Chapter Twelve

“Here,” said Marisol. “Take this one.” She handed Rachel the sword she’d taken from Julio César’s band of ruffians. Thanks to the six inches missing from the end, it was roughly the proper length for Rachel, who was a good deal shorter than her friend.

Rachel grimaced, but accepted the proffered weapon. “I don’t know what to do with it, though.”

“It’s all right,” said Marisol. “I don’t think it’s very complicated.”

After three days staying at the Maestro’s estate, Marisol had learned a great deal. She’d learned where the Maestro kept his firewood, and that a woodcutter delivered more every other day. She learned that the floors of the house were filthy because there was – or rather had been – no one around to clean them. She learned both that there were many pheasants nesting in the surrounding fields, and that she did not care for plucking them so they could be prepared. She learned that the Maestro preferred his breakfast precisely at sunrise, and that he did not like pepper.

She had not, however, learned anything about fencing. Each morning, she met Diego at the house, hoping to be invited to one of the training sessions that she’d witnessed in the barn. Each morning, Diego assigned her some other menial housekeeping task. Each afternoon, she gave up the task halfway through and climbed up the low hill by the barn to watch Maestro Lope and Diego practice. It was endlessly frustrating, and the three days had seemed like an eternity of pointless busy-work, an increasingly intolerable distraction from what she’d come here for. Rachel, meanwhile, was making great progress in painting impotent symbols on the walls of the Maestro’s house.

Sick of waiting to be taught, Marisol finally decided that she’d seen enough to start teaching herself. She convinced Rachel to stay at the estate again that night, and then successfully conscripted her into an impromptu training session.

The two girls stood opposite each other, feet together, backs straight, swords pointed at each other’s throats. Marisol held her arms straight out; Rachel let her free hand fall limply to her side.

“You’re too tall,” said Rachel. “I couldn’t hit you anyway.” This was correct. Marisol was a full foot taller than her Rachel, and had nearly as much reach on her.

“I don’t want you to hit me. Just put your sword against mine, and try to push it out of the way.”

Rachel had seen enough of the Maestro’s practice to know what Marisol wanted, but had never actually handled a sword herself, so she wasn’t quite sure if there was a trick to it. Still, she set her weapon against her friend’s and, emulating Maestro Lope, tried to slowly slide down Marisol’s blade, keeping her point in line, while pushing Marisol’s to the side.

Marisol, who was much stronger than her opponent, just pushed back; Rachel’s sword clanked off of Marisol’s hilt without deviating her point at all

“I don’t think that was right,” said Rachel.

Marisol shrugged. “Try again.”

They did, and continued to try again and again for an hour or more, with Rachel gamely taking whatever advice Marisol had to offer, while Marisol’s thoughtful frown deepened until it looked like her face might implode. She had Rachel trying to push with the middle of the blades, trying to push perpendicularly against her own, trying to push obliquely. She had her friend push the blade to the side first and then thrust, and then had her thrust at a slight angle. She had Rachel walk forward, lunge forward, lean forward. None of it seemed quite right.

Part of the problem was that Marisol didn’t know what it was she was looking for. The exercise had a certain intuitive sense about it, of course – if she were going to attack a man, she’d have to do it in a way that kept him from sticking her back. So, the best way to do that was to attack in such a way as to keep his sword pointed in a direction other than her vulnerable vital organs. Likewise, if she were being attacked, her best chance would be to respond to that gliding thrust in a way that pushed her opponent’s sword out of the way, and kept her own on target. But beyond that, the exercise seemed opaque. Was she supposed to just wrestle Rachel’s sword out of the way? To step back so that Rachel missed, and then thrust herself? To angle her sword around Rachel’s as she pushed?

Though it was clear that there was something she ought to be getting from the exercise, without knowing precisely what it was meant to feel like, she had no way of knowing if she was doing it right, and so didn’t know which of the many variations she proposed was the best one to practice. She and Rachel persevered nonetheless, though it did not take long for Rachel to begin complaining bitterly that her arms were tired and her wrist hurt.  Marisol found Rachel’s complaints distracting and it made her snappish and curt; this made Rachel more withdrawn, and though her wry grin was still steadfastly in place, her eyes took on a wounded quality that made Marisol feel guilty, which in turn made her even more snappish, and so the cycle continued until the atmosphere in the hot, stinking stables was stifling in every possible sense of the word.

Very near the end of the practice, Marisol had something that nearly bordered on an epiphany. As Rachel’s sword slid down her own, Marisol allowed her weapon to slide backward in response. It was a slight movement, but it prompted a very particular feeling that Marisol couldn’t quite put into words. There was a sense that the swords somehow bent around each other, that the pressure from Rachel’s blade rolled around Marisol’s and was suddenly pointed back at her.

Rachel squeaked as her sword flicked to the side and she found Marisol’s point right in front of her eyes.

Exhilaration took hold, as Marisol was suddenly convinced she was on to something. “Do that one again.”

“What did I do?” Rachel asked.

“I don’t know, whatever you were doing, just do that.”

It was no use; Rachel couldn’t quite remember how she’d approached Marisol’s sword, and she was exhausted anyway. Her weapon wavered and bounced, and boredom was written unmistakably on her face. Marisol contemptuously slapped the sword away then, in silence, put her sword back into the burlap sack in which she kept it, and sat down hard in the hay of the barn.

After a moment, Rachel put her own sword down and quietly sat next to her friend. “Sorry,” she said. Her voice was very soft, as though she were afraid to say the word too loud, like it might trigger in Marisol some violent rage.

Marisol said nothing, and the two sat in tense silence. Marisol stared at the two flickering candles on the floor, little droplets of wax dribbling down their sides. It was hot in here, and it stank, and she hated it. She was tired and terrified that she wouldn’t be able to learn to fight, and she hated that, too. She was frustrated that the Maestro was ignoring her and treated her like a servant, and she supposed she hated him, most of all.

She didn’t hate Rachel, though. “I’m sorry,” Marisol said. She put her arm around the smaller girl’s shoulders, and hugged her tightly.

Chapter Eleven

Rachel slipped back to her painting, while Marisol returned to woodcutting with a certain amount of anxiety. She’d been neglecting the one task she’d been assigned since coming to the estate, and had done that so that she could spy on the Maestro, when he clearly preferred to instruct in private. Had he seen her? Would he punish her? Expel her? Now that she’d descended from the giddy heights that her misadventure with Rachel had brought her, she began to feel a little sick, and started entertaining disheartening fantasies. She imagined a variety of cruel punishments, but none worse than the possibility that she’d be sent away, useless draft letter in her hand, having come this far only to learn nothing because she couldn’t be patient for an afternoon. In her imagination, it was raining when the Maestro had Diego send her away. The boy looked sad when he said it, but the Maestro glowered behind him, quivering with fury, while Marisol was consumed with shame.

This hypothetical future drove her back to her wood-chopping with a renewed vigor, as she perhaps subconsciously hoped that even an infuriated Maestro might forgive her if he came to find all the wood chopped up, neatly stacked, and ready for the cold nights ahead. It happened that the Maestro did not come that afternoon; no one came at all, not even as evening swept purple across the sky and Marisol finished the cutting the last few dry logs, her shoulders aching and hunger gnawing at her stomach.

Frustrated, and now nursing a growing unease about the future, Marisol left the wood and headed back towards the main house. The gloomy onset of night did not enhance her mood. The house seemed forbidding in its monumental disrepair, a stony fortress to which she was not welcome and could expect nothing but to be turned away by cold eyes. She approached the servants’ entrance and knocked loudly.

Diego met her at the door, warm candlelight spilling out behind him, and if he knew of any recriminations that Marisol might have merited, he didn’t mention them. He was positively jovial as he invited her into the kitchen, to sit around a low table and share the evening meal. Rachel was there as well; when Diego’s back was turned, the girl winked, but said nothing. Once she was inside, and could see Diego in more than silhouette, the angry red welt on his face where the Maestro had struck him was uncomfortably apparent. Diego seemed to be trying to banish the mark by the unflagging expression of good cheer.

“Marisol,” Diego said, spooning bean stew into a bowl for her. He set it down on the table along with a hunk of stale bread. “Mari – sol, the Rebel Sun,” he said as he sat, looking up and off into the distance as though he was seeing his own words written on the air in front of him. “Shook loose from her place in the heavens, traversing the sky, seeking a new world on which to shine…”

“Diego is a poet,” said Rachel. She leaned in close and whispered, “Not a very good one, though.”

“Bah, woman.” Diego replied with good-humored gruffness. “Your stony heart wouldn’t know poetry if it bit you.”

“See?” Rachel said. “How could poetry bite me in the heart, anyway? Is it going to cut me open first? Does it go in through my ear and then claw its way into my chest? Grrggghh, aaaaaak,” she added, as she mimed Diego’s words clutching at her heart. “It doesn’t make any sense! You should say, ‘Your feet wouldn’t know poetry if you tripped over it,’ or else, ‘Your mouth wouldn’t know poetry if you bit into it like a rotten apple and its juices oozed over your chin—“

“Enough!” Diego laughed, “Enough, fine, you are the poetical expert.”

“It’s Mar y Sol,” said Marisol. “Not mari-sol.”

Diego looked at her appraisingly. “Hm. No, I don’t think so. There’s nothing of the sea in you. The sea does not break into a man’s house and knock his candles over. The sea does not threaten to kill a man if it thinks it’s being robbed.”

Rachel gasped. “Did you do that?”

Marisol blushed and frowned. “It was just one candle.”

“Rebel Sun suits you better,” said Diego.

“But—“

Rachel agreed. “I like it better Diego’s way, too.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter; your name can be anything you want.”

“My mother gave me my name,” said Marisol.

An uncomfortable silence arrived at this juncture, and instead of conversation they all attended to their food. After he’d judged a suitable amount of time had passed, Diego spoke up. “I am a poet, though, and I will be a great one. Once I win the contest in Salamanca. I sent them four poems this year, they’re very good.”

“They’re all right,” said Rachel.

Rachel and Diego talked at length then, giving Marisol the abbreviated accounts of their own histories. Diego had become a student of Maestro Lope’s largely against his will; his father, a formerly-successful farmer who had fallen on hard times since the Prussians had come, had very particular notions about what a gentleman ought to know. “Poetry and riding I excelled at,” Diego said, “and I’m at least a competent painter. But fencing….ugh.” He made a face and shrugged. “My father insisted that if I fail at it, it’s at least not for want of trying. He and the Maestro were friends from old times, and so here I am. I hope, quite frankly, to never pick up a sword again once I leave.”

