Joseph Bologne fences Charles d'Éon for the first time in 1985. Joseph is 15 and his coach thinks he's the next big thing in fencing, a new kind of French talent to reinvigorate a sport that has been increasingly conceded to the Soviets, the Italians, the Germans. Joseph will fight his way up the men's foil rankings, fence in the Olympics, reclaim the gold medal for the glory of his country.
It is easy to dream of a world where Joseph is recognized in this sport for his skill, not his skin. He's getting there.
D'Éon, meanwhile, is a solid, mature presence at 32. Past his prime, perhaps, but not to be discounted. Why, he made the top eight in last year's world championship. He is the face of French foil right now - technically perfect, dependably good, never quite the best.
They don't meet for the first time in worlds. No, the first time is in de La Boëssière’s salle in Paris, where Joseph is training. D'Éon is visiting, and for a while Joseph thinks it's only to gossip and laugh with the coaches. But then d'Éon is zipping up his lame and beckoning forward an opponent.
D'Éon fences the beginners first, then the less serious competitors, taking it easy while Joseph watches hungrily.
"You want to fence him?" asks de La Boëssière.
"I guess," says Joseph, trying to play it off. D'Éon isn't fast or brutal in his technique, but precise and assured. Joseph wants to know how to fence like that, or at least know how to beat it.
"Just ask," says de La Boëssière, and walks away.
Joseph gets up his courage to beg the next bout, and d'Éon smiles and nods. They fence for a while, and d'Éon says not to keep score but Joseph does. He wins a lot of touches, using his speed and his greater strength, but slowly he begins to realize that d'Eon is giving up touches. Or- not giving them up, precisely, but letting them be taken. D'Éon is fencing to understand Joseph's style, not to beat it. He gives Joseph opportunities to see if they will be used, and counters actions in order to see what Joseph will do instead. It makes Joseph annoyed and he begins to fence more carelessly, trying to be unpredictable, until finally d'Éon removes his mask and salutes.
"Thank you," says d'Éon, grinning. "Very instructive."
Joseph swallows the feeling that he has been taken advantage of, and carefully shakes d'Éon's hand.
They do fence in the next world championships, and d'Éon drubs Joseph in the round of 16. It is, the observers say, as if d'Éon knew everything that Bologne was going to do before he did it.
Joseph cannot find it in himself to be angry. He has been out-thought, and he shakes d'Éon's hand and claps him on the back and tells everyone who will listen that d'Éon is the cleverest fencer in France.
But he doesn't let it happen again.
Joseph wins worlds the next year, and doesn't look back.
Joseph Bologne fences Charles d'Éon for the last time in 2012.
Many things have changed since that first bout. Joseph has given up fencing for music, given up music for politics, and finally returned to fencing again as an instructor. Coaching the French women's foil team at the Olympics is an honor, but Joseph still itches to be up on the piste himself. His younger self could have never imagined that he would be sitting helpless on this flimsy folding chair, trying to get Ysaora to make a stronger attack.
But his younger self could also not imagine Charlotte d'Éon coaching Britain in pearls and a black dress, which shows what young men know.
D'Éon retired from competition in 1991, and declared herself a woman in 1999. She was an established fencing master by then, and the fencing community had stiffly changed their pronouns and altered their thinking to suit her. It was a slow process, but d'Éon's skill helped it along, as Joseph's skill had helped him. Now the bigger scandal attached to d'Éon's name is her decision to join the British coaching staff in 2010, abandoning the French team to be rescued by the great Joseph Bologne.
Joseph still isn't sure if he was more surprised by her defection or her transition. Perhaps he should have expected both.
The France-Britain bout is lop-sided enough that Joseph sits back for the last five touches and just watches d'Éon's face twist with exasperation. It is still the face that Joseph remembers. Her hair is a little longer, her laugh lines are deeper, and lipstick, mascara and foundation make their subtle mark. But her eyes are still as sharp and her smile is just as quick when Anna Bentley performs an admittedly beautiful counterparry-riposte. The smile becomes ironic when France scores the last decisive touch.
