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A restless young nobleman takes on a new opponent.

‘One more round, Baron?’ the fencing master said. ‘As a favour.’

Emil swiped his neck awkwardly with his handkerchief, his mask and epée in the crook of his arm. The unease that had dogged him to the Academy was numbed, for now, by physical weariness.

The fencing master flipped open the buttons of the padded canvas that protected his chest and underarm. He did it without looking, eyes still on Emil. He was a scarred and wary old fox.

‘Put a new student through their paces for me.’ The master slewed the unbuttoned plastron off his shoulder.

Emil’s chest was still heaving. He’d come to the Academy sort himself out. He’d worn himself out instead.

‘Over there.’ The master tipped the hilt of his weapon towards a bench, where a small man sat by himself, a slim silhouette against large, uncurtained windows. Behind the new student, in the apartments across the street, gas lights had been lit. As Emil looked, a woman twitched her drapes across. He could say it was late, plead a prior engagement. But he felt a stubborn resistance. He was not ready for the upholstered embrace of a drawing room. Besides, the master didn’t let Emil win, for which Emil liked him.

He mopped his forehead with his sleeve and nodded. ‘My pleasure. What’s his name?’



‘No, stage name.’

That surprised Emil. Not the Academy’s usual class of patrons. Emil looked across to the bench, but Archambeau was already masked up, his face a black oval of wire mesh.

‘Needs fencing moves for a role.’ The master held his plastron out by the armpit. ‘You have textbook technique. And you’re a gentleman.’

Emil bowed. He knew, as acutely as the master knew, that he was also slow. As a kid, Emil had as much aptitude for sword play as a door post. But he had stuck through those years of drills because he had a moral horror of skipping class. He’d come to like the sport. In fencing, rules gave architecture and clarity to the dynamics. They didn’t make it dull. He wished life was more like fencing.

He buttoned the master’s plastron over his own padded vest. It smelt of sweat. While most fencing suits were black, the master’s was a grubby white, and had a red heart painted on the breast as a target. Wearing it Emil felt slightly ridiculous, and exposed. Which was in itself ridiculous, because of course the padded piece was there to protect him. The deadly era of duelling was over. The goal of fencing was to score a touch now, not run your opponent through.

Archambeau crossed the parquetry floor of the former ballroom. He stepped onto the piste with self-conscious precision, as if walking the plank. He was an actor, Emil remembered.

He stood just inside the reach of Emil’s weapon, his own epée pointing into the floor. Emil took a step back, out of courtesy.

He sized up his sparring partner. Archambeau was pigeon-chested under his stiff canvas jacket, with a small waist. He was unlikely to have much power in his sword arm, although that wasn’t decisive. Emil had a good foot in height over him, and therefore longer extension, which mattered more. The actor wore an eccentric pair of blue velvet breeches that ballooned around his legs, like the ones worn by Emil’s noble forebears in their dark, oil-glazed portraits at home. His leather pumps were bright red. Emil was embarrassed for him. Perhaps it was a period costume. The baggy cloth would make it easier for Emil’s point to nick him.

This wasn’t a contest, Emil reminded himself. ‘Good afternoon, sir.’

Archambeau bowed from the waist. Emil noticed a knot of blonde hair at the back of his head, under the mask strap. The actor must be growing his hair for the role.

Emil raised his epée vertically in salute. Archambeau did the same.

En garde!’ Emil called, and took his position, right foot and weapon pointing forward, back upright, weight even.

Opposite him, Archambeau looked as if he could be knocked over by a breeze. Even by the draughty licks of winter cold that passed for ventilation.

‘Open your legs,’ Emil suggested.

He sensed a flicker of surprise behind Archambeau’s mask, but the man slid his back foot outwards.

‘That’s it. Now bend your knees more.’

Archambeau glanced down and dropped into the proper stance.

Emil waited until Archambeau’s eyes were up again. He could see the shadow of them through the wire mesh, the glint of the whites, and the outline of a cleanshaven face.

Pret…’ Emil gave the customary command. He supposed he and his opponent were as ready as they’d ever be. He didn’t have much fight left in him, but this round would be slow and careful, a dance of advance and retreat, until they had each other’s measure.


The moment Emil called the start, Archambeau dashed forward in a fleche. Emil was so surprised he parried more forcefully than he need have, and Archambeau skeetered over the taped border of the piste.   

‘Sir,’ Emil said, ‘you’re not supposed to do that.’

Archambeau lifted the dark gaze of the visor to him but didn’t speak.

Emil felt required to explain. ‘The rules don’t say you can’t. But it’s not wise. It’s safer to test an unknown opponent first.’

Archambeau was apparently thinking that one over. It suddenly occurred to Emil that perhaps the actor didn’t care about winning or losing, and that what mattered for him might be a good show. Whereas Emil liked a hard-fought battle that made the win worthwhile.

‘The preliminaries are part of the dynamics,’ he added. ‘The engineering of a match.’ He wasn’t any good at stage metaphors. That was the best he could explain it.

