Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
In the morning, two days after they left the town with a bag full of stolen gold and gemstones, Annabel realized the High Wood was getting more and more receding. There were less trees all around as she and Chase were approaching a big bright open area that looked a lot like a town, but over the brownish roof tiles Annabel couldn’t see any tree tops anymore. That meant there was hardly any forest at all farther north, and that was telling the girl they were very close to the capital.
The last night before they got to the town Chase and Annabel had yet to spend in the High Wood. They put out a small campfire, mainly in order to scare away the mosquitos rather than keep themselves comfortable or even cook food: they had bought bread and cheese at the festival back in the village, and the night was phenomenally warm. From where they sat, the town landscape was slightly visible, all gleaming in candles and lanterns burning. By the distinct gaze that Chase had fixed on it, Annabel guessed he’d been there before, or at least wanted to ‘make the town his’ with a new genius theft, a grand robbery, or a few of amazing tricks performed in the streets.
The girl hoped it would be the last variant, just as she hoped a couple of days ago when she thought Chase was only going to entertain people at the farming fest. Instead she got her job as an assistant, plus extra job as a thief, and had to remember about absolutely everything instead of keeping something particular in mind. That double work practice was certainly not the easiest thing to do, but Chase had told her to get used to it for a while. “Until we reach the Brook county,” he said. He taught her as many tricks as she could remember, making her the accessory in now absolutely all his crimes, from a simple fraud to big robberies. Not that she wanted to complain, but sometimes the thought of the criminal world slowly overpowering her would send shivers down her spine.
“What are we going to do there?” she asked Chase, trying to get rid of the irritating notes in her head and accept the situation she had got herself into. The boy looked at her in a very strange way, and then smiled slightly, turning his face towards the faraway town.
“I’m going to teach you to seduce men.”
Instead of swallowing a piece of cheese, Ananbel inhaled it and started coughing furiously the very next instant; her lungs felt suppressed, without any air in them at all. Chase squinted pitifully at her, but didn’t say anything before the girl managed to take a deep breath again. She felt her heart beat strongly against her ribs, and her hands were a bit shaky. She stared at Chase with something close to anger aside from the most sincere confusion.
“It’s not a good idea to speak while you’re eating, you know.” Chase grimaced, definitely not fond of Annabel’s face going beetroot red.
“Get off my back,” Annabel spat at him. “Now, if Your Highness pleases so, could you tell me a little more about the great plan you’ve got for me, genius? Just a few details, would you be so kind?”
Chase certainly felt her angry eyes burn him into ashes, but ignored it.
“Oh, come on, it’s just a part of your job now. Relax, you’ll get paid.”
“Chase, are you out of your mind?” Annabel almost screamed at him, forgetting about the wild animals around them, forgetting about everything. She couldn’t believe her own ears! “I’m not going to please any man for money, just in case you-”
“For all gods’ sake, Annabel!” Chase said, raising his voice. “What are you thinking about?”
Oh, I wish you could read my thoughts for real, boy, you’d know so many interesting things I’m thinking about! I’d tell you what-
“No one is going to make you please anyone.”
Annabel was watching him carefully, and she could swear she didn’t find a catch in his behavior or in the way he looked at her at the moment. No false bottom in his tone, or words, or eyes. That eased Annabel’s nerves a little bit, but she was still alert.
“What did you mean then?” she asked him carefully, not sure if Chase’s plan was good, anyway.
“I meant what I said,” the boy replied, as calm as a lump of ice. “You are going to learn how to work with men’s pockets using your… inborn female magic.”
Annabel sat with her back against a tree trunk, gaze fixed on Chase, thoughts beginning to clear up partially. If the boy was saying the truth, and she was only going to rob men using her charming smile as a bonus weapon… That was a good trick, and Annabel was sure she’d heard of it from someone in The Garden a couple of years ago, but… There was a small problem. A small, but real problem. The girl had never known how to approach adult men, charm them, not to mention seducing them. But the most difficult fact to comprehend among all that was that from all people in the world, from absolutely anyone, her fate had chosen that one guy to claim the ability to… teach her?
“I hope you’re kidding me right now,” Annabel said, straight but honest, looking Chase right in the eye, though the boy didn’t even flinch.
“I’m not,” he said.
“Are you going to teach me how to flirt with men?” Annabel could help herself but raise an eyebrow.
“And for how long have you been an expert at it, may I ask?”
Chase shot the girl a sharp glance, but then turned away again, explaining in a smug tone, “Dear Annabel, in my not that long lifetime I’ve met so many different people that I stopped the count a few years ago. From all of them, in one way or another, I’ve learnt something useful. For example, there was a girl who has demonstrated to me the art of flirting and seducing men, as well as women, in any possible situations and places. ‘No matter rich or poor,’ she has told me, ‘your main purpose is to find the pressure point that will give you the control over a person. As soon as you can understand what a person can be hooked on, you start acting in a certain way, getting their attention and drawing it to your charisma and bodacious speeches, while your hands imitate your grabby intentions and steal a wallet from a person’s pocket. Your second, but not less important mission, is to depart in an elegant and virtuous way so no one ever suspects you.’”
