The Artist and the Asterisk

Hilary Gan

In the town of Guell, in the province of Calana, lived a young bullfighter by the name of Victor. He was of average height but he was very handsome, and when he went striding through the city streets beneath the power lines all the women looked up at him through their eyelashes and smiled heart-shaped smiles. But when he smiled back he used only his lips, and kept his own heart to himself.

In the arena Victor rode a grey mare with black stockinged feet, and he shined his shoes before every bullfight. He worked in close to the bulls, and when he killed one, which he always did, he would cut out its heart with his sword and tear off a ventricle with his teeth and grin a savage bloody grin at the first row, where the Mayor sat, squinting and shivering in the sun. Victor always remembered to wipe off the blood before the Mayor honored him at the ceremonies, and then he smiled with pearly teeth, and all of the women sighed.

During the day Victor managed the local stable in exchange for lodgings for his mare and a pittance that paid for a cheap apartment above the bar across the street. In the evenings he went down to the bar and drank rum and played cards with the waiters from the Guell Inn and Alphonse, the town drunk. At midnight, exactly, Victor would push his chair back, say goodnight, pay his tab, and go to bed. The waiters and Alphonse knew better than to try to encourage him to stay, although sometimes this routine was interrupted by other bullfighters or ranchers who had been passing through town and wanted to talk bullfighting all night. But Victor would politely refuse, and in the morning he would get up in the dark, go down to the stable, and take his mare out to the practice ring and work her for three hours before tending to the stable’s business. There were always three or four early-morning risers who would stop on the bridge over the arena and watch, but Victor never seemed to notice.

In early spring every year, in the hours before Victor retired from the bar, the waiters and Alphonse would get drunk enough to forget what they knew about Victor and try to convince him to enlist in the official bullfighter lists in the capital city, Veparda, for bullfighting season. Victor would smile and smile and say nothing at all, and the encouragement would turn to offers of ludicrous financial backing and nebulous “connections” in the ranks of judges and trainers in exchange for cuts of Victor’s theoretical winnings. The piles of cash that were lost to Victor’s stubborn insistence that he did not fight to compete were a constant source of torment to all of the patrons of the bar, although less so than the piles of available women that Victor did not bring back to his room in the evenings. On more than one occasion, irate potential business investors had made insinuating remarks about the widow Lyssor and her continual attempts at sponsorship, or about women in another town, or about no women at all. This would make the waiters laugh uproariously. “Haven’t you seen how particular he is about his shoes?” the youngest one, who had gone to grade school with Victor, would invariably say. “He’s that way about his women, too.”

The Mayor of Guell, who presided over the local bullfights, was an old and feeble man who was Mayor in name only. He had a secretary named Emmanuel who did all of the work for him and did not resent the Mayor’s title. But one day the Mayor, who was, after all, old and feeble, did not wake from his slumber, and the Baron appointed a new Mayor, a family man and lawyer by the name of Kantigo, from the capital. Kantigo had a son, a daughter, and a wife who was still beautiful and wore all of the latest fashions. The son, Edward, was honorable and handsome in his own right, but the daughter was a vision, a fluttering swan in silk dresses and scarves and delicate bracelets, and her name was Annabelle. They came to town in an open car in the high heat of summer and the Mayor waved at his new constituents as they paused in their work to stare.

In honor of the new Mayor, a special bullfight in the old tradition was proclaimed. Bullfighters from far and wide came in trucks with horse trailers to take part in the tribute to the new Mayor of Guell, who had been in the army and was known to be on good terms with the Baron Toldo. Bullfighting had been the favorite art of the royalty of the province for hundreds of years and had in the last century degenerated into a terribly subjective competitive sport, each bullfight judged by the local authority, whether or not he knew anything about bullfighting. The fights took place with one man, mounted on an armored horse, leading the bull through traditional passes, called “gateways.” In the old traditions the event had been more like theater, with different combinations of gateways executed to bring about different aesthetic and emotional effects; however, the competitive bullfights were scored on a point-per-gateway scale, and evaluated either on the artistry, the entertainment value, or whatever other qualities the judges felt like including. There were no national or regional regulations by which said local authorities could judge the sport; this lack of structure meant that in every bullfight there was a chance that even the worst bullfighter could win, or die, which delighted the audiences even more than a wonderful exhibition by a true bullfighter. The love of the traditional art, however, had managed to survive, somewhat underground and preserved in the hands of historians, philosophers, and other patrons of the country’s arts.

The Guell Inn had never hosted such an array of eligible and roguish men, and the young ladies of Guell who hadn’t succeeded with Victor invented excuses to go downtown in their best new outfits to parade back and forth in front of the Inn as though they had forgotten to run errands on both sides of town. The little girls and boys sneaked back to the barn behind the arena and stared longingly at all the beautiful horses, black and brown and white and gold and chestnut — an earthy rainbow of well-brushed coats.

And Victor shined his shoes.

The day of the bullfight arrived. Only Alphonse was missing when the procession started; but even Alphonse arrived in time for the first bullfight. The noise of the arena could be heard for half a mile outside the city limits, and everywhere among the crowd was the flash of sunlight on jewelry and the smell of beer, sweat, hot dogs, and blood.

Victor went last in the arena. When his horse stepped out of the fighter’s chute to reveal him in his brown uniform with the golden braids, his teeth flashed and the crowd went still. By then it was hot and the bull was steaming; Victor met it casually, slowly, taunting it through all of the gateways, coming at it from the outside walls in strange little curlicues, keeping the bull in the center. His mare never missed a lead. The bull was white and dotted with brown and its flesh shook as it ran. It made no noise but rolled its eyes at Victor and tossed its head in annoyance at its slowly shrinking confinement to the center of the ring.

