Rei and Zai experienced some degree of difficulty in leaving the village they had saved, due less to the severity of Zai’s injury (which had healed in two days, instead of the expected seven), and more to the eagerness of the village to shower its gratefulness on the two mercenaries. It was fortunate for them that they were familiar with such treatment—and how to escape them. So, in the dead of the night, three days after they had defeated the bandits harassing the village, Rei and Zai sneaked out of the village, and they went on their way to fulfilling their original contract.
Zai remembered how his colleagues dealt with the same situation: by being aloof and professional, reminding the village that they had only been paid to save them—and that they expected to be paid. But Zai couldn’t imagine himself doing the same. He had been on the other side once, and salvation that came under any guise was salvation nonetheless, and it deserved to be thanked. He cast a glance at the morose young woman who walked beside her. They were an unlikely pair, Zai thought, a perpetually gloomy young woman, new to the profession but supremely talented in combat, and a man who seemed never to take anything seriously, a veteran of numerous battles. In fact, they were a surprisingly good fit, and it took only one mission for them to earn each other’s respect.
* * *
It had been almost a year ago. Zai’s partner, a giant of a man who wielded a sword almost as tall as himself, decided to retire early and settle down with his new wife. Since it was a rule in their agency that mercenaries should always work in pairs, Zai had been inactive for more than a month while he looked for a new partner, and his coffers were almost running dry when he finally got wind from his primary contact in the agency that a new partner had been found for him. He eagerly rushed to the agency’s outpost in the city of Sepphoris and bumped into a black-clad young woman who stood at the entrance, knocking her down.
‘I’m sorry, miss, wasn’t looking where I’m going,’ he said laughingly as he tried to help her get up, but she brushed his hands off and glared at him as she stood up. Zai was oblivious to the girl’s hostile stare as he found himself dumbstruck by what lay under her voluminous cloak. She was wearing a sleeveless shirt and short trousers, both tight-fitting and covered with leather plates in some places.
And from her belt hung a longsword.
‘Ah, Zai, so glad to see you again,’ said a smiling man with tousled blond hair. His name was Kinu, Zai’s contact in the agency, informing the mercenary of various contracts up for grabs as well as providing battlefield information to help fulfil them. ‘And I see you’re already being properly acquainted with your new partner,’ he added with a laugh.
‘This child’s my new partner?’ said Zai as he gave the young woman who had finally managed to get back on her feet a look-over. ‘Get out!’ The woman merely continued to glare at him, persistent in her silence.
‘No, it’s true,’ said Kinu as he tried to suppress his laughter. ‘Her name’s Rei, and she’s the strongest in the last batch of trainees.’ Kinu then cocked an eyebrow and continued in a more serious tone. ‘She’s probably even stronger than your old partner.’
‘Get out,’ repeated Zai as he stared at Kinu, all mirth from his face gone. His old partner had been a minor legend in the mercenary business. He had once killed a bounty who had been hiding behind an old oak tree by throwing his sword through its massive trunk—from about ten yards away. He had often broken down town walls with a single kick and pushed down boulders to block roads. He had been the perfect partner to Zai, who handled the sneaking around while leaving the destroying to him. It seemed unbelievable that any human could be stronger than him, much less this delicate-looking lass. ‘Her sword’s probably heavier than she is.’
‘So you saw,’ said Rei, speaking for the first time. Her voice was harsh and cold, like the winter wind that persisted despite it being the middle of spring.
‘Tell you what,’ said Zai as he turned to face Rei. ‘You get a hit on me with that thing under your cloak, and I’ll accept you as my partner.’
‘I can always find another partner,’ said Rei, the harshness in her voice unabated.
‘Unfortunately, you can’t,’ said Kinu. ‘There should always be at least one veteran in a team. I gave you to him because you’re the best rookie we have, and you could learn a lot from him. But if you don’t want to team up with him, you’d probably have to wait a year for your next chance.’
Rei glared briefly at Kinu, then turned back to Zai. ‘I’ll accept your challenge. When can we start?’
‘You should have started as soon as I said so, blockhead,’ said Zai.
‘As you say.’ There was a blur of black, a flash of metal, and Zai dodged backwards on instinct, avoiding certain death.
‘Here I come,’ said Rei, her two-handed sword lifted high in her right hand.
‘No, no,’ said Zai, with his hands raised in surrender. ‘That’s good enough.’ He pointed to the strands of black hair shaved away by her initial draw.