Archambeau gave a brief nod. He resumed his place on the fencing strip, his left arm raised balletically.

They went another round. Archambeau took Emil’s advice, and when one advanced, the other retreated, in a pas de deux, without closing in. Their leather soles slapped rhythmically on the floorboards. The actor’s footwork was imperfect, but he was light and agile.

All of a sudden, he seemed to get bored, and throwing caution to the wind, he lunged for Emil’s forward foot.  It was too far. He left his wrist exposed and Emil marked it easily.

‘My point,’ he said.

Archambeau rubbed the chalk off his wrist and shook his shoulders.

In the next round, Archambeau tried beating against Emil’s weapon. The blades clanged dramatically, but Emil was not easily rattled.

He saw Archambeau’s elbow stray from safe alignment behind the bell-guard hilt, but he refrained from reaching for it.

‘Mind your line,’ he puffed out, retreating from another premature lunge.

Archambeau corrected, then lunged again. This time Emil countered with a deep parry – he caught the actor’s blade and moved it away, before extending down, flicking his point towards the actor’s leg. The tip of his epée slashed through the velvet and exposed a white triangle of thigh.

‘You left yourself open,’ Emil said apologetically, circling the air in front of his groin and upper thigh. ‘Best keep that sword well sheathed.’

He meant it as a joke, to put Archambeau at ease, and take the sting out of the hit. Archambeau coughed, as if the humour had gone down badly. Emil regretted it. What was he to do with this man? It was unnerving, fighting someone who didn’t talk.

Maybe one or two more bouts before calling it quits. The actor had to earn his living and he must therefore learn to fence. Emil admired his purpose.  Ever since the army, Emil had been bored, adrift. His life had followed the pattern expected of him – Latin and French, fencing and cadets, an officer’s gold braid. His sisters wanted him to moor himself in marriage. They’d found several prospects for him. Marriage was the logical next step. Emil wondered if it was too simple. Too staid and safe. He had hoped to find an answer in the distraction of fencing, but he’d only found distraction.

Archambeau was annoyed. He came back vigorously, trying to flick the end of his epée around the bell guard. So you want to play rough, Emil thought. Some men, and he was one of them, considered it ungentlemanly to zing an opponent’s grip like that.

Emil avoided three such attempts. Enough. Time to go on offense. If Archambeau was a risktaker, Emil would use it against him. He advanced, extending his arm in a high line, appearing to lay himself open. When Archambeau moved in, Emil’s sword arm followed the line of fall, thrusting down. In a duel, that would’ve killed him. But instead the tip bounced away, and Emil’s hand brushed along the man’s side. The actor was quite soft. It wasn’t only the padding – Emil felt the springy bounce of flesh. His estimation of the man fell a little further.

Emil gave Archambeau advice on how to position himself better, and how to parry. He didn’t think the actor would listen. He seemed to be a reckless fighter, who only wanted to push forward.  

Emil was right. He extended in a high line again, for the actor to practice. The actor went for his side instead, thrusting from too far back. Emil reached to score a simple tap on his shoulder. But his execution was too cocky. His blade rasped on Archambeau’s mask, then flicked into the actor’s hair, and the knot came tumbling down in a silvery spill.

‘Damn.’ Archambeau swore. In a woman’s voice. He – no, she – pushed her hair away, but the silky fall hung over her left breast and whispered to Emil of white thighs and smooth skin. 

Then he recalled what he had said. His instructions – ‘open your legs’ – and his stupid jokes rushed back into his mind, as if his own words had turned on him. He felt uselessly big and stupid, his legs like chimney stacks. He lifted his arms in surrender.

But Archambeau ignored his open stance. Instead she pointed her weapon at him in a menacing en garde.

Never hit a girl. His father’s voice came back to Emil, in the cedar-lined wall of their library, where the baggy-breeched ancestor frowned down upon the boy. Not now, or as a man. Never, Emil.

Archambeau couldn’t hear his father. She ran at Emil in a renewed charge. He stumbled in retreat to the end of the piste, where he butted blindly at her epée. She slid past his clumsy parry. At these close quarters, he saw through the mesh of her mask. Her eyes were fixed on the red heart marked on his front.

He was not prepared to give up, he realised. Convention be dashed. He actually flinched as she lunged in and the point of her blade nipped the fabric. The blade flexed up and light arced along it. It sprang away, as did its mistress.

But not before Emil got in his riposte – a touch to her breast, to equal the score.

Anna Archambeau pushed up her visor, and stood braced and triumphant. She had skewered his expectations. Her epée speared the floor and her hands balanced the hilt. She breathed through her mouth, her face flushed.

‘I did it!’ She lifted her chin, inviting him to concede. And maybe more.

Emil crossed his blade over his heart. ‘Touché. You have me.’

Then he pointed to the white mark chalked on her vest. ‘And I you, madame.’

(c) Alison Lloyd 2022

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