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Sky Bridge, Theatre, Accessible Route – the Second sign, & the Third – “Look, behold” – Exit –

Sky Bridge, Theatre, Accessible Route, white letters on a blue sign hung in a counterbalanced assemblage of white poles leaning away from each other on the brick-paved corner. He’s wearing a trench coat over a black suit, bow tie crooked beneath his chin, dark curls shellacked, he’s looking along Second and then up and down Salmon, then at the watch on his wrist, heavy and gold. Behind him a couple of escalators rise to the glass-walled lobby that ceils this little plaza, this bit of garden, and over there on a plinth a great homolosine map of the world unfolded, stylized continents shaped in chrome, and the letters beneath it say World Trade Center. Enormous snowflakes of yellow-white lights dangle among the white poles and columns that brace and frame the glass above. He steps away down the sidewalk, past signs in dark windows that say Washington Federal, Invested Here, Right-size your Loan, and a green sigil of a long-tressed woman, crowned with a single star. A block away across the street a couple of figures, pale coat, green jacket and a flash of silver. He lifts a hand to beckon, once. Absently shaking his head.

Jo leads the way as they come over, in one hand her sword in its scabbard, in the other the mask, the mane undulating gently behind her. Roland’s gloved hands are empty, his head bare, his blue and white headphones down about his neck. “You’re cutting it close,” says Kerr, shooting his cuff to show his watch. “Less than an hour left. There’s already some caterers or something setting up.”

“Okay,” says Jo, looking past him along Second, the other corner there, the snowflake lights, then over down Taylor. Her breath a ragged banner. “Where do we go? Where they coming in?”

Kerr says, “You’re probably going to want people watching all three blocks – ” but Jo says, “Where’s the theater? The, auditorium or wherever, that this is going down?”

“Building Two,” say Kerr, pointing down Salmon. Roland nods. “Okay,” says Jo. “There’s a front door?”

“You go up over the skybridge, the escalators back there,” and Jo’s saying, “A back door? Any other way in?”

“I,” says Kerr, “don’t know, there’s a parking garage? A couple of elevators, some staircases – ”

“Shit,” says Jo.

Roland says, “You are the Huntsman; I’ll be your mastiff and lymner, at once.” He points down toward the escalators. “Station yourself at the front doors. I’ll circle the blocks on the street, and sound the rechance when I spy them.”

“The phone, you mean,” says Jo.

“On the phone,” says Roland.

“Hey,” says Kerr.

“Okay,” says Jo, “I don’t like it, but okay.” And as Kerr says, “Can I just,” she heads off, toward the escalators, and Roland nods once, crisply, and jogs away across Salmon, ahead of a trundling white van. “Hello?” says Kerr. “Still talking, here?” Eyes rolling, he sets off after Jo. Off a couple of blocks away somebody whoops, ah-yi-hee, Shawnee! “Hey,” calls Kerr, “hey!” Jo stops there at the foot of the narrow escalators tocking quietly, regularly up and down. “You have any idea,” says Kerr, “how far out on a limb I am for you?”

“Sure, thanks,” says Jo, turning back toward the escalators, “but that’s hardly my” and “Dammit!” he snaps, lunging for her arm. “You half-ass this thing and you’ll get yourself killed, or worse. And your Queen.”

“Let go of me,” says Jo.

About and behind them white columns depend aslant from the glass canopy above to meet butt ends braced against each other atop stubby concrete pedestals. The snowflake lights among those boles hang still in the still air. “You think you know something,” says Kerr, letting go. “You heard something, something the witch told you that makes you think you’re going to win, no matter what. That’s what this is.”

“What?” says Jo, her sword in its scabbard held between them.

“That’s not how it works,” he says, and she’s saying “What are you” as he says, “Prophecy! That’s not,” and both hands up to his forehead pressing his hair back. “The first duty of prophecy is to be true, no matter what. Ibis redibis nunquam in bello morieris, okay? So whatever you think you heard, it’s not – ”

“What I heard,” says Jo, “is what you said. You got the call from the guy who said to tell the mayor he’s got the Perry girl and it’s time to do what he said. Here. Tonight. Which means Ysabel’s gonna be here. In about an hour.” The mask dangling from her other hand, the mane of it straining back, past her, toward the rising steps. “That’s what I think I know,” she says. “That’s what this is about. Did I hear wrong? Misinterpret?”

