The Art of Theft: Part 3 by Phoebe Harris
“Do you recognise the coin at all?” I asked, and The Shuffler adjusted his glasses. Squinting at the coin, he turned it over twice.
“See this here?” The Shuffler pointed to a minuscule mark in the gold. Barely visible to the eye, someone had carved a tiny word. The Shuffler handed me a magnifying glass, and I held the coin up to the lens. Two letters, r and m, were entwined in each other.
“What does it stand for?” I asked, and The Shuffler considered for a moment.
“It could stand for anything, but most likely, it stands for reditus magicae. It’s an underground saying, and it’s famous in the Below. It’s like an organisation, a saying to identify those in it. They work to bring back dark magic, to suck the very essence of magic from the Source. It’s dirty work, and they’ve been working on it for almost three decades, with no success.”
“But if they take magic from the Source, it’ll, well, it’ll break Ahoy. The Source keeps Ahoy alive!” I burst out.
“Ay.” The Shuffler nodded. “And rumour has it they’re closer than ever. It’s said to be called the Order of Imperium.”
The Great Library’s many bookshelves spanned across the countless levels, the cavity in the middle of each level guarded by a grand curling balustrade. Hanging from the roof, a chandelier dripping in crystals and precious stones let off a brilliant golden light. There was no sound, but many people, old and young, could be seen sitting at tables with stacks of books beside them. My footsteps echoed across the cavernous space, and I fought the urge to cough, just to break the surreal silence. I came up to the front desk, where the shining mahogany wood reflected my mud-caked shoes. The librarian behind the desk seemed to notice my shoes too, and sniffed in a huffy sort of way, like he had better things to do (even though everyone else in the library seemed perfectly capable of finding their own books).
“What is it, then?” he stage-whispered in a lilting Trollish accent.
“Have you got anything on the Order of Imperium?” I stage-whispered back. He rolled his eyes with an exaggerated pout and came out from behind the counter. His arms were twice the size of what they should have been, and he had short, stubby legs. Probably a descendant from a sort of troll, which explained the accent. He led me through towering isles of books, up a sprawling staircase, then another, to a corner on the third floor. Torches burned on the walls, and a cosy-looking leather upholstered armchair was sitting next to a side-table with a banker’s lamp. Beside the side-table, a wooden ladder leant against a bookshelf stacked full of books with battered spines. On the side of the bookshelf pointing towards the armchair, it was engraved with curly letters: Orders, Organizations and Agencies. I thanked the troll, and he left me with a warning.
“Don’t mess up the chair. It’s where I nap.”
I made a note to myself to mess up the chair.
I closed the book with a snap that sent dust billowing in all directions. I dropped it on the floor with a bang, and I was rewarded with angry ‘shush’-es from various levels. Scattered at my feet, numerous useless volumes were discarded in the settling dust. I took the next great volume from the side-table and opened it to the contents page. Exhaustion was creeping into the corners of my eyes, and I blinked away the pull of sleep. There weren’t many windows in this part of the library, but I could tell it was long past dark. The volume, Orders of Magic, didn’t have a promising contents page. I turned to page 326 to read the chapter titled Don’t Mess with Them! anyway, but the words seemed to wriggle around on the pages, and each time I turned my gaze to catch them, they jumped to a different spot. Slowly, slowly, my heavy eyelids sunk further down, until I was snoring in the leather armchair.
I was woken by the angry troll, who was kicking the side-table.
“You messed up the chair,” he drawled. I wanted to retort, but I needed to borrow the books that I hadn’t read, and I needed to set up a library account so I could do so, and my guess was that I would need the troll for that.
“I’m sorry,” I said in an uncharacteristic sickly-sweet voice. “But I need to set up a library account?”
The troll hmphed and led me back to the front desk. I could barely keep my eyes open, but I managed to give the troll my details.
“Name?” he grunted. I hesitated before answering.
“Mindy Wallis,” I said, referring to a childhood friend who had long ago moved off the streets into slavery. The troll wrote it down without a question.
“Current address?” The troll looked bored out of his skull. That makes two of us, anyway.
“Um, 17d Warrington Avenue.” No point faking an address. If they don’t have my name, I’m off the grid enough, and they might need it to contact me. The troll folded a bit of parchment in half, handed it to me and passed me a quill. I signed on the dotted line with a flourish and handed it back. In exchange, the troll gave me the stack of books.
