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The Swordswoman Triumphant

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“What is it, Katherine?” Lady Artemisia asked. A terrible thought occurred, and she threw down the fat leather-bound book she’d been hugging to her apron-covered bosom. She sprang from her hassock to the window seat and gazed anxiously into her friend’s face. “You don’t like it?”

 

Their mutual friend, Lydia Godwin, shook her curly head. “Impossible. It’s perfect.”  She bounced a little in her chair, her ringlets jouncing. “Oh, it’s going to be the most perfect play.”

 

The new Duchess of Tremontaine had been sitting cross-legged in one window seat, chin on folded hands, elbows on knees.  Marcus had curled up in the other window seat, a bowl on his lap as well as the pages of the play.

 

The four were alone, Arthur Ghent having gone off to execute the day’s business when Lydia arrived to share chocolate and conversation, before her parents were to join them and take the young ladies off to a concert.

 

“It’s a wonderful play.” Katherine dropped her hands. “It’s fine. It’s excellent. It’s just . . .”

 

Katherine frowned at the parquet floor. Marcus threw an orange segment into the air, and caught it in his mouth. Artemisia glanced from him—no help there—back to Katherine, then said tentatively, “You cannot be objecting to the lover?”

 

Katherine looked up, her brows slanting very much in the Mad Duke’s manner. “Why should I mind the addition of a handsome but dangerous lover? This is a play. Not my life.” She considered, head at an angle, then added, “I shouldn’t think my life, correctly presented, would make much of a play.”

 

Marcus tossed another orange segment. After he caught it, he said stickily, “I should think that parts of your life, correctly presented, would get us into worlds of trouble.”

 

“Not any more.” Katherine’s voice was not gloating, just matter-of-fact. “I might have, when I was just Katherine Talbert, oddly dressed niece of Tremontaine. But now that I am Tremontaine, they have to put up with me.”

 

Lydia and Artemisia turned wide gazes from Marcus to Katherine, hoping the pair would explain the ‘trouble’, but as usual, they did not. Artemisia suppressed a sigh.

 

“It’s a wonderful play.” Lydia bounded harder, her skirts rustling. “At least the first act,” she amended conscientiously.  “It’s quite as wonderful as The Book, so far.”

 

Marcus and Artemisia had been reading aloud the primary roles of the new play that Katherine had commissioned, The Swordswoman’s Triumph. Artemisia prided herself a little on her reading, for she had been well taught. Many were the secret sessions closeted with certain friends, whence they had read their favorite passages of The Book out loud, and swooned over them. Sometimes even practiced romance—like kissing.

 

Lavinia and Jane and Lydia had always claimed that her readings of Stella were the most swoony, though Lavinia had been voted the most passionate kisser.

 

Katherine unfolded her legs and leaped from the seat in a flurry of sarcenet and petticoats, then strode across the room. “It’s just,” she said, “that it reminds me of The Book. Not in detail, but in feel.”

 

Lydia and Artemisia’s voices clashed as they protested that that was just what made the play perfect.

 

“But that’s the problem. Don’t you see? Everything in the play really is perfect—that is, not at all like life.” Katherine flung her hands out.

 

Artemisia groaned. “You’re not going to start sounding like my mother, calling The Book trash?”

 

Lydia waved her hands so vigorously she set the jewels in her ears trembling. “I don’t want any moralizing plays, thank you. I spent quite enough time as a child copying out extracts from Of Morals and Manners—and never the interesting ones.”

 

Katherine flicked out a hand in what Artemisia suspected was one of her swordfighting moves. “No, it’s just the opposite.” She whirled around. “Don’t you see? When we were girls—before they let us into the world—what did we know? We read The Book over and over because nothing else they gave us told us what to expect when we got out into the world at last. Then, when we did get out, we found out the world doesn’t actually work the way it does in The Book.”

 

Lydia frowned. “But . . . but it does, really. Why, I often used quotes from it, when first attaching my dearest Armand. And he answered right back. It was the most romantic thing, and just as good as The Book. Better, because it happened.”

 

“That’s because he knew what you wanted to hear,” Katherine retorted, still pacing back and forth.

 

“Well, of course,” Lydia said, obviously bewildered. “Is that not how courtship should go?”

 

Artemisia said slowly, “I think . . . I think I know what you mean. When they say what you want to hear. But then they don’t always behave . . . like in The Book.”

