He came to stop it, she came to win it. The tournament will change their lives forever. If they survive. 

If you readily frighten, you should never learn fencing.
- Liechtenauer’s Verses, Von Danzig Fechtbuch – 1452

As a champion longsword fencer, Jack Fischer receives many invitations to tournaments, but none like this: few details, no return address and thousands of dollars in cash that is his to keep whether he accepts or not. He wants nothing to do with it until a multi-national task force recruits him to help bring down the organizers, a society of modern duelists who fight to the death for the gratification of wealthy patrons. 

Surrounded by opulence, glamour and the respect of powerful benefactors, Jack finds himself fighting the desire to prove himself in combat and vindicate his life’s work. His loyalties are further strained when he meets Frederica, a woman whose skill with a sword rivals his own.  Struggling with a disease that is ravaging her body, she has come to the tournament to win the means to pay for her treatment or to die trying. 

But underneath the pomp, the lofty ideals and promised wealth, neither the tournament nor its organizers are what they seem, and Jack is forced to face an impossible choice between love, self preservation and honor in a place where the only truth worth finding may lie in a pool of his own blood.

 

Read the first three chapters below!

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The Talhoffer Society

 

Chapter 1

            Every father, in order that his children should

            acquire standing, procures for them a place in

            some noble court, and seeks to place them under

             the protection of the highest ranked.

            - Ridolfo Capoferro, Great Simulacrum of the Art and Use of Fencing – 1610

     

      The tub was almost full. Droplets of condensing steam rolled down the bathroom’s yellow and lavender tiles. In the bedroom, her laptop’s monitor glowed with the white background of a search engine screen, revealing the cream colored invitation that lay on the keyboard. She stood in the hallway, a crossroads between realities. Her reflection through the fogged mirror was faded and distant, as though she had already caught a ride with the ferryman.

      She clutched the knife in a practiced hand, her grip strong and firm. So it would remain, as long as her medication lasted. Her body trembled, the strain of holding back tears was wearing, but she would not give in, not before making her choice.

      The tub, or the computer.

      The tub was the easy way out: certain, final, almost painless. The heat would aggravate her symptoms, but by then it wouldn’t matter. She would sit in the warm water, close her eyes and fade quickly and peacefully into oblivion.

      The computer—the invitation—was also a way out. It offered a painful, difficult death, but also hope. It was struggle and torment to the bathtub’s serenity and solace, and she was tired of fighting, tired of hoping and of being let down.

      She took a step toward the tub, but her gaze lingered on the bedroom doorway. Just past the laptop she could make out the shadow from her rapier hilt where it hung on a wall hook.

      Her rapier. An elegant and deadly weapon, and the only thing left in her life that mattered. She loved reading the ancient texts, teaching others, receiving recognition from her peers. But all the while she had to hide the truth, retreating each night to the murky depths of her reality. The rapier was now her only chance, if not for life, then for dignity. But did she have the strength to take it?

      She walked to the tub and leaned over the steaming water, savoring its warmth as the vapors caressed her bare skin. Reaching for the crank, she shut down the flow, then set the knife on the adjacent sink and walked out of the bathroom.

      Once at her laptop, she picked up the invitation and entered the address exactly as it appeared. A blank white screen greeted her, and she shut down her browser. It was done.

      Returning to the tub, she lowered herself into the soothing hot water and reached over the knife. Her hand, just starting to tremble slightly from the heat, pulled a towel from a brass ring and folded it into a makeshift pillow to put behind her head as she lay down.

      Closing her eyes, she savored the feel of the water suspending her in its comforting warmth and ignored the growing numbness in her feet. She would not take the easy way out, not so long as there was a chance.

      Free of the burden of her decision, she let go, allowing her grief to consume her. She wept, her tears rolling down her face and neck and disappearing into the tub, diluted by the great mass of ordinary water, lost forever.

     

     

     

     

      Chapter 2

     

            Young knight, learn

            to love God, honor the women,

            so waxes your honor.

            Practice knighthood, and learn

            the art that adorns you,

            and in wars brings honor.

