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.
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.”
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.