The Art of Theft: Part 4 by Phoebe Harris
I turned up to the manor anyway. The garden was lush and filled with water features and exotic hedges pruned into unicorns with wizened expressions, elephants with billowing trunks and centaurs with rippling muscles. The pink-stained cobblestones were glimmering, glass jewels embedded in the stone. A thin stream wound around weeping willows and giant tropical flowers that looked like they could swallow a baby, fat goldfish paddling lazily through the indolent current, emerald-hued dragonflies with delicate wings zipping across the water. Everything about this place oozed money.
I hated it.
I stepped up to the attention-seeking mahogany doors and grasped the fat brass lion’s head and knocked firmly, once, twice, three times. A butler in a sharp suit with a snooty flick of his nose answered.
“Is the master expecting you?” He asked. He had a foreigner accent.
“No, I’m here for… is there an Ely Kingfitter here?” I scuffed my boot on the jewel-embedded cobblestones. The butler looked at the mark on the jewel in disgust.
“We do not speak of Kingfitter any longer.” He answered, and shut the door in my face. I blinked. Bit my lip. Taking a deep breath, I knocked again. Once, twice, three times. This time, a maid with a basket of clothes to her hip opened the door.
“Is the master expecting you?” She looked me up and down, doubt in her voice.
“No. I want to know what happened to Ely Kingfitter.” Just as a precaution, I edged my foot forward between the door and the doorframe.
“He ran away, Miss, to the Below. ’E wasn’t a lovely lad.” The maid said, sighing. She had a worse commoner accent than most. “Pity, really. Had quite the hand for cleaning.” She went to shut the door, but my foot got in the way. She looked pointedly at it, but I ignored her.
“Sorry, ma’am, except can you tell me any specifics? You see-” I began, but she cut me off.
“I know, I know, you’re the sister. Poor little lad, he cried all night. I don’t know much, I’m afraid, but he wasn’t right in the head. A touch off, if you see what I mean, Miss.”
I furrowed my brow. Ely wasn’t thick, but he wasn’t crazy, either.
“I don’t see what you mean,” I corrected her. “What do you mean, a bit off?”
“Well, Miss, he’d tell tales to the master’s children and scare them half to death, and then he’d walk away with this little smile. He’d do all sorts, but he once put the kitchen cat in a pot and left it there for two days. Butler would try to reign him in and all, Miss, but he was a force. When he ran away, not much was done. But he told me he was going to the Below to join something.” The maid looked at my foot again. I remembered myself and took a step back. She closed the door with a polite nod. I walked back down the jewel-encrusted path, twisting my boots to dislodge any dirt on the soles. Back past the wizened unicorn, skirting the stream and the stacked centaur, barely glancing at the water features and the trumpeting elephant. My mind was whirring, and I absentmindedly pushed open the wrought iron gates. Looking back at the manor, it seemed to have gotten even more bedazzled since that day I passed over Ely. The butler opened the door and started scrubbing at the path. He looked up, saw me, and shooed me away.
Taylor wasn’t talking to me. Dinner was tense, with the three of us seated around the circular table with uneven legs, hiding in the shadows the single hanging bare lightbulb didn’t fill. The only sounds were the clinking of forks on plates and the movement of the table legs. Taylor complimented J’s incurable average pesto. J made a remark about the prices at Jonas and Sons. Taylor said something about waste disposal. Nobody said anything to me.
The deal had been clear. I could buy him back within four years for a thousand gold coins. I thought it had been manageable – maybe even easy- but I hadn’t factored in things like the outrageous rent for a crummy apartment, or the outrageous price for edible food. I hadn’t factored in the expense of water bills or electricity bills – I had grown up without either, but I used them more than ever. I had miscalculated. Seriously miscalculated. But that didn’t matter anymore. I would bluff my way past Teshi into the Below, find Ely, and he’d live with me, Taylor and J. I wanted to add happily ever after, but that just seemed too optimistic.
I hitched my bag higher on my shoulders. A full day of pickpocketing bought me enough rations to last a while, and I had left with only a note to J and Taylor to mark my absence.
Going to the Below to get Ely back. You’ll miss me but I won’t miss you. I’ve got food. If you go into my room, I will know and slaughter you. If I don’t come back, I’ve been thrown under the bridge by Teshi. If that happens I expect a lot of tears and a funeral with cake.
