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The carnival was set to be up and running on the first sunny day that dare shed its light upon the bleak town of Gantrickwarren, and today it seemed as if the fiery mass was in a pleasant mood. Somewhere east of the entrance gate, a man stood tall, gazing into the clouds as the wind swept back the tails of his open coat. He inhaled the scent of the daisy that withered between his fingertips, having been plucked from its green grass haven.
"Bernard! Finally, I've found you!"
The crooked top hat upon the young man's head twirled around as he tore his eyes from the serene, peaceful image that was not his to long for. Instead, they rested on the boy that stood but a measly ten feet from the spot where his feet were firmly rooted. Bernard smiled down at the boy as he approached the taller man and looked at him with fierce eyes, perhaps too fierce for a child to possess. Though his eyes could have easily appeared dead, he graced the smaller with a cheerful disposition.
"What is it, Alley?" The blue eyes that hid behind slicked hair narrowed in disgust at the nickname his elder called him by.
"My name is Alastair."
A mess of auburn hair became even more mussed as the man it belonged to threw his head back and chuckled loudly. The boy beside him scowled deeper.
"Yes, that's right. You told me that, didn't you?"
"On numerous occasions, Bernard."
Light teal eyes softened, and a gentle smile returned to Bernard's full lips. "Well then, if I call you Alastair, will you agree to call me Master Bernard?"
Alastair sneered and turned away from the taller man. "You're too young, Bernard. If I go around calling you that, people will think I'm into some weird stuff. Besides, I'm your boss."
Bernard turned to head back to the job he had come into the field to avoid. "You already look like a slave, Alley. But we'll let not let that bother us. Come, people will be missing us." He took long strides heading back to the gate, leaving Alastair standing in the grass a few meters away.
"But' that's what I came to tell you, you jerk!" Then he frowned deeper as he ran after the coat tails that seemed to get smaller as Bernard got farther away. "And don't call me Alley!"
Back at the fair, several carnies were stationed around the attractions, and a small few were patrolling the back gate, leisurely patrolling the area for would-be trespassers. Their conversation was cut short by Bernard's sudden arrival.
"Bernard? Where were you? Alastair was furious about your absence."
"Ahem," the small blonde coughed irately, causing the two perambulating carnies to look down to about the height of Bernard's knees.
"Oops," one of the darkly dressed men replied. "Sorry, Alastair."
"Just get back to work, you mutt." Alastair stalked off into the crowd, while Bernard stayed behind to talk to his 'colleagues'.
"How are things, Braxton?"
"Drab, as always." The albino sucked in a breath while the base of his cigar rested at his lips, then exhaled slowly, taking his time in dismissing the smoke from the confines of his mouth. "It's hard taking orders from a seven year old."
"Lighten up, Braxton," countered the other guard. "It's not so bad."
"How on Earth did you come to that conclusion, Hirum? I agree with Braxton; it is difficult."
"My reasons aren't so bad, actually. My main one being that, because he's so young, he's got the observation skills of a sloth."
"That's true," said Bernard. "But he's going to notice if I'm not at my post, especially after he went out of his way to come and find me."
"Heheh. You'd better get back to business, then."
Hirum chuckled along with him. "Yes; get back to work, mutt!"
"Ahah! Who do you think I'm fooling, Hirum? I was never working in the first place!"
Though everyone did their best to ignore the truth, it was always there, like a dark rain cloud on a sunny day. The thing was, you didn't get to be a carnie here if you fit in anywhere else, anywhere at all. So what was a fresh young adolescent girl doing here, shoving her way past carnival patrons to get back to her post? One could say that looks are deceiving, but that would be the understatement of a lifetime. In this case, looks squander the mind entirely.
Capturing the eyes of many, she stepped lively past all the arms that brushed her shoulders. Finally she had found what she was searching for; a familiar man in a crooked top hat, manning the Ferris wheel as he always did.
"Bernard!" She marched up to him and narrowed her eyes, looking straight into the usually cheerful orbs of blue.
