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A Game of Subtlety (For Want of a Sword)

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Peaches suspects that, in retrospect, Miss Fritton will decide that adding fencing to the offered curriculum at St. Trinian’s was perhaps not the wisest choice. After all, giving ruthless young women swords with which to stab one another is rarely a good idea at the more demure ladies’ schools in England. At St. Trinian’s, it’s tantamount to murder.

Nevertheless, the listing is posted, girls sign up, and here Peaches is, standing among her hordes of bloodthirsty classmates, staring back at Miss Cleaver, who looks like she’d much, much rather be back in Basra.

They’re dressed in formal fencing attire, with some girls, like Violet Kelmel, looking distinctly uneasy in the white breeches and jacket, while others, such as Anoushka, look supremely at ease. They all hold their masks under one arm, their swords- sabres, in this case- gently touching the ground as they stand in a line.

Miss Cleaver begins to pace back and forth, her hands tucked behind her back. “Now girls,” she begins, but is interrupted by Taylor erupting out of line, lunging toward Andrea in what is actually remarkably good form. Peaches will be sure to commend her later.

“Taylor!” Miss Cleaver barks. Taylor halts, her sword raised comically above her head. “Back in line! Point to the ground!”

Taylor slowly slinks back into line, amidst giggles. Peaches carefully doesn’t look at her, trying to hide her own smirk. Miss Cleaver gives them all a dirty look.

“I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to give you ruffians swords, but they did, and I’m here to make sure you don’t draw more blood than strictly necessary. There will be no horseplay in this classroom, do you understand me? Do you?” She yells the last part, causing some of the younger students to jump. Peaches merely examines her fingernails on her left hand, her right encased in her thick white glove. She stopped fearing Miss Cleaver years ago, when she realized the assault rifle she carried about with her at all times was loaded with blanks.

The girls nod, one by one, their sword points tipped resolutely toward the ground.

“God help us all,” Miss Cleaver says, and then jerks her head sharply. “Now let me show you the basic footwork.”

******
For the first few days, it’s sheer chaos. They’re St. Trinian’s girls. With swords. How anybody imagined giving them swords was a good idea, Peaches doesn’t know. She endures the first meetings of wild sword waving and awful footwork, knowing that eventually they’ll come together and prove to be worthy opponents; that at some point, she’ll be able to fence with someone other than her fencing coach back home.

At least she hopes so, gazing despairingly around the room at the children shrieking while slapping swords into sides.

But then it begins to come together, Miss Cleaver’s relentless drills forcing them to consider their stance and where their feet are, her sharp voice forcing their arms up into automatic parries, her remarks cracking through the air as they lunge and thrust and riposte. Peaches catches herself grinning wildly beneath her mask and tries to temper it down into her more usual smile, but can’t. She’s just having too much fun, her body shifting into half-forgotten forms automatically.

“All right, girls,” Miss Cleaver announces one afternoon, eyeing them critically. They look like a bedraggled mess, two hours of warm up leaving them sweaty and winded. “We’re ready to start bouting today. Who would like to volunteer?”

No one steps forward. Peaches can see Andrea and Taylor staring at each other from across the room, silently egging the other on. But Peaches knows their patterns well enough by now. All bark, no bite. Dull, tedious. There will be no drama from them on the fencing strip today. Besides, Peaches suspects that Miss Cleaver will keep them in separate fencing pools for as long as she’s able. After all, she herself said her job was to limit unnecessary bloodshed.

Kelly, standing just to the side of her, nudges Polly. “What do you think?” she asks. Polly’s scowl is fierce.

“I think that someone else ought to go first,” she says moodily. Peaches smirks.

“Polly.”

“Kelly.”

Peaches watches with interest as the two stare each other down. Behind her, Anoushka is laughing. Finally, Polly lets out a sigh of disgust.

“I don’t know how you talk me into these things,” she mutters, and walks toward the strip, all grim determination while Kelly, just behind her, is simply swaggering confidence. Peaches can’t really blame Polly; she’s seen the girl play hockey, after all.

“Very good, very good,” Miss Cleaver shouts. “That’s right then, to the starting marks. Who will be our jury for the round?”

Four hands go up, and Miss Cleaver swiftly positions Taylor, Zoe, Bianca, and Celia around the strip, reminding them sternly of their duties. As she instructs them on what to watch for, Peaches turns to face the other girls.

“Even odds, wouldn’t you say?” she asks. Esme, an enterprising First Year, immediately whips out her notebook and starts taking down the bets. Everyone is murmuring to each other now: Kelly Jones, leader of the Emos, versus Polly Hopkins, leader of the Geeks. Best friends. Co-conspirators. And now rivals on the fencing strip. It’s the best drama they’ve had in weeks. Peaches isn’t surprised to find that her prediction is accurate. People aren’t sure whether Kelly is the sure bet, with her supreme confidence and natural elegance, or Polly, with her well known ruthless competence in all areas. Silently, Peaches makes a mental bet in favor of Kelly, but she suspects that in a few weeks, Polly could overtake her. She knows fencers.

She settles in to watch. Beside her now, Anoushka mutters something that she imagines must be a prayer.

Kelly and Polly quickly salute each other, Kelly’s sword lazy and casual where Polly’s is precise and crisp. They settle their masks into place and take their positions. Miss Cleaver looks at them, slides her flask out of her pocket, takes a quick sip, and then says, “Ready? Fence!”

Kelly goes on the offensive immediately, barreling down the strip in large, uneven steps. Polly simply holds still, allowing Kelly to come to her. Peaches holds her breath, and then watches as Kelly lunges forward, Polly parries and immediately ripostes, only to miss. Kelly withdraws from her lunge and extends her arm slightly just as Polly is pulling back into the defensive. Her touch is swift, nearly too quick to see.

“Touché,” Polly calls, and they return to their starting positions. Peaches nods to herself, smiling.

On the next attack, Polly shocks everyone by moving into the offensive, her steps swift and sure where Kelly’s were sloppy and staggering. Kelly attempts to attack, but Polly simply uses her parry to glide down the sword and slap Kelly on the side of the mask.

