Korin Xai Jian leaned back in her seat and sighed. She cradled the portfolio with the latest navigation data against her chest, rocking slowly back and forth in the soft black chair as her blue-black hair tickled her left shoulder. Three years? She wondered. Has it been that long since I set foot on Kuran? Now in a day and a half, I'll be back there.
It felt odd to her, to be this close. In the abstract she'd told anyone who'd listen she'd stride back into the colony with as much bravado a conquering hero, despite having to sneak in under a false registry.
But now it felt a little more real and a little scarier. As she had before when braggadocio failed her, she tried to subsume her fear in her anger by going over every indignity she'd suffered in those three years.
Years of indignity, of isolation, but ultimately of triumph.
She was the daughter of Mao Xai Jian, one of 11 daughters, actually. As befits the family of a high-ranking member of the Blue Dragons, she'd led a life of privilege and comfort, and her future was assured.
So long as all I ever wanted for my future was to be bartered for power like a pawn in a chess game, she thought. The higher ranks of the Blue Dragons had for centuries cemented alliances through marriage. It was an archaic but effective bit of symbolism.
If you didnt mind being used, Korin thought. Seven of her sisters had been married off to allies of her father and, while they'd lived lives of eternal wealth, Korin had never thought it was enough for her.
I've never understood why I had to be the one to wait home while my prospective husband did all the work, she thought. I wanted to be the one to wield that power myself. I've never liked being second.
This initially manifested itself as preciousness, but gradually it grew to willfulness and Mao had found it difficult to find any prospective candidates to marry Korin off to.
Until she met his new chief assassin.
Kienan Ademetria had obsessed her from the moment she'd seen him. It was more than the initial girlish crush, something about his manner and the palpable sense of danger around him captivated her. Whenever he reported in, she'd made a point to be there, to watch him.
I used to spend my nights devising ways just to get to speak to him, Korin mused. What a pity he didnt give me the time of day.
Apparently it hadnt been just her who wanted Kienan and herself together. From time to time they were each other's escort at official functions. Her father had big plans for Kienan within the Syndicate, ones that might involve Korin as well. But their encounters always ended the same way--Kienan would go off by himself to sulk or vanish altogether and Korin would be furious.
As she was a child of privilege ("spoiled" might be a truer word) Korin could not abide nor understand the meaning of the word "No." Denied the man she was infatuated with and denied any power of her own, she resolved to take it herself, and find a way to make Kienan pay in the bargain.
She took her chance two years ago. She'd seduced Mao's latest bodyguard and bribed a few of his less loyal lieutenants to put her plan into action. On his private ship, Korin stranded Mao and the rest of his loyalists in space and locked Kienan down on the ship, determined to make him pay for spurning her by watching him die. She would pin the blame for losing Mao on Kienan, and Kienan, being dead, wouldnt be able to stand in her way as she assumed power.
She touched her gloved hand to the bridge of her nose. She hadn't been successful, and in fact had learnt firsthand why Kienan's skills were so feared. He'd beat her guards, beat her, and turned her over to Mao.
And that's when I learned what irony really was, Korin thought, idly opening and closing the data folio. Thanks to the law of the Syndicate no one in a council member's family could ever be executed. That little quirk of law saved my life.
I was sent into exile. Blindfolded and dropped on a random colony near Earth, stripped of any monies or anything that would allow me to live.
Nothing, except my determination to make them pay for it. Mao, Kienan, the Blue Dragons themselves, they'd all suffer for what they'd done.
She rose from her chair, setting the data folio aside. In the spare light of her quarters, a small shaft of light fell along her back, highlighting the large black tattoo between her shoulder blades.
It was the mark of her new family. Because, fueled by her near-insane determination, Korin had found another syndicate and ruthlessly clawed her way to the top of it. It was everything she'd wanted to do before, but now it meant less than nothing.
The Jade Tigers were after all nothing but a tool to bring her here, to this moment, where she'd take her revenge and settle all accounts.
Kienan had noticed the woman tailing him ever since he'd brushed by her at
the railcar station. He'd kept a watch on her out of the corner of his eye as
he made his way back to
Have to lose this tail first, Kienan thought, milling with the throng of people who clogged the street. The celebrations had been going on most of the day. Most of the time, the streets were so crowded that skycars found navigation difficult and went on foot.
Today, even foot traffic was slow, and that was perfect for what he had planned.
The air was full of acrid smoke from fireworks and full of the insistent pounding of drums. Above Kienan's head, sparks from a pinwheel spun like a wheel of fire as he squeezed into the crowd. He wove through the masses, a careful eye behind him on the person following him.
She shoved past an older man, and the hood of her cloak pulled away for a moment, revealing a smooth, feminine jawline and chalk-white skin.