 

Katherine turned on her. “Yes.”

 

Artemisia hurried a little into speech, in hopes that Katherine, who was a dear, but had a habit of saying just anything, wouldn’t say too much now. “But even so, when—when on a certain terrible night, and I spoke to you, you spoke back to me in just the right words. From The Book. I knew right then that you were honorable, and I trusted you. Because you were just like Fabian.”

 

Katherine stopped in the middle of the floor. “Yes. And because I knew the words, and how Fabian ought to act, the words came right to me, and I meant them. And you understood them just as I meant them.” She looked up. “Except . . . except that if real life were just like in The Book, or plays, well, we would not have had to have that exchange at all. Is that correct?”

 

“Except that he was the villain. There must be a villain,” Artemisia said. She did not add that until that night, Lord Ferris had also said all the proper heroic things.

 

Lydia had stopped bouncing. “You are talking about Lord Ferris.”

 

Artemisia shuddered. “That horrid man.”

 

Lydia said, “So I keep hearing, but no one will tell me exactly why you broke the engagement before we found out that he had no money. Armand says we can talk about such things after we are married.”

 

“That is just my point.” Indeed, Katherine pointed her finger, much like she would a sword; she looked kind of swoony herself, with her ribbons rippling, and her skirts swirling, but her arms and wrists so . . . so . . . strong, Artemisia thought, as Katherine went on, “No one tells us anything we want to know. Need to know. At least my uncle got me lessons in defending my own honor. And he also let me learn things on my own, even if he couldn’t be bothered to tell me himself.”

 

“I don’t want to defend my own honor,” Lydia said. “I would make a muff of it. My father is so much better at such things. And my dear Armand—”

 

Artemisia could contain herself no longer. “If,” she proclaimed, “I must hear about dear Armand one more time . . .”

 

Lydia sighed, rose to her feet and shook out her skirts. “I truly wish you would find a beau, Mi. I wish you as happy as I am. And I’m sorry if my happiness pains you. Maybe I’d better go downstairs and see if my parents have arrived—I see it’s gone quite dark outside.”

 

She slipped out the door; it clicked shut behind her.

 

“I’m sorry,” Katherine said to Artemisia. “I did not mean to cause pain by my allusions to Certain Subjects.” That, too, was in The Book.

 

Artemisia hesitated. If they were alone she could speak plainly, but that Marcus was present. He sat there so still, looking out the window as though he could pretend himself in another room. Why didn’t he just go?

 

Oh, what was the use? He’d been a part of the Mad Duke’s household. He probably knew everything, far worse secrets than hers.

 

“It’s not that,” she said slowly. “At least, yes it is, but only partly. I still don’t want to marry. I don’t want anyone ever doing that to me again, and maybe I will never change my mind. My mother says I will dwindle into a spinster aunt, and I say who cares? At least I have money.”

 

“There are definitely worse things than being a rich spinster,” Katherine stated.

 

“Here’s what troubles me. After . . . that happened, my parents did not care. My father, you might expect to shrug. He’s a man. They’re supposed to all be the same in that regard, and is not that in part what this is all about? But my mother. She was once a girl like me. Did that happen to her, too? Does it to everyone? Is Lydia going to come running to me in tears after her wedding night? I don’t even know how to talk to her about . . . that.”

 

“I can assure you, if a girl wants to, it’s quite different,” Katherine said.

 

Artemisia gasped. “Then you’ve done it.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Even though you aren’t married.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And liked it.”

 

“Yes. Because I wanted to. That makes all the difference. Anyway, to go back. Your mother did not regard it as important, except as a secret to be kept from society.”

 

“She still wanted me to marry him!”

 

“And I have heard of mothers who sold their own children. They seem to think, well, if it happened to me, then it ought to happen to you, too. This is why I wish the plays gave us actual lessons. In what to truly expect. So we can arm ourselves with knowledge.”

 

A muffled noise from the window seat caused Katherine and Artemisia to whirl around. Marcus had dropped his papers, and bent to retrieve them, his face hidden.

 

“I suppose there are such plays,” Katherine said to him, hands on her hips. “At Glinley’s, or the like?”

 

Marcus shook with silent laughter. He gulped, then just nodded, still convulsed.

 

“Glinley’s?” Artemisia asked.

