Vhalar 77th Arc 721
She stepped aside to let him pass, moving with the languid grace of a cat completing a satisfying stretch. Oberan kept half an eye on her as he did, holding up his Daylight Stone to illuminate the pitch-black room behind her. It wasn’t very big at all, but more than spacious for the furniture within. She’d set it up like an office of sorts, a large desk near the back wall, complete with comfortable chair for her, and seats for guests. Cupboards lined the sides of the room, bowls and other small trinkets decorating the top.
The scent of incense hung thick, yet not heavy or oppressive. Oberan felt as if he’d walked into a perfumed cloud. A welcome change after suffering the nose-curling air of the sewers for any amount of time.
“Good, no? To keep the stench away,” the Naerikk said, noticing him search the room for the source of the scent, two thin sticks placed upright into a small bowl atop one of the cupboards. “You might not think it given our choice of residence and its proximity to Etzos’s waste disposal facilities, but we do prefer the stink to remain outdoors. It gets into the carpets, it does.”
She’d closed the door and strode through the chamber, to crouch in front of a cupboard, rummaging inside. Oberan watched, light spilling from between his fingers, painting the woman’s shadow on the wood. She gave an irritated growl. “Put that horrid thing away, won’t you? We will light you some candles. A gentle flame, much more pleasant than the harsh and blinding suns, yes? Though not as pleasant as the soothing dark. But, ah, we mustn’t forget our values differ so much from you lightwalkers’. Terrible horrors hiding in the shadows, yes, makes the lightwalkers wary. It’s different for us; we are
the monster hunting in the night.” She laughed, high trills, like a fluttering bird. “We hope you don’t fear the dark. Do you? Else you can keep your precious stone in hand a bit longer. If it’s just until we’ve lit some candles, we don’t mind.”
Oberan scoffed, and despite knowing exactly what she was doing, knowing she provoked him, he snuffed out the Daylight Stone, and sent it to the Vault, allowing the complete darkness to return. Of course, he wouldn’t take it laying down. “So, Aeyali Verdigris, how accurate is your information?”
Even in the total dark, he could sense her bristle. He couldn’t see her move, but he felt the rush of displaced air, then her exhale caressing the back of his neck, a sharp claw pressed against his cheekbone, just below the eye. Not so hard as to pierce the skin and draw blood, but enough to be uncomfortably painful.
Her voice breathed words right in his ear, the anger lending a rumble to them. It came from deep down her chest, almost a purr, though none so gentle. And yet it oozed sensuality. “We know you have a dislike of rules, but you are a guest in our house, and here you are expected to follow the rules of elementary etiquette. We set the pace of this exchange. We will talk business when we decide the time is ready. Understand, Oberan—nay, Djas Shadowborne, prodigal son of Queen Audrae, Mistress of shadows, secrets, deception and fear? Forgotten prince, exiled to the barbaric lands beyond the safety of our Mother’s embrace. Self-proclaimed and unknown patron of thieves and brigands and crooks, encourager of daredevils and thrillseekers, maker of mischief and creator of trouble. Master thief, supreme sneak, defiant little godling with a petty grudge towards us and our sisters, throwing tantrums for decades at a time—”
Oberan scowled, violently rolling his shoulders to throw her hands off him. “Enough with the pomp.”
With the striking of a match, flame hissed to life, and a candle was lit. It shed flickering light only a few meters round itself, illuminating the Naerikk’s smirk and the satisfied glint in her eyes. “Was our introduction of you not to your liking? Given your penchant to exaggerate the weight of your name and heritage, play up the power provided to you by your blood, and emphasize the few skills you possess to try and convince yourself of your significance, we figured it be best not to hurt your fragile ego by referring to you with just your name alone.”
“Oh, ha ha ha,” Oberan sneered, “Very funny. If I didn’t know any better, I might think this excessive ad hominem hides an inferiority complex. Guess mommy’s little girl is still miffed she wasn’t chosen for the important mission to gather intelligence on Sintra’s schemes and prevent her from rising to power in Etzos.”
Aeyali rolled her eyes, let out a chuckle. “Hear him toot his own horn. He gets one little job from the Shadow Mother and he thinks he is Queen of all Idalos.” She shook her head. “Do you truly believe we Naerikk did not have our own tasks to fulfill and roles to play? Perhaps then you are a greater fool than we had thought.”