He’s looking at his shoes, narrow and gleaming black. “I don’t,” he says, “it’s not the mayor.” Looking up. “I work for a commissioner – ”

“Whatever,” says Jo, turning away, stepping onto the escalator, a scuffle as he leaps after her, grabbing for her again, her coat, “Dammit,” he’s saying, “that guy,” and a squeak of metal on leather, Jo’s drawing her sword, he’s stumbling back staggering down and away from the blade swiveling tip toward him, “he’s a sorcerer, that guy,” says Kerr, hands up, backing unsteadily down the rising steps, turning to hop off as Jo steps down behind, her sword-tip following him as he backs away, the mask dangling from her sword hand, the mane starkly black against her pale coat as it winds lashing about her arm. “You can’t just – ”

“You’re a sorcerer, too,” says Jo.

“More of a,” says Kerr, “a tregetour, really – ”

“So do some magic,” she says, stepping lightly off the escalator, elbow crooked up, blade level, mask staring. “Stop me. Change my mind.”

“That’s not,” he says, looking down. Shoulders hunched. “That isn’t how it works.”

“Okay then,” she says, and sheathes her sword. The mane relaxing, falling about the mask a-dangle as she steps back onto the escalator.

“You’re gonna Butch and Sundance this,” he says. “And you’ll die. She’ll die. And he gets exactly what he wants!” She doesn’t look back. “For fuck’s sake,” he says, “call Southeast! You’re tight, you only have to ask and there’d be a dozen knights – ”

“We broke up,” she says, rising away.

The hand he’s reaching after her curls in a fist, bobs there a moment, slams into the crawling handrail of the escalator. Turning away, shaking out his hand, he digs up the headset for a cellphone and clips it to his ear. “Hey,” he says, walking away. “It’s me. This thing tonight. I’m waving you off.” Waiting at the corner as an SUV stretched to limousine length wallows by. “I got one of those bad feelings you pay me for,” he says.

At the top of the escalator a blue sign hangs from one of the white beams there beneath the glass canopy. The numeral one’s to the left, numerals two and three further on ahead, and a glyph of figures seated at a conference table, and two simple masks side by side, one smiling, one weeping. On ahead the airy lobby narrows to a bridge, glass walls tipped to lean against each other above, braced by angled files of white poles, lit by streetlight from below.

On the other side another sign, the numeral two to the left now, and three to the right, over another bridge. The lobby here’s a low but open space, glass-walled, glass doors to the left, the room beyond but dimly lit, low steps, a baleful sign that says Exit, a dark conference room behind a floor-to-ceiling pane of glass. Movement in there, a shift of shadows lost in a welter of reflections and shadows. Jo walks on by, her pale coat, her sword in one hand, the mask in the other, and her wine-dark hair. Across the open lobby folding chairs grey and brown and tables unfolded, one of them strewn with the remains of a paper cornucopia, plastic vegetables, fake flowers, and then the leaning glass wall, more white poles criss-crossed and braced, the plaza below and the trees here and there strung with tiny white lights, the street and the river beyond. The mask in her hand is still, the mane hanging limply, rustling as she turns it over. The empty shadowed holes where eyes should be. The tooth-shapes crudely chiseled, lined with thick black ink.

She leans the sword in its scabbard against the railing.

The mane shivers, stiffening as she settles the mask on her head, then relaxes to float weirdly behind her, undulating as she turns, looking about the glass-walled lobby, then back out over the plaza, the street, the river. “Your banner, over the city,” she murmurs, under those mask-teeth. “Me, by your side.”

“Excuse me,” says someone. The mane jumps. She turns with a jerk, reaches up to tilt the mask back, clearing her eyes. The man there under the blue sign’s short and thick, his black tuxedo blocky, his necktie plain and bottle green, tied in a wide Windsor knot, the boutonière in his lapel a tiny yellow rose. “There going to be a floor show?” he says. The scruff of grey about his chin too carefully trimmed to be forgotten stubble.

