14 February—Feast of Saint Valentine

Saint Valentine is often depicted surrounded by roses and birds. Popular poses include his officiating at a marriage or extending his hands in benediction over a couple. He is claimed as patron by affianced couples, those crossed in love, and beekeepers.

The first time I used a blade to defend a point of honor, both the blade and the honor were mine. I was perhaps eight, and Rosamaria Sandro had accused me of copying her mathematics exam. The next time we were in the salle, I told her I would prove her a liar with my blade. She stopped laughing at the idea when I hit her for the third time with the blunted end of my sword and made her tell our mathematics instructor the truth. The pomp and ceremony of today’s events have nothing in common with that juvenile scuffle but the blade.

The blade, of course, is what matters. It is as sharp, as edged, as fatal as truth.

The subject of this Arbitration stands to the left of the dueling grounds, tiny white teeth sunk so deep into her lip that it, too, whitens. Her fiancé hovers close by, as if to shield her from the events or perhaps from their consequences. I wonder if he will put her aside if I am defeated. I want to think that he will stay with her, that his protective posture is a sign of genuine attachment rather than a signal of possession. Laurelle is beautiful, and wealthy. The things that have been whispered about her would never have been said so viciously if it were otherwise. So it is possible he stands at her back because of reasons other than love, but I do not wish to believe in them.

Lost in my thoughts, I stumble in my warm-up, bruising the arch of my left foot against a stone I should have cleared from the ground. This is why I hate knowing the stakes when I take up my blade—they are a distraction. What I think should happen, what I would wish for the outcome to be, means nothing. If wishes mattered, there would be no need of swords.

My distracted thoughts focus as the Arbiter takes his place at the precise midpoint of the square, and I remind myself that Laurelle du Lyon’s honor—or possible lack thereof—has not been placed in my keeping but has been entrusted to my blade, and my blade has long been dedicated to the will of God. Not that I wish to believe in God any more than I wish to believe Laurelle’s fiancé cares only for the social and financial benefits of his upcoming marriage. The only thing I have faith in is my blade. Still, the formalities must be observed, and there is something to be said for a system of order in the face of chaos. The Church is gifted at the maintenance of order.

The Arbiter reminds those watching that by the grace of God and Her holy saints, my victory will confirm the truth of Laurelle’s claim to chastity. Should my opponent prevail, his victory will give divine imprimatur to the bragging of Count Gregorio. When directed to do so, I kneel, holding my sword before me like a cross, as the Arbiter invokes God’s justice and mercy and asks that the light of truth shine down in judgment.

The Count’s claim is represented by the blade of Leviticus Cole. Thus, I do not need to hear the Arbiter announce that the duel ends with first blood. Cole is known for neither subtlety nor endurance but rather for brute force with a blade. He doesn’t have the skill to fence beyond first blood. Cole knows this and so has only taken preliminary vows. I have never understood why, if he is unwilling to risk his death, he took any vows at all. Truth feeds on sacrifice as much as it feeds on belief.

But I am not here to judge him, nor to judge anyone.

God’s judgment is rendered on the third pass, when I supinate my wrist to bring my blade a hair above Cole’s and lay open his cheek to the bone.

My role finished, I clean my blade as the Arbiter places his blessing upon Laurelle and her fiancé. They hold hands as they kneel before him.

♦ ♦ ♦

30 May—Feast of Saint Joan of Arc

Saint Joan is often depicted as a young woman dressed in armour. Although she is usually shown carrying a sword, artists generally portray her gazing off into the distance, as if listening to her holy voices. She is claimed as patron by those in prison, victims of judicial abuses, and women in military service.

There were not many options available, here in the City of Seven Hills, for a girl who was a whore’s bastard. Certainly, becoming a Sacred Blade was not one of the few options my mother offered me. There was no money for schooling. Everything extra was necessary for my mother to maintain the illusions of her profession.

But I was born on the feast day of Saint Michael, Lord of Hosts and patron saint of fencers, and my mother had named me Jeanne, after another martial saint. When he found me defending his ridiculous lapdog from a rabid stray, holding a stick like I was wielding a rapier, one of my mother’s clients decided it would be a good joke to pay for my education as a swordswoman. My training began as a joke, but the sword became my vocation.

It became my life.

I graduated undefeated. The next day, I took vows as a Sacred Blade.

