It was another week – another week of pointless chores, of aggravating labor, of frustration and chafing at the thought of more inactivity, of furtive spying on the lessons that she wanted and clumsy practice on her own at night – before Marisol finally couldn’t take it anymore. Her outburst was the product of more than a month of building anger, but it was precipitated by a pheasant. Diego had bought two that afternoon from a huntsman who was passing by, and that evening had given one to Marisol to pluck clean. The process of plucking the feathers from a pheasant is a tedious, largely unsatisfying one. It causes a person’s hands to cramp and their fingers to ache. Marisol was halfway through her pheasant when she stopped. She stretched her neck, and flexed her hand, which made small popping sounds as her knuckles cracked.
“When am I going to learn to fence?” She said to Diego; head down, shoulders hunched, he was absorbed in plucking his own pheasant.
Diego looked up at her with a bit of an abashed look on his face. “Soon,” he told her. “Not long now. The Maestro just…he prefers to…” Diego trailed off.
“He prefers to what?” Marisol demanded. “I have been here for a month. He has taken my money and treats me like a servant. He hasn’t even spoken to me in all that time. What is he waiting for?”
Diego said nothing, just tried to look reassuring. He failed, and Marisol felt heat rise up in her chest. She felt sick and angry and once; her hands balled into fists.
“What?” She asked again.
“He…” said Diego, leaving the pheasant and leaning against the far wall of the little kitchen. “He doesn’t want to teach you. He says he doesn’t teach girls—“
Marisol leapt across the room and seized his shirt with such suddenness and force that Diego blanched. “You knew! You knew this all along!”
“I was trying to convince him,” Diego insisted, but Marisol didn’t hear him. She let go of his shirt and stormed out, back to the stables. Diego trailed after her. Whatever he said, she couldn’t hear it; his words rolled impotently off her back.
She dug through the hay to where she’d left her sword and pulled it free from its burlap sack. “Wait!” Diego said as he stood in the door, but she shoved him aside and stalked back to the house, bare sword gleaming in the late evening light.
Marisol threw open doors, kicked them if they were locked or wouldn’t budge, shouted at Diego, “Where is he? Where is he?” before finally bursting into the Maestro’s dilapidated library.
Don Lope sat in a rough-hewn chair, slovenly, fat. His fierce eyes scowled at the book in his hand, he held a glass of sherry in his right. The library held all of two bookcases, one half empty. They were packed with badly-bound books, some just sheafs of paper held together with string. Their content was mysterious. A pair of swords hung from the wall. They were plainly meant to cross, but whatever hook held the tip of one of the swords had broken away, so it hung straight up-and-down from its handle.
The Maestro looked up as Marisol barged in, Diego trailing behind her. She said nothing, just stood in guard and raised her mother’s sword. The Maestro rolled his eyes and looked at Diego. He didn’t speak, but his intent was plain enough: “Get her out.”
Diego grabbed Marisol’s arm, but she turned and shoved him, hard enough to send him reeling back into the hall. She stepped into the library and held her sword up again. The Maestro ignored her. She stepped closer and slapped his book from his hands. Now he looked up at her and seemed to see her for the first time: nostrils flaring with ragged breath, jaw clenched so hard her teeth might break, and her eyes – fierce and steady.
Maestro Lope stood up, unconcerned by how close Marisol’s point was to the end of his nose, and took one of the swords from off the wall. Without warning, he spun and thrust at that oblique angle that was mean to push Marisol’s sword aside. She twisted her sword and tried to push back – and, just like in his lessons with Diego – the Maestro whipped his rapier around to slap at her wrist.
Marisol was prepared; she snatched her hand away and the Maestro missed. Immediately, she brought her point back in line with his eyes, and just as quickly the Maestro thrust again, trying to push her sword out of line. Marisol pushed back – as fast as a snake, the Maestro slapped at her wrist and then at her face.
But Marisol had seen this a dozen times, had practiced, however clumsily with Rachel every evening. She pulled her hand out of the way, reared back as the Maestro’s sword lashed at her cheek, and cut at Maestro Lope’s wrist.
