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uncertain Laughter – the Colors of the Hound – exactly as You are – what happened Next –

Uncertain laughter, and a scuffle. A knight in sleekly cobalt sleeves, a woman short and round, white apron over taupe, they’re pulled apart without much trouble under buzzing fluorescent lights racked high above, their shine a harshly cool that somehow warming as it falls to buttery summery softness gathered in so many glimmering sparks clutched tight in hands held high, so many caught on fingertips, knuckles, lingering on lips and cheeks, so many drifting freely among the biding rustle of that wordless crowd. A tickle of strings, a rattle of sticks against the concrete floor, a crash of metal and glass somewhere without. Someone whoops. “The hell,” roars Gloria Monday, there before the raised stage, starting off toward the overhead door, but Anna Nirdlinger catches her arm, “It’s okay,” she’s saying, as a ramshackle beat assembles itself from the clicks and strums. “Gloria, it’s okay.”


No I would not, a ragged chorus dissolving in giggles as the incipient song redoubles, asserts itself, and then a great breath taken all at once, Carol in her slinky gown, the Blue Streak cross-legged on a crate, cradling his guitar, the Bullbeggar, Otto Dogstongue, knelt on the concrete, coaxing that popping lopsided beat from a couple of overturned plastic buckets, no I would not give you false hope, on this strange and mournful day, laughter still shaking their words, and the joy that dancing whirls about them.

Out in the middle of them all the great wooden tub set down on a couple of pallets and filled with gold, and over around behind it the Queen, sat upon the floor, her loose white blouse unbuttoned, white trousers rolled up past her shins, her bare feet caked with filthy gold. An empty aisle stretches away from her down the length of the cavernous warehouse, where no one dares to cross the line of golden footprints left wavering between the art-filled stalls to either side, up from the neon-brushed shadows of the arch at that far end, oh, little darling of mine, I can’t for the life of me. Her clipped black curls matted with gold, and more gold splashed over lips that part in what might become a smile, and the course of a lifetime runs, but a beat skips, over and over it’s falling a-clatter apart, over again as the song drops away to once more silence. She sits up. Pushes herself to her feet. Turns about.

Over under the overhead door a figure in a shapeless grey coat twirls and catches, twirls and catches a slender wooden bat. Atop the boxy shoulders a floppy horse’s head, and the stiff fake mane of it sweeps this way, that, until a plastic sidelong eye catches sight of the Queen. One last twirl and catch. Limping, then, across the warehouse floor, past the silent band and watchful, into and through the crowd parting before, stepping back, up to the Queen there by the wooden tub. Clack of the bat planted on concrete before her.

“You’re hurt,” says the Queen.

“It is as nothing,” words muffled by that mask. “The Viscount meant to seize and render your majesty.” Unsteadily stooping to take a knee, that ridiculous head hung low. “Would that I could but have run him off.”

The Queen lays a hand on a rumpled shoulder. “Have you come, then,” cupping that crisply stiff mane with her other, “for your portion?”

“Lady?” that head tips up. The Queen caresses the snout of it, and says, “I would have given you salt.” It’s almost a whisper. “I would have given you bread, and oil.” She tugs, lifting away the mask. Marfisa knelt before her shakes out sweat-clamped curls the color of clotted cream. The Queen lets the mask drop to the floor, and the sound it makes when it hits is shockingly loud. “I suppose,” she says, a bit louder as she turns away, “gold will have to do.”

“My lady,” says Marfisa, though the words catch in her throat. “It has ever, and always,” a squeak of wood on concrete, that bat a trembling pillar to support her slowly standing weight, “been you, that I serve,” but “Tell us, though,” the Queen’s saying, “has there ever been such splendor?” Leaning lit up over the tub. “A hundred hundred knights,” she says, “might satisfy their toradh,” dipping her fingers in to stir the brilliance, “yet still!” Turning back. “We’d have enough to light the city!” Thrusting up her shining hand, the shape of it lost in a blare of gold, and her hair and her smile, her breast and the folds of her blouse a-gleam with the same sunny lustre.

“Your majesty is generous,” says Marfisa, bare head bowed.

