chapter XIII




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Author’s Notes: Heads up! More twists and turns of the plot coming your way, as well as a bit of swearing near the end of the chapter. Sorry about that. More author’s notes and a glossary of terms for fencing can be found at the bottom of the page. It took me a while to look into them, but I hope I got the fencing terms and moves right. Kindly notify me if there are any errors.




I arrived at the Paris office at half past ten with the certainty that the welts on my arms, incurred from Françoise’s sword earlier that morning, were fast turning into bruises. Bruised arms, a bruised heart— I wondered what was left of me that was not aching? Yet I had only myself to blame for getting hurt by Françoise.


Just how long was I going to stand it?


Ignoring the dull pain and the way my thoughts were turning, I set about my usual tasks that began this morning by dealing with Alain de Soisson.


Rosalie seemed glad to see me; apparently, Alain had been harassing her for quite some time now. From the way he was hovering over poor Rosalie at her desk, one would think he was a vulture in another life. The man had arrived unannounced, as usual, and I had to struggle to contain my ill-concealed satisfaction as I said, “Sorry, the Boss will be out the entire weekend.”


“Again?” He demanded impatiently. “Tell me, Monsieur le Cardinal—how is it that I always get to miss her in such a timely manner every single instant? You don’t suppose she’s deliberately avoiding me now, do you?”


“No,” I said smoothly, quelling my instinct to throw him a punch then and there for calling me by the nickname that he had designated me. “The only reason why you keep missing her is because you don’t bother to set an appointment before you come over.”


“And do you think that’s going to help any?” He asked as he leaned on Rosalie’s desk, a sarcastic smile on his lips. “I’ve got the impression that she flees the moment she senses my presence.”


“I wouldn’t bet on it if I were you,” I said dryly. Losing one’s temper with Alain was a pure waste of time. I had learned that a long time ago. “But do leave a message now with Rosalie if you’ve got anything important to say to her. I’m sure it will be forwarded to her in no time.”


He let out a barking laugh. “Thanks, but no thanks,” he said. “I shall have to wait till next week then. But that de la Motte business was something else, wasn’t it? Any idea how she came to suspect the guy enough to launch an investigation into the man?”


“She didn’t say,” I said in an exaggeratedly bright tone. “Perhaps you ought to ask her yourself next time.”


Alain’s smile faded a little at that, and he straightened up from Rosalie’s desk. “Maybe I will,” he said. “But perhaps you can tell Mon Capitan when she arrives that dismissing the man is just the beginning of the story, not the end.”


I stared after him as he turned to go, wondering what he had meant by that remark.


“Strange man,” Rosalie murmured as we saw him round the corner and disappear from our sight. “You’ve no idea how long he’s been here. He simply wouldn’t believe me when I said Françoise has gone to Normandy.”


“Did he tell you why he’s here?” I asked.


“Apart from wanting to see the Boss, no,” replied Rosalie as she sat back down to renew her typing. After a moment, she looked up again and asked, “Why does he call you Monsieur le Cardinal?”


“Because he thinks he’s being too damn clever,” I said shortly.


Rosalie persisted in her question, and I finally gave in: “He says I’m Cardinal Richelieu to Françoise’s Louis XIII. You haven’t heard him address me this way before? No? It’s a relatively new nickname of his, though he’s completely out of his mind if he thinks I’ve got that kind of influence on Françoise.”


“Well…I wouldn’t say his analogy is all that inaccurate,” said Rosalie gently. “Françoise really does rely on you a lot, you know. More than anyone else here, in fact.”


I turned to look at her sharply, but Rosalie was already staring at the computer screen by then. Deciding it would be best to let the matter drop, I asked her, “so what’s been happening on your side? You look tired.”


She sighed and shook her head.


Strange. The only thing that used to trouble her was her mother’s health, and she always told me what happened. This didn’t seem like the case this time around.


“Is something the matter?” I prodded, sensing something else in her features just then. “That boyfriend of yours not taking proper care of you? What’s his name again?”


“Bernard,” she said with a sigh. “We’ve been arguing a lot lately, and…”


She trailed off, and for one alarming moment she looked as though she were about to burst into tears. “Can we please not talk about it just now?” she asked finally.


“All right,” I said, eyes wide. I turned to leave and paused. Turning back to her, I said, “Of course, if that guy ever gives you any trouble, you don’t hesitate to tell me. I mean it, okay?”


She gave me a watery smile and nodded.




