Marisol de la Espada
“Where will you go?”
The night was very dark. Clouds had come to obscure the stars and moon, and Diego’s face was barely discernible. Marisol said nothing. Instead she watched the road.
“Where will you go?” Diego asked again.
“You should go home,” Marisol said. “Go back to your family.”
Diego was silent. She could barely see his face in the dark, only the black bruise that crawled across his cheekbone.
“I’m sorry I hit you,” she said.
“You should be,” Diego said. “I was trying to help you. Probably, I saved your life.” He spread his hands. “I suppose that makes us even. I will go home, you will go…elsewhere.”
“Granada,” said Marisol. “Most of the Prussians are in Granada. He will be there.”
“And then what? What do you think you’re going to do? He’s surrounded by an army, an army of monsters. He is the only man I have ever seen the Maestro afraid of. What do you think you’re going to do to him?”
Marisol shrugged. “I’m going to kill him.”
“I don’t know.”
Diego said nothing. In the distance, very far to the east, a very faint green light tinged the clouds. At first, Marisol thought she imagined it, but as she watched it grew stronger. She turned to Diego.
“You were always kind to me, Diego. You’re a good man. You deserve a life in which you can be happy. Go to Salamanca. Become a lawyer or a priest or a poet. Go somewhere far away, and forget about me, forget about all of this.”
“Hah. You killed my fencing master. I am probably not going to forget.”
“Well, then remember it, but remember it from far away.”
Diego looked out at the green light. It hovered behind the distant clouds on the horizon, like a second, foreign sun, come from some strange and sickly world, a blighted world grown fat on poisoned light.
“I will go with you,” he said at last.
“You are very foolish, it is true, and likely to get yourself killed, of that I have no doubt. But you have no plan, no strategy. Perhaps if I come with you, you will have a better chance, however still remote, of killing your enemy.”
“No,” said Marisol, “please. This is nothing to do with you. You don’t owe me anything—“
“We’re friends, Marisol—“
“We’re not friends.” Marisol shook her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t have any friends. There is no room in my heart for them.”
Diego snorted. “Fine. Fine, then. I will just go to Granada on my own.”
“I can go where I like. You’re not the king. You’re not my master. I will go to Granada, and if I happen to take the same road as you, so what? A strange coincidence, but the world is very big, and stranger things have coincided.”
“You are a fool.”
Diego shrugged. “I think that is my business, stranger with whom I happen to share the road. It is very rude to make judgments about people you don’t know. You don’t see me calling you foolish.”
“You just did that, ten second ago.”
“Well, you probably deserved it.”
“Augh. Fine. Do what you want.” She hefted her sword and took to the road. It was a long, long road to Granada, but there were no horses, and no carts, and no flying ships or iron dragons. If she had to walk, she saw no sense in waiting. She attacked the road with long strides. Diego hurried after her.
There was a shadow limned by the green light, so small and far away that it was almost impossible to make out. But Marisol found that if she squinted, she could just see the shape of towers, the outline of a castle against that dim and malevolent sun.
“My father told me,” Diego said, “that when a man begins a journey of revenge, he should dig two graves.”
Marisol slung her sword over her shoulders. “I think I’ll need more than that.”
Sword, she needed her sword. He was here, the man was here. She was out the servants’ door of the house and the long way around to the barn, while Maestro Lope and the man with the red right hand stood at the road. He was here, here without his men, without Toledo guards keeping her from him. Unprotected and vulnerable this, this was her chance.
Marisol tore through the fresh hay in the barn until she found the weapon in its burlap sack. She pulled it free just as a heavy weight crashed into her from the side and bore her to the ground.
“You can’t, you can’t,” it was Diego, whispering furiously as he tried to hold her down. Marisol struggled against him, finally heaving him bodily away and springing to her feet.
Undeterred, Diego leapt at her again, wrapped his arms tight around her, tried to hold her back. “You have to let him, you can’t interfere, Marisol, please listen to me—“
But Marisol saw only red, heard only the pounding of her heart and the blood rushing in her ears.
“—he can’t know the Maestro has students, Marisol, he’ll—“
Marisol flung herself and Diego with her against the wall. The impact drove out Diego’s breath and he gasped for air, slackening his grip and falling to the ground. A third time, Marisol made for the door, and a third time Diego tried to stop her, this time jumping onto her back and getting an arm nearly around her throat.
“Look, look at them,” Diego pleaded in her ear, “look how the Maestro plays the fool, how he leaves his sword to lie on the ground—“
Marisol saw nothing she pulled free of Diego and finally punched him in the jaw with one heavy fist. The force of the blow sent him staggering back into the hay, where he collapsed. Marisol set the point of her sword against his throat; Diego was too stunned to move.
“I. Will. Kill. You.” Marisol said, all fire beneath her skin. If Diego spoke or moved, she didn’t see it. Her eyes were turned to the road, where the man with the red right hand was returning to his bronze horse, turning away and disappearing into the night.
She ran towards him and drew breath to scream only to feel Maestro Lope’s shoulder collide with her stomach, send her coughing and sprawling to the ground.
“DO NOTHING!” He commanded. “Say nothing! Your life depends on it!”
The man with the red right hand was escaping. He was alone and vulnerable and she could kill him now, she saw her mother’s dead face, her glassy eyes, she saw the blood on the grass, she could kill him now, but he was getting away.
“Let me go,” she said. “Let me go after him.”
“No. You will not. You will not tell him you are my student,” Maestro Lope insisted.
Marisol stood and scanned the dark and distant road for any sign of the man, but it was too late. He was gone.
She screamed with rage.
“That man is dangerous. He cannot know—“
“That is the man who murdered my mother,” Marisol shouted at him. “That is the man who I mean to kill.”
“No,” Maestro Lope shook his head. “No, no you cannot.”
“Why do you think I even came to you? It is only so I can kill him.”
“No. No student of mine will fight him. I will not let you.”
“Let me?” Marisol snapped. She saw where the Maestro’s sword lay in the grass, the consequence of whatever groveling pantomime he had performed for the man with the red right hand. Marisol kicked the sword over to him. “You do not have to let me. You cannot stop me.”
“You don’t understand—“
“You are a fat, drunken fool,” Marisol said. “You are old and weak, and you’re scared of him because you are a coward.”
The Maestro’s face turned red, and his beetle-brows crowded close above his eyes. He picked up his sword. “Arrogant girl. I am your master—“
Whatever else he would say was lost, as Marisol took the long chords to cross the circle of his sword, her weapon flashing its sharp edge at his cheek and wrist, snapping away at his knee. Their swords clashed; the Maestro was not fast, but he seemed to know cut and thrust that Marisol prepared before she made them, bringing his sword to bear in the nick of time.
One thrust slapped away from his knee, the Maestro slapped her across the face with the flat of his weapon. The pain, just along the scar that the man with the red right hand had left her, was intense, but she ignored it. Instead, she thrust again, moving to the outside of his guard, trying to push him off balance. She feinted high, then low, then high again, but the Maestro caught her sword.
Their weapons were connected, no long two separate instruments, but a silver cord hung between them, here he pushed and she pulled back, there she pushed and controlled his sword, then the Maestro regained control, sent her point away, slapped at her wrist.
