Chapter Fifteen

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.”

Marisol shrugged.

“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.”

Chapter Fourteen

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.

Chapter Thirteen

A storm wandered across the plains of La Mancha, lashing the fields with drenching rain, scouring the land with howling winds. According to Diego, the storms had been getting worse since the Prussians had begun to occupy Granada, but he’d never been able to offer an answer as to why this should be. Had the Medicis conjured up alchemical winds to harass their adversaries with rain and thunder? Had the great iron dragons that the Prussians brought with them somehow dragged along the weather from their notoriously stormy homeland? Perhaps the Prussians had called on their Pagan gods to rile up the weather, or the God of the Christians had grown angry with Spain’s Cabal and was engaged in a Pyrrhic attempt to punish the last nation loyal to Him. Diego didn’t seem to know, or care, and had little proof to offer but his dogged insistence that there had never been storms like this when he was a child. The fact that he was the same age as Marisol, and only a year older than Rachel, did not impact on his certainty whatsoever.

Whatever the reason for it, the storm made it impossible to do much of anything around the estate, and so Rachel and Marisol sat in the stables and listened to the pouring rain as it drummed on the roof, and turned the grassy fields to mud. It was a gray, dark day, but one that was strangely soothing. It was the sort of storm that was a genuine pleasure to be out of, to watch from the safety of a warm shelter.

“How does it work? The state of mind.”

“It’s called the Mind of the Ten Rooms,” said Rachel. “Have you ever heard of that?”

“No.”

“It’s a secret, I’m not supposed to tell anyone about it.”

“All right.”

Rachel chewed on her lip. “I can tell you, if you want, though.”

“All right.”

“Good. Close your eyes. This is supposed to keep your head clear, but you can also use it to remember things. First, imagine that you’re at the foot of a tall tower. There’s a wooden door in front of you. You have to really see it in your mind. It’s wood with iron bands, and there’s no grass on the ground, it smells like dirt. Open the door. The room behind it has violet tapestries on the walls. There are tall windows, and you can see the moon. There’s a black pedestal in the center of the room, with nothing on it. There are three doors. Take the door on the right. You come into a water garden. You have to really see the plants in it. Can you see them?”

“Yes?”

“There are wild roses, and violets, and pansies. The middle of the room is a small pool. There is a pedestal made out of the stump of an old oak tree. There’s a door ahead of you, and a door to your left.”

This continued on for several minutes, with Rachel narrating in detail each of the ten rooms, taking Marisol on a tour of an imaginary tower that, in addition to its moonlit foyer and its water garden, included a library, a solarium (which Rachel explained was like a garden, but with the ceiling open to the sun), a smithy with walls from which hung knives and swords and axes, a balcony that was open to a vivid blue sky, a secret room with a black door.

“What’s in that room?” Marisol asked.

“You’re not supposed to go in there,” said Rachel.

“What? Why not? It’s my tower.”

“I don’t know,” said Rachel. “You’re just not supposed to.”

“All right.”

After the secret room was a warm black bedroom, whose walls were hung with black and silver tapestries, and after that another garden, this one with gray marble walls and suffused with pearly gray sunlight. The tenth room was a second balcony, from which Marisol could look down and see all the other ten rooms. It had a stair that led into a white cloud that hid the sun.

“You have to go into the cloud.”

“Why? What’s in it?”

“Nothing. It’s a cloud. So it’s just white and empty. When you step off the top stair, you don’t fall, you just float.”

“Inside the cloud.”

“Yes. Are you doing it?”

“Yes,” said Marisol. “I think so.” She tried to imagine that she’d stepped off of a stone staircase and was now floating in a cloud. Were clouds warm, or cold? Did they feel like linen? Smoke? “No.”

Rachel laughed. “You need to practice it. Every day when you wake up, imagine that you’re walking through the ten rooms, and then go up into the cloud and float there for a while. Once you get good at it, you can use it to remember things. If you have to remember…I don’t know. If the Maestro sends you to market to pick up some things—“

“Ugh,” said Marisol, grimacing at just the thought of it.

“You can imagine each one on one of the pedestals in one of the rooms. There’s a sack of flour on the first pedestal, a stack of paper on the pedestal in the water-garden—“

“Why would you put paper in the water garden?”

“It doesn’t matter where—“

“You should put it in the library,” said Marisol. “That’s the best place for paper.”

“It’s my list, I’ll put it in the water-garden if I want to.”

“It’s the Maestro’s list, and he’ll be mad at you if you get his paper wet.”

“There’s no–!” Rachel held up her hands in surrender. “Fine.”

***

That night, while she lay in the rancid hay in the dark stables, Marisol remembered her fight with the man with the red right hand. Each moment was clear and vivid as a painting in her eye. She took each moment and placed them in the rooms of her imaginary tower.

First, the moment where the man dropped his knife. This she set at the door. Then her first cut, in the moonlit foyer, which the man had barely been able to parry. A second cut in the water garden, and a third in the library.

The fourth cut came in the solarium high towards the crown of the man’s head, his eyes quirked in a kind of lazy confusion.

At the first balcony, their swords tangled and twisted together. In the smithy, the swords sprang apart, and she felt a hot line across her cheek again. She left the black room with the secret door alone. In the bedroom with the black curtains she tripped and fell on the man’s knife..

Eight steps. There was one room left. In the pearly grey garden, she imagined the broken, bloody corpse of her enemy, sprawled on the ground.

These eight steps should would remember ever night. They would remain etched in her mind forever, so that when she found the man with the red right hand again, she would be ready for him.

Marisol could not bring herself to take the last stair and float in the cloud, but instead stayed in that garden until she feel asleep.

Chapter Twelve

“Here,” said Marisol. “Take this one.” She handed Rachel the sword she’d taken from Julio César’s band of ruffians. Thanks to the six inches missing from the end, it was roughly the proper length for Rachel, who was a good deal shorter than her friend.

Rachel grimaced, but accepted the proffered weapon. “I don’t know what to do with it, though.”

“It’s all right,” said Marisol. “I don’t think it’s very complicated.”

After three days staying at the Maestro’s estate, Marisol had learned a great deal. She’d learned where the Maestro kept his firewood, and that a woodcutter delivered more every other day. She learned that the floors of the house were filthy because there was – or rather had been – no one around to clean them. She learned both that there were many pheasants nesting in the surrounding fields, and that she did not care for plucking them so they could be prepared. She learned that the Maestro preferred his breakfast precisely at sunrise, and that he did not like pepper.

