The Thief's Hostage: Part Three
Kanrik's office was a small general meeting space in the recesses of the guild, separated from the main hall by a door heavily reinforced by faerie magic.
Jakob felt the tingle of magic ripple through his dark fur as he pushed past the door. He had never liked the subtle sting of magic. Magic, in his opinion, was more meddlesome than helpful, though he had been tempted on multiple occasions to have his knife blade spelled for emergencies.
Kanrik was standing at the head of a large table when Jakob walked in. The blue Gelert nodded his head. "Right on time."
Jakob hadn't dared to be late. He bowed his head briefly, ignoring the flash of pain in his gut upon remembering his failure. "The girl woke up. Apparently she's Andrew Larkin's daughter, the wealthy businessman. He will no doubt pay a sum for her safe return."
"It's good news that she has money, though it may not be enough," the leader of the Thieves Guild said slowly, as if each word brought with it a burst of pain. Jakob could feel his frustration thick in the air like a poisonous fog. The princess would have been better, he thought miserably. My father would have been able to get her... We wouldn't be struggling if my father were still here.
"Sir... have you tried asking Hannah already? For a favor?"
Kanrik laughed humorlessly, and Jakob almost regretted asking at all. "Of course I did! I had to swallow my pride to do it, but I did. She helped with what she could, but she hasn't been adventuring as much recently. I got a few gems from some old exploits, but the money they generated is already running dry."
He looked into Jakob's eyes, and for once Jakob didn't feel intimidated by the dark stare. He felt like Kanrik was looking at him like an equal, a confidant. "Jakob," Kanrik said, his voice low, a near whisper, "I don't know what we are going to do. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better if Galem was still ruling; at least when he was here the place bursting with gold. Now, the guild is a sad excuse for what it once was. A dusty memory of its former glory. No wonder the thieves are gone! At this rate, there will be no one left by spring."
Jakob gulped, trying to imagine a life without the guild. He and his mother would be out on the street, stealing not only goods, but heat from any building they could sneak in to. His mother had always wanted a better life for him, a carefree childhood filled with honest work, but at this rate he wouldn't just be a thief; he'd also be homeless. "We'll figure something out," he said, more to himself than to the tall Gelert in front of him. "We'll start with the girl's money and then work from there."
Kanrik paused, a small smile playing on his lips. "You know, the more I think about it, the girl reminds me a bit of Hannah."
Jakob raised an eyebrow. The shadow Gelert couldn't see the correlation at all. From what he knew of Hannah—for he had only seen her a few times, briefly when she visited the guild to meet with Kanrik—she seemed like no other. She walked with a confident grin, each step sure. She had no fear, wit beyond measure, and a devilish twinkle in her eye. She was Neopia's greatest adventurer with money and fame to boot. The Larkin girl may have been wealthy, but she didn't at all seem like Hannah. She was too well-bred, proper, refined.
So lost in his thoughts, Jakob almost didn't hear it when Kanrik said, "You should let her out of the cell."
The shadow Gelert blinked. "You want me to let her go?"
"No, of course not!" Kanrik said quickly, his voice stern. "We need the money. But there's no reason to keep her trapped behind the bars. Let her out, show her around the guild. We have men on all the exits so she won't be able to escape, but she shouldn't be cooped up."
Jakob stared at Kanrik quizzically. Why? he wanted to ask, but he didn't dare. Sometimes it was best to simply follow orders. He gave a curt nod and said, "Will do."
* * *
Silence had fallen between Amelia and her Bori captor. Tony had tried to strike up a conversation with her, but she found it difficult to speak. Despite his niceties, she was still his prisoner. He was still using her to bait her father into paying a large sum of money by threatening her life.
Amelia wasn't sure whether to be grateful or frightened when the shadow Gelert returned just a few minutes later from his meeting with Kanrik. In his paw was a single silver key, old and tarnished. No doubt the key to the very cell she was trapped in.
Come to taunt me? she thought bitterly, but the woodland Ixi was stunned when a moment later Jakob slipped the key into its lock and slid open her cell door. The iron bars moved to the side with a rusty clank.
"What are you doing?" Tony asked, jumping to his feet in a startled jerk. He needn't have worried, though; Amelia was too stunned to move.
"Kanrik's orders," Jakob mumbled, holding the key tightly in his grip. "I'm to show her around the Thieves Guild. In the meantime, he wants you to go out and take a two hour shift of the streets. Try to find something valuable, maybe off a vendor. Watch out for the Mootix-man, though. His jewelry is all enchanted now."
