Jenthe de’14 was a drone. A clone, in the old language. She grew to term in a vat, not some woman’s belly. She was raised in a group home, most likely to be a sex toy for some rich old man. She was perfect, physically, and way above average mentally. Her mind was sharp, although curiously blank. It was up to her owners to fill that in. Her body was carefully engineered to be nothing but appealing on both a conscious and subconscious level. She literally oozed sex appeal. She was made for sex. The Jenthe line went back a few dozen generations by now, always popular, always selling well. Jenthe de’14 would have carried on that proud tradition, except for one little incident.
Somebody in a shipping office somewhere was a mole. A pirate, gone civilian for a while, for a purpose. The schedules of certain ships were copied and mailed off to a distant world. A pirate ship knew where and when to be and yet another shipment of people and things disappeared, lost among the vast lanes of space. Jenthe de’14 was on one of those ships.
When the pirates burned through the hatch they simply shot everyone they saw moving about freely. They had no interest in crew members and little in the passengers. Jenthe was locked in a cabin, where she’d spent most of the trip. She was property being shipped, not a normal paying passenger, and since she was just a kid the crew didn’t have time to care for her personally so they just locked her in a cabin most of the time.
The pirate captain finally noticed the locked cabin. They’d pretty much gutted the ship by then and shot most everyone except for a few pretty girls they could either use or ransom. The captain shot through the lock on the door and after some yanking finally got the door open.
Jenthe sat on the bunk and stared at him. He stared back at her. He motioned to her and she hopped off her bunk and followed him. She was used to doing what adults told her. He was no different, in her mind.
Back aboard the pirate cruiser he placed her in his cabin while he settled the books on his latest conquest. He got off ransom notes on the few passengers they’d taken and got them ensconced in locked cabins here and there throughout the cruiser. He didn’t worry much about the kid, he figured she wasn’t old enough yet to cause much trouble.
The pirate cruiser was on a thirty-six hour day. Nights were long and often boring between jobs. The captain kept to himself, as captains are wont to do. It was an unexpected pleasure to him to have a companion. Earlier in his career, the captain would have jumped on her and ravished her immediately. Now ... he was a little different.
The captain was well into middle age. He’d had a few health problems and the ship had even put into a few civilized worlds on occasion so he could be examined by competent doctors. He was feeling his mortality. He was even worrying about the condition of his soul, which sounds a bit crazy for a pirate. Not enough yet to change his ways, but he was starting to think about things like that. Once on a job he’d picked up a Clearwater Bible, and the stuff that most people thought was nonsense seemed to ring a bell deep within him. He’d taken a personal vow of chastity, even, and was doing his best to keep it up.
Having a child around with a highly engineered sex appeal was hard on him but he didn’t allow himself to waver from his vow.
“Little darlin’,” he said, as a pirate cleared away the dinner’s dishes, “do you know where you were going?”
“I am going to Vincent san How,” she said, “to Mr. Deaconess de’Vlier.”
“You were, yes,” the captain said.
“I was?” she said, puzzled.
“Yes, dear, we kidnapped you. You no longer are going to Mr. de’Vlier. He will have to buy a new sex toy.”
“I’m not?” she said. She wasn’t sure if this was good or bad.
“No, you’re not. You are a pirate now. You belong to us, now.” he said. “Is that okay with you?”
“I guess so,” she said, just staring at him. He wondered what was going on behind those big dark eyes.
“So...” she finally said. “Am I to have ... sex with you? Like I was with Mr. de’Vlier?”
“Oh, darlin’,” the captain wished he hadn’t taken that vow. She was delectable. Small ... he knew she was ten standard years ... just about his old target age ... he’d had some pretty little girls in the past, but never one as pretty as this one. She was sweetness personified. Smooth brown skin, dark waist length hair ... slim waist, nice plump thighs ... and a butt that was out of this world ... just that ass alone would have told him she was enhanced if he hadn’t already known. Her face was beautiful, a mixture of racial characteristics, old-style Asian eyes, a cute little upturned nose and fat puffy lips ... everything about her screamed ‘take me, now’ even to folks who didn’t have pedophilic inclinations. He started to wonder how long he could keep his vow.
