But there’s a rattle of keys at the door to the apartment, it’s opening, there’s Jo, black coat swinging and bright red hair, saying something to someone behind her, Luys, his brown short-waisted jacket, loose brown check trousers, “Jo,” says Ysabel, “you’re late,” but there’s someone else, after Luys, a young man in a soft yellow suit that swallows his narrow frame. “Sorry,” Jo’s saying, tucking her jingling keys away. “Had to find some clothes for Christian. Nice clothes.”
“Hey,” says Christian, shooting his cuffs, “it’s me makes this look good,” even as his narrowed eyes dart about the kitchen, the steps down to the open room, where a long table’s laid with rich yellow cloth, set with gold-rimmed white dinner plates under gold-rimmed soup plates, bread plates, gold-plated forks and salad forks, soup spoons and teaspoons, broad-bladed knives, water glasses and wine glasses and crisp white napkins, and in the center of it all a glass bowl filled with white and yellow roses. Ysabel stands at the head of the table, there where the windowed walls of the open room narrow to a windowed point, a hand on the back of a chair swathed in beige. White flared pants, a shimmering golden drape of camisole. “Christian, Ysabel,” says Jo, and “Ysabel Christian, but I bet you both remember each other.”
“Yeah,” says Christian, “yeah, the Bride, the Queen, I mean, hey. Highness.” He nods. “Majesty,” says Luys. “Yes,” says Ysabel, and then, to Jo, “We need to talk?”
“Sure,” says Jo, “let me just catch a shower, get changed,” and “Jo,” says Ysabel, coming down the length of that table, as Jo’s saying, “won’t be ten minutes.”
“Jo,” says Ysabel, coming up the three low steps into the kitchen.
“You’ve been smoking,” says Ysabel, as she closes the door to her room.
“Ysabel,” says Jo, sloughing her coat.
“I can smell it.”
Jo tosses her coat on the bed. “I went, I was at Bruno’s,” she says.
“You asked for my help with this,” says Ysabel. Then, “What is he doing here.”
“What,” says Jo, hand at her throat. “Christian?” Undoing the top button of her shirt. “Apparently, he’s working for me now.”
“So you invited him to dinner,” says Ysabel.
“He’s,” says Jo, “yeah, just, we can set an extra place at the table or something. Seriously, Ysabel, give me ten minutes – ”
“They’ll be here in ten minutes. Jo, you know how important this – ”
“Ysabel,” says Jo. “Ysabel. We can only do, five thousand.”
“This is,” says Ysabel. “But that’s, not enough. Not nearly.”
Jo says, “So I’m guessing that you didn’t have any luck, either.”
“There must be more.”
“Bruno,” says Jo. “It’s complicated. Bruno says – ”
“It’s your money. He doesn’t tell you. You tell him.”
“It’s not,” says Jo, and then, “it’s all we can do. Even that’s a stretch.”
Ysabel looks away, turns away, all in white and shimmering gold.
“It’s not nothing,” says Jo, undoing another button of her shirt. “They can raise more money off of this. It’s – Ysabel – ” Reaching for an arm, a hand. “Let me shower and change and we’ll go out there and we’ll – they’re not gonna say no, Ysabel. It’s a lot of money.” Squeezing her hand. “How could she be disappointed?”
Ysabel brushes back a hank of matted bright red hair. “You need more than a shower,” she says.
“No,” says Jo.
“Yes,” says Ysabel. “You’ll look fabulous. Go on, get out of this,” undoing the next button of Jo’s shirt, Jo’s shaking her head, stepping back, pushing Ysabel’s hands away, “get back there,” says Ysabel, pointing to the dressing screen in the corner, a simple frame of whitewashed wood, and panels of plain linen. “Don’t make me issue a royal decree. And, Gallowglas?” as Jo strips off her black shirt, wads it, drops it to the floor. “Try not to peek, this time?”
Christian in his yellow suit, sitting at the table, laughing at something, Luys beside him smiling ruefully, sitting up when he sees Ysabel coming into the kitchen, pushing up to his feet with a clatter of plate and clinking glass, “Ma’am,” he says, and Christian half-standing beside him, “Majesty,” he says, “I don’t mean to put anybody out. I can be on my,” but Ysabel’s saying “Please. Of course you’re welcome.” At the foot of the table a powerfully built woman in a wing-collared shirt, a black string tie, pours something from a cocktail shaker into a low square tumbler. Her short hair dyed a virulent chartreuse. “As for what happened, last year,” Christian says.
“Don’t mention it,” says Ysabel. “This is to be a pleasant dinner, with friends.”
“Okay,” says Christian, and Luys leans toward him, “Ma’am,” he says, quietly, and Christian says, “ah, highness.” The woman in the string tie’s pouring the last of the liquor from the shaker and setting it down. “Ma’am,” says Luys to Christian again, and Christian nods as he reaches over the table to take the drink from her hand.
