A/N: I forgot to mention in the previous chapter, but the first section in each chapter takes place twelve years before the actual events of the story.


Chapter Two


Twelve years ago-

The bandits weren't so difficult to find. The sounds of their idle chatter reverberated along the cave walls, giving away their position. He followed the sounds through the darkness until a large and spacious cavern came into view. A few meters away from where he stood, the ground sloped down into a large pool interrupted by a small peninsula that jutted out from the opposing cavern wall. Two pillars stood rising from the pool, located to the right. Light filtered in from a hole in the icicle-covered roof, just above the end of the peninsula, illuminating the entire cavern in a bright, blue light. If he had the time, he would have stopped to take in the beautiful sight. But he had a task at hand, so sightseeing would have to wait.

His targets were amateurs, he realized. While the pool offered them a good measure of defense, increasing the amount of time it would take for a hostile to reach them, they had built their camp directly under the spotlight from the hole in the roof. A single platform located on one of the pillars offered the perfect spot for a guard archer, but was momentarily deserted, bows and arrows strewn across the wooden panels. Not to mention, he occupied the only escape route they had. They knew how to run and hide, but were unprepared for a fight, perhaps too confident in their geographical location. But they may as well have offered themselves on a silver platter.

He had slaughtered them all almost instantly, although the last one had required a bit of a chase. The effortlessness of the task had him suspicious immediately. He had been tasked with this assignment by Jogjebi, an old acquaintance, who had come to him asking for his help to clear out a deadly group of bandits that had also taken a little boy from Fjellreach as hostage. But the bandits were amateurs and there was no hostage. There was no way that he could had overlooked any other aspect of the cave that might have hidden something else...


A thin mist cloaked the town, enveloping it in the dream-like quality of a morning just before sunrise. Yet the streaks of light that streamed through the cracks in the mist, drenching the dark wooden rooftops and cobblestone streets in its glow, heralded the golden hour of dawn. It was eight in the morning, and from a few blocks away, the deep tolls from the bell of the Ergenben Temple could be heard as its priests and priestesses completed their morning ritual.

Like many other merchant towns, Ivorsfel had an altar devoted to Ergenben, the goddess of love, fertility, hope, and wealth. The altar was located in the grandiose temple.

A flock of doves cluttered past his room, the gust from their wings rattling the window panes. Groggily resisting the morning, Sei buried his face into the pillow and let the wild strands of his dark hair curtain his face. But his right arm was beginning to go numb, so he rolled to the right of the bed. Turning his back against the window, he swung his arm over what should have been half a meter of empty space, but was for some reason occupied by another form that lay in his bed. He opened his eyes to find a pair of gold that stared back into his own obsidian.

Ivorsfel. By the the time he had reached the town entrance, it was already nightfall. He had headed straight for The Weeping Lady and purchased a room for the night, intending to catch a decent amount of sleep. In the morning, he would fetch himself breakfast from the marketplace (it was much cheaper there than the inn would offer) and pay a visit to the old fletching stall to restock on some arrows. Before ten o'clock, he'd be off and on his way to Brimford, the final stop before Hjentrum, the capital. He'd had his entire schedule planned out, as usual, and had intended to follow it down to the millisecond.

Though, he hadn't counted on meeting her at the inn. The leopardess, Mati'Karui.

"Morning, handsome. Looking for another round?" she teased, gently stroking the arm he had unintentionally swung around her shoulder. While her look was playful and her words were meant to mock his having been caught off-guard, he was sure that if he had shown even the slightest inclination of a yes, she'd have pounced him on the spot.

What the hell happened last night?

"What are you doing here," he retorted, as he inwardly groaned and retracted his arm, turning back towards the window. Sei was not in any mood to deal with the seductress.

"How rude," she chuckled and pressed up against his back, an arm sliding its way across his abdomen. She leaned on the other arm, reaching over to nibble his ear. "You should be asking yourself that, ravaging my body so forcefully the way you did last night."

Sei could feel her hand stroking lower and lower, and already his body was reacting to her touch. He brushed her hand away. His body might want one thing, but his mind wanted another-and that was to get this crazy woman out of his bed. Not to mention, his lower half was aching and sore. Just who exactly was doing the ravaging last night? "No, I didn't. Get off, Karui."

"Now you're denying it," Karui sighed, mocking a hurt tone. In one swift motion, she grasped his shoulder in one hand and threw him back against the bed, at the same time swinging a leg over so that she was straddling his hips. She grinded slowly against him, further stimulating the erection he was trying to calm. Her lips only a hair's breadth from Sei's throat, murmured into the toned curve, "How could such a horrible man possibly exist?"

"Well, you're sitting on him in his bed," he growled, doing his best to resist. Gods, that woman had an amazing stamina. "So I suggest you get out."

