Outsider Within: Face of Evil - Part Four
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...
D.A. blinked and straightened her back, trying not to appear too alarmed—she had no idea how the blacksmith would react.
Auric smiled at Barnes first, and then his eye caught sight of D.A. His eyes widened, flickering briefly with concern. “So that’s the new help, huh Barnes? No offense, but she looks kinda scrawny to me.”
One of D.A.’s eyebrows arched.
Barnes stood up. “That’s not like you, Draezen. You’re usually so obliging to the ladies I bring home. And I haven’t even introduced you yet."
Auric laughed and walked over to D.A., extending his hand. “And how are you this evening, Miss D.A.? About as surprised to see me as I am to see you, I’d imagine.”
She nodded, trying to loosen the tension around her mouth.
“Ah, so y’know each other?” cried Samantha as she walked back into the room with a plate of food for Auric. “How nice.”
“I’m not sure D.A. thinks so,” he replied, looking into her eyes. “You see, she knows me as Auric, and right about now she’s questioning whether it was wise to entrust me with her sword for repair.”
“You still running that blacksmith shop, Draezen?” asked Barnes.
He nodded. “What can I say? It was my dad’s business. I’m not giving it up.”
Recalling etiquette, D.A. stood and shook her blacksmith’s hand. “Forgive my rudeness; I am still rather surprised. And what is your name?”
He warmly gripped her hand. “I usually go by Auric, but in the Guild people call me Draezen. But from you, I think I’d like you to keep on calling me Auric.”
“Don’t mind him, D.A., he’s getting a real kick out of this,” said Barnes. “Got a dark sense of humor, that one. You’ll get used to it, if you stick around.” He settled back in his chair, and although his face remained in good humor, his voice became serious. “Now D.A., ‘tis time to speak of business. Samantha, you ready?” He waited for his wife to sit beside him. All of the family and Auric turned their eyes to their Zafara guest.
She steeled her eyes. If they thought such attention would make her squirm, they were mistaken.
“I’m sure you’ll understand our need to be careful about who we trust to take part in our business,” said Barnes. “So I’ll be asking some simple questions, and we expect simple, honest answers.”
“There’s no need to ask if you’re from the Citadel. You obviously aren’t, and you don’t hide it. Where are you from?”
“Very far away, Sir, from a place this Citadel has never even heard of. But it is of no consequence, as I have not been there for many years and have no plans to ever go back.”
“Judging by the damage inflicted by you on that Blumaroo’s shop, and the pattern of your strikes, I’d judge that your technique is very different from ours. Even your sword looked to be different. How did you learn?”
“I was trained in my homeland for seven years before I came to the Citadel.”
“Why did you come here?”
“I was asked to by Lord Kass.”
Barnes’ lower jaw dropped slightly, Auric’s eyes bugged, and the other three blinked rapidly.
D.A.’s lips curled and her eyes lowered, hiding a twinge of amusement.
“Care t’explain?” Barnes asked, disbelief fluttering his voice.
“I was a professional sword fighter, and although General Kass had taken over control of the Citadel, he did not have the allegiance of all Darigani. He needed soldiers to fight for him—non-Darigani soldiers in case of a revolt. He sent many trusted associates out to the far corners of Neopia, and one of them came across me. The price was right, and so I came. Of course I had no idea that he had usurped the throne from its rightful Lord, Darigan. Once Kass was removed from power, I simply stayed here, for there was nowhere else to go. I’ve run out of the gold that Kass gave me, and now I’m looking for work. And really, don’t you think serving as a barmaid would be a horrible waste of my talents?”
A moment of silence passed, and then they all appeared to shift in their seats at once. Auric was the first to break the silence, laughing and covering his face with his hand. “I knew she was three bricks short of a barn house, but wow!”
Tony spoke next. “If I may ask, why’re we supposed to believe her? And even if we did, how do we know she isn’t being monitored by the Chambers?”
Barnes nodded his agreement with the question.
D.A. replied, “It would be foolish to lie to you; you are too skilled at reading people. This is why I have not lied about my past, I have only held back in telling you everything, which I do not deny. As for the Chambers, don’t you suppose they have other things to worry about with this Mr. Aimes person around?”