Françoise arrived punctually at the office on Monday, looking like she usually did and thoroughly unruffled even as I knew she had arrived in Paris late the night before. Even as I knew that she must feel at least a bit nervous about the upcoming bout to be held in a few days’ time.


But it was clear that she would not welcome any inquiries into this matter, so I asked about Antoinette instead.


She shook her head and said simply, directly, “I don’t think I’m getting anywhere with her.”


At my expression of surprise, she smiled slightly and said, “Now is not a good time to ask what happened, André.”


Can we please not talk about it just now… Now is not a good time to ask what happened… What was wrong with everybody? I must confess that I never liked being left in the dark about anything.


As a way to change the subject, I thought of telling her about the latest talk, fresh just this weekend, of Fersen’s sudden departure to the United States of America, but I supposed Françoise must know of it by now. If not from the man himself, then at least from Antoinette.


And I had promised myself that I was never going to talk about Fersen in front of Françoise if I could help it. If she had not heard of the news yet, then she was not going to hear it from me.


So we ended up not talking about anything at all.




Have you ever attended a black and white ball? Those exclusive by-invitation-only affairs held in some chic mansion or other equally elite dwelling in Paris? This one was held, by Patrick Smith’s insistence, in the Trocadéro residence of one of his expatriate colleagues--a certain M. Meyers.


The de Brun board of directors had let him get away with it, thinking perhaps that allowing the Americans to take care of the physical arrangements would be one problem off their shoulders, but they were naturally ferocious when it came to choosing a referee to oversee the bout as well as the judges.


All week long, there had been disagreements over the choice of referee and judges and it came as a surprise to everyone that they actually got to agree with the Americans over one presiding group in the end.


By agreement, the bout was to end with the winner being the first to score five touches on his opponent. Just how short—or how long—the match would take would ultimately depend on the skill of the players then.


And so we were here now, just arrived by limousine and Rosalie to follow soon afterward (she was still in Françoise’s apartment packing a change of clothes for the Boss to wear after the match). Françoise had insisted on coming straight from work and was to change into her fencing clothes the moment we got to the Meyers mansion.


To show just how important the affair was: the de Brun board of directors was in full attendance, not to mention other guests hailing from the various French business sectors. As Françoise changed into her fencing clothes in an upstairs bedroom suite, the tension was made manifest by her anxiously chattering sisters.


As usual, her sisters and mother had come up to help with the dressing and were waved off by an amused Françoise, as she knew very well they had no idea how fencing garb was worn.


“Of course, I have no doubt whatsoever in Françoise’s fencing,” said Monsieur confidently as he dropped by to see how things were going and found the anxious women in the room. “It will all be over quite soon. Why don’t you all come down for some champagne?”


As Françoise was not quite ready to emerge from the bathroom, everyone had thought it best to go down with Françoise’s father to the ballroom for some refreshments to steady their nerves before the match.


“I see everyone’s gone,” said Françoise as she finally came out to see me all alone in the large room.


“It’s much better this way, I think,” I said. “Chest shield not too tight?”


She shook her head as she adjusted the croissard, the form-fitting white jacket, across her torso. Then she gathered her long, shining hair to tie up in a ponytail.


“Nervous?” I asked softly, my voice almost tender.


“No,” she said quite clearly and turned to survey the equipment that I had laid out neatly on the bed. “I think it’s time we go down. Can you help me with the swords, please?”


“Of course,” I said as I bent to take the epées. For one moment we were level as she reached for the gloves and the helmet from the bed.






“Good luck,” I said. My words were no louder than a whisper in the stillness of the room.


She did not turn to me, did not stop in her actions as she picked up the gloves and the helmet. I caught a fleeting smile on her lips though as she straightened up.


“Not to worry,” she said as we strode out of the room.


The ballroom, where the bout was to be held, was already full of people by the time we came down. In the center of the room full of gilded mirrors and heavy chandeliers lay the narrow fencing strip or piste, where the crowd had gathered close by and where Patrick Smith was already waiting.


Standing under the bright lights that turned his short hair to a cap of molten gold, Smith looked especially dashing in his fencing clothes. Of course, for reasons too obvious to write down, the sight of him standing thus was particularly irksome to me. I could see that the collective gaze of the women in the room was upon him. And just then he was waiting for one woman and one woman alone.


He came forward to shake hands when he saw Françoise finally approach, saying, “It’s a shame the bout has to come before anything else. I hope you won’t slink away the moment we’re done, as was your custom?”


