Outsider Within: Face of Evil - Part Two
D.A. saw the Darigan Bruce, William, survey the tavern as he walked in and caught sight of her. He grinned and waved, but received no response from her.
He pulled a chair up to her table. “You gave us a good head start on the police yesterday morning,” he said.
D.A. looked up at him from her teacup. “Yes, but that was hardly extraordinary. You could have hired anyone of a large-eared species.”
He half smiled. “I still haven’t seen you fight with that skinny sword of yours. It’s just for show, isn’t it?”
She sipped her tea.
William raised his arm to catch the barkeep’s eye. “Breakfast. Whatever’s hot.”
“I did not invite you to breakfast with me,” she said.
“I’m here to talk business, Miss D.A.”
He briefly narrowed his eyes before smiling charismatically and raising his hands in defeat. “Alright. You’ve impressed me. Obviously you can think on your feet, focus under pressure. You might be ready to join the family.”
“Yeah, you know. The Rother family smugglers.”
“I do not much care which family I am associated with, as long as it gives me a foothold in the Smugglers’ Guild.”
“You should care.”
The barkeep plopped a bowl in front of William. He spooned grits into his mouth. “Family is everything in the Guild,” he said while sucking in air to cool his tongue.
“Alright then,” she said, averting her eyes from his open-mouthed chewing. “When do I meet Mom and Dad?”
“You’ll meet Dad now. If he likes you, maybe he’ll introduce you to Mom.”
“Not right this second, obviously, but he’ll be here in a few minutes with my brother, Tony.”
She narrowed her cold eyes. “You are trying to throw me off balance, William. It is not so easy.”
He smiled as he chewed. “Thought as much.”
Within minutes, the doors opened and cold wind swirled through the tavern. Two Darigan Bruces walked in, and a pair of Darigani chatting by the door got out of their way. The two Rother sons clearly got their build from their father—a square Darigan Bruce without the expected pudge.
“William.” The father nodded to his son.
D.A. and William, as well as the other Rother son, all stood as the patriarch sat. Tony pulled out her chair before he took his own seat. She took a moment to compare the brothers.
Both of the boys were tall and fairly lean for their race, but William’s solid body weight afforded him the luxury of an effortlessly imposing stature; the one who had held out her chair was much leaner, and had chiseled his body through obvious hard work.
The patriarch lifted his sword sheath onto his thigh and let it rest there. “Well, William, I hear you’ve taken a liking to this young woman,” he said while looking at D.A.—not through her, but at her.
William nodded. “Yes, Sir. It is my pleasure to present to you D.A.; D.A., this is Barnes Rother.”
D.A. nodded and reached over the table to shake his hand. “Mr. Rother.”
“Miss D.A., ‘tis a pleasure to meet you. This here’s my younger son, Tony.”
The slim youth leaned over to shake her hand.
“Tony,” she greeted.
“William has already reported in detail your dealings with him,” Barnes continued. “I am satisfied with what I have heard. What can you tell me about yourself?”
“Well, Mr. Rother, if you had not already noticed, I am not from this part of the world.”
He laughed and rested his hand on his belly. “You’re not kidding. You stick out like a sore thumb—for a smuggler, that’s not necessarily a good trait.”
“I am not an actress, Mr. Rother. I have always worn these clothes. I find Darigani fashion heavy and distracting. I would appear even more out of place in the local clothes, and moreover, I could come across as either in costume or trying too hard to blend in. I’m sure you’ll agree that those would be even worse traits for a smuggler.”
Barnes nodded and looked at William. “She is a smart one.” He looked back at her. “Maybe a little too smart for our humble family business.”
“Humble?” she said. “Don’t feign modesty on my account, Mr. Rother. We both know that the Rother family is one of the most powerful families in the Smugglers’ Guild. You yourself are undoubtedly very clever, or else you would not still be alive.”
His eyes gleamed with thoughtful pleasure. “You I do like, Miss D.A., and William here says you claim exceptional sword skills?”
“Yet he says he has never seen them?”
“I have not yet had occasion.”
“You look of a build too slight to do much damage.”
She said nothing.
“Alright then, Miss D.A., for now I think I’ll believe you’re as good as you say. In fact, I have a favor to ask of you.”
Again she only listened.
“Sometimes I make loans to friends, and one I have is past due to pay me. It is most unfortunate, but I must get something in return for my investment.”
