"I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, A poet, a pawn and a king; I've been up and down and over and out, And I know one thing; Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race."

-Anonymous

"As we know, tales may come closer to the truth than we think."


Part the First

Espanada, approx. AD 1648

1. The Caballero's Daughter

The forest was ablaze with light.

It flashed along her sword, slicing through air like an eagle; it followed her line of sight down towards the path, fanning out like wings of flight along the grass and trees that surrounded her in all corners. Valera held tight onto her child's sword as she raced down the pebbled road, each sense pulled to attention, as sharp and as attuned to the adult world as any grown swordsman. Her playmates, the sons of Uncle Carlos' guards, were following close behind, whooping and hollering with their little blades drawn. Valera realized, for a flash second, that she'd forgotten whose side they were on. But no matter. She had to run! Her imaginary foe, the dark and evil lord who gambled cards and wore a black eyepatch, had discovered her daring escape and was now chasing her. Closer, closer! She must escape. The great treasure, the Map of Ages, was in her hand. And how would she make this great escape, with her daring friends (or enemies – whichever side they were on) following behind her? It's a dangerous world where dead men tell no tales. Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race.

"I'll feeze you, by faith!" One of her friends shouted.

"Your money, or your life!"

"Stand and deliver!"

She was going to be awesome. She was going to be amazing, stunning, and absolutely brilliant, just like the demigods of Romun myth, the ones who founded cities and slain dragon-gryphon. Or a hero of an adventure romance, a where dashing counts escaped from Turkish prisons to claim their stolen inheritance, or a knight of a Medieval ballad, a harbringer of justice and peace. She was a very good reader, so she'd read all the tales, devouring one adventure and slick-swashbuckling read after another. Uncle Carlos had lectured her once, that she shouldn't read these, but even he himself had given up after awhile. (And he probably had, in some secret way, encouraged her, slipping The Count of Monte Cristo among her birthday presents, or taking her to see the fencers at his fencing academy.)

Omnipotent, little Valera dashed into a grove of dandelions, whipping them up with the lean curved slices of her child-sword. Whooping, Valera leapt off the mossy bank and somersaulted – tumbled- down the mossy slope, dandelions hugging her cloak and hair. (Ow, ow.) She could hear her other friends laughing and shouting in the background. The evil lord was nowhere to be seen. He was –

"Valera!"

Valera bolted upright. Grass fell down her hair.

"Valera! Come over here immediately!"

Someone fell on top of her, knocking her into the grass again. It was one of her male friends. The two others skidded to a stop, laughing, but froze immediately when they Uncle Carlos, Caballero Vittori, stepped into view.

Valera had no choice to obey. She got up in a lumpy curtsey, while her friends were suddenly bowing and nervously brushing the grass off themselves, too. Uncle Carlos was just like her own dear Da, but being his younger brother, was playful and also very handsome. He kept his moustache neat and trimmed, like the musketeers who served at the Francian king's court, though she'd heard that the Francians were not always nice to Espanada. He was used to seeing her like this, splattered with mud or grass or wherever else she'd been exploring that day, but he was serious today, his amber eyes bleak and telling. Carlos took her by the shoulders and looked straight into her eyes.

"Children," Carlos Vittori said in his gentle voice, "Have you been running in the woods, playing with weapons again?"

", Señor Vittori," one of boys gasped, head lowered. "We are very sorry for our un-ruly behaviour, Señor. We humble beech – be-seech – you to forgive us-"

"Uncle," Valera cut in. Tears began to well in her eyes. "We're all so sorry. It's all my fault."

"I am not looking for faults here. I just want to tell you something, Valera dear, and all of you here today. Have you been masquerading as swordsmen again?"

"M-maybe."

"Listen, you must stop, now." His amber eyes flared for a moment, very much like Valera's, very much like Da's. "For all I know, children, Alejandro Vittori would not have wanted that."

At the mention of her father's name, Valera straightened up. "But Uncle, when we play, I'm always the hero who defeats the bad men-"

"That wasn't gallant like your father wanted. You will cease these games immediately."

