Just to be clear, nothing in this story is meant to represent reality.
The Story So Far: Polly, kidnapped by an enchanter and his trainee and thrown in with a princess, discovers that she and her new companions are all are being threatened by a malevolent magical being known as a jadess. Can she get along with the arrogant enchanter long enough to figure out how to survive with a jadess after them? And … why does the jadess want Polly? Chapter 1 is here.
Chapter 16A: Rapier against Rapier
“Where were you?” Paulina asked as soon as I stumbled in the door. “I was beginning to get worried!”
“I went to see the market,” I said. I covered up a yawn. After a long day at court, and then a walk through the market, I was tired. “I hope nobody went looking for me.”
“No, but I was going to ask Stefan to,” she replied.
I smiled at her. “I’m flattered you care that much.”
I had some supper, vegetable pie made by Paulina (with just a touch too much salt for my taste, thought I didn’t tell her) and went to bed. But I couldn’t sleep. I lay there for quite a while, staring up at the canopy over my bed, and alternately opening and closing the shutter to let more moonlight in or to block it out.
I’m sure that gypsy was surprised when I mentioned Casper had a diamond coat, I thought. He knows something. I wondered what it meant.
And I would have set out to ask the gypsy about it the next day if I hadn’t remembered he’d said he was leaving Araba.
I was restless at court, and paced so much the other ladies asked me if anything was wrong. I said nothing, for it something was I could not put my finger on it. Perhaps I was just bored with court and the same routine day after day.
So one day, while the ladies of the court were watching the earls duel under the hot Chaldean sun, I picked up a rapier, with both hands between my palms, and held it straight up in front of me as I face them.
“Why don’t you teach me to use this?” I asked the earls. They all stopped to look at me. In one long loop I threw the rapier up, so it came spiralling back down to the ground towards me, and allowed it to stick tip-down in the dirt.
“Careful!” Earl Parfin gasped, taking an impulsive step towards me. “Lady, it’s sharp.”
Of course I knew it was sharp. I’d tested it with the tip of my finger, and drew it away with a red stain appearing on it. The rapier was long and thin, a needle-like piece of metal that was almost whippy, and its handle was fitted to the hand and covered with leather. Experimentally I waved it back and forth, listening to its whistle.
“Do you not know how to use it?” Lady Carmen asked. Her green eyes were surprised. I lowered the rapier.
“No,” I said, “Do you?”
“All noblewomen do,” she replied. “Know the basics, at least. In case – they ever have need to protect themselves. Would you allow me?” She held out her hand.
I gave the rapier, and she held it confidently. Then she began a brief sparring march with an earl, and she was good, if not as practised as them. They seemed to know that, and intentionally slowed their strokes.
“I’ve only ever used my fists,” I told her, “For protection, and it’s been a long time since I’ve used them. Unless you count…” I glanced shamefully at Cassandra, remembering the brawl in the throne room. Perhaps that was why Carmen and Mandarine hadn’t used fists when they fought, because when Chaldean women were seriously fighting they used rapiers.
“Does it work?” Carmen asked.
“Quite often,” I replied, “If you punch in the right places, and with the right strength.”
Then I turned back to the earls. “But my question was, can you teach me?”
They looked from the rapier, and back to me. “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for any…” one started, but Earl Laftan and Earl Seanit, whom I knew quite well, stepped forward.
“We would be honoured to teach you,” Earl Seanit said, with a half-bow. But there was a mischievous glint in his eyes.
Rapier duelling, I soon discovered, was the hottest and most sweatiest work there could be. And I hadn’t even started real duelling yet, just the basic forms, exercises and rules. Girdles were the absolute worst thing to wear for it. After a couple of minutes I excused myself and took it off, along with my pinkish-orange ametrine belt, necklace, bracelets and earrings, but my tangerine robe I could do nothing about. I resigned myself to getting it covered in sweat, dirt, and blood when I nicked myself. As I soon learned, my wrists weren’t used to holding a rapier, and weren’t strong enough to control it properly.
I looked up from my complicated move and twist manoeuvre to see what the earls wore for duelling. Each of them still had on a suit jacket and their cravat, but they had wide baggy trousers on instead of suit pants, which were much more suitable for getting caked in sweat and mud, and they had taken off their maroon capes. Their jackets looked dusty, but they seemed more adept at keeping it down than I was. On their left side, over their heart, they each wore a white patch which, if ripped by their opponent’s rapier, indicated a kill. Rapiers were used for protection, but when practising and in tournaments, they didn’t fight to the death.
But the wonderful Chaldean hairstyle for men, which Casper had adopted, was absolutely unsuited to duelling. Their pompadours came undone almost immediately, and if they kept anything in them as Casper had said, they’d taken it out beforehand, anticipating this. Dust and sweat got into it, making it hang over their foreheads in greasy strands, but I’m sure my hair couldn’t have looked much worse.
About the only good thing about having my hair piled up and high on the crown of my head was that it was kept out of my face. Otherwise it was much too lumpy, and kept falling out. But my! was that Chaldean sun ever hot. I could just feel it reflecting down into the rapier courtyard and baking off the flagstones beneath my feet.
The skirt of my dress got shredded, for whenever I moved either my rapier or my opponent’s got caught in it, tearing it. It was a good thing I had under-drawers on, or else it would’ve been positively indecent.
The women on the sidelines all laughed and cheered me on, giving me pointers from their own experience. I think it amused them to see a clumsy Angarian like me attempt the graceful but dangerous rapier dance. A few of them looked almost like they wanted to join me, but I guess it wasn’t considered proper for a lady to show off her rapier talents at court, only men. Which made me wonder what I was doing.
Carmen even told me as much afterwards, but added, “It’s all right for you, of course, since you’ve never learned. But I was surprised when you asked them to teach you.”
“So shall I keep on?” I said.
“Oh yes!” she replied. “I’d love for you to learn. But under any other circumstances… well, we find it strange. Though you aren’t exactly a conformist, are you?”