“Jo will be ready shortly,” says Ysabel, “and our other guests should be here any moment. Iona,” and the woman in the string tie looks up, a cube of ice in the tongs in her hand, “if you’d like to join us, as Christian’s companion?”
“What of the service, ma’am?” says the woman in the string tie.
“Finish what you’re making, there,” says Ysabel, “but otherwise, let’s let it take care of itself? Mason, if you’d be so kind as to switch places,” and Luys nods, standing, and Christian’s standing beside him, a clink again of glasses, “Hey,” he’s saying, “if you need help with the,” looking about, “table,” and he frowns. “I thought there was just the six places.”
“There’s eight of us, tonight,” says Ysabel, “with yourself and the Chariot.” There’s a loudly definite knock. Christian, sitting, starts to stand again, but Iona pushes past him, up the three low steps toward the door to the apartment, another knock, and she opens it, a man there on the landing, not too tall, somewhat stout, a grey cashmere topcoat and a great big smile, “This the place? Is this the place?”
“This is the place,” says the woman sweeping past him, slipping off her wrap of fake white fur to reveal a brief dress, black, and asymmetrically cut. Her yellow hair chin-length, severely straight. A second woman, also wrapped in white fur, clings to the man’s arm, her yellow hair as long, as straight. The first woman with a clack of her heels steps up to Ysabel, a hand for her cheek, a kiss for her mouth, and “Well,” says Ysabel, stepping back. “That was nice. But Ettie, I rather imagine you’re his date, tonight?”
Ettie laughs, her hand on Ysabel’s hip. “You know,” she says, “I do get the two of us confused.”
“Told you,” says Chrissie, squeezing the man’s arm, letting go. Slipping out of her wrap to reveal a dress as brief and black as Ettie’s. “How the hell can you tell them apart,” says the man in the topcoat.
“I pay attention,” says Ysabel, taking Chrissie’s hand. “Ysabel Perry. Pleased to meet you.”
“Davies,” he says. “Reginald Davies. Reg, to my friends.”
“Well,” says Ysabel, “Mr. Davies, ladies, if you’d let Luys take your coats, and Iona there can make you anything you’d like to drink, and this is Mr. Christian, Christian…”
“Ah, Beaumont,” says Christian. “Ma’am.”
“Mr. Beaumont, an associate of our Jo Gallowglas, who’ll join us in a moment. Why don’t we all sit down.” And they move and shift about the table with a scrape of chairs, rattle of plates, clink of ice in glasses, “Vodka martini,” says Reg, “dirty as you like,” and “Vodka tonic,” says Ettie, and Iona nods. Chrissie shakes her head. Christian pulls out a chair for her, and “Christian,” says Ettie, letting Reg squeeze past, “how charming. My sister’s name is Christienne.”
“French?” says Christian.
“Of a sort,” says Chrissie, as she sits.
“Tell us, Mr. Davies,” says Ysabel, as she takes her seat at the head of the table, “as the person here of whom we know the least. What is it that you do?”
Down the hall Luys, white fur and grey wool draped over his arm, and a door to either side of him, the one to the left ajar, and the room beyond dark, the one to the right closed, and light shining beneath it. He knocks. “Jo?” he says. He opens it, gently.
She’s sitting back against the high wide bed, the soft comforter smoothed across it, and the pillows piled at the head of it, white, all of them white. Her dress a sombre chalkstripe, tailored like a suit coat tightly buttoned down the front, and her bright red hair cut short, slicked back. On the floor by her bare feet an insubstantial pair of shoes, all narrow black straps and slender, pointed heels. Her hands tugging closed the lapels of the dress, the top button of it quite low. “I didn’t get anything,” she’s saying, “to wear under it, I was about to raid her drawers for something,” and “My lady,” he says, laying the coats across the bed, “please, let me,” taking her hand in his, and the bit of leather about his wrist. He tugs her to her feet. “Let go,” he says, “let me see it,” smoothing the lapels as she takes a deep breath, lowering her hands. “It is a fine dress,” he says.
“Of course you’d like it,” she says.
“It was made for you,” he says.
“Well, yeah, I mean – literally – ”
“Tú eres hermosa,” he says, and she looks away, biting her lips. Smiling, a little. “Still,” she says, toeing one of the shoes. It topples over click against the floor. “I’m gonna fall on my ass in those fucking things.”
“I think,” says Luys, kneeling before her, “a compromise is possible.” Fishing one of her red Chuck Taylors from beneath discarded jeans, the other out from under the bed. Loosening the laces, tugging it open, he fits it to her lifted foot. “There,” he says, tying it off, and “Luys,” says Jo, “you’re a prince.”