She had not, however, learned anything about fencing. Each morning, she met Diego at the house, hoping to be invited to one of the training sessions that she’d witnessed in the barn. Each morning, Diego assigned her some other menial housekeeping task. Each afternoon, she gave up the task halfway through and climbed up the low hill by the barn to watch Maestro Lope and Diego practice. It was endlessly frustrating, and the three days had seemed like an eternity of pointless busy-work, an increasingly intolerable distraction from what she’d come here for. Rachel, meanwhile, was making great progress in painting impotent symbols on the walls of the Maestro’s house.

Sick of waiting to be taught, Marisol finally decided that she’d seen enough to start teaching herself. She convinced Rachel to stay at the estate again that night, and then successfully conscripted her into an impromptu training session.

The two girls stood opposite each other, feet together, backs straight, swords pointed at each other’s throats. Marisol held her arms straight out; Rachel let her free hand fall limply to her side.

“You’re too tall,” said Rachel. “I couldn’t hit you anyway.” This was correct. Marisol was a full foot taller than her Rachel, and had nearly as much reach on her.

“I don’t want you to hit me. Just put your sword against mine, and try to push it out of the way.”

Rachel had seen enough of the Maestro’s practice to know what Marisol wanted, but had never actually handled a sword herself, so she wasn’t quite sure if there was a trick to it. Still, she set her weapon against her friend’s and, emulating Maestro Lope, tried to slowly slide down Marisol’s blade, keeping her point in line, while pushing Marisol’s to the side.

Marisol, who was much stronger than her opponent, just pushed back; Rachel’s sword clanked off of Marisol’s hilt without deviating her point at all

“I don’t think that was right,” said Rachel.

Marisol shrugged. “Try again.”

They did, and continued to try again and again for an hour or more, with Rachel gamely taking whatever advice Marisol had to offer, while Marisol’s thoughtful frown deepened until it looked like her face might implode. She had Rachel trying to push with the middle of the blades, trying to push perpendicularly against her own, trying to push obliquely. She had her friend push the blade to the side first and then thrust, and then had her thrust at a slight angle. She had Rachel walk forward, lunge forward, lean forward. None of it seemed quite right.

Part of the problem was that Marisol didn’t know what it was she was looking for. The exercise had a certain intuitive sense about it, of course – if she were going to attack a man, she’d have to do it in a way that kept him from sticking her back. So, the best way to do that was to attack in such a way as to keep his sword pointed in a direction other than her vulnerable vital organs. Likewise, if she were being attacked, her best chance would be to respond to that gliding thrust in a way that pushed her opponent’s sword out of the way, and kept her own on target. But beyond that, the exercise seemed opaque. Was she supposed to just wrestle Rachel’s sword out of the way? To step back so that Rachel missed, and then thrust herself? To angle her sword around Rachel’s as she pushed?

Though it was clear that there was something she ought to be getting from the exercise, without knowing precisely what it was meant to feel like, she had no way of knowing if she was doing it right, and so didn’t know which of the many variations she proposed was the best one to practice. She and Rachel persevered nonetheless, though it did not take long for Rachel to begin complaining bitterly that her arms were tired and her wrist hurt.  Marisol found Rachel’s complaints distracting and it made her snappish and curt; this made Rachel more withdrawn, and though her wry grin was still steadfastly in place, her eyes took on a wounded quality that made Marisol feel guilty, which in turn made her even more snappish, and so the cycle continued until the atmosphere in the hot, stinking stables was stifling in every possible sense of the word.

Very near the end of the practice, Marisol had something that nearly bordered on an epiphany. As Rachel’s sword slid down her own, Marisol allowed her weapon to slide backward in response. It was a slight movement, but it prompted a very particular feeling that Marisol couldn’t quite put into words. There was a sense that the swords somehow bent around each other, that the pressure from Rachel’s blade rolled around Marisol’s and was suddenly pointed back at her.

Rachel squeaked as her sword flicked to the side and she found Marisol’s point right in front of her eyes.

Exhilaration took hold, as Marisol was suddenly convinced she was on to something. “Do that one again.”

“What did I do?” Rachel asked.

“I don’t know, whatever you were doing, just do that.”

It was no use; Rachel couldn’t quite remember how she’d approached Marisol’s sword, and she was exhausted anyway. Her weapon wavered and bounced, and boredom was written unmistakably on her face. Marisol contemptuously slapped the sword away then, in silence, put her sword back into the burlap sack in which she kept it, and sat down hard in the hay of the barn.

After a moment, Rachel put her own sword down and quietly sat next to her friend. “Sorry,” she said. Her voice was very soft, as though she were afraid to say the word too loud, like it might trigger in Marisol some violent rage.

Marisol said nothing, and the two sat in tense silence. Marisol stared at the two flickering candles on the floor, little droplets of wax dribbling down their sides. It was hot in here, and it stank, and she hated it. She was tired and terrified that she wouldn’t be able to learn to fight, and she hated that, too. She was frustrated that the Maestro was ignoring her and treated her like a servant, and she supposed she hated him, most of all.

She didn’t hate Rachel, though. “I’m sorry,” Marisol said. She put her arm around the smaller girl’s shoulders, and hugged her tightly.

Chapter Eleven

Rachel slipped back to her painting, while Marisol returned to woodcutting with a certain amount of anxiety. She’d been neglecting the one task she’d been assigned since coming to the estate, and had done that so that she could spy on the Maestro, when he clearly preferred to instruct in private. Had he seen her? Would he punish her? Expel her? Now that she’d descended from the giddy heights that her misadventure with Rachel had brought her, she began to feel a little sick, and started entertaining disheartening fantasies. She imagined a variety of cruel punishments, but none worse than the possibility that she’d be sent away, useless draft letter in her hand, having come this far only to learn nothing because she couldn’t be patient for an afternoon. In her imagination, it was raining when the Maestro had Diego send her away. The boy looked sad when he said it, but the Maestro glowered behind him, quivering with fury, while Marisol was consumed with shame.

This hypothetical future drove her back to her wood-chopping with a renewed vigor, as she perhaps subconsciously hoped that even an infuriated Maestro might forgive her if he came to find all the wood chopped up, neatly stacked, and ready for the cold nights ahead. It happened that the Maestro did not come that afternoon; no one came at all, not even as evening swept purple across the sky and Marisol finished the cutting the last few dry logs, her shoulders aching and hunger gnawing at her stomach.