"What, you're upset with me too?" Bernard whispered discreetly to his partner as he ushered some fair patrons into seats on the giant wheel.
"I might be. What are you still doing here?"
"I could ask you the same thing, Myra." A less than friendly grin graced his lips, resulting in an upwards sneer from his shorter associate. "Didn't you do the job yesterday? I was waiting for your signal."
Myra flipped a switch, and the Ferris wheel took off into rotation. "I said I'd give it when I was ready, you idiot. Which begs the question' why weren't you there to receive it?"
Bernard smirked at her, glancing down at her angular frame. "All I can say is that some of us have full-time jobs to attend to. I'm not suggesting anything, though."
He could hear the knuckles that had cracked simply from the clenching of Myra's fist, which were shaking in anticipation of contact with Bernard's nose. "So this is more important than your real job? Bernard, I'm afraid that' I'll have to report you."
This time, the grin was on her face, coupled with distraught eyes and a twitch on her cheekbone. She was getting extremely annoyed, that much was clear to the auburn-haired carnie. The question was; would she carry out her threat and have him eradicated? He decided that dwelling on such variable concepts was unwise, and that focusing on the situation at hand was more beneficial for both of them, whether Myra wanted to acknowledge it or not.
He stepped closer than he already was, into territory that would surely get him killed if he took a wrong step and triggered a landmine of Myra's conscience. As long as he was trying to be smart about what to say to this woman, he would at least remember what triggered the worst reactions from her.
Myra squirmed in response to the sudden closeness, only to stumble onto the emergency stop that would halt the ride's gyratory movements.
"And who exactly would you be reporting me to, I wonder'? Not your seven year old nephew, I assume."
Scowling, Myra pushed the man looming over her to the side and went to take his place at the base of the wheel, leaving Bernard to deal with the growing problem with the angry fair patrons, some fifty feet in the air.
"You assume too much, Bernard. I might tell Embry, and then I'll be the one laughing."
"This is hardly a laughing matter," Bernard said quietly, tracing a slender, extremely pale finger over the various buttons on the switchboard. "You need my help."
Myra cackled into the crisp fall air, earning several frightened stares from children whose parents held them close, and sent disapproving glares in her direction. Some even migrated away from the attraction they had waited so long to board, and headed off towards rides that were manned by more pleasant-looking carnies.
"You have no idea how easily replaced your kind are, do you?"
"Forgive my ignorance," he replied, starting up the attraction again for the few people who were left to ride it. "But I was under the impression that you were telling the truth when you got down on your knees and begged for my assistance, because you were' if I recall correctly' desperate."
Myra flinched at the use of the most demeaning word one could possibly describe her as, and her speech became nearly unintelligible, as she was verbalizing angrily through gritted teeth.
"Theatrics; to ensure your addition of aid to the task."
The carnie beside her grinned widely, praising her like he would a child. "That was very good, Myra. Well rehearsed, I'm sure? Your anticipation of my reaction is, once again, no less than excellent. Unfortunately, this was not the opportune time to put that ability to use."
Myra shook in anger as she reached up to slap him, but her assault was brushed aside with almost unnatural ease on the part of her would-be victim.
"You knew that I would have reason to question it, didn't you? That you went to such lengths to conceal such a trivial thing only proves that I am, in fact, correct in assuming that you didn't have a second's hesitation in dropping to your knees and begging for my help. The fact that you were so desperate means that I was the only one left in Gantrickwarren who would even consider participating, right?"
Myra's breath came in quick, outraged gasps as Bernard leaned even closer to her right ear, to the point where his warm breath tickled the exposed part of the nape of her neck.
"Tell me I'm wrong," he challenged. "I've wounded your pride, no?"
Myra cried out in rage and aimed a solid punch at his cheekbone, this one going without intervention.
Bernard winced, but did nothing else to reveal that the soon-to-be bruise was causing him pain. All the patrons that were left exited the scene; convinced that if they stayed, they would be involved in a brutal show of violence, one that no one was eager to deal with.
"That was to ensure your loyalty to the project. Regardless of your willingness to help, you'll do it. Or I assure you' You will be taken out of the picture."