            - Liechtenauer’s Verses, Von Danzig Fechtbuch – 1452

     

      People would sometimes ask Jack why he had no pictures of his wife. He would smile, shrug and change the subject. He couldn’t explain. They wouldn’t understand. He decorated his loft apartment and the training hall below it more by rote than forethought, but for that one thing, he made an exception.

      The training hall was an old dance studio on the second floor of an early twentieth century brick building. Intricate moldings that had survived a century of spackling ran along sagging walls in lines so wavy that at first glance it was possible to mistake the result as intentional. The original plaster was neatly painted but showed its age in the form of cracks, bumps and irregular surfaces, much like the oak floor that was scarred and darkened by decades of hard use. Blunt steel swords arranged in racks gleamed under fluorescent fixtures suspended from a cavernous ceiling. One part of a wall was dedicated to medals. A lot of them were Jack’s, but most belonged to his students, past and present. He was a lot more fond of the latter.

      Jack had considered renovating but the place had an old world charm that he thought was fitting. The only modern touch was a massive picture window that overlooked the street and let in enough sunlight to let him keep the lights off most of the day. The overall impression was of a warm, happy place, but that was a facade. If there was happiness in these walls, it was not his. To Jack, the place was a tomb.

      “That bad, huh?” Will asked.

      “What?” Jack looked up, startled. He had been staring at the raindrops splattering against the weathered window panes long enough for his computer to go dark from inactivity. Instead of neatly stacked icons, its blank screen showed a hazy reflection of a short haired man with wire rimmed glass and several days’ worth of stubble. A stack of bills was waiting for him in his inbox and three weeks’ worth of students’ tuition had to be processed before he could pay them.

      “I thought you were on Facebook,” Will said. “I took a look this morning. Wow. What a shit storm.”

      Jack shook his head. “Not me. You should reply, I don’t have the time.” That was a lie, time was one thing he had plenty of.

      “Okay,” Will said, the word drawn out, uncertain. Though he was technically an employee, he had been a friend long before that, and more importantly, Jack trusted him. It would be good for him to take over as the school’s public face.

      “So what’s up?” Jack said.

      Will frowned. “Terrance. He flat out refuses to listen. I told you we should’ve kicked him out.” Will brushed a lock of his long blond hair away from his eyes, a nervous habit that warned of a tense situation on the training floor.

      Jack closed his eyes, lifted his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “It’s been a long day. You can’t handle it?”

      “Not this time. He’s gone too far.”

      Jack groaned, lifted himself out of his chair and followed Will out onto the training floor where several pairs of students were engaged in free fencing. The clanging of swords and the murmur of voices sounded harsh and distant in the large room. Most students wore a hodgepodge of protective gear: lacrosse gloves, homemade jackets, hockey leg guards and such. A few were decked out in the latest purpose built Historical European Martial Arts gear—the acronym “HEMA” was even printed on the labels. The gear was all black and looked very sharp. The fencing masks had protective flaps on the back and sides, the padded jackets were tailored for freedom of movement and the knickers had pockets for protective pads. The best pieces of custom gear were the hard rubber mitten gauntlets that protected the fingers and wrists from the sort of catastrophic injuries a three pound steel sword swung in two hands could inflict. Jack had several broken fingers from a time before such gloves were available.

      “Watch him,” Will said. “He’s going to do it again.”

      Jack turned to look at Terrance, who was easily identified by his red lacrosse gloves and yellow knee pads. He was squared off against Raymond, one of Jack’s senior students. Raymond was short, thin and extremely quick. He was a very technical fencer who used crisp, precise movements and made good use of canonical techniques straight from the pages of medieval fencing manuals.

      Terrance advanced aggressively as he often did. Raymond hopped out of range, creating just enough threat with his sword to keep Terrance from backing him into a wall. Terrance retreated to reorient. Just as he took his first step, Raymond leapt forward, blindingly fast, and stuck the larger man right on top of the head before backing off quickly, covering himself against a possible after blow.

      Terrance shook his head, raised his hand to indicate he was hit, and started forward aggressively. Jack could feel his anger. Raymond attacked again, but this time Terrance cut into the attack. Their swords bound with Raymond controlling the center. This made Jack proud, as Terrance was much stronger and it was only Raymond’s superior technique that had given him the advantage.