‘You pass,’ he said with a laugh, masking the terror he felt at the speed with which she wielded her longsword. She could’ve shaved my head off…
After talking to Kinu about his next contract, the newly-formed pair set off. Their mission was to capture, dead or alive, the leader of a weapons smuggling ring within the city. Normally, bandits would be armed with whatever sharp or heavy object they could get their hands on (former soldiers turning brigand were extremely rare occurrences), but recently, bandit groups wielding military-grade weapons had been spotted in surrounding towns. One of them had even used a gunpowder weapon to breach a town’s stone wall. Apparently, someone was arming them; and since Sepphoris was the biggest trading centre in the area, as well as the focal point of the incidents, the smuggling ring was deduced to be in the city.
Zai, who had been smiling ever since he left the outpost, walked briskly, expecting Rei to follow him, and headed for a nearby tavern. Entering it, he made his way to a table in the far corner of the room with the familiarity of habit. As he sat down, Rei stood in front of him. He motioned for her to take a seat, but she refused, saying:
‘What the hell are we doing here? We’ve got no time to waste drinking; we have a contract to finish.’
‘Good heavens, child, for a girl your age, you sure do talk like my mother.’ He laughed, and then he continued in a whisper: ‘We’re meeting one of my sources here.’
‘Sources…?’ The look on Rei’s face changed slightly for the first time, now looking more confused than indignant.
‘I’ve been investigating that little smuggling operation ever since my partner was forced to retire. You know, in our last mission together, he took an arrow to the knee. It’s a miracle he can still walk, but he’ll never use that enormous sword of his again, or lift a boulder on his shoulders. A good man in the prime of his life… what a waste. I’m gonna make those bastards who gave them the arrow pay for that.’
Rei stared intently at the veteran mercenary’s face, and a light of respect flickered in her eyes as she did so.
‘Now, get out of the way,’ said Zai as he caught the rustling of a dark-blue cloak behind Rei. ‘He’s here.’ He pulled out a chair beside him and motioned for Rei to sit down. No sooner had she done so than when a hooded man in a dark-blue cloak stood in front of them.
‘Hello, Zai,’ said the man, and the movement of the man’s hood indicated that he had nodded at him. ‘She your new partner?’
‘Hi, Ren,’ said Zai. ‘Huh, yeah, she is. Have a chair.’
‘Well met, lass,’ said Ren with another twitch of his hood, this time directed towards Rei, before taking a seat.
Rei nodded slightly back, masking the unease she felt when she looked at the man. The traces of the fierce winter still hadn’t completely left the land, but inside the tavern it was stifling hot. Rei was accustomed to the heat, and besides, she was scantily clad underneath, which was why she kept her cloak on, but the man look like he had something hidden under his cloak. Can Zai really trust this man?
‘The kid looks nervous,’ said Ren. ‘First time jitters?’
‘Maybe,’ said Zai indifferently. ‘Now, on to business. Have you found their hideout yet?’
‘I know the general area,’ said Ren. ‘They’re in the river port district, but my men can’t get too close to find out exactly where. I need one more day.’
‘Ah, no need, that’s good enough for me, I’m thinking of paying them a visit tonight,’ said Zai, rummaging through his pockets. ‘Now, how much do I owe you?’
‘Your life,’ Ren was about to say as he drew a pair of crossbows from inside his cloak as quick as a flash, but Zai was quicker, overturning the table and pushing it towards him, eventually pinning him to the wall.
‘Zai, what—’ Rei began.
‘You felt it, too, right?’ said Zai as he punched the pinned Ren in the jaw, knocking him unconscious. ‘You’ve got good instincts. Lesson number one, kid: listen to them. Now take him outside.’ He pointed to the slumped Ren. Rei did as she was told while Zai walked towards the irate tavern owner.
Rei had already tied Ren’s hands and feet when Zai came walking out. ‘Had to smooth things over—I didn’t want to be banned from the Cornerstone. Their ale’s good, you know.’ He then kneeled next to Ren and tried to slap him awake.
‘You know he’d do that? And you still talked to him?’
‘Eventually, yeah, I knew he’d tried to do me in. See, if that bunch’s so smart, they’d have an eye on the agency so they’d have an idea of what we’re doing. And Ren was a bit too eager to answer my requests for information. So I fed him harmless stuff to make him think I don’t suspect a thing. And now we’ve got a live one to ask.
‘Now wake up,’ said Zai as he resumed slapping Ren, who eventually groaned and stirred from his unconsciousness. ‘Tell me where your boss is. I’m sure he’s not in the river port district like you told me.’
