They were driving for about ten or fifteen minutes, hopping and bouncing all along the road from The Garden to the village. All that time Annabel was using the moment and watched Mr. Heels, or whoever that man wanted to be, and carefully scanned his appearance. Now, as she had a chance to look closer at him, she verified her thoughts: it was the boy who Annabel met the last night, who spoke about leaving The Garden (and drove her mad by doing so, actually), but now he was perfectly disguised under the white beard, white old man’s hair, and nice expensive outfit. Annabel’s killing glance that she held on him was borne stolidly. Moreover, Mr. Heels hadn’t said a word yet, though the night before he was quite talkative. This annoyed Annabel even more than his stupid masquerade.
“So,” she said all of a sudden, trying to sound lightly, “Mr. Heels, is it?” The boy looked away from her and then turned toward the path to the village that lied behind him. “What was it you told Mr. Morr that he got so… surprised? If it isn’t a secret, of course.”
“It’s not.” The boy’s voice now was normal again, young and velvet, as it had to be, given that he wasn’t above seventeen, in fact. “I said that I am lord Finniwall’s trusted butler, and I am responsible for choosing a new maiden for his great mansion.”
“Is lord Finniwall even a real person?”
“No. But for your ex-master it was enough to hear that Finniwall’s one of the most important men in Nelmarion, and one of the richest as well, to lose all his consciousness.” The boy threw a glance at Annabel and smiled. “He is much of a doofus, that Mr. Morr. Has he always been like that?”
Annabel shrugged. “Not that slaves have a chance to think or talk much about it. But I guess, yes, he has. In his own sort of way.”
Green eyes gleamed from under boy’s natty white brows.
“Martin, can we move a bit faster?” he asked the coachman, turning his head again.
“Almost there, man. Horses were working all night, they’re exhausted.”
The boy didn’t seem to be pleased with that answer. He shifted uneasily in his seat, still looking around.
“Are you in a hurry?” Annabel raised an eyebrow. Is it just me, or this fellow is worrying about something?
“We both are, actually. But no more questions, I’ll tell you everything in a few minutes.”
“Why not now?”
“I said, no more questions.”
They rattled onto the main street where the boy started rising from his place and turning around like some kind of a paranoiac. His face now wasn’t that light and confident, rather deeply concerned and anxious.
“What are you looking for?” Annabel asked him at last. Or who? He didn’t hear her, or just decided to ignore, which was very possible, too.
“Wait here, Martin. Let us out, but don’t stop moving.” As the coachman paused the horses shortly, Mr. Heels handed him a tiny bag full of clanging coins (as Annabel could guess by the sound), then grabbed Annabel’s hand and pulled her out of the landau. “Thank you for your help, Martin. Go on, you haven’t seen us!” Annabel didn’t have an opportunity to watch the coachman leave, because the boy pushed a door near them open and immediately tucked Annabel inside a dark long hallway – all in a couple of quick seconds.
“Hey, careful!” she cried as she almost fell on a small chest of drawers set along the wall.
“Hushh!” he hissed at her in his turn, looking through a thin curtain that covered a window next to the door. Annabel had an urge to answer him in a very rude way, but she froze as some impressively big and angry men ran past the window in the opposite direction from where Annabel and the boy had arrived, followed by the boy’s concentrated look. When they disappeared from view, he seemed to relax and exhaled. As he had to turn to Annabel again, he flinched and made a step back. She wasn’t looking quite friendly at the moment.
“Right. Now we can talk.”
The boy strode to the mirror and started to remove his disguise, but even if it was a fast thing to do, it didn’t seem pleasant. The beard, moustache and brows were glued to the boy’s skin with an unknown substance that had definitely been of a very high quality and wasn’t going to leave the boy be just so simply.
“Unfortunately, he haven’t got much time. I’ll just tell you all you need to know and let you make decisions, alright?” he said, but before Annabel had an air to answer, the boy continued, “Annabel, isn’t it? My name is Chase, and you should call me that, no other options available. What I’ve done is, I’ve freed you from slavery in The Garden, but not by buying you, don’t worry about that if you were going to. I promised Alferdo Morr that my important master, who has never even existed, will pay him out just as soon as we get to the mansion and he approves of the new maiden. He believed me and let you go. Now, as far as Morr hasn’t found everything out and hasn’t yet sent his men to catch us, you may leave your past life behind you and start a new one, if you want. If you don’t, come back to that gruesome slave driver and let him make a new hallway rug from your skin.”
