Tess shoots a questioning look at me. I hesitate for a split second, then hold up one finger again. I’m grateful to this mystery girl for helping Tess out, but with my money on the line, I decide to play it safe. Tess nods, then casts our bet in favor of Kaede.
But the instant the new girl steps into the circle and I see her stance . . . I know I’ve made a big mistake. Kaede strikes like a bull, a battering ram.
This girl strikes like a viper.
I’M NOT WORRIED ABOUT LOSING THIS FIGHT.
I’m more worried that I’ll accidentally kill my opponent.
If I run right now, though, I’m a dead girl.
I silently scold myself—what a game to involve myself in. When I first saw this crowd of gamblers, I’d wanted to leave it alone. I’d wanted nothing to do with brawls. Not a good place to get caught by street police and taken downtown for questioning. But then I’d thought that maybe I could pick up some valuable information from a group like this—so many locals, some who might even know Day personally. Surely Day isn’t a complete stranger to everyone in Lake, and if anyone knows who he is, it’s the crowd that watches illegal Skiz fights.
But I should not have said anything about the skinny girl they shoved into the ring. I should have let her fend for herself.
It’s too late now.
The girl named Kaede tilts her head at me and grins as we face each other in the ring. I take a deep breath. Already she has started to circle me, stalking me like prey. I study her stance. She steps forward with her right foot. She’s left-handed. Usually this would work to her advantage and throw off her opponents, but I’ve trained for this. I shift the way I walk. My ears are drowning in the noise.
I let her strike first. She bares her teeth at me and lunges forward at full speed, her fist raised. But I can see her preparing to kick. I sidestep. Her kick whooshes past me. I use her momentum against her and strike her hard when her back’s turned. She loses her balance and nearly falls. The crowd cheers.
Kaede whirls around to face me again. This time her smile is gone—I’ve succeeded in angering her. She lunges at me again. I block her first two punches, but her third punch catches me across the jaw and makes my head spin.
Every muscle in my body wants to end this now. But I force my temper down. If I fight too well, people might get suspicious. My style is too precise for a simple street beggar.
I let Kaede hit me one last time. The crowd roars. She starts smiling again, her confidence returning. I wait until she’s ready to charge. Then I dart forward, duck down, and trip her. She doesn’t see it coming—she falls heavily on her back. The crowd screams in approval.
Kaede forces herself onto her feet, even though most Skiz fights would’ve called her fall the end of the round. She wipes a bit of blood from her mouth. Before she can even catch her breath properly, she lets out an angry shout and lunges for me again. I should’ve seen the tiny flash of light near her wrist. Kaede’s fist punches hard into my side, and I feel a terrible, sharp pain. I shove her away. She winks at me and starts circling again. I hold my side—and that’s when I feel something warm and wet at my waist. I look down.
A stab wound. Only a serrated knife could have torn my skin that way. I narrow my eyes at Kaede. Weapons are not supposed to be part of a Skiz fight . . . but this is hardly a fight where the crowd follows all the rules.
The pain makes me light-headed and angry. No rules? So be it.
When Kaede comes at me again, I dart away and twist her arm in a tight hold. In one move, I shatter it. She screams in pain. When she tries to pull away, I continue to hold on, twisting the broken arm behind her back until I see the blood drain from her face. A knife slips out from the bottom of her tank top and clatters to the ground. (A serrated knife, just as I thought. Kaede is not a normal street beggar. She has the skills to get her hands on a nice weapon like that—which means she might be in the same line of business as Day. If I weren’t undercover, I’d arrest her right now and take her in for questioning.) My wound burns, but I grit my teeth and maintain my grip on her arm.
Finally Kaede taps me frantically with her other hand. I release her. She collapses to the ground on her knees and her good arm. The crowd goes nuts. I clutch my bleeding side as tightly as I can, and when I look around, I see money exchanging hands. Two people help Kaede out of the ring (she shoots me a look of hatred before she turns away), and the rest of the onlookers start up their chant.
“Choose! Choose! Choose!”
Maybe it’s the dizzying pain from my wound that makes me reckless. I can’t contain my anger anymore. I turn without a word, roll my shirtsleeves back up to my elbows, and flip my collar up. Then I step out of the ring and start shoving my way out of the circle.
The crowd’s chant changes. I hear the boos start. I’m tempted to click my microphone on and tell Thomas to send soldiers, but I keep silent. I’d promised myself not to call for backup unless I had no choice, and I’m certainly not going to ruin my cover over a street brawl.
When I’ve managed to walk outside the building, I risk a look behind me. Half a dozen of the onlookers are following me, and most of them look enraged. They’re the gamblers, I think, the ones who care the most. I ignore them and continue to walk.
“Get back here!” one of them yells. “You can’t just leave like that!”
I break into a run. Curse this knife wound. I reach a large trash bin and swing myself up onto it, then get ready to jump to a second-floor windowsill. If I can climb high enough, they won’t be able to catch me. I leap as far as I can and manage to grab the edge of the windowsill with one hand.