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Swinging the Blade – half Eleven – what Had been planned –

The blade swung slowly parries up, to the left, low, to the right, and then a long low lunge, a stately thrust, a gleam slipping down the edge of it to splinter in the glittering guard about the hilt. Her free hand dropped back in a fist pulling herself back up, and tucks up close against her chest again.

“No,” he says.

Jo all in black shakes out her arms, works her head back and forth. Takes up her stance again, blade upright before her again, and again the parries, the lunge, the thrust.

“I can hear you thinking,” he says.

“I’m not,” she says, pulling back, “trying,” and the parries to all four quarters again, “for fast – ”

“I don’t mean speed,” Roland says, “it’s,” his hands in fingerless bicycle gloves reach up, grasping, closing into fists about nothing. He claps them together, pushes himself up from the base of the engine hulking quietly idle, the housing of it painted an industrial pea-soup green, the great nest of gears racked vertically behind, waist-high and higher, glistening with grease. “The flow,” he says. The sword he’s holding is long, and straight, with a heavy golden pommel bright in the shadows. He plants himself before her in the narrow aisle, right foot forward, off-hand loosely curled against the small of his back, and he’s already moving, swipe and step and cut and back and down into a lunge, his off-hand swinging down and back, extending, pulling him up again, the sword returning, “Just so,” he says. “Again?” Falling forward into a lunge, pulling back, the sword licking at this parry, that. “You see?”

“Ever been stabbed through the gut?” says Jo.

Pulling his foot back, lowering his sword. “That’s how Orlando took you.”

“Yeah,” she says. The tip of her blade looping a figure eight there by her boot. “He came at me, swinging this hellacious cut at my head, and I,” she hoists the hilt, torquing up, around, “blocked it,” the blade above her upturned face, “but I had to turn?” A twist of her waist. “And when his cut slid off he just somehow stopped,” a boot-stamp as her sword continues the twist, blade-tip arcing over and down and back, her off-hand cupping the hilt of it, pushing. “And that was it.”

Roland nods. “His Fool’s Mate.”

“It has a name,” she says.

“He defeated me with that move, once,” Roland’s saying. “The Guerdon, too, Linesse, the Wulver, that I know of. He tried it on Marfisa; she stepped to the side,” his white shoes hop, “and,” miming a low quick cut, “hamstrung him as he passed. He limped for three days, after.”

She’s smiling as she kneels, taking up her discarded scabbard. “So at least once,” she says, fitting blade-tip to mouth, sliding it home.

“Three times, that particular wound.” He picks up the butter-colored coat from the concrete floor and holds out the weight of it dangling from his hand. “You’re the only fighter ever to defeat me without landing a blow. His lips purse, his eyebrows rise, a judicious smile. “Which you’ve done twice.”

“You gave up,” she says, putting on the coat, passing her sword from the one hand to the other.

“I never did.”

“You gave up!” she says. “I found you sleeping in the damn snow.” Laying her sword at the base of the engine, there by the blue and white headphones atop a portable CD player, by the crudely painted skull-mask with its long black mane. “And don’t think I don’t know why you hauled us up into this bridge, over the damn river.” He turns away at that, looking down the length of the great axle shining in the chill grey light, the light seeping from the end of the room there, the curling stairwell caged behind chicken-wire. “Burnside,” says Jo. “The middle of it all, nowhere, no North, no South, no East or West, and not a fucking thumb to be seen.”

“I was, waiting,” says Roland.

“For what?” she says. He’s turned abruptly, he’s walking away, down toward the end of the room. “The King,” he calls back.

“The King,” she says, starting after him. “You were gonna, what, sleep? In the snow? Till he came back?”

His hand on the latch of the cage. “Yes,” he says, and he opens it, and steps through.

“There’s a,” says Jo, reaching the cage as he starts up the tightly spiraled stairs, “there’s a Queen?” His feet clanging up and around and out of sight. “There’s a Queen!” She starts up after him, around and up, up into thin grey daylight, a cramped hexagon of a room, high-ceilinged, the stairs turning on to the next floor up. Narrow sash windows in each wood-paneled wall look out on an emptiness of grey cloud. Roland leans against a sill, and past him and down, through that gelid haze, a suggestion of weight, of lines, edges, a railing, the paved deck. “Beneath our feet,” he says, “there is a forest. Nearly four hundred trees sunk in the cold mud, bearing up the weight of this end of the bridge.” He looks back to her, over his shoulder. “Stripped of leaves,” he says. “Shorn of branches. She may have granted you an office, Gallowglas, and charged you with a duty, but she is no more the Queen, nor has been, for many months.”