Reluctantly, Karui pulled back. The annoyance couldn't be any clearer on her face. "It's been about five years since we'd last met, and you haven't changed in the slightest." She slipped off the bed, the back of her gleaming naked form bathed in the curtain of sunlight that flooded in through the window. Even without looking, Sei knew she was a beautiful woman, the bronze goddess of Suna, a wildcat in bed.

More so, she was the daughter of the merchant lord, 'A'.

"What are you doing in Ivorsfel," Sei groaned exasperatedly as he threw the covers off with the intention of clothing himself. His trousers lay strewn before the foot of the bed, his shirt and boots at the door. He threw them on and proceeded to search for his fur-rimmed leather coat. "You've no business here. Where's my-"

He turned to see the still-nude Karui reclining on a small wooden chair by the window, glancing at him with raised brows and an expectant expression. A slim leg crossed over the other as she reclined comfortably into the wooden back, stroking her cheek with a lazy finger absentmindedly. Cushioned under her bottom was his coat. Karui followed his eyes down to her seat. In realization, she smirked. "Oh, you mean this? Well, come get it."

He was tired of her games. "What is it you want from me?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"You know very well what I mean," he sighed. "Look, you and I both know that you don't do things without an ulterior motive lurking around. So I suggest you get straight to the point, so that we can stop playing around and go our own ways."

"I'm hurt. Can't a person just want to spend time with an old friend without being suspicious?"

"Anyone but you."

Karui raised her brow skeptically, before she arched her back, seductively twisting against the back of the chair. Her fiery amber gaze and parted lips scattered whatever coherent thought he had in his mind. She purred, "And why should I tell you, when you left me so...unsatiated?"

Sei grit his teeth in annoyance, refocusing at the matter at hand. As much as he hated to admit it, he was more or less at this woman's mercy; he couldn't threaten to kill her-she'd know it was an empty threat. If he did plan to kill her, he would have to prepare himself in making an enemy out of most of the country of Suna, which would only complicate the situation. 'A' was not a man to be messed with, with the sand emperor backing him.

"Alright, don't tell. I'm leaving." He turned away, deciding that he didn't give a damn about his jacket. It was old anyways, a gift from a time long ago he felt would be better to forget. Gathering his things, Sei prepared to leave the room.

"Oh? Well, I guess you're not interested in knowing the whereabouts of the man who killed your wife."

Sei felt his blood run cold as he froze in his tracks. He turned around to face the now solemn Karui who was putting on her own clothes.

"Tell me where he is."

"I need you to do something," Karui replied, preoccupied with fastening a leather buckled strap across her torso that held up the belt around her hips, where a steel dagger hung. She wore a faded yellow dress under an umber brown hooded robe, complete with leather boots. No trace of accessories besides two golden studs, one per earlobe. Her long red mane was free of the usual bandanna, wild around her finely chiseled features. Sei noticed, now that he was taking her seriously, that her skin was a tint paler than it's usual bronze glory, and that her red hair had lost its usual fine kempt sheen.

"Seems you've been here up north a while. For at least a few months now," Sei observed. Aqesor was collapsing due to the civil war. Rebels were receiving aid from Halcons, the elite sellswords from the city of Suna, commissioned by the elves along the Aqesorian border who could offer more than the Aqesorian bigwigs in debt. Highborns and loyalists alike were targeted and killed for their alliance with the dying emperor, and Sei knew that Karui, the daughter of not just any merchant lord but the merchant lord 'A', was here to try and change that.

She was also a target.

"Well, aren't you still the ever observant," Karui remarked with a tight smile. Her eyes, on the other hand, spoke of a weary tale. "Civil war has really taken its toll, I'm afraid." He nodded almost absentmindedly and walked past her to take a glance out the window. His eyes scanned the streets, picking up the sight of two Aqesorian sellswords maneuvering through the market, scouring the area for whom he assumed would be Karui.

"You're not alone." It wasn't a statement of comfort.

"Halcons?"

"No."

"Damned trackers then," her brow furrowed. "I stay in one place a tad too long and they're already on my tail." She stood by the door, a crossbow in hand beneath her robe. "Let's not stay here. How much do you know?"

"Enough to know what you want," he answered. "So give me a name."

"Or maybe a crossbow, because it's going to be a lot faster than your bow and arrow," Karui replied cynically and scowled as she peeked into the inn's hallway. "I really don't understand why you don't use them."

"No need to," Sei responded.

"Because it was the weapon used to kill your wife?"

Sei said nothing, but put on his jacket and positioned himself beside Karui at the door. On a second thought, he returned to the window and tilt the sash open, taking care to avoid being seen. He took his position beside Karui again, wielding a dagger and nodding to indicate that he was ready. With Karui so far into Alfengor territory, the Aqesorian rebels wouldn't risk sending too much of their manpower for her head. The elves couldn't do much either with their strained relationship with the Alfengorians. But if there were one or two more trackers who had already made it into the inn, Sei preferred a stealthy dagger over an arrow. "Between the inn and the town walls. We'll take them out there."

"Gotcha."