Kienan blinked, squeezing past a vendor selling fresh meat. An alien? He wondered. Rigellian, maybe. I've certainly got enough enemies among them, but why would they send Karasu after me instead of doing it themselves?
He grit his teeth. Nothing today is going to be easy, is it?
He moved closer to a clearing of people. They were watching a lion dance. Two teams, two dragons, one green, one blue were dancing their way up a rope ladder, trying to reach a head of lettuce suspended on a pole above them. It was all a metaphor--the lettuce represented wealth and good fortune.
And since each dragon needed five or six men to fill out the suit, it was the perfect way to disappear.
Angela stared out at the tinted window at the city below them. The alien sector of Kuran was a curious place. Most humans never went there in their entire lives on the colony. Of course she'd seen aliens in the human sector before--the alien sector was less a matter of segregating by species and more practicality, as aliens who required different atmospheres and similar needs remained in the sector.
Aliens might come to our sector, but humans almost never come here, she thought. So in case something happens to Kienan, we should be safe and anonymous here.
So why dont I feel safer?
She sighed, looking at her feet. It seemed ironic to her that Kienan was protecting her again, and yet, this time the only way it seemed he could protect her and Jayla-2 was to send them away.
Kienan was always coming to her rescue. He was her big brother. Ever since she'd sought him out he'd been trying to protect her, though she hadn't always understood at the time that's what he was doing.
Four years ago she'd seen him move in to one of the apartment buildings on
So she broke into his apartment, to get his attention.
And nearly got killed for it. But there must have been something that endeared her to him as well. After all, he made sure after that she had a place to stay and she went to school.
And that whatever happened, she'd always be safe.
She thought back now to a moment she'd seen in her nightmares ever since.
Kienan had put her up with a friend of his who ran a store and two women had come in, demanding something. Kienan's friend shooed her into the back of the store. Angela ran, but watched in horror as the two women brutalized her.
Angela made a noise in the back room to scare them off and called the paramedics. Kienan had come later, but his manner had seemed different. While she waited in the hospital for him, Angela had been afraid the woman might come back, that they knew she'd been back there and would do to her what they'd done to the woman.
But something about Kienan's manner made her feel better. And when she saw him again, he assured her they'd never bother them again, and she believed him. But something about the way he'd been before didn't make her feel any better.
In fact it scared the hell out of me, and still does. Because that's just how he'd sounded on the phone. "Go to 3326-AS. Get rid of your phone. Wait for our friends." That was all he said, then he hung up.
And he sounded exactly how he had that night.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at Jayla-2.
"Are you OK?" Jayla-2 asked.
"Yeah," Angela said with a weariness that persuaded no one. "Just thinking, is all. I think the waiting's getting to me."
"I know," Jayla-2 said. "I feel nervous too. Does he ask you to do this kind of thing often?"
"This is the first time," Angela said. "But he warned me it might be necessary someday. Due to his job, he said."
"What does he do, exactly?" Jayla-2 asked.
"He hasn't ever told me," Angela said. "And I didnt ask. All I know is sometimes he goes off-colony for a few weeks and comes back, and he never seems to want for money."
Jayla-2's expression darkened as she crossed behind Angela. "I think I . . .I mean, Jayla . . .I think she wondered about that too. I tried to ask Vain and Mirage once about it, when I was on the ship, but they never told me anything."
"They're not very talkative as a rule," Angela said. "They usually just stand behind you and look severe all the time. I think it--"
There was a knock at the door. Angela nearly jumped out of her skin. Jayla-2 reached out her hand and slowly walked to the door. If who she thought was at the door, there'd be no need to worry, but if it was anyone else, she was most capable of handling it.
Jayla-2 stared through the one-way viewscreen, her black lips parting in a smile as she saw the two pairs of irisless eyes staring back at her. She punched the unlock code on her side of the door.
The two women on the other side of the door wore bored, blank expressions. They wore identical jackets and skirts, and gloves, all jet-black. They looked like slightly ruder versions of someone's executive secretaries.
They were carrying groceries and had a satchel each slung over their left arm.
Jayla-2 beamed in a way that comically belied the severity of the moment.
The cloaked woman frowned and scanned the crowd for any sign of where Kienan could have gone. She circled the crowd around the lion dance, but saw no sign of him.
Unbelievable, she thought. How could it be this hard to lose one human in a parade full of Chinese people, when he's not even Chinese and wearing a dirty white suit besides? She shoved past a few more people, making her way to the opening of a small alley between two unused market stalls.
She turned back to the lion dance, viewing it with the detached curiosity of an outsider. There was nothing like this in her culture, the combination of skill, motion, and rhythm was almost hypnotic to her.