“It’s hardly that simple,” Reg is saying, as Iona hands him his drink.
“It’s marketing,” says Chrissie, stating a fact.
“Darling,” says Reg, not unpleasantly. “You know how I feel about that word.” She smiles, sipping her water. “At Maieutics,” says Reg, “we’re helping clients see how it is they’re seen, in the world, and determine how they wish to be seen.”
“What, so, like, branding?” says Christian, there beside Chrissie, and she lets out a honk of a laugh. Ettie across from her says, “Oh, now there’s a word he definitely does not like.”
“It’s been sucked dry of any meaning,” says Reg, but at the head of the table Ysabel’s pushing her chair back, standing, and then Iona, after a moment Christian, Chrissie, Ettie tossing her napkin to the table and nudging Reg, there in the kitchen Luys is handing Jo in her dark dress down the three low steps into the open room. “At last,” says Ysabel, smiling, “our Jo Gallowglas. The party may begin.”
“Something to drink?” murmurs Iona, and “Uh, whiskey sour?” says Jo, letting Luys pass behind her before pulling out her chair at the foot of the table. “Nice shoes,” says Christian, wryly.
“Yeah?” says Jo. “You know me. All about the personal branding.”
Another honk from Chrissie, and chuckles ruffle the others. “See?” says Reg, holding up a forestalling hand, as Jo takes a tumbler from Iona. “See?” he insists, but he’s smiling. “It’s a joke, you laugh, but: it’s important to you, isn’t it. Red. The color. Do you always wear something red, somewhere about you? You’ve dyed your hair – there’s a reason, to go to that trouble. A way you wish to be seen. At Maieutics, what we do is help to articulate those reasons. Refine them. Make them legible, at the right time, in the right way, to the right audience. So.” Sitting back. “That’s what I do.”
“And people pay you for this, service?” says Ysabel.
“Handsomely,” says Reg.
Ladled into soup plates creamy white, and sprinkled with green and black pepper, floated swirls of golden oil, “Delicious,” says Ettie.
“Is it, it’s a bisque?” says Reg.
“The wine,” Ysabel’s saying, as Iona pours from a rough clay container into waiting glasses, “is an Albariño, from the rainy northwest of Spain.”
“You need seafood, for a bisque,” says Ettie.
“You can have a vegetable bisque,” says Chrissie.
“I know why,” says Jo, looking at Reg.
“I’m sorry?” says Reg.
“Jo,” says Ysabel.
“The reason,” says Jo. “I can articulate it just fine.” Ice clinking as she lifts her half-empty tumbler. “He wore red,” she says, and she tosses back the rest.
“He?” says Reg, looking from the foot to the head of the table and back.
“Red, and brown,” says Jo, “though sometimes he’d put on black and gold, or purple. He had the most knights enfeoffed and ruled the biggest fifth of this damn town and he’s gone now, and he isn’t coming back, so it’s left to me to carry it all, for her,” and Jo lifts her wineglass to Ysabel. “The Queen of the City of Roses,” she says. Luys lifts his glass, and Iona, and Christian, looking back and forth, lifts his, and Ysabel inclines her head. “So,” says Jo. “There you go.”
“Well,” says Reg, “that’s, yes.” Chrissie’s taken Ysabel’s hand in hers.
The pasta’s cloudy knots of translucent, hair-thin strands, stained green with pesto, tumbled with slivers of cheese. “It’s rocket, isn’t it?” says Ysabel.
“Ramps, I believe, ma’am,” says Iona.
“So,” says Reg. “Portland has a queen.”
“It’s like a game,” says Ettie.
“A game?” says Ysabel.
“With the titles,” says Ettie, “and the etiquette. I think it’s charming.”
“Leo played it,” says Chrissie.
“Leo,” says Reg. “Leo Barganax?”
“The Duke,” says Jo.
“You knew him?” says Luys.
“We worked together, or rather,” Reg smiles, “our money did, in a number of joint ventures. He introduced me to Ettie, and of course, her lovely sister.” Looking about the table. “I was saddened, to hear of his passing.”
Yellow-glazed ramekins, and within them custards stuffed with dark mushrooms, wilted spinach, and beside each a couple-three halves of baby artichokes, the edges of them charred. “Tofu?” says Chrissie, spooning up a bite.
“Chawanmushi,” says Iona. “Egg, and bean curd.”
“It’s not a game,” says Ettie, knife and fork busy with an artichoke.
“Isn’t it?” says Ysabel. “What you do is art, isn’t it? And isn’t art a game?”
“She has you there,” says Reg.
“No,” says Chrissie.
“It’s prurient,” says Luys.
“Now there’s a word,” says Reg.
