Friday, January 15, 2010

Main Street Competition

Haggerd the Haggard knew that patience was a virtue when it came to a good assassination. He had waited until he was certain his victim was close to finishing his business for the night and now Haggerd was ready for the confrontation. The clanging of bells caused him to hesitate for a split second as he pushed open the door and stepped inside.

His victim, clad in white and stood amongst his paraphernalia, offered him a wry smile. "Sorry about that, I was just closing up and had the alarm set." He motioned under his bench and the bells abated. "What can I do for you? I don't want to rush you but it's getting late."

Haggerd flipped the sign on the door from 'Open' to 'Closed' and pulled down the blind to cover the window panel. "You are the one known as 'Ryan Peabody'?" Haggerd asked. "The one that claims knowledge of the alchemical arts?"

"Yes, I'm the chemist," Peabody said. "A humble pharmacist, at your service. Do you have a prescription you need to get filled? It's just I have to be getting home or the wife will give me hell." He rolled his eyes at Haggerd.

“You won’t be going anywhere tonight, alchemist,” Haggerd said. He took a pace forward and planted his staff on the floor by his foot, daring Peabody to try anything.

The chemist looked dismayed. “Don’t tell me the roadworks are still holding the traffic up! At this time of night. Good Lord. I thought I’d seen the last of bumper to bumper traffic when I moved here.”

“You should have thought twice before moving to my domain, little man,” Haggerd said, ominously. “The village of Tiddling-on-the-Wold belongs to me and I will slay any other magic user that attempts to wrest it from me. I will have no aggravation from warlocks.”

“No 'what'?” Peabody asked.

“Warlock aggravation!” Haggerd shouted.

“Okay, steady on,” Peabody said. “I think I have an ointment for that.”

Haggerd took another pace forward and Peabody could see just how large and imposing a figure he was, wrapped about with ragged brown robes and steadfastly clutching a gnarled wooden staff in his hand. “Do not mock me, interloper,” Haggerd said, “there is the stench of thaumaturgical meddling about you.”

“I expect that will be the drains,” Peabody said, somewhat perturbed. “The Council were supposed to have all that sorted out.”

“Be warned, meddler,” Haggerd said, “for I have choked the life from many a neck in my time, and relish the opportunity to do so once again.”

Peabody looked at Haggerd blankly. “I see,” he said. “Is that a euphemism? I can’t sell you viagra without a prescription, but we do have some herbal remedies...”

“Enough of your lies,” Haggerd cried. “You are a rival magus intent upon usurping my dominion. Admit it!”

“Stop!” Peabody said. “I’m just a simple chemist. Look!” He grabbed a small brown bottle. “See? It’s just aspirin, for headaches. And this is toothpaste, for brushing your teeth.” He pulled a brown jar from under the counter. “This is... is...” Peabody pulled out his spectacles and read the label. “Ah, yes, knuckle bones from nosy hedge-wizards.”

Haggerd realised he couldn’t move a muscle, couldn’t even bat an eye-lid. Not even when Peabody produced the rusty old hacksaw.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Old Flame - 3WW - Jolt, Ribbon, Zeal

I stared at her for a dozen quickening heartbeats after I had opened the door. She was dressed as if fresh from a job interview, her dark clothes blending into the night, but the time of day, not least, made that impossible. The faint light spilling from the muted television in the room behind me was just enough to illuminate her face. I wanted to cry.

"Aren't you going to ask me in?" she asked. It was all I needed to jolt my brain back into gear.

I stammered something, then tried again. "Come in!" She brushed past me, filled my head with her scent. I felt dizzy. After several seconds I closed the door and turned. I jumped. She was standing facing me, her face level with my chest, smiling broadly.

"Boo," she said. Laughing, she went to the couch and sat down, sitting on her side of the seat, just as she always had done.

I flopped into the couch, backed up to the opposite end. "Your father said I'd never see you again." I could remember his every word spat into my face with the zeal of a hellfire preacher, so wrapped up in his hatred that he had forgotten how to be compassionate.

"He never liked you," she said.

Her eyes widened momentarily and she bowed her head. A viscous ribbon of dark yellow vomit trailed from her mouth. She grabbed a cushion from the pile she was leaning on and dropped it onto the mess, then wiped her sleeve across her face. She smiled awkwardly, embarrassed, but when her smile faded I noticed how long it took lethargic skin to fall back into place. I reached out my hands to touch her cheeks but she took my wrists in an icy grip and placed them in her lap. My glance was drawn to the cushion covering the vomit and I saw that worms and tiny, black beetles were already spilling out in exploration.

