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Stirrings of Rebellion
Drip. One thousand-one.
Drip. One thousand-two.
Drip. One thousand-three. Another drop, another thought flittering into existence before disappearing into the engulfing darkness of the tower.
Drip. One thousand-four. Counting drops, counting memories, counting the moments that had brought me there this time.
“I want you to know how disappointed I am with you Gwyneth,” my father gave me a stern look as he repeated the same line he’d said a thousand times. How much of a letdown I was, how disappointed he was in the person I’d become, and on and on and on.
“I expect more from you and so does this city. If I’m to do my job I can’t have some renegade daughter gallivanting around the streets protesting government policies. It doesn’t sit well with my colleagues, it doesn’t sit well with Mr. and Mrs. Whoever who read about you every Saturday with their morning coffee, and quite honestly Gwyneth, it especially doesn’t sit well with me.” He sighed as if he genuinely cared about the fact that I was a “renegade daughter” because I was his daughter. As if he cared about me and my well-being. But no, there was no emotion, no family connection attached to me. There hadn’t been for years.
“Gwyneth, do you think I like having this talk with you every other week? Do you think I enjoy using the power of my office on my own daughter?" I think you’ll do whatever it takes to stay in office, regardless of who I am in relation to you.
I enjoyed that he used so many rhetorical questions in his lectures. It meant that I was supposed to know the answer he was implying so I didn’t have to actually respond.
Honestly, I did know the answer he was implying, but we both knew that the answer he was implying wasn’t the truth. He was a cold and heartless politician who had sacrificed everything to be where he was; including the right to think that we had a relationship that could even be compared to “father-daughter”.
Fathers cared about their daughters. Fathers chose school recitals over press conferences they weren’t required to be at. Fathers forgave their daughters for mistakes. Fathers didn’t lock their daughters in dark, damp towers because they were “embarrassing the family name.” Fathers cared more about their daughters than their image. No, my father had long given up the right to pretend we had a real relationship. It made it harder for him to get re-elected if his daughter was one of the people he was writing laws, curfews, and regulations to stop or at least manage.
“You’re barely 17, dear,” Dear? Where the hell do you get off calling me dear, Father DARLING, “Don’t waste your future chasing some adolescent dream and running around with people of such a lower standard. You’re better than this Gwyneth or I at least raised you to be better than this.” You didn’t raise me at all and those people of a “lower standard" care more about me than you ever have.
He was cold, calculating, and deadly and the only thing I had to thank him for was teaching me to be the same. Part of the reason he was so “disappointed” was that I was the only real opposition him and his government had faced in a long time, and that scared him. I don’t think he’d quite accepted the fact that he might have created his own demise.
“Now when you get back there’s a very nice young man I’d like you to meet by the name of Blake Hemsburg who comes from a very respectable family," I’m sure he’s a perfectly snobbish brute with a lovely pedigree. “I’ll have a dress brought up for you and we’ll host a banquet with—” at this point I tuned him out completely. Another favorite past time of my father’s was finding suitors from respectable families to introduce me to. I suppose his hope was that I’d fall madly in love with one of them and he’d show me the error of my ways, or some such nonsense.
There were still enough differences between the two of us for me to not be totally disgusted by myself though. I hadn’t reached the level of emotional numbness he had. I hadn’t quite reached the point where I would condemn my family (even him) to sit in a tower for about a week with nothing to do but count drops of water. Each trip to the tower brought me a little closer to total emotional apathy but I wasn’t to his point. Not quite.
Drip. One thousand-five. Counting the drops of water gradually flooding around me was the only thing I could do to fight away the hatred of my father. If I focused too much on that then hatred would become the only thing I thought about and the only emotion I would be able to feel. I wouldn’t become him. I couldn’t.
Drip. One thousand-six.
Drip. One thousand-seven. Sanity was always another issue at hand.
Drip. One thousand-eight. A drop came about every minute, falling into the cramped, moist depths of the tower. The drops kept time better and more effectively than a clock in terms of my lucidity. With a clock, I would be constantly watching the minutes drag by and the persistent itch for the time to change would be enough to drive me crazy by the 4th hour. The drops kept me mildly preoccupied and distracted me from my sanity slowly leaking from my brain and the hatred threatening to consume me.
Drip. One thousand-nine. It had been almost 17 hours so far.
Drip. One thousand-ten. Considering I was usually let out around 10,000 drops, my imprisonment had hardly even begun.
Drip. One thousand-eleven.
My head shot up in response to a noise disrupting the quiet that always rang supreme over my tower. It scared me, truth be told, to have something foreign disturb my place. It’s not that I enjoyed the tower, quite the contrary in fact, but there was something familiar about the cold stone and the continuous drip.
I pressed my ear against the door of the tower and strained my ears, willing the stone to carry the sound through. At first all I heard was a muffled chorus of low rumbles. They had a certain rhythm to them I recognized, a steady barrage followed by swift silences followed by… I listened harder and the stone revealed a parade of softer, slightly higher sounds arguing with the rumbles. No, they weren’t arguing, the rumbles were causing the softer sound which was emitted in the gaps between the barrages.
I shuffled as far as I could away from the door. The rumbles were painfully familiar now as they grew closer and louder. Those rumbles were attached to a deep green coat, a set of hard leather gloves that hurt more than almost anything, and a mind that had lost the ability to empathize. I crunched myself against the wall, quieting my mind and erasing my emotions as I melted into the stone. It was a trick I had learned when I was 14. If you make yourself less important to look at than the stone wall, they’ll see the wall before they see you, if they ever do. It was simple camouflage magic that merely distorted someone’s ability to perceive something.
The door slid open and Watcher Hicks appeared silhouetted in the light, holding with his tree trunk arms a boy of about 17 with his hands tied behind his back. Hicks’ yells barreled out of his mouth and the sound erupted through the tower, echoing horribly.
“You’re the muck even mules are too proud to walk on! You think they’ll give you a fair trial, rat? No, we’ve got too many rodents like you crawling around the streets to waste our time on one useless filthy thief. I bet you’re the one who’s been rallying the vermin in Old Town too!” here Hicks paused his barrage briefly to shove the boy from the hallway down into the tower. With his hands still tied behind his back, the boy fell the four foot drop onto the cold stone without being able to catch himself. He fell on his face and simply lay there, apparently numb from the pain as Hicks spit,
“Well boy, you won’t get off easily this time. I caught you, and I caught you right good. The judge’ll have your head for thievery, treason, kidnapping, murder, and whatever else I’m in the mood to stick the much esteemed “Thief of Ryden” with. I can tell you your reputation won’t do you any favors anymore, ‘specially not down here. Better get some sleep scum, before the pain really sets in,” Hicks cackled.
Whoever had tied the boy’s hands had been particularly cruel as they had tied them so tight his wrists were already raw from the rope being rubbed around them. He rolled onto his side and curled up slightly from the pain as Hicks continued,
“Let’s see you escape from this one then filth,” he spat down at the boy before sliding the stone door shut again. The light that had previously flooded the tower sprinted through the closing crack between the door and the wall and was extinguished as it slid shut, leaving us in total darkness. I stayed completely still and pressed even a little further into my wall to watch him intently.
He uncurled and winced as he did so before sliding painfully into a sitting position. He cracked his neck, rolled his shoulders back and stretched his arms as far as they would go since they were still tied before bringing them back to a relaxed position behind his back with a sigh. He took a quick glance around the tower, his eyes passing right over the spot of the wall I was melted into. Then, showing a surprising amount of energy considering the state he’d seemed to be in when he was thrown in here, he rolled onto his back, rocked backwards, and rolled forwards again to spring to his feet. He stood for a fraction of a second before groaning from some pain he hadn’t been expecting and collapsed back on the ground. I suppressed a laugh that would have given me away as he lay still for a moment before twitching a little on the ground. He had been caught completely off guard by what appeared to be a broken rib. He winced again, this time more painfully and sat up with a muttered,
The boy scooted to the wall right underneath the door and pushed himself against it and into a standing position. He stretched his right arm as straight as it would go and pointed it at the ground, beginning to shake and hop until a small pocket knife slid into the palm of his waiting left hand. He flicked the knife open, leaned against the wall, and sawed his way through the ropes binding his hands. The rope fell loose from his wrists and he brought them in front of him, rubbing the sore red skin delicately. It seemed this boy wasn’t as helpless as he had made it look to Hicks. He was clever, and therefore dangerous. Any minute now he was going to see me and then he’d have a weapon and I’d have a bit of explaining to do.
No, that simply wouldn’t do. I would start this on my own terms, amiable ones preferably. I stayed pressed against my wall until he flicked the knife closed and sank down to lean his head against the wall, setting the closed knife on the mossy ground next to him. I inched closer along the wall, using the mossy stones to cover my already nearly silent footsteps. He buried his face in his palms and rubbed his eyes and I took the opportunity to finish my trek around the tower. I silently scooped up the knife then leaned nonchalantly against the wall next to him with my arms crossed. He took his hands away from his face and tilted his head back against the wall.
“The moss down here does wonders for rope burns,” I said and he jumped at least a foot on the ground which launched him across the floor away from me. He flinched again as he landed on the side with the broken rib. The boy stared first at my casual pose, then my face, and finally to the small black knife I was tossing in the air and catching before swearing under his breath. He stared at me wide-eyed for a minute before blinking to make sure I wasn’t a hallucination, then leaned cautiously back against the wall.
“I’ll try that,” I couldn’t help but smile at his attempt to regain dignity.
“So who are you then?”
“I don’t see why I should tell you,” he replied coolly, “you caught me off guard, seems to me you’ve got the explaining to do,”
“Hardly,” I scoffed, “remember I was here first. You’ve just stumbled into my little…abode,”
“Which means you owe me the hospitality of being my host, doesn’t it?” he smirked at me, wiping the smile off my face. Dammit, now we were on his terms.
“Thing is though, which of us has the weapon in this situation?” I flicked open the knife as I said this and continued tossing it, mentally thanking my mentor for talking me into knife throwing lessons. Now it was his turn to lose the grin. He glared at me and flicked his eyes to the knife.
“James,” he muttered, keeping his eyes glued on the blade. I caught the knife and held it still, then looked at him and said,
“I’m Gwen,” I put on my most reassuring smile and flicked the knife closed. He glanced at it and for a moment I thought about giving it back to him as I remembered my plan to start this imprisonment on amiable terms. Well, threatening him into giving me his name didn’t exactly fit into that plan. Damn, I was bad at this “amiable terms” thing. Still, now that I had dug myself into this hole, now didn’t seem like the right time to give him the knife back considering he might just stab me here and now. I slid it into my pocket and crossed my arms over my chest.
We let several minutes of silence pass between us during which we really sized each other up. He was well built and fairly muscular, if a little lean, but since his clothes hinted he was from Old Town I credited this to poor nutrition. Still, in a fight dependant on strength he would easily win. He obviously could handle a knife with some proficiency and if he really was the Thief or Ryden that added lock picking, hand-to-hand combat, agility, speed, and stealth to his range of abilities. He was dreadfully clever and seemed to have quite the way with words, which made him charismatic and dangerous, although to what degree I couldn’t be sure yet. Dangerous seemed to be the perfect word to describe him overall.
“It’s a bit odd; them putting two prisoners in what’s supposed to be a solitary confinement cell,” it was James that broke the silence. I considered his analysis for a moment before replying,
“I think they just forgot I was in here, they sometimes do that,”
“Not the first time you’ve been here then I take it,” he asked simply in a voice that said “Not that I really care though. Honestly I’m just making conversation.” He was trying to play it cool. Made sense considering I was the one with the knife.
“How do they sometimes forget you’re here?”
“Well you’re the first time they’ve slipped up badly enough to give me a roommate, but it’s not uncommon for them to forget to feed me,” I replied matter of factly. I expected my straight forwardness to catch him off guard but apparently he was already used to the Watchers’ cruelty.
“How often is food supposed to come?”
“About every other night.”
“Good,” he said simply. We sat in silence for a moment since I figured this didn’t need a response.
“Ok listen Gwen, I’m in pain, I’m tired, and quite honestly, I’m a little offended that such shoddy security is being applied the night before I’m supposed to go before a judge and ‘pay for the crimes I’ve committed against society’,” he spoke as if he’d memorized the speech Hicks had been giving him on the way here and I remembered something Hicks had said,
“Let’s see you escape from this one.”
"This one". James had probably been in and out of countless cells and had likely gotten a very similar speech from every watcher who had ever brought him in. It was funny he should talk about escape so casually when Hicks’ words were actually applicable to this tower. I didn’t care how handy of a lock pick James was, there was no way out once you were in unless someone from outside came and got you.
“And I’d really like to sleep for a bit seeing as apparently this is the last night I’ll get the chance to do that."
"And I’d like to know you won’t kill me,” I laughed at this, I couldn’t help it. He was trying to pull me down to his level, to see how much sympathy he could weasel out of me.
How very clever you seem to be turning out to be James
“I’m not here for killing someone,” I reassured him.
"So is that a 'No James, I won't stab you in your sleep'?"
I simply raised my eyebrows at him in response.
"I'm just asking because it's come up in the past,"
"Spent a lot of time with murderers?"
"I've found I usually have a better chance if I ask them not to kill me instead of just assuming."
"I don't plan on killing you,"
"Thank-you, that's very considerate," I almost smiled at this. He didn't seem to be a threat, but he was also trying to give that impression.
"I am planning to keep the knife though, if it's all the same to you," His smile faltered for a fraction of a second.
“Go right ahead,” he replied quickly as he replaced the smile and we settled back into silence.
“Watcher Hicks seems to like you,” he glanced at me sideways and laughed. It came out easily and freely and he didn’t try to magnify or hinder it; he simply let it come out naturally. It was nothing like the forced chuckles uttered at bad jokes I was used to.
“Oh yeah, we go way back,” his laugh changed after saying this and became short and cold.
“He’s such a lovely person isn’t he?”
“Better than Thatch,” James replied bitterly.
“That’s not exactly a high bar,” I joked and he smiled and responded with another natural laugh.
“No, I suppose not,” his laugh was infectious and I snickered a little with him before I could stop myself.