Françoise laughed. “Of course not. After the bout comes the business deal. How can I possibly walk away from that?” she answered.


Smith grinned. “Ah yes, the business deal,” he said, “Provided who wins, of course.”

“Are you really serious about pulling out of the deal if you win?” demanded Françoise. “You have not answered our question regarding the terms you want to set down in case I—in case you are victorious.”


Smith laughed. “Do you really want to know what I’ve finally decided as a prize?” he asked.


“I think de Brun’s entitled,” said Françoise coldly.


“Oh, I’m sure de Brun won’t mind a bit, but perhaps you will.”


Here, Smith leaned into her and whispered something that made Françoise go rigid with outrage. She broke away from the man and cried, “Ridiculous! Just utterly ridiculous! I’m not agreeing to that!”


“Just for an evening,” he said. “What’s so wrong with it?”


“I can’t believe you’d think of something like this! Had I known about it earlier I wouldn’t have agreed to this bout!”


“Are you going to call it off then?” asked Smith with a shrug as he turned to survey the crowd a few meters away from us. The people were out of earshot but they were near enough not to have noticed the way Smith had leaned in to whisper to Françoise. Murmurs had erupted at the sight of Françoise’s sudden agitation.


Quickly stemming the force of her reaction, Françoise turned away from Smith and strode to her side of the piste. I followed with some trepidation, asking, “What did he want?”


“The man’s a bastard!” spat Françoise. “The deal was never in jeopardy in the first place!”


“What did he want??” I repeated urgently, imagining the unimaginable and thinking I would like to throw myself at the man and kill him if he dared to propose anything indecent.


“If I lose, he wants me to appear in a gown of his choice as his date for the Opera next week,” said Françoise incredulously. “Dear God! Have you ever heard of anything more idiotic?!”


I couldn’t think of anything to say then, though my rage seemed to double upon hearing her words. For that was when all my suspicions about the man crystallized into conviction: Smith wanted her.


That was obvious enough from the very start. But I realized now that the duel was but a ploy, an elaborate trap to get her, woo her and seduce her. It was simply quite outrageous for Smith to make game of a business deal just to court a woman.


I feared for Françoise then—feared that she might succumb to his charms. What red-blooded woman would not?


From several feet away I could see some de Brun officials--Françoise’s father included in their ranks--make their way over to us.


“Is something the matter?” Monsieur wanted to know. For all his bravado earlier in the evening, he did not sound so unconcerned now.


Françoise shook her head, saying, “No. Nothing’s the matter.”


She turned to nod curtly at Smith’s direction, a signal to start the bout. As her father and the others hurried away after uttering one last round of encouragement to Françoise, she turned to me and muttered, “That idiot has made sure I can’t back out now. Look to your left.”


As I did so, I glimpsed among the crowd a young man of average height in a tuxedo, heavy of brow and thin of lip, as he regarded the piste and its duelists with an intensity of features that was fast becoming known among players in the French corporate world, just as he was fast becoming known as a corporate raider.


Merde,” I said without thinking, “it’s Rabullione*. What’s he doing here?”


“Exactly,” said Françoise as she donned her gloves.


“Don’t let Smith get to you,” I said in a last-minute effort to calm her as I helped her strap on her helmet and gave her a sword.


“I won’t,” she assured me before setting off to the middle of the piste, epée in hand.


The crowd surged to get closer, and I soon found myself within their jostling ranks.


I saw the referee talk to both opponents as they positioned themselves at the starting line, saw them raise their swords for the opening salute before dropping back to the en-garde position…


And almost before we knew it, the bout had begun with Smith launching a swift attack.


I watched as Françoise parried Smith’s lunge skillfully and executed her own assault, her sword deftly dealing with his until she saw a break through his defenses and scored her first point. Cheers erupted and faded quickly as the players repositioned themselves.


I heaved a sigh of relief, glad to see that she was in her usual form. It was just like Françoise to score her first point in less than a minute into the bout.


In the tense atmosphere of the crowded ballroom, Françoise looked as though she were completely at ease and not at all intimidated by her opponent…


…As though she could not be intimidated by anything or anyone.


But I’ve seen fear in those eyes once before…just once, I thought. I’ve seen how you’ve looked, Françoise, when you had been afraid.


And despite the excitement of the bout, I found my thoughts straying.


