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There is a Tree – Just two Blocks away –

There’s a tree now, towering above the snow-swept plaza, the green of it overwhelmed by lights hung all upon it, by blues almost white, reds almost pink and orange, by greens almost yellow and blue, a rift of light opened in the unearthly blue climbing all the way up to a pale slice of moon, and if that spread of sky above is all of it brighter than the tree, soaking up the coming day in pearly yellows and whites shining even now behind the unlit bulk of the courthouse, it’s still dark on the plaza, the snow blued by the shadows of the buildings all about, the darkened signs of banks and restaurants and jewelers, and the lights of that tree are enough to tamp down those shadows beneath it, and play fitfully over the man stood there, tall and broad in a shortwaisted jacket, his hair a dark black cap, looking over the base of the tree, wrapped in a hinged red box, printed with snowflakes. Welcome to Portland’s Living Room, it says. Be Merry. “Mason!” cries someone, somewhere up behind him, and he turns.

She’s coming down the great sweep of steps that walls that end of the plaza, careful of the drifts and pockets of snow, wrapped in a sheepskin jacket, and a knapsack on her back, her hair loose and wild about her head a creamy glow against the darkness behind her. “I had not thought to meet you here, again,” she says. In one hand a baseball bat.

“I hadn’t thought to see you again at all,” he says. His hands in the pockets of his jacket.

At the bottom of the steps now, she’s walking up the slight slope toward the tree, the bat loosely idle at her side. “I beat you, the last time.”

“A near-enough thing,” he says.

She’s there beside him now, under the tree, a step or two more than a sword’s length between them. Without shifting his feet, without moving his hands he looks up, along the trunk looming over them. “You can see,” he says, “where they’ve bolted on extra greenery. To fill out the bottom of it.”

“Yes,” she says, without looking up, or away from him at all.

“My lord,” he says then, “the Duke – he asked me to wear the mask.”

“And you’d do anything, if asked?”

“I’m but a knight, lady.”

“Then it was but the form, of a question,” she says, and he inclines his head, lifts a shoulder, something of a shrug. “She has it now,” he says. “The Gallowglas.”

“A proper Huntsman, once again,” says Marfisa. “So set her on my heels! I’ll make a proper sport of it, I swear.”

The frown that steals over his face is hesitant, even tender. “The Queen,” he says.

“The Queen,” she snaps.

“Has set her,” he says, “to hunt the Mooncalfe.”

She looks down, then, and the tip of the bat in her hand thumps the brick at her feet. “Well,” she says.

“Coming down from the hills,” he says, “I’d thought to see fires, pillars of smoke, that I’d hear trumpets. The Queen, unhoused, and the Duke, the Count, the Prince now, vying for the Throne, the Bride taken, and the Shootist and our Gammer cut down,” his eyes on his boots as he says this, his black hair shot with red and green and blue from the lights above. “But it’s all so, so quiet.” Sighing. He looks up to see her frozen there, breathless, eyes wide, mouth set, so still she almost trembles. “I,” he says, “you, I thought you must’ve known – ”

“Which,” she says, the word a crack.

“Which, what – ”

“Which of them has taken her,” she says, “the Duke,” she says, “the, the Prince?” Turning away from him. “My brother,” looking back over her shoulder, up the sweep of steps. “Who has, it seems, neglected,” she says, “to mention, some, aspects – ”

“None of them, lady,” says the Mason. “The Mooncalfe.”

The bat thumps the brick again. “Orlando,” she says. Then, “And a telephone salesgirl’s sent to bring her back.”

“My lord, the Duke,” he says. “Told me, go, do, what must be done. But I don’t – I came here, because I don’t know where to find her, or how to go about it, and I must confess, Axe, that when I saw you coming down those,” and then he says, “oh. I must apologize, for that.”

“Don’t,” she says.

And when she does not go on, he says, carefully, “When I saw you coming down those steps, I thought, at last, someone else, to help.” He’s holding out a hand to her, and a bit of leather tied about his wrist. “Together, we can – ”

“My lady broke with me,” she says.

“But she is still your lady,” he says.

The sound she makes is not a laugh. “I broke with the court, I left my sword,” she says. “The Gallowglas, if we find her, might harry me to the ends, of the,” and she shakes her head. “I went,” she says, “to the bus station, a week after I came back to myself. I went and I bought a ticket to some, other place, with a candy wrapper, and I actually got my foot on the steps of a bus, I stood there, about to pull myself aboard…”

“But,” he says, his hand held out to her, “she is still your lady.”

Just two blocks away or so a man stands outside the entrance to a tiny shop, little more than a booth behind a window plastered with advertisements for Repair and Unlocking and Prepaid Minutes and Handmade Wooden Cases for Your Phone, All Sizes. His long dark coat unbuttoned over a blue silk shirt open at the throat, his shoes severe and black and highly polished, and in one hand a heavy ring of keys. His cheeks red-blotched, his puffed eyes ringed with purple. He isn’t looking at the keys, or the notice taped to the door, a single sheet of paper different from the advertisements about and under it. He isn’t looking at the thick yellow chain wrapped around the handle, held by a great padlock, wrapped in a red seal. A slice of snow, drifted up in the corner of the step before the door, an unblemished lune of blue. Off to his left the street dips between high buildings toward a burning edge of dawn away beyond the river. To his right the street climbs toward a skelter of trees, a church spire, the hills, steeply black on black. A gust of wind lifts his thin and colorless hair in a single shellacked wing, holding it even as the sound of it fades, and in the silence he looks up.

Not an arm’s length away a tall man, thin, his long straight black hair settling as the gust dies. His jacket grey and shapeless, his long skirt a dark and nameless blue, his feet bare in the snow. The man in the coat starts, scrape of shoe, jangle of keys. “Tut,” says Orlando. Something dark’s been splattered along the sleeves of his jacket, something dark, and brown, and up his neck, and the side of his face. He leans in abruptly smiling now, a wide-eyed reckless smile as he brings his hands together up above his head, the man in the coat stumbling back, and with a jerk Orlando lunges after him, bringing those hands down, “Gah!” bursts the man in the coat as those hands stop pressed together touching his chest the dark hair curling there where is blue silk shirt opens. Orlando steps back, throws his arms up, “La!” he cries.

The man in the coat falls against the door frame floundering arm clunking the chain keys falling to splash in the snow. Orlando twirling away, arms spread, skirt flaring, smiling, smiling. The man in the coat coughs, hawks, leans over to spit. Straightens his coat, his shirt, his shoulder brushing the notice taped to the door. He hikes up his trousers to kneel and scoop up the keys, then steps out into the empty street, heedless of his shining shoes in the snow, turning about, looking up the street, looking down. At the heavy ring of keys in his hand.

A deep breath stretches his broad chest, lifts his shoulders, is blown out in a sudden deflating sigh. He drops the hand holding the keys and twists to one side, then spins back all the way around and swings that arm out and up and letting go, and the chiming keys arc up and away down the street, the spark of them lost in all this morning light.

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