Swordsmanship was the superior type of combat because you did not have to touch people.
Swordsmanship was also the superior type of combat because you could stab people and they'd scream - but that was beside the point now.
Elias hailed from a smart family, and that is why he knew that the pompous people who surrounded him had good reasons to call them parvenus.
Secondly, this is also how he knew that his father gave them all the more reasons to, by dressing and acting and talking exactly like what he was.
And finally, it is also how he knew - very well -, that he was terribly, terribly ashamed of all that.
Swordsmanship was the superior type of anything, not only because you did not have to touch people but also because it only put your skills to test and nothing else. Not your father. Not your background. Not your wealth.
His father could buy him the most embarrassingly gaudy clothes and swords if he liked but none of those could make Elias unmatched in school. It was nothing but his determination, skill, and perseverance that lifted him above his peers.
Frightening, unmatched, dangerous. Never failing to follow the rules.
That was his image, and he rather enjoyed it. All the more so, because he created it himself.
Through little touching and a lot of stabbing.
We all have a thesis of who we are.
Based on visions and ideas of ourselves, at times even aspirations. It happens on occasion that we fancy ourselves thinking that we know who we are and then by design we meet the inevitable: a case to disprove our thesis.
Elias always considered himself smart, dynamic, and for the lack of a better word, invincible. Peerlessness did not stem from perfection, but from the intimate knowledge of one's self, flaws and virtues alike.
Elias knew himself. He heightened his own theory of the self he attributed to himself to the point of no return, a perfect illusion.
You see, it was a convincing illusion and he liked the idea itself very much. Thinking of his created self filled him not only with pride but comfort too. This way, even his loneliness was comforting: it proved that he was truly better than anyone else.
Then, he met Kamata Harumichi.
Then, everything changed.
Elias was like a bale of hay: catch a lick of fire once, and burn down to completion in a matter of seconds. And much as hay has no awareness of itself, he was burned to ashes before even realizing what was happening to him. Was it the hidden flicker in Harumichi's eyes that cracked like embers, hitting him in an unregistered moment? Or was it all coming from inside?
The world opened up, seducing him with yet unknown melodies. You are not alone, it sung.
There was no comfort in that notion, as much as there was nothing else either. Indeed, when such feelings take one by storm, they only come to themselves after the damage is done.
Caught up in a whirlwind, Elias was swept away before he could even attempt to come to his senses.
Being exceptional was one thing, much much less superior than being exceptional together with someone else. He felt Kamata Harumichi calling out for him even before they met. Ridiculous as it sounded, he felt it in his blood. The promise of an irreversible change and of the unknown that often fills people with a mix of dread and anticipation.
There were several things that very stupid boys did who wanted to meet the girls they - unfortunately -, had fallen for. Such as walking around the neighbourhood she lived, frequenting the tavern she worked at to catch a quick glimpse. And lastly, when not occupied with the two before, daydreaming about meeting her. Elias always thought that was of bad taste, the level of shameful his father was when dressing him in clothes tailored with expensive fabrics.
Unfortunately, before he could come to himself, Elias did all of the above.
It started innocently. Pacing down to Catalina's wretched inn, and back. Just a little walk. Then, making his way to the convent at the outskirts of the town, certainly for no particular reason. He made a call to Catalina's inn again but was only met with a feisty girl and her broom that left him angrier than threatened. Not even the mistress of the house would show her face.
He even made his way to the tavern he heard the envoy enjoyed rounds of whatever booze they drank but refused to enter. Not because he was afraid of stepping into establishments as such, it was just that these places were dirty, and his clothes were so clean.
Elias even got to the final stage, the worst. Daydreaming.
Knowing also that Kamata Harumichi, an unparallelled swordsman in this world and the other - just as himself -, would not waste his afternoons at half-empty taverns, he decided there was no point in entering. Instead, as the breeze turned cool in the slowly approaching afterglow, he went to air his head on the path alongside the river.
As it is ruled by great design: one finds when he stops seeking. In the distance, far, but not too far, he noticed a familiar frame. His figure licked by the evening breeze, Kamata Harumichi stood against the retreating rays of sunshine.
It was beautiful. It was beautiful for someone like Elias who felt the calling for a duel so deep within his heart.
Victory was enough in the beginning, but then he had nothing left to prove for himself. Elias was thirsting for overcoming someone in something that posed a challenge.
