Marisol stood with her arm outstretched, feet together, left hand on her hip. She stared at the tip of her mother’s sword, quivering slightly as she tried to hold it straight out from her shoulder. Sweat poured down her forehead. Years of working the smithy, blasted by heat and exhausted by the work of her hammer, and she had never sweat so much as when she had to remain perfectly still.
“You are fine at this,” the Maestro had said when Marisol first began, “this Italian buffoonery. Your jumping around and swinging. But La Verdadera Destreza is an art of stillness, of sensitivity.”
Diego had already: failed his first attempt, been cuffed by the Maestro, tried again, failed again, been cuffed again, tried a third time during which he lasted less than a minute, was cuffed yet a third time, then been excused by his increasingly-resigned instructor. Diego sat in dark of the barn, gasping for breath, his sword across his knees. He watched the Maestro, who watched Marisol, who ignored men and eyes alike, and stared only at the point of her sword.
“Why does it matter so much?” Diego asked her, while he leaned against the doorjamb of the stables. Marisol sat in the hay, practicing with her empty hand the forms of thrust and parry that she had learned.
She ignored him.
“I mean. Do you want to be a soldier? To fight duels? Who is going to fight you? What army would take you?”
Marisol said nothing.
“You could disguise yourself as a boy, I suppose. You’re big enough, anyway. But why?”
Diego grew frustrated with her silence, and left. She knew he would be back.
His breath regained, Diego made a fourth attempt at standing in the guard. He groaned after thirty seconds, and the defeat in his voice made Marisol’s sword waver. She grit her teeth and fixed her gaze, her point straight again.
Diego sat back down. Marisol had come to suspect that his problem was that he was lazy. He had a passing interest in learning to fence, but not enough. Not enough to sacrifice, to suffer pain and sweat and tears. He did not want it enough to let it break him, to let it kill him, to let it build him over again.
As her mind wandered, her point bobbled, and Marisol renewed her focus. She held the grey garden in the tower of her mind, and saw the man with the red right hand impaled on her sword, saw him lying dead at her feet.
Her point steadied itself. The Maestro looked on, his face impassive.
“You see these?” He said, while Marisol held her guard. He gestured at the lines painted on his floor. Marisol did not look at them, she knew them by heart. The circle had long chords, and short chords, and traced a bewildering geometry. “These show the circle of a man’s sword. To take his life, you must find your way through the circle. These chords – and only these – are the route you will take.”
Diego came back that night with stew, and Marisol was finally too tired to practice even seated and with her hands empty. She ate ravenously, and then flopped down in the hay and stared at the ceiling of the stables. It was dark, and the beams were half-rotten, and there was a bird’s nest in one corner; she had seen all this before and it was becoming as familiar to her as the memories of her home were becoming strained and faded.
“Why don’t you like me?” Diego asked.
Marisol was startled. She thought he’d left. She pushed herself up to her elbows and saw that he was standing there, leaning against the doorjamb. Again.
Marisol shrugged. “I like you fine.”
Diego frowned. His features each seemed slightly too large for his face –it was a canvas that could not quite accommodate mouth and nose and eyes and cheeks. Diego’s face always seemed to be in motion, as its various constituent parts jockeyed for position. Often it made him seem pleasant and lively; sometimes Marisol found his inability to be still annoying.
“You don’t talk to me,” he said. “You don’t tell me about yourself.”
“Maybe you talk too much,” Marisol replied.
“Bah,” Diego said. “I talk precisely the correct amount. I have studied the art of conversation, and practiced it more than you have practiced with your sword.”
Marisol scowled. “You can’t practice conversation.”
“You can’t,” Diego replied, waving his hand airily. “But I am blessed with, in addition to my handsome face and charming personality, a fanciful imagination that permits me to conjure any number of partners with which to practice the exchange of witticisms.”
Marisol afforded him a suspicious look.
“You don’t believe me. Watch, I will do so right this moment!” Diego screwed up his face for a second, and then at once began a silent conversation with the air, a cheerful pantomime with an invisible partner. He waved his hands excitedly, and as his enthusiasm grew, moved back and forth, taking the place of both speakers. He shook his fists in the air and scowled, pretended to shout, shook his finger at his absent enemy, then finally whirled and stomped off into the darkness outside the stable.
Marisol snickered. Diego poked his head back in through the doorway.
“Ah, see?” He said. “That was not a very good conversation partner, sometimes it happens, bad luck. But I submit it as evidence that I am very good at conversation, and therefore we should rely on my estimate of how much talking a person ought to do, and that you do not talk enough.”
“Hm, yes. A very compelling point.” Diego sat down in the doorway. “You can at least tell me how you came here.”
Marisol tried to speak, but the story of her mother’s death was too big somehow. It caught in her throat, as though the words themselves required more space for their passage. She shrugged again and flopped in the hay.
Diego had been excused, and sent off to prepare the evening meal. Only Marisol and Maestro Lope remained in the barn. Marisol’s arm shook. She gritted her teeth and clenched her jaw, squeezed the grip of her sword like she would wring water from the tempered steel.
For three hours she’d stood there, doing nothing but holding the guard position. The Maestro, she knew, was waiting for her to drop her guard so he could slap her write or cheek with his own sword. His stern, calculating eyes never drifted away, they only eagerly looked for a sign of weakness or failure. Marisol and the Maestro were locked in a quiet contest of wills – he tested to see how long she could last before she broke, she tested to see how long it would take before he accepted that she would never relent.
Not now, not ever. While there was strength in her body, Marisol would not give him even the small satisfaction of seeing her drop her guard.
“Your feet follow the circle,” the Maestro said. “Your sword must follow your enemy’s sword. It must be an extension of yourself. Not of your body, but of your mind. You must feel through it, see with it. The steel must be your eyes.”
The sun had begun its surrender to the night sky, and fled for solace beneath the horizon, leaving the light stained pink and purple in its retreat. The barn was slowly bedecked with shadow, the air grew chill, but Marisol was determined.
Finally, Maestro Lope slapped at the sturdy forte of her sword. The weapon clattered from her hand and crossed the room. Marisol shouted as a sharp pain ran from her forearm up into her shoulder. She swore and gripped her wrist; it felt like it was broken.
The Maestro stood with his sword held behind his back. Stout and stern with a face as grim as a toad, he watched Marisol fall to her knees, her face twisted with anger.
“You are very strong,” he finally said. “And it makes you brittle. A sword doesn’t last because it is hard. It lasts because it bends.”
The Maestro left her with her sore wrist and wounded pride, her breath ragged through clenched teeth. The pink and purple sky gave way to the black night with its winking stars. Marisol’s breath slowed and she stretched her stiff jaw. She collected her sword and left the barn.
“A man murdered my mother.” Marisol said. She stared up at the ceiling, not daring to look at Diego. She didn’t even know if he was still there. Marisol let the words out and let them float in the musty air of the stables, and waited.
After a moment of silence, she heard Diego’s voice. It was very quiet, and its customary conviviality was subdued. “Who?”
“I don’t know his name. He is a Prussian. He had a red mark that covered his right hand.”
“Why did he…why did he do it?”
“I don’t know.”
Diego was silent.
“I am going to find him,” Marisol said at last. “And I am going to kill him.”
“How?” Diego asked.
“I don’t know,” said Marisol. “But I will.” She turned over in the hay and stared at the far wall. “You wanted to know why I’m here,” she said. “That is why.”