Rachel’s family were reconverso, and she regaled Diego and Marisol with stories of how her grandfather had kept practicing his religion in secret when the Jews were expelled. He had once kept pigs for six months to throw the Inquisition off his trial, reasoning that a temporary association with that unclean animal was a paltry sacrifice in the grand scheme of things. Rachel’s Grandfather had once taken his entire family into Portugal, then back when they saw what was happening there. He had kept their traditions alive until King Carlos had undone the expulsion and formed the Cabal. Now, they made a decent living selling the services of their mystic grammaria. Occasionally, they sold their skills to people who had a legitimate need for protection; mostly, they sold them to the superstitious.

Throughout all of this, Marisol offered up very little of her own background. The pain was still too fresh, and every time she thought she might say something about her mother, the words caught in her throat and she refrained. It was nice to listen to Diego and Rachel talk, to hear them carelessly tell their stories in that warm, stuffy little kitchen that smelled like old wood and burnt stew, and Marisol felt increasing guilty at the thought of disrupting the mood with the weight of her own tragedy. It was better to keep it private, she thought; better to bear it herself than to burden someone else with it. Besides, it wasn’t their business anyway.

The sense of disconnection from her companions gradually soured the atmosphere for Marisol, turned the cozy friendliness of the little kitchen into something oppressive, hot, and increasingly intolerable. She caught herself resenting Diego’s casual laughter, Rachel’s wry grin. She found her mind wandering, distracted by a feeling of hollowness in her chest. Finally, after listlessly trawling the remnants of her bread through the dregs of her stew, Marisol interrupted a frankly outlandish story that Rachel was telling involving her Grandfather in disguise as a French princess on a ship bound for the African coast.

“I should go,” said Marisol, abruptly rising. “I need to sleep.”

If Rachel or Diego was offended, neither showed it. “I should go, too,” said Rachel, cheerily. “It’s a long walk ahead of me.”

“You..” Marisol began. “You’re not walking back to the city? Tonight?”

Rachel laughed. “Not quite that far, but it is an hour at least. My uncle has a farm down the road.”

“Why don’t you just stay here?”

Diego coughed uncomfortably. “Ah…the Maestro does not…”

“Does not prefer…?” Marisol continued for him.

“He does not prefer that, uhm…”

Rachel stood and put her hand on Marisol’s arm. “He doesn’t prefer Jews to sleep in the house,” Rachel said, conspiratorially. “It’s terribly embarrassing for Diego, who tries his best to be polite about it. I don’t mind, though.”

“No,” said Marisol, a stab of anger in her throat. “No, you can stay in the stables with me.”

“Ah,” said Diego, “Well, I mean…”

“It’s not,” said Rachel at the same moment, “it’s not really…”

They both trailed off when they saw Marisol’s face – iron jaw firm, haunted eyes scowling. She’d made up her mind and dared either of them to challenge her. Neither Diego nor Rachel felt up for it and, actually quite relieved that she wouldn’t have to walk home in the dark, Rachel agreed to stay that night.

Diego still hesitated, teetering on the brink of offering up another objection, perhaps out of loyalty to his teacher; perhaps out of a finely-tuned instinct for avoiding trouble. The Maestro’s temper was quick, and his punishments often severe; a substantial part of Diego’s mind was now devoted to strategies to evade those punishments wherever possible.

Marisol, seeing those objections warring on Diego’s face, tried to reassure him. “Just tell him it was my fault,” she said, as though this would be sufficient to curtail the Maestro’s anger. “Let him hit me if he wants to.”

She said the last with a casual indifference that Diego couldn’t quite believe – in the space of an hour he’d seen Marisol go from anxious to open to gloomy to angry, until finally this glimpse of something else: an unwavering, stony certainty. She had become an immovable object, a rocky cliff against which oceans might clash with futile waves, a mountain that broke the backs of storms. Diego had the nagging sense that this was the real Marisol. Beneath the moody surface, Marisol had a soul as cold and hard as steel.

Chapter Ten

It was a girl, of about fourteen or fifteen. She wore a rough, brown dress, and had long, dark hair with a bluntly-cut fringe across her forehead. The girl had a round, pleasant face that was now screwed up in concentration, and she crouched by the wall of the house with a paintbrush in her hand, drawing a diagram on the wall by the foundation.

The girl looked up as Marisol turned the corner. Her dark eyes widened, but she remained otherwise still, like a rabbit that’s caught sight of a hawk. She kept her paintbrush poised, delicately hovering above the stone wall.

“What are you doing?” Marisol asked.

“I’m Rachel,” said the girl.

Marisol chastised herself; she was too long out of practice at being polite. “I’m Marisol,” she said, suddenly conscious of an edge in her voice, a harshness that made it sound alien to her own ears, though whether it was lingering anger or something new that had taken up residence in her soul, she didn’t know. “I’m a new student. Of the Maestro.”

Rachel nodded, then her mouth quirked in a wry smile. Unconsciously, she began to chew on the end of her paintbrush.

“What?” Marisol asked. “What’s funny?”

Rachel shrugged. “I’ve seen a lot of new students. Not as many recently. They don’t last very long. Diego has been here the longest.”

“They probably run out of money,” Marisol said. “I have a letter of draft, though. What are you doing?”

Rachel turned back to the design she was painting on the wall. Now that Marisol could see it more clearly, she realized it was a small almadel – the cryptic symbol meant to repel demons. “The Maestro wants me to paint these all along the walls of his house.”

“Why? I thought they didn’t work unless you burned candles with them.”

Rachel shrugged and sat down in the grass, stuffing her brush into a jar of ink. “They don’t. They also don’t work any better if you draw one or a hundred, it doesn’t make any difference. I think the Maestro just wants them to let the Prussians know what side he’s on.”

“Castille hasn’t taken a side,” said Marisol sitting down next to the girl and examining the almadel. The lines were very thin, almost delicate, and perfectly straight; she had a hard time believing that Rachel had painted them by hand. “We’re neutral.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” said Rachel. “I think the Prussians and the Medicis both think that if you aren’t on their side now, then you’re an enemy waiting to happen. So, the Maestro thinks the Prussians are a better choice, and he wants to let them know that the Medicis aren’t welcome.” Rachel shrugged again. “I think it’s foolishness, but he pays me, so. How did you get that cut?”

Marisol’s hand involuntarily rose to the gash on her face. It had scabbed over now, but was still a little tender. She tried to speak, but the words were too big and thick; calling them up was like choking on a pear. “I got in a fight,” she managed, at last.

“With who?”

Marisol shrugged. “Do you need help? I could paint some of these.” They didn’t look very hard, and if they didn’t work anyway, then surely it wouldn’t matter if Marisol did a sloppier job.

Rachel shook her head. “No. It’s good practice for me. When you draw an almadel – a real one, I mean, one that works – you have to keep your mind crystal clear. You can’t just paint it, otherwise anyone could do it. You’ve got to…” she waved her hands helplessly, grasping for the words. “Let it up? From inside you? I don’t know how to explain it. But you have to have just the right mind, and it’s hard to do, so I like to practice.”

“Oh.”

They sat in silence for a moment, admiring Rachel’s handiwork. Marisol kept expecting her to take up her paintbrush and start work again; if Rachel expected anything, she didn’t say what it was.

“No,” said Rachel, finally. “It’s no good, you’re too distracting.”

“Sorry,” said Marisol. “Do…do you want me to leave?”

“You can stay if you want. I just can’t paint the almadels while you’re looking.”

“Oh.” After a moment, Marisol confided that she, too, had work she was supposed to be doing. “I’ve got to chop wood for the Maestro’s fire, but…I already did some.”

Rachel made a face that indicated precisely what she thought about chopping wood – apparently, not very much – and then stood up, wiping her hands off on her dress. “Do you want to see where they practice? I guess he hasn’t started teaching you anything, yet.”

Marisol followed suit. “No. Is that normal? Does it usually take a long time?”

“Hm,” said Rachel. “I suppose so.” She shrugged again. “I don’t really remember, honestly. But I’ve seen them practice before. Last month, the Maestro had me paint the Solomonic Key on all of the walls of his bedroom, and I used to come out and watch him teach when I needed a break. Come on.”

Rachel led Marisol down to the south side of the estate, well beyond the main house and the tumbled down guest building, past the stables and an overgrown field choked with weeds, the broken, uneven ground littered with rocks. They crossed a small brook that was nearly dry – Rachel hiked up her skirts anyway, and gingerly tried to avoid even the small stream of water that was left; Marisol was able to step over it with one long stride – and climbed up a low, grassy hill. On the far side was an old building that might have once been a barn, might have been a house for a tenant farm, but now seemed just as empty and dilapidated as any number of sad, similar structures on the Maestro’s land.

The barn was built almost into the hill, so that Rachel and Marisol were very near the roof, and were able to, by lying on their stomachs and craning their necks slightly, see down into the empty building. The far wall was open to the outside, and so the barn was lit only by sunlight. On a weathered wood floor, Diego sweated and grunted as he swung a rapier and stomped back and forth, with the rigid postures and the precise footwork of the fencer.

“What are those, on the floor?” Marisol whispered to Rachel. “The lines.” Painted on the floor, just barely visible from Marisol’s vantage point, was a large circle, criss-crossed with man lines at steep and wide angles.  Diego looked like he was trying to step in the places where they intersected.

“I don’t know,” Rachel whispered back. ”But it looks a little like an almadel, doesn’t it?”

He stomped forward, five steps with five clumsy thrusts. Then he stomped backward with five parries, left, right, left, right, left. He stepped to his left and cut to the right, then stepped to the right and cut to the left. He lunged – his lunges were surprisingly long, but his balance was poor, and every lengthy step nearly toppled him to the ground.

The Maestro, meanwhile, stood back and watched all this with his arms crossed, a thunderous frown on his face. He did not look at all what Marisol had imagined; he was short and stocky. He had a solid, barrel-shaped chest with a pronounced belly. He had duck feet and slightly stooping shoulders. His hair and beard were rough and scraggly, as overgrown as his neglected fields. About the only thing that Marisol had been right about were his eyes.

