Outsider Within: Face of Evil - Part Seven
“Keep an eye on D.A., Draezen,” said Barnes. “If she really is with us, she’s invaluable. If she’s against us, then I want to know everything she has done and is doing. Don’t be blinded by blue eyes, Draezen. Treachery is in the air...”
Auric arrived at his blacksmith shop to see D.A. sitting on the counter. She looked up at hearing his approach. “Hello, Auric.”
He nodded and went around the back of the counter. “Hi. What are you doing here? I won’t be done with your sword for a while.”
“I came to inquire about your progress.”
“Well, I haven’t started carving anything yet, but I’ve been sketching some plans. Nothing certain yet. Do you want to see them?”
She shook her head. “If you have any questions, you may want to ask them now.”
“No, those notes you sent me are helping a lot.” He smiled at her, and she looked back with those cool eyes. He turned his eyes to the empty counter.
“Is something disturbing you?” she asked.
“No. Just tired.” He could see that she didn’t believe him. His arms dropped to his sides and he forced his eyes up to meet hers. It surprised him how well she could read him.
She nodded, but did not look convinced. “If you have no questions, I will leave you to your work.” She bowed and turned to leave.
“Wait a minute,” he stuttered after her.
She looked at him.
His voiced faltered. “Um, are you hungry?”
“Are you hungry?” he chuckled, relieved to see her in her old, anti-social habit of frowning at him.
“I do not understand.”
“It’s a simple question. I don’t really understand the biology of it, but the basics are that your body runs on food, and needs to feed regularly. Generally, a person’s body will tell them when they need to eat by making them feel hungry.”
She gave him that same incredulous look she’d given him the first time they’d met. “I know what hunger is, Mr. Auric. I meant to ask why it concerns you.”
He walked out from behind the counter. “The truth is, Barnes expects us to be working together and would like us to get to know each other better. And I’m hungry, and if you’re hungry, it would be an excellent opportunity to eat together and perhaps converse a little, thereby getting to know each other.”
“Are you mocking me?”
“Only in good fun. Come on, I know a place.”
She nodded her consent, and he walked her to a café he knew in South Side.
“So where do you live?” he asked.
“It is hardly working farmland. As you know, they’re struggling to produce potatoes, and even if they do, it is cheaper to import from Meridell.”
“So you keep tabs on the economic situation then?”
She cocked her head. “Do not all who live on the Citadel?”
“Right.” He was trying too hard. They arrived at the restaurant and sat down. “I just meant . . . well, I don’t know much about you. What are you about? What were you doing with yourself before you met the Rothers? Where are you from? Were you here during General Kass’s rule of the Citadel?”
“I am from a place far from here that you have likely never heard of. Darigan Citadel is where I live now. I have engaged in many forms of business during my time here, mostly odd jobs, mercenary work. And yes, I was here when General Kass had control of the Citadel.”
“Right.” He leaned back in his chair, fearful of her penetrating stare. She was wondering why he was asking her so many questions. Why did Barnes ask him to do this? He never did know how to ask subtle questions. He couldn’t even hint when he wanted a present for a holiday; he just asked.
“Is it my turn to ask you a question, Auric?”
“Why so many questions?”
“I just want to learn a little about you.”
“Because you want to know or because you have been told to find out?”
He sat back in his chair, startled. “Alright, look, D.A. Let’s be honest. We’re in a pretty twisted business, especially with that Mr. Aimes running around. The Rother family needs to learn more about you, it’s nothing personal.”
She sat back in her chair with a relaxed look on her face. “Now that that’s out of the way, hear this: only the here and now matters.”
Neither spoke while their plates of food were set before them. D.A.’s nose wrinkled at the pungent spices. She sat in silence, turning the orange-tinted vegetables over with her fork as Auric ate.
Auric spoke first, his tone dry. “So about your sword. It’s impractical, but vicious. Is it common where you come from?”
She shook her head. “No, it is a very special thing. It is more than a sword, it is a gift, a . . . mark.”
Auric waited for her to elaborate. “What kind of mark?”
“That is not the best word, but I cannot think of another in this language.” Her eyes locked onto his with intensity. “Where I come from, sword fighting is not a sport or even an art of war as it is here. In my land, it is an art of the soul. To master the sword is the greatest of accomplishments. When a swordfighter completes the final test, he is given such a sword as the one I gave you. This sword is a mark of accomplishment, and is considered a piece of the wielder’s soul.” She sat back, her eyes no longer in the present.
“And you want me to repair yours? That’s quite an assignment.”
She looked at him, drawn back into reality. “I have faith in your abilities.”
“So are you going to try the curry or are you just going to keep playing with it?”
She shot him a resentful look, but forked a morsel into her mouth and chewed slowly. “It is . . . interesting.” She took another bite. “Perhaps even good.”
“See? You just gotta try these new things.”