I walked out past the edges of Ahoy, through crop fields and cattle farms, until I reached the Dragonridge Mountains. Rovi was circling the peaks, and the snow-capped mountains towered above. Skiers flew down the mountains like darts, and the sky was churning in an ominous manner. Psyching myself up for the long, treacherous journey ahead, I sat down and waited for the Dragonridge Ski Resort bus.
The bus was full of screaming kids, flustered parents, chattering elves, bright-eyed students and even a hoard of pixies, sitting in a section at the front of the bus the size of a suitcase filled with mini seats, backpacks stuffed with minuscule snow gear and skis. The bus rattled and swerved, sliding on icy patches of road, and I held my backpack protectively in my lap. A dull throbbing started up at the nape of my neck. A headache bloomed. Cricking my neck to ease the pain, I considered shouting at everyone to quiet down. Finally, we reached the ski resort.
Teshi, guarder of the Below, was quite an ugly troll. With a turned-up snout pierced with a cow ring, piggish eyes sunk deep into her forehead and slimy pink lips turned in a permanent scowl to show her few shard-like yellow teeth, green skin leathery and pock-scarred. Her long brown hair was secured in two ponytails, clumped, greasy and complete with multiple dreadlocks and even a tangled dead rat. She halted me with a calloused hand, her nails sticking up at odd angles with yellowish tinges at the ends. I resisted the urge to gag at her smell- was that stale blood, beer and… faeces? I swallowed the rising bile in my throat.
“You want to enter the Below?” Teshi asked in an almost comically high voice, looking me up and down. She sounded like a high school cheerleader- the leader, with a long blond ponytail and perfectly straight teeth.
Biting back a snort, I nodded. Teshi put a hand on her hip and pulled on one of her ponytails, narrowly missing the rat’s tail. An image came to me of Teshi in high school, waving pom-poms above her head and screaming ‘go Sharks! Kick that ball, kick that ball!’ and bending herself into bizarre shapes that vaguely resembled letters. I coughed to cover up my laugh.
“Well, I’m gonna ask you three questions, ’kay?”
“First,” Teshi held up a knobbly finger- “you’ve got to choose between your family and one million gold coins. Your family dies a horrific death if you choose the money, but if you choose your family to live, you will be tortured until the end of time. What do you pick?”
I opened my mouth to answer (duh, the money- it’s what would get me into the Below) when Teshi interrupted. “And also, I know if you’re lying.”
“I would choose the money,” I answered carefully. To be truthful, I did sell my little brother and my father was dead, as was my mother- it was pretty true. Teshi inspected my face closely and gave a sharp nod. She held up a second finger, other hand still on her hip.
“Second question: there are six people on a boat, and it’s sinking. One person has the elixir of life, but they’re the heaviest. One person has killed three people, but they’re the lightest. Three people are perfectly innocent, and there’s you. Who do you chuck overboard?”
I closed my eyes. Bit my lip.
“I’d chuck out the elixir of life guy.”
Teshi gave another sharp nod. The rat in her ponytail wriggled. It wasn’t as dead as I had thought.
“Last question,” Teshi chirped. “Is there anything you want to say to me?”
“Like, before the last question? Or is that the last question?” There’s a rat in your hair, there’s a rat in your hair, there’s a rat in your hair.
“It’s the last question,” she confirmed. I couldn’t stop myself.
“There’s a rat in your hair and you’re super ugly and you look like a cheerleader and you’re the opposite of what I thought you’d be and there’s no way you actually think you look good and you should wear a paper bag on your head,” I spluttered, before falling about laughing. Tears pooled at the corners of my eyes. Teshi glared at me, but stepped aside.
“Asking that question has given me serious self-esteem issues,” she grumbled as I stepped onto the bridge. “You sure belong in the Below. I hope your skull gets beaten in.”
“Thanks,” I replied in a cheery manner. “You too.”
Frankly, I was rather offended about how easy it was for me to bluff my way into the Below.
Groans came from underneath the bridge.
“I wish I was dead, oh, Gods, I wish I was dead,” a voice croaked from the inky darkness below. My knuckles were white from gripping the rope sides of the bridge. It swung from side to side with my steps.
“Oh, shut up, you’re making it worse,” another voice groaned in agony. “I’d rather be in this much pain for eternity than listen to you go on about your precious Gods. If the Gods were real, we wouldn’t be here, would we?”
