Friday, October 19, 2007


Free Fiction Friday: A Fencing Lesson

Today's free fiction is an interstitial chapter from the expanded Set the Seas on Fire.

In this stand-alone chapter, the young Hieronymus Bonaventure, who later features in Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, receives a fencing lesson from Giles Dulac, who may or may not be related to the Jules Dulac in the story "Secret Histories: Peter R. Bonaventure, 1885" (but which will be made clear in the forthcoming End of the Century. And along with fencing, Hieronymus received a bit of a lesson in history, as well.

excerpt from
Set the Seas on Fire
by Chris Roberson

February 1795

It was late afternoon when Hieronymus Bonaventure arrived for his lesson at the disused carriage house, not far from his parents’ home. He was running late, as usual, and Giles Dulac was there waiting for him, as always, already standing on the makeshift piste at the centre of the packed dirt floor, sword in hand.

‘Considering that the only fee asked of you is your devoted attention, young master, I wonder that your habitual tardiness does not bespeak some lack of commitment to your studies.’

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Hieronymus said, changing from his woollen coat into a jacket of heavy canvas. ‘My father was taking me to task for a… disagreement I had with Cornelius this morning.’

Dulac answered with a weary sigh. ‘You and your brother will share a roof for some years to come, and so must come to some accord. The only alternative is that one of you should manage at last to kill the other, which solution I don’t recommend.’

‘It is an attractive notion.’ Hieronymus gave a sly smile, as he slipped the padded plastron over his head and shoulders, and drew the heavy leather gloves over his hands. ‘At least then I could be reasonably sure that my books and papers would remain where I put them, and not be later found strewn across the floor with a nine-year-old boy’s fingerprints outlined in jam upon them.’

‘Ah,’ Dulac said, nodding with mock solemnity, ‘but what of your sister Claudia?’

‘Not to worry.’ Hieronymus picked up his own sword, tucked his wire-mesh mask beneath his arm and took his place on the piste opposite his instructor. ‘She doesn’t like jelly.’

In response, Dulac raised his sword in a quick salute, and without another word came en garde.

Hieronymus returned the salute, pulled the mask over his head and fell into position, legs bent with his feet shoulder-width apart, front foot pointed straight ahead, back foot sideways. His sword arm was held loosely before him, point towards his opponent, his back hand held up behind his head.

The sword still felt strange in his hand. He’d been studying with Dulac for more than two years, but had only within the last month begun to fence with an actual sword, and not an iron bar twice a sword’s weight. Two years of swinging a few feet of iron, his muscles protesting daily, all the while desperate to move on to more advanced studies. Since he’d shifted from the iron to a proper sword, though, Hieronymus had to admit that Dulac had been right, and that training with the excess weight greatly eased his facility in handling the real thing.

Today, he was using a French foil with no crossbar, constructed of fine Toledo steel, with a ball blunting its point, and even weighted down with a padded plastron, leather gloves and wire-mesh mask, after the dead weight of the iron bar for so many long months it felt as though he were holding nothing at all.

‘Begin,’ Dulac said, patiently waiting for Hieronymus to make the initial attack.

Hieronymus went into a lunge, which Dulac easily parried, and while Hieronymus tried to retreat, Dulac quickly riposted, scoring a touch to the middle of Hieronymus’s bicep. Even through the thick sleeve of his canvas jacket Hieronymus could feel the sting of the hit. He’d been hit there so often in recent days that he had developed a seemingly permanent bruise, gone past purple to a greenish-yellow, a viridian circle surrounded by a rim of sallow flesh, like a miniature ringed target.

Dulac recovered his position, and regarded Hieronymus through narrowed eyes. ‘Again.’

Resisting the urge to rub his stinging bicep, Hieronymus returned to the en garde position, and began his next attack.

For the next quarter-hour, the carriage house echoed with the ring of crossed swords, the clash of steel. Attack. Parry. Riposte. Attack. Parry. Riposte. And with hit after hit, the bruises on Hieronymus’s pale flesh multiplied beneath the padded plastron.

