Those Left Behind: Part Seven
That evening, the camp was busy preparing dinner. While we always ate well, this was going to be a celebration, on account of a new member of the gang. Lapnir beckoned me over, while making a fruit salad out of the tchea fruits I had nabbed and several other things.
"Is there going to be some sort of initiation or something?" I asked, trying not to sound nervous.
"Your performance today was the initiation," he responded. "Though if you want something more involved, you could go stand on your head on that pile of crates over there," he nodded to a stack of supplies, "while we all chant and pelt you with ummagine seeds." After a moment, he shot a glance at me to see if I was smiling.
"I think I'll pass," I said, picking up a knife and helping him chop.
"You'll be asked to do more now," he said after a pause. "Especially after demonstrating your talent like that. Some of it's dangerous."
My shoulders tensed. I had a feeling I could see where this conversation was going, and it made me uncomfortable for reasons I couldn't quite explain. "Do we have to have this talk now?" I asked, realizing how whiny it sounded.
"We haven't had it yet," Lapnir answered, "so it has to be now."
"Yeah, but isn't this a bit too late?" I carefully spooned the seeds out of a ptolymelon. "I mean, I already said I'd join."
"Hephen and I..." the Chomby paused. "Don't always agree. He thought you would know this already, since you've got experience. He also didn't want to scare you away. We finally agreed to talk about it once you joined. If you joined."
Seeing that I wasn't getting out of this, I listened silently while continuing to prepare the fruit salad.
"In general, everyone in this group will do what they can to ensure the safety of the other members. Hephen's told you his rules, right?"
I nodded. Don't leave anyone behind. Those with power look after those without. Do no more harm than necessary. Only take what you need, and what others don't. Hephen and pretty much everyone else had quoted those rules to me.
"Well, there's one last unspoken rule. Nobody likes to talk about it. Can you guess what it is?"
"Nobody's going to help you if you act like an idiot?" I guessed.
"...Close, but not quite. Always act for the good of the group."
"That sounds... reasonable, I guess," I conceded. After a silence, curiosity got the better of me. "So, how many times have you had to use it?"
"I was counting the seconds until you asked that," Lapnir answered. This time, I did grin a bit. "More than I'd like to think about. It tears you apart every single time, and you never stop wondering if you should have done things differently. Maybe we could have gotten away with a jailbreak that time. That guard looked half asleep anyway, we didn't need so much force. We should have been able to find a doctor who didn't ask questions, why didn't we try?"
I said nothing, and he continued. "In the end, you just have to go with your gut and assume that most of the time, you'll make the right decision. Otherwise you go crazy."
We continued working without talking for a while, as I digested what he had said. "Wasn't there a job you wanted to pull here?" I finally asked, when I felt that the silence needed breaking.
"We already pulled it while you were running around the market."
We packed up and left the next day, leaving behind only a fire pit. We headed onward, and in a few weeks got to Altador. This time, I was informed of the plan on the way, because I was going to be a part of it.
Several different members of the band had taken it upon themselves to teach me various skills. One of them, a Korbat named Torpin, taught me pickpocketing, but stopped when I nabbed his coin pouch without him noticing. Another began teaching me grifting techniques. I had more trouble with this part, since it had already been established that I wasn't very good at playing a role--if I was, someone would have taken me in back in Faerieland. Lapnir tried, with some success, to teach me self-defense. His methods mostly consisted of, "kick them in the shins and run away."
Apparently, my role in the job was determined in part by how I took to the things I was being taught. Being not very good at punching things and downright horrible at charming people, I got the straightforward position of thief.
It was during a party for the aristocracy. Two people acting as visitors would distract the guards with a staged argument, the rest would sneak into the kitchens. A few unfortunate servers would be given forcible naps and a change of uniform. As the dispute escalated, it would draw the attention of the crowd. Few people would be watching the fancy jewelry that had been put on display for people to gawk at. Even fewer would be watching the jewelry on their own necks and hands. And absolutely nobody ever lifts the lid off of the serving platter except for the server, making it an ideal place to hide valuable trinkets. The arguing couple would finally be kicked out, just in time for the rest of the group to depart as well. It was a nice, solid plan without much room for error. It almost worked without a hitch.