Annabel was afraid to think of anything that was going further than Chase and that stranger girl exchanging priceless skills and experiences, but her thoughts went messy anyway. She shook her head and pressed her fingers to her eyes, trying to get rid of the pain that striked her head all of a sudden.
“So… So you will teach me, right?”
“Right. You’re a quick learner, it won’t take you long to become efficient in flirting with people and robbing them at the same time.” Grumping and fussing like an old dog, Chase started making up his own ‘bed’, or whatever it could be called. He fell on it with a loud ‘ooof’ and put his hands behind his head. “Now take the padlock and crack it open with your eyes shut.”
“What?” Annabel moaned. “Now? But it’s night, and… and…”
“You don’t need day to practice it. Shut your eyes and unlock it.”
“Because you talk too much.” On that Chase pointed at his bag where the padlock had been carelessly thrown in, lost among all other stuff they were carrying during the journey. Grumbling and cursing under her breath, Annabel went through Chase’s backpack things, found the padlock, the wretched lockpicks, and closed her eyes. She was well aware of the fact that Chase could lie there and pretend to be sleeping, while in fact he was carefully watching her and listening to her actions. If she stopped, he would hear that, and wouldn’t let her sleep until she did what he told her to do. The only thought that was whirling in her mind at that moment wasn’t a thought of all the people Chase said he’d met in his life, not a thought of the girl that taught him weird stuff, even not a thought of her own flirt-and-rob lessons coming soon, but how in the world a human being can pick a lock with its eyes shut?..
The town they were heading to was called Keaton. It wasn’t bigger than any town they had met on their way, but Annabel noticed how different it looked and sounded as they entered it through the main gate. Much more developed, with wider streets and flowerbeds, with more shops that had big windows and signs. The roads were much more crowded, and people here were using horses or carts instead of walking on their own. Traders were shouting from every corner, selling their goods to everyone passing them. The town was busier, louder, paler, without the sweetness that Hentenoof or other small towns had. Keaton was closer to the capital, so it had to stick to some specific standards by being less simple, lacking colours, displaying welfare, even though it wasn’t much richer than other towns.
Chase showed Anabel the main square - big and wide area with enough space for performing grandeur tricks. He said that they were going to spend a few days in Keaton in order to have time for everything: first teaching Annabel to deal with men, and after that setting up a performance. Simple and fast.
“May I ask you something?” Annabel looked around to be sure no one was near to eavesdrop on their conversation, and continued, “Those golden things and gems we’ve stolen from the Korhanian, what are you going to do with them? We can’t just leave them in our rooms, can we? If there are thieves somewhere around, we can get robbed.”
“Don’t worry about that,” the boy replied. “You’ll see what that gold is for. Right now.”
He was walking towards a tavern tucked between two stone buildings, the one of the kind that doesn’t make you trust it, with wooden panels on its walls, dark of dirt, and creaking batwing doors that didn’t look even near to new. As Chase and Annabel came closer to it, they heard loud shouting inside, and then right before them two bulky men almost flew out of the tavern, grabbing each other by the collars, crashing the panel doors into pieces. They fell on the pavement, started rolling over, hitting and punching one another. Annabel couldn’t help but jump back in fear: she never liked it when someone was fighting in front of her, because any moment anyone could get a punch, too, accidently. But Chase was calm; he waited until the brawlers were far enough from the entrance, and went inside the inn. Annabel glanced at him, confused, but didn’t have time to ask any questions, and had to follow him. A few people passed them, obviously eager to watch the fight, shouting out encouraging phrases and bets. Chase laughed slightly at what was going on, but Annabel wasn’t fond of it.
“What are we doing here?” she whispered to the boy, carefully turning around to see if the fighters were still bouncing each other. She noticed blood on their faces and grimaced.
“You’ll see,” Chase replied and clapped his hand on the bar table twice, calling for a bartender.
“I don’t feel like staying here for too long,” Annabel declared coldly.
In a few seconds a short chubby man appeared in front of them, but Annabel could see he wasn’t that much concentrated on his job.
“Dirty tipplers,” he spat angrily, slapping a piece of soiled fabric onto the table. “I fix that damn door every single weekend! Can’t even buy new stuff for my bar ‘cause I’ve got to spend money on different rubbish like that! Tables, doors, tables again, new floors, new ceilings, every single week! Damn it!”
Annabel threw a glance at Chase who was standing next to her with a slight smile on his face, absolutely at ease, his head resting on a fist, his eyes fixed on the man. When the bartender wouldn’t turn to them and offer something, the boy said to him in a light, a bit mocking voice, “What’s up, Bonnie? Got drunkards at your inn?”
On that, the man turned his head to Chase abruptly, and his eyebrows jumped in surprise.
“You?” he said, slowly blinking, as if not believing his own eyes. “I didn’t expect you here, cad.”
“No one ever does. Do you have a few minutes to spare?”