"Kiss me," she whispered hoarsely.

I looked to her eyes, ignoring the flecks of sick that stained her lips, the grey pallor of her skin and the warmth draining from me into her glacial hands. Her eyes were still as bright and lively as they had ever been and I wondered if I could ignore the rest and fall in love anew with those gorgeous eyes. As her grip tightened painfully on my wrists, I also wondered, oh how I wondered, if it would be my decision to make.

Monday, January 11, 2010

FFF#16 "Dry Run"

"It was an honest mistake...or it was honestly stupid. Either way, I didn't mean anything by it."

Darren cocked an eyebrow at the sharply dressed man who was sitting on his bed. "Then why did you laugh?" Darren asked.

"I was just laughing." The man smiled broadly. "I'm a happy chappy, Darren. Can't help myself. It was nothing personal."

"You were laughing, and you were pointing. At me. It's hard not to take that personally." Darren crossed his hands across his chest, resting his elbows on his legs, which were also crossed. "To be honest with you, Ian, I've lost faith in what you're offering."

"Don't be like that, Dazzer!" Ian pushed his open palms together, as though he was praying. "Please, mate, give ickle Ian a second chance. Go on... please! Pretty please?"

"I'm sorry, Ian, but the trust is gone." Darren shook his head.

"I brought you a pressie," Ian said, pulling a fancy box of chocolates from under his jacket. "They're Belgian. Top notch." He reached the box out to Darren, who was seated at the other side of the bedroom. Darren stared at the box for several seconds. Ian gave it a shake and winked. He turned the box to show each of its sides to Darren. "Look, buddy. D'ya see? No strings attached." Darren unwrapped his limbs, got out of his chair and took the box.

There was a soft rap at the bedroom door. It opened and a middle-aged woman's head appeared. "Darren, would your friend, who you haven't introduced me to yet, like a cup of tea or coffee?

"This is Ian, Mum," Darren said. "He's the one-"

"Oh yes, he's the one who's going to help with your career." Darren's mother had come into his bedroom and was hovering next to Ian. Darren slumped back into his chair. "He needs someone to give him a boot up the backside, Ian. He's a lazy little sod." Darren sank forward in the chair. "I've done what I can for him, but he won't listen to me. Not properly." Darren tapped the box of chocolates against the side of his head, while gazing at his feet. "I hope you can persuade him to make something of himself, Ian. Now then, tea? Coffee?"

"I'd love a cup of coffee. Two sugars and a dash of milk, please." Ian pointed at the box of chocolates in Darren's hand. "We could get them opened up."

"Ooo, Belgians!" Darren's mother snatched the chocolates out of her son's hand, then rapped him on his forehead. "Do sit up straight, dear. You look like you're having cramps." She rubbed her hand over the top of the box of chocolates. "I'll put a few of these out. We have doilies, don't you know." She glanced at Darren. "I expect you'll be wanting your usual. Extra milky with eight spoonfuls." She left the room. Darren listened to her steps retreating down the stairs and sighed morosely. Neither of the men said anything for several minutes.

Finally, Ian spoke. "She's a handful, isn't she?"

Darren sighed heavily once more.

Ian rummaged around in his jacket and pulled out a piece of parchment with one hand and a ball point pen with the other. He clicked the top of the pen several times. "It's got ink in it this time. Go on, Darren, you know you want to."

Darren could hear his mother ascending the stairs, the rattle of cups on a tray. "Does it have to be MY soul?" he asked.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Papa Szorny - #fridayflash

The brace on Rosa's crippled leg clattered and dragged across the cobbles as her mother tugged her along in her wake.

“Hurry, Rosa!” her mother pleaded. “Please hurry, dearest, or Papa Szorny will catch you and gobble you up.”

"My legs ache, mama," Rosa said, though in truth only one of them did.

"Please, baby." Her mother hunkered down so their eyes were level. She primped the old shirt sleeve that was wrapped around her child's neck as a makeshift scarf and pulled Rosa's cap down tight over her bubbling, blonde hair. It had been madness to attend the midnight Mass when the city was so dangerous. "We're nearly home, Rosa. Don't dawdle or Papa Szorny will snatch you away for his supper."