Marisol snatched her hand away unscathed, and then redoubled her efforts. Her sword was fast and vicious, never giving quarter or room for breath, a torrent of blows falling on the Maestro. But if Marisol was a raging river, the Maestro was an immovable boulder, a heavy stone that no river could dislodge. Each thrust and cut was diverted, her rage spent and wasted.
She thrust at last at his face, no longer conscious of the scream that pealed from her throat. Maestro parried and bound her sword, twisting it away as he had so often before. The pain in her wrist was excruciating as it bent against muscle and tendon, but the fury in her soul had made her strong. She clutched the weapon with a death-grip, and despite the agony as she held on, she did not let go. Instead, she stepped in and threw her shoulder against her teacher.
Maestro Lope took the blow and stepped back, and Marisol followed with another cut and another, as fast and hard as she could, raining them down like the hammer in her smithy. Maestro Lope stumbled as he stepped back again, his flush face revealing how the alcohol had compromised his balance. Marisol cut and slashed again, her sword a wild fury now.
One blow landed close to his throat, and the Maestro caught it again, and again they were connected. Marisol felt herself boil away from her body, felt her limbs move along of their own accord, felt the weapons tied together by combat or by fate. The Maestro moved her point away, his own sword in line to bite deep into her wrist. She could see it all happening, and knew there was nothing to be done about it, the swords and hands and feet and bodies would all take their own path, and she would lose her hand.
Until the Maestro, by misfortune or by drink, by uneven ground or grass still damp from the last night’s rain, slipped. His back foot gave way, and the power of his bind was broken. Marisol regained control of the weapons and brought her own point to bear.
For a moment, all the world stopped, and Marisol saw before her a hundred futures. She saw herself one day opening her own school, and teaching the Destreza to her own students. She saw a life with Diego, in which they married and had children. She saw herself returning alone to the smithy, saw lives of comfort and contentment, some lives of happiness, some of sadness, saw so many paths laid out before her. But they all turned away, and she would not.
Her futures escaped, a flock of birds taking to wing, flying off into the night with the sound of rushing wind, as her sword, bound by the inexorable laws of the path she had chosen, every step aligned for this moment, followed Maestro Lope’s sword around as he fell, then sank deep into his chest.
“Come. Come on, Marisol.” Diego tugged at her sleeve. “We have to leave here. We have to go now.”
Marisol stared at the ground where Maestro lay, her sword still inside him. He had whispered something to her, with his very last breath. Diego had appeared and wailed, disappeared and returned again. Marisol’s body felt too small for her mind, which was suspended beyond the reach of skin and nerves.
“We cannot stay here, Marisol.” Diego said again.
She could only stare. This was the second corpse she had seen in a year, and this was a man that she had killed. A man who had done no wrong but tried to protect her, had committed no crime but tried to teach her. And she had killed him.
Diego drew Marisol’s sword from the Maestro’s body and wiped it off, sheathed it, returned it to its sack. He had brought coats and satchels from somewhere, had gathered up food.
“Marisol, we have to go.”
Marisol stood transfixed by the enormity of what she had done, still turning over the Maestro’s last words as Diego led her away, took her by the arm and fairly dragged her down the road.
He’d had just enough breath to speak before his eyes became as still as stones.
“We can’t stay,” Diego said, leaving Maestro Lope’s body for the foxes and the crows. There would soon be nothing left but his words. “Come on, Marisol.”
“You cannot,” the Maestro had said before he died. “You cannot kill the man with the red right hand.”
Marisol’s stunned shuffle became a run as Diego dragged her along.
“No one can kill him.”
Marisol slept for some few hours , tucked away beneath a crooked house that sheltered her from most of the rain. She awoke cold, with her bones aching, just as the clouds gave way to the very earliest rays of the sun. Rag-pickers and bone men were already about, scraping through the trash and offal of the streets, hunting for anything of value in the city’s effluvium. It would not be long before the markets sprang to life, and the city would shake with the musical din of commerce.
She left the city by the Sun Gate, as sluggish guards drew open its great doors. She grit her teeth as she passed through the Prussian camp, already noisy with the sounds of early morning, and replete with the smells of roasting meat.
Marisol took the road to the Maestro’s estate, sometimes walking, sometimes moved by some inexpressible energy to jog. She felt a sense of imminence, a certainty that something important was about to happen, though she could not say what. Her mind occasionally wandered back to the events of the night previous, the memories of which seemed to have already faded into dream. Had she really seen a man become a beast? Had she truly met sorcerers from the Cabal? She was sure she had, and yet the image of Udo’s twisting claws and Sulayman’s white beard receded farther away, slipped through her mind like water over smooth stones.
She did not remember that she’d seen a fox at all, until it appeared before her again, some distance down the road, staring at her with unblinking eyes, before darting off into the grass. And even this event was forgotten nearly as soon as it occurred. Marisol felt that she was in a half-dreaming state, where the laws of nature were all overturned, and the only sure things were what lay right before her sleepy mind: the warm sun, the hard road, the heavy sword across her shoulders.
It was late afternoon when Marisol came to the Maestro Lope’s estate, and she was not surprised to find it was quiet. Rachel was nowhere to be found, and after she could not locate Diego in his usual haunts (the kitchen, reading in the Maestro’s study, scrawling bad poetry in the shelter of the fallen guest-house), Marisol began to feel sick. Diego and Rachel had run, at her urgings, and the beast-man had followed her. Surely they had escaped? Surely they had managed to make it out of the city and back home?
Marisol left her sword in the barn and began to conduct a frantic search of the tumbled down buildings of the estate, all the while her mind conjuring more elaborate deaths for her friends. They had been set upon by bandits on the road. By wolves on the road. Worse, by Prussians, who brought a pack of wolves along with them like hunting dogs, or by Prussians who themselves transformed into wolves, with slavering jaws and fevered eyes—
She found Diego in the barn, where they conducted fencing practice. Diego was practicing the short chords of the Destreza – quick steps to the side and back, small shifts in the position of his body. He looked bored and tired.
“Marisol!” He cried when he saw her. He dropped his sword and ran to her, catching her in a fierce hug. “Marisol, you’re alive!”
“We thought, when you didn’t catch us up, we thought you were dead! Why would you do that? Why did you do that! You didn’t have to, you shouldn’t have, I mean, Marisol, Marisol!”
“All right,” Marisol said, disentangling herself. “All right, I am alive, we’re all alive. Aren’t we? Where is Rachel?”
“Ah…” Diego grimaced. “At her uncle’s house. There are…she’s…hm.”
Marisol sighed with relief, unaware until that moment just how tense she’d been. Rachel was all right, Diego was all right. Everything was fine. “What is this,” Marisol asked, indicating Diego’s fallen sword. “You never practice on your own.”
“Well,” Diego said, as he picked up the sword and leaned it against the wall. “When I thought you were dead, it occurred to me that I had…a sort of an obligation, I think, to…I was honor bound to…respond in some way…”
“You were going to avenge me?”
Diego shrugged. “Maybe not right away.”
“Hence the practice.”
Diego shrugged again. “Listen, have you…have you seen Maestro Lope, yet?”
Diego’s face was very pale. “He…he knows that we…he knows what we did. And he…will want to see you.”