When Dulac had first taken Hieronymus on as a pupil, he’d ordered him to forget everything he thought he knew of swordplay. Hieronymus had spent some years assembling a small personal library of fencing manuals, and had studied them with single-minded intensity, gaining a whole new vocabulary of terminology but, Dulac insisted, little insight. It hardly mattered that Hieronymus could use terms like imbrocatta, stocatta, or punta riversa; if his muscles didn’t know what those movements felt like, then the words were useless.

So it was that Dulac’s training had focused on movement, not on vocabulary. Hieronymus scarcely knew what any of the techniques he’d so far learned would be called in Mr Angelo’s famous fencing academy in Soho Square, and while it was perfectly clear that Dulac did know, it was just as clear that Dulac put little stock in the knowledge. Just how Hieronymus’s instructor, to all outward appearance a humble tutor of Latin, had come by such a mastery of swordplay remained a mystery; however, it was obvious to Hieronymus that however Dulac had come by his skill with the blade, it had been through practical application and not through the trivial pursuit of a sport. At some point, in the past about which he wouldn’t speak, Dulac had lived by the sword.

‘Don’t watch the blade,’ Dulac barked, drawing Hieronymus’s attentions back to the moment. ‘Watch my eyes. They’ll tell you everything you need to know of my movements.’

The lessons continued. Attack. Parry. Riposte. And bruises piled upon bruises.

Finally, Dulac called an end to the bout. ‘Enough!’

Dulac motioned for Hieronymus to remove his mask. The instructor seemed about to hurl his foil to the ground in frustration, but instead just fixed his pupil with a hard stare.

‘In the salles d’armes of Paris, before the Revolution, the maîtres would have ousted you from the building after so poor a showing. And I’ll admit I’m tempted to follow suit. Your mind is clearly not at the task. So what occupies your thoughts?’

Hieronymus stifled the urge to lower his gaze and shuffle his feet, and instead, as Dulac had taught him, looked his instructor in the eye and spoke in as clear a voice as possible. ‘I’m not certain, sir.’

‘Hmph. But you’ll agree with me that your thoughts on not on your efforts, I take it?’

Hieronymus drummed his fingers on the wire-mesh of his mask for a moment before answering, nervously. Finally, he said, ‘No, sir. That is, yes, I agree that I’m not concentrating.’

‘Very well,’ Dulac said with an indulgent sigh. ‘Perhaps a brief interval will allow you to collect yourself, and then we’ll try again.’

Glad for the respite, Hieronymus set his foil and mask on the floor, and took long draughts from the jug of water sitting near the wall. He tried not to meet Dulac’s eyes, as shame and guilt warmed the back of his neck.

The truth was that Hieronymus knew precisely what was occupying his thoughts, and distracting him from his fencing. But Dulac had long months before insisted that he forget such matters as soon as he entered their makeshift salle, and the punishment for infringing upon this restriction was an additional series of strenuous and time-consuming muscle-toning exercises.

Even in the face of such punishment, though, Hieronymus found himself almost entirely unable to control himself and, after nearly emptying the jug of water, turned back to Dulac. In as casual a manner as he was able, he said, ‘Have you heard the latest news?’

Dulac, who was intent on cleaning the blade of his foil, glanced up, his left eyebrow cocked. ‘Oh,’ he asked, though it was clear he knew perfectly well the answer. ‘What news would that be?’

‘Of the capture of the Dutch fleet by the French army,’ Hieronymus said, excitedly. ‘Under the command of Jean Pichegru, it appears, the French crossed the frozen Zuyder Zee river and seized the ships trapped in the winter ice.’ So animated did he get, as he recounted the anecdote, that he seemed nearly ready to dance a jig. ‘It marks the first time in history that a navy has ever been captured by an army.’

