The Color of Dark Chocolate
The doors creaked open with a groaning noise, causing the young Ruki waiting outside them to wince ever so slightly. In her practice, creaking doors were a bad sign—they could mean the difference between success and failure. She noted this fact and others—like the round yellow light that flickered on automatically as she stepped through the doors, and the clicking noise her heels made against the polished tile floor. Of course, ordinarily she wouldn’t wear heels—but today wasn’t ordinary business; today was about getting a customer.
She stepped quickly inside as a servant closed the doors shut behind her. She nodded to him and then looked out at the hall she’d stepped into, impressed in spite of herself. The tiled floor was in alternating colors of white chocolate and milk chocolate, the chandelier was made of colored glass the exact shade of a Chocolate Cybunny Negg, and there were at least four types of fountains lining the staircases, each bubbling up liquid chocolate.
The effect was quite nice—the room was tastefully decorated in white, warm brown, and the near-black of dark chocolate. The servant disappeared through a side door, and the Ruki paused to admire a Chocolate Stamp positioned in the center of a well-lit glass case by one of the fountains.
There was a slight cough—the servant was back again. The Ruki turned toward the direction the servant was walking—toward the largest, most ornate staircase. Of course. The owner was making his entrance.
He strode down the stairs with just the right amount of the presumptuous condescending attitude for which he was famous—the knowledge that he had the best of everything and that there was no choice but for everyone to treat him with the utmost admiration and respect. Unfortunately, unlike so many others, he was absolutely right in this regard.
So the Ruki had no choice but to stand there and force herself to look somewhat admiring and respectful. The fact that she was standing near what was apparently one of his expensive possessions seemed to add to this.
“Ah, it seems you’re admiring my Chocolate Stamp,” he said comfortably, stepping off the staircase gracefully and dismissing his servant with a flourish of one of his front hooves. “The finest stamp in my collection, of course, which is why I chose to display it in the front hall.” He put one of his hooves on the glass. “Excellent glass, and you wouldn’t even guess at how long it took me to find a proper light. I couldn’t go accidentally melting something that was worth millions.” He smiled at her indulgently. “Of course, most people would argue that this is a food. . .which of course it is, but I don’t see fancy chocolate as a delicacy; I see it as something to collect.”
At this point he smiled at her and she looked stonily back. This only seemed to make him smile wider.
“My name is Ceden Monroe, but you will already know that, of course,” he said, walking away from her and going to stand in the light under the chandelier. “Chocolate collecter, expert, extraordinaire, anything you want to call me, really. But I’ll have you know that I don’t like chocolate.”
At this point she had to act surprised—not only was his whole house decorated with chocolate, but he was Chocolate himself, for Fyora’s sake.
Ceden smiled even wider, noting her confusion smugly. “I love it.”
She could have rolled her eyes at the cliché effect of it. But of course she didn’t—he was a prospective employer.
“I am quite noted in the chocolate lovers’ world,” Ceden continued. “I am well-known as being a chocolate fanatic. They are right, of course, but they are all jealous of me. I have every fancy or costly thing you can think of that relates to chocolate.”
“If you have everything, what do you need me for?” she asked. She wouldn’t have bothered if it weren’t for the fact that it looked like he was going to ramble on for another fifteen minutes before he finally told her what he wanted.
Ceden sniffed—disappointed, it seemed, that he had to cut his speech short. “Well, you are, as I am, quite well-known, are you not? In a. . .different sort of way. You are not fabulously wealthy or bourgeois like I am.”
“I’m skilled at. . .” she cut in.
The Uni held up one perfectly polished hoof. “I know very well what you are skilled in—that is why I have hired you. You are Kerri, are you not?”
“Yes,” she said, because it was the truth. Not that she usually bothered with that sort of thing—honesty—it was unfortunately often fatal in her business. But this was a harmless truth.
“Yes,” he repeated. “Thank you, Kerri, for making the long journey here. . .where were you last?”
“The Haunted Woods,” she answered, “not on business. I came from there.”