“I cannot see the artistry in what they do. What you do,” he says, to Chrissie, across the table. “Forgive me for speaking bluntly.”
“So,” says Ettie, “you think you could,” as Reg is saying, “You’ve seen them perform?”
“I don’t mean to deny the skill,” says Luys, “the, the work, that goes into it. It’s all very,” he sighs, he takes up his fork. “It’s an appeal to a gross, simple appetite. A reflex. I don’t see, art.”
“Maybe you don’t see it,” says Ettie, leaning around Reg, who’s lifting a hand, “You say simple,” he says. “You say gross. I say direct. Primal. Universal.”
“But it isn’t universal,” says Luys.
“Everyone loves a beautiful woman,” says Reg, and “No,” says Jo, “we don’t,” and Ysabel snorts.
“But think,” says Reg, “of, all of the, art, over the years, the poetry, the painting, the songs, the emblems they’ve employed, all dedicated to, dependent on, the beauty of a woman – ”
“So?” says Jo.
“It’s there,” says Chrissie. “Already. Why not use it.”
“Why not add to it,” says Jo.
Small salad plates loaded with thick wheels of blood-red tomato, glistening with juice and oil, sprinkled with yellow chunks of roasted garlic, with grey salt and black pepper. “This is fantastic,” says Jo, to Iona.
“Actually,” says Reg, “you should be looking at video.”
“We have,” says Ettie, and Reg says, “I’m not talking about the amateur stuff, the stuff filmed by the audience, or whatever.”
“This, to me, is magic,” says Iona, a wedge of tomato speared on her fork.
“I’m talking professional video,” says Reg. “Trailers, teasers, for your overall concept. Your semblance.”
“The taste of August,” says Iona. “In March.” She takes her bite.
“Shit!” says Christian, and then, “sorry, no, I didn’t recognize, but – I saw one of those, once. You were both up on a bar, with the hula hoop?” and Ettie nods, a half-shrug. “Damn,” says Christian.
“See?” says Reg. “Your ideas, your art, but professionally shot, edited – ”
“But we don’t do film,” says Ettie. “We do theatre, we do dance – ”
“Burlesque,” says Chrissie.
“Then hire people, for the things you can’t do,” says Reg.
“Which takes money,” says Jo.
Ettie’s fork clinks against her plate, and Ysabel sits back, her wineglass raised. Christian coughs. “Yes,” says Reg. “Most things do.”
“We’ve been trying,” says Chrissie, and Ettie says, “We’ve been raising funds to get our show off the ground, the Ecdysis – ”
“Yes,” says Reg, “strippers and a symphony, right. It’s a great hook, but that’s all it is. Maybe you make a splash, maybe you don’t, but – if the show’s the culmination, of a campaign, something you make everyone anticipate,” and he spreads his hands.
“We’d have to start all over, from square one,” says Ettie, as Chrissie says, “We don’t want to make commercials.”
“Twenty-five thousand sets you up pretty nicely on square one,” says Reg.
Luys takes a bite of tomato as Iona stands, and begins to clear emptied plates. “Oh,” says Ettie. Ysabel polishes off her wine. “Is that an offer?” says Chrissie, to Reg.
“It’s a round number,” says Reg. “Enough to get you into trouble. Figure out if any more will help.”
Christian lets out a low, breathy whistle. Ettie laughs, a shake of her head. Ysabel sits up, leans forward, reaching for the clay decanter. “Ten thousand,” she says, pouring herself more wine. “Right here, right now.”
“Ysabel,” says Jo.
“But for the show you want to do,” says Ysabel, taking up her brimming glass. “The orchestra, the concert hall. Not these pornographic films.”
“I’m not talking about porn,” says Reg.
“Aren’t you?” says Ysabel.
“Ysabel,” says Jo. “Your grace,” murmurs Luys, reaching for her hand. She shakes him off. “That’s very generous,” Chrissie’s saying. Christian’s looking from Jo to Ysabel, to Reg, to Jo. Reg says, “Look, you have options, is the point.” Ysabel’s drinking her wine, big, gulping swallows. “It’s a testament,” says Reg, “to what you’ve already accomplished. We wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t something there.”
“Tell me, Mr. Davies,” says Ysabel, setting down her empty glass. “Reg. Answer a question for me.”
“Okay,” says Reg, the world half a laugh, “your, you, you’re a queen, so, I should, what, say your majesty? Is that appropriate?
“Do you think I’m beautiful, Reg?” says Ysabel, and he frowns, and opens his mouth to speak, but glass clatters and forks tumble as Chrissie leans over the corner seizing Ysabel’s hand “Don’t” she cries, pulling, and Ysabel blinks, looks down, away from Reg to her hand in Chrissie’s, to Chrissie, her blue eyes, her painted lips, “please,” she’s saying. “Don’t.”