“Touché,” Kelly says, and back to the starting lines they go.

“That was fast,” Andrea whispers at her side.

“Da, sabre frequently is,” Anoushka replies from her other side, her eyes never leaving the match for a moment, Kelly scoring another touch as the conversation takes place.

“That’s what makes it so brilliant,” Peaches adds, watching as Polly shakes her head in disgust at the remarkably simple point Kelly just scored. She’s inclined to agree. Polly should have seen that coming.

Polly scores another point by inviting Kelly in and then circumventing her sabre for a sharp rap, again on Kelly’s head. Peaches wonders if Polly is trying to drive home a point. Kelly scores her third point using a balestra, or jump lunge, to drive Polly back and force her into in-fighting, her longer arms useless in such close quarters. Then she scores a fourth with a direct attack. Polly squares her shoulders after that and scores a third point by beating Kelly’s blade, then feinting an attack and scoring her touch at Kelly’s neck rather than her stomach, where her blade was originally aimed. Then a fourth point by circling under Kelly’s sword when Kelly attempts the same beating the blade technique Polly had just used.

In the end, though, it’s Kelly who takes the match, by binding Polly’s blade and snapping her blade against her arm. Polly immediately steps back and whips her mask off, looking affectionately amused as Kelly bursts into laughter and takes off her own mask.

“That was brilliant,” Kelly announces, pushing sweaty strands of hair out of her face. Polly rolls her eyes and extends her hand for the ritual handshake.

“As if there was any doubt about the outcome,” she says.

“There was!” Kelly protests. “For a moment. Maybe two.”

Polly breaks the handshake and slaps Kelly with the sabre. “Peaches,” Polly calls, a faint smile tugging at the corner of her lips. “Why don’t you face Kelly next? Show her how it’s really done.”

Peaches gathers up her mask and sword, grinning at the look of dismay on Kelly’s face.

She really does love fencing.

******
After about a month, the patterns start to come clear.

Peaches is the undisputed champion of the St. Trinian’s Fencing Club. She’s beaten everyone at least once, though some of the girls are starting to make her work for it. One or two from the richer families have had fencing before, but they give way to her years of excellent tutors. But Peaches knows that, in a month or two, she’ll truly be fighting for her title.

Kelly is brilliant, of course, in the same way that Kelly is brilliant at anything to which she puts her mind. She has, in Peaches’ opinion, excellent instincts, and it’s those more than anything that win her bout after bout. Her love of flashy, complicated moves, though, is often her downfall.

Polly is also excellent, though her fencing style is far too cerebral for Peaches’ taste. She treats fencing like a chess game, and has a terrifying ability to figure out what people are going to do before they do it. Still, she’s timid, with an unwillingness to go on the offensive. When she wins, it’s usually one of the rare times she’s opted for an offensive position; she rarely wins from the defensive.

Taylor has a ruthlessness that wins her almost all her games. She’s determined, and faster than most. But, like Kelly, she has no eye for strategy in the game, relying instead of brute force. She has yet to win against Peaches, Polly, or Anoushka.

Anoushka is a surprise to Peaches, though she supposes she really shouldn’t be. The girl was the daughter of a diplomat, after all. Her form is perfect, all smooth lines and elegant grace, though in reality Anoushka is a hard girl with a sullen, angry gait. She is also a strategizer, and her bouts unfold like carefully choreographed dances. But she is a foil fencer, first and foremost, and she never remembers that the head and arms are viable targets. She forgets to parry attacks, and so her weakness is obvious.

Demi has a short lunge, but makes up for it in speed. Esme practically trembles when she goes up to bout, tricking people into thinking she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Jaelle is stronger than most of the other girls, forcing their blades back. Violet has amazing footwork. Etta can parry anything, JJ’s feints are a sight to behold, and Laksha will beat someone’s blade until they don’t remember their name anymore.

Then there are the others.

Andrea is unfortunately clumsy, and nine times out of ten will trip over her own feet. She’s still fairly decent, as beginning fencers go, but Peaches wants to urge her to take up something a little less elegant. Like clog dancing.

Celia will sometimes just drop her sword in the middle of a bout, remembering all of a sudden that she’s meant to be a pacifist.

Zoe is too angry, and thus too sloppy.

Bianca just likes to hit people.

Miss Cleaver despairs of them all.

“Girls!” she shouts one afternoon. The bouts drop off slowly, some girls still stubbornly whacking away at each other. Taylor’s glare gets them to stop.

“Girls, much to my dismay, I have found out that Miss Fritton enrolled us in the Public School’s Fencing Championship this year,” she announces. The girls immediately start cheering. Peaches joins in. She’s always wanted to win a fencing trophy.

Miss Cleaver’s look is dark and irritated, though, and slowly the cheers peter out. “Isn’t it bad enough that I have to be humiliated each year on the hockey pitch?” she asks, somewhat rhetorically. “And now the fencing piste. Just- just try not to make me look like a bloody fool? Right then. Start bouting!”

Miss Cleaver takes a long drink from her flask. Peaches thinks she’s been partaking much more than she used to.

“Doesn’t Miss Cleaver know we always win the hockey tournament?” Jamie says, to no one in particular. Peaches raises her eyebrows.

“Yes, but only by sending half of the other team home to hospital,” she points out.

Jamie shrugs. “Winning is winning.”

Peaches frowns and looks at her classmates. She loves them, of course, but she’d like to win a sport by actually being good at it, not by being good at cheating. Fencing is one of her passions, one of the things she takes immense pride in. She thinks for a moment, tapping her sabre against the floor.

Well. If she reformed the school choir, she can certainly fix the school fencing team.

******
She plots for the next two weeks, spending more time in fencing watching people than actually bouting. She makes notes, and requests the use of Polly’s surveillance cameras to record their matches. When Polly finds out why she wants it, she agrees to help out.

“I’m only ever going to be an average fencer,” Polly says, shrugging. “But I’d like to wipe the floor with the competition. And preferably not in our usual manner.”

