“Won’t and Can’t!”

by Carmel Rechnitzer

Leontine was an excellent duelist with an unblemished record. Her winning streak had started at seventeen, when she’d explained to her father she would only marry a man who could best her at swordplay. The Grioux family was famous for producing sorciers and not swordsmen, however. Neither her father, nor the rest of the Montaigne court, took her seriously. She fought fiercely, and that only drove the young men around her to become more competitive. She’d gone from being gangly and forgettable to being her generations’ most sought after conquest.

She’d eventually defeated so many young nobles that L’emperuer declared her a Musketeer, and retroactively added her name to the annals of the Third Musket Company. While farcical in nature, the move saved face for half a generation of defeated dandies and added a premier duelist to King Leon XII’s Royal Guard. She would also be surrounded by a cadre of wise veterans, who stood a chance of cooling her fierce temperament.

Once again, though, that accidentally increased her worth as a prize. Her pursuers knew that challenging one of the Royal Guard would earn King Leon’s wrath and damage their prospects at court. Montaigne bachelors weren’t known for their wits or foresight, though. She declined the repeated requests for duels because the punishment for unsanctioned dueling was death. King Leon’s daring nephew drew a blade on her regardless, and swore he’d marry or kill her.

She’d maimed the horny dolt to try and stop the fight. Politically, it had been the wrong move. Dying in an unsanctioned duel would have been a more romantic death than the public hanging the nephew received. Her newfound enemies at Court whispered in the King’s ear and had her sent to Five Sails, where she would serve out an unofficial exile as the bodyguard of Montaigne diplomats. Unfortunately, Montaigne bachelors were famous for misspending their youth adventuring and building their legends while traveling abroad…

All of this meant that Leontine Giroux was experienced in fighting the stupidest and most stubborn men in all Montaigne. Sigurd Ulfsen put all of Montaigne’s rakes and fops to shame. He also dressed and groomed in polar opposite. His beard was long, greasy and wild. He wore mismatched clothing from ech culture he’d violently trudged through on his path from Vestenmenajar down to Five Sails. What his uncouth smile lacked in missing teeth it made up for in gleeful malice. Leontine wondered if it would actually be tougher to clean the mulish oaf than kill him.

“I’m so sorry,” Lukas Martinez told her in complete sincerity. “I have no idea why he’s trying to help me.” Lukas was a member of the Cat’s Paw gang, and her true quarry. The two of them had been trying to duel each other for the past hour.

Sigurd, who she’d stabbed a whopping nine times already, huffed, puffed, spat blood… And got back on his feet. The nighttime market crowd – which had originally tried to flee the violence, but in true Five Sails fashioned had now settled in to watch and gamble on the outcome – groaned indignantly. Coins exchanged hands as the Vesten warrior once again refused to lay down and die.

“Do you want me to stab that motley-minded moron, too?” Martinez asked. He seemed equally as frustrated as she was. “Unlike you high-minded Musketeers, I have no code against killing.”

“Theus help me, why not?” she said. Without hesitation, the Castillian pirate turned to face the short but bulky brute. Leontine realized that by turning, Martinez had placed her on his blind side. Well, presumably blind. He wore an eyepatch on his right eye, and she was aware that sometimes pirates did so more for theatrics than practicality. Either way, it meant she had a chance to surprise him. To strike him down and arrest him, so that he could confess El Gato’s hidden identity. There was no other way to arrest El Gato – to seek vengeance for her fallen brother, Dufort. The problem was… she needed Martinez’ help. Sigurd had intervened and defended him without explaining. Despite his wounds he would not surrender, and she was almost exhausted. There was no catching Martinez while Sigurd was still standing.

The two of them circled the Vesten warrior in their impromptu arena. An hour ago, this had been a bustling street vendors’ paradise. Like some wild animal, Sigurd had trampled the area flat. Mushed food, torn fabric, splintered wood and cracked ceramics littered the cobblestones. Circling Sigurd took just as much precision and care as dodging his fearsome axe. All it would take was one bent nail or one slide across an orange peel to lose her footing and lose her head.

Sigurd’s reaction to Martinez’ betrayal was concerning, to say the least. He smiled. He laughed. Theus damn that pagan ogre, but it sounded like he offered the old Vesten Gods a prayer of thanks.

