I spent every day of my first decadi in Savaurac staring at the likeness of a girl on a notice for corsets. I figured she was long dead of the clap, or maybe she only ever lived in some garret artist’s absinthe-blind eye, but she was a very pretty girl: deep bosom, low waist, and the sable hair shared by most of her people.
“Your figure will assume beautiful outlines.” That was written below her picture, along with the name of the corset-maker. The paper was pasted on the wall beside my Da’s special table, where he sat to score the matches. I sat there to labor over our application for residence, listening to the thump of fists on the training bags and running my fingertips over my knuckles, where the fight calluses were already softening.
The fight club used old notices for wallpaper because it was a poor sort of place, same as why they strewed the floor with sawdust and the shells of nuts, and most of the tables had one leg shorter than the others. The owner, though, Mr. Karinen, had promised work for Da if we came to Savaurac, and so we had.
The day I finished our immigration paperwork, Benno Karinen, the owner’s son, was going around the walls with a whalebone scraper, taking down the stained notices and pasting up fresher ones. When he got to where I sat, he went by me like I wasn’t anything, and set his paste bucket right on my table and his scraper to the top of the notice for corsets.
“Leave that one,” I said.
Benno looked down all haughty and went right back to scraping.
“I said leave it!”
His whalebone tore right through the ribboned curls on the girl’s head.
I stood up then. Benno was just above my height and three stone heavier. I hit out straight for his nose.
Two decadis at least since I’d been in the ring last, what with packing up our things in Kervostad and getting set up here in Savaurac, and my fist had been getting thirsty for a face.
I pulled Benno’s cork for him, blood raining down into the paste-bucket. I laughed out once before I could stop myself. Benno did, too, like he couldn’t believe it.
“Da!” he said. “Da, come and see the straight on our Valma.” It came out a bit thick. He spat into the bucket and grinned at me with blood outlining his teeth. “Da, you didn’t tell me she was a fighter.”
“Didn’t know it,” Mr. Karinen said, tossing his towel down and coming out from behind the bar. He eyed me from under a tangled ginger brow. “Well, little lady? How much do you weigh?”
“I’m a welterweight, sir.”
“Strapping girl, you have here, Igo,” he said to my Da. I tried to take my arm back, but he was still waving it. “How about it, Valma? Would you like to fight?”
He held up an open palm for me to punch. I smacked my fist into it hard enough to make him wring his hand after.
“Spirit, Igo,” he said, “she’s got your spirit. Let’s put her to spar with the lads tomorrow, see what she can do.”
“Which I thought girls weren’t allowed in the ring here, sir,” I said. That much, Da had told me before we left, though I thought he only meant I would stop fighting before audiences, not that I would go without sparring or even bag-work.
“By law, no,” Mr. Karinen said. “But there’s ways. For a girl raised by Igo Topponen, there’s ways.”
My Da had taken the Kervostad Heavyweight Belt twice, when he was young. I could just barely remember: my Da with a lean-carved belly, sweat shining on him like oil under the galvanic lights of the ring. Someone holding his arm up high. Everyone shouting.
He wasn’t a fighter now. He was an old man with both ears cauliflowered and his hair razored close to his scarred scalp. He had given me his salt-rotted wraps and gloves and sent me up between the ropes while he watched from outside.
He came past Mr. Karinen and took my other arm and raised it, proud as if I was a winner already, and with his mouth smiling wide I could see the two teeth he broke on Selmo Voroven’s fist the year I was born.
I felt the muscles in my arms knotting up with eagerness. I was his daughter, no doubt of it. Maybe I’d end up with teeth to match his after all.
“How’d you like a match next decadi?” said Mr. Karinen. I’d been sparring with his lads since Plum-day, my knuckles scuffing open and seeping into my wraps. My Da poured vinegar over them until they finally healed over into dark pink scars.
“Yes, sir!” I said. “Which I’ll do you and Da proud.”
“No doubt of it, Valma, no doubt of it. There’s one thing, though, you see. The Provosts, they won’t allow lasses in the ring. There’s lasses among the Provosts, not that you can tell them for such without a hair on their heads. Why they can do magic but not fight, I don’t know, but it’s the Provosts’ law to make and ours to live under. But I know just the fellow who will help.”
