Those Left Behind: Part Two
The lunch served on the ship was somewhere between edible and life-shortening. Of course, you get what you pay for, and this was a budget Shenkuu-to-Krawk Island ferry.
Else and Mellis joined forces and tried their hardest to extract answers from me.
"So you and Lapnir were in Hephen's band of thieves together?"
"Did you know each other well?"
"What sort of things did Lapnir do?"
"He fought, mostly."
"Is he strong?"
"He fights dirty."
"Why are you so mad about all of this?"
Clearly one to three-word answers would not be enough. I put down my spoon and looked at them. "You'll hear all about it when it's my turn to tell my story."
They cringed and glanced at one another. But they also stopped asking me questions. We finished lunch in silence and went back to our shared quarters, which felt slightly smaller than your average broom closet.
"Well, I'm next," Else announced once we had settled down. "But it's kinda hard to tell where the story begins."
"Just pick a point and begin, then," Mellis suggested.
Else took a deep breath.
A small yellow Cybunny hopped down a street of Altador's bazaar district. She was doing her best to look casual, and her best was very convincing. Running away after stealing something isn't necessary if you can get it without anyone noticing. Of course, it helps if it's small enough to hide.
Without looking down, the Cybunny dropped the tchea fruit she was holding. It rolled into a sewer drain and was caught by a pair of hands. She continued hopping. She managed to do this nine more times over the next two hours. The highlight of the day was some Altadorian sun cheese. Everything she got was shared among the young Neopets hiding out in the vast catacombs below the city.
"And they never catch you?" asked Feld, a green Nimmo.
"Never!" Else said proudly. "They think I'm just out for a walk."
"How do you do it?"
"Well, I, uh..." Else paused to consider. She had never really thought about it. "I don't know, but it just works. It's like I think really really hard that I'm taking a walk. And if I think I'm taking a walk then everyone else will too."
"Can you pretend to be something else?" Feld asked again.
Else looked at him. "Like what?"
"I dunno, like..." Feld thought for a moment, and his face lit up. "King Altador!"
Else thought this was rather odd, but she decided to give it a try. She closed her eyes. She was regal. She was wise and powerful. She was very old, but very strong. She opened her eyes.
"Good afternoon, young ones of Altador," she said to the group sitting with her. Her voice sounded different. "What is it you seek from me today?"
The other children cheered. "It's perfect," one of them cried. "You sound just like him!"
"No, she doesn't," another said, "She sounds like a girl. Altador is an old man."
"I know, but if Altador was a girl, he would sound like her."
This led to a lengthy discussion of what it would be like if King Altador was a girl. Had she really sounded like him?
Life went on like this for a long time. Else and the other children who could steal took what they could from the market; those who couldn't, begged. They rotated between areas of the bazaar so that no one place would get suspicious about thieves. Else's impressions of different people quickly became a popular form of entertainment. She didn't understand why it was so interesting, but she enjoyed making her friends smile and laugh.
One evening, the small group was rolling with laughter in front of Else's impression of Jhudora. As the giggles died down and everyone stopped to catch their breath, Feld started a new topic. "Hey, d'you think we can ever join Hephen's group?"
A few looked up, understanding what he meant. A few others were confused. "Who's that?"
"He's the leader of a band of thieves!" Feld answered. "They hide out in the forest and steal from rich people. They do whatever they want and no one can stop them."
Else tilted her head to the side. "That's just what we do," she said.
"Yeah, but they're adults. And they're strong and they fight the soldiers and the guards. They don't have to run away and they don't have to pretend."
"Okay," Else answered, "So where are they?"
"In the forest," Feld repeated. "I bet we can find them if we look around a bit."
"But if we can find them, then couldn't the guards find them too?"
Feld opened his mouth, but didn't speak. After a moment, he shut it again. "Well, I bet we could find them if we looked hard enough."
The rest of the group liked this idea. Hiding out in the woods where there were no dusty roads or vendors yelling sounded so much nicer than hiding out underneath the streets. They began exploring the woods on the outskirts of the city. They found trees to climb and a few petpets wandering the forest, but no people--though they always wanted to believe that the rustling of leaves just beyond their line of sight was one of Hephen's thieves dashing away to their camp.
Else was as enthusiastic as the rest, but she had many questions: How did a band like that stay hidden? How did they fight the Altadorian guards when they were outnumbered? And even if her group did find them, what use would a bunch of kids be to a group of warrior thieves?
These questions never got answered, of course, and both life and the search continued. As summer came and the bazaar heated up, the group spent more and more time in the forest, where it was cooler. They found trees and bushes with fruit, which meant they didn't need to steal as much. Else couldn't climb trees very well, so she wasn't very useful for the group out in the forest; instead, she stayed in the bazaar and stole whatever supplies they needed that couldn't come from the forest.
Else always liked summer in the city. All the big events happened then--the Altador Cup, of course, but also many other celebrations, festivals, fairs, and other gatherings. Of course, lots of people crowded together meant lots of things could be stolen without anyone noticing, but Else enjoyed the atmosphere--it was vibrant and energetic, and people were so full of joy and passion.
