Outsider Within: Face of Evil - Part Three
Auric hammered the sheet of iron, thinning it with each strike. He wiped the sweat away from his brow to examine the iron plow he knew he could not sell. Meridellian wares continued to be far less expensive than their Darigani-made counterparts. He raised his arm to strike the metal sheet again.
“Your work looks skillful,” said a woman’s voice.
He looked up from his work to see the strange Zafara woman who had saved his life. He smiled and set his hammer down. “Thank you. Blacksmithing has been in my family for generations. What changed your mind about coming?”
“You knew my sword had only one sharp side while it was still in the sheath,” she said. “Now, while I am sure you are skilled, I have a rather unusual request.” She pulled a sheath out of her belt and laid it on the table.
First looking to her face for permission, Auric picked up the sheath, feeling its strange lightness in his hands. As he pulled out the blade, his eyes widened. Only one side of the slender blade had a sharp edge, and it felt like less than half the weight of a traditional broadsword. “I could see this sword would only have one sharp side, but I’ve never... where is it from?”
“It is not from this land, and the handle needs repair.”
Auric’s eyes went to the handle, which had no finger guard, only a small edge at the end of the handle before the blade, and this was cracked. “It will need to be replaced.”
“Might I ask, why is the blade sharp only on one side? And it is so light, I am surprised it could be used against the heavier Darigani swords. Understand, I must understand your sword’s purpose if I am to repair it.”
“Of course. The blade may be thinner, but it is also lighter and quicker, much to the advantage of a small woman. It is sharp only on one side so that I may choose the amount of force to use.”
He nodded and pursed his lips for a moment, thinking. “Give me three days.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Three days? Why so long?”
He avoided looking resentful at the question. “I have never repaired a sword like this. I need to study it carefully before I start, to preserve its balance and proper handling.”
A smile tinged her lips and she bowed deeply. “Excellent, Sir. I will return in three days. How much do you expect the payment to be?”
This is where he always lost the customers. “Considering the exotic nature of the blade, the time and effort involved... five thousand?”
She nodded. “Very good.”
“Well, that was easy!”
“I know a fair price when I hear one. Three days.” With a final bow, the Zafara woman turned to walk away.
“Wait, I don’t even know your name!”
She turned around to look at him.
“It’s hardly fitting for me to work on your sword and not even know your name.”
“Of course. My name is D.A.” She bowed and walked away.
Auric looked after her with a smile on his lips, and as her figure disappeared around a street corner, he turned his focus onto her one-sided sword.
* * *
Henka scanned the report in his hands, conscious that he had twenty-three more to read before he could go home for the night, and even after that, he expected to get little sleep. He had heard not so much as a whisper about D.A. for almost a week. Not a sighting in the marketplace, or a report that she had been to her favorite tavern.
Henka looked up from his desk. The light from the window was turning dark red and he would soon have to light a candle, but something was not right. The papers rustled as he dropped them on his desk. He looked from one stone corner to another. There was not a sound, not a single speck of floating dust. The silence screamed to him.
He leaned back and folded his arms. “You get too much pleasure from sneaking, Gigi. I worry it may become a problem.”
His wood door creaked open and in stepped a tiny brown Usul. She smiled as she entered and jumped up onto the chair in front of his desk. “It’s taking you less time to find me out, Henka. I’ll have to learn some new tricks.”
“Stop testing them out on me, Gigi, I have too many things to worry about as it is.”
The child-like Usul raised an eyebrow. “That bad, huh? You usually enjoy my visits.”
The Hissi leaned forward to rest his wings on the desk. “The Citadel gets more complicated with each passing month, Gigi, and for the moment I have an extra problem that I hope is resolved quickly.”
“You just don’t like admitting that you like that Zafara spy, do you? I can see you’re worried about her.”
He frowned and sat up. “Have you heard about her?”
She flicked her wrist at him. “Of course, that’s why I’m here. Although I’m not going to bother trying to figure out whether you’ll think it’s good news or bad. You won’t tell me anything about her, not even her real name. What kind of code name is D.A., anyway?”
“You know as much about her real name as I do, Gigi. But what did you hear?”
She pulled her brown ears around her face and stroked them. “How I love my big ears. They have brought me much.”
“Get on with it!”
“Patience, my dear. Do not treat me like a child.”
A dark glint in her eye caught his notice, and he folded his arms and scowled, then forced a smile. “Of course, Gigi. You are quite right; my apologies. Whenever you are ready.”
She released her ears. “I am ready. So here’s what happened. I will tell you facts only, because there are many possible interpretations. This morning, a blue Zafara woman wearing foreign clothes—head covering, long red tunic, and loose pants—was seen in the company of William Rother at the Smoke Street tavern. As you know, William is the son of Barnes Rother, head of one of the six major Smugglers’ Guild families. After a few minutes, Papa Barnes and the younger son, Tony, showed up. They all appeared to be getting along famously, although little of their actual conversation was heard. I believe she had already done a favor for Barnes, and he was now discussing her future with her.
“Anyway, here is what I’m afraid you won’t like, Henka. A former Darigani policeman, a Bori by the name of Fargo, swaggered over to their table and accused D.A. of being with the Chambers and warned Barnes Rother off of her.”
Henka slammed a fist on the table, his muscles taut and his eyes fierce.
“I didn’t think you’d like that,” continued Gigi. “More specifically, Fargo told Barnes Rother that he used to be a policeman until he asked too many questions about D.A. He swore that he’d seen D.A. right next to Lord Darigan during that Meridellian ambassador’s visit a few months back. There was a brief fight, after which the two Rother sons dragged Fargo out of the bar. D.A. spoke with Barnes for a few minutes, and soon they were all laughing together. D.A. and the Rother family left separately, on what appeared to be good terms. But you know how these Guild types are. Charming but exceedingly suspicious. Rother is probably keeping on good terms with her until he can investigate her history himself. And depending on what he finds....” She raised her palms in the air and said, “Who knows?”
