Beyond the small plot lay a narrow street, typical to Old Town, where streets were narrow, houses old, property values low, and residents still kept an occasional garden. Beyond the street lay a throughway. If she rose and approached the fence, she would see the steady current of aerials gliding through the air. A left turn on the throughway would bring her to the heart of New Delphi’s financial district. A right would take her to the Terraces, where tourist shops and cafes catered to the upscale clientele eager for a touch of the “old planet” and the memories of provinces that lay beyond the city.
The city was the center of the South, the technological and economical hub of the subcontinent. Divided into territories between kinsmen, it served as their battleground. But those who had grown up in the provinces surrounding New Delphi never forgot their true home.
Meli had bought the house for the garden and filled it with dahlias, permitting only a few brugmansias and two pink silk trees for fragrance. It was her bright, cheerful haven, her little celebration of life and color, and affirmation of her own humanity. Her proof that she could nurture life as well as take it.
The file lay on her lap, downloaded into her notebook. She had read it, committing every word to memory. She had printed Celino’s photograph. His face was a glossy smoothness underneath her fingertips.
She moved her hand and looked down on the god of her adolescence. He hadn’t changed as much as she expected. The years had sharpened his face, honing his features with a lethal precision. A perfectly carved square jaw. A crisply defined nose with a small bump. His cheekbones protruded, the cheeks beneath them hollowed, making the contours of his face more pronounced. His eyebrows, two thick black lines, combined with the stubborn set of his wide, narrow-lipped mouth, gave his face a grim, menacing air. But it was the eyes that elevated his appearance from merely harsh to dangerous.
Dark grey, they matched the fabled bluish steel of Ravager firearms. Perceptive, powerful, they betrayed an intellect sharp enough to draw blood but revealed no emotion. Not even a minute glimpse of his inner self. She vividly remembered staring into their depths, trying to gauge what he felt for her, if anything, and finding only a hard opaque wall.
Every time she looked into those eyes, a jolt of adrenaline tore through her.
Meli forced herself to look at him again, trying to separate herself from the adolescent flutter of her pulse. That flutter, the slight pain in her chest, the rapid chill, all that was but a bitter memory of a little foolish girl, hardly more than a child. Her little foolish hopes and dreams had long turned to dust.
She had to evaluate him for what he was—a target.
In her mind a younger Celino sprang from her memories: handsome, tall, with a lazy, self-indulgent smile, standing on a verandah with a short blade in his hand, inviting the party guests to throw polymer drink cans at him. He was barely seventeen then. He looked incredible poised against the backdrop of the flower beds that gave the province of Dahlia its name. As a barrage of the multicolored containers hit him, he sliced at them in a blur, severing them with his blade. When he was done, the tile around him was drenched. Celino, on the other hand, remained perfectly dry.
Carvannas had a reputation for their knife skills, superb even among the kinsmen.
The man who looked at her from the photograph now wouldn’t show off. Tempered by a decade and a half in the kinsmen family feuds, he would watch, calculating the odds, until the right moment came, and then he would seize it without hesitation and squeeze out every advantage. He had survived four known assassination attempts and likely a dozen or more that remained secret. She tapped the notebook screen, calling up the only recorded attempt. She had viewed it twice already.
The premiere of Gigolo. A brightly lit street. Red carpet stretching into the mouth of Miranda Theater. Adoring crowds shouting their worship at the stars and their escorts.
A sleek, bullet-shaped aerial slid up to the ropes. The door swung up. A metal step unfurled from the underside of the vehicle, permitting the passengers to exit in comfort. Celino stepped out. Tall, lean, and overwhelmingly masculine in the traditional Carvanna black doublet stretched by his broad shoulders. He had matured well. Too well, Meli reflected.
He bent lightly, offering his hand, and immediately feminine fingers rested in his palm. A woman stepped out. She wore a glittering silvery sari that stopped a shade short of vulgar. In spiky heels, she stood only a couple of inches shorter than Celino, six two to his six four. A fountain of blonde hair spilled down her back all the way past her butt.
Celino led her down the carpet. They seemed perfectly matched—her glamorous light to his brooding darkness. A painful needle pierced Meli’s chest. Old dreams, she reminded herself.
She sensed the attack a moment before it came. Celino’s head jerked as the crowd on the right erupted and four men dashed at him. The magnetic disruptors installed by theater security made any metal projectiles unusable, and the attackers opted for dark red monomolecule blades.
Celino thrust his date behind him with a powerful shove and attacked so quickly, he blurred. He was preternaturally fast. Meli tapped the screen, slowing the recording by twenty-five percent. He held a simple metal knife. His swipe drew a bright red gash down the first attacker’s throat—beautifully done. A vertical gash opened a bigger hole in the carotid without slowing down the strike. It was nearly impossible to hit the artery that way—like aiming at a piece of lubricated IV drip dancing around in the wind. Meli had factored in the enhanced strength and speed, but Celino seemed to have enhanced reflexes as well. Or perhaps a targeting implant. Or both.
The second cut grazed the second attacker’s arm pit, severing another vein. The third assailant received a sideways swipe to the kidneys. That strike took a quarter of a second longer than Celino had planned. She saw him change his strategy in mid-move, hammering a kick to the fourth man’s neck. She rewound half a second, slowed the feed to half speed, and watched Celino’s black boot connect with the man’s neck. She couldn’t hear the telltale crunch, but she saw the man’s neck line jerk sharply. Celino’s kick had broken the vertebrae of his attacker.
She shut down the notebook. In a purely physical confrontation, Celino would kill her. She had absolutely no doubt of that. She was a small woman—he towered over her by a foot, outweighed her by at least eighty pounds of hard muscle, and he had enhancements she couldn’t match. Judging from Celino’s performance, very few people would be able to match him blow by blow. Add to it bodyguards, who always accompanied him. And Marcus. One couldn’t forget Marcus. Only one generation removed from old planet, Marcus was ill suited to traditional enhancements. Instead he had done horrible things to his body in the name of service. A walking poison, he killed with a mere touch. Celino had saved him years ago and Marcus was devoted to Celino like a dog.