"But I always win-"

"No. These games are far too dangerous. Boys, I will forbid you from seeing Señorita Valera until later, when she has learned her lesson, and you have learned yours." ("Will you tell our fathers, Señor Vittori?" – one of them blurted. Carlos sighed; he didn't like dealing with these matters. "Alright, no. But one more time, and you will be disciplined." "Thank you, Señor Vittori!") Then he turned to Valera and placed one hand on her thick, curling hair. "Look at me, girl. You are a fair lady, not a tumbling boy, and I didn't teach you to fight for show. I taught you because of your father. He was a good man. Do you understand?"

"Sí, Señor."

"In two weeks time, I will send you to boarding school. Oh, don't fret. It is a very nice place, with plenty of young girls like yourself, and you will learn how to write letters – like the writers of your favourite storybooks – and sew bright, glorious banners. It will be good to surround yourself with female company, and you'll learn how to hold your head high and make yourself beautiful like your late Mama. Don't you want that, Valera darling?"

Uncle Carlos looked strained; even Valera could see that. So she nodded her head, slowly, though she was the teensiest bit afraid. Boarding school must be awfully boring, and she'd never see Uncle or her playmates again. But then again, if she truly wanted to be brave, then a roomful of books and girls can't be worse than facing a two-headed griffin. It just couldn't.

"Good girl," Carlos beamed. He ruffled her hair again and, taking her hand, lead her back to the villa. The other boys followed them without a word, their play-swords sheathed, and no longer so shiney. And Valera heard the clatter going on in Uncle's head: When will she ever grow up?


Eighteen-year-old Valera Vittori watched herself in the mirror.

She wore a yellow ruffled gown with a lacey neckline and ridiculously frilled sleeves that cascaded past her wrists. Gauzy flowers lined her bodice, the academy brooch tucked with them. Her corset was stiff and sickening. Such was the uniform of the young pupils at Santa Belleza, the prestigious academy for young ladies. Such was the outfit expected of ladies who learned calligraphy, embroidery, etiquette, to become ornaments of society or wallflowers. Valera's hair, though, was a black tempest. And her amber eyes now blazed electric beneath pools of cool honey, unsettling, the eyes of a Caballero's daughter.

Slowly, she unsheathed her father's great sword, his gleaming battle saber. Glimmer-light danced off the silvered blade, the ruby-crusted hilt of gold. Even the sheath was patterned in jeweled curlicues.

At that moment, something happened. She realized she was not like the other ladies.

She had become, in an instant, more of a slick and readied sword as opposed to a decorative porcelain vase – a tall and singular entity apart from the hundreds of powdered ladies in their yellow drawing rooms. After all, had she not mastered the sword after all the years of secret training? While the angelic maidens slept in their dormitories, hadn't Uncle Carlos taught her the ways of sword-and-dance?

And alas, mustn't she sheath it once more and return it to the shelf?

Valera sighed. She was not like the other women in this brainless academy. She was not that interested in sewing, gossiping, reading bits from naughty romances in a group of giggly friends. She knew there was a greater purpose behind all these. Though the daughter of the great Caballero Alejandro Vittori, who had distinguished himself in both the Law and the King's service when he lived, Valera was consigned to live here, to hopefully graduate one day, and marry and bear children and in general make herself useful to society. Sighing, she sheathed the great sword in its leathered case and returned it once more to its rack on the wall, beside the white-and-gold banner of the Espanadan blade.

But from the drawing room next door, laughter rang, and whispers. It piqued her interest for awhile, and she knew, this time around, it wasn't the usual gossip over various faculty members (Señor P. in affair with Señora Diza!), or the latest eligible bachelor out there (Señor Alberto of Leville's fifth son). Valera tiptoed out her own cell and peered through the door to the adjoining green-room. The laughter grew higher, more sinister.

It was Brita Johanna sitting between her circle of friends. They were sipping tea, tying ribbons, or something. Then Valera saw the slim book in Brita's hands, some ditty romance or sappy tragedy or bible of naughty acts. They had been reading from it, of course.

