The crowded streets of Corrastâ€™s market district clamored with the sounds of activity. Stalls lined the web of narrow streets that made up the district, choking already constricted streets with vendors and their wares. Some did not even have stalls, and arrayed their merchandise on thick rugs or stacked upon crates, yet there was not a single vendor that did not add their voice to the cacophonous din of offers and counteroffers.
Amilar Himura crinkled his hawk nose at the display as he half-marched down one of the busier sections of the marketplace. He ignored a merchantâ€™s entreats of a miracle polish that would increase the sharpness of the sword that hung on his belt. His hand dropped down to his purse instinctively, which hung near the hilt of his blade and gave it a pat, feeling the bits of silver through the thin hide. One could not be too careful in such a place. The press of bodies gave the place a stifling atmosphere and he had to shoulder past more than one man just to make way for the woman trailing behind him.
She had a pale and delicate hand gripped lightly on the fabric of his sleeve, just above his elbow. He spared breath to look back and smiled at his sister, and even though he knew that she would not be able to see it, but saw that her lips were curled upwards in a smile that to Himura, seemed to calm the chaos around them. Her head was tilted slightly towards the ground, causing shoulder length strands of raven black hair to veil her face and brush against her heavy shirt. Her other hand held a small handful of her skirt, to keep the hems out of the way as Himura and his other companion forge ahead in a brisk pace.
Some of the people did not take kindly to being brushed aside but thought better of it when they noticed his two companions. Not that he was unable to defend himself, but he held such things with a fair bit of distaste. He took a moment and glanced over to the childhood friend beside him, and was glad for his presence. His friendâ€™s dirty blond hair was short and neat, having been trimmed this morning. It was a sharp contrast with Himuraâ€™s own, which was long and colored a dark shade of mahogany brown.
His friend had the poise of a seasoned soldier, and they gave the men around them pause, but his light blue eyes held a cheery twinkle when he looked his way. It had been his idea to take a stroll through the city. â€œIsnâ€™t this great?â€ he asked with a contented sigh, â€œThe bustle, the activity. Reminds you of home donâ€™t it?â€
Himura chuckled mirthlessly and checked his light travel robes after brushing past a particularly sweaty and uncouth looking man, â€œI hope youâ€™re joking, Kenji. Iâ€™m starting to regret leaving the inn.â€
Kenji waved dismissively in response, the light jingle of the chainmail links under his pressed shirt was drowned out by the general roar of the gathered vendors, â€œAnd back to your books Iâ€™m sure.â€ He paused to brush aside more of the crowd as they traveled further into the marketplace. â€œYou need to get out once in a while.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve been on the road for five months,â€ Himura replied dryly.
â€œYou know what I mean.â€
â€œNo, I donâ€™t.â€
â€œOh, being coy now are we?â€
Himura grinned but said nothing. The crowd was thinning out a bit after they had passed through the busiest area and for that he was grateful. â€œI know that itâ€™s your turn to decide where we go next, but why are we still here? Weâ€™ve already bought all the supplies weâ€™ll need for the next leg of our journey.â€
â€œI figured a job might be a good change of pace.â€
â€œA job?â€ Himura repeated, the skepticism evident in his voice.
â€œMaybe you havenâ€™t noticed, but our cash flow has been a littleâ€¦how should I put this,â€ he paused for dramatic effect, â€œnonexistent.â€
â€œSays the man whose first priority when entering any settlement is to â€˜scout outâ€™ the nearest tavern.â€
â€œYou wound me, you really do,â€ Kenji replied with a look of feigned innocence, but said nothing more after that. They exited the marketplace several minutes later and he led them down a narrow side street. The alley was quiet, but clean and well lit in the afternoon sun. His face took on a look that matched the seriousness of his voice when he spoke again, â€œBut we really do need to find some income. The last few tombs weâ€™ve gone over have turned up nothing worth selling.â€
â€œI was sure that the last one wouldnâ€™t have been looted yet,â€ Himura muttered, the taste of disappointment still fresh in his mouth.