Frustrated, and now nursing a growing unease about the future, Marisol left the wood and headed back towards the main house. The gloomy onset of night did not enhance her mood. The house seemed forbidding in its monumental disrepair, a stony fortress to which she was not welcome and could expect nothing but to be turned away by cold eyes. She approached the servants’ entrance and knocked loudly.

Diego met her at the door, warm candlelight spilling out behind him, and if he knew of any recriminations that Marisol might have merited, he didn’t mention them. He was positively jovial as he invited her into the kitchen, to sit around a low table and share the evening meal. Rachel was there as well; when Diego’s back was turned, the girl winked, but said nothing. Once she was inside, and could see Diego in more than silhouette, the angry red welt on his face where the Maestro had struck him was uncomfortably apparent. Diego seemed to be trying to banish the mark by the unflagging expression of good cheer.

“Marisol,” Diego said, spooning bean stew into a bowl for her. He set it down on the table along with a hunk of stale bread. “Mari – sol, the Rebel Sun,” he said as he sat, looking up and off into the distance as though he was seeing his own words written on the air in front of him. “Shook loose from her place in the heavens, traversing the sky, seeking a new world on which to shine…”

“Diego is a poet,” said Rachel. She leaned in close and whispered, “Not a very good one, though.”

“Bah, woman.” Diego replied with good-humored gruffness. “Your stony heart wouldn’t know poetry if it bit you.”

“See?” Rachel said. “How could poetry bite me in the heart, anyway? Is it going to cut me open first? Does it go in through my ear and then claw its way into my chest? Grrggghh, aaaaaak,” she added, as she mimed Diego’s words clutching at her heart. “It doesn’t make any sense! You should say, ‘Your feet wouldn’t know poetry if you tripped over it,’ or else, ‘Your mouth wouldn’t know poetry if you bit into it like a rotten apple and its juices oozed over your chin—“

“Enough!” Diego laughed, “Enough, fine, you are the poetical expert.”

“It’s Mar y Sol,” said Marisol. “Not mari-sol.”

Diego looked at her appraisingly. “Hm. No, I don’t think so. There’s nothing of the sea in you. The sea does not break into a man’s house and knock his candles over. The sea does not threaten to kill a man if it thinks it’s being robbed.”

Rachel gasped. “Did you do that?”

Marisol blushed and frowned. “It was just one candle.”

“Rebel Sun suits you better,” said Diego.

“But—“

Rachel agreed. “I like it better Diego’s way, too.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter; your name can be anything you want.”

“My mother gave me my name,” said Marisol.

An uncomfortable silence arrived at this juncture, and instead of conversation they all attended to their food. After he’d judged a suitable amount of time had passed, Diego spoke up. “I am a poet, though, and I will be a great one. Once I win the contest in Salamanca. I sent them four poems this year, they’re very good.”

“They’re all right,” said Rachel.

Rachel and Diego talked at length then, giving Marisol the abbreviated accounts of their own histories. Diego had become a student of Maestro Lope’s largely against his will; his father, a formerly-successful farmer who had fallen on hard times since the Prussians had come, had very particular notions about what a gentleman ought to know. “Poetry and riding I excelled at,” Diego said, “and I’m at least a competent painter. But fencing….ugh.” He made a face and shrugged. “My father insisted that if I fail at it, it’s at least not for want of trying. He and the Maestro were friends from old times, and so here I am. I hope, quite frankly, to never pick up a sword again once I leave.”

Rachel’s family were reconverso, and she regaled Diego and Marisol with stories of how her grandfather had kept practicing his religion in secret when the Jews were expelled. He had once kept pigs for six months to throw the Inquisition off his trial, reasoning that a temporary association with that unclean animal was a paltry sacrifice in the grand scheme of things. Rachel’s Grandfather had once taken his entire family into Portugal, then back when they saw what was happening there. He had kept their traditions alive until King Carlos had undone the expulsion and formed the Cabal. Now, they made a decent living selling the services of their mystic grammaria. Occasionally, they sold their skills to people who had a legitimate need for protection; mostly, they sold them to the superstitious.

Throughout all of this, Marisol offered up very little of her own background. The pain was still too fresh, and every time she thought she might say something about her mother, the words caught in her throat and she refrained. It was nice to listen to Diego and Rachel talk, to hear them carelessly tell their stories in that warm, stuffy little kitchen that smelled like old wood and burnt stew, and Marisol felt increasing guilty at the thought of disrupting the mood with the weight of her own tragedy. It was better to keep it private, she thought; better to bear it herself than to burden someone else with it. Besides, it wasn’t their business anyway.

The sense of disconnection from her companions gradually soured the atmosphere for Marisol, turned the cozy friendliness of the little kitchen into something oppressive, hot, and increasingly intolerable. She caught herself resenting Diego’s casual laughter, Rachel’s wry grin. She found her mind wandering, distracted by a feeling of hollowness in her chest. Finally, after listlessly trawling the remnants of her bread through the dregs of her stew, Marisol interrupted a frankly outlandish story that Rachel was telling involving her Grandfather in disguise as a French princess on a ship bound for the African coast.

“I should go,” said Marisol, abruptly rising. “I need to sleep.”

If Rachel or Diego was offended, neither showed it. “I should go, too,” said Rachel, cheerily. “It’s a long walk ahead of me.”

“You..” Marisol began. “You’re not walking back to the city? Tonight?”

Rachel laughed. “Not quite that far, but it is an hour at least. My uncle has a farm down the road.”

“Why don’t you just stay here?”

Diego coughed uncomfortably. “Ah…the Maestro does not…”

“Does not prefer…?” Marisol continued for him.

“He does not prefer that, uhm…”

Rachel stood and put her hand on Marisol’s arm. “He doesn’t prefer Jews to sleep in the house,” Rachel said, conspiratorially. “It’s terribly embarrassing for Diego, who tries his best to be polite about it. I don’t mind, though.”

“No,” said Marisol, a stab of anger in her throat. “No, you can stay in the stables with me.”

“Ah,” said Diego, “Well, I mean…”

“It’s not,” said Rachel at the same moment, “it’s not really…”

They both trailed off when they saw Marisol’s face – iron jaw firm, haunted eyes scowling. She’d made up her mind and dared either of them to challenge her. Neither Diego nor Rachel felt up for it and, actually quite relieved that she wouldn’t have to walk home in the dark, Rachel agreed to stay that night.

