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Ysabel Triumphantly – the Changing of the Guard – Now and Here – a Mound of Bicycles –

Ysabel triumphantly lifts her hand, her middle finger poised, circling the phone’s disconnect button. “Why, no,” she says into her telephone headset. “Thank you. I can only apologize for how badly the questions were written, and how boring it must have been for you. Not at all. And you have a good evening yourself. Goodbye.” She punches the button. Sighs. Peers at the computer keyboard that takes up most what little desk space is left by the monitor and taps a couple of keys with index fingers poking out of loose fists. She peers at the screen, then punches a couple more keys. Becker kneels down next to her chair as she reaches for the phone again. “Hey,” he says. “It’s after nine. You’re done.”

“Oh,” says Ysabel, leaning back in her chair.

“You’ve been on the phone about five hours. You logged 42 complete surveys. That’s, ah, pretty much a record.”

“Oh,” says Ysabel. Jo comes up behind Becker, her arms folded, her mouth wryly turned. Behind her, other dialers are scooping up bags, books, empty water bottles, candy wrappers, gathering their things and heading for the door.

“Yeah,” Becker’s saying. “Seth monitored several of your calls – you did a fantastic job. We could maybe do with a little less, you know, insulting the survey, but – ”

“Good,” says Ysabel, pushing back, standing up, brushing off her khaki skirt. “So is that enough?” she asks Jo. “Are we done?”

“Sure,” says Jo.

“Good job, Ysabel,” says Becker, standing.

“Thanks,” says Ysabel, bending over to tug one of her heathery wool socks back up over her knee. “Can we do something else tomorrow night?” she says to Jo. “This was really dull.”

“Um,” says Becker.

Roland in his green and silver track suit is standing on the sidewalk in the pink and orange light, under the multi-colored Tonic banner that whuffles in the evening air. With him is a woman a couple of fingers taller, whose hair the color of clotted cream is piled even higher that that. She’s wearing a soft blue hoodie and a matching full-length skirt. “What,” says Jo, arms akimbo, looking them up and down. “We get an escort now?”

“This is Marfisa, the Axe,” says Roland. “She will take the keeping of the Princess tonight. You and I have something we must do.” He bows his head slightly. “With your permission, of course, my lady.”

Ysabel nods. “Something we must do?” says Jo. “That’s great. What if I already have something to do?”

“What would that be?” says Roland.

“Well,” says Jo, looking away, “nothing, really.” She jams her hands into the pockets of her workpants. “I just, don’t like the way you guys haul off with the orders, you know? You will do this, you will go with me, you will hand over the Princess or get stabbed. It’s rude, you know?”

“She’s not very grateful, is she?” says Marfisa to Ysabel. Her voice is low and round and full.

Ysabel shrugs. “Grateful?” says Jo. “Listen, Glamazon. I’m out a hundred and thirty bucks thanks to your Princess. Hell, that’s just the missed days of work – that doesn’t count brunches and peach teas!”

“You were warned,” says Roland.

“Yeah, I know.” Jo shrugs herself more deeply into her bulky flannel shirt. “I was warned. I was told to walk away and I didn’t and it’s all my fault. You could have just asked, is all I’m saying. The principle of the thing, you know?”

“Jo Maguire,” says Roland, looking down at the sidewalk, spreading his hands. “Though the Queen cannot recognize you as a member of the court, there are, nonetheless, certain events which will require you, as guardian of our Princess, to take a more public role. After some consideration, the Queen in her wisdom has decided you might benefit from some instruction, in how to carry yourself, what to say and do, how to handle a blade. And I, it seems, am to see to that instruction.”

“There, see?” says Jo, after a moment. “That wasn’t so hard. You even made me feel like a shithead. Added bonus.”

“Will you come with me, then?” says Roland.

“Yes, yes, I’m coming. Christ.” As Roland starts across the street toward the corner under the Danmoore Hotel sign, Jo, stepping off the curb, stops. Turns to look back. “Hey,” she says to Ysabel. “You gonna..?”

“She’ll be fine,” says Marfisa.

“It’s all right, Jo,” says Ysabel. “Go on.”

“Okay,” says Jo. “I’ll, ah. See you later.” She sighs, steps off the curb, then trots after Roland.

“An odd girl,” says Marfisa. Ysabel is looking sidelong at her, pursing her lips against a bemused smile. “What?” says Marfisa, looking down at her.

“‘Glamazon’,” says Ysabel.

Marfisa rolls her eyes, folding her arms, exasperated. Then she smiles, just a little. “Yeah,” she says, “okay. You look good.”

“Oh?” says Ysabel, in her oxblood boots, her knee socks, her khaki skirt, her turtleneck sweater in some nameless natural color, cropped an inch or above her hips. Her long high ponytail swings as she tilts her head. “I haven’t been ruined by my exile?”