Being my first real job with the team, they weren't going to entrust me with nabbing the displayed jewelry. So instead, I was to act as a pickpocket. I was wearing an absurd serving boy's outfit that had been made for a Meerca rather than a Kyrii, making it too large in some places and painfully small in others. I suspected Torpin still hadn't forgiven me for stealing his coin pouch. I grabbed watches, wallets, necklaces, storing them in my pockets and serving tray. There were two other pickpockets in the room. We moved across the floor in a methodical pattern that had been rehearsed dozens of times beforehand.
There was a cry from behind me. Instinctively, I jerked my head around. Unfortunately, half of the room did the same, their attention distracted away from the distraction. One of the other thieves, a young yellow Aisha named Milon, had been caught and was being held by the earstalks by an irate desert Elephante.
This had been part of the rehearsal. Without missing a beat, the third pickpocket in the room, a tall blue Gelert named Poltu, rushed over to the guest while still holding her serving tray. "Is something the matter, sir?"
"Yes, this servant just tried to take my wallet!"
Poltu looked convincingly mortified. "I'm terribly sorry, sir. I'll take him to our manager and see to it that he's properly punished." She turned to look at me. "You, boy!"
I jumped slightly at the sharpness in her voice, even though it was all scripted, and hurried over.
Poltu pushed Milon's cart over to me. "Take this back to the kitchen." I nodded obediently, and carefully wheeled both his cart and mine out of the room. Once out of sight, I turned down a hallway, leaving both carts outside as I stepped into a restroom. When I came back out, the carts were still there, but the serving platters felt significantly lighter.
I wanted to go back and help finish the job, but my better sense and nights of practicing for this job prevailed. I pushed the cart back to the kitchen and ducked out the back exit, pulling off the misshapen server's outfit. From there my job was done, and I twisted a circuitous path through stalls and alleys to the city gates. I returned to camp as the sun was setting over the dunes.
Milon arrived shortly before I did, having been quietly smuggled out through the rooftop and then making his own way through alleys as I had. The courier responsible for receiving the goods that Milon and I had stolen came back soon after, followed by the two who had staged the fight. Next came the fighters who had requisitioned the servers' outfits, each of them carrying a few pieces of the displayed jewelry. There were stifled gasps and muffled congratulations at this--proper celebration would wait until we were farther from the city--but then the looming question became more pressing.
"What about Poltu?" I asked.
Lapnir, who had led the job and returned with the group of fighters, cast his gaze toward the ground. He didn't have to say anything beyond that, but did anyway. "After she got you and Milon out, the other attendees noticed their possessions were missing. There was no way to salvage the situation from there, so she threw some Steam Jugs, grabbed the jewelry, and ran. Managed to slip it to us before she was captured."
"Why didn't you try to save her?" I asked, choking back the urge to shout. "All of you together could've done it, easily."
"Then we'd have had the entire city guard chasing after us. Everyone working on the job would have been in danger then. Possibly the entire camp." Lapnir shuffled past me toward the fire that had been started in the cool of the fading dusk. "She knew the risks, and she saw to it that the job was completed." He lifted his head and looked at the whole group. "It's an example we can all live by."
There were quiet, solemn grunts of approval.
We held onto a faint hope that Poltu might have managed to escape, but by the next night it was clear that we needed to move on. Weeks passed, and then months. It wasn't a bad life, for the most part. I began making friends within the group. Most of the jobs went better than my first one.
There was one job where we instigated a peasant revolt in Shenkuu. It turned out to be even too successful, and the house of the nobleman we were looting ended up getting burned down. A few days later, I was scouting ahead on the road to where we were going to sell our stolen goods, and saw a young Tonu sleeping by the side of the road. She had a coin pouch, and not being one to pass up an opportunity, I carefully lifted it off of her.
Of course, we soon realized that she was the daughter of the lord we robbed, and she ended up joining us. Because when you do what we do, you quickly give up any hope of having a simple life.
"We need to tell her," Lapnir said that night as several of us huddled around the dying embers of the campfire. I had joined this discussion, because it was partially my actions that led her to find us.
I nodded. "She has a right to know. We can leave her if it looks like she'll pose a danger to us after that."
"No," Hephen answered. "We broke rule four. We didn't mean to, but we took something that she needed. She lost her home, and we can't give it back, but we still need to help get her back on her feet. Then we'll tell her."
