Gregori Sun stared at his reflection in the spotty bathroom mirror of a cheap motel: waist-length straight dark hair pulled back in a tail, black eyes set at a slight slant over the flat cheekbones of his Mongolian ancestors, and the Fu Manchu mustache he’d worn since he’d become a man, longer ago than anyone who met him might imagine. The harsh glare of the light fixture glinted off the straight razor in his right hand. It trembled almost imperceptibly, a leftover echo of the debilitating damage he’d taken a year ago at the hands of the deranged and powerful witch who had once been his ally and a trusted friend.
A deep breath and a moment’s focused attention banished the tremor and steadied his hand for the task ahead. Sun entertained the wistful thought that it would be nice if all his other remaining issues could be dealt with as easily. But he was not a man who had ever taken the easy way, even if there had been one available, which there was not. Hence this next step.
Before he could change his mind, the razor flashed—once, twice, three times. Black hair fell into the sink, its darkness a stark contrast against the pitted white porcelain, just as his former life was a stark contrast to his present existence and his future path. The acrid smell of the motel’s antiseptic cleaner echoed his mood.
Now the face staring back at him seemed to belong to a stranger. Clean-shaven, with hair barely long enough to be held back by the leather thong he wore, the man in the mirror seemed somehow younger and more vulnerable, although he still wore Sun’s habitual aura of impenetrable calm. As with much else in Sun’s life these days, it was more semblance than reality.
The Buddhist monastery he was entering didn’t require first-year novices to shave their heads, any more than it mandated specific formal clothing. Students were only expected to obey the basic rules and follow the regimen of study, practice, and service. Sun had laid aside his traditional red leathers and silks anyway, as another way of putting aside the past, and now wore loose black wool pants and a black cotton turtleneck more suited to the frigid Minnesota winters.
The commitment he was making felt worthy of a symbolic sacrifice, even if no one was aware of it but him.
This was a new beginning in search of a new man; he couldn’t go into it looking the same as he had for more than a thousand years. Sun was so changed on the inside, he barely knew who he was any more. His outside might as well reflect that.
The alley reeked of rancid garbage, burning grease from the Chinese restaurant at the far end, and other pungent odors best not examined too closely, the smell so strong it almost seemed like a solid presence. An abandoned collection of ramshackle cardboard, once the temporary shelter for a homeless person, continued its slow, decaying crumble down the brick side of the building to her left, and rats scrabbled over some half-frozen garbage in an overturned can to her right.
Ciera Evans ignored them all as she concentrated on her silent pursuit of the man she’d followed for the last six nights. He vanished into the back of a dimly lit building, the door gaping open long enough to reveal a smoky interior and a circle of men sitting around a faded green table playing poker. Drunken laughter spilled out into the night and then cut off with a slam that even the rats ignored. It was that kind of neighborhood.
Not what she was looking for, she thought. Not tonight. But soon.
She backed away, careful not to trip over anything in the alley as she tucked a stray lock of dark curly hair under the hoodie that kept her reasonably warm on this cold Minnesota night while also masking her distinctive features. The worn brown leather jacket she wore on top of the hoodie fit right into the usual local attire, so she wasn’t too worried about being noticed on her way back to the car.
A couple of blocks away, though, Ciera realized she was being stalked in turn. Ironic, really. And a little inconvenient, but she could feel the pulse speed up in her throat and admitted to herself that on some level she was almost eager to be forced into action after long nights of watching and waiting and doing nothing.
The two men who followed her no doubt thought she was easy prey. They were about to find out just how wrong they were.
“Hand over your money and your phone and nobody needs to get hurt,” said the bigger of the two toughs as they closed in on her. His heavy boots clattered on the icy sidewalk, the same sound that had alerted Ciera to her unwanted escort.
“That’s what you think,” Ciera said, using a low, raspy voice to disguise her sex. A twist of her wrists sent her fighting sticks sliding out of her sleeves and into her hands, and she set her feet in a stance that was both rooted and flexible. “Last chance to walk away, boys.”
The shorter man, underdressed for the weather in ripped pants and holey sneakers, shook his shaved head. “Not a chance, dude. In case you haven’t noticed, there are two of us and only one of you, and you’re kind of scrawny. A couple of pieces of wood aren’t going to save you.” He nodded to his friend and they both moved in closer, scruffy faces wearing matching expressions of stubble-adorned menace.
“Too true,” Ciera whispered, lower than they were likely to hear. “But a couple of pieces of wood and years of self-defense classes will go a long way.”
She didn’t bother to show off—a rookie mistake—attacking instead in a flurry of kicks and hits aimed at vulnerable knees, elbows, and collarbones that left the men lying groaning on the ground behind her. She shoved the fighting sticks back up her sleeves and kept on walking without a backward glance.
A few twists and turns later and she was back at the car she always used for her evening forays. It couldn’t be traced to her since it was registered in the name of a woman long dead. A practical vehicle, it also served to remind her of why she did what she did. The dead woman had been her friend. More than her friend—her savior. Now Ciera carried on her friend’s mission, because it was the only way she could repay the debt she owed. And because she’d made a promise to the only person in her life who had ever kept their word to her.
Back in her apartment, she stripped off the anonymous hoodie and stared at herself in the bathroom mirror. She wasn’t sure she recognized the woman staring back at her. It was hard to say which one was real—the face she showed the world during the day or the one she hid at night. Maybe neither. But if there was another Ciera beyond those two, she wasn’t sure what that woman would look like. Or if she’d even like her if she ever had a chance to find out.