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Authors: Pierre Pevel,Tom Translated by Clegg

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BOOK: The Cardinal's Blades
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Leprat let the door close behind him. Conversations picked up again as he came inside, his iron-tipped boots thudding against the rough floor with a rattle of spurs. As he passed, a few noticed the sword he carried at his side. Only the pommel and guard could be seen above the scabbard, but they seemed to be carved from a solid block of a material which shone like polished ivory.

A white rapier.

That was enough to be intriguing, even if no one knew exactly what it implied. Elbows were nudged discreetly, and uncertain expressions were exchanged with looks of puzzlement.

Having chosen a small empty table, Leprat sat with his back to a window through which, with a mere glance over his shoulder, he could cast an eye over the courtyard. The landlord, with greasy hair and a stained apron wrapped around the curve of his enormous belly, hastened toward him.

“Welcome, monsieur. How can I be of service?”

“Wine,” said Leprat, placing his hat and sheathed rapier on the table.

Then, eyeing the bird roasting on a spit over the hearth, he added: “And the chicken, there. And bread.”

“Immediately, monsieur. Hard travelling in this heat, isn’t it? You’d think it was already summer!”

“Yes.”

Understanding that the conversation would go no further, the landlord passed his order to a serving girl.

Quickly served, Leprat dined without lifting his eyes from his plate. He had not unsaddled his horse since the previous evening and found himself more famished than tired. In fact, he did not even feel the aches and pains plaguing his back until he was finally sated. He had been riding hard on the road between Brussels, which he had left in the middle of the night almost three days previously, and Paris, where he hoped to arrive that very evening.

The dog that had welcomed him barked again.

Turning his head toward the window, Leprat saw the riders arrive in the courtyard. He’d thought he’d succeeded in leaving them behind in Amiens, after the first ambush which he had eluded on the border between France and the Spanish Netherlands.

Evidently, he had been mistaken.

He summoned the serving girl with a calm gesture. An overly plump brunette of about twenty, she resembled the innkeeper so strongly she had to be his daughter.

“Monsieur?”

“Could I ask that you close the window curtains, please?”

The young girl hesitated as the window in question was the only source of light in the room.

“If you please,” Leprat insisted.

“Certainly, monsieur.”

She closed the curtains, blocking all view of the new arrivals who were dismounting outside. Inside the inn, there was some surprise at being suddenly pitched into shadow. But seeing who had made this request to the serving girl, all those present held their tongues.

“There, monsieur.”

“Now, do you see the woman with the white bonnet? The one with the little girl on her knee?”

“Yes.”

“Take them both out of here, without delay. Whisper in the mother’s ear that they are in danger, and tell her she must leave for her own safety and that of the child.”

“Excuse me? But, monsieur—”

“Do it.”

The young woman obeyed, looking worried. Leprat watched while she spoke quietly with the woman in the white bonnet. The woman frowned, and although she displayed some signs of concern, she seemed disinclined to move …

… at least, not until the door opened.

On seeing who it was, she hurried ahead of the serving girl into the kitchen, her little girl in her arms.

Relieved, Leprat edged his chair back without rising.

The freebooters entered with a swagger, as thugs everywhere enter a room when they are certain they are danger personified. Armed with rapiers and wearing thick leather doublets, they were grubby, sweaty, and stank of the stable. A tall thin man with long flaxen hair was in the lead—he wore a leather hat and had a scar across the corner of his lips which drew them into a strange, smiling rictus. The other three, each with a sinister bearing, escorted him closely and had the almost ordinary faces of conscienceless mercenaries who would cut a throat for a mouthful of bread. And then the last of the riders entered, and with his appearance alone managed to congeal the already apprehensive silence. He was a drac: a member of a race spawned by the dragons in order to serve them, known for its cruelty and violence. A grey drac, as it happened. Fine slate-coloured scales covered his jowled face, and his clawed hands had four fingers. He, too, was dressed as a hired killer.

