The door opened outward.
She never understood why that was such a difficult thing for people to understand and yet, no one ever seemed to be able to get it right. He fumbled with it, stepping aside to murmur some sort of apology that she didn’t bother listening to.
“I didn’t realize it-“
“Come in,” she barked.
He did as he was told, closing the door softly behind him. “You sent for me, ma’am?”
Leaning off the stone of the hearth, she smiled pleasantly. “Indeed, I did. But, I see no need for formalities, do you? Rowena does just fine.”
“Of course,” the man answered, hands folding behind his back.
Rowena sipped from her glass, humming softly. “Did the door confuse you?”
“I didn’t…” he stopped, clearing his throat. “Yes, it did.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “It happens to everyone.”
Nodding, he only moved forward a few more paces slowly. He was much younger than she expected, dark haired and tanned with eyes that were far too light for the rest of them. And yet, despite the iciness of the blue and the muddy brown speck of an imperfection in his right eye, they were lovely.
“Would you care for a drink?” she asked, motioning to the table beside her. “I’m afraid your first name has slipped my mind, Mister Crossvale.”
“Zayne,” he replied simply. “And, yes, I would.”
She poured herself another glass and then went to fill a second, holding it out for him to take and studying the strange sort of apprehension about him. He wasn’t afraid, careful and calculated perhaps, but certainly not intimidated. Quite honestly, she wasn’t sure how she felt about that.
It was simply odd.
“I’ve been told you’re very good at what you do. I’m in need of someone of your… expertise,” she droned. “You see, I have a very specialized problem and I need someone equally specialized to handle it.”
“Normally those who share my trade aren’t contracted by the leader of the Dravara.”
Rowena grinned. “You have worked for me before, haven’t you?”
“I’ve worked for the Dravara if that’s what you mean. But I’ve never been given specific targets only the instruction to bring runaways back from further south. I’m assuming you need me to hunt someone specifically, correct?”
Again, she only smiled. “Yes, I do. You were once part of the Dravara, yes?”
Zayne hesitated, visibly shrinking back. “My father had me concerned with other matters when I came of age. I never had the honor of serving.”
“An abdicator,” she sighed. “Forgive me, I didn’t know. I should have assumed with your father’s position. Regardless, do you know who Aurora is?”
He nodded. “I heard whispers. He was a traitor to the Dravara from what I understand. There were a few runaways that discussed him and again I heard more once I returned to the stronghold.”
“Do you know what became of him?” she asked, sipping idly at her drink.
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
Rowena nodded, pacing forward towards him. “Aurora was sentenced to be executed for the slaughter of a party. Even before he had come here, the man was a killer. It was only a matter of time before something happened. However, he escaped before his sentence could be carried out.”
“Do you have any idea where he is?”
Smiling, she set her glass down on the table. “I have a rather good one actually. There have been others like him before, the generally rebellious and plenty of that sort. But few have reached a point where they threaten my entire establishment. Another, known as Allikeo, did a very similar thing. According to most accounts, Aurora and Allikeo are both dead now which is why I can’t trust just anyone. This is very sensitive information, Zayne.”
He nodded understandingly. “I gathered that.”
“Aurora is still very much alive and I simply can’t allow that to continue,” she sighed, shaking her head. “You do understand that, correct?”
The bounty hunter nodded, swallowing the contents of his glass and pulling his lips back into a snarl at the sting of it. His eyes locked to hers. “Of course.”
“Therefore, I ask you take care of this issue for me. Would you be interested?”
“This isn’t a simple issue as I’m sure you already know. He won’t come willingly and I certainly can’t guarantee he will be brought back alive-“
Her laugh cut him off. “I’m not asking you to bring him back alive. No, no, not at all. Shoot him dead on sight for all I care. The only thing I ask is that Aurora is taken care of, brought back here to me or not. I can’t have him loose in the world. He’s a liability.”
“I understand,” Zayne replied. “Would it be wrong of me to ask about payment? I like knowing all the details before I agree to anything.”
“Oh, if you’re concerned with details, I have more for you. Aurora isn’t the only one I need taken care of. You see, he was assisted in his escape. I can’t allow one felon to get away with a crime, can I?”
Zayne’s lips pinched shut. “As long as I get my reward, I don’t mind the work.”
“Would dealing with both of them be an issue for you?”