Dulac treated him to a half-smile. ‘I wouldn’t be so sure of that, young master. History is a considerable deal longer than you might expect, and the catalogue of past events, now all but forgotten, is nearly endless. You would be surprised at what strange things have happened before, and will happen again.’ He paused, significantly, and added, ‘But am I mistaken, or was there not some stricture against discussing wars and news of wars during our sessions?’ Though Dulac’s tone was on the whole playful, there was clearly steel beneath his words.

‘Oh, I beg your pardon, sir!’ Hieronymus answered in a rush. ‘But… but it’s all too… Well, sir, just this week we’ve heard the news of the fall of the Netherlands to the forces of the French. And one of my classmates says that his uncle saw Statholder William’s arrival in Dover with his own two eyes.’

Dulac sighed. ‘Little more than a decade since William V of Orange lost the latest Anglo-Dutch War to the English, and now he flees behind their coattails for protection.’

‘My mother says that the Netherlands has been virtually a vassal of King George ever since the war, scarcely less a puppet state than this Batavian Republic set up by the French, and that William was only able to control the Patriots amongst his own population through the intercession of Prussian troops.’ Hieronymus paused, and with his eyes lowered went on in a subdued voice. ‘That’s what my mother says, at any rate, based on what news she has from her own father.’

Dulac pursed his lips in an expression of sympathy. ‘So your grandfather is well, and weathers the recent troubles?’

Hieronymus nodded.

‘His name is Cornelius, too, isn’t it?’ Dulac asked.

‘Yes,’ Hieronymus answered. ‘Or near enough. Cornelis van der Waals. My brother was named for him, after a fashion. Just as I was named for my father Jerome, I suppose.’

‘A cartographer, wasn’t he?’

‘He made maps for the Dutch East India Company.’ Hieronymus raised his chin, his tone suggesting pride commingled with awe. ‘Of the coastlines of Japan, and charts of the sea-lanes to and from there.’ He paused, and a cloud passed for a moment across his features. ‘Better that I’d been named for him, and Cornelius for our father. My brother is the studious one, suited to follow in our father’s footsteps, not me. But father wants me to pursue the career of the scholar.’

‘So what career would you prefer, then?’ Dulac narrowed his eyes, looking close at his pupil.

‘I don’t know,’ Hieronymus said, with a shrug he couldn’t suppress. ‘But I know I don’t want to spend my life confined to a dusty library. I want to see the world!’ He began to pace the floor, hands curled into ineffectual fists. ‘Mother says that I have her father’s temperament, passed down through her. Father says that I have the fidgets, and need only discipline to make of me a scholar.’

‘And what do you say?’

‘I don’t know,’ Hieronymus repeated, wearily. ‘Sometimes I don’t know if I’ll ever get to leave home.’

Dulac tactfully failed to point out, as he’d done many times before, that Hieronymus was not yet fourteen years old, and had scarcely reached the stage where leaving home was an imminent proposition. Instead, a momentarily silence stretched between them, in which the tutor regarded his pupil with an amused expression.

Finally, Dulac chuckled. ‘So, young master, you are not much of a diseuse de bonne aventure, after all.’

Hieronymus didn’t understand, as his look made evident.

‘Do I take it you don’t know the meaning and history of your own surname?’

‘Oh,’ Hieronymus said. ‘I had always understood it to be a cognate to the Italian buonaventura, or “good luck”.’

‘Perhaps.’ Dulac nodded. ‘But in French, dire la bonne aventure, or “to speak the good adventure”, means fortunetelling.’

Hieronymus’s mouth reformed in a moue of distaste. ‘So my name is French?’

Dulac laughed at his pupil’s consternation. ‘I’m not sure of its ultimate origin, but so far as I know, the name Bonaventure originates in the Varadeaux region which, you may be happy to know, while it was formerly a possession of France, is now under the control of the Prussian king. But whatever its roots, it is a name of which to be proud.’

Hieronymus blew air through his lips, making an undignified noise. ‘I see no reason to take pride in my name.’