He yawned loudly and shuddered a little as the expanding of his lungs pressed against the broken rib. He squinted his eyes shut for a second before telling me in a shaky voice,
“Well, now that I have your word, I think I will get some sleep, if it’s all the same to you,” he teased, using the same line I had used earlier. I smirked.
“Go right ahead. Seriously though James,” it felt odd to say his name but I figured since I knew it I might as well use it. Maybe it would make him trust me, “The moss honestly does do wonders for rope burns.” Normally I would have just let him suffer through the pain as it would have made him a slightly easier foe to defeat if it came to that, but I was committed to getting on good terms with him.
“Really really,” I assured him as I scraped some off the wall between us. I crushed it between my fingers and stooped down to rub it onto his raw wrists. He let out a small sigh as the cooling effects of the plant soothed the burning pain.
“You’re sure this won’t ‘accidentally’ kill me?” he laughed as he watched me rub the goo into his wrists.
“You’re really set on this idea of me being a murderer aren’t you?”
“Just…trying to figure you out,” he smiled up at me and I plastered on a smile as I said,
“Honestly James if I was going to kill you I would have done it by now,” I kept smiling but he dropped his for a moment, trying to decide if I was kidding or not.
“Maybe you were just too overwhelmed by my dashing good looks,” his smile took on a dazzling quality as if he was trying to prove his point further.
“Sure kid, you keep telling yourself that,” I rolled my eyes as I finished with the moss then stood back up and crossed to the other side of the tower.
“Goodnight Gwen,” he smiled. He seemed to do an awful lot of smiling considering the situation he was in, “When I escape tomorrow and I’d be happy to bring you with me, if you’re willing,”
“Goodnight James.” I replied and watched him lie down and promptly pass out, completely exhausted from his injuries. I waited for about half an hour before I lay down and closed my eyes; prepared for an uneasy night.
The following morning was hot and humid and the shoots of sunlight streaming through a few cracks in the wall and the single window woke me up. I bolted upright to look across the 10 foot tower to check that James was still there, asleep as he had been all night. I rubbed my eyes and leaned back against the wall of the tower and took in a deep breath, savoring the smell of the morning. I hadn’t slept much all night since I had woken up every two hours to make sure he stayed asleep.
Seeing him in the light for the first time, I could see where his comment about his dashing good looks might have been based. He had chestnut hair that fell slightly across his face and a square jaw with somewhat elfish features. The sunlight trickled onto his well toned muscles and seemed to almost make his skin glow gold with the morning sun. He was certainly handsome to say the least.
Drip. One thousand…shit.
“Dammit James,” I swore quietly under my breath so as not to wake him up even though the bastard had made me lose count. Now I’d have no idea how long we’d been in here or how long until we got out.
Despite my efforts however, at the sound of his name, James stirred. He groaned a little as the sunlight hit his now partially conscious mind and he rolled over onto his back. He rubbed his eyes with his hands before he sat up, leaned forward, and covered his eyes with his palms. He took in a deep breath and pulled his hands away and blinked several times in the bright tower. He frowned and squinted around the tower, observing the thick stone walls and 25 foot roof before his eyes found me. He smiled and cleared his throat.
“Good morning,” he mumbled, still groggy from his body’s heavy recovery sleep.
“Good morning James,” I raised my eyebrows and smirked at him. He smiled back and in the light it was as charming as ever.
Charming as ever Gwen?
Right, not charming. Charm was dangerous.
He rolled his shoulders back, cracked his neck, and stretched his arms into the air, trying to work out the soreness Hicks’ beating must have caused. He hit a certain point in his stretch however where his broken rib must have been affected and he grunted and slumped down, clutching his rib cage.
“Just bruised,” he replied through gritted teeth. He breathed heavily for a few seconds before releasing his rib cage and leaning against the wall behind him, his pain apparently handled for then. He stood up shakily and walked toward the side of the tower that the window was positioned in. James looked up at the window and began counting the number of stones beneath it under his breath. He stopped counting at 16 and turned around to look at me.
“So, how does that escape proposal sound now that you’ve had some time to think it over?” I frowned.
“Do you have any idea how many times I’ve been stuck in this tower trying to figure a way out? There isn’t one. There’s no way you can get us out of here, ‘Thief of Ryden’ or not,” I scoffed at him. He blushed briefly.
“You don’t think I live up to my name?” my frown merely deepened but he simply laughed at my frustration.
“No, not at the moment,”
There wasn’t a way out. I’d tried climbing up the smooth sides of the tower until I fell and hit the ground so many times I passed out. And then when I came to, I tried again. I had hit the door with every spell I could muster the strength for. I had yelled and screamed for help from outside until I lost my voice. I had desperately stroked and pushed every stone I could reach for some fleeting hope of a secret passageway out of this hell. And when none of it worked, I tried again… and again… and again. There wasn’t a way out. There just couldn’t be.
He surveyed my frown carefully before turning around, reaching up to the 14th stone from the ground, which was about 7 feet up, and pushed it lightly in and to the left with his palm. The stone rumbled for a minute and then the sound of bolts sliding back and stone shifting echoed quietly through the hot summer silence. The stones underneath the one he had pressed began rumbling around and the rumble passed around the room in a wave, passing from one stone to the next until it reached the stones underneath the door. They began shifting in place and moved aside and to reveal a small doorway into a passage big enough to crawl through.
I felt my mouth drop open slightly as the very thing I’d been dreaming of for so many years materialized. It was real. There was a way out.
James looked over at me and grinned at my shock although he was likely half grinning at the fact that he’d successfully “lived up to his name”. Cheeky bastard.
“Care to join me Gwen?” it was all he could do to keep from laughing at me. Of course I “cared to join him”, that wasn’t exactly the problem. If I did this, left with him and escaped the tower there would be no going back. I would almost certainly be cut off from my tutor, which would be awful. I would be banned from going to school or working at the flower shop, which I would hate. I probably would be disowned by my father, which I actually wouldn’t mind so much were it not for the rebels.
They would lose their mole and I’d be just another fugitive escaping from the city. I couldn’t do that, it would jeopardize too many people I’d worked with and talked to. They were in too deep and if I disappeared, they would be questioned and put on trial. Putting my life at risk and possibly destroying it was one thing, but I didn’t have the right to decide for someone else.
On the other hand though, the camouflage charm only worked about half the time in the daylight. And when it was discovered that I was here and James was gone, the repercussions of his escape and the fact he’d been there at all would fall on me. The consequences would be nearly as severe as if I did escape with him.
I tore my eyes away from the opening to look at him. “I’m in.”
I would lie; I was certainly good enough at it to convince my father of my story. I’d tell him the guards had gotten an unexpected telegram from his office instructing them to let me out immediately. He’d storm to the prison and demand an explanation but the guards wouldn’t know what to say because obviously if they told him I’d escaped, the repercussions would fall on them. They’d say that yes, they’d received the telegram and my father would spend the entire day running about town trying to find out where the faulty message was from only to return home, hours later, exhausted, upset, and confused because the phantom telegram was never found. It’s the guard’s policy to burn every telegram they receive after completing the order for security reasons so there wouldn’t even be the need to create a fake telegram and have it planted. That’s what I would do. Lie my way to freedom.
“Well then shall we?” he gestured towards the opening, his smile broadening even more. If he kept smiling that much his face was likely going to split, “Ladies first,”
I stood up and crossed to the opening, and stared into the dark passage in front of me.
“Have you taken this before?”
“This’ll be my third time,”
“And it doesn’t open into a Watcher station, or a lake or something?”
“Not even close,”
“If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t make you go first,” he assured me.
“Aren’t you just such a gentleman?”
“It’s a little unheard of actually,” he smirked and I glanced around the tower one last time. I looked at the smooth walls, the tiny window you could barely see the blue sky through, and the green moss covering the entire bottom half of the tower.
“Going to miss it?” James asked, observing my last gazes around it. This was where I’d first been tortured. This was where most memories of my father’s cruelty and coldness were grounded. This was the reason I was helping the rebels. All because of this stupid, horrible tower.
“No,” I patted my pocket to check that the knife was still there and ducked into the tunnel. It was surprisingly dry and the stones held no sign of moss or mildew.
I started crawling forward on my hands and knees and I heard James join me in the passage after about a minute as the door resealed itself. I glanced back and a laugh escaped me as I saw how tight a fit he was in the tunnel. He had to crawl through it, pulling himself along using only his elbows. His wide shoulders were crammed into the space with only about an inch wide gap on either side of him. Upon hearing my laugh James glanced up at me and gave me a brilliant smile.
“Bit of a tight fit,” he grunted as he continued shifting forwards.
“Just a bit?” I fought to control my laughter but his attempts to keep a straight face as he crawled forward kept me from doing so, “you can barely even fit!”
“Ah but I barely can so that’s the important part. Doesn’t seem like you’re having too much trouble up there,”
“No, comparatively I’m quite comfortable thank you,” I snickered at him, managing to hold it in as I faced forward.
“How tall are you anyway?”
“5 feet 6 inches,”
“Are you serious?!” James’ laugh filled up the whole tunnel and rang around the two of us.
“Oh shut up!” I pretended to be embarrassed and sped up my talking to make it seem as though I was flustered, “It’s not that bad and besides, it comes in very handy in situations like this where giants like you have to shuffle through like a worm,”
“I’m hardly a giant!” he scoffed in mock offense.
“Oh really? And how tall are you?”
“Well I hardly see how that’s relevant to whether I classify as a giant or not,” he answered and I was sure if I looked back I would see him blushing.
“You’re hardly helping your case back there, James,”
“6 feet 1 inch,” he sighed behind me.
“Well that’s,” I paused, and stifled a laugh, “respectable,”
“I’m not quite a giant,”
“No, not quite,” I replied, pretending to shake with silent laughter, “but you’re still entirely too big for this tunnel,” I broke and laughed out loud at him.
“Fair enough,” I glanced back at him and he smiled as he said this. We continued on after this in a comfortable silence broken slowly by our increasingly choppy breathing.
“How long is this thing?” I huffed, and slowed my crawling pace a bit to relieve my lungs.
“It goes underneath the full main hallway of the prison before leading across the square and opening into the cellar of the Candlestick.” It was a bit of a winding root to take from the prison but since it had gotten us out of the tower, I wasn’t in any position to complain.
“Fancy a break?” he huffed behind me, also out of breath.
“I could stand one,” I replied and leaned against the wall. He sat up and positioned himself diagonally so that his legs ran down back the way we had come and his head was able to rest against the wall behind him.
“Where are we now?” I asked.
“Almost to the front gate I’d say,”
“About what, two more hours?” I speculated.
“Two and a half I’d say.” He replied as our breathing slowly began to return to normal. Once we were decently rested, we pressed on into the darkness.
“So Gwen,” he called from behind me about an hour later.
“What’re you planning to do with your new found freedom?”
“Go home probably,” I replied. It wasn’t a complete lie and the less lies I had to keep track of the better.
“Your family should be excited to see you,” he replied offhandedly. I had to hold back a laugh. Oh James, if only you knew.
“Probably? Don’t they know where you are?”
“That’s not exactly the problem.” My life was always easier when my father didn’t know where I was every second of the day. Usually the week after I was released from the tower I was on a strict parole. I had two Watchers that followed me everywhere, making sure I was where I was supposed to be at all times. After that week, the surveillance eased up but I still had to be careful because there were always ears listening, always eyes watching. I had to ensure an area was safe before I ever spoke openly about anything. Working at the shop or being downtown were the only places I ever felt at ease because he couldn’t have surveillance there.
“What is the problem then?”
“My father is,” I stopped, trying to figure out what to tell James about my father, “over protective.”
“I feel like that’s a given for any father about his daughter,” James replied, trying to keep the edge of curiosity out of his voice.
“He’s…a little different than most fathers about it though,” I said carefully.
“It’s…hard to explain,” I muttered then changed the subject hastily, “What about you? What will you do when we get out?”
“Food definitely,” he replied.
“Food?” his answer caught me off guard as I had expected something a little more exciting from The Thief of Ryden.
“I’m starving,” he laughed,
“When’d you last eat?”
“A few minutes before Hicks caught up with me,”
“Are you serious?” I scoffed at him. That was hardly 12 hours ago. I’d understand being hungry, but people who had become accustomed to hunger wouldn’t have been so affected by only 12 hours.
“Am I not allowed to be hungry?”
“You’re not allowed to complain after only 12 hours,” James laughed at this and it echoed around the two of us and bounced off the walls before darting into the darkness ahead of and behind us.
“Well fine, I’ll keep my hunger to myself then.” As if his stomach had been waiting for just this cue it rumbled and James laughed, “I can’t make any promises about my stomach though,”
“And after you ‘procure’ some food?” I asked.
“Not sure. I’ll likely cause some sort of havoc, go to the market, visit some girls, whatever strikes me,” I rolled my eyes at his last suggestion.
“Do you do the same few things every time you’re sent to prison?” I asked automatically, my conversational teachings kicking in. I flinched as I realized how nosey and intrusive the question sounded. It was dangerous to ask such pointed questions as it made it seem like I was trying to get answers out of him. He seemed a bit taken aback by the question as his tone shifted from casual to defensive.
“Depends on what I was caught doing,” he replied shortly. I wanted to take back the question or at least explain myself so that he didn’t need to be on guard.
“Sorry I didn’t meant to be…I mean I didn’t mean to sound,” I tripped over my words, and the shock of doing so made me stumble over myself even more. I never tripped over my words. It was careless, sloppy, and embarrassing; not to mention that it made it nearly impossible to control your face and your emotions once it started. “I was just trying to make conversation not,” I trailed off here, giving up since the more I talked the more I bumbled through my words. To my relief James just laughed.
“Calm down, its fine,” I kept my gaze trained towards the tunnel in front of me, refusing to let myself glance back at him since I was blushing severely.