Afraid of me…


That night, you had not displayed the cool self-assurance that I see in you now. Had it simply been my brute, physical strength that had overwhelmed you then, unleashed after years of silent desperation, or had you really been that terrified of me? Whether it had been one or the other, or both, I had come away more ashamed of myself than I had ever been in my life.


There had been none of the confidence, the invulnerability that others had come to associate with you.




When you tried to ward me off, your hands as they beat upon me had felt as light as rain; your arms when you tried to push me away had weighed no more than a feather—as light as yourself when I had held you in my arms and tossed you down on the rumpled sheets.


You are giving Smith a hard time tonight. Tell me, where was all that strength then when you needed it most?


And that moment when I had torn at your blouse, when all the fight suddenly departed you and you went limp under me…how could I describe the agony of that particular moment when I realized that I had lost you?


I had never seen you slump down in defeat before. Truly, I hadn’t.


And to perceive it in you then, to see you reduced to weeping—to have you almost in a state of virginal terror at my mindless onslaught—had wounded me terribly.


Even now, as I recalled those few moments when I joined you in tears before removing myself from that bed, I had to fight down this thing that heaved wildly inside my chest, fight down the lump that rose unbidden at my throat. I would never forgive myself for what I had nearly done to you.


I had frightened you horribly—you, who had met and stared down at opponents more terrible than I could possibly ever be. Yet facing Smith now, this powerful man who could make or break the deal of a lifetime, you show this invincible front.


Can anyone be more wonderful than you, Françoise?


My thoughts broke off abruptly as the crowd seemed to gasp in unison. Mouth suddenly turning dry, I saw that Smith had just scored a point by suddenly twisting his sword out in the middle of its engagement with Françoise’s epée and delivering a blow to her arm in the process. It had been a long time since I last saw Françoise getting caught off guard like that in a bout. I saw it now and I knew she did not like it.


Concentrate, Françoise. Concentrate…I thought, feeling a trickle of unease as I watched.


Smith advanced as he delivered a series of well-placed blows with his epée. Françoise had just enough time to parry them as she took one step back, then another.


Whispers started across the room.


“She’s losing it,” muttered someone to my left, and I turned, annoyed, to see that it was Victor de Girodelle.


“Ah, André,” he said easily upon meeting my gaze. “Didn’t realize you’re there.”


I nodded once at his direction and turned back to watch the match.


After a moment, I heard him say, “It’s quite strange, isn’t it? This absurd request of Smith to settle a business deal this way, I mean. What could he possibly mean by it?”


“Whatever his motive for the duel, the deal is as good as closed,” I said, making sure to sound confident.


I could feel Girodelle’s cool, skeptical gaze on me as he said, “you think so? I’ve no doubt about Françoise’s prowess in the boardroom, but to settle a business deal with fencing! You don’t suppose that is precisely the reason why Smith’s requested this bout, to inject an element of unpredictability and chance into what is surely a done deal? What was the board thinking in agreeing to the entire thing? They shouldn’t have exposed Françoise to the risk.”


 “Maybe,” I said coldly as I followed Françoise’s swift strokes as she delivered a counter attack. Girodelle’s small talk was irritating me and I wasn’t going to provide a cause for further conversation by telling him what Smith wanted from Françoise in case she lost to him. “But if you think she’s going to lose to Smith, then you don’t know her.”


“No?” He returned, sounding unaccountably amused at my comment as he turned his attention back to the contest.


Françoise was recovering fast, sending Smith back down the strip as she delivered a particularly swift and graceful ballestra across the piste.


The minutes ticked by. Smith seemed unwilling to let the match go her way. He quickly made up for every successful touch scored by Françoise by scoring points of his own. Toward the end, when the scores were even at 4-4, the crowd had become so noisy that it seemed impossible to calm them.


When at last a semblance of order was restored among the crowd, the bout entered its final stages. I stared at Françoise, at her blade as it trembled slightly in the air as she held it aloft. I knew the match had to end soon, and it did when, amidst Smith’s attack, Françoise executed a specialty of hers—a sudden flick of the epée that opened her to possible attack, yet so fast that it traversed Smith’s defense and landed a touch directly on his left shoulder blade a split second before Smith’s touch landed on her.


In the confusion that followed as the referee hurried to examine Smith’s jacket for the telltale red of the dye used as marker for the bout, my cell phone rang.


“Am I too late?” cried Rosalie.


“Yes!” I exclaimed jubilantly. “She’s won!”