Maestro Don Lope de la Barca had a duelist’s eyes if any man had them; dark, intense, utterly focused. They seemed to not just take in every detail that they surveyed – every one of Diego’s grievous lapses in form, in balance, in technique – but to exert an actual pressure that kept him from quite recovering his balance. The Maestro’s scrutiny was palpable, his focus so intense that it only made Diego more determined to satisfy and more likely to make a mistake as a consequence of his growing tension.

After Diego finally lost his balance on a particularly overzealous lunge, the Maestro muttered something to the young man. Marisol and Rachel couldn’t hear it; his low voice was absorbed by the stone walls and so sounded only like the rumble of distant thunder. Diego responded by standing with his feet together, one toe pointed forward, one to the side, his back ramrod-straight. He held his arms over his head and then brought them both down like a dancer, right arm and sword out straight ahead, left arm straight out as a counter-balance.

“That is the guard position, I think,” Rachel whispered. “The Maestro sometimes makes him stand like that for hours.”

Apparently, that was not the Maestro’s plan this time. This time he took his own sword and stood opposite Diego, in a position that mirrored his, except that the Maestro’s left hand rested on his hip. “You take it in,” said the Maestro, his voice just barely intelligible now. “You have to swallow it, yes?”

Rachel snorted and covered her mouth. Marisol just watched. The Maestro put his sword against Diego’s and slowly began to push it to the side, keeping it at a slight angle, turning Diego’s point away while keeping his own point in line with the boy’s throat.

Diego’s hand clenched around his sword as he tried to push back, but the metal hiss as the Maestro’s rapier slid forward never slowed, and Diego had to take a step to side to avoid being punctured. The Maestro said nothing, just slapped Diego on the wrist with the flat of his blade. Diego yelped and dropped his sword, then immediately picked it up and returned to his guard position, his sword a little shaky now but still in place.

Again, Maestro Lope de la Barca pressed his sword against his student’s; again there was a raspy metal hiss as blades slid against each other. Diego struggled mightily against the sword, but even though the Maestro seemed barely to be moving at all, the rapier appeared all but irresistible. Again, Diego stepped to the side, and the Maestro slapped the sword from his hand.

A third time Diego regained his guard, and again failed to resist Maestro Lope’s sword. This time he slapped Diego’s wrist so ferociously that the boy shouted, and the Maestro followed this with a slap to Diego’s face that sent him tumbling to the dirt. Diego didn’t so much as take a moment’s rest, but scrabbled back to his feet instead, with tears brimming in his eyes and a red welt forming on his cheek.

When she saw this, Rachel gasped in sympathy. The Maestro looked up then, those cruel, fierce, hawk’s eyes scanning the walls by the roof. Marisol and Rachel immediately leapt to their feet and ran, not getting more than a few steps before losing their balance and tumbling headfirst down the hill in a bruising, juddering stumble that left them both dirty and breathless at the bottom.

The two girls stayed prone on the ground, their wind knocked out, eyes wide, listening desperately for any sign that the Maestro had caught sight of them, or heard the ruckus of their fall. When several seconds passed and no shouts of approbation were forthcoming, Rachel began to laugh. It began as a snicker, which she hastily tried to swallow, but the act of repression only somehow made it worse, leaving her giggling helplessly while Marisol tried to shush her, an act so patently futile that it brought a fit of quiet, barely restrained laughter from Marisol as well.

Before they could give themselves away, Marisol grabbed Rachel by the wrist and dragged her to her feet; they fled back to the estate, by turns giggling at and shushing each other. Diego and his travails were temporarily forgotten.

Chapter Nine

The sight of her mother’s freckled and sunburnt face slipped like water through her fingers as sunlight crawled along the backs of Marisol’s eyelids. She was still tired and aching and hungry, but anticipation and excitement energized her. She practically leapt to her feet, took a moment to scrape off the worst of the dirt and bits of hay, and changed into the relatively clean clothes she’d brought with her before meeting Diego at the main house.

In the thin light of dawn, Don Lope de la Barca’s estate was less than impressive. It was certainly large, with a sprawling main house, carriage house, stables, and some other low buildings whose purpose Marisol couldn’t immediately decipher. And the land itself, to judge by the extent of gangly stalks of barley struggling through fields that had quite clearly gone to seed, stretched some distance in all directions. But the buildings were filthy, with doors creaking precipitously on their hinges, with broken windows and toppled chimneys. One building, which must have been the guest house Diego had described, had indeed suffered some traumatic accident: an entire wall was missing, the whole shape of the building dissolving into a mess of tumbled bricks on the north side. A handful of small animals, plainly emboldened by the estate’s neglect, scurried impertinently through heaps of rubble and patches thick with overgrown weeds.

There was a kind of grandeur to the estate’s disrepair, Marisol felt. It was like looking on an old man, broken down by wear and time, but with the mark of his greatness still indelibly stamped on his features. This had been a beautiful, thriving place once, maybe long ago, and if it had now collapsed under many years’ worth of brute grinding, turning it into the fallow field from which something new might one day grow, then the shadow of its greatness still hung about it.

It rankled to use the servants’ entrance, and rankled more that Diego gave her a bowl of cold bean soup and then immediately sent her off to chop wood, all without so much as introducing her to the mysterious Maestro and the inscrutable preferences that Diego continually invoked:

“The Maestro does not prefer to take his meals with students.”

“The Maestro prefers you to perform your chores before training begins.”

“The Maestro prefers that you gather water only in wooden pails.”

It was aggravating, but Marisol grit her teeth and determined that she would bear it. The Maestro’s attitude was one that she was familiar with: the boring work came first, the interesting work last. Chopping wood and carrying water was the same as lugging around iron ingots. It may even have been a kind of test; the Maestro, unwilling to teach students of middling resolve, was trying to gauge her commitment – establishing her worthiness by, perversely, attempting to drive her away. Marisol intended to perform the menial, backbreaking tasks she’d been assigned with such care and diligence that there’d be no question that she was here for the duration.

Chopping firewood is not really a task that requires care, of course, so much as a task that requires strong muscles and a supreme tolerance for sustained boredom – both characteristics that Marisol had developed to one degree or another by working in her mother’s smithy. Her arms and back were definitely strong, and of them she was justifiably proud; her ability to withstand boredom was somewhat weaker. Still she made a game show of it – she found the woodpile, near the edge of the Maestro’s estate, where the narrow dirt path wound away from the main road. The wood was in utter disarray; fat logs, probably delivered by another woodcutter somewhere, lay in haphazard piles, scattered around the grass. Many had gone to rot; at least one revealed a pair of little, brown, slithering snakes when she moved it.

Marisol spent a good hour stacking the wood into piles, enjoying the dull ache of exercise, the relaxing sense of carving a little routine out for herself. Rotten wood was tossed to the side, dry wood was stacked by the block. Soon, she’d made a neat pyramid out of the usable logs, and began the process of chopping them up.

She probably would have managed two hours at it at least, lulled almost into a trance by the regular dull thunk of the ax biting into hard wood, if she hadn’t heard the singing. It wafted over the hills; she almost didn’t hear it over the sound of the ax. A momentary chill gripped her spine, as she thought of the circle of severed heads. Had they followed her? Had she dreamed them?

Marisol set down her axe and listened warily; soon she began to pick it out, not that strange and formless dirge at all, but a jolly tune sang by a chorus of male voices. Distant and garbled at first, it soon became clear that the song was in a language that she didn’t know. Marisol shielded her eyes from the sun and scanned the horizon. She finally saw five dark figures, slowly loping into view.

They were Prussian soldiers; that was unmistakable. Tall, with pale blond hair and ruddy faces. They wore intricate clothes of black cloth and dyed red leather, punctuated by bits of burnished steel and polished amber. Two of them had long, long lances that ended with cruel-looking blades; the rest carried fat black donnerguns and thick-bladed knives. The men traveled in a loose knot, like they were staggering home from a tavern together. They sang and laughed uproariously, and passed around a leather skin that was full of something that probably wasn’t water.

The soldiers came into view and their voices grew louder, as the road took them past where Marisol stood. They didn’t look at her as they walked, preoccupied with song and drink. Marisol felt her hands ache. She looked down to see that her knuckles had turned white where she gripped the haft of her ax like she meant to crush it, or snap it across her knee, or twist it apart into splinters.

She looked up just as the soldiers passed her by. The man at the back of the group lagged a bit behind the others, and she imagined running up behind him and burying the ax in his head. She would kick him away and yank the ax free to crush the next two soldiers as they turned in horror, spattered with blood, while the last men went for their guns, but she could get to them first, could put the ax in the first one then bear the next to the ground, crush his throat with her hands if she had to…

Her foot scraped in the dirt, almost of its own volition, as the urge to run at the soldiers welled up inside her. The man at the tail end of the group turned back to look at her, actually smiled and waved, and it was nearly enough to send her screaming after him.

Nearly. Some rational part of her reached out and seized control of her mind. Not here, it warned her, not now, not against so many. The hate she felt for the soldiers was almost palpable, a thick miasma that radiated from her pores and must surely be visible; but it was nothing compared to her hate for the man with the red right hand, and she wouldn’t compromise her revenge against him by needlessly risking her life against strangers like this. Marisol took three long, deep breaths through her nose – her teeth were clenched so tightly that no atom of air could have made its way through her mouth – then slammed the ax deep into the chopping block and stalked away. The Prussians, oblivious, continued singing their way off towards the horizon

It would not take long, Marisol reasoned as the waves of her fury slowly receded, to catch up on her work. It was just chopping wood, after all. And it would be in her interests to know the estate a little better if she was going to be expected to work on it. She prowled around the several buildings, doing her best to stay as quiet as a cat, and keeping her ears pricked for any sounds – but in particular the telltale clanging of a fencing lesson.  She heard nothing as she wended around the stables and still nothing as she decided to explore the ruined guest-house.

It was – or had been – a modest, one-storey affair. A small sitting room, two rooms that might have comfortably held as many as four students each. A large hearth in the center that would have made the whole thing fairly cozy. All three of the rooms were exposed to the air, now, and Marisol wondered what could have actually happened to it. The roof seemed to have been torn off and scattered in pieces; the north wall had collapsed outward, as though struck by some titanic blow from within. The floorboards were warped and rotted from their exposure to who-knew-how-many months’ of weather in some places, but also scorched by some great fire in others. Fetid water pooled on the floor. The place stank of mold and rot, its ripe odor the foulest sign of the building’s disuse.