Kenji shrugged, â€œMelas spat in our faces then, but not this time. This job is from an Immaculate monk. Now I know what youâ€™re thinking. But Kenji, where would a monk get a worthwhile stash of jade? Well their order keeps a nice bank account for side ventures and the like, so Iâ€™d say this is worth our time. And heâ€™ll pay upfront.â€
Himura frowned, â€œI donâ€™t think that itâ€™d be wise to get mixed up with their kind. The band of fanatics and zealots that they are,â€ he said and finished with an unconvinced shake of his head.
â€œDonâ€™t worry so much,â€ Kenji waved dismissively, â€œLook, I know this guy. He taught me a few things a couple decades ago, right up before we picked up our roots and left the ole fortress. And I know you know we need the money, manly pride is blinding you is all. Wouldnâ€™t you want to have enough to afford new shoes for Mikoto-chan?â€
Himura felt his sisterâ€™s grip tighten ever so slightly, â€œI understand your concerns, but Iâ€™d appreciate it if you didnâ€™t speak as though I were not here, Yushoto-san,â€ she said quietly. Though her voice was soft, there was also a serene firmness to it that made her voice heard even when she barely spoke above a whisper.
â€œMeant no disrespect, Mikoto-chan, but you know Iâ€™m right. Weâ€™ve barely enough to get us to the next city, let alone another expedition.â€
A gentle tug on his sleeve told Himura that she wished to stop, so he motioned to Kenji and they stopped where the alley ended into the main streets once more. Mikoto released Himuraâ€™s robe and looked up at each of them in turn with closed eyes. It impressed him how she always knew where their eyes were. He had only seen her eyes once, shortly after she was born, a rich shade of brown that they both shared. Though she was without sight, her grace and steps hinted otherwise. She paused to smooth her skirts then said, â€œYushoto-san is right, Nii-sama. It would not hurt to see what this Immaculate has to say, especially since he was once Yushoto-sanâ€™s mentor. We could always decline his offer later.â€
Himura sighed. He did not like it, but he knew when he was beaten. â€œAll right, weâ€™ll see what this monk has to say.â€
â€œGreat!â€ Kenji pounded a fist over his open palm. â€œIâ€™ll go set up a meeting with him once weâ€™re done here. Heâ€™s staying at the keep with his entourage.â€
â€œSure,â€ Himura agreed, â€œWeâ€™ll head back to the inn and wait for you.â€
â€œIf it is all right with, Nii-sama,â€ Mikoto took a step towards Kenji and grabbed hold of his shirt sleeve, â€œIâ€™d like to go with Yushoto-san.â€
â€œTo get a feel for the Immaculate?â€ he asked, to which she nodded. â€œAll right. Be careful.â€ And to Kenji, â€œAnd watch out for her.â€
â€œLike my own family,â€ his friend promised with a quick salute and the two men exchanged a chuckle.
Amilar Himura waited as Kenji entered the crowd with Mikoto trailing close behind. A heavy cloud felt over him as it always did whenever his sister was not nearby, a cold worry that darkened his thoughts with possible dangers. And like always he blew a slow breath out that sent a shiver ran down his limbs while his mind grasped for calm. Another breath and a few moments later cleared his mind. Feeling better, he checked his daiklaive, making sure the blade was still secure before stepping into the busy street.
Kenji was right; the constant bustle did remind him of home. If he had closed his eyes and let the chaotic chatter surround him, itâ€™d be no different than Lookshyâ€™s metic quarter. Even the faint smell of chimney smoke reminded him of the thick smog that perpetually blanketed the districts that housed the Seventh Legionâ€™s factories and workshops.
It had been twenty years since theyâ€™ve last seen the fortified walls of the city of their birth. Twenty years without a home. For a moment, he wondered how his family fared what they would think of their wayward son now. He smiled a bit ruefully at the thought. He had no regrets however, not then, and not now. But try as he might, thoughts of the past continued to push to the forefront of his mind as the drone of the city faded into the background. Streets blurred into one another. So much so that it surprised him how quickly the inn came into view, which was near the main city gate on the other side of the marketplace.