“The people crossing the bridge never stop to help us,” the first voice moaned.
“You idiot, of course they don’t. They’re Below slickers. The scum of Ahoy.”
Well, that ticked me off.
I ignored them both.
The first thing that hit me was the stink. I had just stepped off the bridge when a wall of stench slapped me in the face. Curdled milk mixed with dirty laundry, a touch of beer-induced vomit, an undertone of bitter almonds, just a hint of sewage, a fair amount of raw chicken, rounded up by an abundance of wet cat food, and finished up by the B.O. of a whole population. I gagged and covered my nose and mouth with my shirt, but the reek of it made my eyes water. The bridge led right onto what I took as the main street. There was a slippery layer of filth over the cobblestones, and everything appeared to be sinking. Two rivers, one on either side of the road, flowed with thick, dark water. Little bridges crossed the rivers to the shops. Ghouls, trolls, banshees, horrific half-breeds with human torsos or legs twisted with animals, bunyips and three-headed dogs roamed the streets, conversations varying in languages and accents. The businesses were run-down but thriving, with signs advertising two-for-one deals on poison, the best shrunken heads in the Below area, 30% off durable cauldrons and newly discovered curses and bewitchments. I had no idea where to find Ely’s thing that he joined. I passed a store with a wooden barrel full of bird feet outside the door, but in the window, a sign was written in black ink: Lucky Lemonballs, Irish Watermelon Jellies, Pickled Crows’ Feet and Rhubarb Rolls. I shuddered at the thought of pickled crows’ feet but still pushed open the door, Ely’s voice niggling in the back of my mind; can I get a rhubarb roll? Can I? Can I? Obviously, we didn’t have the money for even half a roll.
The little store was tidy but cluttered. Shelves lined the walls and barrels were organised in clusters of four across the open space in the middle. A counter stood in the very middle, with a little girl grinning a gap-toothed smile behind the till. The smell from outside was gone, replaced with a huge vanilla and cinnamon candle’s aroma, burning in an ornate holder, with an undertone of spun sugar and candied honey. It was cosy, a thin rug on the floor in a drained rainbow, and twinkling lights draped over the shelves and covering the roof in a starry embrace.
“Hi!” The girl behind the counter lisped, waving. “Did you like the crows’ feet? I did them myself! Mummy let me kill the birds, too!” The girl’s chestnut braids bounced on her shoulders. I frowned and gave her a little smile. She flashed me her missing tooth again.
“Um, has a boy been in here to buy rhubarb rolls lately?”
The girl stuck out her tongue and made an ‘uck’ sound. “They’re gross. Want a crow’s foot?” “No,” I took a step closer to her. My patience was running thin. “Did a boy buy rhubarb rolls lately?”
“They’re gross,” the girl repeated. “But yeah. Some guy comes around every week for one.”
That’s got to be him, I thought. He used to say that he would have a rhubarb roll every week if he could.
“Well, what does he look like? Do you know where I can find him?” I asked, heart thumping.
“He’s kind of short with a little nose and black hair,” she said. Ely, Ely, Ely, I chanted with every heartbeat. “And he’s on our mailing list. Let me check with Mama.” She flew out from behind the counter. “But if I do this for you, you’ve gotta buy a crow’s foot!” She called as she ran into a back room.
I dumped the paper bag full of crows’ feet into the murky river. Focusing on the address on the piece of paper, I wove through streets and alleyways, each darker and seedier than the last. I finally reached Holister Road. Counting the crumbled facades, I stopped in front of number four. I took a deep breath and pressed the buzzer. A cacophony of noise followed the buzzer- a glass smashed, a dog barked, a man swore, and finally, the door opened. A short man with black hair was holding an ugly brown mutt by the collar.
“Ely?” I whispered. He was exactly as I thought he’d be- tears pooled in my eyes.
“Who’s Ely?” The man grumped. “Christopher Crumb.” He said, holding out his free hand for me to shake. “At your service. Are you here for the meeting?”
“What meeting?” I asked, tears drying up almost immediately.
“The Anti Order of Imperium meeting, of course.”
Read part 5 here: https://www.mywritersstudio.com.au/the-art-of-theft-part-5/
Read part 3 here: https://www.mywritersstudio.com.au/the-art-of-theft-part-3/