Chapter 15 - The Nemesis Returns
Throughout the next few months, I built up a moderately successful business for myself. It didn’t prosper like my father’s company, but I was able to make ends meet. The connections I had in the Underworld proved useful for supplying merchandise that no other shops had.
But I didn’t make it to that stage until much later. I started out by selling the junk I had laying around in my wagon—after fixing it up, of course. With a businessman’s charm, I peddled whatever I had to any unsuspecting customer who crossed my path. Oftentimes I just made a nuisance of myself, but I still sold enough to invest in other goods.
I brought my wagon to a strategic spot in No Man’s Landing and used it as a base of operations. It gave me more credibility as a salesman, and I soon developed a reputation as the most reliable seller of exotic products outside of Evercity. I didn’t use my real name, of course. I was just known as Aiden Tincraft to anyone who cared enough to ask.
One afternoon, less than a week after I got the wagon up and running, I decided to take a quick nap. Business had been slow all day, and I didn’t have anything else to do while I waited.
I propped my feet on the windowsill and draped my mechanic’s cap over my face. All was fine and dandy until a light tapping sound roused me. Then came a loud ahem as someone cleared their throat.
I sat up quickly and pushed the cap off my eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry. I was just—” I stopped abruptly, my jaw going slack. The face of the person outside the wagon was familiar, and she looked just as shocked as me, if not more.
I rose halfway out of my chair. “Newheart!”
“What are you doing here?” she demanded, clenching her hands into fists.
My mind drew a blank. Every planned explanation flew out the window. “That’s…that’s none of your business,” I spluttered.
Her eyes narrowed. “I’ll find out, you just wait and see.”
“No!” I wanted to remain inconspicuous if at all possible. Having her prying into my record would help the Empire to find me. “First off, what you said my name was is not my name now.”
She blinked. “What?”
“I’m Aiden now, in case you didn’t know.”
“It’s one letter different.”
“I know that.”
She smirked. “You could have picked something more creative, like Alfred or Edgar.”
I closed my eyes, trying to pick up the remnants of my mask. “What do you want, Newheart?”
“I heard there was a new person in town and wanted to give him a good old-fashioned Resistance welcome!” She picked a basket off the ground at her feet and dropped it on the windowsill. “That means free cookies from my shop and a basket for you to resell.”
I glared at the basket for a minute. Courtesy demanded that I say thank you, but I didn’t care.
“Hello? I’m still here,” Newheart said, crossing her arms.
“You’ve given me the cookies and now you can go away.”
“Hm! Just as I thought. You haven’t changed at all, Zaiden Darkmere.”
I curled my fingers around the windowsill, seething inwardly. Why couldn’t she just leave me alone? She was going to ruin everything. “Don’t call me that.”
“You know what? I don’t need your cookies. Just take them and go back where you came from. To the Resistance, or whatever it is you’re doing now.”
Newheart smirked. “I am a Resistance worker, yes. I have been since I left the Academy Automicus. I take it you left, too?”
I exhaled sharply. “What is your problem?”
She shrugged. “I’m trying to decide whether I’m still mad at you or not.”
“I don’t care. If this is what the Resistance is like, I don’t want anything to do with them.”
The smirk vanished, replaced by something else. Her face was pale and drawn, almost like she was in pain. “I…sorry. I should go.” Turning quickly, she ran away down the street.
I slammed the shutters of the wagon window closed. Everything was engulfed in darkness and the faint scent of chocolate chip cookies. My stomach grumbled, but I firmly decided that I wouldn’t eat them.
I sat down, clutching my head. I’d almost thought I could forget the Academy and everything associated with it, but Newheart’s return had made that impossible. She was one of those people who brought back bad memories. Probably bad luck, too.
Despite my best attempt at self-control, Newheart’s cookies were gone in a day. She might be as sour as a pickled lemon, but she did know how to bake.
The next time she bothered me, I saw her coming and had time to prepare. I put on a mask of brash confidence with an extra dose of self-importance. Maybe if I annoyed her enough, she would give up.
“Er…hi,” she said, shuffling her feet.
I barely looked up from my paperwork. “Yes, what do you want?”
“I was wondering if you had any dyes to sell.”
“I might.” I stood and brought a crate of imported dyes for her to look at. While she rummaged through them, I watched her carefully. She had a red badge displayed prominently, marking her as one of the Resistance. “Why did the Resistance let you join?”
Her hands stopped moving, but she didn’t look at me. “I…left the Empire. I had nowhere else to go.”
“Your family wouldn’t have anything to do with you?”
Now she did look up, her face grim. “My family is dead. I only have my sister.”
I blinked, a little surprised. After a moment, she continued picking through the dyes, her face taking on that pained look again. “So what, you decided you liked the Resistance better and joined?” I challenged.
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“Oh, I’m sure. Do you think I’m too dumb to understand?”
When she said nothing else, I shook my head in disgust. “You aren’t one of them. Tell me you don’t wonder whether your fight against the Empire is really worth it.”
She stepped backward, her expression blank. “I don’t think I’ll be buying anything today, Z.”
I snorted and picked up the box of dyes. As I replaced it I realized what she’d said. “What did you call me?” I turned around to look, but she was gone. In her place was Ivy, perched smugly on the windowsill.
She blinked her glowing eyes once. “Very well done, sir.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t looking for her approval. “Go away.”
“If you wish it. Only remember, you’re no better than her. You’d be just as easily tempted.” She smiled and slipped away.
That night guilt weighed on my conscience, but I shoved it away. Newheart deserved whatever she got. She had chosen the wrong side and would pay dearly for it.
I hadn’t thought the nemesis would return for another lecture, but she did. This time she brought a friend. Another redhead, though this one carried a dangerous-looking hammer. “Hanna Brassheart,” she introduced herself, smiling in a friendly way.