The silver Bori nodded, but his eyes narrowed quizzically. He looked from Jakob to Amelia and inclined his head slightly, a bow almost. "See you later, Miss Larkin." And with that he disappeared down the hall in a flash of silver.
Amelia was too stunned to speak. In fact, she was too stunned to do most anything save sit and stare at Tony's retreating figure.
"You can come on out," Jakob said after a moment of silence.
Amelia turned, startled by his voice, and realized she was still sitting in her cell. She quickly got to her feet and stepped out, leaving the thin blanket behind. It was several degrees warmer out in the main hall than in her stone cell, and she was immediately grateful for the heat. She looked at Jakob, a few inches taller than she, and tried to find something to say. Thank you? Why are you doing this? Instead, all that came out was, "Who's the Mootix-man?"
"One of the jewelry vendors," Jakob said, slipping the key back into his pocket without looking at her. "He's a green Ruki and kind of spindly, so we call him Mootix-man. We normally give our targets codenames. It keeps things simple."
Amelia knew the vendor he was talking about. She didn't quite under how "Mootix-man" was a simpler name than "Carl," but she didn't bring it up. "Do I have a codename?"
For the first time, Jakob really looked at her. Beforehand, Amelia had felt nearly invisible to him, like a pane of glass that he could see right through even when it seemed like he was staring at her intently. But right now, he looked at her directly, as if he could see her for the first time. "Princess," he said, his tone hard to decipher. She detected a hint of bitterness, but for the most part his voice was thoughtful, maybe even soft. "Even though you're not."
"Of course." She resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
He looked at her for a moment more; she felt like he was critiquing her. Finally he turned away from her and said, "Come on. I'll show you around."
Amelia hadn't realized how large the Thieves Guild was. She had heard rumors of its existence, but she had always assumed it was just a small alcove hidden away somewhere in Terror Mountain. But in actuality, it was a huge network of rooms and corridors, like a giant underground hideaway.
Her cell had been just one of many, but the others were all empty; apparently they didn't take many hostages. Further on was what Jakob described as the "main hall" which in Amelia's opinion looked like one giant tavern. She marveled at the mismatched chairs and sturdy wood tables, the flickering lanterns and the whorled hardwood floors, the thick beams on the ceiling and the threadbare couch besides the fire.
"This room is amazing," she breathed.
Jakob looked at her, surprised. A dark eyebrow was raised. "I assumed your home was more amazing than this."
Amelia sighed, thinking of her house. It felt like she hadn't seen it in ages, though it had only been that morning. "It's pretty," she admitted, thinking of the expensive touches, like the marble fireplace and the couches covered in rich red fabric, "but it doesn't have this character."
"Character doesn't mean anything," Jakob said, but Amelia sensed that he was secretly pleased.
They moved on to the kitchen, a fairly small space with thin counters, a stove, a fridge, and a few cabinets. Amelia had expected someone to be in there—a designated cook perhaps? But it was empty. There was only a single pot set on the stove filled with the mushy goop Tony had brought her earlier. It looked thick and cold and even less appetizing than it had in her cell.
"Not much food nowadays," Jakob said grimly, moving onwards before Amelia could press him for more.
There were a few more miscellaneous rooms: a laundry room, a few bathrooms, a meeting room with a spelled door engraved with hundreds of little carvings. The door reminded her of the things Donny, the well-known toy repairman, crafted. Most people turned to him to fix toys, but Amelia's family always went to him for his brilliant carvings. Thinking of the gruff red Bori with his thick white beard made her smile.
But her smile slowly faded as Jakob showed her more and more rooms. Amelia was surprised to see that nearly all were empty. Even the sewing room, which was according to Tony where Jakob's mother worked, was deserted. However, Jakob only let her peer inside there for a moment, so it was possible she had missed her in the midst of scraps of fabric and half-depleted spools of thread.
"Last is the living wing," Jakob said, ducking down reflexively so as not to hit his head on the hall's low ceiling; Amelia had no need to shrink down, though the pink flowers in her hair did brush against the stone as she walked. The wing consisted of a windy hall boarded on both sides by doors. Each one looked indistinguishable from the next, but Jakob made a beeline towards one in particular, a non-descript door with scratches in the wood and a warped keyhole and knob. "This is my room," he said, slipping another key, this one brass, into the lock.
As it opened, Amelia caught only a brief glimpse of the inside: two small beds, a paint- chipped wardrobe, a single desk, a chair with only three legs... and a neopet sitting on a crate low to the ground.
