Because of the unforeseen delays in production of both Books 2 and 3, here is the first chapter from Hunter as a peace offering. We thank all our loyal fans and readers for their patience.
They traveled for another hour or so, but Selo made sure to keep a slower pace. The road out of Wala was long, lined by seemingly endless forest, and a long way from any other village or town.
It suddenly occurred to Selo she had no idea where they were going.
“So Inya,” she asked, “where do you think we should head first?”
The herbalist mulled it over for a moment before replying, “If we keep heading east, we’ll soon reach the River Iya. There are a lot of great towns along the river. If we go north, we’ll eventually come to the River Aysha. That area’s a little wilder, though; it’s closer to Antwari territory.”
Selo stiffened at the thought of being near the Antwari. After surviving a fight with the assassin Ammetwa, she was certain she could take care of herself, but she wanted to actually enjoy her journey through Oon Sati.
“River Iya it is,” she nodded. Nearby, the crackling of a tree branch caught her attention. Her dark eyes instinctively darted to her left.
“Good choice,” Inya clapped her hands. “There’s this one town I used to visit which had this crazy little drinking house where the matron used to—”
Inya cut herself off, suddenly noticing that Selo had stopped walking and was warily eyeing their surroundings.
“Selo?” she asked softly. “Something wrong?”
The tall warrior seemed to be straining to hear something; she slowly backed away from Inya and Umi, moving towards the forest and listening intently as though trying to pinpoint a specific sound.
“Show yourself!” Selo called. “I know you’re here.”
An agile figure leapt from the trees with lightning speed, twisting its body effortlessly in mid-air and landing without a sound, like a cat. The figure was cloaked, but Inya guessed it was a woman. The stranger breezed past Inya and Umi, attacking Selo with a rain of swift punches.
Selo immediately went into defensive mode, deftly blocking the assault. She really was a wonder to behold; it was though she transformed into a wholly different person when she fought.
Except…Inya noticed there was something different this time around. When Selo fought Ammetwa, they were clearly fighting to the death, managing to land several hits on each other. But this time, Selo didn’t press the advantage, nor did her attacker. They seemed to be moving in flawless unison, even using the same dance-like fighting technique. Selo didn’t seem intent at all on making a kill; in fact, she began to smirk after a while, laughing even as the fight came to a stalemate.
“I see palace life hasn’t dulled your reflexes,” the stranger mused. “It’s been too long, Selo.”
“Vathi,” Selo laughed, as the two women embraced.
“How did you know I was in the trees?” Vathi asked.
“You made too much noise,” Selo shrugged. “I always warned you about that.”
Vathi feigned offense. “I’ll have you know none of my targets have ever heard me coming.”
“Um, excuse me?” Inya called, cautiously approached the two warriors. Vathi turned to her, pulling back her hood to reveal a beautiful dark brown face with slender, curving eyes. Her silky, pitch black hair was braided in rows and intricately beaded with silver.
Inya blinked, immediately changing her tone. “Why, hello,” she greeted silkily, giving Vathi the onceover.
“Inya,” Selo introduced, “this is my old friend Vathi. She’s a—”
“—bounty hunter,” Inya finished, smirking at Vathi. “I know the type. I bet you can smell a magistrate’s gold from leagues away.”
“Many leagues away,” Vathi grinned broadly.
“My kind of woman,” Inya beamed. “So you’re from Soneti, are you not? I recognize the silver beading. What—or should I say who—brings you to Oon Sati, how much is the bounty, and how may we be of assistance?”
“Observant and to the point,” Vathi nodded appreciatively. “My kind of woman.”
Selo, however, raised an eyebrow. “You want us to join you on the hunt? Whatever happened to ‘I always work alone’?”
“That was when I chasing common thieves with only moderate bounties,” Vathi shrugged. “This one’s different.”
Selo remained skeptical. “An uncommon thief, then?”
“Not a thief at all,” Vathi told her. “This fugitive is more…political in nature, requiring much discretion. And it won’t be a magistrate paying the gold,” she added, looking at Inya.
“How much is the bounty?” the herbalist pressed, arms folded stubbornly across her chest.
But Selo had already caught onto Vathi’s meaning and money was the least of her concerns.
“Inya,” she said gently, “when the target is political rather than criminal, the bounty’s not important.”
“The hell it isn’t,” Inya snapped. “I’ve assisted bounty hunters before, Selo; it’s very troublesome work. I’m not risking life and limb for ten percent of nothing.”
“I wouldn’t call him dangerous, per se,” Vathi mused. “But capturing him will be…tricky.”
“Is he wanted dead or alive?” Inya demanded, arms still folded.
“Very much alive,” Vathi replied, “and without a scratch. Which is what makes this so tricky. See, he hasn’t actually done anything wrong.”
“And that brings us to the importance of discretion,” Selo nodded. “Probably some spoiled prince or nobleman fleeing an arranged marriage, which means we’re in for some running, some bickering, and whole world of whining.”
“And,” Vathi added with a wry grin, “a bounty of one thousand pieces of gold.”
“I charge a ten percent finder’s fee,” Inya told her bluntly. “If I have to do anything resembling fighting for my life, the fee goes up to fifteen percent. And if I have to feign attraction towards anyone, you’re looking at twenty percent…twenty-five if he’s hideous.”
“Done,” Vathi agreed, deeply amused. She extended her hand, which Inya firmly shook. Vathi turned to the forest and whistled, summoning her majestic black horse from the woods. She grabbed it’ reins and turned back to Inya. “Shall we go then?”
“We shall, but don’t even think about stiffing me,” the herbalist sternly warned. “I’m a nomad.” She tapped her chest. “I have friends in many places.”