the keeping of the Ramp,” she says, “as they maintain the, infrastructure,” savoring the word, “of all the bridges that the city owns.”

“It’s gonna be knocked down by a contractor working for the River District development consortium,” says Thorpe, “if we’re gonna be pedantic.”

Ettie hurls her glass to the grass, “We’re going home,” she says, snatching at Chrissie’s hand, but “Don’t be ridiculous,” says Chrissie, slapping her hand away, and “Girls,” says Ysabel, then.

“Fuck you,” snarls Ettie.

Those amber glasses turn, look up to her, the smile serene beneath them. “Tell me, Ettie. Have you checked your messages?” Thorpe’s looking down, at the little grey hat in her hands. “What?” says Ettie, after a moment.

“Have you checked your messages?” A fleeting lick of her lips. “I believe Mr. Davies has been trying to reach you.”

“Ah, he’s texting, emailing, he’s pissed because we’re totally blowing him off,” that last, forcefully, to Chrissie. “All these meetings he wants to set up, with photographers?”

“Actually,” says Ysabel, “today, I think you’ll find he wants to know if you are free for dinner.” Thorpe turns away, looks over her shoulder at Iona, waiting patiently by the porch. “Dinner,” says Ettie.

“We’re meeting tonight, the two of us, you see, and thought it might be swell to have the two of you along. It’s in a restaurant,” a mocking lilt to that smile now, “in public. Chrissie? Why don’t you take your sister inside, to find something nice for you both to wear tonight. Leave me and Ms. Thorpe to finish our discussion without distractions.” Chrissie’s already getting to her feet, and “Um,” says Ettie, taking the hand Chrissie holds out to her, “wait,” stumbling as she sets off after Chrissie across the grass.

“I prefer Miss Thorpe,” says Thorpe, then.

“Miss?” says Ysabel. “How charmingly old fashioned.”

“Nah, it’s just – when I commit to a bit? I commit,” says Thorpe. “Now. This Mr. Davies? Is that Reginald Davies? High-end niche marketing guru, budding property developer?”

“You have done your homework,” says Ysabel.

Here there are languid golden blossoms stuffed with soft cheese, and shards of pastry topped by baked apples and onions, misshapen little waffle-lumps under clouds of cream and fresh berries, piles of nuts that shine stickily, dustily dulled with spices, palm-sized tarts filled with savory custards of yellow and pale green and pink, toast soldiers smeared with smashed green peas and twists of mozzarella, yellow leaves of endive cupped like boats, freighted with glistening cabbage and broccoli slaw and shreds of pickled carrot, but it’s a tight-wound knot of crispy noodles, stickily clung with finely chopped herbs, that she plucks up, turns over, “These look good,” she says, popping it in her mouth.

“It all looks good,” says Luys, hands in the pockets of his brown jeans.

“I don’t see the Duchess,” she says, chewing. Her hair strung with beads, bare chest darkly freckled.

“You’re Zeina, the new Mooncalfe?” he says, and she nods. “Perhaps it’s best she’s indisposed.” He steps back from that laden table, all in brown, deep brown blazer, shirt striped brown and cream, into the crowd that mutters about the high wide room, a great wall of glass curving above them, dark trees beyond, and away past a glimpse of city the lone tooth of a snowcapped mountain. A brief nod as he approaches the only chair in the room for the Marquess, stood there in a slim grey dress, her only jewelry the vambrace strapped to her forearm, and the Soames in a green plaid suit, a meshback cap on his head, Trucks That Mean Business, it says, over the bill. “Mason!” he cries. “Has the Duchess arrived?”

“She is indisposed, my, ah, Excellency. I’m to convey her apologies.”

“Shame,” says the Soames. A burst of laughter from the Viscount yonder, throwing back his white-locked head, clapping the shoulder of the short wide knight beside him. Still chuckling, he approaches the chair in his blue suit, a colorless drink in his hand, to stand there by the Marquess, “Mason,” he says, “good of you to fill in,” and “She is indisposed,” says Luys, but catching himself, a tight nod, “of course, m’lord. I will do what is asked of me.”

“You’ll do fine,” says the Viscount, as the crowd all about shifts, turns, falls still. The King’s stepping out of the hall there, into the high wide room, his white dress shirt, his black trousers, his coat of shimmering gold and black, his shock of orange hair bobbing with greetings, handshakes, a wave for someone across the press of them all. A woman in a purple gown, black scarf wrapped about her hair, leans close as he thanks an older man in a bucket hat, to whisper something in his ear. The King straightens, she daubs something white from the corner of his jaw, he grins, and a flash of something sheepish. And then more nods, more hellos, more shakes of hands until “Okay!” he says, and a single sharp clap. “Let’s get this audience started,” and flipping up the tails of his coat, sits him down. “We have a letter,” pulling a folded sheet from a pocket, “well, an email, from our cousins Sigrid and Clothilde, offering gratitude for the condolences we have expressed, at their tragic loss.”

“Would we had more to offer than condolence,” says the Marquess.

“The police have had had no luck?” says the Viscount, silkily.

“This is no matter for police,” says the Marquess, sharply.

“No?” says the King. “The assailants were mortals.”

“Hounds, majesty,” says the Marquess.

“She means a bunch of bums and beggars, sir,” says the Soames then, “will do for cash, when owr’s short for my boys.”

“Southeast has been known to make use of them,” says the Viscount, and Luys speaks up, then, “I assure you, sire, all, the Duchess has not – ”

“Hold a moment, Mason,” says the King; “these waters are more deep than they first seem. You know these hounds, Soames? They have a kennel?”