Hanno Jalmarinen, charm-master, lived behind a copper-worked door at the end of a long alley. He measured me up and down with his little pale eyes and then made me stand still for a half-hour while he did mysteries about me, and then he went to his workbench and muttered over a bit of metal for a moment. Two hundred soldats, it cost Mr. Karinen, and I thought it a vast sum indeed, but when I put on the charm Mr. Karinen said it was excellent work.
The charm was a fine copper ring to go about my littlest finger, flat enough that it would not be felt beneath my wraps, let alone my gloves. “Mind you never take it off,” Mr. Karinen said. “And keep it secret. The Provosts have laws on everything.”
I did not feel any different with it on, but when I took it home and showed Benno, he stared and stared.
“Shut your mouth, you downy idiot,” I told him. Only my voice came out a bit lower, and cracked halfway.
Benno didn’t shut his mouth.
I looked in the mirror we used for shadowboxing. “I look the same,” I said, disappointed. Maybe my face was a bit more square, my neck thicker. I stood sideways and craned at myself.
“No, you don’t,” Benno said.
“What’s so changed, then?”
But he only shook his head and punched me in the shoulder and told me to get my wraps.
My first match fell on Madder-day, in a basement club on the poorest street in the Quarter. I fought Luko Vannen, who weighed four pounds less than me and had both eyes blacked from a previous fight. I blacked one of them for him all over again and laid him out at the end of the third round. My own eyebrow was cut and blood spattered the front of my singlet, and the crowd roared for me, such as they were, a double handful of factory workers and a few all-day drinkers. For me. I had not heard the sound since leaving home, and it was as sweet to me as the taste of water washing the metal-sour spit from my mouth.
I fought again a half-decadi later: a fellow with hands like granite already and heavy muscle twining over his shoulders above the torn neck of his singlet. I walked in thinking I was a fine gritty fighter, and I walked out with my tooth stuck through my inner lip.
I went straight home and found Benno behind the bar and spat out a mouthful of my own salty blood onto the sawdust at his feet. “Which you might’ve tried to hit me proper!” I said, spraying a bit.
“Eugh,” he said, and wiped at his sleeve. “What are you on about?”
“Pulling your punches when you spar with me,” I said.
“You know I’m a lass. That fellow didn’t. And he hit me twice as hard as you.”
“Maybe he’s just better—”
“He’s a welterweight, Benno. You’re nearly a heavyweight.”
“I’ve four pounds to go—”
I punched him in the ear as hard as I could.
He swore and shook it off. “You want me to treat you like a lad?” And he floored me with a straight that broke my nose.
I sat in the sawdust, hands cupped under my chin, Benno standing over me. “Your Da’s had most of the training of you,” he said. “And he’s known you were a lass all your life.”
I don’t know if Da heard, but the next time he was working my defense, he jabbed me right over my taped nose. While I tried to wipe the water from my eyes, he followed up with a couple of hooks that knocked me sideways into the ropes.
I wanted to embrace him, but the bell hadn’t gone yet, so I bounced up and under his guard and pummeled him in the ribs until it did.
Benno and I waited until our fathers were busy with the night’s fighters and the usual fellow had arrived to tend bar. In the green room, Benno put on his Savaurin greatcoat and gave me one of his jackets.
I had my charm on, of course, and my hair queued like a man’s. We took a few soldats from the tip jar, Benno filled his flask with the stuff his Da kept on the bottom shelf, and we strolled over to Rue Prosper.
The theatre had a front like a tart’s bodice, all carmine velvet ruffles. Inside it was far too warm, and the lamp-oil was scented laudanum-sweet. Men and lads shuffled in and doffed their hats and bought glasses of gin from a girl at the back. Benno and I passed the flask back and forth and I began to yawn; I’d been training in the morning and my shoulders had that pleasant deep ache.
Benno prodded me in the side and then snatched his hand back. “You don’t even feel like a girl,” he whispered.
I prodded him back, in the soft flesh of his belly. “You do.”
Then a man started playing a hurdy-gurdy, and the curtain rushed upward, and I got my first sight of Amandine Azur. She wore a plume upon her head and she danced with two great feather fans, flirting them before and behind so that now you could see only her eyes and the plume, and now a swift glimpse of her whole body.