The man called Bonnie sniffed unenthusiastically at Chase, but came closer. He shot Annabel a glance full of distrust, and nodded at her, asking, “Who’d that be?”
“My assistant,” Chase answered briefly. “Look, Bonnie, I know you don’t really like having any business with me…”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Bonnie snorted, “but you came here anyway, so what do you want?”
“I want to offer you a very good deal, Bonnie. Only for you, as for an old friend.” The man looked at Chase in a very strange way in which Annabel managed to recognize both disgust and interest at the same time, even if that was hardly possible. Chase smiled at him and added, “Don’t you like gold, Bonnie? I thought you did.”
And now Bonnie was on the hook. Something changed in his posture, in his small black rat-like eyes; he didn’t really care for the brawl outside his inn or even for the broken doors anymore, he was all attention.
“Speak up, boy,” he said quietly, resting his elbows on the table, leaning in close to Chase’s face.
“I’ve got a plan for a few of your clients, Bonnie, and I need you to let me bring my plan to life. We’re just going to work with a couple of peasants, take some extra coins from their pockets, nothing more. But we won’t be ungrateful, Bonnie, you know I never am.”
The man rubbed his unshaven chin thoughtfully. “What do you have to offer me?”
“Well, depends on what you prefer, sun or stars,” Chase smiled.
Chase looked around himself to be sure no one was watching them, and placed his backpack on a stool next to him. He found a small bag filled up with golden accessories and gemstones of different size and colour. Bonnie leaned over the bar table, taking a peek inside. Annabel could swear she saw the gemstones’ gloss mirror in his sly eyes, the corner of his chubby lips slightly went up.
“That’s good stuff. Toufrish stuff,” he said meaningfully, lifting his gaze and looking directly at Chase. The boy closed the backpack again.
“Most of it is,” he nodded, “but there’s something from Karyllia and the Southern Canyons, too.”
All those places - Toufrire, Karyllia, and Southern Canyons - were the lands considered the best, the richest sources of gold and all kinds of precious stones. They would be mined out of the earth, deep beneath the grass, from under the big mountains and from long winding caverns, then taken to the master jewellers, most often Toufrish ones as the most professional experts, who would turn a stone or a metal into a true masterpiece for some richies to wear on their wrists, necks, heads, or ears. Bonnie knew what he was talking about, probably because he was Toufrish, or at least had Toufrish roots: short, with olive skin, dark eyes, and thick black hair. That was what Annabel had known about Toufrish people from books, but, of course, she couldn’t be sure. If Bonnie turned out to have Toufrire as his motherland, she wouldn’t be surprised, though.
“That’s a real good deal, Chase,” the man smirked. “Are you sure you want to give that treasure away?”
“I’m not giving them away, am I? I’m investing them in something useful.”
“So, can we rely on that you won’t turn us in to the angry locals, Bonnie?”
The man was hesitating. Annabel could see he was fond of gold and gemstones but still unsure if he should give Chase a chance to rob his clients.
“How long do you plan to stay here, lad?”
“Four days. Five, tops. Before you make a decision, I must tell you that you’ll be able to choose anything you like from that little bag. Anything, Bonnie, think of it. It doesn’t happen every day to stumble upon a bag full of treasures, does it?”
Bonnie was thinking for at least a minute before he eventually nodded. When a waitress brought a few empty beer mugs to the bar and asked the man to fill them, he murmured something to her and gestured at a door behind him that probably led to the kitchen or basement. The woman welcomed Chase and Annabel to follow her.
“Go with Rayat, guys, and wait for me in my workroom. I’ll be there in a minute,” Bonnie told them, returning to the beer mugs.
Chase winked at Annabel meaningfully and went after the waitress, bearing the girl’s confused look. She didn’t fully understand why Chase wanted to pay the innkeeper in gold and precious stones instead of coins, but it seemed like the boy was absolutely confident about his actions. He knows something I don’t. Otherwise he’d be just a stupid folk.
The woman named Rayat led them through the kitchen, a narrow passageway, and some stairs down to a small room stuffed with different tools for working with wood. Among all the chaos that Annabel and Chase were surrounded by, she managed to recognize a special tool for cutting gemstones, supplied with a few magnifying glasses. Bonnie probably had a hobby of making jewels, or at least knew something that let him make money on them.
“Why couldn't you offer him money, Chase?” Annabel asked the boy when Rayat left the room. Chase was fast to find himself a small chair and fell on it, crossing his legs.
“I know this man,” he said. “He wouldn’t deal with me for money.”
“How did you meet him?” Annabel attempted to pull another chair out from a pile of wooden panels and other stuff, but everything collapsed with a loud noise, so she had to leave it alone and stand in the middle of the room like a fool, having no idea what to do with herself. Despite that, she turned to Chase again, crossing her arms, making a look like all was going as planned.