The Maestro parried her cut and somehow the parry turned immediately into a bind. For a moment, it seemed like his sword had actually grabbed ahold of hers, had wrapped around it like a vine, as he returned a thrust. Marisol felt something that she had only had intimations of in her own practice, a sense that the two swords were connected – not two objects, individually fighting for control, but a single, writhing entity, an unbroken loop of energy that thrust towards her and then rolled between them back to the Maestro, rolled again as he pushed towards her leading knee, twisted and returned as she thrust to his shoulder.
For that one fraction of a second, Marisol’s anger was suspended. Her mind was a mist that had boiled off from her body and she lived instead in the muscle and sinew and steel that had their own mind, their own senses, their own strange attractions and repulsions. She and the Maestro were deliriously free of thought and intention as their swords scraped and rasped against each other.
And then Maestro Lope caught Marisol’s point in the quillions of his sword, twisted his body and levered it from her grip, sending it hurtling across the room. He lashed lightly at her face, coming close but not quite touching, and then rested the point of his sword on the scar on Marisol’s cheek. Marisol dropped her hands to her side, but did not flinch, did not turn her fierce eyes away from his.
She was breathing heavily, almost shivering with rage and unspent energy. The exchange had taken no more than a few seconds, but it had seemed to stretch out in a moment temporarily unmoored from the ordinary passage of time. Now the clock reasserted itself and Marisol felt her mind creep back in and remind her what she’d risked by coming here, what she stood to lose if the Maestro sent her away.
Don Lope pursed his lips, and tapped Marisol’s scar. He glanced behind her at Diego, and gestured to Marisol’s fallen weapon. Gingerly, Diego slipped into the room and handed it to the Maestro. Without relaxing his own sword, Don Lope examined Marisol’s. “Where did you get this?” He asked, finally. His voice was a low, tired growl.
“My mother made it. It’s mine.”
If Maestro Lope expected anything more, he clearly wasn’t going to get it. The silence dragged on as Maestro Lope and Marisol locked eyes. Finally, it was the Maestro who turned away. He tossed his sword carelessly away, where it clattered into a corner of the room and said, “Tomorrow. When you’re done with the wood. Come to the barn.”
He retrieved his book and sat in his chair. Sometime during the scuffle his glass of sherry had fallen to the floor, leaving a dark stain on the bare wood. Marisol stood awkwardly for a moment until the Maestro, without looking up, dismissed her with a wave of her hand. She opened her mouth to speak, but – possibly sensing that such an act might yield even more trouble – Diego grabbed her arm and yanked her from the room.
“I—“ she said to him, but he shushed her, closed the door, dragged her down the hall and back to the kitchen before he said anything.
“My God, woman, you’re insane!” He hissed, voice just above a whisper. “You’ll get yourself killed!”
“I didn’t come here—“ she began.
“Sh! Keep your voice down!”
“I didn’t come here,” she whispered, “to cut wood or cook dinner. The sword-makers guild didn’t send me here to learn how to be a servant.”
“Yes, but he could have killed you. The Maestro has fought thirty-five duels, did you know that? And he killed all but one man. He doesn’t scratch or cut a man’s wrist. He kills them. Are fencing lessons really worth your life? Are you an idiot?”
Marisol had briefly felt herself buoyed along by a kind of breathless energy, but Diego’s question brought up all the anger and grief that she still carried, the wound still fresh and raw and bloody.
She seized the front of Diego’s shirt and pushed him against the wall. She leaned in close to him and practically spat in his face, her voice throbbing with anger.
“You don’t know anything. You have no idea what this is worth to me.”
Marisol returned to her makeshift bed in the stables, which had finally seen fresh hay (though still no horses) for the first time in who knows how long, thanks to the money from Marisol’s tuition. She was hungry and angry, deeply embarrassed and more than a little excited and didn’t think she’d ever be able to sleep. She pulled out her sword and walked through every technique she knew – every thrust and parry that her mother had taught her, every oddly-stilted guard and cryptic bind that she’d seen Diego and Maestro Lope practice – until she was sweaty, exhausted, and light-headed from the work and her empty belly.
Then she threw herself into the hay and visited the ten rooms and the eight steps of her fight with the man with the red right hand. When she reached the stair at the top of the tower, she didn’t follow it up into the white cloud. Instead, she sat on the stair and looked down on the bloody corpse of her enemy.
In this way, she drifted off to sleep.