“Quiet!” Azal hissed, with such force that Darius recoiled in his seat.
For a moment he stared forcefully at him, tension thick in the air, and then Darius said “Right. Sorry,” and sat up straight again. Azal took a quick breath and settled back down himself.
“Don’t talk of it openly,” he told Darius. “I know we’re not in a reputable place, but that doesn’t mean no one cares what we do. When it’s something this big, we can’t afford to give anyone any warning before we strike. Or do you want both of us to end up dead?”
Darius was silent. “…Again. Sorry,” he finally said.
Azal sighed. “Don’t do it again.”
“I won’t,” Darius promised.
“Thank you,” Azal said. “Now, with that out of our way… the answer to your question is ‘not yet’. We don’t have the groundwork laid. We aren’t assured of anything. We don’t have a plan. It’d be suicide to rush in headlong at this point.”
“Hmm,” Darius muttered, and clasped his hands in thought. “Yes. I suppose you’re right.”
There was a lull in the conversation. “So, about Regina,” Darius said.
“What about her?” Azal asked.
“Have you figured it out yet?” Darius asked.
“That she’s more than she seems?” Azal said. “Yes. I have.”
“Huh,” Darius said, a bit of surprise in his tone. “Smart, aren’t you?”
“It wasn’t difficult,” Azal stated dismissively. “I began to suspect it from the moment you referred me to her. You would not have told me to speak to her if a tavern owner was all she was.”
Darius hesitated. “Only partially true. She has a personality well-suited to what you need – the sort that wouldn’t make her instantly assume a demon must be evil. That’s rare among mortals. It’s entirely possible that, all else aside, that alone would make her a valuable ally.”
“Incorrect,” Azal said. “It would merely make her the only available one.”
“That’s not really true, either,” Darius said. “A contact on Verta – any contact on Verta – could prove useful. People hear things, you know, even things they’re really not supposed to know. And knowing Regina, I imagine she’d be especially good at hearing those sorts of things.”
“Perhaps. But that wasn’t the only thing that didn’t add up,” Azal said.
Darius smiled, nearly imperceptibly. “Do continue.”
“I know relatively little about human societies, but they are largely patriarchies, are they not?” Azal asked. “A woman actually owning a tavern is unusual in the first place.”
“It happens,” Darius said.
“Not often,” Azal countered.
“In big cities, yes, not often,” Darius acknowledged. “But in tiny little towns, people tend not to care too much about things like that.”
“Yet still, you must acknowledge that it is quite uncommon, at least compared to the alternative,” Azal said.
Darius shrugged. “True, of course. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be coincidence.”
“You’re right, of course,” Azal admitted. “But even the people don’t think so. I can’t say I pay much attention to what strangers do-“
“-and that’s your weakness-“ Darius interjected.
“-but when I left after that first meeting, all the people’s gazes were focused on her. One would think I’d be the more suspicious one.”
With a nod, Darius acknowledged his point. “She does have quite the air of mystery around her,” he noted. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were all more intrigued by the thought of her having a connection to you than by you yourself.”
A brief pause, and then Darius said “Say. You used the word ‘didn’t’ back then. Not ‘doesn’t’ add up. ‘Didn’t’. Any reason for that?”
“In our meeting just now, she cleared up all remaining doubt,” Azal said.
“Hm?” Darius asked, genuinely curious.
For a brief instant, Azal considered what to speak about first. “First, she had a map of Aphage. The entire continent. That’s not something any normal tavern owner has.”
“That’s… true,” Darius said. “I mean, a normal tavern owner shouldn’t have any maps at all.”
“You sound surprised,” Azal noted. “You didn’t know this?”
“I didn’t,” he said. “But I’m more surprised that she told you. In my experience, she’s always preferred being mysterious, if possible.”
“Hm,” Azal said, briefly wondering why she’d told him. He shelved the thought and decided he’d consider it later. “And second: she can use magic.”
Darius’ eyes widened. For a second or two, he was silent. “…She’s really deciding to put all her cards on the table, huh?”
“I suppose,” Azal said. “Do you know what it means, Darius?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t have any clue why she would do that. Ever since she came to that town, she’s never been so forthcoming with… well, anyone, to my knowledge.”