“Well, that’s a funny story… Once me and a bunch of other guys needed a temporary hideout to escape our followers who were too passionate about cuddling us to death, and Bonnie’s tavern was the first place we found. He didn’t like the idea of hiding criminals under his bar table, but we paid him a good price and dealt with all his problems. That’s how we came to know each other. After that silly situation we used to co-work for a while, but then Bonnie moved out of his inn, sold it, and it became harder to communicate with him. But, as you can see, we are still partners.”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t enjoy it, obviously,” Annabel snorted. Looking around the room, she noticed that Bonnie was making wooden musical instruments here, as well as some jewels, but there was no sign of precious stones on the tables or shelves. Maybe he kept the most valuable materials in the locked drawers, but Annabel didn’t really want to check.
“He’s got a taste for gems, hasn’t he?” she asked, nodding at Chase’s bag.
“He is Toufrish,” Chase smiled, “it means he can sniff the good gemstones out. Also, his father was a fine jeweller, so Bonnie knows something about the stones, too. And that’s exactly why money doesn’t work for him. For gems, he’d do many things, and for coins… Well, he’ll sell you a mug of beer, as the most of it.”
So actually Annabel was right about the man’s roots. Personally for her it seemed like Bonnie’s love and respect for gemstones were bad omens - that little bag wasn’t going to stay even half full, that’s for sure.
“And why do we have to pay him at all? Aren’t we thieves, aren’t we supposed to take everything without permission?”
“It’s not the right situation, Annabel. We need permission from Bonnie because otherwise he will tell everyone in the tavern we were going to rob them, and that’s where we’ll have to run. For a thief it’s never good when he has to run, believe me.”
“But if you used to work with Bonnie, doesn’t he have to… I don’t know, help you?”
“Annabel...” Chase laughed loudly, then smiled at the girl with something very close to kindness that parents feel towards their small, unclever child. “Annabel, he’s not obliged to help me because we used to be partners. Toufrish people, especially businessmen, are usually obliged to no one but themselves, and our partnership means nothing to Bonnie if he doesn’t make profit on it.”
As Chase said it, a loud stumping started somewhere on the stairs, and in a few seconds the innkeeper entered the room in his heavy, clumsy manner, breathing badly and wiping off the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
“Take them out,” he said in a somewhat hoarse voice, waving to Chase and dropping himself into a chair at the worktable. Chase pulled out the bag with treasures and placed it in front of Bonnie under a lamp that immediately made the collection gleam and shine brightly. Bonnie put on round double eyeglasses that jewellers used for exploring small stones and took the first one out of the bag. It was a medium-sized ruby, almost perfectly translucent, vibrant-red like blood. Annabel felt something sharp stab her heart as she thought of giving such a great stone away only to get permission to rob someone. That even sounded stupid! Robbers had to pay someone in order to do their business safely... By Chase’s look, when he was speaking of it, Annabel guessed that she had a lot to learn about the criminal world before she was actually ready to become a rightful part of it.
Bonnie was very scrupulous at choosing gems and golden accessories. He tried to pick the best ones, not the biggest, though, but those that looked prettier than others or could have more value on the market. Annabel watched the stones quickly disappear from the bag and then magically teleport to the other side of the table, which meant Bonnie had chosen them as Chase’s payment. Annabel glanced at the boy a couple of times, trying to understand his reaction on what was going on, and until some point in time Chase was absolutely calm. But something changed when the pile of treasures next to Bonnie’s left arm grew higher than anyone could expect. The boy didn’t say anything, though, he was just glaring at the Toufrish with something similar to contempt, silent anger in the way his jaw was slightly moving. He was unsatisfied with the partner’s greed, but couldn’t do anything about it - saying a single word to a man like Bonnie would turn into a disaster, as Annabel could guess.
Eventually, the man finished and put all other golden things and stones into the bag, making it a little more than half filled, leaving the oldest and the less fine-looking items there, whereas the collection that he’d gathered on his table was absolutely appealing. He’s chosen a few golden bracelets made to look like snakes and dragons, also an amazing diadem, a few different rings, earrings, and two pendants. The stones were just impossible to count, but the amount of them was… Well, quite impressive. Bonnie, absolutely satisfied with the job done, sat back in his chair and tucked his thumbs into small pockets on the chest of his waistcoat. He looked more than happy, and in front of him Chase was an old grumpy granny, probably deadly ill, because his skin ran pale green all of a sudden. Annabel tried to hold herself from laughing at him and grabbed the treasure leftovers, putting them back into the big backpack while Chase was shaking Bonnie’s hand and talking about two separate rooms booking. The innkeeper asked both Chase and Annabel to wait for him outside the workroom for a minute. And when he closed the door behind them, leaving them alone, Annabel burst out laughing. That face was a rare thing to happen!
“You should have seen yourself,” she whispered through the laugh, but then laughed even harder as Chase shot her a killing glance, full of anger and sulk.
“We were robbed,” he declared coldly. “We are thieves, and we were robbed.”
At that moment the room door opened, and Bonnie walked out, waving to them to follow him upstairs. Annabel wondered whether he heard them talking, or was pretending he didn’t.
