Metal clangs and hissing pipes permeated the dank air, as thief and apprentice descended through the hollow clocktower. Gwenevere’s eyes remained locked within a perpetual state of wonderment, as she surveyed the strange and fascinating contraptions left behind by the Hammerites. Gears larger than carriages, deadly mechanisms that could crush her if she dared venture too close. Squinting her eyes, the young woman tugged onto Garrett’s cloak. The thief shot her a positively disgusted glare.
“The taff do you want?”
Gwenevere bit her bottom lip in response.
“Umm...I was just wondering why some of these machines are still running. The clocktower has been out of commission for years now. It neither chimes nor keeps time anymore,” she remarked, feeling timid.
“The Hammers took better care of this unfeeling tower than most mothers do their own children,” Garrett remarked, staring off into the dank nothingness ahead of him. “They were apparently in the process of repairing it when the Baron kicked em’ out.”
“Well, why’d he do that?”
“Frivolous costs, the City’s funds going to the wrong places; something like that,” the thief shrugged.
“Oh. Methinks the Hammerites were pretty angry!” Gwenevere cocked her head in concern.
“Obviously,” Garrett snorted. “But ever since the whole mayhem with Karras sixteen years back, Northcrest has been limiting how much influence and power the factions are allowed to have. So, it’s not as though they can really do a damn thing about it.”
“Gee Garrett, you don’t seem to care all that much for them.”
“What exactly was your first guess?” he groused.
“Well actually, you don’t seem to care all that much for anyone, I’ve noticed,” the girl continued. “Why is this?”
“Because I have no reason to,” he muttered. “Feelings are a sign of weakness. They only get you into trouble. You’d be wise to remember that, kid.”
But of course, Garrett knew that the cheerful fledgling who tweeted and grinned behind him now, was far from wise. Glancing over his shoulder again, he noticed her fascination with the tower only seemed to have escalated the deeper they progressed.
“Where are we going?”
“Gwenevere, there’s more than one way out of the clocktower. If you’re going to be staying here for a while, then you should at the very least know where the exits are located.”
“Ah,” the girl nodded, closing her eyes. Then, a sudden thought. “Garrett?”
“What now?” he sighed.
“How long have you been living here?”
Gwenevere resisted the urge to roll her eyes, instead clicking her tongue in response. They trotted past a colossal, motionless pendulum, which must have been quite the sight back when it was running smoothly. She wondered how the Hammerites could stand to remain within the center of this place, once the clock chimed. Certainly, the resonant baritone would have been almost deafening!
Gwenevere peered upward, marveling at the intricate patterns of the forlorn clockface. Watching as she and Garrett’s forms cast eerie silhouettes against its inert surface. They descended a rickety stairway, iron railings and worm-eaten wood lining their path. Overhead, several steel girders caused the runaway to flinch, as she began to fret over their stability. Suffice to say, she hurried past this particular section of the tower.
A tattered burgundy tapestry caught her eye, the Hammerite insignia emblazoned across the center. Garrett walked right past the decaying drapery as though it had been a mere cobweb. Hitching up her long navy cape, Gwenevere scampered off after him. It wasn’t until they reached the rather homely communal dormitory, that she spoke again.
“Why don’t you just sleep down here?” she pointed. “Just look at all these nice beds!”
“I’d prefer not to,” Garrett grumbled.
“Why?” the girl blinked.
“I don’t particularly relish the idea of sleeping in a bed where a Hammer used to be.”
Her latest display of bothersome behavior prompted the criminal to halt his procession, and whirl around to face her. Gwenevere lept back like a frightened cat, her eyes wide and luminous.
“Look, if you really want to, why don’t YOU sleep down here?!” he snapped. “After all, who sleeps on stairs anyway?”
It took a moment for Gwenevere to register upon the meaning of these words. But when she did, the girl shot him a knowing expression. She closed her eyes, and began to fret with her hair once again as she proceeded to answer his question.
“I just like how it feels. Wood is sturdy, and cool to the touch. Maybe it does sound a little odd, but I really do receive so much comfort from sleeping there,” she explained, her tone gentle. Perhaps even a touch saddened. “I’m sorry, I really should behave more like a lady, shouldn’t I? I am a guest in your home, after all.”