She gazed at me, I swore she gazed at me, but when I said so at the end of her set, Benno scoffed and looked superior and made me come away without speaking to her, and I did not even learn her name until we were out of doors again and I saw it on the notice fixed to the theatre’s façade. They had drawn her peeping sideways over the fans, and the likeness was very good, delicate lines of ink capturing the snap of her brilliant eye.
I came back the next day. She was not seeing visitors, so I spoke with the gin-girl and left a note on one of my fight notices to come and see me at Karinen’s, and I said that she would be let in free if she wanted. But I did not see her in the crowd the night of my fight, and because I dropped my guard to look, I lost.
I went back to see Amandine’s show, sitting at the rear of the theatre beside the drafty door. That first time, I did not speak to her; I was tongue-cursed, brave enough only to look.
The second time, I came up to the base of the stage, and she looked down at me and flicked the feather in her hair and winked at me. Then she did the same to the fellow next to me. He was a grey-headed Savaurin with a sailor’s weatherworn face and half his teeth knocked awry. I turned and left.
The third time, I gave the gin-girl a soldat to show me the rear door of the theatre, and I waited there for Amandine to come out. When she did—muffled in a long grey gown and a black coat, carrying a plain reticule—she saw me and checked, wary for a second, and then she came forward and touched her gloved hand to my cheek. I felt the nap of velvet.
Amandine smiled. Her lips were still rouged. She said, “You look a sweet lad, you do, and I can see you didn’t mean to frighten me, but you mustn’t lie in wait for a lady, you know.”
“I only wanted to ask you if you’d dine with me at Travere’s.”
“Ah,” she said. “A generous offer, and if I were a mercenary lass, I would take you up on it. But no amount of generosity will make me yours. It is not in my nature to love you.”
“How do you know?” I said, which I was sorry for a moment later, for of course she would know her own nature.
She only rolled her fine eyes a little. “Be sweet, and do not keep me,” she said. “My mama waits up for me.”
So I stepped aside and watched her walk down the alley toward Rue Marquette; but I looked away quickly, because though I could pay a soldat to watch her unrobed, it felt wrong to stare now that she was in everyday dress.
Mr. Karinen called me over one morning as I finished training. I toweled sweat from my face and hair and came to lean on the bar, unwinding my wraps.
“Hanno Jalmarinen, the charm-master, he’s been taken,” he said.
“By the Provosts, for breaking their Law.”
I thought of the Provosts I’d seen: like vultures with their black uniforms and bald heads, all the hair shaven right off, even the eyebrows. They were supposed to be able to suck your strength away with the touch of a fingertip. “What will they do to him?”
“Hang him, most like,” Mr. Karinen said, shrugging. “The question is what will they do to us.”
“But we didn’t—” I stopped, seeing the glint of my copper ring as I unwound the stained length of my wrap.
“He wouldn’t give up his customers a’purpose,” Mr. Karinen said. “But they have ways and ways.”
“Can we get him out?” I said.
Mr. Karinen shook his head. “Which there’s no escaping from under the Provosts’ eye. But we can be careful not to draw that eye our way. You keep that ring on night and day, Valma... Valmo, I mean to say. You’re a lad now, your fight records show it. No going back.”
He didn’t seem to mind much about the hanging, but I did. The day of it, in early Frimaire, I borrowed Benno’s finest jacket and queued up my hair and went early to get a spot. There was a chilly mist, and the crowds were sparse. I came up close enough to see Hanno Jalmarinen’s face, thinner and pouchier than I remembered.
His eyes found mine. I wasn’t sure if he recognized me, or if his own work called out to him somehow. He did not speak, but his mouth twisted to one side.
Then they put the black hood over his head, and then the noose.
I stayed for the drop, but once the crowd began clamoring for locks of the dead man’s hair—they thought it lucky, in Savaurac—I turned away.
A girl in the crowd saw me as I slipped by, and caught at my sleeve. “Care to share some chestnuts?”
I jerked my coat from her grasp, and I went to get drunk.
I took a few dizzy wrong turns on my way back to the Quarter and found myself standing before the notice. It was a different drawing by now, but still Amandine’s face, eyes alight with wonderful secrets.