Rosa giggled nervously. She was only six, but her mind was bright and agile, even if her body was lame. She didn’t truly believe there was such a thing as Papa Szorny, the horrible, creeping monster that visited the city every hundred years to take a life, but why was her mother acting so very afraid? Her mother's head jerked to stare back down the street. Rosa strained but could not see what had alerted her.

"Hush, baby," her mother whispered, taking Rosa's hand and hurrying away in the direction of the house where they shared a room. They had only gone a few yards when both heard a hard, raucous laugh. Her mother gathered Rosa up, so the child was left clinging to her as she ran for all she was worth.

Head bouncing off her mother's shoulder, Rosa saw the shadowy figure easily jog past and pull in front of them. Desperate to evade, her mother twisted away, and away again as the shadow reared before her each time. Fruitlessly turning and dodging, eventually her mother's legs collapsed under her and she sank to the ground, arms wrapped tight about her child. Her mother screamed as Rosa was pulled from her fierce embrace.

The child was sent skidding across the street, bumping off a wall where she lay motionless until her head had cleared. There were three of them set upon her mother. Soldiers. Most likely from a German mercenary band, judging by their ragged, once gawdy uniforms. One was huge about the middle, the other two lean. They spoke in guttural German, a language Rosa did not speak.

"Get it off, just pull it."
"No, use your knife!"
"You've cut her. Look at her squirm... do it again."

Rosa got to her feet, awkwardly patted her head. Her hand came away bloody, and there was salt in her mouth where she had bitten her tongue.

"Mama!" she cried, and ran to the men swarming over her mother.

"Run! Run Rosa!" Her mother screamed the words, interspersed with grunts and hollow gasps as her body was assaulted. "Run home!"

A foot lashed out and sent Rosa sprawling to the cobbles again. She buried her fists in her eyes and screamed to drown out the sound of her mother's torture.

An unknown age passed before she was jerked back to reality by a fist wrapped in her hair.

"What about her?" The words were nothing but ugly noise to the child.

"Spill her guts, or stir her guts, vermin. I'm going to have another go on the mother." The fat one prodded the corpse with the toe of his boot. Rosa's fingers clenched on the other's hand in her hair, knuckles white as her face. She gasped noises under the harsh gaze of the soldier, articulating her terror perfectly.

"That is mine." The voice spoke in cultured German, nonsense to the child, but the big mercenary's hand went to his sabre.

"Which?" the big man asked. "The child, or the body? Whichever, you'll only have my blade up your arse. Get away. This is- dear god..."

The stranger had stepped from the shadows into the dim moonlight where they could see his face. The huge bully's hand was glued to the hilt of his sabre. Likewise one of his companions did nothing but gape, while the other fumbled for his pistol while attempting to make the sign of the cross about his chest.

"This is my night," the stranger said. "And you have stolen the fear that is rightfully mine. I will take what you owe me."

The thunderclap peal and the rushing pressure of air slamming into her closed Rosa's eyes for an instant. When she opened them again, the stranger had the big man by the heel and was dragging his motionless body into the shadows. To one side of her was a groaning mercenary, snot bubbling through the holes where his eyes had been. On her other side the spasming of the other mercenary's limbs sent his lower jaw and whiskers skipping across the cobbles when his heel caught them just right.

Papa Szorny only ever claimed a single soul.

"Sweet dreams, little Rosa..." The voice trailed away to nothing even as the child fainted.


She was there waiting for him in that exact spot, sat in a fine old wooden chair at the side of the street. At some time in the intervening hundred years they had removed the crippled leg. Her head was high, her back straight, though she struggled with the pain she felt in her every bone and joint.

"I knew you would come back, Papa," she said.

"Have you waited for me all this time?" Papa Szorny asked, grotesque head cocked to one side.

"No, Papa. I have lived my life. I have raised a family. I have honoured the memory of my mother and of the deed you did that night. I have honoured you, Papa Szorny."

"So?" Papa Szorny stroked his chin. "And now you are here to.. thank me?"

"No, Papa. I know you must take a soul this night. I offer you mine, willingly."

Papa Szorny barked a laugh. "Are you ready for death, after so long a struggle against it?"

"Oh, Papa," Rosa said. "Every day is agony. Only the thought of sacrificing myself to you has kept me alive this past hundred years."

"Rosa, my beautiful child." He stroked the old woman's wrinkled face. "I will honour your promise. I will take you."

She clasped his hand. "Thank you, master!"