Dumbstruck, the patrons in the inn made a show of paying no attention to the freebooters, as if this ploy could somehow dispel their menacing presence. The innkeeper hesitated over whether or not to go up to them, hoping against all odds that they would desire neither food nor drink. In the end, his courage deserted him entirely and he decided to remain close by the door leading to the kitchen.

The mercenaries slowly swept the room with inquisitorial gazes as their eyes adjusted to the half-light. When they saw Leprat, sitting with his back to the window and its closed curtains, they knew that they had found their man.

They approached him without crowding one another and took up position before his table. The drac remained by the door, and when customers tried to rise discreetly in order to leave, he was content to simply turn his head toward them. His vertical, membranous eyelids closed briefly over his expressionless reptilian eyes. Everyone resumed their seats.

The flaxen-haired man settled himself at Leprat’s table, sitting opposite him, without provoking any reaction.

“May I?” he asked, pointing a finger at the chicken Leprat had been eating

Without waiting for permission, he tore a wing from the plump carcass, bit into it, and gave a sigh of satisfaction.

“This is truly an honour,” he said conversationally. “Now I can say I have shared a meal with the famous Antoine Leprat, chevalier d’Orgueil.… Because that’s who you are, are you not? No, no, don’t answer. Seeing that is proof enough.”

With his chin he indicated the white rapier lying, in its scabbard, on the table.

“Is it true that it was carved in one piece from the fang of an ancient dragon?”

“From the point to the pommel.”

“How many others like that do you think there are in the world?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps none.”

The mercenary chief put on an admiring expression that might have been quite sincere. Half turning, he called out: “Innkeeper! Wine for the chevalier and I. Be sure it’s your best!”

“Yes, monsieur. At … at once.”

The two men locked eyes until the innkeeper came to serve them with a trembling hand, then scurried away leaving the wine jug. Leprat remained impassive as the other lifted his glass; upon seeing that his gesture was not imitated, the mercenary shrugged and drank alone.

“And me. Do you know who I am?”

The chevalier eyed him with contempt and did not reply.

“I am called Malencontre.”

Leprat smiled faintly.

Malencontre.

In other words: mishap. Or ill met.

Yes, that name did indeed fit this character.

14

 

“Do I know enough?”

“You will always know enough, if your adversary knows less than you.”

“But would you say I’ve progressed?”

Having counted up his meagre salary, Almades tightened the strings of his purse and raised his eyes toward the very young man who, still sweaty and out of breath from his latest fencing lesson, was watching him anxiously. He knew that look. He had seen it often in the past year, and he was astonished that he was still moved by it.

“Yes, monsieur. You have indeed made progress.”

It was no lie, considering that a week earlier the man had never held a sword in his life. He was a law student, who had come one morning to this inn, located in the outlying district—known as a
faubourg
—of Saint-Antoine, seeking the courtyard where Almades received his clients. He had a duel to fight, and wanted to learn how to cross blades. Time was short. But wasn’t it said that this backyard, where the Spaniard taught, was a better school than the finest fencing halls in Paris? Paid for in coin, no doubt a few lessons, properly learnt and applied, would suffice. After all, he only needed an unstoppable flurry of two or three clever thrusts to kill his man, didn’t he?

Almades frequently asked himself, when faced with students like this, if these young men truly believed in the existence of such “deadly thrusts” which, once their secrets were mastered, were capable of guaranteeing success without any need for fencing talent. And even if there were such a thing, did they imagine this mysterious knowledge could be had for a mere fistful of pistoles? But it was highly likely that this student, terrified by the prospect of risking his life, sword in hand, would want to believe it to be true. Like all the others, he would be led by honour, pride, or stupidity to the meadow tomorrow. He was afraid and, now that he was committed to this duel, hoped for salvation from a miracle worker.

Almades had carefully explained that in the time available to them he could not do more than impart the basic rudiments of fencing, that the greatest swashbuckler ever born was never certain to carry the day, and that it was always better to renounce a bad duel than one’s life. But faced with the student’s insistence he had accepted taking him on as a pupil, for a week, on condition that he paid the greater part of the agreed fee in advance. Experience had taught Almades that novices, put off by the difficulty of actually learning to fence, were quick to abandon their lessons, and with them, payment of any tuition.

