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with his own Hands – a Hatful – Obligations of the Court – putting it Back –

With his own hands, the King pours from a cut glass pitcher five generous dollops of orange juice into tulip goblets of eggshell porcelain, leafed with scuffed gold whorls. “Wednesdays,” he says, and he chuckles. “Hump day,” he says. His caftan white, his dressing gown of black and gold brocade, his pinkish orange hair bobbing upright in matted coils and tangles as he moves about the table. “I’d like to acknowledge,” he says, “the extraordinary circumstances,” setting a goblet before the Marquess in her black leather jacket, hair close-cropped, gunmetal grey, “that have brought us all together again,” and another before the Soames in a green tweed jacket, plaid trilby on the table before him, “so soon.” A third goblet before the Viscount in his soft blue suit, matted white locks tied into a thick spray at the back of his head. Out past the credenza laden with pitcher and plates, a dish of scrambled eggs, a red clay tortilla warmer painted with white flowers, the vertiginous drop, black trees and wet rooftops soaked in dull grey clouds, the drip of fallen rain. “Your alacrity’s a credit to this court,” says the King, taking up the last two goblets, stepping around, down to the head of the table. “As well you know. Something happened last night. This morning. Early,” and another chuckle, “earlier.” Setting a goblet before Jo, still in her black coat, black shirt buttoned to her throat. “Southeast will fill us in.”

An electronic bong as she opens the door, as they step inside, the front room dim, empty, a handful of plastic chairs haphazardly set about a couple of small tables. Blue Chinese characters written on a dry-erase board tacked over a doorway, English translations crowded off to one side, fresh rice noodle, fresh rice noodle rolls, fresh shrimp rice noodle roll, the prices in green, $0.95, $1.00, $1.60. A woman ducks through the doorway from the brighter kitchen beyond, “We’re closed,” she says, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Wu Song?” says Jo.

“We’re closed.”

“The Gallowglas,” says Jo. “To see Wu Song. He called us. Me.” Looking over to Luys, beside her, his hands in his pockets. “Yes,” says the woman, ducking back through the doorway.

“Huh,” says Jo.

“It is late,” says Luys.

“He called us,” says Jo.

“Yes,” says Luys.

“He’s got fucking Chilli.”

“Yes,” says Luys.

“I’m not leaving without him.”

“Of course,” says Luys. His hair a cap of glossy black, his shortwaisted jacket softly brown. Past him against the wall a pile of woven plastic sacks of rice, piled up about waist-high, Elephant Brand, Product of Thailand, Net Wt. 25 Lbs. Shadows shift, shuff of sneakers, a man’s stepping out of the kitchen, blank white T-shirt taut about his chest, his thick belly, his shoulders softly round with unflexed muscle. Tattoos at his temples, blocky hexagrams, blurred by the silver stubble of his hair. His brows as lush and dark as his mustache. “Wu Song?” says Jo, and then, “It’s good to meet you.”

He folds his arms, there behind the glass-fronted counter, the display shelves lined with empty stainless steel trays. “Again,” he says, after a moment.

“Again?” says Jo. “I, we – I’m sorry, have we – ”

“How long have you held the Hawk,” says the man in the T-shirt.

“We, I, I don’t,” says Jo, and then, “three months. Four. Months.”

“You cannot mean to suggest,” he says, “that in all that time you have not yet thought to meet with me. Sit down with me. See me.”

“I, well, it’s,” says Jo, “been busy. I – ”

“You hunt, as your King commands?”

She looks down, at her red shoes, looks up again, head canted. “The Harper,” she says. “Chillicoathe. A knight, in my service. You called. You said you have him. I want him back.”

“Four corners, to your year,” says Wu Song, unfolding his arms. “At each, I get a dǒu. Enough to fill a hat.”

“Yeah, I know,” says Jo, a hand up to wave, dismissively, “Chilli was – ” The hand stops. “Oh,” says Jo.

“Stolen?” says the Soames.

“The owr?” says the Viscount.

“Yes,” says Jo.

“By whom?” says the Marquess.

“When?” says the Soames. “And why did he go see him anyway?”

“The bandit wore a mask,” says Jo.

“So what are we to do,” says the Viscount.

“If I could just,” says Jo, but “Do?” says the Soames. “It’s only a hatful.”

“It’s a big hat,” says the Marquess.

“It’s kind of a,” says Jo, as the Viscount says, “There must be a response.”

“Please,” says the King, and quieting they all look to him.

“Gallowglas,” he says. “If you’d continue.”

