Chapter Three: Thick of It
"So, when's our next job?"
Kirine and Slade were lounging about in his mansion. It was a chilly February morning and they were bored. Kirine had taken up residence in the house just after Christmas.
Slade yawned. "In a couple weeks we're robbing Sheex's palace. Should be interesting."
"I hope so. Say, you want to take a little walk. Do us good."
"In the snow?"
"Of course. Eryn Dior is prettiest in the winter. What's the matter? Afraid of a little cold?" She leaned forward and gave him a little kiss. "You shouldn't be, not with the way we keep warm."
"So right. Let's go, shall we? More fun keeping warm where it's cold."
Kirine smiled. "I thought you'd come around."
They walked through the gently falling snow at a relaxed pace. Kirine was right -- Eryn Dior was prettiest in the winter. The glittering green city was blanketed in pearly white, the tall black streetlamps lighting up the still-dark morning. The shop windows were beginning to light up as they opened for business. The quietly happy couple decided to stop at a small cafe for breakfast. Afterwards they headed out again.
They sat down on a bench by the skating pond and watched people whirl by. After a while, Slade turned to Kirine. "Kirine, have I told you that I love you?"
She took a deep breath. "No. No, you haven't."
"Well, I do. You don't have answer right away."
"Yes, I do, because I love you too."
"I can't tell you how happy that makes me."
Kirine grinned at him. "Why don't you take me home and show me, then?"
"Vulgar this morning, aren't we?"
"What can I say? You have that effect on me." She leaned forward and kissed him. They made it home in record time.
"So what is it we're stealing again?" Kirine posed this question to Slade as they crept through the darkened halls of Sheex's mansion. It was a little after midnight.
"I told you, one of the Mana Weapons, a javelin. I heard the keeper of the Water Palace is willing to pay a hefty reward for its recovery."
"I don't know. A whole heck of lot, though."
"Good. Maybe with all that cash we can finally get out of the Empire."
"I sure hope so."
"Stop where you are!"
The two thieves whirled to see a pair of Imperial soldiers pointing crossbows at them. They raised their hands reluctantly and let them lead them to an interrogation room.
"What's this?" another soldier asked as they walked in.
"Caught a couple of burglars, Commander. What should we do with them?"
"We'll decide that when we figure out who they are."
"They'll never tell us," one soldier piped in.
The commander fixed him with a baleful glare. "I know THAT, you simp," he said witheringly, making his subordinate cower. "Now, does anybody know who they are?"
"I can tell you who they are." Everyone looked over to see Sheex enter from another door. He walked up to stand before the young couple. "This is Kirine Syrille and Slade Scorpio, a pair of prominent Imperial aristocrats." He sneered at them. "Not to mention traitors. Now, children, would you care to explain to me why you are robbing your own kind?"
Kirine looked confused. "Our own kind?" she repeated. "I don't remember becoming evil, heartless, and cruel. Do you, Slade?"
"Nope, can't say that I do," he replied.
Sheex's response to this insult was to slap Kirine. Furious, Slade struggled to break free, but was unable. Sheex smiled coldly at them.
"You'll pay for that," he told them in an icy whisper. "You will pay. But first there's something you must do for me."
"And that is?'
"Sneak into Mandala and steal Lorima's military secrets."
"We'll die before we do that!"
"That can be arranged." Sheex's smile widened. "In fact, that's exactly what will happen to you. But not until you've outlived your usefulness." The demonic lieutenant began to pace. "You see, I have had need for the longest time for someone of your skills to fetch that information. I've searched high and low for the perfect burglars, but to no avail. Then, tonight, lo and behold! You fall into my lap! A match made in heaven, wouldn't you say?"
"Or hell, whichever you prefer," Slade grumbled.
Sheex laughed. "Actually, considering where I come from, that's a more accurate observation."
I do NOT want to know, Kirine thought with a barely repressed shudder.
"So. In a few days time, you will leave for Mandala to steal their secrets. If you fail, you will die. If you succeed, you will be given another assignment and eventually die. Understood?" The pair just glared at him. "Good. I'll take that as understanding. Guards, escort them to their cells."
"On the double, Sir Sheex!" The soldiers shoved them along to the dungeons and locked them up.
Kirine slid over next to Slade. "You know we can't do this," she whispered.
"Of course I know that. But what I don't know is how we're going to get out of it."
"That's easy. Once they let us off on our own we make a break for it and head for parts unknown."
"No, that's not a good idea. We wouldn't have any money or anything."
"Again, easy," she hissed. "We'd find a way to double back home and get some cash."
"And they'd be waiting for us," Slade reminded her.
"Oh. Right. No good. Scrap that plan. Oh, what are we going to do?!"
"We'll just have to make it up as we go along. Hey, maybe we could steal some money in Mandala and then make a break for it."