Valera had never liked Brita, either. Brita's face was small, brunette hair pulled into two curving braids that were pinned up behind her fair, elegant visage. And now, when Brita saw Valera, her sharp mouth turned into an absolute scowl. Her friends glanced shiftily. They'd always thought Valera a little odd; condescending, aloof, unreadable in her silent reluctance.

"So," Brita broke the silence, turning her blue eyes away. (Valera had always been slightly unnerved or jealous by her perfect looks.) "Let us continue from whence we'd left off, before we were so – rudely – interrupted. Where were we?"

"The highwayman! Where she meets the highwayman!" One of the stupider girls jumped. Immediately the girls broke into a chorus of chants.

Valera found herself stepping forward. No-one stopped her. Silently, she shut the door and took the farthest seat from the girls. The redhead beside her shifted uneasily, but no one looked at her again.

Brita licked her lips, settling against a plump embroidered pillow and opened the slim book. "'After his mates had stopped the coach and forced my driver and footman out of the path, keeping them at gunpoint, the leader knocked at my door. Like this. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. It was the most harrowingmoment of my life; I felt as though my poor heart would explode.'"

"Oooh!" The girls cried.

"'Naturally, I was caught between life and death. Words cannot explain the fear I had in my poor lady's heart, so unaccustomed it is to harsh treatment and close fear. I could open the door and surrender to the will of a stranger, or I could refuse his entry and feel his wrath. It was a position I wished upon no lady, and the thought of my virtue – or its ruin – impelled my very core."

At this last word, more gasps and fluttering fans. Valera listened on, amazed at her own attentiveness. She had never really listened to anyone in this Academy.

"'I opened the door at last. I saw before me the leader of the highwayman. His boots were black, worn, but once fine, and his trousers were fine fitted cloth as well, all the way up to his waist. His bulge…'" ("Oh, you naughty thing!" Her friends gasped, shocked, through barely concealed laughter.) Brita moued most petulantly. "I'll skip this part. We're gentlewomen afterall. Anyhow. 'He had the finest legs which he exhibited in the manner of a gentleman. A sword rested against his waist, and he wore a great black cape that would swirl like a top over sand dunes. His shirt was dirty, but not so it was uncomely. And I perceived the strong, athletic build beneath such attire…'"

"His eyes, his eyes!"

"'With strong, furtive eye, I beheld his bold countenance. He had the finest face, chiseled, like a veritable Adonis, hidden only by a black half-mask. His hair was blond, curly, untied, its texture and composition like that of Arctic ice. He let it run free to his neck. The highwayman cocked his gun and aimed it at me, and he spoke: 'Stand and deliver, lady.''"

Gasps. One of the girls looked about to faint.

"Go on," Valera said slowly.

Brita ignored her. "Ah. 'Naturally, I wept and bemoaned my unfortunate fate. I wrung my hands and lowered my head, crying, 'You may take my goods, Señor, all of it. But I humbly beseech you, leave me one thing only, the goodness that is dearest to my heart, and the greatest treasure of all. And that is this: Allow me to spend the rest of my days with dignity, knowing I'd been virtuous. And if you cannot grant me this one wish, I'd rather you put a bullet through my heart!''"

Silence. As though everyone's breaths were on the line.

"'I did not know how long the highwayman watched me, observing my reticent silence. To my utter surprise, he lowered his gun and stepped closer, closer. He put one hand behind the nape of my neck and caressed its tender nerves, as one strokes the nape of a mare, and he spoke: 'Alas, Señorita. I came here today only for the greatest treasure of all, which I shall not permit you to deny.' Then the highwayman drew me to his side and, with the most benign facility, kissed me upon my maiden lips…"

"Oh!" The girls cried and positively fluttered. The room suddenly seemed to expand in volume, in sound. The redhead positively fell. A ball of yarn dropped and rolled to Valera's feet. Brita took another quick sip of tea.

