Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language and violence.
There were a variety of reasons why Rieka could’ve been pissed off. Maybe it was the lone soggy apple sitting in her otherwise empty stomach. Maybe it was the split lip and black eye she had received the night before, throbbing like hell. While all those reasons were valid, she knew the real reason was the damned heat.
Even along the docks where the briny breezes were usually cooling, the late summer day had to be the hottest of the year. Sweat poured down Rieka’s back, clinging to her threadbare tunic and plastering the escaped hairs from her braid to her forehead. Cursing the sun, she fanned herself with a hand and tipped back her skein of watery wine, the lukewarm liquid providing no reprieve.
A wealthy couple strolling along the seaside walkway shot her a suspicious glance. Rieka flipped them a vulgar gesture, setting the woman fretting and fanning herself scandalously. Rieka chuckled darkly under her breath.
“Get out of here, vagrant!” the woman’s lover shouted, waving a hand as though shooing a bird.
“Oh, fuck off,” she shouted back, guzzling another gulp of wine. It was disgusting, but it was better than drinking any water she could find in the slums. At least the wine didn’t get her sick.
The couple began marching off—no doubt to alert the authorities of the low-life lurking at the docks. With a sigh, Rieka pushed herself to her feet and stretched her sore arms over her head. Her muscles ached from fighting the night before, but it was the kind of ache she reveled in. Pushing back a few loose strands of her hair and wiping the sweat from her face, she marched off into the city to hunt down another meal.
She jangled the few coins she had won from fights in her palm. The vendors lining the street called out sales, attempting to sell their wares. She needed something substantial—something that might ease the anger beginning to irrationally bubble in her chest. But when she passed a vendor selling flavored ice, she stopped.
“One copper for a cone,” the vendor announced, his brows lowering as Rieka neared. She pulled out the small coin and dropped it into his palm. The man shot her a look before scooping out crushed ice and smothering it in juice and berries.
She nodded once in thanks before devouring it. And… stars, she blessed the man who invented crushed ice. This was what she needed.
As she swallowed the remainder of her dessert, the ice melting and cooling the boiling blood in her veins, she watched the midday traffic. With the heat sitting between buildings, the stench of the city was amplified to the point of unbearable. While Rieka had grown used to the reek of sewer mingled with fresh food sold by vendors—hell, she blended with the odor—on days like this, she couldn’t help but miss the clear scent of home. Stupid, nostalgic thoughts, she reminded herself.
The day she arrived in Reindale, the capital of Arlan, the stench had nearly knocked her on her ass. It was so different then the cool, crisp air of her village. Now, she stank as much as the gutters of the slums. She glanced down at her clothes. The worn, yellowed tunic tucked into baggy trousers—a tear at the knee—and her scuffed leather boots. It was no wonder those pricks had called her a vagrant.
Rieka finished off her ice and tossed the wrapper into the corner of a littered alley. Bright, hollow eyes peered back from the shadows, and she scurried along, not wanting to get in a conversation with the real vagrants.
The further she crept into the slums, the more suffocating the stench grew. Dirty hands reached from the sides of the street, begging for spare coin. Thin children darted along the road, chasing a worn ball. Cheap prostitutes slunk in the shadows, their dresses hung low on their chests and makeup smeared on their gaunt faces.
Rieka marched past them, headed for the abandoned, brick building at the end of the street. It would be more or less empty now until the sun began to sink, but she had nowhere else to go until then.
When she got to the wide, metal door on the side of the building, she pounded on it four synchronized times. She waited. Thirty seconds. A minute. Finally, a lock clicked on the other side and the door swung open to reveal a long, dark staircase.
Sharp eyes peered from within the shadows and they narrowed. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Your enthusiasm to see me is astounding,” Rieka mocked, shoving past him and down the steep staircase.
“The fights won’t start until sunset,” the man called to her back.
“I know. I just came to do some stretches. Warm up a little.”
“Boss won’t be happy with you loitering around.”
“You tell me to relax, but it’s my ass on the line.”
“I get your boss more money then half the goons who frequent this shithole. He’ll be fine.”
She could feel Emil roll his eyes at her back as he sighed, but she ignored it, hopping the last step and shoving open the metal door at the bottom. It opened up to a large room with a sand pit lined with chalk in the center. Platformed steps surrounded it so the audience could better watch. In the corners were long counters for the bar with an impressive stock of alcohol behind. Off to a secluded side were curtained private rooms for those who decided the company of a whore would be more pleasurable than watching the fights.
Rieka had once been in the infamous Lounge—an ironic name for such a violent place—before opening hours, but the cleanliness still surprised her. Typically, the concrete floors were littered with blood, sweat, and spilled liquor. The air often stank of perfume and body odor, but now it only smelled of soap.
