Nova clenched her gloved hands as she eyed her new employer. He was short and round, with double chins, something that resembled a mustache, a receding dark gray hairline, and a coat of faux red velvet. The man reclined on a cushioned chair painted gold, chewing on a wad of dark brown leaves. Nova stood there for two minutes, frowning at him underneath the hood of her black cloak. The man blinked at her several times before he spat out the leaves on his left and leaned forward.
“Ah, the great D’Sol,” he chirped as he rubbed a sleeve across his lips. “It seems your irrefutable reputation has brought you to Crassus, the Emperor of the Realms.” He gave her a dark grin, his teeth stained brown. “Aren’t you pleased to be in such service?”
Nova pursed her lips. Crassus was the self-proclaimed “Emperor of the Realms.” He managed most of the trade among the Nine Realms outlined in his “peace treaty” among all the Nine Realms, which gave each realm their independence ruled by their respective monarchs, yet abided by the Rules of the Realms that governed a basic lifestyle and moral code.
Crassus leaned back in his chair and waved a hand. “I’m sure you know by now that Stele’s the most wanted man in all the realms?”
“Yes.” She kept her voice low and gruff.
“And that’s where you come in,” he said, grinning. He gestured to a servant boy nearby. “Give our hunter the image of –”
“I know what he looks like,” Nova interrupted. Who didn’t? His picture had been plastered all over the nine realms for the past decade. The papers that littered the streets of the cities were not of the local news or events that were taking place, but of his wanted posters, with the promise of unimaginable riches for his capture.
Crassus stared at her for a moment, and then called over the boy holding a rolled parchment paper. “He’s known to change his looks now and then, but this is the latest sketch we have of him.”
The servant scurried over to her and held out the parchment.
“My latest source was only three weeks ago,” Crassus added, scratching his chins. “But it’s fairly recent by most of the other realms.”
Nova took the parchment without bothering to look at it. “Is there anything else? Or I’ll take my leave now.”
“So eager to get started, eh D’Sol?” He motioned to the servant again. “Here’s a bit of motivation. You’ll get the rest once Stele’s captured.”
“I don’t accept advances,” she said. “Once you have your man, then I collect.”
Crassus chuckled. “This is why everyone loves you.” He waved a hand to his servant. “But I insist you take the money, as a token of my appreciation that you have chosen to work with me…and the rest of the Nine Realms.”
Nova took the dark leather pouch from the bowing young boy. Its weight surprised her as she pocketed the bag under her cloak. “Good day, then.”
Once Nova was gone from sight, Crassus called over his servant.
“Keep an eye on that mercenary, Judhe,” he said. “I don’t want Stele caught just yet.”
The boy nodded and left the room.
Nova stepped out of Crassus’s white marble building and glanced up at the sky. The blue sun-star neared its zenith. The air was dry and the skies a dusty yellow, a sign of summer in the Realm of D’Ouro. She pulled out the rolled parchment Crassus gave. She glanced at the sketch before she crumbled it up and tossed it into a fire pit used for burning waste. She knew very well how this Stele looked. His wanted posters had been around for years and each year the man on the poster had a different look, whether it was the hair, a beard of some sort, or some flawed facial feature, but it was his eyes that always remained the same. It was how she always found her marks.
Nova adjusted her hood and the scarf around her face to filter the billowing grains of sand. She had been looking for Stele several years ago when she first started hunting outlaws and fugitives while working for the local authorities. Back when the reward was just one thousand gold coins for stealing some “priceless” royal trinket. But now it was ten million – one million from each of the Nine Realms, and a million from Crassus himself – and the list of crimes grew from thievery to treason and serial murder. With that much money Nova wouldn’t need to hunt down baddies anymore. She had to admit that she was surprised that someone would hire her now to hunt Stele down. No one had hired her to find him back then, even though many knew her reputation as the hunter who always caught her targets.
Nova held up the coin bag Crassus gave. Then she removed the sword strapped across her back. She pulled out the blade and tapped it over the gold coins. It was a precautionary habit she had since she’d gotten the sword from her mentor years ago. The sword had the ability to remove any magic, malicious or not, whenever it was nearby. She wasn’t sure how, but it was something she’d learn her sword could do during her early days as a bounty hunter. And she didn’t question it.
Nova slipped the bag back into her cloak’s pocket and strapped the sword back across her back. Sand danced around as she made her way to the marketplace: a collection of semi-covered stalls and low buildings along the main road that led to the central city of Qizil, the capital of D’Ouro. She weaved in and out of crowds until she stopped in front of an ice-seller.
“A cold drink for your travels, sir?” the vendor asked.
Nova didn’t mind that she’d been mistaken for a man. It happened more often than not. Even Crassus probably thought she was male. Her former mentor told her it was best if it remained that way. She’d built a reputation since she left her training to become the fastest hunter in all the Nine Realms. But if they knew she was a girl, most people wouldn’t believe it. And there was hardly anyone who knew who she really was.
Nova slid a coin towards the older man across the makeshift table. The man’s eyes widened in surprise. Nova held back her smile, knowing what the man thought: who in their right mind would pay for a cup of cold water with gold?
Although D’Ouro was the home of gold mines, most of the gold was exported to the inner realms, mostly to D’Terra, the third of the Nine Realms – and the wealthiest – before it was made into coins and other valued items used throughout the Nine Realms.
“Yes,” she said. “But there’s something else I’d like as well.”
The mug of ice water was a short relief from the heat. Nova thanked the vendor and headed towards the road. She walked for a quarter of an hour before she took a smaller path lined with shrubbery and a few tall, but thin trees. Then she ran ahead and turned behind a tree and crouched near a golden brown thicket.
Nova watched a thin boy no older than a decade trudge his way up the path. He wore the clothing of the locals: a loose, dusty brown tunic, and a pair of dark beige trousers folded above his calves, but his dark gray hair and eyes, and pallid skin betrayed his D’Pratan origin.
The boy glanced around as he walked. His eyes scanned the trees and shrubs opposite of where Nova hid. The boy frowned for a moment before he started back down the path. Nova shook her head and followed the boy, keeping to the trees. She pulled out a small coil of rope from her pocket before she grabbed the boy from behind.
The boy yelped before Nova pressed him against a tree and tied up his hands from behind. She tossed the other end of the rope over one of the branches and pulled, forcing the boy off the ground, and tied the end in a single knot. The boy dangled, shrieking as Nova turned and walked away.
“Wait!” he cried. “Don’t leave me here!”
Nova ignored him and continued walking down the path.
“It was Crassus!” the boy cried.
Nova looked back at him, amused that he’d betray his master.
“He told me to follow you,” he added. “He doesn’t want you to find Stele yet.”
Nova raised a brow. She knew Crassus would send someone to stalk her, and somehow make it seem like she was unable to get her mark, and thus would not have to pay her the ten million. This boy was probably the same one that stood by the fat “emperor” but without the hooded tanned clothing he had all his servants wear.
“Please don’t leave me here!” the boy cried as Nova turned and walked away. “I’m telling the truth, I swear on the blue sun-star!”
Nova looked over her shoulder at the boy. “What’s your name?”
“Judhe,” he whimpered, his dark hair falling over his gray eyes. “Judhe Riar D’Prata.”
“Well, Judhe Riar D’Prata, the ice-seller will free you in a few hours,” she said. “That is, if he remembers to.”