THE CUTTING EDGE OF A LEGACY
For the first time since 1985, the quadrennial fencing tournament the Jianghu Regionals is being hosted in Da Liang, and the bookies are predicting that it will be the greatest medal haul for Da Liang in a generation. World number one men’s sabreur Meng Zhi is going in as a strong favourite to win once again, while women’s épéeist Xia Dong is hoping to become the first female member of the elite Xuanjing Bureau épée school to medal, having finished fourth four years ago. But it is on the men’s team foil, the final event of the competition, that most media attention has been hung. Team captain Xiao Jingyan is at the prime of his career, and likely to medal well in the individual foil as well. His teammates, brother Xie Jingrui and Xie Bi, are also well-accomplished fencers; this is most well-rounded men’s foil team Da Liang has sent to a fencing tournament in thirty-six years. The last time the team had such depth was the famous triumph of Xiao Xuan, Lin Xie, and Yan Que in the 1985 Regionals. The images of the trio, with captain Xiao Xuan’s arms wrapped around his teammates and broad grins across their faces as they bit into their gold medals, was one that graced the front page of every national newspaper on the following day, and cemented fencing’s place as one of Da Liang’s national sports. In a recently resurfaced interview from the piste, immediately following Xiao Xuan’s final stint in the 45-40 victory, the team captain pants: “in thirty years you’ll see our sons up here together, just you wait.” The trio were the closest of friends in and off the piste, brothers-in-arms and eventually brothers-in-law. But, as eagle-eyed readers wills surely have spotted, it is only Xiao Xuan whose son has made the core team who will attempt to reclaim the title for Da Liang. Xiao Jingyan, though an extremely proficient fencer, is not even the scion of the Xiao family who was expected to take up his father’s mantle. As the youngest of four sons, he was perhaps the least-expected heir to his father’s legacy. It was his eldest half-brother, Xiao Jingyu, who everyone expected to follow in their father’s footsteps, but his promising career, coming close to a medal in the individual foil at the Jianghu Regionals twelve years ago, was dashed in a tragic car accident. The second son Xiao Jingxuan never showed an interest or aptitude beyond juniors, while Xiao Jinghuan’s infamously dramatic change of weapon to follow in the footsteps of his mother, Hua gold medal winning sabreur Wang Lingling, has resulted in nothing spectacular, failing to live up to the careers of either of his parents. Xiao Xuan’s son has managed to follow in his father’s footsteps. But what of the sons of his teammates? Yan Que’s son, Yan Yujin, is technically also a member of the team, although, as the alternate/reserve, he is unlikely to take part unless one of his teammates get injured. Yan Yujin is the spitting image of his father at that age, and shares the same camaraderie with his teammates, especially Xie Jingrui. However, he does not have the same single-minded determination that was demonstrated through his father’s mastery of the blade. It is with Lin Xie, however, that Xiao Xuan’s prophecy of a legacy most decidedly fails to stand the test of time. To anyone who attempted to predict the future even five years ago this is the most shocking twist of all. Lin Shu was the shining star of Da Liang’s fencing future, medalling at the Junior World Fencing Championship and only improving in the subsequent years. He was notably a close friend of Xiao Jingyan, and anyone who watched the pair fence together could see that this was to be a gold-winning friendship, just as their fathers’ had been. But it was not to be. It has been almost three years since a fire ravaged the Lin family home, killing the whole family. Lin Shu’s body was never found. The investigation revealed it to have been an arson attack, but police enquiries led nowhere. The fencing community was devastated, not only in Da Liang, who had been resting many of their future medal hopes on his shoulders, but also abroad. Xiao Jingyan, whose previous media appearances had been laughing at his best friend’s side, were now cold and disillusioned. Despite the tragedies that have befallen some of its brightest stars, the current Da Liang foil team is still the favourite to win gold at this years Jianghu Regionals. The question is: will their victory be forever tainted by the team that might have been?
What to Watch at the Jianghu Regionals: Day One
This year’s most hotly anticipated fencing tournament is about to begin! For the first time in 36 years, Da Liang is hosting the Jianghu Regional fencing tournament, which takes place over the next three days, with twelve different medalling event in total.
As the (self-proclaimed) fencing expert of Da Liang, here’s my guide for the top stars to watch out for!
• Men’s sabre: World number one Meng Zhi of Da Liang is facing stiff competition from up-and-coming eighteen-year-old Fei Liu of Jiangzuo, a country which until recently has had next-to-no presence at international fencing competitions, but has dramatically risen in the rankings under the coaching of the mysterious Mei Changsu. Can the young pretender oust the old guard? Also competing for Da Liang are Lie Zhanying and Xiao Jinghuan.
