From the editor:
Alekra was one of the finest duelists in the business before an injury ended her career. Now, she'll do whatever it takes to keep her old academy—and its ghosts—alive. Author Claire Humphrey’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex, Crossed Genres, and more, and her first novel, Spells of Blood and Kin, won the 2017 Sunburst Award.
From the author: Alekra, last living graduate of the Flanders Park School for Duellists, wants to keep the school open. She can't fight any more due to injury, but there's a market for relics of former duellists. She gets a decent price for her finger, but she only has so many body parts she can sell. Adi Solomon wants to help, but he's a civilian, and there are some things civilians will never understand.
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The chirurgeon's knife severs my little finger from my palm, just above the mount of Mercury.
"You are permitted to look away," the chirurgeon comments.
I shrug the shoulder that isn't locked down, and keep watching. The knife, obsidian, joints me like I'm a bird.
Somewhere inside my forearm I feel the pull of my tendon loosed. Little blood, and no pain; the chirurgeon knows her work, and the numbness of the lockdown extends all the way to my breast. In five minutes the chirurgeon has stowed the finger in its cooler, joined flaps of skin over the hollow socket, and healed it over with a couple of passes of a graft-stick.
"You'll have minor pain for a few weeks," she says. "You don't need to keep it covered. The scar will change colour; that's normal. If you feel a loss of sensation or have any discharge, come back to me."
She takes off the lockdown and feeling surges back through my breast, up over my trapezius, down my arm. I flex my hand. Sure enough, it hurts. Nothing I can't bear.
She walks me to the front desk. The buyer waits there. An attendant comes out and hands him the tiny cooler tagged with my name.
The buyer grins at her, then at me. He flips me the envelope with my cash in it.
"You'll make another fighter very happy," the buyer says, shaking my right hand, the whole one; looking to the door.
The chirurgeon is gone already, back into her operating room.
I don't insult the buyer by counting the cash in front of him; I wait until his van disappears round the corner.
The money's all there. Halfway through counting it I find I have to lean against the wall. The chirurgeon's attendant gets me a chair and a glass of water.
She says the chirurgeon won't mind if I lie down for a bit, but I wave her away. I'll be fine in the fresh air.
I take my money to the office of the governor and I pay the taxes on the school for this quarter, and the overdue ones from last. That does for the envelope, almost all of it.
My finger's bought me three months.
I use a bit of my remaining fee to buy a bottle of vinho verde. At the school I let myself in and ascend the stairs. All the walking has my bad leg aching, along with the new seam of skin where my finger was. When I uncork the wine I take a small swallow for myself. Only one. The rest is for the haunts.
I bring the open bottle to the east window, just under the eaves. From up here the haunts are quite visible: standing apart from each other, looking aimlessly up and about, their shrouds pale against the dark privet leaves.
All the graduates of the Flanders Park School for Duellists, gathered here in its old garden. All but two. And then I see him, Kordelo, newly come, leaning against the high fence under an overhanging willow. So it's all but one, and that one is me.
I wave to Kordelo.
He waves back, in the languid manner they all share. They used to be sharp, lusty, furious, darting, meticulous, gleeful, a hundred different things according to their natures and their whims. Now they're all like this, wandering between the garden walls. Sometimes the constellation of their placement barely changes between dawn and dusk.
I wonder if I'll enjoy it, when I am with them. They do not look sad, exactly, but they do not look like duellists. Not even Kordelo, who still has the memory of his long blade with him, drooping from his hand.
They cluster slowly beneath the window as I watch. When they've assembled, I tilt the bottle.
Pale wine spills down. The haunts come in like moths drawn to the light of it.
The bottle empties fast. The haunts seem to wait for more.
After a long minute they drift apart again, silent and separate. The ones who were lovers in life show each other no favour now; the ones who were rivals show each other no spite.
Once in a while they show me a flicker of something: a hand raised to request or acknowledge.
I am the last of them, and so long as I have the power, I will keep us all in our home.
I still have many fingers, and I hear the thumbs will fetch a bit more than the others.
In the plaza, the flag is still at half mast for Kordelo, but that hasn't stopped anyone from posting today's duel.