“Well, tonight’s your night,” says Marfisa, stepping down the sidewalk, swinging around. Offering up the city. “What are you in the mood for? Saucebox? Le Happy? Madame Damnable’s? Panorama?”

“Actually,” says Ysabel, standing still under the Tonic banner, “I was thinking – what with the recent incident and all – that it might be best if we headed back to Jo’s apartment and holed up there. For safekeeping.” She looks away, out into the streetlit night. “What do you think? As my guardian, for the evening.”

“Well,” says Marfisa. “I think. Given the recent incident, we should probably head back to her apartment. Hole up there. Till they get back. For safekeeping.” The corner of her mouth quirks up. “Sounds like a plan.”

Jo and Roland climb a narrow flight of stairs into the heart of an old commercial building. The second floor has white walls and a black floor painted so many times that they still look slick and wet. Corners are soft and round. There at the head of the staircase is a set of double doors with a frosted glass fanlight. Roland raps at the right-hand door with the back of his fist. “Come!” a man somewhere on the other side bellows.

Roland opens the door. The room beyond is wide and deep, the far end lost in shadows. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors line one wall. The dark floor is marked in a dozen spots with Xes of blue masking tape. In the splash of light from a lone fluorescent ceiling panel stands a wiry man. His greying, balding hair is closely cropped, his soured mouth framed by a salt-and-pepper Van Dyke. His eyes are large and flash. “This is it?” he says. He’s wearing drawstring pants and a T-shirt stretched across his broad chest and simple canvas shoes. One hand holds a bundle of swords tied together with a bit of rope. “This is what I’m supposed to work with?” His other hand is a metal hook at the end of a beige prosthetic, attached just below his left elbow.

“Jo Maguire,” says Roland, “Vincent Erne. Vincent, Jo.”

“She’s scrawny,” says Vincent. He walks across the room, laying the swords down on a rolled-up mat. “Terrible posture. An attitude thick enough to have already gotten on my nerves.” He moves quickly, the balls of his feet wisping silently in those shoes on that floor as he circles Jo. “And, of course, she’s a girl.”

“That doesn’t matter,” says Roland.

“To you, yes. I know. I’m the one who has to make something viable of her by Wednesday of next week. Her hair will have to be cut – this is ridiculous.”

“I thought this guy was supposed to teach me how to use a sword,” says Jo, who’s following Vincent with her glare.

“Ha!” says Vincent. “Ha! I’m going to teach you not to embarrass yourself, girl. In our pursuit of this goal, we shall endeavor to avoid anything involving the actual use of a sword. You,” he says, turning and jabbing a finger at Roland, “leave. Come back in a couple of hours. You,” he says jabbing a finger at Jo, “take off that bulky jacket so I can see you move. Then walk down to the end of the hall and back, and I will tell you everything you are doing wrong.”

Jo, shucking out of her flannel shirt, glares at Roland, who shrugs.

“Chop chop!” says Vincent, clicking his prosthetic hook for emphasis. “We don’t have all night!”

As Jo sets off down the dark wood floor, as Vincent says “Shoulders, for God’s sake, shoulders back, don’t slouch,” Roland opens the big black door and steps out into the hall. Yawning, stretching, he sits on the top step. “Chin up! Up!” comes Vincent’s voice faintly from the training hall. Roland smiles.

Ysabel’s fingertip sparkles with gold dust. She holds it above her face, drawing a squiggle in the air, a floral pattern that lingers shimmering like the patterns made by sparklers on a dark night. She smiles at it, her eyes shining. Laughs, just a little. Closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. Opens them, and lets it out. The flower dissolves into glittering swirls, lost in a dim apartment lit only by flickering, guttering candles.

“Oh, how I miss you,” says Marfisa, lying naked on her belly on the futon next to Ysabel.

“I miss all of you,” says Ysabel, her hair undone, its dark weight pooled on the pillow, spilling over her bare shoulders. She still wears her wool socks. A small plastic baggie swollen with gold dust lies on her stomach.

“You know,” says Marfisa, “I wanted to make you jealous tonight.”

“Don’t think like that,” says Ysabel.

“I did. I did. I was going to hang on Roland when you came out with that girl and I was going to, I don’t know. It was foolish.”

“It was.”

“Roland thought I was chilly. He offered me his jacket.”

“Roland can be a bit – dense.” Ysabel kisses her fingertip lightly, and dips it into the baggie for another smudge of gold dust.

“You were such a bitch at Robin’s party,” says Marfisa, rolling on her side, looking at Ysabel. “Dancing with that girl while I played your song. And then – ”

“Don’t,” says Ysabel. Her finger slashes through the air, sketching an angry shape. “Don’t think like that. Don’t think you can make me jealous, Marfisa. There’s nothing to be jealous for.” The shape hangs glittering above them, ghosting slowly into the air. Ysabel turns to look at Marfisa, whose pale, pale hair is tangled across the pillows, her shoulder, tangled up with ghostly blue flowers about her wide face falling, her thin-lipped mouth turning down, her blue eyes shining wet and rimmed with red. “I know,” says Marfisa. “I know. Some day the King will come and sit the Throne again. And you will – marry him. But until then – ”

“No,” says Ysabel. “No. There’s no then. There’s no until. There’s no could be or maybe or can be.”

