Chapter Twenty-Two

Marisol slept for some few hours , tucked away beneath a crooked house that sheltered her from most of the rain. She awoke cold, with her bones aching, just as the clouds gave way to the very earliest rays of the sun. Rag-pickers and bone men were already about, scraping through the trash and offal of the streets, hunting for anything of value in the city’s effluvium. It would not be long before the markets sprang to life, and the city would shake with the musical din of commerce.

She left the city by the Sun Gate, as sluggish guards drew open its great doors. She grit her teeth as she passed through the Prussian camp, already noisy with the sounds of early morning, and replete with the smells of roasting meat.

Marisol took the road to the Maestro’s estate, sometimes walking, sometimes moved by some inexpressible energy to jog. She felt a sense of imminence, a certainty that something important was about to happen, though she could not say what. Her mind occasionally wandered back to the events of the night previous, the memories of which seemed to have already faded into dream. Had she really seen a man become a beast? Had she truly met sorcerers from the Cabal? She was sure she had, and yet the image of Udo’s twisting claws and Sulayman’s white beard receded farther away, slipped through her mind like water over smooth stones.

She did not remember that she’d seen a fox at all, until it appeared before her again, some distance down the road, staring at her with unblinking eyes, before darting off into the grass. And even this event was forgotten nearly as soon as it occurred. Marisol felt that she was in a half-dreaming state, where the laws of nature were all overturned, and the only sure things were what lay right before her sleepy mind: the warm sun, the hard road, the heavy sword across her shoulders.

It was late afternoon when Marisol came to the Maestro Lope’s estate, and she was not surprised to find it was quiet. Rachel was nowhere to be found, and after she could not locate Diego in his usual haunts (the kitchen, reading in the Maestro’s study, scrawling bad poetry in the shelter of the fallen guest-house), Marisol began to feel sick. Diego and Rachel had run, at her urgings, and the beast-man had followed her. Surely they had escaped? Surely they had managed to make it out of the city and back home?

Marisol left her sword in the barn and began to conduct a frantic search of the tumbled down buildings of the estate, all the while her mind conjuring more elaborate deaths for her friends. They had been set upon by bandits on the road. By wolves on the road. Worse, by Prussians, who brought a pack of wolves along with them like hunting dogs, or by Prussians who themselves transformed into wolves, with slavering jaws and fevered eyes—

She found Diego in the barn, where they conducted fencing practice. Diego was practicing the short chords of the Destreza – quick steps to the side and back, small shifts in the position of his body. He looked bored and tired.

“Marisol!” He cried when he saw her. He dropped his sword and ran to her, catching her in a fierce hug. “Marisol, you’re alive!”

“Yes—“

“We thought, when you didn’t catch us up, we thought you were dead! Why would you do that? Why did you do that! You didn’t have to, you shouldn’t have, I mean, Marisol, Marisol!”

“All right,” Marisol said, disentangling herself. “All right, I am alive, we’re all alive. Aren’t we? Where is Rachel?”

“Ah…” Diego grimaced. “At her uncle’s house. There are…she’s…hm.”

Marisol sighed with relief, unaware until that moment just how tense she’d been. Rachel was all right, Diego was all right. Everything was fine. “What is this,” Marisol asked, indicating Diego’s fallen sword. “You never practice on your own.”

“Well,” Diego said, as he picked up the sword and leaned it against the wall. “When I thought you were dead, it occurred to me that I had…a sort of an obligation, I think, to…I was honor bound to…respond in some way…”

“You were going to avenge me?”

Diego shrugged. “Maybe not right away.”

“Hence the practice.”

Diego shrugged again. “Listen, have you…have you seen Maestro Lope, yet?”

“No. Why?”

Diego’s face was very pale. “He…he knows that we…he knows what we did. And he…will want to see you.”

“He is angry?” Marisol asked quietly.

Diego nodded. “He is away right now. He should be back tonight.”

***

Marisol waited for Maestro Lope outside the main house. The day grew dim, and as the light faded, her sense of impending doom increased. The suspense built to a fever pitch, flopping around in her stomach like a dying fish, twitching in her hands and fingers. She couldn’t sit still, but her legs shook if she tried to walk. Her body was torn by the sense that she must do something, and the surety that there was nothing to do. The stillness was unbearable.

Maestro Lope returned just as the sun disappeared and the black sky flickered with stars. He came down from the road and paused before the house, looking at Marisol with his fearsome eyes, so incongruous in his soft, toad-like face, then curtly nodded his head that she should precede him inside.

He did not speak until they were in his study.

“Do you know,” the Maestro growled, his voice very low, “How long I have stayed safe here?”

“No?” Marisol said, her voice equally soft.

“From the Prussians and the Medicis, from the crown, from the Cabal,” the Maestro’s voice was slurred, and Marisol saw that he carried a bottle with him. The acrid smell of brandy pricked at her nose. “My family has owned this land for longer than history records, and I have to play to every new petty lord who wants to take it.” He drained the last dregs of his bottle and threw it across the room, where it shattered to pieces on the wall. “This is MY LAND. This is MY HOME. And they think they can take it from me.”

He leaned n very close to her, poisoned the air with his sour breath. Marisol was determined not to back away, but stared him straight in the eye.

“So I have to paint the almadels on my walls, I have to tell the crown I am loyal to them, I have to grovel before the Medici in their castles, I have to lick the boots of every Prussian knight who stops at my door. And I do this. I do it because even though I have pride in myself, I have pride in my family, and my father’s legacy, and for him, I do this. I grovel. I kneel. I live in squalor, but I do what I must.”

“I didn’t—“

“No!” The Maestro snapped. “You do not speak to me. You have brought them down on me—“

“Brought who—“

“Be quiet!” The Maestro slapped Marisol across the face, the violence so sudden and unexpected that she heard it before she felt the sting on her cheek, felt her teeth clench and her hands curl into heavy fists before she realized what had happened. “Diego is an idiot, and I expected no more from him. But you. You have nothing to do with him. What could possess you to follow that fool on his errand?”

Marisol opened her mouth, but found that her words were caught in her throat.

“He knows about us now,” the Maestro hissed. “He knows. Leave me, now, and I will decide tomorrow if I will still instruct you.”

“No,” said Marisol. “No, you can’t send me away—“

“Leave!” Maestro Lope shouted, his hand raised up again, but he hesitated. In the silence, Marisol heard what had caught his attention: hoofbeats. “Stay here,” the Maestro said. “Stay, he has come.”

“But—“

“I said stay here.” He lurched from the room, unsteady on his feet, the brandy working hard on him.

After a few moments more of anxious waiting, Marisol quietly followed after him. She watched through the front door, opened just a crack, and saw the Maestro on the low hill towards the road, meeting a man on horseback.

The man’s horse was made of bronze, and glinted in the starlight. The man himself was all wrapped in black, except for his right sleeve, which was cut away to reveal a mark that covered his had from elbow to fingertips.

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