‘Oh, no?’ Dulac mimed surprise. ‘Then perhaps you should count yourself lucky that you are not able to share those sentiments with Etienne Bonaventure, who served king and country in seventeenth-century France, in the days of Louis XIII and Richelieu. I doubt a musketeer of his calibre would take so kindly to the casual dismissal of a name he bore proudly? Or perhaps Amandine Bonaventure, opera singer and swordswoman at the turn of the eighteenth century, who affected male dress and counted men and women alike amongst her conquests, both martial and amorous?’

Hieronymus’s eyes opened wider as he parsed that last statement. ‘Men and women?’

‘She was as willing to face either sex with her blade, and just as willing to welcome either to her bed.’

If possible, Hieronymus’s eyes opened even wider.

‘And what of Achille Bonaventure, who in the sixteenth century explored the new world with Jacques Cartier, journeyed to the kingdom of Saguenay, and helped found La Society de Lucien? Did he fight and bleed only to have his good name dismissed so casually by his namesake?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘And perhaps you’d like to…’ Dulac paused, his words choked off, and a brief expression of pain flitted across his features, before vanishing again. Regaining his composure, he continued. ‘And perhaps you’d like to explain yourself to Michel-Thierry Bonaventure.’

Dulac fell silent again, for a brief moment, and his gaze drifted to the middle distance.

‘Who was he, then?’ Hieronymus asked, somewhat overwhelmed.

‘Michel-Thierry was a mercenary with whom I served in the DeMeuron Regiment. And he was my friend.’

Hieronymus’s breath caught in his throat. There was a quality to Dulac’s voice that he’d not heard before, and this marked the first occasion on which Dulac had revealed anything of his life before their initial meeting.

‘What is that? The DeMeuron Regiment?’

Dulac turned and looked at Hieronymus, wearing a strange expression, almost like he was seeing the boy for the first time.

‘The regiment is a Swiss company of mercenaries, its name taken from that of its founder and first commander, the Comte Charles de Meuron, veteran of the regiment D’Erlach and the Swiss Guard. During the majority of my tenure with the DeMeuron, the regiment was in the employ of the VOC, better known in English, I suppose, as the Dutch East India Company.’

Hieronymus felt like he was a beat or two behind, slow to catch up to the pace of the revelations. ‘So you… You were a soldier?’ If so, it confirmed many of his suspicions about his instructor.

‘For a span,’ Dulac admitted, his tone subdued, ‘and not for the first time. But I’m in no hurry to be one again, and never will, if I can help it.’

Hieronymus puzzled through what Dulac had said. ‘But you are British. How did you come to serve a company of Swiss mercenaries?’

‘I was recruited in the region of Varadeaux in 1782, as was my friend Michel-Thierry. We served together four years, seeing action on three continents, countless islands and seemingly half of the world’s oceans.’ Dulac fell silent once more, and again his gaze drifted to the middle distance, lines forming around his eyes, perhaps the sign of some dimly remembered pain.

So Dulac had begun his soldier’s career when Hieronymus had been scarcely a year old. Hieronymus found it difficult to imagine what the younger Dulac must have been like. Whatever the details, it was clear that Dulac’s experiences as a mercenary had marked him in some way, and though there were no scars evident in his skin, perhaps there were other forms of scarring, more subtle and yet more indelible still.

‘What happened to your friend?’ Hieronymus asked at length. ‘What became of this Michel-Thierry.’

Dulac turned, and for a long moment looked at Hieronymus in silence, studying him closely. ‘He died needlessly,’ Dulac finally said, breaking the silence with an air of finality that suggested that was an end to the topic.

Something seemed to pass between them, in the silence that followed, and Hieronymus wondered whether there was something he was expected to say, or to do. But before he could act, whatever the case, Dulac leapt to his feet, snatching up his foil.

‘But enough of such sombre topics,’ he said, striding back to the piste, forcing a bright tone into his voice. ‘While we do our warming-up exercises, to limber our limbs, I’ll tell you a bit about my days in the DeMeuron. You mentioned Japan earlier. Once, Michel-Thierry and I were seconded to a VOC delegation from the Chamber of Enkhuizen, and sent to act as little more than bodyguards to a bureaucrat on the artificial island of Desjima.’

