Deep Secrets: Part Three
“I got ‘em!”
The Nimmo looked up from his book. “What?”
His brother produced a little parcel of brown paper. “There were two of them, it turned out.”
“No.” The Nimmo stood up. “You didn’t—“
“I did.” The Flotsam grinned. “I told you I would, didn’t I.”
“Charan...” He gripped the back of his chair. “I thought you were joking! You have to bring them back now.”
Charan waved a flipper. “Calm down, okay? He’ll think Mr. Pyle took them, anyway.”
“You got Mr. Pyle involved in this? Charan, what did you—“
“Of course I didn’t, what do you think. Everyone knows Ashmore hates Pyle.” Charan made a face at his brother. “Anyway, he’s old. Where’d he wear these rings?”
“He would sell them,” Roald said. “You have to give them back.”
The blue Flotsam flopped into a chair. “Roald, look around you. What do you see? Filth, cobwebs, dust. We’re poor. We could sell these to—to the king. To the king, Roald. What would Ashmore do with them? Let them gather dust in some case in his store. No one ever goes in there, anyway.”
“And after we sell them,” Charan said, “we could go back and leave him some of the money. It’s almost like we’re just his agents.”
The Nimmo sighed.
“Come on. I’ve always wanted to see the inside of the palace.”
“If they’ve heard about the robbery, they’ll arrest us,” Roald said.
His brother grinned. “Exactly. That’s why we go now, and give fake names. With the money we make from this, we could go to Terror Mountain. Neopia Central. Mystery Island. Anywhere, Roald. Haven’t you always wanted to travel?”
“Well—if you really think—” Roald drifted across the room to where his jacket hung over a chair.
Charan knew his brother entirely too well.
The road to the palace was long and dry, flanked by pairs of guards at some certain interval. The palace itself lay far from the city, and the sun glinted off gold trim and glass windows.
“State your business,” the first guard on the left, a red Lenny, had said lazily as they came up to them.
“Rings to sell to His Majesty,” Roald said, sounding as impressive and bored as he could—as if he saw rings like these every day.
He hadn’t. Charan had showed them to him, when they were transferring them to a more official-looking box, and the Nimmo’s eyes had almost fallen out of his head.
“Let me see.” Still, not even a touch of interest.
Roald took the box from Charan and opened it, holding it far enough away that the guard couldn’t snatch it from him.
“Pass,” the Lenny said after a moment.
The Nimmo closed the box, and they continued on. They walked unchallenged after that, all the way up to the palace gates themselves.
“Halt. What business?”
“We have some rings His Majesty may be interested in seeing,” Roald said, and yawned.
The guard, a yellow Ruki, looked suspicious. “Where are they?”
He showed them, and they were ushered through and given a footman to bring them to the throne room.
“Usually,” their guide told them, walking backwards up a flight of carpeted steps, “merchants deal with the Secretary of Purchases. Luckily for you, your rings are interesting enough that you’ll be taken straight into the presence of the King. Also luckily, he’s taking callers today.”
Charan wasn’t listening; he was looking around in awe at their surroundings. Roald jabbed him in the ribs to stop gaping, and the Flotsam glared at him.
Roald was nervous. The footman, a golden Acara, turned around to walk forward, and the Nimmo whispered to his brother, “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“It’s a great idea,” Charan whispered back. “It’s a fantastic idea. In half an hour we’ll be gone.”
Roald still looked nervous, but just then the footman led them around a corner and announced, “The royal throne room. Wait here.”
He slipped through the doors, and Roald gave Charan a look.
“It’s going well so far,” the Flotsam said.
The doors were thick. They couldn’t hear anything from the other side. Roald held his breath, and Charan fidgeted excitedly.
The Acara slipped back out. “All right. He’ll see you. Now remember—you’re in the presence of a King, so be polite, don’t speak unless you’re spoken to, address him as Your Majesty, and remember, if you do anything wrong we can throw you in the dungeons for three times your probable lifespan.” He straightened Roald’s jacket collar and tugged at the shoulders of Charan’s shirt. “What are your names?”
“I—“ Charan started, but Roald interrupted.
“I’m Stephen Hincken. He’s Charlie.”
“Okay, good.” The footman pushed the doors wide open. “Announcing Charles and Stephen Hincken,” he shouted, and then turned back and winked at them. “Good luck!” he whispered, and slid past them before the doors could close.