“I, ah,” says Jo, and then, “you’re, are you the mayor?”

A curt laugh. “No,” he says.

“They’ll,” she points toward the glass doors, “let you in, I’m sure – ”

“I know,” he says. He nods at her hands. “No smoking up here.”

She looks down at the crumpled orange pack she’s holding, the lone cigarette within. “Yeah,” she says. Her phone’s ringing. “I know.” She turns away, hauls the mask off, the phone up and out, “Hey,” she says.

“They’re coming,” says Roland. “On foot, down the street. Three men and the Bride, and they’re going to come up the escalator.”

She tucks the phone away. The man’s gone. Nothing’s moving in the dimness past the glass doors. She lifts the mask, sets it back on her head. Takes up the sword in its scabbard and strides across the lobby to the mouth of the skybridge.

Movement, down there at the other end. A white hat clears the floor, rising with the escalator, white shoulders, a long white coat over a white suit, white shirt, white tie. Behind him rising as he steps off a little guy, black suit and a skinny black tie, and in his hands a stainless steel thermos. His hair thinned to a single curl between his brow and the top of his skull, an owl’s feather dangling from one side of the classic black sunglasses he’s wearing, and looming behind them both now a big guy, black suit and a skinny black tie swallowed by his bush of a beard, and the one lens of his classic black sunglasses swarming with spidery letters written in white ink. And leaning against him in a white fur coat, her head against his chest, stumbling as they step off the escalator, “Home, and safe, and sound,” says Jo to herself, and she sets foot on the bridge.

Striding toward her Mr. Leir doffs his hat, his face quite young beneath that unruly white hair. “And who might you be,” he calls.

“I am the Queen’s Huntsman,” says Jo, planting her feet, and Ysabel looks up as Jo draws her sword, letting the scabbard fall to the speckled grey industrial carpeting. “You need to let her go,” pointing her sword at Mr. Leir, “and walk away,” and Ysabel straightens, pushes a little away from Mr. Keightlinger, his arm still about her. Mr. Leir laughs and waves his hat at Mr. Charlock. “Look, behold,” he says, “a whirlwind in a bottle, a great cloud and a fire infolded from before the world was the world. Cold and empty and utterly inimical. If loosed it will swallow whatever it touches until it’s sated, and eat up even the hole you leave when you’re gone.”

“Let her go,” says Jo again.

“Jo,” says Ysabel, ducking out from under Mr. Keightlinger’s arm.

“Drop your sword,” says Mr. Leir, “or he anoints your Queen, and pours what’s left down your throat.” Mr. Charlock, holding the mirror-bright thermos up, starts to unscrew the cap of it. The tip of Jo’s sword wavers, shifting from Mr. Leir to Mr. Charlock and back again. “I’d rather do it myself,” says Mr. Leir, “but eaten by us or this she will be done away with.” He puts his hat back on his head, caressing the pinch, the curl of the brim. “You’ve lost, Jo Gallowglas,” he says. “Drop your sword, walk away,” and the rattle and clunk of Jo’s sword hitting the carpet, and Mr. Leir nods. “Save yourself,” he says, and then his head rocks back.

His head rocks back, his hat flies off, his arms flop up, unstrung. The dull pop an echoless crack enormous, the flash too quick, an afterthought. The smoke rising from the mouth of the flat black pistol in Jo’s hand as it shifts to point to Mr. Charlock, the feathers bristling brown and black and white about his eyes, his mouth ajar in a wordless howl as torn pages gush into the air from the white coat flapping open beside him, fluttering, falling to the bridge in drifts about an empty pair of white and ivory brogues and with a flump behind them a glossy white wig, the acrylic hairs yellowed with old sweat.