With difficulty he remembered her question. “Darlin’, you don’t have to have sex with anyone if you don’t want to. Especially me. Sex being defined as vaginal intercourse, per my vow of celibacy.”
“I see,” she said, though she didn’t.
They passed the evening watching old vids and spying on the crew with various cameras he’d hidden throughout the ship. All seemed normal and well.
Within a week he was desperately in love with the little girl, almost crazy in love with her. Dangerously in love with her. The crew even noticed and a few times he caught conversations between them on his spy eyes, talking about how much time he spent in his cabin with her. He finally started forcing himself to spend time in the ship proper and he even brought her out with him rather than let her sit alone. The ship fascinated her and she had a million questions and before long the whole crew was captivated by her beauty and innocence.
He knew he was going overboard with her. He knew that discipline on his ship was suffering. He couldn’t blame it on her ... he didn’t really know where to go from here. It was either her, he felt, or give up being a pirate. He thought about retiring but his 44041k wasn’t really where he felt it should be for that. Time and time again he pondered what to do. He didn’t want to give her up but he felt like he had no choice. He talked to his first mate, who agreed. The girl had to go.
About that time their path took them near Delcimur. Delcimur, world of swords. He spent one last night of heaven with her, holding her and hugging her and rocking her and he didn’t think he could stand to give her up. But he felt he must, for the sake of his career as a pirate and the eventual salvation of his soul. He lay in his bed and wept as his first mate led her away.
From an auction house deep in the city she watched the pirate ship lift, puzzled, knowing that yet again her life was going to change. That night she stood alone in front of a room full of buyers and heard the bids go higher and higher. She didn’t even understand it was for her that the men were bidding. She just felt all alone and a few tears streaked down her cheeks. She missed the pirates, especially the Captain.
And change her life did. She was barely eleven standard years old by now, still a child, and still curiously blank in some regards. Life with the pirates had opened her up slightly but she had still spent most of her time in the captain’s cabin. She was eleven physically, but probably a bit younger mentally.
Anyway. She had been bought by one of the premier fighting houses on Delcimur. Now she was destined to become a fighter. To fight, possibly to the death, for the entertainment of paying customers. She was moved into a dormitory with a dozen other children. The very next day her schooling began.
Oddly, Jenthe immediately felt an attraction to the martial arts. And she was good at it, she was a drone, and she had almost every enhancement known to man. Her reflexes were blindingly fast and her endurance incredible. Her body had the ability to heal quickly. She was made to be a fighter and her teachers knew it. All of their students were drones. Licensing was difficult when trueborns fought to the death but it was not nearly as difficult for drones. As an enhanced drone she was made to do anything well this is just what had been chosen for her by fate.
Her first fight was a month after her training began. She stood in the ring before the master of the house and a hundred other students. She carried a blunt wooden stick. A boy, four years older than her, approached and bowed to her. She bowed back. He went en garde and she did, also. Her heart was pounding like crazy. She somehow knew that this was a pivotal moment in her life.
The boy started easy with her, sparring and occasionally tapping her on the shoulder or the stomach or the leg when she left herself open to him. She felt like he wasn’t really trying. For a split second she saw an opening in his defenses and she swung her stick as hard as she could and connected with his kneecap. He danced away, favoring his leg, surprise on his face. She glanced quickly at the master and saw him nod his head. That was all she needed.
Even when she began to fight in earnest the boy seemed to hold back. Maybe he didn’t think she was a threat. He did hit a little harder, and her elbow exploded in pain. Why that was called funny bone she never knew; it hurt like hell. It made her mad and she started to burn. Just seconds later she saw her opening and once again, with all her strength, she plunged her stick straight into his nutsack. His eyes closed and he fell over sideways, his hands clasping his poor tortured genitals. In a second she was on top of him, her stick raised like a sword, ready for the killing blow. She turned to the master and waited for his reaction.