“He is angry?” Marisol asked quietly.
Diego nodded. “He is away right now. He should be back tonight.”
Marisol waited for Maestro Lope outside the main house. The day grew dim, and as the light faded, her sense of impending doom increased. The suspense built to a fever pitch, flopping around in her stomach like a dying fish, twitching in her hands and fingers. She couldn’t sit still, but her legs shook if she tried to walk. Her body was torn by the sense that she must do something, and the surety that there was nothing to do. The stillness was unbearable.
Maestro Lope returned just as the sun disappeared and the black sky flickered with stars. He came down from the road and paused before the house, looking at Marisol with his fearsome eyes, so incongruous in his soft, toad-like face, then curtly nodded his head that she should precede him inside.
He did not speak until they were in his study.
“Do you know,” the Maestro growled, his voice very low, “How long I have stayed safe here?”
“No?” Marisol said, her voice equally soft.
“From the Prussians and the Medicis, from the crown, from the Cabal,” the Maestro’s voice was slurred, and Marisol saw that he carried a bottle with him. The acrid smell of brandy pricked at her nose. “My family has owned this land for longer than history records, and I have to play to every new petty lord who wants to take it.” He drained the last dregs of his bottle and threw it across the room, where it shattered to pieces on the wall. “This is MY LAND. This is MY HOME. And they think they can take it from me.”
He leaned n very close to her, poisoned the air with his sour breath. Marisol was determined not to back away, but stared him straight in the eye.
“So I have to paint the almadels on my walls, I have to tell the crown I am loyal to them, I have to grovel before the Medici in their castles, I have to lick the boots of every Prussian knight who stops at my door. And I do this. I do it because even though I have pride in myself, I have pride in my family, and my father’s legacy, and for him, I do this. I grovel. I kneel. I live in squalor, but I do what I must.”
“No!” The Maestro snapped. “You do not speak to me. You have brought them down on me—“
“Be quiet!” The Maestro slapped Marisol across the face, the violence so sudden and unexpected that she heard it before she felt the sting on her cheek, felt her teeth clench and her hands curl into heavy fists before she realized what had happened. “Diego is an idiot, and I expected no more from him. But you. You have nothing to do with him. What could possess you to follow that fool on his errand?”
Marisol opened her mouth, but found that her words were caught in her throat.
“He knows about us now,” the Maestro hissed. “He knows. Leave me, now, and I will decide tomorrow if I will still instruct you.”
“No,” said Marisol. “No, you can’t send me away—“
“Leave!” Maestro Lope shouted, his hand raised up again, but he hesitated. In the silence, Marisol heard what had caught his attention: hoofbeats. “Stay here,” the Maestro said. “Stay, he has come.”
“I said stay here.” He lurched from the room, unsteady on his feet, the brandy working hard on him.
After a few moments more of anxious waiting, Marisol quietly followed after him. She watched through the front door, opened just a crack, and saw the Maestro on the low hill towards the road, meeting a man on horseback.
The man’s horse was made of bronze, and glinted in the starlight. The man himself was all wrapped in black, except for his right sleeve, which was cut away to reveal a mark that covered his had from elbow to fingertips.
Marisol crept close to the door, staying as close as she could to the tall, dark house that housed the Cabal. The sounds of stirring within the house subsided; all that remained was the faint, distant tapping of water onto metal, somewhere far off. By good fortune, priest and kitchen steward had left the kitchen door unsecured, and a gentle push opened it enough for Marisol to see inside.
The kitchens were dark, lit only by a small candle. They were empty, except for the steward, who had gone back to dozing on his stool. He did not seem very alert, but Marisol supposed it wasn’t precisely his job to guard the kitchens. He wasn’t a soldier, just an old man there to point the way to the pheasants if someone was hungry.
As softly as she could, Marisol pushed her way into the kitchen. The breath of her passing made the candlelight flicker as she closed the door. She considered the room in the barely-sufficient light: the larder was stocked full with hanging game. Some wilted vegetables were piled high on the counters. There were jars and pots filled with salt and ground black and white and red pepper. The steward remained still, ensconced even deeper in his stony slumber.
Where now, Marisol wondered? Her eyes lit on a small, narrow staircase in a corner of the room. The backstair, Sulayman had said. It led to the master’s quarters, but they never used it. Had he meant…? Sure it was just a warning? Or else…
Marisol selected one jar from the kitchen pantry and made her way up the narrow staircase. It twisted around in a tight circle, and she paused to let her eyes grow accustomed to the dark. On the upper floor, there was only the warm yellow glow spilling out from beneath one of the doors. Voices murmured behind it. Marisol moved closer.
“—how she got out. Perhaps your wards were insufficiently applied.” Sulayman’s voice.
“You malign me, brother,” another man’s voice. “You know full well there’s nothing wrong with the wards.”
“Whoever’s fault it was, we need to recapture her,” a third man spoke. “If she’s disrupted the Crown’s alliance—“
“The Cabal’s mandate has nothing to do with politics.” Sulayman again. “She’s not a devil and nothing to do with the Medicis—“
“Are you sure about that?” The second man asked, his voice deathly quiet.
Marisol peered through the keyhole and blinked at the light. The room was filled with orange candles, perched on tall golden candelabras. Sulayman stood at the far end of the room, by a small window. The other two men sat in heavy chairs, turned towards him. Marisol could not see their faces, but she could hear the tension in their voices. Her sword rested on the floor by the chairs. It was stuffed back into the burlap sack, which was something marvelous: Marisol could not remember bringing the sack with her, though she supposed she must have, must have kept it clenched in her free hand while she fought.
“The Crown’s problems with Prussia are its own,” Sulayman said, turning to look out the window. “We have our mandate.”
Now was her chance, Marisol realized. There was no room for hesitation. She softly opened the door and, in a low crouch, crept towards where her sword lay.
“You’re a fool then, Sulayman. Our mandate comes from the Crown. Do you think Philip won’t revoke our charter in a heartbeat, won’t dissolve the Cabal itself…?”
Her fingers outsretched, Marisol just managed to catch a hold of the brown sack.
“He wouldn’t dare,” said Sulayman. He turned back, and his eyes met Marisol’s.
Marisol froze. Sulayman’s eyes widened, ever so slightly.
“Castille…all of Spain would fall without us.” He took a small step to the left, drawing his brethren’s eyes farther away. “He may hate us, he may want to see Samuel and I shipped off to the Seven Nations or to Songhai, but he knows that he cannot protect his nation without us.”
Marisol took up her sword and slowly backed away towards the door.
“Without the Cabal,” the third man insisted. “Not without us in particular. Our kind are rare, but not irreplaceable, and frankly I’m not sure I’d like to see just how well the Cabal can protect us—“
Marisol had almost reached the door when it swung open and hit her in the back, almost knocking her from her feet.
“Brothers, I just…” the young priest she had seen before trailed off, half in the room, half out.
Marisol stood up. The other two members of the Cabal, both old men with long grey beards, were on their feet staring at her. Sulayman hid his eyes behind his hand.
“Girl,” said the second man. “Girl…what…what is this?”