“Looks like your boss isn’t around,” she told Emil. “No need to get your panties in a bunch.”
Emil scowled at her, crossing his tree trunk-like arms over his chest. Fortunately for her, he wasn’t a fighter in the pits. Rieka doubted even she could beat him. But if she got on his bad side, she knew he wouldn’t hesitate to toss her from the Lounge like a sack of flour.
Nearing the sand pits, she kicked off her leather boots and tore off her socks, tucking them inside. Once the smooth sand met her toes, she bounced on the balls of her feet, stretching out her limbs. She took a few quick jabs at nothing in particular. The rage simmering beneath her skin eased with each strike.
Still bouncing, she glanced over at Emil who watched, arms crossed and dark brows low. “Wanna spar?” she asked, grinning.
He cocked a brow. “Do you wish to add to your injuries?” His eyes darted over her split lip and black eye.
Rieka shrugged. “You’d have to be fast enough to hit me.” He would be though, she knew.
Emil cracked his broad neck before shaking his head. “Spar with your imaginary partner.”
“You’re no fun,” she pouted. Turning away from him, she did a couple rolls, dodging imaginary punches, before swinging back up on her feet and striking. After several minutes of fighting nothing, the sweat on her back began anew and she grew sick of not feeling her fists connect with flesh.
She fell still, letting her arms drop to her sides. Jumping from the sand pit, she padded over to the bar and peered at the wide array of liquor. It was early enough that if she took one, she would be sober by the time the Lounge opened…
“You drink, you pay,” a cool voice echoed through the chamber. Rieka swung around to find a tall, lean man, impeccably dressed, striding towards her. Emil stiffened in the shadows and glided closer to his boss.
“Would this suffice?” Rieka drawled, pulling a worn copper from her pocket. She slumped on a worn stool beside the counter and leaned her elbow against the bar’s surface.
The man stopped a few feet from her and slowly dragged his eyes from her face to the copper, then back to her face. “That would buy you a glass of water and nothing more.”
“Shame.” She tucked the copper back into her pocket and surveyed the boss. She had met him before—the day she had showed up on his doorstep, barely knowing a word of Arlanian and drunk on rage and bloodlust. He had mocked her, then, for her inexperience and wild recklessness, but had allowed her on as a fighter the minute she stabbed his letter opener into his desk, a mere centimeter from his hand. Since then, he had been scarce whenever she was in the pits and gaining him money. It seemed he rarely frequented his profitable Lounge at all.
“Might I ask what you are doing here so early?” the man said, tucking his smooth, unscarred hands into the pockets of his pressed trousers.
“It’s hot as hell outside. I wanted to get out of the damned sun.”
“This isn’t an inn made for your comfort.”
Rieka waved a hand at her pale face. “Do you see this skin? It’ll burn if I stay outside any longer. Then what will your investors think when your best fighter walks into the pits, bright as a tomato. It’s not very intimidating.”
The man raised a well-manicured brow. “Who says you’re my best fighter?”
“The money in your pockets.”
The boss silently appraised her before huffing out a chuckle that could’ve been a sigh. He looked over her clothes briefly then wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Have Emil show you to the bathing rooms. I’ll provide you with a new set of clothes as well.”
Rieka furrowed her brows. “I’m your fighter, not your whore.”
He turned around and started stalking off to the door he had entered through. “Yes,” he said over his shoulder. “But a pretty fighter will get me more money than an ugly one.”
She bristled at his comment, about to retort, but he already was gone.
Emil marched towards her and nodded a head for her to follow. She was half tempted to ignore him and stay in the condition she was, but… A free bath and new clothes… She couldn’t pass it up.
After she bathed, the tub nicer than any she had used in months, she was given fresh clothes to change into. Though they weren’t luxurious in any way, they weren’t covered in tears and therefore fine by her. With her hair combed and braided back, she felt better than she had in weeks. Satisfied with her cleanliness, she strutted back into the main room of the lounge and grinned at a few of the regular customers who were beginning to file in. A few courtesans wove between them, dressed in loose gowns and painted faces. A man was positioned behind the bar, wiping down glasses.
Rieka tugged at the new tunic, adjusting her trousers, before pushing towards the front of the forming crowd surrounding the pit. Two young and inexperienced fighters were brawling inside, the fight lame enough that the growing crowd hadn’t even bothered cheering. When the obvious winner knocked the skinnier boy out of the chalked ring, money was passed among the viewers and the announcer stepped forward and called for another fighter.