He brushed his jacket aside, left hand moving to the cold shine of his revolver. A smile flashed across his lips, firelight glinting against his teeth. “A gun has more than one bullet. I don’t see any problem.”
A chill ran down her spine, breath fading from her lungs. There was something far too unsettlingly familiar about the smile, the lack of fear and the way the confidence of it reflected out into the room. She didn’t realize how long she was silent until the bounty hunter’s face fell into a frown. “Excuse me, are you alright?”
“F-fine,” she stammered, straightening herself, “I’m just fine. What were we talking about?”
Zayne cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably where he stood. “The other who helped Aurora to escape.”
“Right, of course. I was distracted. I don’t expect you know who Daniel Norton is, do you, Zayne?”
“To me, it doesn’t matter who he is. If you give me a name, I’ll do my best to find them in the least amount of time possible.”
Her hands clapped together. “Wonderful, well, I suspect Norton had a hand in Aurora’s escape. The two of them were very close, inseparable, you could say. However, I fear that Daniel began to believe the lies Aurora convinced him of. You see, Aurora was absolutely enthralled by the idea that the Dravara were keeping secrets from the rest of the land. And while there are secrets among the Dravara, there are secrets everywhere. We are doing nothing wrong and I can’t have them spreading anymore lies.”
The bounty hunter nodded. “I understand.”
“I ask that you head west to find them. Daniel was provided with accommodations after he stepped down from his rank. I’ll give you a map with the exact location of his cottage. Of course, I can’t assure you that Aurora will be there, but I’m convinced he is. There are few people, Aurora included actually, that would likely seem him as something worth saving. It shouldn’t be too much of a problem to find them,” Rowena explained. “I still have copies of their identification I can give you as well. However, I guarantee you will know Aurora when you see him.”
“The map would be very helpful, but why do you say that?”
Rowena smiled distastefully. “When you see his identification, I believe you will understand. He dresses in a rather...unique fashion. My only request is that should you kill them, bring me the hat so I can burn it. I like knowing that a job is done correctly, understand?”
He nodded. “I understand perfectly. Is there anything else?”
She frowned then, shaking her head with a drawn out sigh. “I trust you’ve dealt with the difficult to control before, but Aurora is incredibly manipulative. He will likely try to convince you of the same lies he told Daniel. My guess is that he may try to say anything he can to save his own skin.” Rowena stopped, face breaking into a smile. “Though, that is how he was long ago. I wonder if any of that still remains inside of him.”
“Regardless of his condition, it won’t be an issue for me.”
Even with the obvious fumbling of the door, she was beginning to trust her decision in calling for the Crossvales wasn’t a mistake after all. He seemed capable, bright enough to handle the situation at hand. It was exactly what she needed, a blind sort of obedience she so sorely missed with previous members of the Dravara.
And yet, she reminded herself, some people could be easily convinced again.
“If you can,” she added, “bring Norton back alive.”
Zayne swept his cloak to cover the revolver again. “Understood. Is that all?”
A hum bubbled up in her chest. “Norton has a daughter-”
“If you’re asking me to…”
She waved her hand, scoffing somewhat in disappointment. “Fine, do what you will with the brat. Leave her out of the situation entirely if you must. I wouldn’t expect that Allikeo would attempt thwarting you, but I’ve heard he’s been more active again. He has taken an interest in Aurora, or seems to have.”
“I will send my best to accompany you-”
Zayne cleared his throat. “With all due respect, I prefer not to have many with me. It makes travel faster and less chance of being detected.”
“Wonderful,” she purred. “Don’t hesitate to ask for anything. Pay will be provided upon your return.”
“Can I ask what you’re offering?” he asked, eyes flashing.
She thought for a moment, shrugging finally. “What do you think is fair, Crossvale?”
Rowena reached for her glass, filling it again and drinking down the contents quickly before she smiled back at him. “The price seems fairly steep, but I’ll oblige. I’m rather reasonable and you are helping me with a very complicated problem.”
Zayne smiled politely. “Have we reached an agreement then?”
Rowena nodded, stepping forward and extending a slender hand. “Of course.”
His hands came into view again, unfolding from behind his back, as he reached out to meet her grasp. The bounty hunter didn’t have a chance to blink before she pulled him in, fingers sliding up his chest to snarl in his scarf. He wasn’t much taller than her, but the added height of his shoes made the difference more obvious. However, when his head was forced down and knees bent to keep him from being choked, there wasn’t any difference at all.