“An’ to make matters worse, this man is trying to get around his commitment. I know he’s been to the police, and that if he can he’ll try to give me away to them—all over a fairly small loan. I would’ve considered giving him an extension, but after betraying my trust, I fear there’s no choice. I must teach him the workings of our world.”
She nodded, but behind her cold eyes brewed dark humor. The irony of punishing someone who had conspired to turn Rother over to the authorities was not lost on her.
* * *
The Blumaroo youth was growing impatient with his mother. “I can take the garbage out later; I don’t like leaving Father alone when the shop’s closed at night.”
The older Blumaroo looked up at him with a smile in her eyes. “Jared, how many times have you said that, I let you go, and then you stay out there too long, get tired, forget to take the garbage out, and then the kitchen smells like rotting potato skins in the morning?”
Jared sighed and sat down at the table, waiting for her to finish cleaning. When she finished, he grabbed the tin basket and ran it outside, leaving it by the back door for the night sweeper to pick up.
He ran back through the house to the front, where his father’s general store adjoined their home. As he made for the door, he heard a thud against one of the walls. “Dad?”
The silence that followed hastened his final steps. He swung the door open and saw a blue Zafara woman standing in the middle of the dark room. His eyes came to a long silver gleam at her side: a sword.
The woman’s cold blue eyes narrowed at him, and her wrist flicked her sword to attention. Jared took a step back. Movement in the corner drew his eyes away from the swordswoman. His heart turned cold at the thought of a second swordsman. His eyes came to a small form hunched against the wall.
“Dad!” he cried, but did not go to the figure. He snarled at the woman, who watched him but had not moved. He pulled his fingers into fists and charged her.
Her eyes flickered with uncertainty for a moment before she sidestepped his juvenile attack. “You had best not try anything else foolish,” said the woman. Her voice shook, either with anger or with feeling; Jared was not sure which.
“Get away from him!” Jared ran between her and his father, his fists trembling as much as his voice.
“Get out of here, Jared,” his father whispered. “This is none of your business, get out!”
The son looked down at him, surprised.
“Leave, child, and I will not harm you,” said the woman as she took a step forward, “and I will give my word that your father will not be irreparably damaged.”
“How could you hurt an unarmed old man? Have you no honor?”
The woman flinched and lowered her gaze, but tightened her grip on the sword. “It is unfortunate for your father that he has been unable to repay his debts. You will not leave?”
“No!” cried the boy.
She lowered her head. “As you wish. But I warn you, your head will throb when you wake.”
The boy’s eye widened as she raised the handle of her sword to his head, and then his vision melted away into blackness.
* * *
Soft morning light roused the Darigani streets from sleep, and the first scent of yeast rising from bakers’ shops drifted into the streets. In these last minutes of quiet, D.A. pushed any feelings of guilt from her mind, and instead worried over whether she had been too lenient on him. And yet she could not shake the chilling thought that with only a wrong word or look, she could end up in shoes much worse than his.
Pushing open the tavern doors, D.A.’s eyes found Barnes Rother and his sons at the same table as the night before, only this morning coffee and sweet breads sat before them. William noticed her first and pointed her out to Barnes.
“Ah, D.A., I didn’t see you comin’!” the patriarch said and waved her to their table. “I hear all went well last night.”
D.A. nodded and wondered what network of communications existed among the Smugglers’ Guild.
“I’ve another assignment for you,” said Rother as a barmaid set a mug in front of D.A. “I noticed your sword work on the shop, and I have to admit the power of your strikes far exceeded what I thought possible from a little woman like yourself.”
A fragment of a smile twitched on the Zafara’s lips.
“So, you might be a nice help to William and Tony, I think. They can take care of themselves, of course, but I always like having a third sword at exchanges. We deal with Meridellians mostly. Darigani like to think that only the knights are any good at swords down there, but it’s a fool who underestimates an opponent. Or a friend.”
“I am no fool, Mr. Rother. There is a saying I once heard: Wary the enemy who meets you with a smile on his face.”
Barnes chuckled. “I like that, D.A. Just remember it at the dock.”
A slurring voice interjected. “You ain’t kidding.”
Their eyes turned to a Bori slouching over the table beside them.
“Is there something I can help you with, lad?” asked Barnes.
The Bori wagged his head. “No, but there’s a whole lot I can do for you.” His chair squealed as he pushed away from the table.
