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Blades of Champions

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No one has ever been to a national fencing competition and forgotten about it.

Non-fencers (mostly consisting of unaccustomed families-of-fencers) usually stopped and stared as soon as they entered a fencing hall – or rather, stopped and covered their ears.

Whatever image the newcomers had in their mind of honorable princesses dancing with an epee in hand visibly evaporated, drowned in the noise.

And really. That was fair. Kindergartens were like calm sanctuaries in comparison to a fencing competition.

Blades hitting against each other was a sound that most probably expected, and that wasn’t so bad – though when about forty people gave off those cling-clang noises and to no proper rhythm besides, that was a given source of headaches. And the sound of steel against steel was occasionally interrupted by the high pitched beeps of the individual twenty-or-so scoreboards from whenever a fencer scored a point. Those beeps were like a hospital intensive care room with every monitor going haywire, or tinnitus scratching a record. And it was all the more intense with the coaches and parents who yelled whenever that beep happened (either in agony from a point lost, or joy from a point gained).

And then, not to forget, there were the Screamer-Fencers.

Maybe it wasn’t so strange that fencing competitions never had many spectators.

But to the fencers themselves, the noise was a part of them. They lived in it, immune to the headaches – entering the halls was more or less like walking into a cloud, where a calculated sort of adrenaline coursed through their bloodstream with every breath, widening their focus and narrowing it all the while.

Or maybe that was just Minerva.

Competitions were routine. She’d been nervous and clumsy when she was a ten-year-old; afraid of walking to the wrong piste, or being teased for her size, or whatever else. That was seven years ago, and every year had granted her the opportunity of attending at least one competition per month. Nothing deterred her, now.

Stone cold, she repeated to herself as she jogged wall-to-wall. Her eyes moved over the girls she passed by – they jogged in a group. Laughing to themselves. One of them met Minerva’s eyes, and smiled.

Stone cold, Minerva reminded herself as she stared blankly back. Focus. Victory.

A rowdy guitar murmured in her ears, through earplugs old enough to make everything sound like metal with the way they crackled. No wonder they were worn – the aggressive drums and melodic guitar riffs were her only fencing companion. Because she needed nothing else. Making friends in the sport was a dangerous distraction, Michalis told her – it could cost you a victory. And following his example was important.

Minerva glared at the girls the next time they jogged parallel to each other. She didn’t recognize most of them – Triatun Club’s foil-fencers, by the looks of their jackets – except for Ylina, an epee-fencer in the same age class as Minerva.

It didn’t cost Minerva anything to glare. She could only gain from it.

A good deal of fencing was the mind-games. Michalis was the master of that. Minerva spotted him, about five pistes over, where he was just about to begin one of his eliminations – and he grasped his opponent’s hand firmly, his gaze not yielding an inch. He might as well have been saying ‘I’ll crush you, bug’. And he probably would. Everyone knew that, including the opponent. Minerva could tell.

Minerva looked away and stopped by the wall instead, to stretch and prepare her footwork a bit. She glanced at the giant clock above the soccer-goal. It blinked ten-to-eleven. There were pros and cons to starting late – the pros were the chance to sleep in a bit, and the cons were that everyone fenced everywhere so there was no room for warming up.

In fact, Minerva had seen Catria, a sabre-fencer who for some reason still insisted on doing epee on the side, running in circles outside the kiosk. Unconventional method. Not that Minerva cared what anyone from Catria’s club was doing outside the piste.

The murmur in Minerva’s ears was drowned out by the speakers. The announcer’s voice, that of a cheery old man who always announced for Macedon Cup, echoed over the entire hall.

Women’s Cadet Epee, your poules are up on the announcer board. Be ready for weapons’ check at eleven ‘o clock, and good luck !”

This announcer always ended with that, and Minerva fought the urge to scoff. Fencing wasn’t luck, no more than chess was. But no matter. There were more important things to focus on, at that moment.

This was Macedon Cup. The last competition before the winner of Macedon Masters was announced. And Macedon Masters was the aggregation of every cup over the previous season, each medal worth points that was counted into a total score.

And Minerva would win both. So far, there was no one rivaling her for the spot. No one, except… her.

A green braid whisked past Minerva, on the way to the announcers' board, and Minerva’s Stone Cold Focus broke with a surge at the pit of her stomach and a narrowing of her eyes.

Palla Graywing. The Eastocken Fencing Club’s prodigy. The tall, smiling wonder.

She’d snagged the gold during the last cup, leaving Minerva with a rotten silver.

Well. That was just a simple little country cup, as Michalis had put it. This was Macedon Cup. Set in the capital, Minerva’s very home.

That defeat would not be repeated here.

 

-----

 

The Macedon Masters’ ranking weighed heavily in the making of poules.

A poule was basically the springboard into the real competition that was the elimination matches. They consisted of groups of about five fencers in each, put against each other and then scored separately. It made a lot of sense that the ones responsible didn’t want the top-ranked Master-fencers facing each other in the same poule, because that would tip the scales unfairly.

For that very reason, Minerva (who was currently ranked second in the Masters) and Palla (ranked first) were never in the same poule. Their face-offs happened way later, in the semifinals or finals. Even that was basically routine.

The aggressive growls kept going in Minerva’s worn earplugs as she scanned the announcing board.

Her poule had Talvice Prince (a bunch of people called her Malice), Catria Graywing, Liv Skogesdotr and Ylina Tradi. Could definitely have been worse, but better, too.

The announcer board was at the top of the spectators’ stands (probably because the ones in charge didn’t want fifty fencers flooding the main floors and pistes every hour), and Minerva skipped down past her own fencing bag, picking up spare coils, spare epees and a candy bar. The latter was reached out to her by her mother – who couldn’t have been there long – and Minerva gave her a quick smile.

“How was the walk?” Minerva asked. Her mother was no fencer, and the noise in the fencing hall really got to her. So she usually spent the competition days out on walks, or sightseeing.

“Dusty, with spring doing its thing”, her mother answered with a little shrug and a brush of Minerva’s arm. “Now focus on your competition, dear. Don’t mind me.”

As her mother spoke, her eyes shifted to the fencing floor, and she smiled wider as she set her gaze on someone and waved.

When Minerva turned her head, she was met by Maria’s grin. Visible all the way from piste fourteen. Minerva gave her a little salute, two fingers stiff against her forehead, and she could tell how Maria chuckled at her. Then giving her two thumbs-up.

Maria was the youngest in their family, and not the stone-cold-focus-type. Maria played around with her foil and laughed whether she won or lost, then tailed anyone who needed a friendly company. And that was all fine. She didn’t care about being a champion, about travelling all over the world to face fencers of all kinds – Maria fenced for fun. It looked pretty freeing, but that was nothing for Minerva.

Fencing was Minerva’s world. Her future. She’d become the best, or crumble trying. And the winner of Macedon Masters was most likely – not the only one, but most likely – to be drafted to the Archanea Cup or even the World Cup during next season, so this day was no game to her.

Although when Minerva ventured onward to her piste, she noticed Palla down in the middle of the hall.

Truth be told, Palla was difficult not to notice, with the green hair and all. Most fencers colored their hair one way or another (since fencer helmets didn’t make it easy to distinguish one beekeeper-looking-person from another), but Palla was pretty much alone in her vivid green. It was the loveliest shade, too – like the dresses of the Forest People in Minerva’s favorite medieval movie-series. Was it intentional? Did Palla know? Or did she like that shade too? Probably, since she wore it herself, but then again—

Michalis appeared on the other side of Palla’s back, meeting Minerva’s gaze and interrupting her train of thought.