When it is over, Joseph congratulates his team first before walking over to shake hands with d'Éon.
"You have an excellent team," says d'Éon, looking him straight in the eyes. She's wearing tall stiletto heels which Joseph can't imagine trying to walk in, let alone coach. D'Éon follows his gaze down and laughs. "I'd fence in heels if I could," she says. "You should try them sometime."
"I'd twist an ankle," says Joseph.
"Which is why I don't fence in them," agrees d'Éon. "Anymore."
Joseph has a lot of questions he would like to ask, most of them too personal to actually voice. He wants to know why d'Éon chose to come out when she did, if it was a choice. If it wasn't dictated by her career or current events or even an indiscretion. He wants to know what things would have been like if d'Éon had declared herself female during the height of her competitive abilities, if the Federation would have accommodated or excluded her, put her in the men's events or the women's or none. Most of all, Joseph wants to know if he would have supported her. He does now, of course, no question, but in the 80s-
Young men don't know everything.
"Good luck in the next round," says d'Éon. "Italy is a difficult match."
"Thank you," says Joseph, and allows himself to be drawn away by his fencers to prepare for the next encounter.
After France has lost to Italy and all of the other fencing events are over, nothing is left but to wait for the closing ceremonies. To pass the time, Joseph goes to a party hosted by Henry Angelo. Henry and his father own a salle in London, so of course the party is there, and of course every fencer in the area is invited, and of course it quickly descends into egging distinguished fencing masters into bouting each other. Joseph is not surprised at all when he is badgered into some borrowed equipment and onto a piste, and even less surprised when he looks up and sees d'Éon smiling at him. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail and her borrowed lame is a little tight against robust middle-aged curves. Joseph salutes and comes en garde.
Their director is keeping score and the crowd is shouting bets, but Joseph lets his world narrow until all he can see is d'Éon and all he can hear is the director's Russian-accented intonation of "en garde, prêt, allez." Joseph is not fencing to win, not tonight and not here. He is fencing to understand.
D'Éon fences as she did in the 80s, light and precise. There's a current of viciousness running underneath that Joseph thinks is new until he realizes how familiar it is. When Joseph was young he did not recognize it, but it was always there. Joseph cannot fence as he once did, youthful speed and vigor. He fences like d'Éon instead, technique mirrored against technique.
When it is done the score is 5-1, in favor of Joseph, and he takes d'Éon's offered hand to shake it. Seized by a whim he kisses her knuckles instead, and she laughs at him and slaps him and Joseph laughs back.
They need to give up the piste to the next bout. But Joseph leans in, murmurs in d'Éon's ear. "Why-"
D'Éon sighs like she already knows what he wants to ask, even though Joseph isn't sure himself. "The time was right," she says, and pulls away to unhook herself from the reel.
It's not an answer, not quite, but it feels like one.
Henry Angelo pulls Joseph aside, shouting a little drunkenly in his ear. "You lost me ten quid!"
"You bet against me?" asks Joseph, mock-outraged.
"I bet you'd go 5-0!" exclaims Henry. "Should have known you'd give away a touch as a courtesy to the old lady."
D'Éon is still strong and vital at 59, and Joseph has fenced with countless women in training and local competition. Henry must really be drunk if he is making those kind of excuses. Joseph thinks back to the lost touch, though it had not felt like a loss at the time. He'd shown d'Éon his quarte parry as a feint, and she had surprised him by lunging and lightly touching just above his hip. Another millimeter lower and she would have been off-target.
"I gave the opportunity," says Joseph, distinctly enough that Henry stops fidgeting around to concentrate on him. "But she took the touch."
Henry looks like he is going to say something dismissive, so Joseph forestalls him. "I can't imagine you pulling off such an attack."
Henry splutters denials and Joseph laughs and confiscates Henry's drink for himself. He glances across the room and catches d'Éon's eye. She smiles and salutes him with her martini glass, distracted for a moment from her conversation with the American epee coach. Joseph salutes back.
He does not know it then, that it will be the last time they fence. But he already knows that it will be the best.