“I don’t mean her,” says Jo. He’s looking out into the fog again. “Roland, that girl was dead.”

“You’re mistaken,” he says, quietly.

“She brought her back to life!”

“She is not the Queen.”

“There was owr,” says Jo. “Everywhere.”

“We broke her!” he roars. And then, a knuckle knocking the sill, flatly, “I broke her.”

“No,” she says, letting go of the curled rail, stepping off the staircase. “We didn’t. Roland. Roland, what does the Queen do.”

“She,” he says, “she is the Queen.”

“She makes owr.”

“That’s, that’s not – ”

“She turns the, the stuff, into owr. The Queen, the, her, her mother, Ysabel’s mother. She does everything else, everything but that, and you – ”

“Jo, you don’t – ”

“ – she can’t turn the owr, and you say she’s no longer Queen – ”

“There is no King!” he cries. “The King did not come back! And without a King, to take her hand, she cannot turn the owr.”

“That burger joint,” she says. “It’s not five blocks from here. You can go scoop it off the floor.”

He’s shaking his head. “You tried,” he says. “No one can deny. You’ve done,” he says, “everything that could have been done, but.” A gesture, toward the window. “It’s too late. It’s over.” That gesture folding, into a fist. “No King, no Queen, the Gammer cut down, by the Mooncalfe, who’s stolen the Bride, and this snow, and,” the fist opening, “the city,” his fingers spread wide there by his face, “melting away… Gallowglas,” he says, looking over to her. She’s digging through the pockets of her coat. “Jo,” he says, tenderly.

“Too late,” she’s muttering, pulling out her black glass phone, thumbing it to life.

“It’s not something you should expect to understand,” he says.

“Half past eleven,” she says.

“What?” he says. He steps away from the window. She’s holding up her phone. “It’s eleven thirty,” she says. On the screen of it a photo, Jo and Ysabel cheek to cheek, Ysabel, her hand to the upturned collar of her coat, looking sidelong at Jo smiling widely and directly at the camera, the blur of her arm at the bottom of the shot. At the top of the screen the clock says Half Eleven. Seventh Groosalugg. “We don’t know what time it is, out there,” says Jo. “We don’t have any idea what’s going on right now. So don’t – ” She stares a moment, not at him, not past him, then turns the phone back to herself. Pokes and swipes at the screen.

“Don’t?” he says. “Gallowglas?”

“The wrong one first,” she says. She’s scrolling through the call log.

“Yes,” says Roland. “That, burger joint. When you followed the Duke’s counsel, instead of your own, and went to the wrong – ”

“That’s the wrong wrong one,” she says, standing, tucking the phone away. “I know what she meant,” she says. “I figured it out.” She’s started down the steps. “The wrong one, first.” Stopping, looking back. Coming back up, a step or two. “I don’t know how yet,” she says, “or why, but. We can get a direct answer, we can find her, he, how would he, I,” she shakes her head, quickly. “Roland,” she says. “We haven’t done everything, not nearly, not yet. And we, I – she, she needs your help, Roland.” Holding out her hand. “Please.” A sudden twist of a smile. “I mean, even if I’m wrong. He might have, I don’t know. Breakfast?”

The desk is broad, the pale leather top of it empty but for a silver pen, an ivory-handled knife, a banker’s lamp with a white glass shade. Behind the desk a glass cabinet of shelves crowded with dolls and figurines, a swordswoman in scraps of chainmail and elaborate boots, a cowgirl guns cocked sitting her chapped legs spread on a bag of money, a slender schoolgirl in a tight orange jacket and long dark stockings, tossing an arch salute. A man bellows, full of pain, edged with fear, the sound of it dulled by a wall or two. Her hand tentative, Ysabel reaches in, careful of the ball-jointed woman leaning on a plinth, panels on her naked arms, her thighs, her belly and breast popped open, pulled aside to reveal intricate circuitry, pipework, armatures. She plucks up a girl in a furry pink bodysuit, furry pink booties on her feet and a hood with rabbit ears pink and furry, and above her head an enormous rainbow-swirled lollipop held like an umbrella, or a balloon.

“Do you like them?” says the man in the white suit. His vest is white, his tie a white of alternating stripes, glossy and matte, woven in a complex knot between the spread collar of his spotless white shirt. His white hair thick, unruly, his face beneath it unlined, and quite young.

“One notices a theme,” she says.

His head inclines. “If there’s anything you find you require.” His eyes are almost grey. A room or two away, someone yells, a stammering, bubbling sound that isn’t quite a word.