Barnes’ left eye twitched. D.A. made a note of the telling mannerism.
“What d’you know of Mr. Aimes?” he asked her.
“Not much of anything, other than that he is causing trouble not only to the Smugglers’ Guild, but to Darigan’s Chambers. You don’t have to be a spy to figure out that crime’s gone up in the last few months.”
Sitting back in his chair and folding his arms, Barnes said, “Alright, D.A., I like a straight-shooter. So here be a straight question.” A cruel gleam in his eye appeared, about to enjoy what she assumed would be an uncomfortable question for her. “Where’d you get your knee messed up?”
She blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me, D.A., though I’m sure you’re not used to people noticing. I admit, William only noticed because you jumped into the wagon with your weight on your left leg, despite your being right-handed.”
She allowed herself to show a small smile as she glanced at William; she had underestimated his perceptiveness. “I was foolish to think you would not notice. Very well, my knee was injured in a battle long ago, in my homeland. A private duel, of no consequence here.”
“We all have our secrets, D.A., but I think you’re being as honest as you can. Do you hold anything back from me, sword fighter? Anything I should know about?”
“No Sir, I am a blank page. This is my beginning.”
Barnes smiled quietly. “Well, the truth is, D.A., we have a problem. You said you’ve heard of Mr. Aimes?”
Her muscles tightened. “Yes.”
“What do you know about him?”
“That he is the head of a criminal organization, the first to challenge the supremacy of the Smugglers’ Guild since the Citadel left the ground.”
He nodded and thought a moment before continuing. “What’s not so commonly known is that Mr. Aimes is greatly affecting our business. So much so that my very livelihood is threatened, along with most other smugglers. We’re losing contacts in Meridell to him. And we’ve no desire to join him, even if we were offered, which we weren’t. As you noticed, the petty criminals are thriving as his power grows. It’s because unlike the Guild, Mr. Aimes has no qualms against stealing business from others or rewarding petty theft and blackmailing. The Guild punishes those who do not pay their dues, but we always give warning and never resort to blackmail. His organization is despicable. He’s even destroying families.”
Barnes was quiet for a moment before continuing. “One of the reasons Mr. Aimes has leapt to power so quickly is the way he’s organized. The Guild relies on many smuggling operations, all cooperating, to maintain a monopoly over trade, to keep prices up, and to protect each other. Mr. Aimes is a single man in charge of a small, but very powerful and influential group of people. Mr. Aimes alone is at the head, and he is protected by complete anonymity. No one knows who he is, where he is, or how to find him.
“Right beneath Mr. Aimes are his two executives: a pink Kougra named Anna and a Darigan Lupe by the name of Jason. They’re cunning, deadly, and they fight dirty. Those two oversee directly every single operation performed by every single person who works for Mr. Aimes. Them petty thieves pay Mr. Aimes a percentage of their profits in exchange for information and protection. With the help of his executives, Mr. Aimes has amassed in less than a year a fortune of gold and influence.”
Barnes’s building rage cooled and he laced his fingers together. “Mr. Aimes is very dangerous, and seeing as the Chambers has yet to do anything about him, the Guild is going to take him down.”
D.A. could say nothing, only raise an eyebrow.
Barnes laughed. “It does seem an impossible dream! But in all bluntness, we’ve no choice. Here is why I’ve called you, D.A. You’re a sharp fighter, and we need ones like you in this war. In the next few days, we’ll be taking a big step.” Sadness returned to his face. “The Cohen family’s been a pillar in the Guild for the last ten years—a family of honor and loyalty. They stood up to Mr. Aimes, and he struck back. Out of twelve, only two’re still alive, in hiding.”
“Alive?” D.A. started. “I had understood that they were all dead?”
“And that’s what everyone’s going to keep on believing. It’s the only reason they’re still living. And the day after tomorrow, we’re getting them off this Citadel.” He lowered his eyes and shook his head. “’Tis too bad, but there’s no shame in helping Cohen’s wife and kid in getting down to Meridell. She has nothing left here.”