Stone Cold Focus. Minerva slipped back into it. Her thoughts usually didn’t drift. She scowled down on her phone, increased the music volume as she stopped by her designated piste.

Every piste had a referee. That was obvious to a fencer, but sometimes Minerva overheard non-fencers on the stands ask themselves “what are the fancy-suit people for if there are lamps that light up when a fencer gets a point? Seems like a waste of people?” or something like that.

That grounded itself in a vast misunderstanding for how beat up a fencer would be if there wasn’t a referee present to enforce the rules. Rules, such as, Don’t back too far out of the piste, don’t step out of the side piste with both your feet, don’t push, don’t aim to harm, don’t hit the opponent with your handle, don’t have your coach distract your opponent by doing rude gestures behind your back, don’t throw your weapon (or anything at all, really), and so on. And then epee was the weapon with the least amount of rules.

A referee was impartial, for as long as you didn’t offend them or the rules (depending on the offense, a kind ref would give a yellow card, a tired ref would give a black card and that meant no more Master Competitions for you that year). A referee was a personality, a vital cog in the machine of a competition – and because of that, no one was eager to cross them.

That went double for the Stiletto Referee. Not even the leading board dared to cross her.

The Stiletto Referee was so named because of her unyielding tendency to carry stiletto heels, no matter the weather and no matter the price of the pistes she scraped her heels on. She might as well be scraping those heels against someone’s raw beating heart for all the damage she did.

The pistes were expensive conductors that were vital for fair fencing. They were basically fourteen meter long mats of rubber and conducting material, rolled out on the floor and connected to the scoring boxes through grounding wires. A contraption with the purpose of avoiding that a point got registered for any fencer hitting the piste instead of the opponent. 

One of those pistes was worth the same as a luxurious all-inclusive vacation on the beaches of Altea (so Minerva’s father and coach said, anyway). And they were not meant to be walked on by sharp heels.

Minerva made sure to glare at the Stiletto Referee as coldly as she could, but she didn’t dare to do more. This was her ref (not one of the kinder sorts) and Minerva intended to win this without any penalty cards waved her way.

Miss Stiletto listed the order of the poule in a commanding tone, and while Minerva noticed how everyone in her group side-eyed the referee as well, they all went about their business without a word.

The first match was between Catria and Ylina, so Minerva got a few more moments to focus and prepare – and observe how her opponents moved today. She got to sit down and read their insecurities, their strengths, their new tricks.

She knew both fencers well. Not that she’d ever really spoken to them – competitions were not for making friends, after all – but she knew their style. Catria had none of her older sister Palla’s confident strokes (Minerva would never have guessed the two were related if not for their last names), she was a sabre-fencer through and through, even with an epee in hand. She was explosive and fast, and never aimed for anything but the thorax. Predictable, but only in the way a bag of dynamite was predictable. Without care, you’d get blown to smithereens. Or in this case, get left with a score of zero to Catria’s five before half a minute had passed.

Ylina was a different matter. A quiet and calculating kind, always waiting for a moment to counter by a hit in the arm or the leg. She was not bad, if it wasn’t for her coach – Rucke.

Rucke was a well-known menace, even more so than the unfortunate existence of Stiletto Heels. He’d always toe the line of a black card (coaches could get those too if they were really annoying), ignore every warning to the best of his ability, and do what he could to yell his lungs out at his fencers. “Don’t let a bloody cow farmer get you, Ylina! You’ll contract tapeworms!” or anything similar he said was a ‘little joke’. If an opponent bristled and cried, Rucke had reached his goal, though it was not often he got that far before cards of every kind was flying his way. Yet this bastard always returned.

Minerva was unlucky to have both of Rucke’s favorites in her poule. That meant he’d be yammering on this side of the hall the entire time. She’d learned to block him out pretty well, though.

Ylina was not complicit in Rucke’s behavior (she’d more than once pointed right at Rucke and then followed up with a jabbing finger at the door leading outside), and for that she was more appreciated than her club mate, Talvice (who seemed to enjoy the perk of having a coach wearing down the weak, and for that people called her Malice in a whisper).

And she was the next to enter the piste, ready to face off against Minerva.

Minerva entered the piste, and Catria was polite enough to hand her the electric cable every fencer needed to be wired to the lamps on the scoreboard. Minerva didn’t thank her, but gave her an appreciative dip of her chin before she connected herfself and tested her epee on the floor beside the piste. A red lamp lit up, and immediately after a green one, as Talvice tested hers.

Everyone had learned the fencer’s greeting when they were beginners. It was a stiff and proper greeting with very specific movements and stance, but only beginners actually went and did that greeting. After doing it a couple of thousand times, it got simplified to a nod and the weapon held in front of the face, or something the like. No one cared, unless there was an immortal duelist in their midst, from the time when kings and honor were held in high regard.

Then again, apparently Minerva was a distant ancestor to the last kings of Macedon. Perhaps she should care a little bit. But no, that history wasn’t exactly something to brag about.

Winning a fencing competition however, was.

Minerva and Talvice bumped guards (a way to test the equipment, which was always done with various degrees of violence) and pulled their helmets down over their faces.

“Come on, Tali!” Rucke hollered from the side of the piste. “There’s so much of her to hit, you can do this!”

Minerva barely heard him. If taunting her about her chubby figure was all he could do, he’d have to do better.

She zoned in on the match. The screams, beeps and clangs around her faded away, and all that existed was Talvice in front of her.

Talvice’s arm was low. That was one of her taunts, she faked a poor stance as an offer to aim for the top of her wrist. Minerva knew better. Talvice was an expert in countering with a hit to the lower part of her opponent's wrist, should they walk into her trap.

Even so, someone who held their weapon ‘wrong’ was uncomfortable to fence against and Minerva was slow to start and never managed to get a real hit. Her attacks were met by Talvice’s point to her chest, and both of their lamps lit up at the same time. Doubles. They were both awarded a point, every time Minerva attacked. 

Talvice on the other hand, managed to get one point for herself as Minerva did a sloppy feint, and since the rest were doubles, the match ended with Minerva’s loss. Four, to Talvice’s five.

Rucke was laughing loudly and high-five-ing Talvice as soon as they freed themselves of the cables. Minerva convinced herself she didn’t let that get to her. A close call was better than getting no points at all, since each hit in the poule counted for the final rankings.

Minerva remembered a time when she was always winning each match in the poule by at least three points, and ended up first in the final rankings every time. That was, until Palla came along.

Minerva sat down on a bench and glanced toward the piste next to them.

Catria had walked over there to join her older sister, and Palla was speaking to her and moving her wrist at the same time – coaching her. Minerva had to wonder if it was to get an advantage over Minerva, since she’d have to face Catria next. Palla knew better than anyone how to counter Minerva’s style, after all. It was quite impressive (and pretty annoying), but Minerva refused to be intimidated.

Minerva poured some water from her bottle into her hand and splashed it in her face. A way to “reset”, whenever her focus slipped.

“What in Imhullu’s name was that?”

Minerva had to fight against the urge to roll her eyes. “Shut up, Michalis.”

“Good morning, sister dear.” Michalis moved to stand beside her, his arms crossed and his eyes on the piste. “Should I perhaps bring you breakfast on the bedside? Maaybe pinch your cheek a little? Because you’re obviously not awake yet! How could you leave yourself open to Talvice like that?”

“It was a feint, and I failed it.”

“I have eyes, idiot.” Michalis scoffed and glared down at her. “Who’re you up against next?”

“Catria.”

“Well, what are you waiting for? Get up and kick her ass! You can’t just sit here and get cold, hemorrhoidarsel.”

“You calling me a hemorrhoid-butt?” Minerva put her bottle down and stood up. “Speaking Grustian isn’t gonna help you hide your insults, fulrumpa.”

