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Down by the Ice Rink – a Side-bet – a Roomful of Gentry – Her honor – the Very Air –

Down by the ice rink it’s quiet. Differing songs float down through the big central atrium, a guitar, the fiddle, a flute off away somewhere, the slap of a drum not keeping time with any of them. Guthrie’s looking up one wing of the mall and down the other but potted trees and dead escalators and kiosks muffled under dust covers make it hard to see very far. “It was supposed to be a city within the city,” someone says, and he jumps.

There’s this woman next to him, swaddled in three or four skirts in muddy colors and a couple of sweaters under a grubby orange rain shell. “I’m just waiting,” Guthrie says. “Looking for a friend of mine. They’re both – just a minute ago. They were here. He was. No idea it was so late. I.” She’s laughing. Guthrie’s starting to grin. “What?”

“It’s fun, sneaking in,” she says. Her eyes are bright and blue and her hair is lost under a confetti-colored cap. “Like they don’t know.”

“It’s not what we were,” says Guthrie, looking up at the food court. Someone’s yelling. The fiddle’s stopped. “Not what he was expecting, anyway. I’m, uh. Kinda looking forward.”

“It should have been twenty-one storeys,” she’s saying, “just like the Waldorf-Astoria. What’s the Midnight Disease?” She’s pointing at his T-shirt. Her fingerless glove is yellow and spotted with red unravelling stars.

“A band,” he says. “Waldorf-Astoria?”

But she’s looking up at the food court. “We should get up there before they let it out.” There’s another shout, and a crash, metal against metal. “Your friends are probably up there already.” Clangs, now, up there, one after another.

“I hope not,” says Guthrie, and then, “Let what out?”

Orlando leans forward, feet braced, his Japanese sword in one hand down and back. Pyrocles facing him holds his greatsword one hand on the long pommel below the hilt, the other gripping the blade above, where it’s wrapped in ruddy leather. He steps back, then forth, boots squeaking. “What possible reason?” says Pyrocles.

“You presume I might confront you without one,” says Orlando. “That alone is reason enough.” Pyrocles swings once, twice, great looping cuts. Orlando ducks the first and parries the second, his sword scraping into a slice that forces Pyrocles back, back toward the balcony railing, knocking a chair out of the way.

“Shall I get him?” says Gaveston in the Duke’s ear.

“Get who?” says the Duke, and then, “No. Fuck.”

“Do not play with me, boy!” roars Pyrocles, kicking another chair at Orlando who runs back, away, jumping up on a table as Pyrocles follows the chair with a sword thrust at Orlando leaping up and over, skirt flapping, sword slashing Pyrocles’ back.

“Without Jo,” says Gaveston.

“Enough,” says the Duke. “There’s enough in play already. No need to spoil our surprise for a side bet.”

Pryocles twisting catches the next slash with his greatsword like a bar in both hands shoving Orlando over and back off his feet, rolling as Pyrocles shatters a line of tile with a blow.

“Call off your man,” says Agravante. He’s there behind the Duke in his pale pink suit, his long white scarf, his pale, pale dreadlocks gathered in a stiff sheaf at the back of his head.

“The Mooncalfe is no one’s man,” says the Duke without turning.

Another great booming blow and another, tumbling tables in a flurry of dust and chips of tile.

“Call him off, dammit. I’ll not have our huntsman compromised by your silly games.”

“Call him off yourself,” says the Duke. “He’ll be done in but a moment.”

Pyrocles lifting his greatsword for another blow eyes widening as Orlando isn’t rolling but lunging forward not back, up from the floor his sword in both hands curling in a flash through Pyrocles’ chest to burst from his back.

“There,” says the Duke. “All yours, Axehandle.” He leans toward Gaveston. “Make sure,” he says, quietly, “we get someone to fix the floor before we go.”

Pyrocles, wincing, sees Agravante as Orlando yanks free his blade. “Sorry, milord,” he says.

Roland jerks upright as with a rustle of black skirts the Queen steps from the bathroom into the long dim hall. He touches his knuckles to his forehead. She nods once, and heads past him down the hall toward the food court.

Ysabel steps out. Candles in paper bags along the floor light up a flurry of sparks from the beads coiling about her belled ivory skirts, along the trailing points of her sleeves. She stands there a moment, her eyes shadowed, her face still. A trumpet’s sounding out in the atrium.