“Yes,” he said again. “I could have guessed as much. You are a Halloween pet, after all.”
She waited, impatiently, for him to get on with it.
He put his hand on her shoulder and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Yes. . .let me tell you about it. You see, when I said I have everything, I meant everything already made. Yet.”
“So this thing has. . .not been made yet?” Kerri asked. “How in Fyora’s name am I supposed to steal something that hasn’t been made?”
“I said yet.” He was the one who sounded impatient now. “Listen, I will tell you about it. . .”
Lady Vivianne was not pleased. And when she wasn’t pleased, whoever was on the end of her receiving wrath was going to have an awful time of it.
“Why in Neopia,” she hissed softly, “is this statue not ready yet?”
The Pteri in front of her gulped nervously, wringing his wings. “W-well, miss, it’s because it’s not. . .well. . .done.”
“I know that,” she snapped. “But why?”
“Erm. . .well. . .” he stammered.
“Aurelia!” Lady Vivianne snapped, calling her personal assistant. The young Chocolate Xweetok hurried forward guiltily, hiding her hands behind her back.
“The Chocolate Ball is tomorrow,” Vivianne said to her assistant, “and in less than an hour I will be counting the chocolates. And if any of them are missing. . .” She left the sentence hanging in the air threateningly.
Aurelia swallowed and looked at Vivianne’s outstretched hand. Sighing, the young Xweetok dropped three wrapped chocolates into the Ogrin’s palm.
“Good,” Vivianne said briskly, placing the candies in her pocket. She turned to her assistant. “Why is the sculptor not finished yet?”
“Um,” Aurelia said hesitantly, and looked hopefully at the Pteri.
“I’m not used to the material, madam,” the Pteri apologized.
“What is that supposed to mean? You are Rhigan the Great—at least, your resume says that. . .” Vivianne grabbed a clipboard from a nearby table and peered at it cynically. She sniffed. “You put here that you won four sculpting competitions on Mystery Island,” she said, looking up at Rhigan. “Surely you can work with any material.”
“T-they were all wood carving competitions, madam,” he stammered. “Surely you will understand—I am a master of carving tikis. . .”
“Tikis!” the Ogrin exclaimed. She rested her forehead on her palm, sighed heavily, and then said to Aurelia, “Why in King Altador’s name did we hire a sculptor who specializes in tikis?”
“Ah,” said Aurelia, “yes, that. Well, you asked for us to find a master sculptor to sculpt the centerpiece for this year’s Chocolate Ball. . .”
“Yes, I know,” the Ogrin snapped impatiently.
“And. . .well. . .you didn’t specify that you wanted a chocolate sculptor. . .”
Vivianne glared at the young Xweetok, who shrank under her gaze. Sighing again, the Ogrin turned toward Rhigan. “Just finish it, as quickly as you can,” she snapped.
Nodding quickly, the Island Pteri turned toward the enormous block of dark chocolate before him, chisel in hand, and began to scrape away at the base. Aurelia paused and looked longingly at the curls of chocolate being chiseled off the block, and then back at Vivianne.
The Chocolate Ogrin rolled her eyes. “Very well,” she said to her assistant, “you may eat one. Only one!” she added quickly as Aurelia dove toward the chocolate shavings.
Vivianne marched off quickly, her annoyance rising quickly. She had known it wouldn’t be easy to be the Head Decorations Coordinator for the Y13 Chocolate Ball before she took the job, but all the stress of it was quickly wearing on her nerves. Without being able to vent her frustrations on Aurelia or Rhigan, she vented her frustration on a young Kacheek assistant crossing her path—something trivial about there not being enough white balloons at the entrance. After taking care of it (something that involved both tact and, when it was called for, yelling when nothing productive happened), she went back to see how the chocolate statue was coming along.
Rhigan was engrossed in his work—he didn’t notice Vivianne as she stalked past him and sat down on a fold-up chair, contenting herself with glaring at his back. Despite that, she was actually quite pleased with how it was turning out—she could already see the rough figure of the statue.