♦ ♦ ♦

17 September—Feast of Saint Robert Bellarmine

Saint Robert Bellarmine is often depicted in the red robes of his cardinalate. To his right are the scales of justice, symbolizing his work in founding the Lex Canonica, and to his left hangs an orrery, symbolizing his advocacy of Saint Galileo. Saint Robert Bellarmine is credited with the first serious steps towards harmonization of the disciplines of theology and science. He is claimed as patron by lawyers, astronomers, and students.

There are no fresh-faced lovers at the dueling grounds today. Instead, pinch-faced clerks with threadbare cuffs and ink-smirched fingers shadow their elegant patrons. The patrons offer precisely gauged deference to the Arbiter. It is an uneasy crowd, more used to the bloodless weight of precedent than the sharp cut of a blade.

I shake my hands as I stretch, limbering my muscles and loosening my fingers in the cool morning air. My feet slide through patterns of attack and retreat.

Although it hasn’t always been, it is now rare for the Justiciar to send disputes to the dueling grounds to be arbitrated. The Lex Canonica is fussy and labyrinthine, but is also widely considered just. It is possible this dispute is over a matter of faith or that one of the parties is a member of the cardinalate, although if that is the case, it is odd that the dispute has gone through the Justiciary at all. Perhaps the case is here because one of the parties understands that words obscure truth, while swords lay it bare, clean and to the bone.

I continue to shake my hands as I warm up, willing the stiffness and ache out of my fingers. The Arbiter arrives, red robes brilliant through the resinous haze of incense. I walk back to my end of the courtyard and wrap the black sash of the challenger around my waist, tucking the ends in tightly, then slide my misericorde through the sash at my left hip. The Arbiter’s acolytes cover the dueling grounds in a thick layer of scented smoke. I listen for the tolling of the Bell, but it does not sound. Third Blood, then.

The stakes are not read. Perhaps I am in the minority, but I prefer it when the Challenges begin in silence. Arbitrations are cleaner when the only thing at stake is the skill of the two blades.

Magdalena Nero is representing the challenged party. I know her by reputation only—she trained at Maria, Stella Maris. Their students are known for stealth and cunning.

Since there is time to strategize, I let her score First Blood, a thin red line across my left bicep. I wince, as if it hurts, and let that side drag. Smiling, Magdalena comes in high and fast. Fire blossoms along my collarbone. I continue past her guard and flick my blade through the flesh of her sword arm and then across her back.

Second Blood to both.

Breathing rapidly, I retreat, then continue backwards, pulling distance at the peak of her attacks to make her lunge, then pressing her recovery, hoping to annoy her into forgetting stealth, into forsaking cunning for an honest attack. Finally, when she has backed me into a corner, she redoubles her lunge.

I spin toward her outthrust blade, switch my own into my left hand, and continue the motion, driving it into the soft flesh above her right hipbone. Third Blood.

Magdalena blasphemes loudly, cursing her blade. The focus of the clerks and their patrons snaps back to the dueling grounds. This place is sacred. There are consequences for blasphemy here.

Magdalena has already dropped her blade and fallen to her knees, begging for mercy. The Bell tolls, low and clear, and the Arbiter meets my eyes, then nods, once.

I draw the misericorde from the sash at my waist, then step forward and slip the knife into her heart. It is a clean kill—she bleeds hardly at all.

The Arbiter steps onto the cold stone of the dueling grounds and I prostrate myself, cruciform, for absolution. He speaks the words by rote and turns away before I regain my feet. After a novena has passed, I will present myself and my sword at the Cathedral for reconsecration, my sin officially forgiven.

♦ ♦ ♦

17 September—Feast of Saint Hildegard von Bingen

Author of the oldest extant scientific writings by a woman, Saint Hildegard is often depicted with pen and ink in hand. Paintings of her are often bordered by musical notation from one of her compositions, and a flask of boiling water usually sits in the background. Saint Hildegard is claimed as patron by women in the biological sciences, linguists, and migraine sufferers.

The man in black sets another whiskey in front of me and places enough money on the bar to cover the two that I’ve already drunk.

I push the money back. “I was paid well enough for this morning’s work to cover my own drinks, thank you.”

“One might think if you had truly been paid well enough, you would not now be drinking until you can no longer hold a sword.”

“I’m not drinking over what I was paid to do.”

“Over your opponent’s death, then.”

“She wasn’t my opponent when I executed her.” I accept mortal commissions; I’ve killed before. Those deaths were honest. Magdalena’s was a waste, and my hands are filthy with it. With a casual nod, from a cleric who knew nothing about the sword-edge of truth, I have been made to feel like a heretic. “Being wielded in that fashion perverts what a Blade is supposed to be.”