Her act was nearly over but I paid my soldat, pushed right up to the front, and watched her from there, so close I could smell her hyssop scent. I laid my cheek against the scrollwork at the foot of the stage. My eyes were only a foot away from Amandine’s slippers, emerald velvet. At the end of her dance she slid one foot forward so that it nearly touched my lips.
I did not move. Men applauded Amandine and threw soldats onto the stage, and the two gin-girls began herding them out and I kept still, only reaching my hand to trace where she had stepped.
She came out from backstage, after a while, when there were only a few drunkards lolling in their seats and me there entranced.
She wore a dressing-gown now, and plainer slippers that crossed the stage and stopped before me.
“Someone’s going to come in a moment to chuck you out,” she said.
I rolled my head to see her face, far up high and haloed by the chandelier. “Can you stay here until they do?”
She laughed and extended her foot to nudge my shoulder. “No, lad, I’m trying to save you from a rough exit.”
“Not a lad,” I said.
“Oh—” laughing harder “—you’re a full-grown man, then? All the same—”
I let go of the scrollwork and groped around to pull off the copper ring.
Amandine’s face changed entirely: all the sparkling tease dropped away and her brows went up sharply. She opened her mouth and took a breath.
I did not hear what she said, though—I had to bend down below the scrollwork to vomit up a few hours’ worth of gin.
When I raised up my head again she was gone. I felt my empty stomach twist. I said her name, and the sound echoed in the empty theatre.
But she came down the steps at the side of the stage and wrapped her slim arms around my shoulders and helped me to stand.
“Come quick,” she said. “No, leave the ring off, I can’t have a lad in my dressing room.”
Her dressing room held a wash-stand and a little table covered with pots of rouge and things I didn’t recognize, and a posy of hothouse violets. She sat me down on a sturdy chair and took a more delicate one for herself. I leaned my elbows on my knees and held my head.
“I will dine with you at Travere’s,” she said, “if the offer still stands.”
“Why?” I said, wishing I could make my eyes fix upon her face.
“I didn’t know then you were a girl,” she said. “You didn’t mention that.”
She reached out to push my hair from my face. Her fingernails were painted poison-green.
And that’s all I know of the night. The morning, I remember better—waking on the floor beside the chair, covered in Amandine’s wrap. Tucked in my pocket, a note I could barely read, as it was in Savaurin and Amandine’s script was terrible.
I got Benno to read me the note. It said Amandine would come and see me, and it asked me whether I liked myself better with the ring, or without.
“You took it off for her?” Benno said, brows up. “You know you’re to wear it always.”
“I was drunk,” I said. “It fell off while I was casting up my accounts.”
“Mind it doesn’t happen again,” Benno said. “The Provosts are over-strict about such things.”
“Over-strict,” I echoed, and I thought of the sound of Hanno Jalmarinen’s voice, gurgling in his throat, stopped by the rope.
I, Valmo Topponen, took the Quarter Amateur Welterweight Belt on Ash-day at the end of Ventôse. To do it, I beat ten other lads in three days. Some of those fights were easy enough, some weren’t, and one left me so done-up I vomited into the blood-bucket as soon as the referee let go my hand—but that was the last one.
I stood under the hot galvanic lights while a gentleman from the Fight Board buckled the belt about my waist, and I tried not to cast up my accounts again. An artist from the Daily Clarion scribbled my likeness and asked me how to spell my patronym, which I had to tell him I did not know what he meant. Mr. Karinen set him straight, and shook hands with a great many people, and accepted the winner’s purse on my behalf.
And then there was Da, smiling wide as wide, giving me water to rinse my mouth and pulling over my head a stained old jumper that had been his for this same purpose.
And there was Amandine, and I forgot everyone else. She had brought me an armful of ivy-leaves and hothouse lilies. I crushed them between us as I kissed her, lily-pollen sticking to the trails of blood over my breastbone, her fingers winding in the sweaty queue of my hair.
When I had washed up, I took a handful of soldats from my winner’s purse and took Amandine to Travere’s, as promised. The seats were high-backed booths with finials shaped like pineapples. The other patrons were artists and poets in extravagant hats. We had mussels and sopped up their broth with bread, and drank dry white wine from the southern estates.