Papa Szorny brushed her hands away. "I will take you when the fear is strong."

"Fear?" Rosa's old face screwed up into a jumble of folded skin.

"Whenever you most fear that I will not grant your wish, that is when I will take you. Perhaps next century. Perhaps the century after that. Until then, sweet Rosa, relish your agony." Then Papa Szorny slipped away to the city, admiring the changes that time had brought to his old hunting ground.

Rosa would have cried, had she tears left to fall.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Urban Picnic - 3WW - Drain, Epic, Nibble

Rupert pricked the flesh with his twin-pronged fork and delicately, slowly, carved a waver thin slice away. He raised it over his head, dangling the meat above his lips before sensuously lowering it into his mouth. He loosed a low, contented moan as he chewed, savouring the mastication.

"What's it taste like?" old Tom asked, fingering the strap about his knee.

Rupert cut circles in the air with the tip of his knife, seeking inspiration. "Gamey, like grouse that's been hung just a little too long. Do you want some? Perhaps, just a nibble?"

"No ta, mate!" old Tom exclaimed. "Not my cup of tea, so to speak, chief. What's you fellows again? Epic something?"

"The Chelsea Squires Epicurean Society, Thomas, but if I tell you one more time I'll assume you're showing far too much interest. We wouldn't want that, would we?"

"Just making conversation," Tom muttered.

Rupert carved off another slice. "No discomfort? No pain?"

Tom shook his head. "Haven't felt nothing there for months."

Rupert nodded in sympathy. "I've felt very little of anything for decades."

"So, why ain't you off some place posh eating little birds stuffed inside bigger birds and so on?" Thomas asked.

"Ah, the recession, Thomas. The damned recession. Ill-gotten gains drain away like the pus from a tramp's leg."

"Sorry about that," Thomas said. He cast a yellowed eye over the line of potential diners stretched out of the room, into the corridor and beyond, each with his cutlery in hand. There was good money to be made. He reached out to pinch the meaty part of his other calf between grimy fingers, but winced with pain. Too bad.

Monday, January 4, 2010

K heart N

She saw the orange Necco wafer on the counter top and started to cry. Neil had his back resting against the kitchen sink, arms folded across his chest. Everything he had prepared to say died on his lips the moment he saw her shoulders crumple, the grocery bags dropping from her hands as she buried her face in her cupped palms. Muffled sobs, so raw, so authentic, he had to fight to suppress his compassion, choosing instead to grip all the tighter to his anger for support. If he wasn't strong she would manipulate him, the way she always did.

She uncovered her face, walked to the breakfast counter, and traced a line around the wafer with her finger. "I can explain-" she began, but he wasn't interested.

"You wanted me to find that," he said, voice low and controlled. "I know what you're going to say but I don't believe you. You wanted me to find that, and you wanted to make me angry."

She couldn't look him in the eyes, kept her gaze on the little orange wafer that bore the three simple words; "I love you".

She glanced up at him, but quickly looked back at the counter. "It was a stupid little... thing. Something he gave me. I shouldn't have kept it."

"It's not about you keeping it, Kathy." He spat the words out. "It's about constantly reminding me. I get it. You loved him and I'm second best."

She shook her head. "No, you don't understand. He wrote that on it for me. I didn't-"

"Not the point, Kathy. Not..." The first thing he saw was a long necked bottle of olive oil. Kathy dodged backwards away from the counter as he swung it down hard, shattering on the wafer, crushing it to dust. The flecks of candy were carried away on rivulets of spreading oil.

She stared at him, eyes wide. Neil squeezed his palm, watched the blood ooze where the breaking glass had gashed his hand. "Not the point," he said. He walked out of the kitchen. A moment later she heard the front door slam and a moment after that the sound of a car pulling away.


Over a day had passed. She was sitting at the breakfast counter, the kitchen dimly lit by the glow from a single under-cabinet light. The radio was tuned to an oldies station and there was a half empty glass of wine sitting next to the square tin where she collected her cake decorating equipment.

Her whole body tensed as she heard the front door open.

"It's only me!" Neil called out. "Kathy? Are you home?" The rest of the house was in darkness.

He flicked on the main light as he entered the kitchen. There was a bright white bandage on his hand. "Oh, there you are."

She got out off her seat.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I get so angry..."

She draped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his chest. He put his arms about her and squeezed.

