Edelweiss sat in a corner of the Rusty Arms, contemplating a drink. In the most literal sense. She was not the only patron bearing arms. However, judging by the density and reach of the smoke, she was the only one without tobacco.
She reached up and grabbed a fistful. It remained in her hand for nearly a full second before dissipating.
“Well what have we here?”
It was not the first time she had heard some iteration of an opening line. “I am not human. Nor am I inexpensive.”
A heavy arm dropped down as if from the smoke, latching about her shoulders. “Then it’s a good thing I had a string of lucky spreads.”
“Spreads.” It was a question, but only the way that Edelweiss asked it.
“Oh, bless. Must be a new model, not knowing Port of Call.” He squeezed her, which was unpleasant. His breath smelled worse than his body, and the competition was quite fierce.
Edelweiss pushed him away. “It matters not. I am engaged.”
“To what? A steamclock?” The man guffawed at his own ill-informed humour. “Come with me, honey. Old Jimmy’ll pay twice what your john’s shilling out.”
Speaking to this man was only worsening the situation. Edelweiss stood up.
He started to reach for his weapon, but Edelweiss was not about to be taken by surprise. She grabbed at her belt and drew a collapsible sword.
It folded out to deadly form seconds before the accoster had drawn his own sword. His eyes could barely follow the speed with which she struck. The blade sliced through the smoke, carving a deadly trail that ended in the man’s belly.
He stared down at it in dismayed surprise. “That ain’t friendly…” he said, choking on the last word. He dropped to one knee, but did not let go of his cutlass.
A thrill of anticipation and respect whirred through Edelweiss’s gears. Those eyes. A wound like that had all but killed him, but he wanted to go on. She eased into a more flexible stance, half-forgetting where they were. A real fight. This wasn’t sparring, or a desperate feat. This pirate had stopped seeing a whore, and was looking at a hand with a sword. She could feel it in his gaze, that he was looking over her stance now, not her hips.
Gravelly voices raised in protest and appreciation. Some cheered, but they were hushed up as men began to circle round them, like fast-moving clouds. Two men helped the first to his feet, but he pushed them away.
“First time I’ve seen such a lovely in this kind of distress.”
Another man had entered the circle, although this one had come to her side of it. She sized him up. “This is not a show,” she warned him. “Never mind what they are chanting.” She indicated the crowded pub-goers with a jerk of her head.
“It’s never a show.” The man, youthful in appearance, had large eyes only slightly hidden by his wild rust-coloured hair. He held up a device, similar to a steampistol, but slightly more complex, with a lens in the wide muzzle. “By the way, I’m Candle,” he said.
There was something about his smile that invited a mirrored answer. “Edelweiss.”
Old Jimmy’s friends were casting dirty looks their way. “Now that we’re friends,” Candle said, “I think local tradition demands we spill someone else’s blood in celebration.”
It was a stupid joke, but Old Jimmy was already heading back to cross blades. Edelweiss started to calculate how the battle would go against two opponents, when Candle leaped ahead to position himself by Jimmy’s friends.
Chivalry was such an interesting concept, she thought.
Jimmy was staggering, but he held his cutlass upright. “I prefer a good horizontal dance to battle,” he said, then coughed. “But I wonder who made you capable of both.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Candle fire at both of the other men. Two blasts of heated air boiled towards his targets. His first shot went wide, allowing the skinnier pirate to strike at Candle’s leg. But his second shot hit home just before the other pirate could clip his knees. The chubbier pirate screamed and tore at his shirt. The cloth burnt away, revealing the blistered, bubbling skin beneath.
Horrified gasps mixed with the general roar of appreciation.
Old Jimmy didn’t seem to notice or care. He remained fixed on Edelweiss, wearing a determined smile that was marred only slightly by the trail of blood glistening on the corner of his mouth. But he made a game attempt at a swing.
Edelweiss sidestepped it, but she hardly needed to. It was a shame that a man with such gumption did not have the skill to match. She slashed at his front, tearing more clothing than skin.
Although he remained standing, his breathing became ragged, and the blood that had soaked his clothes was beginning to drip. “You just might be… a bit too much for me,” he said with an embarrassed chuckle.
“Now hold on!”
Everyone in the pub turned to see who had shouted.
With her superior vision, Edelweiss could cut through the smoke to see a thin man standing on a chair. He was dressed well, but not too well, and he was holding a black bag in front of him, like a parish priest clutching a bible. Perhaps he was handsome, but he did not seem a capable fighter.
“This quarrel should be allowed to die off without two of its participants doing the same,” the man said, head held high. He cleared his throat, then added, “The most exciting bit is over. Let them seek medical attention.”
The crowd murmured, but began to disperse among the tables. Some of the patrons left altogether. Jimmy laughed, then hunched his shoulders when it became a hacking cough. In a moment, the weedy man was by his side, still clutching the black bag.
“You are an impressive young woman,” he said quietly. “But you might consider learning some restraint.”
“Oh, don’t ruin her,” Jimmy gasped. “I ain’t dead, am I?” He waved his friends away, giving some instruction to have the chubby pirate taken to hospital. “No offence, doc.”
Candle cut short any possible response by hauling himself over. “I’m not picky.”