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a Half-dozen T-shirts, most of them black – Formal dress – Some qualities of Vengeance – Every felicitation –

A half-dozen T-shirts, most of them black, are scattered across the unmade futon. There’s a red one that says Farmers & Mechanics Bank in peeling brown letters. The empty legs of tights unrolled, unfolded lying across them, black again, red, dull green, blue jeans, grey jeans that once were black, a couple pairs of workpants, plumber’s navy, package delivery brown, frayed cuffs and the greasy sheen of nylon. Soft flannel shirts, arms tangled, dark green, a plaid of faded berry colors, a short black denim skirt, a longer Catholic tartan. Ysabel in an oversized blue sweatshirt that says Brigadoon! squats at the foot of the futon, looking over it all. The droning spatter of the shower cuts off, and there’s Jo’s voice, “Somewhere like New York City sounds oh so pretty, but let’s leave the timing to fate – !” Ysabel leans over and scoops a double handful of underwear and socks from one of the blond wood crates against the wall.

“I’ll be the one in tears,” sings Jo, coming out of the bathroom in a pair of boxer shorts, towelling her hair, “I’ll be the one who’s trying to make up for the what the fuck?”

Ysabel’s holding up a pair of washed-out pink underwear with a finger crooked through the split side seam. “Do these have some sort of sentimental value?” she says, frowning theatrically.

“What are you doing?” says Jo.

“You have nothing to wear,” says Ysabel, wadding up the underwear and tossing it onto the tangle of clothes.

“What?” says Jo. “Oh, fuck it. Just give me a goddamn T-shirt.”

“I’m perfectly serious,” says Ysabel. “The hunt is Wednesday night, and you have absolutely nothing to wear.” She leans back on one elbow, her mouth trying not to smile.

“Would you toss me a clean shirt,” says Jo. “Please.”

“We must go shopping,” says Ysabel.

Jo throws back her head and lets out a guttural sigh. She stalks past Ysabel and kneels by the futon, pulling a black T-shirt from the tangle.

“Why did you get that tattoo?” says Ysabel. She’s looking at Jo’s belly. Black lines claw up from the waistband of her boxers. Two dots that might be eyes peer out from under her navel.

“Don’t change the subject,” says Jo. She hauls the T-shirt over her head and tugs it down. A red devil leers across the front of it, lined and pocked by silkscreen craquelure. “What the hell is wrong with the clothes I’ve got?”

“You need a dress,” says Ysabel. “Something light, that you can move in, but with a good full skirt – What?”

Jo’s shaking her head. “I’m supposed to wear a dress to go hunting.”

Ysabel sits up, leans forward, her elbows on her knees. “This hunt is being called in my honor. Even though you aren’t of the court, you will be very noticeable. It’s important you dress well.”

“In a dress,” says Jo. She looks over at the glass-topped café table under the window. “For a hunt.” A sword in its black sheath is lying on top of the table, next to a blue vase full of tiny wild roses.

“It’s expected,” says Ysabel.

“You wear jeans,” says Jo. “And pants. All the time.”

“Not at court.”

“So this is a thing?” says Jo. “Like, for your people, all the women have to wear dresses?”

Ysabel’s eyes are dark, and sharp. Her lips purse themselves before she parts them to say, “Yes, Jo. My ‘people’ like to dress formally for formal occasions.” Her bare feet have burrowed under some socks that once were white. She kicks them free. “Don’t yours?”

Jo leans over, grabs a pair of blue jeans, bundles them into a small, irregular wad, tosses them past Ysabel into one of the blond wood crates. She grabs a couple of T-shirts.

“I need to get something myself,” says Ysabel. “I can’t wear any of those.” She’s pointing at the bulky blond armoire looming in the corner, doors ajar, a mad welter of fabrics and colors stuffed within, trains spilling out at the bottom, a froth of lace dangling from a half-open drawer.

Jo reaches past Ysabel, snags her tartan skirt, shakes it out. “You going to sell some of them, or something?” She folds it in half and starts rolling it up.

“I couldn’t,” says Ysabel. “I can’t.”

“Then what are we going shopping with?” Jo tosses the skirt into a crate, followed in quick succession by three more T-shirts.

“You mean money,” says Ysabel.

“Of course I mean money.”

“What I have in mind won’t cost us anything.”

“I’m listening,” says Jo.

Over the two leather armchairs large copper letters say Barshefsky Associates: Quality Assured. Orlando’s in one of the armchairs, absently rolling the tip of his black braid between his fingers and his thumb. Gaveston stands, his knuckles rapping a martial tattoo on the top of his portfolio tube. Behind him a door swings open and his impromptu drumbeat’s lost in a sudden wash of questioning voices and clacking keys. A big guy in a faded red sweatshirt steps through, a pen behind each of his ears. Gaveston smiling offers up a hand. “Arnold Becker?”