“That’s… concerning,” Azal stated.
“Maybe she just sees something in your cause,” Darius said. “Maybe she thinks you’ve got a noble purpose and feels like she shouldn’t hide anything from you. Or for all we know, maybe she’s just got a taste for the exotic and couldn’t resist sharing her secrets with a demon.”
“Naïveté,” Azal dismissed. “You must know better than that.”
“It’s not impossible that it’s for an innocent reason,” Darius told him. “But… you’re right. More than likely, there’s something going on here.”
“Yes,” Azal said. “I think she may not be as trustworthy as she appears.”
“Perhaps,” Darius nodded.
“In that case, information is important,” Azal said. “What do you know about her?”
Darius thought for a moment, and then smiled a coy smile. “What do you know about her?”
Azal sighed. Of course Darius wouldn’t give him a straight answer.
He thought about it for a moment. “She was someone of rather high standing, once – probably a noble of some sort. Only way she could have learned magic.”
“Mm-hmm,” Darius nodded. “What more?”
“But for whatever reason, she’s in a small town, running a tavern,” Azal mused. “And no one seems to know who she is.”
“Yes,” Darius said. “And what does that tell you?”
“A noble doesn’t just go unknown, not unless she takes serious measures. And she isn’t exactly staying hidden,” Azal said. “By any stretch of the imagination, people should know who she is. Even if it’s a small town, people who’d known her before would still pass by occasionally.”
Darius looked down at the table, face set in concentration, and said nothing.
“But that’s not happening,” Azal said. “It should be, but it’s not. The only way that could be true is if she has no contact whatsoever with anyone who used to know her. Which means that for whatever reason, people from her past don’t have any way to reach her.”
For a moment, Azal paused. “She isn’t from Paleland, is she?”
Finally, Darius looked up at him. “You’re sharp,” he said approvingly.
“That explains some other things, too,” Azal said. “If she’s no longer welcome in whatever her country of origin is, of course she’d flee somewhere else. And from there, she’d have to lay low – the risk of being discovered would still be significant.”
“Yes,” Darius said. “You’re quite correct. And it seems I’ve grossly underestimated you.”
Azal’s eyebrow, such as it was, quirked upwards. “You did not trust in my intelligence?”
“Not quite. I had always known you were smart, of course,” Darius said. “But I had always assumed that that was mostly just because of how well-learned you are. I’d assumed your greatest contribution to… our project… would be information, and that I would have to take care of the rest.
“But now, it seems I must apologize for that,” he continued. “Clearly, your mind is far sharper than I had anticipated.”
“Hmph,” Azal grunted, somewhat displeased.
“Again,” Darius said, lifting a hand, “I apologize.”
Azal hesitated. “Very well,” he said. “So, what of Regina? If not Paleland, where is she from?”
“That…” Darius also hesitated for a moment. “I am afraid I do not know that.”
“I see,” Azal said. And then a thought came to him. “How did you know all the rest of this story, then?”
Slowly, Darius’ mouth spread into a wide smirk. “Oh, Azal…” he said, his voice coy and arrogant, “I know things.”
Azal’s eyes narrowed, but Darius just kept smiling, and finally, the chirean said “I suppose I should have expected nothing less.”
“Yes,” Darius said. “You should have.”
“Anything more, then?” Azal asked.
Darius considered the question. “Not yet,” he admitted. “But come back here in… two days, at the same hour. I think I will have something quite interesting for you by then.”
“Very well,” Azal said, and stood from his chair. Darius watched him as he left, an approving smile on his lips.
Azal sat at a large table, absentmindedly polishing the dagger that lay upon it. Its hilt was of real wood – incredibly rare here in Aead – and it was set with a large ruby. The guard had a little ornate twist at the ends, but was mainly a simple affair. The blade itself was long for a dagger, and incredibly sharp – Azal had seen to that.
Normally, he was not one for sentimentality, but that dagger held a special place in his heart. It was a gift from his father. The two of them had never been close, not really – Azal had always been too cold for that. He’d always been interested in more… practical matters. Things like family relationships were things he had never had much time for.