The fight went quickly but to the crowd it felt like forever before Victor’s sword sliced through the tendons of the bull’s front shoulder, and its blood was redder than that of the other bulls. Some of it splattered Victor’s shoes. He dismounted and cut out its heart cleanly, neatly, a square chunk of flesh lifted from its side. His horse waited patiently behind him. Victor held the heart with its sheen of fresh blood to his lips, and then, for the first time, he saw Annabelle in the Mayor’s box, her dark gaze fixed upon him and her breath held suspended. The bull’s heart fell from his fingers and landed with a final thump in the dust.

The crowd knew what had just passed between the pair; the silence of the stands seemed interminable before all the voices erupted as one. And the bull bled and Victor stood, entranced, and Annabelle stared, until the Mayor’s wife pinched her and whispered in her ear, and the first of the roses landed in the bowl of the arena.

At the ceremony the Mayor gave Victor the bull’s left ear, brown with blood and dirt, but Victor knew nothing except Annabelle. Men clapped him on the back as he walked through the streets, and women stared more openly than ever, but he went, clutching the ear like an illiterate with an important letter, home to change his clothes and wash. Out on his tiny uncovered balcony he smoked the cigars he’d found tucked into his uniform’s lapel. At dusk, he stood up grimly and put on his hat and went out into the evening.

Behind the Mayor’s house was a garden, filled with red-leaved maples and irises and daisies, all of which were folding in on themselves in the night; and there was a bench by the stream that ran past the house and through the town where Annabelle sat and waited. She had lilies in her hair, and a different outfit than the one she had worn to the bullfight — her shirt was golden and simple and set off her dark hair, and her jeans were dark and perfectly fitted. Her feet swung impatiently over the damp grass. Victor came through the yard with fevered eyes and a slow gait and the stub of a last cigar between his thumb and first finger. Annabelle saw him immediately and pretended she hadn’t by adjusting her shirt, but then she gave it up and smiled at him, and graceful Victor, who fought bulls and never stumbled, tripped over a rock, and Annabelle laughed and held out a hand. Annabelle’s brother Edward turned out the light in the sitting room.

The Mayor caught Annabelle in private the day before her engagement to Victor was to be announced in the newspaper. He suggested they stop at the Inn for lunch after her daily review of the city reports, and they walked the two blocks together. The walls of the Inn were covered in flamboyant blue and gold wallpaper, and cheap gold-painted electric sconces graced each dining area. But the napkins were always clean and the waiters reliable and polite, especially when their patrons included the Mayor.

“Annabelle,” her father said carefully, “are you sure you know what you’re doing with this bullfighter?”

“Hmm,” she said, chewing her roll thoughtfully. “I think I’m…wait, no, that can’t be right. Maybe I’m…? Oh, no, I’m marrying him! Yes, I do know what I’m doing.”

“What a relief,” her father said dryly. “You know what I mean. You don’t know him very well.”

“Everything you need to know about Victor you can learn in the arena.”

“Annabelle, that’s hardly a rousing endorsement — he’s a small-town hack who relies on cheap tricks to please the crowd,” the Mayor objected.

Annabelle regarded him with a raised eyebrow. “Father, you’re a wonderful mayor, but you know absolutely bollocks about bullfighting.”

“Occasionally I regret raising you to speak your mind,” the Mayor said through gritted teeth. She ignored this and returned to her salad as she spoke, punctuating her sentences with vehement stabs at various vegetables. “Before the formal boundaries were established for our province and its neighbors in the sixth century, the aborigines who inhabited the high plains used to run down wild game on foot to the point of the prey’s exhaustion, over many miles and sometimes over whole days, until the game simply gave up and lay down and waited for death. Then, in a tribute to the animal’s endurance and as an honor to the gods, the heart of the beast would be cut out and shared between the hunters before the thing was skinned.”

The Mayor frowned, and Annabelle continued; she might have sounded like one of the Royal Historians if she hadn’t been so indignant — it made her voice go slightly squeaky. “What is largely not known is that the same ritual continued when cattle were introduced to the region in the eighth century, only with the liver rather than the heart, as a thanks for allowing the cowboys and their herd to arrive safely on their journeys between grazing lands and the market. It also most likely survived as a natural way to curb the vitamin deficiencies experienced by men who were constantly traveling. The practice was outlawed by King Homer in 843 and denounced as barbaric, as part of his campaign to crush the revolts of the aborigines against the crown and to better control the profits of cattle-raising. As I’m sure you do know, it was the cowboys who first began the sport of bullfighting on horseback around 1050, and as our cattle became a continent-wide export, the aristocracy rapidly adopted it as art and introduced elements of the Perclusian Renaissance, such as the lone figure in the arena and the black cape representing mortality. This aesthetic became the main tenet of bullfighting and stayed that way until the last century. Victor’s heart-eating, and the way he positions himself on the outside of the arena to make it look like he’s chasing the bull, all while observing the Perclusian customs, are an homage to the roots of bullfighting and also a mild political statement to remind the crown of its responsibilities to the aboriginal blood of its working classes.”

Her father was grinning by then. “Alright, Annabelle. I still say you should have gone into the Academy.”

“Ugh, and wear pearls to my defense ceremony in an attempt to tempt some Philosopher-Vicomte into making sure I never have to lift a manicured fingernail again?”

“Yes, I’m sure you’ll be so much happier shoveling manure for the next fifty years,” said the Mayor abruptly, throwing his napkin onto his half-finished house special.