“Well,” said Marisol. “You see, the truth. Is.” She waited a long moment to see if the sentence, half-formed, would spontaneously generate its missing part, and perhaps her own mind would provide the answer.
When it did not, she kicked over the gold candelabra then threw the jar she’d pinched from the kitchen in the young priest’s face. The jar was full of ground white pepper; the priest yelped with pain and staggered back into the hall, brushing wildly at his face, which of course only serve to further coat him with the spice. Marisol followed, her sword held tight.
Behind her men shouted about fire and slapped at it with their robes, but Marisol ignored them, blundered down the stairs and a second time out through the kitchen, a second time disturbing the poor steward, who must have wondered if he’d have any uninterrupted hours of sleep tonight at all.
She crashed into the alley and, after a moment’s disorientation, headed up the hill towards the Alcázar. At least she recognized that; if she could make her way to it, she could make her way out of the city altogether.
“Girl!” A man shouted at her from the house of the Cabal. Marisol looked back to see one of the old, bearded men framed with light. “Stop where you are, at once!”
He raised his hand, then, and spoke a word in a language that Marisol did not know. Somewhere, distant thunder rumbled, and a soft rain began to fall on the streets of Toledo. Beyond this, nothing happened. The man lifted his hand again and spoke the word a second time. Rain pattered on her hat, but still nothing that she could see.
To his confusion, she shrugged, then turned off and ran. Strange words and incantations followed her down the shimmering, slippery streets, but if they were puissant, their power never took hold, and soon she had left them all behind.
The man with the red right hand was there, his face snarled with hate. His hand severed, bleeding on the floor, and an iron hook emerged from the bloody stump. Thick hair shook out from his shoulders, his mouth was filled with great gnashing teeth. The fox appeared, and the man pursued, they vanished in the labyrinth of the city and overhead soared great castles that screamed like banshees. Marisol tried to follow, but the alleys too narrow, their turns to unpredictable. She could hear the heaving sighs of the bellows in the forge, the regular tap of metal on metal. Sofia was there, waiting for her, angry that Marisol had left, angry that she had been away for so long. The sounds of the forge roared with anger and Marisol felt slick sweat break out on her forehead, felt her stomach contract with fear.
She needed to find Sofia, needed to get back before the work was done, needed to say that she was sorry for leaving, sorry she hadn’t come back sooner, but the streets of Toledo turned her away, again and again, a spiraling labyrinth that offered no escape. The man howled like a wolf, and she was in a tower with a black door. The door creaked open, and a red fox looked back at her, incurious. She looked up, and stood on a city wall, high above a desert, where desiccated hands reached up from the sand like withered plants. A black cloud stained the horizon. The sun had rebelled from the commands of its orbit, and began to drift from its position in the sky.
Marisol woke, and all these images vanished, dissolved like dew in the hot sun, leaving behind nothing but the nagging memory that she’d been thinking something important just a second before. Somewhere, far away, water dripped into a tin pan, with a regular tap-tap-tap. All else was quiet.
She was in a cell, on a bed of hay. The room was stone and very narrow, iron bars caged her in. On the wall opposite her cell was a sickly white witchlight. Its luminescence slithered over her skin like slime, illumined every corner of its reach, and cast no shadows for rats or fleas to hide in. Beneath that dim, pearly light sat a man. He wore a neatly-trimmed beard and a long, gray caftan made of rough wool, tied with a sash that was covered in a jagged, foreign script. His skin was very dark and his eyes were fierce, though his face was kind.
“I am Sulayman al-Abyad,” the man said, when he perceived that Marisol was awake. “I am master of the Turuq of Toledo. I have conjured a devil that sits on your shoulder, though you do not perceive it. If you speak a word that is not the truth, that word will ring like a brass bell and I will know that you are lying.”
Marisol considered this.
“There is no devil,” she said. “You are trying to trick me.”
Sulayman Al-Abyad frowned, but no bell rang, no sound came at all except that distant tapping of falling water. “Hm,” he said at last. “Would you believe that it only works if you say something that you know is false?”
“I might have before,” Marisol admitted, “But not now.”
The man nodded to himself, as if making a note for future reference. “Nonetheless,” he said, “it is in your interests to tell me as much truth as possible. Though you might not believe it, I am your ally tonight.”
“You are part of the Cabal,” Marisol said.
“Yes,” he said. “And my brethren are very displeased with you. They believe you are a Medici spy.”
“Hah,” said Sulayman Al-Abyad. “Hah. Because they have very simple notions of politics, in the first place. But in the second, because you are involved in something that you should not be.”
Diego’s princess, Marisol thought. Was she a real princess? Here to have a marriage arranged? “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Marisol said. “I was out in the street for a walk, when I came across…a wild animal. It attacked and I defended myself. By coincidence I came to the Jewish quarter.”
“Oh, an animal?” Sulayman al-Abyad asked. “Not a man? Because it is a man that we found you with. A man that you stabbed through the arm.”
Marisol shrugged. “It was very dark. Maybe it was a man who looked like an animal.”
“Yes,” Sulayman replied. “Maybe. So. Where do you live?”
“You said you were out for a walk, you must live here in Toledo. Where?”
“Uhm,” said Marisol. “The…by the smithies. Next to Jeronimo Sanchez. Across the street from him, I mean.”
“Of course, Jeronimo.” Sulayman al-Abyad leaned back against the wall. “What pump do you draw your water from?”
“Your water,” Sulayman said. “You get it from somewhere, yes? From one of the pumps that draw from the river. Which one?”
“The…the one…” Marisol’s mind raced, desperate for an answer. Had she even seen a water pump? “The one that is…nearby.”
“Ah,” said Sulayman al-Abyad. “So, you see, I do not need a devil to sing to me to know that you’re not telling the truth. Would you like to try again?”
Marisol struggled to come up with some plausible story, but panic had left her mind resolutely blank. “I…I am a student. Of Don Lope de la Barca, the fencing master. I came into town on an errand.”
“And how did you come to meet the Prussians?”
“I…a man I met told me that he had fallen in love, and he needed my help. Who am I to stand in the way of love? Of course I did not know what he wanted, and did not know that the man, or beast, would try to kill us. I thought I was only doing good.”
Sulayman al-Abyad’s eyes narrowed. “What was his name.”
“The man that you met.”
Marisol spread her hands. “I don’t remember.”
“You followed a stranger deep into an unfamiliar city, you risked your life against a monster for him, and you don’t remember his name?”
“It was a confusing time. So many things happened at once. I can’t be expected to remember it all.”
Sulayman al-Abyad did not seem satisfied with this, but his skeptical scowling was met with Marisol’s unrelenting impassivity. They both sweated beneath the witchlight, their skin becoming slick and greasy.
“What now?” Marisol said, breaking the silence at last.
“Now,” Sulayman al-Abyad mused, stroking his beard. “Now. My brethren want to send you up to the Alcázar. They suspect what you have done is treason. The matters of kings and lords are not meddled in lightly, and you have caused Toledo a great deal of trouble.”
“Do you think that the Prussians send their highborn daughters to Toledo to take in the air?” Sulayman snapped. “Fighting her bodyguard is one thing, that could be forgiven. But abetting the other…well, nevermind. It seems to me that the Cabal’s mandate is for devils only, and as you are plainly not a devil, or possessed by devils, then it is appropriate for us to let you go.”
