Secrets and Shadows: Part One
Commander Bhrack, commanding officer of the Darigan Citadel Guard and trusted military advisor to Lord Darigan, paused in weariness outside of the wooden door leading to his quarters. It had been an especially trying day, and this was the first time in hours he had a moment to himself. He leaned his head against the wall, grateful for the momentary respite, when he was jarred from his daydream by a friendly shout.
“Hey, Bhrack! Are you off duty yet?” A short Shadow Yurble waved at him from the end of the hall. The Tonu commander gave his friend a tired smile.
“Just got off, Simon. Do you want to have a drink at my quarters?”
The senior secretary of personnel gave a nod. “Sure. I’d be happy to.” He trotted down the corridor while Bhrack unlocked the door and pulled it open. The Tonu commander began loosening the ties of his armor as soon as he stepped inside. “Ohhhhhh,” the Red Tonu grunted as he stripped off his chest armor and set it on the stand. “What a day.” The Yurble followed him inside, pulling off his own cloak and hanging it on a peg beside the door.
“Looks like you had a tough one,” Simon said sympathetically. “Here, let me pour you a drink.” The personnel secretary headed over to a wooden cabinet and with the ease of long practice, quickly filled two glasses and handed one to the tired commander.
Bhrack gave the Yurble a grateful nod as he took the glass and took a long swig. “That really hit the spot.”
Simon took his own glass and sat in the armchair by the fire, and sipped his drink thoughtfully. “So what kept you so busy today?” he asked conversationally as Bhrack sat down in the chair facing him. The Tonu grimaced and rubbed his maroon-colored horn with his empty hand.
“Trying to be in two places at once. Supervising the new recruits in marching, keeping the lieutenants working, watching the soldiers at sword drills. I don’t dare turn my back for a minute. The soldiers will slack off whenever you aren’t watching them, and as for that Arianna...” he stopped abruptly.
“What about her?” the Shadow Yurble asked with interest as he leaned forwards.
The Tonu laughed coldly and grunted, “I don’t trust her.”
Simon frowned. “I always knew that you didn’t like her...” he trailed off with a questioning glance at his friend.
“I don’t dare leave her unsupervised,” Bhrack said in low tones. “If you knew what I knew about her...”
“What about her?” the Yurble asked, his eyes wide with surprise and interest. “Is she a danger?”
“I can’t tell you. I swore to Darigan that I wouldn’t tell anyone,” the red Tonu said as he leaned back in his chair and set the empty glass on an end table.
“But what’s the big secret?” the Yurble asked with alarm. He stood up and paced over to look out the window. “I’ve seen her all around the castle. Is she dangerous? If she is, why, she could do anything!”
“I can’t tell you why I don’t trust her,” Bhrack repeated stubbornly, but he frowned darkly as he watched the low-ranking clerk pace back and forth. “Sit down and stop acting so dramatic.”
Simon turned back and strode back to retake his seat, but instead of leaning back into it, he sat on the very edge of it, leaning forward towards his friend. “If you won’t tell me, it’s got to be something important about her, and probably dangerous. Is she unstable? Mentally, I mean,” he added, and the commander shook his head in negative and toyed with his glass. “Well, even if she isn’t crazy,” the Shadow Yurble continued, “she could still be dangerous. What if she attacks somebody? I’ve seen her in sword practice. She could probably kill a lot of people if she tried.” The Yurble leaned closer. “And what if she is not content with the lives of simple soldiers? She could target officers, nobles, why, even Lord Darigan himself!”
The Red Tonu looked at Simon warily. “I’ve always felt a similar premonition about her. I know that she cannot be trusted,” he growled coldly. “I shouldn’t be telling this to you, but I think I can trust you with this secret. But you must swear to me that you will not let this secret pass from your lips.”
“I swear by my oath to Darigan.”
Bhrack looked at his friend for a long searching moment, and then gave a curt nod. As he began to speak, the Yurble’s eyes widened even further in shock from the dark truth no one within the Citadel had even suspected.
