Following a long war, the nations of Scheria and Permia have reached an uneasy truce and are trying to reach a treaty over the supposedly mineral-rich Demilitarized Zone which separates them, and was the subject of much fighting. As a gesture of good will, Scheria assembles a fencing team to tour Permia and secure the peace. However, the team seem like the last people one would choose for a diplomatic mission, and it quickly becomes apparent that the intentions of one or both nations may not be what they seem.
The first indication of which (and source of the title) is that while the fencers expect to use blunted swords, as is the norm in fencing matches (and are initially mislead that this will be the case), they soon learn that Permian's fence with "sharps" (unblunted blades) with a preference for the Messer, a weapon which necessitates a completely different fighting style.
The team is composed of:
- Suidas Deutzel, a fencing champion with a cash flow problem as well as a drinking problem who served in the war with Permia with distinction, and is depending on how you look at it, a war hero or war criminal, and has been badly affected by his experiences.
- Iseutz Bringas, the only female member of the team, who is from a middle management family in the banking industry. She joined to escape from an arranged marriage, and is unlikely to receive future proposals, given her age, appearance, and the family's relatively low status. Has an... interesting personality.
- Giraut Byrennius, a perpetual student from an upper-class family who is an excellent fencer. He spent most of his time seducing female university students, but after being caught in flagrante by the father of one of his conquests and killing the man in self-defense, he faces trumped up charges of rape and murder, and was made to choose between joining the team or facing the noose.
- Addo (Adulescentulos) Carnufex, the youngest son of General Carnufex, "Irrigator", who ended the war by flooding Permia's largest City (and killing the 70,000 or more people in it in the process). Ado is a pacifist with an uneasy relationship with his father, and is good looking, highly intelligent, a chess master, with a kind and instantly likable personality.
- Phrantzes, a wool merchant and former fencing champion of Scheria as well as a former staff officer under General Carnufex and newly married husband of a significantly younger former prostitute. He is "enlisted" to coach the team after he's set up to be caught with a technically illegal pornographic work and his wife is taken into custody pending completion of the team's tour.
Supervising the team is Tzimisces, an anonymous looking chap with a gift for always disappearing at the wrong moment. He purports to be a humble bureaucrat, but is quickly identified as The Political Officer.
The novel contains examples of:
- Barbarian Tribe: The trope is given a Stereotype Flip via the Imperials/Blueskins and the Aram Chantat. The Blueskins are dark-skinned and fearsome... but they are dark-skinned because that is the skin tone of the upper echelon of The Empire, and are extremely cultured and sophisticated. Conversely, the Aram Chantat are blond, blue eyed and even angelic looking, and might as well be Orcs.
- Black Face: As a flip on the implications of this in the real world, it is indicated that in plays within this setting, actors put on blackface when they are cast as aristocratic characters in order to imitate the dark skin tone of people from The Empire from which Scheria and Permia both derive.
- Blue and Orange Morality: The Blueskins and Aram Chantat both operate on it in their attitude toward the enemy (of the two, the Scherians prefer the former, because they know where they stand with them):
- Blueskins believe themselves superior, and will follow order to the letter to Rape, Pillage, and Burn and don't mind killing inferiors. However, when not ordered to do so, their superiority complex inclines them to be generous to the enemy, and they have a reputation for nursing Scherian soldiers back to health with top of the line care.
- The Aram Chantat will Rape, Pillage, and Burn when paid to, but don't really like following orders, so will sometimes on a whim simply rob a town of all of its wealth without doing much killing.
- The Butcher: General Carnufex's title "The Irrigator" is a take-off on this, since his "irrigation" took the form of wiping out the entire population of a large city. As an added Genius Bonus, the name Carnufex appears to derive from the Latin "carnifex", which literally means "butcher" and also carries the same figurative meanings that the word has in English.
- Cadre of Foreign Bodyguards: Instead of fighting themselves, Permians fought the war with mercenaries (still keeping peace internally and waiting for payment) of two types: Imperial troops from The Empire (referred to as "Blueskins" by the Scherians) and the Aram Chantat, members of a Barbarian Tribe.
- Continuity Nod: Possibly. Parker tends to reuse country names in a lot of his fiction, so its unclear whether he has a 'verse. However, Bringas and Timizces are the names of clerks working for the protagonist of The Folding Knife and Scheria is mentioned in that novel, so this one is possibly a sequel set centuries afterward.
- Crystal Dragon Jesus: As in other Parker works, characters worship The Invincible Sun, and there are monasteries, bishops, icons containing religious art, etc.
- Democracy Is Bad: Iseutz borrows a book on political theory from Tzimisces that appears to define various forms of government. A section on Democracy quoted for the reader defines Democracy to the effect that it is a more viable system of Oligarchy in which the people get to select among various oligarchs.
- The Horde: The Aram Chantat, which explains why everyone hates them. Subverted with the Blueskins who are dark-skinned warriors from the East- but the East is the Eastern Empire, whose sophisticated culture they preserve.
- Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Like most of Parker's work, the setting is evocative of The Byzantine Empire, with Scheria having a somewhat Greek feel (reflected in the character names) and Permia coming across as vaguely Slavic.
- Felony Misdemeanor: Phrantzes is coerced into coaching based upon one of these. He's caught with a sex manual which is technically banned but widely read and his immediate reaction when the police show up out of nowhere is to deny owning it. This makes him liable for the crime of lying to the police which carries a massive fine and prison time.
- Nicknaming the Enemy: Imperials are refereed to be Scherians "Blueskins" (an actual archaic slaying term for dark-skinned people). At one point in the novel, one Imperial asks the Scherians why they call them that when they have brown skin, and Ado explains (truthfully?) that it is because unripe blueberries are brown on the inside.
- The Political Officer: Tzimisces is explicitly called this and closely fits the stereotype in terms of being present to keep the group in line, and issuing orders that do not seem to be for the good of the team. Also fairly typically is that with he presents himself as a civilian, a Sherlock Scan by Suidas and Iseutz deduces that he was a highly ranked soldier during the war.
- Smart People Play Chess: Both played straight and played with:
- All of the team members are quite intelligent and like to play chess, with varrying degrees of skill. Addo, being The Ace, is naturally a master.
- Addo indicates that his father (despite being The Chessmaster) is not good at chess, but when he does play, is skilled at deducing the character of his opponents from their strategy at the game.
- Tzimisces comments that he doesn't like chess, because he always knows from the first move how his opponent will play and inevitably lose- illustrating both Tzimisces' cunning and his smugness.
- We ARE Struggling Together: The Imperial mercenaries and Permians hate the Aram Chantat more than they hate the Scherians (in fact, the Imperials have an outright Worthy Opponent sentiment toward General Carnufex).