“And in answer to your question, if I’m caught stealing food or something then I’ll wait a bit before heading to the market again. If I don’t wait there are always the added security measures by the Watchers and the shopkeepers to deal with. They make my job that much harder,” I scoffed at his use of the word “job” but he ignored my snide laugh as he just pressed on,
“These days though, I’m lucky to get back into the markets two weeks after I’m caught. What with all the new restrictions and curfews they’re putting on everything. It didn’t used to be so bad. I could pop from one market I had been caught at to another that wasn’t expecting trouble and still get what they needed,”
“They?” James had struck me as the type of person who understood that it was every man for himself, and this suggestion that he was stealing to benefit someone besides himself struck me as odd.
“Just some people in Old Town,” he replied hastily trying to cover up the slip. The way he covered it up wasn’t as though he was hiding some sort of crime deal though. It made me think I might have actually stumbled on something real and personal to him.
“So you used to jump from venue to venue until,” I prompted, trying to get away from the moment as fast as possible. It was easier to stay detached from James if I didn’t remember he was a person with feelings and friends.
“Until the Curfew and Citywide Market Regulations went into effect,” he quickly picked up the cue and continued as if nothing had happened.
“After those, I’m lucky to get into a tiny bazaar in the edge of town after a week,” I knew exactly what he meant. All the markets had to follow strict guidelines about criminals. None of them could trade with anyone who had been arrested for three weeks even if the arrested person was later proven innocent or had been arrested for a minor offense. The law was supposed to keep criminals away from the public, but it only gave Watchers more power since anyone they felt like arresting was then restricted under it.
The Curfew made it so that all the shops closed by a certain time since all civilians had to be in their homes by 9 and all shop keepers by 9:30. There were no exceptions unless one was headed to a city sanctioned gathering and had the documentation to prove it.
“Where do you plan to get food then?” That was another goal of the Criminal Claus of the Market Regulations Bill: to starve the criminals. If they couldn’t get to a market to buy food and didn’t have anywhere to go, they would starve and the city’s crime rate would decrease. It was a brutal and cruel plan.
“There’s still a place Downtown that’ll bend the rules for me. There’s a girl named Shannon, she’s the shopkeeper’s daughter. She’ll do just about anything I ask her to,” he replied in a suave voice that made me want to gag.
“Lucky you,” I answered in a snarky voice.
“Jealous up there Gwen?”
“Hardly,” I scoffed.
“Because you sound jealous,” he taunted.
“Seeing as I’ve known you for less than 12 hours James, I honestly could not care less what bimbo girls you see and how often you get laid,” I replied coldly. He laughed at my argument.
“Maybe you’re a ‘love at first sight’ kind of girl,”
“Just because the girls you’re used to dealing with are-”
“As lovely a comment as you were about to make about the moral character of the girls I acquaint myself with, there’s our exit,” I was distracted from the outburst of anger that had formed at James’ interruption and I stopped for a minute and squinted to see the tiny square of light at the far end of our tunnel. I couldn’t help but beam. It was all so surreal. I blinked a few times, trying to make my brain decide whether this was real or not.
“Are we going to escape or are you going to just freeze up 200 feet from freedom?” James’ voice brought me back to reality and I looked back at him, smiling like a lunatic.
“Sorry,” I replied as I began moving again. James chuckled softly before continuing to crawl after me. We both started moving twice as fast as we had been now that we could see our goal and we were there within minutes.
The square of light I had seen turned out to be the light shining in around the doors that opened into the cellar of the Candlestick. I pushed against the doors, ready to breathe in the sweet scent of freedom only to have my world come crashing down instead. The doors wouldn’t budge. My hands began shaking and it soon passed throughout my entire body until I was shaking all over. This couldn’t be happening. Not now. I pushed harder and was about to throw my whole weight into the doors when James caught me.
“Hold on there,” his touch instantly calmed my shivering and my body relaxed and took a breath. I let my body and muscles go slack as the surprise of what had just happened hit me. With just a touch he had calmed me down…who the hell was this guy? He loosened his grip on my forearms but didn’t let go, still apparently nervous I might do something reckless. “They probably just put a barrel or a crate or something in front of it. We’ll get out, don’t worry,” his reassurance calmed the fiery anger that was threatening to course through me. I took another deep breath.
“Ok,” I said and nodded at him.
This response seemed to be enough for him to be reassured that I wasn’t going to hurt myself since he gently released me. I slumped against the wall and looked at him in despair. He wormed his way past me, an experience made slightly awkward by the close quarters but we were eventually successfully rearranged so that he was closer to the door than I was. He placed his palms on the wood, took a short breath in, and then pushed swiftly as hard as he could. As with my attempt nothing happened, which caused me to start shaking like a leaf again.
“Move back a little,” he grinned back at me, apparently not at all fazed by his failed attempt to free us. I obeyed and shifted back a little to give him more room.
He leaned back on his elbows and propped his legs in the air then delivered a deafening kick to the doors. The heavy object behind them seemed to shift a little as they splintered outwards. He smiled back at me.
“See I told you there was nothing to worry about.” He kicked again and this time the doors splintered even more, pushing the object even further away.
“One more oughta do it,” he grunted as he delivered the final kick to the cellar doors and they burst open, shoving the barrel of apples that had been holding them shut toppling over. He clambered out through the doorway and stood up outside the tunnel. He stretched his arms over his head, but stopped right before it would have started hurting his rib. I climbed out after him and stood up, thankful to be out of the cramped passageway.
I looked around the room we had broken into. It was almost a square except it had a rectangular indent where a door lead upstairs. There were crates full of vegetables and at least three other barrels of apples around the room. Various kegs of different ales lined the wall next to the door and the entire place stank of stale beer and sweat. The floor was made of dirt and the walls were crude stone that helped keep the underground cellar and its goods cool.
“Charming place,” I said sarcastically. He glanced over at me and smirked.
“You’re not exactly in any place to be complaining, considering where we just came from,”
“Alright fine, fair enough. How exactly are we going to cover that?” I asked, gesturing towards the busted doors that now hung slightly askew from the bashing they had received.
James stepped next to me to examine the doors a little closer. Now that we were standing next to each other, my assessment of “giant” actually didn’t seem too far off. I got the feeling he was understating his height as the guy who stood next to me in the cellar was at least 6 foot 2, if not taller. Maybe it was just the James standing next to me was so much bigger than the one I had seen in the cramped tunnel or sitting down in the dark tower. Either way, he was still a lot bigger and stronger than I was and I was very glad I had the knife on me. I patted my pocket again to ensure it was still there.
“Oh that’s easy,” James beamed at me as he strode over to wrestle the doors shut. One still hung slightly crooked and I frowned at it. Glancing over and noticing the frown, James looked back and spotted the crooked door. He heaved the heavy barrel of apples upright and slid it over to the door. He plunked it down slightly off center so that it would completely cover the door that didn’t look right. He scooped up half the apples that had fallen on the ground and dumped them back into the barrel before pulling a burlap sack out of his sleeve and rolling the other apples into it.
“Jeez, what don’t you have up your sleeve,” I scoffed at him as I stooped to the floor to help scoop up apples and drop them into the sack.
“Oh any number of things,” James replied. “The key to your heart namely,” he grinned at me.
“Oh, I’m so sorry for not falling all over you. I’ll get right on that,” I replied sarcastically.
“Careful now Gwen, you might hurt my feelings,” he put on a fake sad puppy dog face for a moment before I threw the apple I was holding at his head. He ducked expertly and the apple soared right over his obnoxious big head. He stood back up and smiled at me.
“Now is that any way to treat the man who just broke you out of prison?”
“Shut up. We’re not free yet,” I reminded him and his smile faded as he was reminded of where we were. It was a strange thing to see James’ face actually serious since I had spent roughly the last 12 hours with a face that had been almost constantly snickering or smiling as though he thought he was the best thing since the wheel. “What do we need to do?”
“We need to get as far away from here as possible then lose whatever watchers we might pick up from walking out of a pub we never entered.,” he informed me and he crept towards the door that lead up to the rest of the pub. I strained my ears and listened to the quiet sounds of the pub keeper tidying up before they opened since it was still early afternoon. He pressed his eye against the crack in the keyhole and asked abruptly,
“What day of the week is it?” I thought for a moment. The riot had been on the day the new work restrictions bill was passed which was Wednesday. I had been sent to the tower on Thursday.
“Perfect,” he smiled and pulled his head away from the keyhole.
“What’s the plan?”
“We wait,” he replied triumphantly and sank down behind the wall that separated the staircase from the cellar. He stretched his arms back behind his head, leaned against the wall, and closed his eyes.
“We wait,” I echoed, unconvinced this was the best the famous Thief of Ryden’s mind could come up with. He apparently heard the dismay in my voice as he opened his eyes and looked over at me.
“Sorry Blondie, not all my plans are flashy and exciting.” I scowled at the nickname he had just given me.
He had a point though. I had just spent an extended period of time with him and I still had this odd idea that he was some sort of daring hero, stealing from the guards and leaping from rooftop to rooftop, always doing something daring and thrilling. I sighed and crossed the room to sit down next to him, accepting defeat. I crossed my arms over my bent knees and dropped my head into them, closing my eyes and trying to absorb everything that had happened in the last 12 hours.
Exhausted and overwhelmed, I drifted into an uneasy sleep filled with angry Watchers, stingy politicians, and handsome rescuers turning up around every corner.
We were woken up suddenly as a noise came from the staircase behind us. My head shot up out of my arms as the door to the cellar banged open and light from upstairs poured into the room. I frantically glanced over at James, who looked at me and put a finger to his lips telling me to stay silent. I glared at him and made a face that clearly said, “Well DUH,” before my body went rigid as the pub keeper walked further into the cellar with her back towards us.
She was in her mid-forty’s with frizzy red hair tied in a bun and wrapped in a headscarf. She wore a plain blue dress with more stains than I could count and a dirty apron that I was fairly confident used to be white. She was rather plump and her back was slightly bent from years of hard work. She shuffled around the cellar dropping various fruits and vegetables into a small crate she carried with her.
My brain began furiously working out a solution to keep us from being discovered and I saw James’ eyes darting around the cellar apparently trying to do the same. The only solution I could think of was the simple camouflage charm I had used back in the tower. The only problem was that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cast it on two people well enough to fool the pub keeper while she collected whatever she needed. I glanced at James, hoping he’d come up with something but from the look of clear panic on his face, he hadn’t thought of any options at all. Any chance of staying hidden was better than no chance at all.
I focused my mind on the charm, on the feeling of being alone and invisible. I focused on feeling like I was there, but wasn’t important enough to look at or acknowledge. It wasn’t difficult. I was painfully familiar with that feeling. I clamped my hand over James’ mouth and we melted into the wall right as the woman turned around. I stared at James, trying desperately to convey what I was trying to tell him through my eyes. He looked into them and somehow seemed to understand what I was trying to get him to do as he stopped fidgeting and pressed his head into the wall, closing his eyes and, I prayed to the gods, quieting his emotions.
The woman shuffled towards us and gathered what she needed from the boxes and crates in our alcove. She shifted her crate to rest on her hip as it had become increasingly heavy with the extra fruits and vegetables and I silently cursed her for taking so long. She stooped down to pull seven bottles of some ale out of the crate right next to me but paused while reaching for the fifth one to stare at the spot on the wall where James and I sat hidden. Her expression changed from one concentrated on work to one of complete bewilderment. I breathed out silently and closed my eyes, letting the feeling of nothingness course through me until I heard her retrieve the last two bottles and patter through the door and up the old stairs.
I opened my eyes and let my palm drop from James’ mouth. I heard the woman begin unloading her crate upstairs and I let out a sigh of relief. A choked moan came from next to me and I looked over to find James staring at some spot on the opposite wall. He was frowning slightly and his eyes were staring at the wall but it was as if he wasn’t seeing it at all.
“Wha-” he tried to sputter but apparently couldn’t muster the energy to finish because he fell back into a shocked silence. His frown deepened and he began gently rubbing his left arm with his right hand, as if he was trying to make sure he was still there. His eyes remained glued to some invisible point on the wall. It was as if he was trying to find the point on the wall, but needed confirmation that the wall existed first.
“James?” I reached out and put my hand on his shoulder. He jumped violently, as if he had been jolted out of a trance and began breathing harshly and shaking as he looked over at me.
“Wha…what was that,” he breathed, and he almost seemed amazed that his voice produced sound. He seemed even more shocked when I responded to it as if he hadn’t expected anyone to hear him.
“It was a just a camouflage charm,” I replied and I scooted closer to him and began gently rubbing his shoulder, trying to soothe his emotions back into existence. The contact seemed to calm him down a little as he was almost able to form several sentences when he spoke next.
“What… that feeling,” he looked into my eyes as if they held the answer to everything. “I felt like everything could know I was there, but no one did. Or that everyone knew I existed but no one cared. I…I wasn’t important enough to look at, to touch, even to acknowledge. No one-” he stuttered through these few sentences before the words and the emotions he was trying to explain overwhelmed him.
“I’m so sorry James, that’s how the charm works. I guess I’m just…used to the feeling now, I sort of grew up with it but,” I trailed off, trying to describe what the charm required to work but I was unsure of just how much he could comprehend. I continued in a clear voice, putting a small space between each sentence to give him time to understand it. “It needs that feeling to work. It needs you to feel that feeling so strongly that you actually put it into other people’s minds, until they actually do forget you’re there. I think I gave the charm the final burst that was transferred to you when I thought she saw us” I continued gently rubbing his shoulder with my hand as I explained it, desperately hoping to coax him back to the real world. Thankfully, he seemed to be recovering fast as his next words were actually in response to what I had said.
“You grew up feeling that way?” he breathed the words at me as if he barely believed what he was saying. It was as if he was trying to comprehend how someone could live through that experience.
“Well, not all the time,”
“But you felt that way enough so that the charm doesn’t affect you anymore?” his voice was full of concern and the rhythm of his speaking was becoming more regular and natural. I could see the life flooding back into his eyes as his face was able to reflect the concern his voice held.
“You can get used to anything if the feeling is gradual and constant,” I stuttered, trying to find refuge from the emotions flooding into me in the textbook knowledge I had stored away. His utterly horrified expression at what I had considered part of everyday life shocked me and all the emotions I had suppressed over the years from this treatment threatened to spill over my wall.