Marisol left the mystery to itself and wandered towards the main house. This, at least, was in good repair, even if it seemed like the only building on the estate that was. The Maestro didn’t appear to have any servants, no tenant farmers, no anything, so it was really a bit of a wonder that he’d kept even the house he was living in together for so long. Maybe fixing up the house was what Diego did between lessons, Marisol reasoned, stepping a little ways back and trying to see into one of the second storey windows.

From the ground, she couldn’t see anything but darkness and maybe a faint hint of the shape of the ceiling, and she’d just decided to get back to all the wood that she’d carelessly left un-chopped when she heard, from around the corner of the house, the unmistakable sound of something rustling through the grass. It was probably just a rat, or a cat, or a cat chasing a rat, but Marisol’s curiosity was piqued in the way only the sort of inconsequential noise that comes just at a moment when a young woman is thinking of reasons to avoid her chores can pique it.

Careful not to startle whatever it was, Marisol quietly sidled around the corner. What she found was not a cat.

Chapter Eight

It was dark when Marisol finally achieved Don Lope’s rambling estate. She didn’t so much see it as intuit its existence – rustling weeds by the side of the path gave way to low buildings crouched in the dark; she looked up from the dusty road realized she had arrived. There was one light in the window by the front door, and it flickered and sputtered, as though it didn’t quite have the energy to remain steady.

Marisol, hands still shaking a little, stumbled down the broken flagstones that led from the road, practically dragging herself to the Don’s doorstep, where she waited, awkwardly. There was no sound, from outside the house or inside, but the chirrup of crickets. Nothing seemed to move but the erratic swooping of a pair of bats. Except for that light in the window – up close, Marisol could see that it was a candle burned down almost to the nub – the estate seemed entirely deserted.

The little iron doorknocker shrieked in its obstinate resistance to use, a sound that by far outweighed the faint tap-tap-tap that Marisol managed to coax from it.

Nothing happened, no one answered. She considered knocking a second time, considered just waiting by the door until someone came to put the candle out, considered finding a sheltered patch of dirt by the building and waiting until morning. Was it better to barge in now and risk waking up a sleeping household, or just wait out the night so she could announce herself politely?

The etiquette of the situation was mysterious to her; after a few moments of uncomfortable loitering, Marisol decided that her abrupt announcement had gone ignored, and that she was better off making a night of it in the dirt. She was getting used to sleeping on the ground and, considering what she was fully-intending to put herself through in the future, she supposed she ought to just get acclimated to a certain amount of discomfort.

Naturally, just as she’d turned away and begun to scout a comfortable spot for the evening the door scraped open, catching her just as her attention was distracted, startling a curt shout from her throat.

“Well,” said the young man who’d opened the door. “Good evening, miss…?”

He looked to be of Marisol’s age, around her height or a little shorter. He wore ragged breeches, patched many times; a loose, white shirt that had seen quite a lot of dirt, and probably very little clean water; and a sort of insufferable smirk that bespoke an immense confidence in one’s own charms. It was the sort of smirk that even Marisol, unfamiliar as she was with dealing with other people, had the sudden urge to slap off of his face.

“Marisol,” she identified herself, curtly. “I’m meant to see…are you…Don Lope de la Vega?”

“I’m certainly jealous of the Don, if he gets to receive such exquisite company,” the young man said, as Marisol rolled her eyes so hard she thought she’d strain something, “but I’m sadly…not. I mean, not him.” The young man, clearly having reached the limit of his capacity for charm, frowned and shrugged. “Don Lope does not take visitors, especially visitors late at night, so I’m sorry—“

Marisol shoved her letter of introduction in the young man’s face. “I’m not a visitor, I’m here as a student. I have a letter of introduction—“

“Don Lope doesn’t…isn’t I mean, taking any more students—“

“And this is a letter of draft from the swordmaker’s guild. To pay for my tuition.”

“Draft?” The young man said, taking both letters from her and examining them. “Wait here, please.” He turned and closed the door.

“Hey…” said Marisol, kicking at it, banging her fist on it. The door didn’t budge. “Hey!” She banged again and shouted, hoping perhaps to knock the door from its hinges by the sheer volume of her ruckus. Apart from the fact that closing the door in another person’s face just seemed to Marisol to be appallingly rude, the money that the letter of draft would provide was all the money she had left in the world – she had no way to know what the boy was going to do with it. Maybe he’d tear it up; maybe he’d bring it to Don Lope and pretend it was his so he could pocket a few extra coins. Maybe he and Don Lope would, together, conspire to rob the guild, to take all of the guild’s money and move to Madrid.

The fact that none of these scenarios were particularly likely escaped Marisol’s notice, as her anger at her apparent dismissal — the casual way in which the boy had just taken something that was hers – roused itself and refused to be put back down. She dug her fingers into the window-frame by the door and started yanking on it. It yielded, more readily than the door had, shuddering a few inches out at first, then flying open as Marisol yanked harder.

She pulled her sword of its sack and clambered into the window, knocking out the candle in her haste and plunging the room into darkness before she could get a look at it. She fell painfully to the floor, then leapt to her feet, sword in one hand, her other outstretched and searching for walls or furniture that she might bump into while her eyes adjusted to the darkness.

“What are you doing?” The boy asked as he returned, his own candle stabbing at Marisol’s eyes. “How–?”

“Give them back.”

“How did you get in here?”

“My letters!” Marisol snapped, waving her sword at him. “Give them back!”

“All right, all right!” Gingerly avoiding the point of Marisol’s sword, he handed her back the letters.

Marisol snatched them away and then put her sword back between them. It was only then that the absurdity of the situation became apparent, and she felt embarrassment heat up her face.

“Are you done, then?” The boy asked. If he was smiling, Marisol couldn’t see it in the dim candlelight. He sounded like he was smiling.

Marisol mumbled something that might have been an apology or an explanation, might have been the sort of incoherent mumbling that someone deep in the throes of shame might mutter when she hasn’t got anything better to say. The young man took it to be the former, and with great equanimity informed Marisol that Don Lope de la Barca had decided to take her on as a student, and if she would follow him, he would show her where she’d be staying.

“My name is Diego, by the way,” he said, as he lead her from the main building of the estate and towards one of the smaller ones, navigating more by long familiarity than any sufficiency of light cast by his little candle. “I am the Maestro’s only other student, for now, and also his valet, and sometimes his butler, as the Maestro…does not prefer to employ servants at this time. You’re welcome to go wherever you like on the estate, when you haven’t got any other duties to attend to, obviously. Those duties will start at sunrise, incidentally.” He led her to a small, squat building with a door that hung loose on its hinges. “Your suite, Miss Marisol.”

“These,” said Marisol, clenching her fist on the hilt of her sword, “are stables.” Which they were. Fortunately, it seemed they hadn’t actually had any horses in them for quite some time, and were devoid of the smell of horse manure. Somewhat less fortunately, they didn’t look like they’d seen fresh hay in as much time, either. The stables smelled sour and rank.

“Indeed,” said Diego, who lit a second candle and set it precariously on a shelf on the wall. “I hope you don’t think the Maestro is trying to insult you, though. The…ah…guest rooms partially collapsed in a storm two months ago, and there’s a bit of a draft. Also a family of rats who’ve taken up residence. It may not seem like it, but these actually are, by far, the most comfortable rooms available on the estate.”

Marisol eyed him suspiciously and kicked at the hay. It was warm, at least, though this was probably due to rot. Diego did seem appropriately abashed about the whole scenario. Surely this wasn’t a calculated insult?

Her embarrassment at breaking in still lingering in her throat, Marisol decided to give in rather than cause another scene. She was tired, and cold, and plainly not in the position to reasonably assess her situation. In the hard, reasonable light of day, she’d examine her situation calmly and dispassionately, decide whether this was a deliberate insult and, if it was, determine just how much in the way of deliberate insults she’d be willing to put up with if it meant she could learn to fight from a master swordsman.

“Fine,” said Marisol, tossing her bag into a pile of filthy hay. There were probably bugs in it, she thought. “Fine.”

“Good,” said Diego, and now his voice seemed even a little apologetic. “Good. Well. I’ll see you tomorrow. At dawn, of course. The…” he coughed. “The Maestro would prefer you to come in through the servants’ entrance, around the rear of the main house. You can’t miss it; red door, it’ll be unlocked.” Diego coughed again, nodded, took his candle, and left.

Marisol watched the light bob along down the path back to the main house, then disappear inside. The candle in the window, once extinguished, was lit again, and she wondered what its purpose was. No one had been expecting her; it seemed far too late to expect anyone at all. What was the point of one lonely candle, glowing in the window of a dark estate miles from the main road?

The mystery was unyielding, and Marisol decided to let it go for the present. At first fastidious, then just a little leery, then finally – overcome by frustration and exhaustion – simply indifferent to whatever dirt and crawling things she might come into contact with, Marisol slumped into the pile of rank hay. She hoped that she’d get used to the smell, and hoped that there were no lice, but mostly she didn’t care – the thought of actually beginning her training buoyed her spirits. She drifted to sleep, her mind filed with the pleasant fantasies of her revenge.

Chapter Seven

The next morning, the streets of Toledo had been transfigured, from a leaden canvas that Marisol had passed across but not through, untouched by its bustling crowds, to a dense labyrinth of increasingly frustrating obstacles. Excitement thrummed through her limbs, and she fiercely resisted the urge to run, rushing through the streets, tearing past the stalls, letting the urge to begin supplant the need to make sure she began carefully. Still, despite her forcibly measured pace, she found the pedestrians, the shopkeeps, the cart and carriage drivers, the men on horseback, every last one of them was moving too slow, and each exhibited a perverse tendency to place themselves precisely in Marisol’s path, no matter what route she tried to take.

It was with much eye-rolling, a generous heap of sarcastic bowing, and probably more mutterings of “No, by all means, after you,” than was strictly polite, that Marisol managed to make her preparations that morning. Unwilling to wait for Jeronimo and Ana to wake, she ate a hasty breakfast of fresh bread and figs bought from vendors at the Zocodover, then more supplies. Clothes — three men’s shirts and breeches, a pair of leather boots with hard soles and toes, breeches and stockings. More food, as she wasn’t sure just how long it would take her to get to Don Lope’s estate. A knife. A new, strong bag to carry it all. She spent the last of her coin on a broad-brimmed hat to keep the sun from her eyes.

