Rob’s eyes blearily fluttered open, the sun’s rays dancing across his eyes. He lifted his hand to block the light, but instead fell off his bed loudly, groaning.
His back issued a sharp crack, like the retort of a gun or the sound of a thief’s fingers being broken.
That wasn’t good.
To continue to earn enough money for his lodgings, he needed to be in top shape. Housing wasn’t free, and life was still hard even though he had left the slums.
As he did every day, Rob stood up and began to stretch. First the ankles, which were important for speed, if he got caught. Best to be on the safe side, even though he had almost never been apprehended. The public wasn’t kind to its shadier residents.
Rob worked his way up to his fingers, cracking his knuckles loudly and spending a good chunk of time on the nine digits. They clenched and unclenched like trapeze artists, moving out of sync with each other as if they had a mind of their own.
At the five-minute mark, though, his fingers were satisfied, and he looked down at them with a smile. That turned to a frown as his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten yet, growling loudly in protest.
Time for his fingers to do their job and feed them. He got up and walked out, the door closing behind him with a loud click.
He began walking.
- - -
The pavement in the square was pristine, each cobblestone shining under the midmorning sun. Rob felt a twisted sense of joy in trampling all over them with his dirty commoner’s boots.
Bustling streets in the square were filled with all of the races from their kingdoms; elves, dwarves, and gnomes were represented, but the majority of those present were the humans that dominated this world. He himself was a dwarf, but a tall one not given much notice.
Around him, the elite humans, elves and dwarves with money to spare were trailed by invisible servants that watched them exchange gold and pleasantries. These were those that lived in or near the palace, wealthy and smug.
Rob got a few odd looks as he walked around, looking at the market stalls. The closer one got to the palace in the center of the city, the richer the citizens were. Here, near the very center, only the richest could afford to purchase from the sellers - and he didn’t have the air of someone so prosperous. The items on display were solely available to haughty merchants or spoilt heirs, pockets full to the bursting. These two types made up the bulk of those present, as the lower classes wouldn’t be able to pay for a single fruit.
He was here to help them with their financial problem. With him around, their bags and pockets wouldn’t be too much of a problem. Even though most people gave the ultra-rich a wide berth, he was more than willing to assist them.
But the nobles and rich men and women who walked around wouldn’t solve his immediate problem. Plus, word spread fast among them and he couldn’t reveal himself too often.
People of the upper middle class were more viable targets. Policemen wouldn’t bother helping those above a certain income, and there wasn’t much they could do anyway. The reason the police were here was solely to deter weaker-minded criminals and keep the order, not to watch people.
The middling classes it was. Even the king throwing money into the police force couldn’t stop a master like him. Anyway, the police were usually made up of those that needed some quick money or were owed a favor by a family with connections.
Meaning, they were incompetent.
Such was life in the city with a greedy king who stared at his treasures while good people suffered and fell to crime and starvation. It was a good thing Rob had managed to escape when he had.
The thief had come from humble origins, and he was determined not to return to them.
His stomach grumbled loudly once more. Business hadn’t been going well, and he was barely getting enough to cover the rent for his tiny one-room apartment.
Old Tom was on duty today, and that meant that he wouldn’t have to be hungry for much longer. The man spent a good more time than he was supposed to drinking spirits or chatting with some of the passersby to pass time. Guards wanted action, and without it they sagged.
Action never came, though, and so the simple policemen usually just indulged themselves with food. Tom was no exception.
Luckily, Tom was blankly reading a newspaper now, utterly absorbed.
Rob pushed his way through the crowd. His trench coat had the characteristic bulge of the apple that he always carried around with him, and if he was lucky then there would even be a sandwich stuffed in there as well.
Nearly there now. Rob straightened up and drew his trench coat around him as he pulled down the hood. He was proud to own at least something of good quality, and this trench coat it was - it was necessary for his disguise. Tom must have noticed his presence as he approached, because he looked up with a question in his eyes.
“Can I help-“ was all he could make out before Rob bumped into him. That was nothing unusual – many of the higher class would act as if those below them were non-existent, knocking them over without reason.
But he did have a reason for doing this. As he pretended to trip over the man’s boot, Rob stumbled and fell on the policemen clumsily. His hands reached out in front of him as if to arrest his fall, and he ‘accidentally’ scratched his nails down the left side of the man’s face. Meanwhile, his other hand delved into the open trench coat pocket and quickly pulled out the round object from inside there, stuffing it into his coat pocket.