"That's fine. Shall I think of you as the magic eraser, then?" Another blow landed on his cheekbone, opposite of the one that had been struck before. He was tugged down to eye-level by the collar of his open jacket to find infuriated brown eyes looking him square in his crystal blue pupils.
"Don't screw with me, Bernard. I won't tell Embry, but I swear I'll nail you to your father's grave if you treat this simply as a means of escape from boredom. Tonight is the start of the fireworks, and if you're not there, then you will have succeeded in single-handedly destroying the entire operation."
Myra forced him down even further, then yanked his hair, forcing him to look up at his petty responsibility, the archaic Ferris wheel. She pointed a finger at the box that hung, not moving, from a thick cable that lined the entire outside of the large circle.
"Look at this. If you screw this up, I'll personally make sure that you never escape from it."
"I'm sorry, Myra. It wasn't my place to question your authority." The cold sarcasm in his voice was no longer concealed, and Myra only scoffed at him.
"And why is that, Bernard? Because your brain's too inflated to allow room for the virtues of a leader?"
"Which you have? You should become a novelist, Myra. You'd be infinitely more successful at that then what you do now. God knows I hate novelists'" Bernard yanked himself loose of her grip and abruptly turned to march down the stairs and off of the platform they had been standing on. He looked back at her too see that she had composed herself, if only for the time being. If Bernard was leaving, then there was no damage to be done in a little extra prodding at Myra's self-control, as long as he wasn't in range of her fist.
"Don't concern yourself with an adult's job, Myra. Quick tempers are for children, not soldiers. I don't have the authority to demand it of you, but at the very least I can make a formal request: know your place, or it'll destroy you faster than you can start groveling for a second chance."
The dead grass crunched underneath him as he strode out of the fair. He would be there to receive the signal this time. As much as he thought of Myra as an uncontrollable hot-head, she was right. He himself couldn't understand why he had returned here last night, instead of just making his way to the covert. He might have escaped coming here again today if he had been there at ten o'clock yesterday. Then he wouldn't need to do this every day. He could do what he damn well wanted for the rest of his life.
Ah, he was brainwashing himself. Of course he didn't have to return here. That was why he agreed to do the job, after all. Then' he must have something else that drew him back every time.
It couldn't be for Myra's nephew. No, he disliked children very much. And there was absolutely no way he enjoyed controlling that damned Ferris wheel. What was it?
Oh. Of course, it was so painfully obvious. Noah. She was what he came back for. If what Myra had said a week ago was true, then she needed to be ready for it. That was why he kept disappearing at this time of day, every day, to go to her.
A small, modestly-sized house cast a diminutive mid-day shadow over him as he stood at the front door. The hard wood door made a resonating thump as he rapped on it.
A young woman no older than twenty-four slid the door open to reveal a cluttered household. She welcomed him into it, and Bernard shut the door behind him quickly but cautiously, wary of the possibility of someone following him.
They took their seats on separate couches, each of them worn and tattered. Bernard was hesitant, almost reluctant even, to speak. He was choosing his words carefully; at the very least Noah could see that.
"I'll be' working tonight." His voice cracked slightly under the pressure of such a grim subject. Baby blue eyes pierced his at the instant he dared to gaze upon them, and he lowered his immediately. "Do you remember what I told you to do when it happens?"
Noah gave an indicating nod, declaring that she understood. "Of course I do. I wouldn't be worth your time if I couldn't do something that simple."
"That's not true," he murmured, shaking his head slightly. "You're not a tool."
Noah laughed, her voice an unbearably sweet chime. "It's alright, Bernard. I don't mind."
"Why?" Bernard demanded an explanation of this most puzzling statement, suddenly very tense. Noah smiled gently, absentmindedly tracing the trim on the arm of the cotton sofa with her forefinger.
"Why? Well, it's simply because I agree with Embry."
"And what does that mean, Noah? I never thought of you as a cruel person, but now I'm convinced that you're trying very hard to change my mind." Noah laughed again, being unusually cheerful for someone in such a grave situation.