As Risku sages are wont to be, he was emotionless. Deep inside, she had impressed the hell out of him. Finally the master nodded his head at her. She touched her stick to the back of the boy’s neck then walked to the gate of the ring. A student let her out.
That night, the master congratulated her. He invited her to his room for a cup of hot tea and talked to her at length. He gave her some pointers about the fight, which she accepted graciously. She knew she had a lot to learn, a whole world of knowledge to learn. But she was interested, now. She was eager. She felt like this was something she could be good at.
The next day she met the boy she’d fought in one of her classes. He grinned at her and bowed low. She was glad he didn’t seem to hold it against her. She was glad she was a girl though, and that she didn’t have that pesky protrusive penis to protect. Girls could be hurt with groin hits but not as easily as boys. That damn lump just begged to be smacked.
Two weeks later she fought the boy again. She came away from that fight feeling like she’d learned something. She also came away with a sprained finger, two black eyes, and a tooth that had cut almost all the way through her cheek. He knew she meant business this time and he didn’t hold back any. She tried to be as gracious as he had when she saw him in class the next day.
Her training got more and more intense as time went by. She had school in the morning and training in the afternoon and evenings. By the end of the year she was doing things that she hadn’t even dreamed were possible. And she was good.
Three years after she was recruited she had her first real fight. She was a solid year ahead of schedule, that’s how good she was. Her teachers were proud of her. They expected great things of her. The rule was simple. Survive a hundred fights and she was free. That took years sometimes, when it happened. And it was rare. One mistake, and you were dead. So far, luckily, Jenthe had made few mistakes. She was a natural.
A lot of people showed up for her first fight. Word had gotten out. Master Whon, the owner of her school, had been priming his circle of acquaintances with her name for many months now. A lot of people were curious to see this girl that had impressed the master so.
The computers had matched her with a boy for her first fight. It was, of course, his first fight also. His skills closely matched hers. The computers rarely screwed up. His capabilities were probably within one percent of hers. They were as evenly matched as it was possible to get.
The Master had spent days preparing Jenthe. He had meditated with her and even trained with her. He beat her easily, of course, he’d been doing this for over two hundred years, but it was good practice for her. Oddly, it helped to build her confidence. And once, she did get in a good hit on him. He showed the red mark to the other masters with pride, but he didn’t let her get the big head about it.
That night they drove to the arena. Jenthe waited alone in a room, gathering her confidence and once again meditating. She knew this was do or die. But deep inside she knew she could do it. She felt a slight sorrow for her opponent. She knew it wasn’t his fault. He, like her, was just a tool of this planet. She knew forty thousand people would watch in person and millions more on vid. Her image would go throughout the galaxy to a horde of blood-thirsty spectators. Millions of people will watch this poor boy die, she thought.
They came for her. She checked her suit one last time, picked up the short spear she favored, and followed the guards. She could hear the dull roar of the crowd as they approached the arena. Her heart was beating like crazy and she was breathing in short gasps. She tried to get control of herself and succeeded slightly. She reminded herself again, do or die. Do or die.
When they entered the arena the crowd roared. She didn’t know if it was for her or just because something had happened on the floor. The guards led her to the ring and she climbed the short steps, went under the ropes, and chose a corner. She felt all alone. She scanned the Master’s row and finally spotted Master Whon. She gave him a nod and he nodded back. She did not want to let him down, most of all.
A minute later the boy entered the arena and the crowd roared again. He strode down the aisle confidently and took the opposite corner from Jenthe. She stared at him, trying to take in all she could about him. Every little bit of information helped, she knew. He carried himself like he was schooled in Kendo, she thought. That helped. She immediately began planning. In a way, it was to her advantage that she was first in the ring. He didn’t get to see her enter. That would help her.