“Are we,” says the Queen, closing up her hand, swallowing the light in a fist that, tipping, leaks a gleaming trickle, a shining thread that widens a spilling rush of falling gold to the floor between them. “Mark this!” cries the Queen, “and mark it well! Hawk or Hollow, Helm, Hare – all are welcome, here, to this, our court!” Stepping away from Marfisa, the tub, into the bated crowd. “Any one of them, any peer, or merest peon, any of them might bring themselves here, to this puncheon,” a gold-dusted gesture swept back, at the tub on its pallets, “and each of them may freely take whatever they do need. But!” Her hand drawn back. Another step into the retreating press of them all. “If they do serve the Hound?” She’s stopped before a young and slender knight, trembling in his suit of navy broadcloth. He looks away as she straightens his lapels, leaving them brushed with gold. “If they have found themselves,” she’s saying, “beneath the heel of that, that creature, that pretends it is our uncle,” and looks back, over her shoulder, to Marfisa there by the tub. “Or that vaunting Viscount Lickspittle,” and a shake of her head. Turning back to the trembling knight, who’s tried to step back into the crowd that’s stepping back from him. “Stay,” says the Queen. “Doff your jack.”

“Ma’am?” he squeaks, even as he sets about to shrug the coat from his shoulders.

“The colors of the Hound,” she says, nodding at his salmon-striped tie. “Put them off.” And then, as he hastily undoes the knot. “Your name, sir.”

“The, the Sapper, ma’am,” he says, letting the tie drop to join the coat.

“We asked your name,” she says, “not your office, which is forfeit, for what you would have done this night.”

The breaths taken, as the crowd around them at once presses close and falls away, as the warmth about them dims, as the light chills. Blinking, the knight says, “Jeffeory, ma’am.”

“Present your blade, Jeffeory,” says the Queen.

He lifts his empty hand, fingers working, readying themselves, a blink, and he closes them up about the hilt of a sword slipped shivering from the air. Lowering kneeling, he offers it up, neveled across his forearms. She looks away, back once more to Marfisa. “Tell us,” she says. “Would you, could you, withstand, the might of the oppressor?”

“Majesty?” he says, but does not dare to lift his head.

“Should you not restore what’s right?” she says. “For all aggrieved by wrong? Stand firm, against guile, malice, and despite? And might you do this, in service to our court?”

“Majesty,” again, he blinks, looks up, “of course, I have so sworn – ”

“Then rise, good Sir Jeffeory! Sapper no more, but the latest Axe, of this, our Court of Roses! Tell them!” she cries then, to the crowd. “Tell them all! They have but to come to us, stripped of their blues, their blushing pinks – come to us naked! And we will make them new!” She leaves him there, knelt on the concrete floor, staring aghast at the blade across his arms. “Go on!” she calls, to the band there through the crowd. “Play on! We would have music!” Spangled with gold that flings off golden light as she turns and turns about, looking over the crowd, “Starling!” she cries. “Where is our Starling? Is she below? Someone, fetch her for us! We would have our Starling!” And then, stepping through them who scramble out of her way toward the band, “Play!” she cries, and Otto fumbles for his sticks, the Blue Streak picks his way into a chord, Carol blinking takes up the chorus, oh, oh-oh no, no I would not, I would not give you false hope, and the shuffle and slide of resumptive dances, the laughter and the whoops renewed.

Marfisa stoops to take up the fallen mask, brushing a glitterfall of owr from the mane. She pulls herself up, shakes out her limp, and smoothly, assuredly sets off, twisting and slipping through the dancing throng, shoulders, arm, the bat suggesting a path through the crush, away from the tub, past Jeffeory there, still kneeling, without sparing him a glance.

Applause breaks out, and cheers. There at the back of the unlit stage the Starling’s stepping from the shadows, not so tall as she might’ve been before, more slender, draped in a chiton of smokey stuff, and glimmering through the clouds of it lines of silver along her arms, her legs, curled about her breasts now, sleeking her belly. Hands reach up to take her hands, her arms, helping her down, into the out of sight of the crowd. The band crashes into another song, Teakbois! they all shout, over the revving guitar, the whirling sticks, and Carol’s scatting like a trumpet, but the dizzying swoop of the crowd’s attention, the wave of deafening silence, the stumbled steps and turned heads, the murmurs and gasps have nothing to do with the band. Marfisa pushes on through a crowd no longer dancing out of her way, thumped and blundering into the cleared space before the raised stage.

Two figures stood there in the whickering, flannering, golden unfolding light, as the cheers break out, and the applause, the two same frames draped in satiny white and cloudy black, the same hips and thighs, the same olive faces with the same might-sometime smiles under the selfsame eyes of sharply green, and, now, the same hair thick and black and all of it long in artful tangles down past either set of similar shoulders, pressed together, and though the one of them’s still limned in silvery paint, there’s not a streak or smear of gold left gleaming the other.

“Lady?” says Marfisa, leaning both hands on the bat.

“Fret not, gentle knight,” says one of them, the Queen. “We would make you new, as well. There’s already a Mooncalfe running about, but it has been some little time, indeed, since we have had an Outlaw in our court.”

