Chapter 1 1
I HAD THE MOST FAMOUS face in the galaxy, but no one recognized me.
Today, there were eyes on me. I felt them.
My feet scuffed to a stop.
A split second later, another pair of footsteps halted.
I was being followed.
My steps resumed their smooth stride down the street. Interesting. It had been months since I’d faced a threat. In truth, I’d grown rather restless with boredom.
Misery was a constant of life on Devil’s Shade. In this most distant and hopeless of provinces, frustration boiled in every heart, leaked through every strident voice. Anger sought an outlet.
A lone young woman drew predators.
I could have avoided trouble, if I’d tried to blend in. I could have cut my long locks, worn large jackets, ducked my head… my size alone could have convinced hostile eyes that I was a decently muscled male. But something hard and vicious in me took pleasure in refusing to hide.
Instead I wore my long white-blond hair down. I’d made the color fashionable and saw it everywhere now, so why change it? When I walked down the street, I did not slouch. I made no effort whatsoever to avoid strangers’ attention. I met every stare with a stare.
They were just humans. Let them hide from me.
The only disguise that obscured me was the burn across the right side of my face. I had Neveni Sagnau to thank for that tiny scrap of anonymity. If I ever met her again, I meant to return the favor.
My steps slowed again so I could gauge how many pursued me. The subtle pause between the steps grinding to a halt…
I’d been hoping for a challenge.
My mind rushed over the rules I’d laid out for myself: no attacking without provocation, and no chasing however much it entertained me. After all, it was never fair, and giving chase stoked a dark instinct in me, one I had resolved to battle.
I was a Diabolic engineered for murder, but I was not some crazed beast.
A rational being did not chase one who fled, nor could I assume anyone’s motives without evidence. Yet even as I reminded myself, I strained my ears for the shuffling of footsteps, and a pleasant excitement began to shiver through my limbs.
Stop. Do not indulge this, I told myself, and stopped walking.
It took several lingering, sloppy seconds for my pursuers to catch up to me.
The trio of shadowy men broke into jeering smiles as they fanned out around me. “You look lost,” called the largest of them.
I regarded them for a long moment.
My total lack of fear often frightened away those men who sniffed about for the vulnerable. Most heeded their instincts that something was “off” about me and escaped with their lives.
“Understand me,” I said quietly and clearly. “I don’t want to be followed. I am going to walk away and you will go in another direction. I will show no mercy on you otherwise.”
Then I turned my back to them. A dank alleyway presented itself, and I swerved into it. A dead end: perfect. I leaned against a wall to wait.
“You looked better from behind,” called the scraggly-haired one, and the other two laughed. “What’s that on your face, a disease?”
I could have lied about my scars and said it was a disease. Skin-rot, maybe. It might have driven them away.
But I was not in the mood to be kind. I just waited.
“Answer me, you ugly bitch,” the man snarled. “I’m being nice to you.”
“Yeah, we’re real nice,” said the largest of them, elbowing the third, the quiet one hanging back. “Aren’t we?”
Uneasy laughter and a muttered, “Maybe we should go,” from the third.
“No, no, she’s got to tell us we’re nice,” said the scraggly one. “Actually, maybe thank us. Thank us for being nice to such an ugly bitch.”
The scraggly one crossed the distance to me and invaded my space, until I could smell his body odor, until I could see the pores on his nose, the missing teeth bared by his smile. He planted one palm on the wall next to my head, and then the other.
“Well? Gonna say anything now?” he said. “How about… now?”
Then he laid his hands on me.
I’d warned them.
I rammed an uppercut into his jaw, and his bones gave a satisfying crunch as his neck fractured, killing him instantly. Forward I shot, snagging the arms of both his companions before they could react, dragging them bodily closer to me.
“Who’s next?” I roared, my voice bestial.
Panic lit their faces. I crashed my head into the larger man’s face, then sank a roundhouse into the ribs of the other, hearing the splinter on impact.
The larger one had stumbled back from me, clutching his head, and now he stumbled over his dead friend. He gave a squawk of anger at the sight of him.… “Murph? Murph! She killed him! She…” His hand dove into his jacket and withdrew a blade that gleamed in the light.