Garrett squinted his eyes. Just when he thought this girl couldn’t get any stranger, she was always content to outdo herself.
He remembered the breakthrough he’d had earlier that day--how it was unfair, and downright foolish to expect the girl to understand his reasoning, when she knew nothing about him.
It bothered the reticent man on numerous levels; how his balance seemed to outright collapse whenever he was around her. Never before had he cared what others thought, or what they assumed about his life. So why was it, that Gwenevere’s blissful ignorance regarding his inner workings irked him so?
Although he could indeed still see her there behind him, Garrett refused to look at her. She just made him so uncomfortable, and he had no clarification as to why.
But whenever she exhibited such untold sadness, the thief’s interest in her surmounted any of his usual detached tendencies. That semblance of a profound tragedy enshrouded Gwenevere now, and it was enough to flood Garrett with an uncharacteristic level of interest.
The nobility appeased whatever paltry suffering they might experience during the course of their mundane existences, with possessions and parties. And, as is often the case for those who are vain and egotistical, everything which did not grant them utmost joy, was ultimately forgotten.
They did not tend to dwell on past mistakes, or personal anguish the way ordinary people did. For in their eyes, they were as gods.
Perhaps now, more than ever before, Garrett yearned to know Gwenevere’s secret. That nebulous burden she kept hidden beneath warm smiles, and gay laughter. But he knew, uncovering such a mystery would first require something which the moonlighter wasn’t all-too experienced with obtaining: Trust.
Looking back at the musty old beds, Garrett released a soft sigh. Silently, he accepted this new challenge. He had to know. For what purpose--save for putting his own curiosity to rest--he couldn’t quite discern. But it was something he needed to attain.
The very notion of such a careless girl harboring untold information, bothered him. Perhaps, it would also serve to alleviate his growing paranoia. If he could only discover why she was there, why she wanted to become a thief. Maybe then, Garrett would finally be able to ascertain whether or not she posed any real threat to him.
“Look. Gwenevere,” he began in a gravelly, distant voice, “You don’t have to put on a show for me, alright? I don’t need you to be ladylike, or to change anything about your personality. So long as you do as I say, we’re good.”
The redhead’s lips contorted into a confused frown.
“But then, why did you say that thing about the stairs?”
“Look, I didn’t mean to pry, okay?” Garrett snapped. “If you enjoy sleeping on the stairs, well then that’s your business. I just thought I’d offer you a more comfortable place to sleep. That’s all.”
Gwenevere’s face lit up in surprise. That, was perhaps the kindest thing the thief had ever said to her. Shuffling her feet, the girl tucked her hands behind her back and swayed from side to side. Her sudden shyness caught Garrett completely off guard. Gwenevere smiled up at him.
“It’s alright. I didn’t expect you to understand. No one ever has, really. But, it was...nice of you to think of me.”
“You might still want to consider it,” Garrett grinned. “You’d have more privacy down here. Your own room and everything.” The offer was more for his sake than hers; a futile attempt to regain at least a portion of his relinquished solitude. But that was far from the way Gwenevere interpreted it.
Her hopeless expression softened, sparse moonlight and shadows creating a delicate shimmer around her face, and through her long red hair. Garrett nearly flinched when he saw her cheeks light up with a warm blush. She marveled up at the imposing dark figure, as he continued to watch her through pensive, burning eyes.
“Thank you, Garrett. But there’s really no other place in the tower I’d rather be.”
Progression through Stonemarket to the Crippled Burrick went just as well as could be expected. Gwenevere continued to pester and pry at her hooded master’s thoughts and perceptions, whilst Garrett did his best to ignore her. It had become a sort of game to the thief; seeing just how long he could ignore her before snapping, or otherwise giving into her persistent badgering for some slight semblance of relief.
“What?!?” he caved. Ten minutes that time.
“So, you said that I had training tonight? What am I going to be doing?” the girl asked, her tone meek and placid, as it often was when he’d just barked at her. It was Gwenevere’s attempt at an unspoken, humble apology.
Garrett continued to listen to the rustling leaves as they walked, taking in the sensational--albeit often overlooked--ambiance of twilight. He licked his lips, lubricating them against the frigid gales of early Autumn, as they continued to walk further into the heart of town.