Don Lope de la Barca y Berreda Martinez de Henao Blasco, she repeated to herself, trying to imagine what he looked like. Tall, probably, since height was an advantage for a duelist. Long limbs and a lean frame, since he spent so much time at practice, and would be very healthy. A neatly-trimmed beard and curled, oiled moustaches, as a swordmaster ought to be expected to take care and pride in his physical experience. The kind of sharp, calculating eyes that never missed a detail, set in a stern face that betrayed no emotion to his enemies. He would be, as a swordmaster ought, neat and crisp, straight and sharp like the sword he would teach her to use.

Or he wouldn’t be, she thought, the long habit of high hopes balanced by the memory of inevitable disappointment. Nothing ever happened quite the way a person imagined it, Marisol knew, and so whatever she thought she would find, she could reasonably expect it to not be precisely right. It didn’t matter, though; Don Lope de la Barca would teach her to fence, and she would learn like no student he’d ever seen. The sense of purpose grew as she made her way to the Gate of the Sun; it lifted her from the ground so that she walked on air, it hurled the slow-moving crowds from her path.

She hiked along the road that took her west at first, then veered off slightly to the south. The crowd of the city spilled out in a narrow river along with her, mostly tradesmen and merchants heading towards the coast, there to take their goods by sea to France or the Italian states, or even farther to the East. Most were Castillians who talked companionably with each other, their carts loaded up with knives and swords, pots and pans, bolts of cloth, sometimes dried sausage and cheese. There was at least one group of men from the Seven Nations, across the Atlantic, forced to take their tobacco and corn along the overland route since the English had seized Gibraltar. They seemed friendly for strangers, but spoke little Spanish, preferring to talk amongst themselves in their own tongue. Marisol offered her fellow travelers curt greetings, preferring instead to steadily overtake them on their way.

Her path diverged as the road curved away, and the traffic dwindled rapidly, from crowds of tradesman to one old man with an oxcart that creaked and rattled, and a handful of men on foot scattered in clumps along the road into the distance. Well into mid-afternoon, Marisol found her pace flagging slightly. She sat and ate her lunch of smoked chorizo and more bread — a little dry from the hours in her satchel, but perfectly edible once she’d moistened it with water — and watched the oxcart trundle out of sight. Once it had slipped off the road and vanished behind a low hill, probably off to a small farm somewhere, Marisol realized that she was nearly alone on the road, the gentle, hilly plain. The only other people she could see were three men, some ways distant on the horizon, their features difficult to make out. They didn’t appear to be moving, and Marisol suspected that they’d stopped for lunch as well.

She was back on her feet as the wind picked up, a lonely, dusty, eerie sort of a wind, that seemed to properly belong to the early evening of some day in the late autumn, and so had perhaps gotten its calendar a little confused and arrived some months early. Suddenly anxious, as only a person who realizes she’s not quite alone on a strange and windy road can be, Marisol shouldered her bag and carried her sword in the crook of her arm; her steps were hurried, her time spent at lunch suddenly regretted.

A few minutes later, and a short glance over her shoulder revealed both that the three men were still there and that they’d begun moving. Now they were a little closer. It was most likely just a coincidence — anyone travelling along a road, no matter how obscure, had some chance of running into strangers. If no one ever came this way, there’d hardly have been any need for a road. But wariness, once woken, was slow to return to sleep, so Marisol ducked her head and tightened her grip on her sword and tried to see just how fast she could walk without quite running.

The men behind her kept up, and it wasn’t long before she could make out at least one familiar face. Marisol cursed and looked around, but it was no good. There was nothing within sight but more hilly plains: tall grass that would never hide a person, low hills that would provide little cover, the merciless sun illuminating the empty meseta. Not another soul but her three pursuers for miles.

“Hey!” Shouted Julio César, king of the streets of Toledo. “Hey, girl!”

Marisol turned and tossed her bag to the side of the road, where it would be out of the way. She drew her sword.

“What do you want? I haven’t got anything to steal.”

Julio and his friends, two young men of about the same age, were near enough now that running, even had there been somewhere to run to, would have been pointless. Julio had his little club and knife. His friend, who wore a poor attempt at a moustache, carried a heavy, long — to Marisol’s eye, excessively long — rapier. The third boy carried a stick that looked like the leg of a chair that had suffered an untimely dismemberment.

Julio and his mates jogged up, fanning out a little to try and surround Marisol. “Hey, are you ready? Are you going to kill me now?”

“I just told you, I don’t have anything worth stealing.”

Julio shrugged. “You’ve got that,” he said, meaning her sword.

“It’s ruined,” said Marisol, carefully backing up, so she could keep all three boys in her field of vision, more careful still not to trip on the uneven road. “Look, the blade is discolored. It would probably break in half if you tried to use it.”

“Well,” said Julio. “We came all this way. It seems a shame not to take something, you know?”

“So, you want to rob me out of spite.”

“Spite,” he agreed, “also revenge. I can–”

Marisol lashed out with her sword slapping at the point of Moustache’s rapier. The end of his weapon promptly vanished with a sound like a silver bell. Startled, all four of them stared at the end of the weapon. There was a moment of puzzled silence as they tried to determine just what had happened.

By good luck, it seemed, Marisol’s sword had caught a nick in the Moustache’s poorly-maintained blade; the quick beat had been enough to snap the last eight or so inches off the end of the weapon, sending it hurtling to the grass a little too quickly for the eye to follow. It was certainly not now useless, but the loss of the tip of one’s sword is a deeply uncomfortable experience for any swordsman.

“Julio,” Moustache whined, “this was my brother’s, you said I’d just have to show it–”

“Shut up, dummy, you don’t–ah!”

Served so far by surprising, decisive action, Marisol decided to press her advantage, lunging at Julio and waving her sword at his face. He staggered backwards and she changed targets, swinging her weapon wildly above her head and charging at Moustchache, slapping his broken weapon aside with her left hand, screaming at the top of her voice. He yelped and dropped his sword while Marisol whirled on Chairleg, who’d had the presence of mind to at least try to club her while she was turned away; their weapons collided and Marisol’s sword stuck with a thunk, but the momentum of her spin worked to her advantage — club and sword were pulled to the side, and Marisol’s left fist looped around in a great hooking punch that landed square on Chairleg’s nose.

Wasting no time with him as he reeled with pain and shock, Marisol turned back to Julio, himself half-prepared for a renewed assault. She slashed at him, and again Fortune smiled on her — the makeshift club was still stuck to the blade and, wrenched from Chairleg’s slackening grip, spun loose as she swung, careening towards Julio, who only just managed to avoid it by ducking, then tripping over his feet and falling to the road. Marisol whirled back on Moustache then and, as he ineffectually tried to get to his feet, unleashed a stream of invective of such variety, such volume, and such creativity, that its like has yet to be surpassed in all the Spanish-speaking world. Not one of Moustache’s relatives was spared an insult, not one foul animal or disgusting excretion was missed in those comparisons, not one word banned by Church and polite society both was forgotten, and barely a breath separated each one.

All the while she lay about herself with the flat of her sword first, with the toes of her boots second, and, after recovering the broken rapier from where it lay, with the flat blade of that damaged weapon as well. First she bloodied up Moustache, then Julio, then Chairleg, then back, and the relentless onslaught and uninterrupted string of profanities turned their bungled robbery into a rout. Chairleg got his feet and fled first, followed shortly by Moustache, after whom Marisol hurled his own broken sword. Julio nearly managed to get up before before Marisol crashed into his back and sat on him.

“Mercy!” He cried, once he’d caught his breath. “Mother of God, mercy! You’re a damned devil!” He yelped as Marisol grabbed him by the hair.

“Do you swear fealty to me?”

“What? I–” He yelped again as she tightened her grip, “Aieee! Yes, yes, all right! Fealty!”

“Do you swear to come to my aid if I call you? To fight on my behalf against my enemies, who are now your enemies?”

“Yes, yes! Enemies!”

“Do you swear to give up your criminal ways, and devote yourself to good works?”

“What? But– ah! All right, yes, yes! Good works! I swear!”

Satisfied, Marisol stood, and magnanimously permitted Julio to get back to his feet, even allowed him to gather up his weapons before he fled after the comrades who’d long since abandoned him to untold humiliation, muttering about devils under his breath the whole while.

The flush of victory brightened Marisol’s cheeks and quickened her step as she retrieved her satchel and, for good measure, Moustache’s broken sword. As Julio disappeared on the horizon, the bright envigoration in her limbs gave way to a violent shaking; her stomach knotted up like a tangled fishing net. Her eyes watered and her nose ran, and she knelt by the side of the road and became violently sick.

Chapter Six

Though there was no law, the sword-makers of Toledo tended to cluster by the river, crowding around a shallow bend in the east. The easy access to running water was useful for a myriad of reasons — from power to work the bellows to a convenient way to dispose of waste — and competition for good spots was high. Marisol walked among the smithies, examining their signs in search for the device she was looking for. It was late now, too dark to work, and most of the smithies were closed up, the smiths and their apprentices retired to their homes, which were most often the rooms directly above. Yellow candlelight and the sounds of muffled conversation, the clinking of glass and porcelain plates, drifted down from the upstairs windows of the dark shops.

She found it at last, a device of a pheasant taking flight, above the name of Jeronimo Sanchez. Jeronimo was not, as he’d be the first to admit, the finest swordmaker in Toledo. Or the second finest. Or even the third. He was maybe instead somewhere around the fifteenth, though it was hard to estimate at that point. What he did very well was know talent when he saw it; Jeronimo had been making swords for thirty years, and of the five greatest swordsmiths in that time, three had been his apprentices. He had spoken for Sofia when she’d petitioned admission to the guild, and had defended her decision not to move into the city. He’d been a regular fixture at the house when Marisol was young, helping Sofia put her own smithy together, offering advice about everything from the placement of the bellows to the best vendors to buy coal and raw iron from. She remembered him as a solid, looming presence, like a boulder that had rolled down from the mountain and into their lives. Jeronimo had come to visit very occasionally over the intervening years, but despite long absences, Sofia always received him cordially.

The man himself had been working late, and was only just struggling with the key for the giant iron lock on his door. He was short, barely as high as Marisol’s shoulder, but built like a bull with huge shoulders and a neck that seemed excessively thick to support such a disproportionately small head. Jeronimo was bald and his skin was the same color and texture as the leather apron that he wore.

“Excuse me,” Marisol said as she approached.