Minerva was glad she’d caught up on some of Michalis’ obnoxious language practicing. At this point he was fluent in Grustian – a lot thanks to that he’d been drafted to the World Cup in Grust last year, and he’d learned more than enough curse words and insults from a fencer there named Camus. Now, Michalis was practicing Altean since he was so sure he was going to get drafted to the World Cup in Altea this year.

To Minerva’s annoyance, Michalis only chuckled at her and gave her shoulder a hard pat. “Give them a sound beating, sis.”

“Same to you”, she said. His semi-final was coming up, she knew.

“I don’t need your well-wishes”, Michalis scoffed. “What, you think I’ll lose against Matthis?”

“One could dream, right? That would be hilarious.”

“Get over yourself”, he grinned. Then he returned to his serious face and nodded at her. “Now focus.”

Yes, Minerva agreed and met Catria’s gaze, on the piste over to the left. Focus.

 

Catria was indeed explosive as ever. Whatever tips and tricks Palla had given her, Catria must have ignored them. Or her Sabre-fencer-mind just couldn’t shut off entirely. As long as Minerva remained calm, she could answer Catria’s hot-headedness with calculated parries and binds. Catria managed to score a few doubles, but what did that matter? Minerva was the obvious victor.

Palla stood on Catria’s side of the piste after the match, and that dulled some of Minerva’s joy. Palla didn’t look disappointed, exactly, but a bit like Minerva had defeated her, too. And for as much as Minerva tried to think ‘hah, great, I got inside her mind and psyched her out’, she just felt like apologizing.

Focusfocusfocus, she chanted to herself, but that didn’t help her any.

Palla’s gaze still lingered with her as Minerva connected herself to the cable the next time, facing off against Ylina. And Palla had really dark eyelashes today, Minerva had noticed. It was a bit strange – Minerva rarely saw her use any makeup (in a competitive setting, at least). Palla sort of looked perfect no matter what she did – was this new look to blame on that Sonya?

Sonya was a Valentian fencer, and she’d come over as an exchange student to the Eastocken Fencing Club – Minerva had only seen Sonya on one competition, but that was enough to dislike her. Not because Sonya was rude (she was dishearteningly nice), but… She never had a hair out of place, even when she took her helmet off (which was literally impossible, Minerva had tried multiple times and always failed) and she fawned over Palla like she was some sort of angel.

Minerva didn’t know why that made her gut feel funny. She shouldn’t have cared. Sonya had gone home to Valentia and that was that. And now Palla wore dark eyeliner. Which Minerva shouldn’t care about. She was being ridiculous.

Focus, damn it! Minerva had nearly forgotten she was fencing an important match, and that showed, in the end. She won, but only by a hair.

This day was the worst.

Minerva huffed down on her little bench again. She was much too professional to cry this soon into the game, but damnit if Rucke’s proud yells didn’t make her want to punch someone. Minerva only had Liv left, and not even a solid five-against-zero win could salvage this mess. She’d definitely rank below fourth place in the elimination-setup. Though how far down was depending on how terribly the others did.

She did not want Michalis to show up again, that would just make everything worse. But he wasn’t the only sibling who hovered around the hall.

“Heya, sis”, Maria exclaimed with a jump over the back of the piste. “How’s it going?”

It was Michalis who’d started the ‘sis’ thing, and it was pretty contagious. Though when Michalis said it, it was annoying. When Maria did, it was cute.

“Ugh”, was all Minerva responded, chewing on the lip of her water bottle. “You?”

“I’m gonna lose against Est”, Maria chirped and played with her glove. “I mean, she’s ranked first, and I’m ranked last, so… Just guessing. That’s good though, then I can watch all her other matches! And yours, too!”

“Oh, no”, Minerva groaned into her water bottle. “No, this is a bad day. I’d rather you didn’t see me trash this competition. I’ve already messed up.”

Maria threw an arm around her shoulders, but she frowned. “Hey, win or lose, you’re still amazing! You could end up last, and still get second in the Macedon Masters, and that’s really good, right?”

“It means bad luck to talk about the Masters-ranking before a competition is done”, Minerva scolded half-heartedly, but leaned on her sister’s shoulder. “Though yeah, maybe, if it comes to that. I’m so close to finally beating Palla though, if I could just eliminate her… I could go to the Archanean Cup for sure.”

“Oh, psch”, Maria snorted. “I don’t think it would matter! The national team would be idiot-butts if they didn’t pick you!”

Minerva smiled. “Is Est teaching you insults, now? Don’t let mom or dad hear you.”

Maria was about to answer, but then the referee’s voice cut through the noise in the hall. “Last fencers! Minerva Wyver! Liv Skogesdotr!”

Minerva put her water bottle down, grabbed her epee by the blade, and walked up to the piste. Maria gave her back a little pat.

“There, I gave you my winning-power!” Maria grinned. “I didn’t want it, anyway. So don’t give up! You’ll ace this!”

Minerva snorted a laugh, but her returning grin was genuine. “Thanks, sis.”

 

-----

 

Minerva stared at the leader board. She read her own name, over and over again, and hated what she saw.

8th place: Minerva Wyver

She could give herself a ton of excuses – this was Macedon Cup, and filled with tough competition – but she didn’t believe those herself, so what was the point? She’d done terribly in the poule, and this was what she deserved.

And she might deserve Michalis, too. Hence she didn’t protest as he pulled her by the arm and dragged her in behind the cafeteria.

“What is the matter with you?” He seemed close to laughing, and Minerva only clenched her teeth in response.

“Do you even want to have a future with this? Because it sure doesn’t seem like it! This is not the results of a champion, all right?”

Sorry I’m not pristine perfect like you, Minerva seethed, but she knew better than to speak her mind.

Michalis sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Bad days are okay, they happen, but a bad day means ranking at least fourth – you’re eighth ! That is an unspeakably terrible day.”

“In your world, maybe”, Minerva mumbled back.

“Oh, exactly!” Michalis crossed his arms. “A champion’s world, which is my world. So yes. You wanna be a part of that? Get yourself together! I’ve got a final to win, so I can’t babysit you. Just… Do better than this!”

“You suck at pep talks”, Minerva scoffed, searching for anything to say to maybe feel a little less terrible. But again, she should know better than to sass Michalis.

He stabbed a finger into her shoulder. “And you suck at winning.”

With that, he left.

Minerva refused to acknowledge the tears that burned behind her eyelids. But that didn’t make them burn any less.

 

-----

 

Of course Palla would be ranked first. Of course. And that meant she got to skip the first elimination entirely, while the lower ranked still had to battle it out.

Maybe that was for the best. Minerva had plenty of anger she wanted to release, and this Aliva Venhalm from the Gimon School of Fencing Arts would serve as a perfect opponent to unleash her fury onto.

The Gimon School of Fencing Arts (they were too fancy for abbreviations, so one really had to spell it all out every time) didn’t send many of their club members to competitions to begin with – their coach was more interested in the art and less in the sport, and those who did compete didn’t go very far. The only ones of any notice were Lena, a foil fencer, and her boyfriend Julian, a sabre fencer. The rest were utterly forgettable.

But considering how this day had been going so far, Minerva wouldn’t be surprised if she botched this one. Her father left that unsaid, but he still hugged her before he had to run to another piste to instruct a fellow MCFA-fencer. There were both pros and cons to having a coach as a dad, too.

“Win or lose, I’ll still be here to give you a hug”, Coach Osmond smiled at her. “Okay, Minerva?”

Minerva nodded into his shoulder, and then he was gone. Probably off to coach Michalis’ final. As if he needed it.

