Chasing Treasure: Part One
"Land ho!" Sam cried from his perch in the bow of the ship. "It's the palace alright – I've never seen a tower that high!"
"Well, what did you expect?" Bannok asked, adjusting the helm a degree or two to starboard to catch the shifting wind. "Royal pets. Always got to outdo each other, building bigger palaces and throwing fancier parties." The timbers of the Silver Arkmite creaked as she swung around, the salt-soaked ropes slapping against the mast as the sails filled. "Sammy, the main sheet," Bannok ordered, gesturing with a tilt of his head.
"Aye, Cap'n." Sam darted down the ship to secure the rope, tying it off in an easy, practised motion. His gaze stayed fixed on the shore and the gleaming spire of the palace. "I wonder what it would be like," he mused. "Parties and fancy clothes and all you could ever eat. Must be nice."
Bannok snorted. "Politics and courtiers and stone walls everywhere you look. Sure, sounds wonderful."
"Yeah, but think of the food, Bannok. If I was a prince, I'd demand sixteen – no, seventeen fish pops for breakfast. With custard, fish pops and custard."
"Fish pops aren't breakfast food," Bannok protested. "And even if they were, you can't eat them with custard. That's just – ew, no."
Sam ignored him, staring off into the distance in a dreamy, food induced haze. "And I'd have cake for pudding every day, and coconut steaks. Faerie pancakes with an entire jar of honey on each one." He glanced back, pulling a face at Bannok's unimpressed expression. "Oh, come on. Don't tell me you like eating breadfish and hard tack every day."
"I'd rather eat hard tack than be trapped in a palace." He said it with such finality that Sam's ears drooped. The young lutari rested his chin on his paws, staring moodily out to the shore.
Bannok rolled his eyes. It was a stupid game, but there wasn't much else to do with the weather so calm. It wouldn't hurt to indulge his brother for now. "Cloud puffs. If I was a prince, I'd eat cloud puffs."
In less than a second, Sam was grinning again, ears up and mouth watering as though he could taste the feast he was envisaging. "Easter neggs and ice cream," he countered excitedly.
"Asparagus? You could eat anything in Neopia and you eat vegetables?"
"Vegetables and salad, Sammy. Food of kings."
"Salad," Sam declared, puffing his chest out, "is petpet food. Princes do not eat salad."
The Silver Arkmite sailed on, the playful bickering between the two as familiar a sound as the breaking of waves against the hull or the occasional flap of canvas as the wind gusted against the sails. She was a small ship, but elegant, her deck a rich golden brown and her triangular sails bleached white in the sun. The kyrii at her helm cut a striking figure in his navy coat, every inch of him a captain from the leather buckles on his boots to the salt-mussed white fur which ran down his back and into his tail. His younger brother, Sammy, the eternally hungry, was a lutari, sleek and streamlined and as at home in the water as he was on land. Or better yet on board, or up the mast, or leaning over the prow and watching the wild delfin play in the bow wave.
So the pair of them came into port, Bannok vainly trying to convince his brother that princes did not eat their weight in chocolate every night as a midnight snack, and Sam maintaining that as far as he was concerned there was no other reason to be a prince, even as he leapt onto the docks with a rope eased the Silver Arkmite into her berth.
"Ten neopoints to watch yer ship, guv," a scruffy bori offered as they disembarked. "Keep it safe as houses, no ropes gone astray, no scratches in the paint, no nuffin', honest's the word."
"People nick ropes – in the royal harbour?" Sam asked, disbelief clear in his tone. "You're bluffing."
The bori bristled. "I ain't! I wouldn't never. It's honest work, what with the thieves' guild winning the latest skirmish and all."
"You expect me to believe the thieves' guild cares about a bit of spare rope – "
"Sam, enough," Bannok quietened him, putting a steadying paw on the irate lutari's shoulder. He fished around in the pocket of his coat and withdrew a handful of coins. "Here," he said, tipping them into the bori's waiting claws. "I expect her to be pristine when we get back, mind."