“Closed,” Jeronimo grumbled, squinting over his lock. He fiddled with a key ring that contained a preposterous number of identical-looking keys, selected one and tried it. “Come back tomorrow.”

“My name is Marisol–”

This key fit. “Ha!” Shouted Jeronimo, as the lock clicked tight.

“…de la Espada, I need—“

“We’re closed, I said.” Jeronimo turned to face her. “You can come back…de la Espada? Marisol de la Espada, you’re Sofia’s girl! Ah-ha! I haven’t seen you since you were shorter than me.” He looked her up and down. “Well, well. How is your mother?”

Marisol felt like she’d been kicked in the stomach. The thoughts she’d swallowed had grown inside her belly, and the story now was too big to escape the narrow causeway of her throat. She opened her mouth to speak, but only managed a soft, strangled cry instead.

Jeronimo’s leathery face softened in surprise and sympathy. “What? Girl, what’s wrong? Come with me here,” he took her by the arm and led her up the rickety outside stair of his home to the apartments above it, Marisol struggling to speak all the while.

“Sh, sh, sit down,” Jeronimo commanded once inside, and sat her at a rough wooden table while he called for Ana, his wife. “Never mind all that,” Jeronimo said, “Just get some food and drink in her, Ana, she can talk when she’s ready.”

“Here,” said Ana, pressing a glass of sherry into Marisol’s hand. “What happened to her?”

Jeronimo shrugged. Marisol gulped the sherry greedily; it was sweet and raw in her throat at the same time, and after a second glass she felt something come loose in her mind.

“She’s dead,” Marisol said, finally, and realized that this was the first time she’d said the words aloud. It didn’t make it any more or less true, but she couldn’t help but feel that this spoken acknowledgement somehow made it all final in a way that it hadn’t before. Some tiny, obstinate hope that had lived inside her for the last few days — some mad notion that she’d come to Toledo only to discover it had all been a mistake, Sofia was alive and well and home and waiting for her — was snuffed out.

Somehow, this made it easier to relate the rest of the story. The damn burst; she told Jeronimo and Ana everything: about the man with the red right hand, the Prussians and their ship, about how she’d buried her mother with a coal shovel, and about how she’d come to Toledo to learn to fight so that she could take revenge.

“Well,” said Jeronimo, after he’d heard it all. “Revenge. I don’t think…I think perhaps first we should go to the mayor. The Prussians are supposed to follow the laws of Castille–”

Ana snorted in derision.

“–follow the laws…woman, what is that face you’re making? Don’t make that face.”

“You know full well the Prussians only follow the laws they like, the mayor isn’t going to do anything.”

“I am trying to keep this girl from getting killed–”

“If you want to keep her from getting killed,” Ana snapped, “tell her where she can learn to fight. You want to leave her mother, your good friend, unavenged?”

“Fencing schools cost money,” Jeronimo insisted, “and if she can get redress within the law–”

Marisol’s hands tightened on her sword as she listened to them argue. For a moment, she wondered at her surety of purpose. Maybe there was another way? Maybe…but that coal in her breast burned at the thought, and she knew she’d never take another path, not even if there was one. The man with the red right hand had killed her mother, and she would be the one to kill him, not some magistrate, not some soldier, not a hidalgo acting on her behalf.

“We can pay for her,” Ana said.

Jeronimo threw up his hands, “How much money do you think we have? Does this look like the house of a rich man?”

“I have some money,” Marisol interrupted. She pulled the purse out of her satchel and spilled Sofia’s last few coins onto the kitchen table. Ana examined it carefully.

“It’s not enough,” Ana admitted. “You could enroll at one of the schools in the old town…maybe if you offered to work for them? Certainly you could stay with us while you studied…”

Now it was Jeronimo’s turn to snort. “An old town salle? They’ll teach her a pretty guard and a fancy salute and she’ll be eaten alive by anyone who’s ever actually been in a fight. Those are for rich merchants who send off their sons to play at being hidalgos.”

“Well, where should she go then? If you aren’t going to help–”

“I can sell this,” Marisol said, putting the sword on the table. Jeronimo and Ana were silent a moment, before Jeronimo picked up the weapon to consider it. “The blade is ruined,” Marisol said quickly, not wanting Jeronimo to think she was trying to cheat him, “but the hilt and guard are good. Quality steel, well-made.”

Jeronimo drew the weapon from its scabbard and frowned over the pattern in the blade. He tested the edge with his thumb and gently bent the weapon to test its flexibility. “Hmm,” he said. “A little stiff, but not too bad. And this pattern is unusual, but I don’t think it’s ruined. I’ve seen blades like this before, and they held up just as well as anything.” He tested the balance, then took up a small iron fork from the table and tapped the blade. It rang, bright and high like a bell, the tone persisting for a long time in the now-quiet home. “You could sell this, yes. Not for a fortune, but maybe enough…” his eyes fell on the sunflowers that marked the base of the blade. He scowled and shook his head. “But I will not buy it.”

Marisol’s heart dropped. Ana was furious. “You won’t? Why not? You could sell it again for a thousand at the very least by tomorrow. At least put it up for sale, someone else–”

“Damn it, I will not buy the last sword this girl’s mother made–” The two of them were talking over each other now, each voice rising to top the other until they were both practically screaming.

“If you won’t,” Marisol shouted. Ana and Jeronimo stopped almost immediately, and Marisol let her voice come down to a normal level. “If you won’t buy it, I’ll find someone else who will. I’ll go from door to door if I have to. I’ll go to the other swordmakers, I’ll go-”

“Jeronimo–”

“Wait,” Jeronimo held up his hands. “Wait, wait. All right. Marisol, stay here with us tonight. I will go tomorrow –” He perceived the look on Marisol’s face as she half stood up, “–tonight, I will go tonight and speak with the rest of the guild. You stay here, eat, rest. You’re plainly exhausted.” Jeronimo pulled off his leather apron. “All right?”

Marisol nodded and sat back down, her sword across her lap. Jeronimo trundled off, and Ana brought Marisol dinner: a thick, spicy stew with ham and peppers and fresh bread to scoop it up with. Marisol wolfed it all down, so hungry at first that she felt almost too nauseous to eat, but soon stuffing herself to the gills. Between bowls of stew and glass after glass of sherry, Marisol was soon pleasantly sleepy. The hard few days caught up with her at once, in Ana’s warm, dark home.

***

She awoke to the sound of the door opening softly. Ana had apparently moved her, or convinced her to move, she couldn’t remember which; and Marisol suffered a moment of disorientation as she woke up in the large, soft stuffed chair near the fire, a blanket over her shoulders, blinking in confusion at the walls of a strange room, reaching for her mother’s sword, panicking when she realized it wasn’t at her side. She calmed down as recognition set in, when she saw Jeronimo by the door, trying not to disturb her, when she saw her sword in its sack, resting against the wall.

“What–?” she began, but Jeronimo cut her off.

“Sh, sh,” he said, in those hushed tones peculiar to the early morning before the sunrise. “You’ll wake Ana. Come here, sit.”

Marisol joined him at the little table. Jeronimo seemed anxious and reluctant; instead of speaking, he scratched a spot behind his ear.

“What is it?” Marisol asked.

Jeronimo sighed. “They will not buy your sword. No one in the guild. If someone asks about it, they will say that it’s worthless. If someone buys it from you without the guild’s consent, they will be blacklisted from all future commissions.”

Marisol felt sick. “What?”

“Listen, you have to understand–”

“You,” she said, anger bubbling up inside of her. The hot coal in her chest burned in the back of her throat. “You did this. You told them not to buy the sword!”

“Sh! Wait, listen–”

“Well I don’t care. I don’t care if your guild won’t buy it, I don’t care if I have to go to another city, or one after that–”

“Marisol–”

“I don’t care if I have to become a thief or a hired soldier or what, I don’t –”

Jeronimo seized her wrist. “Foolish girl, listen to me! We will help you!”

Marisol twisted her hand out of Jeronimo’s iron grip, but said nothing.

“We will help,” Jeronimo went on. “The guild will not buy this sword, because it is not yours to sell. It was a commission, made for a man named Savonarola. Do you know him?”

Marisol shook her head.

“He was the last master of the Padua School. No one has seen him for years, but never mind. He might still live, and if he does, you cannot sell the sword. But. The guild has agreed to help you in another way.” He pulled two letters from a pocket in his shirt and placed them on the table. “This is a letter of introduction to Don Lope de la Barca y Berreda Martinez de Henao Blasco. He is a master of the Toledo School of fencing, he lives on an estate outside of the city. He is…a difficult man, but a fine swordsman, he will teach you.” Jeronimo pointed to the second letter. “This is a letter of draft from the guild’s bank. You can use it to pay for yourself while with de la Barca. Save the rest of your money, you will need it.”

Marisol swallowed. “Why? Why are you…why all this?”

“‘Why’ she says,” Jeronimo snorted. “She walks twenty miles through the dead of night on nothing but a half a loaf of bread, she comes to me after all this for help, and when I give it to her she wonders why. Hmf.”

“No, I mean.” She took a deep breath. “Thank you. This is very generous. But I thought that the guild didn’t like my mother.”

“Hah,” said Jeronimo. “Well. We are old men, mostly, and old men like old things the best. When you’re young, you’re used to not understanding the world, so it doesn’t bother you. But when you’re old, you’re used to knowing everything you need to know, and new things make you nervous. Your mother was new, and she made many men in the guild nervous, and so they didn’t like her. Not at first. But just because we like old things, doesn’t mean we hate new things. When I talked to every master of the sword-makers guild in the city, I told each one of them that your mother was the best of us, and not a one of them argued with me. Maybe she was not well-liked, but she was well-beloved.”

Marisol placed her hands — strong and callused from the smithy — on Jeronimo’s. His were huge, square, stone wrapped in leather, they seemed strong enough to forge iron without tools at all. They were her own hands in twenty years, hands marked by a mastery of their craft. Or they were what her hands would have been, she realized, except that now her path had taken her from the forge. What would her own hands look like in twenty years’ time?

A new thought wormed its way into her mind, and she began to wonder if she would even see another twenty years. The quest could kill her, she knew, and would she risk that? Would she continue on, instead of returning to her home, carrying a pain that still might one day heal, rather than risk her life, knowing the she could never bring her mother back?

