Chapter no 26 – Evie

Assistant to the Villain

This is him! This is The Villain!” Jayne Fairmond yelped, drawing the attention of several villagers in the square.

It was a busy selling day, carts and vendors lining the streets. Colorful fabrics were draped high, the glitter of the material brought from the Lavender Seas and the merfolk who resided there catching the light of the sun. Fresh scents of bread—probably not as good as Edwin’s, but she’d call it a close second—danced along Evie’s nose.

But her tranquility was ruined by someone raving about her boss on her day off. Now she had to put on a performance.

“A picture of The Villain?” She needed to sound fearful if she didn’t want to raise suspicion. It was no secret to others in the kingdom that The Villain had sympathizers, and they were considered villainous scum as well. Evie thought she should shriek when she saw the poster—and nearly did when she saw the sad portrayal of whatever this sketch artist was trying to convey.

Whoever was supposed to be represented in the WANTED flyer wasn’t just old; they were ancient. The nose wasn’t even close, and the hair was wrong for many reasons, one of them being it was on fire. His tongue was out and forked like a serpent, and Evie yelped when she saw a beard so long, it covered most of the bottom of the page.

“Do you have another one of these?” She pushed her smile down so hard, it made her eyes water. Coughing, she said, “I would like to make sure I never forget the face of the traitor.”

Jayne nodded, eyes glittering in approval as she reached into her satchel and handed Evie another awful poster. One she was going to frame and put right on her boss’s desk.

“Thank you.” She sniffed, wiping an imaginary tear from her eye. “He’s

so vile.”

“Don’t worry, Evie. One day the Valiant Guards will catch the traitor and stop all the destruction he’s caused,” Jayne insisted, clutching the poster so

hard that she crumpled the paper.

“What destruction, exactly?” Evie asked innocently.

Jayne reeled back, a look of astonishment on her face. “How can you even ask me that, Evangelina?” She held her hand to her chest dramatically, looking all too much like a woman about to faint. “His crimes are too horrendous to speak of.”

Ah, now Evie understood. “You can’t name a single one, can you?”

Jayne crossed her arms over her large bust. “Of course I can! I just have the good sense not to speak of it.” Jayne glared at her, looking as if she wanted to rip the flyer from Evie’s hands. “The reason you can afford to work is only by the benevolence of King Benedict. If it were up to The Villain, you probably wouldn’t even have a job.”

“So true, Jayne. So true.” Evie nodded sagely, then whipped around before the woman could spy the smile Evie couldn’t contain a minute longer. Instead, she headed off to the center of town, where the crowds would be less, well, crowded.

A few minutes later, Evie sat against the edge of the large fountain that marked the very center of their village. Another week’s end was to have come and gone, and she still felt like she was drowning, like all her worries were weights on her feet, dragging her under until she couldn’t breathe.

She noted her father was doing better, at the very least, as he sat with several friends in the courtyard. His complexion had a healthy glow today as he conversed happily, Lyssa’s arms hooked around one of his legs, her head tilted up as though she were hanging on his every word. Together they had every appearance of a happy, healthy family, one that didn’t have dark secrets circling them like a vulture waiting for the carnage to appear.

Pressing her lips together, she stood. There were still a few hours left in the day. Perhaps she could go through her notes one more time, looking for anything else she might have missed.

Jayne was now standing with a group of other girls she’d grown up attending school with. All girls who had looked at her, whispering and giggling about Evie’s mother after the incident. Feigning sympathy when it pleased them.

Evie sighed, shaking her head, and turned to walk home. She didn’t have it in her to pretend to be friendly anymore.

Tapping her father’s shoulder, she ran her other hand over one of Lyssa’s braids. “I’m heading home, Papa. Will you be okay with Lyssa?”

The men her father was conversing with gave her friendly greetings as her father nodded and patted her cheek. “Of course, my sweet. Could you leave me the coin purse? I want to buy a couple of drinks for my friends.”

“Oh, um. I suppose.” She listened to the coins clink together as she deposited the pouch into her father’s waiting palm. “Just please don’t—”

But she was immediately forgotten when her father dove into another one of his stories, making Lyssa and the group of men laugh boisterously.