"'His stature was strong and he smelled of the woods, the plains. He became, in my mind's eye, an emblem of the wild untamed, the natural woods that cross the borders of our great country. My heart rose into a multicoloured flame, and stars seemed to dance across my eyes. I offered him everything, the temple that was my body, in the most chaste and maidenly way of course. I left my mark on him and remained in body a chaste virgin, though I cannot say the same about my mind. (If I should burn in Hell for my poor actions…I at least tasted the wine of love. Oh wretched book!) After the deed was done, I gave him everything from my carriage, my jewels, my cloths, even my dratted lute, and bid him good day His mates took one of my horses. And before he left, he swore upon his honour, to the guards, that he'd treated me in every respect and moral behaviour. Then he kissed me again and took a lock of my hair. After which, the highwaymen and his bandits mounted their great horses and thundered away, the horses' hooves pounding down the dirt path and kicking into the air. I perceived no more of them ever since, and, needless to say, my heart continued to burn even long after they had gone."

Brita closed the book, triumphant. She smiled vaguely, but her eyes were triumphant, at the spell she had woven over all the other girls – the control she had over their emotions, their enraptured awe.

"Come again tonight," she whispered, "And I'll read you girls the rest."

And as the girls continued to talk, Valera stood up and slowly edged out of the room, hiking the hem of her yellow skirt. Interesting girl's tale, but there was nothing to show for it. Valera was sure it was half, if not all, fabricated. Brita would tempt her followers tonight, more favours, and she'd read them the dirty bits they'd skipped over just now.

Valera was going to walk faster today, leap two steps a time up the stairs. She was going to whistle and be a complete un-lady. If she had learned anything from those girls, it was this: she had to run away.

--------------

For the next couple of weeks, Valera positively prayed. She counted her allowance, collected bits and dashes of food, and polished her weapons. She stole a set of men's clothes from a stableboy who wasn't careful (for she was an excellent lockpicker and liar), and mended them to fit her agile woman's figure. Valera even practiced wearing these clothes, getting in and out of the loose layers, alternate buttoning, and swaggering walk. Only she, and her mirror, knew how handsome she looked in those clothes.

Then one morning, as she peered at her reflection in the blade of Da's sword, the opportunity came.

"Señorita Valera Elvira Vittori! Come here this very moment!"

She sheathed the sword, hid it within the folds of her dress, and strolled outside. It was fat Señora Díza, the head mistress, who was scowling and pointing at something. Her powdered wig, festooned in feathers and jeweled birds, heaved with her words. Valera had always found Díza somewhat ridiculous. She collected herself and dropped into a tight, dainty curtsey.

"You have stolen my amethyst brooch. Family heirloom, you imbecile!"

Valera raised her eyes. They were not meant for the mistress. She spoke as sweetly as possible, "Forgive me if I gave the wrong impression. But I have neither stolen nor thought to steal your possessions, Señora."

Diza puffed. "Then explain its disappearance. Do you think me blind?"

"Quite possibly."

"How dare you speak to me so! Have you no manners, that you would fail to consider all these years wasted on a parcel of shame like you! I should wager that your father, God bless his soul – Señor Alejandro Vittori – I should wager he turns in his grave this very moment! "

An audible gasp rose from out the room, from the hundreds of girls who'd stood frozen with ears glued to the wall.

Valera breathed, unblinking. She stared at the hideous yellow walls with the composure of knight who had just swallowed a dragon, or perhaps, a knight who had just fought a mother dragon only to find her eight children crawling towards her. This was, well, the end.

"Of course, Señora Díza. Of course my Da never intended me to waste away eight years of life in this angelic hellhole. I'm surprised he cared a rat's ass for this dump."

More gasps.

Valera turned her back and headed for the door.

"I'll see you to a convent, a penitentiary. You shall eat naught but bread and water. Teach you better manners!" Díza shrieked.