Two lines of smartly dressed officers quickly snapped to attention. With a cursory glance to each side of him, Commander Bhrack stepped off the reviewing platform, flanked by Caecillius, the Draik lord chamberlain of Darigan Citadel, on his left, and by Rhydel, the new Kougra ambassador from Meridell on his right. The silver Kougra looked very impressive and regal with his gleaming coat that was well matched by his handsome uniform, trimmed in gold. His dark eyes gleamed with intelligence, and he attentively examined the ranks of officers that were standing at attention as he followed the Red Tonu between the two rows.
“Officers,” Commander Bhrack called out, his voice carrying throughout the practice yard, “this is Ambassador Rhydel of the kingdom of Meridell. I expect you to treat him the utmost of courtesy and respect. IS THAT CLEAR?”
“SIR, YES SIR!” the two lines of officers shouted in unison.
“Good,” the Tonu grunted. “Lieutenant Raymond, step forward.”
A red Chomby stepped out from the line, saluted, and shouted, “Sir!”
The commander strode over to stand beside him. “At ease, Lieutenant. You have been assigned to the Ambassador as his personal assistant, and you will help him become familiar with the Citadel.”
“Yes sir,” the Chomby said with a trace of uncertainty in his voice.
“Sir!” a soprano voice at the end of the line called out, and Rhydel turned in time to see a Darigan Eyrie step forward and salute crisply. “Permission to speak, sir!” The ambassador was momentarily startled by her sudden interruption but kept his face composed with his usual polite expression. He was far too experienced a diplomat to let surprise betray his composure. Instead, he covertly watched the Eyrie with interest.
The Eyrie stood at attention with such poise that the two officers standing at her sides paled in comparison. Every inch of her radiated pride and competence. Her chin jutted out at a slight upward angle, and her polished black beak was as shiny as her dark, intelligent eyes. Her right hand rested comfortably on the hilt of a sword, and her left hand was curled into a fist and held at her left thigh. Her uniform and appearance was identical to those of her comrades; the only thing which marked her as feminine was the thick black mane which framed her oval-shaped face.
“Lieutenant Arianna,” Commander Bhrack said coldly. He walked slowly to where she stood and then stopped in front of her. “Permission granted.”
“Sir, I was informed by Captain Daniels that I was assigned as the ambassador’s personal assistant.”
“Then Captain Daniels was wrong,” the Tonu said flatly. “I choose who is to be assigned what duty. Is there something wrong with that, Lieutenant?”
“No sir,” the Eyrie replied, and stepped back into the line as the Tonu turned around and slowly strode away from her. Her eyes were focused straight ahead, staring at the opposing wall with a fierce determination that greatly surprised the watching ambassador. Her impeccable posture and ramrod-straight back gave no sign that she had just been scorned by her commanding officer. Only her clenched beak and gleaming eyes betrayed her anger.
“Commander, if I may have a word,” the Chamberlain murmured as Commander Bhrack reached them. The Tonu grudgingly followed as the Darigan Draik stepped away from the reviewing platform and away from the listening ears of the officers. Bhrack crossed his arms and glowered as the Caecillius fixed him with a frigid glare and spoke.
“Your... disagreement.... with Lieutenant Arianna has come to my attention... and to Lord Darigan’s... and he is most displeased with your behavior. You cannot hold her responsible for factors she had no control over. Darigan accepted her into the Citadel Guard knowing what she was and he expects his advisors to do the same. Your continuing prejudice against her is unreasonable and irrational. And not only is this affecting her performance---when her commanding officer will not give her any real duties---but this is affecting your performance, because you have deprived yourself of the smartest and most promising young officer the Citadel has seen in the past decade!” The Draik’s voice was cold and scathing, but Bhrack gave no indication that he was intimidated by the Chamberlain’s vehement lecture.
“Darigan knows my thoughts on this,” he growled to the Draik, who was staring pointedly at the commander. “She is a threat and a menace and I want nothing to do with her.”