Diego still hesitated, teetering on the brink of offering up another objection, perhaps out of loyalty to his teacher; perhaps out of a finely-tuned instinct for avoiding trouble. The Maestro’s temper was quick, and his punishments often severe; a substantial part of Diego’s mind was now devoted to strategies to evade those punishments wherever possible.

Marisol, seeing those objections warring on Diego’s face, tried to reassure him. “Just tell him it was my fault,” she said, as though this would be sufficient to curtail the Maestro’s anger. “Let him hit me if he wants to.”

She said the last with a casual indifference that Diego couldn’t quite believe – in the space of an hour he’d seen Marisol go from anxious to open to gloomy to angry, until finally this glimpse of something else: an unwavering, stony certainty. She had become an immovable object, a rocky cliff against which oceans might clash with futile waves, a mountain that broke the backs of storms. Diego had the nagging sense that this was the real Marisol. Beneath the moody surface, Marisol had a soul as cold and hard as steel.

Chapter Ten

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.

“With who?”

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.”

“Oh.”

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.

Chapter Nine

The sight of her mother’s freckled and sunburnt face slipped like water through her fingers as sunlight crawled along the backs of Marisol’s eyelids. She was still tired and aching and hungry, but anticipation and excitement energized her. She practically leapt to her feet, took a moment to scrape off the worst of the dirt and bits of hay, and changed into the relatively clean clothes she’d brought with her before meeting Diego at the main house.

In the thin light of dawn, Don Lope de la Barca’s estate was less than impressive. It was certainly large, with a sprawling main house, carriage house, stables, and some other low buildings whose purpose Marisol couldn’t immediately decipher. And the land itself, to judge by the extent of gangly stalks of barley struggling through fields that had quite clearly gone to seed, stretched some distance in all directions. But the buildings were filthy, with doors creaking precipitously on their hinges, with broken windows and toppled chimneys. One building, which must have been the guest house Diego had described, had indeed suffered some traumatic accident: an entire wall was missing, the whole shape of the building dissolving into a mess of tumbled bricks on the north side. A handful of small animals, plainly emboldened by the estate’s neglect, scurried impertinently through heaps of rubble and patches thick with overgrown weeds.

There was a kind of grandeur to the estate’s disrepair, Marisol felt. It was like looking on an old man, broken down by wear and time, but with the mark of his greatness still indelibly stamped on his features. This had been a beautiful, thriving place once, maybe long ago, and if it had now collapsed under many years’ worth of brute grinding, turning it into the fallow field from which something new might one day grow, then the shadow of its greatness still hung about it.

It rankled to use the servants’ entrance, and rankled more that Diego gave her a bowl of cold bean soup and then immediately sent her off to chop wood, all without so much as introducing her to the mysterious Maestro and the inscrutable preferences that Diego continually invoked:

“The Maestro does not prefer to take his meals with students.”

“The Maestro prefers you to perform your chores before training begins.”

“The Maestro prefers that you gather water only in wooden pails.”

It was aggravating, but Marisol grit her teeth and determined that she would bear it. The Maestro’s attitude was one that she was familiar with: the boring work came first, the interesting work last. Chopping wood and carrying water was the same as lugging around iron ingots. It may even have been a kind of test; the Maestro, unwilling to teach students of middling resolve, was trying to gauge her commitment – establishing her worthiness by, perversely, attempting to drive her away. Marisol intended to perform the menial, backbreaking tasks she’d been assigned with such care and diligence that there’d be no question that she was here for the duration.

Chopping firewood is not really a task that requires care, of course, so much as a task that requires strong muscles and a supreme tolerance for sustained boredom – both characteristics that Marisol had developed to one degree or another by working in her mother’s smithy. Her arms and back were definitely strong, and of them she was justifiably proud; her ability to withstand boredom was somewhat weaker. Still she made a game show of it – she found the woodpile, near the edge of the Maestro’s estate, where the narrow dirt path wound away from the main road. The wood was in utter disarray; fat logs, probably delivered by another woodcutter somewhere, lay in haphazard piles, scattered around the grass. Many had gone to rot; at least one revealed a pair of little, brown, slithering snakes when she moved it.

Marisol spent a good hour stacking the wood into piles, enjoying the dull ache of exercise, the relaxing sense of carving a little routine out for herself. Rotten wood was tossed to the side, dry wood was stacked by the block. Soon, she’d made a neat pyramid out of the usable logs, and began the process of chopping them up.

She probably would have managed two hours at it at least, lulled almost into a trance by the regular dull thunk of the ax biting into hard wood, if she hadn’t heard the singing. It wafted over the hills; she almost didn’t hear it over the sound of the ax. A momentary chill gripped her spine, as she thought of the circle of severed heads. Had they followed her? Had she dreamed them?

Marisol set down her axe and listened warily; soon she began to pick it out, not that strange and formless dirge at all, but a jolly tune sang by a chorus of male voices. Distant and garbled at first, it soon became clear that the song was in a language that she didn’t know. Marisol shielded her eyes from the sun and scanned the horizon. She finally saw five dark figures, slowly loping into view.

They were Prussian soldiers; that was unmistakable. Tall, with pale blond hair and ruddy faces. They wore intricate clothes of black cloth and dyed red leather, punctuated by bits of burnished steel and polished amber. Two of them had long, long lances that ended with cruel-looking blades; the rest carried fat black donnerguns and thick-bladed knives. The men traveled in a loose knot, like they were staggering home from a tavern together. They sang and laughed uproariously, and passed around a leather skin that was full of something that probably wasn’t water.

The soldiers came into view and their voices grew louder, as the road took them past where Marisol stood. They didn’t look at her as they walked, preoccupied with song and drink. Marisol felt her hands ache. She looked down to see that her knuckles had turned white where she gripped the haft of her ax like she meant to crush it, or snap it across her knee, or twist it apart into splinters.

She looked up just as the soldiers passed her by. The man at the back of the group lagged a bit behind the others, and she imagined running up behind him and burying the ax in his head. She would kick him away and yank the ax free to crush the next two soldiers as they turned in horror, spattered with blood, while the last men went for their guns, but she could get to them first, could put the ax in the first one then bear the next to the ground, crush his throat with her hands if she had to…

Her foot scraped in the dirt, almost of its own volition, as the urge to run at the soldiers welled up inside her. The man at the tail end of the group turned back to look at her, actually smiled and waved, and it was nearly enough to send her screaming after him.