“I said what I did,” says Roland, “to keep her safe. I – ” But she’s shaking her head. “You should know,” she says, heading past him, down the hall, “I would never give you another chance.”

He shoulders his spear and then he follows her, down the hall, toward the food court.

“Friends and neighbors, gentles all!” booms a voice out there. “Your Queen! Your Princess!”

Pyrocles sits on a spindly plastic chair on the far side of the food court, leaning forward on his knees, head down, grey mustaches drooping from his grey and haggard face. He’s shirtless. The wound in his back is ragged, wet and red. He holds a red plastic cup to the wound in his chest, a puckered maw oozing something white and thick. “Christ,” says Jo, and he starts. “This is somehow my fault, isn’t it.”

“He drew the sword,” says Pyrocles. “I lost my temper. I see no part for your apology to play.”

She kneels beside him. “Let me hold that.”

“That’s for a page to do,” he says, and she says, “You think I give a good goddamn?” and he doesn’t stop her hand from taking the cup. With her other hand she starts to worry at a shoulder-buckle holding breastplate to backplate. “Even if this is the stupidest fucking piece of armor ever.”

He’s smiling, somewhere beneath his mustaches. “So Roland will hunt in your stead, and Marfisa in mine.” Away off in the middle of the food court, the Duke addresses the crowd, arms wide, Roland to one side, his left arm sheathed in a great steel gauntlet, Marfisa to the other in a shimmering minidress like metalled water, greaves of pink bronze strapped to her thighs and calves, a glaive held loosely in one hand.

“Throw Orlando in the mix,” says Jo, “and I’m definitely rooting for the boar.” She’s staring at the stuff seeping from his wound like spun honey, glimmers of gold in milky drops that fall, slowly, into the cup.

“He wouldn’t hunt,” says Pyrocles. “Not even for the Duke. I wonder,” he says, closing his eyes. He touches two fingers to the wound on his chest. “I wonder who.”

The Duke smiles. “I must say I am disappointed,” he says for all to hear, looking from Roland to the Queen. “At this last-minute substitution. Can it be you do not trust me, ma’am?”

“Do not flatter yourself, Southeast,” says the Queen. Ysabel beside her, looking at the floor. “Introduce your huntsman. Let’s get started.”

Pyrocles shakes his head slowly, mustaches wagging. “His Grace’s usual henchmen aren’t about.” He opens his eyes. “The Dagger, the Helm. The Mason.”

“Becker?” says Jo, eyes wide.

“Well,” bellows the Duke, “I know we all hoped to see a hunt with a real Gallowglas on the field. And you all know how I hate to let you down.” The crowd cheers.

Pyrocles, frowning, looks over his shoulder. There’s Becker in his red and green plaid shirt. “I’ve been looking all over for you,” he says. “Did you know he’s here?”

“What the hell are you doing here?’ says Jo. And then she looks over at the center of the court, where the Duke with a flourish bellows, “I give you, friends and neighbors, the huntsman for Southeast – my very own Gallowglas!”

A clatter, a squeak of metal. Titters, rippling through the crowd. A scuffle, and Frankie’s pushed out stiff-legged before them all by a boy in a tight brown suit. Frankie grins as laughter blooms all around him. Stovepipes clamped about his legs. His cuirass a plastic garbage lid in back, a great stainless-steel pot lid before. A colander for a helm. In one hand an iron poker, wobbling in time with his bobbing head.

“Hold this,” says Jo. After a moment, Becker reaches out to take the cup. She stands, her shoulder-strap loose, her cuirass cracked open, breastplate sagging. Her hand on the hilt of her épée.

“Jo,” says Pyrocles. “He means to mock. He wants you angry.”

“And now!” cries the Duke. “If you will follow me to the railings and direct your attention to the ground floor so very far below!” The crowd rushes all across the court, up the stairs, roiling about Frankie turning dizzily in place to be taken in hand by the boy in the brown suit. He drags Frankie with him toward the dead escalators, after Marfisa, after Roland.

“You walk into a roomful of gentry,” Jo says to herself. “Full of nothing. Like that.” Looks back at them. “Becker. Can you stay here, with him?”

“What are you going to do?” says Becker.

“I don’t know,” she says, walking away. “Nothing stupid.”

“You don’t need to stay with me,” says Pyrocles.