Charan started forward, and Roald followed. The throne room was too wide for comfort, and the ceiling wasn’t quite high enough to keep it in proportion. Roald swallowed and looked at where they were going.
The King sat on a high golden throne. Steps ran down from all sides with gilded banisters. He was a Quiggle; like the room, he was too wide and not tall enough.
The brothers were walking down a stripe of red carpet that ran from the door to the throne. Farther down, they could see a group turning to see who had come in.
For a moment, the people farther back were obscured by those in front, but then they shifted and Roald caught a glimpse of who was standing closest to the throne: a quivering Ogrin in a long coat that almost swept the ground.
It took less than a minute for the King to figure out what had happened, and when he had, he smiled.
“Ethan Ashmore. Please, accept this reimbursement for your loss.” He gestured, and footmen brought out thousands of Neopoints swept into a bag. “The thieves will be punished.”
The Ogrin took the bag, staggering back, and Augustine caught him and put him on his feet, gently.
“And—and my rings?” Ethan asked, looking up at the King. “Your Majesty,” he added quickly.
The King smiled. “I think you forget your place, Ethan. Or do you want a cell here, too?”
Ethan shook his head, his hooves trembling.
“I thought not. No, I am keeping these rings, and you may tell your customers that the King wears jewelry of your making. If you make any more like these, let me know.” A footman came up the steps toward the throne: the box sat on a velvet cushion. At the top he sank onto one knee and opened the box, holding it up for the King.
“Good day,” the Quiggle said idly, and took the rings out, slipping them on: one, two.
They left quickly, half dragging Ethan behind them. Roald and Charan tried to slip out, too, and the Acara footman stopped them at the door.
“Ah—no. The dungeon is the other way. Thomas?”
“Aye.” A red Elephante in a footman’s uniform came over.
“Help me escort these two to their justly deserved places, would you?” the Acara asked.
The Elephante grinned. “Why,” he said, looking at Roald and Charan with undisguised glee, “I believe I may.”
Their cells were across from each other. They could talk, if they wanted to.
Roald retreated immediately to the back of his cell and lay down in a pile of straw.
“I’m sorry, Roald—”
The Nimmo didn’t answer.
“Roald—it was a good plan, though—wasn’t it?” The Flotsam put his flippers around the bars in the front of his cell.
Roald flopped over onto his stomach and stared at the thick stone back wall. He didn’t say anything.
“Okay, so it was stupid. I’m sorry.” Charan couldn’t help adding, “It was worth a try—”
“Charan. You idiot.” Roald rolled over again and sat up, glaring across at his brother. “You should be glad they put us in different cells, because if they hadn’t, I would probably try to strangle you right now. Don’t tempt me.”
Charan subsided. “I just wanted—”
“I know what you wanted,” the Nimmo muttered, and lay down again. “Now be quiet. I’m trying to think.”
It stormed that night, for the first time in months: the desert was a dry place. It ran off the buttresses and towers of the palace roof and dripped in streams off gutters.
Charan pressed up next to the window, licking puddles of rain off the sill and the iron bars and pushing his flippers out to catch the falling drops. Roald sat against the wall, ignoring the little rivulets of water that ran down the wall of his cell and pooled against his back.
There were no other prisoners nearby. Once every two hours the warden stumped through, a green Eyrie three-legged like the training master of Krawk Island. He peered into each cell, as if to make certain they hadn’t escaped yet, and then grunted and went on.
Guards stood by the corner of each block of cells.
They were still in the palace, but there was no gold leaf here.
Roald hardly moved as a stream of rainwater, moving faster than the others, jetted out from the windowsill and, falling, hit him squarely in the head.
Then he sighed and shook his head, sending water splattering in all directions, and retreated to the little iron-framed bed they had provided him.
Charan drew away from his window and came to the front of his cell, wrapping flippers around the bars there.
“Have you thought of anything yet?”
His voice had lost its cheer even after just a few hours, Roald thought, and wondered what Charan would be like after days in here. Weeks. Months.
“No,” he said. “But I’m close.”
Charan’s face brightened immediately.
It was a lie, but sometimes lies were necessary. And, really, this wasn’t about the rings any more.
It was about Roald, and his brother, and getting out of here before the weight of the palace on the Flotsam’s shoulders broke them.
To be continued...