She strode to her desk, lowering herself in the padded chair behind it. She slid the candle in a holder to the side. Oberan followed her with his eyes, mouth opening and closing repeatedly while his mind tried to conjure up a comeback of some sort. None came.
“Also, you did a terrible job. Many times we teetered on the brink of despair watching you bumble about, coming this
close to utter failure.” She held her thumb and index fingers barely a fraction of a millimeter apart. “Nearly undoing the collective efforts of us all.”
He considered unleashing his power on her, but it would be an admission of defeat, resorting to violence and threats when outwitted, when he couldn't find a suitably snappy comment to throw back at her. And perhaps she'd see it as a confirmation of her earlier comments. Maybe she'd be right too. The thought alone frustrated him more than anything she'd said.
Worst of all, she was not incorrect. He had
screwed up several times, only barely managing to steer away from complete failure, mostly through sheer luck. The nails of his balled hands dug painfully into his flesh. Seething, a mumbled “I succeeded in the end, didn’t I?” was all Oberan managed in retort.
Nodding and spreading her hands in acquiescence, Aeyali leaned back in her chair. “We will grant you that much, yes. Despite the time it took you, all the assistance required and fuck-ups along the way, you did manage to not fail. Regardless of the disappointing performance, we suppose it is the result that counts.”
He pushed out a steady stream of air through his nostrils, fists balled and expression tight as she gestured to the other side of the desk, invited him to sit. “Now, join us. We shall leave this whole discussion behind, yes? We do suspect you did not seek us out to bicker and prove how much you let your pride and feelings of self-importance blind you.”
The last remark caused another scowl to darken Oberan’s brow, and he opened his mouth to throw something back so he could have the last word. Aeyali nipped a potential reignition of the argument in the bud. Warning in her eyes, she placed a finger to her lips and gestured to the seats opposite her with casual insistence. When he crossed his arms and didn’t move, she sighed. “Please, sit. We tire of this pointless blabbering, and apologize for provoking you. We will talk business now.”
Finally, he complied, falling onto the seat with obvious reluctance. “Apology not accepted, however, in the interest of not wasting both our time, I will let it go for now.” He forced a smile, and didn’t bother to mask it.
Aeyali’s eyes twitched, but resisted the urge to roll. “Yes, much obliged. Now, you do know how these transactions work, yes? We deal in information, and are willing to trade with those who seek us out. As is only natural, we expect recompence. Now, our price is honesty. By enlisting our services, you agree to engage in conversation with us, and, in doing so, provide us with snippets of information we might not have collected already. The sum you pay in the end is entirely dependent on the quality of information you provide us, as well as how forthcoming you are with it, and whether or not you reiterate what we already know. Think of it as a discount for honesty and willingness to humor us.”
Not a bad deal, per se, though the ‘discount’ was entirely based on the Naerikk’s whim. He could imagine a lot of people, especially those fond of their secrets didn’t enjoy the arrangement. “And if someone decides to lie?”
She grinned, bearing her fangs. The candleflame flickered, her shadow on the wall danced, distorted into twisted and eldritch shapes. “We are a daughter of Audrae, we will know if you lie. And when you do, we will end our transaction immediately and charge you for whatever we have already told you up to this point. Plus a little extra for the audacity of breaking our rules, and some more for taking our kindness and casting it into the dirt.”
Oberan nodded. He couldn’t say that was unreasonable.
“Incidentally, we don’t mind when people refuse to answer our questions for them, or only open their mouths to ask what they want to know.” A shrug. “We are a little different from a standard intelligence agency, and we pride ourselves in it. However, without discount our prices tend to be … how shall we say…? Exorbitant. Few customers do enjoy paying what they consider unreasonable sums. None refuse though.”
That didn’t stroke with Oberan’s experience with Etzori lowlives and toughs. Especially the important and powerful ones. If they did not want to pay, they did not pay, full stop. Even minor players without the resources and influence of the big fishes could cause major trouble over coin. “Doesn’t anyone ever get violent?”
Aeyali laughed, full and heartily, her breath shrinking and shriveling the flame, deepening the shadows around. In but an instant, Oberan became acutely aware of the lingering darkness surrounding him, how it loomed beyond the small circle cast by the candle, barely enough to illuminate the entirety of the desk and the two people sitting on both sides. A feeble light to keep the dark at bay. He already got the gist of the response before she’d vocalized it.
“Let us ask you this,” Aeyali said, “would you like to be alone with a Naerikk in the absolute dark?”