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 16B: Duelling the Tigress
Every day after that I practised with rapiers, and my restlessness abated. Perhaps I had only been in need of exercise. Though while you were out in the sun sweating your brains out you felt like a wreck, afterwards a feeling of pleasant exhaustion crept over you, and you felt content. Or, after a bath at least. Rapier duelling got me too dirty, and court dress after court dress got wrecked.
“What do you do to your clothes?” Maria gasped, examining the ruined bundle that had been my tangerine robe. Then she picked up a striped gold and white silk. It wasn’t in much better shape.
She looked at me accusingly. “You’ve been rapier duelling, haven’t you?”
“How – how did you know?” I asked faintly.
“You think I don’t know a rapier’s work when I see it?” she snorted. “I’ve been waiting for the day when I wouldn’t be the only woman at court to practice rapiers with the earls, but little did I guess you’d be the one to join me!”
“I’m only learning,” I tried to explain.
“But you should have told me!” she exclaimed. “Now, today I’ll order you some proper duelling clothes, and hope they’ll be ready by tomorrow. You can’t keep going through dresses like this. And I’ll get you duelling undergarments; you can’t wear a girdle – if you haven’t realised by now.”
Then she dressed me in dusky yellow satin and began giving me tips on rapier fighting. It seemed she was really into duelling, she had continued her lessons in it past the level women were required to go, and even practised at court when she was there. She said she was still practising now. We’d taken two pokers from beside the fire and were clashing at each other when Stefan poked his head around the door.
“I heard lots of noise,” he explained. “And Paulina wants to know if you’re coming down for breakfast.”
“Oh!” said Maria. “We’d better hurry.”
That day, as I entered the throne room, Janeira came up to me excitedly.
“You’ve got to see what we’ve got!” she said. “Come with me.” And so I followed her to where the other women from Carmen’s group were standing.
“Ah Penelope, you’re here finally,” Carmen said as I came up. I winced inwardly. I was still not used to being called Penelope.
Then from behind her back she pulled out a long cloth bundle. I thought I knew what it was from the shape of it, but I untied the string anyway. Out fell a narrow rapier, of the very finest and strongest steel, suitably whippy (bendable, but not too much so), with a grip that moulded to my hand and a sturdy leather sheath. At the tip of the sheath a circlet of rubies glinted.
“Oh, but I couldn’t possibly accept…” I trailed off.
“This was my old blade,” Carmen replied, “I will lend it to you – it is made for a sword-maiden.”
Hesitantly I picked it up, then whistled it through the air.
“I’ll accept it then,” I told her quietly. She broke into a smile.
“You are quite a determined girl,” she said. “We see you out there, no matter how disapprovingly those pompous officers are whispering, like a ferocious tigress, and never giving up, no matter what those earls send you.”
“You could join me,” I offered.
“I would,” she said. “But what would the Rajah think?”
I should have known.
I would have liked to say my rapier-ship improved drastically because of that, but really every little improvement I made came because of grindingly hard work. But each morning Maria would take me down to the Peak’s entrance hall, where there was more room, and showed me her techniques and ‘the sword-maiden’s techniques’ (which, she would say contemptuously, those earls didn’t know a thing about). That helped me most, and every once in a while I could surprise the earl I was practising against with one of her tricks. Then they would laugh and say I reminded them of Maria DeAballah.
“She’s a cat, that one,” Earl Rojah told me, “As focused as anything when she fights, keeping her temper down for once; she’s not so hotly fierce as you. But if she’s a cat, then you’re a tigress.” And after that to tease me they’d call me the Tigress.
I never knew what Mandarine’s group thought of my duelling, or even what Cassandra thought for that matter. They all watched me with reserved faces, but they didn’t spite me at all when I had a rapier in my hand. Until I blew up at Mandarine one day and told her she could spite me as much as she wished because I’d never turn a rapier on a weaponless person, at which she just smiled and pulled up her skirt to reveal a rapier strapped to the bottom of her girdle.
“I just don’t want to end up duelling at court,” she told me acidly. “Unlike some people. It has never been – how shall I say – proper for a lady?”
All the women had rapiers on their girdles, I learned later, for what was the use of knowing rapier duelling if you didn’t have a rapier when you needed it? After that I strapped my rapier to my girdle too when I wasn’t using it. But at least Mandarine understood the gist of my speech, and no longer stayed silent when I was around. She wasn’t nearly as fun that way.
Cassandra had been bitter ever since I’d fought back against her, but she no longer mocked me, only watched me with a strange light in her eyes. So I settled for ignoring her. At least Carmen was happier that way.
My real friend at court was Janeira; we would walk together during our daily promenades and confide in each other. She didn’t seem to be as sure of herself as Carmen and Mandarine were, but she was slowly fitting in. She had a cutting way of remarking on the others’ manners, though, as if she had little use for other people’s feelings.
The clothes Maria had gotten me had taken a couple days to be ready, which meant a few more of my court dresses got wrecked (a scarlet one, a peacock blue, and a dull smoke grey I’d never really liked). But when they did arrive I found them entirely useful. They consisted of a pair of pants, too baggy to be real pants, but divided so they couldn’t be a real skirt, made of sturdy brown and coming to mid-calf. They were immeasurably cooler and easier to move in. The shirt was tight, with straps making an X across my chest and torso since I didn’t wear a girdle for duelling, and sleeves that ended like a cap over my shoulders.