      Raymond moved to thrust into Terrance’s face, but Terrance left the bind and struck him on the side just before Raymond’s sword point scored on his mask. Raymond shook his head and withdrew. Terrance’s cut had been small, not quite edge-on and obviously ineffective, but he didn’t seem to realize that.

      “There, you see?” Will said. “He does it every time. I told him to stop it, but he just smiles and ignores me. How am I supposed to teach someone who ignores me?”

      “I’ve told him too,” Jack said. “Thought he understood. I made him try those cuts on tatami and they never work.”

      “Yeah, but he leaves gashes in the mats and thinks he’d leave those same gashes in a person. I’ve explained that tatami is a pedagogical tool, not a flesh simulator.”

      “What did he say?”

      Will grinned and adopted a crazy, wide eyed expression that he used when imitating Terrance.

      “Son I’ve killed men with a knife in Iraq,” he said, using his best Terrance voice. “Just to watch them die. You ain’t gonna tell me my cut won’t drop you like a...” He faltered, trying to think of something witty. He had never liked Terrance. Although he was right about the man’s arrogance and obstinance, he hadn’t made it any easier on himself with the way he treated him.

      “Cut it out,” Jack said, trying to hide his grin. “You can’t do stuff like that anymore, you’re an instructor now.”

      “Yeah, I know,” Will said. “Sorry. But the guy is an asshole and he doesn’t have a clue. I don’t care how many people he shot and stabbed.” Terrance was a combat veteran, a Force Recon marine with three tours in Iraq. Other vets in his school benefitted from their experience and Jack found them easier to teach than most. He wasn’t sure why Terrance was different.

      “And he flat out refuses to listen to you?”

      “Yep. You should kick his ass again. Teach him a lesson.”

      Jack shook his head. “What would that prove? That I’m better at this game than he is?”

      “Game?” Will said, not understanding.

      “It’s just a hobby, Will. Terrance can play his way if he wants to, just not here.” He turned to the training floor and shouted, “Terrance, can I have a word please?”

      The big man stopped fighting, saluted Raymond and ran over to Jack. He removed his mask, revealing dampened hair that dripped sweat onto his forehead. He wasn’t much older than Jack, somewhere in his early forties, but his hair was almost entirely white.

      “Terrance,” Jack said. “Will has told you several times to stop that. Why are you still doing it?”

      “Doing what?” Terrance asked, adopting his usual half smile.

      “Leaving the bind when your opponent has the center and leaving yourself open. It’s suicidal double-kill bullshit.”

      “I hit him first,” Terrance said. “It’s not a double kill.”

      Jack looked at him a moment, considering. He thought of a dozen things he could say to try to convince him, but he had said most of those things before. Terrance beat him to the punch.

      “Only one of us has ever killed people with a blade, Jack,” he said. “I’m willing to learn, I want to learn how to use this sword, but when it comes to telling me what would happen if I hit a man with a three foot razor blade right above the floating rib, I think I’ll trust my own experience.”

      Jack waited for his brain to come up with something to say, and suddenly realized that he didn’t have the energy. Despite Terrance’s seeming assurance, Jack read the signs easily. Terrance wanted a fight, he wanted to prove himself, to himself. Jack understood that desire all too well, but it was an unattainable goal in the sword arts. No matter what he accomplished, there would always be that nagging doubt, that question: was he good enough? Did he have what it takes? Were his theories correct? But there was no way to know, not in the civilized world. The sooner Terrance accepted that these questions had no answers the easier it would be for him.

      “Hang on a sec,” he said and went to grab a thick paperback book from a bookshelf by his office door. He returned to Terrance, who was regarding him with a raised eyebrow, and handed him the book. “Read this, or at least a good chunk of it.”

      “What is it?”

      “Firsthand accounts of sword fights, mostly from the 18th century. Not our period of interest, but still applicable. Can you do that for me? You’ll understand why we don’t attack without covering ourselves, especially if an attack is imminent, and why we train so hard to cut well.”

      Terrance examined the book. “I suppose.” He looked confused.