Jakob's eyes widened and he went to shut the door, but the room's occupant had already sensed their presence, turning towards them suddenly. It was a yellow Acara, her fur pale like buttermilk, wrinkles lining her pale blue eyes. She attempted a smile but her lips were cracked and white, and when she spoke her voice was light and raspy, like the rustle of leaves.
"Jakob... who is this pretty girl?"
"Mom, it's no one," Jakob said quickly, a guilty expression clear on his face. He shifted his feet, glancing away, looking like all he wanted to do was flee. And Amelia couldn't understand why.
"I'm Amelia," she introduced, curtseying to the woman. She looked as if she had been exceptional pretty once, long ago. Now it was as if age had worn away at her exterior, and she was just a remnant of who she had once been.
The Acara frowned, her eyes flicking away from the woodland Ixi to her son and then back again. "Jakob..." she warned slowly, looking at Amelia's skin, her clothes, her hair with her pale eyes. "This girl... she's not your hosta--?"
"Have to go, Mom," Jakob said frantically and without another word he pulled Amelia back into the hallway and shut the door with a slam.
Amelia stared at Jakob in shock, wondering what was going on as she shook off his grip. She half expected his mother to come out into the hallway to yell at him for being rude, but she didn't. Instead, the Acara remained in the room, leaving Amelia to stare at Jakob in disbelief.
Jakob's eyes were closed as he took deep breaths, his back pressed to the door, his chest heaving as if he had just run a marathon. When he opened his eyes and saw Amelia staring at him, he rouged.
Amelia's heart thudded heavily. It's something personal, she realized belatedly. She opened her mouth, ready to change the subject, but Jakob interrupted her.
"My mom... doesn't like my stealing," he admitted. His voice was neither distant nor bitter. Instead, it was quiet and embarrassed. "My father was one of the best thieves, but my mom..."
"I know," Amelia interrupted, not wanting to hear it again nor force Jakob to explain. It made her stomach churn. "Tony told me."
Jakob looked at her curiously for a moment, and then nodded his head slowly. "Did he also tell you that people here are getting this awful sickness? Dying? And we don't have the resources to help them?"
"Yes," she murmured, "but he didn't tell me why. It's not like Terror Mountain is any less populated than it used to be. Shouldn't there always be stuff to be steal?—Not that stealing is right," she amended.
Jakob smiled sadly. "For some of us it's the only way to survive." Amelia wanted to protest but he cut her off. "And it's not the lack of stuff. It's the increase in magic. More and more people are using magic to protect their things."
Amelia didn't find that odd. Magically-protected objects weren't anything new. On her seventh birthday her mother had bought her an enchanted jewelry box to protect her gold and diamonds. But she had noticed that more and more vendors were using similar devices in the market, and that even a few wealthy men and women had their wallets and purses spelled as well.
"So why don't you try using magic to level the playing field?"
"Thieves and magic don't mix." This Jakob said with utmost certainty. "It's what caused my father to... caused him so much trouble," he mumbled.
Amelia didn't know what to say. Luckily, Jakob didn't wait for her to say anything.
"The only thing we can do now is just try to stay alive. Try to stay off the streets."
"By using me," Amelia said, and she couldn't help but keep a note of bitterness out of her voice. It had swelled up suddenly, a reminder that she wasn't just touring the Guild as a guest. She was a prisoner, and Jakob wasn't her friend. He was the thief who had captured her, her warden. She looked at him, trying to keep her tone level, but failed, and heard her voice come out as harsh as the biting wind outside. "You're using me and my father's money to fund your crimes."
Jakob looked at her incredulously, his dark eyes wide, his mouth opened a fraction as her words sank in. Amelia wondered if she should have censored herself or attempt an apology, but it was too late. Jakob had already started walking away from her, his strides long, making no attempt to slow down for her.
"Your father is being notified of your capture as we speak." Gone was the conversational tone, the quiet revelations of family drama. Now it was all business. Just when Amelia had considered herself able to talk freely with him, he had withdrawn into his thief shell, impossible to crack. "The exchange will happen tomorrow afternoon, and if he gives us the money, you will be released. If not, the guild will deal with you promptly."
He was walking abnormally fast now, and Amelia had to hurry to catch up, nearly running so as not to get lost in the maze of the Thieves Guild. She wanted to yell at him for being stubborn, but she kept her mouth shut, knowing that it would just make the situation worse.
But even though he was almost halfway down the hall by now, she could still hear his indignant murmur of: "You may not be the real princess, but it was the best I could do..."
To be continued...