He sips his drink once, twice. “And what is it that a Blade is supposed to be?”

I drain my own glass, feeling the flame of the alcohol lick its path down my throat and numb the raw edges of my thoughts. “Truth.”

“Agreed. Which is why we’d like to place you on retainer.”

“Forgive me, but who is we?”

“The Ignatians.” The man in black pushes back his hood to reveal the silk lining of ebon-shot burgundy, indicative of membership in that Order. “We would offer you a commission.”

He pauses, then turns to face me directly. “And the holy sword of Saint Ignatius Loyola.”

A large enough shock, it seems, actually can smack a person sober. Ignatius Loyola, a former soldier, had founded the Sacred Blades when Arbitration became the legal method of answering the unanswerable. He never lost. Popular legendry held his sword to be miraculous.

“Father, I appreciate the honor you do me, but I do not possess the faith I believe your Order would require in the wielder of that blade.”

The Ignatian places his hands, sheathed in skin-tight gloves of black leather that were bonded to his flesh at the wrists, on the scarred surface of the bar. “My name is Michael Gonzaga. Since the death of Saint Ignatius, my family has served as custodians of his sword, passing it from hand to hand. God Herself has shown me in a vision that the next hand to touch the sword is meant to be yours.”

“God Herself has a strange sense of humor, in that case.”

“Perhaps she does.”

♦ ♦ ♦

24 October—Feast of Saint Tycho Brahe

Saint Tycho is commonly depicted in full court robes, standing before a telescope. In the background can be seen a star in supernova and a comet. In his left hand, he holds a model of a human nose, cast in gold. Saint Tycho is claimed as patron by poets, makers of prosthetic devices, and designers of astronomical instruments.

I became the Sacred Blade of the Ignatians. Although they are an all-male order, their Rule makes provision for vowed female Blades. I kept my vigil in front of the crypt of Saint Ignatius, his sword gleaming coldly before me as I knelt on the marble of the Cathedral. The saint did not speak to me that night, but then, I did not expect him to. When dawn finally broke, kaleidoscoping through the stained glass of the rose window, I heaved myself up from my aching knees, bowed low before the altar, and picked up his sword for the first time.

My hand only trembled a little.

The hilt of the sword bumps against my hip as I walk to the library to meet with Michael Gonzaga to learn the commission I have been hired to defend.

He sits underneath an India ink rendering of the Hazelnut Cosmos of Saint Julian of Norwich. His hands rest on his lap, and I can see the red line of skin where his gloves are bonded to his flesh. For as long as I live, mine will be the only hand to touch the sword of Saint Ignatius. When I die, it will return to the custody of Fr. Gonzaga or, in the unlikely event that he predeceases me, his successor.

The very unlikely event. Death is only one of the truths of the blade, but it is beatitude and commandment both.

Fr. Gonzaga begins speaking as soon as the back of my calves brush the rungs of my chair. “Our Order has retained you because there have been a series of Challenges made to the teachings of the saints. None have been heard as yet, but we believe that it is only a matter of time before one will be.”

“Which saints?”

“The scientists.”

“Science has never been a matter for the Arbiter’s jurisdiction.” Not that there are never disagreements over the scientists’ theories, but those play out in the Laboratories of the University.

“Not previously, no. But we hear rumor that a Challenge is being prepared that will claim that the Laws of Science contradict the Laws of God.”

“That’s heresy.” During the time of Saints Robert Bellarmine and Galileo Galilei, scientific law was infallibly declared divine truth.

“Yes. And heresy must be judged on the dueling grounds of the Arbiter.”

“This is ridiculous. The Church believes in the saints of science.”

“Not all of the Church. Some hold that complex science is simply miracles our pride has blinded us from recognizing as such.”

“Your Order does not believe that. No sensible part of the Church believes that.”

“Honoring our vows requires us to defend the Church.”

Honoring my vows requires that I do so as well. Honor, which is as sharp as penance, as sharp as truth. As sharp as a blade.

♦ ♦ ♦

22 June—Feast of Saint Thomas More

Saint Thomas More is depicted in his robes and chain of office as Lord Chancellor. An axe, the instrument of his martyrdom, crosses the field of the painting, left to right. On the desk in front of the saint are copies of two of his works, the Moriae Encomium and the Utopia. Saint Thomas More is claimed as patron by politicians, diplomats, and writers of fantastic impossibilities.