“Nothing much,” he replied with a smack of his jaws. “You desperately need to work on your stealth. So we’ll be going over some balance and silence exercises.”
“Balance? Silence?” the bubbly redhead inquired, kicking along a pebble as they walked.
“As in, ‘don’t fall off of the beam’, and ‘keep your mouth shut’,” Garrett remarked sardonically.
“That doesn’t sound too terribly hard,” Gwenevere cheered, her voice jolly and light. “I’ll give it my best tonight, Garrett!”
As the outline of the Crippled Burrick tavern came into view, Garrett came to a halt. Gwenevere, who was still playing with her little rock, had to be halted manually. She shot up with rigid stiffness, nearly shrieking again when the thief’s firm grip found her shoulder. But somehow, her mind remembered what Garrett had warned her about such careless outcries, cementing her mouth closed. Swallowing her shock, the girl allowed her body to be pulled back into the darkness.
“Why are we hiding?” she whispered. Garrett’s response was to cup a gloved hand around her lips. Gwenevere’s brows furrowed, and she shot him an agitated glare. But she did not resist, nor attempt to speak again.
The sound of raucous, drunken laughter prompted the doll-eyed girl to jump with panic. Instinctively, Gwenevere huddled closer against Garrett, causing the thief to give her a rather perturbed stare. But his attention was averted from her odd reaction, as two large men came lumbering further out of the tavern.
They weren’t with the watch--this much was obvious from their lack of uniforms. But there was something about their clothing which was eerily familiar to the thief. Something, that had persuaded him to take cover immediately out of an instinctual trepidation. Garrett’s eyes narrowed, as the two began to converse.
“Did you catch the tits on that bar wench? If she’s who I think she is, that dame’s aged well!” the nearest man bellowed to his companion, making rather vulgar maneuvers with his hands.
“Damn right I did, you taffer! I’d love to tap a piece of that, if we weren’t so busy with business.”
“So we come back on our day off, yeah? She’ll still be here!”
“An’ what if she ain’t interested?”
“Then we take turns holdin’ her down until she is,” the first man burst out into vile laughter, joined soon after by his wobbling compatriot.
“Heh, ya think I’m gonna share her with you?”
“Good luck wranglin’ that wild mare by yourself,” the first man snorted. “Sophie’d rip you apart in two seconds.”
“Hey, dancin’ with death, mate,” the second drunk smirked with a shrug, “always a real thrill.”
“Yeah, yeah. Hey, speakin’ of thrills, does the boss have any word on that missing Simmons tart?”
Gwenevere’s eyes widened, and even though her back was against his body, Garrett swore he felt her heart beating madly. He also felt as the girl attempted to slink even further back against him. The thief could feel her backside starting to nestle between his legs. It was a precarious and awkward situation, to say the least. And it was made even more so, as Gwenevere began to tremble.
Garrett went back to surveying the two men again, his eyes narrow and pensive like those of a savage predator. Or, more aptly, a hunted fox.
“Naw. Still no word,” the second man burped.
“Well keep an ear out, taffer. Boss says findin’ that dollymop’s our top objective, see? Master Simmons is considering a reward for her return.”
“He didn’t specify. But, times is tough. We gots ta take our chances where we can, yeah? Besides,” the first man’s lips curled upwards into a disturbing smile, “apparently, Simmons don’t care if someone has ta rough her up a bit, either. As long as she’s alive, he’ll pay.”
Garrett raised his eyebrow at that, and looked down at the petite girl currently nestled against his chest. He watched as Gwenevere winced, listened as she softly whimpered against his hand. Now he understood why his primeval urge to hide had been activated. He knew these men, and why they were after Gwenevere. They were bounty hunters.
Their kind had been after him before too. Though such pursuits had become rarefied, despite the ridiculous bounty upon his own head. Very few men possessed the bravery or skill to hunt down the infamous Master Thief.
But of every volatile word to spew past their slobbering lips on that night, it was perhaps that last bit which caused Garrett’s insides to stiffen with sickness. Now, he was beginning to understand why Gwenevere had run away from home. Why a noble like her would dream of turning rogue.