D.A.’s eyes narrowed as the Bori sauntered to their table. “I have seen your face,” she said. “You’re a policeman.”
He grinned viciously. “Not anymore, Miss D.A.” He dropped into the seat beside Barnes, who leaned away from him with distaste.
The Bori put his arm on Barnes. “You know why I’m not a policeman anymore? Because I asked too many questions about her.” He thumbed in D.A.’s direction. “Don’t be fooled, she’s not what she seems.” His eyes rolled over to her. “And to be straight with you, I’m not sure what you are. All I know is, first you’re standing next to Lord Darigan himself as his personal guard; next you’re with the head of a Smugglers’ Guild family.”
Both D.A. and Barnes involuntarily pulled away from the Bori.
“What did you say your name was, lad?” asked Barnes.
“Fargo. Used to be a lieutenant until she messed me up. You messed up everything!” He lunged at D.A. across the table.
The Zafara easily caught his fists in her palms and glanced at Barnes to assess his thoughts.
The Bruce’s eyes were distant, thoughtful on the wild Bori.
She spoke while still gripping his fists. “Fargo, your name is?”
The Bori thrashed against her.
“Settle down!” she commanded.
Fargo squirmed against her grip, and finally managed to slip his wrist out from under her grasp. He hammered down on her arm, forcing her to release his other hand. He jumped up and faced the Rother men. “You’re all fools to trust her!”
He was met with blank faces. Enraged, Fargo swept his thin arm across the table, splashing their drinks onto the floor. “Listen to me!” he cried.
Barnes jumped up as coffee soaked through his clothes. “Get him out of here,” he growled.
The boys wrestled Fargo’s arms behind his back and dragged him out of the tavern.
“Very strange,” said Barnes as he shook his head. “Know him?”
D.A. looked away from the door back to Barnes. Her tongue felt hot and thick. “I am not sure. I do recall a Bori policeman showing up at the warehouse last week while we were moving goods—while I was with William’s crew, that is. It may have been him.”
Barnes nodded quietly.
D.A. glanced back at the door. Tony and William had not yet returned.
“Don’t concern yourself with him, D.A. Lots of blue Zafara women out there, right?” His eyes seemed to be trying to pierce through her.
She nodded and calculated her next words. “Yes sir... and the truth is, he may have reason to accuse me. A few months ago, when that Meridellian ambassador came up to the Citadel, Darigan’s Chambers’ security was tight, and they hired a few mercenaries to stand guard. Only around the perimeter, mind you, but still standing guard. I was one of them.”
The Bruce raised his heavy eyebrows. “And this you never mentioned before?”
“You will admit, I think, that working for the Chambers—even as a mercenary—does not do much for one’s reputation.” She smiled ever so slightly, a little fire sparked in her eyes.
Barnes stared into her eyes long and hard. He laid his hand on his gut and started laughing. “Can’t argue with you there, Miss D.A.!”
The Rother boys came back to the table and eyed his laughing father.
“Not to worry, boys,” said Barnes. “Our little D.A. here just has a rather wicked sense of humor, she does. Now come on, sit back down. We’ve business to discuss.”
Barnes sniffed as his sons sat back down, and seriousness returned to his stature. “I have plans for you, Miss D.A. You see, a war is brewing.” He seemed to be taken over by agitation, and he slid his body back and forth in his seat. He raised his head. “Hungry?”
“Very well, but you do eat dinner, don’t you?”
“Yes Sir, I ate less than an hour ago.”
“Glad to hear it, because I want you to come and have dinner at my house tonight. Meet the family and all. Because my business and my family are one and the same, D.A. If you start working for me, you become my family, and with it come all the privileges and responsibilities.”
She bowed. “It would be a great honor, Sir. I can see that you hold your family in first place.”
Barnes nodded. “Yeah, and my family needs to approve of you. We’re in this together. So be there before sunset. I live on fourth and seventh. Me and the boys will be sitting on the porch, so you can’t miss us.”
“Thank you very much, Sir. May I bring anything?”
“Bring a bottle of Braku Juice for us to share.”
“As you wish.”
“Boys, walk the lady outside.”
Tony and William flanked D.A. on her way out, and it was as if the breakfast crowd in the tavern parted before them. Clearly, this was a public announcement that she was under their protection now. This was good, if not eerie. D.A. had stepped over into the world of the smugglers, and if she made a mistake now, there would be no second chance.
To be continued...