Minerva’s side of the piste was empty then, except for her. She was used to it, but it still hurt a surprising amount to see her opponent’s friends and club-mates huddle around and give well-wishes. They applauded her when she stepped up to the referee for the weapons’ check, while Minerva walked up to the ref accompanied by silence.

Well. Minerva didn’t need applause to crush this one. As soon as the referee gave them their ‘allez’, Minerva had gained control of Aliva’s blade, and stabbed the tip into her chest.

Few beeps were as satisfying as one that came immediately after a perfect hit. Minerva’s steaming anger evaporated and gave room for the focused vengeance she had missed the entire day.

She got four points in a row in the exact same way. A lesser fencer would relax at this, but Minerva knew better. She’d done that in her younger days, and been sloppy, let her opponent catch up, and lost because of it. No one could be underestimated. On this level of fencing, especially.

Though maybe this Aliva could have been safely underestimated. Minerva almost felt sorry for her, taking off her helmet in front of a bored referee with a score of four against Minerva’s winning fifteen. Then again, Minerva didn’t feel sorry for her at all, as Aliva’s friends crowded her to pat her on the back and tell her she’d given a really good fight, while Minerva unbound herself from the cable on her own.

On the other side of the hall, she heard a familiar howl, accompanied by an impressive ovation.

Michalis had won gold, then. Only he could give such a dumb victory-yell.

Minerva could go and congratulate him, if nothing else because it would look weird if she didn’t, but she wanted a snack. She could have one while she waited for her next elimination. Excuse herself that she needed to focus on her own. Michalis didn’t care either way, she knew that.

 

She sat down by their family’s equipment up on the stand. Her mother had left again, probably to stand beside Michalis, and Maria was probably getting changed – Maria’s jackets hung neatly over the rails beside Minerva, so she could assume Maria really had lost against Est.

Minerva put her feet up on the empty seat in front of her and chewed on a protein bar from her bag. The screams and beeps had settled down a little, now. The Men’s Junior Epee was finished (evidently, since Michalis had won it all), so it was no wonder if a lot of other groups had finished at this point, too. Only the late starters, such as Minerva’s Women’s Cadet Epee, were left.

Nice and quiet, with only the occasional abyssal screams. Minerva allowed herself this peace. Allowed herself to enjoy the protein bar-meditation for as long as it lasted. Because when it ended, she’d be bored again.

Minerva never brought books or games to a competition. Some people did, but they weren’t serious about fencing, in her opinion. It was devastating for the focus. The only thing that wasn’t a distraction was music, so Minerva propped her headphones into her ears and watched the spectacle below as the metal band on her phone cried out their pagan fury.

Minerva knew which ones battled for the chance of facing off against her – Ylina and her club-mate, over on piste nine. Minerva might appear lazy as she stretched out on her bench, but she was watching them very closely. Strategies didn’t form on their own.

 

It didn’t take long for the battle on piste nine to end. Ylina stood as the victor, and she was immediately shuffled away by Rucke (the defeated club mate was promptly ignored by him, and Minerva would have felt sorry for her if she didn’t think being ignored by Rucke was a blessing).

Minerva got to her feet. She’d have to get warm again before it was her turn.

 

Maria was waiting by Minerva’s piste – she’d pulled out three chairs, but the other two were empty. And again, the other side of the piste was full of people waiting for Ylina to arrive. Rucke among them. Which was just splendid.

“I don’t like that coach”, Maria muttered as Minerva joined her, as if she’d read Minerva’s mind. “He walked past here and said that he looked forward to seeing my cry when you lost. I wish Est was here, she’d have something to say right back at him.”

“Doesn’t matter”, Minerva said and adjusted the angle on her epee. “The sword’s mightier than the pen. I’ll eliminate his student, end of story. How’s that for a comeback?”

It was a bit tragic how everything about the Triatun Fencers circled around Rucke, and not the actual fencers. Names were forgotten and conversations ignored, simply because their coach was an ass. Hopefully, that would change one day, but right then, Minerva would say and think what she needed in order to win.

Ylina seemed in good spirits, though. She bumped her point into Minerva’s guard during the weapon testing, with a smile and a ‘cheers’. As if they were clinking wine glasses or something.

Minerva answered with a stoic nod, and the usual hurried fencer’s greeting, before she put her helmet on.

Fencers at the ready.

Their match in the poule had been a close call, so this could go either way. But the fire in Minerva’s heart hadn’t died yet – she was still in that bubble of cold, angry focus – and she’d use it.

Their first five points were doubles. Minerva knew that was bound to happen, but it didn’t discourage her. Ylina was great at short bursts like in the poules, but the longer elimination matches were something else altogether. She’d grow tired, whereas Minerva would be aggressive as ever.

Minerva usually got compliments for her endurance, and rightfully so. She scored a few points on her own, and Maria gave her enough applause for three people until her father came to join her.

“Keep it up, Minerva! Stay on your toes!”

“Come on! Crush her, Ylina!”

Rucke was louder in the sense that he screamed, but Coach Osmond’s voice was booming enough so he didn’t need to yell. Rucke could scream until he was red in the face, he couldn’t overpower him (a tactic he otherwise used to drown out an opponent’s coach, nasty as he was), and he couldn’t change the fact that Minerva was gaining in her lead.

He stood there, waving pathetically at Ylina in the breaks between points, and Minerva could see how much he stressed Ylina. Her shoulders tensed and at the end, she was basically running into Minerva’s tip as if saying ‘end it already’. And not for the first time that day, Minerva felt sorry for one of the Triatun fencers.

Winning was unceremonious, with Ylina giving her a weak smile and an even weaker handshake, before she drew a deep breath and turned to face the storm that was her coach.

Minerva, on the other hand, turned to face an open embrace and a laugh.

“You’re a joy to behold, daughter dear! Congratulations!”

Minerva smiled, but tried to hide it. Only her dad would say something so pompous as ‘daughter dear’.

“It’s just the thirty-second elimination, dad”, Minerva mumbled into his shoulder. “It’s no big deal.”

“Hey, you know the rules! Win or lose, I’ll give you the warmest hug, no matter what!”

“It’s a good rule”, Maria agreed, as she joined in. Minerva hadn’t even freed herself from the cable yet, so they got a bit entangled and uncomfortable, and let go soon enough.

“Hey, guess what”, Maria continued, “you’ll be facing off against Est’s big sister in the next round!”

Minerva grew cold, and she dropped the cable. It zipped along the piste and slammed into the cable spool with a bang. One of the things you weren’t supposed to do. It could ruin the equipment.

Minerva hurried away from the side-eye from the referee, and by then her mind had caught up with her.

“You don’t mean Palla, right?”

“No, no, not this early! I meant Catria, you know, Blue hair, scowling most of the time, bought me candy from the kiosk once when I forgot my money—“

“Right, right. Sorry. Palla’s the first one to come to mind.” Minerva paused for a second, reflecting on what she’d actually said. Then she shrugged. “Well, I already beat Catria once, today. Might as well do it again.”

 

Catria arrived to the piste before Minerva. She’d placed her stuff by her side and sat cross-legged on a chair as Palla, with her body coil hanging loose behind her, alternated between stances in front of her. Trying to coach her sister, as always. When Palla was done, she put both her hands on Catria’s shoulders and grinned. Minerva had gotten close enough to hear them.

“You can do this! And remember; you could beat her in sabre, any day!”

That earned a smile from the otherwise stoic expression on Catria’s face.

Minerva did her best to ignore them as she tested her own equipment. The key to avoid friendly talks was to look busy, and that was especially important when it came to those sisters. They made small talk with most of their opponents, and it might look innocent, but Minerva wasn’t taking any risks. A champion never did.

