The seconds are in place. This big garden’s petite parterre holds only a small crowd, all ladies, on its walks. Princess Pauline von Metternich loosens a button on her petticoat and remembers that on her death, her money goes to music. The flowerbeds of the parterre are tended in the three temperate seasons, but none of the ladies are here to see flowers. Across the lawn, Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg has replied to the Princess’s words of reconciliation, which are required in the French rules of honor, with the prescribed demand for blood.
Each woman’s second takes her combatant’s velvet coat. Baroness Lubinska, the physician who will tend to any wounds, calls for each combatant to prepare. At this, both the Princess and the Countess take a long moment to unbutton their chemisettes, while their seconds pull the laces from their corsets. It is August, but both combatants shiver when the last layer falls away from their backs. Fighting sans the danger of silk filling a wound, says the Baroness, will prevent infection. The seconds lift rapiers from hard pillows and hold them up for all to see.
The Princess feels unlike herself. The rapier isn’t new to her— she’d learned to use it as a girl. It isn’t the duel itself, either. She’d brawled enough with her brothers and cousins, also as a girl. She guesses it is both the August air and the reason for the duel. She and the Countess had disagreed, with a shocking difference of opinion, over a flower arrangement for the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition. It’s almost the new century, thinks the Princess, and the world might finally see her spill or draw men’s blood—the blood of honor. [End Page 105]
The combat commences. The Princess misses one wild parry and retreats just too slowly to feel the bite of vanishing steel across her nose. When the Countess, realizing that she has truly slashed her friend with a sword, pauses in amazement, the Princess stabs her through the bicep. The Baroness rushes in, and the combatants part. Honor drips into a flowerbed as the Countess stares down, curious. The winner is unclear: the Countess drew first blood, but the Princess, who smiles in a way she never has in front of a mirror, made the better wound. [End Page 106]
SUMMER GREER is a teacher, writer, and photographer living in Baltimore. He received his M.F.A. from Johns Hopkins University.