They exited into the hallway, down the flight of stairs and onto the ground floor, where they stealthily made their way past the dining hall and exited through the door in the back corridor. The inn was situated in a corner of the town, against two of the town walls. His room faced one of the walls, but from an angle, the market on the perpendicular street was visible.

Concealed behind the corner, the two watched the sellswords approach the inn. Sei replaced his dagger with his bow and with his other hand, picked up an empty ale bottle from the ground and tossed it against the wall, resulting in a slight clattering sound, attracting the attention of the sellswords, who peered around the building at the sound. One glanced up, taking notice of the open window, and gestured towards her companion. They drew their weapons as they cautiously, but quickly entered the alley, nearing Sei and Karui's hiding place. Sei readied his weapon, drawing an arrow across the bow. Karui, who was closer to the corner, quietly switched her weapon to the steel dagger, deciding to join Sei in taking the quieter and stealthier approach.

It wouldn't be good to involve the authorities in the matter.

As the sellswords rounded the corner, Karui pounced, grabbing the first sellsword and swinging her around with the momentum before drawing her blade across the surprised woman's throat. Sei let his arrow fly, where it took its place between the eyes of the second sellsword, killing him instantly. The force of the impact launched his body back against the wall where it collapsed limply like a ragdoll.

After a while, Karui breathed a sigh. "Well, that takes care of them."

"Let's clear the area before the town guards come," Sei warned as he pulled his arrow from the dead man's head, wiping the blood on the man's clothing. He would rather not be convicted of manslaughter, especially when he was on the way to Hjentrum to collect his pay...

"Good idea."


"When we met about ten years ago, you were a mess."

Karui and Sei walked along the stalls, looking for the old fletching merchant. They'd had their breakfast, which Karui had been more than willing to pay for in order to return the favor from earlier, but Sei had refused, citing her own scarce coins as a reason. Twelve years ago he would have refused out of the sake of his own pride, but now he was just a wandering vagabond, with nothing left to lose-except vengeance. "Who says I've gotten out of it?"

"I thought you might have had, after all these years. Well, that is until this morning. Your reaction to the information told me otherwise."

"Tell me what you have on him."

Karui's gaze softened, but she kept her eyes on the passing stalls. "You really loved her didn't you."

"Karui.."

They came to a stop before the fletching stall, where an older man sat cross-legged on a mat, surrounded by barrels of bows and arrows. In his lap he held a slender but firm bow which he was in the process of stringing up. With a shock of grey hair, he seemed to be nearing his sixties, but his build spoke against his age. He possessed the greatness of a blacksmith, the finely measured strength of a woodworker, and the wizened pride of a swordsman. Even after he'd fastened both ends securely, he seemingly ignored them, as if entirely disinterested in selling off his merchandise.

"Still alive and breathing, eh? Damn old Hatake," Sei snorted.

"I could say the same for you, damn brat," Hatake returned, with the same condescending attitude. For all that could be said, the two may as well have been father and son. He still didn't look up at them. "You've brought a lady with you. Couldn't have settled down now could you?"

"No. An acquaintance."

"Yeah, didn't think there could ever be someone who would fall for the likes of you."

"Rin?" Sei single-handedly changed the subject. Karui couldn't help but to wonder about the two men's relationship.

"Hen-pecking me relentlessly. Makes me almost miss my days of being a mercenary."

Had he not known the man for the last thirteen years, he might have believed that. But Sei knew better. Hatake would never yearn for the grueling days that were so long behind him. He was now trying to lay low, to escape the past he tried to leave behind. For Hatake, settling down and living out the dog days was the better choice, something Sei couldn't bring himself to understand.

Then again, they lived for different purposes.

"But you're not really asking me out of good will, now are you?" Hatake pointed out, tossing Sei a fine bundle of arrows. He rested his elbows on his knees in a slouch, finally raising his head to fix Sei a stern look. "What you're really interested in is whether what Rin and I have now could ever have been possible for you."

"Absurd."

Hatake shrugged as he picked up a second bow and began to polish. "And I say no."

"Explain," Sei growled as he tossed the other man twenty-five gold pieces for the bundle.

"It's a gut thing."

Sei was silent for moment, his expression dark as his brows furrowed in thought. "You're wrong. And we're leaving." Sei turned heel and strode off. With a slight nod as a parting gesture, Karui followed suite.

She followed him out of the market and to the town gates, where he stood, hesitant and waiting. Karui could see with his back against her that he had already strapped the bundle firmly across his back, aligned with his bow. He stood strong and tall against the light of the late morning sun rising up high in the sky, and as her eyes travelled over his form, she could remember the warm touch of his skin on hers as their bodies feverishly intertwined under the covers in the inn. She'd wished that the night had never ended. It would perhaps be the last time they would ever embrace in such a manner. Perhaps even the last time they would ever see one another. It was such a shame that he was so bound to that one woman..

"Karui."

She snapped out of her thoughts to see him staring back at her, with an unreadable expression.

"Tell me what you have on Jogjebi."