If she was to put words in the mouths of her elders, she was certain that they would define this place as ‘one of the most foul dives of filth in the city’. This was not even ‘her’ city, but ‘THAT’ city: Mestra.
It was different here, a bit louder, a bit more brusque, and much more crowded and cramped. She was twelve, but she knew she had been ripped off on the boat fare to cross to the west bank. She knew this journey would probably get her into far more trouble than a very empty coin purse.
She gritted her teeth and raised her chin as she walked in. This tavern smelled, like old alcohol, spilled blood, sweat and shipping crates. Her shoes stuck to the floor with each step, and her steps skirted around a dark red puddle not quite hidden by a pile of sawdust. As she approached the bar, the ledge so high her chin just cleared it, she coughed slightly to grab the attention of the bartender.
“I’d like to speak to the owner of this establishment, please.”
Five people in the bar; four sets of eyes turned to her, none of which on a sunny day she would call friendly. She looked at each in turn, with eyes that lingered on the one set that still was pouring over a set of papers in the furthest alcove from the door.
“We don’t serve children, Little Dona. And we don’t do the kind of business in this place that you’re after.” The bartender had to lean across the bar in order to see her properly.
“But I’ve not yet had chance to explain my purpose, Sir. Surely you would indulge me?” There was sniggering behind her that seriously threatened to shake her resolve in coming.
“Alright little cat, I’ll let you sharpen your claws. What business do you have with the owner?”
“I understand your establishment was graced by some disturbances the night passed. On behalf of my brother I would like to pay for the damages sustained.”
“On behalf of your brother.” The bartender chuckled under his breath. “There are many fights, and I’m to know your brother from all the others how?”
“He’s the tall Fox from Regario.”
There was a palpable pause in the room, which was quiet enough to begin with.
“The ‘Tall Fox.’” Two men from the other side of the room stood up from the shipping crate table they were leaning against, their footsteps a light rustle against the reeds and dirt of the floor. She didn’t need to turn her head to look to know they now stood behind her.
“Then you know the one I speak of.” She forced a smile, rubbing her sweaty palms against the folds of her dress in what she hoped was a concealed action. “I have come to settle his debts.”
“I’ve got some ideas for how to clear the air.” A rough hand yanked at her arm to spin her around, and her eyes caught focus of the badly mangled face of a changeling bravo behind her. “Eye for an eye, bruise for a bruise.” She saw the fist coming at her face and she flinched, closed her eyes, expecting this to hurt far more than mere sibling fisticuffs.
“Diego.” The sharp retort cut through the air like a knife; a split second later she felt a fist touch her face but with far less force than a true punch. The second bravo with the prettier face had grabbed and restrained the punch, not quite in time to stop her cheek from throbbing though. Holding her face, her eyes looked from the men to the large man sat in the corner. “That’s enough. Go find a brothel if you want to touch a woman. This one’s got a few years to go before she counts for one.”
She watched the exchange with wide eyes, and when the hand that had grabbed her dress let her go her knees nearly buckled under her.
“But, Boss Felipe,” she looked at Diego as he protested, from the crushed bridge of his nose and blood matted into the changeling’s mane, to the cuts and bruises that marred his rough tanned skin. She had expected him to be a bravo; he seemed more thug, a common dockworker with pretences of grandeur.
“No. If this little Captain wants to pay the debts of her bravo brother, we let her. Turn around.” She looked at the Boss, backing away from Diego nervously. He hesitated, looked as if he wanted to defy him, then turned. He stared at the doorway, confused, while 7 pairs of childlike eyes watched the exchange with nervous, frightened eyes.
“Boss Felipe, the Little Mother’s orphans are merely here, that I might teach them the rules of the city when it comes to Bravo’s and their squabbles. I surely would not like them to leave with the knowledge that one man’s braggadocio would lead to the rules being broken.” Her chin again raised defiantly, the last of her courage rising in the face of the brawler’s sputtering.
The boss eyed her a moment longer, before he smirked and nodded. “Nor I. Come, and sit, and we’ll settle accounts.”
With the assault committed against her, she managed to talk the Boss down from thrice the damages’ amount, to merely double. And the Church of the Little Mother received a rather large donation that day. A few children with free time were cheaper to hire than bodyguards.