Where the Wind Blows Wild: Part One
Kanrik leaned against a wall, surveying the little town of Brilforge. It wasn't particularly remarkable in any way – there were many towns like it nestled in the passes of the Great Mountains, the spine of Neopia's biggest continent. It was small and hardscrabble, like all the rest, with folk who made their living from the mountains around and from the trade of those who came through. There wasn't even all that much trade this far north – they were too close to Shenkuu, whose flying ships were a good deal more practical than caravans. He and Hannah, dressed in travelling clothes that could use laundering, blended in perfectly.
So what was a priceless statue doing in the hands of the two-bit mayor of this two-bit little place?
Hannah walked up to him, skirting a muddy patch on the earthen street. She smiled at him, and he smiled back, but she waited until she was close enough to speak softly before she said, "Mayor Marius isn't hiring any help right now, but at least I was able to find out where the house was. A bit to the north – apparently all the nicer houses in town are up the slope a bit, away from the bustle of the main road through the pass."
Kanrik hadn't actually expected Hannah to be able to get a job as a maid. It would have made it incredibly easy to case the joint – and, in his experience, his life was never that easy. "It appears we'll have to do this the old-fashioned way."
They started walking down the back alley – Kanrik offered his arm to Hannah, and Hannah took it and smiled at him. An old woman pegging out her laundry waved at them. They looked completely normal, and two people walking arm-in-arm didn't attract any attention if they started whispering. Hannah murmured, "I don't think it will be too hard. If I owned a one-of-a-kind Arnsian statue, I wouldn't lock it in a vault. I'd show it off."
Exactly. Kanrik knew of a dozen private collectors who would give their eyeteeth for that statue, and at least half of them would be glad enough to have it to not ask any questions about whether it was gained legally. It wasn't as if they'd ever get caught. The buyer would carefully avoid asking where he'd got it, he'd allow them to pretend they thought Hannah had recovered it somewhere where no one had a claim to it, and everything would be rosy. It wasn't as if anyone had heard of Brilforge. And Kanrik had a feeling that Mayor Marius wouldn't like the idea of any Defenders of Neopia poking around. He murmured in return, "He's rich enough to hire staff and dabble in collecting statuary. You don't do that legally in a little place like this. I'm not sure if it's even possible."
Hannah murmured, "Which brings us to the question of what brought a genuine Arnsian statue to this little place."
Kanrik agreed, even though this particular statuette wasn't what he considered Arnsian's best work. The artist had spent his life creating statues and paintings of fantastic, imaginary creatures, and many of his creations were absolutely beautiful. But this one was just strange. The beast had broad, armored shoulders with thick-boned wings sprouting from the back, huge hands, curling horns, a jutting jaw with protruding teeth, cloven feet, and no nose to speak of. It was also apparently a giant, as it had been carved reaching out to touch the hand of a ragged Kougra who barely came up to its elbow and had less than half the width across the shoulders. It was rather ugly, actually, and Kanrik had stolen enough art to consider himself an able judge of those things.
He said, "I think Arnsian was mad, to tell you the truth."
Hannah shrugged. "Maybe a little. They say he traveled all over the place, though, collecting folk tales. I like the idea of that. There are some cool stories around Brilforge, even, and this northern mountain region. Stories of the Stone Shepherds, the Keepers of the Peaks. An old race of giants that once kept the mountain passes, so long ago that even Jahbal would have only known them as a legend. Odd stories – you can tell they've been told and told again, and changed so in the telling that it's hard to tell where they came from."
Kanrik nodded. He loved how Hannah's night-blue eyes lit up whenever she became interested in a story. She loved shiny things as much as he did, but to her half the fun of jaunts like these was talking to the people and learning their tales and songs. He said, "Want to wander our way over to the mayor's house?"
She nodded. "Might as well. We don't want to hang out in the inn all day – people in little mountain towns like this get suspicious of lurking foreigners. They've had too many people con them and bolt, and there are too many bandits in the hills. I've heard those tales as well on my day about town."