Basso had pointed out before; just how odd and unnatural it was for a father to allow such unsavory fellows to hunt their own child without regulations. The very idea caused the thief to grind his teeth behind his compressed lips. Although he honestly couldn’t stand Gwenevere, even she did not deserve to be hurtled into such a murky game of chance.
Stating that he wanted his child brought back alive, wasn’t exactly safeguarding anything as far as Garrett was concerned. Alive, was but an active state of being, and there were many stages of drawing breath. The girl could return to him beaten, starved, and raped, and the lord would not bat an eyelid. What’s more; Simmons would apparently still offer her assailant the reward money.
Garrett’s eyes filled with a bizarre mixture of intrigue and apprehension, as he looked down at the quaking maiden. Though she was both a whimsical and foolish girl, the thief realized that she too must have understood the murky technicality in her father’s proposition. The thief frowned. If Lord Vladimir Simmons truly cared this little over the welfare of his only daughter, Garrett had to wonder: What sort of nightmare awaited Gwenevere back at the Simmons family estate?
The inebriated men laughed in unison, before disappearing further down the opposite street. Once he was sure that they were long gone, Garrett rose from his hiding spot, bringing Gwenevere up with him. He locked eyes with her, as he removed his hand from her mouth. For a moment, a look of genuine pity registered itself within his sullen features.
“Come on, Gwenevere. Let’s go.”
Two quick raps to the heavy oak door roused Basso from his doldrums. Poking his head out the front, the boxman was surprised to see Garrett leering back at him, the cheerful little fallen cherub of an apprentice by his side.
“Oh, hey,” Basso yawned, his eyelids heavy with a mixture of dreariness and boredom. “Didn’t expect ta see you two back again so soon...”
“Didn’t expect to BE back, old man,” Garrett grumbled. “But there’s a situation with the little rhinestone princess.”
Basso looked back down at Gwenevere, who giggled and waggled her fingers at him. The boxman slapped his hand across his forehead with a groan.
“Aw taff it all, Garrett! Now I told you no more bellyach--”
“--it isn’t about that!” Garrett interrupted with a snarl. “Gwenevere ran away in her bedroom slippers. And knowing you, I’m sure you’ve already noticed the rest of her apparel.”
“Did you just come here to remind me of what a letch I am, Garrett?” Basso blinked. “Because I really don’t need you to do that.”
“The point is, Basso,” Garrett rolled his eyes, “she doesn’t have anything appropriate to wear for training.”
Basso looked Gwenevere over with wide-eyed comprehension.
“Aww, the poor kid needs clothes? Well, why didn’t ya just say so?!”
“I thought I just did...”
Basso made a few mocking facial expressions and sounds in response, before smiling and holding out his arms for Gwenevere.
“Hey, there’s my gal!” the shabby man hugged her. “So, ya need some more practical duds, huh? Not gonna lie--I really love your current look,” he winked. Garrett rolled his eyes with a groan. Gwenevere smiled, completely missing the hint of flirtation.
“Oh thanks, but Garrett says that I should try to look more like a thief and less like a lady of the evening. Which, I don’t get. Don’t thieves come out at night anyway?” she cocked her head. Basso gaped at her inquiry, before bursting out into booming, dirty laughter.
“They’re not the only ones, kiddo,” leaning over, he gave Garrett a bemused look. “Did you really say that?!” Garrett remained stationary, although Gwenevere was sure that she heard him groan again under his breath.
“Oh yeah, sure! I’m learning a lot from Garrett actually! Pretty soon, I’ll be able to steal all on my own!” the jovial girl proclaimed.
“Don’t count on it...” Garrett muttered. Basso observed the two closely, and began to chuckle.
“I’m sure ya will, kid. I’m sure you will. Oh, and by the way, I have a personal assignment for you.”
“Oh?” Gwenevere asked.
“Try to teach this taffer a thing or two about humor, huh?” Basso nudged Garrett’s arm. The thief, was not amused.
“Alright Basso, do you have replacement duds for the girl or not?” Garrett griped impatiently.
“Of course I do! Come on in!”
“Thanks!” Gwenevere beamed.
Motioning the two inside, Basso turned to Gwenevere and smiled.
“Shut the door sweetheart.”