“My lady,” says Marfisa, clenching her hands to squeeze the folded horse’s head beneath them, wrapped about the knurled end of the bat. “I’ve no need of an office, to tell me my duty, or my place.”

The Queen lets go of Starling’s hands, steps away from her, right up to Marfisa. “Even this, you would refuse me,” she whispers.

Marfisa does not look away, nor lower her head, she doesn’t blink, nor does she say a word, but flinches, just, as the Queen takes a step too close, steps past her, headed for and along the crowd behind her, only to stop before a woman, there, sundress and motorcycle jacket, a hand knuckled to her downcast forehead. Muttering something, perhaps. Starting violently when the Queen takes hold of her other hand.

“It’s good to see you here,” says the Queen.

“Melissa,” says the woman, shaking her head.

“We know your name. Of course we know your name. Did you think we could forget?”

“Please,” says the woman. “Don’t.”

“We would never dream to hurt you,” murmurs the Queen, soothing that trembling hand with both her hands. “You, Melissa, we would not make new,” but “Oh, hell no!” a bellow from over by the overhead door, and Melissa looks up, over that way, but “look to us, sweet Melissa,” says the Queen, unperturbed. “Look at me.” Shivering, Melissa does, blue eyes blinking quickly behind thick lenses. “We would not change a thing,” says the Queen. “We would have you exactly as you are: a gallowglas.”

“You get away from,” that bellow, cut off by a yelp and a scuffle. The Queen doesn’t seem to have noticed. “I don’t,” says Melissa.

“We would have you,” says the Queen, “as our Huntsman.” Stepping back then, turning away, spreading wide her white-draped arms to fold them about the Starling’s embrace, as the blinks and gasps, the steps aback begin to spread, and the mumbles, the looks, the questions, the shouts, the piercing shriek all loosed by what’s been said, Ogilvye grabbing Cherrycoke’s shoulders, Trucos demanding an answer of Getulos, Biscuit holding apart a struggling Trident and Dagger, Morcilla wailing, and Val there in her pink watch cap, as Gloria Monday shoves herself from Lustucru’s restaining grip, and Anna starts after her, into the churning rough and tumble of the crowd. Under it all the guitar unseen chugs into a sawed-off riff, but the boom on the buckets won’t fit, and Carol’s singing something else entirely, dragging them in her wake, I’m not getting excited, ’cause the thrill isn’t mine to invite in, and cheers break out over there, and applause, and an outraged shout as the twins severely blond strut onto the stage, kicking their long legs red and black, and hands reach up to grab them, help them down. Melissa’s hands are in Gloria’s now, their heads bent close, and rainbow-threaded Joli’s there, murmuring something comforting, and Anna clutches Petra all in black. Marfisa still grips the end of her bat still planted on the floor, and bows her head a moment, in the light that falls about them, chill and pale, at once too thin and bright.

Then she takes up the bat, sets off through the hurly-burly toward the stage, toward the Queen who’s kissing the Starling before turning then to Ettie, or is it Chrissie, pressed close for a kiss of her own. The clack of the bat planting itself is sharp enough to seize their attention, and they swivel and lift and crane to look to her, the Queen and the Starling, the Sœuers Limoges.

“Is there, as last, some little thing, that you would ask of us?” says the Queen.

“My lady,” says Marfisa, as Chrissie’s arm, or Ettie’s, crimples the smokey gauze about the Starling’s hip. “Why have you done this?”

“We have done a great many things, this night alone,” says the Queen, her hand on the Starling’s hand, tucked in the white satin crook of her elbow. “What, specifically, has you exercised?”

“You named that girl your Huntsman,” says Marfisa.

“Because we would have it done,” says the Queen.

“But you have,” and Marfisa looks back through the crowd, to the tub there, shining. “All was,” she says. And then, to the Queen, “Jo made it back. She has returned!”

The Queen steps close. “We would not,” she says, quietly, “hear that name uttered in our presence evermore.”

“But all was well,” says Marfisa.

Chrissie murmurs something. The Starling leans against Ettie, who reaches to catch the Queen’s hand, the Queen, turning her back to rest of them all as the band plays on.