The announcer seemed to talk forever. He had to stop occasionally to allow the crowd to roar. Jenthe looked out over the seats. Thousands upon thousands of people, all here for one reason ... to watch kids kill each other. That seemed foolish to her, in a way. A waste. She could fight as well without killing. Truly, a waste. But people were like that. People were bloodthirsty.
At last the announcer was silent. She waited, her heart in her throat. It was almost silent for a moment. Everyone was waiting. She almost jumped when the bell rang.
The boy came at her immediately. He was halfway to her before she moved out of her corner. The crowd began a dull roar.
They met and for a second she was unsure if she was going to survive at all. He hit hard, and fast. Then, that quickly he made a mistake and she put the tip of her spear into his upper right arm. The crowd screamed with blood lust as the floor was stained red. She felt a satisfaction at the look on his face. You thought this would be easy because I’m a girl, she thought to herself. You thought I would just lay down and die.
He danced back and then came at her again. The next minute was all blows and sparring. He got close a time or two, but she seemed easily able to keep him at a distance. She could tell he was getting frustrated. She wasn’t playing by his rules.
Another minute, and he made another mistake. She got a solid slap in, on his face. She could have cut him badly but she didn’t, out of respect for him. She knew by now she could afford him some respect, without dying for it. She just slapped him on the cheek, cutting him slightly. He rubbed it, almost puzzled, and she knew he was wondering how she’d done it. She began to have some slight doubt about the fairness of killing him. She carefully squashed it, and moved. He was almost backed into a corner, now. She felt overdrive kick in, and she touched him twice more with the blade, just to get him ready. To let him get ready ... ready to die.
The end was quick and almost anti-climactic. He was wide open. She slid her blade straight into his chest, beneath the breastbone, tilted up slightly. He had a surprised look on his face as her blade went into his heart. His body relaxed and he dropped to the floor. The crowd went wild.
The rest of the night was just a blur to her. Two hours later she got through the awards ceremony and soon they were back home. She lay in her bed that night, seeing the look of surprise on his face over and over. Ninety-nine more to go, she told herself. Ninety-nine.
Over the next year she fought twenty times. Her ratings in the popularity polls were high, the highest for someone her age ever. She was everything the fighting public wanted, young and beautiful and seemingly unbeatable. Her schooling became more and more intense and it soon became difficult to find opponents for her. She had fought half a dozen other girls and just smashed every one of them. The boys she fought began to be much older than her, older and bigger and stronger, but it was always an even match. Her speed was almost supernatural and she had the ability to know within seconds of closing with an opponent how the fight was going to play out.
Only once did she think she was in real trouble. It was a boy from the Easter Planets, as young and ambitious and hard as she was. The fight went on almost fifteen minutes, and she was almost too exhausted to move when she finally cut into his spinal cord through the back of his neck. She needed several days off school to recover from that one. Master Whon gave it to her. Thanks to her and some crafty bets he was now incredibly rich. Not that it mattered much to him, he was mostly just proud of her. He poured money into her account, much more than required by law. He was generous with her.
They went off-world on tours and Jenthe enjoyed that most of all. She loved to travel and in the exhibition matches she was not required to kill. She was not allowed to kill, killing was legal only on Delcimur. Her name was circulated throughout the galaxy and she felt the pressure of fame. She realized now that she couldn’t afford to fail, too many people depended on her. Not just Master Whon.
By her fiftieth fight she was also fabulously wealthy. She’d given the money she’d won to the Master time and time again to bet on herself, she could see no disadvantage to that. If she won, hooray, she was more rich than ever. If she lost, so what, she was dead, it didn’t matter. She took a few hundred million credits, and bought into Master Whon’s house, becoming a partner with him. The House of Whon grew in prestige and fame.