"No, it's nothing like that. I just mean that he knows this town up and down, sideways and backwards. He's right," she declared. "This town has served its usefulness under the rule of the Empire. I'll admit it did well for some time, but because it's so small, citizens aren't living the lives they intended. The politicians, they've become corrupt, suffocated by the need for power. The population is steadily dropping' There's not many people left. And those who are left live each day hoping for a restart, instead of making it happen themselves. I'm sure you can attest to that."
Bernard shook his head. "What a heartless thing to say."
"Look, all I'm saying is that there's no need for this town to even be here any longer. It's run its course' straight off a cliff."
"Really, for someone as young as you, you're extremely old."
"What does that mean? I'm still a child, Bernard. Maybe not physically, but even at the age I am, I'm frightened of the years to come."
"You sure are grim today' Did something happen?"
Noah shifted uncomfortably in her seat, placing her hands underneath her and sitting on them. Then she stood up, walking toward the kitchen hesitantly. Bernard followed quietly, still awaiting a response.
"Ayatsuri stopped by today."
The elder conspirator clenched his fists in anger, infuriated by a name that intruded into his dearly beloved's life far more often than he would have approved, Ayatsuri Silas.
"What did he want?"
"Oh, same as always. I'm pleased to report that he wasn't able to draw it out as long as he would have liked to, though."
A confusing statement, one that didn't typically correspond to the inclusions of Ayatsuri's visits, which were always brief, fifteen-minute transactions.
"What do you mean?"
"He tried a new form of persuasion this time. I don't think he meant for me to see it as that, but then again, Ayatsuri never did have particularly clear motives."
"He hurt you somehow' did he threaten you?" Noah started to wring her hands, and she kept her lips clamped together, frightened that her voice might betray her. 'He struck you' That's it, isn't it?"
Noah shook her head fast, confirming Bernard's suspicions. "He tried." She reached to touch his arm, then stumbled backwards abruptly, petrified by the look blazing in Bernard's typically jovial teal eyes. "Bernard," she whispered. He turned sharply to meet her gaze, which illustrated raw, unmasked terror. "He's still here."
The creaking noise emitting from the hinges of the bathroom door captured their attention at once, and a tall man emerged from the archway. He wore a wide, open trench coat and gray trousers, which almost matched the steel color of his sleep-deprived eyes. He lips bore a confident smirk as he approached his shorter acquaintances.
"Noah, I must say I'm quite surprised. I didn't think you'd go this far to ensure your own death."
"This is too much, Silas." Bernard watched out of the corner of his eye as Noah convulsed in fear. She cringed and winced when he brushed past her purposefully towards the door.
"Really? I don't think so. I'm simply doing what's necessary. Thank you for the information, by the way," he added, slipping in a snake-like fashion through the door frame. "It was very useful."
"Silas!" Bernard shouted as his adversary exited, shooting him a smug grin as he went. "Silas!!" The carnie cursed under his breath and left through the back door, which led straight down the road that revealed the hideout.
"Stay here," he shouted back to Noah as he ran down the path, determined to get there before Ayatsuri reached his destination. It was extremely likely that he would go straight to the governor and request use of the country's militia. No, he must have already done that, immediately after he realized the restlessness in a town as small as his. In all senses of the word, they were rebelling against the Empire, and that was all the reason Ayatsuri needed wipe out the entire rebel army. He'd definitely start with Gantrickwarren; destroy one of the leading divisions. Then he'd move on to the larger, less involved cities and massacre the entire army until there was nothing left.
Bernard cursed under his breath as he reached the covert, which was protected by an electric fence.
"Laurent! Hey Laurent, open up!" A young, bearded man peered around the corner of the fence, looking slightly amused.
"Bernard? Haven't seen you in a while. Where were you yesterday?"
"Just open the gate, Laurent, it's urgent!" Laurent grumbled something like 'impatient tyrant' under his breath, and proceeded to take his time unhooking a large key ring from his belt.