"I'll see you never." Valera said. With that, she walked right past the headmistress and strolled down the main atrium while girls scattered aside like the Red Sea parting for Moses. She did not even hiss or scowl at those dratted eavesdroppers. She was cool and compressed, neither tear nor tremor.

"See that girl – she's devil-possessed-"

"Or insane and mad as bat!-"

"She's just like a swordsman – no, a highwayman!"

At the door, Valera turned around. She made a sweeping bow, truly worthy of an academy maiden, and tore off her academy brooch. The silver shattered beneath her heels (Díza nearly fainted at the sight of Valera's cleated male boots, so horrid and practical beneath her silk gown). Then she gently, tellingly, unveiled her sheathed sword. Freedom.

"My blade is my honour, and may it honour you too," she quoted those ancient words that all swordsman and swordswoman spoke before battle: Da's favourite words.

Díza screamed.

Wordless, Valera raced to the stables, where she had already hidden her stash of men's clothes. She knew just what to do, casting off her ridiculous women's clothes and pulled on the stockings, the breeches, the shirt, the clothes that she had practiced wearing for so many days. (Being slim-bosomed, she needn't worry about that matter, but only bind a cloth across her breasts.) She readied her mare, Bianca, patting her silken rump, whispering into the great shell of her ear. Before long, she was bursting out of the stable doors, riding out into the wide King's Highway (astride not sidesaddle), through the lush moors, towards the horizon. Though she had no cape, she imagined a thick black cloak billowing behind her.

She rode for some time, hooves thundering down the great path, and all around, the circle of green trees. Valera passed through the Western woods of Espanada and, though wary of its secrets, had no fear. She only pressed forward on her mare, Bianca, and relished the smooth motion beneath her as she guided Bianca's reins. Bianca was powerful, with a rich coat of chocolate brown, and a nebulous mane. Uncle Carlos had given Bianca to her very recently, on her seventeenth birthday, and Valera had befriended her immediately. Bianca snorted, and Valera ruffled her behind the neck and manipulated the reins to keep her going. She did not believe in riding crops.

As she rode, Valera wondered: was it only an hour ago that she had walked straight out of the Academy and into the uncertain future? Though she had adopted stableboy's wear, stableboys did not exactly race down the road in the middle of noon on a fine nobleman's horse. She looked like a thief, if anything. And her clothes were clean and fresh-washed, unlike the usual manner of a stableboy, either. She knew, as well, that highwaymen haunted these roads. Seeing her a mere boy, they would pick her apart.

Valera touched the ruby-studded hilt of her sword. She had no gun, and cursed herself for that.

The King's Highway cut through densely wooded forest for miles on end, from the northwest vicinity of Angelos all the way past the Santa Belleza school, past the city of Santiaga (her home town, where Uncle Carlos took mayorship), and thinned out as it reached the capital city of Veritas, as well as the strait of Lyria, and the Orison in the south-east region of Espanada. There were many hills along the highway too, and rough moorland. The place was notorious for the highwaymen and bandits who hid among the trees, the caves, and even certain corners of the roads. Famous bandits had lived and died on this highway, stealing jewels, money, and even important documents from victims of all ages and walks of life. Over time, their daring exploits became myths and stories, sung at fireplaces, whispered everywhere from schoolboys to frustrated noblemen. Rafaelo Sangrio, the red-hooded thief from the Medieval times, had no gun, only ropes and knives to subdue his victims, while his counterpart, an Anglisman known as "The Green Mask", once sabotaged an entire royal retinue on their way to a king's coronation. The famed women, Salma Lira and Gypsie Parker, came later, with their flamboyant ways and flashing drama, when the way of the chevalier grew popular.

It was at this time, too, that Guy Lavriel and Tom Green swept the highway with great acts of theatre and rebellion, sprinkling not only terror but also amazement among their victims. The simple greetings, "Stand and deliver" and "Your money or your life" quickly morphed into theatrical threats and near-staged terror. Carriages overturned, horses stolen, the ground littered with banknotes, watches, and silken handkerchiefs, and the victims – usually spared in whole – were common scenes in those days. The robbers knew their land carefully, and guarded them. It wasn't a good idea for a fresh, naïve bloke with a rusty gun to find himself caught on the territory of much bigger game.

