The blasphemy of it all was not lost on me. Hubris? Perhaps. Hauteur? Most definitely. I stood as Nimrod atop Babel, the wind beneath my feet causing the scaffold to sway like a wounded horse about to expire, casting its rider to the earth. The wind was no maelstrom, however, only a soothing breeze wafting away the pungent scent of blood off the cobblestones far below. Oh, if they could see me, sword, no, rapier—the account depends on it being a rapier, my rapier, "Saint Michael"—raised to the heavens that waited to receive me.
But they—Silver and Cheese, the men, not the metal or the delectable—could not see me, or rather cannot see me. You see (yet you do not, like Silver and Cheese), I have had to set Saint Michael down to pen these words, but now the triumphant moment is gone, the blasphemous instant dissipated into mere domesticity so that I can record and, in recording, destroy that moment. "Domesticity the Destroyer." A fitting title, but a losing struggle, a false victory. The magical, the mysterious, the grand will always prevail. I am about to see to it.
Not a suitable venue for such grandeur, you say? To the untrained eye, it is true: a rickety scaffold, a place for the hanging of traitors and murderers, is hardly and appropriate place for one's ascent to the heavens. But this, this splintered monument is sacred. Take thy shoes from off thy feet that the ghost of Rocco Bonetti, my sword master and advocate with the heavenly hosts, may examine your sole, for the place whereon thou walkest is holy ground. Show the mark of the master in your sole.
I have removed my shoes and the lead plates therein, the instruments of discipline by which Maestro Rocco taught his disciples, of which I am one, nimbleness of feet.
"Practice on lead, fight on air," he used to tell us. And thus we did, plodding through footwork exercises, leaping through duels. The English masters laughed at us, mocking our heavy movements at the sale. But on the streets, in the alleyways behind pubs, their laughter was stopped short by a thrust to the neck, a lethal sting so quick that no unwieldy basket-hilt broadsword could hope to deflect the killing stroke before it pinned the opponent like a stunned butterfly. It was liberating, moving from practice to performance; our spirits almost leapt from our bodies when we shed the lead-shod soles. We thought that we had defeated gravity under Maestro Rocco's tutelage. And we had, almost.
Almost. We were, no doubt, well on our way to unlocking the secret of flight, an angel hair's width from becoming flaming-sword-wielding seraphim. There was, however, one last enemy to overcome: Silver—the man, not the metal, I must remind you.
"Man" is generous. Silver is the Devil. Or he was, until I despatched him. And Cheese is, was, his chief imp. Or perhaps they were witch and familiar; I shall never be sure. They are dead and gone to hell, and I am not long for this tawdry sphere. There shall soon be the world between us.
In life, Silver was a powerful man. He was strong, brutish, and alarmingly hirsute. His belly was the doppelganger of his crude sword's basket-hilt, which was woven in such a way as to resemble a fly's multifaceted eyes. Here I mean the steel of the hilt, not his belly hairs, which he might have woven into any number of decorative patterns. I dubbed his sword "Baalebuth." He dubbed it . . . nothing, likely because of his dull wit. Metaphors escaped him. Had he the intelligence to think up a suitable name for his blade, he would have immediately seen the inferiority of the weapon and cast it aside to pick up a good rapier. Thus my story would have had an end before it had a beginning, for he was not a bad swordsman, only an ignorant man wielding an inelegant weapon. Thankfully, Silver's lack of gray matter allowed a continuation of the narrative. And so I continue.
Cheese, the man, was as scrawny as Silver was corpulent. Looking down on them now, it seems that Silver could have eaten Cheese in the course of a day and a night—without stopping, of course, let's not be ridiculous! Cheese's cowardice was the shadow to the bulk of Silver's bravado. Still, Cheese chose the broadsword, though he could hardly wield it. It should come as no surprise, then, that Cheese was a treacherous little weasel. A cheat, a sneak, and deserving to be frozen in Cocytus somewhere between Brutus and Judas. Perhaps he is so frozen now. Again, I shall never be sure. I am soon on my way up.
It was here, where I sit now, bare feet dangling above the ravens who, a few boards down, stare at the corpses below, that Maestro Rocco was sacrificed by Silver and Cheese, or, more appropriately, by Cheese. It was, after all, Silver who had issued the challenge: broadsword versus rapier, atop the tallest scaffold in London, for all to see. Not that the masses understood the magnitude of the confrontation.
The carnivalesque atmosphere of the event betrayed the mob's base desires. They were out for blood—screaming, laughing, in anticipation of the maudlin collapse of body under steel. They longed to purge some measure of dreck from their miserable lives by watching the suffering of others. They wanted catharsis. But this was no bear fight, no public hanging. There was bound to be disappointment.