Dulac sliced his foil through the air with a whistling sound, while Hieronymus tugged on his gloves and fitted his mask over his head.

‘Tell me, young master,’ Dulac went on, ‘in your mother’s stories of her father, have you ever heard mention of the word Rangaku?’

With a shake of his head, Hieronymus allowed that he hadn’t. Then, while he went through a series of lunges, thrusting his sword hand forward and throwing his other back for balance, his instructor examined his technique and explained.

‘It is the Japanese word for “Dutch learning”, and is used to mean any knowledge derived from the west. As you are doubtless aware, for hundreds of years the island of Japan has been closed off from all contact with the outside world, with one notable exception, namely, the Dutch, who are allowed to maintain a “factory”, or trading post, on Desjima, an “island” of wood constructed in the bay of Nagasaki. Mind that foot, young master, you continue to turn it inwards and you’ll regret it in the long run. Desjima is intended to act as a buffer between the Japanese and the base barbarians of the west, and as such the Dutch are prohibited from passing over the narrow bridge from the wooden island onto the Nagasaki shore, and the Japanese are banned from entering Desjima—except of course for the ladies known as yūjo, though perhaps your ears are still too young to hear about them. Keep that back leg straight in the lunge, or you lose your support. There are occasional exceptions to these restrictions, scholars periodically allowed onto the island of Japan for one reason or another, and of course the perennial visit of the Dutch legation to the court of the shogun.’

A familiar half-smile tugged up one corner of Dulac’s mouth, and he paused for a moment, chuckling to himself.

‘That is where Michel-Thierry and I come into the story, and where the problems begin. Now, let’s try a few bouts, and see if your attentions are with your efforts.’

The pair took their positions facing each other on the piste, saluted and then closed, crossing swords. As they fenced, Dulac continued to speak, perhaps testing Hieronymus’s concentration, perhaps just not willing to leave off, interspersing his anecdote with instruction.

‘The head of the Dutch factory is called opperhoofd, and carries the equivalent position in the Japanese hierarchy to that of a daimyo, a rank something like an English duke or count but with considerably more power. Like the daimyo, once a year the opperhoofd was called upon to journey to Edo, to pay obeisance to the Japanese ruler, the shogun, and to present him with gifts—which gifts the Shogun had invariably selected in advance, so that the legation served as little more than freight-carriers with bespoke goods. Try to expend as little effort as possible to redirect the point of my blade. Here, begin a simple attack and I’ll demonstrate.

Hieronymus thrust his sword’s point forward, and Dulac simply swivelled his wrist, describing with his own foil a small circle around Hieronymus’s blade, turning it aside.

‘Always an economy of motion. Never engage in flourishes or wasted effort, but apply only the resources necessary to the task. Again. Now, as I said, Michel-Thierry and I had been seconded as a security detachment to Desjima, and when it came time for the opperhoofd’s annual pilgrimage to the shogun’s palace, we were selected to escort him. You see, the opperhoofd had made some enemies among the Japanese gentry, those who quietly opposed the shogun’s policies, and while these malcontents were hardly eager to rise up against their own ruler, they could with greater ease take out their frustrations on foreign dignitaries. As a result, shortly before the legation was set to depart from Desjima, word was received that assassins had been hired to take the opperhoofd’s life. However, by Japanese law only civilian members of the opperhoofd’s staff could go on the pilgrimage, and so Michel-Thierry and I were forced to pose as the opperhoofd’s scribe and the factory doctor. That Michel-Thierry’s penmanship was horrible would have been apparent even to Japanese unable to read the letters, and so he was selected instead to play the part of the doctor. You should anticipate, and attempt to turn a defensive manoeuvre into an offensive one. Try to feint the first parry to draw out the attack, and then use the second parry as your real parry for the riposte. That’s it, now again. So it was that on a bright spring morning the opperhoofd, Michel-Thierry and I set out from Desjima on the long journey to Edo, under the watchful eyes of our escorts, the shogun’s own warriors. The journey took days, in which Michel-Thierry and I were constantly vigilant, never sure from what corner danger might present itself, or in what guise death might come for the opperhoofd. Finally we reached the Nagasakiya, the residence prepared for the legation, where we were to wait until summoned.’