“Better to shovel manure than to have to sleep next to it every night,” Annabelle said.

“That’s enough.”

“And tell mama if she wants somebody to marry into money so badly that she can do it herself,” Annabelle said. “Please excuse me.” She stalked off to the bathroom; her father sighed, and the waiter, trying hard to be unobtrusive, brought him the check.

Three days later the Mayor’s wife hosted a celebration dinner and invited all the important town officials. New candles were unwrapped and the silver was polished and all of the rooms were aired and vacuumed and dusted.

The Mayor’s wife placed Victor between Annabelle and Emmanuel, and Emmanuel next to Mayor Kantigo. “The whole town is delighted by your romance,” Emmanuel told Annabelle and Victor over the roasted lamb. “I think if everyone could attend your wedding, they would.”

“Well,” said Annabelle brightly, “let’s invite them.”

Victor, normally inscrutable, hastily swallowed his mouthful. “Everybody?”

She turned her sweet face to look up at him. “Just the whole town, dear.”

“Annabelle, light of my eyes,” said her father, splattering the tablecloth with sauce from his fork, “that seems vaguely excessive.”

“Where could we possibly fit three thousand people?” Emmanuel asked, glancing at the Mayor’s face. “Not practical. The chapel is much too small.”

“Why, the arena, of course,” Annabelle said. “I think Victor would feel much more at home there, anyway, wouldn’t you, Victor?”

Victor looked her directly in the eye. “I will be at home wherever you are,” he said, and his intensity made even Annabelle flush.

“It would be a wonderful spectacle,” said the head of the Chamber of Commerce, and all the heads at the table swiveled to look at him. “Just the kind of publicity we need. With the Mayor’s own daughter marrying a bullfighter, we could establish Guell as the new bullfighting capital of Calana.”

“Oh, don’t talk about Victor so crudely,” said the Mayor’s wife, in a charming tone which both Edward and Annabelle recognized as dangerous. “He’s above all that sporting nonsense — he doesn’t even compete! You’re not a bullfighter, are you, Victor? You’re a very sensible businessman.”

Edward muttered, “Mama,” while the rest of the table examined their wine glasses very closely.

Victor eyed his future mother-in-law with the same patient and curious gaze with which he sized up bulls in the arena. “Of course. And as a sensible businessman I know better than to try to refuse a wife whatever it is she wants.” The Mayor flinched at the look on his own wife’s face; Victor glanced at his fiancée. “If it is an arena wedding you want, you shall have it, and a bullfighter husband too.”

Annabelle stared down at her hands, and her emerald engagement ring, and then looked up at her mother. “Just think, mama,” she said, in a voice as delicately dangerous as her mother’s, “if everyone who came brought lilies and tossed them at our feet after the ceremony. A touch of barbarism, for a bullfighter’s wedding.” She laid no stress on the title but it seemed to the table she had shouted it.

“We might run into a shortage of lilies,” Emmanuel said, eyeing the Mayor’s fork, which was threatening to splatter mint jelly even more emphatically than sauce, “not to mention funds.”

The chaplain, frowning, added, “Weddings should take place in a church, in the sight of God.”

“In that case,” said Annabelle, “We’ll just have to invite the Archbishop, too, so he can bless the arena beforehand.”

The Mayor opened his mouth to speak, but Emmanuel cut across smoothly. “Why don’t you come to the office tomorrow, Victor? We can discuss business during business hours.” The Mayor pressed his lips together and relaxed his shoulders into the backrest of his chair.

Edward leapt at his opportunity. “Papa, did you hear about the protests in the eastern provinces?”

The Mayor’s wife signaled to the hired waiter for another bottle of wine.

The next morning Victor stopped at the bank on his way to the Mayor’s office. When he knocked he heard the Mayor’s voice call, “Come in,” and he pushed open the heavy wooden door and stepped into the sunlight of the great round window behind the mahogany desk where the Mayor sat with Emmanuel off to the side.

“I assume,” Victor said without preamble, brandishing his bank envelope, “that the difficulty here is one of finances.”

“Well, yes,” said the Mayor. “I admit that is my main concern.” He paused. “And not just regarding this…wedding idea.”

“I’m aware of the large discrepancy between my current income and that which Annabelle is used to having at her disposal,” Victor replied. “As is she. We have discussed it.”

“And I’m aware that Annabelle will do whatever she damn well pleases, like always,” said the Mayor, rubbing his forehead.

Victor laughed a little at that, and Emmanuel smiled.

“Yes, I’m sure that’s true,” Victor said. “I do love her, you know, and I have no intention of putting her in a position where she won’t be able to pursue her own talents.”

“That’s a relief to hear, Victor, and truly it’s my only worry.”

Victor placed the envelope on the desk. “I’ve just been to the bank,” he said, “and after this meeting I’ll stop at the post office to send off my enrollment for the Veparda lists. I was saving for new armor for my horse, but it will cover my entrance fees for the qualifier and the Equinox.” The Equinox Fight was the biggest competitive bullfight in the country, with a substantial fortune and lots of glory for the winner, and smaller compensations for the upper ranks: a small fortune and almost as much glory for second place, and glory only for third.

Emmanuel said softly, “Are you sure about this?”

Victor just looked at him. “There are thirteen fights before the Equinox qualifier in September,” he continued. “Small pots, mostly, that should cover my living expenses in Veparda. But with any luck I’ll be able to fund the wedding after the Equinox.” He made a face. “The judging is fairly subjective, you know.”