Henka squeezed his fist tight, mulling over the stupidity. “Thank you, Gigi, now go. I will have your payment arranged. I must be alone.”
She shrugged and slid off the chair. “Don’t hurt yourself,” she called as she walked out the door.
Henka lashed his tail against the floor and scraped his nails against his desk as he pushed himself away from it. ‘Stupid!’ he chastised himself. How could he have been so stupid as to let a moron lieutenant who wouldn’t obey his superiors loose on the street, with the kind of information that could put D.A.’s life at risk? He bolted out the door and growled as his underbelly scraped against the stairs down to the ground level.
Gigi was right; just because Barnes had let her go at the tavern did not mean that her life was not in danger. Of all the Guild families, Barnes Rother in particular had a reputation for being both fiercely loyal and mercilessly suspicious, and with good reason.
The receptionist at the main entrance stood to say something to him, but one glare silenced her. Henka pushed through the main doors and headed left to the soldiers’ barracks.
Darkness was enveloping the Citadel’s sky, and Henka found General Galgaroth just leaving his office. “We need to talk,” said Henka.
The orange Grarrl frowned and followed him back inside his office. “Haven’t seen you this mad since Vex—”
“You remember our discussion about Lieutenant Fargo?” Henka interrupted.
“Yeah,” said the Grarrl as he settled into his chair. “Why?”
“He lost his temper and D.A. might pay with her life.”
Galgaroth set his jaw. “I assume you have a damage control plan?”
“Yes, but you’re going to have to stage a show for me.”
* * *
As the sun dipped below the edge of the floating city, a cold night wind began to swirl through the barren fields of the Citadel. D.A. held her head covering tight against her chin as she walked toward the southwestern corner of the Citadel, where neighborhoods stood tucked away just out of the grasp of the Chambers’ authority, while bearing the brunt of the sky’s harsh elements.
Here in the southwestern corner, the Smugglers’ Guild reigned as the Law. The Guild’s citizens felt no fear from Darigan’s Chambers, having lived quietly in their undesirable corner since the last Meridellian war.
D.A. watched as children kicked a ball from one side of the gravel street to another, screaming and grabbing at each other in the throes of competition. A mother saw D.A. walking down the street and watched her closely, wary of the stranger in their neighborhood. D.A. knew that these residents had once lived without fear, but now unrest had settled in with the uncertainty of Mr. Aimes’ next move. Only a few days ago he had all but obliterated the Cohen family—a pillar in the Guild since its inception.
D.A. took the right side of the street and the children swarmed to the left, until one of them kicked the ball in her direction. She raised the two bottles of braku juice in her hands above her head just as the children parted around her, like river water around a rock.
Ahead on the left she saw a stone house, and on its dark wood porch Barnes Rother swayed in his rocking chair, sucking on a stick of hard candy. His two sons leaned against the railing of the porch.
“D.A.,” Barnes called as he waved her over.
She nodded at him and his sons and stepped up onto the porch, handing him the two brown glass bottles.
With a surly grin, Barnes squinted at the braku juice labels. “Sweet juice an’ a cider; good choices. More the merrier, I always say!” This statement was followed by a true belly laugh that jiggled the roll edging out over his belt.
D.A. cocked her head with an amused look. Home made this smuggling lord a jolly neighborhood patriarch. Tony and William were equally transformed from hard smugglers to relaxed, albeit mischievous-looking youths. Barnes rocked himself out of the chair while crunching up the remainder of his hard candy, and opened the house door for her.
D.A. felt her own muscles relaxing. “I thank you again for inviting me to your home, Mr. Rother.”
“Ah, D.A., Mr. Rother lives at the tavern; at home I’m just ol’ Barnes.”
“Ol’ Barnes indeed,” chided a red Bruce as she walked out onto the porch, wiping her wing into her apron. “It’s good to have you with us, D.A., but m’husband seems to have forgotten all about his invitation ‘til but a few hours ago.” She rolled her eyes at him. “He claims it runs in his family, he does.”
“Oh,” said D.A. as she shook the plump woman’s hand. “If you were not expecting me....”
“Don’t worry about it, child,” Mrs. Rother said, patting the Zafara’s hand. “By now, I’m used to it. And in our home, good company’s always welcome.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Good gracious, Barnes, did you hear that? She called me ma’am. Would you mind telling your little friend that I am nowhere near old enough to be called ma’am?” She winked at D.A.
Barnes laughed at his wife. “Don’t mind Samantha, D.A. She’s just a little anxious about the big five-oh—”
“Don’t y’dare finish that sentence! Well, come in, boys, and show D.A. ‘round the place. I don’t know where Draezen is; he should be here by now.”
“Draezen?” asked D.A.
“A friend of the family,” explained Barnes, “and a valuable business associate. But there will be plenty of time after dinner to talk business.”
Samantha Rother proved to be a true Darigani cook, making the most of what was available to the people of the Citadel. The aged braku juice D.A. brought was a hit among all of the Rothers, and around the time Samantha started serving after-dinner coffee, a voice called from the front door.
“Samantha Rother, is that your famous meat pie I smell?”
Samantha laughed and looked over at D.A. “That would be Draezen coming in. That boy can eat, too.”
D.A. nodded, but felt a cold stone fall to the bottom of her stomach.
Footsteps made their way across the kitchen, and a familiar red Zafara appeared at the threshold.
To be continued...