Nearly. Some rational part of her reached out and seized control of her mind. Not here, it warned her, not now, not against so many. The hate she felt for the soldiers was almost palpable, a thick miasma that radiated from her pores and must surely be visible; but it was nothing compared to her hate for the man with the red right hand, and she wouldn’t compromise her revenge against him by needlessly risking her life against strangers like this. Marisol took three long, deep breaths through her nose – her teeth were clenched so tightly that no atom of air could have made its way through her mouth – then slammed the ax deep into the chopping block and stalked away. The Prussians, oblivious, continued singing their way off towards the horizon

It would not take long, Marisol reasoned as the waves of her fury slowly receded, to catch up on her work. It was just chopping wood, after all. And it would be in her interests to know the estate a little better if she was going to be expected to work on it. She prowled around the several buildings, doing her best to stay as quiet as a cat, and keeping her ears pricked for any sounds – but in particular the telltale clanging of a fencing lesson.  She heard nothing as she wended around the stables and still nothing as she decided to explore the ruined guest-house.

It was – or had been – a modest, one-storey affair. A small sitting room, two rooms that might have comfortably held as many as four students each. A large hearth in the center that would have made the whole thing fairly cozy. All three of the rooms were exposed to the air, now, and Marisol wondered what could have actually happened to it. The roof seemed to have been torn off and scattered in pieces; the north wall had collapsed outward, as though struck by some titanic blow from within. The floorboards were warped and rotted from their exposure to who-knew-how-many months’ of weather in some places, but also scorched by some great fire in others. Fetid water pooled on the floor. The place stank of mold and rot, its ripe odor the foulest sign of the building’s disuse.

Marisol left the mystery to itself and wandered towards the main house. This, at least, was in good repair, even if it seemed like the only building on the estate that was. The Maestro didn’t appear to have any servants, no tenant farmers, no anything, so it was really a bit of a wonder that he’d kept even the house he was living in together for so long. Maybe fixing up the house was what Diego did between lessons, Marisol reasoned, stepping a little ways back and trying to see into one of the second storey windows.

From the ground, she couldn’t see anything but darkness and maybe a faint hint of the shape of the ceiling, and she’d just decided to get back to all the wood that she’d carelessly left un-chopped when she heard, from around the corner of the house, the unmistakable sound of something rustling through the grass. It was probably just a rat, or a cat, or a cat chasing a rat, but Marisol’s curiosity was piqued in the way only the sort of inconsequential noise that comes just at a moment when a young woman is thinking of reasons to avoid her chores can pique it.

Careful not to startle whatever it was, Marisol quietly sidled around the corner. What she found was not a cat.

Chapter Eight

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.

Chapter Seven

The next morning, the streets of Toledo had been transfigured, from a leaden canvas that Marisol had passed across but not through, untouched by its bustling crowds, to a dense labyrinth of increasingly frustrating obstacles. Excitement thrummed through her limbs, and she fiercely resisted the urge to run, rushing through the streets, tearing past the stalls, letting the urge to begin supplant the need to make sure she began carefully. Still, despite her forcibly measured pace, she found the pedestrians, the shopkeeps, the cart and carriage drivers, the men on horseback, every last one of them was moving too slow, and each exhibited a perverse tendency to place themselves precisely in Marisol’s path, no matter what route she tried to take.

It was with much eye-rolling, a generous heap of sarcastic bowing, and probably more mutterings of “No, by all means, after you,” than was strictly polite, that Marisol managed to make her preparations that morning. Unwilling to wait for Jeronimo and Ana to wake, she ate a hasty breakfast of fresh bread and figs bought from vendors at the Zocodover, then more supplies. Clothes — three men’s shirts and breeches, a pair of leather boots with hard soles and toes, breeches and stockings. More food, as she wasn’t sure just how long it would take her to get to Don Lope’s estate. A knife. A new, strong bag to carry it all. She spent the last of her coin on a broad-brimmed hat to keep the sun from her eyes.

Don Lope de la Barca y Berreda Martinez de Henao Blasco, she repeated to herself, trying to imagine what he looked like. Tall, probably, since height was an advantage for a duelist. Long limbs and a lean frame, since he spent so much time at practice, and would be very healthy. A neatly-trimmed beard and curled, oiled moustaches, as a swordmaster ought to be expected to take care and pride in his physical experience. The kind of sharp, calculating eyes that never missed a detail, set in a stern face that betrayed no emotion to his enemies. He would be, as a swordmaster ought, neat and crisp, straight and sharp like the sword he would teach her to use.

Or he wouldn’t be, she thought, the long habit of high hopes balanced by the memory of inevitable disappointment. Nothing ever happened quite the way a person imagined it, Marisol knew, and so whatever she thought she would find, she could reasonably expect it to not be precisely right. It didn’t matter, though; Don Lope de la Barca would teach her to fence, and she would learn like no student he’d ever seen. The sense of purpose grew as she made her way to the Gate of the Sun; it lifted her from the ground so that she walked on air, it hurled the slow-moving crowds from her path.

She hiked along the road that took her west at first, then veered off slightly to the south. The crowd of the city spilled out in a narrow river along with her, mostly tradesmen and merchants heading towards the coast, there to take their goods by sea to France or the Italian states, or even farther to the East. Most were Castillians who talked companionably with each other, their carts loaded up with knives and swords, pots and pans, bolts of cloth, sometimes dried sausage and cheese. There was at least one group of men from the Seven Nations, across the Atlantic, forced to take their tobacco and corn along the overland route since the English had seized Gibraltar. They seemed friendly for strangers, but spoke little Spanish, preferring to talk amongst themselves in their own tongue. Marisol offered her fellow travelers curt greetings, preferring instead to steadily overtake them on their way.

Her path diverged as the road curved away, and the traffic dwindled rapidly, from crowds of tradesman to one old man with an oxcart that creaked and rattled, and a handful of men on foot scattered in clumps along the road into the distance. Well into mid-afternoon, Marisol found her pace flagging slightly. She sat and ate her lunch of smoked chorizo and more bread — a little dry from the hours in her satchel, but perfectly edible once she’d moistened it with water — and watched the oxcart trundle out of sight. Once it had slipped off the road and vanished behind a low hill, probably off to a small farm somewhere, Marisol realized that she was nearly alone on the road, the gentle, hilly plain. The only other people she could see were three men, some ways distant on the horizon, their features difficult to make out. They didn’t appear to be moving, and Marisol suspected that they’d stopped for lunch as well.