But the Law had been much stricter in the last couple of decades. There had been people like Valera's father. Alejandro Vittori, her Da was not a highwayman. He was a Caballero, but he did something much more complex as well: he dressed up as a criminal, lived among criminals, and smoothly and surely brought them to justice before the court. He was clever and brave. He settled justice on his own account too, helping the oppressed poor and distributing goods among them and the ilk. (Sometimes he took little Valera on rides out in the countryside. Valera recalled the wind that ruffling past her skirts, the fierce sun that kissed her face, the fresh smell of grass and mud swirling like leaves around the horse's hooves. She sat at the front of the great horse, in her father's lap, while he guided her tiny hands on the reigns.)

Da had always worn a mask and a cape with a print of two criss-crossing pistols, lined in gold: the symbol of El Bravado. He looked awesome and terrifying in the moon. Sometimes he posed as El Bravado, that legendary outlaw of people's dreams and nightmares. Of all the bandits that rode these roads, (and their ghosts that travelers still saw time to time), none compared to El Bravado, who came out of the Darkened Ages and seemed to dwell among the forested moorland ever since. When Valera imagined him, she saw a great black mask that covered up to his mouth, and revealed only his burning, fathomless eyes. His hat was great and furling, a black tricorn brimming with white feathers, and he wore a single red rose on his collar. On his cape and hat was the image of two crossed pistols and a half-mask, and in the night, all one saw was its glowing gleam, the eyes of the half-mask. In Valera's mind, he had no impressionable face beneath the mask; the legends said that time had eaten all flesh away, and left only the phantom bones of what was once a man's face. But sometimes she imagined her father's face, or Uncle's image, beneath that black mask. El Bravado came like the night, swift and dark, leaving rose petals in his wake. He brought and defied justice, riding as well as any Caballero, fighting with swords and crossbows, and later, with a rapier and polished gun as well.

"He was magnificent," most people agreed.

"He's premium," one of her male cousins said.

"He was Justice," Uncle Carlos declared most elegantly. "And his mere presence is enough to scare anyone – good or bad – into submission. This is why your father used to wear his disguise quite frequently – to scare the outlaws into obedience. No one questioned El Bravado." Little Valera, wrapped in awe, would nod, and now, the fact had simply emblazoned into her heart. And another fact bloomed in her as well, alongside the tears that welled her eyes.

Da was dead, never to live again. Da who had taught her to be tall and strong, to be alert at all times, yet compassionate to the enemy. He had been killed too long ago when she was just a child, before Uncle Carlos had taken her into his care and insisted on boarding school and -

Bang!

Gunshots rang in the air. Bianca screeched to a halting stop, buckled back, back. Valera's bags instantly slipped off. She cried, nearly fell but managed to tug at the reigns, coaxing and whispering to Bianca – she had done this before – until the mare willingly lowered again, slowly placing her hooves back onto the ground, and snorted. "There, girl, easy! Come on!" Even then, Bianca shifted uncomfortably, prancing back and forth while Valera whispered in her ear.

The figures on horseback were closer now.

"Freeze!" one of them shouted. In the distance, Valera saw his red velvet coat and curly black hair, and the gleam of his pistol trained on her. He wore a mask. Another rode before him, a figure dressed in all black with black horse, also masked, also with drawn pistol. And the third figure rode behind the two, perhaps a boy? "Move, and you shall die!" they shouted.

Valera could have escaped. Fled. But she knew, down the road, there was a river, and escape would have been implausible. So she dismounted, hand to her hilt, while the three highwaymen stopped before her, kicking dust and sheen into the air. The young lad, in bandanas and red-topped boots, and the red-coated one, rode close and encircled her with the most artistically fearsome arrangement of guns and knives she had ever seen. Meanwhile, the leader dismounted his great stallion and stepped right up to her.

"Greetings, Señorita. Stand and deliver."