“It’s okay,” says Becker, looking at the cup he’s holding. “You’re hurt.” Blinking, then, at the wound above it. “Good Lord!” he says. “What happened?”

“I’m a knight,” says Pyrocles. “The Anvil. My name is Pyrocles.”

“Becker,” says Becker. “I manage a phone bank.”

“I give you, friends and neighbors, our quarry!” The Duke, leaning out over the empty atrium, pointing to the floor below as lights thunk to life down there. “The boar, Erymathos!”

“How many heads?” says Roland, stepping slowly down the dead escalator to the second floor. Cheers ring out from the balconies around the atrium. From the first floor below, a grunting roar, a hurried clip-clop-clip-clop-clip.

“One,” says Marfisa, just ahead of him.

“Venom?” says Roland. “Ichor? Flame?”

“Just a foul temper,” says Marfisa. “His bristled back like a forest of spears. And really big tusks.” The crowd on the second floor has left a corridor clear between the escalator up and the escalator down. Marfisa steps out into it, spinning her glaive above her head, kneeling into a swooping lunge and cut. Sets the glaive to one side, adjusting the buckle of a greave. From below, a tremendous crash, a squeal of triumph.

“You won’t take a cuirass?” says Roland.

She looks sidelong up at him with a wry smile. “Nor you, neither?”

He shrugs, the massive steel gauntlet settling with a clank. “I’ll rush him first, drive him back, then work around and run him up to you for the finish.”

“Simple,” she says, grabbing her glaive. “Direct.” Standing up.

“And no quibbling over who gets the kill.”

“Oh, it’s a joint effort, to be sure.”

“The Anvil is a fool,” says Roland.

She shakes her head. “The Mooncalfe is provocative. What’s your excuse?”

He looks away. “A promise.” He points back up the escalator. “And him?”

“Hope he stays the hell out of the way,” says Marfisa.

Frankie’s clattering down the escalator, led by the boy in the brown suit as laughter washes away the claps and cheers. “Hell of a,” says Frankie, a big smile smeared across his face. “An escalator,” he says, as he follows the boy off the last step. “Never seen one that couldn’t move. Wow.”

“Don’t even fucking think about it,” says the boy, leaning in close to Marfisa and Roland. “Don’t fucking think about offering me fucking fiat paper or valuta or fee fucking simple to keep this fucker off the field.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” says Roland, quietly.

“How dare you suggest otherwise,” says Marfisa, smiling.

“I, um,” says the boy. “I mean. Fuck.”

“What’s that?” says Frankie, grinning.

“Besides,” says Roland, “I think they’d notice, up there. If he weren’t on the field.”

“That clomping noise?” says Frankie. “Like boots? What is that?”

“Fine,” says the boy, scowling. “Fuck it.” He gives Frankie a shove toward the escalator down to the first floor. “Wait,” says Roland. “I’m first.”

Cheers erupt again as Roland spear in hand marches past Frankie to the top of the second escalator. He lifts the spear over his head and the crowd begins to roar, and he throws back his head and roars with them, a deep-throated booming call that swamps the crowd-noise, echoing throughout the atrium. An answering squeal from below, the clip-clop becoming a sudden hailstorm of hoofbeats. Roland lowers his spear and runs down the escalator, taking the stalled steps two at a time.

“Let go,” says Jo.

“No,” says Ysabel.

They’re at the back of the food court crowd, near the first escalator. No one’s looking at them; they’re all leaning over the railings to see what can be seen below.

“You said,” says Jo. “You said he wouldn’t pull anything. That this was just going to be what it was. A hunt in your – ”

“Stop it,” says Ysabel. “Your honor,” says Jo. “Stop it,” says Ysabel. She’s holding Jo’s right hand in both of hers and she pulls Jo stumbling close. Their hands trapped between Jo’s white cuirass, Ysabel’s beaded gown. “Do not throw his lies and his deception in my face.” She leans her forehead against Jo’s. “This is all the Duke’s doing, and none of mine.”

“I didn’t,” says Jo. From below a growl and another crash, monumental, metal twanging, glass cascading, Roland yelling something, the crowd about them taking in one deep murmuring breath.

“And there is nothing you can do,” says Ysabel.

“Then tell me,” says Jo, leaning back, leaning away. “Tell me he can’t get hurt. Tell me it’s against the rules. Tell me it’s only a game.”

