by Dana DeVries
The day was warm, but a light breeze flitted amidst all manner of people thronging through the streets of Barcino. Richly dressed Vodacce merchants spoke with Castillian artisans, Montaigne peasants dressed in homespun bartered with Avalon sailors, Vendel traders and Eisen mercenaries argued. All of them pressed together, moving and surging through the avenues and alleys of the trade city. But a nervous pall seemed to hover over the city; it had only been a few weeks since the war between Montaigne and Castille ended and tensions still ran high. So when a patrol of Montaigne troops came by, a path opened up before them and everyone held their breath.
Bearing the tabards of the Montaigne army, the patrol held themselves with a rigid disdain that would do a noble proud. But these were no nobles. Their fingers bore calluses from hard work, their clothes were tattered beneath the tabards, their words held the uneducated slur of the peasants and their eyes held the hard memories of years of abuse at genteel hands as they scanned the crowds for trouble, real or imagined.
The patrol's leader moved easily ahead of them. She wore a low cut scarlet dress that complemented her auburn hair and a smile that promised wicked pleasure. A black leather belt held her fencing sword and dagger low on her hip. She stopped at a vendor, bought a handful of fruit, and then tossed it to a gaggle of children playing in an alley. She raised an eyebrow at a pock-faced thief as he drew a small knife out to cut a purse loose; the thief slipped the knife away and faded back into the crowd. A street musician began strumming the opening chords of "Lady Dulche" as she passed and she tossed a few small coins over her shoulder and they bounced into his hat. Behind the patrol, the street came alive again with the calls and voices of a city learning to relax under Montaigne control.
Just ahead, a high-pitched scream of rage pierced the afternoon air. The patrol raced forward as a figure crashed through a second story window. He landed lightly upon his feet and stood up. With exaggerated calm, the Castillian finished pulling on his pants. A well-dressed buxom woman appeared at the recently exited window waving a pistol and screaming. "You damned bastard! You say you love me and then you seduce my sister?" Another young woman draped in a sheet appeared at her side and knocked the gun aside as it fired. The bullet plowed into the street only inches from the man.
With a huge smile, the patrol leader called out. "Antonio Aldonez. It's such a pleasure to find you like this."
Antonio turned to her and asked in amazement. "Babette? Is that really you?"
With a big grin, she replied. "Yes. It's really me. You're under arrest."
Antonio smiled back and asked pleasantly, "What crime have I committed? Loving too many women?"
"Disturbing the peace. Destruction of this lady's property. The murder of Romero Cortez."
"I killed Cortez in a duel over a woman. It was completely legal."
"You knew Cortez was another swordsman. Any duel between two swordsmen must be brought to the Guild for official approval. You didn't do that."
"Have you been checking into my past, senorita?"
"Absolutely. The Guild is leaving this matter in the hands of the local authorities. That would be me."
"And you're assuming I'll resist arrest and give you a chance to resume our duel."
"Certainly. You're not going to disappoint me, are you?"
"I would never disappoint such a vision of loveliness."
"On the contrary," she said, glancing up at the window, "you seem to have made a habit of disappointing women." At her words, Aldonez drew his sword and held it before him. Babette held up her hand and motioned her men back. "No. I've waited for this day. He's mine." She slowly drew her own sword and dagger.
Aldonez took one stately step forward, then another. His attack was slow and measured. Babette slammed her own weapons up strongly and caught his sword between them. But Aldonez just stepped back and freed his blade. "So what else have you learned about me?"
"You served in the navy for a time under Orduno, but refused to serve his wife and resigned your commission."
He smiled and remarked, "I've never cared for women who demand to be on top."
"Since then, you've wandered from place to place, seducing women and then abandoning them. You challenge and kill any man who attempts to protect their honor and have even taken several women by force."
"Never! They may have claimed to be disinterested at first, but that is just one of many ploys that women like to use."
"That's not the story they tell."
"What would you expect them to say? That they lusted after me like a horse in heat? Isn't that why you've tracked me down?"
"I kept track of you because your crudeness and condescending attitude infuriate me. You think you are Theus's gift to women."
"Is that why you romance so many women but refuse to stay with any of them?"