Vivianne glanced up sharply to see Aurelia—the Xweetok was standing shyly at the edge of the room and watching Rhigan work.
“What is it?” Vivianne asked, and mentally scrolled through the list of things that could have possibly gone wrong—maybe not enough tablecloths had been ordered, or the ice cream sandwiches had been delayed, or. . .
“It’s just. . .why is Rhigan carving a Draik?” Aurelia stepped closer to the life-size statue and looked up at it admiringly. Rhigan muttered something that sounded very much like “Yes, why am I carving a Draik?” Vivianne ignored the sculptor and turned her attention toward her young assistant.
“Don’t you have any work to do?” the Ogrin asked, standing and going over to where Aurelia was to look at the statue. Vivianne noticed approvingly that the face was coming out quite nicely.
“No,” Aurelia answered. “Ari went to go get the delivery of chocolate coins and told me I could rest for a bit.”
“Well,” Vivianne answered, “the Draik Rhigan is carving is not a famous one.”
“No?” her assistant asked, confused.
“Not famous,” Vivianne affirmed. “Lucky.” She pointed to the Draik’s left hand, which Rhigan had just finished carving. “See what she’s holding?”
“A chocolate bar?” Aurelia guessed.
“Not just any chocolate bar,” the Chocolate Ogrin corrected, “but a Mud Crème one.”
The answer caught Aurelia off guard. The young Xweetok wrinkled her nose. “A. . .a Mud Crème chocolate bar, Lady Vivianne?”
“Yes,” the Lady answered. “As you can imagine, it was a complete failure. No one bought it. Ever heard the name Ramira?”
“No,” Aurelia answered.
“Of course you haven’t. It’s the name of a fool. Anyways, Ramira invented this. . .interesting food a long time ago and then no one ever heard of her because no one ever bought the product.”
“So then why is her statue going to be the centerpiece of the Chocolate Ball?” Aurelia asked.
“Because there was a big argument over which chocolate chef/expert/failure would be immortalized in their favorite food—chocolate,” Vivianne said, “and so they put a bunch of names in a hat, and they came out with the one who invented the Mud Crème Bar.”
“Oh,” Aurelia said. “Um. . .what’s going to happen to the statue when the Chocolate Ball’s over?”
“Originally it was going to go to the chocolate expert Ceden Monroe,” Vivianne explained. “He’s quite well known in the chocolate lovers’ world. And Mr. Monroe had quite a high number of votes to be the one made into a statue, so naturally he was the one they were going to give it to.”
“But then?” Aurelia prompted.
“But then the Committee for Choosing Chocolate Centerpieces (CCCC) had to argue over that as well,” Vivianne sighed. “They do like arguing over things. So in the end they had another raffle to see who would get this chocolate centerpiece and someone else ended up winning. That’s usually who the Committee gets things done.”
“Who ended up winning?” the Chocolate Xweetok asked.
“Me,” said Vivianne simply.
“Oh,” Aurelia said again.
“I have a question,” Rhigan broke in abruptly.
“What is it?” Vivianne asked after a brief pause.
“Y’all didn’t give me anyone to base this statue off of—no picture or anything.”
The Island Pteri glared at her. “The point is I have no idea what this statue is supposed to look like! I’ve just started to do the details, but I need to know what the details are in order to do them!”
“You know what a Draik looks like?” Vivianne asked.
“Of course,” he answered gruffly.
“Then just sculpt a Draik—sculpt your aunt. I don’t care. As long as it looks like a Draik.”
“Erm. . .what?” he asked, taken off guard.
“Since no one bothered to buy her chocolate, no one bothered to take or paint or draw or in any way create a picture of Ramira,” Vivianne explained. “All we know is, she was a Draik, and she created the Mud Crème Bar. What else is there to know? The statue is going to be brown either way, right?”
Rhigan sniffed. “Very well,” he said huffily, and turned back to the sculpture.
