“I came to convince you to marry me.”
He sighed, his sweat-slicked chest rising. “I know. It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault either. But they chained me with this engagement and I can’t live my life on a chain. For six years I did nothing but work. I ate, lived, and breathed numbers. I gave up on the pleasant diversions a man of my age should enjoy. I did it because I wanted to be free. A week ago my contribution to the family exceeded profit generated by Galdes.”
“So you delivered an ultimatum: your freedom or your absence.”
“In essence, yes. I promised them prosperity if they followed my wishes or my excision if they didn’t. It’s business. I simply outbid your family. I’m worth more to my kin than this alliance.”
“I understand your desire for freedom. But please understand my point. By marrying me you would—”
He waved his hand. “Don’t you have any dignity? I have worked for half a decade to escape you. Do you really think you can change my mind by begging? If you were beautiful, perhaps I would consider it for a moment. I’ve seen you without your veil and you can’t even offer me that. But even if you were golden, even if you were the most elegant and refined being on the planet, I would push you aside. I value freedom more.”
“Celino!” She needed him to listen, damn it.
“A bit of advice—take off that ridiculous rag.” He headed out the door. She rushed after him but he had vanished into the night. Her sixteen-year-old heart lay broken on the floor.
She wrote him several letters, both through the feed and, when he deleted those unread, on actual paper. Her pleas had gone unanswered.
Her god rebelled against his worshipper and he had no mercy to spare.
It happened just as she calculated. Although her engagement was technically broken, until Celino married she remained off limits to kinsmen. First, she had been groomed for another man. Second, Celino might have changed his mind and decided to marry her and no kinsman wanted to offend New Delphi’s newest financial shark. Had her family enjoyed greater influence, she could’ve found a husband, but none of the smaller families dared to take a chance, knowing the Galdes clan lacked resources to shield them from Celino’s wrath. By twenty, having watched an endless stream of leggy blondes pass in and out of Celino’s public life, Meli realized that Celino would never marry. He enjoyed his freedom too much. He had turned her into an old maid.
Meli refused to remain a liability. After all she was a melder. She channeled her frustration into the lethal kiss of the ene-ribbon. After her mother’s death, she excised herself from the family, developing a separate life so she could be their silent blade. Over a decade she had killed many to protect her family, always in self-defense and always after a careful study. She had two liaisons, but they were brief and failed to repair her.
Meanwhile, Celino outgrew godhood and became a titan. The Carvannas prospered and grew under his leadership, while the Galdes stagnated.
Now they wanted her to assassinate the man who had doomed her. A man she knew intimately well.
A man whose eyes made her heart skip a beat, despite his unintended cruelty, despite the years, despite the gulf between them and her deep, logical desire to feel nothing for him.
Meli rose. The next few days would prove infinitely fascinating.
Celino awoke early. He lay in bed, staring at the ceiling above him. Around him the bedroom was luxuriously silent.
He dreamt of the woman in the red dress. He dreamt of her ripe golden body in his bed and of dripping honey onto her plump nipples and then slowly licking it off while she laughed. He awoke hard like a rock.
It was a ridiculous adolescent fantasy.
“Romuld. Audio only.”
The huge screen on the wall ignited with pale blue. “Sir?” Romuld said softly.
“The lab lifted two partials from the knife. No match in the aerial database.”
So either she didn’t own a vehicle, or it wasn’t registered.
“The scan showed no implants or Class C or above modifications.”
She wasn’t a fighter. He already knew that.
“The owner of the shop reported that she stops by occasionally, never more often than twice a month, rents a stove, and bakes pastries. He says it’s highly unlikely she will return within the next week or two.”
“What did she bake the last time?”
Celino cut off the transmission.
And so she breezed into his life and slipped away again. Perhaps she thought she would never see him again. She was wrong. He wanted her and when he wanted something, he always got it.
A woman like her, a lovely, earthy, provincial woman like her, where would she go in New Delphi?
“Naria. Audio only.”
A moment passed and then his sister’s voice filled the room. “Celino?”
“Where do you shop when you come to the city?”
“Well, good morning to you too!” A child’s laughter rang through transmission. “Where do I shop? Let’s see…”
He patiently listened to the long list of children’s clothing stores and designer boutiques. Wrong Carvanna. “What about Aunt Rene?”
