“You found out my secret.” Her pink tongue darted out of her mouth to lick at a smudge of the filling off her bottom lip. He wondered if her mouth tasted of cones and pink wine.
“Would your men like some?”
“No,” he said.
“They’re on duty?”
He nodded and attacked the second cone.
He had eaten three before Marcus leaned over to him. The meeting with the land owners started in less than twenty minutes. Barely enough time to reach the conference hall within his hotel.
He didn’t want to leave. He wanted to sit with her in the sunny kitchen, drink pink wine, eat cones, and think of her in his bed.
“Ah. You have to run,” she guessed.
“Indeed.” He rose. “Thank you. The cones were divine.”
She handed him the basket. “Take them.”
She rose and pressed the basket into his hands. “You’re leaving the wine with me. It’s only fair.”
Outside the sunshine made him blink. He slipped the knife out and handed it to Romuld. “Find out who she is.”
Meli sat alone in the kitchen. She poured herself another mug. The wine was perfect, delicate, its bouquet leaving a symphony of complimenting flavors on her tongue.
A small part of her had hoped Celino would recognize her. But he didn’t. That was how little her existence meant. She was nothing but a forgotten speck in his past life.
Meli drank the wine.
It had started with a veil.
She vividly remembered it. It was a diaphanous indigo veil that hid the bottom part of her face, leaving only her eyes exposed. When her mother had slipped it onto her, adjusting the band to fit under the knot of her hair, Meli could still see her features in the mirror, but her face seemed broken in half. There was the tan half with her eyes and then there was the lower half under the veil that seemed to belong to someone else.
“Why?” she asked.
Mother sat on the bed. “You are betrothed. The veil lets everyone know that you’re off-limits.”
The enormity of it failed to penetrate. “But I’m only ten.”
Mother sighed. “I voted against it. I think it’s a critical error in judgment and I think it will come back to haunt us all. But I was outvoted by the family counsel.”
Even at ten, Meli knew that family counsel was law.
“Who am I marrying?”
Mother snapped her fingers. The display hidden in the surface of the mirror ignited. “Engagement,” her mother said briskly. A file appeared, opened, and an image of Celino Carvanna filled the screen.
“But he’s old!”
“Don’t be melodramatic. He’s only sixteen. In eight years, when you marry him, you will be eighteen and he will be twenty-four. See, the difference is much less pronounced. And when you’re twenty-two and he’s twenty-eight, you’ll barely notice it.”
Meli stared at Celino’s face. He was handsome. She had seen him a few times at the garden parties. But he didn’t know she existed. “But he isn’t interested in me in that way.”
“Darling, you’re ten. Trust me, if I had any inkling that he was interested in you in that way at this point, they’d have to kill me and your father both to go through with this engagement. He is a very young man. Right now woman to Celino means a set of breasts and a plump bottom.”
Mother took her hands into hers.
“You’re not a woman yet, Meli. But one day you will be. You won’t be beautiful, but you will be attractive and men will flock to you. Me, your aunt Nez, your grandmother, we all have that something that makes men turn their heads and do silly things to entice us into their beds. Don’t worry, darling. He will notice you one day. You will hit him like a brick.”
The veil itched her chin. Meli scratched. “But why do I have to do this?”
“Because our family and the Carvannas have formed an alliance. On our own, we’re both too small to be a significant player in New Delphi, but together we can be a force. Our territory will double. We’re sharing technologies and manufacturing facilities. And your betrothal to Celino cements it together the way seal foam cements sections of the spacecraft together.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
Mother gathered her into her arms. They sat together looking at Celino.
“I will have to do it anyway, won’t I?”
“What if he won’t like me?” Meli said softly.
Mother fell silent. “I have to be honest with you, Meli. He probably won’t like you. And it has absolutely nothing to do with you. As I said, he’s a very young man. He’s just now coming into his own. Before the engagement he could see freedom on the horizon: independence, however small, from the family. His own aerial. His own place. Freedom to find women and choose his destiny. Our family counsels took all of it away from him with this engagement. The world of his possibilities has been narrowed. He’s a gifted, independent boy and he will be bitter about this development. That we can’t help. And that’s why I didn’t want this engagement. I don’t want you to be married to a man who will think of you as a burden.”