I cross the grounds. Chalk marks, dried blood, shoe-scuffs, and the dung of dogs. Tacked to the flagpole, the duel-sheet flutters in the breeze: Paulo and Juvela.
It was Juvela who beat Kordelo; she came out of it scatheless. If I was still duelling, I'd be honour-bound to challenge her. As I am a civilian now, the code forbids me any reprisal.
I am very nearly glad of that. Juvela has the kind of grace no duellist wants to see ruined. She might make it to the capital this year. Kordelo wouldn't have gone so far, had he lived, and someone else might have taken him less cleanly.
A guy in a fine woolen coat lounges on the rim of the fountain. Thirtyish and with a soft belly on him. Even with my bad leg I know I could take him.
"You Alekra?" he says.
I incline my head.
"I guessed from the missing finger. Heard you started selling off. I hope you got a fair price."
"If you're opening negotiations for my next sale, I guess I'd better tell you I don't come cheap," I tell him, easing down nearby on the stone fountain lip. "I took an opponent every day for thirty days in a row, in my second season."
"What always happens. Got cocky." Got drunk, in fact; got laid; slept the sleep of the just and woke up so late I almost missed the bells.
"I heard Hanana hamstrung you."
"Beginner's luck," I tell him. Hanana only lasted ten formal fights, all told; she gave it up to Kordelo not a week after ending my career for me.
"My loss," the guy says. "I came to the provinces too late. Wish I could've seen you work."
"Yeah, I was something."
"I'll bet you were." He extends his hand to me. "Adi Solomon."
"Not a duellist, then."
"No balls," he says. "Huh. So you can laugh, anyway. Want a plate of eggs?"
"Idiot. You're selling off fingers, I know you must be short of cash. Pay me back with some war stories, if you want."
I know nothing other than the duel. My guardian took me from the workhouse nursery right after he founded the school. He taught me himself, until the school grew larger, and then he would sometimes hand me off to the older students.
When he died, he left me the place. I'd entered the lists by then, but only just. I didn't know how to balance books or manage staff. I couldn't imagine another duelling-master in place of my guardian, so I never found the time to hire one.
The older students graduated. The newer students drifted away to schools with more famous masters. I figured I'd keep the school afloat with my winnings until I'd made enough of a name for myself.
Then I went down against Hanana. It felt like the end, but it was only one in a series of endings.
For a while the school lived on in its other students. A number did very well. Epifanio took the triple garland in the capital a year before he succumbed to influenza.
Kordelo was the last of the graduates still duelling. Everyone else went earlier, some in the plaza and some later in the hospital; one by infection after selling off her forefinger; one by fire; one by drowning. Kordelo had been recovering well from his injury, but then was killed by a blood clot that travelled to his brain.
I should have been among the crowd watching the procession of Kordelo's bier. I should have been at his wake, held at the Albion House. All sorts of rabble turn out for the passing of a duellist, though. I didn't trust myself not to toss a glove at anyone.
Anyway, I figured I'd see him again soon enough. The haunts might have known, too. When I watched them from my east window, the day of the wake, they stood in a cluster, looking downtown.
I tell Adi Solomon about the eclipse: the day of Paulo's first fight, which was called at a draw, because the crowd had superstitiously broken so many eggs that the whole plaza was slick with albumen.
I tell him about Hanana: how Kordelo took her in the femoral artery, as payment for me, and how I watched it on broadcast, from my hospital bed. I tell him how I wept there. I knew already that I wouldn't fight again.
I tell him about meeting the great Fajra, when I was no more than a girl myself, and how she chose her name, and how the rest of us still follow her.
I must be shocky from the chirurgeon, still. Or it's the coffee on my empty stomach. I tell him things he cannot possibly care to hear, things I did not even know I was thinking.
I don't tell him about my haunts.
The plate comes: three eggs, two slices of bacon, a mound of potatoes, four slices of rye toast, a grilled tomato and a sprig of parsley. I eat. Adi Solomon watches.
When he isn't watching me, he watches the plaza, where pigeons cross the white sky and paper bags blow over the cobbles. He sips coffee, and licks a drop of it from his round lower lip.
"What will you do," he says, "when you run out of fingers?"