Dragging her feet against the ground, kicking dirt and stones up as she went, Evie began humming to herself, imagining she was a sorceress with power those around her could not begin to comprehend.

And she’d also pretend that scenario wasn’t a loud cry for help.

Pushing a curl out of her face, she huffed in annoyance. She’d left her hair loose today, hanging low on her back, then immediately regretted it every time it brushed against her face. Sorceresses probably didn’t have to worry about managing their appearance; they probably looked polished and pristine with a snap of their fingers.

Did they snap their fingers?

Evie had never desired magic for herself. But sometimes when she saw the ease with which people used it, like it was a constant companion, she couldn’t help but wonder if she had it lying in wait. The way her mother had. Or if it would one day consume her as well.

She didn’t know if magic that was too powerful always turned on the owner or if it was just the wielder’s lack of control. What about The Villain’s magic?

She exited the main square, passing a lane of tall trees before she turned right into a giant field filled with daisies. She kept walking until she was standing in front of a massive tree in the middle of the clearing she’d climbed as a child. She leaned back against the rough bark, letting it hold her weight, and sighed.

She knew The Villain had a dark magic, darker than her mother’s, although she didn’t completely understand the logistics of it. But she did understand that it made him deadly. Did he struggle to keep it from overtaking him, too? Was that what ultimately made him choose such a deadly career?

Bending her knees until she was sitting, Evie rested her head against the tree and closed her eyes.

What had her boss been like before he’d become The Villain? What had happened to make him go down the path he was on? What trauma had evoked the magic in him?

Evie sighed again and shook her head. Whatever sad backstory she was building in her mind was just a distraction to keep her from thinking about the real issues.

Problem number one: She was growing emotionally attached to her boss.

Problem number two: Her boss was also the most hated man in her kingdom.

Problem number three: Someone wanted her boss dead—which would severely affect problem number one.

“You are a fool with attachment issues,” she muttered.

“Are you talking to the tree or yourself?” a familiar voice questioned.

“Sir?” Evie said, jumping to her feet, heart racing. “You can’t be here!” she hissed, shoving him behind the tree, then feeling surprised she was able to move his large form.

“Sage, what are you doing?” He raised a brow but continued to move back until they were both hidden.

“Have you finally lost what was left of your evil little pea brain?” She pushed him again, and he caught her hands, gently halting her. There were no gloves separating their skin, and the burn of his palm against the back of her hand sent shivers through her. It didn’t help that at the angle he was holding her, she was at eye level with his lips.

Lips that seemed to tilt and move just a bit closer.

But all too quickly, he was releasing her and stepping a good two feet away, flexing both hands like her touch was offensive to him. “I haven’t lost anything. I’ve been to your village before. Why the gross overreaction?”

He adjusted his shirt collar, the cloth obviously well tailored. Nothing audacious, but the black leather of his trousers and the pressed, clean sheen of his shirt said he had money, enough to be comfortable.

“You don’t think King Benedict has connected that Trystan Maverine and The Villain are one and the same? He knows it’s you, doesn’t he? He’ll know where and who to look for, and I’m sure he wouldn’t hesitate to let every Valiant Guard within riding distance tear you apart.” How could he be so incredibly careless and startlingly calm?

He merely stood there, staring at her, his dark eyes giving nothing useful away. “If Benedict wanted his people looking for me, he wouldn’t be

allowing posters to go about with false names and inaccurate portrayals of my appearance.” Her boss pulled out the poster she’d been given earlier, somehow taking it from her satchel without her noticing.

Evie bit her lip to keep from grinning. “I don’t know, that seems a pretty accurate likeness. I’d hoped to frame it.”

His face went flat and unamused. “Very humorous, Sage.” He crumpled the poster and tossed it aside. “Benedict wants to keep whatever games he’s playing between us. So I’ll follow the bread crumbs, will play the fool just long enough for him to think he’s won.” His smile was sinister. “And then I’ll take him down for good.”

Somewhere above her head, a bird chirped, with no idea of the melodrama playing out below it. “You make dismantling a well-beloved monarch sound alarmingly easy, sir.”