There were going to be lilies, delivered on wide flatbeds filled with earth, still planted so they would stay fresh until the very last moment. The Baron would accompany the delivery in his personal car, with his daughters and his wife and the Archbishop of the province, who had agreed to bless the arena for a religious ceremony; arriving the day before the Baron would be the troupes of acrobats, musicians, and fire-eaters the Mayor had hired for entertainment. And because the wedding would take place on Annabelle’s birthday, every baker in the surrounding area had been commissioned to provide birthday cupcakes for the guests.

The Chamber of Commerce made a gift of Annabelle’s dress, which her mother insisted she have made by her old tailor in the capital. The local tailor was incredibly offended by this decision, and at the local bar he announced his intention to boycott the wedding to scattered applause. Edward and the Mayor came in the next day and ordered brand-new suits for the occasion, because, they said, that tailor from the capital couldn’t make a sensible men’s suit to save his life. Thus the tailor was placated, and everyone in town could attend the wedding with a clean conscience, not to mention have their own attire mended, taken in, or cleaned without having to listen to his grumblings.

The wedding dress itself would be turquoise — the Mayor’s wife had objected, and wanted to put her in pink, and three days of fights had ensued over the breakfast table until the Mayor put his foot down and told them that if they didn’t agree in the next ten minutes the wedding dress would be pumpkin orange and covered in sequined butterflies. Annabelle said that was fine by her as long as it wasn’t pink. The Mayor’s wife consoled herself with pink invitations and three-quarters of a mile’s worth of white satin ribbon to decorate the stands.

Victor was charged, in addition to his duties in the ring, with seeing to the arrangements for the Baron’s journey, delivering the invitations, and picking up the dress. Emmanuel went with him as an emissary of the city’s financial department, or, as the Mayor said, “To keep the casualties to a minimum.”

The capital was a two days’ drive from Guell. In the early afternoon on the second day they reached the outskirts of Veparda with its ancient stone wall and vestigial guardposts which surrounded the numerous small houses, modern skyscrapers, and lazy Veparda River that cut straight through the city. Victor went immediately to the lists to enroll in any bullfights with open spots. He came back with a printed schedule on which he had circled the dates and times of thirteen bullfights, and then he met Emmanuel in the bar on the first floor of the hotel and went over the venues and competitors and looked at the results of the bullfights over the past six months.

In the high society of Veparda that fall, word spread about a bullfighter whom, the philosophers said, was the best in the country, who took the traditions apart and put them back together in ways no one had ever witnessed before: a man who made the killing a part of the art, and took bloody bites out of the heart of the beast he had fought. They called him a barbarian, and meant it as a compliment; they called him an artist. He was from a small town, a nothing town, in the backwoods of the already backwoods province, Calana, and his name was Victor.

In Veparda the judging was a little more worthwhile, simply because most everyone who knew anything about bullfighting lived in the capital and the backlash against a bad judge was immediate and ruthless — at least, if he chose against popular taste. And all of the judges kept handing Victor the bullfighting titles. He won his first seven fights, and ticket prices for the ninth one, an Equinox qualifier for which the arena masters had secured a wildcard judge, went astronomical. People began trading Victor and Annabelle’s wedding invitations as currency.

But in a city there are many more people than just the high society; there are people who clean bathrooms and wash dishes and run irrigation systems for twelve hours a day, every day. The lower classes did not know what to do with Victor. On the one hand they loathed him, because the high society loved him; but on the other they knew him, with his cheap ties and dark features, as one of them, the lucky one, who had escaped dishwashing on pure talent. After his third fight, with an ancient, nasty bull who had just gored another popular bullfighter and who went down to Victor’s sword like a fish on a hook, it became apparent that his habit of eating the bull’s hearts was not just a gimmick. After the third fight the general populace began attending the bullfights with fake blood smeared across their faces. The muttering about the Baron and his deputies — which had always held at a low roar — swelled. When Victor left the arena after his fourth fight, there was a crowd waiting at the exit, and as he passed the men and small boys saluted like soldiers to their brother. The Baron, when he heard about the fake blood, began having the sporting reports sent directly to him each morning.

In the eighth fight Victor’s horse got hamstrung by the bull.

It was an ugly fight to begin with; the bull, a dun with a crooked right horn, charged the holding-pen gate and escaped before the bell, and Victor was sent into the arena with only one foot in the stirrup and his scabbard unbuckled, while the enraged bovine bucked across the dusty floor. His horse kept them away from the bull’s flinging back legs while he settled into a good seat, but he steadied himself only to find he was at a distinct disadvantage tactically: towards the center of the bowl, caught between the bull and the large overhanging box seat where the judge sat. He turned the mare around and backed her, slowly, towards the long wall of the oval arena and pushed against the bull in a series of defensive, though rather aesthetically lacking, gateways, which were more difficult because he was moving the wrong direction for the intended execution of half of them. He had to completely invert one, which voided the movement of his arm of its bird-like effect and looked clumsy and unprofessional.

He reached the wall, and, desperate for the points he knew he had already lost, began his first offensive gateway to his right, where he thought the bull was headed; but the bull, still furious, kicked itself almost completely around its own right hind flank and then swerved left, towards them. The mare sidestepped, but the bull’s straight horn caught her at the back edge of her armor where it had rusted slightly from an old dent, and the horn sank through into her hind leg. She screamed and bucked forward on three legs, out of the path of the bull, who swung around widely to come at them again from the other side. Victor pulled his sword, twisting in the saddle, and shoved it like an axe through the lower part of the bull’s jugular.