"As you say, guv," the bori promised happily, and scampered off to watch for the next pets to moor up to the dock.
"Bannok," Sam whined, not bothering to hide his annoyance. "That's the stupidest scam to fall for. Ever. The Arkmite doesn't even have paint to get scratched!"
Bannok shook his head and dragged Sam off with a long-suffering sigh. "Ten neopoints won't break the bank for us, but it might be the difference between supper or nothing for him. Let him have them."
"Stupid, soft-hearted sap," Sam muttered under his breath, but followed willingly enough.
"Sammy. I heard that."
"So, where are we going?" he asked, the swift change of subject accompanied by a sunny smile that fooled no one. "I thought the map piece was somewhere in the palace; this road leads into town."
Bannok's ears twitched once in annoyance, but he let it slip and turned his focus to the plan. "It is in the palace. Somewhere." He frowned, turning the facts over in his mind. The map piece they were looking for was the fifth of nine pieces that, pieced together, marked the location of the White Horn's treasure hoard, one of the most powerful pirate lords of the last century. No one knew who he was, or even what species. Some said that he was a uni, got his nickname from the foot long horn sprouting from his forehead. Others claimed he was a kougra or a draik, or even a lenny, armed with a great battle horn that with one blow could deafen his enemies and make even the hardiest pirate foe quake in their boots.
Whoever he was, he'd been rich, and he'd left the map to his treasure scattered in pieces across Neopia. Bannok and Sam had found the first piece by sheer luck, tucked amongst the scrolls and sea charts of a shady second hand dealer in Altador. They'd not recognised it at first, not realised the importance – Bannok had almost thrown it away until Sam had asked to keep it as a curiosity. The second piece had come from an old sailor, a greying yurble who walked with the rolling gait of a pet not used to dry land and drank as though the grog would never run dry. He'd told them the story and pressed the map piece into Bannok's paws; Keep it safe, he'd said. I'm too old for this, too tired to fight if they come looking, and these bones won't stand for running any more. We hid it for a reason, lad, you remember that. Keep it hidden. Keep it safe.
A cryptic warning like that – it was a red flag to a kiiyak. In barely a month they'd tracked down the third piece and liberated it from the pirate themed gallery it had been stored in. The fourth they won in a high stakes game of chance, aided by a couple of loaded dice and an air faerie that owed them a favour. Or rather, Sam won and Bannok watched; the younger pirate cheated like he was born to it and could produce aces out of thin air when he needed. Bannok had long given up trying to play himself - he was always too fair and lost far more than he ever gained - and contented himself with fretting when Sam bet their ship on the turn of a card, Sammy please, are you sure you know what you're doing, we really really need that ship don't you dare lose it or I will throttle you with your own tail, I mean it Sammy, your own tail.
And now, here they were. Piece number five was somewhere in the castle, disguised as one of the artworks according to their research. Problem was, a castle that size? Paintings everywhere. It would take several nights to check each one. He and Sam were good at sneaking, but not even they could break into the same place multiple times over. Not without getting caught.
Hence the plan.
"It's the anniversary of the town's founding," he explained to Sam. "There's celebrations all week – a carnival down the main street during the day, and a party at the palace every night."
"So what, we sneak into the party?" Sam shook his head, lips turned down. "I don't know, Bannok. It wouldn't be that easy. They'll have guards up, checking that the guests don't wander where they aren't supposed. And we can't go every night; these parties are a one night only gig for the normal folk."
"So we don't go as guests. They'll have hired extra staff – I'll find a kyrii, persuade him his week will be better spent in the tavern, and take his uniform."
"Yeah, sure, kyriis are everywhere," Sam grumbled. "You got a lutari in mind for me to impersonate?"
Bannok smiled, unable to keep it from turning into a gleeful smirk. "Not as such," he admitted. "But, I happen to have it on good authority that one member of the royal orchestra has fallen mysteriously ill and taken himself to faerieland for the week to enjoy the healing springs' hospitality."
