Outsider Within: Face of Evil - Part One
A hired hand chucked a crate into the wagon bed. The Darigan Bruce flinched at the groaning of the wagon; his eyes darted from the loaders to the road coming out of the city, where police may come from beyond the reach of their lanterns. His eyes met the gaze of the hooded Zafara woman.
She was a piece of work; foreign robes hung loose against her body, and her hand rested on the hilt of a sword that looked too slender to be of much use. Her blue eyes, detached from the people around her, scanned the borders of their lantern light.
The Bruce surveyed their progress. Less than a quarter of the shipment remained in the warehouse, and their wagon would be loaded and gone well before sunrise. His fingers began to relax at his sides.
The Zafara woman touched his arm. “Police.”
He flicked his hand across his neck and waved toward the wagon bed. The loaders obeyed, abandoning what remained and jumping aboard. The Bruce leapt to the bench and took up the reins of the Whinny steeds.
The Zafara woman stood transfixed, her eyes and ears on the road behind them.
“Well?” he hissed.
Without looking away from the road, she swung up to the seat beside him.
The Whinnies snorted at the touch of whip, and the crates groaned as the wagon lurched forward.
Darigani police ran into the wagon’s sphere of light, their swords in hand. “Stop your Whinnies and raise your hands!”
The Zafara woman smirked at the police before blowing out the lanterns. The smugglers rode into the embrace of darkness.
The police jogged a few more meters before giving up; but one, a Bori, stood far behind them. The sight of a blue Zafara woman had stopped him in his tracks. He whispered one word to himself.
* * *
Henka stared at the boy soldier, wondering when it had become acceptable for a police lieutenant to demand a private hearing with the Chief of Internal Security. The Darigan Bori sat with his toes pointed together on a stool before Henka’s desk.
“Speak,” Henka commanded.
“Chief Henka, it was not my desire to draw you away from—”
“Get to the point, Lieutenant Fargo,” spat the Darigan Hissi.
He raised his chin. “When I was assigned to protect Ambassador Redik five month ago, I was under the impression that a blue Zafara woman called D.A. was an... advisor or assistant, I’m not sure which—to Lord Darigan.”
Fargo paused, but Chief Henka offered neither confirmation nor denial.
“Sir,” the Bori continued, “I’m working in the anti-smuggling division, and we interrupted a pick up early this morning. Several members of the Smugglers’ Guild were there, but we were without steeds and could not catch them. And Sir, as they were fleeing, I saw her with them. D.A. was with the Smugglers’ Guild.”
“You saw a blue Zafara woman?”
“And do you think that every blue Zafara woman you see must be associated with the Chambers in some way?”
“No, of course not, Sir.” Fargo’s cheeks reddened. “But she wore those clothes—that hood with those big buckles. And I saw her sword, that skinny one D.A. carried around.”
“So you saw a hooded Zafara carrying a sword? How unusual for a smuggler.”
The Bori’s muscles tightened. “It was D.A., Sir! I know her face, those eyes.”
“You said it was early this morning. I assume it was dark?”
“Yes Sir, but there were lanterns—”
“And they were on a wagon heading away from you?”
“Lieutenant Fargo, do you intend to make a habit of approaching Heads of State with every suspicion you have?”
“No, Sir! I knew I could only approach you, Chief of Security, because I know D.A.’s association with the Chambers is not general knowledge. I could not approach my own superior because he has never seen her, and would not know who she is.”
“Lieutenant Fargo. I do not recall a D.A., but we have hired many swordsmen in the past, and all were of little importance to Darigan’s Chambers. Now, Lieutenant, if you see a smuggler, arrest him or her. Do not run to me, or to anyone other than your immediate superior, every time you have a notion that someone is more than a smuggler.”
Fargo’s body edged to the front of his seat. “But Sir, I was there when Ambassador Redik arrived—she stood beside Lord Darigan himself, and you! You know she is more than just a mercenary, and I am telling you she is a part of the Smugglers’ Guild. If she is still part of the Chambers, then you all need to be warned—”
“Lieutenant Fargo. You are clearly not capable of understanding your superiors. Report to Captain Shank, the head of the night watch division, and tell him that you have been demoted to squire and are hereby under his charge. Is that clear?”
The Bori sat still for a moment, unblinking. He slid off the chair, straightened his coat, and headed for the door. “Yes, Chief Henka.”
Henka was left by himself. He rested his forehead in his hands.
“D.A., what are you doing?”
He heard a knock on his door, and called for the person to come in. Vosh, the Chamber’s head secretary, clacked in on her stiletto heels. “Sir, General Galgaroth is requesting to speak with you immediately.”
Henka sighed and pushed his chair away from the desk. “I suppose he wants me to come to him.”
“I assume so, Sir.”
“Anything you need to give me before I go back downstairs?”
He shook his head. “No, just be sure to send up my reports the moment they arrive.”
“I always do, Sir,” she replied in a miffed tone as she closed the door.