It was tradition in that country that nobody knew a bullfighter’s horse’s calling-name except the bullfighter himself (the pedigree name was the one published in the lists); the idea was that it would then obey only the rider in the arena, although often it just led to the horse becoming confused about its name. Victor’s horse, which he had raised from a foal, knew her name perfectly, and while the vet pumped her full of painkillers and examined her leg, Victor murmured her name in a low voice like a charm while he stood by her head and stroked her neck.

“Nothing broken,” the vet said, straightening up to reach for antibiotics and solvents to clean the gaping wound. “But the muscle is totally severed, and some tendons. She’ll heal, but she won’t fight again.”

“Are you saying that because she won’t fight again, or because the Equinox is in three weeks and you don’t want an idiot bullfighter putting an ideal fighting horse back in the arena before she’s healed?”

The vet smiled, pressing his lips together. “A little of both. It depends on how it heals, and I like to be proven wrong by a good outcome as opposed to a bad one. Either way it will be six months, at least. There may be a fear factor, as well. She may not want to fight again. Odds are not good.” He patted her good hind flank. “She is an ideal horse. They shouldn’t have sent you in there to fight an escaped bull.”

“I shouldn’t have been an idiot.”

“That was a perfect storm, man. Even the best captains can’t predict those.”

“The best captains don’t have to,” Victor said, “because they’re not idiots.” He stroked his horse’s nose. “I’m sorry, Selah.”

The two days’ drive to Guell took Victor one-and-a-half days by rail; when his train reached the town limits it was dusk, and the walk from the train station with the package under his arm felt long. He kept getting stopped by old acquaintances in the street. Victor was glad to see them and to be home, but anxious to see Annabelle, and he kept his exchanges as short as possible. When he reached the Mayor’s house he started around back, changed his mind, and then rang the front doorbell.

Edward answered the door, and grinned widely to see Victor. “Annabelle’s getting her hair worked on,” he said. “But come in and sit down.”

“I brought her dress,” Victor said, holding the package out with both hands. Edward took it, yelled up the stairs for Annabelle, and set the package on a sofa in the sitting room. “We’ll give it to them later,” he said, “otherwise it’ll be another three hours before you see Annabelle.” He sat down, and Victor did the same. “I saw about your horse in the paper,” he said. “You won’t be able to fight her in the Equinox?”

“No,” said Victor, “which is what I came to speak to Annabelle about.”

“Oh, well, I wouldn’t worry too much about it,” said Edward, smiling a little, and Victor had to ball his hands into fists to prevent his first response. “This wedding is turning out to be very entertaining. They’re both too stubborn to back down now. It’s like watching a tiger fight a pit viper.”

“Which one’s the pit viper?” asked Victor before he could stop himself.

Edward laughed. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Just then they heard Annabelle on the stairs — “we’ve tried thirteen different hairstyles already and they’re all equally awful and if I’m subjected to any more hairspray I’ll probably lose half my brain cells” —  She came through the doorway and saw Victor, who had gotten to his feet. Her eyes lit up and she launched herself across the room at him. He picked her up and kissed her soundly. “Hey now,” Edward said lazily. Victor set her back down but she did not let go of him. His whole body relaxed in something like relief at the feel of her hands.

“Oh, goodness,” said Edward, “look at the time.” He got up and headed through the swinging door into the kitchen.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Annabelle said out of the side of her mouth as Victor went to kiss her again. “I have something to show you.”

“It can wait,” Victor said, and caught her up again, and she kissed him quickly and said, “No it can’t! Even you’ll think so, when you see it. Come on!”

“I don’t think I will,” Victor said, but permitted himself to be dragged by the hand out the back door and towards the garage, where the Mayor’s car was parked outside in the drive.

“We were going to send it by rail tomorrow,” said Annabelle, producing her housekeys and heading for the side door, “but this way you can take it with you.” She flipped the outside light on and opened the door; the sudden light outside made it difficult to see when he stepped into the garage, until his eyes adjusted.

It was a horse. A stallion, small and red and obviously bred to fight bulls; Victor felt that if it had been able to wear its lineage on its coat, it would have. With training, it would be a better horse than his had been, and it had probably cost more than he would earn in his entire life.

“For you,” Annabelle said simply, grinning. Victor didn’t know what to say and so he said nothing, only pulled her close and stared at the horse.

“How…?” he began.

“I didn’t,” she said. “It was a wedding present, from the Baron Toldo.” She made a face. “There’s a letter for you in the house, along with his pedigree.”

“From the Baron?” Victor asked, but he was already moving towards the horse with a hand outstretched. He patted its neck and looked back at Annabelle. “You want to be the first to ride him?”

On the train back to Veparda, Victor opened the letter from the Baron. He read it twice, then crossed his arms and sat back, the letter on his lap, staring at the floor, until a pair of feet and a cane stopped in front of him. He looked up to see a thin, crooked man with a small grey beard and sharp blue eyes.

“You are the bullfighter-artiste, are you not?”

“I am Victor Plebesan,” Victor admitted.

The man smiled slightly. “Very modest of you. May I sit down?”

“Yes,” Victor said, surprised. “Of course.” He sat up and rearranged his possessions to make room in the seat next to him.

The man sat quietly for a moment and then said, “It is a very good thing, what you are doing in the ring. It is good for this country.”

“You are a fan of the bullfights?”

The man laughed. “You could say as much. I am a professor at the university in Veparda.”

Victor nodded. “You study the art, then.”

“Yes, I study the art. I have not seen a bullfighter like you in, oh, forty years. Since I was a boy. I saw Leopold Krakar fight in ’24.”