So Peaches and Polly wind up swapping notes (which leads to a very interesting rumor about them dating, which Peaches adores, and Polly hates) and huddling around Polly’s computer at night, watching the footage with an intensity that Peaches thinks is usually reserved for coaches.

“Who do you want to start with?” Polly asks one night, frowning dutifully at her notes.

“Anoushka,” Peaches says immediately. “She’ll be a swift fix. Then we can work with some of the, uh, lesser talented.”

Polly gives her a look that means that tact isn’t necessary in this case, but Peaches imagines herself a lady. A lady with a chat line, but a lady nonetheless.

She walks up to Anoushka during the next class. “You’re not a foilest anymore,” she states matter-of-factly. “You’re a sabreuse.” Then she smacks Anoushka over her head with the sabre, thankful that she’s already wearing the mask. “Sabreuse!”

“I know!” Anoushka shouts at her, thrusting her blade up into a parry.

“Then remember it!” Peaches shouts back, and goes to hit Anoushka’s arm.

They continue like this for a while, Peaches shouting “Sabreuse!” while trying to hit her arms or head, while Anoushka parries or, on one memorable occasion, catches the blade with her hand in a show of disgust. By the end of their three hours, Anoushka parries attacks to her head and arms automatically, and has enriched Peaches’ Russian vocabulary.

“I want to win that tournament,” Peaches explains, wiping the sweat from her face. Anoushka gives her a dry look.

“I couldn’t have guessed.”

******
After Anoushka, Polly tells her to work on Bianca.

“She’s a lovely girl,” she tells Peaches, “but probably our weakest team member at the moment, since she has no strategy or poise. I’ll take Celia; her problem is simple enough that I can probably handle it.”

Peaches agrees that Polly can probably provoke even a pacifist into a fighting rage (earning her a sharp rap on the wrist with Polly’s sabre), and so she goes off to find Bianca.

Bianca is lounging on Harriet’s bed, Harriet sitting and reading on the floor next to it. Peaches smiles and nods at Harriet, and then looks at Bianca.

“Fancy a bout?”

Bianca’s grin is infectious. She flings her legs over the side of the bed, sitting up swiftly. “Yeah, blud. Let’s go.”

While they’re shrugging into their vests and tugging on their gloves, Peaches says casually, “So you don’t win many bouts.”

Bianca’s look is startled and then suspicious. “Ain’t about the winning, yeah? It’s about the fun.”

Peaches gives her a knowing look. “And for you, the fun is smacking people with a sabre.”

“Yeah. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.”

“No,” Peaches agrees, leading Bianca to the piste. “But isn’t it more fun to smack people and win?” She salutes Bianca swiftly, and tugs on her mask. Bianca looks at her a moment before doing the same.

The bout is swift and decisive. Bianca is far taller than Peaches, with a greater reach, and she’s stronger. But Peaches is swift, knows fencing, and actually wants to win rather than just leave bruises. Bianca tugs off her mask at the end, laughing. She holds out her hand, but Peaches sniffs.

“I won’t shake your hand. You weren’t even a challenge.”

“Excuse me?” Bianca asks, affronted.

“You weren’t even trying to win.”

“Why do I have to want to win? I had fun, ain’t that enough?”

Peaches sighs and rubs one eye tiredly. She wonders if Polly is having better luck with Celia. “No. Because we’re going to the Championships, and we should win.”

Bianca shrugs. “So you win. I’ll have fun.”

“You’ll lose. Which means we’ll lose. Do you want to bring down the entire school because you’re lazy?”

Lazy?” Bianca repeats, sounding outraged. “Put on your fucking mask, I’ll show you lazy.”

Peaches hides her grin.

Whereas Zoe’s anger makes her sloppy, Bianca’s refines her. She focuses much better, as though she gets tunnel vision. Peaches has seen it happen with other things in Bianca’s life, has been impressed by it, really. Peaches has never handled her own anger very well. But Bianca wears it well, functions better for it, and it shows in her fencing style.

She uses her reach now, staying out of the range of Peaches’ blade. She moves a bit faster, adjusts her stance so she isn’t presenting as much of a target. She doesn’t win- it will be a while before Bianca can win against Peaches- but she comes much, much closer.

“Now,” Peaches says, taking off her mask and smiling, “I can shake your hand.”

“You are so full of shit,” Bianca laughs, but she takes Peaches’ hand anyway.

******
During their next class, there is a marked improvement in a number of the girls. Bianca wins several bouts, jumping up and down in excitement and exchanging high fives with Taylor, nodding at Peaches from across the room. Celia no longer drops her sword, and while she doesn’t win as many, it’s still better than the sudden insistence on reciting pacifist texts while being thwacked with swords over and over again. Peaches walks over to Polly, tipping her head to the side.

“How’d you convince her?” she asks, gesturing with her chin at Celia, who is working very hard to actually beat Esme.

“Oh, we talked about the glorious history of fencing, and how our modern version is actually the pacifistic form, since it originated in dueling and now it’s bloodless,” Polly explains, flexing her blade in her hands.

“That’s brilliant,” Peaches says in admiration, smiling up at Polly.

Polly shrugs a shoulder. “We’re friends. I understand how she works.”

“Who do you think next? Andrea or Zoe?”

Polly wrinkles her nose in distaste before tugging her mask down over her face. She’s going to be fencing against Laksha in just a moment. They broke up two weeks ago, and from the gossip going around the school, it wasn’t a pretty breakup. Peaches doesn’t envy her.

“They’re both a disaster,” Polly says, looking across the room to where Andrea has manage to fall on top of her opponent. She managed to score a touch while doing so, though, so that’s an improvement.

Peaches looks around and finally spots Zoe, swinging her sabre about and getting smacked by Kelly as she leaves herself open.

Peaches sighs. “You’re right. But we want to win, and they’re on our team.”

“Bloody wonderful,” Polly mutters under her breath. “I say we foist Andrea off on Kelly; they’re jolly good friends.”