“No one should have to get used to that, Gwen,” he replied and pulled me into a warm hug. It felt right, being swept up into him and I wrapped my arms around him, breathing in his distinctive scent. He was like the outside; crisp and clean like the wind and warm like a sunny day. He smelled like the rain, and the grass and trees in Crystal Street Park. He smelled faintly of the smoke and ash the fireplaces billowed out every night, and the cool night air buzzing with life from the city. He smelled like Ryden.
I reluctantly pulled out of his arms and gave him a grateful smile. He searched my eyes with his own as if trying to decide if I was really ready to let go and be on my own outside his arms. I quickly cast my eyes to the ground away from his searchlight gaze because I knew what answer they would tell him loud and clear: that I was not even close to ready to be on my own.
But needing to be ready and actually being ready were two different things in this case, and right then I needed to be ready. I had spent most of my life doing what I needed to do instead of what I probably should have done so convincing him that I was better than I actually was wasn’t hard.
“You’re too tough for your own good,” he concluded as he leaned back against the wall. I kept my face as emotionless as I could but I felt a slight heat glow in my cheeks for a moment.
“Not really,” I replied defensively.
“No one should have to get used to that feeling Gwen. The fact that you are shows how rock hard your emotions are. It’s not…healthy to keep everything so locked up and channel it like that. I mean it’s damn impressive but definitely not healthy.” My cheeks burned even brighter at this comment. I gave him a tiny half-smile and cast my eyes to the ground.
“What time do you think it is?” I asked, hastily changing the subject. James sat still for a minute so that he could listen to the sounds coming from upstairs. A few bouts of laughter and the constant buzz of talking hummed through the boards above us. A few loud and out of key notes suddenly burst through the rest of the noise as someone warmed up to play a piano. The melody started as a playful and loud tune that jumped from one note to the next like a jackrabbit.
“About 5 or 6 I’d say,” he replied. We had slept for about 4 hours in the cellar and I was more than ready to get away from the damp, cramped spaces of underground. I thought back to my previous experiences in the tower and quickly converted drop numbers to hours.
“They’re going to be checking on us to give us dinner in either one hour or two,”
“Well which is it? Because that changes the plan considerately if we only have an hour,” he shot the question at me like a dagger.
“Well is it 5 or 6?”
“I’m not sure,” he sounded panicked now that he realized we might only have an hour to really lose our captors, and I must admit my heart rate increased as it dawned on me I might have to be home in an hour. It took at least that simply to get from there to downtown.
“We need to leave James,” he nodded absent-mindedly as he rubbed his temples, trying to think. “We need to leave NOW.” I stood up and crossed to the door of the cellar that lead to the staircase and stooped down to peer through the keyhole. The coast was clear so I reached for the doorknob and pulled it open. I glanced up the staircase again to make sure there wasn’t anyone coming before turning around to tell James that it was now or never, only to find that he was already right behind me. I looked up into his face and he nodded towards the stairs. I pressed open the door barely enough to squeeze through and crept up the stairwell.
The stairs opened behind the bar and I peered around the edge of the railing to glance around the pub. There was an open backdoor behind some very large barrels of beer positioned behind the bar. The pub keeper was leaning against the counter of the bar and vividly telling a story to one of the patrons.
I glanced back at James who had joined me on the stairs and nodded towards the door. He glanced at it then responded with a nod towards the rest of the patrons who were drunkenly singing along with the jackrabbit song the man playing the piano was pounding out. He was about to go for the door when I caught his arm and pointed to the bar where the man the pub keeper was telling the story to could easily spot us if we made a break for the door. We leaned around the rail again to look at the man and we heard some of the story she was so animatedly telling him.
“Ghosts I tell ye! As true as I’m standing here now! Two of ‘em ye see! I think they were the spirits of two youngins who died try’n to escape from the prison. They looked half scared to death of me when I laid ma eyes on ‘em, heavens me, they were scared of me. Try me bein’ scared of them!”
“Whadja do Berlina?” the man slurred his words together in a way that suggested he was barely sober enough to be awake. I glanced at James and raised my eyebrows to suggest that we might be in luck. If this man could barely stay awake, it was highly unlikely he was going to notice us. James studied the man for a moment then shook his head at me and mouthed, “Wait.”
“Well, I didn’t want to scare the poor souls or put ‘em through any more trouble then they’d already gone through so I just kept on with my business and sure enough, they disappeared again! It was the strangest- oh Gerard!” Berlina’s story was interrupted by the drunk man’s head falling into the counter with a loud THUD as he lost consciousness.
I peered around the corner again to see Berlina wiping up the man’s spilt drink and trying to wake him to send him home. It seemed James knew his drunkards pretty well. Berlina was sufficiently distracted tending to the drunk man and I took the chance to creep out of the stairwell and out the door.
I slipped outside into the fading warmth of the summer day as the sunset lit the city up in hues of orange and yellow. James slid through the door and we stood on the street side by side just breathing in the sweet smell of freedom. The clock tower in the center of town began chiming and we both froze to focus on counting the number of chimes that rang out to mark the hour. Six.
“We need to move,” James said, his tone was panicked and urgent. Our eyes met and I nodded at him. He took off down the street and I followed close behind, figuring he was my best chance to get out of this whole thing alive. He jumped over fences and took sudden turns down dark alleys but the adrenalin pumping through me kept me right behind him.
Suddenly, he leaped up a ladder and I heaved myself after him and let my arms and legs do the work of climbing automatically. We burst onto the roof of some building near Downtown and I found myself sprinting after him across rooftops leaping from ledge to ledge. The city flowed out in front of me as a magnificent ocean of endless roofs dipping up and down. The smoke billowed up from individual fires being started all around the city as people got home and started dinner. We turned and dashed into the sunset, and I kept my gaze focused on the dark form of his back cutting through the blinding glare. The only benefit I could see to this was that anyone following us would surely lose sight of us as we ran into the glare of the setting sun.
We ran for another five blocks or so along the roofs when he stopped suddenly on the edge of one, turning around just in time to swing out his arm to catch me as I was about to leap to the next building.
“Whoa there Blondie,” he laughed as he pulled me into his arms away from the edge. He knocked a bit of the air out of me as my legs momentarily swung out across the edge as my momentum wanted to fling the rest of me off too.
The shock of the lack of movement after running for so long hit me and I felt my legs turn to jelly. I grabbed onto his arms even though he was still holding me as I felt my legs failing. I lost my strength, but he tightened his grip and kept me from toppling over the edge of the four story building. I found my footing again and as soon as my legs were steady I released his arms and he let me go.
“Alright?” he asked and I nodded, trying to catch my breath. I looked down into the street he had stopped us at and saw a small city market buzzing with its last customers who were bustling about, trying to pick up all their groceries before curfew.
“Now, we lose any Watchers we’ve picked up,” he pointed towards a building on the far side of the square, and I saw a well kept yellow townhouse with blue trim and shutters.
“When The Thief of Ryden became well known, they sent Watchers to follow me in hopes of tracking my movements. I lose them near there every time,”
“What do they do to the people who live there?” I asked.
The Thief of Ryden was a huge inspiration to the common person. He was fighting for his freedom in a society where one’s freedom was what was being threatened the most. He inspired hope for that lost freedom. And hope was dangerous.
“Nothing really, the first family was selling the place. Once the Watchers checked out their background, they confirmed it couldn’t possibly them I was going to. The family they sold it to had a hell of a time getting the place though. They had to go through a thousand background checks before the Watchers let them buy it. I’m surprised they didn’t walk. The best part was when I lost them the first time after the new family moved in. Their faces were priceless,” he laughed as he told this last part and again the infectious quality of it got to me as I laughed at the story too. Something about the story sounded familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on why.
We dropped into an empty alley leading into the square and strode out into the crowd as the clock tower tolled out the half hour bell. The chimes were louder now that we were in Downtown and I felt a small sense of relief now that we were in my home neighborhood.
There was no longer the underlying fear of getting lost in Ryden now that I knew where I was and I could safely get home without James’ help. Still, I wanted to make sure his Watchers didn’t recognize me if I left him now so I followed him into the market, sticking close to him as the crowd thickened.
“Still with me Gwen?” he glanced behind his shoulder and I smiled up at him.
“Still here James,”
“I was afraid I’d lost you in this lot,” he joked as he glanced around at the jostling crowd around us, his eyes scanning the crowd.
“You’re not that lucky.” He chuckled at the joke but his eyes remained serious, cautiously watching the people around us. I looked around the crowd too, searching for any hint of deep green. My gaze was instead met by several sets of eyes as I found people staring at the two of us.
“We’re drawing too much attention to ourselves,” I mumbled as another set of eyes hastily looked away. To be fair, we were two teenagers who looked half starved and were traveling together with a strong purpose in our eyes.
“We look like we’re about to mug someone,” I muttered, picking up my pace nervously as more people started to stare. James chuckled a little at my prediction and looked at me.
“Try not to draw attention then,” he muttered back as he slipped his fingers into mine to hold my hand and pull me back beside him before he slowed our pace to match everyone else’s.
“What the hell are you doing,” I hissed at him through gritted teeth as I tried to pry my hand out of his iron grip.
“People are suspicious of us. We need to blend in,” he explained calmly in a tone that sounded affectionate and slightly romantic as he smiled down at me. Anyone listening in to the general sound of our conversation would think we were a couple in love.
“And why the hell do we need to blend in as a couple?” I grumbled, not adopting his tone in the slightest.
“With the crackdown, what else would two teens be walking around together doing?” he asked in the same loving voice he had used before. I opened my mouth to retort but found his logic to be sound. I shut my mouth again and stopped trying to pull my hand away from his.
I hated to admit it but he had a point. Since most of the protesters inspiring the crackdown were in their late teens and early twenties, two teenagers walking together but not as a couple was threatening and peculiar. Now that we were walking normally, the staring stopped and people went about their business, paying no attention to an innocent teen couple simply walking through the street.
“How much further James?” I asked in the best caring voice I could manage. Considering flattery and flirtation were two of my most effective methods of getting information from people, my voice was perfect for what we were trying to pull off. James stared at me, completely awestruck for a moment by the honey sweet voice that had just come out of my mouth and tripped over a loose cobblestone in the rough pavement. He caught himself before he fell however and regained his composure quickly.
“Not much,” he pointed with his free hand up at the townhouse which was situated in a row of neat houses through small side street that removed it from the crowded square. We made our way towards the side street which slithered beneath the bright awnings of the several stores that lined its sides. Now that we were walking out of the busy square, the number of people around us was significantly decreasing. The only people on our little side street were the store owners locking up for the day and a few people returning home from work.
“Have you seen any?” I asked quietly in the same sweet voice. James scanned the street ahead of us for Watchers before bending down to mutter to me.
“Nothing yet, but they’re a lot better at surveillance than we give them credit for,” I smiled up at him to keep our couple image intact so it looked to the outside observer as if he had just said something cute and romantic. Keeping up appearances on this small street where everyone was so much more attentive was vitally important.
We walked up to the house and turned into a tiny alley to the side of it that wove between the yellow house and its neighbor.
“So what do we do from here?”
“From here I take the tunnels to Old Town and then I’m going to see Shannon,” he replied. My ears caught the word “I” and I smiled hastily to cover my embarrassment. Of course he was going to Old Town. I was leaving from here to walk back to my house here in Downtown. We weren’t partners in crime. We were hardly even allies. Had the circumstances been different, we probably wouldn’t even have been that.
I was about to reply that of course here was where I would leave him but a figure moving towards us caught my eye and I was momentarily distracted. The man walking towards us was obviously a downtown citizen as he was dressed in expensive and fashionable linens and wore clean white socks. He came a bit closer and my eyes widened as I recognized his long beak of a nose, beady eyes, and heavily gelled black hair.
His name was Geoffrey Stokes and he was a high powered bureaucrat in charge of the Interior Commissions Council. He was a friend of my father’s and suddenly I realized why James’ story about the family who moved into the townhouse sounded familiar. I had heard it from Mr. Stokes when he was still an unimportant minor official vying for power. Since he wasn’t well known at the time, the Watchers had interrogated his entire family and done extensive background checks to search for anything that might connect them to The Thief of Ryden.
When he rose in the government, my father and he had remained close friends. If he saw me, he would surely recognize me and when he did, my story would be ruined. I wouldn’t be able to explain why I was roaming around in Downtown if I had just been released from prison and had supposedly traveled straight home. There was no good way to get around that and being seen with a boy of a “lower class”, as Mr. Stokes was sure to explain it, would only make my story seem that much more implausible.
He was reading a piece of parchment and had a frown of concentration fixed on his face, meaning he hadn’t seen me yet. But as soon as he looked up I would be screwed and James and I would both be thrown back into prison. I needed to make myself unrecognizable so that there was no way he would identify me. I frantically searched the alley for something to disguise my appearance but I didn’t find anything. I needed to do something that I would never do so that he would never guess it was me.
My brain kicked my senses into hyper-drive so that I noticed everything around me that could possibly help. This caused me to rediscover the hand linked to mine and the boy attached to it.
“James,” I muttered quickly and my tone caught his attention as he whipped his head towards me before hurriedly scanning the alley. His eyes rested on Mr. Stokes who was still walking obliviously towards us and he eyed me suspiciously.
“Who is he?” he mumbled back, his voice barely audible.
“Friend of my father’s…James I need you to trust me,”
“What do you mean?” his voice caught an edge that I hadn’t heard in it before. It was menacing and cautious, as if daring me to try anything that might injure him.
“Just remember that this doesn’t mean anything,” I hissed as I pulled us into a wall and reached up to pull his head down to meet my lips. He threw his arms out to catch himself and his hands landed on either side of me as I was pressed up against the wall.
At first he seemed frozen by shock at the situation and I was afraid he would ruin the whole plan. But then, and I wasn’t sure if it was because he caught on to the plan or his teenage boy body reacted before his brain could analyze what was happening, but he began kissing me back. And Avo was he a good kisser.
It was like a burst of warm energy passing through my whole body, starting at our lips. His tasted like cinnamon and melded comfortably into mine. It was like he was leading me through a waltz. All his motions were graceful and perfectly timed. He guided me through them like an expert dance partner would. All I had to do was follow his lead and we became an unstoppable pair.