She was back on her feet as the wind picked up, a lonely, dusty, eerie sort of a wind, that seemed to properly belong to the early evening of some day in the late autumn, and so had perhaps gotten its calendar a little confused and arrived some months early. Suddenly anxious, as only a person who realizes she’s not quite alone on a strange and windy road can be, Marisol shouldered her bag and carried her sword in the crook of her arm; her steps were hurried, her time spent at lunch suddenly regretted.

A few minutes later, and a short glance over her shoulder revealed both that the three men were still there and that they’d begun moving. Now they were a little closer. It was most likely just a coincidence — anyone travelling along a road, no matter how obscure, had some chance of running into strangers. If no one ever came this way, there’d hardly have been any need for a road. But wariness, once woken, was slow to return to sleep, so Marisol ducked her head and tightened her grip on her sword and tried to see just how fast she could walk without quite running.

The men behind her kept up, and it wasn’t long before she could make out at least one familiar face. Marisol cursed and looked around, but it was no good. There was nothing within sight but more hilly plains: tall grass that would never hide a person, low hills that would provide little cover, the merciless sun illuminating the empty meseta. Not another soul but her three pursuers for miles.

“Hey!” Shouted Julio César, king of the streets of Toledo. “Hey, girl!”

Marisol turned and tossed her bag to the side of the road, where it would be out of the way. She drew her sword.

“What do you want? I haven’t got anything to steal.”

Julio and his friends, two young men of about the same age, were near enough now that running, even had there been somewhere to run to, would have been pointless. Julio had his little club and knife. His friend, who wore a poor attempt at a moustache, carried a heavy, long — to Marisol’s eye, excessively long — rapier. The third boy carried a stick that looked like the leg of a chair that had suffered an untimely dismemberment.

Julio and his mates jogged up, fanning out a little to try and surround Marisol. “Hey, are you ready? Are you going to kill me now?”

“I just told you, I don’t have anything worth stealing.”

Julio shrugged. “You’ve got that,” he said, meaning her sword.

“It’s ruined,” said Marisol, carefully backing up, so she could keep all three boys in her field of vision, more careful still not to trip on the uneven road. “Look, the blade is discolored. It would probably break in half if you tried to use it.”

“Well,” said Julio. “We came all this way. It seems a shame not to take something, you know?”

“So, you want to rob me out of spite.”

“Spite,” he agreed, “also revenge. I can–”

Marisol lashed out with her sword slapping at the point of Moustache’s rapier. The end of his weapon promptly vanished with a sound like a silver bell. Startled, all four of them stared at the end of the weapon. There was a moment of puzzled silence as they tried to determine just what had happened.

By good luck, it seemed, Marisol’s sword had caught a nick in the Moustache’s poorly-maintained blade; the quick beat had been enough to snap the last eight or so inches off the end of the weapon, sending it hurtling to the grass a little too quickly for the eye to follow. It was certainly not now useless, but the loss of the tip of one’s sword is a deeply uncomfortable experience for any swordsman.

“Julio,” Moustache whined, “this was my brother’s, you said I’d just have to show it–”

“Shut up, dummy, you don’t–ah!”

Served so far by surprising, decisive action, Marisol decided to press her advantage, lunging at Julio and waving her sword at his face. He staggered backwards and she changed targets, swinging her weapon wildly above her head and charging at Moustchache, slapping his broken weapon aside with her left hand, screaming at the top of her voice. He yelped and dropped his sword while Marisol whirled on Chairleg, who’d had the presence of mind to at least try to club her while she was turned away; their weapons collided and Marisol’s sword stuck with a thunk, but the momentum of her spin worked to her advantage — club and sword were pulled to the side, and Marisol’s left fist looped around in a great hooking punch that landed square on Chairleg’s nose.

Wasting no time with him as he reeled with pain and shock, Marisol turned back to Julio, himself half-prepared for a renewed assault. She slashed at him, and again Fortune smiled on her — the makeshift club was still stuck to the blade and, wrenched from Chairleg’s slackening grip, spun loose as she swung, careening towards Julio, who only just managed to avoid it by ducking, then tripping over his feet and falling to the road. Marisol whirled back on Moustache then and, as he ineffectually tried to get to his feet, unleashed a stream of invective of such variety, such volume, and such creativity, that its like has yet to be surpassed in all the Spanish-speaking world. Not one of Moustache’s relatives was spared an insult, not one foul animal or disgusting excretion was missed in those comparisons, not one word banned by Church and polite society both was forgotten, and barely a breath separated each one.

All the while she lay about herself with the flat of her sword first, with the toes of her boots second, and, after recovering the broken rapier from where it lay, with the flat blade of that damaged weapon as well. First she bloodied up Moustache, then Julio, then Chairleg, then back, and the relentless onslaught and uninterrupted string of profanities turned their bungled robbery into a rout. Chairleg got his feet and fled first, followed shortly by Moustache, after whom Marisol hurled his own broken sword. Julio nearly managed to get up before before Marisol crashed into his back and sat on him.

“Mercy!” He cried, once he’d caught his breath. “Mother of God, mercy! You’re a damned devil!” He yelped as Marisol grabbed him by the hair.

“Do you swear fealty to me?”

“What? I–” He yelped again as she tightened her grip, “Aieee! Yes, yes, all right! Fealty!”

“Do you swear to come to my aid if I call you? To fight on my behalf against my enemies, who are now your enemies?”

“Yes, yes! Enemies!”

“Do you swear to give up your criminal ways, and devote yourself to good works?”

“What? But– ah! All right, yes, yes! Good works! I swear!”

Satisfied, Marisol stood, and magnanimously permitted Julio to get back to his feet, even allowed him to gather up his weapons before he fled after the comrades who’d long since abandoned him to untold humiliation, muttering about devils under his breath the whole while.

The flush of victory brightened Marisol’s cheeks and quickened her step as she retrieved her satchel and, for good measure, Moustache’s broken sword. As Julio disappeared on the horizon, the bright envigoration in her limbs gave way to a violent shaking; her stomach knotted up like a tangled fishing net. Her eyes watered and her nose ran, and she knelt by the side of the road and became violently sick.