Vivianne nodded. “Good. Then I shall go—I have some. . .business to attend to. Aurelia, go help Ari unload the chocolate coins. Rhigan, continue in your work.”
The Island Pteri nodded at her and looked up at the Draik’s face, squinting, and began to work.
“So you see,” Ceden finished, now sitting down by one of the fountains and looking up toward the light—“This was all a dreadful mistake on the part of the CCCC to trust this statue to Lady Vivianne. Or anyone else, for that matter.”
Kerri looked up at him from where she’d been examining her reflection in the polished tile floor. He seemed to be winding down his little speech—and not once had he said anything useful. Just some waffle about how no one could possibly deserve such a marvelous art piece made out of the finest chocolate in the world by the most famous sculptor on Mystery Island—no one deserved the statue but himself, of course. Kerri was fast growing to dislike this pompous and long-winded Uni—but if he was going to pay her, she would get the statue, no problem. She just hoped he would cut his speeches short once in a while.
He was looking at her now, expecting her to say something. She cleared her throat.
“Dreadful, yes,” she said quickly. “Now, where exactly is this statue kept?”
“My associates tell me it’s being kept in Lady Vivianne’s mansion for the night, which is when you must fetch it—the Chocolate Ball is tomorrow and then after that the statue will be moved to the mansion again, this time permanently.”
“And are there any guards?”
“Lady Vivianne has very few staff for owning such a large estate—she has a private butler, two cooks, and four maids, all of whom go home for the night. The gardener is the father of one of her assistants, and they have a cottage on her grounds. Lady Vivianne also employs a guard at night—he’s the only one, besides Lady Vivianne of course, who should be inside the mansion. By the time you get there, the Lady will be asleep, and the guard will be patrolling the house—I would be quite surprised if he only guarded the statue in the conservatory. He is employed to make sure no one enters the house at night, which means he will most probably be extra vigilant in watching the doors and the front gate.”
Kerri nodded once, and the Uni handed her a map. She looked at it briefly, memorized the position of the front gate in regards to the front windows, and then looked up at Ceden. “Will there be anymore complications?” she asked.
He smiled. “Not unless you cause them.”
The window slid open easily enough—as Ceden had told her, no alarm went off and no trip wire was positioned to prevent her from getting inside. Kerri smiled. This would be too easy.
She jumped lightly down, scanned her surroundings, and gripped the coil of rope fastened around her waist. Because of her line of work, she didn’t wear the traditional bandages of a Halloween Ruki—they snagged on things and got in the way. Her skin was pale and gray, and she was thin enough to slip through half-closed doors and between chairs and tables. She wore mostly black, but some dark gray—both sufficed and enabled her to blend into the shadows should she happen to see the guard.
Kerri glanced around quickly—she was in an upstairs parlor. She’d had no trouble scaling the gate and then rappelling up the wall. She squeezed past an overstuffed armchair and went to the fireplace by the door. There was a closed book on the armchair, and the fire had been out for a while—at least a couple of hours. The Lady was most likely asleep by now.
The door was almost half-open. The Halloween Ruki peered out into the darkness. She was in a hall—there was one other door in the hall that she could see, which presumably led to Lady Vivianne’s quarters. Kerri slipped through the crack in the door and walked soundlessly down the hall, always on her guard, always aware. There were a few other doors that she passed, and then a landing that led to a spiralling staircase. Kerri put her foot down very gently on the top step—it didn’t creak. Still, she was very careful as she went down, testing her weight on one foot before putting the rest down.
There was a sudden noise, and Kerri saw a flicker of light. She was on the third step from the bottom now, and pressed herself against the railing. Someone was coming.
It was an old Lupe, with green fun except around his mouth, which was turning white with age. He walked slowly but looked around warily. Had he heard her? No. She hadn’t made a single noise since she’d scaled the wall outside. The Lupe held a flickering candle in one hand.
Kerri sucked in her breath—she lay only inches away from the farthest reaches of the candle’s light. It didn’t shed light very far, but still, if the old Lupe saw her. . .
