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-”
“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–”
“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.