Chapter Six

Though there was no law, the sword-makers of Toledo tended to cluster by the river, crowding around a shallow bend in the east. The easy access to running water was useful for a myriad of reasons — from power to work the bellows to a convenient way to dispose of waste — and competition for good spots was high. Marisol walked among the smithies, examining their signs in search for the device she was looking for. It was late now, too dark to work, and most of the smithies were closed up, the smiths and their apprentices retired to their homes, which were most often the rooms directly above. Yellow candlelight and the sounds of muffled conversation, the clinking of glass and porcelain plates, drifted down from the upstairs windows of the dark shops.

She found it at last, a device of a pheasant taking flight, above the name of Jeronimo Sanchez. Jeronimo was not, as he’d be the first to admit, the finest swordmaker in Toledo. Or the second finest. Or even the third. He was maybe instead somewhere around the fifteenth, though it was hard to estimate at that point. What he did very well was know talent when he saw it; Jeronimo had been making swords for thirty years, and of the five greatest swordsmiths in that time, three had been his apprentices. He had spoken for Sofia when she’d petitioned admission to the guild, and had defended her decision not to move into the city. He’d been a regular fixture at the house when Marisol was young, helping Sofia put her own smithy together, offering advice about everything from the placement of the bellows to the best vendors to buy coal and raw iron from. She remembered him as a solid, looming presence, like a boulder that had rolled down from the mountain and into their lives. Jeronimo had come to visit very occasionally over the intervening years, but despite long absences, Sofia always received him cordially.

The man himself had been working late, and was only just struggling with the key for the giant iron lock on his door. He was short, barely as high as Marisol’s shoulder, but built like a bull with huge shoulders and a neck that seemed excessively thick to support such a disproportionately small head. Jeronimo was bald and his skin was the same color and texture as the leather apron that he wore.

“Excuse me,” Marisol said as she approached.

“Closed,” Jeronimo grumbled, squinting over his lock. He fiddled with a key ring that contained a preposterous number of identical-looking keys, selected one and tried it. “Come back tomorrow.”

“My name is Marisol–”

This key fit. “Ha!” Shouted Jeronimo, as the lock clicked tight.

“…de la Espada, I need—“

“We’re closed, I said.” Jeronimo turned to face her. “You can come back…de la Espada? Marisol de la Espada, you’re Sofia’s girl! Ah-ha! I haven’t seen you since you were shorter than me.” He looked her up and down. “Well, well. How is your mother?”

Marisol felt like she’d been kicked in the stomach. The thoughts she’d swallowed had grown inside her belly, and the story now was too big to escape the narrow causeway of her throat. She opened her mouth to speak, but only managed a soft, strangled cry instead.

Jeronimo’s leathery face softened in surprise and sympathy. “What? Girl, what’s wrong? Come with me here,” he took her by the arm and led her up the rickety outside stair of his home to the apartments above it, Marisol struggling to speak all the while.

“Sh, sh, sit down,” Jeronimo commanded once inside, and sat her at a rough wooden table while he called for Ana, his wife. “Never mind all that,” Jeronimo said, “Just get some food and drink in her, Ana, she can talk when she’s ready.”

“Here,” said Ana, pressing a glass of sherry into Marisol’s hand. “What happened to her?”

Jeronimo shrugged. Marisol gulped the sherry greedily; it was sweet and raw in her throat at the same time, and after a second glass she felt something come loose in her mind.

“She’s dead,” Marisol said, finally, and realized that this was the first time she’d said the words aloud. It didn’t make it any more or less true, but she couldn’t help but feel that this spoken acknowledgement somehow made it all final in a way that it hadn’t before. Some tiny, obstinate hope that had lived inside her for the last few days — some mad notion that she’d come to Toledo only to discover it had all been a mistake, Sofia was alive and well and home and waiting for her — was snuffed out.

Somehow, this made it easier to relate the rest of the story. The damn burst; she told Jeronimo and Ana everything: about the man with the red right hand, the Prussians and their ship, about how she’d buried her mother with a coal shovel, and about how she’d come to Toledo to learn to fight so that she could take revenge.

“Well,” said Jeronimo, after he’d heard it all. “Revenge. I don’t think…I think perhaps first we should go to the mayor. The Prussians are supposed to follow the laws of Castille–”

Ana snorted in derision.

“–follow the laws…woman, what is that face you’re making? Don’t make that face.”

“You know full well the Prussians only follow the laws they like, the mayor isn’t going to do anything.”

“I am trying to keep this girl from getting killed–”

“If you want to keep her from getting killed,” Ana snapped, “tell her where she can learn to fight. You want to leave her mother, your good friend, unavenged?”

“Fencing schools cost money,” Jeronimo insisted, “and if she can get redress within the law–”

Marisol’s hands tightened on her sword as she listened to them argue. For a moment, she wondered at her surety of purpose. Maybe there was another way? Maybe…but that coal in her breast burned at the thought, and she knew she’d never take another path, not even if there was one. The man with the red right hand had killed her mother, and she would be the one to kill him, not some magistrate, not some soldier, not a hidalgo acting on her behalf.

“We can pay for her,” Ana said.

Jeronimo threw up his hands, “How much money do you think we have? Does this look like the house of a rich man?”

“I have some money,” Marisol interrupted. She pulled the purse out of her satchel and spilled Sofia’s last few coins onto the kitchen table. Ana examined it carefully.

“It’s not enough,” Ana admitted. “You could enroll at one of the schools in the old town…maybe if you offered to work for them? Certainly you could stay with us while you studied…”

Now it was Jeronimo’s turn to snort. “An old town salle? They’ll teach her a pretty guard and a fancy salute and she’ll be eaten alive by anyone who’s ever actually been in a fight. Those are for rich merchants who send off their sons to play at being hidalgos.”

“Well, where should she go then? If you aren’t going to help–”

“I can sell this,” Marisol said, putting the sword on the table. Jeronimo and Ana were silent a moment, before Jeronimo picked up the weapon to consider it. “The blade is ruined,” Marisol said quickly, not wanting Jeronimo to think she was trying to cheat him, “but the hilt and guard are good. Quality steel, well-made.”