The fire that welled up inside her was surprising, but comforting. Yes. She would do whatever she had to. If there was a heaven, perhaps it would forgive her the rage that it had seen fit to burden her with; if there was a hell, she would drag the man with the red right hand down into it with her, better to burn and see him burn than to live and know that he lived. If there was neither one, then at least it would be a relief, to be free of her own pain, and know that the man had taken not one second more pleasure from life than she could help.

“Thank you,” she said to Jeronimo.

Jeronimo nodded and smiled, but his face was sad.

Chapter Five

Marisol could see Toledo low on the horizon. It was probably further than it seemed, but not so far that she couldn’t make it in a day. She forced down the little food she’d brought, against the wishes of her appetite, chastising herself that she’d not thought to bring some water to help her choke down the stale bread, then shouldered the sack with her mother’s sword, and trudged on aching feet to the old city.

It was late afternoon when she finally arrived at the bridge over the Tajo. Guards manned the gatehouses at either end, but they weren’t really guarding anything, just lounging and talking to each other, absently waving people along – travelers, peddlers, farmers taking their goods to the market or from the market. Beyond, the city spilled down the mountainous banks of the river, between the stout Alcázar on one side — torches lit on its roof where the Cabal had created an almadel for protection from demons – and the cathedral that stabbed at the sky like a knife. Smoke poured from chimneys and forges; the streets were narrow, loud, tangled, crowded.

Immediately, Marisol felt hot and flushed. Her shirt felt too tight around her neck, there was a lump in her throat. The streets were thick with people, too thick, their shoulders brushed against her, they pushed by, or just stoutly blocked her passage, and every time it made her shiver and feel sick. Toledo was a hot and noisy ocean, buffeting her with its crowds, crushing her beneath the weight of their humanity.

Marisol kept involuntarily turning her head when vendors in the market called out their wares. People shouted about fish and apples, bolts of cloth, spices. “Boy!” said someone else. “Boy!” Someone else screamed back in a language that Marisol didn’t know, while nearby two women argued loudly over the price of figs. The noise, the smells – of food, yes, but also of sweaty bodies, of horse and human excrement, burning coal and stagnant water – was all too much. Her ears rang, her head spun, and she shouldered her way through a crowd into one of the narrow, winding side streets of the city. She fled the main street farther and farther, until she found a quiet alley lit by yellow torches.

There was still some sunlight left in the evening sky, but Marisol’s alley was dark already, as the tall, crooked buildings came nearly together above her head. In the dark, cool space, away from the noise of the streets, she tried to get her bearings. She wanted to find the swordmakers, first; she had enough money for a room for the night at least, probably for more than that, but she didn’t need one just yet, and she didn’t want to waste any time. Most of the swordmakers were closer to the river, she thought, but she’d become turned around in her haste, and now she wasn’t sure which way that was.

A sound, like the scuffling of someone’s foot on cobblestones, made Marisol suspect she wasn’t alone. She continued on her way, turning right and left at random, vaguely conscious of a downward slope that she assumed would take her to the Tajo. The footsteps behind her were definite now and, without looking behind her, she picked up her pace. She tried not to run, but hurried through the labyrinth of the old city. She rounded another corner and froze.

There was a man. A man at the end of the steep alley, beneath a red-gold torch, standing as still as stone. He stood with his arms crossed across his chest, and wore brass armor that glinted in the light.

After a moment in which the man remained stock still, Marisol cautiously approached him. He stood at the bottom of the slope, at an intersection of two other roads, neither of which were lit at all; just dark portals at his shoulders. Edging down the street, suspicious of the man’s stillness, Marisol tried to get a closer look. His skin was a dark reddish-brown, and as she came nearer, she saw that it was marked with a looping, Arabic script. The man’s face was entirely hidden by his helmet, which seemed to have no portal for his eyes or mouth, only shiny brass.

“A golem,” said a voice behind her, causing Marisol to jump.

There was a young man at the top of the alley. He had neatly-combed black hair and a scar on his lip that made him seem just on the verge of sneering. He casually strolled towards her, hands behind his back. Marisol tried to divide her attention between him and the golem, unsure of what either was about to do.

“The Cabal built them, they guard the Jewish and the Moorish quarters, now.” He grinned. “We keep the reconversos because we need them, but that doesn’t mean that they’re safe, yeah? They protect the reconversos, but stand still as a corpse for anyone else.” He stopped some distance away, but Marisol kept all of his attention on him. “You didn’t hear me call you?”

“No,” she said.

“I thought you were a boy, you probably didn’t realize. Your hair said one thing, but you’re very tall. Bad guess.” He smiled again. “You looked like you might need some help, finding your way around.”

Marisol shrugged. “I’m looking for the swordmakers’ guild.”

“Ah,” said the boy. “You’re not far, just along the Quarter on the right there. But what do you need with the swordmakers? Is it something to do with that bag?”

She bristled at his questions. He didn’t seem especially dangerous, but growing up alone, Marisol wasn’t used to explaining herself, and she didn’t care for it. “What’s your name?”

“Julio,” said the boy. “Julio César, king of the streets of Toledo. What’s yours?”

“Marisol.”

“Marisol…?”

“De la Espada.”

“Huh.” He chuckled. “No wonder you want to find the swordmakers.” Julio César took a step closer. Marisol stepped back. “What’s in the bag, Marisol de la Espada?”

“A sword,” she said. “I mean to sell it.”

“A good sword?”

Marisol shrugged. “Good enough.”

Julio nodded. “I’ll take it.”

“You mean to buy my sword?” She asked.

“No,” said Julio, releasing his hands from behind his back. He had a knife in his right, and a small club in his left. “I mean to steal it. If you’ve got money, I’ll take that, too, but feel free to keep enough for a night in my fair city.” He smiled broadly, the scar on his lip tugging the expression into something feral. “I’m not completely heartless.”

He took a sudden step forward while Marisol dropped her satchel and scrabbled with the bag containing the sword. She managed to tear it free and toss it at Julio César’s face. He slapped it away with his little club, but Marisol had drawn her mother’s sword in the meantime and pointed it at him.

Julio just couldn’t stop grinning now, like this was the best fun he’d had in days. “Oh, ho! What’s this? You don’t really want to fight me, do you? You want to die over a sword and some coins? You want to kill a man over that?” He feinted to her right, then her left, trying to throw her off balance, but still keeping his distance.

Her heart pounded in her ears, and the coal burned in her chest. He was quick; he lunged towards her and Marisol was caught between advancing and retreating, hesitated a fraction of an instant – Julio’s club landed on her wrist with a sickening crack, as he lashed out with his knife.

Marisol stumbled away, the knife cut only air. Julie César sneered at her, he swaggered with that casual cruelty of the man she hated. Marisol’s wrist throbbed and snarled with pain, but she realized that she had not dropped her mother’s sword; her hand still clenched it tightly.

Marisol screamed in his face and swung her sword left and right, wildly, slashing out at his eyes. Julio’s confidence faltered, the ferocity of the attack took him off-guard. He panicked, tried to back away. He stumbled and fell hard to the ground, dropping his weapons. Marisol kicked the knife away and kept her sword pointed at his face.

“I don’t want to fight you,” she said. She pressed the point of her sword to his chest, and Julio tried to slither away from hit across the cobblestones. Marisol nicked his chin with the point of her weapon and leaned in close. “I don’t want to fight you,” she hissed. “You don’t matter to me. But if I see you again, I will kill you.” She backed away, picked up her satchel and the sackcloth bag for her sword, without taking her eyes off of Julio César until she had passed the golem, which had not stirred, a passive, stony witness. Marisol turned away towards the swordmakers’ guild.

As she reached the mouth of the alley, she whirled suddenly, her hand on her sword, ready to draw it.

Julio cursed and fell back from where he’d been bending over to pick up his knife. He spat and cursed again as he got to his feet, recovered his knife and, after a moment’s deliberation, slunk away. All with a sour look on his face, like he’d been eating lemons.

When he was gone, Marisol shuddered and collapsed against the wall. Her hands shook, her whole body convulsed and she felt like she would be sick. The scant bits of sausage and cheese in her stomach threatened to desert her, but she refused to let her only meal go to waste. She clenched her jaw and kept the bile down, taking long, slow breaths until the shakes had gone and the fire in her breast had dimmed.

Chapter Four

In her dreams, Marisol curled up in her bed and listened to the sounds of her mother elsewhere in the house. The stove crackling as she put wood on the fire; the pots clanking as she prepared breakfast; the water-pump creaking. Soft footsteps and gently-closing doors, always at the edge of her hearing. She kept her eyes closed and listened to the quiet morning sounds, trying to keep reality from intruding, to squeeze out one more minute before she had to wake up.

Morning comes no matter what, and awake she did, in a ditch, by the side of the road. Anger and shock had carried her far, farther than her body could stand; she had walked long into the night before she finally collapsed, still miles from Toledo. She didn’t know how long she’d slept, but she suspected it was a whole day gone. She stood and stretched; her body ached. She was cold and starving, and there was a sore spot on her cheek where she’d unknowingly been clutching her mother’s sword to her cheek. Her face was sticky with blood, where the untended cut on her cheek had painted her face.

Marisol’s attention was drawn by the sound of rustling in the tall grass by the road. She watched, and saw a sleek red fox regard her with its unreadable eyes, before bounding over a low hillock and into the depression beyond it. Marisol followed without thinking, her mind and body were worn out, like a rag squeezed empty, only little drips of thought and sensibility were left to her. She felt that she was still dreaming, detached from her body and being led by the strange symbols of her sleeping mind.

The fox bounded over the rise and Marisol stumbled after. She crested the hill and saw people sleeping, scattered about in the depression. They had no fire, and seemed to have no blankets or supplies with them. In between each prone body was a spike, thrust deep into the ground, and at the top…

Marisol knew she ought to be sick, that her stomach should have wrenched in horror, but something had changed deep inside her, and now even this gruesome vision could not move her.

The sleeping people were all dead, their heads removed and perched on wooden stakes. The soil here, usually dry and dusty, was thick with congealed blood. It squelched softly beneath Marisol’s boots as she approached the slack faces with their staring eyes. There was a sound, she realized, almost like a ringing in her ears, but deeper and more distant, that set her teeth on edge.

The severed heads were singing.

Their song was soft and the words were foreign, but now that Marisol had noticed it, she could hear a plaintive melody and subtle harmonies that were slowly decaying into a faint and ragged gasp. Something animated those severed heads, lent a weird and baleful light to their eyes.