Sam gaped at his brother with dawning horror. "You didn't," he protested weakly.
"You mean I didn't bribe the chef's boy to be a bit liberal with the poison jelly?"
Sam moaned, covering his eyes with his paws. "Please tell me you didn't." Bannok smiled sweetly back at him.
"You mean I didn't forge a letter from Queen Nabile and send it via express yooyu courier to the palace, expressing her sympathies and offering the services of her own personal trombonist for the duration of the celebrations?"
"I don't even play the trombone!"
Bannok shrugged, unrepentant. "You play the saxophone," he said. "Trombone, saxophone, they're the same thing, right? Now come on Maestro, you're expected at the palace in three hours and we need to buy you a suit. And a trombone." He strode on into town with a spring in his step, whistling a cheerful tune and far too pleased with himself.
"I hate you," Sam told his retreating back. "Hate."
"Love you too, brother," Bannok replied with an airy wave. "Chop chop, mustn't keep the royal orchestra waiting."---
Sam pulled at the collar of his suit and scowled. Bow ties were the worst thing ever. Who decided that choking yourself was the thing to do? Rich people. Ugh. Sam genuinely cannot understand them.
The trombone he and Bannok had ‘purchased’ (read: loaned and left an anonymous IOU note) was the best the town had to offer, but still not as good as Sam wanted. He was an artist, he had standards, ok? One of the key standards was that his instrument have a reed like, say, a clarinet or I don’t know a bleeding saxophone Bannok you prat. He managed (just about) to produce a decent sound from the trombone instead of a pathetic, dying whine, but he was glad that trombonists were usually given accompanying parts instead of solos.
Still, he caught sight of his captain swanning around the back of the hall in his frilly waiter's uniform (actual lace frills! This made Sam’s entire month) and stifled a smirk. In comparison, the suit wasn’t quite so bad. Not that he liked it. Because he didn’t. Bow ties. Cufflinks. Ugh.
Whoops, time to play. Lungs at the ready, fingers go somewhere and hope for the best, three-two-one BLOW. (Ow. Where’s the volume control on this thing?)---
"Caviar, sir?" Bannok murmured as he held out the silver tray. It was worth more than what he and Sam spent in a month. The delicately filled vol-au-vents were topped with chives and gold leaf, each piece arranged just so. He kept his face impassive and nonjudgemental as the guests took one - or sometimes two - and ate them with none of the savouring such rich food deserved.
"Caviar," a particularly elegant aisha said with a moue of distaste. "How... boring."
"Oh absolutely," her companion agreed. He made an exaggerated show of washing down the one he'd just eaten with a mouthful of champagne. "Unimaginative, isn't it? But then, one shouldn't expect too much, my dear. I believe the town still relies on fishing for its economy, doesn't it?"
"Fishing? Goodness, in this day and age?"
"Well someone must, and let us be thankful at least that it isn't us."
"Yes," a bori chimed in, his watery eyes focussing on Bannok with a sympathetic look. "Good of them to take one for the team, I suppose."
"Magnanimous of you," Bannok said with a small bow. He turned away without waiting for an answer and added under his breath: "you pompous git."
A faerie xweetok to his left arched an eyebrow at him. "I beg your pardon?" she asked in an accent that could cut glass. Her antennae quivered in his direction.
"I'm sorry, ma'am?" Bannok blinked, feigning ignorance. He swung the silver plate forwards like a shield. "Caviar?"
"No." She wrinkled her nose to emphasise the refusal. "The presentation disagrees with me. I suppose Lord Baeyren really will hire anyone who comes to his door these days." She cast a disparaging glance over Bannok's borrowed outfit that set his fur bristling. "Pity," she said, and whirled away in a cloud of pink chiffon. Bannok bit his cheek to stop himself from gaping after her in outrage. Had Baeyren deliberately gone searching for the rudest, snobbiest guests to invite?