• Men’s épée: Xia Chun and Xia Qiu are here representing Da Liang, but the real star of men’s épée is the fan-favourite Lin Chen of Langya, hoping to defend his title. Keep an eye out for him on and off piste – he’s also gained quite a following on TikTok!
• Women’s foil: The golden era of Da Liang women’s foil is unfortunately over, with stars such as Xiao Jinyang and Lin Yueyao having long retired. But I have high hopes for young Xie Qi, whose brothers will also be fencing in the men’s foil tomorrow!
“Fei Liu. Fei Liu!” Mei Changsu said, trying to get his young student’s attention. He didn’t blame his student for being so distracted. The arena was full of flashing blades and beeping equipment and shouted instructions, and Fei Liu was young enough to still be vibrating with energy despite having already fenced his five poole matches. It was, after all, his first major tournament; there was a lot to take in.
Mei Changsu could remember his first major tournament. Having that much energy. Being distracted by everything going on around them. Standing next to Jingyan and getting ready to conquer the world.
He shook his head. He tried his best not to remember, if at all possible. The past was the past, and he would never fence again. He forced his brain to change the subject.
Fei Liu. Focus on his student. Training Fei Liu had been one of the few things that had kept him focused and motivated in the past few years, since everything had changed. The boy had a natural talent: good speed in his legs, fast reaction times. He would certainly be the best sabreur in the region in a few years, once Mei Changsu had finally gotten him to be slightly less aggressive, to think just a little more carefully between each point.
It wouldn’t do to make Fei Liu stay stood still next to him until the next round was announced: who knew how long it would take, whether they’d have to wait for the other, slower weapons to finish their pooles before the next rounds could start. Fei Liu was still young and full of energy; Mei Changsu should let him explore, at least a little.
“Fei Liu, Zhen Ping is watching out for when the poole results and the bouts for the round of 32 are posted. Wander around a little while we wait, just stay close enough to one of us that you can be ready to go.”
Not that they really needed to wait for the results to be printed and sellotaped to a wall in whatever choke-point they’d picked to display them this time: Mei Changsu had already had his fencers take surreptitious photos of all the poole sheets before they were submitted, and Mei Changsu had already put together what the draw was likely to be. Fei Liu was almost certainly going to be facing Xiao Jinghuan, which was almost funny. Before Xiao Jinghuan had fenced sabre, he had fenced foil; before Mei Changsu had been a coach for Jiangzuo, he had beaten Xiao Jinghuan countless times. Fei Liu would have the victory easily: he was faster, and Jinghuan had a temper.
But there was no point coaching Fei Liu through this, yet. It could be an hour before they even hoped to restart.
“Hmmm,” said Fei Liu, eyeing him warily, always knowing when Mei Changsu was thinking too much. Then he darted off, reappearing quickly with the camp chair that Mei Changsu was fairly certain he had purposefully left at the hotel. It wasn’t uncommon for coaches to bring something to sit on, but… well, he had no excuse really, other than not wanting to be sat while everyone he used to fence alongside was up and competing.
Mei Changsu would bet almost anything that it was Lin Chen who had brought it with him. Meddling bastard.
“Thank you, Fei Liu,” he sighed. Fei Liu didn’t move until Mei Changsu unfolded the chair and sat down. It was, he had to admit once his weight was not longer on his weakened legs, well-needed. Fei Liu had taken it upon himself to look after Mei Changsu’s well-being just as Mei Changsu had taken on his training: Mei Changsu didn’t exactly have a good track record for making it through even a training session without over-exerting himself, and this was only the first of three long days of competition, even if all he was doing was standing at the sidelines. “Now, go explore a little.”
Fei Liu nodded briskly, said “Su-gege,” and ran off. Mei Changsu couldn’t quite see where he’d gone but he was sure that, if he deigned to stand up for more than a moment, Fei Liu would reappear to glare him back down to his seat.
“Su-gege? Surely he should be addressing you as Mei-laoshi?” came a voice from his right. The words could be harsh, chastising, if they had come from one of the many older coaches who liked to keep traditions strictly. Their sport was one full of traditions (and French), most of which were largely unnecessary (especially the French). But instead he recognised the voice, recognised the smile in its tone even without turning around.
Mu Nihuang, one of his oldest friends. Mu Nihuang, who thought Lin Shu was dead.
He looked up at her, pasting on a bland media smile, one that he had been taught when he first came to the attention of the Da Liang sporting press, and then had had to re-teach his new face when Mei Changsu became the face of Jiangzuo’s meteoric and unprecedented fencing successes.