Samantha rose from her chair, and D.A. noted that her eyes were moist. “Excuse me,” she said and left the room.
D.A. looked around at the others for the first time. Both of the Rother boys were quiet and solemn. Auric slouched back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers.
Barnes watched his wife leave and then looked back at D.A. “Hits a little close to home, what happened to the Cohens. But I swear this, D.A., Mr. Aimes will not be allowed to do this again. It might be foolish, but honor allows no other course of action.”
D.A. nodded firmly. “I find this most honorable, Mr. Rother. With all my strength and soul, I will assist you.”
“Then let’s begin discussing our plan.”
* * *
The wrapped sword felt good under Auric’s experienced hand. It represented the first honorable work he’d done as a blacksmith in many years. His client seemed worthy of his skills, too. His father had always said that a blacksmith’s greatest ambition is to serve a noble cause.
As he sat at the tavern table waiting for D.A. to arrive, he thought about the day before. He had been surprised to see D.A. sitting in Rother’s living room; he hadn’t thought her to be the smuggling type. Then again, times were desperate on the Citadel. He wasn’t sure D.A.’s profession was noble, but she struck him as the kind of woman who did not use her skills in vain.
He almost didn’t notice her arrival. Somehow, despite her foreign appearance and memorable demeanor, she could slip just outside his range of vision, almost until she spoke to him.
“Draezen,” she said coolly.
He hastily stood for her to sit. “Miss D.A., please, call me Auric. Most people do.”
As soon as she sat, her eyes focused on the cloth-wrapped sword. “It is ready?” she asked without looking up.
She slid the sword toward her with a gleam of anticipation in her eye. Gingerly she pulled away the cloth and ran her hand just above the blade’s surface. Without comment, she picked the sword up and balanced it on her hand where the blade met the new handle. Then she sliced the air, brought the blade vertically in front of her eyes, and looked at Auric, but without a smile. “Perfect. Worth your fee.” She set a small bag of coins on the table. She stood to leave.
Auric scrambled up, extending his arm to stop her from leaving. Her cold eye stopped him from touching her. Her look demanded that he come out with whatever he wanted to say.
He grappled for words to keep her from going. “Um, I’m glad you like it.” He wanted to see her blue eyes warm up just once more, like they had before she had learned that he was a smuggler. Was she ashamed to be around him, or ashamed of herself? “I can tell you know what you’re doing,” he continued. “My father used to say that a blacksmith’s greatest ambition is to serve a noble swordsman.”
She cocked an eyebrow.
“He took his trade seriously,” he said, slowly sitting back down, “and so do I. In fact, I remember when I was a boy, and blacksmithing was still a profitable trade. A Darigani noble used to request my father’s services, and although he was a very demanding client, my father always obliged him. My father also said that a true swordsman does not trust his sword with just any blacksmith. In fact, this noble tested my father when they first met.”
“Really?” She remained standing.
He nodded, encouraged that she had not walked away. “Yes, he brought my father a simple dagger at first, the handle almost completely shattered and the blade jagged with wear. Much like the sword you brought me. My father repaired the handle and sharpened the blade with such care that it lost hardly any of its width and retained perfect balance. When the noble received his sword, he declared my father to be the blacksmith that he would use until his death.”
“Quite a story,” she said.
“I think so. I have always remembered it, wondering if one day I would be blessed with such a client, worthy of my skills as a blacksmith. It’s funny, Miss D.A. As I was repairing the handle on your sword, I noticed that the damage appeared to have been directly inflicted by another sword. And the damage certainly couldn’t have been done during combat, for there were no blood stains on the sword, and I do not see anything wrong with your hand. Honestly, it’s almost as if the damage to your sword was deliberate.” A sly grin brought an air of cockiness to his red features.
D.A. lost none of her cool, but chose to sit down. “Indeed, Mr. Auric? How very strange.”
He nodded and stood from the table. “Well, now that you have your sword, I must return to my shop. And I do expect to see you again soon, Miss D.A., and I look forward to the challenge.”
He took that moment to stroll off with a triumphant spring in his step, for he was leaving D.A. with an amused look on her face.
To be continued...