The salle d’armes of the Scuola di Cavalcabo is long but narrow, flooded with bright summer sunlight through tall narrow windows. Woodblock prints illustrating different fighting stances adorn the whitewashed walls. Racks with a variety of practice swords and long wooden benches line the wall opposite the piste marked on the floor beneath the windows. Urbain de Foresta catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror of glass and tin at the far end of the piste as he enters the studio.
It’s taken Urbain weeks to recover from his fight in the dark. Nursing sore ribs along with scratches and bruises from his visit to Lo Diable, Urbain retired to his lodgings and summoned a physician to attend to his wounds. The aching ribs were bound and a salve rubbed into the scratches left by the trollop’s nails on his neck; the physician’s ministrations cost Urbain twenty-fivce livres, but after two weeks’ bed rest the chevalier feels himself again.
After his close shave, Urbain feels vulnerable. La Gautier was clearly the better swordsman, and it was only by virtue of the trick with his cape that Urbain was able to defeat the bravo. This morning he set out from his lodgings in search of the fencing school, intent on improving his skill.
Seated on a wooden bench is Laplante, the swordmaster, sharpening a dagger with a whetstone. His strokes are steady and sure as he hones the edge of the blade. At the click of Urbain’s boots on the wooden floor, he looks up.
“Maître Laplante?” Urbain inquires. “I am the chevalier de Saint-Sauvan.” Laplante rises, setting aside the dagger and stone on the bench, then offering Urbain a deep bow. He is dressed in a white linen shirt, open at the neck – Urbain sees a gold medal of Saint Mark dangling from a chain – dark silk breeches and the soft leather shoes favored by fencing masters. Laplante isn’t tall, but he moves with a catlike grace and through the open neck of his shirt the muscles of his chest and neck stretch like cables beneath the skin.
“Welcome to my school, monsieur le chevalier,” Laplante replies as Urbain answers the swordmaster’s bow with a nod.
A moment passes in silence as Laplante gazes at Urbain. “I’m told you are the finest instructor in the French style of fencing in Marseille, maître Laplante,” Urbain says at last, and Laplante once again bows, slightly, from the waist this time. “I wish to become your student.”
Again a long silence settles between the two. A hint of a smile lifts a corner of Laplante’s mouth as his dark eyes lock on Urbain’s. “You played cards at Lo Diable a week or so ago, monsieur le chevalier, with the marquis d’Espard,” he says. It’s not a question, Urbain notices. The chevalier offers a slight nod of acknowledgement, and a predatory grin appears on the fencing master’s face. “You ran La Gautier through.” Urbain nods again, more deeply this time, gratified for such a reputation.
Laplante’s gaze doesn’t waver, and the chevalier begins to feel uncomfortable at the silence between the men. Finally Laplante sniffs, and motions at the piste. “If you please, monsieur,” he says. From a nearby rack the master pulls a long rapier, its edge dull and blunted – a sparring weapon. Urbain steps toward the rack, thinking to draw one like it, but Laplante waves him away. “Your sword will do, monsieur,” he says, a wolfish grin on his lean face. Urbain nods, and the noble’s rapier hisses from his baldric. With his free hand, Urbain sweeps off his cloak, but Laplante peremptorily waves it aside. “Just your sword.” Urbain flings the cloak to the floor and takes his place on the piste opposite Laplante.
“Attack,” the fencing master commands.
Urbain salutes Laplante and comes on guard. He advances and the fencing master gives ground, nimble as a cat on a fence. Prepared to parry Laplante’s thrust, Urbain extends the tip of his own sword suddenly. With a flick of his blade, the swordmaster deflects the attackm, then whips his own rapier in a sweeping arc, striking Urbain on the shoulder with the flat of the blade.
The strike stings, both his shoulder and his pride, and Urbain winces at the blow. He takes a deep, measured breath and regains his composure.
Laplante’s eyes are flashing. “Again,” he commands and the two men come on guard once more. Urbain thrusts at Laplante once more, and the master parries the blade, passing a mere finger’s width from his chest. Laplante’s rapier whips through the air once again and Urbain tries to parry, but the flat of the blade cracks against his elbow. The chevalier gasps as white-hot fire shoots up and down his arm. Urbain’s hand goes numb, his rapier clattering to the ground. Laplante snaps the tip of his own weapon up, catching the slashed sleeve of Urbain’s blue-and-green doublet and tearing the silk.
Urbain cradles his arm for a moment as the fencing master stands before him, a fierce grin on his face. With his good hand, the chevlaier slides the injured arm into the front of his own doublet. Kneeling down, he recover his rapier with his left hand, and comes on guard again.
“Very good, monsieur,” Laplante says, the tip of his own sword resting on the floor. He waves with his free hand. “No more,” he adds. Urbain remains on guard for a moment longer, then awkwardly slides his rapier back into his baldric with his good hand.
Laplante is unflinching in his appraisal. “Your natural ability is minimal, chevalier, but it appears you’ve studied with some diligence. If you contiue to work at it you may show improvement in your skill.”
The fencing master’s eyes glitter like dark pearls. “But I cannot accept you as my student.” Forgetting his composure, his injured arm once again cradled in his good hand, Urbain’s eyes widen abruptly.
“My students come from many of the best families in Marseille,” Laplante continues, “including at cousin of yours. The Foresta name is among the most respected in Provence.” He pauses, and the wolfish smile disappears from his face. “But the Foresta family wants nothing to do with you, do they, monsieur?”
Laplante reaches down and picks up Urbain’s cloak. “Were I to accept you into my school, monsieur le chevalier, it could be seen as a measure of acceptance that my other students may resent. And I simply cannot afford that, monsieur.” The fencing master holds out the cloak to Urbain, who lets his injured arm dangle as he drapes the garment over his shoulders.
Laplante offers him a salute with the sparring sword, which a pale Urbain is forced to acknowledge with a nod. Stepping into the suny Marseille street, a muttered, “Biedaze,” escapes his lips as he grimaces at the throbbing pain in his arm.
Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them. – William Shakespeare
The actual play log of this game can be viewed here.