Place yourself, if it please you, at the side of the Conte di Sfarta, at an exhibition of swordplay held in his ballroom. The walls are hung with the count’s colors, red and silver. A canal sourced from the First Aqueduct runs along one wall, a testament that the Conte’s fortune is not only vast but old. All the maestros of Cisterna are in attendance, in their finest dress. Even Pierro Secchi has shaved.
Two minutes after you arrive, Secchi’s finest pupil, Girolamo Basina, will be matched against Maestro Fantina’s protege, Cecilia Zierne. For the Conte to hold such an event is unusual, but he has heard so much about these two fencers that he simply could not miss the chance to see them up close.
Observe how in all but their ages (both hover somewhere about seventeen), Cecilia and Girolamo are as different as sun and moon. His sandy hair is uncombed and unbound, long enough to reach the neck of his tunic. Her doublet, padded to resist blows from blunted rapiers, sits awkwardly on her narrow shoulders.
They will face each other, bow, and enter the stanzia terza. They will advance and cross blades. Secchi’s students will bellow across the room at the Fantini until the count’s Captain of Guards threatens to throw them all in the aqueduct.
Three minutes after that, Giro Basina will fall desperately in love.
This comes to pass after Cecilia executes a daring maneuver from Chapter Six of Alderni’s Treatise on the Art of Fencing. Giro has scored the first touch. On the second pass, he has twice attempted to gain control of her blade and twice been rebuffed. He believes he has tricked her into thinking she has the measure of him. But on Giro’s third advance, Cecilia, instead of attempting a thrust to his carefully exposed arm, evades, sliding into a whirling cut above her head.
Giro is transfixed. He must parry, but he has no inkling of where Cecilia’s steel will land. Nobody moves like this. Nobody reads Alderni. He is a hack, a showman, fit only for dueling scenes in lurid tragedies. Maestro Secchi has promised to burn any copy of his Treatise found in the academy.
Giro panics and raises his sword to parry across his forehead, but Cecilia has the momentum. She swipes down, tangling him in a low guard, then sails in for the cut.
“Touch!” calls the Captain of Guards.
The onlookers roar. “Idiot boy!” shouts Secchi. “Are you bewitched? She couldn’t have left a wider opening if she’d laid back and begged!”
Giro does not hear him. Cecilia Zierne bows to him and takes her position for the next pass. He has been told she is more than his equal, as promising a fencer as Cisterna ever saw—and she fights with parlor tricks? It is an insult.
They advance again. Cecilia retreats at once, never letting Giro get near, changing guards so quickly he can’t find the right line. She removes her blade from the line entirely, then returns from nowhere to bat Giro’s blade aside. She scores another touch under his arm.
This girl is breaking rules that are in place for good reason. The only cause for her to bout this way, Giro thinks, must be that she finds joy in it. And what a thing that must be: to love fencing. He has not loved it since he entered the Academia Secchi. Wielding a rapier is work to him, a means to pay his family’s onerous debts with gifts from impressed patrons like di Sfarta. It feels no different than picking up a hammer or a spade.
Girolamo scores the fourth touch—a fluke, but it will keep his reputation intact. The allotted time elapses. The Captain calls the bout as a draw. As the students hurl grandiose boasts at one another, Cecilia removes her mask. Her smile is as cocksure her fencing. Her dark hair is bound about her fair face, a band of shadow around pure light.
Giro realizes she is gloating, albeit quietly. No doubt she would be much louder about it without the Captain’s stern glare in the room.
He thinks: I must speak with this girl.
Only later will Giro see this was the moment he fell in love with Cecilia. For now, he simply knows the need to talk to her has supplanted all other needs.
But she goes back to her end of the ballroom, bows her head to Fantina himself, exchanges a joke with a boy standing at the maestro’s side. The Captain calls the next bout, the Conte bids them fight well, and Giro knows he will not get anywhere near the Fantini today. Yet he is a fencer, well-practiced at finding openings and patient in waiting for them.
In those days, when the secrets of the smiths had been loosed by the power of the printing press, any fool with two lori to rub together could buy a sword—and every one of those fools desired a master fencer in their family. Never mind that the doge’s line had been in power for four generations now and were well-liked, so true conflict hardly visited Cisterna; never mind that there were no longer barbarians at the gates. Having a fencer for a child declared that you had money to spend on a blade, a tunic, and lessons with a maestro.
This new breed of fighters scorned the martial seriousness of the old codices with their pages full of blank-eyed, long-limbed killing machines. These men challenged each other in the piazzas, stopped only at first blood, then parted to their separate taverns, swearing that next time I see you, I’ll skewer you like a pig.
They had women among them, as well, for it was agreed that fencing was an improving activity for the feminine mind. This was true, though not quite in the way commonly believed.
During those long summers, when no drinking party, no wedding, no funeral was complete without the clash of blades, two men set themselves up as maestros on opposite ends of Cisterna. Fair-haired Guglielmo Fantina established his Academia Scherma within sight of the Imperial Hill, in a palace granted to him by the brother of the Dogess herself. Bald, black-bearded Pierro Secchi took over an old military barracks by the shaded banks of Idar, lowest of the city’s seven aqueducts.
The two men despised each other with a fury usually reserved for scorned lovers. As it was told in the wine shops, Fantina and Secchi had been raised the closest of friends in the court of the Elder Doge. They were the local rascals, always underfoot, never out of each other’s company. But as they grew to manhood, Fantina won military honors on the mountain frontier while Secchi stayed home and devoted his energy to drinking. When the new Dogess took office, she dismissed Secchi as a wine-soaked layabout, while Fantina, when he left court to mold the martial spirits of the new generation, was given all the fanfare of a retiring general.
Pierro Secchi was known to fight more skillfully when drunk than other men did sober. “The God help us all if Secchi ever touches a glass of water,” went a popular joke in the Idarside tavernas. This reputation was able to secure him a steady stream of students, cut of a rougher cloth than Fantina’s noble brats: the sons and daughters of sea captains, of caravan runners, of planters in the barrier isles. Fantina’s students spat on Secchi’s and called them parvenue, upstarts. Secchi’s students grabbed their own breasts or balls and called Fantina’s students cortigiana, courtesans. And thus did the hatred between the two men seep into their charges, like poisoned water rising to the branches of a tree.
Giro isn’t given to illusions. This venom will taint every moment he spends in Cecilia’s presence. If she thinks of him at all, it will be as a mildly diverting bump on her road to becoming a champion. Nothing can come of his new infatuation.
Yet every time he resolves to ignore his feelings, it’s as though a rapier has pierced his gut, forcing deeper each time he thinks the name Cecilia.
On the walk back to the barracks, Secchi regales the entire academy—two dozen in total—with an impromptu treatise on Giro’s mistakes. “He failed to maintain a consistent distance. No attention to tempo. No employment of the left hand. Stood there gawking instead of attempting a stop-thrust.”
“Master—” Giro begins, but Secchi’s hard stare silences him.
“This is what happens when you rely on natural talent instead of diligent study. You get into ruts. You cannot adapt to menaces like Zierne.” He shakes his head. “She set out to dazzle you with theatrics, and by the God she succeeded.”