“Will one of you fetch the City Watch?” Leontine spat at the surrounding crowd. What few folks caught her eye shrugged nonchalantly. She’d made the mistake of trying to arrest a member of the Cat’s Paw Gang within the bounds of the Market, which Castille claimed as its own territory. Apparently, the Castilians had more kinship to offer their own criminals than a Montaigne noble. The jeering crowd formed a cage especially handy for trapping a Musketeer. Leontine was sworn to uphold the peace and prevent death wherever she could. She had no clue what violence Sigurd would resort to when pursuing her, forcing her to save the same apathetic crowd that trapped her. But why hadn’t Martinez fled, though? What in the world was going on here?

She’d turned too far inward when contemplating her questions. She’d missed some signal from Martinez. The pirate boldly dove forward, expecting her to join in his assault. Sigurd’s shield caught Martinez’ downward sweep and bounced him back bodily. Had she been paying attention, been faster on her feet, she might have placed a tenth blow. Instead, her late, low stab sailed into the open air where Sigurd’s knee had been but a mere second ago. The heavy man’s boot came down on her blade like a blacksmith’s hammer.

The metal of her blade wasn’t cherry-red with heat. A cold rapier could certainly bend and wobble – but it could not survive such a mighty blow. The shearing force of Sigurd’s kick was countered by the unforgiving hardness of cobblestones, which functioned like an anvil. Her blade snapped in two. She froze in horror.

Martinez struck again, undeterred, but reduced to two-handed hacking at the impenetrable oak of Sigurd’s raised shield. Sigurd, clearly unconcerned with her ally, struck Leontine across the jaw with the back of his axe. She flew back and down onto the mess, scraping every exposed bit of skin and shredding her Musketeer’s tunic. He’d missed the corner of her jaw – the weak spot that often rendered martial artists and pugilists unconscious. He’d caught her just left of her nose and knocked at least three of her teeth loose. Theus damn him, he’d probably split and broken her lower jaw. The pain was excruciating.

“Hold on, Cat Thief!” Sigurd called. The melee came to a pause.

“Finally, he speaks!” Martinez said indignantly. “What do you want, you loggerheaded clotpole?”

“I serve Red-Handed Cesca, the Don’s own queen,” Sigurd said, as if it explained anything.

“And? What of it?” Martinez asked.

“I am your ally! That is why I am trying to save you!” Sigurd said with conviction, as if the first fact led to the second. Leontine couldn’t believe it. He’d been stabbed nine times and could still hold a conversation. His insulting resilience inflamed her fury, urging her to return to her feet. She still had her sword-breaking dagger. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but it could be enough, if she somehow made her way past the axe and shield.

“Since when are we allies?” Martinez demanded.

“El Gato shook the Don’s hand but a week ago! In public, at the Forum!” Sigurd said. “The lady with the broken face accused you of being on the Cat’s burgling crew. Either she is a liar, or you are my ally.”

“I did not ask for your help,” Martinez said.

“Fight already!” someone from the crowd insisted.

Leontine made her dizzy way back to her feet. She should flee. But she’d been ordered not to reveal her sorcerie in public – to keep her porte secret. Her magic was an ace up Odette DuBois D’Arrent’s sleeve, which she did not have the authority to play. And besides, she’d never lost yet. She did not mean to start now.

“I, ugh, do work for El Gato,” Martinez finally admitted.

“Then we have no quarrel,” Sigurd said. “Go your merry way to your master. Let them know the Don protects his friends. Or stay and fight, I do not mind. All the more glory if I defeat the two of you.”

Martinez paused and considered. Leontine spotted the competitiveness, the adventurousness, in his eyes. His honor and repute as an infamous pirate called for him to fight his own battles. The indignity of being offered help he did not need, the shame of tucking tail and running at Sigurd’s suggestion, both bothered him. But there would be no honor or trophy-taking in teaming up on a concussed lady. Martinez was too vain to know how to proceed. Leontine appreciated that his indecision bought her the time to try to regain focus.

While the pirate pondered, Sigurd turned around and faced her.

“I have long yearned for a holy battle-death! For years I have prayed for it! But you won’t be the one to give it,” Sigurd told her. His voice was full of genuine melancholy. “The Streghe women won’t allow it. Elisabetta foretold my Wyrd – my Fortune! And Cesca twisted it in knots. I know the day I die, my lady. Today is not that day.”

“The Devil Jonah take your weavers!” she hissed. With her words, she lost another tooth.

“As always, I must guide others to the fortune I most covet,” Sigurd sighed and spun the axe in his hands. He offered her the handle of his weapon out of pity. “Perhaps you’ll cheat the Wyrd… but I doubt it.” The crowd cheered at his swaggering confidence.

Pain and indignation burned her very soul in unison. The conflagration was too much to withstand. Her thoughts and her vows left her completely, and only rage remained. She accepted Sigurd’s weapon, brought it to her broken lips and kissed the honed edge. Sigurd smiled, not understanding what was about to happen.