The duel began slowly, Rocco and Silver both careful to close their lines with miniscule movements of the wrist or shoulder, a barely perceptible shuffle of the foot, an unseen tightening of the abdomen. To the crowd below, it looked as if the pair was not moving at all. After ten minutes of this apparent stalemate, the mob grew silent and started to trickle away from the square. But the maestro's minds were both tangled, writhing masses of images, potentialities, and predictions of future moves, feints, thrusts, ripostes. The fight itself first took place on the plane of spirit, transcending flesh and steel. By the time the first move had been made before the crowd, the last move had already been decided on the ethereal.
This temporal delay proved to be Rocco's undoing. While the angels rejoiced in heaven as Maestro Rocco thrust the killing stroke three fingers deep into Silver's profanity-laden throat, a threat developed on Earth below. Cherubim danced as Silver fell to the marble floors of the realms of God. Rocco, raising his arms in triumph before the heavenly host, was unaware of the cowardly back stab on the material plane until Cheese's broadsword, vile for both its form and its wielder, had slid between my master's ribs to the heart.
My concept of time slipped from me even as Rocco's body slid off of Cheese's blade. Rocco's heavenly blow never landed, the angelic kingdom had been taken by surprise. I wandered in a daze for weeks—how many I cannot discern. The constant thrumming of demonic cheers was a roaring background noise to all else I heard and saw. I recall little, save for the voices of town criers announcing Rocco's death and the sight of posters calling for Cheese's capture. I mourned with the angels for many days.
I might have stayed in this state of torpor forever, had I not seen a ghost.
The vision—for I beheld with my spiritual, not my corporeal eyes—came to me in a Whitechapel alleyway. I would have ascribed the specter to hallucination, had it not reached down and touched me, touched my soul with a deceptively warm, friendly shoulder clasp. For a moment, I thought that my Maestro had risen from the dead.
"Laurence? Laurence, is that you?"
I looked up at him, at it, joy and doubt dueling in my heart.
"Stand up, Laurence. You're a mess!"
The apparition pulled me to my feet through some supernatural force. He, it, also cast the bottle from my hand, dashing it against a nearby wall.
"Laurence, we really need to take care of you. You've gone all jaundiced and you reek of gin and piss."
"R-Rocco?" Joy gave a feint at doubt.
"Yes, Laurence, it's me."
"But you're dead." Doubt parried, thrust.
"Hardly," the ghost laughed so hard that I felt its ectoplasmic vibrations.
"But I saw it, on the scaffold."
"Yes?" it smiled.
"The duel, you and Silver . . ."
The doppleganger's smile broadened.
". . . and Cheese's cowardly move."
His countenance fell. "Yes, Cheese's cowardly move. Amazing. And the authorities still cannot find him."
Joy returned a flurry of blows.
"I will find him," I said stoutly, still worried that the ghost might be a demon in disguise.
"You will find Cheese?"
"Yes, and avenge your death!"
Rocco's ghost looked at me sidelong, examining me.
"But Laurence, I'm not dead. It was Jeronimo Rocco that Cheese killed. Haven't you read the news? Ah, how long have you been in this state?"
"Since your death, the death of my master, I mean, at the hands of Cheese, atop the gallows."
A sigh escaped the ghost's mouth. It shook its head, as if frustrated. I had seen a similar expression of impatience come over my master before. The deceit was astounding in its verisimilitude.
"Look, Laurence. You're not doing too well. Perhaps you should take some time off at the sale . . ."
"No! I see you now! Get thee behind me! You want to discourage my training, my efforts to avenge my Maestro's death. Do not try to deceive me further, demon-spawn!" I drew my sword, though I knew not what steel could possibly do against the unsubstantial being.
Still, it held its hands up toward me, probably in remembrance of that first war in heaven when Michael the archangel cast him out of the holy presence. It backed away. "Ah, Laurence, you've had too much to drink. You're confusing events." He, it, looked warily at my waving blade. "I'll just be going now. Perhaps you would like to come to the sale after you've sobered up a bit?"
I growled and poked the sword tip in his direction, careful not to land a thrust, lest the ghost discover that my material blade was ineffective against spirit.
It disappeared into shadow, but I knew, now, my purpose. I would find Silver and Cheese and exact revenge on them both. After my vendetta, my master would rest in peace, far from the demon that so poorly impersonated the great Rocco Bonetti.
My opportunity came sooner than I could have imagined. Down the street from my infernal encounter was a dark and loathsome establishment, a pub called, appropriately, The Sullen Devil. If a building were a toad, this would be it. Squatting on a derelict corner, the front door occasionally opened like a maw, the din from within croaking forth to echo off the city's walls. From the toad's depths a fly or two buzzed forth, reeling from its digestive confinement in the miasmic slurry of the pub's belly. I watched the regurgitating amphibian with astonishment as Silver and Cheese were vomited out onto the street.