Sulayman al-Abyad spoke a word, and the iron locks on the cage made a grinding, wrenching sound, then fell away. The bars swung open.
“Quickly,” he said. “They will be here for you soon. Up the stairs and down the hall. Do not look at anyone, walk quickly but do not run, and no one will notice.” He held out Marisol’s hat.
“Where is my sword?”
“Your sword?” Sulayman asked. “I have given you your life. The sword is lost.”
“No,” said Marisol. “No, the sword was my mother’s—“
“Then you shouldn’t have fought a man in the street with it. The Cabal wants the weapon, the Cabal will keep it.”
Marisol felt heat rise in her face. Her collar was too tight, her throat small. “It was my mother’s. I will not go without it.”
“You will go, and go quickly,” Sulayman insisted, “or they will send you to the Alcázar where you be flogged and hanged and certainly not given your sword back.”
She seized Sulayman by the wrists. He looked at her with great surprise. “Why? Why do you want it? It’s just a sword, it means nothing to you!”
Sulayman al-Abyad struggled to break Marisol’s grip on his wrists. “I do not know, it is not my decision to make. I should not have even done this much!” He finally pulled away, leaving Marisol stunned in the doorway of her cell.
“No,” she said, “no, no.”
“Go!” Sulayman hissed. “Do not make me regret this.”
“No, listen,” Marisol said. “It’s…it’s not mine. It was made as a commission, for someone else, I was only carrying it. You cannot rob him because I committed a crime. It doesn’t belong to me…”
“Who? Who was it commissioned for?”
“You must let me have it!” She practically screamed.
“Who is it for?”
“Savonarola,” Marisol said. “Salvatore Savonarola.”
Sulayman al-Abyad’s eyes widened at the mention of the name, but he would not relent. “You cannot retrieve it now.” Sounds on the floors above them, men quickened by Marisol’s voice now trickled down. “You cannot…ai, we are too late.” He grabbed her by the shoulders and looked her in the eye. “Listen, girl. Take the stairs up, follow the corridor to your right. There is a door there to the kitchens…”
“I must have it—“
“Listen. There is a backstair for the servants that leads to the masters’ study, but the masters will not come down that way. Do you understand? You must leave now!”
He practically shoved Marisol up the stairs. She was resolved not to leave without her sword, but she needed time. She took the stairs up, and then the narrow wooden corridor. She walked quickly but didn’t run, didn’t look at anyone else as she barged through the quiet kitchens and out the back door. She was conspicuous enough, and the commotion in the house had grown great enough, that she disturbed the kitchen steward, a very old man who napped on a stool by the larder.
Marisol fled out into the dark alley behind the Cabal house and ducked into a low doorway. There was no light here at all but the dim glow of the low moon, limning the pointed roofs and chimneys of the nearby houses, and the torches on the Alcázar, which thrummed red and ruddy to the north, much closer than Marisol had expected. She hid in the doorway, hat tugged low over her face, and watched.
The kitchen steward, who had long white hairs growing from his ears and whose nose and chin could very nearly touch, followed her blearily out of the door. He looked, squinting with nearsighted eyes, to the left and right. Behind him appeared a younger man, dressed in the cassock of a Christian priest. The priest spoke something to the old man, who waved his hands, grumbled, shrugged. The steward went back into the kitchen.
The priest glanced around the alley, but he did not see Marisol where she hid. Satisfied, he, too, went back inside.
As the door swung shut, Marisol crept close to it, hugging the wall, moving as quickly as she dared.
Marisol looked back over her shoulder to see Udo gaining on her with his lopsided, ground-eating gait. She couldn’t be sure in the dark, but he actually seemed bigger still, his body swollen, his joints wrenched and twisted until his shaped had become something grotesque. Udo bellowed again with his strange voice, somehow neither human nor animal.
“Keep running,” Marisol gasped, but Udo was even closer now, close enough that she could hear the slap of his feet on the cobblestones.
Marisol skidded to a halt and turned, her sword up, but now Marisol wasn’t entirely sure she could hurt him. He seemed big enough that she might bury her sword in his barrel chest without him even knowing.
Udo slowed slightly, still lumbering towards Marisol, but at a slightly more measured pace, and it was clear that something had happened to him. The twisted cant to his shoulders, the length of his arms, the tortured shape of his legs, none of it was illusion. His warped body strained against the leather that he wore. His knife was forgotten by his side, but his hands – stretched, vast, contorted things that no longer had fingers so much as a nest of black hooks – seemed equally capable of doing harm. His left eye was bugged and bloodshot, his right eye narrow and gleaming. His rictus of a smile revealed huge teeth, some flat, crooked slabs, others long and curved like fangs, surrounded by a forest of thick, wiry black hair.
What was the circle of his arms to her, what were the chords that would lead to his heart? There seemed to be nothing but gnashing teeth and claws. What use could the Destreza be against something like this?
He howled and lunged forward, seemingly unafraid of Marisol’s sword. She leapt back, only narrowly escaping his grasping hands, his thick claws skittering on the stone walls of the houses that confined the two of them. Udo lashed out again, growling like an animal, never hesitating, never pausing to consider – he was a whirlwind of gnashing teeth and grasping claws, while Marisol was wrong-footed and had to scramble back out of his reach again and again. Udo’s body was still warping; in the dark, Marisol could see his flesh running like water, could hear the sound of bones snapping as he swung at her, could hear his jaw crack as he lunged towards her and tried to bite her face with those huge awful teeth.
Udo swung again and bore Marisol to the ground; she just managed to bring her sword up, and his wild fist impaled itself on the sword’s point. Udo howled and retreated, smearing blood from his wounded hand on the wall, glaring at her with his mismatched, misshapen eyes. He snapped at her face again and Marisol cut at his cheek, scoring a thin red line below his glaring eye.
The cut brought the twisted man-beast up short and something like confusion crossed its malformed face as it examined its bloody hand and touched the cut on its cheek. Marisol struggled to her feet and kept her sword between the two of them. Udo was huge now, breathing like a bellows, with thick veins standing out on his neck and face; his shoulders brushed the sides of the alley. Despite his size and bestial shape, despite his aggression, she still didn’t want to kill him, though. She was scared of him, but she didn’t hate him, and it didn’t feel right to kill a man she didn’t hate.
She couldn’t let him continue after her, so she thrust at his knee, only half-conscious that it seemed bent painfully backwards now, as though it had broken and been re-set improperly. Udo dodged back on twisted legs that looked like they ought to be incapable of support his weight at all, much less moving his misshapen bulk so nimbly. Marisol redoubled, stretching out in a long lunge, recklessly trying for Udo’s twisted leg, but his gnarled fingers intercepted the thrust and gripped the sword, tried to pull it from her hands.
Marisol jerked it away and Udo shrieked as the blade cut his hand. This would not last, Marisol knew, as she leapt away from a new flurry of heavy blows and gnashing teeth. She couldn’t wound him to stop him, not unless she wanted to kill him…
When she saw the fox dart by Udo’s feet, Marisol followed it without thinking. Udo lumbered after her, but the fox was spry and quick. It led her down a steep street and then quickly switched back – Udo’s massive bulk sent him careening down the slippery cobblestones while he tried to slow himself. Marisol gained some ground as she followed the fox through Toledo.
