Chapter 17.2: Stealing from Thieves that Bought from Thieves (Or Something)
Diamond was flung forward out of the wagon into the dirt road, spoiling his white suit. The wagon came to a sudden stop in the middle of the bumpy path surrounded by a dozen men and women on horseback, each armed with a weapon on their hip. A tall, thin man with angular features hopped off his horse and strode over to the recovering Mr. Williams Diamond, looking down at him with dark eyes. He jabbed Diamond with the tip of his rifle.
James flinched from behind the rock and bushes as Diamond shielded himself from the blow too late with his arms and got up defensively, keeping a cool expression but clearly flustered.
“Thought you could just run out on the deal?” he spoke, forcefully helping Diamond up with a firm grip and a hard yank. His face - with small, scattered scars - was smiling, but his voice rather sinister. “Not a great idea if you ask me. That’s bad for business, Mr. Diamond.”
"Almost as bad as a dirty suit," Diamond shot back curtly, attempting to brush the streaks of dirt off of his pants. It didn't help.
"And yet, you're fond of dirty money," the man retorted, hovering uncomfortably close to Diamond's face with his own, despite the lack of wiggle room, with a wall of horses around them. "Speaking of which - how much did you get paid for that griffin egg again? The egg you promised to deliver to me after we helped you get it. But you never showed up! I thought maybe you got caught, but then I hear word of an escaped griffin and nothing about an egg. And nothing about a backstabbing con-man and medicine maker."
Diamond turned away only to be yanked back towards the man's face. "You're not getting away so easy," he sneered.
James laid quietly in the shadows of the bushes and trees, poking his head out from behind a large boulder just enough to witness the confrontation from afar. He was only catching glimpses of their faces and movements, but he was listening as closely as he could to catch every word. Watching their mouths to read their lips to fill in the blanks. Trying to use context clues to understand what was going on.
It had been midday by the time he'd found them - Diamond and his brother, hurrying out of town in their wagon with the intensity of two people trying to flee a goblin invasion. Like people fleeing for their lives. James hadn't been surprised that they were trying to so quickly skip town after their alleged less-than-honorable business practices, but tracking them before they did had been a pain.
Half of the people he talked to weren't very helpful. Those who did know of Diamond brothers only had one thing to say about them, and it was usually a string of curse words followed by some claim of something that was stolen, or how they were tricked out of money. It sounded like the Diamond brothers didn't stay too long in any one place, but if there was anything to be gained from their poor reputation it was trust with those willing to give information by sympathizing with them.
A few made up stories about how the Diamond brothers had swindled him with their charms gained the favor of one innkeeper - presumably of the inn Clandestine hadn't been able to identify, but he had no way of knowing for sure - and he learned that they left the moment the auction was over and the deal was struck to the south of town.
Following the trail was straightforward once he caught sight of their colorful wagon. While they might've been skilled in deception, it seemed that conspicuous getaways were not their strong suit, especially if they were hauling such an easily identifiable wagon that said their names on it, beneath the swirling title letters.
Of course, that meant that he was not the only one to notice their departure. Before he'd even gotten close, he spotted the others tailing him, and watched the almost comically sad chase play out once they all got out on the road.
The Diamond brothers had attempted to veer off onto an old, slightly overgrown dirt road that looked like it might've led to a farm or someone's property, but were caught before they got very far. It was then that James had taken shelter behind the boulder - mostly to keep Elliot out of sight, being the larger of the two of them - and to have more protection from stray bullets. Leaves and branches could shield you from sight but they did very little to shield you otherwise.
The sun shone directly above them as the scuffle grew tense. James drew his brows together as he tried to catch Diamond's words.
"-Never heard of an honest philanthropist such as yourself to be so, hmm what's the word -cheap? Unreasonable? And let’s not forget demanding," Diamond fired back, fixing up his collar.
"Extra manpower required extra pay," the man shot back. "We covered for you, and you ditched us. We're just here to finish the transaction-" he gestured to the wagon, where to of the riders immediately jumped to kick the back doors open. He watched as they drug the other brother out into view and took out a sack of what had to be money.
"So let's do business," the man continued. "You give us the money you got for the egg, and you help us steal the egg again - with your special skill set, and let's say... you get away with all of your limbs intact! Seems like a fair trade.”
Diamond stood frozen as he watched the two henchmen hold his brother firmly, his feet lifted slightly off the ground. James couldn't see Diamond's face but he could tell the man was considering the cost of refusal, and when he saw the slouch of his shoulders he knew the man who'd chased him down had won.