Jeronimo drew the weapon from its scabbard and frowned over the pattern in the blade. He tested the edge with his thumb and gently bent the weapon to test its flexibility. “Hmm,” he said. “A little stiff, but not too bad. And this pattern is unusual, but I don’t think it’s ruined. I’ve seen blades like this before, and they held up just as well as anything.” He tested the balance, then took up a small iron fork from the table and tapped the blade. It rang, bright and high like a bell, the tone persisting for a long time in the now-quiet home. “You could sell this, yes. Not for a fortune, but maybe enough…” his eyes fell on the sunflowers that marked the base of the blade. He scowled and shook his head. “But I will not buy it.”

Marisol’s heart dropped. Ana was furious. “You won’t? Why not? You could sell it again for a thousand at the very least by tomorrow. At least put it up for sale, someone else–”

“Damn it, I will not buy the last sword this girl’s mother made–” The two of them were talking over each other now, each voice rising to top the other until they were both practically screaming.

“If you won’t,” Marisol shouted. Ana and Jeronimo stopped almost immediately, and Marisol let her voice come down to a normal level. “If you won’t buy it, I’ll find someone else who will. I’ll go from door to door if I have to. I’ll go to the other swordmakers, I’ll go-”

“Jeronimo–”

“Wait,” Jeronimo held up his hands. “Wait, wait. All right. Marisol, stay here with us tonight. I will go tomorrow –” He perceived the look on Marisol’s face as she half stood up, “–tonight, I will go tonight and speak with the rest of the guild. You stay here, eat, rest. You’re plainly exhausted.” Jeronimo pulled off his leather apron. “All right?”

Marisol nodded and sat back down, her sword across her lap. Jeronimo trundled off, and Ana brought Marisol dinner: a thick, spicy stew with ham and peppers and fresh bread to scoop it up with. Marisol wolfed it all down, so hungry at first that she felt almost too nauseous to eat, but soon stuffing herself to the gills. Between bowls of stew and glass after glass of sherry, Marisol was soon pleasantly sleepy. The hard few days caught up with her at once, in Ana’s warm, dark home.

***

She awoke to the sound of the door opening softly. Ana had apparently moved her, or convinced her to move, she couldn’t remember which; and Marisol suffered a moment of disorientation as she woke up in the large, soft stuffed chair near the fire, a blanket over her shoulders, blinking in confusion at the walls of a strange room, reaching for her mother’s sword, panicking when she realized it wasn’t at her side. She calmed down as recognition set in, when she saw Jeronimo by the door, trying not to disturb her, when she saw her sword in its sack, resting against the wall.

“What–?” she began, but Jeronimo cut her off.

“Sh, sh,” he said, in those hushed tones peculiar to the early morning before the sunrise. “You’ll wake Ana. Come here, sit.”

Marisol joined him at the little table. Jeronimo seemed anxious and reluctant; instead of speaking, he scratched a spot behind his ear.

“What is it?” Marisol asked.

Jeronimo sighed. “They will not buy your sword. No one in the guild. If someone asks about it, they will say that it’s worthless. If someone buys it from you without the guild’s consent, they will be blacklisted from all future commissions.”

Marisol felt sick. “What?”

“Listen, you have to understand–”

“You,” she said, anger bubbling up inside of her. The hot coal in her chest burned in the back of her throat. “You did this. You told them not to buy the sword!”

“Sh! Wait, listen–”

“Well I don’t care. I don’t care if your guild won’t buy it, I don’t care if I have to go to another city, or one after that–”

“Marisol–”

“I don’t care if I have to become a thief or a hired soldier or what, I don’t –”

Jeronimo seized her wrist. “Foolish girl, listen to me! We will help you!”

Marisol twisted her hand out of Jeronimo’s iron grip, but said nothing.

“We will help,” Jeronimo went on. “The guild will not buy this sword, because it is not yours to sell. It was a commission, made for a man named Savonarola. Do you know him?”

Marisol shook her head.

“He was the last master of the Padua School. No one has seen him for years, but never mind. He might still live, and if he does, you cannot sell the sword. But. The guild has agreed to help you in another way.” He pulled two letters from a pocket in his shirt and placed them on the table. “This is a letter of introduction to Don Lope de la Barca y Berreda Martinez de Henao Blasco. He is a master of the Toledo School of fencing, he lives on an estate outside of the city. He is…a difficult man, but a fine swordsman, he will teach you.” Jeronimo pointed to the second letter. “This is a letter of draft from the guild’s bank. You can use it to pay for yourself while with de la Barca. Save the rest of your money, you will need it.”

Marisol swallowed. “Why? Why are you…why all this?”

“‘Why’ she says,” Jeronimo snorted. “She walks twenty miles through the dead of night on nothing but a half a loaf of bread, she comes to me after all this for help, and when I give it to her she wonders why. Hmf.”

“No, I mean.” She took a deep breath. “Thank you. This is very generous. But I thought that the guild didn’t like my mother.”

“Hah,” said Jeronimo. “Well. We are old men, mostly, and old men like old things the best. When you’re young, you’re used to not understanding the world, so it doesn’t bother you. But when you’re old, you’re used to knowing everything you need to know, and new things make you nervous. Your mother was new, and she made many men in the guild nervous, and so they didn’t like her. Not at first. But just because we like old things, doesn’t mean we hate new things. When I talked to every master of the sword-makers guild in the city, I told each one of them that your mother was the best of us, and not a one of them argued with me. Maybe she was not well-liked, but she was well-beloved.”

Marisol placed her hands — strong and callused from the smithy — on Jeronimo’s. His were huge, square, stone wrapped in leather, they seemed strong enough to forge iron without tools at all. They were her own hands in twenty years, hands marked by a mastery of their craft. Or they were what her hands would have been, she realized, except that now her path had taken her from the forge. What would her own hands look like in twenty years’ time?

A new thought wormed its way into her mind, and she began to wonder if she would even see another twenty years. The quest could kill her, she knew, and would she risk that? Would she continue on, instead of returning to her home, carrying a pain that still might one day heal, rather than risk her life, knowing the she could never bring her mother back?

The fire that welled up inside her was surprising, but comforting. Yes. She would do whatever she had to. If there was a heaven, perhaps it would forgive her the rage that it had seen fit to burden her with; if there was a hell, she would drag the man with the red right hand down into it with her, better to burn and see him burn than to live and know that he lived. If there was neither one, then at least it would be a relief, to be free of her own pain, and know that the man had taken not one second more pleasure from life than she could help.

“Thank you,” she said to Jeronimo.

Jeronimo nodded and smiled, but his face was sad.