My hands had swelled with all the work they’d been doing; the ring was chafing my finger, and I was tired of standing to piss. I went out to the privy a lad and came back a lass in the same clothing. Amandine smiled broad when she saw me and stood up to kiss me on both cheeks and then the mouth, and poured me another glass of wine.
I did not see if anyone else noticed, because I had eyes for nothing but the flush on Amandine’s cheeks and the way her hair was coming down on one side, and the prim collar of her everyday frock brushing the corner of her jaw.
I brought her back to my room that night and we stayed awake until very late, trying to be quiet in the hush of the Quarter’s curfew.
I wasn’t at the club when the Provosts arrived. Benno was the one who had to let them in, and he said he forgot everything he knew: offered to pull them a pint even though they never take ale, nearly touched one of their hands when he set out their cups of water. They left behind a summons for me to come to the question room at the nearest Watchtower.
I couldn’t read all of the summons, but I saw my name. I put my finger on the paper to hold it still while I spelled out the rest.
Benno made a sound. Too late. The summons caught me right away. My hand left the paper and my feet began walking toward the door. “Grab my jacket!” I called over my shoulder to Benno, but I couldn’t stop walking—he had to walk along beside me and help put my arms in the sleeves, because the summons wouldn’t let me stop swinging them either.
“I don’t want to go by myself!” I said.
“Then you should’ve left the bloody paper alone! Valma—I can’t leave the bar untended, I have to—”
“Go, go,” I said. “Send my Da, if you can!”
My feet took me up the street at a fair clip, never letting me swerve for a horse-pat or a loose cobble.
I arrived at the Watchtower with a stubbed toe and a temper, and my feet marched me right up to a desk where a Watch recruit wrote in a ledger and my mouth said, “Valmo Topponen of Karinen’s, welterweight, reporting as summoned.”
Then the summons let go of my tongue and I added, “Which you could have waited until I had my lunch!”
The recruit rolled his eyes and wrote laboriously. I stood. I tried to turn about and walk out, but apparently the magic was still on me to prevent that happening.
After a few minutes the recruit sighed loudly and stood up and beckoned me to follow. He took me into a room and sat me on a single chair facing a line of nicer chairs.
Ten or fifteen minutes wore by. I heard the half-hour bells ring, up in the tower.
Then I forgot to be bored and furious, because the Provosts came in.
I’d never seen them up close before. It seemed to be true they shaved all their hair, even their eyebrows; it made them look as if they were glaring. A man and a woman, both in their high-collared black coats. The woman sat in one of the nice chairs and looked at me, and the man came and stood behind me and laid his fingertips on the side of my neck.
I flinched. Couldn’t help it. His hand was cold.
“Remove your ring,” he said.
“What? No—it’s a, it’s a birthright, sir, I’m not supposed to—”
“You may address me as Provost. Remove your ring.”
This time it came with a push, just like the summons. My one hand went to the other hand and started tugging, and it wasn’t gentle either.
I felt the charm come off. I’d never felt it so before: my skin prickling uncomfortably where it stretched or shrank, my balance shifting as my weight settled lower.
The Provost across from me watched. I wanted to ask her to look away, but I could feel my throat changing and I did not know which voice would come out.
When I was all lass again, the Provost rose and came to me and took the ring. “We can’t let you keep this, Valmo,” she said. “Or Valma, I suppose. The Law states that no one not of Savaurin descent may use the arts within Savaurac.”
“That means all magic,” said the other Provost, still with his fingertips on my neck. “Copper or otherwise.”
“But how will I fight?” I said.
“The Law states you can’t do that either,” said the woman Provost. “Though we’re willing to let you off with just a fine for that one. For the charm, you’ll have to spend a decadi in Mazonval Gaol.”
“She is not quite of age,” said the man Provost.
“Ah,” said the woman. “Then we shall summon her patron to take the penalty. Excuse me.”
“Wait—” I moved to follow her, but the other Provost laid his hand on my shoulder, and without my will, my legs folded again and I fell back onto the chair.
They kept Mr. Karinen. Ten days in the Gaol, they said. They gave me a slip of paper stating this, and told me I could come back tomorrow to pay my fine.