Gonzaga hands me the curling sheet of paper. The scarlet ribbons signifying it has come from the Arbiter are affixed to the bottom of the page by a wax seal showing two crossed swords. “The challenge is to Saint Rudolf Clausius’ work on thermodynamics. They chose well.”

He is right. The challenge, which states that a universe in which chaos is increasing is incompatible with an ordered universe designed by God, is a smart one. “I don’t see a resolution to this anywhere outside the Arbiter’s jurisdiction.”

I don’t either, and even contemplating the challenge repulses me. Heresy is judged on the dueling grounds, yet this challenge, for all it follows the legal forms, is also a form of heresy.

I put my hand on the hilt of the sword I carry everywhere and worry my fingers across its curves. As the Branch Militant of the Church, the Ignatians are sworn to defend the Lex Canonica, and I am the sworn Blade of the Ignatians. “Will the Order command me to lose?”

Fr. Gonzaga looks appalled. “Jeanne, no. The challenge is mortal. And even if it weren’t, such an action would be a grave sin against the blade you wear.

“Our order believes in the Lex Scientia, holds it equal to the Lex Canonica—St. Bellarmine was an Ignatian, after all—but we recognize that we may not know the truth entire. Perhaps this challenge is a way of showing us a new facet of the truth. For us to see that, you must fence as you always do, Jeanne. To win.”

Good. This perverse challenge may require my life, but at least I will be allowed to keep my honor.

“Jeanne, if you don’t believe in the Church’s doctrines, why do you care about the outcome of the challenge? Why does it matter to you whether the Church calls something divine miracle or human discovery?”

“Because, Fr. Gonzaga, it isn’t that I don’t believe. It matters because I do. I believe absolutely in the law of the blade. This challenge is a perversion of that law. It is blasphemy.

“I believe in this,” I say, and I draw the sword at my side. “I believe it means something beyond the desire of the person wielding it, or the person wielding me.” I drag my left hand across the blade, watch the blood weep from the wound.

“Truth is a blade, Father. It requires that we bleed.”

♦ ♦ ♦

8 January—Feast of Saint Galileo Galilei

It has recently become fashionable for artists to depict Saint Galileo sitting with his daughters, the nuns Maria Celeste and Arcangela. Orbiting their heads are the four Galilean moons. Saint Galileo is hailed as the father of modern science and is claimed as patron by physicists, insomniacs, and the blind.

In the grey light of early morning, I stand listening to the last echoes of the Bell’s toll through myrrh-scented smoke.

A mortal challenge. As expected. The morning reeks of endings.

I do not listen as the official Challenge is read. I know why I am here, what I stand for. I look for Fr. Gonzaga in the crowd and see him, his lips moving, I assume in prayer. On the far side of the dueling grounds, my opponent, Josef Benedictus, shifted his weight back and forth.

We kneel, and the Arbiter absolves our sins. He begs the light of truth to shine upon us. We come en guarde, and the signal to begin is given.

I fling the holy sword of St. Ignatius—my sword—to the heavens. Fr. Gonzaga cries out as it arcs through the air. Thinking that I have forfeited, Benedictus launches himself at me like an arrow shot from a bow.

A forfeit is not truth. A draw, however, is.

I step into his guard and slide the misericorde from his sash, then continue the motion, driving the knife into his heart. At the same time, I pierce my own.

♦ ♦ ♦

9 January—Feast of Saint Jeanne of the Knife

Saint Jeanne is always depicted in the white garment of the Sacred Blades. The broken blade of Saint Ignatius Loyola lies at her feet, on top of a formal challenge, rent in two. Her breast is pierced by a misericorde. Saint Jeanne is claimed as patron by scientists, bastard born children, and unbelievers.

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Kat Howard is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror who lives and writes in Minnesota. Her novella The End of the Sentence, co-written with Maria Dahvana Headley, was one of NPR's best books of 2014, and her debut novel, Roses and Rot, was a finalist for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. An Unkindness of Magicians was named a best book of 2017 by NPR, and won a 2018 Alex Award. Her short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, collects work that has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, performed as part of Selected Shorts, and anthologized in year’s best and best of volumes, as well as new pieces original to the collection. She was the writer for the first eighteen issues of The Books of Magic, part of DC Comics' Sandman Universe. Her next novel, A Sleight of Shadows, the sequel to An Unkindness of Magicians, is coming April 25, 2023. In the past, she’s been a competitive fencer and a college professor. You can find her @KatwithSword on Twitter and on Instagram.