      “Great. Also, I’m going to put you in my advanced class. It’s Thursday nights, eight to ten. Will is a good instructor but you two don’t seem to get along very well. You’re not at that level yet, but I’ll make it work. One thing though, you have to listen to what I tell you. No more of this ‘I know better bullshit.’ Read the book and decide if you want to do that, okay?”

      “Yeah,” Terrance said, his brow furrowing. “Thanks for the book.” He turned around and walked off into the locker room. Jack ignored Will’s stare and returned to his office.

     

            *   *   *

     

      “What the hell was that?” Will said. He sounded angry, maybe even hurt. Jack was back in his chair, trying to decide what chore to tackle before calling it a day.

      “What was what?”

      “Don’t give me that,” Will said. “He disrespects me in front of my class, refuses to do what I tell him, and you give him a free book and promote him to the advanced class?”

      “I thought I was doing you a favor, getting him out of your hair.” Jack decided to sort the mail and picked up the stack of letters from his inbox. “And I only lent him the book.” Tossing the bills into a special pile he liked to ignore until the very last minute, he sifted through the remainder: updated insurance cards from State Farm, an appeal to donate money to earthquake victims in some place he’d never heard of and a strange envelope made from high quality textured paper, cream colored and thick. It was addressed to his school but mentioned him by name and had no return address.

      Will snorted and sat down in one of the chairs facing the desk. “Well you certainly did that. I guess I should be happy.”

      “What did you want me to do, kick him out?” Jack cut open the envelope and pulled out a single card, made of a thicker version of the same fancy paper.

      “No, I know we can’t afford it. But something’s up with you, Jack. You don’t want to go online and make fun of Todd Marrone for being an idiot. You don’t want to beat Terrance’s ass for being a douche. You don’t practice anymore, I know you don’t, don’t give me any bullshit. It’s like you’ve lost it. And all this ‘it’s just a hobby, it doesn’t matter’ bullshit? What the fuck is that? I know,” He hesitated, struggling to phrase it diplomatically. “I know it was hard, but it’s been almost two years.”

      Jack sighed, and looked up at Will and made an effort to smile. “I guess you’re right. Maybe I need to get out more, take a vacation or something.”

      “Do it,” Will said. “I’ll totally cover for you.”

      “We’ll see.” Jack examined the card. On it was an odd black and red symbol and a nonsensical web address of seemingly random letters and numbers. The symbol looked like some bizarre fusion of kanji and the style of writing most often used in medieval German fencing manuscripts. He almost tossed it, but the odd symbol intrigued him just enough to defeat the impulse.

      “What is that?” Will asked, standing up to take a closer look.

      “No idea,” Jack said, handing it to him.

      “Looks like Chinese characters,” Will said. “Or Japanese, whatever. But weird too. Maybe Kanemori will know.”

      “Kanemori,” Jack said, suddenly remembering that they were supposed to have dinner in just a couple of hours. His spirits lifted. It would be good to see his old friend and mentor again. New York City was less than two hours by car, but tight schedules and fast paced urban life made that a greater distance than it should be.

      “You forgot?” Will asked.

      “I did. Are you coming?”

      “Wouldn’t miss it.”

       

     

     

     

      Chapter 3

           

            Glaive, spear, sword and knife,

            Manfully handle,

            and in other’s hands ruin.

            - Liechtenauer’s Verses, Von Danzig Fechtbuch – 1452

     

      “You’re a racist,” Kanemori said, taking a sip of his Sapporo. They sat at a window table, which afforded Jack a view of the strangely dressed college students strolling towards the waterside, clutching umbrellas to ward off the lingering drizzle. They weren’t quite hippies, nor Goths, though they had elements of both. However they were dressed, he was sure it was considered trendy, at least in Kingston.

      “How do you figure?” Jack asked. The short haired waitress came back, setting down assorted appetizers. He took a whiff of his Miso soup and his mouth watered. There wasn’t much he missed about having a real job, but going out to eat regularly was definitely up there.

      “You think that just because I’m Japanese I would want to eat sushi.”

      “Do you want to eat sushi?” Jack asked.

      “I guess.”