I watched Mr. Karinen shackled and marched out between a pair of Provost cadets. He looked furious and baffled and not very large. They led him out through a side gate and would not let me follow.
When I took the paper back to Benno, he tried to tear it in half, but it was some kind of charmed paper and it held firm.
“This is on you,” he said, holding it up and fluttering it before my eyes. “This is all on you.” And he struck my face.
I did not fight him. I ran away.
The theatre was just opening. Carlette, the gin-girl, gave me a bit of steak from her dinner to hold to my swelling cheek. She was used to me by then, so I did not think she would think it odd of me to show up bruised, but she must have noticed something different, for she said I could go through to Amandine’s dressing room to wait.
Amandine caught up with me at the backstage door, though. She was wearing a corset trimmed with jet beads, and her hair was pomaded into a smooth helmet with a single curl loose at her cheek. She saw from my face that something was wrong, and she pulled me behind a scrim painted with topiary, set her palms to my shoulders, and looked into my face.
“I’m going on in two minutes,” she said. “Tell me quick.”
“I have to leave Savaurac,” I blurted.
She took a breath through parted lips, and her brow furrowed.
“My patron’s in gaol, my charm’s confiscated and I can’t fight as a girl. Was that quick enough?”
Amandine hushed me with a finger to my lips. “Wait. Wait for me. Right here. Promise you’ll wait.”
I promised. She touched my split cheek, a velvet-light touch like a moth landing and flying away again, and she went onstage.
I watched her from there, from the wings, carpet-bag at my feet. The music sounded tinny at this angle, muffled, but Amandine looked sharper and brighter than ever. Now and again when her face was hidden from the audience by one of her great feather fans, she would turn her eyes to me, and I would move a little so she might see me in the shadows, still waiting.
The dance ended. She received her applause and collected her gifts. And as soon as ever she could, she found me again behind the scrim painted with topiary, and she embraced me, careless now of the paint on her face.
“I will come with you,” she whispered into my neck. “I will come with you wherever you go.”
So I kissed her and crumpled her pomaded hair in my hands and kissed her more.
I spent the night on Amandine’s mama’s settee, and in the morning I went to the Provosts and used what was left of my winner’s purse to pay the fine.
I went back to Karinen’s to find my Da. Benno shouted when he saw me, and chased me out.
But Da came running after me, up the street, his fist closed tight around something.
“Valma,” he said. “Valma.” And he opened his fist and pressed into my hands one of the gilt rosettes off the Quarter Amateur Welterweight Belt. “Show this to my old sparring partner in Kervostad,” he said. “Tell him how you won it. He’ll set you up.”
I threw my arms around him. He huffed out a labored breath.
“You won’t think of coming with me?” I said.
“It will take Benno and me to keep the place running while Mr. Karinen’s locked up,” he said; and I knew he was thinking of the year he’d spent looking for work at home, the shame of it and the boredom. “But you,” he said. “You need to go where you can fight.”
So I stowed the rosette in the innermost pocket of my jacket, kissed my Da’s cheek, and went to meet Amandine.
“Kervostad,” she said, when I told her. “I hope they like Savaurin burlesque-girls.”
“I don’t think they’ve ever seen one.” I took the heavier of her cases and we began walking together toward the Quai.
“Will they let you fight as a lad?”
“Better: they’ll let me fight as a lass,” I said. “I did already, a little, before we left.”
Amandine’s mouth pursed; even without her crimson stage-paint, her lips were dark and fresh-looking, and I wanted to kiss her, only she looked as if she was thinking about something serious.
“I will miss Valmo,” she said, “if I never see him again.”
“I’ll miss him, too,” I said. “But I don’t have the charm.”
“Let’s get another. There must be magicians in Kervostad.”
“It will cost us—”
Amandine fluttered a violet-nailed hand like an ostrich fan. “I’m a very good dancer.”
I did stop and kiss her, then. It wasn’t until we began walking again that I realized we were crossing the square where Hanno Jalmarinen had been hanged. And I was sorry to leave my Da, and my patron, and even Benno, but I was not sorry to leave Savaurac.
Kervostad, as it turned out, liked Savaurin burlesque-girls very much.
Return to Issue #135