“Can I help you?” says Becker. A lick of brown hair sticks straight up from the back of his head. He keeps his clipboard folded up against his chest with both arms.

“I certainly hope so,” says Gaveston, pulling back his hand, still smiling. “You’re a friend of Jo Maguire’s?”

“She’s off today. What can I – ”

“We asked,” says Orlando, not looking up from his braid, “if you were her friend.”

“I’m her boss,” says Becker, looking from Gaveston to Orlando and back again. “Who are you guys?”

“It’s a delicate matter, Mr. Becker,” says Gaveston. “Is there perhaps somewhere we could – ”

“Here’s fine,” says Becker.

“I see. Well.” Gaveston sighs. “The girl? Ysabel? Jo has been seeing a lot of her lately – ”

“She’s off today, too,” says Becker.

Gaveston looks sidelong at Orlando. “She works here?”

“She works?” mutters Orlando.

“Her family,” says Gaveston quickly, loudly, “Ysabel’s family, is concerned. It’s – ” He takes a deep breath. “As I said, it’s a delicate matter, one that requires a certain degree of, of tact, and circumspection.”

“Help me out here, guys,” says Becker. He looks over his shoulder at the door behind them. “I have no idea what this has to do with me.”

His hands together fingers interlaced on top of the portfolio tube, Gaveston leans forward. Something in the pocket of his cardigan sways pendulously. “We’d like to offer you some money,” he says, quietly.

“Money,” says Becker.

“Wednesday night,” says Gaveston. “The day after tomorrow, to be precise. Ysabel intends to attend a – shall we say, gathering, at the Lloyd Center, with your friend, Jo. We would pay you to attend as well, if you were to report back to us your impressions.” Becker’s frowning, his mouth shaping a question. “As it would be late at night,” says Gaveston, “we are more than willing to compensate you accordingly. With half the agreed-upon sum right away.” He thumps the top of his portfolio tube. “On the barrelhead, as it were. All you need do is say yes.”

“This,” says Becker. Still frowning. “Is really strange. Look, you guys – ”

“It isn’t working,” says Orlando from his chair.

“I,” says Becker. “What?”

“You’re quite right,” says Gaveston. He sighs. “It isn’t.”

“It wasn’t working when we came through that door.” Pulling himself to his feet Orlando flips his braid back over his shoulder. “It wasn’t working when we walked into this building.”

“What do you propose, friend Mooncalfe?” says Gaveston.

“Vengeance,” says Orlando, “has no budget.” Smoothing the front of his loose white shirt. “It is not polite. It does not ask.” He looks up at Gaveston. His eyes are pale and blue on either side of his sharp long nose. “It takes what it needs, or it isn’t vengeance.”

“Hey,” says Becker. “You – ”

“Don’t,” says Orlando. “Do not.”

Gaveston’s nodding. “I think I take your meaning, friend. What’s more,” and he hauls up his portfolio tube, slinging it from one shoulder, “I concur.”

And together they walk across the little lobby toward the glass doors.

“What the,” says Becker, and then, as Gaveston’s stepping out into the hall, Becker shakes his head, raises his voice, “What the hell are you doing?”

The glass door closes with a click. Becker wide-eyed lets out a little half-laugh.

“I, um. Hey.”

Becker turns so sharply a pen tumbles from behind one of his ears and he nearly drops the clipboard trying to catch it. “Jesus,” he says. Guthrie’s standing there, black jeans, a black T-shirt that says Gutshot Goose. “How the hell long have you been behind me?”

“Well,” says Guthrie. He looks over at the glass doors a moment, then looks back at Becker. “We really ought to talk,” he says.

The woman in the broad straw hat kneels and reaches out to ruffle the grass with her fingers. “Benjamin,” she says. “Come on, Benjamin. What on earth do you think you’re going to do with that?” A yard or so away a little brindle cat squats suspiciously over a mouthful of dull blue feathers and bright black eyes, a beak wide open, white throat beneath it jerking for air. The cat hunkering down stretches a paw out, eyes looking this way, now that. “Benjamin,” says the woman in the straw hat, slapping the grass. She’s wearing dirty white gardening gloves with yellow cuffs. Looking down, the cat opens its mouth tentatively. The bird freezes, its beak still hanging open, its throat now still. Tilting his head the cat finds a new hold about the bird’s shoulders. The bird starts panting again. “You have no idea,” says the woman. “Do you.” Her hair is heavy and long and dark, glossy chains of curls gathered by a simple yellow scrunchie.