She let out her breath noiselessly as the Lupe turned away and started going in the direction he’d come. She waited until he was out of sight, then sprang lightly down the stairs and strode quickly in the direction of the parlor.
According to Ceden’s map, there would be a skylight in the parlor, large enough to fit two pets through at once. He had told her that the statue was in a box with a ring on the top to have a rope fit through and be loaded onto a cart the following morning to take to the Chocolate Ball. Kerri would be fitting a rope through the ring, but she wouldn’t be taking it through the door and gate—she’d be taking it up through the skylight and onto the roof. Lady Vivianne’s mansion had a flat roof, so Kerri would push the box along to the back edge and lower it down onto a cart hidden in the bushes behind the mansion, where Ceden would have a servant waiting to take the statue away.
With this plan in mind, Kerri acted quickly. She approached the box and opened it, checking that the statue was inside—she could barely make it out in the moonlight coming in from the skylight. It was very detailed and was indeed life-size—it was about the same size as her. It was dark brown and looked almost wooden—Kerri remembered Ceden saying that the sculptor had specialized in wood carvings. She smiled to herself—even though it was made of chocolate, the sculptor had still made it look like wood.
After throwing her rope up to the partially open skylight, she attached the other end to the top of the box, then turned to close it again so she could pull it up through the skylight.
The box was empty.
She stood, in shock, as there was a whoosh of wings behind her and everything went black.
Ceden Monroe frowned—the sky was just beginning to turn pink around the edges, and Kerri still hadn’t returned with the statue. He checked the white chocolate clock that hung on his kitchen wall and waited moodily, until suddenly he heard a knock at the front door. One of his butlers, a Peophin, was already walking quickly toward the door, but Ceden stopped him. “I’ll open it myself,” he told the Peophin.
Excitement and annoyance coursed through him—he wasn’t sure whether to be ecstatic that he would finally get to see the statue of Ramira or exasperated that it had taken Kerri so long.
He threw open the door.
Lady Vivianne smiled at him.
Rather taken aback, he cleared his throat nervously and then said, “Er, hello, Lady. . .aren’t you supposed to be preparing for the Chocolate Ball right now. . .?”
Her smile grew even wider. “Well, Ceden, I was returning something you’d lost to you.”
His mind was blank. What had he lost. . .? He jumped backward in shock as Lady Vivianne snapped her fingers and her night watchman, a Green Lupe, stepped forward. Even more surprising was the fact that he held Kerri’s arm very tightly.
“Ah. . .w-who is this?” Ceden stuttered.
“Don’t pretend, Ceden,” Lady Vivianne said softly. “She told us all about you and how you employed her to steal the statue of Ramira.”
He glanced sharply at Kerri. She was smiling grimly at him, and her hands were tied.
“What are you talking about?” he bluffed.
“Your thief here tried to steal the statue,” Lady Vivianne said calmly, “or, more importantly, my statue. You think I didn’t know how much you wanted it? I suspected you might steal it. We asked Kerri how she could not be suspicious—all the windows were unlocked; as was the skylight. My watchman was not patrolling the gate or any of the outside, only the door.”
“Wh. . .” Ceden stuttered, but he only got that far.
Lady Vivianne put up her hand. “I could have given the statue such top security that no one, not even your little skilled thief here, could possibly steal it. But I had suspected for years that many of your so-called ‘findings’ were really stolen—stolen from their rightful owners. And now that you were almost certain to steal this particular chocolate artifact, I saw it as my chance to prove that you were nothing but a thief.”
He glared at her. “She doesn’t have the statue,” he said. “So how can you prove it?”
“She did try to steal the statue,” the Lady said. “Thanks to my good friend Tanie, she didn’t. Kerri wondered why the statue looked so much like wood.” Lady Vivianne paused, and smiled, and beckoned someone forward—Tanie.
“That box was pretty stuffy, Viv,” Tanie laughed, and smiled. She was a Draik, but not just any Draik—a leafless wooden Draik with scales the color of dark chocolate.