On A Cold Winter Night
Nights are never completely dark, especially not in winter. During a new moon, the stars shine to light the way and when heavy clouds try to hide them, the faint glimmer of light that never disappears, not even on the darkest of nights, makes it possible to recognise shadows and outlines.
The Zafara Double Agent did not have to worry about darkness as she climbed down the mountain. A crescent moon hung low in the sky and the snow-covered slope that stretched below her reflected the faint light so the spy could easily find her way.
Wrapping her scarf tighter around her neck as a cold gust of wind blew into her face, she took a moment to observe the lights flickering at the horizon. Lighthouses, she guessed, lighthouses that were so powerful that she could see them even at the other side of Altador. They marked her destination. Down by the harbour was where she would find her next customer.
Customer - it sounded so much nicer than victim, but the Zafara Double Agent was not stupid enough to think that she would bring anything other than bad luck to the old man. Her whole life was a story of betrayal and information sold for money. Whoever paid most got her loyalty – until someone else who paid even more came along. What nobody knew about, however, was the way she liked to tweak stories. A word here and a word there so someone innocent might be spared. The agent did not live under the illusion that it could ever make up for what she was doing, but even though she had tried saying goodbye to her conscience long ago, it still flickered up from time to time.
Winter was not a good time to travel into Altador by foot, and especially not for someone who had to use hidden paths. By the time the spy reached the city wall, water had soaked through her boots and she shivered despite her warm robe. This job better be worth it!
Two Draiks stood guard at the entrance to the city, warming their hands at a small fire. The Zafara Double Agent shook her head as she noticed the ridiculous red hat one of them was wearing. By the look of them, she would have no problem getting through the gate. But what lay inside the city walls was not her destination today and so she sneaked over the road in a safe distance to the guards.
They did not notice her.
The walk along the wall was long and cold. Rubbing her hands together in a desperate attempt to keep them warm, the spy wished it hadn’t snowed the past few days. Close to the aqueduct, most of the snow had turned into sludge. While this meant that her footsteps wouldn’t be seen, freezing water soaked through her shoes with each step she took.
When the Zafara Double Agent finally reached the harbour, the crescent moon had risen higher in the sky. She estimated it to be about eleven o’clock, maybe even close to midnight.
As she reached the first houses, the spy was surprised to see light shining through their windows. She had expected the inhabitants of Altador to be asleep at this time of the night. One or two pets who stayed awake a bit longer, she could understand, but as she skulked through the streets, the dark houses were a minority.
A frown on her face, the spy sneaked up to one of those well-lit windows. A family sat around a table, parents, children and grand-parents, but high the number of those gathered was not what she noticed first. Hidden behind a pot plant, her eyes fell on the wrapping paper that someone had discarded on the floor and the decorated fir tree in the corner.
It was Christmas.
Pulling back from the window, the Zafara wondered how she could have missed it. While she had known it to be December and had been aware that Christmas was about to come, she had not bothered keeping track of the date. In five days, she had to be back in Shenkuu to report to the Kyrii who had hired her, but she marked the days on a single sheet of paper and did not carry a calendar with her.
The Zafara Double Agent had never cared much about Christmas. Maybe it was the lack of people to celebrate with. She saw herself sitting on her grandfather’s lap while unwrapping presents, but those memories were so old that they had turned blurry over the years. A spy did not celebrate the holiday season. As a double agent, she could not allow herself to grow close to anybody who would make it worth remembering Christmas and she much preferred not thinking about the date at all instead of sitting alone next to her fir tree. Nothing was more pathetic than celebrating on her own.
Children’s laughter was carried outside through an open window and the Zafara Double Agent scrunched up her face. Let them celebrate. At least, people were too occupied with Christmas to notice her, which made her job a whole lot easier.
Once she had reached the settlement, it didn’t take the spy long to arrive at her final destination. The lighthouse sat enthroned above the cliff. A cold wind blew powder snow into the Zafara’s face as she left the shelter of the houses.
Entering the lighthouse didn’t prove as difficult as the spy had thought. An impressive looking lock barred the front door, but upon taking a closer look, she saw the rust that had accumulated over time. Entering her picklock into the keyhole, she began turning it. Despite her numb fingers, it didn’t take long until she heard a clack and the lock sprang open.
A grin on her face, the Zafara Double Agent pulled her hood deeper into her face before she pushed the door open. It was essential for her mission that the inhabitant of the lighthouse did not see her features. He was old, though, so she hoped that he wouldn’t hear the creaking of the door, or the soft sounds she made as she climbed up the stairs. If everything went well, she could just get what she had come for and leave again without anybody noticing.
After what seemed like an eternity, the Zafara reached the top of the tower and faced three doors. Light seeped through under the bottom of the middle one, so she turned to her left and pushed down the handle.
The moment the door opened a few centimetres, cold wind blew through. The spy only threw a quick look at what lay beyond before she quickly closed it again. If she had gone through, she would have had to climb more stairs with a faint light at their end. They had to lead upstairs, where the light burned bright to warn ships of the rocks in the water below. From up there, she would have been able to look over the whole city, but the view was not what the double agent had come for tonight.
With the left door being the wrong one and light coming from the middle one, she only had the right door left.
