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«Steel», Carrie Vaughn

To my family

1

EN GARDE

Jill shook her legs out one at a time. Rolled her shoulders. Loosened up. Rearranged her hold on her weapon once again, curling gloved fingers around the grip. It nestled into her hand like it had been molded there, the épée blade becoming an extension of her arm.

Across from her, on a long, five-foot-wide strip of combat, stood her opponent, a tall, powerful-limbed girl in a bleach-white fencing jacket who seemed more like a linebacker than a fencer. Her face was a shadow behind the mesh of her mask. Jill bounced in place, flicking her épée so it whipped against the air, as if she couldn’t wait to start.

The score was tied. This was the last point. The air seemed to have gone out of the room, a cavernous gymnasium where two dozen fencing strips had held competitors fighting and winning and losing all day. Only a few fencers remained now. The winner of this bout would get third place for the tournament. Bronze medal. The loser, fourth place, and nothing else. A pat on the back. And Jill needed this win to qualify for the Junior World Fencing Championships. This was her last chance.

Let it all go, Jill told herself. It was just another tournament, one of hundreds she’d fenced in. Let her muscles do what they knew how to do. Remember why she loved this: With a few flicks of her sword she would outwit her enemy, and even through the mesh of the mask, Jill would see the startled look on the girl’s shadowed face when she scored a touch on her.

The official glanced between them, judging their readiness. “En garde.”

Let it go, do your job.

“Allez!”

Épées raised, they approached, step by careful step. Jill knew her opponent, a girl from Texas, was cautious, but when she finally committed herself she’d be strong. She’d plow Jill over if she could, sending her into a panic, and score the point before anyone could blink. So Jill wanted to strike first, before her opponent had a chance to gather herself.

Arm outstretched, Jill feinted high, wagging her blade up in a move that looked like it would strike her opponent’s mask, her footwork carrying her too fast to back out of the commitment. As she hoped, the Texas girl lifted her sword to parry, exposing her legs and the lower half of her torso—all targets waiting for a good, clean hit.

But the parry itself was a feint, and the Texan was ready for her. When Jill circled her blade to avoid the parry, the other blade circled with her, blocking her intended target, knocking her out of the way—leaving Jill exposed. Quickly—now she was the one in a panic—she scrambled back in a retreat and yanked her blade up to parry.

Steel struck steel, moving too fast for Jill to feel it much. Her hand was already turning the sword to its next motion, to counter the Texan’s concerted attack.

Jill pulled it together. Kept her focus on the job at hand.

Her mind seemed to fade as her body moved by instinct, and it felt wonderful. Her motions flowed, her steps were easy—she could almost see where the Texas girl’s épée prepared to strike. Then, she saw her opening. Her opponent kept attacking low, trying to sneak under Jill’s defense. All Jill had to do was use that pattern against her. Wait for the next low attack, sweep up, strike home as the Texan’s sword was also extending toward her—

A buzzer rang, the signal from the electronic scoring box.

Buttons on the tips of the épées recorded hits. Signals traveled from the button along a wire nested in the blade to the back of the guard, then through cords laced up the sleeve and out behind the jacket to plug into the scoring box. Often, the movements happened so quickly, the touches from the other sword were so light you couldn’t feel them. The lights on the box told the truth.

Jill had hit the Texan, she knew she had, right on her breastbone. She’d felt the pressure through her hand and arm. But her opponent’s sword had slipped inside her defenses as well. Jill looked at the lights—her opponent’s red light buzzed brightly. Jill’s light should have been green—but it was dark. She had hit a fraction of a second after her opponent had killed her. Her point didn’t count.

Last touch and the bout went to the other fighter. The referee called it. There was cheering.


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