One of his hands slid naturally down to my waist as he closed the gap between us and pressed me flat against the wall. My entire body tingled as I felt my skin erupt into tiny goose bumps. My heart began pounding uncontrollably. I wound my fingers through his hair, urging his lips further into mine. He tilted his head slightly and I felt his other hand slide off the wall to the small of my back where he drew me away from the wall and further into his muscular chest. I felt his heartbeat against my chest and found it to be increasing just like mine.
I distantly heard a cough somewhere behind me and heard someone mutter,
“I wasn’t under the impression we were in Old Town.” This voice, so clear and familiar, jolted my brain back into action. James reacted too as he pulled sharply away from me and turned his head towards the voice, looking like he was about to shout something at Mr. Stokes. I couldn’t have him blow my cover, especially not now that I knew Stokes hadn’t recognized me. If he had, he never would have made such a rude comment.
I rushed my lips up to meet James’ and I felt the words he was about to say form and then disappear as he froze and became distracted by the kiss. The tingling ran through my body immediately this time, not even waiting for him to react. I urged my lips into his, using my smoothest technique to distract him from the world. Usually this only removed the person I was kissing but then his cinnamon lips drew me in and I felt the world melt away. His mouth broke apart and he slid his hands back onto my waist and pulled me closer still. Everywhere his hands went left a trail of desire burning for his touch. I pressed myself into his chest and he responded by backing us into the wall again.
I brought my arms up to drape around his neck when suddenly he broke away from the kiss, kicking me back to reality. I found myself dangerously close to him being held in his arms with my skin uneven with goose bumps. I cautiously slid out of his arms and he very willingly let me go. He leaned against the wall and raised his eyebrows.
“Care to explain what that was all about?” I leaned against the opposite wall of the alley, thankful for support since my knees were buckling slightly. I steadied them and rubbed my arms lightly but firmly, trying desperately to rid them of the goose bumps before he noticed.
“That was Geoffrey Stokes, Chairman of the Interior Commissions Council,” I replied smoothly, thanking Avo my voice was coming out clear and collected even though I was thoroughly shaken up inside.
“He’s a friend of your fathers?” James’ face was curious as he asked the question but when I simply nodded in response, something darker dawned in his eyes.
“Who are you Gwen?” the question was loaded as if he was already accusing me for my father’s actions. I continued to meet his eyes even as his gaze turned cold. There was no point in playing games.
Growing up I had met glares, emotionless faces, cold stares, fake smiles, and whatever else my father and his politicians had thrown at me, with a cool head and a calm demeanor. I had never cared about what the cold stare meant, or what a fake smile told me. It had never affected me because I stopped caring what they thought. I could always match his cold manner with a colder one. I had never been scared of what people thought of me. Nervous maybe, and always conscious of what they thought, but never fearful.
“My name is Gwyneth Simms,” I said with a deep breath. I strived for a controlled exterior but my voice shook as I said my full name.
James’ eyes widened as his assumption was confirmed and I saw his fists clench. His reaction confirmed that he knew exactly who I was, and by extension who my father was.
Samuel Simms, my father, was responsible for every curfew, every restriction, every boost of Watcher power, and every law passed in Ryden. He was responsible for the wide spread trouble people all over the city were experiencing. He was the reason the people in Old Town James was helping were struggling. He was the reason James’ “job” was getting so much harder. He was one of the main people the rebellion was striving to topple.
He stopped leaning against the wall and stood up straight. I started breathing heavily as all 6 feet and 1 inch of him loomed over me and I suddenly realized how useless the knife in my pocket was since I wouldn’t be able to get to it in time if he was going to attack me now. If I were to make any sudden movements, like reaching for the knife for example, he would move and I’d be dead.
“You have nothing to worry about,” he smirked but his eyes remained cold, “I only kill with a reason, Gwyneth.” I couldn’t move my gaze from his and the disappointment and anger in his eyes made my heart pound even more. The possibility of him killing me wasn’t the reason I was scared.
My emotions were running wild and it took all my will power to keep my eyes steadily looking into his. This had never happened before. I used kissing as a weapon. It was a tool and I fully utilized its power on a lot of guys. This was not the first time I had kissed a guy as a means to an end.
I was scared because this was the first time it had meant something to me. I was scared because this was the first time I actually cared.
This couldn’t be happening. This wasn’t how I worked. The sooner I got away from James; the sooner things would go back to normal.
“Do you want them to?” The small voice in my head asked. Of course I did. “Normal” was what was best for the rebellion and right now that’s what mattered. That’s what was most important. I couldn’t jeopardize everything I had worked for because I might be getting soft. I simply needed to eliminate the thing that was making me soft and everything would be fine.
“You won’t turn me in either?” I met James’ eyes, studying them to ensure he wasn’t lying when he answered.
He shook his head and said, “Not as long as you don’t turn me in,”
“Then this is where we go our separate ways and forget any of this ever happened,” Forgetting was the safest thing for both of us to do. I felt a lump form in my throat after I said these words and I was afraid my composure would break if I had to speak again.
“Of course,” James’ face remained grim and unreadable. He turned around and walked down the alley away from me and the yellow house. Something about the way he was walking away didn’t feel right. I couldn’t never see him again on these terms. I hadn’t even thanked him for getting me out of the tower.
“James!” I shouted after his retreating back and he spun around so suddenly it was as if he had been expecting me to call him. Cocky bastard wasn’t that good of a kisser. My voice became quieter as I said, “Thank-you.”
“My pleasure,” he replied and smiled at me one last time before turning around to stride back down the alley and disappear into the shadows of dusk.
The encroaching darkness of the alley swallowed him up and I took a deep breath before wrenching myself back into reality. I had less than fifteen minutes to get back home before the guards were alerted to my absence and my father came storming home to find me.
I turned around and took off back the way we had come and threw myself up the first ladder I could find. I burst onto the rooftops and sprinted across them towards the large gray Justice Building whose spires poked higher than any other structure in the city. I glanced back towards the retreating outline of Old Town before focusing back towards the gray buildings of the Political District where my house lay.
The air rushing past and the buzz of the city below me helped calm the storm of emotions rumbling around inside my head but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I began mentally listing the steps of my plan in an attempt to focus myself.
I would arrive home before my father. If I was very lucky, the guards would forget to feed me and I would meet him when he came home from work. However, the guards hardly ever forgot to feed me two nights in a row so they would likely discover James’ and my escape and alert my father which meant I had to beat them to it and tell him I was home before they did.
“I wonder if James got off alright,” a little voice in my head chirped and I immediately mentally traced the steps that he would have taken to get back to Old Town. The tunnels were ancient but only recently cleared of debris and made open so they were secure since the Watchers still didn’t know about them so he would be safe.
I smiled despite myself until my mind suddenly conjured up a very vivid image of him making-out with a gorgeous dark haired shop girl and I felt my stomach clench up. My running pace faltered and I nearly didn’t have enough momentum to make the next jump to the next roof. I stumbled onto it and had to grab for the chimney to keep from toppling over the edge.
I shook my head a little and returned to listing my own plan as I pushed away from the chimney and sprinted towards the tall wrought iron gate that separated the Political District from the rest of Downtown Ryden.
Although the guards wouldn’t forget to feed me, my tower was at the end of the prison so I was always fed last and this delay bought me an extra 10 or 15 minutes. I could use those to meet my father and explain “the situation” (or at least the one I was going to invent to tell him) before the guards ever noticed I was gone. He would leave to double check everything I told him. I would use the time he was gone to pay off our staff so when he later interviewed them I would be in the clear.
I gazed down at the city and it came alive below me as its lights twinkled on and soon I was running through a sea of tiny firefly lights shining through the darkness from windows and out the tops of chimneys. I smiled down at the yellow and white lights reflecting off the streets below and breathed in the smell of the city. The smell of James.
The corner of a chimney caught my arm as I lost focus again and I tumbled down onto the roof I had been sprinting across. I pulled myself off the hot shingles and sat for a second to collect myself…again. Even in his absence James was still causing trouble. I shook my head, stood up, and ran off again with a new determination not to let him cause any more set backs. A few rooftops later the twinkling lights ahead of me gradually began to fade into the wide and uniform lights coming from the manor houses that occupied the Political District.
I reached the edge of the closely knit town houses and stood on the roof of the last one before the huge black fence. I smirked as I easily bounded into an elm tree on the far side of the fence whose branches caught me comfortably. The citizens of the Silver Circles where I lived had spent about fifty thousand itkas collectively to construct the 14 foot fence without ever pausing to realize that it could be easily penetrated from the rooftops. They didn’t think like criminals. They could literally afford not to.
The houses here were far too big for the small elite families of three or four they housed. They had fountains dotting their sweeping lawns and huge multi-colored flower beds bursting between the wide expanses of green grass. They each had a long elegant driveway that served to remove the home from the street and proved useful when the owners hosted parties: a past time many of the residents practiced regularly. The manor houses were painted in stylish, neat colors pre-picked by the housing committee such as “Blueberry Mist”, “Spiced Vanilla”, and “Tangerine Whisper”. All the streets here were named for ridiculous notions the upper class had of prestige, status, and respect and they were named things like “Golden Avenue”, “Eagle Circle”, or “Dragon Court.”
The insides of the houses were far worse. Each family hired a decorator when they first moved in to plan a theme for their home since each theme had to be tasteful yet unique and just flashy enough to catch and keep their neighbors’ attention and provide interesting dinner party conversation, but not so overdone that it was tacky. Unfortunately for the families most of the so called “decorators” couldn’t tell the difference between flashy and gaudy.
No expense was spared when decorating in the various circles of homes speckling the Political District. Each detail of the theme had to be woven throughout the house in little pockets of “imaginative creativity” that would keep the inhabitant’s guests entertained and their decorators rich. The families here spent thousands on décor every year because if a two thousand itka vase would simply complete the upstairs bathroom, then it had to be purchased. Or if a four thousand itka chandelier would accent the front hall perfectly then it was a necessity.
Those outside the District with common sense and a budget saw the spending for what it was: a wasteful way for the rich to kill time, but to those inside the District acting any other way was social suicide; and in a place where one’s social status was more important that food, bad décor was worse than death.
The gaudy extravagance of the mansions seemed to be trying to counter-act the uniform grey of the official buildings as if the competing structures of the Political District were trying to reach some sort of balance. But the contrast only succeeded in making the homes look even flashier and the gray buildings look more menacing which was an effect both parties enjoyed.
I watched the road in front of the tree and checked for any oncoming people then when the coast was clear I dropped down from the elm onto the eerily green grass and quickly stood up to stride towards the street. I glanced at the clock on the Financial Building and picked up my pace when it told me I only had ten minutes to get home before my father arrived there.
He always got home at 7:00 sharp, never a minute sooner or later. The man was as constant as a clock and he thrived on routine and order. He awoke every morning at 6:45. It took him 4 minutes to drink his coffee, and the remaining 16 minutes he allowed for eating breakfast. He took 12 minutes to get to work when he calculated in the various interactions he pre-planned to have with neighbors. He took precisely 36 minutes for lunch so that his day balanced out when he added the two 12 minute traveling times to and from work. He had his entire life down to a science of minutes and this convenient trait made him a constant variable in my plan.
I strode swiftly along Golden Avenue for four blocks before I turned onto my street, Gryphon Circle where mansions were by far the worst when it came to extravagance. We had gardeners and maintenance workers to keep the exterior of the houses perfect down to every detail. The paint on the outside was touched up weekly, and the wood accents were refinished every other month. Cleaners came everyday at 11:05 to scourge the insides of the mansions of any blemishes they might have somehow acquired in the 24 hours they’d been absent and every “house” on our street had at least 6 butlers to take care of anything “urgent” that might come up in the 24 hours the cleaners were gone. No expense was ever spared when keeping our homes fantastically pristine and disgustingly perfect.
I tramped across the flawlessly trimmed grass, ignoring the cobblestone path that wove its way through our front garden. Even if I had had time to care about the lawn, I wouldn’t have done so anyways. There is always something more important than grass. I unlocked our door with the key still hanging around my neck and greeted our dogs who came running to the door barking and snarling at any intruder but when they recognized my scent they stopped immediately and sat down, patiently waiting for a treat I didn’t have.
“Sorry boys,” I said as I went past them towards the grand double staircase filling the foyer. They stood up and followed close behind me to sniff my pockets eagerly to verify the absence of any food then sulked back to the kitchen when they didn’t find anything interesting.
I ran up the stairs then sprinted down the long carpeted hallway to my room in the corner of our house. My boots squeaked on the light hardwood floors and I cringed at my blurry but clearly disheveled appearance in the many mirrors lining the walls. I glanced at one of the twelve clocks along the way and ran faster when it told me the time: 6:54. I reached the end of the white carpeted hallway and wrenched open my door then tore across the room to open the closet and grab the first dress I saw: a knee-length maroon one that had ¾ length sleeves and a dark brown belt at the waist. I pulled it over my head, ripped a brush through my very tangled blonde hair before I tied it up in a black bow, then ran back down the ridiculously long hallway and then down the deceptively slippery stairs.
I pulled one of my school books off the bookshelf in our front sitting room then draped myself on the couch so that I was facing the door. I cracked open the book and began to scan the words on the page without absorbing any of them. As the final minutes ticked by my breath returned to normal but my heart continued to hammer in my chest. I breathed in through my nose and out through my mouth in a desperate attempt to calm my nerves.
The clocks began to chime seven o’clock and right on schedule I heard my father come through the front door. The dogs, well trained by now to remember that this was always when my father came home, stayed in the kitchen. I kept my eyes glued to the words of the book, just waiting for him.
He had the same routine every day. He walked into the sitting room, set his brief case down, ordered a glass of water and a pitcher, then sat down to finish whatever work he had brought home that day. He allowed 3 hours for work and 10 minutes between the time he got home and the time he started. Yes, the same routine every day except for those I tampered with. I had a theory that this was part of the reason he resented my “acting out” so much. I ruined his schedule when I did so. Unfortunately for his schedule today was one of those days.