"How does gaining her trust and then betraying it help her?" I asked sharply.
"It helps if she finds a purpose in life because of it," Hephen answered simply. He then stood up and walked to his sleeping mat, signaling a definitive ruling on the matter and the end of the discussion.
More months passed. We hopped from place to place, occasionally even visiting places farther afield like Mystery Island and Terror Mountain.
One night, we were sleeping outside of Altador when a sentry raised the alarm. Altadorian royal guards were coming our way. There were too many of them to be a simple scouting party; they knew we were there and they were ready for battle.
I heard a rustling in the bushes, and tensed up. It sounded too big to be a petpet, but too small to be a guard. In the darkness, I crept up toward the noise and pounced.
In the moonlight, I saw a pair of eyes and a body made mostly of gangly arms and legs. It was a young Nimmo.
"I'm sorry!" he yelped. Tensing up, I clapped my paws over his mouth and gave a quiet "shhh."
"There are guards after me," he whispered when I removed my paws.
"Unless you're a lot more dangerous than you look, I think they're after us," I answered.
"Why, who are you?"
"Thieves," I responded briefly.
The Nimmo's eyes went wide in the moonlight. "Are you Hephen's crew?" I nodded silently. "Take me with you!"
"I've been looking for you for ages, but I never thought I would actually find you."
"You found us at a bad time, then." My head snapped around at Hephen's voice over my shoulder. "Stay out of sight, both of you."
We retreated into the bush, barely breathing. I wanted to go, to see what was happening, but decided to obey Hephen's order instead. I nearly ran off when I heard shouting. After what felt like days, Hephen returned. "Let's go," he said.
I got up. My knees screamed at me for staying hunched over for so long. The stars were slowly fading, light on the horizon not quite yet visible through the trees. I followed Hephen through the forest, as did the Nimmo.
The sky brightened as we walked. Once the last tinges of orange had faded into blue, Hephen finally broke the silence. "What's your name?"
"Feld," answered the Nimmo.
"Good to meet you, Feld. I'm Hephen."
"I--that's you? I mean, It's a pleasure to meet you, sir."
I interrupted what was quickly becoming an awkward conversation. "Where are the others?"
"They're taking the rafts down the river," Hephen answered.
"Why aren't we going with them?"
"Because we're leaving."
I stopped. "What do you mean?"
"I mean we're leaving the crew behind." Hephen continued walking.
"What?!" Any lingering fear of alerting guards was gone from my mind. "You're going to walk away from it all just like that?"
"It was time to move on. Lapnir can lead them now."
I started running again to catch up. "What about me? Am I just supposed to leave them all and follow you now?"
"You probably won't catch up to them at this rate," Hephen answered, still not looking back, "And I wouldn't recommend trying. There will still be guards searching the area. You don't have to stay with me, but I could use you on my new team."
"So you're leaving your old team behind and building a new one... what? Just because?"
"Like I said, it was time to move on. I've been putting it off for a few months now, the guards were just a convenient excuse."
A hundred different questions and frustrations piled themselves up in my mind, each one shoving to get spoken first.
A voice to my left piped up. "I don't understand." Feld looked even more confused than I felt. "There are more people with you, but..."
"But they're floating down the river on rafts now, and apparently we're not going to see them again," I finished. "You would've met them if you'd found us just a few hours before you did."
"Is this... do you do this sort of thing a lot?"
"I--," I said, and stopped. Had this ever happened before? Were there other packs of thieves, gathered and trained by Hephen, wandering around Neopia after having been abandoned by their leader? I had learned the stories of many of the other people in the group, but nobody seemed to know anything about Hephen himself.
"I find people who need help," Hephen said, finally slowing down until he came along beside us, "and I do what I can to help them. But in the end, I'm meant to be on my own. So when I've done all I can for someone, I leave them behind."
"So why didn't you leave me behind? Do I still need your help or something?"
"That's for you to decide."
Left with very few options, I continued walking.
Rather than continuing to Shenkuu, we looped back around Altador, keeping a good distance from the city, and traveled back through the Lost Desert. Feld stayed with us for pretty much the same reason I didn't walk off myself. Once we got to the coast, we took a cargo ship to Krawk Island. Hephen seemed to open up a bit when we got there, being more talkative and cheerful than before. He said it was because he could relax there.