Mother patted her hair. “But not all is lost, sweetheart. We have it in our power to change his perspective. We must get him to see you not as a rock about his neck but as an ally. Someone who will be on his side no matter what. Someone who will understand him, and listen, and be able to converse with him at his level. A sheltered harbor in his life. You already have a lot in common and we have eight years before you have to marry him. That’s time enough to become expert on all things Celino.”
And so Meli studied. She learned the recipes Celino liked and practiced cooking them until they were perfect. She read the same books he had read and analyzed them, although she didn’t always form the same impression of them. He was interested in business and she had received private tutorship from the candidate of sciences of New Delphi Business Academy. She’d learned the significance of implants, the genealogy of both families, and the frequency of random inborn talents within them. She knew which cologne Celino wore, what colors he preferred, what holofilms he was likely to quote. There were times when she resented him, even hated him, but part of her understood it was self defense against the engagement neither of them had wanted, and the other part, the part that grew stronger and stronger over the years, noticed how brilliant he was, how clever and sharp, and ruthless. As he cut down the competition left and right, she grew to admire his ferocity. And the woman in her began to notice how unbearably handsome he was.
He had left the province shortly after their engagement. Before his departure they were brought together and left alone for a few moments on a balcony. He was spectacular in his Carvanna black, and she was a skinny kid with half her face hidden by a veil.
“I’m sorry about this,” he said.
“Me too,” she mumbled.
“I want you to understand it wasn’t my idea. I’m not a pervert.”
He walked away from her, leaving her alone on the balcony pondering his words.
He took to New Delphi like a fish to the ocean. Meli received frequent updates of his legendary financial maneuvers. He was a genius. But he had his flaws: impatience, insensitivity, inability to slow down. Meli had catalogued his weaknesses, knowing she would have to compensate for them.
One evening while in the armory she picked up an ene-ribbon wrist brace and discovered she was a melder. Her mind and body had the power to activate and wield an ene-ribbon. It was an exceedingly rare talent. The chances of it occurring in their bloodline were one to two million. She was brought to the melder adept in the city and trained at a great expense to the family. Her father had insisted that this fact be hidden from the Carvannas, and Celino in particular. She imagined he began to suspect that not all was well with his future son-in-law.
By twenty Celino had doubled the Carvannas’ liquid capital. She saw him infrequently, for a few moments during his visits to the ancestral home. He avoided her and their interaction was limited to a few brisk exchanges. They could barely manage a conversation. The older she grew, the more she stammered in his presence, seized by a kind of giddy exaltation born from the knowledge that one day he would be hers. Celino was utterly oblivious to her crush. He was never impolite but she had come to expect no warmth from those visits. None was owed to her.
Meli would change that. She knew she would.
Then in June, almost exactly six years to the day of the engagement, came the crushing news: The Carvannas reneged on their agreement, severing all financial ties with Galdes. The engagement was off. The blood oaths were undone. The Carvannas cut them loose and it was done at Celino’s insistence.
It took Meli about a minute to fully digest all of the implications of the disaster and then she sank on the floor, shaken to her very core by despair. It took her almost five hours to work up the courage to go see him. Meli had no future with him, but if she acted now, before he escaped her reach, she could still have a future.
She put her crushed heart aside and donned a black dress. She came alone, unarmed, still wearing her veil, and Carvanna retainers parted to let her pass. A single soldier led her to the pavilion on the hill. A huge blocky building, it served as the training hall for Carvanna kinsmen for over a century. She walked inside alone and stood at the battle line drawn on the floor.
Celino was in the middle of the floor, a knife in his hand. His torso and feet were bare and he wore only the wide dark practice pants. The lights were off. Shutters shielded the windows, permitting only the narrow rays of sunset that made a grate of light and shadow on the floor. He moved through it, silent, quick, strong like a predatory cat. His knife flashed, rending invisible opponents.
She watched him a minute, crossed the battle line, and stepped into his path. He moved toward her, a dervish of spinning kicks and knife strikes. He didn’t look capable of stopping, but she knew better and stood her ground until his knife halted an inch from her throat.
He looked at her with cold eyes. “You’ve wasted your time.”