Invisible Paint Brushes rock Circulation: 182,995,662 Issue: 470 | 19th day of Storing, Y12
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Empire: Part One


by herdygerdy

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Neopia Central is a very curious city.

      There is no ruler, no one to set the rules or guide the people. So, with the lack of any available Neopet, chaos rules.

      Crime runs rife through the city, rival factions fighting for a piece of turf. The streets are dangerous, the shadows are lethal.

      Three Neopets had the relative run of the place. Between them, they controlled most of the city from behind the scenes.

      At least, that’s how it had been in the past.

      Then Mr. Jennings had arrived, and things had changed quite dramatically.

      People had been removed, the city had been (relatively) cleaned up, and although Mr. Jennings was certainly a criminal, everyone had to admit, life was ever so slightly better since he had come along.

      Shenkuu immigrants now staffed Kau Kau Farms, tripling the output. Zombie workers with full Neopet rights kept the sewers and construction industries in check. The Docklands, under the watchful eye of Johnny Twobit, had become safer, provided you weren’t in Jennings’s bad books. Neovision had been rejuvenated. Businesses in the Marketplace had been saved from the brink of destruction. Charities got on with charity work instead of meddling in corruption and extortion. The Defenders of Neopia were even taking in more criminals, while paradoxically the Thieves Guild was having more successes.

      Everything was ever so slightly better.

      Yet, no one was really happy.

      No one really likes change, not deep down. Jennings had made his own little empire, but his subjects were not happy about it.

      This was perhaps most evident when the newspaper was placed in front of the green Krawk.

      ‘JENNINGS POPULARITY REACHES ALL TIME LOW’

      “Excellent,” Jennings remarked dryly.

      “What are you going to do, sir?” the green Grarrl asked from nearby.

      “The same thing I always do, Mr. Black,” Jennings responded. “Deal with it. It can’t be allowed to go on, there will be a riot.”

      “Quite so, sir,” Black agreed.

      “Still, we have more pressing issues to attend to first of all,” Jennings continued. “Our agent should be returning soon.”

      “Are you sure it was wise to send her again, sir?” Black asked.

      “Positive,” Jennings replied. “She’s the only one for the job. This situation with the gold cannot continue, either way.”

     ***

      Sarah was back.

      It had been so long since she had felt the Shenkuu mountain air on her face, but it was more than that. It had been so long since she had last been able to truly call herself a thief.

      She hadn’t needed to; the figure Mr. Jennings had supplied for her last job had been more than enough to tide her over for some time.

      But, as money has a habit of doing, the Neopoints dried up eventually.

      Then a very curious thing happened. Just as Light Fingered Sarah, the only thief to have stolen King Skarl’s crown, put herself back on the market for work, Mr. Jennings had approached her again.

      It was such a simple job. So well paying, as well. With any luck, she’d be able to go back into retirement for a while.

      The blue Aisha smirked as she dangled from a rock ledge, carefully edging along it with her fingers. It had been so easy, the last time. Shenkuu security had of course improved, but then so had Sarah.

      She dropped very carefully, and landed silently on a mountain path below. Through the mists, she could see the Imperial Guard that she had managed to completely avoid by taking the longer route. Ahead of her, the palace waited.

      She lurked in the shadows, carefully observing the guards posted at the entrance. The shift change was when she would strike.

      As the doors to the palace opened, and a Nimmo came out to replace the Eyrie on duty, Sarah made her move. The fraction of a second that the guards took to look at each other was all Sarah needed. She darted from her hiding place and pinned herself to the palace’s outer wall, her robes doing an efficient job at masking her.

      The Eyrie turned to make his way back inside the palace while the Nimmo gazed out into the mists. Behind him, Sarah ducked inside as the door closed.

      She quickly found an ornamental urn to hide behind as the Eyrie moved out of the entrance hall.

      Sarah closed her eyes, recalling the schematic of the palace which she had memorised. On her last visit, which seemed like years ago, she had gone to the treasure room. Now, she had a different destination in mind.

      When she was sure the coast was clear, she moved out from behind the urn, and sneaked off down a corridor.

      The guard patrols had certainly changed. More than once she had to double back to avoid discovery. Thankfully her destination wasn’t anywhere near the Emperor, so as she neared it the patrols became less frequent.

      At last, she pulled open the door to a small study. It was an unassuming room, and to anyone who was simply passing, it might appear as if it belonged to a simple clerk.

      Yet, Sarah knew different. This was the Emperor’s study.