“All right. And Zoe?”

“I’ll take her,” Polly says decisively, walking away. “You handle Jamie.”

Peaches looks over to where Jamie is standing. She’s sharpening her sabre much in the same way that she sharpens her hockey stick before each match. Peaches can’t decide if she got the easier assignment, or the harder one.

******
“Well, girls, I have to say you’ve surprised me,” Miss Cleaver says a week before the fencing championship. She looks down the line at the girls, and Peaches smirks to herself. They actually look like fencers, now, with excellent form and posture. True, Peaches has to keep a little buzzer in her pocket in order to shock Jamie whenever she starts getting that particular murderous look in her eyes that means she has figured out a new way to cheat. And true, Zoe still is very angry, but Polly somehow managed to make that anger less wide and sweeping, so she doesn’t have as many openings. And, all right, Andrea still falls flat on her face nine times out of ten, but Kelly did something that ensures that Andrea usually falls on her way onto the piste or on her way off.

In short, some of them are still a mess, but they’re a neater, more organized mess, at the very least. It’s an improvement.

“You might not even embarrass me at the Public School Fencing Championship,” Miss Cleaver continues, walking up and down the line of girls, eyeing them critically. Peaches smiles as she goes past, hoping that it conveys innocence and pride in a job well done, rather than the devious scheming she’s been doing for several weeks now. Down the line, she sees Polly’s mouth narrow into a flat line, which basically amounts to the same thing.

Miss Cleaver pauses and turns to face them. “Let’s win this, girls.”

******
On the bus to the Championship, Peaches contrives to sit next to Polly. Kelly shoots Polly a hurt look, but Polly shrugs one shoulder, and Kelly goes to sit next to Andrea instead.

“Did you need something?” Polly asks, tucking her bag underneath her seat. Peaches doesn’t understand why Polly felt the need to bring her laptop as her carry-on bag, but then, Peaches brought her makeup kit, and she suspects they’re equivalents in the world of Geeks and Posh-Totties.

“What do you think our chances are?” Peaches asks, glancing around the bus quickly. Everyone is chatting excitedly, and everyone is too busy exchanging bets with Esme to worry about knocking out their driver and taking over the driving themselves. There’s an energy around them that’s contagious, and even though Peaches knows she has a reputation for always smiling, she feels her smile stretch to its fullest.

“Slim,” Polly says instantly, reaching down and tugging a book out of her bag’s pocket.

That effectively kills Peaches’ smile. She settles on her polite, close-lipped smile instead of her wide beam, startled at Polly’s pessimism. “Why? We’re quite good now, really.”

“Our fencing club is new, and even the talents of Anoushka, Kelly, and yourself can’t rescue the entire school from our fledgling efforts,” Polly explains. “I doubt we’ll come in last- our reputation proceeds us- but if you think we’ll win… well, statistically speaking, it’s unlikely.”

Peaches considers this for a moment, glancing around the bus once more. Andrea appears to be on the verge of hyperventilating, with Kelly murmuring words of encouragement to her and patting her hand. Back a few seats from them, Violet is carefully stretching- she twisted her ankle a week ago while dancing and hasn’t yet come back from the injury. Celia is reading Paolo Freire, distracted as ever. But then there is Demi and Etta, carefully talking strategy, and Laksha, Taylor, JJ and Jamie are watching training videos (well, surveillance footage) on their mobile phones, pointing out weaknesses and potential corrections to each other.

They’re taking it seriously, in other words, something that Peaches rarely sees in her schoolmates.

It isn’t that St. Trinian’s girls don’t care. No, they’re a rather passionate bunch, overall. It’s just that most of them know that sports are fun and engaging, but they won’t be earning respect from other schools if they win a bout or a match. Even when they don’t cheat, the other schools accuse them of it, because they’re St. Trinian’s, and that’s what a St. Trinian’s girl does. So they’ve all learned to draw their self worth from other endeavours, or to simply not care. Nowadays, when a St. Trinian’s girl steps onto the hockey field, she does so with a flask and a set of nails, because the game doesn’t matter anymore.

This is too new, though, to have lost its gleam. No one has told them that no matter how bouts they win, they’ll never be anything but a lying, cheating, St. Trinian’s girl.

Peaches feels herself grinning again, and looks at Polly. “I think you’ll be surprised.”

******
Peaches first event is against a girl from St. Paul’s. She’s a pretty little thing with a haughty look. She’s probably a very nice person off the piste, but she gives Peaches a little sneer of contempt, and Peaches decides that she’d rather like to win this bout.

And she does. Handily.

Peaches started fencing when she was five-years-old. One of her first tutors was her fencing coach, a tall, elegant woman named Madame Rosalind. When she wasn’t practicing with her, she was smacking John with whatever stick was handy until he would find his own stick and engage her in a semi-formal bout of their own. She loves fencing, loves it as much as she loves singing and reading and organizing ledgers. And she’s good at it. She’s very good at it, as the poor St. Paul’s girl discovers, when Peaches wins their bout 5-0.

“Oh, hard luck,” Peaches says, letting her smile turn feral as she shakes the girl’s hand.

“You cheated,” the girl says stiffly.

“No,” Peaches says pleasantly, letting her hand drop and spinning on her heel. “You just weren’t very good.”

As she walks off the piste, Kelly materializes, handing her a water bottle, a notebook clasped in her left hand. “Good job,” she says. She nods at the fuming girl behind her. “Certainly got her knickers in a twist.”

“She underestimated me,” Peaches says, opening the water bottle gratefully. “Have you had a match yet?”

Kelly shakes her head. “I don’t have my first bout until late this afternoon, so Polly has me running around and making sure our fencers get whatever they need this morning.”

“How are we doing?” Peaches asks, heading for the bleachers. She has another bout in the afternoon, but she’s done for a bit and wants to take her jacket off.