“I don’t think it was her swordplay that dazzled Giro,” says a boy in the rear. The others around him snicker but fall deathly silent when Secchi turns.
“Do you imagine you might have done better?” Secchi snaps. “Who among you has scored a touch on Basina in months? He remains our best hope. When we fight before the Dogess, the glory of our Academy must lie on his shoulders. The God knows none of the rest of you can hope to carry our standard.”
Giro does not feel much strength in his shoulders right now. They slump, instead, under the weight of his classmates’ jealous stares.
When they return to the school, Secchi vanishes in search of his jug. Giro and his friend Antonio kindle a fire in the hearth of the common room. Some of the students will now return home to their families. Those who live on the premises, like Giro, will train late into the night, staunching the wounds the exhibition inflicted on their egos.
As the others file toward the practice piste, Giro corners Antonio. “Do you ever go up to the Imperial Hill?”
Antonio and his family live in a tall house by the Nagni, the Second Aqueduct, an airy quarters with a view all the way to the sea. “Sometimes,” Antonio says. “Father says the finest tailors work up there.”
“Could you take me to Fantina’s academy?”
“Oh, of course, dear friend. I was going to go home for dinner, but I suppose being flayed alive might also be fun.”
“Please, Antonio. It’s—it’s Cecilia Zierne. I must speak with her.”
“You want to visit a woman in her room? Uninvited? They’ll be fighting over who gets to run you through.”
Eventually, they reach a compromise. Antonio will point Girolamo to the Fantina academy but will not go near it himself. Giro embraces Antonio, who returns the hug. His friend seems surprised: Giro has never been what anyone might call expressive.
Do not imagine that Cecilia Zierne is frightened when she hears the knock on her window. She is a highly trained martial artist; it would be ludicrous for her to swoon. If some bandit has designs on her virtue—or her finest rapier, which is decidedly more expensive—let him try.
Do not imagine, either, that her face is flushed, her heart beating like the patter of a drum, in anticipation of a moonlit tryst. This is not the way Cecilia thinks about love. In this comfortable but spare room, with its narrow bed and writing desk that she never writes on, there is nowhere for love to grow.
When she sees the face of a boy her age in the window, Cecilia feels neither fear nor lust but disappointment. The face bears neither scars, nor malice, nor guile of any kind. She would have preferred a bandit: a fine chance to test her skills.
She takes her second-best rapier from the wall rack and opens the latch, making sure her visitor can see the blade. As his eyes flit to her steel, she lifts the window. “Who are you, and what do you mean by coming here?”
“I’m from the low city,” says the boy. “I apologize for this, but I didn’t know how else I’d get to see you.”
Cecilia squints. “What would you have done if I didn’t live on the ground floor?”
“Climbed a trellis, I suppose.” The boy looks a bit abashed.
“I’d like to see you try. Our carpenter made them for vines, not for boys out of their depth.”
“May I come inside?”
“Not until I’ve seen your face.” She takes her lantern from beside the door and lights it with a match. As she does, she wonders why she’s letting this unfold rather than banish the boy on pain of impalement. The answer comes easily: because she can. Another woman might have to refuse the nighttime visitor and spend the rest of her life wondering what message he brought. Cecilia is different. She will know for certain that this boy only came to make a fool of himself.
The lantern light, however, throws everything into question because she recognizes him: the boy she fenced at the Conte di Sfarta’s exhibition this afternoon. Pierro Secchi’s top student. She hadn’t thought much of him—his fencing lacked imagination. Technically competent but mostly a miniature of Secchi.
“Well,” she says, to break the silence. “This explains why you couldn’t come in through the front door.”
“I believe I love you, Cecilia.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Don’t what? You don’t know what I believe.”
“I believe you believe you love me. As far as actually loving me, you can’t. You know nothing about me. We haven’t had a conversation where one of us hasn’t been armed.”
“Only one of us is armed now,” Girolamo retorts. “And I do know something about you. I know how you fence. That can tell one a great deal.”
“And what does it tell you about me?” Tentatively, Cecilia edges deeper into the conversation. It helps that Girolamo Basina is not unhandsome: his eyes have a languid look that complements his shaggy hair, and he stands confidently enough to make his cheap tunic and trousers look good.
“That fencing is a joy to you. That you are at this school because there’s nowhere else you’d rather be, not because there’s nowhere else you can be. To employ Alderni in a serious bout—”
“What about Alderni isn’t serious?” Cecilia puts her hands on her hips.
Girolamo’s frightened expression makes her giggle. “I am sorry—I didn’t mean to imply—”
“In the last five minutes, you’ve broken into my home, professed your love without a care for my opinion on the matter, and insulted my favorite maestro. The only reason I haven’t run you out of here at swordpoint is that nobody has ever confessed their love to me. I’m curious to see how much more you can embarrass yourself.”
Strangely enough, this makes Girolamo smile. Something about the unexpectedness of it makes Cecilia’s heart lunge but the sensation vanishes quickly.
“I have not yet begun to embarrass myself, Cecilia,” her suitor says. “Come out with me. I want to know more about you, about what it’s like to fence for joy. In return, you’ll witness a performance you can laugh about for years. What do you say?”
A pounding at the door makes her jump. “Hide!” she hisses out the window at Girolamo.
“Cecilia!” a gruff voice calls from the hallway. “Are you awake?”
“Below the sill.” She shoves him with her free hand. “Hurry!”
With Girolamo stashed out of sight below the windowsill, Cecilia opens the door. A young man, shorter than her but broad-chested, stands on the other side, studying his feet. “Father sent me. You are to meet him before breakfast tomorrow. Since the tourney, he’s grown concerned that your low-line is faltering.”
“Of course, Matisto.” Cecilia smiles. “Was that all?”
“You... did very well today,” Maestro Fantina’s son manages.
“Why, it’s so sweet to hear that from you! Usually, you have some criticism along with the praise.”
Matisto sets his jaw. “You’re mocking me.”
Cecilia enjoys toying with this one. Not because of the pleasure of his company but because he proves that, whatever Basina might say, a person is not their fencing. Matisto is a creative fencer, if a bit forward. His wooing is neither.
“Never,” she says. “It’s an honor to be praised by a harsh critic, that’s all.” She cannot resist adding, “I believe that poor boy of Secchi’s was positively outmatched. A rather wooden fencer. Ugly, too.”
“I... agree,” says Matisto. “Good night, Cecilia.”
As she shuts the door, a shadow rises outside the window. “Ugly?”
“Don’t take it so hard, Signor Basina. Those masks don’t look good on anybody.” She laughs. “You were telling me about all the humiliations still in store for you tonight.”
“Giro. If it pleases you.”
Giro holds out his hand. “Come with me.”
What will the consequences be? Maestro Fantina will be upset if she misses their morning meeting, but how much can he punish his finest student?
There seems no harm in taking this experiment further. But it will happen on Cecilia’s terms. “I have a proposition.”
“We haven’t resolved mine yet.”
“It’s relevant, signor. Bear with me. You wish for the chance to embarrass yourself with Cisterna’s most beautiful fencer. While I—”
“Most beautiful woman.“
“Don’t.” She rolls her eyes. “While I wish to see how Secchi’s students fence when Secchi isn’t watching.”
