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?”
“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.