It slashed at my face. Too easy. I caught his wrist. His eyes met mine, disbelief ablaze in his face as I slowly twisted his arm about to turn his blade back toward him. This man was so large, he’d likely never been overpowered in his life, and now he found himself at my mercy.
“Having second thoughts?” I whispered.
“You bitch—” he rasped, and sealed his fate.
Enough. I stopped holding back and stabbed the blade through his eye.
Then I turned on the third man, the most hesitant of the three, who was sprawled on the concrete of the alley.
“Well?” I spread my arms invitingly.
He gawked up at me, wild-eyed with terror, and he finally saw me.
My size. The white-blond of my hair. The dead men behind me, battered with my unnatural strength, murdered so easily with an unnatural skill…
“It’s you. It has to be you.” He said the words with a sort of wonder. He raised his shaking hand and gestured to something behind me.
I could guess what it was before I looked, but I did so anyway, just hoping he’d try to strike at my back and give me an excuse to kill him.
Sure enough, there was graffiti on the wall amid the indecipherable messages of the dispossessed, a single stark image of that cruel and lion-haired goddess, white fire seeming to scorch up around her hard, precise features fixed in promise of revenge.
Above and below her, that familiar phrase:
The pathetic wretch was scurrying back, still on the ground, scooting like a crab across the alley.
“Don’t hurt me,” he said to me. “I didn’t want to do this. I swear to you, I didn’t. Please, Nemesis. Please.”
Yes. Now that he knew precisely what I was, he knew this was what he should have been doing from the start: begging me for his life. And I should not listen to him. He had seen me. He would give me away. He would endanger me.
I had promised no mercy.
He knew there was no escaping a Diabolic.
As I stalked after this weak, pitiful thing, a memory tickled at the back of my mind—another man, so many years ago, pleading with me to spare his life. I’d made one decision then as a young Diabolic desperate to escape a lifelong cage.
But I was not that frightened child now. I was not a trapped creature, at the mercy of others. There was no Matriarch here to make this decision in my stead, and I no longer believed there was a better, kinder life awaiting me if I but shed a few more drops of blood. No. All that lay down that path for me was more death, more ruin, more destruction.
His eyes were screwed shut, muscles braced, head bowed in surrender to fate.
“What is your name?” I said to him.
“Janus Metz, Your Supremacy.”
My jaw clenched. Your Supremacy. I’d hoped never to hear that accursed honorific again. But since he’d used it, I seized his hair and tilted his face up to make him look at me. “You will not tell another soul you saw me.”
“No,” he said.
“Good, because I will remember your name, and if you are lying to me…” I ripped a handful of hair from his head, and held it up for him to see. “I have your scent, Janus Metz. Do you know Diabolics can track like bloodhounds?”
It was a lie. My sense of smell was as dull as a regular human’s. He couldn’t know that.
He nodded, wide-eyed. “I know I can’t run.”
“That’s very wise of you. You will take care of these bodies for me.”
“And you will never do anything like this again: no victimizing people on the street.”
“I didn’t want to—”
“You were weak. You gave in to them. Never do that again. I will find out if you do.”
I would not find out, but I let him think so. He looked upon me with a strange, slack-jawed expression. “You truly are what they say you are,” he whispered. “You seek justice.” His eyes were actually shimmering with tears. “I will prove myself. I will deserve your mercy!”
I sighed and knocked him back to the ground with my heel, then stepped past him. But something made me turn back.
He was still sprawled on the ground. But over his head, on the rude brick, a pair of painted eyes glared into mine, their look accusatory.
I glared back. Nemesis the icon, the galaxy’s own hero—a legend who did not and never had truly existed.
The Excess had believed me dead. Not at my husband’s hands, but supposedly at the hands of the Partisans years before, during their attack on the Tigris.… It had been my attack, but blame was laid to them, for all the truths of the Empire were cloaked in lies. Apparently, the Nemesis slain in full view of the galaxy in the ball dome was a Partisan imposter.
Yes, I’d been dead as far as everyone knew, and in retrospect, I’d been better off for it. I could have lived a life of obscurity, forgotten, a short-lived and tragic memory.
Instead I’d set out to show myself alive by assassinating Tyrus—and then I’d truly ruined everything.