‘West gate district,’ muttered the still-dazed failed assassin, ‘beside the Rusty Hook tavern.’
‘Good man,’ said Zai as he knocked the man unconscious again with yet another punch. ‘You ready, kid?’
Rei merely nodded in reply.
‘Then let’s go.’
The west gate of the city was a short distance away from the Cornerstone. Zai took the time they had running to plan a course of action.
‘If I were with my old partner, he’d wait a minute after I snuck in, then he’d charge in like a storm while I hunted the quarry. Now what do I do with you?’
‘I can sneak in, too, but your old strategy works better, I guess.’
‘A jack-of-all-trades, huh? I don’t suppose you can leap over castle walls in a single bound, too?’ said Zai as he jumped and climbed up the roof of a house. Rei followed her effortlessly. ‘The Rusty Hook’s at the end of this street. So we’re after the house before it. I sneak through a window; you wait one minute and do whatever you want.’
Rei nodded as they reached the last house of the street, then she took a glance at Zai and realised something.
‘You don’t have a weapon,’ she said.
‘Don’t need one,’ said Zai as he disappeared through a shadow on the edge of the roof.
Rei said nothing in reply, counting to sixty in her head before jumping off the roof. After finding the door to a nondescript house besides the raucous Rusty Hook tavern, she ran towards it and took off with a flying kick, her momentum knocking down the door and taking her almost near the centre of a large room, where a pair of burly men carrying wooden crates loomed over her. She kicked them both once in the chest, sending them crashing down, and the crates they were carrying fell on them. The rest of the people in the room, who were in the middle of inspecting or transporting their deadly wares, shook off a moment of disbelief and drew out a variety of weapons before rushing towards the lone girl. Rei jumped into the air, avoiding their attacks, and then she brought her heel down on one of her attackers, who wielded a mace. In one fluid movement, she swung her outstretched leg and brushed aside two more men who were about to raise their blades. She then bent backwards to avoid a lunging spear. Taking the spear by its shaft, she whirled it around, using its wielder as a mace to knock down everyone else around her.
‘I can’t find him,’ said a voice near Rei. Her eyes widened a little when she noticed that Zai stood behind her without her having noticed his approach.
‘A secret room, maybe?’ said Rei when she had recovered from her shock.
‘Then let’s start looking for it,’ said Zai. ‘We can’t let him get away.’ Suddenly he turned to his left and pointed at a bare stone wall. ‘Behind the wall!’
Without hesitation, Rei took her sword and threw it towards the part of the wall Zai had pointed.
‘Moron!’ Zai shouted. The sword was spinning like a baton, and not hurtling straight like an arrow. It wouldn’t pierce through the wall in that condition. But his annoyance changed to amazement when the sword’s hilt struck the wall and sent it crashing down. Amidst the rubble was the form of a man.
‘You were saying,’ said Rei when she turned to look at Zai, her eyebrows slightly cocked. Zai only whistled in reply. ‘Wait, how did you know he was behind the wall?’
‘I heard footsteps,’ said Zai with a shrug. How he managed to pick out that sound amidst the melee that had been going on was something he didn’t feel the need to elaborate on as he walked over to the ruined wall. Raising the fallen man by his collar, he spoke in a conversational tone.
‘Excuse me, sir, but are you the owner of this establishment?’ Zai saw a look of defeat in the man’s eyes, and so he knew that he was their quarry. After knocking the man unconscious with a punch to the jaw, he turned to Rei and said, ‘Good job, partner.’
A slight smile flashed on Rei’s face. ‘You, too, sir. I hope to learn more from you.’
‘Don’t “sir” me, moron,’ laughed Zai. ‘I’m not that old yet. Tell me, though, when you drew your sword at me back in the outpost, were you seriously trying to kill me?’
Rei tried to avert her eyes nonchalantly as she spoke. ‘I was going for a scratch on your forehead. I was surprised you managed to avoid it.’
‘So if you wanted me capped, I would’ve been, huh?’ said Zai with a chuckle. ‘Damned monster.’
‘Sorry,’ said Rei with surprising sincerety, and this time she really looked uncomfortable. It took some time, and a few conversations about their pasts, before Zai would find out why she had reacted that way.
* * *
It was late in the afternoon when Rei and Zai caught sight of the town of Capernaum. They have finally reached their destination, true, but for them, it was merely the beginning of another set of problems altogether.