It’s a shame what we’re about to do to this tavern. Admittedly, it’s already a bit of a shithole, but it’s our shithole. Mine and Ana’s. The proprietor, Santiago, always keeps barrels of his best booze aside for us and makes sure to save the very best gossip for our ears only. But alas, some confrontations simply cannot be avoided.
The tip of the knife digs into my skin as the man holding the blade sneers at me. He’s standing and I’m sitting, which would theoretically put him at an advantage, but if I had to put money on someone, it wouldn’t be him. He’s an ugly bastard with the personality to match. A ragged scar runs from his hairline to his chin, and he’s missing several teeth. I’d wager most of them were victims of bar fights.
Much like the one about to break out now.
I tilt my head back to look the man in the eye.
Never take your eyes off your opponent. That is the first rule of swordplay.
We aren’t playing, and this isn’t a game, but the rules still apply.
* * *
I don’t need to look down at the cards in my hand. I memorized them as soon as they were dealt. It is an excellent hand. A shame, really, that I’ll have to hasten this fool’s shuffle off this mortal coil before I get to play it.
I set my cards down on the table as the corners of my lips tick upward. It isn’t a pleasant smile. It isn’t meant to be. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“Why not?” The man’s words are slightly slurred, but he isn’t swaying on his feet, and the hand holding the knife is steady. So he isn’t fully drunk, not yet. Just drunk enough to feel brave.
And that will be his undoing.
I may or may not be entirely sober myself, but that is beside the point. I know my limits. I don’t think this pendejo does.
“Because these are my favorite boots.” I reach for my cup. It’s a solid wooden thing, mostly full of a passable vintage. “I would hate to get your blood on them.”
From the corner of my eye, I spy movement in the tavern. The man’s friends, no doubt, slinking about to flank us.
The urge to glance at them is so strong it’s almost like an itch. But I refuse to give in to it. I trust the woman sitting to my right to watch my back so I don’t have to.
Ana throws her cards down with a disgusted snort. “I fold.”
Without breaking eye contact with the knife-wielding simpleton before me, I ask, “So soon? But we’ve barely even begun.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Kiki. I can think of better ways to pass the time.”
Something warm and dangerous blossoms in my gut. I love it when Ana calls me Kiki. I love the way the hard consonants sound bouncing around on her tongue.
Only a select few people in the entire Viceroyalty of Peru are allowed to call me Kiki. Ana is one. The other is my older brother, who began to do so when my full name, Eustaquia, proved too much of a mouthful for a three-year-old. My father thought it was cute, so he started using it as well. The usage of that name is a sacred privilege, bestowed only upon the worthy.
Ana leans backs in her chair. I can’t see her hand moving, but I can feel the rustle of fabric beside me. The man’s eyes dart toward her.
I don’t need to see her to know exactly what she looks like in that moment. Her hair a wild tangle of auburn waves. Her skin kissed by the sun and dotted with the most charming freckles I’ve ever come across. Her honey-brown eyes gleaming with the promise of a little good old-fashioned bloodshed.
“Don’t move,” he barks at her.
“Sorry.” Her voice is sweet but not the least bit sorry. “I don’t take orders from gutter scum who entertain themselves by robbing defenseless women. Though I suppose they put up the only fight you stand of winning.”
Rage flits across his face. He pulls the knife away from my throat to brandish it at her.
He realizes the error of his ways as soon as he does it, but that split second of distraction is all the time I need.
I lob my cup at his head, angling it so the wine splashes him right in the eyes.
And just like that, the fight is on.
Ana kicks the table hard. The man is just the right height to take the sharp corner to the crotch. He collapses, howling in agony, as the knife drops from his suddenly nerveless fingers.
His friends attempt to stumble into action, but it’s soon clear they are woefully unmatched. One catches my elbow to his nose. The cartilage gives a satisfying crack under the force of the blow. Another gets well acquainted with the heavy sole of my riding boot when I slam it into his groin. I grab the back of my chair and swing it into his face when he tries to get up. The wood smashes against his skull; my arms tremble with the impact.
With them down, I have the slimmest moment to admire the girl beside me. Ana whirls as she slips two daggers from the sheaths strapped to her forearms. The sleeves of the masculine frock coat she’s wearing—a deep emerald that complements her coloring—are perfect for hiding them but wide enough to make it easy to pull them when needed.
We both have swords, but knives are often far better suited to close-quarters combat like this. It’s a smart move on her part. Sometimes though … I prefer the flash of a sword to anything else, even if it’s not the most utilitarian choice. I draw the saber at my hip, baring my teeth in a snarling smile.
One of the man’s friends skids to a halt, his eyes darting from the gleaming steel to me and back again.
“Having second thoughts?” I ask. “Can’t say I blame you.”
The taunt makes something snap inside him. You’d be surprised how many men can’t handle a pretty young woman making fun of them.
With a pathetic excuse for a battle cry, he all but drives himself into the tip of my saber. I pull back so the blade doesn’t get lodged in his ribs. It takes only one time to learn how costly a mistake that can be.
I have the scars across my own back to show for it.
He melts to the ground as his legs go out from under him, the shock of the pain and blood loss rendering him completely useless.
Behind me, a faint whoosh of air disturbs the hair at the back of my neck. I duck, just in time to see a clay wine jug smash against the wall behind me.
“Oh, come now,” Ana calls over the fray. “That’s no way to treat perfectly good wine!”
Her shouting distracts this new foe long enough for me to sweep his legs out from under him with a well-timed kick. My foot snaps out as he tumbles to the ground to smash his kneecap as hard as I can.
That should keep him down for a good long while.
I glance up just in time to see Ana clock one of the last men standing with her elbow. He falls back onto the hearth, nearly setting himself on fire.
How any of these witless men survived into adulthood in a city as notoriously unkind as Potosí, I haven’t the foggiest.
In the time it’s taken for Ana and me to dispatch his friends, the first man, the one with the sneer and the missing teeth, has pulled himself up with the help of a nearby table.
He looks worse for wear, though I hardly touched him.
“Back for more?” I twirl my sword, flicking the blood off the tip onto the ground.
The man spits roughly in the direction of my feet. His spittle lands a safe distance away, as he seems too afraid to get any closer. “You’ll regret this.”
I smile sweetly at him. “Doubtful.”
He mutters a curse I don’t quite catch, but then he stumbles out of the tavern, dragging one leg behind him in a noticeable limp.
A resigned sigh escapes me as I survey the damage. The patrons with sense fled at the first sign of trouble—one doesn’t survive in Potosí for long without learning to sniff it out—but there are a few stragglers left huddling against the walls. One absolute legend of a drunk hasn’t budged from his perch at the bar. He’s still nursing the same cup of fermented chicha he was when the fight began.
Copyright © 2022 by Melissa Grey