Giro looks at her like she’s just grown a beard. “You want a bout? Here? Now? What if someone sees?”
“With our masks on, we could be any two students of the school. If you win, I’ll come out with you. If I win...”
She was going to say You’ll never come here again, but she discovers she doesn’t want that. Giro Basina is fun to talk to, and not a total bore to fence, either. But then a far better idea occurs to her. She will engage him with a subtle test.
“If I win,” she says, “you renounce your right to fence before the Dogess.”
“What!? But that’s—we train for that all year!”
“So do we. What better stakes for you to prove you’re serious?” Cecilia half-smiles, which makes Giro flush so red she can see it in the dim light. “It’ll be easier to look good without you there. Those are my terms, parvenue. Take them or leave them.”
“Impossible.” Giro studies the flowerbed. “Secchi would murder me. Nobody loves anybody that much.”
“Ah, it’s true what they say!” Cecilia tilts her head back dramatically and covers her eyes with her hand. “Only the golden ages knew true lovers.”
“Take my rapier. My boots.”
“I have my own.”
“Take anything else!”
“I have given out my terms.”
She meets his eyes and sees that he has passed the test. A boy who just came here for a quick lay would make whatever promise it took to get him into her room. A boy who was actually professing his love would look like... well, like Giro Basina does now. Like a man who plans to keep his promises.
“Very well,” he chokes out, “I accept. But only for the next exhibition.”
Cecilia makes him wait in the flowerbed while she fetches him a spare rapier and tunic. Nighttime bouts in the garden are common around the school; the boys fancy themselves to be settling affairs of honor. In their garb and masks, she and Giro could be anybody.
They begin. Giro advances faster, as if she needed any other clue that he was nervous. He probes her with a barrage of quick feints. The last one comes so close that he leaves himself open, and Cecilia, with perfect timing, lunges in segunde. But Giro isn’t there. She redoubles, and once again, he’s a pace too far away. She realizes that his true talent as a fencer lies in retreating: he has a natural gift for not leaving himself in harm’s way.
But every fencer, sooner or later, must learn to attack. Though it costs Giro to advance, he always does. He advanced all the way here tonight.
Cecilia steps out of range and salutes, then removes her mask. Though Giro seems taken aback, he unmasks as well, shaking out his hair in a way that has probably worked on other girls.
“I’ve seen all I need,” she says. “I’ll come along with you, signore. You interest me just enough for that.”
“‘Not as boring as I thought.’ A compliment worthy of a tombstone.”
“Shut up and give me back the gear.”
Later, once they have passed the edge of the Fantina grounds, she tells him something she has been holding back. It is hard for her to say; he is meant to be the one being shamed here.
“I have hardly seen any of Cisterna since I came here,” she admits.
“Fantina works you so hard?”
“My father is a country marchesa near Varzano. I am his fifth child, third daughter. I am supposed to be here to improve myself, to better my marriage prospects, but in truth, I don’t think he cares whether or not I marry.”
Giro picks up a lantern he stashed outside the Academy wall. They fall into step together. “It sounds as though Fantina has been a truer father to you.”
“He is a taskmaster,” she says, “but I don’t mind. I don’t wish to do anything if I cannot be the best at it. Maestro Fantina drives me to be greater. Is it not the same with you and Secchi?”
Giro takes a long time to answer. “Not really,” he says finally. “Everything you’ve heard about him being a sad old drunk is true. I have no respect for him, though I need him. My parents won’t let me quit. Having a master in the family is their best hope to pay off their debts.”
“Ah.” There seems nothing to say to this.
As they reach the cobbled street that runs along the aqueduct, Giro adds, “If it helps, the debts are owned to the Dogess herself.”
Cecilia chuckles. “Yes, the main worry here is the prestige of the creditor. Certainly nothing else.”
She understands now why Giro can’t fence for pleasure. She cannot imagine that; the rush of a sword in her hand is her whole life.
Something has made her more interested in Giro’s suits of love, and it’s not pity. Nor is it his profile seen in the firelight, striking though it is. It’s that she loves this new feeling of being wanted. Her blade, her footwork—these have been demanded, even fought over. But who, until tonight, has ever desired Cecilia Zierne’s joy?
It is fortunate for Giro that Cecilia has seen little of Cisterna, for it is esteemed as a place of transcendent beauty, even centuries later. He can be her guide that night to its romance, its monuments and secret places, and can borrow some of that beauty for himself, like a pauper in a rich man’s cloak.
He brings her to the Column of the Conquerors, and shows her how to make wishes by throwing a lori into the fountain at its base. He lies that the wisher must close their eyes, so that he has a chance to study her face. She smiles softly, as though she knows he is doing it. He wonders if he’ll ever outmatch her.
Giro tells Cecilia that nobody knows why water falls endlessly from the sky above Cisterna, but the entire city is built around the Seven Aqueducts that guide the water into palaces and public houses alike. She tries coffee for the first time at a cafe beside the Fourth Aqueduct and pronounces it dreadful, ordering Giro to dump cream and sugar into the cup until it’s tolerable.
As they make their way upcity again, long after the Midnight Sisters rise on the southern horizon—Cecilia has read about the Phoenix Archway, and Giro has promised to take her there next—music begins to swell behind them. “What is this?” she asks.
“Ah,” he says. “Probably too late to escape now.”
“Could you possibly say that more ominously?” She turns her left hip, where she’s still wearing her rapier. “I have to remind you that frightening me so I clutch your hand is not a viable strategy.”
“This isn’t the kind of danger you can answer with swordplay.” Giro glances behind them. Just beyond the bend in the sloping street, the light of many torches is growing brighter. “Just watch me. Do what I do.”
He takes her hand before she can object. A line of dancers appears, redolent with torches and bells, weaving back and forth across the street like a colorful, off-key serpent. Somebody is playing a fiddle shockingly well.
“It’s footwork,” he promises. “Just like fencing. Watch your feet, follow the dance, and you’ll be fine.”
“I don’t dance!” she shouts, as somebody grabs her free hand.
“Yes, you do!” Giro shouts as another dancer, flamboyantly costumed in red and blue feathers, takes hold of him. “You’re just usually armed when you do it!”
Soon, they’re pounding across the street, uphill beneath a torch-shrouded sky. Somebody slings Cecilia down the street, and she rushes along the line, swinging from hand to hand. By the time Giro reaches her by the same method, they’re both laughing. Together, they sing every word they know that goes with the old air the fiddler plays, managing nearly the whole song between them.
They disentangle themselves by the Phoenix Arch and rush up the steps to the footbridge, bidding farewell as the dancers continue on. And it’s there, on the platform over the vast weir where all seven Aqueducts diverge from the master channel—there between the stars and the city fires and the rushing waters—that Cecilia takes Giro’s head in her hands and kisses him for the first time.
The heat, the awkwardness of where to put their tongues, his hand on the small of her back pulling her closer: she doesn’t know what she expected, but it is so, so much more than that. You have my joy now, she thinks, and then doesn’t think anything for a while.
