They left before the sunrise.
Annabel had never felt such a heartache before. She could imagine her parents’ reaction when they woke up, their shock and fear, tears in their eyes when they saw a note she’d left for them and realized their daughter was gone again without a trace. She knew they would think it all was just a good dream.
But it was her who made the first step out of the house, who strode up the hill to the road that went across meadows to Brook, who cried through the trip until they finally reached the capital and Chase took the lead. She was the one who knew what she was doing, and the one who hesitated every decision.
Annabel watched the very first sunbeams emerge from out of the edge of a meadow and drown the entire Field in vivid crimson stains, then felt their warmth on her face. She stood on the hill, her house behind her, Chase patiently waiting for her on the path. The girl wiped her reddish eyes with her palm, sighed, and followed the boy. When they were already far from the poor old hut, she threw another glance at it - poppy flowers under its windows were nodding to her, as if saying their goodbyes, and Annabel smiled in return. She’ll be back here. Maybe not soon, but she will anyway. But now - the true adventure had yet to begin, her real job was ahead. Annabel tried to distract herself and thought of the work she was going to do, of the role she’d be playing in Chase’s act. The boy hadn’t told her anything about it. It could be literally anything: a murder, a robbery, a seduction… Annabel wondered whether it included dancing.
Chase pulled her out of her thoughts in a couple of hours.
“Hey,” he said to her, smiling. “Say good day to Its Majesty the Capital.”
The girl followed his nod and lifted her head, turning to face the city they were heading to for a few weeks. Like a huge gem, Brook shone and gleamed under the sun, the rusty-red roofs of its houses going aflame. The royal palace’s sandy walls were reflecting the light and seemed to shimmer vibrantly from far away. The streets were clean and enchanting, window glass polished, flowers fresh on the windowsills and flowerbeds, grass visible here and there like emerald dust left on the cobblestones by a clumsy magician. Brook looked sweet and nice, even smelled that - an aroma of freshly baked bread and brand-new wooden panels with paint still wet on them.
Sure enough, it was just a first expression.
As Chase and Annabel entered the capital though the southern gate, the girl caught a glimpse of the city guards in their green-and-gold uniform. King’s colours. It was supposed to show that King cared for his people and actually put himself closer to the peasants, and it seemed to Annabel that people were satisfied with the lies. They liked to believe what the King made them believe, and everyone was happy.
She and Chase walked in the streets, watched local merchants fight for a trading spot, peeked inside some shops through the big windows with items on display, but never stopped anywhere except for a small bakery where they snatched two salty bagels that served them as a fast dinner. Annabel began feeling tired of looking around, noticing things, and getting disappointed. It turned out not every place in Brook smelled or looked nice; there were gault and rubbish on the cobblestones where big crowds of people were managing their business; walls were covered in dirt where people’s backs were brushing against them; plants in many flowerbeds and flower pots had long since dried. At the same time, spots like the main square, or the widest streets with rich mansions at their sides were bright and pleasant. Annabel sighed soundlessly, realizing that the parts of Brook where the sun didn’t reach were the ones you’d never want to visit if you were a tourist.
When passing the main square, the girl paused and cocked her head to the side. The place was more than great for performing, and it surprised Annabel that Chase hadn’t mentioned it yet. Spacious, filled with sunlight, with an epic statue of the Renezarian ancient totem horse Urush standing on hind legs placed on top of the splashing fountain.
“Are we going to do magic here?” she asked the boy, casting him a careful glance.
“No serious work in Brook,” Chase shook his head and strode across the square, past Urush and up the path.
“No?” Annabel raised an eyebrow, following him hurriedly.
“No. We’ve got to reach Albie’s Nest first.”
Again that weird name.
“What is Albie’s Nest?” Annabel blew out an irritated breath, tired of pretending that Chase’s mysterious behavior wasn’t annoying her. “And why do we need to be there so badly?”
It wasn’t time to turn away, after all.
Annabel sighed and ran after the boy as he moved along the streets with unbelievable confidence and speed, like if he’d walked there a thousand times before and had known Brook for years. They had to leave the capital and head directly to its northern gate where the road to the Brook county began. According to Chase, Brook county literally consisted of three poor villages, two in the North, and one in the East. Originally founded as immigrant working class towns, they used to be Brook’s border districts, but as they started falling into poverty, the Brookish gloss went lost, and the towns weren’t accepted as parts of the capital anymore.
“Because they spoiled the picture,” Annabel said quietly, deep sadness in her voice.
“Exactly,” Chase nodded. “Brook values its reputation.”
If only its reputation was worth it, Annabel thought with a snort.
They walked past small houses, two market places, and dozens of stores to the gate and left the city limits within two hours. Another thirty minutes were spent on the trip to the one of the northern Brook villages. An old, but maintained road sign was saying Tornego and had an arrow drawn on it that pointed at the bunch of low-slung huts with pale roofs. The village was very similar to all those Annabel and Chase had visited before, and it was strange how snappily their surrounding was changing.
Chase seemed to be psyched up. He was looking around vigorously, a slight smile on his face, his eyes shining with delight that Annabel couldn’t understand. She guessed the place meant something to the boy, but didn’t dare ask. Following his example, she explored her surrounding, trying to notice everything interesting at once, but she didn’t have enough time for this - in five minutes after they arrived, Chase led her to a three-stories high building that looked a lot like a hostel and had a big sign above the entrance. “Old Traveller” was written on it with big red letters. The building itself wasn’t anything grandeur or even interesting, just another wood-paneled house with leaking sides and smudged windows. But Chase stopped in front of it and turned to Annabel, grinning.
“Here we are.”
The girl looked at him skeptically.