She and Chase were led on to the second floor and given the keys for their rooms that were neighbouring across the corridor. Bonnie bid them good day and departed, leaving them alone once again.
“You didn’t foresee that,” Annabel smirked at Chase over her shoulder, opening the room door.
“When we were working together, he used to have... lower... prices,” murmured the boy, getting into his flat. Before closing the door behind him, he reminded Annabel to meet down in the tavern in five minutes.
The place wasn’t that gruesome, as it turned out after a few hours of watching its way of living. Or rather, it wasn’t worse than any other tavern she and Chase had visited. Dirtier, maybe, mostly because the audience was bigger and the beer was less quality. People here were given much more freedom; sometimes Annabel would ask herself how it could be possible that one and the same kingdom contained towns so different in mentality and moral rules. Men felt free to flirt with women at the bar, women felt free to kiss men in front of everyone, no matter drunk or not, no matter husbands or strangers. There even were a couple of women who would sell their bodies to those who needed consolation, which wasn’t a popular entertainment in farmers’ villages or towns lower in the south of Renezar. Those women’s presence meant that local men were fond of young and beautiful girls, especially when they were immodest and behaved freely which made them easy to approach. Annabel didn’t like trying those shoes on.
“First, you find a victim,” Chase was telling her. They were sitting side-to-side in the far corner of the tavern from where they could see absolutely everyone in the room, both carefully looking for a right man to start with. For some reason, Annabel felt quite uncomfortable at the moment, sensing Chase’s shoulder almost touching her own, and his warm whisper in her ear, but she tried to hide it.
“However, you shouldn’t forget: there are prostitutes already, so you must behave in a way that is not similar to them, but still attractive.”
“It’s much easier to talk about it than do it,” Annabel mumbled, getting anxious. The new job didn’t seem easy to her now.
“Relax. Today we choose a man, tomorrow you train, and the next day you’ll get to work. Look for someone with money and easy to allure.”
“That one, perhaps?” Annabel slightly nodded at a big husky man who was sitting in a company of friends with a lovely dark-skinned girl in his lap, laughing loudly. He had the money right on the table - a pile of shining coins that were going to become Bonnie’s property very soon, given that the man was almost completely drunk.
“No. Absolutely not.”
“He drinks too much, and you need someone who can control himself. Then, he’s too loud, and we don’t need everyone’s eyes on you. Also, he’s got a lot of fellows next to him, watching him entertain with a prostitute. You haven’t reached the level high enough to manage this. Look better.”
Annabel sighed and shifted in her seat, trying to get rid of bad thoughts that were attacking her. Even with all requirements that Chase mentioned, it was extremely difficult to spot the best possible target, and it took her more than ten minutes to look closer at the inn public. Suddenly a man who was sitting alone at the bar drinking beer drew Annabel’s attention. A thick money bag was attached to his belt, but he wasn’t making the fuss like the previous guy, the husky one. The man didn’t look that rich, though, everything on him was certainly old - probably because of some kind of modesty, but his skin was clean, and his eyes were conscious. He wasn’t drunk, he wasn’t loud, but he still was interested in people around him, even though it seemed like he tended to spend his time on his own. He had money, he didn’t have a ring on his finger, and he looked at the prostitutes with desire. He would eye them from head to toes, then take another sip of beer, and... do actually nothing, because the girls had been already occupied, or maybe because he wasn’t brave enough to start flirting first. He would come there, to Bonnie’s tavern, to once again force himself into action, but failed every single time.
When Annabel silently gestured at the man, Chase smiled and nodded, blinking slowly, like a green-eyed satisfied owl.
She didn’t know if she was entirely right about the man’s personality, but she hoped for Chase’s assistance.
“So you’ve got the point,” the boy said. “Now, what should you say to him first?”
“Umm… I think something like… “Hello”?”
Chase sighed and shook his head, quietly laughing.
“No, no… The very first thing you say to him as you come to the bar, is nothing. You say nothing, you only order beer and wink at him. Meaningfully.”
“But I don't want beer.”
Chase coughed slightly, “Please, Annabel, concentrate. You order something, no matter what. All you need is to let the man understand that you like him, that’s his pressure point. He’s got the money that he carries everywhere with him, and if you act bravely enough, he’ll answer. You’ll be able to get to that nice little bag and quietly cut it off. But be sure he pays for his beer first.”
“So you mean… I must… Like… Go embracing with a stranger?” Annabel glanced at Chase, more confused than afraid. She couldn’t buy it. Was he really going to make her do that?
The boy turned his face to her, his eyebrows jumped. “Yes. Is it a problem?”
“Well, sort of,” Annabel snorted. “Alright, just promise me that you’ll teach everything I must know, and not less.”
“And that he won’t ask for more.”
“He’ll probably ask for more, but I’ll tell you how to assure him he has to wait. Of course, nothing is going to happen eventually, but at least we’ll have time to put on a little show in the square and leave this town before he notices anything.”
“Why do we have to perform at all, Chase?” Annabel turned to the boy, trying to comprehend what was beyond those scheming emerald eyes. “Don’t we have enough money?”