The inn was a building of weathered wood and sun-dulled brick, much like its neighbors. Space within the city walls were a premium, so every building save those found in the noble quarter around the keep were packed tightly next to one another. Narrow alleys allowed large blocks of buildings to be built with only a few wide avenues for wagons and traffic. A wooden sign which simply read â€˜Wayfarerâ€™s Reprieveâ€™ in faded letters hung over the innâ€™s door.
He was greeted by the warm scent of baking bread as he opened the door. A rather plain looking young woman greeted him as he shut the door behind him and when she recalled his face informed him that a fresh batch of bread had been brought out in the common room. His eyes followed her pointing hand to the door behind her and to the left, opposite of the staircase that led to the guest rooms. He thanked her, and then stepped around the girl, past the small desk with a thick ledger atop of it and through the open door.
The pleasant scent of fresh pastries was thick in the air and the wall lamps gave the room a warm yellow-orange glow. He eyes glanced over the bar as he entered and nodded in response to the tavernkeeperâ€™s absentminded wave. The middle-aged man, whose name eluded him, wore a clean grey shirt and brown cloth vest, and had a no less than three rags looped around his belt. There was a platter of rolls on the counter, still steaming from the oven.
His gaze then swept over the four tables that lined the wall across from the bar. The room was mostly empty with only two tables occupied. A pair of men sat at the bar, tradesmen by the look of their simple work cloths and broad shoulders, and a couple sat at the table nearest him with what he assumed to be a daughter and two young boys.
He saw that the barkeeper was making a half-hearted effort to clean a glass, but the manâ€™s eyes were on the table farthest from the door, more specifically the blond woman that sat there. She had her back towards him and did not react as he made his way to the bar. The vulgar whispers of the two men aimed towards the woman raised his ire as he walked past, but he kept his mouth shut until he reached the barkeeper, who stood behind the middle section of the bar. It surprised that even the young family took turns glancing in the womanâ€™s direction. His curiosity piqued, he took a seat and waved to the barkeeper, who shuffled over with a none-too-pleased expression.
â€œNeed something?â€ he mumbled, still not looking at him.
â€œTea, please,â€ Himura said pleasantly as he smoothed the sleeves of his robe. The motion caught the barkeeperâ€™s attention and the man finally looked at him and his eyes widened into his weathered brow when he recognized him.
â€œM-my apologies, Master Himura,â€ the man blurted with a quick bow. â€œI wasâ€¦you seeâ€¦,â€ he continued to say when Himura gestured offhandedly.
â€œDo not trouble yourself,â€ Himura said with a reassuringly smile. Even though the city was far from any major Dragon-Blooded influence, the presence of one still made an impact on its people. Nevertheless, he did not find the extra attention very enjoyable.
â€œYou are most generous,â€ the man said as he backed away. â€œIâ€™ll bring you your tea,â€ and with that he went to busy himself behind the counter.
Himura took the moment to turn a little in his seat and looked over his shoulder at the woman that sat in the corner of the room.
What he saw made him suck in a shallow breath. Sweet Mela, sheâ€™s beautiful, was the thought that immediately came to mind. Though he was only able to see her profile, her appearance rivaled many of the goddesses that he had seen during his time spent in Great Forks. Her blond hair was pale gold, like spun sunlight that fell in straight tresses down just before reaching the small of her back. She wore a long, forest green tunic with grayish silver trim, a popular pattern in the city. It covered the upper portion of the black leggings that concealed her legs. Her black booted feet were crossed at the ankles and she had a distant look on her face. Her posture was a little hunched, her face staring down over the glass of water in her slender hands, though he doubted that she saw the cup.
The gentle clink on the counter turned his attention back to the tavernkeeper and the steaming mug of tea in front of him. He took a small sip and nodded approvingly to the other man, who briefly took on a look of relief before he went back to cleaning the same glass as before and watching the young woman.
