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.