Thursday, 27 November 2014

Chapter nineteen

“This stew tastes like feet” Pyrrho struggled to swallow the sentries’ brew
“It tastes like heaven on a long night’s patrol, not that you’d know such an honest, hard night’s work” it had not taken long for Aesara’s prickliness towards her brother to re-emerge.
“My night time endeavours tend not to involve stew, that much is true” Pyrrho put his cup down and edged towards one of the gaps in the wall of their tumbledown rendezvous. “And my night time endeavours are normally harder work than infiltrating this camp was. The overseer wants sacking”
“For once you will not find me disagreeing with you” Aesara conceded. Malic’s scheduling plus the chaos of a watch changeover meant that another sentry would not come this way for the best part of an hour yet.   “But you evaded the Drakhan guard as well?”
“You’re the weak spot. Rest of the complex is more heavily locked down, but with you lot they’re more worried about escapees than new entrants. Worries me when that happens with the Drakhan”
“Protecting their investment” Marcia spoke for the first time since the hurried introductions. She’d wanted to let the siblings catch up, plus she was actually quite enjoying the stew. “They don’t want word leaking out of their research. Tallies with how well they kept Steed’s ambush a secret”.
“So what nasty surprise are they working on now?” Pyrrho asked
“Wish I could tell you” replied Aesara
“A simple sentry not privy to the research?” Pyrrho prodded
“Not privy to anything that makes sense.  I know a fair bit of the Elder writings, but am not an academic. Far as I can work out, the Drakhan have them working on bits of something larger, something they’re putting together up on the hill” Aesara nodded out of a rear window that looked up towards the looming Previous mansion on the horizon.
“We need to get up there” Marcia stated the thought that was already on the minds of Pyrrho and Aesara.
“Can your man, Volk, get us in?” Aesara looked at her brother
“Not likely. We took a gamble inserting him today as it was. Been some reinforcements arriving recently, figured that was our best chance to get a guy in. But there’s no way they’ll put him guarding the treasure so soon”
“Who does have access?” asked Marcia
“Your council visits regularly” Pyrrho remarked
“For the hospitality rather than the research, Celcus has a vociferous taste for the Drakhan’s wines” said Aesara
“Sounds like my sort of man” Marcia smirked “Does he want a date?” she joked
Pyrrho’s look turned studious. Aesara regarded him with suspicion, then said “I think the Drakhan, not to mention Celcus, would be more than a little suspicious if a new face was to suddenly join the council for one of their night’s festivities”
“Of course, we wouldn’t send Marcia in directly. But if there was a bigger event at the house on the hill, they’d need more serving staff, more labourers, more..” a wink at Marcia “ladies of dubious morals”
“There is nothing dubious about my morals” said Marcia snootily “they are quite clearly depraved” a wicked smile flashed across her face.
“But we can’t suddenly demand they have a big party” Aesara was confused, uncomfortable amid this growing talk of intrigue
“You don’t need to demand anything. A word here, a nudge there. Your man, Onatas, has the ear of the council does he not? There’s another route in”
“I rarely see him these days. They work them hard”
“All the better, a suggestion of festivities will be more believable from him” Pyrrho had started pacing, waving his hands animatedly as he did so. A familiar trait when the seed of an idea began to grow in his mind.
“I’m not sure I can orchestrate this Pyrrho” Aesara hated admitting weakness, especially in front of Pyrrho, but there was no way she was capable of such discreet manipulation.
“You don’t need to” he stopped and turned towards her, big grin on his face “We will” he indicated himself and Marcia.
“None other. It’s best we stay in the camp anyway, Drakhan security too tight to risk getting back out.”
“But you’ll be detected”
“Aesara, this is what we do” he put a hand on Marcia’s shoulder, who made no complaint “give it a month and Marcia’ll be running the place and I’ll have all its dirty little secrets. Give it a week and we won’t have as much, but we will have a pretty big party planned”
Aesara was about to complain. To point out that although the university camp was made up of many people, many different trades, it was still close knit. Much like any small village or community. But she stopped herself, the spark in Pyrrho's eye spoke of a confidence that outweighed any concerns on her side. Instead she just shrugged her shoulders, grabbed another cup of soup before Marcia finished it, and resigned herself to watching a potential disaster from a front row seat.
But it was very far from a disaster. The biggest risk turned out to be Aesara herself giving the game away by gawping at Pyrrho or Marcia happily wondering round the camp in various guises. The two infiltrators, though having spent a long time apart, quickly slipped back into old techniques, tried and tested tactics. It would have been noted if all of a sudden a new labourer turned up with a well integrated working party, but if that new person was first seen talking with others from a different section of the camp workforce like old friends then the integration was easier. Especially if the new person came with dark tales and juicy gossip of the activities elsewhere in the camp. Likewise it would be unusual for a new cook to suddenly arrive at the kitchen tent ready and raring to go. But if that person was specifically noted on roster's going back many weeks, then perhaps the head cook would put it down to the person being quiet, or themselves being too busy to notice.