And so, when Kamata Harumichi stood there, his figure standing tall and proud, the challenge in him was the most beautiful thing Elias had ever seen.
He had never had the chance to meet someone matched with him in skills and ideals, so a strange excitement took over him as he caught up with Harumichi.
"Kamata Harumichi," he said, trying to ignore the feeling that his tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth.
Harumichi, of course, felt his presence before. He was not taken by surprise. Remarkable swordsman.
"Do you think the time is right?" he asked, with a melody in his voice that was unfamiliar to Elias. Yet something he would not mind getting used to.
Elias raised his eyes to the sky. Evening glow, the darkness had almost taken over. He liked these moments of the day the most.
"Scared of the dark?" he teased.
The way Harumichi held his gaze made his heart skip a beat. There were no people back in school who wouldn't run, even when he did only as much as look at them.
That is how he knew it was real. That is how he knew he was facing a fellow swordsman.
“Knowing when it is necessary to take up the sword is just as important as knowing how to use it. Is the time right?”
Annoying as it was, his reluctance also distinguished him from other swordsmen. Elias knew - Elias suspected that he hid his bloodthirst under this elegant, nonchalant demeanour. He understood why. It was suitable. Very attractive.
He pulled his sword, to affirm his eagerness.
“I want to fight you.”
One sword invited by another, Kamata Harumichi was standing across him, unsheathed in the matter of a second. Elias liked that. He liked the passion hidden under the calm surface. The danger looming behind Harumichi’s calm words of warning.
Like a house cat, pawing at breakfast set out on a dining table, Elias loved to tempt fate, without thinking about the consequences to bear.
“If you are a real swordsman,” he breathed, facing the last orange rays of the sun, “you know real fight. You know of the three true outcomes of a fight between real swordsmen. You die. I die. We both die.”
He was trying to show off - but Harumichi hated to be impressed. Elias liked that about him, too. His father would be impressed by the slightest display of wit or skill, which took the challenge out of everything.
Elias wanted to prove himself amidst blood, sweat, and tears. Otherwise, nothing meant anything. He needed to be acknowledged by the best.
Harumichi parried but made no attempt at an attack. He was always so measured as if he had the power to slow down time at his own accord. “Leave space for both to survive.”
“When both survive, it is nothing more than practice, after all.”
“Swordsmanship should aim to protect, not to harm.”
He said that, always, to make himself look different from others. Elias could understand that much. He himself only wanted to be different too by being very clear about his bloodlust.
He thrust forward. “You don’t have to lie when you are with me.”
This time, Harumichi forced him to parry. He did not want to admit, but his movement came almost unexpected, which threw him off. Elias was always the one who threw other people off, and he could never recover from this.
“We rarely ever have to lie to others.” Harumichi’s voice was calm and measured. “As long as we are comfortable with who we are enough not to put on unnecessary airs.”
Elias nodded, although he did not agree. This man wanted to make him break the rules by being so good - and he always believed in following the rules, just so he could prove his worth. If one were to act as his father and use all the wicked, corrupt ways their world offered, it only showed they had no confidence to win all alone.
And Elias always won. All alone.
Yet, just by stepping into his personal space, Harumichi made him want to cheat. He made him want to give up everything he stood for and do absolutely anything for a win.
It would not even be swordsmanship anymore, Elias thought. The moment he did something unruly, like reach down below them to the ground and throw some sand in Harumichi’s eyes, they would not be sword fighting anymore. So he did nothing.
But the urge remained.
They clashed. Again, again, and again.
Everything was quiet around them, and the air barely moved: stuffy and hot. He suffocated on the challenge, and it was a challenge he posed to himself.
Harumichi’s sword pursued him. He could have lied, to himself, and said that he felt so out of place because the blade curved differently. Elias was not used to this. But that would not make it any more true. The only thing overwhelming him was Harumichi’s technique.
It was hard to go against an opponent who did not have a passionate response to his attacks. Most of the rich kids in school, they would be passionately sure about their superiority, then passionately scared of the agility and skill Elias showed them. They went from one extreme to another.
But Harumichi was always just there. In the middle. Not expecting anything, and at the same time, ready for everything that came his way.
That unfamiliar behaviour, however unfortunate: evoked fear in Elias. And fear beckoned him to do unruly things.