“Why would you give her the axe, you beslobbering-“ Leontine did not give Martinez the time to finish his insult. She gripped the weapon into blood-soaked hands and swung the axe with all her might.

The arc was obvious. Sigurd had all the time in the world to raise his shield and block. But she tore open a porte with her blood – unseamed the world and split the fabric of reality. A jagged, red tear appeared in front of Sigurd’s shield, and its sibling apparition ripped into existence behind his head.

The axes’ blunt back end swung in one magic portal and out the other, striking a concussive blow to the back of the man’s helmet. It was a pleasure to mete out the same pain dealt to her. He fell to his knees, not understanding what had hit him. She raised the axe again, crashing it into his temple once, twice, and then again. No matter where he placed his shield, her weeping portals found his head. The axe dipped in and out of space, ringing against his helmet over and over. Why was he laughing? The more she struck the more he laughed with zealous joy.

In her anger, she forgot about Martinez, until the pirate snuck the tip of his saber under her chin. Her arms paused midair.

“Drop the axe!”

She did. It clattered behind her. Sigurd fell backwards, laughter fading and folding into bloody coughing.

“I thought you mewling Musketeers refused to kill,” he said.

“Kind of you to uphold my vows for me, you murderous snake!” she swore. She tried to back away and the saber’s point followed her. “But there’s no need. That Vesten madman won’t die!”

“Who, exactly, do you think I murdered?” Martinez asked.

She didn’t answer. Instead, she tumbled backwards like an acrobat. It was an insane gamble to take in her current state and it did not pay off. Her head already hurt, and the mad maneuver sent all the blood rushing to her head. She nearly passed out and landed badly. Martinez didn’t pursue her or try to lunge. The watching crowd was finally quiet, horrified by the sorcery and violence, by the imminent deaths they were about to witness.

He looked at her, sprawled on the cobblestones and market mess, quite like a… like a damned cat looking at a wounded mouse.

“El Gato is – the lot of us – we are thieves and not murderers. We will answer your accusations, Musketeer,” he explained. “If only you would name them.”

“You lie, villain!” Leontine accused. She had been there, at the Docks, on that horrid night. She had seen the ambushers dressed in black burst out from behind the crates of cargo. Remembered how they intervened in the Musketeer’s assault on Kaspar Dietrich, shooting at both factions indiscriminately. She had seen the masked El Gato shake hands with Don Constanzo the next day, wearing Dufort’s stolen wedding ring on their finger. The Cat’s Paw had murdered her dearest brother.

Before Martinez could say anything else, she ripped open another porte into the cobblestone. In desperation, she jammed a jagged piece of porcelain through the portal, directly into Martinez’ throat.

Surprise bloomed in the pirate’s eyes. Surprise bloomed inside her heart – righteous anger replaced by instant regret. She’d forsaken her oath. As if to mirror the two of them, dark clouds bloomed across the sky, faster than she’d ever seen any storm travel.

To the horror of the crowd – to the horror of the world itself – Lukas Martinez casually pulled ceramic from his jugular. He gave a caustic laugh which fled out his wound instead of past his teeth. In a voice as quiet and fierce as only ghosts could muster, he gave her his congratulations.

“Madam, your vows are safe with me… deep within the embrace of Devil Jonah,” he said. “You stumbled into the only pair of men in Five Sails who could help you keep them. Sigurd won’t die, my dear. But me? Lukasz Martinez, doomed and Damned? I can’t.


The world turned grayer and grayer. Martinez’ skin turned grayer and grayer. The crowd fled in terror. A thunderbolt split the sky asunder. Mortified, she split the world beneath her asunder, spending every spare ounce of blood in her veins to open a porte to anywhere else.

She fell into the yawning portal, defeated for the first time in her life. She wished she could find the conviction in her heart to say for the last time, too. But the haunting image of the undead Martinez glared at her from the porte’s mouth as she tumbled down, down, down. Five Sails was worse than exile. Five Sails was Hell. It had swallowed Dufort, and spat Sigurd and Martinez out instead.

Amidst fear and pain, she began to lose consciousness, lose control of her travel through the sea of red within the porte’s limitless horizons. The mess of the market had fallen in with her, pelting her with broken wood and rotting refuse. She cried out the names of her fellow Musketeers. Cried out to Theus, cried out to her father and her King. She cried out to the Devil Jonah and cursed him. She cried out to anyone or anything who’d listen. With each yell, her broken jaw throbbed in agony.

She crashed out into somewhere. Against something. Red faded to black.