One or two of my patrons are ladies who are quite handy with a cutting remark. Perhaps I should rephrase this. I suppose most of my patrons are adept in this field, but some have, through long practice, mastered the art. But every so often one comes across somebody who can be cutting and witty.
Although she is not a ‘professional wit’ (by which I mean one who is invited to events purely because those inviting her hope she will deliver some devastating put-down to a victim included in the guest list purely for the purpose) Andei Addlespur was cutting in more ways than one. She was not merely taught fencing, she was a master swordsman.
Let us deal with the ‘master swordsman’ first. There are few, of any gender, who are recognised in Port Naain as having achieved this level of excellence. Examination is entirely practical, you are expected to fight for your ‘crown’. All bouts are against known experts and all are to first blood, fought without armour. Injuries are neither unknown nor unexpected. For the final bout the prospective master is matched against an Urlan, trained from birth to be a soldier and a warrior. The candidate is not expected to defeat the Urlan, (although some do) but must impress them with their skill.
As you can imagine, new masters are not created every decade, never mind every year, and Andei was, for many years, the youngest. Indeed at the time, it was her youth, not her gender, which was held to be remarkable.
There were some who were prepared to quibble about the wording of the designation. When she was awarded the title it was registered with the Council of Sinecurists. A clerk wrote back, querying whether a lady could be ‘master’ and swords’man’ and was there was another equivalent title.
Old Toldan, the oldest of the surviving Masters, and hence in some ways their spokesman was not impressed. I was fortunate enough to be asked to pen the letter he sent, (he wanted it written in a better hand than he could manage) and the words I can remember still. “I care not whether our new Master stands or sits when they visit the jakes. We have assessed their skill with the sword and they have reached a standard where, frankly, they can call themselves whatever they damned well like. There are probably not six people in the city with the ability to query their decision. But if you are not happy with the situation, take up your blade and have it out with her in person.”
Personally I felt rather sorry for the clerk who was probably just checking that the terminology was right, lest they inadvertently offend.
Still, like the other masters, she tended to support herself through teaching, and whilst Andei would consider anybody as a pupil, she did tend to teach women. This led her into many complicated situations. There are any number of reasons why a lady might learn to fence, and take lessons.
The first is a genuine love of the art, allied to a desire to be able to both defend herself, and to maintain a level of fitness. These ladies tend to gravitate to Andei because she is a good teacher, and has a reputation for being gentle with beginners. This latter quality is unusual, many masters are brusque with beginners, feeling that they are casting their treasure before the dogs. Most masters prefer to take competent pupils who have reached a good standard but who can then be stretched and pushed until they’ve achieved the best they can.
The second reason why a lady may wish to learn to fence is that she has conceived a desire for the fencing master rather than the art. There are any number of ‘fencing teachers’ who have stepped forward to gratify this group. The problem with these ‘fencing teachers’ is that they don’t have to be very good, as their pupils are never going to aspire to achieve mastery, they merely have to be better than the average Port Naain husband. To be honest this doesn’t set a very high bar.
This then set a pretty problem for the husband of such a lady. What to do? He was almost certainly unable to match his wife’s paramour blade to blade. Indeed to do so would be to acknowledge that the fellow was actually his wife’s paramour. Most would prefer to avoid forcing an open breach, in the expectation that their wife might get over what was, hopefully, a short lived infatuation.
The arrival of Andei upon the scene suddenly gave these gentlemen a way through their dilemma. They would hire her to teach their wife, ensuring that she arrived when the ‘fencing teacher’ was present. The husband would introduce Andei into the situation, explaining that he was so impressed with his wife’s devotion to her new interest that he decided to hire for her the very best.
This forced the lady’s own fencing teacher into a difficult position. One particularly foolish and over-confident individual dismissed her with vulgar abuse. Andei merely stood with her hand on the hilt of her blade and commented, “One day you may achieve the level of sophistication set by this table, it at least has a certain polish.”
When he drew his sword and attacked her she casually disarmed him and drove him from the house, thrashing his buttocks with the flat of her blade.
Another of these gentlemen saw her as she walked along Ropewalk and decided to take advantage of the busyness of the street to insult her. He told her, at length, what he thought of her. She glanced at him briefly and replied, “I don’t care what you think about me, I don’t think about you at all.”
It has to be said that Andei was never vindictive about it. If the fencing teacher went, Andei just left it at that. On occasion she would come across the same individual, but in a different household. In these occasions it was often enough for her to just stare at him for him to make his excuses and leave.
Still, there are always those who seem too stupid to learn their lesson. Flatan Artwight was one of these. After being ejected from one house, he decided to get his own back by starting a whispering campaign. This alleged that Andei won her coveted status not by her ability with the blade but by engaging in unusual erotic practices with various unnamed (but obviously powerful) people.
One evening I was helping Madam Kalinsa plan an entertainment she was holding the following week. I did notice she keep looking at the clock, but wasn’t entirely sure why. Then a maid arrived and announced, “It is time for your fencing lesson, Master Flatan Artwight has arrived.” I thought this a little strange, as it was late in the evening and I knew that Madam’s husband was in Prae Ducis on business. Still I made my excuses and left, passing Flatan in the hallway as I did so. I was walking down the drive towards the road and met Andei Addlespur walking towards the house. I bowed slightly.
“Good evening Andei, I confess I am surprised to see you here.”
She gave one of those quick smiles which displays teeth rather than humour. “Master Kalinsa asked me to keep an eye on things and drop in if necessary.” She paused as if pondering the situation. “Would you be so kind as to announce me please? And when you do, stress I am entering the house behind you.”
Nothing loath I turned round, walked back into the house and was met in the passage by a bemused maid. “I have a message for your mistress, and could you greet Andei Addlespur at the door and show her in please.”
With that I knocked on the salon door and after allowing a short period to elapse I entered the room. Madam was seated on the settle and Flatan was apparently engaged in getting a speck of dust out of her eye. Without ceremony I announced,
“Andei Addlespur has arrived, your maid is at this very moment showing her in.”
Flatan cursed, opened the window and climbed out. Intrigued I made my way to the window. As Flatan prepared to tiptoe into the shadows and make his way through the garden to the road, Andei appeared in front of him with her sword drawn. The light from the window glinted on the blade. She said nothing, merely watching him, her sword half raised. Finally Flatan’s nerve obviously broke because he drew his sword and charged towards her. She deflected his blow with her blade, guiding it to her left. Then she half stepped sideways to avoid his attempt to body slam her and trust with her sword. Flatan fell dead.
She looked down at the body, sighed and wiped her blade on his shirt. Then she turned to me as I stood at the open window. “Tallis, I think I’d better spend a while in Partann. I am not sure if the authorities are going to smile upon this particular incident.
I could see that. “Well you have rather burned your bridges. They could claim it was murder, even with me as a witness to state he attacked you.”
I got a genuine smile for that. She sheathed her sword. “Always remember, Tallis. If you’re being pursued by idiots, burning your bridges sometimes seems an entirely sensible thing to do.”
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