Annabel blinked in confusion. Chase… Now she knew his name and what exactly he did today when he came to The Garden wearing that weird outfit. But the question why suddenly conquered Annabel’s mind. Why did he do that, well aware of dangers awaiting for him, putting their lives at risk and caring not about the stakes? There were two reasons, at least the most possible ones: first, he could be a crazy man, unstoppable in his extreme actions; second, he could be a genius who is afraid of nothing because he’s clever enough to avoid troubles. Annabel hoped it was the last variant.
“Why are you doing this?” She made an uncertain gesture at the wig and the suffered beard that now lied on the small table next to the mirror. The boy, or Chase, for that matter, was pulling another layer of something that had made him look old off his hands and face. Under that something was normal ********** hands and long slim fingers.
“Because I need you,” he answered.
Oh, very well, now that’s interesting. Annabel’s eyebrows jumped in surprise. The boy saw her reflection and only rolled his eyes. “For my own purposes, of course, but I generously offer you freedom, job, money and food instead of being somebody’s temporary toy.”
“I’m nobody’s toy,” Annabel said sharply, besting the urge to punch the self-confident cad.
“Ah,” the boy waved his hand dismissively, “let’s be honest with ourselves.”
Annabel wanted to change the subject. That boy had no idea of what it meant to be a slave, but he definitely was going to sound like he knew everything about it.
“Who are you, anyway?” she asked.
“A street magic performer.”
“A fraudster, you mean?”
“No, my magic is totally true. And I have too many things to think about while performing, so I urgently need an assistant. For my professionalism, rich experiment and intelligence let me decide on my own, I choose you,” and with that Chase pointed his finger at Annabel.
“Me? Why, may I ask?”
“I saw you stealing that fake emerald charm.” Annabel’s eyes widened. She frowned and opened her mouth to speak, but the boy was faster. “Yeah, I know it was fake, don’t ask me how, it doesn’t matter at all. The point is, I need someone crafty, clever and patient enough, someone who’ll obey my orders accurately and will be fair with me. I’m sure you match the job perfectly.” At that moment male voices started shouting outside, very close to the hallway window, even somewhat too close. Chase glanced at it nervously. “I will explain nothing more, because I’m run out of time. If you want to join me, have a work to do and be able to leave whenever you feels it’s high time – we leave this village today, and if you don’t – good luck, just don’t waste my time.”
Annabel stood there, in the middle of the corridor she’d never seen before, her hands crossed on her chest, eyebrows frowned, and thoughts absolutely messy. She wasn’t sure if that boy was earnest, she couldn’t know if he’d give her over back to Morr or not, and of course she didn’t know if he would be nice with her and not as callous as Morr himself. Those green eyes shone with confidence when he spoke about all the benefits of joining him and running away from the village, his voice sounded like he had known something that Annabel hadn’t. She thought of her parents who she hoped still waited for her to come back home. Maybe that was her chance, and there’ll never be another one? What if Chase wasn’t bad, in fact? After all, didn’t he just say that she’ll be able to go at any moment?
She didn’t notice that Chase kept being busy changing his outfit, hiding all signs of their presence, packing bags with food and supplies and glancing at the street from the windows all together. He was all a non-stop energy and always in motion.
“Why would I trust you? Why would I go with you?” Annabel said, her throat sore and dry. Heaven, she was nervous. She had to decide her future, but it had long ago stopped being her habit after years of slavery and hopeless despair.
“You have as many reasons to trust me as I have to trust you. But I don’t ask you to go with me, I just give you an opportunity to choose. Travel wherever you want, come back to The Garden, or come with me and have work, money, and protection. Or go and drown yourself in a river for all I care. The only thing I’m asking from you is to choose a little faster. Please.”