Himura leaned forward in his seat, glad that the barkeeper had not wandered too far for him to whisper, â€œThat woman, who is she?â€
The barkeeperer shrugged, â€œHavenâ€™t asked. Nobody seems to be wanting to approach her since she came in about an hour ago.â€
â€œSo sheâ€™s staying here?â€
â€œAye,â€ he nodded and set down the glass, â€œMy daughter prepared her room, and the wife said she came in with this other woman.â€
â€œOther woman?â€ Himura inquired, masking his interest with another sip of tea.
â€œAye. Tall and dark-skinned. Donâ€™t see too many of those around here.â€
â€œA Southerner then.â€
The barkeeper shook his head, â€œNot that dark, lad-erm, Master Himura.â€
The Dragon-Blooded waved crossly, â€œNo need to be so formal,â€ he said and waited until he was sure that he got his message across. â€œSo a Westerner then. Where is she now?â€ he wondered and mouthed an â€˜oh wellâ€™ into his mug at the barkeeperâ€™s unknowing shrug.
Himura let the man get back to his work, or ogling as the case may be and plucked a roll from the platter beside him. He ripped a more manageable chunk off the loaf in his hands then took another sip of his drink. It was a bit too bitter than how he preferred his tea, but he did not mind. Content with his fare, he let his eyes wander to the roomâ€™s other inhabitants.
The two tradesmen had left, undoubtedly to whatever job they held. He suppressed a chuckle when the couple sent their children up to their rooms a short time later, an order the young ones complained against most vigorously. The kitchen behind the bar began to show some signs of activity and the glow outside took on an orange tint. He sighed contently and listened to the low hum of activity from outside as it mingled with the chatter of pots and sudden hisses of steam from the kitchen and briefly wondered how much longer Kenji and Mikoto were going be.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of boots on the floorboards and the gentle movement of air as someone came up next to him. â€œExcuse me,â€ said the light, feminine voice that accompanied the presence.
He looked up towards the source of the voice with words of accommodation on the tip of his tongue but he suddenly found himself unable to speak as the blond woman moved into his field of vision and reached past him to take one of the rolls. The woman glanced at him with eyes that reminded him of the hue and depth of the seas near Lookshy. They also held a bit of uncertainty as well, which prompted him to shut his jaw with an embarrassingly audible clamp, and was glad that she did not react to his slip of etiquette. Being this close, he noted that her cloths were creased and a bit stiff, as though fresh off a vendorâ€™s shelf, and that she smelled faintly of grass and earth.
She also looked tired, he thought and the smooth curves of her face were marred by a slight frown. It reminded him that he had yet to say a word and he hastily mumbled a response that even he could not understand.
Come on, Himura! he said to himself, This is nothing. Remember the tomb full of hungry ghosts? That was frightening. Remember the cult of yozi-worshippers? That was hard. This is nothing.
â€œUrm-Excuse me, uh miss!â€ he called out a bit too loudly as the woman began to return to her table. It took all of his will to keep the color from his face as he wondered what else to say. The womanâ€™s blue eyes seemed to bore into him and his throat grew hoarse, as if a hand were squeezing the life out of him. â€œI uhhâ€¦that is to say, would you like to join me. At the bar. For a drink. Since youâ€™re sitting in the cornerâ€¦and Iâ€™mâ€¦at the barâ€¦â€ he trailed off as it became apparent to him of how terrible that sounded and silently thanked Sextes Jylis that Kenji was not there to witness the debacle or heâ€™d never live it down.
â€œOh, ah thank you, but I already have a-,â€ she began to say when the barkeeper reappeared as though out of thin air and set a fresh glass of water on the counter with a bit more enthusiasm than was proper. She was cautious as she spoke and the look in her eyes shifted between him and her original glass on the table.