Around the time of my first fight there was a quack selling fingers he claimed to be Fajra's. A couple of people bought them. They weren't really Fajra's fingers, of course; but some of them might have been someone's. At least one of those duellists went on to the capital and won garlands there.
I saw him interviewed on broadcast. He held up his hand. The newer finger looked pale and knobby compared to his other fingers. The graft scar ran in an uneven ring around his knuckle.
"It feels just like my old finger," he said, "when I'm not fighting. Except that sometimes it gets the rest of my hand to wrap itself around a pint glass."
I thought about nine other duellists, in nine other pubs, ordering nine pints they didn't know they wanted. I thought about whose finger I'd buy, if I lost one of my own to injury, or needed an edge.
I didn't think about having to sell my own, not then. In those days, most of the people I knew were alive.
Adi Solomon pays for our meal from a fat billfold. I think about knocking him down and taking it, but I'm comfortably full and besides, we wouldn't want to miss the start of the fight.
Outside, the crowd thickens. Pushcarts sell roasted chestnuts. Everyone mills about outside the bounds of the square.
I lead Solomon directly across the middle, back to the fountain. Some kids are sitting there but they shift aside for me. When I look at them harder they shift a bit more for Solomon.
Lounging on the sun-warmed stone, with my bad leg propped up, my hands folded against a stuffed belly, and a third cup of coffee in me, I feel so damned nice that I have to do something to wreck it.
I hold out my left hand for Solomon to see, and flex the ring finger.
"Two grand," I tell him.
He exhales. "You shouldn't open the negotiations. You wait for the other person to go first."
"I would've offered two at the outset myself," he says. "You could have beat me up to two and a half, if you were patient about it."
"So if we're both in the neighbourhood of two, doesn't that mean we can quit dancing and shake on the deal?"
"No," he says. "I'm not a buyer."
"I knew you weren't a buyer. You haven't even got a cooler for the finger."
Solomon raises his eyebrow at me. "You sold to one of those guys? This is breaking my heart."
"I don't need a manager, Solomon."
He shrugs, and looks away from me; he fumbles out a cigarillo, and lights one for me, too.
The bells ring, the crowd gets quiet, and I see the ushers coming up from the practice field, bearing their white-ribboned staffs.
Juvela waves to me, following behind. She's shorn her head since last week. An old scar stretches from her crown downward, splitting the cartilage of one ear.
Paulo, holding Juvela's hand according to custom, looks away from me.
I shift my cigarillo to the corner of my mouth to say, "He knows Juvela's going to beat him."
"Maybe you should sell him your finger."
"He wouldn't take it. He never faced me; he thinks he's better than me."
"Is he right?"
"He'll never know."
Solomon touches my ring finger with the tip of his own forefinger, careful not to brush the fresh scar next to it. "Maybe he won't. But you know."
I hold very still as his fingertip touches me, the way you do when a dragonfly lands on your arm by the river. The touch glances away after a moment, leaving a phantom heat behind.
In the centre of the plaza, Juvela and Paulo display their favours, salute the cardinal directions and then each other. Juvela's favour is a scrap of green silk to match the new gem studding her ear.
Her stance is wide and low. If I had to find fault I'd say she was a bit flat-footed. The moment the crier sounds off, she skims up to Paulo, feints with her right and lunges with her left blade, and Paulo barely evades her with an ungainly sideslip.
"I see what you mean," says Solomon.
"She killed her man last week." I don't tell him I knew that man. "She's training for the Midsummer Garlands now, and the capital in the fall."
"And Paulo's not?"
"Sure; but he's not going to make it. Not this year. Maybe never."
"Ought to find another career, then."
"He's sworn to his patron. Even if Paulo figures out he doesn't have a shot, he's in it for the season. We don't back out once we're sworn."
"We? You aren't a duellist any more, Alekra."
I take the last smoke of my cigarillo into my lungs and I hold it there as long as I can. He's a civvie. You can't explain things to them.
The crowd shouts and I train my eyes on the fight. Paulo's managed to score on Juvela, lancing a shallow groove up her tricep, cutting across the maroon ridges of a dozen older injuries. You can tell a lot about a duellist by the pattern of scars. Me, I always seemed to take it on my forearms.