Elias dropped on his knees as he dodged, swiftly enough to leave Harumichi confused for a second. In the next moment, he sent a fistful of sand his way.
He had no time to regret it properly. Instead of saving his eye, Harumichi caught his wrist with ease, forcing him to drop his sword.
“You are not ready,” he claimed. Elias begged to differ. “If you were, you would not need to use these tricks.”
It was not his area of expertise, but he decided this was no place to stop at. Pulling Harumichi down with himself, he forced him to switch to hand-to-hand combat. When would the time ever come again when Harumichi was willing to indulge him in some fighting?
Harumichi wrestled him on the ground, breathless. “You can do much more than this,” he thought.
“You are supposed to be better than that. What happened?”
He had an answer somewhere. Two answers. One that was true, and one that he was willing to say. “I had to surprise you.”
“You hardly did anything surprising.”
Elias felt the frustration from before coming back to him in waves. It was not enough that Harumichi’s mere presence forced him to cheat, he found his despair nothing out of the ordinary.
So Harumichi wants something else? He wants to be surprised? Swept off his feet? Elias never expected a day to come when he met his match. He also never expected that when the day comes, his match would consider him less in any way.
Elias was the best swordsman in this country. Everyone he met was afraid of him, and if they weren’t at first, then they learned how to be.
And then, all of a sudden, he had an answer for Harumichi.
He pulled him close, pressing lips against lips - and there he laid on the ground dirty and disproven. Not depending on his sword, touching skins with a stranger, cheating his way into stunning his opponent.
Disproven, disproven, disproven.
Harumichi only took a moment to realize what was happening, but then he answered in kind. It took him less than a second to turn themselves over and straddle Elias.
And just like that, it was all gone: Elias’s past visions, ideals, and aspirations. He did not want to think about them. He did not want to remember them. He did not want to acknowledge them.
There was something much more pressing at hand. A kiss, two, the exotic fragrance of Harumichi’s hair that filled the stuffy night with the scent of incense and despair.
Elias wanted to embrace him with his legs, securing him in place before he’d slip away. But Harumichi wasn’t going anywhere.
“There it is,” he whispered instead, brushing Elias’s hair out of his neck. A kiss, then two. “Who was putting on airs all this time?”
“I told you I wanted you - I made it clear enough.”
Had the Elias of yesterday seen him sprawled out in the dirt, he would tear up from frustration. The Elias of today belonged on the ground. It was impossible, how people’s perception changed in a matter of seconds.
“Why are you seeking a fight when you are looking for something else?”
“A conversation between swordsmen begins sword to sword,” Elias lied. “And so that is how I began.”
Harumichi pressed a finger under his chin, lifting it up ever so slightly.
“But that rarely does lead to the conversation you wish to have, does it?”
There was something in his eyes. Something that left all of Elias’s aspirations bare before him, and much worse: calling him a liar, a fake.
Nothing more but a thesis disproven.
“Young Master! Young Master!”
Pablo’s fist knocked against his back a few times before he came to himself.
“We were looking all over for you. Don Ferdinando has been looking for you.”
The sound of the river was tinkling close to them, like small bells. For a moment, Elias did not understand, and in the next, he was ashamed.
His clothes were immaculate. His hat was in place. And Kamata Harumichi, nowhere to be found. Elias scoffed and swept the imaginary dirt off of his shoulders.
Imagination was a whimsical thing, taking people to places they resisted to visit before.
“What does he want again?” he asked, but Pablo was already far too ahead.
Quickening his steps to catch up with him, Elias walked through the evening streets of the town. The breeze cooled down.
Music beckoned him from the taverns that lined up in the street, their roofs battling each other in a fight to stand taller.
Seated outside, with a bottle of wine on his table and a cup in his hand, he stumbled into the tall figure of Kamata Harumichi.
Elias sneered. At the tavern, at the situation, at himself. Disproven once again. Why not make a habit out of that?
“I’ll catch up later,” he yelled into the darkness, wherever he suspected Pablo to be, then pulled out the empty chair before Harumichi. “Kamata Harumichi.”
“That seat is taken.”
Elias grinned and ignored his comment. Reaching for the wine, he filled up a cup that definitely did not belong to him, and raised it slightly, without looking away from Harumichi’s face. “Well, now it is.”
Swordsmanship was the superior type of combat - and swordsmanship was also the type of combat he did not choose in order to defeat Harumichi tonight.