The fox took some route through the city, and Marisol had no space to wonder if it was planned or just a small animal’s instinct for evading a large one. It took sharp corners and narrow alleys until Marisol was sure she was lost, sure she would never find her way back again.
But the shape of a house, crook of a window, a cornice, a chimney, each tickled at her memory until she realized that she did know where she was, she had been here before. The fox was gone now, it had left her alone in this little familiar square, and now Marisol had a few breaths to doubt if she had even seen it, if only her own mind had led her back here.
A few breaths, and no longer. Udo burst into the alley, huffing and puffying and growling, barely recognizable as a man at all, but neither was a beast, instead some torn and twisted, monstrous thing, deformed by some strange miracle.
With teeth like knives and claws like iron hooks, he lunged for her. Marisol retreated farther into the alley, until her back was against the man in brass armor, with clay skin etched with words. The golem.
“Wake up!” She cried. “Wake up! Help me!”
Udo lashed out at her and Marisol barely managed to spring clear. The golem remained impassive, still as any stone. Had Julio César lied to her? Perhaps the golem could not come to life at all.
The beast-man lunged again, driving Marisol farther from the ruddy torch and the brass-armored simulacrum beneath it. There was nothing for it Marisol realized. She would have to kill the best.
She struck out with her sword, once, twice. She lashed first at Udo’s face, then at his flank, finally thrusting deep towards his chest. The beast-man twisted his malformed body, just enough that Marisol’s sword sank deep into his arm. He howled again and surged forward, twisting Marisol’s sword from her grip, keep it trapped fast in his gnarled limb.
Marisol was defenseless now, no sword, no fox, no golem. She slid across the ground beneath Udo’s lashing claws, then leapt to her feet and banged on the door of one of the houses.
“Help!” She called out. “Help me!”
No one answered, and Marisol fell away from Udo again.
“What do I do? How do I make it work?”
Again his teeth gnashed and again she fell away.
“How do I wake it up?”
Udo raked his claws through the air, missing her face by inches. By a stroke of ill luck, his black talons hooked into the shutter of a window, and tore it from its frame.
When this happened, there came a deep thrumming sound, as though a titanic guitar string, taught beneath the streets of Toledo, had been plucked by a giant’s hand. The bronze-armored golem shuddered to life and leapt forward.
It took Udo by surprise and seized him by the wrists. White teeth and black talons gnashed against the brass armor, tearing deep gouges but not harming the golem. The golem shifted its grip and took Udo in a bear hug, holding him tight, as immovable as a stone. The action dislodge the sword from the beast-man’s arm, and it clattered to the stony street.
Udo howled again, and Marisol saw three men coming down the alley, carrying torches. They wore long beards and long black robes, and sashes covered in a writing she did not recognize. One man carried a censer by its chains. It billowed bright smoke around them.
One of the men spoke a word and Marisol felt a bone-deep weariness spring upon her like a hungry animal. The last thing she recalled was reaching out for her sword where it had fallen, before she passed into a strange and dreamless slumber.
“When did he come back?”
“A second ago,” Rachel gasped, breathless and panicking. “I just saw him, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t see you—“
“We have to warn Diego, come on.” Marisol dragged her beneath the window that Diego had pointed out to them. They alternated making noises like a crow, so that soon the neighbors must have thought a whole angry flock of them had descended on Toledo.
When this provoked no response from the impassive shutters, Marisol just began calling Diego’s name as loudly as she dared. Even this did not secure his attention.
“What is he doing in there?” Marisol demanded. Rachel shrugged helplessly.
At last, Marisol found a rock in the gutter, which she took and threw as hard as she could against the shutters. It made a sound like the crack of a pistol and, after a few moments, the wooden doors tentatively opened.
Diego peeked through the crack, golden light spilling out around him and into the dark street. “Marisol? What? “ He threw the shutters open the rest of the way . “What is it?”
“Diego, it’s—where is your shirt?”
“You are supposed to make a sound like a crow!”
“We did make a sound like a crow, you idiot, you didn’t hear us–!”
“You have to make it louder, then—“
“Diego,” Rachel interrupted. “He is inside, the guard is …”
She trailed off as they perceived a deep rumbling from within, the sound of a bear looking for its dinner. A girl appeared at the window; she was blond with flushed, rosy cheeks. Her hair and shift disheveled, she gripped Diego’s arm like he might fly away.
“It’s him, it’s Udo, he’s back!” She said.
“We know,” Rachel snapped, “Diego you have to get out!”
“Ai, me,” Diego said. “My shirt, hold, hold on…”
“No,” said the girl, “there’s no time, you have to go out the window.”
Diego looked down at the three-storey drop. “I don’t…think I can do that. Do…is there another stair, or could…do you think I could talk to him…”
There was a sound like a thunderclap from within, and the splintering of wood. A man or beast roared. Diego’s skin grew pale.
“All right. All right.” He gingerly climbed out the window, holding tightly to its frame.
“If you climb around,” Rachel offered, “you can maybe climb in the window over there, to your right…”
“No, no,” said Marisol. “Grab a hold of the trellis, you can climb down it like a ladder—“
“Shut up!” Diego snapped at them, as more sounds of breaking wood and grumbling came from inside the inn. The girl disappeared from the window, and presently she could be heard shrieking in Prussian, her shouts answered by a basso rumble that sounded like an avalanche.
Diego reached out to grab a hold of a copper drain spout, and had just secured his grip with the weathered metal snapped away from its moorings and bent sending him tumbling to the ground.
Howling with pain, Diego struggled to his feet. The copper drainpipe had slowed his fall enough that he’d broken no bones, but he was bruised and his feet were bare and in no shape for running over cobblestones.
Udo, the giant Prussian man with the drooping moustaches appeared at the window, his face contorted and bestial with fury. He vanished again and thundered through the inns interior.
“Diego,” the princess called out to him, leaning as far out of the window as she dared. “He is coming for you. If you live, remember me!”
“If I live–?” Diego said.
The girl through a scrap of white cloth down to the street. It was Diego’s shirt.
“Come, you idiot,” Marisol said. “We have to get out of here.”
Diego struggled to find the armholes in his shirt. “But where, he—“ Some more rumbling from the inn.
“Up the hill,” Marisol said, “to the Alcázar. There are people there, surely he won’t…go. Go now!” Marisol pushed Diego and Rachel up the street, as the door to the inn burst open, and Udo appeared in all his heaving fury.
“But—“ Diego said.
“Go,” Marisol insisted. “This is my fault. I will distract him.”
Without waiting to see if they ran the right way, or even if they ran at all, Marisol turned back towards Udo and held up her hand to greet him. “Hello, sir!” She called. “I see that you are…clearly…very upset…”
The Prussian man seemed somehow even bigger than before, standing in a doorway that could barely contain his frame. His eyes started out from his sockets like they would explode. Veins thrummed in his neck. His moustaches bristled . His body seemed warped by the muscle that crammed his frame and he clenched fists like boulders. Udo strode forward and pushed Marisol aside as he passed; it felt to Marisol like she’d been struck by a battering ram, the force of the blow knocking her from her feet.