"It would be wrong to deny anyone a gift from Theus."
As they spoke, Babette's sword probed Antonio's defenses, but the Castillian parried each blow and took a step back. The crowd moved with them and kept the area around them clear. After a minute of this slow pursuit, she realized her danger. A pistol fire cracked behind them and both duelists dodged to the side as the bullet plowed into the street beside them.
Babette called over her shoulder, "I understand your feelings, but another shot from you and I will have to have you arrested for attempted murder." Resuming her fencing stance, she quipped to Antonio. "It looks like the latest recipient of the gift is trying to send it back to Theus."
"Women are so fickle. As soon as a man even looks at another woman, they get unbelievably jealous."
"Is that what you were doing? Looking at her sister? I'm just curious why you had to take your pants off for that."
"Some prefer to view things a bit closer at hand."
Babette responded with a low slash with her dagger. Aldonez easily parried the blow but something flew from her hand past him. He spun around, but saw nothing but the crowd of curious bystanders and a street guitarist who was playing the opening chords of "Lady Dulche." He spun back around in time to parry Babette's thrust and riposted fiercely. Her parry was anticipated, but as he recovered, she pressed the attack and threw him off balance. He struggled for a moment as she kept thrust for him while he tried to recover his poise. Suddenly he realized that he was fighting in time with the street musician's song instead of his own. He backed another step and slashed out at the guitar. The strings snapped and the musician stumbled backwards, frightened but unharmed.
"Didn't care for my song?" Babette taunted.
"It doesn't suit you. You're more tart than sweet. Like this." Antonio stabbed into a fruit vender's stand beside him and gestured with the lemon impaled upon his blade. He flicked his weapon and the fruit flew at him.
She lashed out with both weapons and the lemon fell to the ground in quarters. "Perhaps I'll have a drink of lemonade out of your skull after I've removed it from your shoulders."
"You've been spending too much time with pirates, my dear. You're becoming positively bloodthirsty."
"The General was a pirate hunter, you buffoon."
"Until his commission was revoked. Now I hear the Montaigne would like his head on a wall."
Antonio swept his blade low towards her ankles, but she jumped over it only to discover that he had pinned her dress to the ground. She sprawled to the ground for a moment, but rolled out of the way as he thrust down at her tangled legs. He swung his blade down in a quick arc only to discover that she had rolled into a ball and sprung back to her feet.
"You are talking about the man who rescued your Admiral from certain doom at the hands of the Inquisition."
"Any man foolish enough to defy the Church can do without my support."
"I didn't realize you were so religious."
"Absolutely. Perhaps we should lower our weapons and clasp our hands in prayer?" Antonio spread his arms wide. Babette brought her sword down towards his chest, but he took a step backwards, let the weapon pass, and then stepped in close. He beat her dagger aside and tried to knock her over with his torso. She twisted away from him and opened up a long shallow cut along his thigh with her dagger.
"I don't think my hands are what you'd be clasping."
"Well, there must be some way we can come together despite our problems. Perhaps if we meet somewhere?"
"Certainly. How about at your trial?"
Babette slashed down at his shoulder, but he tapped the attack aside and riposted back. She parried the tip to the side with her dagger and struck near the hilt with her sword. The weapon flew out of his hand and into the gutter. She placed the tip of her sword at his throat and stared at him for a long breath. "Will you surrender?" she demanded.
"I thought for a moment you were going to butcher me like a steer."
"I thought about it, but you're not worth killing."
"I knew you could never kill the man you've lusted after so long." Babette snorted as he continued. "I surrender." Babette nodded and waved two of her musketeers from the crowd to take him into custody as she turned away.
In an eye blink, Antonio was at her back, one hand groping her satin-covered buttocks and the other sliding up her back towards her bared throat. "I surrender to the lust you have fostered in my heart."
Babette slipped out of his grasp and spun around. Her arm extended faster than thought and she drove her sword deep into his chest. His mouth opened for one last witty quip, but only blood emerged. Aldonez collapsed to the ground, and more than a few women in the crowd began to cheer. Babette stared at the body as a hundred different emotions flashed across her eyes. Finally, she gestured to her men with the shattered swordhilt and quietly ordered. "Clean up this filth."