The boy rolled his eyes and pointed at a tiny carved picture above the entrance. Annabel didn’t notice it at first, but now as Chase showed her where to look, she squinted at it and recognized a crocodile. For whatever reason, it was white and had pink eyes. The carving was impossible to spot if you didn’t look as careful as you could, so if Chase knew it was there, it meant the carving was some kind of a mark only supposed to be seen by the Chosen ones.
“That’s Albie,” said the boy and opened the front door, letting Annabel inside. “After you.”
Annabel felt like someone bumped her in the head with something heavy.
“Albie’s a crocodile?” she turned to Chase abruptly, frowning.
“An alligator, to be precise.”
“Because he’s an albino alligator,” Chase grumbled in a rather annoyed tone. Annabel’s confusion obviously ruined his exuberance.
“Why is he an albino?” Annabel gave out a short laugh and stared at the boy. “Albie’s Nest… A white crocodile named Albie. Goodness… Whose idea was it?”
Chase fixed his unsatisfied gaze on Annabel. “Mine.” He just walked past the girl into the building, looking way too grumpy and making Annabel want to laugh even more. She didn’t know what that place was, but Chase had definitely bested himself when he came up with the name.
The place was, in reality, an inn. A simple tavern, like many others they’ve seen before, old and dark, with scratched tables and floor covered with rushes. The only difference was that this inn seemed to be much cleaner and literally well-smelling, while most taverns in Renezar stank like rum or beer or vomit (that you could actually find on the floor, more often than not). It was empty and quiet; the only human there was a bartender, a nice-looking man in his middle forties with ash-coloured hair and eyes focused on a glass he was polishing.
“What a nice day, isn’t it, Jakub?” Chase exclaimed, grinning widely to the bartender. The man snapped his head up and stared at the boy, both surprise and confusion on his face. At first, Annabel thought that he might yell at them and kick them out of the tavern, that Chase had made some kind of mistake, but then - absolutely unexpectedly - the bartender smiled and laughed.
“For all gods’ sake!” he shouted, putting the glass aside. “I don’t believe my own eyes!” He had a very strong accent Annabel couldn’t recognize. He and Chase laughed kindly, then embraced and clapped each other’s backs like good old friends.
“It’s so wonderful that you’re back, Chase!” said Jakub. “They’ve missed you so much!”
“How’s the work, mate?” Chase snatched a piece of dried beef from a bowl that stood on the table and offered Annabel one, but she shook her head.
“Work’s pretty good,” Jakub smiled, “as always.”
“Five this month. Well, you know how it goes when you’re away.” To Annabel’s surprise, Chase nodded agreeably.
It seemed to her that Jakub didn’t notice her at first, too chuffed with Chase’s return, because now the man cast her a scanning glance and squinted cautiously.
“Who is this beautiful young lady?” he asked, and Annabel saw his lips curve into a playful grin.
“My assistant,” Chase replied carelessly and wiped his hands with a towel Jakub had used. “Alright now, I guess we’ve got to honour the folks with our presence, haven’t we?” He winked at Jakub, then nodded to Annabel, inviting her to follow him as he came round the bar and opened a dark door behind it that Annabel hadn’t noticed before. This building seemed to be filled with hidden secrets. And it was much bigger than she expected.
Annabel smiled at the bartender when he waved his hand, and entered a dark narrow passageway where Chase had disappeared. It went straight at first, then a long way down, and was lit by triple candlesticks installed in small niches along the infinite walls.
“Where are we going?” the girl asked, throwing a look back up the way where Jakub closed the door behind them with a quiet, yet creepy sound. “I thought that inn was Albie’s Nest.”
“Albie’s Nest is a hideout.”
Annabel paused, frowned, and then caught up to the boy hurriedly. “Hideout for who?”
Chase glanced at her, “For criminals. Like you and me.”
Annabel wanted to protest, but thought twice before saying anything like I’m not a criminal. “You mean thieves, lockpicks?..”
The boy nodded, “... robbers, murderers, fraudsters, gamblers, kidnappers, assassins.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“Why would I be?”
So he was actually leading her into a cave full of dangerous, probably bloodthirsty monsters she had no way of fighting against, no protection except for Chase himself, no knowledge about what they might do to her.Her nervousness must be too obvious on her face at the moment, because Chase threw a short glance at her and said, “They’re not going to harm you. You are one of them, you belong to the pack now, and there’s a law that tells us not to hurt each other. Unless there’s an understandable reason for that, of course, but I’m assured you won’t give them any.”
They reached a straight path again and finally stopped at a door. She could hear voices and the clinking of glass behind it. Chase sighed and turned to Annabel, looking her directly in the eye.
“Listen,” he said in a low, kind voice, “this place is the safest hideout for criminals in the whole Renezar. People who live here or stay here for a while are not dangerous for you unless you are planning on a betrayal. Don’t fear them. Just... be careful. Don’t hurry to make fast conclusions about them, because first impressions are often wrong. Watch them, explore the place, maybe find new friends. We’ll have a few days rest, you’ll have your time to get acquainted with as many people as possible, including those you’ll work side by side with. And try to relax. When people like these can sense your stress, they don’t like it.”
“There are murderers among them?” Annabel asked carefully, trying not to sound mistrustful, but she noticed her own voice tremble somewhere deep in the throat.
“Yes,” Chase laughed quietly. “But they are not preposterous maniacs, and don’t kill everyone they see. As I said, just be careful, don’t rush. I’m sure they’ll like you.”
When Chase winked at her, Annabel felt a sudden urge to punch him in a jaw, but instead, she just flushed and nodded, now not even sure if the entire plan was a good idea at all.