As they return to the Academy, Cecilia tells herself she was merely curious. Yet she kissed him first. They both know it. She’ll never be able to take that back.
“Will I see you again?” he asks.
“I’ll say nothing of love,” she tells him, “until I know what it is. But yes. I think I will see you again.”
“Good.” He rests his arm around her waist long after they pull apart. “I haven’t yet learned the way to fence with joy. I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye until I understand.”
“Find a book, then, if that’s all you want.” She disentangles herself and leans against the wall, marveling at the lights of Cisterna laid out below her. “I’m not your maestro.”
Giro smiles that surprise grin again. It’s infuriating how well that works for her. “I don’t want a maestro,” he says. “They don’t teach the way you do.”
Bring yourself forward two weeks, reader. If it will help to imagine Cisterna’s famous water clock, the size of a church wall and accurate to half a second, you may do so. See the wrought-gold hour hand circle the ivory face three hundred and thirty-six times.
Giro and Cecilia have seen each other four more times. Each night they can get away, they meet atop the Phoenix Gate and Cecilia asks Giro to show her some fantastic new sight. One night they see a play at the Theatro Satyrico; when the two actors in the comic love triangle face off with swords, Giro and Cecilia critique the fencing loudly enough to enrage the rest of the audience. Another night they sneak out of the city to the Sauvian Vineyards and stumble home drunk on a dozen different vintages. Yet another night, they enter a tavern separately wearing carnival masks and, in the sanctity of a darkened chamber, remove one another’s clothes—hardly speaking, as though they’re making love atop a delicate ice cap where a single loose word might shatter the stars.
Pierro Secchi is unable to contain his glee at the improvement he sees in Girolamo’s technique. After Giro thrashes four opponents in succession one afternoon—including a stricken Antonio twice—Secchi announces, “Class, Basina is either getting laid, or he’s finally decided to crack open a book.”
Giro never thought he’d enjoy reading a Treatise on the Art of Fencing, but with Cecilia at his shoulder, her hair brushing against his cheek, he finds he has a great incentive to read and retain information quickly.
The turnings of the water clock have brought the Dogess’s annual tournament two weeks closer. The whole of Cisterna is abuzz with talk of it. Apparently, the champions of Secchi’s and Fantina’s academies are at the top of their games this year. “When Basina and Zierne fight, all Cisterna will tremble,” the old men on their barstools say with the force of gospel.
“What about the other champion? That son of Fantina’s?” an innkeep might ask.
An old man chokes on his wine. “Matisto? That halfwit’s no champion. A soldier, maybe. Put him on a battlefield and he’ll follow orders, loyal as a golem. But a fencer needs to think for himself, on the piste and off.”
It is only a matter of time before this talk filters back to Matisto on Imperial Hill. He keeps his expression neutral during practices, especially while Cecilia bests him again and again under his father’s gaze. But when alone he scowls, and slashes the air, and vows to show all of them just how well he can think for himself.
Cecilia dresses in riding trousers and a cloak borrowed from a friend and makes her way downhill toward the New Forum. It’s a gorgeous day, so clear she can see sloops sailing between the islands in the harbor, and she and Giro have formed their most audacious scheme yet: see one another in the daylight.
Everything has been meticulously planned. Today is the Feast of San Vincenzo, holy founder of Cisterna, and the streets are packed. At the forum, crowds will hear a symphony as dancers perform in time with the ancient fountains. The people will watch, then dance themselves. Many of them are visitors, who neither know nor care which fencing school any swordswomen or men are from. Giro and Cecilia are not even masked today.
It’s exhilarating to be so anonymous. It feels like rebellion, even though there is no real reason they should be slinking around in the shadows. Secchi and Fantina are not their fathers. And what should the two greatest fencers in the city care about rumors anyway? She wants to see how her lover looks in the sunlight.
When she sees him, she does her best to let all questions fall away. He’s in his best clothes: a doublet and half-cape that match both each other and his eyes. Everybody’s wearing some kind of cape or cloak; the idea of this dance is to whirl as much cloth as possible, to make a beautiful picture for those watching from balconies and higher aqueducts.
He takes her hand. “I missed you.”
“Daylight becomes you,” she replies, wrapping her arm around his waist and leaning into him as the symphony strikes up. “Of the two of us, I believe I’m the creature of the night.”
“Then together we’re... twilight? Or dawn?”
“You’re trying one of your poetry flourishes again. We can’t go down that road together.”
“You started it.”
“Because of your bad influence!”
“I meant when you let me open your window.”
She punches him softly, then pulls him closer.
For a while, they’re content listen to the music, which is quite good: rapid climbs and falls over a stately bass line. But Cecilia senses that Giro is waiting to say something. She decides to prompt him. “How’s your fencing?”
“Excellent.” She feels his arm twitch. “Secchi says he’s got no clue how I keep winning every bout with ludicrous theatrical nonsense. You’ve made all the difference in the world to me.”
“Like I said.” She finds his hand and squeezes it. “I’m not your maestro. You’re winning bouts because you’re reading books.”
“Well, yes, that’s helped. And you’re winning because you’ve looked up from yours.”
She scoffs. “I’d have won anyway. But you do make the rest better.”
Giro stands straighter, stiffer. “Cecilia... have you thought about what I proposed?”
She has thought about it a great deal, without coming to any satisfactory conclusion. Giro has asked her to make their relationship known to Maestros Secchi and Fantina. This has lately set her mind to such uncomfortable questions as: What do I want from this boy?
“I’m still not ready,” she confesses. “I’m sorry, Giro. I agree, we must do it eventually, but... it frightens me.”
“There’s nothing they can do to keep us apart. Not by the laws of Cisterna.”
“Maestros in their schools can make their own laws. Suppose I’m banished from the academy for this?” She shivers. “Please don’t make me choose between you and fencing.”
He is kind enough not to voice the obvious response: she is making that choice now.
The dance on the fountain rim ends. The crowd within the square divides into partners for the Dance of the Capes. Facing Giro, penetrated by his earnest gaze, Cecilia realizes she has reached the limits of her experiment. She finally has a problem that mastery of rapiers can’t solve.
She hates it. And she’s not the kind of person to let hateful things stand.
“You know what, Giro?” They clasp right hands, then left, then turn a great circle, cloaks billowing behind them. “I’m not ready now. But in two weeks, at the Dogess’s tourney, I will be.”
Through his wrist, she can feel his heartbeat speed up wildly. It ignites all kinds of excellent feelings in her lower half. “Go on,” he whispers in her ear as they pass by each other in the next dance step.
“We reach the final round. Then we fight each other to a standstill. Keep it going as long as possible, turn it into such a spectacle that everybody will be watching us from the edges of their seats.”
“You’re talking about a stage fight.”
“One which, at the critical moment, we will forfeit to each other.” She is so proud of this idea that she’s burning with excitement. “Then we admit we’re together, and throw ourselves on the mercy of the Dogess—only the Dogess, not Fantina or Secchi.”
Giro’s smile widens. “We go over their heads. In public, where they can do nothing about it.”
“People will talk about it for months. It will bring so much prestige on both our academies that not even Secchi will complain.”