Though it seemed nice, to have Palla on your side of the piste, crossing her fingers and looking so eager (because she would be happy to see Minerva eliminated, maybe, but she also seemed to enjoy cheering for her sister like this).

It seemed nice, Minerva thought, to have Palla wait for you after the three minutes of the first bout had passed and it was time for a small water-break. To have Palla methodically go through everything that could be improved, and encourage everything that went well. The Eastocken coach, Frost, only passed by quickly and then let Palla take the rest. So she was obviously good at what she was doing.

“Are you spacing out?” Michalis snapped his fingers. “You two are at a draw, and you’re spacing out. That’s just fantastic.”

“Sorry.”

“Thirty seconds left of the break. Eat another few grapes, and listen, okay – you’re stalling her, and that’s good. She’s a sabre fencer and she hates what you’re doing, so kudos. That said, if I see you one more time reacting to her attacks with a sloppy counter, I swear— Extend your arm, for Imhullu’s sake!”

Michalis had been screaming that exact phrase from the back of the piste the entire match. What, he thought she didn’t hear him and stopped extending her arm to spite him?

The referee waved at the fencers to take their place again. With a draw at 12-12, the match would likely be over soon.

Nothing to it but fight to the last— 

A hit, right into her helmet. It slammed with the terrible noise of metal rattling against metal. A lone, green light lit up on the scoreboard followed by the inevitable increase on Catria's side to thirteen

“I said extend your fucking arm, Minerva! Counter riposte and! The! ARM !!” 

Minerva barely heard her brother's screams, but the referee clearly did. And he'd had enough of Michalis constant yelling. He reached into his back pocket and flashed him a yellow card. Without hesitation. 

Michalis began to protest, but the referee (who seemed really sick of Michalis, and who could blame him for it?) only stepped closer and kept his hand in his back pocket, staring Michalis down. His finger grazing the black card. 

Don't test me, he seemed to say. 

And Michalis yielded (because he wasn't dumb), and spun on his heel and walked off like a cloud of angry smoke.

Piste ten was oddly quiet after that. But it wasn't like it was holding its breath or anything; rather that it let it out. 

Minerva's mind stilled with it. She got in position, and at the mark, she knew exactly what she had to do. 

Catria was power and surprise, and simply extending the arm the way you were supposed to felt to Minerva like a death sentence. She might be completely wrong, but what her gut was telling her was that she should keep control of Catria's blade by bending her elbow all the way through an attack. It was what she'd been thinking from the start, but Michalis yells had sown doubt.

Now, she wanted to try. It was unconventional, but it earned her one point. And no angry shouts from behind her… Her mind remained clear. 

Catria thundered into her, but her tip flew way past its target as Minerva moved her body closer, and managed a hit into Catria's back. Unconventional, again, but she was doing this. She was doing it. 

The red light lit up one last time, earning Minerva the final point and the victory. When she glanced back, Michalis was nowhere to be seen. He might have fainted from her ugly technique, though if so, good riddance. 

She walked up to take Catria's hand, and the girl gave her a wry smile. 

“I messed up that one, huh.” 

“You did good", Minerva answered her, to her own surprise. And to Catria's as well. It was common knowledge that Minerva Wyver talked to no one, so Catria's brows shot up in beneath her headband. 

Palla had walked up to her too, and she must have heard. 

“Yeah, see Catria, told you so! If you just quit doubting yourself you'd be unstoppable!” 

Catria only shrugged a little, and disconnected from the cable. Palla should be leaving with her, but she lingered a little.

“Guess it's us two facing off in the quarter finals, then.” 

Minerva barely registered that Palla was talking to her, but once she did, her mind stopped working for a few seconds. What she should do was to just look intimidating and say something aloof like ‘oh yeah, you don't need to be telling me that’ but when she tried to scowl her face only twitched and her voice didn't really work so she just spluttered something incomprehensible. 

Palla smiled a little, and in the next moment she'd turned around and gone back to Catria to help carry her stuff.

The other sister, Est, frolicked up to them over weapons and spools on the floor, her foil jacket sparkling in the lamplight. She threw her arms around Catria, without care of Catria herself rolling her eyes hard enough to probably strain them.

They looked so trouble-free. And close.

Minerva, turning her head and finding Michalis glare in the hall, wasn’t exactly feeling it herself. Maria, on the other hand, was more than happy to mirror Est and hug her sister, and that felt a bit less lonely for Minerva.

“I’m still giving you all my winning power”, Maria teased her, “so this was thanks to me, and you better remember it!”

“Yeah, and I’m giving you all of my studying-power in return”, Minerva grinned down at her. “Though that’s a poor deal on your end.”

Maria gave her a weak push. “No! I was thinking more like… ice cream?”

“Oh, yeah. Good idea. I got time.” Minerva picked up her stuff, and straightened her back with mock seriousness. “Shall we embark on this important Quest, oh princess of the Fencing Hall, to slay the Dragon and find the legendary Iced Cream?”

Maria giggled and gave her another weak little push. “Stop that! I’m not a kid, sis!”

“Didn’t you just turn eight?” Minerva said with feigned surprise.

“I’m twelve and you know that!” Maria crossed her arms, trying to look like she was pouting, but she was still grinning. “You’re just being a butt.”

“Guilty as charged”, Minerva said and put her stuff down on her fencing bag.

And right then, she wasn’t nervous, or angry, or yelling at herself to focus – maybe she could take a page out of Maria’s book and actually relax and have a little break even during a competition.

Because really, the way Michalis pouted in a corner didn’t look powerful and intimidating anymore. Just kind of… pathetic. Was that how Minerva usually looked, too?

If so, it was no wonder nobody talked to her or cheered by the side of her piste.

 

-----

 

Something always happened as soon as Minerva put her helmet on to face off against Palla.

It didn’t matter that they’d done it a hundred times before, because every match was a new one, yet the stakes never changed. The top competitors, clawing at the chance to get the prestigious Macedon Master Gold; it was a huge deal every time.

And they were top competitors for a reason. There had never been a time when one had out-classed the other.

Palla’s fleche was like a rocket, her braid flying with her in her attacks, and her counters were precise in both timing and aim.

Minerva’s double-counters were always prepared, and her strength gave her major control of the opponent’s blade.

And in the lightning-fast chess that was fencing, this created a long series of complex actions and counter-actions and ended in doubles, doubles and yet more doubles.

It meant adrenaline. It meant joy, frustration, and a constant pulse whoosing in Minerva’s ears.

Sometimes, referees couldn’t keep up, and then they had to nullify points. That was nothing new. It happened, once or twice.

But this time, that was how it all begun.

Palla had performed a gorgeous fleche, but Minerva had been ready and responded with a fleche of her own, and her lamp, the red one, lit up. Alone. A strong start.

That was, until the referee shook his head, and signed that she had been passed Palla’s midline (she had not).

Invalid point. Minerva arched her brows, but backed down. It was fine. It happened.

They got ready again, and Minerva’s pulse increased immediately. All that existed was Palla’s movements in front of her, Palla’s blade enticing her, and the way Minerva could respond to it.

A few close doubles. The ref didn’t mind those. But as soon as things got intense, and one lamp lit up on its own, he nullified them. Almost every time.

Past the Midline.

Bodies Touching.

Foul.

Invalid point, invalid point, invalid point.

Once, Palla had her heel outside the piste as she hit Minerva’s arm from a distance and that turned into Outside the Piste. Invalid point.

Never mind that “bodies touching” wasn’t even prohibited in epee. Never mind that the little audience they had murmured in confusion. Never mind that the referee had unfocused eyes and didn’t even seem to have a brain behind them.

But the small shake of Palla’s hand as she began her objection, that was something that had Minerva’s frustration to boil over. She pushed her helmet off her face and joined Palla by the referee.