“Why abandon something shiny if you can get it right away?” he replied and lifted a mug of ale to his lips without looking at Annabel. “That’s one of my favorite mottos.”
When Annabel thought things couldn’t get any worse, the teaching time came.
Chase wanted her to listen to him, very carefully, because the lessons he was giving her were the same lessons he once received from that unnamed seduction master a few years ago, and ‘she was more than clever at what she was doing’. Annabel watched Chase imitate emotions, gazes, even a specific way of breathing that was supposed to turn men on, and couldn't hold herself from laughing, imagining Chase in a wonderful lady dress, seducing men in a tavern. She couldn’t concentrate, until Chase told her to repeat everything he had shown her, and train her new skills… on him.
What was the problem with that, you’d ask, if she’d already known Chase and knew it was all just a play performed in a bit different way than usual? Well, you should believe that Annabel asked herself the very same question, and didn’t find an answer. Trying to act passionate in front of Chase was making her nervous. He told her in details how to look at the men, how to move, how to keep her lips a bit parted, how to make her voice lower and quieter while speaking, and Chase himself was her judge. She could see in his eyes that he didn’t treat her as anything more than a muppet, a blank sheet of paper that he could fill in with his genius experience and knowledge. But she still couldn’t get rid of something inside her that would spoil her entire concentration, something that forced her to think of Chase’s eyes instead of how to control her voice, or a flash-like note in her mind saying that the boy was, in fact, very handsome, which she hadn’t realized before or simply ignored. All that interfered with her attempt to learn the art of seduction, and it took her the whole day to understand everything Chase was telling her. Actually, there was only one thing she considered really worth remembering: don’t be yourself, you must act.
Before she fell asleep in her room, she once again replayed every detail in her head, making sure she didn’t forget anything. Of course it wasn’t easy to learn the whole thing in one day, but Annabel thanked the Heavens and all gods for the luck she’d been given. She was a good actress, indeed, and learned new things faster than anyone else. That, and Chase’s genius approach to teaching her, were her only hope on her way to a successfully accomplished mission. If she would just make herself relax and let the role overwhelm her… Everything would be much easier.
The next day was the challenge day. One man to steal money from, infinite hours of stress, tons of self-critics, and one awful clever guy to watch her fail.
Well, Annabel must admit, it wasn’t as hard as she supposed, and she even didn’t have a wish to spat something in reply for Chase’s smirking and “I’ve told you”. He was right, he’d told her.
First, she entered the tavern. That wasn’t difficult, because no one paid close attention to her, even though she was wearing nice new clothes that perfectly fit her figure and made her very attractive. When she asked Chase where he snatched all that, he ignored her and instead told her to use the perfume he left on a table. The entire look was lovely, not gaudy, close to what Annabel was used to wearing, so very soon Annabel started feeling comfortable in it. Chase had already been inside, for he came there twenty or thirty minutes earlier, and was now pretending to ignore her presence while secretly watching her every move.
Second, she came to the bar table and asked Bonnie who was at the service to pour her a glass of ale. At least, that thing tasted bearable. The man who she hunted was sitting right next to her on a stool, his back bent over the table, his head hung low, almost touching the table’s surface. At first Annabel’s heart dropped: she feared the man was drunk and didn’t actually notice her. But as soon as she ordered a drink in as beautiful voice as she could, he lifted his head a little and turned his face to her. As she saw him looking at her, Annabel followed Chase’s advice and arched her back as if unintentionally, demonstrating the alluring flexibility of her waist and the round shapes of the other parts of her body that were successfully emphasized by the slim trousers. Her arms were uncovered. She crossed them on the table and pretended to be watching Bonnie deal with her ale, but once or twice she threw a glance at the man beside. Smiled at him. He smiled back and straightened his back, turning to Annabel with a mug in his hand. He wasn’t drunk, and he was ready.
Third, she talked to him.
“I don’t understand how you guys drink that thing,” she said, nodding slightly at the beer. “It’s so sour!”
“Depends on a type,” the man answered and eyed Annabel attentively. Great, he got interested.
“You should admit that in this place everything except ale and water is awfully sour,” Annabel leaned in to the stranger, speaking quietly so Bonnie wouldn’t hear her.
The man laughed, “Yeah, that’s true. I’ve tasted much better things in my life.”
“You sound experienced. Have you travelled a lot, seen a lot?”
“I could say so,” the man nodded proudly, and Annabel had to do her best not to roll her eyes on this. “I’ve travelled across Renezar, many times, and even visited Menoriad once.”
Annabel pretended to be excited by that information. She moved her stool a bit closer to the man and watched him take two coins out of a small bag on his side, then pay for his drink.
“Really? Tell me about it, please! I’ve always wanted to see Menoriad kingdoms!”
“Oh, well… I was in Fiordal, actually. A wonderful land, truly. So much sunlight, and great clear sky every night with all stars visible like on a piece of glass...”
