Chapter 3 – The Request
“She wasn’t looking for a knight; She was looking for a sword.”
I had read about vigilantes in books before. They were depicted as fools who sought nothing but chaos. They were hypocrites who rioted against the upper class but would naturally replace them when their so-called oppressors fell. Needless to say, I didn’t like vigilantes very much. But I admired great swordsmen, and it was no exaggeration to say that the masked man was even better than Sir Sergius.
I squeezed my eyes shut as the blade dug into my skin, producing a thin line of blood. Where did he come from?
“I—I have a request,” I said, more awed by his skill than fearful that he would actually kill me. I internally cursed myself for stuttering. My etiquette teacher would have been ashamed of me.
The man removed the sword from my neck, and I heard it slide into his scabbard. I hesitantly turned around, resisting the urge to scramble backward. Because he was so tall, I had to lean back to see his face. I couldn’t help but be intimidated by his smooth and pristine mask, which made him seem emotionless and inhumane. His brown eyes were the only part of his face left uncovered.
“Spar with me,” I commanded bravely, trying to keep my nervousness from surfacing. He would be the perfect sparring partner.
The man blinked in surprise. “I don’t have time for that.” His voice was both hollow and entrancing, almost like a blurry dream that I never wanted to wake up from. But despite the smooth silkiness of words that rolled down his tongue, his teeth produced a hard edge that snapped me back to reality.
“You’re talking to me right now,” I pointed out.
A pause. “I’m trying to gauge whether I should kill you or not.”
“Right, of course.” I cleared my throat, which suddenly felt dry. It was difficult to tell whether he was joking or not. “Then where can I find someone as good as you?”
Amusement colored his voice, but it was more mocking than anything. “There are only two people as good as me in the Angati Empire, but you would never be able to meet them.”
I frowned. “I doubt that,” I muttered. I had even met the Emperor a few times. There were few great men and women that I hadn’t—and couldn’t—meet.
The masked man tilted his head. It was like he was trying to pry me open with his snake-like eyes. “You’re arrogant because you’ve never met anyone better than you.”
“That’s not true.” I smiled proudly. “I just surpassed them all.”
Mother would say I was being shameless, but I liked to think I was being truthful. Since when did abiding by my family motto, which valued truth and honesty over all else, become synonymous with arrogance?
“Then you should expand your horizons,” Janus said.
I frowned. Even if I didn’t have many people to compare myself with, I knew I was good. “I suppose that’s what I get for following your own advice,” I said, eyeing his scabbard. I looked up at him, somewhat displeased. “At the cost of my life, it seems.”
Darius had wanted for me to understand the place I was fighting for, but to hell with that. I had set my eyes on my next adversary, and I wouldn’t stop until he was mine.
“Do you think I’m going to kill you?” the man asked with an icy glint in his eyes. I stared at his hand, which rested on the pommel of his sword.
“I don’t think so,” I confessed. He had no reason to kill a servant girl who played no part in the Viscount Becher’s crimes, just like he had no reason to kill the guards who were simply doing their jobs or the Viscountess who happened to be married to such a man. “You’re a hero to us, you know.”
The man stared at me, and I resisted the urge to squirm beneath his calculating gaze. “You’re quite fearless,” he said.
I grinned, hoping that he yielded to my flattery. It worked like a charm with other girls—one honeyed word, and they clustered around me like starved bees.
“Next time, don’t go poking around in other people’s business,” he continued. “They won’t be as merciful. ”
When he turned around, I abruptly stood up and grabbed the sleeve of his tunic. He still wasn’t taking me seriously. “Please, sir.”
He snorted. “Sir?” His brown eyes glanced at me sharply. “I’m no gentleman.”
My cheeks flushed with indignation, not knowing what else to call him. I only used this title for the people I respected, and he should have been content that I was asking so nicely. “I only want to spar with you,” I said. “You know what people think of female knights. One day, I want to become a General.”
Now that we were so close, I could smell a subtle but distinct scent of berries. The fragrance was both sweet-tart and winey, drawing me in like a moth to a flame. But at the same time, something less appealing dwelled beneath its fruity smell—something that was as acidic and dry as the Johona Desert.
Janus’s eyes suddenly darkened with something I couldn’t make out. He reached forward. The air seemed to get warmer as his scorching fingers traced the nape of my neck.
I stiffened when he grabbed my necklace in his hand. His fingers curled around the purple amethyst so tightly, his knuckles turned white.
“Why are you wearing illusion magic?” he hissed.
I opened my mouth, but no words came out. My mind went into overdrive as I tried to search for an excuse without giving away my identity. Illusion magic was not native to the Angati Empire; They were war spoils from the lost kingdom of Devamayi. Due to their rather mysterious nature, most were hidden away by the King. A few harmless ones like the one I owned were given as gifts to the highest ranking nobles, such as my father, who the King happened to depend on the most.
“I—I had no choice, sir,” I forced out.
His molten brown irises held me captive. I could barely breath underneath his steadfast gaze. “Who are you?”
I mustered up the courage to stare into his eyes, my thoughts drowning out the rapid beating of my heart. My name had always been my everything. I loved the way girls said it as they clustered around me. I loved the way servants announced it when I entered a room full of expectant nobles. Most of all, I loved the way it changed the look in people’s eyes—from one of disinterest to one of respect and admiration.
But Janus’s eyes were blank and lifeless, and it seemed like they had always been like that. For the first time, I felt uncertain. Although he had spared the Viscountess, the thought of him knowing my name terrified me. I didn’t even know why.
“I’m a servant working for the Eferhild estate,” I finally said.
“A servant who knows how to wield the sword?”
“I had to learn how to defend myself.” He did not seem satisfied by my answer, so I continued making words up on the spot. “I—I stole the illusion necklace from the Duke’s daughter because it makes a person more beautiful, you see. I’ve always had terrible burns on my face and people made fun of me for it.”
The Angati Empire was infamous for playing with fire. We burned criminals at the stake and razed foreign villages to the ground. We turned flesh, bones, and skin into soot and made the sky rain with chalky ash. The girl who tended our estate’s flowers had also been a criminal, but while she didn’t have any visible scars, I remembered her for her eyes—eyes which were so vulnerable and haunted that they could have been scars themselves.
The silence stretched out between us. He let me go. “Okay,” he said.
I looked up at him, trying to hide my surprise. “Okay?”
“Meet me here tomorrow morning, before sunrise.” His voice hardened. “Just this once.”
I could barely contain my elation when I stuck my hand out. Despite my efforts to look serious, my lips quirked into a smile. “Shake on it.”
Janus hesitantly brought his hand out from his cloak. He gingerly touched my skin with his leather glove, almost as if I had some disease. I leaned forward and gripped his hand in mine. This is what Father would do when he had guests over and they made promises with one another.
Janus froze and averted his eyes. As soon as I pulled away, he grumbled something underneath his breath before promptly jumping down the roof. When I scrambled over the edge, he was gone.