The orchestra at the fountain is playing faster. The dance will speed up until the visitors cannot take it anymore. Moving swiftly, Giro fixes her with a pained look and says, “It will never work.”
“How can you say that?”
“You haven’t met Secchi. He’s a fool, and he’s dug into his hatred.”
This describes Fantina as well, but her teacher is more complex than that. Secchi must be that way too. Surely everybody is.
Before she can figure out how to say this, Giro stares at the opposite end of the forum. “I recognize that man.”
They spin. Cecilia lays eyes on Matisto Fantina.
She is halfway to clasping Giro’s hand when she remembers what they’ve just agreed. To run with him now, or fight alongside him, will reveal everything long before they’re ready. But Matisto is forcing his way through the crowd.
Then she realizes: they are in public now. The plan is to wait until they’re before the whole city. The whole city is here.
Cecilia holds her hand out, silently asking Giro if he’s with her. He waits only a second before taking it.
She pulls him with her through the spinning forest of capes. She’s wearing her sword, of course. He’s not. Cecilia repeatedly begs pardon as the scabbard of her rapier bumps against the frenzied dancers. Eventually, she stops bothering with the blustering tourists and just runs.
“Stop them!” somebody who isn’t Matisto shouts from behind. “Some lout’s kidnapped Maestro Fantina’s protege!” Cecilia steals a glance: four of them, all with their blades in their hands. It’s an impossible fight. But this won’t work without a spectacle.
“Change of plans,” she tells Giro, and instead of leading him toward a street and escape, she turns toward the fountain.
He pales. “You’re not going to—”
“We don’t need to wait for the tournament. We can do it now, as long as we stand together.”
“Cecilia, I’m unarmed!”
“You have me.” They both stop at the fountain’s stone rim. The dancers shriek and clear away from the frightening girl waving a blade. “I won’t let them hurt you.”
“Watch your feet. Follow the dance. And you’ll be fine.”
Cecilia springs onto the concrete rim of the fountain, finding her footing atop its ornate carvings of dolphins and old gods. Giro follows. Now Matisto and his friends have a choice: fight from below, at a grave disadvantage, or try to balance on the narrow basin rim.
Matisto reaches them first. “Cecilia, we’re here to rescue you. Come back to the school with us.”
“Rescue me?” Cecilia lets her incredulity show for the benefit of everyone watching. “When I’m the one armed? Save your gallantry for him.”
“You!” Matisto rounds on Giro. “You think you can get one over on us by tarnishing Cecilia’s reputation? It’ll never work. We Fantini stick together.”
Giro gulps. Matisto’s three friends are catching up.
“I will not go back with you,” Cecilia tells Matisto, “until you can make me.”
Matisto springs onto the basin rim, planting his feet opposite Cecilia, as the crowd ooohs. They must believe this is part of the festival.
Matisto goes for a quick, unimaginative opening, the Bennett feint—straightforward but rarely used. She parries easily, cross-stepping back along the rim as Giro keeps pace behind her. Matisto lunges. Her countercut catches him off guard, and she whacks him on the arm with the flat of the blade.
His next thrust misses. Hers strikes him on the rump, hurling him into the fountain. The crowd guffaws.
Two of the friends aim sloppy cuts at them from below. The third jumps to the fountain rim opposite Giro. Cecilia throws her rapier up and back, trusting.
A solid sound tells her Giro has caught it. Steel clangs as he fights a battle she can’t watch. She throws her half-cape on one assailant’s sword-arm, kicks the other in the nose, and vaults backwards into the fountain.
The water is warmer than it looked. She can see Giro now, who—and Cecilia had no idea he could do this, though she knows something about his flexibility—bodily evades without losing his footing and throws his enemy to the cobblestones. He jumps down after, and before wrestling away his sword throws Cecilia’s blade back to her.
Just in time. Matisto is up again, driving at her with dripping-wet steel. One of his friends gains the high ground, but Giro hits him with a chair, toppling him into the water. She swiftly pivots to the swordsman who has just shaken off her cape, hooks his blade, and flicks up. A perfect disarm.
Matisto’s thrust hits the fountain rim, but he redoubles. Cecilia dodges his last lunge and springs over to the damp stones beside the fountain, back to back with Giro.
The two of them, both armed, give their four antagonists pause.
The crowd’s jubilant roar breaks apart. A pack of city guardsmen is on its way. Perhaps this has not been a play after all.
Matisto and his friends turn and flee through the lower end of the forum. Cecilia turns to Giro and nearly panics at the fear she sees in his face. “We did it,” she manages to tell him.
“Cecilia, he’s going to go tell your maestro!”
“Let him!” She hopes she looks confident. “This is exactly to our plan. Such a spectacle that everyone falls silent. It’s just a bit ahead of schedule.”
Capture this moment, reader. She favors him with her most radiant smile. He has managed to keep hold of his cape, which blows back in a sudden wind. They stand, shoulder to shoulder. This would be the painting: The Tragedy of Cecilia and Girolamo.
“I am going back home, to give Maestro my story before Matisto can give him his. You should too.” She kisses him, swift but deep. “Don’t get caught by the guards. Watch your feet.”
“Follow the dance.” He drops the rapier—it won’t do to get caught with stolen property—and then they’re both gone.
As Giro darts through narrow alleys on the seventh level, he stumbles several times, consumed with wondering if Cecilia has been able to beat Matisto back to Fantina’s school. As far as he can tell, the city guards are no longer pursuing, content with having broken up the disturbance. He turns the corner by old Ricci’s fabric shop, then sprints up a staircase past Luciano the cobbler, who spits the nails out of his mouth to ask Giro why he’s running. Moments later, he’s staring at the grimy underside of a footbridge and the blank grey walls of the Academia Secchi in its shadow.
The academy gates are standing open, tended by a white-faced Antonio. He tells Giro, “You can’t be here. Somebody’s come.”
“Who?” Giro pulls up short. “My father?”
“Worse. Go hide somewhere, you fool. They’re going to ask me what I know, and I’m not a good liar.”
“Antonio!” Giro feels like a prisoner, driven before a army of fears named and nameless. “Who’s come?”
“Someone from Fantina’s!”
The army breaks and cowers. Could Cecilia have found a way to free them both?
He feints toward Antonio’s flank. Antonio moves to parry before remembering his rapier is back in his room. Giro disengages, ducks under his friend’s arm, and races through into the courtyard.
Secchi is starting out of the front doors at him. At his side, bearing a shit-eating grin, stands Matisto Fantina.
It is the thrust Giro never saw coming. Matisto ran to his enemy’s school instead of his own, out of nothing more than spite.
Giro points at Matisto and says, “She’ll never love you.”
Matisto’s grin evaporates, but it’s Secchi who speaks. “It’s no longer any concern of yours who the girl loves. You’ll never see her again.”
Rage and despair duel within Giro, muddling him enough that two students can frogmarch him to his room. Secchi orders him locked there until he can decide what to do with his former star pupil.
Giro knows the maestro’s words aren’t true. He loves Cecilia, and thus he will return to her; it is as true as a blade is sharp. What distracts him, instead, is Secchi’s face. Giro wishes it had been beet-red, with a vein bulging at the temple. That would have been easier to bear than the wide-eyed look of betrayal and pain.