Juvela retaliates with a double attack, high and low. If her arm's weakened, I can't tell. She gets Paulo with her right point on a cross-thrust, nicking him just under the collarbone. His jerkin stops most of it. The blood blooms slowly.
Time. The two fighters retreat to their corners, where white-ribboned staffs stand in sand-buckets. A page gives Juvela a water-bottle to suck, and she bends down so that he can towel the sweat from her head and the blood from her arm.
Beside me, Solomon drops his boots to the ground, pushes himself upright, and walks away.
I see Paulo, on the other side of the grounds, exchanging his gored jerkin for a fresh one. His bared back is a shade less brown than his arms. His ribs heave under his skin. His patron stands nearby, exhorting him, and Paulo nods and nods.
Solomon comes back just as the crier sings out again. He unscrews the cap of a rectangular bottle, sips, and hands it to me.
It tastes of iodine and earth and gunpowder, and I savour it.
On the cobbles, Juvela's feet stamp and shuffle. She skates over the uneven ground.
She misses Paulo's trapezius with a thrust of her long blade, but punches the quillon of her short blade left-handed past his temple, breaking the skin like peach-flesh. At the same time Paulo lays the flat of his long blade blindly across Juvela's back, so that he catches her right elbow on the backswing. Both cry out. They disengage.
Paulo attacks while Juvela's arm is still numbed. She backsteps, snaking her spine and hollowing her belly so that the blade skims past her. She switches her long blade into her left hand, tossing her short blade so that it skitters over the line into the crowd.
Paulo lunges again and Juvela parries lightly, beating him off just enough to run up the outside of his guard and skewer him in the right shoulder.
He falls back, and salutes her left-handed, lips skinned back from his teeth.
The crier calls the fight then, a technical maiming, and a page carries forth the garland for Juvela. Solomon and I toast the fighters with the rectangular bottle, while the crowd claps. People throw roses and handkerchiefs. Startled pigeons fly up from the surrounding roofs.
"I like to stay until it's all over," I say, when Solomon moves to rise.
Juvela's page helps her to bind up her bad arm and wipe down her blades. When she is put to rights, her patron comes to her, and kisses her upon both cheeks.
"See their faces?" I murmur.
"Yes," says Solomon; but when I look over at him, he is looking only at me.
I take Solomon with me, back to my schoolhouse.
"So this is where you learned to fight," he says.
"This is where I learned to do everything."
The dining hall has been closed up for a year or more, the walls bare of garlands, the banner folded up in a cedar chest in the storeroom. The hall now contains nothing but a long table with a dusty sheet over it. I shove my trousers down past my knees and I sit up on the table.
Solomon steps in close and cups his hands under me, lifting me up against his body. He yanks the tails of his shirt out from between us, so that I can feel the heat of him.
"You're all sinew." He runs a palm up my thigh.
I wind my hands under his shirt and over his belly. "You're not."
"Indeed." So rich it makes my mouth water. I think of him eating meat and butter, sleeping in fine cotton. Even his coat is new wool, no moth-holes, all of the stitches fine and neat.
"Ready?" He touches me to find out, and brings his fingers to his lips, and then to mine.
After, I lie on my back on the table, and pat the sheet beside me, gesturing for Solomon to lie there too.
"I don't think your table will survive it," he says, leaning against the wall instead. He wipes himself dry with a white handkerchief, and puts his trousers to rights.
And he's correct: when I lever myself up, the dodgy leg of the table folds under, and spills the stained sheet in a crumple to the floor. I almost follow it down as my bad leg cramps.
Solomon catches my elbow, and helps me lower myself. His warm hands knead the scar and the tight muscles around it, while I lounge back against the tilted plane of the tabletop and sip from the bottle.
After a while he slips it from my hand. I'm too sated to bother opening my eyes.
I wake in a slanted rectangle of half-light, with my trousers folded under my head and the dropsheet twisted around my legs. Silence.
He's gone, then. He left me the bottle. I rinse my mouth with it, and I sit up and slowly dress. My leg straightens with a twinge. I can feel a rosary of bruises forming on my back, where my vertebrae met the table; almost as good as duelling-scars, they are, these autographs of pleasure on my body.
