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A Bit of Swordplay

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I don’t know why I was surprised to find myself back in California, even if only for a week, after the business with the vampires finished shaking itself out. Among the semi-infinite administrative kafuffle involved in being engaged to the soon-to-be Crown Prince of Dobrenica, I needed to formally establish dual citizenship status. Between the speed of international mail (slow), the lack of so much as a US consular office in Dobrenica (it’s on Alec’s list, several pages down), and the nature of State Department bureaucracy (deeply entrenched), the only practical solution was a lightning trip back.

It felt very odd returning to L.A. as incipient royalty. My newly minted personal assistant, Tania, had made the travel arrangements – first class all the way, with a fancy Beverly Hills hotel suite waiting on my arrival.  Tania wasn’t actually along, but Alec had sent two companions with me: a young cousin named Benjamin, assigned to smooth my way through the State Department, and Georg, a Vigilzhi operative designated as my (hopefully unnecessary) bodyguard. “Princesses,” Alec had told me firmly, “do not travel alone.”

There was both more and less to occupy us than I had expected.  Less, in that the dual-citizenship paperwork proved much less fearsome than we’d anticipated – it turned out that Benjamin, who’d acquired two college degrees in Vienna after completing as much schooling as one could get in Dobrenica, had a friend in common with one of the Foreign Missions staff in the State Department offices.

And more, because while Benjamin was now scouting office space for a Dobreni consulate in Los Angeles – with Alec’s telephoned blessing, no less – I was nominally free to tie up such loose threads of my Californian affairs as I felt needed settling.

With Georg in tow, I poked my nose briefly in at our house in Santa Monica, where Dad was boxing up books and clockmaking gear, but restrained myself to designating one carton of much-reread genre fiction and another of fencing gear for shipment halfway around the world to my new address. Aside from the books, none of us had been serious collectors or pack rats, and there was no practical reason to send along any of my old California-girl wardrobe.  Between the differences in climate, my new status, and the amount of clothing I’d already had to acquire or replace after my recent adventures, I was already better outfitted than I had any right to be.

It was the fencing gear that reminded me – I did have a bridge to mend here in Los Angeles, if I could. I pulled my cell phone out of my purse, pausing for a moment to reflect that I’d scarcely used it in the last couple of months, and tapped a speed-dial button.

Four rings later, the call went to voice mail.

I frowned, thinking.  UCLA’s spring term was long since over, the fencing team didn’t hold formal practices in summer – and of course, Lisa had graduated by now.  So had I, but I’d skipped the ceremonies and gone straight to Europe on my quest; the university had mailed my diploma and final record to Santa Monica, where Dad had scooped it up.

Taptaptap.  I found the contact entry for Lisa’s parents’ house and dialed. This time, I got an answer.

“Mrs. Castillo? Kim Murray. I’m trying to reach Lisa, but she didn’t pick up; do you know what her plans were for today?”

There was a pause. “Let’s see, she had a licensing exam this morning, but that’ll be done by now…oh, right. Marjie has a doctor’s appointment, and Lisa offered to pick up the kids’ class she’s teaching this summer.  No, not through the U – the rec center over by Sawtelle.”

“Stoner? Thanks a lot. I’ll see if I can catch her there.”  I tapped to cut the connection and glanced at the time on the phone’s display.  A kids’ fencing class wouldn’t be scheduled during lunch hours, but what with traffic, there wasn’t time to circle back to the hotel with my gleanings from the house.

I was considering the odds of persuading Georg to acquire lunch by way of a fast food drive-through when a gleaming silver Jaguar pulled up in front of our house and parked.

Georg and I traded glances, our gazes equally mystified. As far as we knew, we’d quashed most of the Evil Opposition that was supposed to be plotting Alec’s or my downfall at the moment.

As we stepped from the porch onto our minimal front lawn, the Jaguar’s driver-side door opened…

…and Karl-Anton von Mecklundberg, aka Wicked Count Tony – no, wait, I corrected myself, that would be Wicked Duke Tony nowadays – stepped out of it.

I blinked. “What the Hell,” I demanded, “are you doing here?”

Tony attempted a hurt-puppy expression, which might have been more effective if his eyes hadn’t been broadcasting pure mischief behind the hangdog look.

“Merely looking out for my favorite cousin,” he said. “I was doing a bit of business with the port authorities, and someone mentioned that mine was the fourth Dobreni passport they’d seen this week. Naturally, I had to inquire as to my countrymen, and what should I be told but that a diplomatic party had arrived led by a charming young woman?”

“Ah,” I said. “So I should call Alec and warn him to expect some sort of contraband arriving from America in a week or so.”