She nodded. “And it appears you have much to tell Barnes about me now.”
He sighed. “That’s not the only reason I like talking to you, D.A. I liked you before I knew you were working for Barnes, didn’t I?”
He frowned. “Hey D.A., if you think I knew you were working with the Rothers before you saw me at their house, you’re wrong.”
“Alright then, I believe you.” She continued to eat her food with an air of peace.
Auric and D.A. finished their meal in a calm, like the comfortable silence of old friends not worrying about entertaining each other. But this quiet was not of comfort; it was of a mutual understanding that little of their lives could be shared.
As D.A. walked down the alley toward her home, Auric watched her, considering how little any of them knew of her, and yet how trustworthy she seemed—not necessarily that Barnes would trust her with his life just yet, but she seemed to tell them everything she could about herself.
Barnes’ skepticism of her gnawed at Auric as he headed to a general store, once under the Cohen family’s domain, but now in the invisible iron grasp of Mr. Aimes. He pulled a scarf out of his jacket and wrapped it around his neck as the nighttime cool frosted the Citadel’s stones.
Draezen pushed open the general store’s door, and a jingle alerted the owner to his entry. Draezen nodded at the owner, noting the bags under his apprehensive eyes. This one had seen his share of the horror of Mr. Aimes’ takeover of the Cohen family. Cohen had likely been a friend of his. Draezen headed to the back of the store without a word, and pushed the storeroom door open. Understanding Draezen’s purpose in his store, the owner lowered his eyes.
Draezen felt his stomach knot at the store owner’s look as he walked into the dimly lit storeroom. Crates took up most of the space, as was to be expected, but two figures sat on some of the crates, watching as Draezen entered.
He stood before the Darigan Lupe and Pink Kougress, and stared at their loathsome figures.
Anna sat with her legs crossed and her arms extended behind her, leaning back like a little girl. Jason’s hulking figure looked as though it could never be comfortable anywhere other than the battlefield. They stared back at him, Anna with that smug grin she seemed to wear every time he saw her.
“Well, I’m here,” said Draezen. “What do you want of me?”
“Not much, Draezen Dearest,” said Anna. “Just tell us how old Barnes is doing.”
He bit his lower lip. “He’s angry. They’re all angry. What you did to Cohen’s wife and kid—”
“Is not your concern,” Jason cut in.
Anna gave him a look to be silent. “Jason is correct, of course, but the Rother clan didn’t take it well?”
“No, they didn’t.”
“Details, Draezen, are the reason you are of use to us. Provide some.”
“Samantha was pretty much distraught. The boys—they’ve never experienced anything like that. For crying out loud, they were only kids during the last Meridellian war, they didn’t know what that kind of loss was like.”
“And Barnes? How is he? Angry, you said. Anger tends to feed other emotions. What grows in his heart now? Fear?”
“No, not fear. He’s growing more cautious, more alert to what’s going on. He’s planning war with your boss, Anna. He told D.A. he needs her as a soldier.”
“D.A.?” Anna pushed herself off her perch. “That Zafara woman who fought me?”
“Who is she?”
“I don’t really know. She calls herself D.A., but it seems obvious that isn’t her real name. She won’t say where she’s from, but says she’s been on the Citadel since Kass’ reign. You saw how good she is with a sword, but her training is as much a mystery to me as it is to you.”
“You know so little of her. Does Barnes know more?”
“Don’t think so.”
“And yet he trusts her enough to enlist her as a soldier?”
“At least she’s honest about being dishonest.” His head bowed slightly.
His eyes snapped up to hers. “Anything else?”
“Yes. You said Barnes enlisted her as a soldier. Barnes is not stupid enough to do that unless he’s had her watched for several days at least. Details?”
He shifted his weight. “He’s skeptical about her, even now. He’s having me keep tabs on her, try to find out more about her. He thinks she might be working for you.”
She laughed. “How marvelous! Mr. Aimes had Barnes pegged from the very start.”
Draezen clenched his fists. “What are you talking about?”
“What do you think, Jason?” Anna said, turned her eyes to her companion. “Do you think she’ll do?”
“As if she were made for the part.”
“What are you talking about?” demanded Draezen.
“Listen very carefully, Draezen,” continued Anna, “Mr. Aimes has instructions you must follow to the letter.”
His face reddened. “Remember your promise, Anna.”
Her eyes sharpened. “I promised nothing—Mr. Aimes gave you his word. But I do not go against the will of my master. You needn’t worry about getting your hands dirty.”
Draezen lowered his eyes.
“That’s better,” Anna said. “There is a patch of barren farmland in East Side, and in it there are several old buildings. One is an abandoned shed just a few meters south of 9th street where it meets 5th. You will bring D.A. there. You need not do it by force, only make sure she is there tomorrow at sunset.”