She wondered, at times, if she could keep it up for fifty more fights. She had doubts sometimes in the deep of the night, and she cried into her pillow more than once. She still felt guilt even, for killing people. Some stood out more than others. Some of the kids seemed positively afraid of her, and those she tried to end as quickly and cleanly as possible. A few she strung out, smart asses, but most of the time she tried not to make people suffer. She hoped, if she ever lost a fight, that they would do the same for her.
Her specialty became kawakami, weapons that do not leave the hand. She was brutally good with the sword, and deadly with the spear. The knife was her favorite, although it required her to get close and personal with her victim. She was beyond deadly with the knife and some of her fights only happened with the stipulation that she not choose the knife. She already had a reputation with it.
Since she was now part owner in the house and mainly because she was so damn good, Master Whon began to allow Jenthe to teach some of the classes. She met a girl in one of those classes and her life changed again.
Jenthe was fifteen, now. Her body was lean and tough, lithe and hard. She was beautiful, on top of that, classically beautiful, with long black hair and smooth dark skin. She had only had her heart broken once, when a beautiful boy she killed had mouthed “I love you” to her as he died.
Anyway. This girl. Her named was Labelle, and she was in an intermediate class on edged weapons that Jenthe taught. She felt an immediate connection with the girl and a growing love for her. Master Whon understood and promised Jenthe to hold the girl back from killing fights until further notice. Jenthe loved her enough by then that she knew she couldn’t stand it if she were killed.
Labelle moved into her room and together they explored the secrets of love. Their bodies meshed smoothly and sensually. Jenthe was enhanced, and her hymen repaired itself in less than a day. Labelle took it time and time again, with two fingers usually, and Jenthe reveled in the stinging pain of it. She loved the other girl sensually and spiritually, a love strengthened by her discipline and her ability to concentrate.
One night they lay entwined in each others arms in Jenthe’s bed deep in the silent heart of the house. They kissed and whispered love to each other.
“Jenthe ... dearest...” whispered Labelle, her breath tickling Jenthe’s ear.
“I know what you’ve done ... what Master Whon is doing...”
“What do you mean?”
“I know he won’t let me fight. I’m just learning, now, to no end, because I won’t be able to use it.”
“Darling ... don’t say that ... the knowledge you are accumulating is not wasted ... and you have to know ... that I couldn’t stand it if something happened to you...”
“That almost makes me think you have no faith in my abilities...”
“Darling ... don’t let’s argue about this ... I have complete faith in you ... I just couldn’t stand to lose you...”
“Well, you are still fighting ... what if I lose you?”
“Labelle ... don’t make this difficult...”
“I’m not, darling ... I’m trying to be reasonable...”
“I will not fail. I cannot. Too many depend on me.”
“Yes, I know ... but accidents still happen ... Jenthe ... do you know how many fighters ever make it to a hundred?”
“Very few. Probably just a few percent...”
“Yes. Very few. Jenthe ... you own part of the house ... and you are the most favorite Master Whon has ever had ... retire, while you can ... while you’re still alive ... he won’t hold it against you...”
“Who is doubting who’s abilities now?”
“Jenthe ... do it for me ... my heart stops every time you step in the ring ... I know you are the best, but my heart still stops...”
Jenthe thought about it, seriously. She was tired of fighting, at times. Although ... the roar of the crowd was seriously addictive and she knew what people would say if she bailed out early. Some fighters did, though. Some fighters bought their freedom and just walked away. She just didn’t want to be one of those.
To her dismay she got a wake-up call her very next fight. She fought a giant of a man, a hero much like herself, a man who was rapidly rising through the ranks. His house was a traditional enemy of the House of Whon. Master Whon had visited her the night before to make sure she still wanted to fight the man. She was nervous, but eager. She felt like she had something to prove, especially to Labelle. She knew this would be a tough fight but she had no doubt in her mind that she would win. She knew she was faster than him. But she also knew she couldn’t afford to let him connect even once. This would probably be a bloodless fight, until the last killing blow. Her killing blow.