“Sir”, Minerva said. “She did hit me, and it was valid.”

Palla gave Minerva a surprised look, but nodded.

The referee didn’t move his face. He merely gave a decisive shake of his head. “Referee’s judgment. Invalid point. Fencers at the ready!”

Minerva couldn’t believe her ears. Should she keep insisting, risk a penalty? She could tell Palla was thinking about it too, she was biting her lip. But she gave in, and then Minerva did, too.

They fenced more carefully after that. As if they’d come to a silent agreement not to give the referee any reason to invalidate them. They only touched blades to avoid a penalty from passivity, and made a few careful, half-hearted attacks, waiting for a good chance to strike—

The ref raised his hand, interrupted them. And fished out a yellow card, flashed it at both of them, and called passivity.

Minerva could have smacked him straight in the face. Luckily for him, she had enough restraint not to, and since he was flooded by people from the audience (Minerva’s father, among them) she couldn’t even have reached him anyway.

Passivity was a rule designed to keep fencers from purposefully stalling – because it was cheap to do so, and it made it boring to watch – by all means, it was a good rule. But that was a penalty given after at least thirty seconds of no attempts at attacking, and in this case, they’d solely been careful and not for longer than about fifteen seconds.

Minerva heard someone from Eastocken Club ask ‘excuse me sir but are you DRUNK or something?’ (she thought his name was Warren, but that was all she knew, really) and the referee lost his composure. He warned them, told them to respect his judgment or he’d ban all of them. And people begrudgingly backed off.

If passivity only meant one yellow card each, it wouldn’t have mattered much. But it changed the layout of a match altogether – they got one minute interlude, and then they skipped directly into the last minute of the last bout. To push passive fencers, obviously – but in this case? What was the point?

Minerva drank the last of her water. No use in saving it, now. Coach Osmond walked up to her, his frown apparent from miles away. And he patted her on the back, still with the frown.

“That ref has the brains and eyes of a rotten egg”, he said. “Just get through this. He has to make a decision at some point.”

The referee called them back, and Minerva closed her eyes for a second. Just get through this.

She and Palla greeted each other with uncertain lifts of their weapons, put on their helmets, and began anew.

Palla got the first hit, right on her foot, and Minerva’s gut sank. Both with misery, and relief. It was a clear point, and at least now, it was over.

Or it would have been.

The referee claimed disconnected piste, and when Minerva got her hit after another set of doubles, it was “past the midline” again, and there was half a riot going on in the background of it all.

Minerva tried to ignore it. All she should be focusing on was Palla, her movement – the way the tip of her epee trembled, the desperate grunts as she attacked, and the miserable headshake she gave after another double.

The referee was stiff as a pole, now, but he held fast to his dumb decisions. With ten seconds to spare, Minerva got a lone hit in Palla’s chest.  She expected another “past the line” or whatever, but the ref’s hand was hoisted in her direction, meaning she got a point.

The first damned proper point of the faceoff.

Both Minerva and Palla stared at him in disbelief, and Palla was positively shrinking.

They tried their best to make something normal out of the last few seconds, but it wouldn’t be. The time was up, and Minerva stood with eight points, Palla with seven.

Everyone held their breaths as the ref stopped the match, and declared Minerva as the victor. It was the weirdest vibe Minerva had ever felt, but Palla still walked up to her with her back straight, and they touched hands.

Palla’s face was flushed, and her eyes glossy. And Minerva was just numb, all the way through. She simply watched the referee get flooded again, watched Palla disconnect and walk straight out of there without even responding to her sisters who reached for her.

Minerva stayed connected to the cable, staring at the world. She felt… empty.

And even emptier after Michalis came and knocked the air out of her chest with a hard pat on between her shoulder blades.

“That's the Minerva I like to see!” Michalis grinned at her and grasped her by the shoulders. “You kept your head cold and it showed! Beat your greatest competition already, and you're in the semifinals! The rest will be a breeze.” 

Just an hour ago, Minerva would have given anything to see him grin proudly like that, but now it seemed… wrong. She didn't like it at all. 

“I'm gonna refill my water", she mumbled and dumped her helmet and weapons on the floor, freeing herself from the cable. 

Michalis might have said something to her but she was on her way to the changing rooms before then, shoving her arms into her training jacket. Her phone was in the pocket, and she put her earphones in. If she could drown out the numbness for a minute, that would just be great. 

Guitars were screaming in her ears as she used her elbow to push open a door to a bathroom, and put the tap water on. 

Michalis had told her she couldn't do that in other places. Regions in Archanea and Khadein didn’t have clean tap water, you had to buy it, which seemed very weird to her. Macedon's tap water was always fresh, like it was running directly from the mountain springs. 

Except this water tasted like sweaty shoes and lukewarm dust – though perhaps she'd have to fault the changing room’s environment for that. 

Minerva screwed the cork back on, and the song ended. 

And in the moments of silence before the next one, Minerva thought she heard… sobbing. She pulled her earplugs out and sure enough, from the changing rooms to the left was definitely the sounds of someone crying. 

She shouldn't have cared, because it wasn’t anything unusual, but she couldn’t help glancing in. 

The room was empty, aside from the crying person in one of its corners. 

Palla. Curled up on the bench, hugging her knees, her jacket open so the cords hung loose. Her hair was in a mess as she'd released it from her braid, and her cheeks glistened. 

Oh, Minerva thought, her heart growing cold with the ache of sympathy. This could just as well have been her, Palla had all the rights to be sad about it, but seeing her cry was… absolutely abysmal. And for such a bullshit reason, too, that just made everything worse. 

Minerva walked in without thinking much further, and slid down on the bench in front of Palla. Carefully, as if the world was made of glass. 

“Hey", she said, softly as she could. She was threading in incredibly unfamiliar waters, but she was too numb about this to care. 

“You don’t have to say anything", Palla answered her, her eyes darting to Minerva as she dried her tears with her palms. 

“No, I do!” Minerva retorted, and less softly. She was… angry about this, and why shouldn't she be? “It was… such bullshit! I'm so gods-damned mad, I don't know what to do, it's just…” 

Palla sniffled. “Why are you angry? You should be happy you won.” 

“Like hell! That wasn't winning. It wasn’t fair, and that’s the whole point of having a ref! To make it fair!” 

“It's okay", Palla said, but more tears came as she did. 

“Is it?” 

Palla took a deep breath, then shrugged. 

“I think it sucked”, Minerva continued, then bit her lip. “I'm sorry, I usually don't say things like this, but… That referee was breaking every rule in the book and he didn’t even seem to know it himself. I'd rather get kicked in the teeth than have him ref me again.” 

“Yeah… Fencing against you is usually fun; I was looking forward to it, but this…” Palla gave a shaky smile, lifted her hand and gave a vague wave before she let out a laugh that sounded like a cough. “This actually did suck. No offense.” 

“Why’d I be offended?” Minerva smiled back. It was easy to do so, despite everything. “I think that's just the general consensus. Your coach old Frost actually wrung his fist in his hand! I've never seen him do that before.” 

Palla snorted a laugh. “Oh, Frost. I wish I'd seen it. But instead I got your brother staring at me.” 

“Oh, ugh", Minerva groaned. “I’m sorry. Only he would try to psyche someone during such a faceoff. He's so obnoxious!” 

“Really? I thought you two were close.” 

“He's easy to admire, hard to actually, you know, like.” 

Palla's tears had ceased. She nodded.

“I can… imagine.” 

Minerva bobbed her head to the sides, weighing her next words. They'd said what they needed to, but Minerva would have liked to say more. Millions of words were in her mind, yet at the same time, her head felt empty. 