Late that sleepless night, as he lies on his bed after a third failed attempt to reach the breadbox-sized window, a note slides under his door. He dives for the letter. It’s short enough to read in the light through the crack.
We must not see each other again. My training is the most important thing in my life; I cannot allow myself to become weak through distractions. I shall meet you only on the piste.
Idiot, Cecilia thinks, pacing her chamber. Fool without the brains the God gave a statue. Why did you never write to him before now?
Girolamo does not know what her handwriting looks like. She knows his—once he wrote her a love note, half painfully trite and half achingly true, and she read it four times but never made reply. He will not know it was Fantina who scrawled the words, words he could not compel her to write.
The Maestro had been smiling the whole time, as though this were all some hearty joke among the young people. He’d learned the news from one of Matisto’s cronies. “In a week,” he’d said, behind the desk in his sunlit study, “you’ll forget all about him.”
She’d been left to stand. “I can decide what to forget without your help, Maestro.”
“Is that what you think?” Still smiling, he tips his chair back. “I haven’t just been entrusted with your education as a fencer, you know. Your father has charged me to protect your reputation as well. It is within my authority to forbid you from ever again contacting Girolamo Basina, and to punish you if you break my rules.”
Cecilia counters, “We must meet at least one more time.”
Fantina’s face doesn’t change. “And why is that?”
“The dogess’s exhibition. It’s all anybody can talk about. If Giro—if Basina and I do not bout, there might be a riot.”
“Very well. You will meet once more. You will say your goodbyes through swordplay, and that will be that.”
“What if I don’t consent?”
“I’ve already told you—”
“Then punish me!” Cecilia clenches her sword hand. “Confine me. Do whatever you can. I used to think you cared about nothing but molding us into better fencers. I thought you were a man of joy, devoted to making the world more beautiful. But now I see you’re as bitter and shriveled as Secchi. Defeating him is all you care about. All we are is means to that end.”
The maestro stands. His smile is long gone. “Nicos!”
Matisto’s lackey enters. “Your pleasure, Maestro?”
“Go to Miss Zierne’s chamber and confiscate her rapiers. She is no longer permitted to carry a blade outside of practice. Tell Edouard to inform the other students.”
“No!” Cecilia jerks toward Nicos, but he’s out the door too quickly.
Fantina stands and stretches. “Rest, my dear Cecilia. You’ve had a trying day.”
Out in the hallway, weaponless and bared to the world, she sees the leering face of Matisto. “What did my father have to say?”
She clamps a hand around his throat. Yet before she can slam him into the stone wall, he twists out of her grasp.
“Not so special without a blade, are you?” He leans in until Cecilia can smell his sour breath. “You were always too good for me. Laughing at me behind all your words. But you rose too high. Now you’re nothing.”
She punches him in the throat. As Matisto staggers back, gagging as drool leaks from his mouth, she says, “I can still carry a sword during practice. I challenge you to a duel next session, Matisto Fantina, with naked blades. Do you accept, or shall I tell the whole academy you fear to face a girl half your weight?”
Matisto mutters something. “Louder!” Cecilia shouts. “People are listening, brave one!”
“I accept!” Matisto struggles to his feet. “Tomorrow at noon! After I beat you, I’ll fence in your place before the Dogess, and I’ll whip your lover while the whole city watches. You should have taken me when you had the chance.”
You’re right, she thinks. She should have taken his sword, his boots, his honor back at the fountain. But now she’ll have another chance. And for this reason, despite speaking in anger, she knows she did not speak rashly. She is Cecilia Zierne, the Queen of Swords, and there is no duel she cannot win.
In the morning, Antonio snatches Giro’s breakfast before anyone but the cook wakes up. He slips inside the small room with a jug of water and hunk of bread and says, “I’ve been up to Imperial Hill.”
Giro is lying back on the bed, wearing the same clothes as when he was first locked up. “That’s nice,” he says.
“Enough with the martyred act!” Antonio slams the plate and jug down on the desk. “I look up to you, do you know that? Why don’t you try and be the man I see when I look at you?”
“Fine.” Giro turns his head. “I’ll play along. What did you do once you got to the hill?”
“Spoke with a friend who works in the kitchen at Fantina’s.” Antonio grimaces as Giro leaps up, tangling himself in his blanket. “Ah, yes. Now I’ve gotten your attention. But this is serious, Giro. There’s going to be a duel. Cecilia and Matisto. Naked blades.”
Giro manages to shed the blanket and grabs the bread, tearing into it. “Why would Matisto agree to that?” he asks through a mouthful of crumbs.
“Either he’s fool enough to think he can beat her, or he’s got something up his sleeve. I’ve come to get you out.”
“What for?” Giro sits heavily back down on the bed. “If I go, it’ll only make things worse for her. Cecilia can handle this on her own. All I can do now is apologize to Secchi until he forgets why he’s mad at me.”
Antonio grabs Giro by both shoulders and yanks him roughly back to his feet. “Shut up and listen, you self-pitying bag of nightsoil. Can you imagine Matisto Fantina winning a duel against Cecilia without some sort of trickery?”
“We all use tricks, Antonio, it’s called fencing.”
“A fencer’s tricks are rooted in respect. Matisto is fighting Cecilia out of spite. Do you think there’s anything he won’t do to win?”
“Do you think there’s anything he could do that she can’t parry?”
“With naked blades, she only needs to blink once.” Antonio crouches below the window and makes a stirrup from his fingers. “You are rushing to the guard the back of your true love if I have to drag you there by your filthy cape. Now up!”
“Fine, damn you. Whatever happens next, you’re not allowed in my room anymore.”
After Giro wriggles his way through the window, Antonio passes his own rapier up to his friend. “Thank you, Antonio,” Giro says. “Truly.”
“Don’t forget,” Antonio replies from below. “It’s for love.”
Giro searches the yard for danger. There is the wall, here the academy, there the footbridge, and there, at the gate in the wall, stands Pierro Secchi.
Alas, he is completely sober.
Giro leaps back into stanzia terza. Secchi opts for the lowest guard, the portoferro—iron door—to take advantage of his greater height. “I did not give you permission to leave.”
“Maestro, betrayal could be about to take a life today. If you don’t let me—”
“Yes, I heard what Antonio told you. I can’t say I care. Get back inside.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Secchi stamps his forward foot, an appel like a bull pawing the sand. “You insolent little wretch!”
It’s Giro’s turn to interrupt him. “I don’t believe that you don’t care! You could have cast me out from your school the moment you learned about me and Cecilia, could have sent me back to my family in disgrace. Why didn’t you?”
“I suppose you know?” Secchi’s sword flicks out, but Giro knows it’s a feint to test him. He doesn’t react except to retreat, crushing dew-soaked grass. “Tell me, then.”
“Because you care about me. Not only me, but the rest of your students. You started this academy for coin to buy wine, maybe to get one over on Fantina one day, but somewhere along the way, we became your family. By accident, perhaps. But you can’t put that spill back in the bottle.”