“Firodal? It’s my favorite kingdom! I’ve heard Fiordish women are very, very beautiful. Is it so?”
“They are not even close to your beauty,” the stranger leaned in a bit, lowering his voice. That was a progress. Annabel could see in his eyes that he was ready for more than a conversation.
“You’re flattering me,” she smiled softly and made a small sip of her ale. She guessed the guy was really flattering her.
“Not at all. What’s your name, dearie?”
“Why would you want to know my name, stranger?” Annabel smiled at him, her eyes gleaming.
“Because I’m sure it’s just as beautiful.”
“Coraline. And you?”
The man smiled and drew a little closer, now they were almost breathing into each other’s face. Annabel parted her lips a bit, like Chase was teaching her, and gently touched the man’s knee, slowly moving her fingers higher and higher up his thigh.
“You know,” she said in an intimate voice, “I’ve been so bored lately... My daddy doesn’t like it when I go out alone, but in our house… It’s only me and my boring sisters.”
“What a pity,” Tiggo whispered, his lips slightly curving into a bawdy smile. Annabel was arching in front of him like a cat, drawing his attention to her pretty body.
“Right… So I decided to disobey him… As if I felt I’ll meet you here, handsome.” He wasn’t that handsome, actually, but she needed him to think she was interested in him, too.
Annabel’s hand was moving up the man’s body, lurking under his waistcoat, gently touching the places on his torso where, as Chase said, men liked it the most. It seemed like he was right: Tiggo was getting turned on. His hands also moved towards Annabel, and even though she honestly didn’t like it, she forced herself to forget it and accept the man’s actions. Somehow it was easy for her to ignore the presence of other people around them (who couldn’t care less about what was going on, actually), but suddenly, as her fingers almost touched the bag with money, a loud thought in her head ruined all concentration - for no reason, she felt embarrassed for hugging with a stranger in front of Chase.
Of course she knew he watched her all that time because he wanted her to learn on her own mistakes, and she was doing alright, but something inside her was shouting and yelling, telling her to stop and run away so Chase wouldn’t see everything. She didn’t understand why in the world a thought like that appeared in her mind, but it took her at least a few seconds of humiliation to get things right again. She noticed she wasn’t moving, just staring at Tiggo as he waited with his eyebrow raised in confusion. She stuck.
“Maybe we should continue our conversation on the second floor?” he asked quietly.
“Hmmm…” Annabel came back to consciousness again and sensed the laces that connected the bag to the belt on Tiggo’s waist. She slightly moved her fingers, pulling a small blade out of her sleeve that Chase had hidden there before the act. It was so tiny she could barely feel it between her fingertips. “I’m afraid I should return home now, or my father will go mad... “ As Tiggo moaned sadly, Annabel carefully moved the blade and cut the laces, taking the advantage of the man’s movement. “But I will come back. I promise.” The laces gave up faster than supposed, and the very instant she jumped off the stool, the money bag was in her hand. Tiggo noticed absolutely nothing as he was feeling her hand on the inner side of his thigh. “Let’s meet in the square at midnight? I’ll escape from my dad and sisters when they all fall asleep, and we’ll find a nice place to spend a night in. How does it sound, Tiggo?”
“It sounds great, darling. I’ll be waiting.” He leaned in to kiss Annabel, but she softly touched his lips and shook her head. The smile on her face was telling him that he had to wait.
“Don’t follow me, or my dad will kill us both.”
She spryly moved her left hand in front of her and hid the bag in it, then left the bar table, shooting Tiggo a meaningful wink. While passing Chase, Annabel pretended that she wanted to avoid crashing into a waitress, went round her and secretly threw the money bag onto the sofa next to where Chase was sitting, then just left the tavern.
Chase had told her to return to her room but use the back door for entrance, and wait for him there for five-ten minutes. He had to spend some time inside before leaving so that it didn’t look suspicious.
Annabel quietly went upstairs without drawing anyone’s attention, making sure Tiggo didn’t see her, and literally flew into the room, slamming the door behind her. She couldn’t belive she actually did it! She did it! Nothing went wrong, nothing was spoiled, if not to count that bad moment (which didn’t lead to bad results), - everything was nicely planned and done. But she couldn’t get rid of the nervousness that overwhelmed her, adrenaline was playing drums in her ears, and she started breathing quickly. Her body felt like a huge harras of horses had danced on it, she was tired. She couldn’t resist and fell on the bed, spreading her arms wide, trying to ease her heart rate that had recently quickened.
The door cracked open.
“I told you to let him kiss you.”
Chase closed it behind himself and approached a small table where he started counting the money they got.
“Go kiss him if you want, but I won’t,” Annabel replied and sat on the bed, excited to hear Chase’s verdict. “So, was it good?”
“Not perfect, of course,” the boy shrugged, but then turned his smiling face to Annabel, “but pretty good. Only… What happened back then, when you… like, stuck, or something?”
The girl sighed and lay back, now worried again. She also wondered what it was and why it occurred to her, but she couldn’t tell Chase the truth - that she actually thought of him at that moment.