Gwenevere did as she was bade, while Basso fell to his knees with a grunt before his unkempt bed. Garrett stepped closer, watching with a perplexed expression on his face, as the boxman proceeded to begin pulling out several dusty and filthy objects. A moldy old dinner plate. Yellowed newspaper from years past. A pair of trousers that couldn’t possibly fit anymore.
“Basso, what the taff are you up to?” Garrett finally just asked.
But the disordered pauper didn’t answer, nor did he have to. Moments later, several different pairs of women’s clothing began to emerge from the rancid crevice.
The thief’s face stretched into a visage of abject bewilderment. There must have been ten different outfits thus far; and it was evident that Basso was just getting started. Most of them were brightly colored, some newer than others. Almost all of them appeared rather risqué, tight, or torn. Garrett looked back over at Gwenevere again. More specifically, her bright blue get-up.
It was then, when Garrett came to that most nauseous revelation as to just where these odd garments had come from.
“What do they wear back home when you’re done with them?” the hooded criminal asked with a wry smirk.
“Huh?” Basso looked up so quickly, that he nearly bopped his head upon the side of the bed. He looked down at the pile of mismatched clothing, and chuckled a bit, realizing what his old friend had meant. “Oh, I usually just offer em’ a pair of mine. One of my shirts is usually all it takes to cover--”
“--thanks for the unwanted mental imagery, Basso,” Garrett objected. Though he would never outright admit to it, the thief was secretly miffed by just how many girls the dirty old drunk apparently had been with. Basso stared down at his impressive collection, mulling over it for several moments.
“I think I had something dark around here somewhere...” he murmured.
“Basso, again I’ll ask you,” Garrett cleared his throat as he watched the boxman’s upper half disappear beneath the bed. “What are you doing? Do you honestly mean for the girl to wear--”
“--GOT IT!” Basso bellowed, wriggling out from beneath the bed. There was a dark blue woman’s tunic clasped within his chubby digits.
“Are you serious?” Garrett made a noticeable face. “That thing’s almost as big as you are! It won’t possibly fit her weedy little frame!”
Basso scowled up at his mate, staring him down for a few uncomfortable seconds.
“That’s what belts are for, Garrett,” he mused. Then, he handed the garment over to Gwenevere. “Here ya go kiddo,” he smiled.
With wide eyes and eager hands, Gwenevere accepted the very first present she’d ever received in over ten years. Her fingers traced the seams and rips, seeing nothing but beauty as she held the tunic up in front of her face. Her cheeks reddened with elation, a wide and blissful smile stretching across her face.
“Wow! Gee, thank you, Basso...” was all she could manage in her all-encompassing elation.
“Heh, sure kid. Ya might wanna wash it first though,” the boxman replied with a chuckle. Turning back to Garrett, he held out his arm. “Here, help me up.”
With an audible sigh and a loud creak, the lanky man pried his overweight companion to his feet. While Gwenevere continued to dance and spin about with her new outfit, Garrett and Basso watched on with unexpected astonishment.
“Who woulda thought that a rich gal like her would get so excited over a ratty old hand-me-down?” Basso spoke first, placing his hands on his hips. “Guess it’s true what they say: Give a kid a present and they’ll go nuts over the box and wrapping paper instead.”
“Look, Basso. I really don’t have time to play dress-up,” Garrett groused. The boxman turned and looked at him, raising an eyebrow in the process.
“Isn’t that exactly why you came here?”
“We’ve got trouble, Basso. Bounty Hunters,” the thief’s face grew dark. “I saw a pair of them exiting the tavern just now. And they’re after Gwenevere.”
Basso’s plump face sagged at the dismal moonlighter’s announcement.
“Well shit...” he rubbed his temples, and continued to watch Gwenevere frolic. “Taffin’ fools. Mark my words--Lord Simmons ain’t gonna play straight with em’, that’s fer sure.”
“That’s why we’re not turning her in,” Garrett uttered a dry chuckle. His companion glared up at him.
“Speak fer yourself, you heartless bastard...” he muttered. Garrett met Basso’s disgusted expression with a blank stare.
“Watch it,” he growled.
“Look, we’ll find a way outta this mess. We always do, Garrett,” Basso assured. “Fer now, just keep the gal up in the tower, got it? There should be plenty of training she can do up in there. Gears, beams, shadows? Don’t see what more ya could ask for, really.”