He’d come from a somewhat affluent family. Not noble, certainly, but they’d always had a degree of power and prestige. The dagger on the table now was a reminder of that – no normal demon could have possibly obtained such an item, except perhaps illegally, and even that would be difficult. His house was a small mansion, too, and the furniture and other items that decorated it had always had a certain elegance to them. Technically, he was in possession of quite a large sum of money.
It would be useful for what he was planning, he supposed, but what would have really helped was lost to him. Before, money was not all he had. He’d used to have prestige, power, influence. His family was no lord’s family, no great and venerable house, but still it held a certain degree of respect among others. And his father himself had always been a well-liked man.
But that was no more. A few years ago – though it felt like so much longer – Azal’s father had managed to anger someone who was a hero to the Council. In the ensuing duel, Azal’s father lost his life, and his family was disgraced forever.
The dagger was the only reminder he still had of his father. All the rest of it was the work of his distant ancestors, or might as well have been – but the dagger he’d received, personally, from his father. He’d given it to him out of fear that some might target him, out of fear that he would need a way to defend himself. Since then, he’d carried it around almost religiously. It was the only thing he attached that sort of value to.
Finally satisfied with his work, he took the dagger from the table and hid it away inside his black robe. Regina, he thought, must’ve assumed he only wore the robe for disguise, but in truth, he’d always liked it. The fact that it helped hide his identity was a welcome bonus when he walked among mortals, though.
He stood from his chair and took a look around at the mansion. Swords hung from the walls, a fixture that, from his experiences, seemed to be more or less mandatory for anyone of prestige. He’d never liked the idea – why give your enemies convenient weapons to use against you right in your own home? And besides, he’d never liked swords in the first place. They were an instrument of direct confrontation. Azal much preferred a different approach, whenever possible.
But he’d never taken them down. Frankly, he hadn’t done much with what was now his mansion. Not for lack of capability – he just didn’t really care. There were more important things to worry himself about.
Those were thoughts for later, though. Darius wanted to meet him in two days. Until then, he’d have to prepare. It would simply be suicide to try and do this without as many resources as possible in hand.
First, though, he’d have to rest. He made his way to the bed and, rather quickly, fell to sleep.
Two days later, Azal once more opened the door to the little tavern in a dark alley. Darius looked up from the table where he was sitting and turned towards him, a small smile touching his catlike eyes. Azal walked towards him and took a seat on the other end of the table.
“You said you’d have something for me today,” he said.
“Why, yes, I do,” Darius said, sounding very pleased with himself. “Would you believe I’m ahead of Regina? I’ve found you an ally already.”
Azal’s eyes widened, nearly imperceptibly, and for an instant, he was silent. “I hope you’re certain about this,” he said firmly.
Darius sobered up. “I know things, Azal,” he said. “And to the best of my knowledge, this person has a pretty serious grudge.”
“Against our enemy, I hope?” Azal asked.
“Oh, thanks,” Darius smiled. “I wasn’t sure how I should say it.”
The chirean let out a breath. “You understand what happens if you’re wrong,” he said.
“Yes. I do,” Darius responded. “And if I am, then the blame lays squarely on me.”
“But the consequences will not come to you alone,” Azal pointed out. “At least if a mortal ally were to betray us, they would likely not have much love for the Council, either. But I assume this ally of yours is a demon?”
“Yes,” Darius admitted. “And I see your concern. It’s true: there is a possibility that he is, in truth, loyal to the Council, and merely trying to gain our trust so he can betray us later. But I don’t think that is likely.”
“And why not?” Azal questioned.
“Two reasons,” Darius said. “First, I’ve heard what he thinks of the Council. The vitriol in his voice when he talks about them… I don’t think that sort of thing can be faked.”
“Or maybe he’s a good actor,” Azal dismissed. “What’s the second reason, then?”
“Second… simply speaking, I think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself,” Darius stated. “For now, we aren’t a…. what we’re planning to be… yet. We’re just a pair of disgruntled people. Even if the Council did care about suppressing small things like this, we’re nowhere near influential enough that anyone who tried would have any advantage from gaining our trust first. At this point, if the Council – or an ally of theirs – wanted to be rid of us, all they’d have to do would be warrant our arrest and that’d be it. Someone trying to get our trust to betray us would be… simply pointless for something this small.”