"Fine, fine." Diamond sighed. "I'd rather lose capital than limbs. There's no profit to be made by a limbless man short of joining the circus. He definitely couldn't join the army," Diamond turned to his brother, giving the henchmen a gesture that seemed to indicate they could let him go. His brother was released with a shove.
"Ah! Yes! I knew you were the reasonable sort," The leading man smiled, putting an arm around Diamond's shoulders. "Now, let's discuss our new plan, shall we? What about that sleep-inducing drug you used, with the..."
Diamond laughed, leaning away slightly, but their voices lowered beyond what James could hear. The henchman began to back away slightly, giving them more room as they began to discuss their plans in a hushed manner. As the henchmen gave more space, he watched as some of them began to move around to sweep the area. He had to get out of there before he was caught.
Quickly and quietly, he led Elliott away and back to the main road. Out there he would just look like any other traveler, and he would just have to wait it out.
But before he walked out onto the main road he caught sight of a wagon coming up the hill that made his heart stop beating.
The Moonlight Kingdom crest. The dark black paint and roof. The uniform of the cabby driver, leading the horses up the path.
James was backing away into the forest, further, further, further. Regret began to hit him with a sharp sting in his chest as he stiffly hid among the trees with Elliot, barely able to see the hints of the wagon as it rolled by, and glad he couldn't.
He waited an inordinately long amount of time before proceeding to the main road, but as he stepped out he sensed something watching him. He heard a faint sound as he looked back into the forest, heart racing and blood cold in anticipation of violence, and something striking him or - gods forbid - Elliot, as they stood out in the open road. Sweat dripped down his back as the sun hit him with its full strength, with no shade but from his hat to fight against it.
But as he stared into the thick of the trees there was no response. No shots rang out and no horses charged towards him. No one came to question his presence. Instead, he heard a clumsy ruffle of leaves, like feet stumbling over jutting tree roots and grassy floors. Then a thump, and muffled arguing, like two children trying not to get caught.
There was no way that was the criminal's henchmen.
Cautiously, with a hand hovering over his gun at his side, he approached. Before he even saw who they were and only caught a glimpse of the tops of two heads Diamond's brother - the shorter, fatter one - jumped out with his hands up, waving them like he was terrorized.
"Don't shoot!" he begged, voice sharp and desperate. James looked beyond him to see Diamond face-down in the ground, foot caught in a muddy puddle of earth. He was only just starting to push himself to his feet again.
"I'm not going to shoot you," James said, though his hand still rested on his hip. By his gun. He wondered what they were doing without their wagon, and without their horse. "I just heard a scuffle."
The shorter brother, still nameless to him, looked between James and his brother like he was looking for reassurance. The only thing James knew about them was that the taller one in the sullied white suit was the one Clandestine was complaining about.
"Just heard a scuffle, huh?" the taller brother muttered, standing behind his brother as he pulled on his cufflinks to straighten out his sleeves. "Like you're not just one of his helpers in disguise, sent to watch over us since you don't tru-" his words were cut short when the shorter brother jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow.
"We don't know anything yet," the short brother hissed, turning to James again. "We're sorry for disturbing you, we'll just be on our way."
Miffed, his taller brother sneered down at him, before his gaze drifted up to James, looking him up and down to assess him.
"You're actually exactly who I wanted to see," James said, his face taking on a hint of a smile. "You are, in fact, both members of the Diamond family?"
The brothers both simultaneously gave him a look of distrust, which wasn't surprising. James extended a hand for either of them to shake.
"I was hoping to do some business with you."
The brothers exchanged brief glances before the taller took his hand stiffly, his face wore a look of disgust than anything. "That's Sir William Diamond to you," he corrected, though James hadn't said either of their names. He nodded understandably as if it was a fair correction.
"Matt," he introduced simply, shaking both of their hands quickly before taking a small step back. Elliot nudged his shoulder from behind, and he scratched a little under the horse's chin, still holding eye contact with William.
"Hurry up with this business inquiry," William said tensely, clearly torn between putting up an act to keep appearances and letting the fullness of his stress leak through. "I don't have all day."
"I'm sure you don't. I'm actually here to inquire about a griffin egg," James said.
William and his brother's eyes both widened slightly, but William was the one to recover the fastest. He humphed and brushed at some dirt on his sleeve. "I'm sorry, sir, but it's already sold. There's no business to be had there."