Kanrik's day had been focused less on the people and more on the practicalities – he'd been investigating alternate routes out of town besides the main road through the pass. There were a few lawkeepers in town, and they'd expect a thief carrying a valuable statue to leave as quickly as possible – if they found a place to hole up or another way to go, they'd shake them off easily. He'd dealt with small-town law before, and the day he got caught by those numbskulls would be the day he resigned as Master Thief.
The mayor's house was a big one – the biggest one by far in Brilforge, behind the town hall and almost the same size, with elaborate stonework and an imposing carved front door. It was also clearly new, and Marius had likely built it for himself.
He said, "I might be wrong, and Mayor Marius might actually be a nice, generous person whose money is completely legitimate."
Hannah rolled her eyes. "And you might be an accountant who suffered a childhood accident and hates getting cold."
Kanrik grinned, and pulled the hood of his dark cloak a little further over his face to hide the scar that cut up the right side of his muzzle and over his eye. Childhood accident, his tail. He'd earned that beauty. "Can we get away with pretending to be sightseers? No, we're not dressed nicely enough."
Hannah pointed – ahead of them was a trading post, and out front of the trading post was a woman selling hot pot pies. They smelled fantastic, and while it wasn't as cold as Terror Mountain, the wind was fierce and damp and Kanrik could use something warm in his stomach. He bought himself and Hannah each a pie, and they ate as they walked.
There were a few other grand houses on the hill, and some more shops – this was a more prosperous area of little Brilforge. Kanrik kept his hands in his pockets. The Arnsian sculpture was the purpose of this trip. No matter what other ill-guarded trinkets were about, smaller heists would only make Mayor Marius more wary. Kanrik was willing to bet that the fellow was paranoid. Men with big egos in little towns tended to be paranoid.
Then the doors of the big house were flung open, and two men no older than Kanrik himself were thrown out by two other men in servant's uniforms – a tall, lanky blue Ogrin and a short, stocky yellow Wocky.
They were followed by an elderly Bruce in a Neovian-style morning jacket, whom Kanrik assumed to be Mayor Marius himself. He was short, portly, and scowling as he snapped, "And if I see you two criminals lurking around here again, I'll have you clapped in irons!"
The Ogrin pushed himself to his feet and said with a smile, "We just wanted to see a genuine Arnsian sculpture. Can you blame us, sir?"
Oh. The Arnsian.
Hannah murmured, "And if those two just wanted to see that, you're one of the Defenders of Neopia."
Kanrik snickered as they casually strolled closer to hear more. Marius snapped, "Oh, and you expect me to believe that, boys?"
The short Wocky shrugged – just a bit too casually to Kanrik's experienced and cynical eye. "It's the truth. Whether you believe it or not is your business, I suppose. But you can hardly lock a pair of brothers up for looking."
The Ogrin added, "We're experts, after all."
The Bruce's answering tone was soft – Kanrik couldn't catch it. But the tall Ogrin said, with a bit of an insolent smirk, "We're staying at Celestina's house anyway. She's a friend of our father's. And don't tell me for a second that you can make that woman do a single thing she doesn't want to do."
Mayor Marius hissed something quietly. Hannah asked, "Ten Neopoints that that was some variation on 'watch your back'?"
Kanrik shook his head. "No bet. Though I'd bet 'watch your mouth' was involved somehow, too. Look at those two. If they don't run a fast-talk con, they're wasting potential."
Hannah giggled. "Much of Neopia has a different idea of potential than you do, Kanrik."
The tall Ogrin said, "Come on, Kell, let's get out of here."
Hannah and Kanrik looked at each other, and speechlessly wandered toward the two brothers, pretending to be absorbed in their pies. Their paths almost intersected, and Kanrik drew close enough to hear the Wocky say, "...traditional methods, Corbin. I told you."
"I know. But the Arnsian..."
They walked off quickly.
Corbin and Kell, staying at Celestina's house.
Kanrik muttered to Hannah, "I think we've got competition."
She grinned, a fierce light entering her blue eyes. "Shall we follow?"
He grinned back at her. "You read my mind."
To be continued...
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