|Published by:||Harper Teen|
|Released:||1 March 2011|
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|Note: Clicking the cover takes you to that book at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver. Please shop your local independent bookstore whenever possible.|
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.
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 she 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.
Jill stood dazed a moment, breathing hard, locked in the fight, her muscles still lost in instinct, waiting for the next attack to come. The Texan pulled off her mask and tucked it under her arm. She had a round face with strong eyebrows, dark eyes, and black hair tied in a long braid. She didn't look pleased that she'd won--no smiles, no flush of victory. No, she looked smug. Like she hadn't expected any other outcome.
Slowly, Jill took off her own mask, shook out her short, dark hair, turned her sword away, and stepped forward to take the winner's hand. She had to be polite. Had to be a good sport.
Her fingers fumbled, trying to unplug her body cord from the socket behind her.
Coach Martin, a honey-haired thirtysomething woman who'd fenced in the Olympics back in the day, took the plug away from her and detached it. Smiling, she patted Jill on the shoulder. Jill still didn't feel anything.
"It was a good bout. You did fine," Coach Martin said.
All Jill could think was, half a second too slow. That was all it took.
Habit more than anything guided Jill through putting her gear away: Wipe down her weapons, roll up her body cords, track down her gloves, fold up her jacket and white knickers, and put them along with her mask and the rest in her bag. In the locker room, she showered, though for not as long as she'd have liked because there wasn't any hot water left. She dried her hair without looking in the mirror. The bout with the Texan had been the last of the day, and Jill had dawdled -- which meant she had the locker room to herself. She didn't have to face anyone and try to smile like a good sport.
When she came out of the locker room, she looked like a normal kid again, in loafers, jeans, and a sweater, bag over her shoulder, scuffing her feet as she walked. Her secret identity -- Jill the amazing swordswoman -- was packed safely away. After today she wasn't sure her secret identity was all that amazing. She was just another kid fencer who wasn't going to the championships.
Just like the locker room, the lobby of the arena had cleared out. A few volunteers and officials were taking down signs, but the competitors, coaches, and families had all gone. Only Jill's entourage remained, waiting for her: Coach Martin, along with her parents. The coach said something to the couple, then stepped forward to meet Jill, who must have looked particularly dejected, because Martin put her arm around her shoulder.
"Jill, you did fine out there. You did great. The competition was tough. Really tough."
Standard pep talk. Sometimes it made Jill feel better; this one just sounded like platitudes. "I wasn't good enough to qualify."
"You can try again next year," said Coach Martin. "And in a couple of years you can try for the Olympics. You're good enough for that. You're one of the best épéeists in the world for your age group."
But when it counted, when it all came down to one touch, Jill had been half a second too slow. How close had it been, really? What if she missed qualifying for the Olympics by half a second? She'd come in fourth in a national tournament. She ought to be celebrating, but she felt like she'd been hollowed out.
"Well, how about it? Ready to take on the Olympics?"
"I don't know," Jill said. She wasn't thinking much beyond the next five minutes and getting back home.
Martin patted her shoulder and turned to walk with her to her parents. "Come on, kid. This wasn't your day, but the next day will be."
Her parents were smiling.
"I'm so proud of you, Jill." Her mother came forward to wrap her up in a big hug, like Jill was still a little girl, even though Jill stood three inches taller than her now. Dad patted her on the shoulder. Jill tried to smile back, but it was hard, and they noticed. It made them even more enthusiastic. They'd always been supportive, shuttled her back and forth to practices, funded her without complaint, and it made her want to win even more. She sometimes wondered if they were hiding disappointment when she didn't win.
Sometimes she wondered if maybe the pep talks were wrong -- maybe, no matter how hard she worked, she just wasn't good enough.
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