“Nothing. Just… Something distracted me.”
“Next time don’t let anything distract you, okay? It’s a risk.”
“Next time? Will there be a next time?”
“Sure. You’ll practice this in every town, and in big cities you’ll work in several inns per day. Probably we won’t perform in the street then, but we won’t lose too much.”
Annabel sniffed at the boy, unsatisfied with the news, but didn’t say anything. It was pointless to argue with Chase about work, and she couldn’t help herself but wait until they eventually got to their final destination.
“Fifty,” Chase said and grabbed all the coins, once again throwing them into the bag. “Not bad for the first time. Now get your rest and prepare for tomorrow’s show.”
“What about the guy? He won’t notice anything?”
“Even if he does, it won’t happen too soon. He’s going to be occupied dreaming about having Coraline in his arms tonight.”
Before leaving, Chase gave Annabel the bag, saying it was all her money. She didn’t expect that and was sure the boy was kidding her, but Chase looked at her as serious as never and told her she deserved it. Even though she didn’t know what exactly she could do with the money, she was impressed anyway. Maybe… Maybe the boy wasn’t that egoistic, afterall, and actually did care for her? At least sometimes. That already meant something...
Or perhaps she was just imagining things again.
The performance wasn’t any different from all the previous ones. Chase was showing the locals some exotic magic combined with simple tricks to entertain kids. She was assisting him, silently following each order and carefully watching the boy work. Annabel noticed that lately she had been enjoying the way Chase was interacting with people, even though she knew he was deceiving and robbing them. Something in the boy’s confidence and professionalism was attracting her, and once she realized it wasn’t only that. There were Chase’s shining eyes that would always turn deep emerald green while he was performing, and his brown curly hair (that looked cute if she wasn’t concentrating on his annoying personal traits), and his smile somehow seemed beautiful to her, although being fake. She was distracting herself, unaware of it, and she didn’t know the reason of it, either. One thing was simple as day - she had to quit thinking so much about the boy.
Thoughts were irritating her, and she forced herself to concentrate on work. She turned away from Chase while he didn’t need her, and noticed a very familiar face appear from under an archway to her left. It was Tiggo. Beside him was a man Annabel didn’t know, they were talking, but she couldn’t hear them. It was a bad omen.
“Chase, it’s that guy from the inn,” she whispered in Chase’s ear, catching a moment when he came a bit closer to her to get some stuff out of a backpack. The boy lifted his gaze and squinted at Tiggo.
“He is not in a good mood,” he said quietly. “Don’t turn to him and hope that he won’t recognize you.”
Chase quickly returned to the audience, leaving Annabel in a very disturbing position. Tiggo seemed to be walking near her, and the chance of him not seeing her was so miserably small, that it was painful to even think of it. But Annabel did her best to keep her face turned away from the guy, her heart beating faster than ever, her hands going shaky. Chase was throwing short glances at Tiggo, too, but it didn’t help them.
Annabel stopped abruptly and shut her eyes, grimacing.
“Hey, that’s her! You, Coraline! Hey!”
Tiggo was pointing at her, distracting people from Chase and his magic. Annabel looked at the boy, awaiting his reaction. They were losing the moment.
“She’s stolen my money! Seize her!”
Now they were in a trouble.
People stared at Annabel, trying to understand what was happening, but Tiggo was already running towards her, ready to get his money back. Chase gestured to Annabel to take one of their backpacks and stopped her as she started collecting stuff.
“Leave it!” he grabbed her hand and pulled her forward. They ran as fast as they could to the first junction they saw and turned left, then up the street, around some buildings, and up the street again, almost falling under the rucksacks’ weight. Tiggo was following them, but he wasn’t alone. Suddenly another man appeared in front of them, so they had to turn back, but Tiggo was there, too, and the only way was on the right. They had to change their path like that many times before they finally got to the road that led to the plains. Tiggo and his partner seemed to lose their trace.
“They’re off,” Chase said, his voice suppressed as they paused to have a little rest. Running with a huge backpack on the shoulders was no good even for him.
"You said he won't... notice anything... too soon!" Annabel moaned in frustration.
"Maybe... if you kissed him when he asked for it he would have thought more... about you and not about the money?"
“You know what,” Annabel tried to breathe in, but ended up coughing instead, “next time... you’re gonna seduce men, kiss them and take their wallets... And run from them... completely alone, because I’m not ready for... another round like... this...” Annabel shot Chase a killing glance, but didn’t want to say anything else.
“Alright, let’s go. Capital’s waiting. We have to hurry if we don’t want to stay in the middle of a wild field full of blood-thirsty partridges for the night.”
“We’ve left half of your magical stuff back there.”
“Do you want to come back?” Chase raised his eyebrow skeptically. “We will have time to buy new things. But I’m not sure if we are going to need them.”
“Perhaps. There will probably be other things to do.”
“Once again, mister magician,” Annabel straightened her spine, inhaling deeply and sighing, “you scare me. And I will never get tired of saying this.”