He walked into the sitting room in his usual brittle gait, then saw me and stopped smoothly. If I hadn’t known better I might have thought my being there didn’t faze him at all.
“Gwyneth,” he said with a slight air of confusion seeping into his otherwise perfectly controlled tone. I looked up from my book and beamed at him.
“You aren’t released until next Thursday,” he informed me as if I didn’t understand that I wasn’t supposed to be in the sitting room right now. I frowned and let a bit of my anxiousness show so that it seemed as if I didn’t know about the “mistake”. He didn’t need to know the real reason I was anxious, it was the emotion that counted.
“They released me today,” I replied, letting my voice falter a little. He simply replied with a cold, calculating stare that would have bored holes through me had I not been used to it and immune to its effects by then. “I didn’t believe it either but when I asked they said they had received a telegram from you that I was to be released early,” I explained quickly, letting a bit more of my anxiousness out.
Again, he only replied with a frown before he stepped over to a light blue stone square with a black rune engraved into it and placed his hands on it. His touch made the black lines glow gold and almost immediately my father’s secretary Barnaby’s voice rang into the room.
“How can I help you Mr. Simms?”
“List the recipients of all telegrams I sent today,” he spoke quietly towards the rune. My father never raised his voice in public view, even around Barnaby. We heard him shuffle around the office for half a minute before he replied.
“8:46am –Interior Commissions Council and Ryden City Commerce, Geoffrey Stokes
10:40am – Department of Agriculture, Jasper Allistor
10:46am – Department of Residence, Eloise Spur
10:49 am – Department of Education, Belamy Pike
11:00am – Department of Magic Enforcement, Nat Kalmin
3:15pm – Interior Commissions Council and Ryden City Commerce, Geoffrey Stokes
5:26pm – Department of Ryden City Labor, Kassilo Crane
6:00pm – 603 Golden Court, Governor Yutyri”
My father let a moment of silence pass after Barnaby finished the list to give me a cold stare before he replied.
“Thank-you Barnaby, that will be all.” He removed his hand from the rune and the gold hue faded back to black. “I didn’t send any telegram for your release Gwyneth,” he informed me as if I hadn’t understood the list.
“That’s just what they said, Father,” I replied coldly. He searched my eyes for some sign that I was lying but his eyes proved to be far more informative than mine. While I held mine at a constant confident level, I could see a slight boil of anger bubbling behind the cool exterior of his. The only test would be to see if the anger would be at me or the Watchers who had let me escape.
It seemed today really was my lucky day as my father reached towards the Communication Rune again. Watcher Hicks’ voice replied after about 20 seconds, and he sounded slightly panicked as members of the government as high up as my father never contacted the prison directly.
“Mr. Simms, what can I do for you today sir?”
“Did you receive a telegram from my office today ordering the release of my daughter?” My father let some of his fury sink into his voice.
“Wwwelll sir, I’m not so sure sir, I didn’t arrive until after noon sir,” Hicks bumbled through his excuses, trying to find a reason to leave the conversation with my clearly angry father.
“Find someone who would have received it before noon then,”
“Riiight sir, I’ll do that sir, one moment sir,” Hicks’ heavy breathing left our sitting room as he ran off to find someone else to throw under my father’s wrath. He kept his hand on the rune to keep the connection open but turned his burning eyes towards me while we waited.
“What time were you released?” He demanded.
“Around 11,” I replied and suppressed a smirk as his eyes narrowed. He hated it when people gave him approximations of time.
“What time was it Gwyneth?” I fought the urge to give him a snarky answer since it would only make my situation worse.
“I called Harold from the prison and arrived home at 11:42,” I said, relying on our driver Harold to lie for me if my father questioned him later.
“Watcher Barlow sir,” a timid and nervous voice rang through our sitting room. My father tore his eyes away from searching mine to face the Com Rune.
“Did you receive a telegram from my office at 11 am instructing you to release my daughter?” he interrogated the man. I could almost hear the gears turning in the poor man’s head.
I doubted Hicks had given him any extra information in hopes that he would be able to remove himself as far from the situation as possible so Barlow wouldn’t have any idea what was going on. The first conclusion his mind would jump to was that he was being accused of losing a telegram so the only solution was to lie through his teeth and insist that he had received it to prevent any interrogations. I kept the smile that wanted to form from the holes in our law enforcement system off my face.
“Yes, we received that message and executed it quickly and efficiently sir,” Barlow answered smartly, confident he had given the correct answer. My father’s lips tightened and his eyes narrowed a little more when he answered.
“Could I see a copy of that telegram Watcher Barlow?”
“Sorry sir, due to Internal Safety Regulations, every telegram is burned after being executed,” Barlow replied proudly. I could see my father struggling to keep his voice level as he replied, but a bit of the poison of his anger seeped through.
“Thank-you Watcher Barlow, that will be all,” he said before removing his hand from the rune. He crossed the room to grab his brief case, and marched past me to the front door to retrieve his coat.
“I’ll be back in a few hours,” he told me as he shut the door behind him in a huff and I finally let the smile spread across my face. I had done it. I had escaped from the tower and there was nothing he could do about it since the telegram had never existed. He would spend the next “few hours” furiously searching town for the mysterious telegram only to return home defeated hours from now. I was triumphant.
I let out a shaky breath to relieve the nerves I had been holding back and let my shoulders slump before I stood up and walked to the Com Rune. I placed my hand on the black ridges and pictured my best friend Delilah. I channeled the magic within me into the Com Rune and felt the stone grow warm as the black lines glowed gold. The stone hummed slightly as it searched for the Rune Stone closest to her and after about a minute her sweet voice rang through the room.
“Gwen?” she sounded unsure and timid.
“Hi,” I replied rather lamely.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to get out until Thursday,”
“There was,” I paused, trying to decide the best way to phrase what the last hours escaping had been, “a change of plans.” Delilah laughed and I let a smile flicker onto my lips as the sound of it brought some sense of normalcy back.
“Nothing important, I just,” again, I faltered for a moment as I tried to explain everything while explaining nothing since our Com Run was surely bugged by either my father hoping to catch me for something or another politician hoping to catch my father for something, “I’m moving ahead of schedule.”
“What do you need?” she asked. I hesitated again before answering.
“I need to talk.”
“Is your dad home?”
“No, but Del I’m not supposed to-”
“I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” Delilah said insistently as she cut me off before she cut the connection and the lines on my stone faded back to black.
I swallowed and pulled my hand away from the stone with my mind buzzing. It was only once I had walked slowly back up to my room and had sat down on my bed that the shaking began. My entire body trembled under the enormous pressure of the emotions that had been wearing me out non-stop all day. I pulled the ribbon out of my hair as I sank my face into my palms and wove my fingers through my blonde hair, all the while taking deep breaths in an attempt to quell the shivering.
It had barely seemed like 2 minutes had passed when I heard my window slide open and Delilah tumbled onto my white carpet. I raised my head out of my palms to look into her warm brown eyes.
“I-” I began but then whatever words I was about to say got caught in my throat as they flittered out of my mind and I realized I had no idea where to begin. I looked back up at Delilah hopelessly and she smiled.
“Start from the beginning,” she prompted.
“They dumped someone else in the tower with me last night,”
“Who?” she asked and I smirked at her.
“The Thief of Ryden,”
I turned and padded down the alley away from Gwen, the last smile I had given her immediately vanishing from my lips.
On one hand (and it was a very strong hand that I was very impressed with myself for keeping restrained) I wanted to run back towards her, slip the knife out from her right sleeve where she’d been keeping it, and slit her throat because of her father. However, several things thankfully prevented me from doing this.
1. I don’t believe in the punishment of an entire family. Her father being evil incarnate didn’t make her automatically awful and she shouldn’t pay for what he’s done. He should.
2. As I told her, I don’t kill without a purpose and although there were some very nasty rumors about what she’d done, I didn’t have enough solid proof to prove that she’d done anything, not to mention that she, Gwen hadn’t personally done anything to me, James.
But on the other hand, she had very, very, very, pretty blue eyes that, I will admit, had me more than a little hypnotized. I know, stupid, slightly shallow reason. But honestly, ever since I saw them this morning when I woke up with them staring at me in the tower, her stunningly blue eyes had had me transfixed. They were mesmerizing. In addition to her eyes (and more importantly) she had thanked me for saving her from the tower. Not only was this a genuinely pleasant and nice thing to do, it completely contradicted everything I had heard about her. She had been so different from everything I had known about her that I didn’t even know it was her until she told me.
Doesn’t sound like a big deal? Let me tell you a bit about Gwyneth Amelia Simms. For starters, she was important and well-known enough for me and more than half the city to have memorized her entire name. She was rumored to be the great bridge between rich and poor, Downtown and Old Town but she was also rumored to be a manipulative, backstabbing, rich, and cunning, bitch. The problem with Gwyneth Amelia Simms though was that there was nothing solid surrounding her. There were more rumors circling around her than a group of 15 year old girls but no one knew what was real and what was just rumor.
I heard that she once took on an entire squad of Watchers who stormed one of the protests she’d been at, and that she took out half the squad before they were able to restrain her. She regularly participated in rallies protesting government restrictions and policies that favored the rich and put more limitations on the poor. She was supposed to be a great symbol of the classes working together and her actions screamed that she wanted nothing to do with her father but the rumors supporting the “evil Gwen” theory said that this was all part of her plan; to win the hearts of the masses then pull them out.
I had also heard that she was a spy of her father’s, sliding around the city and getting to know who was in charge of the groups that threatened him. That she slinked around the city, seducing, poisoning, and teasing information and political favors out of people. It was supposed to be a well known fact that she wasn’t to be trusted because she would kill you as soon as you let her close enough to look her in the eyes. She was the daughter of Samuel Simms, the Interior Defense Secretary, the coldest vindictive bastard to walk Azurea since the invention of ice. He was filthy, heartless, and—the residents of Old Town were fairly certain—he lived off the hopes and dreams of orphans rather than food. As long as the crime rate stayed low and people stayed quiet, he turned a blind eye to the cruelty of the Watchers and the real issues facing the city. She was that monster’s daughter. She was no symbol of “equality and freedom” but more a clear indicator of the ever-expanding gap between the classes.
That was the Gwyneth Amelia Simms that had come to mind when I found out who she was. I felt a little bad but considering it was after she had, very successfully I might add, kissed me senseless in order to hide from her father’s politician buddy, I felt my mind had every right to jump to this conclusion. She had used me and manipulated me and so logically the rumors that surfaced were not “Gwyneth Amelia Simms, liberator” ones but rather the “kill you if you got close enough to look her in the eyes because she’s a manipulative minx” ones.
But that’s what confused me. I had certainly gotten close enough to look her in the eyes, hell I’d had issues all day trying not to get lost in her stupidly entrancing blue eyes, and I wasn’t dead. Add to that the fact that she’d had a knife that whole time and those rumors fall apart even more.
In the end, the problem was always the same: no one knew what the real Gwyneth Amelia Simms was like.
Except I had just met her. I knew what the real Gwen was like…maybe.
I reached the end of the alley and pushed aside some ancient crates to reveal a tiny wooden door tall enough for a 2 year old to walk through. I pushed it open and crawled inside the damp passage then reached outside to pull the crates back in front of the door before I closed it and sat in the darkness for a minute letting my eyes adjust. Slowly the shape of the tunnel appeared and I turned back around and to crawl along the path I had memorized.
I remember meticulously spending days when I was younger traveling back and forth between Old Town and Downtown through this tunnel with my friends guided by a candle and a map in an attempt to memorize it. I say “attempt” because while we did memorize the stupid winding path in the end, Carter earned a large burn on his right arm and Will a load of horizontal scars all over his arms and torso, both sets of injuries from booby-trapped wrong turns. The comforting thing about the injuries, as Carter pointed out while we were frantically attempting to ease the sting of his burn, was that it meant that without a map any Watchers who tried to follow us would be “smoked.”
Actually anyone who tried to use these ancient Old Town tunnels would be, as Carter so aptly put it, “smoked”, since every wrong turn was rewarded promptly with any number of dangerous circumstances from burning, to tiny knives coming out of the walls, to poisonous gas. At this thought, I hurriedly glanced behind me and stopped crawling forward to strain my ears for anyone, Gwen in particular, following me. As little as I trusted her, I didn’t want to see her dead.
I mean, what did I really know about her? I ran through all the events of the last day and tried to assess each of her character traits to come up with an analysis independent from any of the rumors I had heard about her.
She didn’t trust people. That was the kind of character trait people couldn’t hide…maybe. She could have just been acting but why would she pretend not to trust people if she was actually very trusting? No, this had been real and genuine suspicion of people that had made her want to hide who she was.
She was used to the feeling of being ignored so intensely she had been able to concentrate it into a camouflage charm. I cringed as I remembered the horrible feeling that had washed over me in the cellar when she spread the charm to me. The feeling of being so insignificant and worthless not even the moss we were leaning against wanted to bother touching us. That was real.
She was empathetic. A small smile slipped onto my lips as I remembered her gentle coaxing after the charm left me terrified. The concern in her eyes had been real. She was empathetic but I don’t think she had a chance to show it often seeing as how flustered she was when I came to.
She was a good liar. I was sure of this one. Her empathy and urge to help me had been so honest and so true that when I came back, her own kindness had caught her off guard. She was used to living in lies and hiding behind walls; and she wouldn’t have been so distraught had the honest feeling been a normal one. I didn’t actually experience any of her lies as far as I knew, but she was certainly an expert at avoiding the truth. The way she was able to dodge and deflect any personal questions I had asked her proved as much.
She was certainly a good kisser. She couldn’t hide that. Not that she'd want or need to...it wasn't exactly a character trait. But there was so much life in the way she moved and reacted, like she was aware of every move I made and was ready to respond perfectly. This was one of the more complicated ones because although it had felt like she was emotional with the kiss, I couldn’t make any claims as to what she actually felt about it. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that she had probably just used me, and that hurt. It hurt a lot more than it should have because I’m not exactly such a “pure” guy myself. It’s not like I’ve never used anyone before. I wasn’t in any position to be upset with her for kissing me. It shouldn’t have hurt, but it did.