“He is not unharmed, but safe,” says Wu Song, then, raising his voice, “not a finger laid on him was ours,” over what Jo might’ve said. “Only helping hands.”

“So help him on out,” says Jo. “We’ll be on our way.”

“No,” says Wu Song.

Luys jerks a hand from his jacket pocket, but holds it there, arm an awkward crook. Neither Jo nor Wu Song look his way. He straightens his arm, lowering his fingers twitching into an anxious fist. “Yeah, well,” says Jo. “Didn’t think this was gonna go easy, you calling in the middle of the night and all.”

“It goes very easy,” says Wu Song. “I get my dǒu. You get your man.”

“That,” says Jo, “that’s not how it’s gonna go.” And then, “We need to talk, him and me. Figure out what happened. I’m a little behind the curve, here – ”

“A dǒu was stolen. Not my dǒu. Fill another. Bring it to me.”

“I,” says Jo, “now, you have our assurances, Wu Song, that – ”

“You cannot mean to suggest you could not fill one with what you have, now, in the trunk of your car.”

“So,” says Jo. “That’s what this is about.”

Something settles in Wu Song’s stance, his shoulders, just, his jaw, his mustache. “You are a child,” he says, and Luys sucks in a breath. “Yeah?” says Jo, lifting her hand. “Maybe. Still.” Her fingers close about nothing at all there before her. “I hunt, for the King.” She yanks and light blares washing over the blade appearing sharply bright as Wu Song steps back, a percussive “Ha!” as he claps, turning between his hands a slender staff of dark wood polished spinning green ribbons tied to one end fluttering snapping over up and around to come down stopping suddenly, firmly, fast, ribbons swayed a-dangle. Jo isn’t facing him, isn’t holding her blade up en garde, she’s laying it down carefully on the table to one side, the blade of it whorled with waves of dark steel and light, the hilt of it simple, straight, wrapped in dulled wire, guarded about with a glittering net of wiry strands. “This,” she’s saying, “isn’t how it’s going down, either.” Straightening, ducking under to one side the ribboned end of that staff, lifting a hand to shift it, gently, aside. Wu Song’s lips snarl under his mustache, a snagged smile as he lifts the staff up, away. “The agreement, Wu Song,” says Jo. “Between you, and the Duke. And the King. The trust they’ve placed in you. What you’ve done, to earn that trust. That’s why you get the hat. Not the man. Not the threat. The agreement. That trust.” A step closer. “Now. Maybe.” Another. The ribbons tremble. “Maybe what you mean to say with this, this threat. Is maybe you don’t. Trust. The agreement. The King. Me.” Tilting her head. Looking up at him. “It could go down like that,” she says. “Or?”

Wu Song steps back, claps his empty hands together. Nods once, to Jo, and looks back over his shoulder into the kitchen. “Mang nó cho tôi,” he says, and a clink, a clank, some shuffling footsteps, a woman in greasy whites bowed under the weight of the man leaned against her, limping heavily, one arm slung in a white napkin folded, tied about his neck, one eye swollen yellow and green between a tangle of blond hair and the verge of a big blond beard.

“Chilli,” says Jo.

“Come back tomorrow,” says Wu Song. “With my dǒu.”

“What’s still unclear to me,” says the Soames around a mouthful of egg, “is why we’ve been called in.”

“We were robbed,” says the Viscount, folding a tortilla just so.

“Southeast was robbed,” says the Soames. “With no disrespect,” pointing his fork at Jo, who only blinks. “But I do not understand why we’ve been called to make her whole.”

“It’s the court’s obligation,” says the Marquess, reaching for the marmalade.

“It’s our agreement,” says the King.

“Satisfaction of which was entrusted to her hands,” says the Soames. “It’s a hatful!” Sitting back, throwing up his hands. “After you made your well-put point,” he says to Jo, “why not just scoop another up and hand it over?”

“A doe,” says the Viscount, and the Marquess says, “Döe,” as the Viscount’s holding up his hands. “About a salmanazar, Thomas,” he says.

“Just over a peck,” says the King.

“A,” says the Soames, looking from one to the other, “peck.” Holding up his fingers, looking to Jo, “Four a year.”

She shrugs.

“He gets a brace of pins?”

“While I was gone,” says the King, “Wu Song did signal work that helped to keep this city safe, work that continues to this day.”

“The court has a great many obligations,” says the Marquess.