“Rynok Market. She loves that place.”
He ended transmission and called up Romuld. “Rynok Market. Find the woman.”
The presentation of the site manager dragged on. Celino had caught the gist of it within the first five minutes—the site fell behind schedule and it was the fault of the crew, the supplier, the weather, and cosmic gods. The site manager was completely innocent of any wrongdoing and bore no responsibility for anything whatsoever. Celino intended to fire him after his speech, but he permitted the man to state his case.
The display of his personal unit ignited. Romuld’s face came into view and his voice spoke into Celino’s ear through the audio link. “She’s here.”
The image blurred and shifted into an aerial view of the market. Romuld had launched a sweeper unit. It hovered above the crowd, unnoticed, its camera sweeping the faces of patrons. The camera zoomed in and Celino saw her. She wore a green dress with a red skirt. It made her look like an upside-down flower. Her hair was down, a windblown mess of dark happy brown. Her face wore a deadly serious expression as she bargained for a bunch of herbs with a vendor. The vendor threw his hands up in exasperation. She raised her eyes to the sky. The vendor shook his head. An ancient ritual of haggling proceeded merrily along, both parties having entirely too much fun for their own good, until finally she walked away from the booth, her bundle of herbs deposited into a small expandable satchel.
“Stay on her,” Celino murmured silently, his voice fed into Romuld’s audio piece by his implant. “I want to know where she lives.”
“Should I tag her?”
“No. Just follow.”
The meeting came to its inevitable conclusion ten minutes later. By the time Celino resolved the issue and ascended to the dock housing his aerial, Romuld had sent him her address. She lived only a few minutes from the market, in Old Town.
She owned an old house, pre-second expansion. It perched behind an impact-proof plastor fence disguised as a wall of rocks. As he flew over it and circled the house, he saw the backyard. Filled with bright color, it suggested a garden. He had expected her to have a garden.
Celino landed on the small parking space, noting that no fresh scuffs marked the slab—she didn’t own an aerial—and made his way to the door. For a moment he considered knocking, then shrugged, and attached the small disk of the lock breaker to the plate above the electronic lock. The lock breaker’s display flashed a couple of times, but remained red. No dice.
Celino tried the door. Unlocked. Utterly ridiculous.
He let himself in.
A small house lay before him. A typical rectangular front hallway. He saw her shoes sitting in a neat row. Straight ahead the hallway ran into the kitchen. He heard a female voice humming and rhythmic strikes of the knife against the cutting board.
On his left the hallway opened into the living space, a large square room, proof of the house being built during the time when people still prized hard copy recordings and pseudo-paper books and needed ample space to store them. The room was mostly empty now and furnished in cool blue. Two soft chairs, a pile of floor cushions in the corner opposite a modestly sized screen on the wall. And at the far wall a sliding plasti-glass door stood wide open, only a thin mesh separating the house from the garden.
Celino strode into the kitchen. He could’ve sworn he made no sound, but she raised her head. Dark eyes glanced at him and he stopped, arrested by their unexpected beauty. Velvet, brown like the finest coffee, lit from within by her vitality and intellect, these eyes simmered the blood in his veins. With a single look she had awakened a feral need smoldering beneath the surface. He went hard. He would have this woman. She just didn’t know it yet.
“What are you doing in my house?” She seemed neither afraid, nor disturbed, rather slightly indignant that he dared to enter without permission.
“You never told me your name.” He forced himself to move and sat leisurely in the chair opposite her. The kitchen smelled of subtly spiced stock. A mess of minced herbs lay on the cutting board before her.
“I suppose I best call city security to throw you out.”
“Do you think they can?” Not likely. A squad of elite “busters” wouldn’t be able to remove him from her presence.
She surveyed the breadth of his shoulders. “Perhaps. You’re rather dark and menacing. Are you enhanced enough to support this promise of violence?”
She lifted the lid off the pot, releasing a cloud of aromatic flavor into the kitchen, and scraped the herbs into the soup. “What is it you want?”
He frowned. “I’m not sure. But I’m plagued by dreams involving your breasts and honey.”