â€œDonâ€™t you mind it, lass,â€ said the tavernkeeper with an elbow propped over the counter and broad grin, â€œIâ€™ll take care of that for you.â€
â€œThank you,â€ she said a bit faintly while looking a little dazed.
Himura started to turn back on his seat when the woman surprised him and sat on the stood next to him. As the moments passed, he noticed her cheeks turning pink under the barkeeperâ€™s now unabashed stare and cleared his throat loudly to snap the man out of it. â€œWould you kindly bring the lady some tea? The good leaves please, as mine was a bit too bitter.â€
The barkeeper shot a cold glare at him before pleasantly excusing himself to the woman. Her shoulders relaxed somewhat when the man had gone and she turned towards him with a wan smile, â€œThank you for that. His attention wasâ€¦uncomfortable,â€ she said softly.
â€œOh erm, glad to be of assistance,â€ he replied. Get out more eh? he thought wryly, Kenjiâ€™s confidence-filled words earlier still fresh on his mind and twisted his waist so that he faced the quiet woman beside him, â€œI-Iâ€™m called Himura by the way, Amilar Himura.â€
She looked up from the roll in her hands and for a second time he saw her flash a brief smile in his direction, â€œMy name is Fenris,â€ she said kindly and glanced over at the half-eaten roll in front of him for a moment before she gingerly pinched off a morsel from her own. She then considered the piece with an unsure look before popping it in her mouth and he could not help but chuckle at her resulting grimace.
â€œThe breadâ€™s not so bad really. At least this place bakes it fresh rather than serving stale, days old loaves,â€ he joked lightly as she set the roll down, glad to have gotten over the awkwardness.
â€œI am not used to such fare,â€ she told him bluntly, which piqued his interest.
â€œNot used to bread?â€ he repeated incredulously, â€œItâ€™s the most common food around. Even Dynasts eat their fair share of the stuff.â€
She shook her head, â€œWhere I come from, we did not have thisâ€¦bread. We lived off the fruit and mushrooms that grew on the vines. Our hunters sometimes find game as well,â€ she said a bit wistfully and he detected the slight tension of sadness in her voice.
Hunters, he mused, â€œWhere is your village? It does not sound like any place I know of.â€
Fenris thought for a long moment while picking at the roll, â€œI do not know for sure, but it was many days to the east.â€
â€œYour people must live dangerous close to the Wyld,â€ he noted and regretted it when she visibly flinched. â€œForgive me,â€ he said hastily but wondered if that had been the reason why she left her village, â€œI didnâ€™t mean to upset you.â€
â€œNo,â€ she said faintly then more firmly, â€œNo, it is a reasonable assumption,â€ and though she did not elaborate he had a rather certain guess of what must have happened.
Not knowing what else to say, and mildly wishing that Kenji were now present as he always seemed to know what to say to women, Himura nursed his tea in contemplative silence. A glance in Fenrisâ€™ direction revealed that she had retreated once more into her thoughts as well, a growing pile of bread crumbs on the countertop before her. Her glass of water was all but forgotten.
But it was she that eventually broke the silence, â€œAre you a visitor to this place as well?â€
â€œHmm? Oh yes, Iâ€™ll be staying here a few days until my companions finish their business here,â€ he explained, finding it surprisingly easy to keep his eyes on the smooth, slightly pink skin of her face and the deep pools that were her eyes. Not that her body was unattractive. In fact, heâ€™d never seen such perfect curves, especially how the leggings just seem toâ€¦Focus man!
She nodded thoughtfully, â€œI see,â€ she murmured.
â€œI do not know how long I will be staying,â€ she said carefully, â€œWe have yet to speak on the matter.â€
â€œThe other woman that you arrived with?â€ he asked lightly.
She was about to answer when a tall woman in a weathered leather vest and dark green leggings appeared between them and half-fell atop of Fenris, who made a decidedly endearing cry of shock. â€œSomebody mention me?â€ the black-haired woman merrily wondered aloud. She had an easy going grin on her pretty, sun darkened face and was rubbing it against Fenrisâ€™ in a playful manner as the smaller woman strained under her weight.