“You saw the ’24 Equinox?” Victor’s voice was full of longing.

“No, the qualifier. My father couldn’t afford the tickets to the Equinox. But even his work in the qualifier was exquisite. He understood the weight of the connections between art and history, and the people and their leaders. It was in every movement of his arm. That was a beautiful time; we had just won the Nine Years’ War, but the people were hungry for another great purpose, and bread. They found it in art, in the bullfighter’s ring, and in scientific progress.” The professor smiled again, sharply. “I spent the rest of my life studying these connections. You do not forget the things that enlarge your heart when you are a boy.”

“No,” said Victor softly. “You don’t.”

“You know about the protests?”

“A little.”

“The people are hungry for purpose again,” said the professor, “and they will find it in art and progress, or in war.” He sighed. “I am glad there is another bullfighter to remind them which is better.” He stood up and put his hat on. “Good luck, Victor Plebesan,” he said, and ambled away down the aisle.

Victor watched him go, and then picked up the Baron’s letter for a third time.

Dear Victor,

Please accept my congratulations on your impending marriage, and the gift of the horse, Atlas. There is no horse with a finer pedigree to be found. I was sorry to learn about the loss of your own horse, as I have always been a fan of the bullfights and of the artistry involved, and a friend of the Kantigo family.

I have been thinking much of the unrest in the provinces and the lower parts of Veparda, and of the upcoming Equinox, and so it is with these thoughts that I offer my support in the form of your horse and partner in the bullfights. I expect you are a man aware full well of the connection of the hearts of the people with the hearts of the bulls and the long history that lies in that connection. I hope you are a man aware full well of the consequences of action, of leadership, and of art.

Again, my most sincere congratulations and best wishes for your success. I plan to be in attendance at the Equinox, and will be pleased to find you there with Atlas should the qualifier favor you.


Baron Toldo

Victor folded the letter carefully and tucked it into his jacket pocket, where it stayed for the remainder of the journey. A small boy across the aisle who had been staring looked away when Victor finally glanced up.

“The Baron,” Emmanuel said. “Gave you a horse.”

“Yes,” Victor said shortly, slamming the door to the truck. “And expects me to stop eating the hearts of the bulls, or so I think I gleaned from his political meandering.”

“Will you?”

“I don’t bloody know,” said Victor. “Look at the horse.”

Emmanuel eyed the beast through the slats of the trailer. “It’s a hell of a horse.”

“It’s the best horse I’ve ever seen. It’s the best horse in the country. His great-grandsire was The Luthier, for God’s sake.”

“You seem upset.”

“Of course I’m upset!” Victor said, and kicked the truck wheel viciously, scuffing his shoes.

“You can’t afford a horse, and now you have the best horse you’ve ever seen. Why are you upset?”

“Because I can afford this kind of horse least of all,” he spat. “The kind that costs something other than money.” He slumped to the ground and put his head on his knees.

“Ah,” said Emmanuel. “But can you afford to refuse it?”

“What do you mean?” said Victor, his voice muffled.

“Well,” Emmanuel said apologetically, “the Baron is very close with the Kantigos. Close enough that a potential member of the family refusing his gift would be a terrible insult.”

Victor groaned in comprehension. “And the Mayor hates me already.”

“Mayor Kantigo has reason to…doubt the wisdom of this particular match for his very beautiful and talented daughter, yes.”

Victor smiled ruefully and looked up. “Are you ever not a diplomat?”

“Only in my secret heart,” said Emmanuel. “When nobody who pays me is looking.”

“What about Annabelle?”

Emmanuel thought for a moment. “Annabelle is a wildcard in many ways, and she often plays the devil’s advocate for the Mayor’s political decisions, which is why he values her input so highly and wants to see her succeed politically, as well. But they are her family, and she loves them, and would not want to cut off ties with them, I think.” He frowned. “She does love you very much. I don’t know about Annabelle.”

“What do I do?”

“I suggest that you qualify for the Equinox using the temporary loan of this magnificent horse. Remove yourself from other matches to continue training it for your personal preferences, thus giving yourself time to think it over while not appearing to lean too heavily one way or the other.”

“Very diplomatic.”


Victor qualified for the Equinox almost without effort; the qualifier took place in a small suburb on the edges of Veparda and the judge was a local soldier, previously a farmer, who had recently been given a title for deeds in service to the king. The crowd sighed collectively when Victor rode into the arena, his brown uniform and the red coat of Atlas shining in the sun; he spied the tops of small boys’ heads peeking over the walls to watch and dozens of men in the cheap seats with their faces painted in fake blood, and his stomach tightened at what he was about to do. The bull, white and grey in ugly splotches, was lazy and fat and old, and Victor had to pull a series of aggressive gateways to make the bull charge. Atlas responded to every touch of Victor’s knee and pull on the reins, sometimes to their detriment; once or twice Victor shifted his weight for comfort and Atlas, confused, moved in the direction of the shift and put himself in the way of the bull. Victor clamped his teeth together in annoyance and provoked the bull with a railroad gateway, which sent Atlas in a straight line directly at it, and when the bull finally responded he sliced its windpipe and left it to die.

A reporter, who had been dangling his legs into the empty bullpen during the fight, called to Victor as he rode through the fighter’s chute back to the prep rooms, “Why didn’t you eat the heart?”

“Wasn’t enough heart in that bull to take a bite of,” Victor shot back as he rode by. It was not the whole truth, but it was enough of one that he felt justified. At the awards ceremony the judge gave him the ear and clapped him heartily on the back, and Victor did not smile, and the afternoon sun was in his eyes.

