Rogue and Rover: Part One
Kanrik took a drink of strong coffee, still hot, and set aside the updates from his fighters in Tyrannia to open the letter from Krawk Island. He rolled his eyes the moment he saw the handwriting – it was Asander, again. It appeared that, for the third time, he and the other thieves Kanrik had sent had been kicked out of Qasala.
Yes, Kanrik knew that there was a former thief as queen in Qasala, and that Queen Nabile's expertise combined with King Jazan's determination to rebuild the formerly-cursed city as a bastion of law and order made it rather difficult to operate. But Asander was no rookie, and there were rich idiots everywhere – surely he should have managed to find at least a few before running for his cowardly life? He didn't even have so much as a cut purse to show for his trouble! Some skinny street urchin could have done better than that!
He skimmed the rest of the letter – more excuses. Perhaps Kanrik ought to let Asander retire quietly right where he was on Krawk, filching treasure from Babaa-witted tourists and pirates made careless by shore leave, and find someone more willing to improvise. Who also wouldn't whine. Kanrik much preferred it when his lieutenants didn't whine.
He looked up and smiled at the sound of that familiar voice. "Hannah!"
The diminutive Usul was shivering from the cold, and her brown hair was tousled and tangled from being kept in a hood, but her blue eyes were bright and full of life. She took the other seat at his typical corner table, slinging her battered green coat over the back of the chair. It was dripping snowmelt in the warmth of the inn, as were her boots and the hem of her skirt. She called, "I'm freezing, innkeeper! Coffee with milk and sugar, as quick as you can get it, please!"
The innkeeper called back, "Right away, ma'am!"
Kanrik snorted. "Milk and sugar? Abominable."
Hannah raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm surprised that yours hasn't dissolved your cup yet. I can smell it from over here."
He added another line from the old argument. "If coffee was supposed to be sweet, coffee beans would be sweet." He added in a quieter voice – no need to pique the curiosity of the other thieves in the inn – "I didn't know you'd get back from Kreludor so soon! Find anything?"
She lowered her voice as well. "A pretty impressive haul. But the giant robots are more impressive – I had to drop all of it but a few gold coins when I ran for the docks, and the conniving miser of a captain charged me all of those to get me out of the spaceport before the robots caught up to us. Calls himself a smuggler, but I think extortionist would fit just as well."
Kanrik looked at the letter in his hand, speculating. "Perhaps I ought to send Asander to Kreludor instead – he can try whining to a robot and see if that works."
Hannah stood up to peer at the letter. "He had to leave Qasala again?" She raised her voice again as she adopted an unflattering – and entirely accurate – imitation of Asander. "We were almost thrown in the dungeons! We never stood a chance! There was nothing we could do!"
There was laughter from the surrounding tables – everyone here was familiar with the Wocky's manner. That little green Kyrii pickpocket, Heddy, called, "Asander get his tail run out again?" Mocking groans followed as Kanrik nodded assent. Then the blue Gelert let the ruckus die down, and raised his hand to get food for Hannah and for himself – he'd been reading the mail and hadn't thought about his dinner.
They both dug into the bowls of hearty stew that the innkeeper brought – Kanrik asked Hannah as she attacked her bowl like a half-starved Werelupe, "Was the food on Kreludor poor, then?"
She said around a mouthful of the meal, "If I ever catch an Alien Aisha, I think I'm going to box all of its ears. Their food is disgusting. You wouldn't even believe it. All the Grundos swear by it, but I think I've sworn it off."
Then she rummaged through the pockets of her brown vest. "Aha – here. I picked up something interesting about the Strait of Ice in a boardinghouse in Central after I left the shuttleport."
Kanrik knew the area of the Strait of Ice, where the northern continent that held Terror Mountain came closest to the mountains north of Shenkuu. But that terrain was more Hannah's area of expertise than his own – there were plenty of old ruins and treasures, but they tended to require climbing, jumping, and dodging instead of sneaking and stealing. He held his hand out for the parchment she produced, but she kept it back out of his reach. "But not right now. I don't want to get food all over it."