      He grinned. “Well then.”

      “Fine, but you’re still a racist.” Kanemori lifted his beer, and Aiko and Will followed suit. Jack had to force himself not to stare at Kanemori’s new girlfriend. She was breathtaking.

      “To friends,” Kanemori continued, then turned to Aiko. “And to girlfriends.”

      “Very beautiful girlfriends,” Jack added, raising his own beer, and Aiko blushed. “And actually, it had nothing to do with you. Do you know how long it’s been since I had sushi?”

      “Last Saturday?” Will volunteered.

      “Asshole. Chinese buffet sushi doesn’t count.”

      “It certainly doesn’t,” Aiko agreed with a smile.

      “So tell me,” Kanemori said. “How is the school going? You’ve had your doors open for more than a year now, so you must be doing something right.”

      “Pretty good, actually,” Jack said. “I can’t complain. I wish I had more students so I could actually make some money, but as long as I can keep it open and pay Will, it’s all good. It helps to live in your school and have a tiny mortgage. Couldn’t afford to run it in Manhattan though. I’d have to teach out of my backyard like the old days.”

      Will looked away and muttered, “I kinda miss the backyard.” Jack pretended not to hear him.

      “Tell me about it,” Aiko said. “I love Manhattan, but I think that in many ways it’s a victim of its own success.” She was a doctor, a pediatrician. Or maybe a podiatrist. It had been hard to pay attention to Kanemori when he introduced her. Jack had been too busy trying not to gawk. She looked like a Japanese movie star—petite, adorable and radiant.

      “In what sense?” Jack asked, wondering what the connection was.

      “Your school,” she explained. “And things like it...they enrich a community. Culture, history and all that. You’re working to recreate a five hundred year old martial art and everything that comes with it, traditions, philosophies, et cetera. And you can’t afford to run such a school paying Manhattan rent, so the people of the city have to do without.”

      Jack laughed. “Not by a long shot. I would need like a thousand students at the rates I’m charging here. Or I could get cheesy and add in some lightsaber fitness classes. That might do it.”

      “It’s not easy,” Kanemori agreed.

      “You seem to be doing quite well,” Jack said. “What with the new car and all.”

      “I guess, but I only moved out of the karate dojo last year. And I have one of the biggest schools in the city. It’s tough. I envy you your nice big training hall.”

      “It’s not fair,” Jack said. “You should have a grand training hall that’s like its own building.” Kanemori was one of the senior-most Japanese teachers in the US, an unheard of achievement for someone his age. He was younger than Will, though not by much. Unlike most in the Japanese sword arts, Kanemori was always eager to exchange ideas and compare techniques. When Jack had realized how good he was, he had enrolled as a student in his dojo and trained under him for several years. That was before Allison. Before the accident.

      “With neon lights and an orchestra pit?” Kanemori said with a grin.

      “And a Death Star. In geosynchronous orbit.” Jack turned to Kanemori’s girlfriend. “Aiko, if you’re into local color, we can take a walk by the waterside after dinner. This is Kingston’s trendiest neighborhood, if you can believe it.”

      “The Strand,” she said. “I know. I’m looking forward to seeing it.”

      “You actually heard of it? It’s like a hundred feet long.”

      She laughed. “A bit bigger than that, but…admittedly not by much.”

      A waiter came with their food, setting a plate of artfully arranged sashimi and sushi rolls down in front of Jack, who immediately began to mix the entire chunk of wasabi from his plate into his soy sauce dish.

      “You know they don’t do that in Japan,” Kanemori said, pointing at the floating chunks of wasabi. “It’s an American thing.”

      “We won the war,” Jack said. “We can eat sushi our way.”

      “So racist.”

      “Speaking of Japan,” Jack said, remembering the letter. “I got a weird letter in the mail today.”

      “Oh?” Kanemori asked, raising an eyebrow.

      “Not much to tell. It was just a character, like a westernized kanji, on a fancy sheet of paper. And a weird looking web address. Mostly numbers.”

      Kanemori looked at him a moment, eyebrow arching. “Did you go to the website?”