“I shouldn’t have won,” he said on the ride back to the hotel, shaking his head.

Emmanuel replied, “Of course you should have. The bull was no choice of yours.”

“That is part of the fight,” said Victor, “and should have been considered.”

“So is the inability of proper consideration by the judges,” countered Emmanuel, and Victor smiled grimly.

“You’re no fool, Emmanuel, and you know what I mean.”

Emmanuel sighed. “Yes.” He looked out the window momentarily, then turned back to Victor. “So what will you do?”

“With the Equinox?” Victor asked. “God knows.”

“Have you spoken to Annabelle?”


Both of them fell silent; as they passed the gates of the city they also passed large crowds holding signs, some with drawings of bloody hearts painted on them, and nothing else. When he rolled down the window to speak to the guard, Victor saw a man on the edge of the ropes clench his fist and hold it against his heart, his eyes on Victor.

“What did that mean?” Victor asked when they had driven through the gates. Emmanuel looked at him blankly and Victor repeated the gesture.

Emmanuel looked surprised, and then carefully rearranged his features to seem impassive again. “The slogan for these protests is, ‘The hearts of the bulls are the heart of the people,’” he explained. “They are protesting the high taxes on cattle ranchers and exportation. They claim the Baron is using it to fund his private military and crushing revenue. Many people have lost their livelihood and the prices for tickets to the bullfights have nearly tripled.”

“Oh, hell,” said Victor.

That night he called Annabelle from the hotel courtesy telephone by the elevators; there was a lag in the connection and her voice was unnaturally loud.

“How’d it go?” she asked. “Mama, I’m on the phone. Yes. Okay.”

“I made it,” he said, after the conversation on the other end had stopped.

“Oh, Victor, I knew you would! That’s wonderful!”

“I shouldn’t have,” he said. “The bull was worse than useless.”

“Victor,” she said, “that’s not the point. The point is to get you into the Equinox. Which you did, which is wonderful!”

Victor ran a finger lightly over the buttons on the phone. “You’re right,” he said. “That’s why I started this.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Do you remember that letter from the Baron?”

“The one about Atlas? Do you like the horse? How is he?”

“The horse is perfect,” Victor said impatiently, “but the Baron asked me in the letter not to cut out the hearts of the bulls.”

Annabelle said nothing for a moment. “That’s ugly.”

“Yes,” Victor agreed.

“Did you do it today?”

“No,” said Victor. “Of course, I didn’t.”

She sighed in relief; Victor took a deep breath. “Maybe you shouldn’t fight again before the Equinox,” she said. “Avoid pissing off the Baron.”

“I already pulled out of those fights.”

“Oh, good.”

Not good,” he said. “I need to pay the vet bills for the grey; I had to sell her tack to pay the last one.”

“I’ll wire you some cash today.”

“That’s not the problem.”

“Victor, don’t be stupid.”

“It’s a little late to hope for that,” he said before he could stop himself.

Her voice went rigid. “What does that mean?”

“Nothing,” he said. “I’m just frustrated. This is more than I thought I was getting into.”

“All you need to do is get through the Equinox,” she said, soothingly. “Then we’ll have the wedding, and you won’t have to compete anymore if you don’t want to.”

He laughed. “Yes, just get through the competition with the best bullfighters in the country, and win it.”

“You’re the one who acted like it was a given.” Her voice made him imagine her eyes rolling.

“I don’t have any other options now.”

“I’m not the one who volunteered you for this.”

“No, you only arranged the most expensive wedding this country’s ever seen,” he snapped.

“Well, you don’t have to go to that, either,” she said coldly. He felt sick.

“Of course I’ll be there,” he said. “I just didn’t expect to have to pay for it with my art.”

“Oh, yes, because your art is what made you enter the lists after refusing for, I don’t know, your whole life,” Annabelle flared. “It’s not my fault your head’s the size of a cow’s distended uterus and you had to prove you were the greatest bullfighter since Augustori the Great just because of some little comment — ”

“And it’s not my job to make sure you can afford to buy Perclusian silk menstrual rags and throw a wedding with a guest list the size of a small country — ”

You agreed to all of this, don’t get mad at me because you didn’t check your flank armor properly — ”

“Yes, I’m so sorry my dead father can’t afford to buy me a brand-new one of whatever my spoiled little heart desires — ”

The phone line went dead and Victor looked blankly at the receiver before whipping it against the stone wall, where it split into three useless, jagged pieces.

Victor did not sleep well after that; he got up early to train his horse and at night he walked around the city aimlessly. He tried calling Annabelle three different times, and once she came to the phone but they had little to say to each other after they both apologized, stiffly and without feeling. On the fifth night he wandered over to the Veterinarian’s stables where Selah was recovering. He stood outside the glass door looking into the sterile white hallway, but he couldn’t see her. He was interrupted by a flashlight held by the night vet.

“What are you doing out on this lovely evening?” she inquired mildly, but with an edge to her voice, and he smiled and stepped away.

“Just came to see if I could see my horse,” he said.

“Ah,” she said, relaxing her shoulders in understanding. “Which one is yours?”

“The grey with the gored leg.”

She smiled. “I’d be unnecessarily worried about that one, too.” She pulled out a set of keys. “You want to go in?”

“I would,” he said. “If it’s no trouble.”

“I’m not busy,” she said, and opened the door and led him partway down the hallway to a stall on the left, where Selah had limped over to the gate to see about the commotion. He put a hand to her nose. “Hey, hey,” he said, and patted her neck with his other hand. “How is she doing?”