Ysabel lays a hand on the desk, dimpling the leather. Her hair in clumps and tangles about her face, thicketing her shoulders. The sleeves and neck of her oversized T-shirt sagging, loose. “Some answers,” she says. Letters scrawled in black ink across the front of her shirt say The Gloomadon Poppers. Glitter hints along her cheek, her throat, has spangled the fine hair on her arm.

“To any questions in particular?” he says.

“I,” she says. “I could use a cigarette.”

“Of course.” He reaches over a corner of the desk to open a drawer. Pulls out a clear cellophane packet of unmarked cigarettes and a clean glass dish and a mirror-bright lighter, and then busies himself with freeing a smoke and holding it up for her to take, opening the lighter, striking a flame. “Strong,” she says, blinking, after her first drag.

“A custom blend,” he says, putting the lighter and the packet away. “Burley, and a Macedonian leaf. Not to everyone’s liking. Please, sit. You must be exhausted.”

She reaches back to find an arm of the chair behind her, dark wood framing glossy tufted leather, and she lowers herself, carefully, into it. In that white suit he’s kneeling before her, and his fingers smooth and slender, the nails cut close and neatly shaped, pick at the knots in the laces of her moccasin boots. “The office has a shower,” he’s saying, “and a cot, if you would nap. Fresh clothing will be fetched, but later, later.” Laying the empty boots one atop the other, his hands, the pale backs of them rumpled with blue veins, wrap themselves about her bare feet worn, creased, reddened and stained from those black boots. “Coffee?” he says as he strokes them, holds them, warms them. “Tea? A pastry, or an omelet?” Brushing with a fingertip the silvery gold-tinged ring about a toe. “Liquor, cocaine, hashish?”

Ysabel lets out a smoke-wreathed laugh, and leans forward to tip ash into the glass dish. Sitting back she lifts a foot from his hands, swinging it out and up, hiking up her knee to hook it over the arm of the chair. Leaning on the other arm she tips her matted hair out of her face. “What would you have of me,” she says.

“Oh my lady Bride,” he says, and he lets go her other foot. “What I would’ve had of you, had you not,” and then, sighing, he stands. “Had things gone according to plan.” Stepping back. “The King was to have,” and his eyebrows lift, “returned, in three weeks’ time. The turning of the year, when the sun is passed from archer to goat, and the wheel turns from sun to Saturn, and up comes a man, dancing, his body all over hair like a boar’s, and his teeth like roof-beams; he holds a cattle-goad, and catches fish.” He half-sits on the corner of the desk. “And at that moment, with you quickened, but not yet realized, I’d’ve stepped in and bound you about in such a ceremony,” spreading his hands, a shrug. “A ring, a dress as white as snow, and flowers, mountains of flowers, in this dead of winter. Pale roses,” he says, “pinks and yellows, and white, of course.”

She leans forward, to tip more ash into the dish. “White roses,” he says, “and then four walls, and a daily routine, a career, if you’d needed one. Real estate, perhaps. You could have been kept on the cusp for years. Decades.” He brushes nothing from his knee, then stands, steps around to the other side of the desk. “But it seems,” he’s saying, “the rules are less stringent than I’d been led to believe. They always are, of course;” he stands there, his back to her, arms folded before him, “the question’s always whether the other players are also aware of this fact.” He looks down, not quite back at her. “I blame myself, you must understand. I miscalculated. There’s no other word for it.”

“The wedding’s off,” says Ysabel, her voice a flatly cautious thing.

“Oh, there’ll be a small ceremony. A few close friends. Business associates. Tonight, of course; it’s Saturn’s day, after all.” Turning, smiling. “Short notice, but they’ll take my calls. For this, they’ll rush to pick up the phone. We’ll settle on some mutually agreeable location, a well-appointed room, we’ll say a few words, then lay you out upon the table, take up our forks, and eat the very essence out of you.” He picks up the ivory-handled knife from the desk, bounces it once, in his hand, “So,” he says, slipping it into a pocket. “Fresh clothing, soon, new shoes, and in the meanwhile, if there’s anything you need – Mr. Charlock and Mr. Keightlinger should be done, by now. Let them know.”

He opens the door, stops there, a hand on the knob. “I take the fact you haven’t asked me what I’m to be called as a sign that, you understand – this is strictly business. Nothing personal to it, at all.”

He closes the door. The sound of the lock, turning. It’s some time before she leans forward to snub out the half-smoked cigarette, and then sits back, in that chair, behind that desk.

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