“Listen to me; you will work with her and you will give her meaningful tasks. Or otherwise Lord Darigan himself will have to have a word with you. And I would not want to be the one facing his wrath,” Caecillius warned.
“Fine, fine,” Commander Bhrack snarled, and quickly whirled around and stalked back to the two lines of Citadel Guard officers. “Lieutenant Arianna, you are now assigned as the ambassador’s assistant.”
As the rest of the soldiers quickly left the parade ground to return back to their normal duties, the Darigan Eyrie trotted up to the bemused ambassador and saluted. “Sir!” she called out. “I am very pleased to meet you. I look forward to guiding you around the Citadel.”
“Why, thank you,” the ambassador replied as he shook her hand. “I will be happy to take you up on your promise in a couple of days. That is,” he added with a smile, “when I am done being introduced to everyone in the Citadel. I will send word when I have need of your services. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said with a heartfelt gratitude, and then snapped off one last salute, turned, and strode confidently out of the ambassador’s sight. The Kougra’s smile slipped into a thoughtful frown as he turned to walk back to his rooms while puzzling over the commander’s enigmatic hostility towards the young officer.
What at first had seemed like a simple diplomatic post was proving to be a lot more intriguing than he had first thought.
Deep inside the Darigan Citadel, within the ancient and forgotten rooms of a past era, the Shadow Council waited silently. Concealed beneath their dull grey cloaks, the eyes of ten Neopets were riveted upon the grey cloaked figure standing at the head of the table. They watched him pace back and forth with bated breath, tensely waiting for the moment when he would turn to them and tell them the final plans to bring their conspiracy into action.
Let Darigan and his petty officers pride themselves on their honor and devotion to peace, the cloaked figure thought to himself. It will only be a matter of time until these old rulers are cast down, and my Shadow Council will emerge into the sunlight and take its rightful place, with myself standing at its head. It will not be long, he promised himself. He took a deep breath, and turned to face the circle of cloaked conspirators.
“My friends,” the Shadow Council Master said quietly. “For many months now... nay, for years we have been planning the overthrow of that fiend who rules us. And now we are ready for our plans to bear the fruit of our labor. Within a week Darigan will be dead and we shall claim his power as our own.
“He has grown careless in his arrogance. He thinks himself safe surrounded by his loyal friends... nay, for my friends, we all know who his friends are loyal to. It will be easy for us to dispose of him and take his place as the ruler of the Citadel.”
“My lord,” a deep voice said quietly, and a cloaked figure moved forward, and the yellow horn and blazing red eyes of a Ghost Tonu were visible in the shadows of the cloaked hood. “We are ready to create the documents to be planted in the Meridell Ambassador’s quarters. If you give the word, they shall be ready within the week. So long as the Ambassador is dead before he has the chance to explain himself, the papers will seem genuine under even the closest scrutiny.”
“The plans have changed,” the cloaked figure at the head of the table said quietly, and a silent ripple of surprise passed through the group. “We cannot risk a war with Meridell,” he continued, “especially during a time when we must be consolidating our power. If their ambassador is implicated in Darigan’s death, it would surely lead to war and our sudden downfall.”
A small figure pushed itself forwards, and the short nose of a Brown Xweetok momentarily escaped the confinement of its hood. “But, my lord, who shall we cast as the scapegoat in the assassination? All of the potential candidates we discussed were unsuitable.”
The Shadow Master smiled coldly, and the assembled conspirators felt a shiver of excitement upon his words. “One of you, my loyal followers,” his arrogant grin was hidden by his cloak, “has just told me of a new fact on one of the candidates that we had considered and rejected.” Let them brood over his words, and wrack their brains in figuring out which one of them had discovered this new secret. Only he knew the identity of the discoverer. “This candidate will be the perfect scapegoat for our plans. Once her hidden secret is revealed, no one will doubt her guilt in committing the heinous crime of assassinating Lord Darigan.”
To be continued...