She was delightfully sarcastic. There was no question about whether that was real. That was possibly the only character trait that I could separate from “Gwyneth Amelia Simms” the legend and give to Gwen; the small, blonde, dazzlingly blue eyed girl I had actually enjoyed the company of.
I smiled as it occurred to me that maybe I couldn’t confirm or deny any of the rumors floating around but it didn’t matter. Maybe I didn’t know which things she’d done and which she hadn’t but I knew a piece of who she was, who she really was. I knew how to make her laugh and I knew a little about what kind of a person she was.
I reached the final turn of my route through the tunnel system that was the veins of Old Town and kicked open the small wooden door in front of me, sincerely hoping that it was the last time I would have to be underground or in a tunnel today.
I crawled out the door and onto the street before I stood up and kicked the door shut behind me then just stood for a moment to breathe in the sweet scent of the late summer air. The clock tower chime 7 o’clock and I grinned as I pictured the guards walking in on an empty cell that had held not only 1 but 2 very important prisoners last they had checked.
The smell of cooking beef hit my nose and my stomach growled painfully, again protesting the food shortage it had been experiencing for the last four days. I took a few shallow breaths as the rumbling reminded my bruised rib how grumpy it was at me. I clutched my side and leaned against the wall, trying to ignore the heavenly aroma that was drifting out of the Butcher’s window. I just needed to close my eyes for a second and everything would be ok.
“Jamesey boy!” someone yelled and my eyes flicked open as I jerked my head towards the sound. I barely had time to brace myself before Carter hurdled into me and crushed me in a hug, making my ribs erupt in pain.
“We didn’t expect you out so soon,” Will beamed at me as he followed Carter’s path. I tried to smile back but it turned into more of a grimace since I was having trouble breathing and coping with the pain caused by Carter’s bone crushing hug.
“So, what adventures have you been having without us?” Carter boomed and finally released me. I took a few shallow breaths before leaning against the wall of the Butcher and took a moment to collect myself before I looked up at them and smirked.
“Enjoying the great outdoors, meeting new people, the usual,”
“You are so full of shit,” Will scoffed as he held the newspaper out to me. My smirk broadened into a full grin as I read the headline and scanned the first few lines of the front page article.
“Thief of Ryden Strikes Again!
Late last night officials were seen at the residence of Mr. Digby Turnspeak as they were called to respond to another robbery in Sector One. Soon after they arrived, several Watchers left the scene in a hurry to chase after a dark clothed figure who leapt out of the third story window onto the roof of the building next door. The Watchers returned about 10 minutes later without a suspect. Watchers on the scene refused to comment on who they thought was responsible for the attack and only told reporters that no one was injured and that a few of the items were missing from the home.
Although Watchers on the scene refused to give an interview, an anonymous insider agreed to give an exclusive interview to the Newt Harold on the event. According to the insider, last night’s robbery was without a doubt the work of the Thief of Ryden. “He’s always really careful, never any broken glass, and never anyone injured. He just takes what he can and gets out.”
The article went on to describe the string of robberies in that area that had happened over the last month.
“It’s got to be killing Simms that his thief made the first page,” I looked up at them. Will rolled his eyes and Carter laughed. “I mean, all this publicity not calling me a blood thirsty maniac has got to have him a little peeved,”
“That was the paper from three days ago James,” Will said, ignoring my comment. “Where have you been?”
I cast my eyes to the ground, “I got hungry and careless,” I looked back up to see Will trying to stifle a laugh and Carter’s mouth hanging open.
“SERIOUSLY!? You hit seven houses this month without a single Watcher even seeing your face and its petty theft from an apple vendor that gets you caught! That’s just ridiculous James! I mean if I could get away with that I–”
“Technically it was an orange vendor,” I said, cutting Carter’s rant off. He moved to punch me in the arm and I dodged it easily, more than accustomed to his swings. The sudden twist of my torso caused an unpleasant pain to shoot through my ribs and I flinched and grasped my side.
“Who did that to you?” Carter’s tone changed from sarcastic outrage to legitimate concern.
“How long were you in Blackgate?” Carter asked.
“Just a night, I think I got thrown in around midnight and when we got to the Candlestick the next day it was probably about 3,”
“We?” Will caught my slip and I silently cursed myself for letting the information about Gwen out before I could tease them with it.
“I…made a friend,”
“Oooh, a LADY friend?” Carter sang while elbowing the ribs that I wasn’t covering.
“Did she fall madly in love with your ‘dangerously charming smile’?” Will smiled wickedly as he quoted a girl we had once overheard talking about me. I rolled my eyes.
“Or maybe it was the way your hair ‘stays windswept without any wind’?” Carter added in a fit of laughter.
“I bet she thinks of you as her knight in shining armor; saving her from the depths of the terrible prison,” I scoffed at Will’s words. He couldn’t be further from the truth with that one. Gwen would probably die before letting anyone be her ‘knight in shining armor’.
“Oh James! Tell me you didn’t break her heart with a final kiss?” Carter shouted in an overly dramatic voice.
“I hardly think I broke her heart, I’m not sure her heart is capable of breaking,” I said with a smirk which caused them both to pause their dramatic swooning fest.
“Wait, who did you meet?” Carter asked.
“It’s funny you should ask what ‘adventures’ I’ve been having,”
“What the hell does that mean?!” Carter boomed while Will eyed me suspiciously.
“I mean there were just so many things that could count as ‘adventures’”
“Who did you meet James?” Will asked urgently, throwing his normally cool demeanor out the window.
“It’s just so difficult to pinpoint just ONE thing that stood out over the others,” I drawled while pointedly ignoring his question. Will rolled his eyes.
“James, it’s so cute that you think I won’t punch you,” Carter said and my smirk grew wider.
“Well I mean if I had to pick ONE thing, I think kissing Gwyneth Simms is pretty far up the list buuuuut…” Will’s eyes bugged out of his head and he had to steady himself on a barrel sitting outside to keep from falling over. Carter’s mouth dropped open.
“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!?” he shouted and the Butcher’s wife snapped open the window above us to glare down at him.
“Carter Sycamore! Language and volume!” she shouted. Will and I stifled our laughter as Carter looked up at her sheepishly and put on his best angelic face.
“I’m so sorry Ms. Bell, I was momentarily-” She rolled her eyes and snapped the window shut again without letting him finish. He dropped the face and turned his attention back to me, completely unfazed.
“Gwyneth Simms?!? Like Samuel Simms’ daughter Gwyneth Simms? Like leader of half the riots in the capitol Gwyneth Simms? Like kill a man in 12 seconds flat Gwyneth Simms? Like stone cold fox-”
“YES!” I shouted at him, beaming widely.
“But how-” Carter began but was interrupted by Will.
“Is she a good kisser?”
“Only you Will,” I smirked at him.
“I’m just curious,” he grinned, “so come on now, spill.” I raised my eyebrows at them and smiled even more as I tilted my head back against the wall and let out a deep sigh.
“You have no idea,”
“Really?” Will raised his eyebrows at me. I tipped my head back towards them and just shook my head since the ability to describe the kiss was beyond me. Carter let out a bark of a laugh.
“Jeez James, I’m used to you leaving girls speechless but not the other way around,” he said as he punched me in the arm. My reflexes were too slow from remembering the kiss to dodge it. Will chuckled at his comment and I glared at both of them.
“I’m not speechless,”
“James darling, the only response we got from you was ‘you have no idea’. You don’t even know how to describe it!” Carter laughed. I opened my mouth to refute his point but Will spoke first.
“So does this mean you and her are… involved?”
“No,” I replied quickly before he had even finished saying the last word. While I was confused about a lot of things having to do with Gwen, that wasn’t one of them.
There weren’t many ways to take “Then this is where we go our separate ways and forget any of this ever happened.”
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved by that,” Will said and I turned to give him an odd look.
“Right because we never do anything dangerous,” I laughed.
“It’s different with her James,”
“How so?” I raised my eyebrows at him. He opened his mouth to reply but closed it again.
“Never mind. Forget I said anything. We should get you home, your mom’s been hounding us for the last few days asking where you’ve been,” I considered pressing the topic since Will never really commented on the reckless things I did but the clock tower chimed 7:30 in the distance and I smiled and nodded, pushing it from my mind.
We set off down the street towards my house and Carter turned to me with a smirk and a glint in his eye. I frowned slightly since the only two things that made his eyes sparkle like that were shiny jewelry and making fun of me. I groaned as he slung his arm over my shoulders.
“So, since you and Ms. Simms aren’t a couple, I feel obliged to tell you–” Will cut him off with a sharp elbow to the ribs.
“Now, now Carter, don’t ruin the surprise for dear James,” he said as a smirk sprung up on his face to match Carter’s. We rounded the corner and turned onto my street and I looked back and forth between the two of them.
“Wait what surprise, what are the two of you going on about?” I continued to nervously glance between them before I spied the thin figure waiting in front of our bakery.
“Shit, no. No you wouldn’t!” I hissed at them as I tried to wiggle out of Carter’s suddenly iron-tight grip. We reached the figure and Will shoved me forward as Carter abruptly unwrapped his arm.
I stumbled forward and the noise on the cobblestones caused the girl to whip her head towards me. A disturbingly huge smile spread over her thin face and her eyes glinted with some sinister other-worldly light. I started to back away from her slowly but she squealed and ran towards me. She jumped onto me and placed her hands on either side of my face as she locked her legs around my waist then planted her lips firmly on mine. My arms circled around her as a reflex when she started to slip and she moved her fingers up into my hair for it. After about a minute she finally removed her mouth.
“JAMES! Oh darling I thought you were dead or captured or injured in a gutter somewhere and that I’d never get to SEE you EVER AGAIN!” she shrieked and I flinched as her high pitched voice rang through my ears.
“Hey Katie,” I muttered as her hands snaked out of my hair to lock behind my neck. I set her down and she gazed up at me. I dropped my hands down to her waist and stepped back a little.
“You just HAVE to come see everyone! You have no IDEA how hard it is going three days without that smile of yours,” she gushed and I gave her my most dazzling smile which made her giggle incessantly.
“Well of course NOW! Curfew’s going to start soon, although I wouldn’t exactly be upset if you came to see me after curfew,” she purred as she reached up to stroke my cheek with her thumb. I smirked at her and she blushed a very deep red.
“Well as nice as that sounds I’m a little busy right now,” Her face fell and I could tell leaving would be a lot more difficult than I thought. In hindsight, smiling had probably been a pretty bad idea.
“But you said you always had time for me,” Oh damn. I forgot about saying that.
“Well of course I do,” I smiled at her and her face immediately lit up again. Dammit, another slip up. I really needed to control this smiling problem.
“Then come on,” she moaned.
“Well it’s just that…” I started without any idea how I was going to finish the sentence. My sister Amy came to my rescue by sticking her head out the door.
“James! Thank Avo you’re back! We need help finishing up for the day and Mom say’s it’s not an option,” she called to me. I gave Katie and apologetic look and slipped out of her grasp to follow Amy inside. I walked in expecting it to be chaos but found the bottom half of our bakery to be almost completely empty aside from three customers and my youngest brother Sam.
“You really shouldn’t lead them on like that,” Amy smirked up at me and I engulfed her in a hug.
“You really need to get better at your timing. I could have used you like 2 minutes earlier,”
“That really seems like your problem lover boy, not mine,” she walked to the counter to help Sam finish up the orders for the day and I stepped over to the ovens. I grabbed the cleaning brush from behind the counter and began scraping off the burnt bits of dough caked onto the bottoms. The last customer walked out as I finished the first one and Sam immediately rushed over to tackle me with a hug.
“Hey there killer,” I smiled down at him.
“JAMES! Oh darling I thought you were dead or captured or–” I shoved him off me and glared at him.
“Oh shut up!” He and Amy simply burst out laughing at my response. It was always a little uncanny how in sync the two of them were, even for twins. I reluctantly let a smile creep onto my lips, “So, uh, how much of that did you actually hear?”
“Enough to know how hard it is to go a whole three days without your smile,” he sighed dramatically and I ran towards him preparing to tackle him. Sam zipped out of the way and I chased him through the bakery while Amy laughed her head off from her position sitting on the counter.
The door opened just as I caught Sam to give him a noggie and my mom and youngest sister Lily walked into the chaotic scene. My mom sighed but had a smile on her face as she told me to let go of Sam then walked over to kiss me on the cheek and hug me. Lily launched herself onto my back, demanding a piggie-back-ride and I dutifully obliged as my mom set the empty baskets she was holding under the stairs. As I finished a third lap around the bakery with Lily Mom sank into a chair and Amy walked over to give her a healing massage to ease some of the tension that always built up behind her shoulders.
“Where are Charlie and Duncan?” I set down Lily and took Amy’s spot on the counter. Amy’s fingers glowed a soft blue while she gently rubbed them across my mom’s back.
“Charlie’s getting more flour and cinnamon for tomorrow from the market and we sent Duncan home at midday,” my mom replied as she closed her eyes took a deep breath.
“Not enough work?”
“Things don’t change that much in three days dear,” Ah so that’s when she was going to bring that up.
“We’ll talk about it later,” she cut me off and glanced at Lily.
“Mom, can I go hang out with Craig?” Sam piped from the counter where he had just finished counting the money we’d earned today.
“Be home in twenty minutes, I want you in before Curfew,” she replied and he beamed and ran towards the door.
“Wait I wanna come!” Lily yelled and ran after him. They both squeezed through the door and ran right into my younger brother Charlie as he came in.
“Sorry Charlie!” Sam cried as he helped him off the ground. Lily simply giggled at the pair of them and leaned against the doorframe.
“Its fine, the jars didn’t break,” he smiled as he held out the jars of cinnamon and flour still cradled in his arms. Sam grinned then turned around to run down the street towards Craig’s house with Lily trailing behind him shouting. Charlie smiled after them and walked through the door to the cupboard above our back counter to store the two jars.
“Got a good price for them today. I think the vendors were trying to give us a last break before the new tax goes into affect,” Charlie said from the back.
“What new tax?” I asked and he turned to look at me.
“Starting next week, Watchers can collect on the spot “crime taxes” from anyone,”
“What’s a ‘crime tax’?”