"What have you been doing?" Neil asked her, looking over her shoulder at the disgorged contents of her decorating tin on the counter. Amongst the items were several little bottles of food colouring, some standing open next to a badly abused packet of Necco wavers.

Kathy disengaged herself unsteadily from around Neil's neck and went to the counter, carefully scooping something up. She presented this to Neil on the palm of her hand.

He looked at the Necco waver. The letters looked as though they had been daubed onto it by a child. "K? Something... N?" His brow furrowed, but he was smiling.

She shrugged. "I wanted it to be nice. Perfect. I tried and tried, but I'm all..." she waved her fingers and thumbs at him. Neil laughed. "So I had a drink. And another drink.... it's supposed to say 'K hearts N'."

"Kathy loves Neil," he said.

She pushed the wafer into his mouth. "You bet she does," she said. She turned up the volume on the radio, letting the swelling notes of the Righteous Brothers envelop them, as she hugged Neil, swaying against him as he swallowed the chalky candy.

Kathy let go of Neil and sat down to wait. 'Unchained melody' was the perfect choice to drown out the sound of him choking. Such conceit. She'd even shown him. The letters on the wafer had spelled out KCN, the chemical formula for potassium cyanide. Best to put them out of their misery when they got hard to control.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

My Name Is Luka. Or Luke. [humor]

Jones settled into his chair beside Mister Brown. "Good Morning, Brown," he said.

"Good morning to you, Jones," Brown said. "Nice weekend?"

"Very good actually. We paid a visit to Alminster Park. Very nice. Ate at the restaurant. The kids had a good time."

"Oh, they do a very nice dessert at Alminster. Not good for the old waistline." Brown patted his stomach, smiling broadly.

"Shall we get on with it?" Jones asked. Brown nodded. Jones lifted the phone on the desk in front of him and said, "please send the first one in, Joan... just this minute... I did, and you? Did you, really? Alminster. Yes, we did. Very good actually. Yes. Oh they had a very nice time. Just send the first one in please, Joanie. Get a pot of tea on the go as well, please. Thank you."

"Ah, Mister Valderama?" Brown enquired as the yound man entered the room. He had wavy, ginger hair scraped back into a fluffy ponytail that sailed behind him. He wore a light blue suit with a lime green shirt unbuttoned at the collar. Two buttons worth, Brown noted.

"Luka Valderama," the man said. "That's my name, don't wear it out. You know what? Say it as much as you like, I can't get enough of it."

"Luka?" Jones' brow crinkled under the strain.

"Luka. Yeah, like the song. Everyone just calls me Luke. Luka... Luke... what difference does one letter make, eh?"

"Good God..." Jones muttered under his breath.

"Did you?" Brown held his hand out.

"Me cee-vee? Ta-da!" Luka whipped a folder out from under his jacket. "Poof, like magic, eh?" He placed it into Brown's waiting hand.

Brown set the closed folder on the desk in front of him. Jones reached over and slid it to his side of the desk. "Is that embossed?" Bewildered, he ran his fingers over the front of the cardboard. "Look, it's embossed. His name is embossed."

Gently, Brown lifted Jones' hand off the folder. He picked up the phone. "Joan, can we get that tea in here soon-ish, please."

"Yeah, it's embossed, " Luka said enthusiastically. "Terrific, innit? And look here." He flipped over the cover of the folder to expose the paper curriculum vitae inside. "See that under the writing, that's all in Braille that is. So if you were blind you could still read it. Awesome, eh?"

"Yes... very nice," Jones said. "Though, of course, if I was blind it would take me around six months to get up to speed with Braille."

"I think you'd have the basics inside three months, Jones," Brown said. "You're a quick study."

Jones nodded. "True. And if I was to devote part of my weekends..." He began scribbling numbers on his notepad.

Brown coughed. "We can run the precise calculations later, Jones. It's an interesting point that Mister Valderama has raised but we don't want to hold him up, do we?"

"What, is that it?" Luka said, shaking his head from side to side, mugging confusion.

Brown tapped the C.V. "I think we have everything we need right here."

Luka stretched across the desk to shake their hands before leaving. As he reached the door he turned back. "You know, I can get you a good deal on that embossing if you fancy it for your letterheads. My mate runs a few private batches when he's working the weekend shift and the bosses ain't about. You get my drift, yeah?"  He threw them both an exaggerated wink and left.

"Nice young man," Brown said. "But not for us.

Jones nodded. "Good."