Mr. Keightlinger stock still, Ysabel leaping forward through the falling pages, Mr. Charlock roaring lunging after her catching her arm hauling her up short between him and the gun. She swings a white-furred arm, thunk, “I will eat you,” he’s screaming, “grind your bones to salt,” and the pistol in Jo’s hand sweeps away from Ysabel struggling, wavers, fixes on Mr. Keightlinger holding his sunglasses up between his wide-open eyes and Mr. Charlock, whose face is wreathed in feathers. He’s locked a hand on Ysabel’s arm, the thermos loose cap rattling in the other. “This can still,” he says, as if two or three voices are fighting for the words in his mouth, and then he roars. Ysabel hits him again pulling away, and feathers rustle as he looks down, frowning, at the blade-tip that’s ripped a hole in his white shirt, knocking his tie aside. A good two inches poking out of his chest, just to the left of center.

A twist, and a jerk, and Roland pulls his blade from Mr. Charlock’s body.

“Jo,” says Ysabel. The pistol in Jo’s hand is following Mr. Charlock’s body as it slumps to the carpet. “Gallowglas,” says Ysabel, there before her, reaching up to take the mask in her hands, the mane of it slumping as she lifts it from Jo’s head. Jo lowers the pistol, blinking. “Kilo,” says Mr. Charlock, a cough of those awful voices. On his hands and knees on the torn pages, feathers falling. “Kay,” he says, and his arms buckle, and he falls to his side. Roland’s swiveled his sword to point at Mr. Keightlinger quickly walking away, stuffing his sunglasses in the pocket of his jacket.

“Ysabel,” says Jo, and the mask drops to the bridge, and Ysabel’s arms around her white fur about her pulled close together, shivering.

Lights flickering on behind the glass doors, the jingle and clink of keys against glass, “Princess,” says Roland, and then, “Majesty. Huntsman. We must go.”

The top of the thermos, unscrewed, falls without a sound to the roughly speckled carpet. The stuff that seeps out hissing in wisps of white smoke crawling, curling, hard to make out in this light, roiling up suddenly, surging a gout of it sloshing into the rippling thickening air uncoiling reaching for Roland as he turns, frow

ickening rippling air as it whitens, flashes. Ysabel looking up, Jo stepping back, “The hell,” she says.

On the other side of it Mr. Charlock crowned in feathers looks down at the uncapped silver thermos in his hand. “I didn’t mean to,” he says, turning away, “Keightlinger!” he calls. “Kay!”

“What is that,” says Jo.

“Old,” says Ysabel. “We must go.”

That stuff swells and lops and spills more smoke into the air and “Dammit, Phil!” yells Mr. Charlock, and when he tries to step back he falls, his leg is caught, his foot already gone and he screa

ivering glass falls in sheets the cracking of it loud as gunshots shattering below that fills the street a wave of crashing sound pops sparks and flying lights that flicker and go out as Jo sits up Ysabel in white fur sprawled and coughing. “We’ve got to go,” says Jo over the din, gathering herself.

“What is that,” says Ysabel, taking Jo’s hand, pulling herself up.

“Run?” says Jo. The boiling shape of smoke, yellowing, reddening, filling the space from carpet to glass to where the glass had been. Hand in hand they’re stumbling running Ysabel looking to the closed glass doors across the lobby Jo pointing leaning toward the door ajar there, a glimpse of stairwell, a booming crash the floor thrumming wobbling knocking them Ysabel down to her knees and Jo tipping forward brought up short, falling back, rolling over the red smoke and black there filling swallowing the lobby and “Jo!” cries Ysabel white fur billowing hand wrenched away from hand and scrabbling to her feet pushing kicking lunging into the smoke screaming reaching for the last glimmering flickering scrap of white and her hand closing about, the lobby, dark, turning about in the, the glass walls leaned against each, and the white poles, the skybridge, and the, the columns, the streetlight from below, the stretch of speckled grey industrial carpet, the glass doors closed, the red glare of the Exit sign, the clear air quiet and still, the, the, the, she, and she, she stops.

A ways down the skybridge her sword, in its scabbard. There before her the skull-mask, the mane spread about in limp coils. In the hand she lifts with a jerk a pistol, the dull black barrel, the grip of it wound about with glossy black tape. She drops it in a pocket of her pale leather coat. Her other hand pressed to her chest rising and falling with her quickening, shallowing breath, her mouth, opening –

“Ysabel?” says Jo Maguire.

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