She watched as the blue dragon ascended the rope ladder and the leader of the team reached out for the head of lettuce. As he did, something moved out from under the rear of the dragon with such speed she initially thought she'd just imagined it when she blinked her eye.
Seconds later she was propelled in the alley by someone falling on her from high above. Whoever had grabbed her rolled with the fall, tying her up in her cloak and shoving her against the wall of the alley by kicking out against her stomach with his feet.
She braced herself against the wall and threw away her cloak, drawing one of the ornate gold pistols at her hip. She brought it to bear on the man who'd thrown her, surprised that it was Kienan himself.
He'd hid under the dragon, she thought. Right under my nose. She was right. He is clever.
"Stop right there, Ademetria," she said.
"Give me one good reason why I should," Kienan said, his eyes flashing emerald fire at her.
"I dont want to hurt you," she said.
Kienan moved impossible fast and kicked the pistol from her hand. "You wont," he said, turning back to face her, his long braid silently cracking behind him like a whip. "At least not by hesitating that much. I've got some questions to ask you."
She held his gaze, her hand going for her other gun. Kienan eyed her cautiously, taking a step back. With seconds, he'd pinned her to the wall and tore the gun from her holster. He shoved her back against the wall, inspecting it.
"This is a Rigellian Warmaster's gun," he said, lifting the rear breech of the gun and slipping out the energy cap. "And from the look of you, you're Rigellian. So my first two questions are, why are you trying to kill me . . .and how'd you get two of these guns?"
"The second is my business, and none of yours," she replied. "As to the first, I'm not trying to kill you. I was sent to let you that someone's trying to kill you. My name is Ronah, and--"
Kienan rushed her, and she cartwheeled out of the way seconds before his elbow would have smashed against her body armor. Kienan followed by throwing two kicks at her, but she ducked out of the way and kicked his other leg out from under him.
Ronah swung her leg high, intending to bring it down hard on his chest, but Kienan seized her leg at the last second, twisted her ankle and shoved her off him. She fell to the dirty floor of the alley within reach of one of her pistols. Kienan lurched forward, but Ronah grabbed for her gun and pointed it at him.
"This one you didnt disarm," Ronah said. "Now listen to me for five sec--"
Kienan leaned in, grabbed her wrist and tumbled, forcing her to point the gun upward and fire a shot into the sky. Kienan elbowed her so hard that her hand slipped free from the pistol and she stumbled backward, the air driven from her lungs.
Kienan pointed the pistol at her. "Talk. Fast."
"The people trying to kill you arent Rigellians," Ronah said. "The Onikage have been contracted to eliminate you. The man who attacked you on the railcar is their leader. I have information youre going to need."
Kienan raised the pistol. "Why should I believe you?"
Ronah put her right leg forward slowly, pointing to the white dragon pattern that contrasted with the black of her bodysuit. "That should tell you who I represent."
A look of disgust passed over Kienan's face.
"You're a White Dragon," he said slowly, never taking the pistol off her.
Kienan lowered the gun, a look of equal parts disgust, anger, and sadness flashing over his face. Ronah reached into one of the pouches on her belt and fished out a case containing a data clip, handing it over to him.
"The Onikage are formidable opponents," Ronah said. "I wish you luck in defeating them."
Kienan held the case in his hands. "You're not going to offer to help me stop them?"
Ronah's red eyes met his. "I was only supposed to deliver the message," she said. "The person who sent me told me you wouldn't take any help she offered anyway. Something about not being able to save everyone, even if you wanted to."
Kienan grit his teeth and looked at his feet. Suddenly he wanted a cigarette very badly.
"Good luck," Ronah said, starting to walk out of the alley.
Kienan didnt say a word. He had too much on his mind.
In some respects it was perfect. The ring was the right size, and the sand inside the ring was hot. The pylons were wrong, they were supposed to have been further apart and made of a kind of volcanic obsidian that, to his weathered orange gaze, the humans knew nothing of.
The humans were the other glaring error. They sat crouched in the ready position, seven of them, at various points around the ring. Ghidorus watched them and those he couldnt see he was aware of.
Ghidorus was not human. He was one of the Ryuga, the race that had created the tradition of the bloodmatches in the first place. He stood a full foot above the tallest of the humans, his snout curled in a vicious sneer that displayed only the first row of his razor-sharp teeth. His wild mane of blond hair was framed by grey horns, some of them cracked, some snapped off completely. His heavily muscled skin was a dark red, streaked with black, but in complete darkness, he seemed to be a living shadow. His long tail drifted behind him, making patterns in the sand.
"BEGIN!" Ghidorus rasped.
The seven humans attacked as one. Two seized his arms as two of them attempted to attack him with weapons. Ghidorus flexed his might arms, the bony protrusions of his elbows ripping through the stomachs of the two humans who pinned his arms.