Friday, January 1, 2010

A La Macchia - #fridayflash

"Well?" The tall, young man arched his eyebrows expectantly, waiting on his servant's reply.

Eusebio sucked in his lips, wishing he had invested the time to consider what he was going to tell his master, instead of rushing straight over.

"Barone Friuli, his man insists the duel will proceed," the servant said.

Luigino Friuli steepled his fingers and fixed the other man with his steely blue eyes. "A ultimo sangue?"

Eusebio shook his head, looking relieved. "No, master. The ambassador insists that first blood should satisfy his honour. A primo sangue."

"That's not so bad, eh? We shall circle and cut at each other, deport in a manner to satisfy good society, then laugh about it over supper, as one of us licks his wounds. Now then, what have we planned for the following... is there something else? Speak out, Eusebio, or I will have you back tending to my hounds."

A look of hope flickered in the servant's eyes.

The young noble gave a curt shake of his head. "No, you would prefer that, you rascal!"

Eusebio wrung his hands. "Oh, Barone! It was so much simpler to clean up the dogs' mess."

Luigino laughed. "Out with it, tell me what is troubling you."

"While I was there I had the opportunity to watch Miyamoto exercise his swordplay. He practises with bales of straw..."

Luigino shrugged extravagantly. "And did he manage to strike these bales?"

Eusebio nodded. "He cut them."

"Let us hope that hacking at straw will dull his blade," Luigino said with a smile on his lips.

"No master, he cut each bale in half. Each time with a single stroke."

The baron stood, pressed a finger to his lips, head bowed. "So... a primo sangue... a ultimo sangue..." He juggled invisible weights in his hands. "The point is moot."

"Si, master," Eusebio said. "But worry less about the point, and more about the edge."

"I have heard of these butcher's blades," Luigino said.

Eusebio shook his head. "Nothing could be further from the truth, Barone. The blade is a thing of beauty, and the way he wields it.... I swear it is artistry, my master. Artistry!"

"Am I to understand you will still be in MY corner on Thursday?" Luigino slapped his servant on the shoulder and barked a laugh. "Ah, such a stupid mistake I made. Who was to know they dress that way all the time? My comment was... light-hearted."

"His sense of humour, notably absent," Eusebio added. "I fear there is more."

"But of course there is."

"He will be wearing his traditional armour to the duel," Eusebio said.

"Armour? In this day and age? For a duel?" Barone Friuli looked perplexed. "Is that allowed? It surely is not sporting."

"He insists," Eusebio said. "I have seen it. It may be to your benefit. It is... garish."

The Barone Friuli put his arm around his servant's shoulder. "I believe it will be to our benefit. I do believe it will..."


As dawn leeched illumination into the woods Miyamoto Musashi's gaze was fixed squarely on his opponent at the other side of the clearing. He had not wanted it to come to this, but the foolish young nobleman had insulted him in front of his wife and now he was honour-bound in the eyes of his hosts to exact satisfaction. If only it had happened at home, amongst the Emperor's court, he could have joked with the young man about it and passed it off as the buffoonery of an ill-educated foreign devil. He would not dream of shaming the young man by attempting anything so crass here, under the glare of the Italian court.

He had to give the young baron credit for an icy nerve. The Italian was dressed in a suit of armour that must have been over two hundreds years old, and had his two hands clasped in front of him on the hilt of an enormous two handed sword, the unsheathed tip of which rested on the ground.

The signal was given and Miyamoto danced forward, sword still sheathed. He closed the distance between them in a flash, body angled to present the least target. As he took his final step forward his katana snaked from the scabbard like a steel snake striking. He had opted for a simple thrust to the side of the neck, sufficient to burst the chain-mail coif under the full-face helmet. It would draw blood, but, hopefully, would not be fatal.

He leapt backwards as his opponent collapsed in front of him. Miyamoto was confused. The Italian's head rolled to one side. No! The helmet was empty.

When the tip of the rapier traced across his cheek he barely felt it. When the cut registered, he threw his palm up to his face, turned with his blade raised to strike.

"A primo sangue!" the ambassador shouted. The seconds were about him and had him held firmly in their grasp. Rage bubbled up and erupted in a primal scream of fury. He could see the young nobleman being bundled away by his party. The Japanese warrior watched as Luigino was dragged backwards by the men around him, desperate to get him away. The Italian shrugged helplessly, smiled broadly and threw Miyamoto a salute.

Miyamoto stopped struggling and began to laugh.