“She’s coming along,” said the vet. “Not as fast as your fans would prefer, I think. But a couple of months and she’ll be good as new, leg-wise.”

He leaned his head to the side in dismissal. “As long as she’s healing. The other stuff we can work out later.”

She nodded. “I heard you found yourself a horse for the meantime.”

He laughed at that description of Atlas while Selah settled her three-legged stance to enjoy being petted. “I was loaned a horse, with strings tied to the saddle.”

“I hope you know how to ride without one, then.”

“Me too,” he said. He looked at the vet. “Thank you.”

“Anytime,” she said, and she walked him out in silence. The door shut behind them with a muffled thump.

“They say you didn’t eat the bull’s heart this last time,” she said, and he swung around to face her.

“No,” said Victor. “I didn’t.”

“The protestors are angry about it, you know. They think you betrayed the cause, that you are supporting the Baron.”

Victor sighed and didn’t say anything.

“I suppose that’s what you mean by strings tied to your saddle.”

“How do you…?” he started to say, and stopped. She raised an eyebrow at him. “When you have to put a horse down, for instance,” he said, “how do you decide that’s the right thing to do? When the owner is looking over your shoulder. Or when a little girl is crying about her pony.”

“I remember what my job is,” said the vet. “Or rather, what it isn’t. I’m an animal doctor, not a magician. My job is to help animals. Sometimes that requires helping them die, even if little girls are crying. Even if they get angry and refuse to pay me.”

Victor nodded. “Thank you,” he said again. He went home and slept.

On the morning of the Equinox, Victor, out of sheer habit, reached for his shoe polish and a rag. Before he connected with the tin he stopped, letting out a very short and small laugh at himself, and then he put on his dusty shoes and poured himself a cup of coffee. The telephone on the bedside table did not ring.

On the way to the Equinox, Emmanuel drove calmly with perfect posture. They passed crowds of protestors, kept a mile’s radius from the stadium under the guise of safety, but really for the purpose of keeping them away from the cameras. There was a line of purple rope, and armed police, and then the crowd abruptly turned to fans. Some of the fans’ signs bore the bleeding heart of the protestors’ signs, but with Victor’s name underneath. Victor stared out the window and his arms hung uselessly at his sides while his feet tapped the floor of the truck. With every tap a small cloud of dust rose.

“Who is the judge?’ he asked suddenly.

“What?” Emmanuel asked, blinking.

“Who is the judge?” Victor asked again, more clearly.

“Baron Toldo,” said Emmanuel, after a pause.

Victor stopped tapping his shoes.

The bull Victor drew was young and enormous and black; all of the best bulls had been saved for the Equinox and everyone knew none of the bullfighters would be slighted in the rankings for the bull he drew. Victor sat in the rooms beneath the stands and listened to the muffled roar of the crowd. Every once in a while a boy would run up with a token from Lady Someone-or-other, a handkerchief or a flower or a note, and Victor piled them at his feet without looking at them and waited.

Emmanuel came by when there were only two fights before Victor’s and sat next to him on the bench. “Your shoes are dirty,” he said, staring straight ahead.

“I forgot to shine them,” Victor said. Emmanuel snorted. “Is Annabelle here?”

“No,” said Victor. “Do you think they’ve found a stand-in for me at the altar by now?

Emmanuel smiled, the long lines in his face more forgiving than usual in the dim light. “If they have, I doubt he’ll hold up well in the wash.”

Victor’s smirk spread into a laugh that shook his whole body, and he leaned back against the wall, the tension that had gripped his solid frame for many days finally dissipating.

“Well, then,” said Emmanuel slowly. “It looks like it’s just you and the bull.”

Victor looked at him, clear-eyed, and smiled.

“There’s a shoeshine boy by the entrance,” said Emmanuel. “His prices are exorbitant but I think you could talk him down. Seeing as you’re a bullfighter, and all.”

Victor stood. “You only said that because no one who’s paying you is looking.”

“Yes,” said Emmanuel. “I am not a bullfighter.”

The bull was massive and bellowed continuously. When Victor rode slowly into the arena, the afternoon sun turned the bull’s black coat red. It rushed him immediately and Victor caught it in an elegant opening gateway, herding it directly at the judge’s box before it turned to charge again and he forced it into the first leg of a complex spiral pattern. Victor worked the Baron’s horse in close to the horns, which spanned a distance the length of his own body. His movements were neat and controlled, even after his sword weakened the bull’s neck muscles and the charges grew sloppy and angry. The bull took a long time to die and the crowd was growing restless while Victor worked to cut through the folds and fat deposits to pull out the chicken-sized heart. He held it for a moment, in both hands, while blood leaked from it onto his very clean shoes. Then he looked for the Baron in the judge’s box and sank his teeth into the thickest part of the enormous organ, blood dripping down his chin. He chewed the rubbery flesh, rolling it over his tongue, and spat it out in the dust, and tossed the remainder towards the stands. When he left the arena he left on foot, his chin still bloody, and the very fine horse still standing obediently over the empty carcass of the bull.

In the records that year, Victor’s name was listed in third place, with an asterisk beside it and a footnote, detailing the numerous objections filed after the Baron’s fall from power by prominent University historians and philosophers regarding the judge’s decision.

Born in the backwoods of the Empire State and sentenced to a lifetime of walking into furniture, HILARY GAN moved to Arizona in 2003 and intends to write her little heart out from that locale evermore. Her work has appeared in Jersey Devil Press and The Fiddleback; her story “The Pragmatist” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected as a Million Writers Award Notable Story. She likes dirty blues music, fluffy kittens, and egomaniacs.

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