“You,” says Ysabel, and then she stops, and then she starts again. “You are impossible, Jo Maguire.”

Jo doesn’t say anything.

“What is he to you?” says Ysabel.

The lights go out. All of them: faint lights deep inside locked stores, safety lights under soffits, the dim sparks left glowing in the big lamps hanging from the rafters far above. Candles snuffed and torches guttered as if they’d never been lit. The crowd shuffling, crying out in a dozen voices, a hundred of shock and alarm and fear. More glass breaks below. Hoofbeats falter and stop. A flash of light, blue-white, everything lit up for an instant and plunged away, and more screams and cries and yells for everyone else to remain calm.

“Her eyes like stars,” says Ysabel. “Her hands of iron. The hair of her head hanging down to the ground.” Another flash of light, flickering now, solidifying into something cold and pale, far below, throwing outrageous shadows up along the walls and storefronts, the rafters and bridges, great black shifting bodiless things with monstrous heads and grasping hands around and above them all.

“What?” says Jo. There’s a piercing wail from below, as thin and pale as the light. “Who?” says Jo.

“She has nineteen names,” says Ysabel.

“Erymathos!” cries the woman standing in the middle of the ice rink. She is wrapped in a long black cloak that she holds shut at her throat. Its folds and tatters are caught along with her snarled black hair in the winds that whirl about her. In her other hand she holds a gnarled grey stick, smooth and dull as driftwood, its tip a spark of blue-white light too bright to look upon. A shriek of grinding metal as clip-clop from the darkness beyond the ice rink comes the boar, up to the low wall about the ice rink. A bent and ragged store-front grate hangs from one great tusk. Glass glitters in the ruff behind the blocky wedge of his head. He lays his snout on the wall, and black blood drips to the ice and smokes there.

“Who has done this?” cries the woman on the ice in that harsh, scraping voice, and the shadows above them all leap and shiver. “Who called you out of sleep and left you stranded in this place?”

“He came of his own choice,” calls the Duke, from above.

“You!” cries the woman on the ice, pointing her stick at him, lighting him up as he leans over the balcony, the shadows suddenly thick behind him. “He is a simple beast, Barganax. Much as yourself. I smell my sister, here.”

“We are guests of the Duke,” calls down the Queen, over across the atrium from the Duke. “This hunt is of his devising. If he truly did not seek your approval of field and quarry, in this your demesne, we offer our sympathies, and gladly take your part in the quarrel.” Out of the darkness away across from the boar comes Roland without his spear, the length of his steel gauntlet stained a bluish black. Marfisa follows him, limping, dragging her glaive along the floor.

“It is true, ma’am, that I am simple,” says the Duke. “I plead simplicity. Of course we shall call off the hunt, and my man on the field stands forfeit.”

“Which is your man,” cries the woman on the ice, as the crowd all about mutters and gasps. “Which is your man?”

“Why,” calls down the Duke, “my Gallowglas.”

Wailing the woman spins on the ice, thrusting her stick at the darkness all about her. “Where? Where? You would use a mortal man to hunt my splendid Erymathos, and send him down to dust? Show him to me!” And the light finds Frankie, cowering against the side of the escalator, his colandered head in his hands. “You!” cries the woman on the ice. “You! Stand up! I would crack open your ribs and set the very air free from your lungs!”

“The hell you will,” says Jo Maguire.

She’s stepping down the dead escalator to the first floor, her épée in her right hand high and pointed at the woman on the ice. “Frankie’s under my protection,” she says.

“Is he,” says the woman on the ice.

“Him,” says Jo, crossing the floor to the low wall about the ice rink, “and her.” She points the sword up and behind her, then levels it at the woman on the ice. “The Princess. Ysabel. Anybody else in here you want, you’re welcome to them. But you so much as give either of them a fucking goosebump, I’ll stick you with this.”

The woman on the ice says nothing, stands stock still, her stick and its bright light pointed at Jo.

“I’m the other Gallowglas,” says Jo. “From what I’ve seen, that’s about all it takes. Right?”

The mall is silent, still. Even the shadows hung on the walls about them hold still for two long breaths, then three. The woman on the ice lowers her stick. From somewhere a quiet sound grows louder, a creak, a crackling groan. She’s smiling. She’s lifting her head. Not looking away from Jo, she’s started to laugh.

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