“Of course, Mu-nushi, technically he should call me Mei-laoshi. But why should I force him to struggle with formality when his efforts could best be used elsewhere?”
This opinion on formality was one he had often repeated in frustration as Lin Shu, directed at coaches who had implemented rigorous punishments for lapses in tradition far more arcane than merely being addressed in a casual manner..
It was a purposeful clue. He had kept his survival a secret, with almost no-one knowing he had re-written his identity after his life went up in flames. But there was no reason to keep it a secret from everyone, and he certainly didn’t think he would be able to make it through the rest of the weekend while maintaining the lie to a certain select group of people, of whom Nihuang was only the first.
Nihuang’s eyes narrowed, darting about his face. Trying to find Lin Shu’s features, hidden behind his new face.
They weren’t there. He had looked.
She took a deep breath, as if steadying herself. “Mei-laoshi, are you…” she trailed off, her expression sad. Then she shook her head. “Never mind.”
There were a few beats of awkward silence. Things had never been awkward with Nihuang, before. Then again, before, Lin Shu had still been alive.
Nihuang looked away, and then her face melted into a smile. “I’m glad your Fei Liu and my Qing’er have found each-other to be friends with.”
That was… unexpected. Fei Liu rarely spent time with people close to his own age, feeling they weren’t up to his own standard. He often struggled to communicate with people at all.
Mei Changsu pushed himself out of his chair to get a better view of Fei Liu bodily wrenching Mu Qing’s arm into a proper parry quinte, making sure his blade was parallel to the ground and high enough to protect from any attacks to the head. Mei Changsu tried not to laugh. For Fei Liu, at least, that counted as bonding.
He stayed there watching beside Nihuang as her brother and his student lightly sparred. Fei Liu was going at maybe half his full speed, which was good both for Mu Qing’s benefit, and also because if he wore himself practising with his new friend he would be even more angry when Meng-dage inevitably beat him in the final.
Meng-dage already knew that Mei Changsu was the ghost who used to be Lin Shu. Now Nihuang knew, or at least suspected strongly enough that it wouldn’t take much to convince her. But there was someone else who needed to know. Someone more important to him than even these other two oldest friends. Someone he should have told earlier. Someone who would never talk to an opposition coach during a competition, who could never bear to be distracted.
“Huang-mei,” he started, falteringly, more of a confession of his identity than he had given before. “I need to ask you a favour...”
What to Watch at the Jianghu Regionals: Day Two Day two of the regionals brings the rest of the individual events!
• Women’s sabre: Previously we’d be raving about Da Liang’s gold medal chances in this event, but top-ranked Mu Nihuang has changed her colours since the last Regionals, opting to represent her birth province of Yunan rather than Da Liang, where she has trained since she was twelve. Her motives for this change in loyalties are unclear: will she reveal anything soon?
• Women’s épée: Xia Dong is hoping to become the first female épéeist from Da Liang to ever medal at a Regional Championship, but she’ll face stiff competition from Yuwen Ning, of Southern Chu, and Qin Banruo of Hua.
• Men’s foil: Xiao Jingyan, the youngest son of former champion Xiao Xuan, is among the favourites coming into today. But the competition is stiff, and we don’t want him to exhaust himself before the team events tomorrow. Fingers crossed though! Also representing Da Liang are brothers Xie Jingrui and Xie Bi, and Yan Yujin.
Mu Nihuang tilted her head back against the cold wall of the outside of the arena. She was out here to help Lin Shu-gege finally meet up with Jingyan-ge for the first time, but really it was also nice to take some time away from the hustle and bustle of the competition.
She loved fencing, and competing, and all of it. But three days in a stuffy, overcrowded sports hall really was almost too much, sometimes.
The Jianghu Regionals were always one of the busiest and most exhausting tournaments in Nihuang's competition circuit, as well as the one with the most media coverage. This year was worse than it had ever been, for Nihuang at least. Her announcement the previous year that she would henceforth be competing for her birth country of Yunan, rather than Da Liang, her adopted home, who she had always competed for in the past, had gained her much negative attention in the press, and now her first Regionals since her change of team was being hosted in Da Liang. All she was being asked about was why she had ‘betrayed’ her ‘country’, and there was constant speculation about how much worse she would do now that she wasn’t being supported by Da Liang Fencing’s enormous budget. It had been all she could do to have a moments peace, even when she was supposed to be competing herself.
She had still won, of course. But then she had barely had time to bask in her victory before she was once again being questioned about her choices.
What was she supposed to say? That one of her closest friends had died, and she suspected foul play, and that she didn’t feel comfortable or safe any more? Yes, that would surely go down well with the media.
Mei Changsu complicated matters even further.