“You wouldn’t,” the thief snorted. “Tell me again why we’re doing all this for her?”
“Because I’ve gone soft, and you’re a schmuck for the shiny stuff,” Basso chuckled.
Garrett, didn’t attempt to contend with that statement. It was perhaps, one of the brightest, cognizant sentences Basso had uttered in quite a while. But even if he’d been of the mindset to disagree with the latter half of that remark, the thief never received the opportunity. Because a series of quick knocks upon the hovel door jarred Garrett from his lazy passivity.
“Hello, Basso! Am I too late for tea then?” a thick accent Garrett couldn’t quite identify called from the other side. It reminded him a bit of cockney, but there was something almost dignified and robust blended in there as well.
“Oh goodie! He’s here!” Basso clapped his hands. The reclusive hood shot his fence a bewildered look.
“Are you expecting visitors?” Garrett asked, a touch paranoid. “And when did you start drinking tea?”
“Well uh, actually, yes. Yes I am,” Basso nodded, ignoring the latter half of the thief’s inquiry. “This may come as a complete shock to you, Garrett--but you ain’t the only taffer I do business with!”
“Have I not been fetching enough trinkets for you, Basso?” the thief crossed his arms, taking minor umbrage at the remark.
“Aw, Garrett. I didn’t mean ta hurt yer feelings or nothing--but I got a business to run here! I can’t be reliant on just one guy, ya know?”
“First off, ya didn’t. Secondly, I don’t care,” Garrett snorted.
“Oh, okay. Because it sure seemed like ya did a second ago...” Basso acquired a smug, rather silly grin.
“Basso? Oh Basso?” the stranger’s voice came again.
“I’ll be right there, Jack!” Basso hollered back. Turning around, he looked Gwenevere up and down. “Erm...”
“What is it?” Garrett asked, eager to just get out of there by this point.
“Garrett. Could you maybe let the little lady borrow your cloak? We don’t need people recognizing her, now that we know they’re lookin’. Know what I mean?” the boxman expressed.
With a drawn-out, reluctant sigh, Garrett removed his trademark cloak from his shoulders.
“Bring your own next time,” he scolded her.
The girl nodded, as she affixed the deep black hood up over her head, allowing the remaining material to taper down her body. Basso stepped back, nodding in approval.
“Yeah, that’ll do. Just keep your face hidden, and let uncle Basso, do all the talking,” the shady man grinned.
“Do we have to be here for this?” Garrett grumbled. “Can’t we just hide in the back?”
Basso pointed a dirty finger, giving the thief a stern look.
“Now you listen here! I ain’t about ta be rude to Jack Danger. I need him. Besides, ya gotta meet this guy, Garrett!”
“Why are you acting like this, Basso?” Garrett blinked.
“Aw, Garrett! You should really take a lesson from Gwennie here: Be nice and have some fun for a change!”
“Aww,” Gwenevere blushed.
“Ya look great kiddo!” Basso complimented, nudging her cheek with his fist. “Now, listen ta Uncle Basso, alright?”
"Uncle Basso?” Garrett crooked an eyebrow. “Tch, she’s really gonna be calling you that?”
“Shaddup Garrett!” the boxman snapped. Clutching Gwenevere by the shoulders, Basso made eye contact with the eager young thief-in-training. “Now listen here, kid: I need ya to remain silent, no matter what! Today, yer my cousin’s mute daughter, Bethany. That’s what we’ll tell him! Trust me, yer gonna love this guy!”
Garrett brought his uncovered head down against the rear wall of the hovel, repeating the process a few times in his exasperation.
As Basso started to waddle back towards the front door, a soft tug found the end of his malachite scarf. The unkempt fence looked down to see Gwenevere, her expression sympathetic.
“What’s the matter, girly?” he asked.
“Um, Basso? Do you really have a mute...does your cousin really have a mute daughter?” she asked, not a shred of humor apparent within her tender features.
Basso ruffled her bangs for a bit, and grinned. The level of concern and gullibility Gwenevere possessed never ceased to warm his ragged old heart.
“Aw, no worries, sweetheart. I don’t really have a vocally challenged relative. But what Mr. Danger don’t know won’t kill him!” the boxman replied with a swift wink.