Ultimate Decision: Part One
Renelle hurried through the bustling streets of Altador, clutching a small golden watch. The red Aisha pushed her way through the crowds that mingled in the marketplace as she made her way down the stone road toward the familiar brown cart that displayed an array of fine jewelry for sale. Holding the watch so tightly that her hand ached, Renelle reached with her other arm to smooth out the apron that lay over her patched purple dress, already dusty from the morning’s work at the castle. Renelle had been cleaning the hallway outside King Altador’s chamber when she had come across the watch resting on an end table next to the door. Checking to make sure she was alone in the hallway, Renelle had quickly grabbed the watch as well as the note that lay next to it: Broken, send to Gordos to see if it can be fixed. The note rustled in her apron pocket as Renelle walked quickly through the street, hoping that Hadia would be willing to buy the trinket and resell it.
The shadow Ruki was standing next to her jewelry cart, but no customers were browsing at the moment that Renelle arrived. The red Aisha stopped to catch her breath as Hadia turned to acknowledge her. “Do you have something for me?” the Ruki muttered, her lips barely moving and her eyes still staring out at the rest of the crowded marketplace.
“Yes,” said Renelle, reaching over to place the watch into Hadia’s hand. The Ruki’s fingers closed around the object, and she looked down. Renelle watched as the dealer turned it over a few times and held it up to her ear.
“This is broken,” said Hadia darkly.
“Yes, I know,” whispered Renelle, glancing out over the crowd. “But it’s gold, and it must be worth something, right?”
“No one wants to buy a broken watch, gold or not,” said Hadia, placing the item on her cart. She turned to face Renelle for the first time. “I’ll give you fifty neopoints for it.”
Fifty neopoints? That was it? Renelle had risked her job by stealing a possession from the King, and fifty neopoints would not even cover one tenth of her astronomy club monthly membership, not to mention the rent for her small home or the food and clothes and other necessities that the Aisha needed. Her wages from her work as a maid in the castle were meager as it was, and Renelle had taken to selling any trinkets she could snatch through the black market for extra income. She hated living like this, but Renelle was in a desperate situation. She needed more than fifty neopoints, but she knew that Hadia’s offer would be firm. Fearing that asking for more would only cause the Ruki to refuse the item altogether, Renelle said in a quiet voice, “All right.”
Hadia fiddled with one of the many small bags that were tied around her waist, finally removing one and giving it underhandedly to Renelle. “Next time,” said the Ruki in a low whisper, “make it worth my while. Otherwise, consider yourself a stranger to me.”
* * * * *
Renelle was cleaning the upper hallways again. The portraits that lined the walls needed to be dusted, the pieces of furniture that sat at varying intervals throughout the corridors needed to be cleaned, the carpet needed to be swept, and the doorknobs needed to be polished. And Renelle was already exhausted.
She had spent the previous evening in the Observatory above the Hall of Heroes, although now she was beginning to regret it. The Astronomy Club had held their weekly meeting there, and the Aisha had enjoyed herself immensely, taking her turn peering through the large telescope, watching the other Neopets as they identified the constellations on their large map, and staring down through the open stairwell into the ring of statues below. It had been such a clear night, and her membership to the club had certainly cost her enough, so the Aisha had decided she may as well take advantage of the privileges. However, she had not thought ahead to how tired she would be for the next day’s chores.
It was with heavy eyelids that Renelle went about her work, mechanically sweeping the dust and crumbs off the carpet into a dustpan. She had been working all morning and afternoon, and as evening drew near she found herself at last in the final corridor. Jerdana’s personal chamber was at the end of the hallway right next to a flight of stairs, and Renelle was relieved to think that once she swept herself all the way up to the door she would be finished.
The Aisha bent over to move the dustpan further down the carpet, and then straightened up to lift the broom once more. Working as a maid in the Altadorian castle was hard work for low pay, and Renelle found herself wishing once more that she could work elsewhere.
This silent complaint reminded her of Hadia and the Ruki trader’s warning that Renelle needed to bring back something of greater value. The Aisha thought that if she could finally manage to sneak something expensive out of the castle, she would be able to quit her job as maid and work in the Observatory, or the Archives, or somewhere—anywhere—else. Anything would be better than breaking her back every day sweeping.
Renelle found herself staring at Jerdana’s chamber door. Surely the Protector would have many objects of worth in her personal room. Of course, Renelle had never actually entered anyone’s room without permission; doing such would be grounds for dismissal. She had contented herself with taking objects that were already laid out, objects that no one would miss, and she already felt more than guilty enough doing that. She had contented herself with selling them for low prices to Hadia, who surely sold them for at least double at her jewelry cart. She had contented herself with working long hours in the castle, making meager wages that barely allowed her to live in modest comfort. She had contented herself with the low life for too long, and before she even knew that she had done it, Renelle pushed the broom aside and took a step toward Jerdana’s door.
But she would need to be careful. Evening was drifting into night, and the inhabitants of the castle would soon be retiring to their chambers. The Aisha would have to move quickly: in and out, just grab something and run. But not just anything; she needed something valuable. Renelle needed to steal something that, if sold, would allow her to never feel the need to steal again.