He flipped backwards, his tail thrashing behind him and snapping one of the weapons from his hands. Two more rushed to attack him with their own weapons. Ghidorus whipped his tail out and smashed one of the weapons. He spun into the fighters, grasping one of them by the face and crushing his skull, his clawed fingers digging into his eye sockets. His companion attempted to reach for one of the weapons in the sand, but Ghidorus seized him with his tail, slowly constricting him like a snake would kill its prey. There was a soft sound of bones being pulped and finally he let him go.
Another of the humans rushed in to attack him, throwing two fast kicks to Ghidorus' stomach. Unfortunately for his human attacker, Ghidorus stomach and chest were the most protected parts of his body. But the massive dragon respected the human's boldness (or his foolishness) and dispatched him with a simple straight punch to his face.
The final two momentarily lost their nerve, but Ghidorus was determined they wouldnt escape. In a bloodmatch ring, the one rule was that fleeing was forbidden.
Ghidorus leapt high into the air. He came down hard on the one closest to him with a kick so hard the human's spine snapped like a whip. The final human he caught with his elbow and rammed him through the shoulder blades, puncturing his heart.
The human slid off his arm with a slow sucking sound. Ghidorus stood alone in the ring. He was the victor, but it meant nothing. The bloodmatch had been the cornerstone of his society. Everything from questions of law to trials of manhood had been decided in the ring. It was a sacred act to step into it.
Now it's not much of anything, he thought bitterly.
He bowed, paying his respects to the ring. He quietly muttered some phrases of blessing in his people's tongue and rose again. His orange eyes narrowed and he glanced over his shoulder.
"What do you want?"
"I was curious to see how you'd spend your downtime," Karasu said. He stepped quietly out of the shadows, stopping just short of the ring. "I see you couldn't stay away."
"This was the place where the bloodmatches became open to humans," Ghidorus said. "I'd never fought a human before. I was curious to test their capabilities."
"I am not impressed. How this Ademetria person killed my best student seems to me impossible."
"Ademetria is no ordinary human, Ghidorus," Karasu said, watching the dragon-man through the rings of his staff. "I've discovered as much myself."
"I thought we were waiting for the word," Ghidorus sneered. "Are you going against your own rule, now?"
"Not at all," Karasu said. "But I wanted to see him. To distress him. To let him know he's being stalked."
"I see," Ghidorus said. "How petty."
"Not at all," Karasu said. "The game's no fun if your opponent isn't formally challenged. Surely you of all people can understand that?"
"And surely you can understand that I do not see this as a game," Ghidorus said. "Ademetria profaned our society by triumphing in the bloodmatches. He killed my best student, and for both I intend to make him pay."
"I'm curious," Karasu said. "Why?"
"Because there was no way he should have won," Ghidorus said. "He has thrown everything out of balance, and to restore it, I must kill him. The others in the Onikage may see this as a mere contract, an assignment, but this is a sacred mission to me, Karasu."
Karasu watched him and said nothing for a time. "Suppose you do find him first? What then?"
"I will kill him quickly. Then I will tear the heart from his chest and eat it," Ghidorus said. "Only then will the balance be restored."
"If I didnt know better, Ghidorus, I'd say you were letting vengeance cloud your judgment."
"Do not taunt me," Ghidorus snarled. "You cannot possibly understand the pride my people had in being champions of the bloodmatches. For a Ryugan to survive to my age at all is a testament to his strength, his courage, his skill. When Ademetria killed my student, he spat in the eye of everything my people are. I cannot suffer him to live."
"And if one of the other Onikage find him first?" Karasu asked. "What happens then?"
"They will not," Ghidorus said.
"I spoke to Koriojo several hours ago," Karasu said. "Perhaps she'll find him first. She was already tracking him."
"When the time comes, Ademetria and I will meet."
"He'll come to you?"
"We will come to each other," Ghidorus said. "He has no more choice in it than I do."
"I havent yet given the word, Ghidorus," Karasu said. "There is one more element that needs to be present before we can begin the Ademetria contract."
"Soon enough," Karasu said. "In the meantime, I'm checking in on our fellow members. Making certain we will be ready when the time comes."
"I am ready," Ghidorus said.
"Good," Karasu said, rippling and vanishing into the shadows again. Ghidorus bristled.
Karasu relies too much on his tricks, his devices, and his illusions, he thought. Too much time spent on perfecting things outside himself, instead of perfecting the self.
He sighed and sat in the center of the circle, assuming a meditative position. He looked at the ring before him, at the bodies he'd littered it with, and the fine sand now caked with drying red blood.
He needed clarity now. His objective was closer than it had been in years, and neither enthusiasm nor rage could be allowed to cloud his focus and thwart his resolve.
Meditation first. He'd eat their hearts afterward.