"Fine, fine. Don't get all worked up, I'm opening the damned gate." As soon as the lock was unlatched, Bernard bounded through the gate, being careful not to touch it for fear of electrocution.
"Embry' where's Embry? Laurent, where is he?" Suddenly a man stood from a table, apparently waiting for nightfall, when the fireworks would begin. He tilted his gray porkpie hat up slightly, revealing pink eyes to go along with pale, albino skin.
'Embry, we've got a problem! Ayatsuri'he knows something's up. My guess is that he's already got the militia under his control, and you know he won't have a moment's hesitation in wiping us all out.'
Embry's eyes widened in utter shock, and kicked the table in anger, sending its contents to the dirt ground. 'Damn it,' he cried, unable to contain the fury of an operation gone wrong. 'How in God's name did he find out?! We kept everything under wraps, no one said a word of this to anyone!'
'One of the letters might have been intercepted,' Bernard suggested, not wanting to place the blame on Noah. 'That last one to Port Kentdale; it would've been fairly easy to get off route. You know how disorganized they are.'
Embry cursed loudly, shoving the heel of his foot into the ground. 'We'll just have to give the signal early, and hope that Hawksvale is watching. Ezra should be able to figure out what's going on by herself. Damn it!' He swore again, pinching the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb. 'Round up all the fireworks we've got,' he ordered, sounding official. 'We've got to make it look like an accident; one firework getting set off at random would be entirely too conspicuous.'
Bernard made a hasty run for the back alley entrance, shouting back to Embry that he understood. Out of breath when he reached the filth covered door, he knocked twice. It opened slightly, and an eye peered through the crevice.
'Bernard?' said a voice on the other side of the door. 'What the hell are you doing here? You're supposed to be over with Laurent, waiting for Ezra.'
'We don't have time to wait for her! Listen, we've been discovered, bring me every crate of the red ones you've got.'
'Got it,' the voice replied, and the door slammed shut. Bernard heard the sound of commands being shouted to all the men inside, and the immediate shuffling of everyone in the building carrying crates. He ran back to Laurent, where he stood stationary, still watching for potential threats or misdirected townsfolk.
'Lock it up tight, Laurent,' Bernard said solemnly, referring to the quadruple-lock gate. 'We can definitely expect a few visitors, you can be sure of that.'
By this time, the fireworks were arriving, along with several boxes of matches and people to light them.
'Get them out there faster!' Embry ordered heatedly, pointing at the side of the fort designated for 'contribution to the firework show'.
'Sir, Ezra hasn't arrived yet!'
'I don't care,' Embry fumed. 'We'll make do without her' for now, anyway. She'll figure out something's wrong. She'll come.'
'I'm sorry sir, but I don't think we should deliberately put ourselves in a situation that demands us to rely on Ezra. You may have faith in her, but she's a bit' flaky.'
Embry scoffed. 'You're not all that reliable yourself, Asher. Your letter to Port Kentdale; it got intercepted. That's why we're in this mess in the first place.'
A confused frown plastered itself onto Asher's face, and his head cocked to the side. 'Sir, that letter reached Kentdale successfully. We received the confirmation code from Raleigh two days ago.' He fished a small piece of paper out of his pocket, worn from all the folding and unfolding it had been submitted to. 'Here it is.'
Embry snatched the paper from Asher's hands, looking it over once, scrutinizing every detail. The scowl on his face grew larger, and his attention was directed back to Bernard.
'We've looked it over several times, and we're sure it's genuine. It's in Raleigh's own handwriting,' Asher said. 'There's no doubt about it.'
"You!" Embry cried, spinning around and pinning Bernard to the gate with a death grip on his throat. "Who have you been sneaking off to see?"
Bernard choked, his speech coming out as ragged gasps in a staccato pattern. "I don't'don't know what you're ta'talking about."
Embry gripped his underling's neck tighter, nearly cutting off air from Bernard's lungs completely. "Don't lie to me, you felon. Myra told me you've been sneaking off during the day! Who have you been talking to?!"
"Just' a' local woman," he gasped, his voice becoming faint. "I haven't said anything about the operation."