High ahead the highway swoop and curl of offramp lit by sodium smolder against a dingy indigo sky. Down here the parking lot actinic behind her, striking cold sparks from the railroad tracks as she steps across them. An unlit building ahead, blank bulk dark against the rusted haze. She crosses the empty street, passing under the stoplights shining red above her, through a rank of sturdy bollards, white reflective stripes about their stubby tips. A broad swath of sidewalk ahead, an espresso bar closed at the corner, umbrellas furled, stacks of chairs and upended tables secured by padlocked cable. Slogging past, down the broad sidewalk that meanders the length of the unlit building to another file of bollards along a narrow drive, and then the mighty boles supporting the overpasses keening and moaning above. Crunch of gravel underfoot, her mismatched Chuck Taylors, her black jeans, and her T-shirt, her empty hands. Past shadowed columns the ground drops away into nothing, the complete abruption of the river before her. Across that lightless void the sudden leap of downtown, towers blazing bright enough almost to overwhelm the streetlamps sparse along the esplanade, the diffusing glow of the highway above, falling with the wash and thrum of traffic loud enough to drown any slap or chuckle of riverwater. As she steps out from under the overpass a bridge hoves into view, a line of lights shot straight just past the trees, held up by shallow arches across the river. At the far end vault two girdered towers, and high within each are caged the bridge’s blocky counterweights, storeys of concrete painted red, held somehow aloft. She stands there, looking at them, one hand to her chest, fingers splayed along her collarbone, heel against her breast.

“You ain’t got much time,” somebody says, and she wheels about in the shadows much lower, closer, her jeans still black, her shoes mismatched, but she’s stuffed in a puffy ski jacket of some filthy color impossible to name, “Like it’s gonna,” she snaps, but stops, blinking, frowning. “I don’t,” she says, “need, that much. Time. To pack.” She’s looking about, not at the skinny shadow in a long dark coat, but the apron of scruffily bare dirt that slopes from a blank retaining wall to a row of slender columns that uphold the bridge above, a file of proscenia framing not the river, but a quiet cross street, dimly lit, and narrow onramps rising either side. She heads toward the wall, away from the shadow. A couple of dome tents pitched right up against the concrete, where criss-crossed stripes of whitewash palimpsest graffiti.

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” says the shadow, as she crouches on a blue tarp laden with swollen garbage bags. “I said, I didn’t mean to – ”

“Fuck off, Christian,” she says, perfunctorily. She’s digging through the bags, yanking one open, tossing it aside. Yanking open another, digging in to fish out clothing, a pair of tights, some grubby underwear, a T-shirt, black. Stands abruptly, casting about for something, something else. Wraps her arms about herself. One of her sleeves leaks tufts of pale down fill from a freshly ragged slash.

“I just,” says the shadow. “I never figured you’d, I mean, obviously I did, because here you are, but – ”

“Where else am I gonna go?” she says. “Huh? Tell me that.”

“Anywhere,” says that silhouette of shoulders hunched. “Anywhere but here.” A truck booms over the bridge above. When it has passed, “They weren’t all out looking for you they’d be here. They’d be drawing you a circle in the dirt.”

“But not you, huh, Christian?” She sniffs, she gulps. Her hair no longer sun-bleached, the tips of it stiff with dirt pattering the shoulders of her jacket as she shudders. “You knew I’d come back.” Her Chuck Taylors digging into the gravel, scuffed white toe half torn away on the one, the sock within spotted dark. “I’ve been taxed,” she says. “What else is she gonna do?”

He snorts, and she looks up, alarmed. Skinny shadow in the shadows, there before one of those narrow arches between columns. “She ain’t gonna do a goddamn thing,” he says, “and you know it. She’s making with all the sound and the fury, but she ain’t the one you gotta worry about, is she.”

She swallows. Takes a step off the tarp, toward him.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” he says. “The guilt. You got to get out. You got to live.”

Arms still wrapped about herself, she doesn’t say a word. A car turns onto the ramp to the left, headlights swiping over them, too suddenly bright and gone to reveal anything.

“Come on, Bambi. You know what happened next.”

A deep breath, and she says, “I know you never said any of that.”

“So?” He takes a step toward her, but not yet out of the shadows. “I ain’t the one got the order of things all wrong. You don’t start rutting through the bags till about, oh, now,” he says, and another step closer. Streetlight cuts across dusty black boots. “Looking for something to steal on your way out the door.”

“What fucking door,” she says. “Christian, I swear, I don’t know what the,” but “See,” he’s saying, “there’s your problem, right there. You never give nobody their due. Christian.” He snorts. “The hell kinda dead name is that.” Another step, and the streetlight slices up the dusty skirts of that dark coat, and grimy jeans. “You know what to say,” he says. “You know the name,” but he giggles, weirdly echoey loud in the breathless stillness. “Shizzt,” he says, full of mirth, filled with malice. “Shizzt,” he says, “the Drow.”

“Who the fuck,” she says, closing on him, four steps, five, and he smiles. Moody smiles.

Table of Contents

Mother and Child Reunion,” written by Paul Simon, copyright holder unknown. Teakbois,” written by Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman, and Steve Howe, copyright holder unknown. I’m not Getting Excited,” written by Elizabeth Stokes, copyright holder unknown.

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