Kelly sits down next to her and flips open the notebook that Peaches saw. “Not too bad. Andrea lost her bout, but she didn’t trip, so she’s fine with it. Violet won, but she’s icing her ankle currently. Zoe won, narrowly. Polly doesn’t think she has a hope in her next bout, since her next partner won by a considerable margin.”

“Anoushka and Polly?”

“Both won. I think we’re doing well. I’ll ask Polly next time I see her- she’s running the calculations.”

“Of course she is,” Peaches says, rolling her eyes and finishing her water bottle. “Who is fencing next?”

Kelly consults the schedule. “Esme.”

“Oh, wonderful. She’ll trounce her competition.”

(She does.)

******
At the end of the day, St. Trinian’s has been involved in 17 bouts. They’ve won 13 of them.

“Seventy-six percent,” Polly muses, writing the number on the window of their hotel room in dry-erase marker. She flips through piles of paper that she compiled throughout the day. “We’re still in the running for the Johnson Cup, amazingly.”

Peaches lounges back on the sofa. St. Trinian’s was banned from the hostel that most of the other schools are staying at, but she doesn’t mind much. They’re staying at a rundown, ugly little hotel, but it means they can strategize without interruption. Next to her, Andrea sighs.

“I’m sorry,” she offers.

Kelly, on the floor in front of the bed, leans over and smacks Andrea’s leg. “Stop that. You did fine.”

“Winning ain’t everything,” Bianca offers up, and then glances over at Peaches, giving her a crooked grin. “I mean, it helps, but you did good.”

Peaches considers the room. The four girls who lost (Andrea, Jamie, Celia, and Jaelle) don’t look too put out by it, for which Peaches is grateful. It is always hard to continue competing, knowing that your friends are disappointed. Instead, Polly has recruited Celia to handle information gathering until Polly loses a bout, and Jamie is looking forward to her future in intimidation. Andrea and Jaelle have decided that they’ll do the traditional supporting-of-teammates, rather than participate in the intimidation racket.

Other than that, everyone is still energized. JJ knows enough first aid to be helping Violet, hoping that she’ll be able to get through at least another two bouts. Zoe is vibrating with anger, having listened to too many people insult St. Trinian’s girls all day, and Peaches hopes that whatever Polly did to convince Zoe to utilize her anger rather than have it burst her open will hold.

“I think we’ve really won no matter what, though,” Etta says eventually, breaking the long silence.

Kelly looks over at her, raising her eyebrows. “Yeah?”

Etta shrugs. “Well, we came here as a joke. I mean, did any one of our opponents look at us with anything other than a sneer or a laugh?” she asks, glancing around the room. Everyone shakes their heads or looks away, answer enough in Peaches’ eyes. “And now we’ve won twelve matches. They’re going to have to take us seriously now. Which is winning, in a way.”

Peaches smiles to herself. Very much like a Geek, to look at it that way, but she’s right.

They talk for a while, tossing ice packs back and forth, bringing out some vodka that they snuck in their bags. A poker game starts up, betting for peanuts. Polly and Celia are huddled on the bed together, pouring over a laptop and ignoring everyone else. Peaches makes the rounds, chats with everyone, tries to encourage them all and keep them interested in actually winning- Peaches wants a trophy. That their reputation has improved may be a form of winning, but she wants the real thing, too.

Finally, she wanders over to Polly and Celia. “What are you doing?” she asks.

Polly hums to herself and doesn’t answer. Celia gives Polly a fond smile, and then looks at Peaches. “We’re going over the videos of today’s bouts, marking down weaknesses and patterns in the other sabreuses’ styles.”

“Oh,” Peaches says, surprised. She balances herself on the very edge of the bed. “That’s smart.”

“That’s why we’re operators,” Celia says blithely. “I’ll be disseminating the information to everyone tomorrow, once we find out who will be going up against whom.”

“Jolly good,” says Esme, who has apparently been listening, despite her investment in the poker betting pool. “That’ll help a bit, I think.”

“Maybe,” says Taylor doubtfully. Even after all this time, she doesn’t quite have the eye for strategy that some of the others have.

“We’ll be fine,” Kelly declares, her voice no-nonsense even as she lays down a full house and grins at Laksha, carefully scooping peanuts toward her. “We’ll be more than fine. We’ll be amazing. Just wait and see.”

******
Peaches doesn’t have her bout until the afternoon, so she spends the morning going around and watching whomever she can. Her own match will be against Jocelyn Billue from the Ladies College, and after watching the footage that Polly collected, she doesn’t feel the need to worry. Jocelyn’s strengths are in her strength and her spontaneity. Peaches knows how to work around those with simple speed, cunning, and agility. Instead, she watches the others.

Polly wins again, but by a much narrower margin. She steps off the piste, nods and Peaches and says, “I won’t win the next one,” with a finality that Peaches trusts. Polly has run the odds and found them wanting, and Peaches knows better than to argue.

“Maybe,” Peaches concedes, but that’s all she’s willing to say on the subject.

Demi loses and gets off the piste before starting to cry, quiet, gulping sobs. Esme is there in an instant, giving her a tight hug. Violet loses too, throwing down her mask in disgust.

“If it weren’t for my ankle,” Violet hisses, furious, and Peaches can see people around them carefully backing away. Violet is huge, in every way, and looks like the stereotype of a thug. Peaches knows, though, that Violet is sweet, immensely loyal, and fiercely competitive, so she puts her hand on Violet’s arm.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and it’s all she can say, because for the Demi she said “there’s always next year” but that isn’t the case here. Violet rubs her forehead, and nods slowly.

“Might as well go get some water for the girls, then,” she says after a bit.

“Get your ankle looked at first,” Peaches says, knowing that she won’t.

Kelly and Anoushka win, and so does Etta. To her surprise, Laksha loses.

“Are you all right?” Peaches asks her worriedly. Laksha is her good friend, and she knows perfectly well how competitive she is. And she’s seen the looks that Laksha keeps tossing at Polly whenever she isn’t looking, and knows that Laksha is, at this point, less concerned about winning against the other schools and more concerned about winning against her ex-girlfriend. It’s probably what lost her the bout; she doesn’t handle distractions nearly as well as some of the others.