I glanced from her to Newheart, wondering what the two had planned. Something bad, no doubt. Still, this Brassheart was a potential customer. “What can I do for you ladies?” I inquired, putting on my salesman act.
“I’d like to know whether you sell to both the Resistance and the Empire,” Brassheart replied.
I shrugged. “You could say that.”
“Why? Do your loyalties lie with the Empire? You don’t seem to be sympathetic toward the Resistance.”
This lady wasn’t playing games. I narrowed my eyes, the mask starting to slip. “Where did you hear that?”
Newheart raised her hand meekly. She was just a ghost in the background, looking very small and pale. “I told her.”
Brassheart jumped back in, not giving me time to reply. “I’ve also heard that you were loyal to the Empire at one time. How can you sell to both sides?”
Well, the best way to make money was to fuel both sides of a war. I couldn’t tell them that, though. Time to play the innocent routine. “Look, I’m just trying to get by. I sell my products to anyone who will buy them, and those might happen to be Resistance folk or Imperial officials. I don’t discriminate.”
“So you have loyalty to neither side?”
“I’m not answering that.” I glanced past her at Newheart. “Did you bring your friend to hide behind, Newheart?”
She bristled, giving me a very dark look. “No. I brought her to receive answers.”
“Well, you aren’t getting any. There’s no use trying to gang up on me.” I reached for the shutters on either side of the window. “If you’ll excuse me, it’s about time for my afternoon nap. Goodbye.”
I worked hard to keep the business afloat, pouring everything I had into my work. Over the next few weeks I met many other annoying people, but none who recognized me. My fear that Newheart would somehow bring the Empire down on top of me was relieved, at least for the moment.
One morning, I woke up expecting another normal day. I ate breakfast, prepared my merchandise for sale, and decided to step outside for some fresh air. As I opened the door, I discovered something strange. A small person was curled up there, either dead or sleeping soundly. Just like that, the pleasant monotony of life was broken.
“Hello? Are you alive?” I asked, prodding the person with my shoe.
She moaned and dragged herself upright. In the early morning light, I recognized her as Ivy. She said nothing, only stared straight down at her hands.
I tried again. “What are you doing here?”
“I can’t see,” she whispered, opening and closing her tiny fists. When she looked up, I drew in a sharp breath. Her automaton eyes no longer glowed.
She hunched over, cradling her head in her hands. “My eyes are broken. I’ve had them since I was a baby.”
I shook my head slowly. “What do you expect me to do?”
“Please, sir. You have to help me. I haven’t anywhere else to go.” Her shoulders shook with sobs, but no tears came from those gray, lifeless eyes.
I couldn’t do anything. I wasn’t a doctor, and I wouldn’t be responsible to pay for a doctor. Maybe the Resistance had doctors who would help Ivy free of charge, but I wasn’t about to find out.
I started to close the door, but her hand shot out and stopped me. “Please don’t, Zaiden Darkmere. I’m scared.”
She knew my name. She could get me in a heap of trouble. I glared at the sky, regretting everything. “Fine. I’ll take you to someone who will help.”
Ivy took firm hold of my hand as I led her through the silent streets. Every step took us closer to the Newheart Tea Emporium. Newheart could deal with this problem far better than I could. I told Ivy to wait in the shop’s doorway until the owner found her, then headed back to my wagon.
“Hey!” a voice called out.
I stopped, glancing over my shoulder. Newheart was leaning out from her shop’s upper story window, glaring at me. I turned away and took another step. Something hit the back of my head, bouncing off onto the ground. I yelped and stumbled forward. When I looked at Newheart again, I saw a slingshot in her hand. She waved it threateningly. “Come back here!”
I obeyed, dragging my feet. Newheart brought Ivy and me inside her shop, which was very small and had a fireplace in one corner. I braced myself for the questions.
Newheart turned on me, planting her hands on her hips. “What are you doing here?”
“Bringing her,” I replied.
Ivy turned her face in the direction of my voice and Newheart gasped. I had to explain about Ivy’s eyes and the fog-tech in them. That last part really seemed to worry Newheart. She said she would take Ivy to the Resistance doctor immediately. When I refused her invitation to come along, she promptly evicted me from the premises.
I spent the whole day trying to forget about Ivy. Her plight kept me distracted, and my resulting bad mood scared away customers. Newheart finally came later that evening and put my curiosity to rest.
“At first Ivy wouldn’t let the doctor examine her eyes,” she began.
“Shh, I’m getting to that part.”
I shrugged, trying to still my fidgety hands.
“When I finally calmed her, the doctor found that the fog-tech in her prosthetic eyes has failed. Nothing can be done to repair them. They’ll need to be completely replaced. Ivy doesn’t want anything other that fog-tech put in. That’s why she resisted at first. She knew we don’t use fog and was ready to defend it.”
“So will the doctor help her?” I asked.
Newheart shook her head. “He can’t, unless Ivy agrees to have the fog-tech replaced.”
I snorted. Aether-tech was inferior to fog.
She sighed. “I know you’re skeptical, but aether is powerful. It makes machines run how they are supposed to. It can bring healing. Next time you get hurt, try pouring liquid aether on the wound.”
I waved my hand, dismissing her words as mere fantasy. “Where’s Ivy now?”
“She’s staying with me. Maybe she’ll come around eventually.”
“I wouldn’t get too optimistic.”
“Well, you never know,” she replied, forcing a smile.
I could only shake my head. Newheart was deceiving herself. Ivy would just have to learn to live in darkness. I tried to imagine how that would feel, but the closest I came was a memory of the Fogworks. No one should have to go through that. A faint hint of sympathy lodged itself in my mind, but this time I made no effort to remove it.