“Well, there is a very distinct difference between King Benedict and me.” “What’s that?” Evie asked cautiously.

“I don’t care about being beloved, and I don’t care about doing things the right way. I will blacken whatever parts of my soul I must to keep my business running and to take down my enemies.” Were there thunderclouds ominously appearing behind him or was that Evie’s imagination?

Leaning back against the tree again and sliding down, putting her head between her bent knees, she sighed. “I just don’t understand. You’ve been doing the evil thing for a decade. Sabotaging the kingdom, working as an enemy against him for almost ten years. Why is it that only recently, he’s decided to send someone on the inside to take you down?”

“Perhaps I’ve finally come to be enough of a nuisance, or perhaps since the entire continent knows me to be a vicious, horrid monster, the esteemed king thinks that serving the public my head on a platter when it finally suits him will make him something of a hero.” Trystan sat down hard beside her, yanking a bit of grass out with his fist.

“Or it took him ten years to find someone willing to go undercover against you,” Evie guessed. “Someone who was willing to take the risk you’d find them out eventually.”

The Villain nodded in agreement. “Whoever it is has had an extremely careful method of sharing information with the king. I’ve had a few of my guards keep eyes on some loose ends, but so far, no one has stepped out of line.”

Unless they found a coded way to share the information.

“What could he have done to cause this war between you?” she asked almost to herself. “I have no loyalty to the crown, obviously. Look who I’m working for.” She gestured to him before continuing. “But King Benedict is well-liked, even loved by some. From what I’ve read in the news pamphlets, he spends his days arguing with his council to make magical education more accessible to the rest of the kingdom. He’s the reason women are even allowed employment at all. I heard that he’s now petitioning the council for women’s business rights. I’m not saying you’re wrong for targeting him, as he’s clearly targeting you back, but what started it? What could he have possibly done to deserve such wrath?”

“He stepped on my foot once. Never got over it,” Trystan deadpanned. Evie laughed and shook her head.

Trystan stood once more, reaching a hand down for her. Lightly pulling her to her feet and turning to the path leading back to the village, he said, “Now I would like to go meet with your village’s blacksmith, and I would like you to introduce me as your employer who is interested in a rare sort of blade.”

The blood in her veins froze, locking her legs in a vise grip. “The blacksmith?” Her hands shook so hard, she shoved them in the pockets of her skirts. “Why do you want to meet with him?”

“Otto Warsen?” The Villain said, pulling a slip of paper from his front pocket. “Blade found the name etched into the bottom corner of the dragon’s collar. Lots of craftsmen do it as a way of marking their work. An advertisement of sorts, so that anyone who admires it knows where it came from and might perhaps want one of their own.”

Evie swallowed a large lump, her legs finally working again, and followed him back down the path, feeling a sickly cold slithering through her. “And whoever requested the collar’s creation, in person, had to have given the order to include the engraving.” She concluded, “Or at the very least, the blacksmith took a bribe to carve it in by another party. It could be our traitor.”

He nodded. “We’ll have to be creative with our line of questioning. I don’t want the man to suspect anything untoward about your employment and make things difficult for you in your private life.”

That hardly seemed to matter when a moment in time that Evie desperately wanted to forget was about to be thrown in her face like a closed fist. “Very considerate, sir.”

“I trust you are acquainted with Mr. Warsen?”

Evie saw familiar faces as they reentered the square, but no one stopped them to talk because of the street performances that had just begun.

“I used to work for him, actually,” she admitted quietly. “Right before I came to work for you.”

He must have heard something off in her voice, because his gaze turned to hers, a pinched look between his brows. “Why did you leave his employment?”

“It was just a difference of opinion,” Evie said, smiling lightly. Keeping her hands in the deep pockets of her skirts, she strutted forward, eager to leave all those feelings pushed to the past and pray to whatever gods had created this world that they didn’t make her do what she’d wished she’d done all those months ago—and hit her old boss in the head with a sledgehammer.

Especially in front of her new boss. But her anger was still raw, her pain twisting and curling inside her.

She was doomed.

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