He shifts guards while Secchi is distracted, then cuts from below, just as quickly from above. Secchi follows him around, moves inside Giro’s guard, and raps him on the wrist. “Those idiotic circles will get you killed, boy. You understand nothing.”
“I understand that I’ve hurt you,” Giro says. “You took my love for Cecilia as a betrayal. I know you’re in pain.”
“You have never felt pain!” Their moves are no longer recognizable from any book. Secchi fights to wound, Giro to escape. Giro draws Secchi back from the gate, parrying high and low to keep talking.
“How do you know?” he shouts. “Thirty-six hours ago, the only girl I have ever loved sent me a note saying I would never see her again. After a day and a half, I’ve realized: someone forced her to write it. She never uses my full name, you see. And soon she’ll be fighting an opponent with no honor, a man who won’t hesitate to throw sand in her eyes, knock her off-balance, have his friends shout to distract her—any trick that will let him taste revenge. All for the slight of making him feel small. I can’t abandon her. I must be there. Maestro, I may not know all the pain you know, but I know a little. Enough to say...”
Giro lifts his hilt to his forehead in salute. Then he sheathes his sword.
“...I am sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”
Secchi lunges. Giro evades, leaping right, barely staying in stance. The maestro stumbles past him, then lands on his knees. His sword hangs limply at his side.
“Go,” he tells Giro, in between sobs that heave his whole body. “Go, I said! Go help her, if you can!”
Giro needs no more encouragement. He rushes into the street.
Fantina cancels the morning practice session. By ten to noon, tables have been pushed to the edges of the refectory hall and a red carpet unrolled to serve as a piste. “Why here?” Nicos asks nervously.
“We do not spill blood in the practice hall,” the maestro replies.
His students think he looks surprisingly unaffected for a man who is about to watch his oldest son and his finest student battle with sharpened rapiers. Perhaps he believes the duel truly will stop at first blood. If so, he has not seen the combatants’ faces. Cecilia and Matisto have every intention of bleeding each other’s last blood.
Neither has brought their padded tunics or masks. Cecilia wears a dark-red, loose-fitting shirt over her white practice trousers, her hair bound tightly in two ribbons. Matisto wears nothing but a dark-green vest and long pants. Their feet are bare.
“To the piste,” Fantina says. Cecilia and Matisto step onto the carpet, facing one another. “This will be a duel under the traditional rules. No use of the off-hand. Stepping off the piste will be considered surrender. No speaking, except to demand quarter, which will be immediately granted.”
Cecilia sees Matisto’s mouth curl. She sets hers in turn. Neither of them will be demanding quarter.
“Upon the spilling of first blood, the duel will end, and both parties will consider themselves satisfied. Any further violence will no longer be protected under city law. Is this acceptable to you both?”
“Are you ready?”
Matisto slides into stanzia terza. Cecilia opts for stanzia prima, to keep him off balance.
Fantina stamps the ground. “Via!”
Matisto charges forward with two cross-steps and executes a quick beat to Cecilia’s sword. Caught off-guard, having expected him to aim for her waist, she allows him to catch her blade in a bind.
Cecilia is half Matisto’s weight. If he turns this into a wrestling match, she’ll lose. She winds her blade around his until his weak foible is resting against her forte.
Then she brings her knee up into his groin.
Matisto wheezes. He staggers back in a hasty retreat, eyes watering as Cecilia smiles sweetly at him. He wants to protest, but they are not permitted to talk. Instead, he manages a passable middle guard, rebuffing Cecilia’s bid to take advantage of her trick.
He advances again. She should have kicked harder. Matisto beats relentlessly in all quarters, forcing her to dart around after him. She knows he’s vulnerable to feints, but whenever she tries to bait him, he’s already somewhere else.
Cecilia turns in a desperate twist that owes little to her training. Matisto’s rapier slices her shirt at the stomach. He’s the one smiling now.
Beyond the tall windows, clouds are roiling. Everything seems to distract her. Giro—where might he be? Is he safe? Is he thinking of her?
It’s not the time for such thoughts. It may never be again. Cecilia parries into guardia secunda and glides in. Her flat strikes Matisto’s arm hard enough to turn the skin purple. He ripostes, but she’s already outside his measure.
Give up, you stubborn bastard. She never wanted this. She only knew she couldn’t show weakness or he’d pounce, like a hound on raw meat.
But then he advances once more, bruised arm doing nothing to hold him back, and she remembers she did want this. Matisto has always been a monster, staring at her at meals, turning up at her room at all hours of the night. In fact, of the men who have claimed to loved her, only one has not been a monster.
She arrests Matisto’s next move with a two-step combination, keeping him off-balance, varying the line and speed of her feints. They clash high, slip low, wrestle and disengage. Hear, reader, the metal ring on metal throughout the refectory, hear the frantic exhalations of those watching, the pounding of the fencers’ feet across the carpet. Smell the sweat. Stay here. Do not blink. It is up to you to bear witness.
Cecilia lunges, and Matisto parries. She lets him believe she is withdrawing, sees him step forward to take the riposte. Then she falls to the ground in a controlled collapse, rolls, and slices open his right shin.
A roar ripples across the crowd. “Halt!” Fantina commands, as his son howls, “No!“
“First blood to Signora Zierne,” says the Maestro. “This duel is over. Are you satisfied?”
Cecilia has clambered to her feet. Looking at the man who raised Matisto, the man who believes he is raising her, she cannot open her mouth. Instead, she turns, rapier in hand, and walks away toward the door.
“Zierne, you will answer me!” cries Fantina. The other students begin to murmur.
Behind her, a crash sounds from one of the tall windows. Somebody screams her name. The voice makes her turn.
Imagine what she sees as the painted backdrop of a play. Fantina and the students, frozen statues, too stunned to speak. Giro standing in the garden behind a broken window, another rock in hand, prepared to throw. Matisto, a pace away, his sword held out, charging forward to run it through her back.
She makes a textbook stop-thrust from guardia secunda. The blade slides between two of Matisto’s ribs, coming to rest in his heart.
Cecilia drops the blade like it’s a venomous snake. Matisto falls, spitting blood onto the piste. He’s staring up at her. She’ll remember the whites of his eyes as his death curse. They’ll never leave her.
Giro leaps through the window frame, brandishing his blade. Fantina’s unarmed students cluster back into the corners. “The law protects her!” Giro shouts. “Maestro Fantina, you know this to be true.”
Maestro Guglielmo Fantina has folded. He’s crouched, head in his hands, rocking back and forth. The life left his son’s eyes with absurd speed. Matisto is lying back on the carpet, hand seized around his sword.
“Yes,” says his father. “He... he tried to spill blood after the duel was over. He broke the code. I cannot prosecute her.” He lifts his head. “But I can banish her. She is no longer welcome in this school. My friends at court will ensure she is hounded from this city.” He looks up at Giro. “Signore Basina, tell your lover to run.”
“Tell her yourself!” Giro advances. “You and your son are the architects of all this pain. You’re a war hero. For once in your life, show that same bravery at home.”
“You’ve trespassed on my school grounds. You’ve destroyed my property. Now you slander my honor as my son lies dead.” The maestro stands. “Leave, Basina, before there are two bodies in this room.”