“Apparently the increased crime rate is because of a ‘lack of law enforcement funding’ so now instead of just being able to arrest anyone whenever they feel like it, they can also walk up to someone who they think is doing something wrong and ask them to pay 10 or 30 or however many itkas.”
“Wait, so you can just buy yourself out of a crime?” I asked, completely appalled.
“Or get taxed for something you never did,” Charlie nodded.
“What a bullshit act! How the hell did that make it through!?” I cried and Mom gave me a look for swearing.
“I’ll give you one guess,” Charlie smirked at me and I narrowed my eyes.
“Simms?” he nodded and my fists clenched. “I swear, pretty soon walking to the market is going to be a taxable offense,” Charlie chuckled at my anger and the sound of his laughter eased some of it away.
“No more politics, at least not until after dinner,” Mom cut in as Amy finished with her shoulders. Charlie and I nodded at her and gave each other a look.
“Amy, what do we still have left?” I asked and she crossed the room to check.
“A loaf of Dragonseed and two Cinnamon,” she called and I smiled. Cinnamon bread was my favorite. Amy sliced it open and handed me a slice. As I bit into it, the spicy-sweet mixture swarmed my taste buds and my smile broadened. When I was a kid Mom used to joke that if I ate any more of it, I’d be made of cinnamon but that only made me eat more. I mean, how cool would it have been to be MADE of cinnamon? I loved the spicy sweetness of it; like the spice was always contradicting itself and depending on how much you added to a batch, it could be either or both. Spicy-sweet. Like Gwen.
The next morning I woke up grumpy and sore to the sound of Duncan’s voice.
“James, Jaames, Jaaaaaaaaames,” I swatted his hands away and scowled at him through what I’m sure was VERY attractive bed head.
“What time is it? And I swear to Avo if you say ‘time to get up’ I WILL hit you,”
Duncan laughed at my angry demeanor.
“It’s about a quarter to five. Get up, you need to help get the bakery ready,” Damn. I’d been hoping he’d had a terrible reason to wake me up so early. I groaned and threw the covers off then shuffled to our ancient dresser to throw on a shirt.
“How’re your ribs?” Duncan called from his position on my bed. I whirled around and flinched since the motion made them hurt. My hand flew to my side and Duncan snickered.
“They’re fantastic,” I grumbled, “How’d you hear about them?”
“I ran into Carter and Will last night,”
“Oh and the three of you had nothing better to talk about other than my health?”
“Yeah James, because that’s what everyone you know does. We just talk about YOU all the time when you’re not around. No, they mentioned you were back and I asked how you were,”
A smile crept onto my face at his sarcasm. I’d missed him almost as much as Katie had missed me. He was our neighbor and one of my best friends. We grew up together and a few years ago he started working at the bakery with us. Honestly, if Carter and Will hadn’t told him, he probably would have figured out about my ribs on his own.
“Psshh, be honest Duncan, you really were just talking about me the whole time weren’t you?” He raised his eyebrows and we turned towards the stairs.
“Oh no James, you’ve caught me,”
I snickered as we reached the bottom of the stairs and were met by the chaos of the bakery in the morning. Amy was grabbing spice after spice out of our seasoning cabinet and dumping different combinations of them into bowls of dough lined up on the counter in front of her. A large cake tin was sitting on the counter next to where Charlie was pouring sugar into a bowl Sam was stirring. Lily was maneuvering a glob of dough into the oven I had cleaned and Mom was rapidly kneading loaf after loaf of the pile that was building on the counter next to her. She snapped her head up to look at us as we arrived in the commotion.
“James, come help me with this. Duncan, get the other ovens clean and fired up then you’re on pastry duty. It’s Gina Murray’s birthday and her mom ordered sweets for it so we’ve got double the work there this morning,” she barked and we both moved to our stations.
Duncan always got cleaning duty since he was the only one capable of cleaning magic. It’s the main reason he got the job over the dozens of others who applied when my mom put up the advertisement. He could use whatever type of magic was needed of him without any formal training. I asked him how he did it once since everyone else needs tutoring and training to hewn their magic and he told me he just kinda searched his head for what he needed and it told him. He shrugged and told me that all the information has always just sort of been there, it was just a matter of accessing it.
Duncan crouched in front of the first oven and placed his hands in the dirty interior then closed his eyes. He cleared his throat and said, “Tergius,” His hands glowed yellow and the light shot all around the oven. It scoured off the bits of burnt dough and shifted to a slightly darker more orangey-yellow then shot back into his hands. The light died down leaving the oven clean and ready for Lily’s next blob of dough which came right behind Duncan.
“Hang on, I’ve just got to heat it,” he faced his palms towards the oven and they glowed red. The glow passed from his hands to the oven and it glowed a nice I’m-ready-to-bake-bread color.
“Thanks Duncan!” Lily piped and he ducked under her scoop to move to the next oven as she slid the dough in.
The morning passed in a blur of madness as we rushed to get everything ready by 6:30 and then dealt with the morning rush. I didn’t get a chance to sneak upstairs to grab my mask and our loot from the last few weeks until half past 10 when the number of customers dwindled to the single digits. I slid the mask up my sleeve and was about to climb out our upstairs window when Duncan’s voice cut me off.
“Another market day Thief?” I took a deep breath and faced him.
“My work doesn’t make money sitting under a loose floor board,”
“Just be careful,”
“I’m always careful,” I said and Duncan scoffed and gave me a very pointed look.
“Right James, I’m sure you are,” he said sarcastically.
“It’s just Salamander and I always wear the mask. No one there knows who the Thief is,” I said reasonably, hoping my tone would have some affect on him.
“Get out before 1:30,” he said with a ridiculous amount of finality. Duncan was our eyes and ears on the street. While the three of us were off stealing, he was figuring out all he could about what the Watchers did and didn’t know to keep us as safe as he could.
“Why? What happens at 1:30?”
“I’ve heard they’re doing a surprise check on Salamander to make sure everything being sold is legal. And to look for you I assume” he added and gave me another look.
“Nothing they sell is legal,” I said, pointedly ignoring his caution about the added danger for me.
“I’m sure the vendors have dealt with it before, and besides it’s only a rumor. I just thought you should know and play it on the safe side for once,” I rolled my eyes. I’m always safe…or most of the time I try to be.
“I promise I’ll be out before 1:30,” I said and dropped out the window before he could say anything else. Duncan was great but since he spent most of his free time listening for tips and rumors, he was really really overly cautious. The guy had no respect for the amount of risk required for the job. I mean sometimes you just have to go for something, despite the warning and it pays off. In our line of work, that’s a pretty key concept.
About a block outside the market I slid my black mask out of my shirt and tied it on. I used it whenever I was the Thief instead of James and all the posters with the Thief on it had me in my mask, looking dashing and dangerous and I’m sure, breaking the heart of many a school girl. I stepped into the market and smiled at the familiar atmosphere of law breaking.
Salamander Market was situated on the corner where Sectors 7, 3, and 5 met and it operated under the pretense of being a market devoted to people with bizarre tastes and hobbies. In reality, it was a breeding ground of criminal activity. Weapons of every size and shape could be found lining the vendor’s walls and you could find an illegal magical object for every law outlawing such things (the market was really into diversity of lawbreaking). Lucky talismans and “cures for curses” were common items found on the corners between the rows of shops and were often sold by crazy old medicine men from the far southern city-state of Virtronia. It was the only place we could sell our clearly stolen merchandise and get a good price for it.
Marcus Flemming’s Blade Emporium was my first stop since Gwen so kindly stole my favorite knife. Marcus had the best selection in the city. You need a concealed blade you say? Marcus has it. Or maybe something longer than the city limit of 5 inches unless it’s a bread knife. Mr. Flemming is your man as well. How about a full on sword to win over a duel with a rival? Again, Marcus Flemming has you covered.
Marcus himself was in his mid-thirties and had curly black hair and a nose that would have been described as button – if the button had been smashed then glued back together six times. His face was a mask of pale slashes that cut through his features and his eyes were as sharp as the knives they watched over. A small wiry fellow, criminals new to town often tried to rob his stand only to be rewarded with a deep gash on whichever hand they had attempted to steal with. The poor boys were laid up in bed for a few weeks while the poison his personal knife was tipped with drained from their wound. Needless to say, they didn’t make the mistake of messing with him again.
“Morning Flemming!” I called happily over the general rabble of the market around us. He looked up from cutting his fingernails with a knife and smiled.
“How’ve you been, Thief?” That’s what everyone down there called me. With Will and Carter, they knew their names but with me, it was always just Thief. My job was my identity.
“Don’t you read the papers?” I smirked and he raised his eyebrows.
“So plenty of spending money today then?” now it was his turn to smirk.
“Not a ton but I – erm – misplaced my favorite knife yesterday,” Flemming’s eyebrows receded even further into his hairline.
“Pretty careless of you to misplace that blade,” he mocked, clearly not buying my story, “It was one of my finest,” I smiled sheepishly and cast my eyes to the ground as I rubbed the back of my neck.
“Yeah, I know. How much to replace it?”
“It was one of a kind, Thief. I can get you something different but just as good, but nothing can replace it,” He growled, highly disgruntled. Did I forget to mention that he treated his knives like children? To be fair, he did make each knife uniquely and they were all beautifully crafted but still… it’s a knife, not a painting.
I sighed. My old knife had been so nice. Easily portable and concealable as well as perfectly balanced when it was open.
“What do you have?”
I spent the next hour and a half choosing a new knife that was both a quality weapon and within my price range. My main buyer hadn’t bothered to show up yet and my funds were severely limited. However, I finally settled on a great little knife with a very slightly curved black blade that folded into the carved red handle for easy transportation. It was a little longer than my old faithful black one but I felt the style of this one would make up for it. Hey, when you got as famous as I was getting, your weapons had to be sleek and fashionable.
Finally at half past noon I broke away from Flemming after receiving a long-winded mocking for getting my knife stolen when I was supposed to be the best thief in the city – and on and on. The buyer still wasn’t there yet so I went off to “procure” an extra bushel of apples for dinner that night then headed back to Salamander.
Terry Tamkes’ was my customer. He was in his late 40’s with salt and pepper hair and shifty brown eyes, trained by years of hard work to spot a Watcher from a mile away. Some might’ve called him overly suspicious but when you’ve been in the business of breaking the law for as long as he had, suspicious is the difference between life and death.
“Hello Tamkes!” He glanced up at me quickly and nodded.
“What’ve ya got for me today, Thief?”
“More jewelry than normal since Carter’s been spending more time working but also a very nice item I think you’ll be interested in,”
“What do ya need?”
“Just money Tamkes, that’s all I ever need,”
“Damn, because I just got this very nifty little piece of magic here that I thought you of all people would be interested in,” a small smile twitched onto his face as he pulled a red stone disk out of his pocket. I must say, my interest was peaked. Good ol’ Tamkes knew my tastes well and whenever he put something aside for me, I unfortunately always loved it.
“What is it?”
“Nothing less than genuine invisibility. Perfect for someone in your line of work I’d say Mr. Thief,” Tamkes cackled nervously and glanced up and down the street as he held the stone towards me. See what I mean? He always got me spot on.
“What’s it worth to you?” I asked and Tamkes “subtly” peered into my bag.
“Those candle holders and picture frames look rather lovely,” he leered and I pulled them out. “Ah an’ the pictures too! You did well for you’self there Thief,” he cackled and pulled the frames up to his old eyes. It always creeped me out that picture frames were worth more down here if they had the rich and powerful’s pictures still in them.
“Are they worth the stone?”
“I’d say so,” Tamkes said as he traced his dirty fingers over the gold candle holders. He set the stone on the counter and I reached out to grab it. I stopped and pulled my hand back.
“I’m sorry, I can’t today,” There were more important things I needed to get with what I stole than new magic trinkets – no matter how tempting they were. My mom needed money to keep the bakery going. School would be starting again soon and we all needed tuition and our own books since the charming Education Minister figured out that making the students pay for their own stuff saved him gobs of money. Charlie and Amy had both outgrown their old uniforms and every week we got closer and closer to losing the bakery to a new tax.
“Right well, maybe next week then,” Tamkes muttered and slid the stone off the counter and into his pocket. He pulled out his watch and frowned at the time then glanced up and down the street. Still peering down the road, he asked me hurriedly “Wha’ was the item you thought I’d like?”
I dug through my bag and pulled out a long brown box that jangled as I set it down in front of him with a loud thud.
“What’s tha’?” Tamkes said, as he stashed the pictures and candle holders under the counter. I put on my most charming smile and opened the box to reveal a full set of genuine silver silverware that gleamed even in the dull light.
“Check the engraving,” I said smugly and passed him a silver fork. He pulled the utensil right up to his eye and squinted at the tiny K.C. engraved in the soft metal.
“Kassilo Crane? Tell me you weren’t tha’ stupid boy,” he muttered and flicked his eyes up to me before continuing to gaze at the fork.
“It’s not stupid unless I get caught,” I replied and he scoffed.
“Sorry kid, no deal,” he said and I frowned, bewildered. This would be a perfect buy for him. Whatever low-life “collectors” he sold to would be ecstatic that the original engravings were still there and that the set was still so clean.
Seeing the look of disbelief on my face Tamkes added hastily, “It’s too hot kid,”
“And with the discount?” A few months before, Tamkes and I worked out a deal where if I brought in “merchandise” that was too recently stolen he would buy it at a discounted price to make up for the added danger it brought to his outfit.
“It’s still out of my price range kid,” he replied quickly, his eyes shifting nervously around the market. My eyes narrowed. Now he was just making up excuses.
“Are you kidding? You could sell this for twice what it’s worth. What’s really tying you up Tamkes?” I pressed. His dull gray pupils rested on me for a second and he glanced around one last time before grabbing my shirt collar and pulling me forward close enough so that I could see every speck of food on his yellow teeth.
“I can’t buy hot stuff from you anymore, kid. I used to be able to get away with it but—” Shouting and a few scattered screams rang throughout the market and Tamkes’ eyes grew so wide he looked like a bullfrog. 1:30 on the dot, Thatch was never late.