â€œSorry to interrupt but I need to borrow her,â€ the Westerner told him with a wink, her mop of loose curls falling across her face and hiding one mischievous green eye as she gave him a brief once over that he almost missed before turning back to the blond woman. â€œCome on, I have a surprise for you,â€ she said cheerily and got off Fenrisâ€™ shoulder.
â€œS-Sure,â€ Himura managed to say, unable to keep up with the taller womanâ€™s quick pace. He still was not quite sure when the woman had come in when Fenris nodded then hopped off her stool.
â€œThank you for your help earlier. Perhaps we will speak again later,â€ Fenris said to him kindly, and politely. There was a barely noticeable liveliness in her manner that been absent before as he smiled and nodded mutely in reply.
He felt his eyes drawn to the pair as they left the common room, his gaze lingering on the doorway for a breath before Kenji and Mikoto arrived. The trim Dragon-Blooded waited outside the common room for several moments as his sister made her way to him, a slim arm held in only half an armâ€™s length away from her the only hint of her disability. Himura stood and helped her onto the stool that Fenris had just vacated before he sat back down.
Mikoto smiled in thanks and smoothed the lines of her skirts. â€œDid you have a nice conversation, Nii-sama?â€ she asked him while he brushed away the bread crumbs from the countertop.
His hand stopped briefly, â€œHow did youâ€¦Well, yes, I did,â€ he replied with a bemused shake of his head.
â€œOy Himura,â€ Kenji called as he approached. â€œDid you see the legs on those two? Mmm! The blond was sexy hot wasnâ€™t she? But the tall, dark and beautiful one looks like sheâ€™d go for some of the more rigorous fun, if you know what I mean? Maybe we should stay here a few more days and you know, get to know our fellow guests eh?â€
â€œYushoto-san!â€ Mikoto snapped, color touching her pale cheeks.
Kenji shrugged and clapped Himura on the shoulder in greeting, â€œCan a man not harmlessly admire the female form?â€ he asked her with an air of incredulity.
â€œOnly when they are more tactful and a lot less degrading,â€ was the chilly reply.
â€œSo,â€ Himura interrupted, eager to move on, â€œWhat did this monk offer?â€
â€œBig time numbers, my friend,â€ Kenji assured him, his eyes glistening with excitement. â€œMore than anything weâ€™ve ever made from crypt diving.â€
â€œHis people are searching for someone, though he was quite vague with his information,â€ Mikoto added and swiveled in her seat to face them. â€œAnd when he heard your name, he said that he wished to meet with you before going into the greater detail.â€
â€œMy name?â€ Himura raised a questioning brow. â€œHow would he know of me?â€
â€œYou studied at the Heptagram didnâ€™t you?â€ Kenji pointed out. â€œSome kind of exchange program, right? Maybe you made an impression.â€
He thought about it then shook his head, â€œIt was a long time ago, Kenji. And I was only there for a year.â€
Kenji waved dismissively, â€œWhatever, he knows you, and he wonâ€™t talk until youâ€™ve seen him so I took the liberty of setting up a meeting. Really, wonâ€™t even tell a former student, the audacity of it all,â€ he then drew close and dropped his voice to a whisper, â€œAnyway, weâ€™ll head up to the keep tomorrow. Apparently the newly crowned king of this country will be present as well so this has to be big. And you know what that means: rich folks with lots of jade to throw around.â€
Himura nodded into his tea and sighed, â€œThat usually ensures a measure of mortal danger more often than not,â€ he noted quietly. He had a bad feeling about this and the furtive look on his sisterâ€™s face worried him as well. â€œWhat did you think of the monk, Mikoto? Can we trust him?â€
She laced her fingers and breathed a soundless sigh, â€œHis motives seem clear enough. He is here to kill someone. But much was concealed from me,â€ she paused, her search for words clear on her face. â€œI could not see it. Of all the people in the room, his Threadâ€¦it was missing.â€