And Tess. Tess is down there with them, her delicate frame nearly lost in the shuffle, with a pouch of our money and a smile on her face. I watch as she listens to other gamblers discuss the fighters. She asks them a few questions of her own. I don’t dare take my eyes off her. Street police who are unhappy with their bribes sometimes break up Skiz fights, arresting people as they go, and as a result, I never stand with the crowd when Tess and I watch the fights. If they catch me and fingerprint me, it’s over for both of us. Tess, though, is slender and wily. She can escape a raid much more easily than I can. But that doesn’t mean I’ll leave her on her own.
“Keep moving, cousin,” I mutter under my breath as Tess stops to laugh at some young gambler’s joke. Don’t get too close to her, you trot.
A noise comes from one end of the crowd. My eyes flick there for a second. One of the fighters is stirring up the onlookers by waving her arms and yelling. I smile. That girl is named Kaede, or so the crowd’s chants tell me. Kaede is the very same bartender I met days ago while passing through the Alta sector. She flexes her wrists, then bounces on her feet and shakes out her arms.
Kaede has already won a match. Going by the unspoken rules of Skiz, she must now fight until she loses a round—until her opponent throws her to the ground. Each time she wins, she gets a cut of the overall bet on her opponent. My eyes wander to the girl she just picked out to be her next challenger. The girl is olive-skinned, with furrowed brows and an uncertain expression. I roll my eyes. Surely the crowd must know that this fight’s going to be a no-brainer. This challenger will be lucky if Kaede lets her live.
Tess waits for a moment when no one is paying attention to her, then glances up quickly in my direction. I hold up one finger. She grins, then winks at me and looks back to the crowd. She hands money to the person organizing bets—a big, burly guy. We’ve cast one thousand Notes, almost all our money, in favor of Kaede.
The fight lasts for less than a minute. Kaede strikes early and hard, lunging out and striking the other girl viciously across the face. The other girl wavers. Kaede toys with her like a cat playing with her food before lashing out again with her fist. The challenger crashes to the ground, hitting her head on the cement floor, where she lies in a daze. Knockout. The crowd cheers, and several people help the girl stumble out of the ring. I exchange a brief smile with Tess, who gathers up our winnings and stuffs it into the pouch.
Fifteen hundred Notes. I swallow hard, warning myself not to get too excited. One step closer to a vial of cure.
My attention is back on the cheering crowd. Kaede flips her hair at the audience and strikes a mock pose for them, which makes them go wild. “Who’s next?”
The crowd chants back. “Choose! Choose!”
Kaede looks slowly around the circle, shaking her head or sometimes tilting it to one side. I keep my eyes on Tess. She stands on her tiptoes behind several taller people, straining for a good look. Then she taps them hesitantly on their shoulders, says something, and pushes her way forward. I tighten my jaw at the sight. Next time I’ll join her. Then she can sit on my shoulders and finally get to see the fights, instead of calling unwanted attention to herself.
A second later, I bolt upright. Tess has pushed her way past one of the larger gamblers. He shouts something at her, something angry, and before Tess can apologize, I see him shove her roughly into the ring’s center. She stumbles, and the crowd roars with laughter.
Anger boils up in my chest. Kaede seems amused by the whole thing. “Is that a challenge, kid?” she shouts. A grin breaks out on her face. “Ya look like fun.” Tess looks around, bewildered. She tries to take a step back into the crowd, but they block her path. When I see Kaede nod her head in Tess’s direction, I rise up from my crouch. This trot’s going to choose Tess.
Oh, hell no. Not while I’m watching. Not if Kaede wants to live.
Suddenly, a voice rings out from below. I pause. Some girl has made her way to the front of the ring, where she stares at Kaede. She rolls her eyes. “Doesn’t seem like a fair fight,” she calls out.
Kaede laughs. There’s a brief silence.
Then Kaede shouts back, “Who the hell you think ya are, talking t’me like that? Think you’re better?” She points at the girl, and the crowd lets out a cheer. I see Tess scurry into the safety of the crowd. This new girl has taken Tess’s place, whether she meant to or not.
I let out a long breath. When I’ve managed to calm down, I take a closer look at Kaede’s new opponent.
She’s not much taller than Tess and definitely lighter than Kaede. For a second it seems like the crowd’s attention has made her uncomfortable and I’m ready to dismiss her as a real contender until I study her again. No, this girl is nothing like the last one. She’s hesitating not because she’s afraid to fight, or because she fears losing, but because she’s thinking. Calculating. She has dark hair tied back in a high ponytail and a lean, athletic build. She stands deliberately, with a hand resting on her hip, as if nothing in the world can catch her off guard. I find myself pausing to admire her face.
For a brief moment, I’m lost to my surroundings.
The girl shakes her head at Kaede. This surprises me too—I’ve never seen anyone refuse to fight. Everyone knows the rules: if you’re chosen, you fight. This girl doesn’t seem to fear the crowd’s wrath. Kaede laughs at her and says something I can’t quite make out. Tess hears it, though, and casts me a quick, concerned glance.
This time the girl nods. The crowd lets out another cheer, and Kaede smiles. I lean a little bit out from behind the chimney. Something about this girl . . . I don’t know what it is. But her eyes burn in the light, and although it’s hot and might be my imagination, I think I see a small smile on the girl’s face.