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.