Moonlight streamed through a large window, illuminating the room just enough so the spy could see that she had come to the right place. Cauldrons stood neatly stacked next to a large table. Shelves lined the walls, filled to the brim with jars containing potion ingredients. This was where the old man had been brewing the potion her client had asked her to get.
While the Zafara Double Agent did not know much about the potion, she had gathered enough information to know that one drop was enough to not only increase strength, but also to stop pets from tiring. Used in a war, it could make the difference between win and loss.
One shelf was different from the others. Instead of containing jars, it was nearly empty. Only three vials stood on it, each one filled with a clear liquid. One of them had to be the right one.
The spy tiptoed through the room, taking all three vials and lifting them into the air. Moonlight filtered through the liquid and she grinned. She had found what she had come for.
Just as she was about to leave the room, her eyes fell on a large book in a dark corner. Pocketing the vials, the Zafara made her way over to the corner. If she found the recipe inside, she could not only bring the potion but also sell the way it was made, increasing her profit greatly. If not, she imagined that sooner or later, the Kyrii would send someone to get it – or the old man.
The first entry in the book went back fifteen years and the Zafara Double Agent flipped through the pages until she found the most recent one. In the dark corner, it was nearly impossible to make out the small handwriting. Bending closer, she removed her hood to improve her view.
The Zafara Double Agent whirled around, her hand going into her robes where she kept her dagger.
A Gelert, his fur grey with age, stood in the door. In his hand, he held a wand.
An instant later, a light was lit.
In the blink of an eye, the double agent had darted off behind the large table. Maybe the old man who lived in the lighthouse wasn’t as rickety as she had thought. While she carried a dagger, he had a wand which could harm her at a distance. Plus, he had seen her without her hood so a quick escape was out of question.
Cowering behind the oak table, the spy waited for the old Gelert to make the next move. For the moment, she would react to his action and wait for the opportune moment.
The double agent froze.
Whatever she had been expecting, it was definitely not this.
’Zamira, little girl, come play with me. Zamira, look, I brought a present for you.’
How long had it been since she had been called that name? How many years had passed without her hearing it? She had taken other names for her missions, never the same one and never the one she had grown up with.
Clutching the dagger tighter than she had to, the double agent did not move when she heard footsteps approaching. How was it possible?
The old Gelert came into view, his wand lowered.
The two pets stared at each other.
“Grandpa?” the spy croaked, her fingers releasing her weapon. It fell to the floor, cluttering, but for once, she did not dive after it.
“Grandpa?” she repeated, her eyes wide with confusion. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” The grey Gelert stepped forward and picked up the dagger. Both weapons were placed on the table before he stretched out a hand to help his granddaughter up. “Let’s go into the living room; it’s more welcoming than the lab.”
A fir tree stood in the corner, decorated only by a single star on top. The two neopets took place by the oven, getting warmed by the radiating heat of the fire.
“It’s Christmas.” The old Gelert looked at his granddaughter. “What are you doing out here today? And don’t tell me you came to pay your old grandpa a visit, to celebrate the evening together.”
The spy did not reply immediately. Instead, she stretched out her hands, warming her numb fingers by the fire.
“You don’t want to know,” she finally said, drawing in a deep breath before lifting her eyes up to meet her grandfather’s gaze. “You really don’t want to know.”
She hadn’t even known that he was still alive. How was it possible that of all people in Neopia, she was assigned to spy on the one she knew from her past? The one who had practically raised her? The only pet she had ever trusted?
“Maybe I don’t want to know,” the grey pet agreed. “Funny, isn’t it? I always imagined you to have a family by now that you would celebrate Christmas with.”
The double agent shook her head. “No. The life of a family is not for me.” She paused, averting her eyes. “Are you disappointed?”
“For what? You choosing a life to live? You’re not my little girl anymore.”
Silence fell over the two as the spy considered her grandfather’s words. He was right; she was far from the little girl she had once been, the one that had sat on his lap unwrapping presents. Her choices had marked her life, but so far, she had never regretted any of them.
“Since you don’t have family, why don’t you stay tonight so we can celebrate together? I could offer you a hot cup of Borovan, and I’ve got some self-made cookies.” The old Gelert was about to stand up and get what he had just offered when his granddaughter put a hand on his shoulder, keeping him down.
“I can’t. I’ve already stayed for longer than I should have.” She stood up, a sad smile on her face. “I should leave now.”
The Zafara Double Agent did not wince as she saw the look of disappointment on her grandfather’s face, but she quickly turned around. The stolen potions weighed heavily in her pocket as she ran down the spiral staircase.
A spy did not have friends or family. As a double agent, she could not allow herself to grow close to anybody, not even someone who had once been everything she’d had. It made her vulnerable and put those she loved into danger.
What nobody would ever find out was how she emptied the vials into the sea and refilled them with healing potions. A word here, a word there, a story about a Gelert gone mad with age who had invented rumours about the potion to draw attention to himself. It was not much, but it was enough to save him.
A year later, a dark blue Zafara stood alone at the beach on Mystery Island. She had not accepted any missions over the holidays. Instead, she warmed herself by a small fire, watching the stars sparkle in the sky.
“I’m glad I didn’t disappoint you, grandpa.”
Her whisper was lost over the howling of the wind.