Azal narrowed his eyes. “That’s an assumption, nothing more. How do you know the Council wouldn’t be paranoid enough to do that anyway?”
“Because I know how they deal with things like this usually,” Darius said.
“Yes, I do too,” Azal snapped back. “Usually, they just ignore it, and when they don’t, they just send someone to stamp it out. But remember – this is important. Very important. There is no such thing as being too paranoid in this case.”
“And that’s where I’d disagree,” Darius said. “Yes, it’s a risk – but the fact is, we need allies, and not just among mortals. After all, how would we even do this without the people’s support?”
“Yes,” Azal said, impatiently. “We need to get the people’s support – when we’re ready to strike. But we’re not ready yet. For now, anyone who knows of our plan can destroy us easily.”
“That may be so,” Darius said, “but the people’s support alone won’t win this, either. And besides, how do you propose to gather it, in either case? We need someone influential. Someone who can sway the people to our side, and someone who can give us the resources we need to combat the Co- our enemies.”
“Obviously,” Azal said. “That’s why I’ve got Regina looking for an ally among the mortals.”
“Wasn’t that my idea?” Darius sighed. “Regardless, a mortal ally won’t do the job alone. Having one is important – some of the mortal nations are very powerful – but most demons won’t listen to mortals. The only way you’ll get their support is if you have a fellow demon talk to them.”
“Which I plan to do,” Azal said.
“I know you do,” Darius said, lifting a hand placatingly. “But… look, I’ve never heard you talk to a crowd, so I’ll withhold any comments about your charisma. But the fact is, the moment you start talking to the people, you’re putting everything on the line. When we start doing that, we tip our hand. And that’s why before we do, we need to be assured that there’s at least someone in our corner who can actually help us.”
“Yes, of course,” Azal said, raising his voice. “Again, Regina is looking for an ally right now.”
“Among the mortals!” Darius said. “Don’t you think that will be a little awkward? They’ll be useful in the long run, of course, but to start this off, we need someone right here who’ll help us. And besides, do you really think that any mortal nation will ally with us before we’ve even got anything to show for our efforts?”
“Well-!” Azal said, and stopped. “…Hm. You… have a point.”
Darius sighed. “Look, I know you’re paranoid. That makes sense. You’re planning something massive, and you’re absolutely right – if I’m wrong, we’re both dead. But we need this, Azal. We need an ally here, and the person I’ve found is the best one we could hope for.”
“…Fine,” Azal conceded. “I will go see him. Who is it?”
“No,” Darius said. “You’ve got a point – there’s still a possibility he’s loyal to the Council, and if it’s so, anyone who talks to him of re- of what we’re planning will have their head roll. And I’m not making you subject yourself to that kind of danger for me. I’ll go.”
“Hm,” Azal said. “Very well.”
“If he stands where I think he does, I’ll get him to come here,” Darius said. “You wouldn’t mind waiting, would you?”
Azal looked at him, still displeased. “Don’t take too long. And if it goes poorly, do try to save yourself.”
He didn’t quite know how long it was before the tavern door opened again and two people walked in, but it was quite a while. When the creak of the door finally sounded, Azal looked up and saw Darius enter, alongside who he presumed was the potential ally.
Azal scanned him with his eyes. Unlike Darius, and certainly unlike him, the newcomer looked mostly like a human. He was the same height, his face had the same structure, his skin was the same color and texture, and he had no obvious features to differentiate him. For all the world he looked like a normal, mortal man.
Unless you looked at his eyes. They were a fiery orange – a color that no actual human could possibly have. Those were the only things that marked him out as a demon.
And Azal had some… unpleasant… associations with those eyes. But he shoved that thought out of his mind.
“A descendant,” Azal muttered under his breath.
The descendant – the man with eyes orange as flame – looked at him. There was a little uncertainty to his gaze.
Azal fought down the urge to sigh. Descendants were a race he’d always had some… trouble… with. He knew the history of demons, and he knew that once upon a time, descendants were considered the highest class of demonkind. Then, the old government – what it was, the history books were vague on – was overthrown by the Council, and descendants fell out of favor. But people still begrudged them for the privilege they had once held.
