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Enter the Rival

[Composed in unusually swift, emphatic penstrokes. —Ed.]

I first disliked him during our third duel. The fencing captain of the enemy school,

and, in our age group, champion of the nation, he’d had, in fact, my guarded admiration

right up until that match, that final tourney, when he first played the prick. And spurred my journey.

He sauntered in as though he’d never lost. As always when our paths and blades had crossed,

he never once removed his gray mesh mask. He didn’t say why and I didn’t ask.

As we squared off, he gestured heavenward and chanted something solemn. Then: En garde!

My snowpea watched us from the topmost tier, wielding her Gauloise (not the type to cheer

or heckle, either, only smoke and watch). The first hit caught me right across the crotch.

Gasping, I knelt. The pain felt like a buzz a zap—a jolt of voltage. So it was:

the first of many nasty little shocks to come. It seemed he’d rigged his signal box

to send a pulse of current to his sword and through my body every time he scored.

(He had scored, too. In modern smallsword duels, below the belt is not against the rules.)

Soon I had welts strewn all over my skin. “Just a slight variation I tossed in”—

he whispered when I lost—“to raise the stakes. I get so tired of minor scrapes and aches!

Duels used to kill, you know? But you’ll be fine. Besides, I rigged your sword the same as mine.”

* * *

Later, as she massaged my back, I winced and told her what he’d done. Less than convinced,

she eyed the markings on my flesh. Perhaps they hurt so much, they only felt like zaps?

So cruel a prank—it hardly seems realistic. To try it he would have to be—“Sadistic.

Yes.” She kissed my shoulder. Well, mon cher, unless he lied, at least the fight was fair.

Perhaps he made his little zap attack only in hopes that you would zap him back.

“Zap him? I’ll wring his neck.” Why so, she said. Why not an elegant revenge instead.

“Poison?” Too elegant. “Insulting poem?” Ah, that might flatter him. I turned. “You know him?”

Her hands, which had been trailing down my spine, paused at my waist. We had a glass of wine

in Venice once—I told you, no?—with friends. He seems a bit—how do you say—intense.

“Seems? You’re in touch?” He tries to correspond from time to time. But, Bladwell Garamond,

since when have I returned a strange boy’s letter? Lie down. Relax. Take off your belt. That’s better.

* * *

He asked her, soon enough, to marry him. It wasn’t hard, that time, to parry him:

I laughed; she laughed; we read the notes he’d written that week alone. Poor bastard, he was smitten.

Later he came back with a subtler thrust. A passing, sidelong puncture of our trust—

slight twinge—small surface wound that failed to scab, festered, then throbbed with an electric stab…

And yet the game goes on. The perfect rival can be so vital to a love’s survival.

Someday you’ll tell your grandkids how you met the enemy as one, held off the threat,

moved in a dance in which each touch was fire. And even now I can’t help but admire

his tactics, which I’ve come to know so well; his stance, his in quartata, his appel,

his grace. His face I guess I’ll see in hell.

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