 

 

Katherine sighed. “And what is the use of that? The only people who would know to go see those kind of plays at that place already know what’s going on.”

 

“Glinley’s?” Artemisia repeated.

 

Katherine grimaced, then said, “Where people like Lord Ferris—in that mood—go. They pay for it. I’ve seen ‘em at it.”

 

Artemisia was about to express just how disgusting she found that, then she happened to glance past Katherine at Marcus, whose laughter had utterly vanished. His mouth was pressed into a white line. Her skin crawled.

 

“Well,” she said airily as she headed toward the door, “if. If! I ever have children. Especially girls. I will tell them everything they want to know, the very day they ask for it.”

 

“And they will be the better for it,” Katherine said practically. “Here is what I am thinking. Plays about honor are perfectly good, especially when people quote them and mean what they say. You knew I meant what I said, at the Rogues’ Ball.”

 

Artemisia stood with her back to the door and clasped her hands under her chin, her dark ringlets outlined against the golden oak. “Yes! And you carried out your promise. It was just as good as The Book. I wish . . . I wish plays could be real. I mean, the honor, and the romance.”  She felt her throat tightening, and her eyes stinging, though she couldn’t say why. She fumbled behind her, and clicked the latch. “I think I hurt Lydia’s feelings. I will go pet her before her parents arrive, so that we will all be in a proper frame of mind to hear music.”  She went out, leaving the horrid subject behind her.

 

In the room, Katherine and Marcus faced one another. She said, “Perhaps we should show Artemisia how it isn’t always like what Lord Ferris did to her. If and when she is ready.”

 

Marcus considered. “I suspect it will have to be you.”

 

Katherine contemplated Artemisia’s soft curls, her bright eyes, her distinctive nose, and did not mind in the least. “Only, I don’t have much experience, except with you.” She paced again. “I wonder if the Black Rose might give me lessons. Or the woman who played Tyrian.” Another turn, and quick steps to the opposite bookcase. “Back to my point. I wish the play would inspire people to be high and noble.” She ran a thoughtful hand over the tooled leather books with their gilt lettering: despite their elegant coverings, not all were about high and noble things.

 

“People have to want to be high and noble,” Marcus replied, carefully setting his orange peels on a plate. “It’s like what Lydia said. You can teach them morals, that is, you can have children write out moral lessons as soon as they can write . . .”

 

“But it doesn’t make them moral. I guess people have to act moral. Only what’s moral? I will wager you that new horse I just bought that Lord and Lady Fitz-Levi think themselves very, very moral. Well, I know they do. She wouldn’t let Artemisia read my letters.”

 

“And now that you are Duchess of Tremontaine, everything you choose to do is suddenly moral,” Marcus retorted.

 

“Eugh, I hate it when you sound like him.”

 

“I hate it when you look like him.”

 

Katherine whirled around again, her skirts swinging. “I do hope they are all right, my uncle and my master. Talk about romantic!”

 

Marcus nodded. “Now that they are together, they will be all right. Better.” He smiled.

 

Katherine stopped whirling about, and confronted him. “They can be, because they’re both men. Marcus, I hope—that is, I just think I should tell you. I am never going to be married. No matter how much I learn, oh, I just will never let a man get power over me.”

 

Marcus replied unheatedly, “And I would never marry you.” When her brows lifted exactly like those of David Alexander Tielman Campion, former Duke of Tremontaine, he added, “I will be your friend and your assistant as long as you like. And your lover, too. But no marriage—I don’t want you climbing inside of me and being me as well as you. And I know you would try.”

 

“Oh.” Katherine considered that, not certain whether to be insulted or not, then held out her hand. Her brow puckered.

 

“And you’d do it for the best of reasons.”  Marcus clasped her hand.

 

Pax. They both felt better.

 

She dropped his hand and whirled again, making an invisible pass at a proudly posing swordsman in the tapestry hanging between two bookshelves.  “So we can’t make people do what we think is best. But I can be the Swordswoman. I can fight for honor with my blade. Or in the courts. Or in the ballroom. Or over tea.”

 

“You can,” he agreed. “You can fight for the honor of those who can’t fight for themselves. Like you did for Artemisia.”

 

“Will you help me?”

 

“I will help you.”  He left the window seat.

 

She chuckled. “It’s going to be a good life, Marcus.” She thrust her hand through his arm and they walked out. “Better than a play. You just wait and see.”