Alexander slammed his foot down atop the dead body, pointing his sword. “You’re next! There’s no room for altruism in the world I’m building. We fight to win!”
Spartas wiped a trickle of blood from the trickle at the corner of his lips, standing. “That’s why you’ll never win. Why you can never be allowed to win.”
Alexander rushed forward with a rising slash. Spartas leaned away from it with inches to spare, grabbing Alexander’s armor to thrust his sword into Alexander’s belly. His opponent whirled behind his grip, tearing himself free of that hand and bringing his sword to strike at Spartas’s back.
Spartas – Dan – froze, looking up at me. Jerry didn’t stop his sword fast enough, and the foil blade bent in half across Dan’s back.
“Ow! Jerr, what the hell!?”
“Sorry! It was too sudden. Sorry.”
I sighed, and went to them, patting along Dan’s sides and back. “Hurts? No? And here? Good. You’ll live.” I grabbed a sword up from the bucket of fake swords, and spun it in my hand – good balance, for a prop. I began to step through the first motions of Alexander’s scene, swinging, whirling, counterstriking, evading, blocking, countering, then the deathblow. “Come on … what do you see? A hero? A man? This is a performance, gentlemen. And it looks like it. Spartas. Grab a sword.”
Dan grabbed a prop and prepared to meet my charge. I obliged with the upwards slash, overextending a little. When Spartas dodged, it left me off balance. He grabbed me, ready to thrust, and I used his grip as leverage, spinning, slashing, faster than he was prepared for. He dove out from under the strike, spinning and lashing out in a blind hurry to keep up. My counter came next, deflecting his blow, then striking hard against his sword. “Stumble!” Dan stepped back smoothly, skipping a beat – then he was in the scene, stumbling as if the strike had knocked him off balance. I took that moment, when he was reeling from the impact, to kill him. He sprawled to the floor, the fake blade trapped under his armpit, reaching out to Jerry, so convincing that for a moment I’d worried that I’d actually hurt him. His hand dropped, his face falling to the floor.
Jerry recovered first. “That was great! You seriously looked like you wanted to kill each other!”
“Your turn.” I tossed a prop sword to Jerry, and Dan passed the one under his armpit back to me. “That’s what a fight like this is. They’re not dueling for honor. All that polish is fine for the ballroom scene. This scene is where they batter each other’s sword, knock each other down, and throw sand at each others’ faces. This time, you’re Alexander, Jerry. It’s your role, after all. Remember what you saw. Overextend on the first strike. My strike after I dodge will be wild and blind. Take advantage of it to overbalance me; strike like you’re hitting my sword hard, and kill me before I get my feet.”
He went to the dummy corpse, and put his foot up, then looked at me uncertainly. “Brian . . . I thought you were just a combat choreographer. How do you know what this should look like?”
I sighed, watching him. He was uncertain, maybe a little worried. I recognized the look. When you saw that look on the field, it meant you’d put such fear into your opponent that he wouldn’t act aggressively anymore. It was the face of the defeated. “Come on. There’s a Burger Barn down the street. Collect your phones, let’s take a coffee break. Forget the costumes, leave them on. We’ll only be a moment. Give them something to gawk at.”
Dan smiled at that, slinging a prop sword over his shoulder, and swaggered to the door in his plastic armor. Jerry looked uncertain, but I grabbed the crown of the warrior king – right now, we were using a cardboard Burger Barn crown, until we got the finished prop back – and put it on his head. “Consider it practice. A king is above these peons. A king cares not for a peasant’s ridicule. They are fleas before him.”
He straightened up, and composed himself, and damn if he didn’t look like the most regal man I’d ever seen, walking down the street with a blanket for a cape and a Burger Barn novelty crown.
We arrived, we ordered, and Dan didn’t give me a moment to collect myself before prodding. “So? You said you’d tell us where you learned to fight.”
I unwrapped my burger, and took a bite, chewing, slowly, swallowing. “I didn’t, actually. But I fought in the Ghokar conflict. It was desert and grit, and we couldn’t keep the guns clean. There was more bayonet work than I liked.”
Jerry looked at me, a mixture of horror and curiosity on his face. “Did you ever . . . ”
Dan cut in to save him. “What he means to ask is, those Ghokari girls, you know? We heard that come festival, when the masks come off, they’re quite the lookers.”
“No, I–“Jerry jumped, and yelped. There was no doubt in my mind that Dan was kicking him in the shins under the table.
I sighed, looking back and forth between them. “Relax. I fought. I killed. Friends died. And it took a while, but I became whole. This job’s part of maintaining that. Keeping myself grounded in a normal world. You guys help me through it every day. So don’t worry. I’m solid as a rock, and I’m on your side.”
We talked about nothing, for a bit after that. The weather, the play. Yes, the Ghokari girls were lookers, but no, I never did. I was young enough and stupid enough, just never got the chance. Jerry was smiling more, now, calmer. He wasn’t a man sharing a table with a killer anymore. It was a good thing; he would have made a poor Alexander, if he spent all his rehearsals being afraid of me.
“All right.” I looked at my phone, checking the time. “We’ve goofed off long enough. Time to make you guys look like real killers.”