Hotshots: Part One
Mortman peered out into the dimness and the mist of the fens that surrounded Kiko Lake. It was midnight, and few would have been able to see anything even with the aid of the single dim lantern. But the broad-shouldered Kougra was a smuggler, and midnight was the smuggler's hour.
He put the muscles of his shoulders and his back and his legs into poling the longboat through the water. He was used to this – he'd been doing this for years, ever since he was a young one who hadn't wanted to spend his days digging in the dirt. The Kiko Lake route was a good one – the Thieves Guild smuggled all sorts of goods and valuables into and out of Neopia Central and the Three Kingdoms of Meridell, Brightvale, and Darigan, and Mortman's crew was among the best of those who travelled the fens at night to bring loot to the bay.
Jig muttered low, "Careful on the right, you'll bring us right out of the shadow onto open water."
Sparkle murmured back, "Keep your opinions to yourself before I throw you overboard. And put some muscle into your own poling – my grandma does it better!" What the tall blue Lenny woman lacked in social graces – hence her rather sardonic nickname – she made up for in good sense and a good eye with a bow. Jig decided, as he usually did, that it wasn't worth the fight, and redoubled his own efforts to keep the craft hidden by the overhanging trees.
Rilla called softly from the prow, "They're out there." The electric Eyrie had the best eyes of anyone on the crew, and Mortman didn't doubt that the Thieves' Guild ship was waiting just as she said, even though he could not yet see through the darkness and the mists. Soon he saw the same light that she had seen, though – another lantern leading another person through the night.
Mortman pulled out a whistle and blew two long notes and then one short one – the signal that the loot was with them and that there had been no pursuit of any kind. In return, there were three long whistles and two short. Message received, safe to proceed. Mortman said, "Keep moving, and we'll all sleep 'til noon once we're unloaded. And then we'll go back to the Pearl and dinner will be on me!"
The small crew cheered softly – Mortman liked going back to the Pearl, north of Kiko Lake, and buying them all a nice dinner from the inn once they got back from a run. They were out in the wet and the dark enough that it was good to remind them that he really did care about them. He'd served under too many bosses and captains that didn't, and he didn't like that sort. He also didn't like that that sort always seemed to come to a bad end. Mortman smuggled because he liked the challenge, the freedom, and the night air. He didn't like trouble, no matter what form it came in.
When they reached the landing point, Mortman could see tall Haskell waiting for them. That was surprising, and more than a little worrisome. The shadow Lupe was one of Galem's top enforcers, and rarely bothered with lesser parts of the operation such as the fen smugglers. His first thought was that something must have gone very wrong.
Sparkle asked, "You been a bad boy, Jig?"
The red Techo sputtered, "I ain't done nothing! You're the one who can't stop running your mouth!"
Paolo asked, "What could we have done to have Haskell on our tails?" The orange Mynci boy's eyes were wide and scared.
Mortman said, "Hush. This may not mean anything. For all we know, Haskell's just trying to avoid Galem for a little. Wouldn't be the first time I've seen that happen." His other four crew members looked up at him – he was the oldest by a decent interval, though he would continue to insist that his hair and long moustache had gone white unusually young – and he knew that they trusted him to lead them rightly, to keep them all safe. "But stay in the boat. Be ready to go. If he means trouble, I'll run back and we'll get out of here."
They all nodded. Mortman took a deep breath and hopped out of the longboat, heading up the hill to meet Haskell, hoping that he wasn't about to betray that trust.
Haskell said, "You're late."
Mortman sighed. Jonesy and the land crew had been late to Cedar Point with the wagon, and they'd been down two fellows, which had hindered the loading. They'd been lucky to get here this quickly. But he'd learned a long time ago that no one ever cared about the excuses, no matter how valid they were. "The shipment's here and you'll be gone by dawn."
"As will you."
Mortman had heard that voice before, and his stomach headed straight down to the mud as Galem Darkhand loomed out of the darkness. "Good evening," he said, tucking his tail close to his body to hide the fact that the fur was bristling.