She especially loved the performances. There were singers and bands whose music made her feel like she could fly. Magicians did illusions that made her own shoplifting look like a child playing with blocks. Acrobats performed feats of balance and strength that made them look like leaves blowing in the wind.
And then there were the plays.
All sorts of plays showed at the various festivals in Altador--wacky comedies, tragedies, moving romances, dramas, and a few that were so confusing that Else didn't know what they were supposed to be. The first time she saw one of these plays, she was confused--why would these people be arguing about where to hide stolen treasure when they were on a stage in front of a crowd of people? It took her a while to realize that they were doing exactly what she did--acting.
She enjoyed the stories, but she also studied the actors. How they spoke, how they moved, how they interacted and reacted to one another. She practiced what she saw, and used it to help her entertain her friends. And one night, after the climax of a play about seven people who journey to find a monster as a war erupts around them, she heard something new and exciting:
"Thank you all for coming out tonight. In a few minutes, the actors will come down from the stage to answer questions."
This was a great opportunity--she had so much to ask! And, it turned out, so did everyone else. The cast stepped down from the stage and walked out among the crowd. Else scurried over to an Ixi who had played a detective searching for the monster for the sake of her lost companion. She knew that she would get pushed aside because she was small, so she waited patiently in the back of the crowd, slowly making her way forward. She started organizing her questions in her mind--how do you make your emotions look so real? What does the area behind the stage look like? How much practice does a performance take? And most importantly--
"How do I get into a play?"
The Ixi blinked, then looked down, surprised to see such a short questioner. "I'm sorry, what?"
"How do I--how do I join a play?"
The Ixi looked tired, but decided to be helpful. "Well, there are a lot of plays here, especially in the summer. For the big performances like ours, you need to be part of the Actors' Guild. But for the smaller ones, you just need to find out where their tryouts are and go. If they like you, you get the part."
Else thought about this. "So they can take anyone?"
"If you fit the part and you do a good job, sure. They wouldn't let you play an old man or anything."
Else considered doing her Altador impression then and there, but decided it was better to stay on topic. "How do I find out where they have the--the tryouts?" she asked, trying to remember the word.
The actress was starting to be aggravated, probably because these questions didn't have anything to do with the play itself. "Look, if you're really that interested, come back after our performance tomorrow afternoon and I'll take you to a few tryouts."
Else's eyes widened and her ears stood up. "Really?"
The Ixi shrugged. "Sure, I don't have anything else planned for tomorrow."
"Thank you so much!" Else resisted the urge to hug the actress around her knees. "I'll be back here tomorrow after the play ends."
It took Else another couple of hours to get back to the catacombs, since she still had to steal some food. She was so excited that she got sloppy and nearly got noticed, at which point she decided it would be smartest to call it a night.
"...And she said she would show me where I can try out for a part in a play!" she told the group as they ate the day's haul. Most of them had spent the day in the forest. "I might become a real actor!"
"That's great," Feld chimed in. "We can all come watch you!"
"Uh-huh, I'll make sure you get to sit in the very front," Else answered. "And then if I get famous, I'll..." she trailed off.
"What?" someone asked.
"Well, I can't tell anyone that I was a thief, or else I'd get locked away. And then people would start looking for you guys too, and if you got caught I couldn't forgive myself."
The cheerful atmosphere changed. Several kids sitting in the group looked uncomfortable.
"That means you can't go after all," Feld mumbled.
"But I want to go. I want to be an actor more than anything else."
"But if you do that," Feld countered, "you either have to tell people what you used to do and get punished and then get all of us caught, and maybe keep acting when you get out; or you have to lie about it all and forget about us."
Everyone started shouting at these last words. "We don't want you to go!" "Your voices are really good." "You're great at stealing things, we couldn't eat without you!"
Else was overwhelmed. She held up her paws to quiet everyone down. "It's not like I'm going to be an actor right away. I probably won't even get to be one anyway. I don't even know if I can get into a play at all, I'm just a kid and most of the actors are adults." She sighed. "But I really really want to see if I can do it."
This explanation worked to calm down the group somewhat, but a few of them still glared at her. They finished their dinner in silence, and went to their separate areas of the catacombs to sleep.
Feld followed Else. "Do you really think it will happen like that?" he asked.
Else jumped at the sound of his voice, and got a growing sense of dread at the question. "Happen like what?"
"You get famous, and forget about us in order to keep us safe. Like that."
"I..." she struggled to find a good answer. Something that would make it all okay. She couldn't. "I don't know. I want to be an actor, it makes other people happy, and that makes me happy. But I want to stay with you, too."
A funny look crossed Feld's face, something that looked a little bit like panic. "With me?"
Else jumped back a bit. "No! No, I mean, with all of you, not with you-you. I mean, yes with you, but with everyone else too... what's so funny?"
Feld tried to stop laughing. It didn't work--in fact, it got worse. Else started to feel it too, and soon they were both leaning against the walls of the tunnel, trying to keep their giggles quiet so that they didn't disturb anyone. Finally, once they could both form words, they said goodnight and went their separate ways. Else promised herself that if she ever became famous, she would make a new word for "you" that was just for talking about multiple people.
To be continued...