Kirine considered this. "You know, that just might work. Let's try that. Once we get the info, we'll get some cash, or valuables, then get away."
"Uh-uh. We'll go for the money first, then head out."
"I say we do whichever makes sense when we get there."
"Okay, fine, whatever."
Over the next few days, they were forced to memorize the layout of Mandala and the building they would be breaking into. They were fed adequately, below well and above poorly. Their captor didn't want to spoil them, but neither did he want them underfed and lacking energy. Then the time came for them to leave.
"I wish you good luck," Sheex said as they were shoved into the hovercraft. "For my sake, you'd better have it. For yours too, I suppose, considering your lives depend upon it. Well, see you soon...I hope!" Again they just glared at him. Again he just laughed.
During the long trip, they went over their plans for escape over and over. They were determined not to let themselves be used by the Empire, and just as determined not to die. When all this was over, they swore, they would take all their money somehow, pack up some of their belongings if they could, and move somewhere far away from the Empire and Lorima. Where, they didn't know. Just somewhere far, far away.
Their best laid plans, however, went astray as soon as they arrived in Mandala and discovered that their every step was to be followed by Imperial soldiers in disguise. Their good moods from planning evaporated in the blink of an eye. Not even that.
"We've got to shake our tail," Slade hissed. "Otherwise, we'll never be free."
"I know that," Kirine whispered back. "Jeez, why does everyone seem to be into stating the obvious?!"
"How in the hell do you expect me to know?!" he snapped. Looking hurt, Kirine drew away. Folding her arms, she began to walk a little faster and got ahead of him. Slade hurried to catch up.
"Ah, Kirine, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I'm just on edge."
"We both are!" she retorted without even looking at him.
"You're right. Again, I'm sorry. There's just no excuse for taking out my frazzled nerves on you. I promise I'll try not to do it again. Forgive me?"
She paused. "I'll consider it."
"I SAID, I'll think about it."
This time he lost patience. He grabbed her arm. "Kirine, we don't have time for this," he said in a low voice. "The heist goes down tonight, and we can't be at each other's throats. I said I'm sorry, what more do you want?"
"Say you love me."
"I love you."
"Forgiven." She kissed him, and for just a moment they were a normal couple on the foggy streets of Mandala.
"Now, you two pickpockets know what to do, right?" one of the soldiers asked. Kirine took exception to this.
"Pickpockets?!" she exclaimed, incensed. "I'll have you know we are NOT pickpockets! We are grand, exalted thieves of the highest kind, and pickpockets are of the lowest! Unlike them, we-"
Slade clamped his hand over her mouth. Now was SO not the time for her to go into one of her little spiels. Let her go, and she'd rant for hours. They didn't have hours.
"Yes, yes, we know what to do," he replied, wincing as she tried to bite his hand. "Get in, get the info, get out. Nothing to it. Like washing your hair."
"Yes, well, see that you're careful nonetheless." With that, the soldiers walked off into the fog-shrouded night. Once they were gone, Slade released Kirine. She rounded on him with a look of indignation. "How dare you! Why didn't you let me-"
"Finish your long-winded tirade?" Slade interjected tiredly. "That would have taken till June, and we only have tonight." Kirine flushed.
"You, you-" she sputtered. "No time," he said roughly as he dragged her along. "Let's get it done and make tracks."
Sneaking through the cool, dark, silent hallways, they made their way to the information center. Using the info he'd gotten, Slade hacked his way into the top-secret files they wanted. Just as they were printing it out, the door opened and the room was filled with bright light.
"Well, well, what have we here? A pair of spies, methinks." They turned to see a tall woman with short blue hair, wearing a Lorima uniform, standing in the doorway, with three guards leveling lasers at them.
"Deja vu is what we have here," Kirine muttered. Slade stifled a laugh. Despite the direness of their situation, it was almost funny.
Smiling, the woman walked up and waggled her finger at them. "Naughty, naughty. Stealing Lorima's military secrets. Didn't your mothers teach right from wrong?" she asked in mock scolding. She laughed at the expressions of shock on their faces. "Don't look so surprised," she told them. "I have my own spies. Those two soldiers escorting you? They're on my payroll, of course. I was told you'd come here looking for the plans. How do you think you got in so easy?"
"We're doomed," Slade groaned. The woman grinned. "Actually, you're not."
"I was also told that you weren't even going to be paid for risking your necks like this, that you were being threatened with death. Well, I'm different. My name is Kia Jenob. I'm a general in the Lorima army, Mandala unit. And I have a proposition for you."
"What kind?" Kirine asked suspiciously.
"I'll pay you 35 mil if you go back to the Empire and steal their military secrets for us to use."
Kirine and Slade smiled. They didn't even have to think about it.