A moment later, Henka headed down the spiral stairs of Chambers Tower, forcing himself not to flinch as his serpentine body fell onto each step. Staircases had not been designed for the Hissi body. He went out into the soldier’s barracks outside the north wall of Chambers Tower.
Henka found the burnt orange Grarrl sitting at his desk in a small stone office. “General,” he greeted.
General Galgaroth nodded. “Sit if you want. It’s not good news.”
“I have never found chairs comfortable.”
He shrugged beneath layers of hardened black leather. “The Cohen family is out of business. Mr. Aimes got a hold of all their contacts, even prevented other Smugglers’ Guild families from collecting on the Cohens’ loans. Henka, one of the four major families in the Smugglers’ Guild is wiped out! Mr. Aimes, whoever he is, is working a lot faster than we expected.”
Henka stared at the desk, silent in thought. “He’ll tear the Smugglers’ Guild apart before the year’s end.”
“Hmph. And don’t quote you on what a bad thing that is.”
“Only simpletons could ignore the fact that smugglers are an integral part of our economy. It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth. Without the Smugglers’ Guild, the poor folk would go without food and then the thugs would take over.”
“So you said you haven’t heard anything about D.A.?” Galgaroth asked.
“I know she’s alive and working. She was seen with a group of smugglers in Rother family territory this morning. But I don’t know who she’s specifically working for. She could be working for one of the sons, not the father. She hasn’t contacted me.”
“You didn’t expect her to. Too dangerous. But she’s making progress, at least.”
“Progress? We haven’t heard a word from her, and you just said Mr. Aimes took down the Cohen family.”
“More than you’ve done.”
Henka glared at him.
“Sorry, Henka. But you’re frustrating sometimes.” The Grarrl pushed himself out of his chair. “I have work to do. So do you. And don’t worry so much. She can take care of herself.”
“I’m well aware of that. I’m not so sure she can take care of the interests of the Citadel. She just hasn’t been trained for that sort of thing. It’s so very delicate, what we’re trying to do.”
“And just what are you trying to do, Henka? You never did quite say.”
“I was working on it when D.A. up and disappeared, promising to ‘take care of it.’ Whatever that means.”
“You know what that means.”
Henka glanced at him. “I suppose I do. But it is not to be spoken of. It’s not the most tasteful course of action, and if anyone got wind of it, it would be bad news for Lord Darigan.”
“Which is why D.A. didn’t ask for permission. I think she’s even smarter than we give her credit for, Henka.”
“I can’t figure out how that mind of hers works.”
“Have you ever asked?”
Henka gave him a vacant look.
Galgaroth laughed. “She’s right about you, you know. You’re so used to dissecting details and dancing around the truth that you completely miss the obvious.”
He snorted. “So nice to know I’m talked about.”
“Yeah. Isn’t it though.”
* * *
Auric stared intently into the Xweetok barmaid’s eyes. “Do you trust me, Lily?”
“Not really, no,” she said with amusement.
The red Zafara took a step back and clenched his hand against his chest. “Lily, you don’t trust me? Not enough to do just this one thing for me?”
She blushed and glanced around the tavern at their audience. “Fine, Auric.”
The slim red Zafara pulled her up next to him and raised his hand before the audience. She began to giggle. “Not yet Lily, you have to wait until the fat lady sings!”
Her hand flew up to her mouth to conceal her laughing. Then she suddenly stopped laughing, put on a serious face, took a deep breath, and belted out, “And that’s what happeeened to the groggyyyy darigaaaaniiii!” She held the last note for a full ten seconds before collapsing into giggles.
Auric took a few bows with the girl and then went up to the bar to get some food. He laughed as the last of his friends left for the night, and patted Lily on the back as she took off for the night. “She’s a good kid, Maury,” he told the tavern keeper.
The tavern keeper, of course, agreed. And then the tavern went very silent, and Auric found himself leaning over his plate and staring at the food. He stretched his arms out and rubbed his face. He left his hands over his itchy eyes and sighed. He felt so very tired.
The tavern door swished open with a cold breath of air. One eye opened between his fingers to look.
A blue Zafara woman glanced around the tavern as she came in and seated herself at a small table by the fireplace.
Auric dropped his hands to his lap and blinked the sleepiness away to get a better look at her. The woman wore a long maroon tunic and ivory head covering; entirely un-Darigani attire. Her body relaxed into the chair, too comfortable to be a tourist.
“Hey Maury, who is that?”
The tavern keeper shrugged.
Auric slipped off his stool, straightened his shirt and walked to her table.
The fire and some far-away thought seemed to preoccupy her eyes.
He stood opposite her, deciding whether or not he should take a seat. She blinked and turned her eyes onto him; they lost the fire light and turned cold.
Better not take a chair just yet. “Hello Miss, the name’s Auric.”
She nodded slightly but said nothing.
He widened his smile further. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you here before. Might I say it is quite nice to have a lady such as yourself here?”
She raised a cold eyebrow at him.
“I suppose you’re wondering why I say you’re a lady and not a tourist?”