She watched in horror as Udo took up a ground-eating lope up the hill and after her friends. “No,” she said, “no no no. Not so fast.” She pulled her mother’s sword from the sack she kept it in and sprinted after him.
Marisol caught up with Udo after twenty yards, and slashed across his back with the point of her weapon. His leather jerkin parted easily; she knew she must have cut him, because she saw blood spatter the ground, and the man shrieked with rage and pain.
Udo whirled on her and, for a fraction of an instant, stared at her bloody blade with a look of disbelief.
“Sir, I have no desire to harm you, if you’d like we—“
Udo howled, like no animal Marisol had ever heard. No wolf or bear or wild cat, not even a man at his most agonized. It was a howl that she seemed to hear in her soul, one that transcended any sound or sense that might perceive it.
He slapped the point of her sword to the side with his bare hand, and swung one of those massive fists for her head, missing only by the space of a breath as Marisol leapt back and staggered down the hill.
She thought he would turn back and resume his pursuit of Diego and Rachel, but no. Marisol had drawn blood, and now his great fury was for her alone. Marisol turned and ran.
Marisol didn’t know how long she waited before boredom rumbled up in her bones. Diego had gone into the inn and not been immediately thrown back out, which Marisol supposed was a good sign. It was dark and quiet in the alley, with no sounds but the distant murmur and shuffle of people in more populated corners of the city.
Marisol leaned against the wall and tipped back her hat. She looked up at the glittering stars high above the roofs of Toledo, calmly indifferent to the struggles down on earth below. Unperturbed by sin or cruelty, they shone on good and bad alike.
Something moved among the stars, and drew Marisol to her feet. It was a long, dark shape that glided silently above the city, eclipsing the night sky with its dark bulk as it passed. It approached the Alcázar in the center of town, and as it did, sickly silver witchlights sprang to life along its length.
A Prussian airship. The same ship, Marisol was sure of it. She set to her heels and ran sword clutched tightly to her side. Diego and his adventures were forgotten, the princess and her guard as well. She knew that ship, and now it was all that mattered.
The streets, already subdued, were now as silent as a grave. Shutters were closed and doors barred. Candles were extinguished. The only light drifted down from the starry sky, and from the sickly shimmering lights of the airship that crawled across house and shop and street alike, casting no shadow as it went.
Marisol attained the plaza of the Alcázar just as the ship was being winched down to the ground by its burly Prussian crew. The plaza was ringed with Castillian soldiers, nervously tapping their swords and pistols, but not daring to approach the ship. The Prussians anchored it to the ground and more men poured forth from its recesses, vomited up by its black mechanical maw. In the middle of that crowd she saw him, his face as familiar to her now as her mother’s, his dreaming eyes and pale skin.
The man with the red right hand.
Marisol drifted towards the anchored ship, until a man grabbed her by the arm. He was Castillian, a guardsman in a yellow tabard and a polished steel helm. He wore a carefully-tended beard and a sword at his side, clutched a long pike with his free hand.
“What are you doing, girl? Stay back.” He snapped.
The man was slightly shorter than she, and Marisol immediately thought on how to fight him. If she punched his nose, he might fall back, and she’d have time to draw her sword and run him through. If she grabbed his wrist she could pull him off balance and trip him. If she seized his coat and pulled him close, she could draw his sword and kill him with it.
Marisol looked back at the Prussians, who were filing into the Alcázar, the man with the red right hand looked out at the surrounding Castillians. His eyes passed over her. Did he see her? Did he recognize her?
She shrugged off the guardsman’s hand and bolted, but the guard had dropped his pike and seized both her arms, holding her back.
“Girl! Get away! You can’t go in there!” The man shouted.
She could kill him, she thought, she could kill the guardsman and then fight her way through the Prussians, the man with the red right hand was here, she could see him, see the cruel smile quirked on his lip, she could kill them all…
Other men Castillians crowded around her, seized hold of her. She struggled towards the Alcázar and nearly heaved two of them from their feet.
“Mother of God, girl, stop!” Another man hissed in her face. He slapped her across the cheek, and Marisol turned eyes on him so ferocious they made him retreat a step. But he leaned in and took her by the jaw while his fellows held her back. “Stay away from them,” he said, very softly. “They’re dangerous. Do you hear me?” He leaned in even closer and whispered in her ear. “You aren’t the only one who hates them. But now is not the time.”
Marisol looked at the guardsman in confusion. He nodded to her, and then to his fellows, who all let her go at once. Marisol straightened her jacket and picked up her hat from where it had fallen.
The guardsman was right. Now was not the time. There were too many Prussians. They had surrounded the city, infested the palace. They would make an impenetrable barrier between Marisol and the object of her revenge.
Her eyes went to the Alcázar again, but the Prussians were all inside, the heavy doors closed.
“Go home,” the guardsman said, and, for a moment, fire welled up behind Marisol’s eyes.
“My home is gone,” she snapped as she left the guards and the great fortress of Toledo behind.
“All our homes are gone,” the man called out to her. “Castille is gone. For now!”
It was as she retreated from the hill where perched the Alcázar that she was reminded of Diego; she took the hill in long strides that grew longer as shame for her dereliction grew as well. A moment of panic as she ran – had she, in her haste, forgotten the way back to the inn? The streets all looked the same, the crooked buildings all ugly twins. But no…there glimmered a shard of shadowless witchlight between a break in the crooked gables.
Marisol practically tumbled into the alley to find nothing had changed. The windows still glowed with candlelight, the single glowing wichlight on the third storey the only exception. She’d made it back in time; left her post and returned without missing anything.
“Marisol.” Rachel whispered, as she appeared around the corner of the inn. “Marisol.”
“What?” Marisol replied as she joined her friend. “What, what is it?”
“You were supposed to call—“
“I didn’t see anyone—“
“He’s inside! He’s inside right now!”
“Oh,” said Marisol. “Oh, no.”
“So, here is what we’ll do,” said Diego. He, Marisol, and Rachel were sitting together in the early morning light in the stables. Diego had brought food, and Rachel and Marisol munched on bread and apples while he spoke. “I can get in there myself, but I will need the two of you to keep watch for me, to warn me when her guards come back.”
“And while you’re inside, you’ll…what? Sing to her?” Marisol asked. The Maestro, after having instructed Marisol and Diego daily for an exhausting seven months, would be finally leaving for two days on an errand whose nature he refused to divulge. Diego was committed to seizing the opportunity to court a girl he’d seen while in the market. She was a princess of some kind, she’d come with the Prussians when they sent a delegation to Toledo. Diego had seen her and fallen instantly in love, returning several times to investigate the inn where she and her courtiers were staying. If Marisol or Rachel asked about the girl – if she was pretty, for instance, or if she was charming or witty – Diego would lapse into paroxysms of praise that grew increasingly elaborate and flowery. It was alternately entertaining and tiresome.
Now, however, after admiring her from afar, he was determined to meet her. He held up a sheaf of papers. “These are poems that I have composed for her, regarding her radiant beauty, her effortless grace, her flaxen hair, et cetera.” He passed them to Rachel, who idly flipped through them. “I have no doubt that between these poems and my own natural charm and handsomeness, she will fall immediately in love with me, we will be married, and I will be a prince of the Prussians.”