Kanrik raised an eyebrow at her. "Now you're just trying to be annoying. And speaking of annoying, how's the kid?"
Hannah said, "Armin's back in the halls of the Bori. Some festival of theirs – I don't understand much of that old culture, and they aren't big on sharing too much with outsiders. But he was really excited about it. Now, you know I've been dodging giant robots, and there's not much more to tell. But I've heard about that obelisk all the way on the moon!"
As they finished eating, Kanrik told her about the Obelisk War and the ongoing skirmishes in Tyrannia, with several of the other thieves chiming in to brag about their roles or to disparage those of others. After that, he started explaining more recent plots, or at least those plots that he was comfortable discussing in the tavern. Finally, once they had finished eating – and once the musicians in the corner were playing a reel that had most of the thieves clapping and singing too loudly to pay much attention to their leader – Hannah spread the battered old paper out on the worn wooden table, using their coffee cups and empty bowls to hold down the corners, which had a tendency to curl.
He took one look at it – it was written in the old Bori runes. He raised an eyebrow at her once more. "And you're going to show me something I can actually read... when?"
She snickered. "I can read it – Armin taught me. It's directions to an old fortress of the Winter King, and it says that there's treasure inside. It's above the Strait of Ice, in territory that I know most people don't explore, so I'd be willing to believe it. There are a lot of cliffs there, a lot of ravines – it would take a full climbing kit. And someone to go with me to watch my back."
He grinned at her. "And to get things off tall shelves. You've always had a problem with those."
She stuck her tongue out at him. Then she asked, "So you are in? I didn't know whether you'd have anything here that was keeping you busy."
He shook his head. "I don't believe so. Most of my thieves here are still licking their wounds from the Obelisk War. They've had their fill of action for a while, so I doubt that anyone has the wherewithal to try to take my place while I'm gone."
She nodded as she took another drink of her coffee, using her hand to hold down the parchment as she did so. "And they're afraid of what would happen once you came back."
They both looked up over Kanrik's seat in the tavern. The walls were lined with weapons and other trophies, and above his chair there was a very distinctive wavy-bladed sword hung on pegs.
Kanrik had put it there as a reminder. He wanted his thieves to think, "He won that sword off Darkhand. He beat Galem Darkhand in a fair fight. And if even Galem couldn't beat him, what chance do I have?" Kanrik knew quite well that he was as mortal as any other Neopian. But he saw no harm in letting his enemies – and his allies – think that he wasn't.
He leaned back. "A little healthy fear's good for business. That was one benefit of the war – to remind all these mangy fellows just how I got this spot in the first place." He turned his attention back to the parchment. "There's a lot more there. What else is it?"
Hannah said, "There are more specific directions to where we're going. Several landmarks – the language is a little confusing, but I'm certain it'll make more sense once we're on the trail. I do know that the route it describes starts just north of the town of Praskia, to the west of here."
He nodded. "I know Praskia. Lot of miners there, coming in to sell what they've found in their diggings."
She continued, "There are also some warnings about the fortress itself. Threats about guardians and traps. That's another reason I asked you to come – I'm decent in a fight, and you've seen that I can take apart traps as well as anyone else in Neopia, but when it comes to weapons you're a good deal better than I am. Any treasure guarded by someone or something that you can't fight is a treasure that's going to be left in peace for a good age more."
He nodded. She was right. Blade-to-blade, he could match anyone in Neopia. He didn't have any magic to work with, and that would be a disadvantage against a warrior-mage, but that was why he'd stolen several very expensive charms that would neutralize any magic that attempted to work directly on him. They weren't foolproof, but they kept him from worrying about sorcerers in the middle of a scramble.
The Winter King. He'd ruled all of the northern continent long, long ago – he was behind one of the stories of why Neopians exchanged presents during the Day of Giving. The Bori revered him as the founder of their nation. If there was really a cache of treasure that he'd left behind, untouched after all these years – and in a region like that north of Praskia, that was reasonable – it could hold treasures the like of which no longer existed out of the vaults of kings.
He grinned at Hannah. "So we'll start tomorrow, then?"
She grinned back, just as fiercely. "You read my mind."
To be continued...
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