This one, however, had not yet given up.

“I beg you, monsieur, tell me if I am ready,” the young man pleaded. “I must fight tomorrow!”

The fencing master stared at him for a long while.

“Above all else,” he finally said, “what truly matters is whether you are ready to die.”

His full name was Anibal Antonio Almades di Carlo. He was tall and thin, clearly of a naturally slender build, but had grown gaunt due to long periods of hunger. He had dark eyes and hair with a pale complexion and a grizzled but still tidy moustache. His doublet, his shirt, and his shoes were clean, although discreetly patched in places, and the lace at his collar and cuffs had seen hard use. His hat was missing its plume and the leather of his fold-over boots was unpolished. But even if he had nothing but rags to wear, Almades would have worn them well. Old Andalusian blood ran in his veins, nourishing his entire being with a haughty austerity which shone forth from him.

Brutally confronted by the prospect of his own death, the student blanched.

“Your duel,” asked the fencing master to lessen the blow, “Is it to first blood?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s for the best. Rather than employing this science to kill your adversary, use it to ensure you’re only slightly wounded. Stay on the defensive. Take breaks to conserve your strength and catch your breath. Wait for a mistake; it’s always possible that your adversary will make a clumsy move. But don’t be in too much of a hurry to finish him off, as you risk exposing yourself. And hold your left hand high enough to protect your face if necessary: it’s better to lose a finger than an eye.”

The young man nodded.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I will do exactly as you say.”

“Goodbye, monsieur.”

“Goodbye, master.”

They parted with a handshake.

* * *

Leaving the gloom of the inn, Almades went out into the open courtyard at the rear, a simple square of beaten earth where he supervised the exercises of his rare students. Hens squawked nearby; a horse neighed; a cow could even be heard lowing in the distance. The faubourg Saint-Antoine was a recent addition to the city, still very rural in character, made up of new dwellings and manors whose façades along both sides of the dusty roads converging on Paris hid the surrounding farms, fields, and pasture land from travellers’ sight. The faubourg began in the shadow of the Bastille, just beyond the Saint-Antoine gate and the city’s defensive moat, and the buildings progressively thinned out as one moved away from the capital and its stink.

At a table which had been left outside, exposed to the elements, Almades took out the rapier he kept for his clients’ use. Along with the sword which hung at his side, this comprised his sole teaching aid, and his entire fortune. It was an iron rapier of poor quality, doubtless too heavy, and in danger from rust. Sitting on a wooden stump, he began to patiently clean the notched blade with an oiled rag.

Footsteps could be heard in the courtyard. A group of men approached him, stopping a few metres away, remaining silent and waiting to be noticed.

Almades examined them from beneath the brim of his hat.

There were four of them. A provost and three apprentices. The first was armed with a sword, while his seconds carried iron bars. And they had all been sent by a fencing master who maintained a school close to the Bastille and who simply could not bear the thought of anyone benefiting from fencing lessons illegally dispensed by the Spaniard.

His iron rapier across his knees, Almades raised his head, squinting in the sunlight. He observed the four men with an inscrutable expression, and as he did so, idly fiddled with the steel signet ring he wore on his left finger, twisting it around three times.

“Monsieur Lorbois, isn’t it?” he said to the provost with a slight accent.

The other nodded and announced: “Monsieur, my master has warned you a number of times to cease laying any claim to the title of ‘fencing master,’ without which the practice of teaching fencing is illegal. You have persisted in spite of those warnings. My master has sent us today to assure ourselves that you will leave Paris and the surrounding area within the hour, never to return.”

Like any other trade, that of fencing masters was regulated. Formed in 1567 under the patronage of Saint Michel, the guild of Parisian fencing masters organised and oversaw the practice within the capital, and the status of its members was confirmed by letters of patent. None who lacked such a letter could instruct another in the art of fencing.

BOOK: The Cardinal's Blades
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