“Don’t tell Polly,” Laksha says quietly, stripping her jacket off and avoiding Peaches’ eyes. “I’d rather her find out from someone else.”

“Of course,” Peaches says. “Come on, it’s time for lunch. I’ll treat you.”

After lunch, Peaches devotes herself to worrying about her own match. Now that Polly is done for the day, she’ll be taking the time to agonize about the other girls, and she and Celia will be collecting statistics until their eyes fall out.

She does her stretches, does a few warm ups. She has Jaelle come and work with her for a bit, trying to get a feel for going against an opponent much stronger than herself. Then she sits down on the bleachers and waits, letting her nerves rush over her.

Her mother fenced as well, though she had a preference for epee. She’d always been immensely supportive of Peaches learning how to fence, even as she encouraged her to take up more practical forms of self-defense. When Peaches told her that St. Trinian’s was going to the Public School’s Fencing Championship, she’d been thrilled, but disappointed that she wouldn’t be able to make it.

“There are some smugglers encroaching on our territory,” Nimala had explained unhappily over the phone. “I wish I could be there.”

Peaches doesn’t mind that she isn’t, though. She knows that John is lurking around, somewhere, and since he’s been her unwilling fencing partner for years, she’s happier that he’s here to watch her thoroughly defeat all the girls around her.

A girl sits down next to her. Peaches turns her head. It’s Jocelyn.

“Hello,” she says politely.

Jocelyn smiles. It isn’t the nasty smile that Peaches received from her opponent yesterday, nor is it the saccharine smile of someone who intends to condescend to her. It’s just a pleasant smile. “Hi,” she says, holding out a hand. “I’m Jocelyn. You’re Peaches, right?”

Peaches nods, taking her hand and shaking it. “Nice to meet you.”

“You’re ruddy good,” Jocelyn says.

“You’re quite good yourself,” Peaches replies, not sure how best to say you’re not nearly as good as I am.

“Good luck, then,” Jocelyn says, and that seems to be it.

The bout goes well. Her practice session with Jaelle was helpful, and Peaches quickly figures out the tricks to fencing against Jocelyn. Peaches is a small girl, smaller than most of the other St. Trinian’s fencers, and she uses it to her advantage, managing to get under Jocelyn’s guard three times in a row before she shores up her defenses. Jocelyn scores a touch when Peaches mistakes her solid lunge as an attack on her right, when she manages to swing the sabre to the left just as Peaches goes to parry. Then Peaches manages to get a lucky touch to the head, and her fifth and final touch when she uses Jocelyn’s brute force against, stepping back quickly when their swords clash, allowing Jocelyn to nearly lose her balance and moving in to tap her, quickly, on the chest.

Jocelyn shakes her hand with a smile, no hard feelings at all. It’s a very different reception from yesterday.

Maybe Etta was right, Peaches thinks, wiping her forehead. Maybe just by winning a bout or two they’ve won the metaphorical battle.

But Peaches won’t be happy until they’ve won the war.

******
At the end of the day, there are eight of them left.

Zoe let her anger get the best of her, and JJ shrugs and says, “I was up against a better fencer. No shame in losing against someone genuinely better.” They join Demi, Violet, and Laksha in the day’s losses, and work with the others who are out of the tournament to figure out their daily duties.

Peaches leaves them to it, more concerned about figuring out what their next move needs to be. Polly and Celia have once again pulled the surveillance videos and are doing their analyses, but Peaches knows that, at this point, there is only so much they can do. The eight of them left are their eight best, with the occasional exception. Esme is their sole junior competitor left, leaving them no chance at the Brentwood Cup, but she has a chance to be top in juniors. They’re still in the running for the Johnson Cup and the Queenswood Cup. Barely, though. They need to win almost every bout tomorrow.

Peaches looks at the numbers and gnaws at her manicure. Anoushka reaches over and tugs her hand away. “Stop,” she says quietly. “We will do well. It will be all right.”

She’s tempted to argue, but looking around the room, she can see hopeful faces. Peaches isn’t Polly; she isn’t a pessimist, willing to bring everyone down in order to keep people grounded in reality and braced for failure.

So instead she offers Anoushka her most brilliant smile and says, “Of course we will. We’re the best.”

******
The next day goes well for them, but not because they themselves do wonderfully.

Bianca loses, and so do Polly and Etta. Peaches cringes when she sees their names out of the pool, knowing that only leaves five of them. She wins her bout with the sinking sensation that they’re out of the running for the cups, no matter what.

She’s pleasantly surprised when Polly slaps down the daily statistics, a fearsome smile on her face.

“None of the top schools won today,” she says with a smirk. “We still have a chance to beat them in the overall cups. The trouble now, of course, is that there are few enough competitors that we’re going to start going up against one another.”

Peaches glances around the room. She could be going up against Kelly, Anoushka, or Taylor tomorrow. They’re doing two bouts tomorrow as well, so she could go up against a St. Trinian’s girl in both of her bouts.

Esme whistles. “Glad I’m in a league of my own, then,” she says. “Wouldn’t want to go up against any of you.”

Taylor rolls her eyes, popping her bubble gum. “You beat me every time, Esme. I wouldn’t be worried much, yeah?”

Celia is writing out the list of the potential brackets, Polly murmuring her comments, and Peaches falls asleep on the sofa to the reassuring noise of women wanting to win.

******
Peaches first bout is against Kelly.

She stares at the sheet of paper, her stomach clenching uneasily. Peaches is better than Kelly, without question. Kelly is very good, but she simply doesn’t have the years or the mindset to be as good as Peaches, and everyone knows it. Even Kelly knows it, judging by the rueful grin to gives Peaches over her breakfast that morning. That doesn’t make it any easier.

Because everyone knows Kelly is the next Head Girl, and she’s by far the most loved student in the school. Peaches adores Kelly without question, would follow her into a battlefield if she asked it of her, would do horrible things if Kelly even suggested it. But Peaches wants to win. She wants to show everyone how good she is, and she wants her name on that trophy. And were it anything else, Peaches would probably throw the match, give Kelly the victory.