Auric chuckled. “Your clothes. You are definitely not Darigani, and since you’ve made it up to the Citadel, you’re no foreign peasant. That makes you a lady. And because you’re at a grungy tavern in a back alley, you know these streets. You’re no tourist.”
She cocked her head and smiled ever so slightly in amusement. “A thoughtful assessment.” She looked away from him, back into the fire.
He stood there, swaying, waiting for her to extend some sort of hospitality, but she appeared to believe that she had ended the conversation. Auric took a seat at the table beside her.
With eerie slowness, her blue eyes turned to him, lit with orange firelight. “Anything else?”
“Just a question. What are you doing here?”
“I wasn’t aware I needed a reason.”
“Well, you haven’t been here before—at least if you have, not often. And you’re not from this neighborhood; that I’d definitely know. And you’re not here with someone from the neighborhood. It’s all just very strange.”
Her cup clicked against the wood table as she set it down. “Can I help you with something, or are you just bored?”
She cocked her head.
“My name is Auric, just in case you forgot.”
She returned her gaze to the fireplace.
Auric sat there, bewildered, his curiosity developing an insatiable appetite.
The tavern keeper tapped the Zafara’s shoulder. She turned to him as he handed her a small box.
“Here,” he said. “Tell him thanks for me.”
She nodded. “I will.” Pushing herself up from the table, she headed for the door.
Auric jumped up. “What? You just got here. Are you leaving because of me?”
She looked him up and down. “No. It is late, and I was only here to collect a package for a friend.” She turned to leave.
Auric darted in front of her. “It’s late, and I feel it my duty to walk you home. These city streets can be dangerous at night.”
Looking him over with a critical eye again, the Zafara seemed to be judging what type of man he was.
“I can assure you, I will be fine,” she said.
“Alright then, will you let me walk with you? These dark alleys scare me.”
She made no comment, rolled her eyes ever so slightly, and headed out the door.
“I’ll take that as a ‘sure.’”
She gave him an unbelieving look as he walked next to her out of the tavern. Then she turned and looked straight ahead, as if to say that she would no longer grace him with her attention.
Auric started to say something charming, when out of the corner of his eye he saw a figure running up behind them. A mugger!
Auric kicked the Yurble in his chest as he closed in. The Zafara woman turned around. A Meerca leapt from atop a nearby building onto her back, and Auric punched the creature off of her. Her eyes turned to something behind Auric; he turned just in time to punch a Xweetok in the gut. The three muggers laid on the ground, unconscious or unwilling to get up.
Panting, Auric said to the Zafara, “See? Aren’t you glad I came?”
She smiled slightly, as if she knew something he did not. He cocked his head.
She had leapt behind him, and he whirled around to see her kicking down the Yurble that had first attacked him. As the Yurble’s back landed on the stone street, a dagger fell out of his fist.
“Indeed, Mr. Auric,” said the woman as she backed off from the Yurble. “It is a good thing you decided to tag along for protection.” She bowed and turned to walk away.
Auric almost stayed there, between the smoke-stained walls, as she walked away. But something in his gut pushed him forward. “Wait!”
She turned a cold eye to him.
“At least let me thank you,” he said as he walked up to her again. “Let me do something for you. Can I buy your dinner?”
“Thank you, but no.”
“Well, then let me do something else. I see you carry a sword! I happen to be a blacksmith. Do you need a new sheath?”
“This one is fine.”
“Can I sharpen your blade?”
“There is no need.”
“But it looks like it only has one sharp side; that’s strange. But of course that also means that with half the blade, you need twice the sharpening.”
She looked up at him with surprise. “You could see that it has only one side just from its sheath?”
“Yes, I’m that good. Does that mean you’ll let me sharpen it for you?”
“You aren’t making it very easy on a guy, are you?”
She looked up at him again with an upturned eyebrow. “I beg your pardon, sir, but—”
“You’ve saved my life. I’d say it’s safe for you to call me Auric.”
“—Auric, but you are the one who followed me, and from what I saw, you are the one who those men were trying to mug. I have no desire to be around so unlucky a person.”
Auric pounded his fist against his chest. “You cut me to the core!”
She nearly jumped at his loud theatrics.
“That I should bring such a lady as you bad luck! What misfortune for me!” He swayed down into the wall beside them as she gave him an incredulous, open-mouthed stare. “Besides, I would not have thought you believe in luck.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I don’t have the time, Auric.”
“Oh, I get it. You’re a very busy person and cannot be disturbed by a guy from a seedy tavern in a back alley of the Citadel.”
“Yes, that’s exactly it. You don’t give up, do you?”
He grinned. “Never.”
“Honestly, I am at a total loss as to why you are harassing me so.”
“Isn’t it obvious, my lady? I wish to know the name of the woman who saved my life, and do something nice for her.”
After a brief pause she responded, “If you wish to do something nice, you may leave me in peace.” She turned down the alley again, her step purposeful and swift.
“My shop is just up Green Knight Lane—after the dairy,” he called after her, but not following. “It’s called the Black Anvil, so don’t hesitate to come by!” Auric stood there in silence before laughing out loud. He had to learn this woman’s name.
To be continued...