      She lit the lamp on the desk, a light which would seem suspicious to anyone passing, but she needed it to obtain her goal. She rifled through the papers until she found the one she needed, and then paused as she examined it.

      There was a creak behind her.

      The Aisha whirled round, producing a dagger and readying it one swift movement. The guard in the doorway gasped, his eyes widening.

      “Intruder!” he screamed, rushing forwards.

      Sarah knew better than to challenge a trained soldier in combat. Instead, she leapt for the window, disappearing down into the mountain mists.

     ***

      The brown Mynci moved at speed through the palace. Soldiers parted to allow him entry to the Emperor’s chambers.

      The Gelert was pacing at the foot of his bed, still in his night robes. The Mynci kneeled before him.

      “Your highness, I have spoken to the guard who discovered the thief,” the Mynci explained. “It is indeed Sarah, the Aisha.”

      “Again!” the Emperor roared. “He sends his agents again! Shan, he is toying with us!”

      “She is skilled; I doubt the fall from the window will have killed her,” Shan continued. “The air docks are in lockdown. I have increased security on the paths leading southwards. She will be forced to head east.”

      “Good, very good,” the Emperor replied, calming himself. “Do you know what was stolen?”

      “Official documentation, sire. I will have your assistants catalogue your study. In the meantime, I shall dispatch soldiers to the eastern mountains; she will not escape us again.”

      “No,” the Emperor said, his back to the Mynci. “You will go, take your finest soldiers. Qin cannot walk over us forever; this Sarah will be caught. I thought restricting his access to our gold would be enough, but clearly we must respond with force to get his attention.”

      “As you wish, your highness,” Shan replied, getting to his feet. “She will not get far.”

     ***

      Sarah eased herself around the edge of the mountainside, her fingers clawing at the rock for holds. The further east you got, the more dangerous the mountain tracks became, and now she was facing a certainly lethal drop should she lose her footing.

      Still, dawn had given her something to be hopeful about; she was beginning to recognise the peaks. Soon, she would near the village of Bundak, on the very edge of the Shenkuu Empire’s territory. They had always been less than sympathetic to the Empire’s cause, and would happily give her passage back to Neopia Central. If she could only reach the village, everything would be fine.

      Her foot slipped, sending a few stones down the cliff face.

      A stupid mistake; anyone following is sure to see that.

      She quickened her progress, clutching the stolen scroll close to her chest. She hoped it was worth it; the entire thing seemed like a large gamble on the part of Jennings.

      Still, the money, think about the money.

      The comforting thought seemed to warm her bones against the cold mountain air, and she pressed on.

      The path began to widen out slightly, and Sarah took her chance to increase her speed. She rounded a corner in the path...

      ... and almost ran into a brown Mynci.

      The blade was at her throat before she could react.

      “Hello, Sarah,” Shan remarked. “I’d say it is a pleasure meeting you again, but to be frank, it isn’t. I thought you’d take the Bundak mountain trail. So predictable. I took the far quicker and far less well known valley floor track. It’s much easier; we even brought a carriage. The documents, if you will.”

      Shan held out his other hand. Sarah handed him the scroll.

      “Now,” Shan continued, moving to one side, “If you’d care to accompany me back to the Imperial City, the Emperor would like to have a few words with you.”

      Sarah didn’t say a word, only walking past Shan. As she went by, he roughly bound her arms together behind her back. Sarah sighed slightly as she saw the horizon.

      Bundak was in the distance; she had almost made it.

      Below, a far wider track with a carriage waited. Two stout Wockies stood to attention.

      “You know, General,” Sarah observed, “I half expected you to bring a flying ship after me... but oh! That’s right, most of them got stolen or blown up, didn’t they? Wasn’t that all on your watch?”

      “Silence, thief!” one of the Wockies shouted. “You will pay respect to the General!”

      Shan held his hand up. “Let her say what she likes. It’s going to be a long ride back to the capital, and I should hate to spend it in silence.”

      He held open the door to the carriage, which Sarah noted had been reinforced like a prison cell.

      “Besides,” Shan added as Sarah climbed inside, “she’s likely to be rotting in a dungeon for the rest of her life. This may well be the last real conversation she ever has.”

      The Wocky guards laughed the deep booming laugh of quite stupid people, and locked the door after Shan climbed in.

      “I have the pleasure of your company?” Sarah asked.

      “As tantalising as your vocal abilities are, this is to stop you from doing anything foolish, such as rocking the carriage while we travel down the mountain,” Shan replied.

      Sarah sat back, avoiding the smug grin Shan was wearing.

To be continued...

 
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