“What are you listening to?” 

Minerva had forgotten about her earphones, still hanging over her neck and giving out a soft murmur of a noise. She'd never paused the music. 

“Oh, um, it’s The Knights of Zofia.” Minerva stopped there, and felt dumb about it, then scrambled for something else. “I don’t know if you’re into metal, but… That's what it is. Screaming about the unfairness of war, and stuff.” 

She just felt dumber now, but Palla smiled again, and it was genuine. 

“I love the melodic kinds of metal", she said. “I don’t know if it counts, but I listen to Lady Silque’s “Deliverance”-album pretty much daily.” 

“Of course it counts”, Minerva was quick to say, and she felt much more confident in choosing her words, now that it was a subject she knew well. “Silque is great! Her songs make school way less stressful. Valentia really has some good music.” 

“Yeah", Palla said. “We had a Valentian in our club for a while; she introduced me to lots of it.” 

“Sonya, right?” 

“I'm surprised you remember.” 

“She was hard to forget. In a good way.” Minerva tried not to say that begrudgingly. She wasn’t overly fond of this subject, but it would do. They were talking, and Minerva… liked that. 

Palla grinned at her. “Sonya would never believe me if I told her you of all people said that about her.” Her grin died a little, like she’d realized she might have been rude. “I mean, you don’t usually… say much.” 

“That's true.”  Here for fencing, not for friends. She really had zero experience of interacting with anyone like this while wearing her fencing equipment. She cleared her throat, focusing her gaze on her hands for some inspiration.

“You and Sonya keep in contact, then?” 

“A little”, Palla shrugged. “We broke up six months ago, but we still chat sometimes. It’s nice to have a friend overseas.” 

Broke up? Minerva was admittedly terrible at keeping up with people's relations, but that the two of them had been together made… sense. And the whole prospect made Minerva's heart feel like wool, for some reason. Soft and airy.

“Huh”, was Minerva’s uncertain response.

They were both quiet for a few moments. The only sound to be heard was the murmur from Minerva’s earphones.

“Hey, so, uhm, by the way – did you see my sisters out there?” Palla asked her, drying her cheeks again. “I feel kind of lousy, I always comfort them when they lose, but now I won’t let them comfort me.”

“Oh”, Minerva answered, dumbly. “No, I mean, maybe. I’m sorry, I was just… In kind of a shock, actually.” Saying that reminded her of her anger, and her heart caught flame again. She clenched her fists, and continued; “That ref… should not be judging any more face-offs. I’m gonna report him to the competitive board.”

“Coach Frost already did that for my sake, I think. You don’t need to.”

Minerva stood up, corrected her sleeves. “I won’t just stand by quietly! Coach Frost might be afraid to roar at people, but I’m not!”

Palla laughed at that. Actually laughed. It might have been quiet, and it might have been shrouded in tears, but it was laughter and that made Minerva smile back in complete confusion. She was about to go, but just before she was turning the corner of the door, Palla said something else.

“Hey, if you see my sisters, could you tell them I’m okay? That I just wanted some time for crying alone, is all.”

Minerva stopped with only her head peeking in through the door.

“Oh, right. Yeah, of course.” She hesitated, before she went on; “Sorry for interrupting your crying-alone-time.”

Palla only gave her a crooked smile. “It’s fine. It really is.”

 

Minerva turned her steps to the stairs on the sides of the stands, going straight up the competitive board overlooking the entire thing. Michalis met her halfway up the stairs, blocking her path.

“What took you so long? You know they’re not gonna wait more than ten minutes until semifinals, you’ve got to prepare—“

“I don’t think the quarterfinals are done”, Minerva answered him, her jaw tight.

“And what do you mean by that?”

“I’m going to report that ref.”

Michalis grabbed her arm, leaning close. “I’m sorry, what did you say? You’re risking your victory—”

“What is your problem?” Minerva yelled at him and tore free of his grip. “I don’t care! Why should I care about winning when it wasn’t even FAIR?”

“Don’t be such a child”, Michalis hissed at her. “Referee’s decision is final and what does fair mean if you benefit from the opposite? You need to pick your battles, and look out for yourself—“

“Maybe, if I was you, but I’m not !” Minerva saw in the edges of her vision how people on the stands stared their way, their mother among them. She continued, more quietly; “Let me live my damned life, okay? Now get out of the way!”

She pushed her way past, and her heart beat with newfound freedom. Michalis didn’t try to stop her.

 

The leading board welcomed her, and although she stumbled a bit on her words, she was certain she’d gotten her message across.

And they’d already gotten enough complaints to suspend that referee, but they told her they appreciated how one of the opponents lifted her case too. It emboldened the claim that he really was unfit.

Not that it mattered for the quarterfinal that had been. Those results were already processed, and it wasn’t possible to redo a match, it simply wasn’t. Easier for the competitive board to just move on. So Minerva kept her victory.

Although she was still kind of bitter about it, she got over some of that bitterness when Maria came up to her again, this time with Est on her heel.

Minerva got to give Est Palla’s message, and she got an appreciative smile in response. And then she got to listen to Est’s rant about the situation (which came with all the colorfulness of an upset twelve-year-old trying to get creative with her insults; to her, the referee was about ‘as likeable as a glass of spicy milk’, and Minerva could only agree on that end).

Catria joined up with them, and she seemed surprised by the company, but Est was more than happy to play mediator. All in all, it was a fun five minutes.

The semifinals were announced up on the speakers, and Minerva took her place (against Talvice, which was just typical). And Palla was there, waiting for her.

She’d showered. Her green hair darker than usual, hanging in stripes down her back. She wore a spring dress, with small golden flowers on her sleeves sparkling in the light. She straightened when Minerva came up to her, and crossed her arms with a smile that Minerva recognized – she was teasing. It was something Minerva had seen plenty of times, but it was much more fun to have it directed right at her instead of someone else.

“Seems like you get the red lamp again”, she said. “Your lucky color. Maybe because it matches your hair.”

“This won’t be another lucky win”, Minerva teased back and connected herself. “If I win, that is.”

“You’d better”, Palla said and tilted her head. Minerva’s chest felt warm.

As far as semifinals usually went, this one was rather exciting – for those who liked dragged out draws. Minerva had lost to Talvice once that day, and was determined to not do so again. Even when there were openings, she hesitated.

Tense fencers looked a lot like spastic dolls. It wasn’t pretty, but for the most part, they both got the hits and that was what mattered – not elegance. Elegance was what you displayed when you outclassed a poor first-timer in the poules, not against a rival in the semifinal.

They were stuck at 14-14, every double point nullified from that point onward until the interlude. Rucke was screaming as usual, but Minerva had an audience of her own that could out-noise him.

Palla pep talked her in the interlude after her father had coached her, and Maria was jumping up and down in excitement with Est doing thumbs-up in the background.

It felt to Minerva like it should be impossible to lose, with such support.

Of course it wasn’t, but it sure cushioned the blow when she did.

Talvice got the final point after another close minute, and Minerva felt the first wash of disappointment, but then as she turned around and was met by the sympathy and ‘you did great!’s from ten times more people than usual, she could only feel… pride.

Her father hugged her, her mother next in line, and then a whole bunch of her clubmates (not that surprising) and a bunch of Eastockens (very surprising, seemed Palla pulled them toward her like a magnet) got to extend their condolences.

It was overwhelming, and the best loss she’d ever had. Especially as Palla came up to her side her head tilted.

“Too bad”, she said.

“There’s always the next time”, Minerva answered. “And it was a close call. I can’t be mad about it.”

Palla smiled, and crossed her arms again. It wasn’t a cocky stance, it just seemed to be how she rested.