"Liar!" he shouted, dropping Bernard on the ground and stalking off towards the fireworks, which were being held until he gave the order to set them off.
"Light them all, every single one of them!" His orders were followed and several moments later, several scarlet fireworks shot into the atmosphere and detonated in mid-air. Embry turned to a couple of soldiers on his right, standing erect with impeccable posture. "And' Lock this one up in storage."
"Yes sir," they responded, gripping Bernard by the arms and dragging him off towards the storage room.
"Embry always was exemplary when it came to deduction," Bernard sighed, going along with the two soldiers as they dragged him through the back alley.
"Smarter 'an you," one of them noted, readjusting his grip so as to make it easier for him to haul Bernard off.
"Sill, I can't believe he was crazy enough to think that I could be restrained by the likes of you two." Without warning, Bernard brought his forearms together abruptly, causing the two soldiers' heads to collide above him. Both of them collapsed to the ground, grasping their foreheads in pain. "Wasn't very smart of him, was it?"
After dragging both of the unconscious guards by the collar into an fallow, vacant warehouse, he stripped the smaller one down to his underwear and proceeded to dress himself up in the clothes, to replace the extremely conspicuous red coat he had discarded. There was no point in trying to sneak out if he got caught the moment he stepped out of the room, because of his distinguishable clothes. The tiny wisp of auburn hair that peered out from under the small gray newsboy cap he had liberated from one of the guards he had incapacitated barely eluded Embry's line of sight, as he paced back and forth within a ten foot diameter. Bernard stole from the fortress, brushing past Laurent, who was, once again, sleeping at his post. If Ezra walked in to find him like that, he would be discharged immediately, and perhaps executed for his blatant show of carefree incompetence. Unfortunately for said sentinel, Bernard was in far too much of a hurry to bother waking him. He had to get to Noah before Ayatsuri's borrowed militia stormed the town in an attempt to locate the small fortress many rebels called home. He would get her out of the town, and then' Even if Embry had dismissed him and revoked the job he had been assigned to, he would do his part. The wall surrounding the town would allow no chance of escape once Bernard had closed and locked all of the enormous doors in various parts of the barrier, cutting off all access to the outside world.
Once he had reached Noah's small, quaint abode, he knocked on the door furiously, calling to her as he did.
'Noah! Get your things, we're leaving!' The door opened, silencing his incessant pounding on the worn wooden plank. Noah stood in the doorway, confused expression on her face.
'Bernard? What are you doing here? Why didn't you give the signal? I've been waiting.' Bernard said nothing, shoving past her to get into the house. Immediately he headed for her bedroom and started to pull random articles of clothing from her dresser, shoving them in a bag he had picked up from the countertop as he passed. 'Embry knows I've been talking to you about the operation. Well, not you specifically, but it won't take much prodding to figure out it was you.' Noah gave a small whimper and cringed, knowing instantly that she would be killed if Embry ever found her. Or worse' Myra. Her quick temper had been the death of many, quite literally because they said something to provoke her. For what Bernard and Noah had done, she would make sure they suffered before they died if she managed to locate them. 'We've got to go now,' Bernard stressed, ushering her by hand out the door and down a narrow pathway that led to the only exit Bernard had left open that morning. The sun was setting fast, and every noise made by a bird or any other harmless animal seemed to be screaming, in Noah's point of view. Every tree branch was like a sharp set of talons, clawing at the boundary between her and hysteria.
Once they had crossed the boundary and officially stepped into the neighboring town of Langrove, Bernard pushed the gate shut and bolted it tight, checking the locks twice before he disembarked into the next town.
'Take your last look, Noah. Tonight, Gantrickwarren goes up flames.'
On that note, Bernard and Noah took their leave of the small town, listening to the unearthly screams of the civilians trapped inside, caught between the militia and the rebel army in one bloody, merciless slaughter. Bit by bit, the municipality they had come to know became immersed in flames, swallowed up by red and yellow.
And so it had begun: the destruction of Gantrickwarren, a once prosperous town, and the creation of tranquility for others for several years to come.