This is from the final draft.
Imagine the scene. Smell it. Sniff the blood and the sawdust and the sharp whiff of sweat, damp wool and dark ale.
Dull light from a dozen lamps hanging in a low line from the beams. A cleared space. The crowd pressed close.
The first bout did not go well. Serannes pricked the youngest son of the local Comte and he squeaked like a piglet. Now, disgraced, he sits bleeding and cursing in the corner. Hurls complaints of cheating, but this crowd’s never seen anything like Serannes. They can’t believe a sword can move that fast without witchcraft or treachery. And that was just the warm-up.
Wait til they see the girl.
She steps into the lamplight.
Peach skin, chestnut hair in a plait down her back. And there – look! Breeches. Ankles. Breasts. Here in Marseilles. Never seen such a –
Sword in hand, point trailing lazily on the floor. The other hand on a definitely feminine hip.
The men stare, silent, stranded somewhere between desire and distrust. There’s muttering.
Serannes strides to the centre of the piste.
Now silence. The gazes of fifty or so pairs of eyes slither over her body. She doesn’t flinch. They don’t matter.
Serannes takes a breath and shouts into the rafters.
— The prodigy of Paris, the marvel of Marseilles, the world-famous Madame de Maupin!
She told him what to say, how to say it. She likes the sound, the symmetry of the words.
The first bout is with Serannes. She tries to make it seem dramatic, tightly fought, but the truth is that it’s months since he could get anywhere near her. The men won’t believe that, though. They need to think he can beat her – that they can beat her, any one of them. Or else they won’t play, won’t pay.
They’ll see Serannes as some kind of pigeon, when in fact he’s rather good. But she’s great – she knows it now – truly has the glimmer of genius inside, a destiny beyond this moment, the beer, the sawdust, the blood.
But they can’t know that. Not yet.
The final score is five to three. Serannes winces on the last point but there’s no bloodshed, not this time. She salutes him, takes a step back. Serannes, panting a little, sends around the hat. It comes back empty. They don’t offer a single sol. He throws out the challenge. They simply stare.
Serannes is no salesman, can’t keep the plea from his voice — come, brothers — feels it, too. Weary and plaintive, sick of the life, sick of losing every fucking evening, of pleading for a copper or two from men who witness his nightly defeat at her hands.
She stands still, waiting, staring back at the crowd, unsmiling – daring them to touch her, to try; hating Serannes for his pathetic shallow parries and the way he moans in his sleep. She will leave him in the morning, before he wakes up, farting and grumpy.
It doesn’t look like there’s anyone worth beating in this room. As usual.