The thundering cheer of the crowd swallowed my remark moments later as the judges passed their verdict. I saw the crowd surge onto the piste, but not before I saw Smith advance to take Françoise’s hand and pull her in for a brief embrace.


My smile fading slightly, I thought that Rosalie would have more need of me at this point and I turned away to leave the ballroom.


I met her just outside the ballroom doors. She had just arrived with a briefcase full of papers and an evening suit for Françoise, zipped up in a long, black garment bag.


Directing her to the bedroom suite upstairs to deposit Françoise’s clothes, I told her I would wait for her downstairs.  The crowd inside the ballroom was dispersing, was heading for the buffet tables set outside as the excitement subsided and the elegant ball started in earnest.


Peering into the ballroom, I could see Smith and Françoise still flanked by de Brun officials. It was going to take a while before Françoise would go looking for us, I thought, and I hurried upstairs to see if Rosalie had found the right room.


The sounds emanating from downstairs was faint in the stillness of the empty corridor of the second floor. Nevertheless, I could hear the approaching shuffle of running feet on the bare wooden floor and, turning the corner a split second later, I collided with a rotund shape as it hurtled headlong toward me.


Ex—excusez moi,” stammered the man, whom I recognized briefly as Réne de Rohan before he tore himself away from my steadying hand and ran down the stairs as though the furies were after him.


As he thundered down the stairs, I caught the faint sound of a door closing somewhere ahead of me, of the faint sound of other running feet just beyond the corridor where I stood. Reaching the end of the passageway a few seconds later, I was greeted by closed bedroom doors all around, of another long corridor lined with expensive African art winding before me but with no soul in sight.




Just then, a new set of footsteps sounded just behind me.


“Andre,” I heard a familiar voice call.


I turned to Françoise and smiled, thoughts of mysterious footsteps disappearing instantly to be replaced by gladness and relief that the fencing bout was over and everything had turned out well.


She continued to walk toward me, a triumphant smile on her lips. What happened next was something that I could not explain.


One moment she was coming forward, the next moment she was right in front of me. Only, she did not come to a halt. She stepped up to me and leaned in to rest her head on my shoulder for one brief, electrifying moment.


It had happened so fast. Before I could even catch my breath, she lifted her head. “Did you see his first point? He used a move that I’ve not seen in a long time,” she said. From her casual tone, one would have thought it was only natural that she embraced me everyday. “I could only be thankful for my speed and agility. Did I have you worried, André?”


I looked down at her smiling face. “I—no, of course…” I said, still confused at what had just happened.


Just then I saw somebody coming from the end of the corridor, and I took a quick step back from Françoise. I said, “Congratulations on the bout and the deal; of course I have no doubt at all that you will win. Rosalie’s just arrived with the papers you’ve asked her to bring, as well as a change of clothes for you. It’s inside your suite.”


Without waiting for her reply, I went off, passing Victor de Girodelle as he came toward us. No doubt he had come to offer his congratulations to Françoise. He had also nearly stumbled upon a scene which, if carried on for a second longer, may prove to be my undoing.


After all this time, after all my noble promises of never touching her again, I would not have known what I’d do to Françoise if Girodelle had not come along just then.




More Author’s Notes: The scene with Francoise/Oscar leaning her head on André’s shoulder is lifted from the manga, just after winning the duel with Alain. Sadly there is no equivalent in the anime.


*Rabullione—the “meddler” or “disrupter”—was Napoleon Bonaparte’s childhood nickname.


Trocadéro, known for its chic residences and restaurants, is just a stone’s throw away from the Eiffel Tower in Paris.





Definition of Terms:


Attack  - The initial offensive action made be extending the sword arm and continuously threatening the valid target of the opponent.



Ballestra  - A very rapid attack made by a jump-forward and lunge. This attack can cover a great deal of distance in a small amount of time if executed properly. Executed improperly, it can look very silly and leave the attacker wide open to counter-attacks. ‘Ballestra’ is the French term for a cross-bow bolt.  


Epée - A fencing weapon with triangular cross-section blade and a large bell guard; the use of a particular sword also dictates the valid targets of the body where hits or touches can be counted to score points. In using the epée, virtually every part of the body can be hit to score a point.


Piste – the term for the strip where fencing takes place, measuring between 1.5 and 2 meters wide, and 14 meters long.


Parry  - A simple defensive action designed to deflect an attack, performed with the forte of the blade.


For more iformation on fencing and its terms, go to:

 To Be Continued…


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