"Everyone's a scoundrel here," he said one evening, gesturing extravagantly at the cobblestone streets and barred windows. He and I were side by side, with Feld walking quietly along behind us. We were returning to our camp from the Golden Dubloon; somehow, Hephen never had to pay when we went there. "But since everyone's a scoundrel, it all balances out. Nab someone's coin purse today, and yours'll get stolen tomorrow. Nobody really loses anything, the wealth just keeps circulating. It's beautiful. And if you can weave a good tale, you'll never go thirsty!"
"Are you going to stay here?" I asked. The change of surroundings had distracted me from the fact that we had abandoned the rest of the group just a few weeks earlier.
Hephen stopped, flung his head back, and looked up at the sky. "Nah. This is a vacation. If I stayed too long, it would become work, and I don't want that. Do you wanna stay?"
This was the first time he had ever asked what I wanted, aside from when I officially joined the group. I looked up at the stars as well. The gas lamps obscured most of them, but a few were visible. "No. I don't think I would be able to be comfortable here. That stuff you're talking about, everyone stealing from everyone else, it doesn't suit me."
He turned to look at me, the moonlight glinting off of his beak. "You'd rather be the only one doing the stealing?"
"I'd rather not be involved in stealing at all." It was only after I said this that I realized it was true. "This was always a... a temporary solution for me."
"Why'd you join us, then? That's not very temporary."
"I wanted to keep traveling with you, and I wanted to be useful. And I guess, even if I wanted the stealing to be temporary, I didn't think it would be."
Hephen started walking again, and I hurried to catch up. "So, where do you want to go next?" he asked me.
On my suggestion, we headed north toward Terror Mountain, stopping briefly at Roo Island. Hephen could apparently do more than just steal; he could also run a con. With a weighted set of Dice-a-Roo dice and some fast talking, we got enough money to get supplies and warm clothes.
We found a small inn in the Ice Caves, since camping doesn't work very well when you run the risk of freezing overnight. I spent days exploring the sparkling caverns, the deep trenches of snow at the foot of the mountain, and the majestic view from the peak. I began to lose track of time, until I returned to the inn one morning after an early walk to see the sunrise.
As I opened the door to our shared room, Hephen and Feld both stood there, fully dressed in warm clothes.
"We're leaving," he said briefly.
I nearly said something about staying longer, but thought better of it. "Where are we going next?" I asked instead.
"No, the two of us are leaving," he said, gesturing to Feld and himself.
With creeping dread, I realized what he meant. "I thought you wanted me to help you with your new team?"
"That was before I learned your desires," Hephen answered back. "You're not built for this sort of life, not in the long run."
"I've helped you all that I can," he interrupted, answering my next question. "Now it's time to move on. You should move on, too." He tossed me a small pouch of coins. "Good luck."
Knowing there was nothing I could do, I moved out of the doorway to let them both pass. Feld looked at me with what seemed like a silent apology.
Outside, a wind picked up, moaning through the caves like an organ. Hephen opened the door.
And he was gone.
I finished as the sun was dipping low over the horizon, and the sky was just starting to turn pink. Nobody said anything for a long time.
"So Feld actually found him," Else mumbled. I nodded.
"I haven't heard anything about them since that," I answered, looking down at the table, "so I don't know whether they stayed together or not."
"You were the one who stole my coin pouch," Haldan said.
I looked up at her. "Yeah. Sorry about that."
She exhaled sharply and gave a quick smirk. "I got it back. And I probably would have joined you even if you hadn't taken it."
I looked over to Lapnir, who was looking past the table and past the boat, toward the setting sun. When he finally spoke, he spoke the way I remembered him. "I always suspected it was something like that. I didn't try to search very hard for him. He could never be captured if he didn't want to be, but that also meant we'd only find him if he wanted to be found."
I grunted my agreement. "That's pretty much why I never tried to find him either."
"What did you do after that?" Else asked.
"I kept wandering for a while. Eventually I found a job at the Neopia Central bookstore. I've been trying to forget all this stuff since then."
"Was it worth it?" she pressed. "You got to see so many places, and most of the people you met didn't really sound bad at all, and..." she trailed off after seeing Haldan's gaze.
To be continued...