As the night wore on, she watched the fighters cycle through, waiting for the right moment to step in. She knew better than to waste her energy fighting the novices that always appeared in the early night. She also knew better than to pick a fight with someone who would tire her too quickly to allow for multiple wins.
When the crowd’s roar was shaking the walls and a monstrous man won his fifth fight, Rieka pranced onto the sand, leaving her boots beside the announcer. The crowd hushed, whispering with doubts and jests in her direction. Only a few of the regulars that recognized her immediately placed money in her name.
Rieka flipped her long, blonde braid over her shoulder and bounced on the balls of her feet, grinning at her opponent. The man scowled, his harsh features splattered in blood—both his opponents’ and his own. Rieka wiggled her fingers at him in a wave.
A small bell rang and they began circling each other.
For five fights she had watched him. She now had the advantage in every way but size. She was faster, more energized, and knew his weak spots.
The man lunged at her, relying wholly on brute strength. Rieka easily sidestepped and sent a sharp jab at his bare ribcage. He scowled and swung towards her, but she had already darted away. When he swiped at her again—a killer blow straight for her skull—Rieka ducked and brought her fist up to his chin. He was knocked back several inches, but not enough to send him out of the pit.
And on it went—Rieka dodging his attempts to hit her and pounding him with quick strikes. Two minutes in and she hadn’t been hit once.
The crowd screamed with rage, pleasure, and excitement when the man sent a fist flying so close to her ear she heard the wind rush past. With his fists down from his attempt at the offensive, Rieka took her chance and lashed out. Her arm hooked and hit him square in the temple.
The man—almost a foot taller and wider than her—crumpled into the sand.
The crowd roared in delight. The few men that had bet on her grinned as mounds of coins were passed to them. Rieka lifted her hands, her knuckles bloodied, and smiled wickedly.
She nudged her opponent with her toe and he groaned from the ground, his eyes blinking open to glare at her. “Maybe next time, buddy,” she said. He scowled as the announcer ushered him from the pit and called for another to enter.
Three more fights she won, only gaining a few bruises on her ribs and busting open her scabbed split lip. By the end of her fourth fight, her clothes didn’t look any differently than the ones she had been wearing earlier—the white tunic dusted and splattered with blood, the trousers torn just above her right knee where a man had tried to swipe at her legs. She supposed, though, the boss’s technique at cleaning her up had worked for the first fight as many men had lost their money. But now they knew not to underestimate her again. Not when she won every fight after.
Panting and sweaty, she waited for her next opponent, knowing it very well might be her last. When a large, beefy man stepped into the pit, she cracked her neck, ready to swiftly lose. She could then spend the rest of the night spending her gold on booze and a comfortable bed to sleep off the alcohol.
“Come at me, Styrkish whore,” the man growled.
Rieka’s temper flared. She stopped her circling and glared at the man. She was sick of stupid, insignificant men insulting her heritage. They wouldn’t be laughing if they knew just how powerful her northern home was. Just how easily they could crush Arlan under their foot. “Why don’t you step closer and I will show you just what a Styrkish woman can do,” she spat, her voice thick with rage.
When the man lunged, Rieka unleashed herself. The fight lasted all of thirty seconds before he was groaning in the sand, his arm dislocated and his nose broken. She leaned close and whispered in his ear, “Next time you want to pick a fight, choose one you can win.” Before he could attempt one last lunge at her, she spun on her heel and marched out of the pit and straight to the bid collector. His eyes were wide when she stuck out her hand for the pouch of money meant for her. He set it in her palm and she stopped to grab her boots before stalking through the crowd and out the door leading to the long staircase.
When she broke into the dark, empty streets, she sighed as the cool night air caressed her sweat slicked skin. Without waiting to fully cool down, she knelt to tie on her boots. She knew she would get hell the next day for leaving the fights before she lost, but if she stayed any longer, she might just kill someone.
Sighing once more, she straightened and stretched her sore limbs, poking at her tender lip. Her finger came away bloody.
She started striding down the street, anxious to find a comfortable inn that sold hot stew and good ale, when a posse of royal guards stepped in front of her path. Rieka stiffened, her hand reaching for her back where her axe usually lay. When it came away empty, her arms dropped awkwardly to her sides.
“Are you Rieka Velsky?” one of the guards demanded. Shit. The fights weren’t exactly legal, but if she had been discovered for working for the Lounge, she doubted she would get arrested for it. Not when the boss of the Lounge held so much power and influence. If anything, the boss would kill her before she compromised his business.
So, what was this about?
“Yes,” she answered carefully, ready to bolt if need be.
“We need you to come with us,” the guard said. As they closed in around her, she doubted they would take no for an answer.