She smiled against his ear. “I don’t like being disappointed, Zayne. Though, I’m sure you won’t disappoint me.”
He swallowed. “I wouldn’t...dream of it.”
For a moment, she kept him there until her grip relaxed and the bounty hunter rose cautiously to his full height again. His eyes went to the floor. “I’ll be on my way. Expect to hear from me soon. If anything changes, have a message sent to one of the towns marked here,” he paused, handing over a folded scrap of parchment. “I’ll check them as I go.”
There wasn’t another word spoken between the two as Zayne turned and strode towards the door. She didn’t stop him, eyes following his steps as the heels of his shoes clicked along against the door. He was gone, the door closing behind him, and the room grew silent aside from the crackling of the fire behind her.
From what she knew of his father, she assumed Zayne was just as capable. He had been there before, years ago before she was running the Dravara alone, and, like others, had gained something of a reputation. Only Raymond Crossvale’s reputation wasn’t one of a rebellious soul determined to undermine her entire establishment. He was a man known for his cruelty, efficiency unmatched by anyone and a sense of unshakable obedience.
The Crossvales didn’t disappoint.
A smile flicked across her face as she turned towards the other door, setting her glass down on the table with a satisfied sigh. She reached for the key in her pocket, slipping it into the lock and blinking at the darkness that lurked behind the wooden door. From the table, she collected a lantern that was quickly lit on her descent down the spiraling stairs.
The light danced, reflecting off the empty walls and pooling on the floor in front of the only other figure in the room. She chuckled, watching them shrink back the moment the light licked at the edges of their form. Her heels clicked, louder in the emptiness.
“It’s rather rude not to greet someone,” she called, setting the lantern down on the floor.
The man didn’t look up, torchlight dancing off his broken face. What remained of his unbloodied skin was bruised, broken and cracked and in some areas still leaking small tendrils of crimson. He cradled an arm against his chest, pulling back further against the wall the closer she got before finally, she stopped.
“Did you hear me?”
His voice was so soft, slurred as both words dribbled off his tongue and dropped down to the floor. For the first time, he dared to look up with one terror filled eye, the only one he still managed to see out of.
“I haven’t come to bother you, my friend. You,” she paused, smiling, “have done me a great service.”
“I have?” he asked cautiously, eyes flashing to the floor again.
Rowena only hummed.
She stepped forward again, watching him fall back against the wall. “The information you gave me about just what happened to Aurora. In doing this for me, you have saved me plenty of time and energy I would have wasted-”
“And for that,” she hissed, “you will be rewarded.”
The man looked up from the floor. “Rewarded? T-thank you, b-but...I don’t want any reward. Please, just let me go. It’s all I ask for.”
“Please,” he begged then looked down to repeat himself in a series of unsteady mumbles.
Finally, she walked close enough to reach him, crouching down and carefully turning his face up to look at her. Kindness, the gentleness in her touch, was only a front.
He glanced up at her warily. “Mercy...please.”
Rowena shook her head in disdain, getting to her feet slowly and letting his head droop again. Whimpering, he stared upward in terror, eye widening the moment there was any distance between them. She only scoffed, turning and stalking away again.
“Please!” he pleaded hoarsely. “I did what you wanted! You can’t leave me here to die-”
“You’re right,” she sighed, cutting him off abruptly. “That would be far too cruel of me.”
The man swallowed harshly. “There has to be some...kindness in you.”
A smile returned to her lips, laughter ringing out through the silence. “Oh, I have been called many things, but kind isn’t one of them. Malicious,” she paused, “nasty...wicked; I’ve had each of them spat at me before. Kind? That just simply is another thing entirely.”
“I wasn’t finished,” she called, tutting softly. “However, I suppose you did do what I asked.”
“I did,” the prisoner agreed, “I did, ma’am, I-I...really did.”
Rowena raised her hand to silence him. “Since you did that, I’ll grant you that request.”
His eyes lit up and the man rose from the miserable heap he’d collapsed into up to his shaking knees. “T-thank you,” he spoke in a ragged sob.
She didn’t reply, drawing the pistol at her side. There wasn’t time for a shriek, any sound of protest or fright, before the room erupted in a thundering crack. Then followed a thud, the sound of chains clinking dully against stone, and then there was nothing at all.
“I’m not without mercy,” she spoke to no one at all, “but is death not the sweetest mercy I can grant the suffering?”