“What are you going to do with her?” Draezen demanded. “She knows nothing of the Rothers—she met Barnes little more than a week ago! She is of no use to you.”
Anna raised her eyebrows and leaned over to Jason, speaking in a gossipy tone. “Goodness, Jason, look at how his cheeks flushed. I wonder why he wants to protect her.” She turned her orange eyes on him. “I wonder if he holds the same concern for Samantha?”
Draezen’s eyebrows furrowed, looking from Anna to Jason.
The Lupe spoke. “Just remember, Draezen. Cohen’s wife only suffered because our contact in his family didn’t follow our instructions. If you stay smart and do as we say, Samantha will not be hurt, and her sons will be spared if possible.”
Draezen swallowed hard. “What about D.A.?”
“She will not be harmed,” said Anna in her careless voice. “I only need her to run an errand with me.”
Draezen bowed and spoke through gritted teeth. “Anything else?”
“You are dismissed,” said Jason. “And Mr. Aimes thanks you for your cooperation.”
Draezen charged out of the storeroom, unable to meet the store owner’s gaze as they passed.
* * *
D.A. walked down the main street only six blocks south of the Chambers—far enough from the government building to allay the Guild’s suspicion, but more than close enough to be observed by one of Chief Henka’s spies. She knew Henka’s way of thinking and that he would be scrutinizing every report for word of her, along with any indication of her progress. For now, the best she could do was show him that she was still alive. Communication was out of the question.
She felt as though she were walking a tightrope, with the relative security of the Chambers far behind and the wrath of Barnes Rother below, just waiting for her to take a misstep. D.A. was uncomfortable with this situation. She truly liked the Rother family and thought Barnes to be an honorable man and father, taking care of his local community. Samantha had always been kind, Tony and William supportive and efficient. The one point that would not sit well with her was that at some point, she would have to leave them, and they would either mourn her apparent death or curse her as a spy, this family she was trying to help.
And the truth was, without the interference of the Chambers, the Guild would never survive Mr. Aimes. D.A. could not quite put her finger on it, but the mysterious man in the shadows struck her as more dangerous than any of them realized. His speedy takeover of the Cohen family’s assets—it was a mark of his conniving mind. That same mind now worked against the Rother family, and D.A. herself.
But something else about Mr. Aimes gnawed at the back of her mind. Something was right in front of her, and she was missing it. She could feel it just at the edge of her vision, but could never focus in on it. Something about that name.
Engrossed in her own thoughts, D.A. looked up after several minutes and was surprised to see that she was closing in on the Rothers’ territory. Funny how the mind draws one to where they are most comfortable.
D.A. stopped and shut her eyes, pushing out those feelings that had plagued her when she was working in the Chambers. But she could not ignore it: she felt more at home with the Rothers than with Lord Darigan, who had given her everything she had.
She looked up and saw Draezen standing on the street corner. She nodded and walked up to him. He fidgeted as she approached and would not bring himself to make eye contact with her until she was right next to him. And then his eyes were locked onto her with an unnatural intensity.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Well. And you?”
“Fine. So, I need you to come with me.”
“What for? Does Barnes need me?”
“No, I just want to show you something. It’s important to Barnes and I just think you ought to see it for yourself.”
“Are you quite well?”
“What? Yeah, why?”
“You do not look well, almost like you are in pain. Is your shoulder bothering you?”
“Yeah, it is. Hurts all the time. Getting better, though. Coming?”
She nodded. “Where are we going?”
“Just follow me. We’re headed for East Side.”
D.A. followed Draezen along the far right of the street, noting that his gait was oddly steady and straight, almost mechanical. He said nothing and looked at nothing other than the road before him. Something troubled him, yet he did not wish to say what. She would be patient and allow him to show her whatever it was.
Their walk proved farther than D.A. had expected, and the sun was nearing the edge of the Citadel when they arrived at the barren farmlands of East Side.
“Auric, would you care to tell me where we are going?” she asked, uneasy with the growing scarcity of people.
“That is hardly a satisfactory answer.”
He turned to look at her—his eyes were red, pleading. They startled her into stopping. “Do you not trust me?” he asked.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then come with me just a few meters more. That shed over there, that’s where we’re going.”
She narrowed her eyes skeptically, but nodded and continued following him. Something was truly bothering him, and if she must leave him soon, she would help him while she could.
They came to a shed in the tall yellow grass, it looked little-used but in good repair. Someone was taking care of it. D.A. glanced over at Draezen—did this place hold a secret for him?
He stopped just in front of the door, holding the handle. His fingers trembled, and his eyes were unable to meet hers.
“Draezen?” she said, approaching him. “Something is very wrong.”
He clenched his eyes shut. “I’m sorry,” he gasped and opened the door.
A dart shot into her throat before she could respond, and she felt her body falling to the ground. Just as grey stars completely shut out her field of vision, she saw a pink Kougress come out the door.
To be continued...