A Pretty Girl is Like a Malady

TRENT sighed.

"Her name," he muttered, "was Lady Valentina D'Angelique. It was her idea." He paused. "Well, it was her fault, anyway."

"SHE was... well, I had only been in the guard a few days when I first saw her. I was about seventeen years old, I guess. She was about the same, I'm sure. Maybe a little younger. She liked to watch the men sparring. You know the type. She had a weakness for muscles and brawn, I suppose. The romance of the common fighting man. Anyway, I saw her watching us.

"Set my heart aflutter, anyway. She was practically a moon-gift beauty. All dressed up in lace and silk to watch us train from above. She was standing on the balcony, you know, the one that overlooks the courtyard?

"Believe me, the gowns of the nobility are a masterpiece of design. They hug the flesh like a girdle, and if the woman hasn't got a perfect figure before, they force her into one. The effect it had on country bumpkins like the kind I was then... There are things that you can do with skin-tight cloth that make a woman more appealing dressed than she would have been if she were stark naked.

"The fact that she was a lady of nobility, looking down at us from above, didn't hurt, either. She was... well, to quote a more poetic friend of mine, she was 'something that was above and beyond what we could have aspired to.' Not the way I would have put it, but that expresses it pretty well. Even if she had just been slumming, there wasn't a man amongst us trainees who wouldn't have gladly slummed for her.

"Anyway... everyone tried their best to impress her. Goodwin noticed her, of course, but he couldn't tell her to leave, after all. So, being the good trainer he is, he made us use the padded weapons. He knew that none of us considered it a 'training' bout anymore. Not so long as SHE was watching.

"I was as bad as the rest of them, really. Maybe worse. Part of the reason why I'd joined the guard was the romance of it. Serving the King, rescuing fair Ladies from dragons... all of the story-telling nonsense that just doesn't happen in reality.

"Okay, so I did rescue that milkmaid last year, but she'd already lost her arm, you know. Not like a fairy-tale damsel in distress who can wait as long as need be for the hero to come rescue her."

"YOU know Markham? I mean, did you know that he dislikes me?

"Well, I guess it is pretty obvious. Anyway, that started that day. Markham had his moon-gift sword-arm, and he was determined to win her heart by trouncing the rest of us soundly. I can't knock that, I was determined to do the same thing. Together we must have bruised up half the other trainees, and the other half managed to get themselves hurt in their own bouts.

"Goodwin was running back and forth by then. Half of the time he was yelling at us for trying to fight showy instead of effective, to impress her, y'know. The other half of the time, he was trying to remind us that it was only a practice bout and that we weren't supposed to be trying to kill each other.

"So he made the mistake of trying to pair us all up by skill, you see. Well, there wasn't much else he could have done, I suppose. Too many people were getting hurt because everyone was trying to look strong and heroic and no one was learning anything except maybe how big of a distraction a beautiful woman can be."

"MARKHAM and I had come out the best so far, and we both knew it. Markham hadn't even been touched by an opponent yet, and I had broken three practice blades by being showy: I was trying to finish each bout with a heroic blow, 'a big overhand swing that brought my opponent low' and all that. All other people's blades, that is, not mine.

"So we were both determined to finish each other off in a big show and win her heart. That was the way we were thinking, anyway. I've never really decided if Valentina didn't realize the effect she was having, or if she just enjoyed being fought over. She was about our age, too, y'know. Young, beautiful and marriageable. I may not have actually thought that in as many words, but that was what I was thinking. Markham too.

"So we fought. Pretty impressive, too, since we were both trying to be showy. We kept sneaking glances up at the balcony to see if she was noticing. Unfortunately, she was. She was even clapping her hands like a little schoolgirl. Goodwin kept yelling at us about our style, which was rapidly going downhill, but we didn't care. We were... highly distracted."

"IT was supposed to be a one-touch bout. One clean touch, anyway. Everyone else had been ignoring the questionable hits, of course. When you want to win really badly, you're always certain that it didn't land solidly. Always.

"Anyway, Markham and I fought it out. He was really surprised to realize that I was about as good as he was. And stronger, too. After about thirty seconds of fighting, I managed to knock him down, using my full strength. Lost the chance to beat him when I glanced up at Valentina to see if she was still cheering me on.

"Markham jumped back to his feet and slashed at me as hard as he could. I realized that he had me clean, and swung my sword... well, my padded stick, anyway, into his chest.

"Markham hit me solidly, but he was leaping forward into my blow. I knocked him about four feet back without really meaning to. Broke three of his ribs.

"Worst of all, Markham had beat me, but Valentina couldn't tell that from up on the balcony. She was clapping and cheering and waving her handkerchief at me. Goodwin was yelling at both of us, Markham and me, me for hitting him too hard, and Markham for charging onto my sword. When he turned to berate Markham some more, I gave into temptation.

"Raised my arms up and grinned at her like I'd won. Dropped 'em quick, too, so Goodwin wouldn't see it. But she did. She even blew me a kiss, and blushed at me.

"Markham saw that. If the doctor hadn't been forcing numb-juice down his throat already, he probably would have tried to jump up and kill me. That move, waving to her like I'd won, has to rate as one of the stupidest tricks I've ever pulled. It was more than a year before Goodwin could put Markham and me together again, for fear Markham would try to kill me for real.

"Because he'd beaten me, but after my wave, he knew she'd never believe that. And I never did tell her, not even after I started trying to court her at the various balls and masquerades. I didn't dare."

"AND that was just the first time that my crush on Valentina D'Angelique got me into trouble."

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