Most Monday nights meant two things: blood and satisfaction. But tonight, a rock sat in Evie's stomach as she hurried down the garbage-filled alley to the black, unmarked door of the ring.
There was no doorknob on the outside. She pounded her right fist against the hard wood twice, then her left once. More of her insides grew heavy with each beat her heart skipped.
The door groaned as Tímo pushed it open. Noise spilled out like beer from a tipped glass. "You're late."
Evie shouldered past the brute, not bothering to look back at him as she jogged down the old narrow steps. "I'm here."
And so was the rest of Véaléan, apparently. She'd expected a crowd—there was always a crowd at Bastian's—but tonight, bodies lined up one after the next, pressing in on Evie as she made her way to the left side of the shadowy, dank underground pit where she knew Bastian would be. She spared no attention to the dirt-packed oval in the center or the two fighters within its short walls. She'd be there soon enough anyway.
Evie reached the raised platform set aside for Bastian and whichever high-rollers he deemed good enough for the pleasure of his company. She was eye-level with their shiny shoes, which were gathered in little groups as they socialized. That was the difference between them and the rest of the spectators in the pit.
They weren't here for the fight. They were here for the reward.
With little grace, Evie hoisted herself up onto the platform and rolled beneath the iron bar that served as a handrail along its perimeter. A woman in red gasped as Evie rose to her feet amongst their regal company.
"Bastian," Evie called out. The woman next to her scowled as she raked her eyes from Evie's crow-black hair down to her dirty black boots.
Several heads turned toward her, but Evie focused on the one in the center, with short brown curls and bright green eyes. A sharp smile cut across Bastian's face, barely hiding the hatred he harbored for her.
"So," Bastian said before downing the drink he'd had in hand. The loose crowd parted for him as he approached. "You're finally here." His gaze lingered on her eyes, and Evie had to look away. Thankfully, the fight in the ring ended just in time to make it seem like she'd turned her attention there instead of anywhere but Bastian.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
"Is that a joke?"
Bastian gripped her bicep, and Evie tried to pull away. As he leaned in to her ear, his fingers tightened, nails digging into flesh. "You owe me, kitten." His bitter breath spiked chills across her skin. "Don't forget who you're fighting for."
The crowd booed as one of Bastian's managers announced the next competitor. From the corner of one grey eye, Evie could make out a big shape stalking around the ring. The manager bellowed another name, earning shouts twice as loud as the jeer.
Bastian turned her toward the ring, where a man twice her size stood grinning and stretching his arms.
"You wouldn't have won anyway," Bastian said, and shoved her toward the ring.
Evie had a lot of regrets in life, but fighting had never been one of them. No matter if she won or lost, there was no other way to feel so alive. In control. Strong.
"She is what you send me?" Toa roared. He wasn't much taller than Evie, but he was twice as broad with fists that packed stronger punches. Strong enough to have broken her nose, probably, if she hadn't pulled back in time. She had still ended up on the ground, her tongue tasting blood as she ran it along the backs of her teeth, checking for any that had been knocked loose. There was a rumor that a fighter years ago had choked on his own tooth after a bad hit to the mouth. True or not, Evie hadn't survived this long just to die on a tooth.
Rough dirt scraped against the bare skin of her arms as she rolled onto her belly and pushed herself up. She swiped at her face, trying to clear it of hair that had come loose from her ponytail. It was sticking to the sweat coating her neck.
The mass of spectators cursed and yelled and begged for her to keep going. People jostled one another as they pumped their fists in the air, bodies bending over the half-wall that surrounded the ring. They wanted her to win.
Which is exactly why Bastian had bet on her to lose.
"Everyone loves you," he'd said last Wednesday night in his office, "because you're a scrap sixteen year old—"
He'd dismissed her with a wave and eye roll. "The point is people like when the underdog wins. It makes them feel good because they all think they're the underdogs in their own life."
Bastian had packed the place, stacked the odds, and told Evie to lose. She owed him too much money to be able to refuse.
Evie blocked out the sounds of the crowd and charged at Toa. She stepped in and pulled back to punch. As she'd hoped, he scooped her up and tossed her aside like an unloved doll.
She hit the ground hard and rolled over twice before landing on her back and coughing up dust.
I hate him.
She clenched her teeth together and her eyes shut. Fire burned her insides as Bastian's words replayed in her mind.
Don't forget who you're fighting for.
Evie's eyes sprang open and she jumped to her feet. Her thighs pulsed. Blood dripped from her chin onto her chest. Toa paced back and forth on the opposite side of the ring, close enough to the half-wall that reaching hands smacked his glistening shoulders. She ignored him and shifted her attention to the platform on her right.
Bastian laughed at something a tall, bony blonde-haired man said and gulped another drink. He was paying no attention to the fight.
Evie's boots kicked up dirt as she sprinted. Toa smiled at her and took a step closer. Evie feinted left just as she closed in on him, and he stumbled trying to grab her. His lips curled into a snarl.
The crowd erupted.
Toa steadied himself and wound his arm back. His fist sailed toward her head, and Evie slipped beneath his punch and danced away. Round and round they went, Toa's frustration mounting as he got tired and lazy and red in the face. She dodged another blow and struck him straight and hard at the top of his gut before he could recover.
Toa backed off just long enough for Evie to take her eyes off him. The volume in the pit was deafening, but looking down from his position of high and mighty power, Bastian was stone faced and tight lipped.
As Toa ran for her, Evie side-stepped, then spun on her heels to face him as he flailed and tried to punch her. She ducked beneath his hairy arm. Before it pulled back, Evie mustered all the force she could into a side-kick straight into his groin.
The man shrieked and crumpled, clutching between his legs.
Laughter burst from the crowd as people whistled and clapped. Except Bastian, who probably hadn't blinked since turning his attention to the fight. Evie tried reading his expression, but there was no way to know what that man was thinking.
Two of the ring managers jumped over the wall and hauled a moaning Toa away. The fight was over.
Evie spat blood on the ground and rested her hands on her hips. There would be consequences, she knew, but it didn't matter.
She would deal with Bastian later.