Chapter 2 – Janus’s Third Victim
I dangled the necklace in front of me.
Although it was a small and dainty thing, I found myself to be entranced by the magic that swirled beneath the amethyst’s iridescent surface.
Father had said that the necklace could change my appearance. It had been a gift from the Emperor to the Southern Duke after they had annihilated the small kingdom of Devamayi. Father had no use for it, so he gave it to me when I was born. But I never had any use for it either—until now.
I clasped the magical item around my neck and frowned when nothing changed.
“I need to be quick,” I muttered, impatient to leave and get my part of the deal done with. If the people outside saw my blonde hair and jade-green eyes, they might be able to figure out my identity. Although I would have welcomed the attention any other day, it would only slow me down. For reasons I couldn’t understand, Darius had also warned me never to go outside without a disguise.
I played with the amethyst stone. “I wish I looked like a commoner,” I sighed. If I couldn’t figure out how to use the necklace, I’d have to use the potions in Darius’s room.
My lips parted with surprise when my appearance suddenly changed into a girl with reddish brown hair and juniper eyes. I remembered her because she was a servant in our estate who was in charge of tending the garden’s flowers. Every morning, she picked the best ones to decorate our rooms and hallways. Even so, I had never bothered to learn her name. She was a servant. A criminal. A charity case.
I stared at my reflection for a moment longer before tucking the necklace underneath my shirt.
As I had expected, the maids and guards milling around the Eferhild estate ignored me as I walked towards the back of the residence. Around me, trees of amber and vermilion swayed in the chilly breeze. From their branches, leaves spiraled down in their annual dance of death. It was quite different in the summer when roses, violets, and everything in between bloomed in color-coded rows.
When I reached the end of the garden, I wriggled through the small opening and emerged hidden by more trees and foliage.
The vegetation receded when I reached the marketplace.
Although I had seen far prettier and shinier things at home, I was stunned by the color and variety around me. Unlike the refined stores that surrounded the royal palace, this place was a hot oven. Vendors clamored to sell their wares, pubs offered beer in broad daylight, and the fresh aroma of spices and street food wafted in the air. I walked through the chaos with a light bounce in my step, resisting the urge to touch everything I saw.
The serenity was broken by a woman’s screams. People pressed against me, some eager to witness the commotion while others scrambled to get away. The opposing forces whirled around me like a monstrous hurricane, with me standing in the eye of the storm.
As I tried to make sense of the chaos, I picked up a familiar sound.
“Steel,” I whispered to myself. It sounded like multiple swords had crossed each other, producing a screeching effect that was more friend than foe.
I continued forward and reached an open square. A marble statue of Demeter, the Southern Dukedom’s patron, stood at it’s very center. She was our most celebrated goddess—after the king of gods himself.
With the goddess as his witness, a cloaked man wearing a white mask struck down three guards. My eyes widened as I tried to pick apart the techniques he used, but he was too fast.
“Viscount Becher.” With the guards down, he pointed his sword at a man in fine clothing.
“Who sent you?” the Viscount demanded. Although he quivered at the face of a weapon, he still upheld a nobleman’s pride. In contrast, the Viscountess was on the ground, a hysterical, sobbing mess from the prospect of her imminent death. She had been the one who screamed.
I recognized both of them from the many social events I’d attended. Although Viscount Becher had always been a greasy man who got too close to my personal space, I thought about helping them—they were still nobles and subordinates of my father, after all. But with the horde of people around me, I didn’t dare draw attention to myself.
The masked man playfully traced the blade of his sword on the Viscount’s clothes, feeling no obligation to answer him. “For your crimes of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, I give you death.”
He went into further detail, depicting the gruesome things the Viscount had done. I tuned him out, feeling queasy.
Finally, the vigilante raised his sword and slashed the nobleman with calculated savagery. The Viscount fell on his knees, his expression frozen with horror, before landing face-first on the ground. A puddle of crimson slowly spread out from underneath his body, seeping into the cobblestone. I winced, trying to still my trembling hands. Someone died in front of my eyes for the first time.
“Damn you, Darius,” I cursed underneath my breath. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be in this mess.
The masked man wiped the blood on his blade with a white handkerchief and sheathed his sword into the scabbard that hung from his hips. The people gathered around the scene held their breaths. They watched the vigilante toss something in the air, and recoiled when it exploded into a powdery smoke that enveloped the square. By the time it cleared out, he was gone.
The commoners immediately began to whisper among themselves.
“It seems like he only targets the nobility.”
“This is his third kill, after the Counts in the East and West.”
“He’s a dead man when the imperial family gets involved.”
“But did you see how Janus just disappeared?”
“That’s right… He’s different from the rest.
“Janus.” I savored his name on my tongue.
In our pantheon of ninety-nine gods, Janus was the god of duality among other things. He had two faces, one that looked to the future and the other that looked to the past. Similar to the duality of his appearance, he committed both good and bad deeds. Comparing him to a god seemed extreme, but commoners were looking to justify things they didn’t understand. It was a rather fitting name too—killing nobles was against the law, but if the masked man was being truthful, the Viscount’s death would save a lot more people.
Against my better judgment, I wandered away from the sea of people. While they painted him as some god, he was a mere human being in my eyes. Even the Emperor was mortal, despite being descended from the king of gods himself. Unless this man never died and bled gold—or had enough gold to never bleed—he couldn’t possibly be equal to Janus.
I wanted to challenge him. It was frustrating to see someone who was possibly better than me, and insulting that he dared to disrupt the social hierarchy. The masked man might have had impressive sword-fighting skills, but so did I.
He couldn’t be far. My suspicions led me to a nearby alleyway, dark and desolate enough to provide a safe escape.
I peeked around the back of the building and frowned upon seeing a red handkerchief on the ground. He was sloppy, but I suppose it didn’t matter seeing that he was skilled enough to have slaughtered a well-protected nobleman.
Running towards the dead end, I hoisted myself onto the ledge of the wall. After some struggle, I managed to climb on top of the roof. I looked around my surroundings, my frown returning when he was nowhere to be found.
Or so I thought.
My neck suddenly prickled with something cold and sharp. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the blade of a sword, its perpetrator poised behind me.
“You’ve been looking for me,” the man said.