“You wound me,” he complained. “I would never seek to deprive our royal treasury of its lawful due.”

Unless it was absolutely necessary, of course. He didn’t say the words aloud, but we both knew his first loyalty was to his ducal subjects in the mountains and mines, not the ruling Council in Riev. Which he was now part of, also courtesy of recent events.

“Anyhow,” I went on, “Georg here is taking excellent care of me, so you can go right on with your ‘business’ and let me deal with mine.”

“Again, you wound me,” Tony said, this time sounding rather more sincere. “With all respect to Georg, this city of yours is hardly safe, even for one of your talents.”

I gave him a severe look. “But it is, as you say, my city; I know the scary parts a lot better than you do.” Abruptly, a mischievous thought of my own light-bulbed in the back of my head. “Actually – if you’re serious, I was just about to run an errand, and there are some people you really ought to meet.  Although you might want to ride along with us. I’m not sure I’d park that Jaguar on the street where we’re going – especially if it’s not yours.”

Tony cocked an eyebrow at me. “If you don’t trust the neighbors where you’re going, then I definitely ought to tag along. And if there’s trouble, the Jag will get us out a lot faster than that tank you’ve got Georg driving.” Georg and I traded amused glances; high-end Volvos are anything but flashy, but you can’t call them tanks, even if the one we’d rented did happen to have bulletproof windows.

“If there’s trouble,” I told him, “it won’t be my fault. Or my Jaguar in the shop. Okay, then, just follow us – and don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

And with that, I calmly strode around to the Volvo’s passenger door, opened it, and settled myself in. Georg slid into the driver’s seat, and as we fastened our seat belts, inquired “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

I grinned at him. “It is my city. For a native, it’s not nearly as scary as Tony makes out, and we’re not going anywhere near the really dicey parts. I still wouldn’t park a Jag on the street where we’re going – but then I wouldn’t park a Jag on the street anywhere in L.A., up to and including Rodeo Drive.”

Georg frowned briefly, then shrugged and nodded. “My duty is to serve, not to forbid – especially where the outcome might favor the Stadthalter over the Duke.” The ghost of a smile flickered across his face.

“My sentiments exactly,” I said, and gave him the rec center’s address. “But we’re making a stop first; there’s a Hawaiian place on the way that makes fantastic barbequed chicken.”

#

The rec center where Lisa was teaching is part of a good-sized park complex in west Los Angeles – not, as I’d told Georg, a really bad part of town, although the area had once been home ground for one of L.A.’s older and nastier street gangs.  We arrived in time to park, find a couple of convenient benches, and make short work of the takeout lunch I’d acquired. My outfit escaped sauce-free, courtesy of years of experience with Mama Ono’s cuisine, but Georg and Tony were both blotting stray drops off of cuffs and collars by the time we finished.

“Perfect timing,” I said, checking my watch. “We should have a few minutes before Lisa’s junior fencing class starts.”

Tony’s expression turned instantly brighter.  “Fencing, is it? Is this Lisa your mentor, the master who introduced you to the way of the blade?”

I laughed. “Not even close. We were neighbors when we were little, and teammates at UCLA.  She was pretty ticked at me when I blew off the big season-ending tournament this spring to head for Europe looking for my roots.”  As I spoke, I led my two escorts across the park area to the rec center’s main building.

Tony had no sooner pulled one of the front doors open than Lisa spotted me.  Her initial expression was difficult to read – sharp, curious, and definitely not warm – but by the time we’d crossed the lobby, her smile was bright if not entirely genuine.  “Kim, you’re back! And – don’t tell me, you actually found your grandmother’s relatives?”

“Actually, we stumbled across one another,” Tony said smoothly, for once tamping down his usual flirtatious charm. “There was – confusion, at first, but we’ve sorted it all out now, thanks in no small part to your friend’s skill with a sword.”

Lisa’s eyes flicked from Tony to me, back to Tony, and then settled on me again. “That sounds like something out of a movie.”

My laugh was decidedly ragged around its edges. “Yes, but in the movies you get stunt doubles for the hard parts, the guns are loaded with blanks, and none of the wrong people usually die.”  I took a quick, deep breath.  “Lisa, this is…Tony; we’re – cousins, sort of.  Tony, Lisa Castillo; we grew up together.”

“I can tell there’s a lot more to that story,” Lisa said, her voice firm now. “Kim? You, me, dinner later, during which you will tell all. As for you, ‘Tony’,” she added, the quote marks around the name clearly audible, “if I find out you’re a serial killer or a foreign spy or some other dirty rotten scoundrel who’s playing my oldest friend for a sucker, Mars will not be far enough away to keep you safe.”