Yes, this would be the last time. Renelle took a few more steps toward the wooden door, glancing out a window as she passed. The sprawling grounds of the city were laid out in front of her; the streets were still busy, but they would be emptying soon. Hadia was probably still at her cart, managing her shady business. Perhaps if she hurried Renelle could catch the Ruki before she left for the night.
It would be over after this. In and out, in and out, Renelle found herself thinking, almost as if she was telling herself to breathe. Silence and speed would be the key. Find something valuable and get out. She was right in front of the door now, and a sudden worry crossed Renelle’s mind. She reached forward and grabbed the door handle. To her relief, it was unlocked, but her hand left a smear on the finely polished surface; she would have to wipe it down after she left. But that was her job wasn’t it? Polish the doorknobs, dust the furniture, sweep the floors... No one would expect the maid to steal; indeed she had not even expected it of herself, but her need had become so dire that she found herself doing many things she had hoped never to do.
She wouldn’t have to steal again. As long as she made enough neopoints off of whatever item she could find in Jerdana’s room, Renelle knew that she wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with Hadia anymore. She would be able to live the life that she wanted. She would find a job doing what she enjoyed, staying up late watching the stars, and not worrying about being tired for the next day’s hard work. Just the thought of such a life seemed like a distant wish, but Renelle knew that it was very close indeed.
Time was pressing on, and with one last look at the darkening hallway around her, the Aisha grabbed the doorknob once more and pushed open the door. The well-oiled hinges were silent, and the heavy wooden door melted back like water, allowing Renelle to slip into the room with ease.
Her eyes immediately scanned her surroundings. Jerdana’s chamber was not as large as she had expected, but it was big enough to be hiding a vast amount of valuable objects, and Renelle searched for anything that might catch her eye. But of course, the most expensive items would not be in the open; Jerdana would have hidden them away somewhere. Her heart pounding, the Aisha crossed the room to a wide wardrobe. An arched mirror rested on the wall above the set of drawers, and Renelle couldn’t help but look into her own eyes. This is the last time, she told herself, attempting to ease the guilt that was welling up inside of her. Just get it over with, and everything will be fine. This is the last time...
Not quite reassured, Renelle opened the top drawer. She needed to be careful not to mess anything up; if the room appeared searched, Jerdana would know that something was wrong. Instead, Renelle merely looked carefully at the contents of each drawer before closing them. Old parchment, writing materials, and some ripped envelopes filled the first drawer. The second held ribbons and bows and other accessories; in the third were stacked dresses and other clothes. Nothing of value could be found in the dresser, so Renelle moved over to the closet. More clothes were hung here, but no jewelry or other items could be seen. Growing frustrated, the Aisha peered under the Protector’s four poster bed, but it was bare.
How could Jerdana not keep anything expensive in her room? Renelle stood up and scanned the chamber once more. She was tempted to lift the pictures that hung on the wall to see if a hidden safe lay behind any of them, but if she put them back crooked then she might be caught. Realizing that she had already spent too long searching, Renelle turned back to the wardrobe and opened the bottom drawer once more. She had been careful before to leave everything undisturbed, but in her desperation the Aisha pushed aside the folded clothes and reached toward the back of the dresser. To her surprise and relief, she felt the corner of a box.
Glancing behind her through the open doorway, Renelle could see that the corridor was still empty, but it was growing darker and Jerdana would be coming upstairs any minute. The Aisha pulled the box out of the drawer and sat down on the floor, holding it in her lap. It was made of plain wood, with no special markings or locks or anything which might betray its contents. Renelle hurriedly flipped the latch and lifted the top.
Immediately, she knew that this was what she had been looking for.
The box contained a small golden amulet, in which were laid five dazzling rubies. A red pattern covered the center, and eight veins of gold ran out from the ruby that rested in the very middle, like rays of sunlight, sparkling even in the darkness of the room. The golden talisman was attached to a thin chain, and Renelle held it up to the light that shone dimly through the window.
A sound from below made the Aisha jump. Someone had begun climbing the staircase. Renelle hurriedly shut the wooden box and shoved it back into the drawer, frantically arranging the folded clothes in front of it. She pushed the drawer closed and, with one last quick look around the room to make sure everything was in place, she slipped through the door and closed it tightly behind her.
Renelle found herself at the foot of the stairs. Whoever was ascending them would reach the halfway landing at any moment and turn to see Renelle standing there. She fled down the hallway, hastily dropping the amulet into her apron pocket. The Aisha grabbed her broom and bent over the dustpan just as Jerdana came into view.
Renelle’s heart was pounding and sweat had begun to bead on her forehead, but she tried to act as innocent as possible, sweeping the broom into the dustpan silently. Jerdana seemed to have noticed her, because the fair Aisha called, “Good evening,” in a kind voice.
Renelle could not bring herself to speak. The casual, sweet tone of Jerdana’s voice made her want to be sick. The red Aisha merely nodded politely and bent down to lift her dustpan. She watched as Jerdana opened the door to her chamber and disappeared.
This is the last time, Renelle promised herself once more, feeling the amulet tapping against her legs as she walked down the corridor. Surely such a priceless artifact would provide her with enough neopoints to decisively end her petty crimes. As soon as she sold the amulet, Renelle knew that all would be well. She would have enough money to live comfortably, she could find a better job, and she would never have to steal again. This is the last time. From now on, Renelle knew that her decisions would be easy. No longer would she have to choose between pain and crime. This was the last time.
To be continued...