"Chin up," one of the other waiters advised with a wry smile. "The first day's always the worst. It's a giant one-upmanship competition, they get over themselves soon enough."
"If they got over themselves in the next five minutes I'm not sure it would be soon enough," Bannok muttered. He swept his gaze over the party, taking in the lavishly decorated room. Baeyren had gone all out for the anniversary. The hall was so covered with silk hangings in the town's signature gold and blue colours that the walls were barely visible. Tapestries depicting the story of the town's founding adorned what little was not hidden under swathes of silk, and a life sized ice sculpture of the first king and his beloved queen took pride of place in the centre of the room. How the various royal and noble guests could find fault was beyond him.
"It's not so bad," the other waiter insisted. "You should try working kitchens. I'd rather take a sharp word from one of this lot than be in range of chef's ladle, I'll tell you that for free."
"I'll take your word for it then." Bannok tipped his head in a friendly nod and went to brandish his val-au-vents at more unappreciative guests.
He caught Sam's eye several times throughout the evening and made meaningful glances at one of the side doors, but Sam was only ever able to grimace back and gesture helplessly at the conductor. Bannok bit his cheek to hide a scowl as he collected a new tray - this one had tiny castle shaped jellies on it, of all things - and turned the problem over in his mind. He'd been counting on Sam being able to slip away during the ball to look for the painting. A trombone was hardly a central instrument in an orchestra; surely he'd be given a break or two? Unfortunately not, it seemed. Sam had scant few minutes to down a flask of water between pieces, let alone sneak off to search for the map piece.
It was, as Sam told him that evening, an unmitigated failure.
"Because someone stuck me in an orchestra," the lutari was saying (had been saying for what, the last half hour or so?) "With an instrument I can't play, mind you, in a party for a town renowned for its folk dancing accompanied by full score orchestra, you know?"
"As it happens, I do know," Bannok grumped.
"And it gets worse!" Sam continued as if Bannok hadn't spoken. He flopped onto the bed in an inelegant sprawl, limbs hanging off each end and his tail hooked around the bed-post for balance.
"Deary me, how it could it possibly get worse?"
"No snark. Serious time, Bannok. They're running dances in the town square for the next three days and the orchestra has to be there for all of it."
Bannok sat up, his ears sitting flat against his head in dismay. "They what?" he asked.
"Three days, all day, sun up to sun down." Sam's voice dropped into a more sombre tone. "And at sun down it's straight in here to play for the party. No time off, no chance of slipping away."
This was, as Sam had surmised, a disaster. "What about meals?" Bannok tried.
His brother shook his head. "We get twenty minutes in the common hall. They're working us hard here."
Bannok ran through it in his mind, trying to think of a way out - but Sammy wasn't daft. If he said there was no chance, there was no chance. "That leaves night time then. At least we're inside the palace, that's got to count for something."
"I'm inside, you mean. In the musicians' quarters. Which you aren't supposed to be in and will get thrown out from if you're caught."
"Caught?" Bannok scoffed. "Please Sammy, have some respect. We'll work nights - I'll scout the security tomorrow while you're playing in the square, meet me by the back staircase when the party ends." He swung himself out the window without waiting for an answer, spared a quick glance to check that no one was watching, and dropped silently to the ground.
"Oh sure," he heard Sam muttering back in the room. "Work from dawn to midnight, then work some more. It's not like it's hard to learn a new instrument on the fly or anything. Who needs sleep?"
Bannok suppressed a grin. Sammy could complain all he wanted, but he'd managed just fine with the trombone. Bannok wouldn't have set it up otherwise; it was one thing to mess with his younger brother but an entirely different thing to endanger a heist. Besides, the challenge was good for him.
He glanced up at the imposing towers, lit from behind by the silver moonlight. Tomorrow. They'd begin their search for the map piece tomorrow night.
To be continued…