“Majesty?” says a tall man in a black suit, leaning over her from behind.

The cat looks up and that’s when the bird kicks loose, its wing-flaps an explosion in the tiny yard, darting and bobbing low over the grass as it looks for a way out, the house to one side, red brick wall close on the other, trees all about, the cat bounding after. The bird arcs up sharply, threading the gap between gate and ivy-draggled arch, banks over the street beyond under lowering trees, back toward the house and up, headed for open sky. Below, the tall man in the black suit bows slightly, his collar a shining ring of white. The Queen one hand on her hat climbs to her feet. The tall man leads the way to the house. Behind them, the cat has circled back from the foot of the gate. Stopping suddenly, he falls to one side, scrubbing his cheek against the grass. He assiduously begins to lick a paw.

The wide-mouthed jar is half full of gold dust. Lines hashed in white ink down the side denote ounces, gills, mutchkins, a thirdendeal. The woman wearing narrow black-rimmed glasses scoops up a spoonful and taps it into a plastic baggie on one plate of a small balancing scale. A man in a soft blue suit watches over her shoulder, his white hair matted in long dreadlocks. When the French doors behind them open with a creak, he turns. “Majesty,” he says, ducking his head in a brief bow.

“We are always pleased to see the grandson of Count Pinabel,” says the Queen, tugging the gloves from her hands.

He smiles. “You’ve heard the venue’s been announced for Duke Barganax’ hunt?” Behind him, the woman in the black-rimmed glasses plucks the filled baggie from the scale, twisting it closed.

“Of course,” says the Queen. “I’d like a glass of water,” she says, settling herself on the long white sofa.

“Grandfather wonders what is to be done.” He glances down at the baggie held up for his approval and nods crisply. The woman in the black-rimmed glasses tosses the baggie to the other man standing by her table, who catches it in the armload of little baggies crinkling against his chest. His dark blue suit is tight across his shoulders.

“Done?” says the Queen. She leans forward, plucking up a slice of lemon, twisting it into a tall glass of ice water. “What would you have us do, Sir Axehandle? It is our sister’s demesne. It is the Duke’s hunt. We trust he has seen to the necessary precautions. What shall we do, Agravante?” She takes a sip of water. “We shall arrive promptly and enjoy his hospitality. We hope to see you there.”

“Of course,” says Agravante. “Pyrocles will stand for Pinabel in the hunt.”

“Pyrocles,” says the Queen.

The big man nods. “Ma’am.” His long mustaches lend his face a somber air above those crinkling baggies.

“And for yourself and your daughter, ma’am?” says Agravante. “I must say, everyone is eager to see what this Gallowglas you’ve found can do.”

“Indeed,” says the Queen. She sets her water on the table. “This interview has been delightful, Axehandle, but I’m afraid our Chariot has arrived.” There in the doorway by the Majordomo stands Roland, a yellow tie knotted tightly beneath his chin.

“No more need be said, ma’am,” says Agravante. “Pyrocles?” The big man in the dark blue suit leads the way. “Every felicitation, ma’am.”

“Our best to the Count. Anna, if you would also – ?”

The woman in the black-rimmed glasses screws the lid back on the wide-mouthed jar and follows them out. The Majordomo closes the doors as he leaves.

“How is our Gallowglas?” asks the Queen.

“Majesty,” says Roland, stepping forward, leaning against the back of the long white sofa, “she means well. I would never doubt her heart.”

“But,” says the Queen.

“She does not understand, ma’am. What must be done, and how. She cannot take the field.”

“So that you might take her place?”

Roland draws back. “You wound me, ma’am,” he says, quietly. “If there is the chance she might embarrass us by her presence, then she must embarrass us with her absence.”

“You heard Pinabel,” says the Queen. “They all expect to hunt with a Gallowglas. They’ll be disappointed if they can’t.”

“Erne says there is nothing he can teach to someone who won’t learn, ma’am,”

“Really?” says the Queen. She looks at him, then, her eyes dark, her face expressionless. “It’s you they’ll blame, Chariot. Say you’re jealous of a girl who beat you by turning her back. You’re afraid to take the field with a Gallowglas.” She holds up a hand as he opens his mouth to speak. “You wear your pride so openly. Out where anyone might strike it. I can’t have you wounding yourself on every pointed remark.”

“That will not happen, ma’am,” says Roland. “Your pride and honor I place before my own.”

The Queen stands. “See that you do,” she says.

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N.Y.C. Shanty” performed by Danny Wilson, writer and copyright holder unknown.