That was one of the main reasons she had agreed to help Mei-laoshi set this up. She was upset and angry and heartbroken about him and the choices he had made, but now she knew, and if Jingyan knew, then at least she would have someone to talk about it all with.
“Nihuang-mei!” called Jingyan, jogging up to meet her. He was exactly on time. “Congratulations on your victory.” His eyes were sad – his eyes were always sad – but his smile was genuine.
“Congratulations to you as well for your silver, Jingyan-ge.” She returned his smile easily, and pulled him into a tight hug. “I’ve missed you.”
He held her close, tight enough that it felt like it could creak her bones. She tried not to think about how alone he must have felt, after she left too. She had needed to get out, away from the Da Liang fencing clique and back to somewhere where she felt that she and her brother could be safe, well out of the reach of Xiao Xuan. She wished then, and still now, that she could have taken Jingyan with her.
“Nihuang-mei,” he said into her hair, “you said there was something you needed to talk to me about?”
“Actually, I asked her to bring you here.” Mei Changsu stepped out of the shadows from somewhere behind Jingyan, as though he had been lurking there waiting for an opportune moment to appear. This was, to Nihuang, just another confirmation of Mei Changsu being Lin Shu-gege, not that she needed it. Lin Shu-gege had always enjoyed unnecessary dramatics.
Jingyan pulled back from Nihuang abruptly, his face back in apolite mask, the cold media smile that he always wore around people he did not know.
“Mei-laoshi.” He gave a shallow nod. “Can I help you?”
But Mei Changsu, Lin shu-gege, was just staring at him, as if all the courage he had had failed him as he saw Jingyan up close for the first time since before the fire.
Jiangyan held his gaze, but as Nihuang watched his mouth softened, his glare becoming questioning, and then heartbroken once again.
Mu Nihuang had known, somehow, instinctively, that Mei Changsu of Jiangzuo was one and the same as Lin Shu of Da Liang. It seemed that Xiao Jingyan knew him too.
“I…” Jingyan’s voice failed him. He took a deep breath, as if steadying himself. “Prove it to me. I can’t… I need…”
Mei Changsu jolted. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring. Nihuang knew from memory that it was shaped like a foil, like the weapon the pair had grown up fencing together; Jingyan and Lin Shu had bought them together after their first junior world championships. Except… Except there was a pale stone, a small pearl perhaps, attached to the ring-sword's hilt. One that had not been there the last time Nihuang had seen it.
Jingyan fell to his knees. “I thought.” He gasped, almost choking. “I thought father had taken it. Had destroyed it.”
“I kept it.” Mei Changsu’s voice was quiet, though filled with the same grief that tore Jingyan’s apart. “It’s the only thing I managed to keep. The only thing that was important.”
He stepped towards Jingyan, his legs shaking, and Jingyan reached up to hold him steady. To hold him close.
Nihuang took that as her cue to leave. She would force the full story out of them later, for apparently there was a great deal of story that she had not known . For now, though, she would let them be.
What to Watch at the Jianghu Regionals: Day Three
Da Liang have put forward teams for each of the six team events taking place today, but all eyes are on the men’s foil team, which without a doubt has the best chances of a gold both out of all the Da Liang teams today and of any Da Liang men’s foil team since we last hosted in ‘85. I expect we’ll all be on the edges of our seats!
The team finals occurring the day after the individual final was not exactly conducive to a team being well-rested and prepared, Xiao Jingyan could not help but feel, but every team was in the same boat, at least. After his second-place finish in the individual tournament yesterday, after everything that happened yesterday, Jingyan felt as ready as he had ever been, as ready as he could ever be.
He checked the official start time of the final, and then escaped to find somewhere to warm himself back up. A few twists and turns and he found himself a deserted corridor that no-one had yet claimed with their kit bags. Perfect.
He pulled on his headphones, then scrolled through his various training playlists on his phone. He had a few he tended to alternate between to hype him up before a match. Or maybe after all the excitement of the past few days he needed one that would calm him down. Or maybe…
His thumb paused over a playlist that he hadn’t touched in a while. Xiao-Shu’s playlist. His best friend had made it for them before their first competition back in under-13s, and they had blasted it at an obnoxiously loud volume, been told off by no less than three opposing player’s coaches, and immediately decided that they would play it every time they competed. It hyped them up. Whether they were competing together in a team match or on opposite sides of the piste, they warmed up together, always a pair.
He hadn’t touched the playlist since xiao-Shu’s death. He hadn’t been able to. It was their playlist, they were their songs. They weren’t his to listen to alone. He had tried. But listening to it reminded him too much of everything he had lost. Not listening had reminded him, too, but not as much. He had used his other playlists to fill the gap, and sometimes, sometimes, he could pretend everything was alright.