“And we do honor them, all,” says the King. “So!” He sets a folded parchment sealed with yellow wax beside his plate. “I’ve drafted an edict for her majesty my sister. If you all,” but the Marquess has already pushed a little plastic tub out into the middle of the table, sloshed with something inside thickly viscous, and the Viscount sets a silver flask beside it. Jo’s pulling out a small glass bottle, and maybe a finger within of milky stuff tinged with gold, laced with froth. “Sure,” the Soames is saying, “of course,” as he sets a paper cup capped with plastic on the table. “But so much, again, so soon – ”

“How did you know,” says Luys, quietly, “to call his bluff?”

“He wasn’t bluffing,” says Jo, laying her bare sword in the trunk, over behind the cardboard box, the brown glass growler wrapped in a garbage bag.

“But he didn’t hit you,” says Luys.

“I’d already put mine down,” says Jo. “I mean damn, Luys. You know I can’t fight for shit with that thing.” She’s opening the cardboard box, feeling about inside.

“What if he had,” says Luys.

“Hit me?” says Jo, plucking an empty plastic baggie up from the floor of the trunk. “You’d’ve hauled me out. Patched me up.” She’s tapping the box, tilting it, daubing up a pinch of golden dust from a corner. “We’d’ve figured something out,” she says, letting it trickle from her fingertips into the baggie.

She tosses the baggie into the back seat, where sprawled in his bulky sweater, one arm held close in a napkin sling, Chillicoathe the Harper catches it with his free hand. “So,” she says, as Luys climbs into the driver’s seat, “Chilli,” as she settles into the passenger seat, buckling her lap belt. “Who was it.”

“Wore a mask,” says Chilli, with a grunt, smearing a bit of gold over his yellowed, puffy eyelid.

“Just one? Was it a crew?” says Jo, as Luys starts the engine.

“Just the one,” says Chilli. “Had a baseball bat. Kneecapped me. Sweetloaf ran, and the other one. Whatsisname. New kid. And then bam! Boot to the head.”

“Where,” says Jo.

“Right back there,” says Chilli, sitting up with a wince, looking back. Blinking golden dust from his unswollen eyes. “I was just about to knock.”

“Think it was him? Wu Song?”

Chilli slumps, rubbing his shoulder.

“Doesn’t smell right,” says Luys.

“But you don’t know,” says Jo, to Chilli.

“It was a horse mask,” says Chilli. “Covered the whole head.”

“And a bat,” says Jo, blowing out a sigh, “and a boot. Okay,” she says to Luys. “Take him home. And then we go see his majesty. You got anything else for us?” she calls back, pulling a glassy black phone from her pocket.

“Whoever it was,” mutters Chilli, scowling, “had a real nice coat.”

“Ysabel?” says Jo, in the kitchen steeped in grey morning light. A cardboard box in her hands, packed with a plastic tub, a silver flask, a glass bottle, a paper cup, her unsheathed sword tucked under an arm. “You up?” Setting the box down on the counter by a mound of tulips, heavy heads of purple and red and golden orange a-bob, fleshy green stems stuffed in a boxy green glass vase. “You even here?” Leaning her sword against the counter she picks up the glass left by the sink, eyeing the ring of milk left at the bottom. Rinses it out, leaves it in the sink.

Knocking softly on a closed door, she opens it a crack. The room beyond is whitely bright, daffodils and hyacinths a-bloom on the dresser, pillows an orderly stack at the head of the well-made bed, a long white sweater neatly draped over the dressing screen in the corner. “Okay,” says Jo. Closing the door. Opening the other, across the hall. Beneath the skull mask, hanging there from the nail, that plain black scabbard, slung from its leather strap. With her free hand she takes the throat of it, the color of a thundercloud, and fits the tip of her sword to it, slipping it home with the faintest of clinks.

“Jo?” says Ysabel, sitting up on the futon.

“I still,” says Jo, hanging her head, “don’t have the faintest idea how to put it back.”

“Are you all right?” says Ysabel. “Are you hurt?”

Jo turns away from the wall, the mask, the sword, “I didn’t,” she says, “I just – I needed it, to make a point.” Looking up. “We have, I brought, there’s. Another batch, to turn. Today. Ysabel, I’m sorry, I – ”

Ysabel, wordless, holds out a hand.

Shoulders shaking breath quickening Jo steps to the futon, kneels bending over curling formless in her long black coat to lay herself in Ysabel’s lap. Ysabel’s arm in white satin settles over her shoulders. Jo lets out a single, strangled sob, and Ysabel bends over her, gently, lowering her head to kiss away a tear.

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