I leave my feet bare. The floor is as clean as my daily sweepings can make it. In the kitchen I drink water from the tap, and I splash some into a glass along with more of the stuff from the bottle.
The rest of it will make a fine meal for the haunts, a rich treat.
They move below the window like dreamers turning in sleep, arms raised lazily. Their mouths catch the whiskey from the air. I pour it out in gouts, watching it sparkle as it falls.
Afternoon lengthens into evening. Hazy shade shifts over the garden. I'd find it peaceful, if it wasn't for all the noise next door. Someone's chopping firewood, or beating a carpet.
Kordelo turns toward the fence, even before I empty the last of the whiskey. His head lolls in a way it never would have done while he lived, unless he was exhausted, or very drunk. He drifts out from beneath the willow, trailing the point of his blade.
The branches of the willow shiver with the impacts of the neighbours' noise. They cannot be cutting my tree. Can they? Its bark has grown thickly around the fence-posts, so that one cannot be felled without the other. I must not let them breach my garden; even the branches shading it must not be cut. I must persuade them. It may mean money. Another finger.
Before I have done more than lift my elbows from the sill, though, I see the flash of steel splinter through the fence, tearing old wood. And again: the wound widens, the new wood bright where the axe lays it open.
My haunts slowly turn to watch, angling their bodies, trailing their winding-cloths, drifting in ones and twos closer to the breach.
I drop my glass. I bolt for the door, and my bad leg twists under me, sending me sideways.
Careening down the stairs, any grace I ever had torn away, I nearly rip the banister from the wall. I burst out into the golden light and round the fence. My bare feet bite into the sod.
Solomon is raising the axe for another blow. I slam into him with my shoulder tucked. We fall in a tangle of limbs and my sleeve tears on the axe-blade.
I wrench it from his hands and toss it down on the roots of the willow. I'm choking. I can't speak.
Solomon sits up slowly, wincing. "Hey. Hey. I'm sorry about your fence, but there were haunts in your garden."
He must see something in the wreck of my face. He raises his hands. "You knew."
Over his shoulder I see the great rending he's made in the fence. I scramble for it, half on my hands. I seize the broken wood on either side and put my face to the gap.
In the garden I see last year's rose canes, goldenrod not yet in bloom, an overturned bucket, a square of bare earth where we used to practice in good weather. A few early bees.
No shades. None of my companions in their winding-sheets.
"They were reaching out for help," Solomon says. "They raised their hands to me. I couldn't just leave them."
"Is that what you saw?" I look back at him; in the striped light under the willow he looks troubled, fearful, and sweaty, and nothing at all like a liar.
They cannot have been reaching out for help. I would have seen it. I know them; I knew them.
They wanted to stay here, just as I do. They loved this place in life. I cannot have been keeping them here unwilling. Can I?
I say none of this, but Solomon's eyes widen. He sits back on his heels on a willow root, and he covers his face.
I limp back upstairs to the east-facing window, even though I know what I will see: just another view of the garden, untenanted.
And now the dead are dead, and I will never know the truth of it.
The next day I sell the remains of the fence and the willow for firewood. A pair of boys with a motorcart come to pick it up. While they take turns splitting and stacking, I sit on the overturned bucket in the garden, watching them. The night was dry, and the earth still smells of spilled whiskey.
I tell the boys to take the broken table, too.
When they're gone, I take the coin they gave me and I walk out to market. My leg is weak, and my hand throbs. I purchase a pie and a few leathery apples and a bottle of beer, and when I have eaten it all, I walk back.
Solomon is waiting for me, in his long coat, leaning against a very fine automobile.
"Here," he says, offering his hand.
I don't take his hand, but I let some of my weight ease back against the gunmetal polish of the automobile, off my bad leg.
He reaches for my wrist, and fastens a brown leather bracelet around it.
"A favour," he says. "I'd like to be your patron."
"You'd sponsor a duellist who can't fight?"
"I'd sponsor the Flanders Park School," he says.
"It's a poor investment," I say, spreading my hands, gesturing to the shuttered facade, the stump of the willow.
"You're still here," he says. He runs his fingertip over the grafted scar where my finger was. "And I think you might find it easier to attract students now that the place isn't full of haunts."
