It was late, far later than usual, by the time that Miska left The First Blood to walk home that night. She was tired from all of her work, exhausted by the ups and downs of thinking that her mother might finally be getting ahead of the loan only to see that hope dashed, and she was sore from the extra training Uhurku had introduced to Haubert’s usual routines after she finished cleaning up. She walked with her head down, chin tucked into her neck to try and keep herself warm. She didn’t notice the sound of others moving on the street ahead of her until one of them spoke to her.
“Excuse me, young miss.” She looked up to see a man, just a bit taller than she was, gaunt and smiling. “You wouldn’t happen to have any coin to spare, would you?”
Miska shook her head, tucking her chin back down to keep walking in the chilly air of a late spring night. The man ahead of her skipped backwards just enough to hold his position.
“I said, miss, do you have some coin?” He held out one hand, open in supplication. Miska’s eyes followed the other one where it had dropped inside the folds of his coat. It was in the right place to draw a knife, if he had one on his belt. She let her eyes lose focus for a moment, concentrating on what she could hear. It sounded like there were two more people closing in with her from behind.
There was something odd about this. She’d never been bothered on the brief stretch between The First Blood and home before, even walking alone at night. And she thought more people had heard about her winning fights these days. Would someone really try to mug her?
Miska stopped, watching the gaunt man stop after another half step. He was still smiling, hand still open to her. His other hand was still hidden by his coat. She could hear the scuffs of two other sets of feet on the cobbles behind her come to a halt.
Miska stood up straight, breathing in and out. She was still shorter than the man ahead of her. “Let me understand. You want me,” she pulled her hands from her pockets and pointed one at her chest, “to give you money.” She pointed at the man in front of her.
He nodded. “That’s about the shape of it, miss.” He cocked his head, still smiling. “Do you think you could see your way to doing that for me?”
Miska’s lips tightened. She forced herself to relax. “No. I don’t think so.”
The man ahead of her didn’t stop smiling as his hidden hand came out with a blade. “Are you sure about that, young miss—“
But Miska was already moving.
She stepped back and to her left. She whipped herself around and brought her right hand swinging up. It slammed into the face of the surprised woman who’d been standing behind her on that side. The man with the knife cursed and stepped forward. His other companion turned to face Miska and raised a truncheon.
Miska didn’t give them time. She stepped up to the man with the truncheon, hands on his elbow and wrist. As he began to bring the truncheon down, she stepped around him and whirled him into the knifeman’s path. They went down in a jumble of limbs and colorful oaths.
Miska was facing the stunned woman again. She stepped up and planted a kick in the woman’s stomach, thrusting hard. The woman staggered back across the street, tripping on a cobble and falling hard.
The two men on the ground were starting to get up. Miska strode over to them and kicked the man with the knife once in the head. The man with the truncheon dropped it and raised his hands, wide-eyed.
“Live and let live, right miss?” His voice trembled with fear.
Miska stood over him for a moment, breathing hard. She could feel her heart thumping in her chest. She stepped back, looking around her. They’d attacked her, or were going to attack her to take her money, so why did she feel so much different after beating them than she had after her other fights?
“Why me?” She stood where she could see all three of them. She was starting to shiver. She knew that people were mugged around here sometimes, but somehow it seemed like she’d always been safe. Whether that was because people knew how strong she was, or because she was a stevedore like her father, or for some other reason she didn’t know; she certainly hadn’t expected someone to attack her after she started winning prizefights.
She focused on the man who had held the truncheon. “Why me? Why try your luck on me?”
He shook his head, mouth open.
“Have you even been paying attention?” Miska thumped her fingers on her chest. “I’ve been winning prizefights. I’ve lived here my whole life, working as a stevedore, and no one ever bothered me. Why me?” She could feel anger bubbling up in her chest. This place was supposed to be safe for her! Why had they attacked her, why had they made her hurt them like that?
“I just do as I’m told, miss.” The man still had his hands held in the air. The woman was starting to moan and shift on the ground. The man she’d kicked in the head wasn’t moving.
“Do as you’re told?” Miska shook her head. “What does that even mean? Who tells you to mug someone if you don’t choose it yourself?”
“We got a little money, and we were told we could keep anything we took too. Gary found the job.” He glanced down at the man who had held the knife. Something about him looked wrong.
Miska could feel a rising surge of panic and nausea. She gulped down air, trying to do her breathing exercises. The taste of bile tinged the back of her throat. “Get him.” She wavered, her hand shaking a little as she pointed it at the man she’d kicked in the head. “Take him somewhere. To help.”
Still shivering, she thrust her hands into her coat and turned away, walking down the cobbles towards home.