“On the bright side”, she said, “Maybe you got the time to get a burger with us as we watch the final? If you want to, that is.”

 

-----

 

Here to fence. Not to make friends.

The mantra of Minerva’s competitive life had been swept under the rug so suddenly, she barely recognized her surroundings. Though it had happened without hesitation. There was no returning from this, but why would she want to?

There was enough time for Minerva to get changed, and share in the Graywing sisters’ tradition of slicing up every burger so that everyone got to taste a piece. So Minerva sat in the stands with a piece of bean, beef, soy, cod and chicken burgers on her paper plate, with Maria on one side and Palla on the other.

Talvice lost her final (although that was not what the buzz in the stands was about, just about the scene Rucke made), and then it was just the Men’s Cadet Foils left fencing their final in the hall. Minerva and the rest watched that one as well. Est and Maria were invested in it all the way, while Catria played on her phone and Palla and Minerva just kind of… talked.

“Hey, uh, about the Masters…” Palla begun, but got interrupted by a frustrated scream from one of the foil fencers. “Ahem. As I was saying, the Masters… I counted from what I remember our scores being. I think you won? I may have gotten in fifth place today and that’s ten points, but getting on a shared third place is fifteen points, so you should probably have won, right?”

“That can’t be right”, Minerva objected. She’d counted, too. “You were in the lead before this competition! So it probably didn’t matter that I got more points this time.”

Palla gave a small shrug. “Maybe? It’s frustrating that they don’t just give us the Master’s score after every competition. It’d be much easier to figure stuff out beforehand, then.”

“Perhaps that’s why they try to keep it a little secret”, Minerva pointed out, drying grease off her fingers on her napkin. “But you’ve been fighting hard for that win. You’d definitely deserve it.”

“So would you, obviously!” Palla rested her chin in her hand, her face turned to Minerva. “It’s a huge honor, only for the best. But my coach says that no matter what happens, I’ve proven myself enough to be on the National Team. It’s got to be the same for you.”

“Yeah… I mean, my dad says so. My brother doesn’t, but he can put a sock in it and mind his own business.”

The foil fencers finished their final, and both Est and Maria gave a standing ovation. Minerva clapped her hands, even though she had no idea for whom and didn’t really care. It was just the polite thing to do.

The speakers boomed with a cheesy rendition of Altea Pop’s “Champions Abound”, and soon after, a voice (from someone way too close for comfort to the microphone) announced that the Prize Ceremony would take place on the main floor in ten minutes.

Minerva felt the touch of the back of Palla’s hand against her arm, and looked up.

Palla’s face was close. Her eyes sparked green, just like her hair, and there was a small dot of yogurt-sauce above her lip. Minerva thought about pointing it out, but wasn’t sure how to proceed.

“May the best fencer win, then”, Palla smiled.

Minerva forgot about the sauce, meeting Palla’s gaze straight on. Her heart felt like wool again, and this time, she thought she understood why. Maria had thrown enough sappy romance novels her way; and they all made a weird amount of sense to Minerva, all of a sudden.

“Yeah”, Minerva breathed back. “Yeah. Good luck.”

 

-----

 

In any other scenario, Minerva would have gotten tired of the song “Champions Abound” after the seventh time it was played, but this was an exception.

The trumpets and drums made every person stepping up to the pedestal seem epic and powerful. Even Est looked like she was the epitome of grace and awe as she got up to get her Master gold in the Women’s 12-14 Years Foil with a bunch of finger-guns at the audience. Even Michalis, who didn’t move a muscle in his face as he stepped up to get both his gold medals, looked full of energy. Music could perform wonders, in his case.

When it was time for the Women’s Cadet Epee prize, Minerva stepped up to share the third pedestal with an Eastocken fencer she didn’t know, and felt oddly proud about the bronze medal around her neck. She’d done far better than this in the past, and yet.

She stepped down again, and ran back to Palla’s side (both Michalis and Coach Osmond looked her way with a surprised expression, but Coach Osmond was the only one to make his way toward her).

It was time to announce the Masters-winner in their age class. There shouldn’t be another place for her than right there, beside the rival that had persisted though the years.

Palla welcomed her with a smile and both her hands clutched excitedly beneath her chin.

“The Master of Women’s Cadet Epee has been recalculated numerous times”, the announcer’s voice declared. “And there was a draw between the top placed. We have thus used the total amount of highest placements as a way to find the winner.”

The announcer paused dramatically, and Minerva felt like she was about to implode.

“It’s gotta be you”, Palla whispered, still with her hands clutched beneath her chin. “There’s today when you got bronze and I got nothing, and at Triatun Cup you beat me in the finals—“

“Yeah but you got silver that day in Gimon, when I got seventh”, Minerva objected, also in a whisper. “And the Northborder Cup, when you got gold and I got bronze—“

“The winner”, the announcer began again, and Minerva swallowed the rest of her sentence. “The winner is… Palla Graywing.”

Palla positively dropped her chin, and she stood rooted in place before Minerva gave her a gentle push and a laugh.

“Come on, get your win!”

Palla let out a laugh-sob, but she pulled her hair back and stepped up to the announcer, and shook his hand. The trophy was an elegant mix of red and gold, with a small dragon at the top of the spire. It was almost too large to be carried by one arm, but Palla did her best.

Her face was shining like the sun. She had tears on her cheeks again, but these were of a better kind. She stepped up on the pedestal, and smiled so wide.

Minerva grinned back.

“In a close second place, we congratulate Minerva Wyver!”

She walked up to the announcer, took her trophy with a little bow, and turned to the pedestal. She didn’t step onto it immediately, though. First, she extended her arm in an offer, and next, Palla had embraced her. Tightly.

Maybe because that was just what a good-natured rival did. Maybe because, in the short few hours they’d actually talked, they’d found a friend in the other. Maybe because (and Minerva hoped by everything good in the world this was true) Palla kind of liked Minerva a little bit, too.

“Congrats”, Minerva said as they let go.

Palla laughed again. Talvice had been announced as the winner of the bronze in the Masters, and Rucke caused enough of a ruckus to have the floor quake in response to that – but not even he could ruin this moment.

“I should enjoy this as long as it lasts, huh”, Palla winked at her. “Next season you won’t take it so easy on me.”

Minerva snorted and looked away. “Yeah, let’s pretend that’s what happened.”

At the front of the little gathering, Minerva spotted her dad and Coach Frost shaking hands and laughing over some shared joke.

It was strange how everything and everyone had seemed at a distance from one another just the same morning, and now Minerva saw connections and smiles wherever she turned. Things she hadn’t allowed herself to see before.

 

They stood packed and ready with their fencing bags at the entrance. There were plenty of good-byes to be said between a few hundred people, yet somehow Minerva and Palla had found each other again as Eastocken and Capital fencers mingled together.

Est and Maria hugged and whined about the curse that was distance, while Coach Osmond and Frost gruffed about the upcoming season.

And Palla reached out her hand to Minerva.

“Give me your phone? I don’t have your number, so I figure you don’t have mine, either.”

Minerva tried not to imagine the implications of the color on Palla’s throat, and simply obliged. She was making extra sure she got her own number right as she tapped it down onto Palla’s phone, before they traded back.

“So”, Minerva said, surrounded by a flood of people she barely noticed, “I guess I’ll see you at the Archanean Cup in the summer, then?”

“Yeah”, Palla smiled, and when she walked away with her fencing bag rattling behind her, she even turned around and gave her a final wave. And Minerva realized something as she herself turned her steps toward home.

The world of fencing wasn’t callous and cold.

It was noisy and intense, that was for sure. But it was also warm. Welcoming. Friendly.

And absolutely, incredibly lovely.