Mortman had seen four Master Thieves come and go before Galem Darkhand. Of all of them, the big Grarrl was by far the worst. Mortman had never crossed him – Mortman made it his business not to cross people who could make him regret it later. But he'd heard the stories. It was hard to avoid the stories, even when a fellow who made a practice of keeping his head low. Galem rumbled, "I've got a job for you, smuggler."
Mortman looked back at the longboat out of the corner of his eye. Could he outpace Galem to get back to it?
Probably not. And even if he could, the longboat wouldn't move fast enough through the fens to get away.
Another fellow, a big Darigan Skeith – Gram, Mortman thought his name was – came into view shepherding two others along roughly by the shoulders. Mortman had never seen these two before, but as they were little more than children, that didn't surprise him.
The girl was a Cybunny, tall for a lass, with her purple hair cut short, her practical jacket and pants adorned with jewelry that she'd surely stolen. The boy was a blue Gelert, even taller and yet skinnier than the girl, with unruly hair and a natural expression of mischief – the sort of demeanor that would likely have had him told to "wipe that look off his face" when he wasn't even thinking anything in particular.
But then Gram shoved the Gelert boy forward, and before he could steady himself Galem tripped him up – the Gelert ended up falling to all fours on the muddy ground. Mortman winced when he saw the look of sheer hatred that the boy directed up at the Master Thief, but Galem hadn't noticed. The big Grarrl merely chuckled. "I've got a pair of young hotshots here that need someone how to teach them not to get killed. Tell him your names, hotshots."
"Paselle," snapped the Cybunny, scowling.
"Kanrik," muttered the Gelert from between clenched teeth.
Galem was a bully and a brute. But he wasn't necessarily wrong. Mortman knew hotshots when he saw them, and these two were textbook. If they didn't get reined in, they'd either themselves or someone else killed.
But Galem attempting that reining wasn't going to do anyone any favors. Mortman asked carefully, "So how do I play into this?" He doubted that he'd like it – reining in hotshots wasn't one of his favorite jobs, though he'd had to do it before. But deliberately defying Galem Darkhand was a fairly bad idea for anyone interested in living.
Galem said, "I've got a job for you three. Come aboard, and you'll hear more about it."
Come aboard. Which meant get on a ship where Mortman had no choice but to follow Galem to his destination, whether or not he wanted to – and where he'd have no chance to run for it if he decided the job was likely to cost him his skin. He was a smuggler! These were his fens, his marshes, his crew. He wasn't one who wanted to be a big thief boss – he just wanted his own little patch, his own job in the night air.
But Galem had the coldest smile that Mortman had ever seen on a man, and he knew that he didn't get a choice in this. His fate had been sealed the moment that this scheme had crossed Galem's mind. His only option was to all he could to fulfill Galem's orders and keep himself and two crazy young hotshots alive. He said, "Mind if I talk to my crew? Need to give them a few orders." That was the sort of thing that Galem understood – he wouldn't understand wanting to say goodbye to people he cared about.
Galem said, "Quickly."
Mortman walked quickly down to the longboat. Paolo asked, "What's Darkhand want from us?"
Mortman said, trying to smile, "It's not you folks he wants – it's just me. He's got a job for me. Sparkle's captain while I'm gone. Try not to sink the boat or get all your fool tails arrested before I get back."
Rilla said, wide-eyed, "But you're a smuggler! There are plenty of Guild smugglers! What could he want with you?"
Mortman twisted the end of his moustache. "I'll find out soon. Don't worry about me – no one's handing me a sword and telling me to go charging into battle. There are far better for that sort of work than I, and I'm sure he knows it."
But Jig and Sparkle clearly knew what Mortman knew – that there was no way in Neopia this would be that simple. Not with Darkhand and the big folk of the Guild involved.
Paolo tossed Mortman his pack – Mortman nodded his thanks and slung it over his shoulder. There was nothing more he could say to his friends, his crew, and he was certain to irritate Galem if he tarried.
So Mortman headed back up the hill to where Galem Darkhand, two young hotshots, and a whole world of hurt awaited him.
To be continued...
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