But now. Now, here he was, and here was xiao-Shu. Or, Mei Changsu, sabre coach for Jianzuo, as he was now. Jingyan should be angry. He was angry. But also, it felt like everything made sense, for the first time in years. Lin Shu – his Lin Shu – was alive, because of course he was alive, because how could he not be.
And so he pressed play, jogging and cross-stepping and lunging his way along the corridor that he had claimed for his own, and for the first time in so long he was able to do so without the twist in the back of his mind reminding him that xiao-Shu wasn’t there beside him.
Instead, he focused on the match. Da Liang had the left side of the score sheet, which was a slight disadvantage in terms of the order of who was fighting. Each team would put their best fencer last – the anchor – but that of course meant that the order each side went in differed, in order to ensure everyone fenced everyone else. The left side has the anchor fencing first, fifth, and ninth, while the right-hand anchor fences second, sixth, and ninth, giving them more chance to recoup any points their teammates might have lost.
It would be fine though. Jingyan knew he could do it. He’d been watching the other team, when he could. He’d beaten their captain in the semi-final of the individual foil yesterday.
There had been a point, in the media build up over the last few weeks, of him as the inheritor of his father’s success, where he had thought about throwing the match, just to spite everyone. To remind them that it was not just Xiao Xuan who had won the gold, but his team. To remind them that Lin Shu was an important part in Xiao Jingyan’s team, and this couldn’t be done without him.
He wouldn’t have gone through with it. He couldn’t lose on purpose: it was not just him that would be losing, after all: he couldn’t betray his teammates like that, even if wouldn’t have minded ‘betraying’ his country. Now that Lin Shu, that Mei Changsu, was here, watching, though, there was no chance of Jingyan doing so.
Now he had even more motivation to win.
|Xiao Jingyan 3||5||v||3||6 Han Ying|
|Xie Jingrui 1||10||v||9||5 Zhou Zishu|
|Xie Bi 2||15||v||14||4 Zhang Chengling|
|Xie Jingrui 1||19||v||20||6 Han Ying|
|Xiao Jingyan 3||25||v||20||4 Zhang Chengling|
|Xie Bi 2||27||v||30||5 Zhou Zishu|
|Xie Jingrui 1||34||v||35||4 Zhang Chengling|
|Xie Bi 2||37||v||40||6 Han Ying|
|Xiao Jingyan 3||v||5 Zhou Zishu|
Team matches were rarely so closely contested. The time was running out. Jingyan had made back until he was on even footing with his opponent, but now for each point Jingyan managed to draw ahead, his opponent came back with his own. Complicated parry-ripostes, two lights, the referee deliberating over who had priority.
44 each. Victory was so close. Loss was so close.
Jingyan took a deep breath. He didn’t look over to the crowd, to where he knew Mei Changsu, Lin Shu, was watching. He could almost here him laughing in his ear. Critiquing him. Pointing out areas of Jingyan’s own weakness. Of his opponent’s weakness.
He couldn’t do anything stupid. They both wanted this victory. If he handed it over with a stupid mistake, he would never forgive himself. But, but, if he didsomething unexpected, if he took his opponent by surprise… Jingyan was known for his strong parries and seamless ripostes. He was not known for his explosiveness off the line. That was where Lin Shu had always bettered him.
Jingyan sprang forward, all of his training, all of the pain and agony of the past three years, all the relief of the past day bursting out of him in a plosive step-lunge.
He had taken several hits under his sword arm in this final. That would be the most obvious place for his opponent to aim for.
Jingyan’s arm semi-circled from en garde into a seconde. He caught the blade.
One light on the box. Red. His.
Jingyan tore his helmet off and fell to his knees with a roar.
His point. Da Liang’s victory. His victory.
He was only dimly aware of Xie Jingrui and Xie Bi rushing onto the piste to join him, peeled down to their plastrons and breeches, followed by Yan Yujin, who, as the alternate, hadn’t needed to get kitted up in the first place. They pulled him into a hug, yelling with joy that he had pulled them back to a victory, to the victory that had been a pressure piled on by the press and the weight of the expectations of a generation.
Jingyan, though, was staring at Coach Mei of Jiangzuo, who was staring back at him with something blazing in his eyes. Jingyan couldn’t tell if it was pride, or envy, or joy, but right at that moment, it didn’t matter. It was glorious. He was alive, and Jingyan had won, just as Lin Shu had always sworn that he would.
Jingyan had always been able to read Lin Shu, had known him better than he knew himself. He didn’t known Mei Changsu yet, but there was time.
He had all the time in the world to learn.