She knew it would end like this.
One does not train their entire life to become the greatest fencer in the kingdom without making a few enemies. She had bested them all, one man after another who claimed superiority over her simply for being male. Yet one by one they fell to her saber, her rapier, her dagger. Much as she wished to, she never crowed over them in her victory. She let them keep their dignity, if they had any to begin with, that is.
But he – he was the only one to best her, that hot summer day all those years ago. The crowd was cheering and spitting, and the judges’ perpetual frowns were growing deeper as she danced and parried, trying yet failing to strike a blow. He was too quick, too cunning, as if he knew her next move before she did.
Their blades clashed, struck, and swiped at one another, extensions of their arms and their furious souls. In one feint she caught a glint of something else in his eye – not determination, but something more focused. Attuned. Her pulse jumped, and he caught her off guard, striking another blow. She parried a second too late, sending sparks flying between them – and not just from the blades.
Though she had given it her all, she lost. She walked away with her head held high, and anger simmering in her heart. She had been too focused on her training to ever allow for any romance in her life, and yet here, on the sparring floor, surrounded by her peers and the roaring crowds, she knew she had met her match.
He courted her after, fervently, with the same attention to detail as in their bout. She would smile and coyly accept his gifts, his attention, not knowing if he wanted to continue to gloat, or if he truly harbored feelings for her. She waited, and watched, and looked for some weakness, some vulnerability, just as she did when she fenced.
Then one day, she found it.
The rain was pelting down when they bumped into each other on the street. Carriages rumbled by, and townspeople brushed past them, but his eyes found hers in genuine surprise and delight. All of her doubts were assuaged when she saw his true feelings in that one gaze.
They spent the night together, and the next, and the next.
She had never felt this before, a real connection between hearts and minds. He knew her like no one else, and understood her dreams, and her fears. She suddenly realized how mistrusting she had been before, and how powerful this kind of vulnerability could be.
But then weeks went by, and he grew more distant. He seemed to fade from her, evade her gaze and her affection. So she grew more guarded. She didn’t like feeling vulnerable anymore.
She wanted to defend herself from any possible attack.
So she went back to her training with more urgency and energy than ever before. She would not let him best her – again.
Months passed, and the champions tournament began once more. And as before, she bested all of the other competitors, earning her way to the top two spots – and so did he.
The night before the final fight, as she left the tournament hall, she stopped short in the doorway. He was outside, and a woman was in his path.
“What is this?” she hissed, holding up a vial of dark liquid. “I found it in your things. Are you cheating again?”
He shushed her and glanced around. “Don’t interfere. I need to win this championship.”
The woman’s eyes filled with tears. “Are you sleeping with her again too? That witch who makes this for you?” She clutched the vial, threatening to shatter it in her hand. “Don’t think I don’t know.”
He sighed. “It won’t happen again.”
The woman shook her head. “You’ve said that before, about taking this. Now you’re lying to me again, about her. I know you keep going back to her. And others…”
She laughed bitterly. “So it is true.” She threw the vial to the ground, where it cracked and oozed into the mud. “There. Win your tournament now, if you can. You have already lost me.”
She turned and strode away, her long hair flowing behind her. His shoulders drooped as he watched her leave, yet he did not pursue her. He bent towards the spilled liquid even though there was no saving it now. He heaved his bag onto his shoulder and walked off into the evening gloom.
The fencer stood in the darkened doorway, rooted to the spot. Her heart thudded in her chest with rage, with the desire to expose him in front of the whole world. How dare he hurt her, hurt that woman, and cheat his way to the top? She wanted to scream and yell and chase him down, and let him feel the full force of her anger.
But first, first she would best him.
The morning of the championship dawned bright and cool. Mist blanketed the streets as the crowds filed in to watch the spectacle. Trumpets blared and the judges gave the signal to begin.
She stared him down across the ring with rage slithering in her veins. She could see it now, the dark liquid swirling behind the smirk in his eyes. So he had gotten more, from that other woman. How many other women were there?
She pushed those thoughts aside as her concentration switched on. She struck the first blow, and from the start she had the upper hand. With parries and feints, stabs and sweeping slashes, their blades sang through the morning air. She channeled her anger into her sword, reveling in her strength and grace. Sweat shone on his skin, and she tried to forget the feeling of his body entwined with hers. It was over, and she was ending it, here, now.
She saw him digging deep, willing the effects of the potion to take hold, but it seemed his skills were not up to the task. The crowd yelled and whistled, and the morning sun streamed through the dusty windows as it rose.
She parried and spun, finding weak spot after weak spot, until he stumbled to his knees. As she swept behind him, she slipped a dagger from up her sleeve and made sure he could see it. She sensed the fear rise in him like bile before stabbing between his ribs.
His breath caught in his throat. The crowd went silent.
She bent down to whisper in his ear.
“I know what you did. And I know about the others.”
He choked, tensing beneath her. She moved to whisper in his other ear.
“You are dead to me.”
A beat of silence passed.
Then he exhaled. And inhaled. His eyes grew wide with surprise.
She pulled the hilt of the dagger away and let it clatter in front of him. The dagger with the trick blade that collapsed into itself.
He bent forward and clutched his unharmed chest, while the crowd erupted into a riot of cheers and howls. The judges were on their feet, their mouths agape, as she circled him with her rapier pointed right at his heart.
The elder judge gave the signal.
It was over.