Master Whon had left, reassured. She didn’t sleep but an hour or two that night, she held Labelle deep into the night as the other girl cried. Jenthe tried to reassure her, to make her believe everything was going to turn out okay. Jenthe had confidence in herself, at least.
The man’s name was Deon. He sneered at her when she entered the ring, and she began to burn. She knew it was probably just a psychological trick, but she burned nonetheless. They closed and almost immediately she slid her knife along his arm and ribs. He gaped at her, and then got angry. Then the fight began, in earnest.
Jenthe knew he would have more stamina than her. She feared he might just try and drag the fight out, to tire her. She was used to setting the pace in her fights. She tried to pace this one a little quicker but he seemed to have the ability to dart out of her path with ease. He just danced around her for a while, frustrating her.
Almost fifteen minutes passed. In the iron ring there were no breaks, no rest periods. Death was the only way to rest. Jenthe felt herself drawing from her reserve strength. She began to confront the idea that she might not walk away from this one. That broke her heart, for Labelle’s sake. She could not do that to the girl she loved.
The window of opportunity, when it opened, was almost impossibly small. But she saw it and took it. Her left-hand knife darted in and back out, almost quicker than the eye could see. Most of the people in the stands missed it completely. Deon stood solid and stared at her, a surprised look on his face. Her heart pounded out the beats. On four his eyes closed and he fell forward, dead.
That night Jenthe clutched Labelle to her chest and they both sobbed their eyes out. Jenthe was beyond tired and yearned for sleep. But Labelle had to talk.
“Darlin’ ... I know that was hard for you ... can you do that forty-nine more times?”
Jenthe drew a ragged breath. That one ... she knew she could not. That was a closer fight than she’d ever had. He was good, as good as and maybe a slight bit better than her. He’d just made one tiny mistake.
“Jenthe. Are you going to make me bury you?” Labelle asked, softly.
“Labelle ... don’t do this now, darling ... wait until I’m clear-headed...”
“I’m sorry, darling ... I’m sorry...” It was still an hour before Jenthe could get to sleep.
Labelle was good. Not as good as Jenthe, of course, but good. She was fast and deadly with a blade. Master Whon had even sparred with her, at times, and pronounced her also a master. She hungered to prove herself.
At long last, after many nights of arguments and pleading, Jenthe relented, and the next day she told Master Whon to put Labelle in the line-up. A few days later the computers chose a match for her and Labelle had four days to ready herself for her first real fight. Jenthe poured every bit of knowledge into the girl she could and was a heartless teacher. She tolerated no mistakes. A cold fear was growing inside her that Labelle would become addicted, as she was, to the love of the crowd. That this would be Labelle’s first but not her last fight.
That night Jenthe’s heart would not stop pounding. She sat with Master Whon on the Master’s row and when Labelle stepped into the ring she almost burst with both pride and fear. She began to hold her breath when the bell was struck and didn’t breathe again until almost two minutes later when Labelle’s severed head hit the mat. She needed to breathe then, she needed it for the scream of rage she roared as she launched herself towards the girl that had killed her lover.
The girl saw her come over the ropes and went en garde with her sword. Jenthe almost thought she could take her with her bare hands and she dropped into a crouch with her hands ready when she heard Master Whon call to her. She stopped and thought for a moment and finally reached down and closed Labelle’s shocked eyelids. She left the ring and Master Whon took her home and put her to bed before going back and dealing with the disposal of Labelle’s body.
Jenthe woke the next morning from a deep unnatural sleep. Her mind was almost as blank as it had been when she had been a young clone. She had pushed all her emotions far, far back, deep inside. She no longer smiled but at least she didn’t cry either. She went to the memorial service for Labelle and sat, emotionless, as thousands of fighters and teachers filed past. She knew they were there for her, not Labelle. She wanted to stand up and scream at them but she did not. She no longer said or did anything without stopping to think about it at least twice. She wondered if the tears would ever come. She would welcome them, when they did.