Tony swallowed. Lisa was all of five foot two, but it was a decidedly muscular five-two, and just now she sounded nearly as dangerous as Dieter Reitherman, Tony’s former minion and subsequent enemy. “None of the above, I assure you,” he said, in a tone that managed to sound both sincere and awed.

“Hmf. But sword-trained?”

“Private tutors, yes,” Tony replied. “Mostly for rapier. And not for competition.”

“Hmf,” Lisa said again. “Kim, you’ve seen him work?”

I blinked, not sure where this was going. “A bit. Not in competition. Not our kind, anyway.”  No way was I going to bring up the duel he’d forced on me.

“And?”

“He’s good. When he wants to be, at least. Not always in control.”

“I got that.”

Abruptly, Lisa nodded. “Okay, then. Stay and watch – both of you?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

Tony looked entirely at sea, but nodded back. “We’re at your service.”

We filed after her into a small gymnasium area. I’d done some of this pickup teaching myself in years past, but Tony clearly had no idea what to expect – and couldn’t hold back a startled “Whaa-?” when he saw the two scruffy rows of nine-year-olds sitting on the lowest bleachers, their jeans pockmarked with small holes that clearly weren’t meant as professional designs and their T-shirts scrawled with letters and numbers that might or might not be current street-gang parlance.

We took seats a bit higher up in the bleachers, and observed silently as Lisa handed out ten child-sized practice foils and set the kids to dueling one another – three to a group, one acting as scorekeeper for the round in question.

That left one lone youngster sitting out. Lisa eyed her thoughtfully for a moment – a bright-eyed black girl almost exactly her own height (for now) whose rust-brown jeans had fewer holes than most.

Then she looked up at us. “Kim, Tony – do me a favor?  I’ve got a couple of full-size blades in the kit over there; spar a little so Cuba here can get a turn at scoring.”

“Of course,” Tony said aloud as we stood up.  More quietly, he murmured to me, “You know very well that I’m not unacquainted with the impoverished.”

Your impoverished,” I murmured back. “Not the same thing. Watch and learn.”

And we did. Lisa rotated her students every so often so all the kids had a chance to practice scoring – and, not coincidentally, to rest between rounds.  By the time the two-hour session was done, we’d had a chance to watch just about everyone in the class, and Lisa rotated herself in periodically to let Tony and me catch our breaths.  Both of us, of course, were far from peak form – I hadn’t had much chance to practice in quite a while, and Tony was still recuperating from the injuries that had put him in the hospital some months earlier.  Still, we were experienced enough to put on a decent show for Lisa’s students – and to let her have a look at Tony’s combat style.

“We’re still on for dinner,” she told me quietly, as the kids put away their foils and filed out. “Two things, though: I still don’t trust that ‘cousin’ of yours farther than I can throw a Volkswagen – but I think I do trust him not to screw you over.  Still, please tell me he’s not your Mr. Darcy.”

I grinned at her. “You always were a good judge of character,” I said. “No fear – I did find one, but it’s not the wicked duke over there.”

Duke??” It took definite effort for Lisa to hold the word to whisper level. “You’re not serious.  Wait, you are serious,” she said, seeing my amused reaction.

“Dinner,” I told her. “All will be revealed then.”

Tony had gone on ahead while I lingered to talk with Lisa, but now he burst back into the rec center, swearing.  “Graustark is going to kill me!”

“Let me guess,” I said.  “Wheels, bumpers, mirrors – did they get in and pull out the console?”

“All the above,” said Tony miserably.  “They could at least have left the steering wheel, damn it!”

Lisa’s eyebrows had gone up.  “Parked a flashmobile on the street? Bad idea in this neighborhood,” she said.  “What was it – Lincoln?  DeLorean?  Ferrari?”

6“Jaguar,” Tony said. “Brand new. Now it’s not driveable, and it’ll cost a fortune to fix.”

“Good thing you have a fortune, then.” I said, dryly.

“At this rate,” Tony shot back, “the proper phrasing would be ‘had’.  

“Not my problem,” I told him. “Call it a lesson learned.”

#

I told Lisa most of the story over dinner – no need, under the sunny Los Angeles sky, to mention ghosts and magic and vampires.  I did, however, invite her to the wedding.

Halfway through the meal, my cell phone beeped.  “Text message from Tony,” I said.

Lisa chuckled. “Car fixed?”

“Not exactly,” I said, showing her the message.

LESSONS LEARNED, it said. YOUR CITY, YOUR RULES. CAN BUY NEW JAG, THOUGH.

“Fair enough,” I told the phone, though I didn’t actually type the words.  “Fair enough.”

# # #