"I understand," James said, "But I have reason to believe that the egg will soon be back in your possession -" he paused for a second at the apprehension that immediately arose on their faces, in their tense posture, in their readiness to flee, "- and no, I wasn't sent by that man. I don't know his name, the one who commissioned your help to steal the egg, but I'm not with him, and I don't-"
"Look, this egg has already given me enough trouble," William interrupted, pointing a finger at James. "I don't need more variables thrown into this mess."
James lifted his hands briefly before he stepped closer. He didn't have time to befriend William. He needed to know where the egg was to get it back to a griffin that Clandestine was getting free, all in hopes that Clandestine would be able to hold up her half of the mission - or whatever it was they were doing. It was not official by any definition of the term, but he knew they had no time to waste. He had no time to waste. Not with Alexander in town. Not with a Moonlight Kingdom wagon rolling into town. Not with -
A terrible thought shot through him, and his eyebrow twitched for half a second as he imagined the wagon's soldiers meeting with Alexander, discussing his wherabouts. A pulse of anxiety brought him another step towards William, looking up at the taller man with increased intensity.
"The griffin you let loose to get that egg has taken a family's child, and that is your fault, whether you meant it to happen or not. This egg might be the only thing to calm the mother griffin down so that it doesn't hurt anyone else," he said stiffly, the lies spilling off his tongue with as much conviction as the truths they were mixed with. "I know that you used a smoke inhaled drug to knock out the griffin-keeper staff when you went in to get the egg. I know that you're way in over your heads. Let me help you."
He watched as their faces turned from confusion to horror. William's eyes were glued to the gun on his hip and he slowly composed himself, taking in a deep breath as he drew his expression back into a fake, placid smile.
"As I said, we don't want any trouble," he stated, as if James had said nothing of value, and had nothing to offer. "Our friends are holding our wagon for safekeeping, and we need to get some supplies back in town. We'll be leaving now," he said, turning to leave.
James's mouth twitched in annoyance at William's blatant dismissal of the problems he'd caused. He understood the con-man's arms were in a twist but it was because the egg had caused so many problems that it deserved to be returned to its mother. Then maybe the mother griffin would be able to fly off somewhere and leave everyone alone, just like Clandestine wanted. Or at the very least, return to its captivity where the baby griffin could grow up in relative safety, instead of facing whatever fate was left for it in the hands of its buyers.
His brother grabbed his arm, still facing James as he did so.
"Help us how?" he asked, narrowing his eyes. William made a face as he tugged back and out of his brother's grip, his annoyance clear on his face.
James took in a small, shallow breath.
Was this worth it? Was this really worth it?
He met the shorter brother's eyes.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Well, Morgan. I was going to offer a distraction. I'm assuming you're both not very fond of the mess that comes with stealing. If you provide me with the necessary information, we could figure out a way that I could sneak in, get the egg, and draw attention away from you two so you can leave with your... wagon, and whatever other belongings."
Morgan blinked. William tugged at Morgan's arm.
"Let's go," William hissed.
Morgan stood firm, brushing William's hand away.
"Ajax is going to have us skinned for backstabbing him whether we help him or not. I say we take this guy's offer."
"But that means you have to make a quick getaway," James interjected, giving Morgan a pointed look. "Either way."
William glared at James, but Morgan only sighed.
"If I'm able to get the egg, I'm sure its disappearance would cause enough confusion for you two to pull away. We can work out the details. Your sleeping smoke, or whatever it is - I'm sure that could be of use."
William tugged at Morgan's arm again but held his glare with James.
Morgan brushed him away again, more stern. "William, if this means less chance of losing a finger, I'd rather keep all of my fingers." Morgan looked back at William, sharing with his brother the scolding look of a parent, or an older brother. When he turned back to James he could tell in William's lowered head and slouched shoulders that it was decided.
"We're interested," Morgan said, extending a hand to shake. "But let's figure this out quickly. We don't have much time. And know that, if you don't hold up your end of the deal, there's nothing we can do to help you."
James looked at the man's hand, feeling for a moment as if he was looking down at himself, standing there in the forest, in the dots of light poking through the trees, amid the smells of sweat and pine, about to shake hands with two con-men. He could hear his own conscience screaming, telling him that it was a bad idea. And then the voice of Clandestine, somehow, cheering him on.
If this got him killed, it would be terribly ironic that it would be for stealing a griffin egg from criminals than for being an already wanted man.
He took Morgan's hand and shook it.
"Then let's be quick about it."