There were sixteen corpses, men and women, dressed, she thought, like Spaniards. There was no one nearby, not on any of the hills that surrounded her. The ground was soft and wet with blood, but not torn apart as though there had been a fight. No weapons had been drawn. What had happened here, to kill sixteen people and leave no other mark of their passing?

Marisol was conscious of a giddiness in her stomach, a feeling that she didn’t quite understand. It shivered up and through her limbs and face, tried to crawl its way from her mouth. She wanted to laugh or cry or choke on something. The sensation hammered at her, drove her to her knees, this inchoate demand from deep within her soul to do something inexpressible.

She looked up and saw the fox on the top of the hill. It blinked at her and disappeared.

“You, girl,” a voice whispered.

One of the severed heads was speaking to her. It had belonged to and old man with a thick moustache that dropped down over the corners of his mouth. Should she be afraid? Marisol didn’t know.

“Girl,” the dead man spoke to her again.

“What happened to you,” Marisol finally croaked.

“The Medici called on us to save our homes, when the Prussians came for us. Sixteen souls we gave up, to guard our country. They taught us a song to sing that would keep us safe.”

Marisol shook her head. “The Prussians came anyway.”

“Not here.”

“To the west. To my home.”

“Our song protects us. .The living cannot sing it.”

Marisol screamed and kicked at the stake, knocking it to the ground and sending the severed head tumbling. The others began to sing, their song clear, but still faint, just on the edge of hearing. Marisol ignored it, blotted it out with her own full-voiced rage as she tore down each stake and kicked the heads into a pile, bruising her toes on their heavy skulls.

“Please,” whispered the old dead man. “Please no, the Prussians. Without the song they will come.”

“They have already come,” Marisol snarled. “Your song means nothing to them, you mean nothing to them. The Medici mean nothing. This is all they gave you. Death, wallowing in the mud like pigs. It is as much as the Prussians would give.”

The song gave way and the last, unnatural light faded from the eyes of those empty faces.

“Nothing,” Marisol said again. “You mean nothing to them.”

The ground hardened beneath her feet, the blood-wet soil turning thick as a scab, as she climbed free of the depression. She clenched her hands and ground her teeth until she thought they would crack.

Before she reached the road, she thought she saw the fox again, out of the corner of her eye, but when she turned it was gone. As though a spell had been lifted, her anger faded, and the giddiness left her body. She felt only heaviness, the same heaviness she had carried all night long, had dragged with her towards Toledo, the heaviness of thoughts too painful to consider.

Marisol took long, deep breaths through her nose. She smelled blood and rot, and followed it back to the corpses. There she rummaged through the pockets of the dead until she found flint and tinder. She piled bodies on top of bodies and set them next to the severed heads, then tore up heaps of dry grass and packed it around them.

Marisol scraped the flint again and again until the tinder caught fire, until the grass caught fire.

“There is nothing to protect us now,” moaned the head of the old man.

“Nothing ever protected you. You were already dead, you just didn’t know it.”

“We know,” said the old man, as the flames licked his cheeks. “We will curse you for this.”

“You have no power to curse me, you are all dead.”

“The dead have the strongest curses.”

“The dead have nothing,” Marisol said, as she turned her back on the fire and made her way back towards the road.

“You will know no home!” The old man called after her. “You will know no comfort! You will have no succor! You will know nothing but suffering!”

“You are a fool,” Marisol called back. “You have only cursed me to live.”

Chapter Three

Marisol didn’t know how long it had been, how long the men took to leave before she started to move, when her mind finally cooled and she could think again. She raised up her head and looked at the body crumpled on the ground, a shape she still couldn’t bring herself to think of as her mother. She hadn’t seen its face, hadn’t turned it over, had never seen her mother fall. Maybe it was someone else. Maybe her mother had run, and this was Diego, who’d turned back at the last minute and tried to intervene, maybe it was a Prussian who’d tried to get the best of Sofia and found himself outmatched.

Maybe anything, anything else. It couldn’t be what it looked like, no matter how she thought about it. She had turned away from the window for a minute. Not even a minute, a second. The blink of an eye, too small a time for so large a thing to happen. The enormity of it just didn’t seem possible, a whole life snuffed out in the space of time it took to turn her head. And somewhere behind that shock and disbelief was a niggling fear, a slow terror that began gnawing on her gut, that maybe if she hadn’t turned away, if she’d seen what was happening, she could have stopped it, could have run out sooner, could have, could have, could have. The thought gained little traction at first, because to feel the guilt over failing her mother required her to accept that this body, lying stone-still in the dirt, its hair and clothes stirred faintly by the wind, was her mother, and it couldn’t be her mother.

Trembling, Marisol turned the body over, and moaned involuntarily as she saw Sofia’s face. There were the freckles across her nose, almost hidden by the skin reddened by sun and forge. There was the worn skin and wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, here the lines etched on her cheeks from that easy smile. Sofia’s face was calm now, her eyes glassy and staring. Marisol wanted to close them but couldn’t move any closer, as though there was still a chance that this might all not be real, that it might be some mistake, some trick of her senses or the light. Maybe if she looked again it would be someone else, or she’d wake up from a nightmare to discover everything the same as it had been, just so long as she didn’t touch. The body. Her mother.

Finally, she did take Sofia’s head and cradled it in her lap, while a fountain of tears bubbled out of her. . The tears came in waves but were insufficient to the grief and anger boiling inside her. Rage drove her to her feet and screamed, she wanted to make her choke on her bile. She wanted to be sick, to stomp the body into the ground, to rend her clothes and tear her skin and just scream the hate out of her.

But she didn’t. She felt a hard, hot stone in the center of her chest, a searing coal beside her heart, and she understood what it was for. It calmed her, soothed her, turned her breath from ragged gasps into something slow and even, as she made a resolution.

She would find this man. Wherever he was, whatever it took, she would find him. And she would kill him.

This resolution made, Marisol found she had a sudden, remarkable clarity of vision. The past few moment were swept aside by the surety of her course.

Marisol went back into the house to examine her options. Sofia had kept some money in the house, but she didn’t know how much, or how far it would get her. The Prussians were many miles to the south, in Granada, but she couldn’t go there right away.

Her mother had taught her to fence a little, out of necessity – a smith cannot make a sword if she doesn’t understand how to use it. So she’d learned the nine parries; the imbrocade, the estocade, the stramazone; the disengage, the bind, the envelopment. But it had all been too boring, and she had never devoted time or energy to it, never given it more than a cursory thought. Now she would have to do that, and more. The man had been lucky, and Marisol had been blind and wild with rage, but she’d take no chances.

She might get no more than a single chance to kill him, and she would not waste it.

She’d find a fencing master and study with him until she was sure that she could satisfy her vendetta. A fencing master meant going to Toledo, which was closer at least. She’d need money to live on, money for her training with the master, money to pay her way to Granada when she was ready. Marisol immediately began ransacking her own house for anything of value that she might carry with her.

There was precious little; for whatever reason, the Prussians had taken everything they could find. Every piece of metal, every knife or sword or bit of ironmongery, finished or unfinished, they could find. Marisol and her mother had hardly anything else worth carrying.  A few coins in her mother’s purse. Some books that were useless to her now – they sat in sullen piles by the light of the candles, and in a fit of rage Marisol nearly burned them all, tore them apart for their weakness.

There was the dirty, stained copy of The Dancing Master, lying on the floor. She seized it and meant to set it alight, but the fury passed her by. There was no time to waste on petty spite. She clutched the play tightly, but did not destroy it.

After she’d investigated the last room in the house – her bedroom, with its curtains torn down and the straw mattress torn apart and scattered across the floor, her wardrobe overturned and emptied – she nearly wept with frustration.

It was only when she collapsed on the floor of the house that she used to share with her mother — and that she was about to leave behind forever – digging her nails into her palms and pounding her fists against the ground, that she remembered the loose board, and the object hidden under it. Hastily, she found the loose floorboard in her room and yanked it away. The sword, in its sackcloth wrap, was still there. The Prussians had either been less eager to find it than Sofia had imagined, or they hadn’t known to look for it, or else they’d just been too stupid to think to examine the floor very closely. Whatever the case, she had the sword at least. She unwrapped it and examined it.

It was not the most impressive rapier she’d ever seen. Of average length, the blade ending at about the height of her navel — the preferred size for her, but she was unusually tall; it would have been unwieldy for her mother, and short for the hidalgos of Toledo, where the fashion was for very long blades. The ricasso and quillons were smooth and unadorned, as was the plain cup hilt and pommel, though all of the furniture was polished mirror-bright. The grip was wrapped in soft, dark-brown leather to match the scabbard.

She drew the sword. It was reasonably light and well-balanced, the weight resting mostly in her palm, but the blade looked to be fairly ruined. There was a nice etching at the very base of the blade of three sunflowers, but the body of it was marked with a watery pattern where the impurities in the metal hadn’t been completely worked out. The pattern was faint, but unavoidable once it was noticed. It didn’t look like Toledo steel at all, which burnished to a bright, even gleam the way the furniture on the weapon did.

Disappointed, Marisol put the sword back in its sheath. She could probably sell it for some money, anyway. Even if the blade was beyond salvation, the furniture was worth something, at least. Besides that, it was all she had.

Her heart quivered at the thought of giving up the last piece of her mother. She felt fresh tears welling over the image of the sunflowers, which had been Sofia’s signature, but hate overcame sentiment. If she needed to sell the sword to kill the man who murdered her mother, then she would. If there’d been anything left in the house, if there’d been a hundred swords, she’d have sold them all if that was what it took.

Marisol found a coal shovel left behind by the Prussians, and used it to dig a shallow grave for her mother. It was back-breaking labor that took her the better part of the afternoon. She buried Sofia de la Espada by the small stream that drove the bellows in her forge. There was nothing to mark the grave, so Marisol left the coal shovel stuck as deep in the earth as she could. It was nearly dark by the time that she finished, but Marisol couldn’t be bothered to wait any longer. She packed her few clothes into her satchel as well as The Dancing Master, which she had somehow managed to retain through all of this, though she could not remember how. She took some hard cheese, a piece of dry sausage, and a stale loaf of bread, and followed the road to Toledo.

She hadn’t meant to start crying again as she walked, but the tears came anyway. She permitted them until her house had passed out of sight, taking one last look at. Her home, at the bottom of its little hill, the little stream curled around it. Marisol knew she would never see it again. She swallowed up the last of her tears, and vowed to herself that she would not shed another until the man with the red right hand was dead.