Not this time.

And as it turns out, Kelly doesn’t want her to. They meet in the middle of the piste to salute, and Peaches says, “I’d die for you, you know that, right?”

Kelly gives her a sharp look. “You’d better not throw the bout, Peaches. I know where you sleep.”

That’s why Kelly will make an excellent Head Girl, Peaches thinks to herself as she beats Kelly black and blue up and down the piste. Her sense of fairness.

“Fuck, I think you gave me welts,” Kelly hisses, taking off her mask to shake Peaches’ hand at the end of the bout.

“Well,” Peaches says, as demurely as she can, “you did tell me not to throw the bout.”

Her second bout of the day is against a Brentwood girl, who she barely beats, but she does beat her. They shake hands, the girl giving her a tight-lipped, angry smile, and Peaches wipes sweat off her face. She needs to go see how everyone else did.

Which is how she finds out that she’s the only St. Trinian’s girl left in the senior competition.

******
“What happened?” Peaches asked, dismayed.

Polly flips through the pages. “The first bout had Taylor and Anoushka against one another.”

“There weren’t no way I was gonna win against Anoushka,” Taylor says, sighing. “Lost cause, mate.”

“And of course, you won against Kelly,” Celia chimes in. “Which left just you and Anoushka. And Anoushka lost hers.”

Peaches does the math quickly, taking a few extra seconds once she’s done just to make it seem like it took her longer. “We haven’t a chance, do we?”

Polly licks her lips and looks away. “Not in ranking first.”

Peaches curses violently, startling everyone. She doesn’t curse very often, and she makes sure to always show people her sunniest side, to make sure they always see her smiling, but she can’t right now. Celia’s eyes are wide and fixed on her. Polly still won’t meet her eyes, and Kelly is frowning at her, a tight, worried look.

She rises swiftly, forcing a whimsical smile on her face, knowing that she probably looks deranged. “Excuse me,” she says, falling back on her years of etiquette training.

Then she leaves the room as swiftly as she can.

Peaches doesn’t go far; she has an early day tomorrow against the final girl, and she needs to get her beauty rest in order to look fabulous at an awards ceremony where they shan’t be receiving any awards. She settles herself on a bench outside the hotel, suddenly wishing for a cigarette, even though she doesn’t smoke. She just wants something to do with her hands.

It isn’t that Peaches honestly thought they would win. Not really, not when she was thinking realistically (and how she hates that word, how she hates the entire concept of realism, of accepting things as they are rather than striving for something bigger and better and brighter). But it still stings, to know that St. Trinian’s is not, in this instance, the best.

She doesn’t know why it matters so much. Except that, she thinks, running a hand down her stockings, she wanted everyone to know that St. Trinian’s was genuinely good at something beyond mayhem and chaos and destruction. Something beyond their yearly paintball tournaments with boy’s schools, something other than their occasional victories in hockey obtained through cheating. She wanted something honest. Something true.

A moment later, a coat is draped over her shoulders. Peaches looks up and smiles softly at Anoushka. Anoushka sits down next to her, tucking her hands between her knees.

“It’s too cold for you to sit out here without a coat,” Anoushka scolds gently.

“Thank you,” Peaches says. She wraps the coat around her, suddenly aware of how chilly it is.

They sit in silence for a while, Anoushka staring up at the sky as though she can see the stars and Peaches watching cars drive by. Finally, Anoushka nudges her with her shoulder. “Care to explain why you are having meltdown over a trophy?”

“It isn’t actually the trophy,” Peaches says slowly, refusing to look anywhere but the traffic. “It’s the principle.”

Anoushka thinks that over for a moment, and then nods sharply. “Ah. You wanted everyone to know that we’re good.”

“That we’re good at something, anyway,” Peaches replies. She thinks for a moment, and then sighs, long and low. “Do you ever get tired of it, Anoushka?”

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Anoushka look at her, raising her eyebrows. “Tired of what?”

“Tired of… being a joke? Of being feared? Of being so much more than what everyone sees, and knowing they’ll never give you a chance to be anything more than that?”

Anoushka’s smile is sharp and bitter, and of course, it is a stupid question to ask Anoushka, of all people.

“Of course,” Anoushka says. “But I think it is a weapon, in the end, their assumptions.”

“Do you get tired of having to think of things as weapons?” Peaches asks in return, because she does. Her entire persona is a weapon. Peaches isn’t the airheaded, smiling girl everyone imagines her to be, but she keeps that persona carefully cultivated. Someday she will run a criminal empire, after all, and it doesn’t do to let your enemies see you as you truly are.

“Of course,” Anoushka says again, this time with an air of resignation. “But weapons they are, and why put down a dagger when you truly want a sword?”

Peaches thinks about that, and a genuine smile creeps across her face. “You’re right.”

Anoushka snorts, an indelicate sound that belies her Posh-Totty association. “Of course I’m right. I’m always right. You need advice, you come to me. I set you straight.”

Peaches laughs, bumping Anoushka gently, and then wraps her hand around her wrist, tugging. “Come along. It’s cold outside. I can’t afford to get sick the night before my final bout.”

******
The final bout is… anticlimactic, Peaches supposes, thinking about English class and great literature. She loses. Not badly, but she loses all the same. The other girl is simply better than her. She’s faster, stronger, and knows all of Peaches’ weaknesses as a sabreuse. The final bout ends, 5-4, and Peaches shakes her opponent’s hand with a sad smile on her face.

Well. There’s always next year.

Afterwards, she walks silently back to the hotel, wanting to get dressed up nicely for the awards ceremony. She’s been sharing a room with Kelly, Polly, and Celia, two of whom care very little about their appearance, which makes sharing the mirror easier.

Kelly meets her eyes in the reflection, carefully applying her bright red lipstick. “You did well, you know.”

Peaches pauses, her eyeliner poised carefully over her left eye. “I know,” she says. “I did quite well, didn’t I?”