Jenthe launched herself back into training with a vengeance. She became a brutal, merciless opponent, much moreso than before. Fights became difficult to schedule for her. Warriors pulled out of fights when they were paired with her. She had had a reputation before, but nothing like she had now.
She knew she was being unreasonable. She knew, deep inside, that, by the rules of the game, the other girl had done nothing wrong. Basically, she’d just won the match. But still Jenthe burned with a deep hatred towards her. Jenthe had killed over fifty times herself by now. She was sure she’d killed people that somebody had loved, though she couldn’t believe anyone had loved as deeply as she’d loved Labelle. She knew that hatred was a consuming emotion that would rob her of reason and logic, but she couldn’t seem to help it.
In her mind, a thousand times, she rehearsed Labelle’s last move. The girl had made a crucial timing error that left her whole left side exposed. The other girl’s razor-sharp sword was already in motion, the whole weight of her body behind it. Complete beheadings were rare and difficult to do. Jenthe knew deep inside that Labelle had been better than that. But even veterans made mistakes, much less rookies. All it took was one mistake, as poor Labelle had shown. Jenthe knew that this was a bad time for her to be fighting, as turbulent as her emotions were. She knew she needed to be cool and calm, not writhing in agony. But she couldn’t help it. And fighting was the only thing that let her forget, if only for a moment.
Jenthe began to take bare-handed weaponless matches, something she had never felt she was good at. She needed the practice now, she thought, she wanted to get good at it. She wanted to be good at everything, especially her traditional weaknesses. There was a great calming satisfaction the first time she held a man’s head in her hands and twisted, hearing and feeling his spine snap.
Jenthe’s secret fear was that she’d never get matched with the girl that had killed Labelle. She needed that to happen as badly as she needed air to breathe and food to eat. Labelle would be unavenged until that moment. Jenthe knew that if it ever happened it would be the easiest fight of her career. She knew once her love for Labelle took over the other girl would die in seconds. She hungered for that moment; she lived for that moment. Right now, in fact, that was about all she lived for.
Master Whon spent hours with her, talking to her, deep into the night. He worried about her becasue he saw the desolation in her soul and the rage in her movements when she fought. He knew that as good as she was she was in danger of making mistakes now that she no longer cared about herself. He didn’t want to lose her for he loved her deeply, he loved what she’d done for him, and he loved her for herself, the simple child she’d started out as and the complicated woman she’d grown into.
Jenthe breezed past her seventy-fifth fight. There were still fighters out there with enough confidence to take her on. She became a machine, a machine with one goal. Some of her fights were over in seconds and her popularity began to suffer because of it. People didn’t want to pay exorbitant amounts to see a fight of a few seconds. She began to force herself to pace it out and to make it last. She felt sorry for her opponents and kept having to remind herself that this is the life they chose. Well, not all of them had had the luxury of choosing, true ... many of them were basically slaves, as she’d been. But still, they didn’t actually have to fight her ... they could back out, and take the hit on their publicity rating. She felt pity at times, but no guilt. And she felt that every fight she won brought her one step closer to facing Wren, the girl that had killed Labelle.
She followed Wren’s career closely. The girl was good and beyond good with a sword. The curved blade was her specialty. She was blindingly fast and always killed with the blade, never the tip. Her fights now ended the same way every time, with her holding her sword high in both hands and screaming a challenge in the old tongue for anyone else to dare and enter the ring.
Jenthe had a fantasy where she met that challenge and walked into the ring. That wouldn’t exactly be fair, the girl would probably be exhausted from the earlier fight ... that would give Jenthe an advantage ... but she wanted to wipe the smirk off the girl’s face. She wanted to teach her a lesson. She wanted to shout Labelle’s name as she killed the girl. She wanted revenge.
Master Whon cautioned her time and time again against vengeance as a motivation. He could see where she was headed and he tried to head her off. He was the only person that she listened to now and she realized the wisdom of his voice, but her heart was following another master.