      “No way,” Jack said. “It’ll probably eat my PC or something. Especially since I haven’t renewed my antivirus crap.”

      Kanemori nodded, then smiled and made a shooing motion with his hand. “Probably just junk mail. You should go to the website anyway, you might see porn.”

      “I have it here,” Jack said. “Maybe you’ve seen it before?”

      “Sure, I’ll take a look.”

      Jack took the folded paper out of his pocket and handed it to him.

      “Hmm,” Kanemori said, staring at the symbol for several seconds, his expression blank. “I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with food. Probably an ad for a trendy new Asian fusion restaurant.”

      “Aiko?” Jack said. “How about you?”

      “Sorry Jack. I was born here, so I can only read Romaji. But it does remind me of a trendy restaurant ad.”

      “Oh well,” said Jack, feeling a bit let down. A mystery was so much more interesting before the mundane reality was revealed.

      Kanemori handed it back to Jack. “Go to the URL, check it out. Maybe you’ll like the food.”

      “Disappointing,” Will said, echoing Jack’s thoughts.

      They ate their dinner, after which the waitress brought the check. Jack reached for his wallet, but Kanemori raised a hand to stop him.

      “Jack,” he said with a grin. “My dojo is running in the green and Aiko is a doctor. You two are a couple of sword bums. Let me have my moment.”

      Jack chuckled. “If you insist.”

      “I do.”

      “I’m a PhD candidate,” Will protested. “Not a sword bum.” They all stared at him, and after glaring back for a moment, he gave in. “Fine, fine, I’m a sword bum. I did move here only to hang out with this other loser.”

      “Wear it with pride,” Kanemori said.

      As promised, Jack led them down the hill to the waterside, where the casual stroll along West Strand Street lasted all of four minutes before they left the trendy historic part behind and doubled back. There were few people in the streets, mostly young couples and two white haired ladies sitting on the benches in the gazebo between the nineteenth century style storefronts and the boat docks on Rondout Creek. The rain had gone entirely, leaving the warmth of a July evening with a heavy dose of humidity. Traffic on Old Bridge was light, but a sizeable cruising yacht drifting in from the Hudson kept them from feeling lonely.

      “Why do they call it the Strand, anyway?” Jack asked Aiko.

      “You’re the local,” she teased.

      “I’m too poor to ever leave my school.” They shared a laugh.

      “It’s actually Dutch,” she explained. “Or at least its roots are. Strunt means beach or shore.”

      “You’re really into this stuff, aren’t you?” Will asked.

      “You boys have your long pointy things,” she said with a smile and a glance at Kanemori. “I need my hobbies too.”

      Jack raised an eyebrow. “You’re not into the whole sword thing?”

      “You know I don’t date my students,” Kanemori said. “It’s nothing but trouble.”

      “I would date my students,” Jack said. “If any of them would go out with me.”

      “Pervert,” Kanemori said, punching him in the arm lightly. “So are we going to fight, or what?”

      “I thought you’d never ask.”

      “Awesome,” Will said. “Knight versus Samurai.” Aiko just shook her head and muttered something about men and testosterone.

      They made their way back to the restaurant and Kanemori’s champagne colored Jaguar, then drove to Broadway and parked outside the school. Jack’s knees protested as they ascended the long staircase to the second floor, one of the few things he didn’t like about the building.

      He and Kanemori changed in the locker room and started to stretch on the laminate floor of the training hall. The big window on the far wall let past the lights and sounds of passing cars, but it was hard for Jack to hear anything over the excited pounding in his ears. He had to get himself under control, or Kanemori would make short work of him. Outside of kendo and its limiting stylistic rules, competitive fencing was very rare in the Japanese arts. There was a movement to revive the practice as it existed before the war, but it was still relatively new and those few who fenced weren’t usually very good. But Kanemori was the one leading the revival in the United States, and he wasn’t just good, he was a prodigy.