Pyrrho would happily stop and chat with his sister out in the open. It both served his purpose of displaying a familiarity with long standing and well known camp followers and, increasingly importantly, it got him precious respite from peeling potatoes. He'd explain to Aesara how things stood, and what she was needed to do. Her tasks were generally straight forward, either representing a lack of confidence in her abilities – which she would have been annoyed about had she not shared the feeling – or showing Pyrrho's confidence in his own handling of the situation. The most frequent request of Aesara was to get word to their allies still on the outside of the camp. But rather than a dangerous excursion through enemy territory, this mean little more than folding a scrawled note around a rock and throwing it over a certain section of the cliff top during her patrol. Occasionally on patrol she would come across a note thrown back. How they timed this for her patrol rather than anyone else’s was a mystery to Aesara. It seemed that Pyrrho and Marcia knew Malic's schedules better than the man himself did.
Her one difficult task had been to talk to Onatas. She'd needed to do it quickly after Pyrrho's arrival in camp, lest the young apprentice give them away through shock. Onatas was not the best at hiding his feelings. But he had proven pretty adept at hiding himself, indeed actually locating him had been the first challenge for Aesara. He had not been in the archives, nor any of the small working groups set up by the council to work on the various parts of the Previous technology. Aesara's excuses for wondering round the camp asking after him were starting to wear thin. The dining tent was easy to check without raising further suspicion, Aesara glad of the opportunity to grab a bite to eat. That was until Pyrrho served it her with a nod and a wink. Food only half eaten, she had headed to the sleeping quarters. She only knew roughly where the apprentice's slung their cots, so had to ask around, her requests often greeted with a lurid comment about why she might want to find his bunk. A few annoying minutes later, and a couple of black eyes dished out, she had satisfied herself that he wasn't there either.
Much as she had with Volk, she near bumped into Onatas outside the high council marquee. Aesara was taken aback when she recognised her former travelling companion. He also looked awkward, face reddening amid the hood of his grand cloak. She fell in to step with the group alongside the apprentice as the group from the council began their now familiar path to the Previous construction.
“I see your time spent learning under me paid dividends, what with you being promoted to the council now” she remarked with the flash of a smile.
“No, my, er, expertise has been requested at the castle” he made no effort to reflect her attempt at humour, instead staring at the large Previous building up on the hill. 
“No need to sound so nervous. I don’t think they bite. Not much, anyway” another attempt at breaking the tension that seemed to have surrounded Onatas.
“I am sure they do not” Onatas did not invite a response in his tone. Aesara frowned in consternation. 
“Don’t think the little fella wants to be you friend no more” the mocking voice came from behind Aesara, “you can come talk to me if ya want”
She glanced round disdainfully. The Drakhan immediately behind them winked at her. Aesara's face hardened. Both at the unwelcome comment from the Drakhan, but also the fact he was in earshot of her and Onatas. But she did not know when she would have another opportunity to talk with him. Once again, she did her best to channel her inner Pyrrho, albeit accompanied by a sense of distaste.
“You are among friends” she noted in an attempt at casualness.
“The council honour me with their company” his eyes were still set dead ahead.
“Old friends. From outside” a quick glance to the Drakhan behind, see if he suspected anything. She just got a wolf whistle for her trouble.
“I know”
“You, er, do? Excellent” Aesara felt increasingly awkward. “They are, er, shy however. They appreciate, er, discretion”
“Of course. Goodbye Aesara” he glanced quickly at her, look of anguish, confusion on his face. But no way for Aesara to ask what caused it. Their immediate Drakhan company was too close, and the gates from the university camp drew near.
Aesara stopped as the group headed through the gates. Too perplexed to even retaliate at the pat on her backside as the leering Drakhan walked past her. Job done, she told herself, but could gain no satisfaction from it.
A few days later Aesara and the two infiltrators were back in the sentries' hideaway. Pyrrho this time stirring a concoction more palatable to him out of stores liberated from the kitchen. “We're on” he said, before taking a small sip from the cauldron and nodding his approval.
“Already?” Aesara was surprised at the speed of events
“Would have been sooner if madam here” a nod at Marcia lent against the wall “could drag herself away from whispering sweet nothings to Celcus”
“You're only jealous that I shall be on the top table while you serve me rare delicacies” Marcia retorted.
“Turns out they've had a few breakthroughs recently. Made Him up at the castle amenable to a more lavish banquet than the usual” Pyrrho nodded out the window and up the hill at the Previous building, referred to by most as the castle, even if Aesara thought it more resembled a haunted house.
“And you both have invites?” Aesara asked
“We all do” said her brother has he ladled out three cups of steaming broth.
“Uh-huh” he passed the cups around, Marcia began greedily devouring hers but Aesara just stared at Pyrrho.
“He will recognise me” she said
“After fifteen years away? Even when we were there, his visits were infrequent, unless testing something on us”
“But I have a more distinguishing feature than most” Aesara raised her false leg, gems catching the light of the small fire.
“You can disguise it, you have before. Plus, you'll be in the kitchen with me, away from prying eyes”.
The three lapsed into silence as they ate the rich broth, each contemplating the day, and night, ahead.

Outside in the cold wind of the evening, prying eyes watched on.

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