Time passed. On her eighty-eighth fight, Jenthe was surprised by a boy who had agreed to knife fight her. As the fight got underway he suddenly reversed a blade and threw it at her and she barely got out of the way in time, the blade stabbing her in the upper arm. She cursed herself for not being ready and killed him seconds later. She felt like she was on a knife edge and she lay awake a long time that night, wondering if she should go on. Master Whon had awarded her her freedom long ago, but it was her heart’s desire to make her hundred. She half-way planned on keeping on fighting after that, until she got matched up with Wren. That will save me the trouble of going out and looking her up, she thought.
Jenthe began to be very careful as she approached one hundred fights. She knew the ironies of fate, and she felt like she was in more and more danger the closer she got.
Fight ninety-nine carried a shock of its own, a shock for which it was disqualified. After a long wearying fight, the man, and it was literally a man although she was barely sixteen, anyway, the man she was fighting had stopped and placed his blades on the ground and presented his neck to her. It was the traditional beg for mercy, which she’d never had asked of her. It was her choice to kill or let live. She flinched and shied away from the choice, looking to Master Whon for help. He very carefully did not move a muscle and she realized it was her choice alone. She threw her blades to the ground in disgust and departed the ring.
The man she’d spared had tried to see her that night although she had no idea why, probably to thank her, she figured. She didn’t allow him to, she was disgusted with him for giving up and disgusted with herself for letting him live. Most fighters chose to kill when confronted with that scenario, she supposed just to prove they were bad-asses. She felt weak because of it. And, on top of it all, she’d have to do ninety-nine over again.
Ninety-nine came again and she did fine. She gave the crowd a show and finally slid her knife under the man’s arm and into his lung. She drank a toast that night with Master Whon to one hundred. She hoped that fate wasn’t paying attention.
Later, she realized that Master Whon had been trying to tell her something that night. Just some of the things he’d said. She realized he’d known the next morning when the fight roster was released. She stared at the list with bemusement and wondered why she didn’t feel happier. There, bigger than life, was her name ... her name, and Wren’s. One hundred, she thought. Who would have thought. My last fight. The only fight out of all of them, out of the last six years, the only fight that matters. A fight with a dead girl.
The fight was a week away, an eternity to Jenthe. She spent the rest of the day in the gym, until her muscles burned. She sparred with anybody who’d go a round with her. The youngsters were eager to help her, everybody in the house knew her story, and wanted her to win. Everyone wanted vengeance for Labelle.
The days passed slowly. Jenthe felt she was at the peak of her career. She had never felt so tight, so clean, so ... perfect. No one in the house could stand up to her, now. She had to try her hardest not to hurt her partners when sparring. Her body was faster than she’d ever thought possible. She almost felt like she was wasting her time, they all seemed so slow.
She spent a lot of time planning the fight. She didn’t want it to be over in seconds although she felt like it could be. She’d watched vids of dozens of hours of Wren in the ring and although she knew Wren was good she knew that she was better. She wanted Wren to know that she was going to die. She wanted to give the girl time to be sorry and maybe afraid. She wanted to give her time to remember killing Labelle.
She had a long talk with Master Whon before the fight. She tried to make him understand that she needed to do this so she could get on with her life. So that she could lay the poor ghost of Labelle to rest. It was something she just had to do, to move forward. Although ... she knew that she would never love again. She would never dare. And how, she wondered, will I face life, after this? Without even the roar of the crowd? With nothing? Can I go back to being nothing? Should I just fight on until I’m finally killed?
The ride to the arena was tense and silent. Master Whon bowed to her and then hugged her, something he’d never done before. She disengaged herself, bowed to him, and he departed for the Master’s row. She followed a page into a waiting room, and sat cross-legged on the floor. She examined her knives one last time and carefully chose one. This is the one, she thought. This is the knife I will take her life with. She kissed the blade and slid it back into its sheath.