They ran up north-east through the wheat field that covered the land between the village and the southern edge of High Wood. Nobody was following them, but they were moving fast – in case somebody got interested in two teenagers who’d chosen to damage public property instead of using the regular path that was much longer. On his long slim limbs Chase was faster than Annabel, even though he carried a huge rucksack filled to the edges with something that looked heavy. He was energized and psyched up, but he hadn’t even mentioned the reason that was making him so confident. Annabel’s questions were answered shortly or weren’t answered at all. From all she could make out she understood that their final destination, if nothing would change, was a town nearby Brook. On the way there they were going to visit a few cities and perform in the streets.
“What is in that town?” she asked, but Chase only smiled to her over his shoulder.
“You’ll see. I can’t tell you now.”
He’s so secret. Not the best man to trust, isn’t it, Annabel? And yet, here we are.
Annabel still wasn’t sure if she’d made a right decision. She thought that Chase might be her chance to get to her home and find her family, to earn some coins and live as a free human being, not depending on somebody’s wishes or personal needs. In case the boy wasn’t what he appeared to be, Annabel considered it possible to run from him. She had no idea about how she could do that, but she hoped to use the element of surprise.
They didn’t stop to rest until dawn, and at the end of the day Annabel’s legs felt so sore that she thought she would just fall next to that old tree trunk and stay there for the whole night. Thanks to Heaven and all gods, there was a town higher up their path where Chase said they will stay for a few days. He said also that it would be safe for them if they worked quickly and remembered to be attentive. Annabel watched him talk to a tavern keeper who found them two separate rooms (that turned out to be fairly problematic) and promised breakfasts, dinners and suppers for extra payment. The town was small, but looked busy even when the night fell upon it. People were carrying something around, walking, talking, and nobody paid much attention to some stranger travellers. In Renezar, there lived pretty simple men, and in her thoughts Annabel was grateful for that. Otherwise, they would have been in much bigger troubles.
“Sleep well tonight,” said Chase when they got free and headed to the staircase His backpacks were given to a houseboy. “Tomorrow you start learning. I will go out to buy some stuff.”
“Wait, wait,” Annabel frowned and turned to him, “learning? Learning what?”
“Magic.” Chase winked at her and strode to the exit, hurriedly adding over his shoulder, “Don’t stay too late, Annabel.”
Because of all events that had happened in the last few hours, and because of the big amount of running and jogging, Annabel literally didn’t have any energy to stay late that night. She slept soundly until Chase woke her up in the early morning. They had a humble breakfast down in the tavern, then Chase took Annabel to the nearest shop and said to buy some new clothes. “In our kind of job,” he explained, ” it is essential to look attractively, so people would trust us from the first look.”
“And I’m not attractive enough, right?”
Chase coughed as if suddenly embarrassed by the insult, but he was quick enough to find an answer. “You are, but your clothes is a bit… well, worn out. Ah, stop looking at me like that! There’s a mirror if you don’t believe me.”
The fact was, Annabel’s clothes really was outworn, dirty, and needed to be changed, a pretty long time ago. She couldn’t deny it, even more than that, she wanted to get something new and fresh. Chase advised her to choose unflashy things, so people wouldn’t just turn away from them without even a smallest interest in their performance. He didn’t watch her spend his money, though, but waited for her in the little park nearby. Annabel had long ago forgotten what it meant to be on her own, make decisions like that and enjoy how she looked like. In The Garden, only the watchers and Mr. Morr had an opportunity to care about themselves, while some of the slaves wouldn’t have a shower for weeks. In the shop, Annabel picked a few good garment elements that were comfortable and looked nice to her. In the park, Chase had seated himself on a bench and was writing something on a small sheet of paper when Annabel found him.
“That’s better. You look great.” he said as she approached. “We are going to have a walk.”
The town was pretty. Not rich, but people who inhabited it looked quite happy and satisfied with what they had. Streets, alleys, flowerbeds, houses – all was modest, definitely old, but clean and well-maintained. Homely, Annabel would say, for the entire town made her think about her parents and their tiny house near the meadow, full of light and comfort.
“We’ll perform there,” Chase paused and pointed his finger at the cobblestone territory that looked like main town square, but just as small as everything in the entire town.
“Tomorrow. Today is all about watching.”