Cecilia sees the back of her teacher’s head, sees the students staring at Giro, and realizes his final gift. He is distracting them all. He cannot meet her eyes, lest he remind the others she is here.
Without touching, without looking or speaking, she tries to send him all the truths that otherwise will never escape. Thank you. I love you too. Goodbye.
Then she walks through the door, unarmed before the world.
The water clock moves on, and so will you. Your time in Cisterna is almost over. It cannot be your home, just as it cannot be for Cecilia or Giro.
Before you leave, however, you mustn’t miss the Dogess’s exhibition of swordplay. Citizens from every Aqueduct pack the High Circus until no more can fit. Those who arrive late climb to rooftops or fall to drinking in the courtyard, awaiting news from inside.
Nine of Cisterna’s finest academia scherzi have sent representatives. The fighting is fierce and jubilant. The Dogess has decreed contests of all kinds: melees, two-to-two clashes, mock sieges, duels with daggers, knives, bucklers, cloaks, lanterns. It is whispered that once night falls, the arena will be flooded for a simulated naval battle.
Everybody agrees the games are the finest in years. But some grow concerned. When will Signor Basina fight Signora Zierne? Why has the Dogess made no mention of the most anticipated match of the year?
“Hush,” say the complainers’ friends. “You know as well as I do what has happened. Zierne’s name is disgraced. She has run back to her father’s farm in shame.”
Girolamo Basina fights three bouts in the morning. Pierro Secchi cheers him each time. His second, young Antonio Giordano, fights alongside him in a melee and is applauded for many feats of arms. But the crowd worries about Basina. He looks tired, they say. Too much like his old self. He fences without joy.
At two hours past noon, the herald announces Basina’s fourth and final bout of the day. “Signore Basina against Signore Saltaris, at the single rapier!”
Giro walks mechanically to the piste while the ringside viewers babble in excitement. This fellow Saltaris has caused quite the stir. He has fenced the whole day without removing his mask and cowl, like one of the mystery knights of old. He claims allegiance to none of the schools. Nobody is quite sure how he managed to register.
“Ready!” cries the herald. Secchi and Antonio shout some advice. The Dogess rests her hand on her chin.
Giro thinks of nothing but his bedchamber, silence, and a cup of wine. Until his opponent slides into stance.
And Giro remembers the few scraps he once learned of the old dialect.
He salutes her, and she him.
With her first testing strike, Cecilia announces herself so boldly that it banishes all Giro’s doubt. As he parries, the lead falls from his limbs. How could he ever have compared this sword to a shovel? She is here with him, safe for precious moments in the space created by the touch of their blades.
How, thinks Giro, could I ever have thought this boring?
He makes his own forays, probing Cecilia’s defences. They keep the distance between them steady, listening, trusting.
The crowd falls silent. Or, perhaps, Giro and Cecilia no longer hear their cries.
Draw back from them now. Let them have this place of peace. It is in every way a reunion, for as long as their swords are raised.
Tarry a moment at the exit—you won’t want to miss this. See Cecilia execute a passing lunge that brings her body-to-body with Giro.
“Come with me?” she whispers.
“Anywhere,” he replies.
They back up and salute, drawing murmurs from the crowd. The Dogess has not called a halt. Those murmurs become roars when Saltatris pulls off mask and cowl and shakes loose hair that unquestionably belongs to Cecilia Zierne.
“I knew all along!” say many people who didn’t. They gape as Giro and Cecilia clasp hands and step forward to meet the Dogess.
Maestro Fantina strides up with his blade unsheathed. The Dogess raises a hand, and her watchmen step forward, leveling their pikes. “You are not scheduled to fight for another hour, Guglielmo,” she says coolly. “Put up your sword before I begin to feel insulted.”
She beckons Giro and Cecilia forward. Their conversation is quiet enough that it will be heard only by the three of them, and you.
“What do you mean by coming here, Signora Zierne?” the Dogess says. “I cannot protect you from Guglielmo’s allies. Openly, yes, but there must be a dozen knives waiting for you in this crowd. I cannot see them all.”
“I know, my lady.” Cecilia squeezes Giro’s hand. “We won’t be staying long.”
“I’d flee of Cisterna, if I were you. Choose a long road, and fast horses.” The Dogess addresses Giro. “Are you willing to undertake that journey with her?”
“Cecilia has however much of my life she desires.”
“Indeed?” The Dogess studies him with a glance, hinting at some secret knowledge. “Then I will do what I can for you both.”
“Enough of this!” Fantina shouts. “My lady, for the love you bore me—”
“You have much to learn about love, Guglielmo,” says the Dogess. “Guards, clear the field!”
Chaos erupts. The crowd is on their feet. The pikemen advance, but Fantina does not yield, fending three of them off with his rapier as his students rush to defend him. “Forget me!” he roars to them. “Capture Zierne!”
Giro faces his own crowd and bows to Antonio. “You’re Secchi’s finest now, my friend. Make me proud.”
“You know I already have.” Antonio beams.
Giro turns back to Cecilia. “Ready?”
Her face is flushed now, her blade raised. She speaks with a fire that matches the one in his heart. “You showed me Cisterna, Signor. Will you now show me the world?”
“Cecilia,” Giro replies, “I have not yet begun to show you the world.”
Now, as they stand shoulder-to-shoulder again, blades in hand, the painting is complete: The Tragedy of Cecilia and Girolamo has reached its final curtain.
They spin, as one, and sprint for the arena’s exit. Behind them, Fantina’s students put the pikemen to flight. When they break through, beneath the skeptical eye of the Dogess, they are met by a line of students from the Academia Secchi.
“Out of my way, Pierro!” thunders Fantina. “I will have justice.”
“Guglielmo, the God damn you, give this up,” says Secchi. “Our feud has already cost you your son. What else will you spend to pursue it? Reputation? Honor? Your life?”
“This has nothing to do with you!”
“Is that true?” Antonio challenges. “If you’d let Cecilia have her will, Matisto would be here today.”
“My choices, as well, led to this,” Secchi admits. “I was stubborn. Proud. I, too, could have saved your son.” He removes his gloves. “Shake hands with me, Guglielmo. Here, before all Cisterna, let it end.”
Fantina looks at his students, at Secchi’s, at the Dogess, at the crowd. The world is silent. Even outside, a hush has fallen.
At the very end, some of his battlefield bravery remains.
At the very end, he shakes Secchi’s hand.
As years pass, Cisterna will see much change. The descendents of the Dogess will be overthrown and replaced with a parliament. Gunpowder will replace steel, rendering swordplay a charming anachronism. Even the water will one day cease to fall from the sky, and the great water clock will stop turning, chiming its last before a bemused crowd. But every year, as long as there is a city called Cisterna in that place, there will be games, and they will end with a handshake.
And what of Cecilia and Giro? It is likely they traveled north, through the lush farmland where they both grew up, then on into stranger countries, making their living with fencing lessons and exhibitions. Imagine them, if it please you, on a grassy hill by the sea, beneath a blue sky, watching a child lunge at the breaking waves with a branch broken from a tree. Their home rests on a bluff behind them. They lie hand in hand, unarmed save for one another.