Kelly smirks at her, fastening on that horrible barbed wire choker that Polly gave her years ago. “You’ll beat everyone next year, no worries at all.”

On their way over to the awards ceremony, Bianca grabs her wrist. Peaches slows and looks at her. Bianca is looking oddly serious, none of her usual careless bravado or mock anger present. “Hey,” she says quietly. “I know winning’s good, yeah, but sometimes? Fun is good, too.”

Peaches smiles, a genuine one, not the big smile that she wears just because she can. “I know.”

“Good,” Bianca says decisively, and slips back to walk next to Demi, tossing a careless arm over her shoulder.

She lost. But, Peaches decides, it doesn’t matter all that much. Because as Etta pointed out, the other schools are certainly aware that they’re a match on the piste now. And next year, maybe they won’t have to deal with days of nasty comments and sneers. Maybe next year, they’ll win. Or maybe they won’t.

They are, in Peaches’ eyes, still the best.

Esme won her final bout and so St. Trinian’s didn’t completely lose. Esme will place first in the junior’s division. If they’d had other girls in the foil or epee bouts, they would probably have had a chance at the Brentwood Cup, and they placed third for the Queenswood Cup. It isn’t a terrible showing, really.

They just won’t be taking home the big trophy. The Ann Williamson Cup. Peaches sighs softly to herself.

“Next year,” Polly says, walking by her and not sparing her a glance. She appears to be keeping an eye on their surroundings and, to Peaches surprise, is muttering to herself from time to time. Polly is a bit odd, but she isn’t prone to talking to herself.

“Yes,” Peaches says, deciding to ignore her strange behavior. “Next year. No one else will stand a chance.”

Outside the doors to the award ceremony, Kelly turns and stops them all. Her smile is fierce and her eyes terrible, and yes, that’s another reason Kelly will be Head Girl next year, Peaches thinks fondly.

“Girls,” Kelly says, pitching her voice high enough for them all to hear. “Let’s give them a reason to remember us.” Her smile is invitation enough, and when Kelly shoves the doors open, they walk forward as one, chins high in the air, ready to take on anyone who approaches them. Peaches feels a thrill run up her spine and lets it emerge in her most vicious smile, a girl from St. Gabriel’s cringing away from her.

It’s perfect.

Otherwise, the awards ceremony is rather dull. They stand and cheer and scream when Esme is announced as the first in the junior’s division, but that’s it.

Until the end, that is.

The officials are announcing the Ann Williamson Cup, and Peaches is staring down at her hands. She’s come to terms with it all, but that doesn’t mean she wants to watch the trophy go to another school, a school that already has all the respect that they could ever want, to girls who will never be spit upon simply because they attend the wrong school. So she stares at her hands, counting down the minutes until they can leave.

A gasp goes up around the hall, followed immediately by intense, angry murmurs. Peaches looks up, startled, and sees that the Ann Williamson Cup is… gone. In its place is one of the lamps from their hotel.

Everything clicks together rapidly, and Peaches looks over at Polly, who is smiling that tight, pinched smile peculiar to her. She wasn’t talking to herself. She was talking into the comms. And Jamie and Bianca were suspiciously absent earlier, and the lamp next to Celia’s bed had been gone when she came back from her final bout…

Next to her, Anoushka is smirking. “Why put down a dagger because you want a sword, da?” she says to Peaches, her eyes sparkling.

******
JJ is standing at the very front of the bus, her uniform carefully pressed, smiling and raising her hands in the air. People quiet down quickly, even the teachers at the back of the bus. “As Head Girl,” JJ begins, and Peaches rolls her eyes fondly, “I wanted to say congratulations to everyone, both for an excellent Championship and for an excellent heist. Well done, especially for such a last minute plan.” She claps politely, but everyone else screams their cheers, including Peaches. She can’t help it. It is thrilling, driving away from the awards ceremony, knowing that somewhere on the bus, the Ann Williamson Cup is tucked away.

JJ raises her hands again, and they drift into quiet. In the front, the driver is keeping his eyes fixed on the road, clearly too unnerved to tell a bunch of St. Trinian’s girls to quiet down. “Kelly, would you like to do the honors?” JJ asks, gesturing to Kelly. Peaches twists in her seat. Kelly stands up, carrying a duffel bag, and manages to sashay to the front of the bus. It’s a trick not even Peaches has learned, the ability to sashay in a moving vehicle. They lost a good Posh-Totty the day Kelly decided to be an Emo.

“The Ann Williamson Cup,” Kelly says, smiling, “is usually presented to the school with the highest number of points at the end of the Championships. This year, however, a committee of concerned citizens decided to appropriate the cup and present it instead to the school with the most daring, the most ambition, and the greatest self control on their usual urges to cheat, maim, and disturb. This year, the Ann Williamson Cup goes to St. Trinian’s!”

Peaches cheers and claps and laughs with everyone else. Kelly pulls the cup out of the duffel bag, raising it in front of her.

“Esme and Peaches,” Kelly says, once they’ve quieted down somewhat. “Will you do us the honor of presenting the cup to Miss Fritton? You were our champions to the end.”

Peaches looks across the aisle at Esme, who smiles shyly. She reaches over and grabs the young girl’s hand, looking back up at Kelly. “We’d be honored.”

And she will. Because maybe they didn’t earn it fair and square, maybe they resorted to the usual St. Trinian’s bag of tricks, but then, as Anoushka says, why put down a dagger for want of a sword?

In the meantime, Peaches has plans. Halfway back to St. Trinian’s, she twists in her seat to look at Polly, who is sitting just behind her. Kelly’s head is on her shoulder, fast asleep, but Polly is typing away on her laptop, biting her lower lip.

“Polly,” Peaches says. Polly looks up, careful not to disturb Kelly. “How hard do you think it would be to add foil and epee to our fencing club?”

Polly looks at her for a moment, and then a smirk slowly crosses her face.

“Not difficult at all.”

“Good,” Peaches says, smiling back. “Let’s get to work.”