“These aren’t very good,” Rachel said. “You’ll have to be very charming.”
“Yes,” agreed Marisol. “I also wouldn’t say that you were handsome, necessarily. Maybe…pallid?”
“Squirrely,” offered Rachel.
Diego snatched his poems away and scowled at them. “First of all, neither of you know anything. Second of all, shut up. Are you going to help me or not?”
With the Maestro gone, there’d be no practice, and that meant there was nothing to do around the estate but clean it. “All right.” Marisol replied.
On the road to Toledo, Diego seemed practically to dance, floating along on a cloud of his buoyant adoration, feet barely touching the ground. Marisol – with her sword in its burlap sack slung over her shoulders like the yoke of an ox, and her broad-brimmed hat keeping the sun from her eyes – and Rachel followed behind, quietly amused by the spectacle Diego was making of himself.
It was mid-day when Marisol realized the fox was following them, skittering along in the bushes beside the road. Sometimes it would disappear for minutes at a time, then she would see it peeking out of the grass up ahead. Once she turned back, and saw it sitting in the middle of the road watching her incuriously. Was it the same fox that had led her to find that strange circle of dead men? The more distant the memory became, the more certain she was that she’d dreamed it all, and that the fox that led her there had been a dream as well.
She debated telling Diego and Rachel about him.
The thought somehow didn’t feel right, and when she realized that Rachel saw him, slinking along the road – when Rachel put two fingers beside her lips and spit, and the fox slipped off into the surrounding fields – Marisol felt that some secret of hers had been violated. The fox belonged to her, even if she had dreamt it, it wasn’t anyone else’s to scare away.
When Rachel saw Marisol staring at her, she shrugged and said, “Foxes are bad luck.”
They reached Toledo by the evening and Marisol was a little surprised to see just how much it had changed since she’d left. The Prussians, formerly confined only to Granada, had come in great numbers to the city, and they’d surrounded it with ramshackle camps, dense with huge hide tents and rickety, hastily-erected wooden buildings. Black, savory smoke rose in scattered columns; the camps smelled of fire, roasted meat and sour beer, of sweat and filth, an overpowering miasma that Marisol noticed long before the spreading camps became a dark stain on the horizon.
“She’s not in here, is she?” Marisol said, making a face.
“No,” said Diego as they wound through the camp. “She and her…courtiers, I suppose…are staying at an inn over the bridge.”
“Why are there so many of them?” Rachel wondered. “What are they all doing here? I thought they were just going to be in Granada.”
“I don’t know,” said Diego. “They’ve been moving up here for months, though. I keep seeing more every time I come into town.”
The camp was loud and busy, filled with noisy laughter and men and women speaking in their clattering language. Pots and pans banged, men shouted, dogs barked. Someone in the distance was singing lustily and probably drunkenly. No one paid Marisol and her friends any mind, and there were a handful of other travelers –equally ignored — who joined them on the bridge by the Gate of the Sun. The gate was open and no one hindered them, but the two Spanish guards eyed the sprawling encampment with bitter expressions on their faces.
The city was strangely subdued, as Diego led Marisol and Rachel through its winding streets. It wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t thronging with crowds either, and the people who were there moved quickly and never lingered, eager to be about their business and back in their homes. It had the feel of a city perpetually watching over its shoulder, made anxious by strangers standing too near.
The inn where Diego’s fabled Prussian Princess was reportedly staying was a handsome, three-storey, building. It was well-maintained and had many wide windows. It boasted no sign, though, and its common room appeared empty. Diego said this was because the Prussian court, jealous of its privacy, had rented all the rooms for themselves and asked the innkeepers to turn away everyone else. There were lights on in the windows – all the orange flicker of candlelight, except for one. The corner window on the third storey was illumined by the steady, sickly-white glow of witchlight.
“Here,” said Diego, pulling them into an alley nearby, that gave a clear view of the front door. “Now, listen. Most of the people inside are the princess’s ladies-in-waiting, I think. Her father and his advisors are on the top floor, but whatever they’re doing in there, they don’t come out often. She has one guard, who leaves around nightfall to check in with the camp outside, usually for about an hour.”
“How do you know all this?” Rachel asked.
“I paid one of the serving girls to spy on them for me. She’s also going to let me in once the guard leaves.”
“It seems pretty strange,” said Marisol, “to only have one guard. Are you sure she’s a princess?”
“Well, what else would she be? They’ve rented out the whole inn. She’s at least a countess. Look – look! The guard! There he is!”
A man emerged from the inn. He was very pale, almost luminous in the darkening evening, and he had dark hair and drooping moustache. He walked by where Marisol and her friends hid, oblivious to their presence, and Marisol realized that he was huge. Not just tall, though he was fully a handspan taller than she was, and she was at least as tall as most men, but broad and thick. He had wide shoulders, legs like tree trunks, and a chest that looked like someone had thrown a jacket over a barrel. He seemed like he ought to shake the earth as he walked by, like if he brushed up against the wall of a house it would collapse like a cheap set.
The man wore the intricate uniform of the Prussians, a leather doublet and breeches, heavy leather boots, all strewn about with leather straps and steel rings that jangled as he walked, and epaulets on his shoulders made of some dark gray fur. He had a thick knife in his belt but carried no other weapons, and didn’t really look like he needed any.
“That’s the guard?” Rachel asked.
“Yes. Rachel, you need to wait around the kitchen entrance in the back—“
“And he’s going to be gone for an hour?”
“Maybe an hour, yes. Marisol, you watch the front door—“
“What happens when he comes back and smashes all your bones with his hands?”
“He’s not going to do that,” Diego said, exasperated, “because you are going to warn me when you see him.”
“Why, so he can smash my bones?”
“No, he won’t even come around the back, he’s going to come in through the front probably—“
“Oh,” said Marisol, “so the plan is for him to smash my bones.”
“He’s not going—“
“Did you even see him?” Rachel said. “He looks like a bear that accidentally joined the army, and then everyone was too afraid to tell him to leave so they just let him have a uniform and a huge knife.”
“All the Prussians look like that,” said Diego, dismissively. “Now look, when you see him coming, I’ll be in the room there, on the second floor, third window from the right. You stand outside and make a noise like a crow, can you do that?”
Rachel and Marisol both somewhat awkwardly attempted passable imitations of the bird in question, and Diego allowed that this would be sufficient.
“You may also need to distract him for a few minutes when he gets back,” Diego said, already heading towards the inn.
“What?” Marisol asked. “How?” But Diego was gone, disappeared around the corner. “Well. He is going to get one or all of us killed.”
“Yes,” said Rachel brightly. “But at least he’ll get to spend a few minutes with his pretty princess, first.”
“She had better be very pretty,” Marisol muttered. She took her sword from its burlap sack, and took up a position near the door of the inn, while Rachel went around the back. Marisol attempted a number of different attitudes, ranging from casually leaning against the wall, to wandering back and forth with an air of disinterest. None of these felt suitably inconspicuous, so instead she just sat next to the door and tugged the brim of her hat down low. Maybe passers-by would think she was a beggar, and so would conscientiously ignore her.