I cannot strike him. The code forbids it. I can only walk away, as crisply as my leg will let me.
I lose the favour surreptitiously next day, while watching a parade winding downtown in the rain. Later I regret this. I spend an hour searching, but the gutter runs with dirty water and piss, and I never find the favour.
The day after that, a solicitor arrives with Solomon's money. I do not send him away.
I pay a man to sweep the empty rooms and polish all the floors with cinnamon-scented beeswax. I pay a seamstress to mend the banner, and I hang it again in the dining hall.
I am not sure how far Adi Solomon's money is meant to go. The solicitor tells me Solomon has gone to the capital, leaving no message for me.
I am putting away food in the larder when the bell rings. I set down a bag of potatoes and go to answer.
The fellow there is small, a bit less than my own size, with black hair shaved close to his head. He is a duellist. I know before he speaks, by the elegant balance of his weight.
"Alekra?" he says. "I am Georgo." He waits, as if his name should be known to me.
"Of what school?" I ask.
"Of this one, I guess," he says, and he extends his hand to me, and I see the fresh graft at the base of the smallest finger on his left hand.
By the time Solomon returns from the capital, Georgo has been joined by Karesinda and Miela, and our first four students have enrolled in day classes.
Georgo gets his own room because he is shy and fastidious. Karesinda and Miela share, because they share everything. Georgo knows how to bake bread and pies, and I fill out our menu with soups.
Georgo teaches the younger two students. Miela teaches the older two. Karesinda teaches all four the art of the melee twice a week, and does the accounts. I teach the history and philosophy, except when I have been drinking, and then Karesinda steers me away to the back garden while Miela takes over the lecture.
When Solomon returns, the students have gone home for the evening, so we are all spared the ordeal of introducing the school's patron. I remember spitshining my boots before such an introduction when I was young; Flanders Park School has a way to go before it will pass a spitshine test again.
Still, Solomon is smiling as he gets out of his automobile. He wears no coat now that summer has come, and I see creases in his linen shirt, where it tugs over his belly. He is carrying a parcel wrapped in carmine-red paper. I watch from the window until Georgo comes to fetch me.
I receive Solomon in the salon. We have a salon, now. Solomon sets down the parcel on one of the wingback chairs. He reaches out his hands to me and I grasp them in mine.
His face twists, then. I see his teeth catch the corner of his lip.
"Damn my idiot solicitor," he says, and takes my left hand more roughly, thumbing over the neat grafted scars where my ring finger and middle finger used to be.
"It's not about the money," I begin.
"I told him to give you whatever you wanted. An apartment downtown. Introductions. Damn it." And he presses my hand to his lips.
The scars have feeling, still, I find. Especially the freshest.
"He sent Georgo here," I point out.
"Because Georgo was the guy who ended up with your little finger," Solomon says. "And I thought he could take over. His record was good, before he was maimed."
"It's even better now," I tell him, and I lead him into the dining hall, where two of Georgo's garlands now hang. And one more, from only two days ago, when Karesinda and Miela took it together in the Midsummer melee.
"Who?" Solomon says. "I don't know either of them."
"You will," I promise him. "They got my other fingers."
He breathes out, and looks away from me. "I wanted to spare you any more scars, Alekra."
He's a civvie, I remind myself. I can't expect him to get this all at once.
I push him back against the new table and run my remaining fingers over his shoulders and down his chest.
"Oh, no," he says. "I remember this table."
"No, this one's new. You bought it."
"I still don't think it's up to my weight," he says, hands reaching under my thighs to lift me up.
"Then buy me another."
The table holds.
The new favour is an earring, with a brown tiger's eye stone dangling from it. Solomon threads it through the piercing in my ear, his big hands sure and gentle.
After he leaves, I pour myself a glass of vinho verde and I sit in the garden. I touch the tiger's eye with the finger and thumb I have remaining on my left hand. It's glossy-smooth, just heavy enough that I can feel the constant little tug on my earlobe, where for years there was nothing.
Instead of finishing my wine, I pour it out onto the earth beneath the rose canes, and the earth drinks it down.
This story originally appeared in Interzone.