Evie jogged across cobblestones slick with liquor, dodging a swaying group of drunks singing old hymns of the southern provinces. As people stumbled out of the bars of the Fifth Ward, they migrated toward the song, waving mugs of coffelike victory flags.
The bells of Sainte Victrine chimed eleven and Evie sped up, cutting through corners of curving streets and back alleys to avoid passersby. She knew Véaléan the way one might know a lover—intimately, and especially in the dark.
She had until the quarter chime to make it to Bastian's, or she could kiss her chance in the ring goodbye. And that couldn't happen. Not tonight, of all nights.
Evie's heart pounded in time with her black boots. She'd competed in Bastian's ring more times than she could count, but this fight would be different. Tonight, she'd fight Aléjo Yérmà.
And she would make him sorry.
She groaned and slowed as she reached the border of the Fifth and Third Wards and came face-to-face with a group of sorcíes. They clustered in the gaslight of a tall black streetlamp, like flies.
"Dems will destroy you; we will protect you!"
"Trust in Queen Urxelle!"
"Beware the shadows! Guard yourselves against their whispers!"
Blague. The sorcíes wasted too much time and too much breath. Though she did wonder how much of the legends they truly believed, and how much of it was showmanship in an effort to get tourists to buy sorcístones—as if a 'blessed' stone could help ward off a creature of darkness.
Shoving through the sorcíes, Evie entered the infamous Black Market neighborhood, where Bastian's bar sat on the first corner.
"Closed," the bartender said as he wiped down the counter. He glanced up when Evie didn't leave and grunted in understanding.
Not bothering with the old grump, Evie marched to the back corner, where Tímo sat on a rickety stool beneath a lamp, his skin so dark he nearly blended into the shadows. The poor bastard manned his post weekly, always trying to gain Bastian's favor. What Tímo failed to realize, though, was that Bastian's favor didn't extend very far.
"You're late," he said, dragging his stool aside.
Evie shrugged. "I'm 'ere."
"So is Aléjo. Looking smug, too." He winked at her. "He doesn't know what's comin' for 'im."
Her heart roared inside her ribcage as she suppressed her smile—suppressed allemotion. Tonight still felt like a fantasy, like she'd wake up at any moment and curse the fact that Aléjo remain unscathed for all he'd put her through.
Evie stepped where Tímo had been sitting a moment ago and pressed her hand to the wood panel. It swung in, revealing a steep staircase down into the loud belly of the building. She took the stairs two at a time, her ears ringing with the calamity waiting below.
Officially, fight rings were illegal in Véaléan. But the law hardly applied to Bastian, who paid off city officials and kept the town under his thumb. It began as a dirt oval in the center, with only a half-wall separating the fighters from the crowd. A few years ago, he had a platform built so he and his crowd of high-rollers could entertain themselves without enduring the rabble.
Evie landed on the platform reserved for those Bastian deemed good enough for his company, and a woman in a navy dress gasped, holding a hand to her heart. Evie rolled her eyes and moved past her. She ignored the scowls and judging eyes that raked from her crow black hair down to her dirty, scuffed boots. Lamps flickered all around, casting long, menacing shadows, and making it difficult to spot her boss.
"Bastian," she called out.
Several heads turned, frowning in disapproval. Below, the main crowd booed as a fighter went down.
It was nearly time to start. She had to get to Bastian. Now.
Weaving through gowns and suitcoats, she spotted Bastian's tall, slender figure and short, brown curls. He laughed at something his blonde haired friend—Brennan Alis—had said. When Evie reached them, Brennan was the only one who acknowledged her.
Bastian tapped a nearby server on the shoulder and ordered another drink. Brennan dismissed himself, and finally, Bastian met Evie's grey eyes.
The red-clad server returned, their face hidden behind a mask. They handed off Bastian's drink without a word and scurried away again.
"Where's Aléjo?" Evie asked. She'd expected him to be up here, as well—a perk of being one of Bastian's henchmen.
Bastian ran a hand down the front of his grey suit. "I sent Aléjo to wait on the other side of the ring."
Instead of answering, he turned to the ring and clapped along with the other spectators.
Evie pushed stray hairs from her ponytail behind her ears. Bastian always made everything more difficult than it had to be. What was so important that he'd sent Aléjo away? She and Bastian rarely discussed her fights. Although he owned the ring and Evie, this was an unspoken agreement—the fights were hers.
Bastian leaned sideways, putting his mouth near her ear. "You need to lose the match."
A cheer erupted from the crowd, and the world tipped.
She swallowed, her mouth having gone dry, and choked out, "What?"
Bastian raised his glass to a couple passing by, flashing his white teeth as he smiled in earnest. His face was stone when he regarded Evie again.
"Word got around about you and Aléjo fighting tonight. Did you not notice the size of the crowd?"
In truth, she had. The ring was usually crowded, but bodies were lined up one after another tonight, and it was stifling hot.
Bastian continued, "The betting pool is loaded. They expect you to win, given your history with 'im and your…disposition."
Realization struck her dumb.
Bastian had bet against her. And in the end, they both knew she owed him too much to refuse him.
The crowd bellowed, the sound pushing in on her. She couldn't breathe.
Bastian stood so close now that she could smell his awful, musty perfume. "Give me this, Evie. I don't care how you feel about Aléjo. I don't care about your pride. I don't care about your reputation. I only care that you get the job done."
"No." She shook her head. "Bastian, I can't, I—"
Bastian gripped her bicep, sending a wild spike of rage through her. Evie yanked away, not caring how much she owed him. Right now, there was only room for hate.
His right hand shot out, his four fingers clamping onto her throat. People nearby watched and whispered, but no one dared intervene.
"You owe me, kitten." His bitter breath spiked chills across her skin. She clawed at his hand, but his fingers only tightened. "Don't forget who you work for."
He released her and she stumbled back, causing a server to spill on their red jacket.
A voice rang out above the clamor. "Aléjo Yérmà and Evie Dalcour."
Her legs wouldn't move. Regrets and memories of the last three years crashed down, threatening to drown her.
This was a nightmare. This wasn't how it was supposed to happen.
"It's time," Bastian said. "And don't worry." He put a hand on her back. "You wouldn't 'ave won anyway."
He shoved her toward the ring.