Annabel stopped shortly “Watching?” Chase turned to her and bitted his lower lip. “I thought I am to learn how to perform street magic.”
“You are learning right now. You see, the very first tip you need to know before you show people some magic tricks, you have to know the people. Your audience is everywhere around you, so watch it, explore it, feel it. You will know what exactly to show if you are observant enough, and you’ll be able to hook the audience. Usually magicians like me spend weeks or even months on this, but you have only one day, so try to be watchful and don’t waste our time.”
Annabel snorted and shook her head in exasperation. They continued walking past the square, but now she was much more attentive.
“It’s some kind of your motto, isn’t it?” she asked without looking at Chase, keeping her eyes at an old woman who was carrying two baskets with potatoes.
“What exactly do you mean? I have lots of mottos.”
“‘Don’t waste our time’. It’s your favorite.”
“Well,” Chase shrugged and looked around him, “I must admit that it is. It’s more about not wasting my time, but since we work as a team…”
They spent the entire day walking and looking around, returning to the tavern for dinner, and though Annabel saw a lot of people during those hours, she wasn’t sure if she comprehended the audience. Chase seemed to be experienced, while she didn’t know how to connect everything she was seeing and noticing. Lots of personalities, even more possible ways to impress them, given that Chase had a huge collection of tricks just as he claimed he did. If that was true, of course.
“Tell me what you’ve got. I’ll correct you if needed,” he said to her as they returned to their tavern in the late evening.
“Not that I’ve got a lot,” Annabel mumbled and fell on the first chair that caught her eye, feeling her arms and legs melt and flow down onto the floor. With a loud sigh, she got herself together and started speaking. “Well, in this town people are… they… they live a quiet life, do simple things and seem to be fine with what they have. I’m not sure, but… I think it’ll be enough to show them a couple of basic tricks with coins or flowers or something to impress them. They hardly have seen any magic at all and possibly don’t even believe in it.”
Chase was listening to her while scrupulously wiping the dirt off his dark red coat. When Annabel finished, he sat back in his chair and took out a small notebook covered in dark leather.
“So, am I right?” Annabel asked, watching him turn the pages. Chase looked up at the ceiling and hummed thoughtfully, narrowing his eyes.
“Mmm… Honestly? No.”
Annabel closed her eyes and felt that almighty ‘I-don’t-care‘ state suddenly overwhelm her. “Just what I was hoping for.”
“Actually, you got the first part right, but failed the conclusion. And missed the details.”
A waitress came closer and offered them tea. While nobody was listening, Chase bent forward and rested his elbows on the table, preparing to give Annabel a lecture.
“People in this town do leave a simple life, quiet and modest, but there’s even more than that,” he said in a teaching tone, “they aren’t just alright with what they have, they are conservative and homestuck. Did you see all those facilities they’ve provided for themselves? Cafés, taverns, shops of different kinds, school, even a sort of hospital and alchemist’s shop down the main street. All that is here because these people don’t want to leave their comfort zone, and I could even bet my left hand on that most of them have never been outside the town’s borders and haven’t heard of many things people usually hear of. Unless their alchemist used to expatiate about faraway lands’ mysteries and wonders while selling people herbs and teas, of course, but that’s hardly possible. That’s why the best performance for them is exotics.”
Annabel’s eyebrows jumped in surprise. “Like Karyllian snake dancers? Don’t tell me you have one in your backpack.”
“No, more like esoteric shaman magic that you’ve been taught by an ancient wild tribe of the Mistwood island… after you got lost in the ocean, fought with tigers for dear life, ate poisonous fruit, almost died and… I don’t know, something else, probably, you get it. Make a legend for people to believe in – they’ve never had a chance to check if you say the truth, after all. Then show them some tricks to impress, invite into a shaman ritual to scare, pretend to be talking with spirits of a wild island, hypnotize a man to make it look like he sees the spirits, too, to persuade, and your mission is completed. Take the money, grab the stuff and leave without looking back.”
“Let me guess,” Annabel mumbled, sipping fresh hot tea, her eyes closed, “all that is our performance plan for tomorrow?”
“Well, in fact, it is.”
“Were you serious about hypnotizing a man?”
“Hmm. You know, you begin to scare me.”