Cheese was wary, snapping his head from side to side to avert surprise. Still, he was drunk, and sometimes turned his face up to the sky, laughing out loud, as if his own fear were a cosmic joke. Almost immediately, though, he would stop himself, cover his mouth with both hands, then glance about again with squinting eyes, looking suspiciously down alleyways and through windows.
Silver, not being wanted for murder, though I clearly understood that he was an accomplice to the act, was more nonchalant. He was so inebriated, in fact, that he could hardly stand upright. He flailed about, as clumsy as the basket-hilt broadsword at his side.
Now, normally I would have stood back, observed the pair, and challenged them to a formal duel with witnesses. But there were factors that mitigated against this course of action. First, my blood was boiling. Though I could not, realistically, bring physical harm to the devil that had disguised itself as my master, I could exact vengeance on the pair of curs that had ambushed Rocco. Second, they were both right there. This opportunity might not present itself again. Third, I would be doing the city a favor by ridding it of a wanted murderer and his accomplice.
I emerged from the shadows of the alleyway, drawing Saint Michael from his scabbard. The blade sung its slithering approval. Silver and Cheese turned about to face me as I called out:
"Ye infernal fiends of the pit! My master shall be avenged. Saint Michael shall drink blood this day . . ." and sundry other threats that I have since forgotten, their cleverness and sting belonging only to that moment. My mind is already being purified for my translation into heaven. I forget much of those events, which seem like a lifetime ago, as I write.
I do recall—I hope I shall never forget—the look on the men's faces. Cheese, sniveling Cheese, seemed to shrink into himself, his eyes and mouth puckering in as if he were trying to hold himself together, to keep his senses from tearing asunder. Silver simply looked confused.
"Draw your weapons, dogs! Saint Michael shall thrust past your . . . Your . . . whatever it is you call your wretched blades." It was the best I could do at the moment.
Silver vomited forth something—literally vomited—a stream of ale, bits of bangers and mash, and a word that sounded like "Baalzebuth." I was right! Baalzebuth it was, then. How appropriate for the fat sting of a sword he held, his knuckles hidden behind the basket hilt that bulged like bulbous fly eyes. Saint Michael versus Baalzebuth. A reenactment of the War in Heaven.
Cheese never named his sword, he merely drew and charged.
They both fought well for being so besotted. Still, I let them think they had the advantage of me, strategically retreating to the square where my master had been killed. His blood cried up from the ground against his murderers.
Cheese fought in a demonic rage, swinging so hard that his blade notched on the cobblestones when I dodged his blows. Silver had more control, but less strength, which I thought odd, given their size differences. Still, Baalzebuth is a lazy, indolent fiend, so it was only natural that his namesake should be cumbersome and ungainly.
I only thrust to draw them further into the square, my tempo increasing as I backed up to the scaffold. They fell into my pattern—two steps back, parry, feint, three steps, thrust. Then, as I was almost out of room—two steps back, parry, feint, one step, thrust—I buried Saint Michael three fingers deep in Cheese's face. He dropped flat to the cobblestones with a sickening crunch. Silver stood, perplexed, watching his companion fall, but only for a moment. I withdrew, cavare, then skewered the accomplice from shoulder to hip with a downward thrust from primo, mingling his heart with his bowels.
After cleaning Saint Michael on the dead men's garments, I ascended the scaffolding, assuming the blasphemous pose of my introduction.
Silver and Cheese are condemned to hell, and it seems that they have already found favor there, commanding the false Rocco to show its phantasmagoric form over their fallen bodies. It calls up to me:
"Laurence, come down here or you'll get yourself killed."
I have once again donned my lead-lined shoes, the instruments that taught me nimbleness of feet.
A host of spear-weilding demons has appeared behind false Rocco. They wear the uniform of the city guard as a mockery of civil authority.
"Come down, Laurence. Give yourself up. You are not well. Come down carefully, before you fall to your death."
I stand to pen my last words before becoming as the gods.
I will now walk atop the clouds. I will follow Saint Michael's thrusting point to the stars, taking my proper place as Defender of the Heavens.
I will not be deceived.
Forrest Aguirre lives in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and four children. He is currently working on his second novel, Archangel Morpheus, after having recently edited the Polyphony 7 anthology with Deborah Layne. His work has most recently appeared in Asimov's, American Letters & Commentary, and the anthology Paper Cities. He won the World Fantasy Award for editing the Leviathan 3 anthology with Jeff VanderMeer.
copyright © 2008, Forrest Aguirre
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