Closing her eyes against threatening tears Marfisa turns her face to the pillow. “I know,” she says, muffled. “Lady, I know.”

“Shh.” Ysabel dips her finger and thumb into the baggie, pulling out a pinch of dust and setting the baggie to one side. She rolls on her side to lie against Marfisa, kissing the thick round blue-tinged shoulder before her. “There’s now,” she says. “There’s here.” She sprinkles the pinch of dust floating glittering down through the air to land on Marfisa’s back. “Oh,” says Marfisa. Shivering. “There’s now,” says Ysabel, lightly stroking the dust into Marfisa’s skin, “and here.”

“Oh,” says Marfisa.

Jo clomps down the narrow flight of stairs and kicks open the door at the bottom, fishing in her shirt pocket for a pack of cigarettes. The door’s swinging shut as she lights one and sucks down a chestful of smoke.

“I liked it better when the brewery was here,” says Roland, who’s sitting on the sidewalk by the door. “I liked the smell. Some people didn’t, but I did. It was rich. Sour, but – rich. Full of life. You knew something was growing here. Being made.” He smiles. “I also liked the way the bottles would clink on the conveyor belt above the street. Like little glass bells.” He looks up at Jo. “How’d it go?”

“He says I should quit smoking,” says Jo, taking another drag. “Among other things. I’m supposed to come back Sunday for a test.” She looks back up at the long, two-storey building. “Freak.” One last drag, and then she flicks the cigarette sparking up at the blank black windows above them. “So what did you stick around for?”

“I thought I might walk you home,” says Roland.

“Oh,” says Jo. Shrugging, she holds out a hand. He takes it. She pulls him to his feet. “You going to tell me more about brewing?”

“It’s good, honest work, brewing,” says Roland.

“Actually,” says Jo, as they set off down the sidewalk toward 10th. “I wanted to ask you something. About, about this thing I do, being a Gallowglas.”

“Go ahead,” says Roland, frowning down at his shoes.

“When you challenged me. At that party. If I’d actually hit you – ”

“You wouldn’t have hit me,” says Roland, walking more quickly.

“Yeah, but if I’d managed to – ” says Jo, catching up.

“You couldn’t manage to – ”

“If, I’m saying. If. If I had. Would I have, well, I mean – ”

“There’s no way you could have. But. If you had – yes,” says Roland, stopping at a corner. The stoplight over the intersection is blinking red in all four directions. “Yes,” he says again.

“Because of who I am,” says Jo.

“What you are. Yes.”

“I could have killed you. Just like that guy the other night.”

“You wouldn’t have – ”

“And you challenged me anyway.”

“There wasn’t any danger!” says Roland. Jo throws up her hands and starts across the street. “There shouldn’t have been any danger,” says Roland, following after.

“Oh, no,” says Jo. “None at all. I just woke up in Ysabel’s house with a hole in my back and no idea what the fuck had happened.”

“Jo,” says Roland. “Jo!” He runs and catches her arm. The two of them swing to a stop, facing each other, before the darkened windows of a bookstore. “I am sorry for that,” says Roland. “And I promise you: I will make amends.”

“You,” says Jo. “Will make amends. To me.”

Roland smiles. Laughs a little. “You are rude, Jo. You’re impatient and disrespectful. You don’t listen and you don’t care and you laugh at things you don’t understand. But the night before last you proved yourself.”

Jo starts to say something, and stops, and then throws up her hands. “Night before last I ran. I got some guy killed, boiled away into nothing, because I didn’t know where to put my feet.”

“You fought,” says Roland, “to keep the Princess safe with everything you had. That’s all that matters to me.”

Jo shakes her head. “I am never going to understand you people.”

“Why should you?” says Roland. He gestures toward the next intersection with his hand, and shrugging, Jo sets off. He follows.

There at the corner of 10th and Burnside, waiting for the light to change, Jo points across the intersection. “What the hell is that?”

On a wedge of sidewalk piercing the five-way intersection, across from a pizza place, is a mound of bicycles: kid-sized bikes in candy colors, mirror-bright dirt bikes, banana-seat choppers sparkling with glitter, white rimmed wheels glowing pink in the streetlight, plastic handlebars feathered with tassels, all piled up in a heap about as tall as Roland. “I have no idea,” he says.

“It just seems like something you people would do.”

“My people?” says Roland.

“Well, it seems like it.” Jo frowns.

“I have no idea, Jo,” says Roland. “The light’s changed.”

“Yeah, yeah,” says Jo.

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