Duelling seemed to break up the monotony of the court days, so that I looked forward to court more. And my friendships with the other ladies improved, as they cheered me on, and teasingly took up my nickname of ‘Tigress’. Well, at least it was better than Penelope.
When Maria and I practised rapiers in the entrance hall I don’t think the Enchanter knew we were there. I don’t think he even knew I’d taken up rapiers. He was seldom awake at that time, unless he was going to the Palace, and then he only came for breakfast at the last minute. But Stefan and Paulina sometimes watched, and though I offered to teach Paulina she shook her head. Radagast thought it was all a game and ran in circles around us as we fought, barking.
I still wore court dresses to court, and changed into my rapier-clothes before my lessons. I had to admit Maria had wonderful taste, and some of them I wore quite often, like the crimson one she’d bought me first. Then there was a peacock blue velvet, with white lacing down the front and white ruffles, which I wore on days I felt like being more subdued. My fanciest one was of silk, with a swirling skirt of all the colours in the rainbow stitched together with gold thread, with a bodice of gold and edged all along the hems with diamonds. Quite frankly I felt like a court jester in it; we were wearing the same colours. And then there was Maria’s favourite, a gown of turquoise with black buttons of jet and black flowers embroidered up my bodice.
“It makes your eyes look so big and blue,” she said. But Casper didn’t like it, and he told me so quite rudely. Perhaps it was because it was Maria’s favourite.
But my rapier-clothes were indisputably the most comfortable clothes I’d ever owned. I thought if I could bring them back to Angaria I would, except people would look at me funny if I wore them there.
I was wearing them and sitting on the fence of the practice yard one day, taking a short break and sipping water from a water-skin. There was a slight breeze, thankfully, and I let it blow the wisps of hair off my face. I didn’t put my hair up for duelling anymore, and instead just tied back my hair with ribbon like I always had in Angaria. In front of me the earls fought back and forth, the steady clash! clash! of their rapiers rhythmic on my ears. Earl Seanit came up to me.
“Are you waiting for a partner?” he asked.
“No, just getting a sip of water,” I replied. “But I’ll duel with you if you want.”
I picked my rapier up and took up my stance against him. He faced me, we did a quick ceremonial bow, then each did a jab-thrust towards each other’s rapier, which was what usually started off the match. I concentrated on blocking his stabs, on the defensive as I usually was at first. Earl Seanit knew this and pressed hard with his attacks. His aim was probably to prevent me from ever being able to go on the offensive.
“You’ve got to stop being so predictable,” he panted.
“Oh yes?” I said, and made my move. A quick step to the left to fake him out, then around him to the right, and my rapier almost whipped through his defence to the white patch on his chest. He grinned.
“A touch faster next time,” he said. “You’ve got to work on you foot-work.”
I nodded. I knew.
Suddenly there was a pause and he hesitated in his movement, and I lunged forward to nick his white patch in half before realising what he was looking at. Then I turned, and I saw the Rajah behind me, with a gleaming rapier in hand.
“If you would permit, Earl Seanit,” he said to us, “I would like to see myself how the Lady Penelope everyone is talking about fights.”
I gaped at him. I couldn’t fight the Rajah! What if I hurt him or something?
Earl Seanit smiled and put a hand on my shoulder.
“ ‘Luck,” he said in a low voice, “But I think you can take him. Just don’t let the fact he’s Rajah overwhelm you. He can take care of himself.”
So I faced off with the Rajah, my hands both clasped tightly around the handle of my rapier to give a bow, then switched to my right-hand to give the quick jab-thrust. He surprised me by the quickness of his, and I barely turned it aside. I realised with some shock that the Rajah was left-handed.
He was skilled, and I realised my normal tactics wouldn’t do. I got stuck in some places and was forced to be creative, concentrating hard on where I stepped so I could point my rapier where I wanted it to be. He’s probably duelled with Maria DeAballah hundreds of times, I realised, and knows all her tricks. Okay, so I was in a bit of a tight spot.
I bit my bottom lip and retorted his blade, and whipped my rapier in a sort of twisty whistle at him. He turned it aside, his dark eyes intense, his hawkish face calm and focused. I whirled out of the way of his blade just in time. My rapier vibrated in my hands.
Just one more jab, I thought, but I didn’t have him. From nowhere he was able to make his rapier whip up to mine.
“So, I finally get to try my skill against the little Tigress,” he said, then grunted as my blade swung at him. “Earl Parfin was right, you do learn quickly. But you leave openings…” He thrust.
“Can’t expect me to catch them all,” I gasped, retreating a step. He followed up with another attack. I ignored the drip of sweat running down my nose and concentrated on the person in front of me.
“Most Exalted Rajah, I must ask you to forgive any hurt I inflict on your royal person,” I told him. I made a botched attack, and was just barely able to stop his retort.
“Do you think you can hurt me?” he asked, amused.
“Just wait and see,” I hissed back.
And then I really bit down. Sometimes when I fought it was as if something inside me clicked, and there was nothing else in my world except my rapier and my opponent’s, and the stances and moves just flowed out of me. All around me I could feel heat, the heat of the Chaldean sun baking on the flagstones, the heat of my exertion as I moved, the heat of my concentration, the heat in my mouth as I bit down and lunged…
The Rajah staggered back with a bit of a stunned expression on his face, his white patch dangling off his chest in two ragged halves. I caught myself and let my rapier arm drop to my side, staring.
“So,” he said. “I see now why you are called a Tigress.”
Feeling eyes on my back I turned. And there was Casper, leaning on the fence and watching me with that typical, irritating and amused smile of his.