I walked home in the dark, passing through the music festival, which was still holding a few shows in its tents, but with considerably less crowds. Based on the sounds coming out of the tents, they were holding shows for up-and-coming artists who thought they sounded great but actually didn’t. The tents were full of Taylors, actually. I turned onto Warrington Avenue, where the golden light from the tavern windows spilled onto the streets. The open doors let out the hazy smoke that the alcoholics emitted from their cigars. I reached The Sunken Barnacle, pulled down the ladder to the fire escape, and made an awkward trip, the books weighing me down, to the fourth floor. I dug my key out of the pocket of my tunic and unlocked the door. Taylor and J were sitting hunched shouldered on the sinking couch. Taylor was holding a slip of parchment, crumpled and yellow in his fist. No.
“Rye, I was trying to find that belt you borrowed from me and I found this. Is it… what we think it is?”
We thought it was… how you got off the streets?”
Please tell us we’re wrong.”
I took Ely by the tunic and dragged him along. His tiny thin arms slapped at me in protest, but he had little energy in his malnourished body. The spark in his eye went out the day Dad was heaped onto the corpse pile, and there was no one left behind his mask. Well, I had thought to myself, there’s still someone in me. And this person needs to get off the streets. Ely heaved sobs as I pulled him along the cobbled streets, sticking to the shadows as the few people who strayed to the side of the streets crinkled their noses at the stench of us. Tears ran lines through the dirt caked on his cheeks. The grand house, with the façade of cheerful red brick surrounded by a lush green yard, towered above us, turrets and balconies with iron balustrades galore. In the yard, resident pixies danced around the giant silver dolphin spouting clear blue water. The pixies were living chirika lives- I just wanted the same happy, content life. I marched Ely up to the mahogany double doors and grasped the lion head knocker. I banged firmly- once, twice, three times. Ely was shaking beside me, hunching his shoulders. I yanked him upwards.
“Behave,” I hissed. His puffy eyes stared into mine.
“I won’t forgive you,” he said.
“And I won’t forgive you,” I spat back. A maid opened the door. “Get me Sir Harwonyl, please. I have a servant for him.”
The maid disappeared, before coming back with a rotund man in a dark blue suit. He had a velvet bag of gold coins in his sausage-like fingers. I pressed Ely forwards, and the money was turned into my palm. The doors closed slowly, and Ely’s swollen hazel eyes bore into my own milky stare.
The piece of parchment had my childhood scrawl in scratchy ink. 1-6 Thinbull Boulevard, Ely Kingfitter, 500 gold coins. Underneath, two signatures. Taylor and J watched me carefully as I read and re-read the note. I took a deep breath.
“I sold him,” I said. J and Taylor’s hopeful look evaporated.
“You said he died, Rye,” Taylor whispered. “You said he died!”
“He did, kind of!” My voice was high and defensive, a meagre squeak.
“And your dad, is he still alive too?” J’s voice was weak; defeated.
I fought back tears. The ugly monster of emotion snarled inside. Don’t, I thought, pushing it back down and composing myself. “No. He’s not alive.”
“How could you lie to us about something like this?” Taylor cried, pushing himself up. The books I was still holding against my chest thudded to the floor as I dropped them. The emotion monster reared its revolting head again.
“Well, it’s not like you ever told anyone how you got off the streets!” I yelled at Taylor.
“I just went into a shelter and applied for a grant like a normal person!” Taylor yelled back.
“Yeah, but that was before every. Single. Street in Ahoy was filled with us! I tried, many times! I didn’t tell you guys because you’d be like this.”
“But still, Rye, how could you not tell us that you sold somebody?” J’s voice was still small.
“I was hoping to get him back. I can buy him back for two thousand gold coins.”
“Well, buy him back! Now!” Taylor bellowed. He and Ely had hit it off whenever they saw each other- whenever he dropped a cent at our feet or gave us a kind word of encouragement.
“I still haven’t got the money.” I miserably kicked at one of the books on the floor.
“Well, there’s plenty of time, isn’t there?” J looked up at me.
“No.” I hung my head. “I looked into it. I’ve got two weeks until he’s gone for good.”
Read part 4 here: https://www.mywritersstudio.com.au/the-art-of-theft-part-4/
Read Part 2 here: https://www.mywritersstudio.com.au/the-art-of-theft-part-2/