      “Help me with this, will you?” Jack asked Will, picking up the padded fencing jacket and strap-on plastic elbow pads. It was a bulky garment, but it was designed for unrestricted mobility, as were Jack’s rubber fencing gauntlets. After helping him get into his gear, Will brought him his favorite blunt longsword, and Kanemori fetched a rebated steel Katana from his duffel bag. The two swords were not all that different. Both were held with two hands, though both were light enough to be used with one. The katana was more rigid and had a slight curve, making it the better cutter, but the longsword was longer, had two edges and a wide cross guard, giving it more versatility. The techniques for their use were surprisingly similar, but the strategy of the fight was another matter.

      Once they were both dressed and ready to begin, they exchanged deep bows from opposite sides of the training floor and took their guards. Will and Aiko retreated to the bench by the far wall, but both chose to remain standing.

      Kanemori approached him in Chudan, a middle guard with the point held out before him. Jack raised his sword over his head in the guard Vom Tag, and watched his opponent move slowly towards him. He hated Chudan, it was twitchy and unpredictable, which was exactly why Kanemori used it on him. He loved to complain about Jack’s longer sword, but that didn’t stop him from creeping right in to his measure.

      Too unnerved to play it safe, Jack leapt offline and cut at Kanemori’s upper arm. His friend’s counter was lightning fast and incredibly powerful, and would have stuck Jack on the forearm if it hadn’t gotten caught on his cross guard. Japanese swordsmanship was about controlling the center, and they were fiendishly good at it, their shorter swords giving them greater leverage in a bind.

      Jack pushed his pommel out to his right so that the point arced left. He hoped to get a thrust in, but Kanemori pressed down, making contact with Jack’s forearms—and made a mistake. He forgot to factor in the cross guard. Jack pushed forward, the cross lifted the katana away from his arms and his sword’s point bent against his opponent’s torso.

      Kanemori stopped and looked down at Jack’s sword. “Very nice. Damn that cross guard.”

      Jack couldn’t believe it. He had actually scored the first point, and it was clean. “Thanks,” he said sheepishly, then withdrew.

      The rest of the fight did not go well for Jack, though he managed to barely hold his own and even score a couple of good shots. For the most part, however, he was on the receiving end of some fantastic swordplay, which was to be expected. His friend seemed to have complete control of his actions, never motivated by fear or uncertainty, and he herded Jack like a border collie, forcing him into unfavorable positions, one after the other. His movements were enviably precise and never random: he followed his own motto to the letter—win first, then strike.

      Jack was the first to throw in the towel, breathing heavily inside his fencing mask, and Kanemori gracefully obliged. After exchanging bows, they clasped hands and then embraced.

      “Outstanding,” Will said, coming up to pat Jack’s back. “I’ve never seen such clean fencing before. Well, except the last time you two fought, I guess.”

      “Thanks,” Jack said. “He kicked my ass again, but I had a great time.”

      “Nonsense,” Kanemori said. “You held your own. And let’s not forget who got the first hit. You’ve improved a lot, Jack, and you were no slouch last time.”

      “Thanks,” Jack said. “But the way I see it, you won the last two championships in Japan. If I can get a few points in on you, I’m happy.”

      “Then you should be thrilled,” Kanemori said with a grin.

      “That was something to see,” Aiko said, coming over to kiss Kanemori. “Very dangerous, as fast as you two were moving, but you both have such control.”

      Jack, still high on adrenaline, beamed under such praise from so lovely a woman.

      They spent the next several hours talking over beers at a tavern next door to the school, then made plans for another get together and waved goodbye as Aiko drove the inebriated Kanemori towards the NYS Throughway.

      “Now that the cool people are gone,” Will said. “I’m going to turn in. See ya tomorrow.” He waved goodbye and stumbled towards his apartment on the other side of the parking lot behind the school.

      Jack, finding himself alone, decided to go to sleep before the beer wore off and he was left with only his thoughts, and his memories. He meant to go straight to bed, but he lost a battle with curiosity and entered the URL from the weird letter into his browser. It was a blank page. He hit refresh a few times, wondering if there was a glitch, but nothing changed.

      “Great,” he said. “Now some fucking virus is probably eating my hard drive.” He closed the browser, put the machine to sleep and went upstairs. By the time he got to bed, the strange letter was forgotten, but other memories had stirred and would not let him rest. When he finally fell asleep, birds were starting to sing to the first rays of morning light.