Rob quickly righted himself, and spluttered, waving his claw-hand at the policemen.
“Watch it or I’ll have you reported!”
The guard spluttered, and then looked down. That was all the poorer did, look down and away and act as if they were subservient, when it was they that should have been higher, having to fight to survive each day instead of being handed things on a silver platter.
The pickpocket thought over this as he walked away briskly before the policemen could notice the theft, grinning to himself and rubbing his thumb over the round object in his pocket.
Score. All he had to do now was find something to sell on the black market, and his work would be done for the day.
But first things first. Rob retreated to an alleyway, far from the square, and sat himself down on top of an empty dumpster. His only company were street rats, skittering about below him, and all was silent except for occasional arguments coming from the cardboard-thin walls nearby.
A smile broke his tanned, scarred face as he felt the apple, still keeping it in his pocket. It was hard, and that meant it would be crisp. He couldn’t wait.
The first sign that something was wrong was the smoothness of the apple. It was rounded everywhere, like a sphere. No stem poked out, nor any divot that signified it was natural.
Perhaps it was one of those rare imported fruits from the southwest, round orange things recently discovered by their explorers. If so, he was really in for a treat.
Rob took it out of his pocket to see if he was correct.
And found out he wasn’t. This wasn’t one of those rare exotic fruits, but an outdated scientific toy.
If he wasn’t mistaken, then it was one of those simple things from his youth. They had been popular back then and in his father’s day.
A magic eight ball.
Hmmph. That was a real shame. There were so many of these things it was unlikely he would even be able to find a buyer. This had been a complete waste of time.
The ball was smooth, with a black finish and only a small viewing corner in the top where some stupid phrase would come out if you shook it. Rob couldn’t believe that people ever thought these things were interesting, with their mere twenty answers. There were much better things to spend your money on.
But then again, the rich of this city had more than enough money, and nothing to spend it on. The economic gap was enormous, and it made sense they would buy everything new that came to market, if only for momentary amusement. When they grew bored, the scraps filtered down to the poor, and now, these things were everywhere.
Rob had half a mind to just dump the toy into the dumpster that he was sitting on and go find someone else to pickpocket. He was getting hungrier by the minute, and unlike the rich, money just didn’t fall into his pocket. No one would stoop so low as to place it there. Earning it was the only method available.
Maybe he would try to take something from one of the nobles this time. Although the master cutpurse was good – he had only been caught once, costing him his finger – that was because he was fairly cautious as well. Only when he was desperate would he assault one of the highest classes, and usually just stuck with the policemen or merchants that were just the right level for him.
It wouldn’t have been too hard to take from the nobles – he had challenged himself to do so a few times – and the rewards were good. But he didn’t need what they had as much, and it was riskier going for them. One couldn’t eat gold, and questions usually came up when trying to buy with it. The type of questions that he didn’t want.
Rob was about to just throw the ball over his shoulder when the ball flashed and lit up. He must have shook without realizing.
His eyes glanced downwards towards the device, and read: ‘Concentrate and ask again.’
What was he supposed to expect? This thing was nothing more than a time-waster.
Before he threw it away, though, Rob wanted to have some fun. On a whim, he looked down at the ball and asked under his breath, “Do you work?”
No matter the response, it was sure to be funny. The reply did come, and he cracked a smile.
‘Yes, I’m sure of it.’
He’d probably take it home after all.
Below him, the ball rattled and then settled on a reply, unbidden.
‘You should, Rob.’
How did it know his name? Was he hallucinating or something? It was possible, but he didn’t remember taking in anything that could cause that. Could this be a dream, then?
A pinch proved that to be untrue. But there was no way that ‘Yes I am, Rob’ was one of the default responses on the sphere.
Again, the ball spun, jiggling and buzzing. And again, he hadn’t activated it. This thing was probably just defective or something, and would show some scrambled phrase.
But it wasn’t a phrase that showed up on the blue display. It was an image.
An image that he had forgotten, that he had buried under the weight of years, and dragged it into an early grave. It was an image of the slums, of the way that people lived there and died there. On the tiny screen, he saw a snapshot of life from the poorest of the slums, where people lived as little more than animals.
A small child was huddled on the display, which was crisper than he had ever seen it before. The little boy was clutching at his stomach and emaciated, bones visible out of his small frame. He couldn’t be much older than five or six years old, but seemed like the victim of a war.