“A house in St. Johns, sire,” says the Soames, “on Leonard Street,” but the Marquess says, “It’s not the kennel we should seek, majesty, but the leash, and the hand that loosed it.”

“We know enough of husbandry to follow a simile,” says the King, sitting back, tucking the paper away. “Which of them do we think, then? Alaric? Alphons? Euric?”

“Perhaps, sire,” says the Viscount, “we should think beyond the Barons?”

The room about’s gone breathlessly still. Luys opens his mouth, but closes it at a look from the King, who says, “You’d have us look to someone in the room?”

“Of course not,” says the Viscount, a hand to his breast. “The Baron Medardus was poised,” and his look slips from the King to the woman stood behind the chair, in her headscarf and her purple gown gone redly iridescent, “to make a great leap up. Any of the great and growing number of players ranged about our city might’ve feared such a shift in our balance.”

“Are we grown so precarious?” says the King. “Very well. Soames: beard these hounds in their kennel, find this leash, follow it back to the hand. We would have news for our cousins when next we speak. You’d make an amendment, Linesse?”

The Marquess, swallowing something, shakes her head quickly.

“In the which case!” says the King, and a clap. “What new business for the court?”

The stirring of the crowd then, looking about to see who might be next to speak. The Viscount with a winsome shrug says, “Perhaps it’s best if Southeast were to address us?”

“Mason?” says the King, but Luys shakes his head, “My lords and ladies, sire, her grace has nothing to impart.”

“But good sir knight,” says the Soames, “what of the bandit?”

The gasps, the looks, the murmured asides. “It is all that anyone might speak of,” says the Viscount. “Why, but moments ago – Gwenders! Gwenders, come away from those hors d’œuvres a moment, come here,” and the shuffling, the chuckling at that, the steps and turns about, there’s an older man in a bucket hat, windbreaker and cargo shorts, brown socks and shower slippers, “Excellency,” he says, studiously avoiding Luys’s dumbstruck glare.

“You were just telling us,” says the Viscount, “you were robbed this very morning, weren’t you.”

“Late last night, as might be counted. In through the back gate, off the alley, and out laid my boys with that bat o’ hern. Great flopping head of a horse. Threatened the glassware, and mine own noggin, did I not bring direct the Addition’s portion, or that as left on’t.”

“We hope your lads are recovering,” says the King, and Gwenders nods, “Gracious to’ve asked, sire,” but the King’s continuing, “Ladd’s Addition, though, correct? In Southeast?”

That’s when Gwenders looks to Luys. “Aye, majesty,” he says, “but it’s Hob’s own, getting word to her grace these days.”

“Gwenders felt he might do well to bring the matter before the court,” says the Viscount, “and I couldn’t but agree.”

“Majesty,” says Luys, but the Soames is speaking over him, “Masked bandits, muggings and assaults, home invasions, murther – ”

“Tom Thomas, please!” cries the King. “You’ll frighten the horses. Now, Mason: you wished to make an answer, for Southeast?”

“Only to assure the court,” says Luys, “we are determined to find, and to stop, this bandit,” but there’s a “Ha!” from someone, the Mooncalfe, prowling there behind the Marquess. “Of course, of course,” the Viscount’s saying, the drink in his hand a banner he’s lifting, “but you must admit, for a month or more,” lowering the glass to point to Luys, “this horse-headed brigand’s eluded your every determination.”

“But we know the outlaw’s name,” says Luys.

The Viscount blinks. “You do,” he says.

“Marfisa, sir. Your sister. That once was Axe, to your Handle.”

The glass droops, forgotten. “You are mistaken, sir,” says the Viscount, his voice gone hoarse. “I have no sister.” A deep breath, gathering himself. “A woman did fill that office once, it’s true, but she turned her back on us all. I gave her the cash myself to board a bus, to anywhere. Points east.” A smile, for the crowd. “She always wished to see the Apple Courts.”

“I have fought her before, Excellency,” says Luys. “Blade or bat, I know her arm.”

“You are mistaken!” roars the Viscount, and there in his free hand the flash of a long-bladed dagger, but a bellow from the King, “Enough!” on his feet now. “Put up, Agravante!”

The crowd drawn back from them both, the Viscount, blade in one hand, his drink the other, Luys, half-crouched, his both hands up and empty.

“We are the Court of Roses,” says the King, his blue eye and his brown both coldly furious. “We speak with one voice. We act toward one purpose! We lift this city up, and with it, all of us!” One hand sweeping up to point, “Mason!” he booms. “You will convey our displeasure to the Duchess. Axehandle!” Swept back, the Viscount agog, “You will speak with your sister.”

“Majesty,” says the Viscount, “if you mean this bandit, who only preys across the river, in Southeast – ”

“You will speak, to your sister,” says the King. “Are we understood?”

“Majesty,” says the Viscount, with a nod. The King pushes past, out into the crowd that parts before him, and the woman in the purple gown follows him out of the high wide room, into the hall beyond. The Marquess all in grey nods curtly at something said by the Mooncalfe at her side, the Soames leans over, arm about the shoulders of the short wide knight, his bald head ruddy. The Viscount turns to Luys, smiling now, though his face is pale. “Did I not tell you?” he says. “You did do fine.” Hoisting his glass to drain it off with a clink. “But one word of advice,” he says, leaning close. “Learn to read the room. An invaluable skill, if one is to continue playing at this level.” And off he goes with a lurch, through the dispersing crowd.

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