Himself, Azal had never cared about that. His problem with descendants was caused by something rather more recent.
But it was still an irrational dislike, and Azal forced it out of his mind. Descendants were demons like any other. No – descendants were people like any other. Just because one of them had wronged him was no cause to hate the entire race, no matter how much he wanted to.
Darius led the descendant over to his table, and sat down first. The descendant sat down to his right, and Azal took another look at him. Unlike most demons, descendants could grow facial hair – just like humans – but this one was clear-shaven, although his brown hair hung down to his shoulders. He was dressed in all white with a golden trim, an unabashedly fancy ensemble that still remained practical, and his face was sharp and his features lean.
“Hello,” Azal said.
“Hi,” the descendant said. “You must be the leader of the…?”
“Quiet,” Azal said, “Johannes.”
Johannes blinked. “You know my name?”
“You’re not exactly unknown around here,” Azal said. “I must admit, I’ve always liked you.”
Now that Azal knew who the ally was, he trusted Darius’ judgement a bit more. Johannes was a nobleman, and a rather major one at that, at least by the standards of this region. He’d always been a rather meek person – one who preferred diplomacy to fighting, and that had brought him into conflict with the Council. And while he was not normally one for hatred, his speeches about them did tend to be rather… impassioned, at times. Azal had heard some of those speeches, and even he had to admit that he doubted Johannes was faking what he felt.
And, Azal thought, if Johannes really was on their side, he’d be a valuable ally. He may not have been particularly gifted in rhetoric, but he always exuded an air of simple honesty that made the people flock to him. Having someone like that with them would be invaluable.
For now, at least, Azal decided to trust him.
“O-oh!” Johannes said. “Uh, right. And thanks.”
He hesitated for a few moments, and then asked, “What’s up with that hood?”
“I like it,” Azal said plainly. “And besides, it protects my identity. Just in case, you understand.”
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” Johannes said. “As far as you know, I still can’t be trusted…”
“Yes,” Azal replied. “But if you do truly wish to participate in this, you will make a good ally.”
Johannes hesitated. “I’ve always thought the Council was a bunch of… well… pricks, really,” he said. “I… well, I mean, I never expected something like this to happen. But if it is happening, I can’t not be involved, can I?”
“That will remain to be seen,” Azal told him. “As I have said – if you are being honest with us, you will make a useful ally. I’m aware you’re rather influential within this region. You’ve got resources, you’ve got a certain amount of prestige, and besides, people simply like you. Out of us three, you have by far the best chance of converting people to our cause.”
“Alright,” Johannes said. “So… that’s what I do, I guess? Just… stir up dissent, make people think rev-“
Azal looked at him sternly and held up a hand.
“I mean,” he quickly corrected, “your plan – is the best option?”
“Not yet,” Azal said. “We are not ready to strike yet. Once I make my intentions known, that is when you can begin to gather support for us. Until then, do what you have already been doing. Deride the Council. Drag their name through the mud. Make the people turn against them.”
Johannes blinked at him. “When you put it that way, it sounds like I’ve been spreading propaganda all my life.”
“That’s because you have,” Azal stated. “Just because you yourself honestly believe in what you are saying doesn’t mean it isn’t propaganda.”
“Well… alright,” Johannes said, hesitantly. “I’m… assuming you know how to reach me, if you need anything?”
“Yes,” Azal said. “Now I’d suggest you go. You’re a person of high standing – it wouldn’t do to have you seen somewhere like this place.”
“Uh, yes,” Johannes quickly said, realization suddenly on his face. “You’re right. Uh… bye!”
He stood up and hastily walked towards the door, and outside the tavern.
Azal looked back at Darius. “Certainly quite the character,” he said dryly.
“Oddly charming,” Darius smiled.
“True,” Azal sighed. “And from what I know of him, a good person. A rarity.”
“Well…” Darius shrugged.
“Yes. It’s still possible he may only be pretending, of course,” Azal said. “I am starting to doubt it myself, but caution is still wise.”
“Ah, there’s the Azal I know,” Darius said.
“And one more thing,” Darius said.
“What?” Azal asked.
Darius smiled. “I think Regina’s got something to tell you…”