Dulac took a step back, barely winded from his exertions, while Hieronymus felt his heart pounding in his chest, the blood rushing in his ears, trying desperately not to pant.

‘Keep that elbow tucked in. Your arms and legs seem always to want to rush away from your body, but your thrust loses its impetus if your arm is out of line. As it happened, our stay in the capital lasted for more than two weeks, during which time we waited on the shogun’s pleasure, and busied ourselves as befitted the Dutch legation. Michel-Thierry, as the supposed doctor of the legation, was expected to meet with the local practitioners, to exchange techniques and the like, while the opperhoofd met with merchants in an attempt to negotiate better terms for the VOC, with me at his side keeping careful record of the interaction. That’s it. Now, we’ll see what happens when the attack fall just short, but your attacker does not withdraw. I regret that I was unable to see Michel-Thierry’s star turn as a doctor myself, but then I was busy keeping careful watch over the opperhoofd, looking out for any sign of danger, and so had to forgo the pleasure. Finally, we were called to court where, after presenting our gifts, we were expected to perform Dutch dances and songs for the shogun.’ Dulac chuckled. ‘I don’t know that “O Dag, O Langgewenste Dag” has ever had a sorrier interpretation than that we gave it, but nevertheless I maintain that I remained in tune, whereas Michel-Thierry would likely not have been able to pronounce a convincing Dutch vowel if his life depended on it. In any event, the opperhoofd paid proper homage to the shogun, and received a token gift of plum wine in exchange, and then we were sent on our merry way back to Desjima.’

Dulac, without missing a beat, returned en garde, parried and then immediately riposted, at which Hieronymus dropped into a squat and thrust with his sword, all in one motion. As he’d hoped, Hieronymus managed to drop completely beneath the point of Dulac’s foil, and scored a slight but undeniable hit on Dulac’s chest with the point of his own foil.

‘Good, good,’ Dulac said, nodding in admiration. ‘A risky move, but a useful one. But remember to keep your bell guard high, which should provide the maximum protection against your opponent’s point hitting your top shoulder.’

Hieronymus, now thoroughly winded, took off his mask and put his hands on his knees, struggling to catch his breath.

‘What…’ he began, raggedly. ‘What happened with the opperhoofd? And the assassins?’

‘Hmm?’ Dulac blinked for a moment, confused. He’d clearly lost the thread of the story amongst the details, fondly remembering his lost friend. ‘Well, as it happens, the assassins were simply smarter, and had infiltrated the staff of the shogun. When we returned to Desjima, the opperhoofd toasted his safe return with the plum wine given him by the shogun, and promptly dropped dead on the spot.’


‘Poisoned. Which, I suppose, should serve you well as an illustrative example. When dealing with the unknown—whether fencing an unknown opponent, entering a strange land, or dealing with a person or people unfamiliar to you—remember one thing: that the unknown is exactly that. Not known. The moment one assumes that he understands that which he doesn’t, he is inviting disaster.’

Copyright © MonkeyBrain, Inc.


Back when I was the fiction editor of RevSF, I ran this story complete with Doug Potter illustrations.

Check it out.
Um, that's the page to which the story title above is linked, Rick. I never miss an opportunity to throw some love in RevSF's direction.
A few of my role playing friends will love this chapter. (They probably would love the book qua book, although I need to buy a copy myself (I browsed the electronic version before tackling Paragaea).

So I am going to link to this excerpt. Thanks, Chris!
Thanks, Paul! I hope they like it!
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by 

Blogger. Isn't yours?