For a second, Rob thought that the image was of him. He had experienced similar conditions before he had managed to rob the Prince and escape the hovels. If not for that, he would now be some cold, haunted version of that same child below.
But this boy was different. He had lower-set eyes, ten fingers, and curly hair. That wasn’t him, but it was still a glimpse of life in the poorer areas.
These memories rose unbidden, and he nearly retched. Rob had wanted to put his past behind him, forget about what he had left so that he could focus on his own personal gain. But this image of such a vulnerable child brought it all back.
“Why are you showing me this?” he asked hoarsely. “What am I supposed to do? Give children better lives?”
‘Without a doubt’. Another one of those twenty default responses. Was this his imagination?
But no. Below him, the poor child still flickered, an expression on his face that was far beyond his years.
- - -
It had been a long time since Rob had last been here, and the acrid stench and oppressive air hit him as soon as he crossed the border to the shantytown. A few armed militia men patrolled the dividing line, but they didn’t give him more than a few laughs for his stupidity.
He breathed a sigh of relief, adjusting the large duffle bag on his back. No one in their right mind would go into the slums, and their only job was preventing people from going out. They couldn’t care less about the safety of the people inside, only on the well-being of those outside.
Rob chuckled bitterly, entering the dark maze. His hands were stuffed in his deep pockets, one of them holding the magic eight ball, and the bag was weighing down on him. Both physically and emotionally.
If Grandma Gertrude were still alive, then the orphanage would be running too. Bless the soul of that woman, for trying to put in a drop of joy in an ocean of despair. Because of the conditions here, many people had succumbed to evil, death, or disease, and that left plenty of orphans running around.
Grandma took care of every last one of them. She had taken care of him too, doing the best she could and going hungry to provide for the dozen children under her care.
But food had been growing scarcer, and Rob had fled, leaving her and the others to the slums. Looking back now, after so many years, he was disgusted.
Maybe he shouldn’t have come here. It was growing harder and harder to move every step he took towards the orphanage, guilt and shame weighing down on him even more than the things he had brought in his pockets and bag.
Three men stepped out of the shadowy street behind him, their patter giving them away to Rob’s trained senses. He whirled around and saw blood-encrusted knives clutched in each of their hands.
“Give us all ya got,” said what looked to be their leader, picking his teeth with his knife. “That bag of yours gotta have some goodies.”
No. These things were special.
Rob had no choice anymore. He bolted towards the orphanage, trying to lose his pursuers and prayed Granny was still there.
- - -
She was. The old woman looked older than ever, haggard with white hair. But she still took good care of her kids, which were running around in the large room behind her, a few nervously clutching to her legs and looking at him.
“Who’re you?” she asked hoarsely. “We don’t have nothing. Don’t bother attacking us.”
Had things really been this bad? Rob looked down. The shame was growing heavier and heavier.
“It’s me, Granny.”
“Say again? I’m hard of hearing.”
“Granny. It’s me. Rob.”
That woman’s heart was golden. She didn’t turn him away, but neither was she happy. “Come to visit, have you? Gotten rich enough in town?”
“Forgive me. I’ve come to make amends.”
Grandma hmphed, and brought him to the living room. He dumped down his duffle bag, and a few kids came closer, looking at it with interest.
“I’ve come to make amends,” repeated Rob softly, pulling down his hood. He unzipped the bag and out flowed food.
Vegetables, bread, fruit, and even meat, it was all there. Their scent diffused in the air, all of the best quality. Everything he had saved up and even some more that he had stolen that day had gone into buying this from his underground connections. They had been surprised.
Just like the kids around him. As soon as they saw it, everyone cheered, running towards the food and greedily picking up pieces to stuff in their emaciated frames. Their shouts rang through the air, and little feet pattered down the hard wood as the orphans thrust themselves on the food he had brought, shrieking with joy.
Granny also turned around to take some, shouting a few orders at the children in a good-natured tone. Rob grinned and turned around, confident that he had done the right thing. He lifted his hood back up and began to walk back out, putting his hand in his pocket as if to thank the magic eight ball.
It wasn’t there any more. But he didn’t mind.
Perhaps it would cause some other good deed in this broken world.
Something tugged at the lapels of his cheap coat, and he looked down. A thin boy – the one shown to him by the ball – was pulling at it, his wide eyes looking up into Rob’s own.
“Thanks!” squeaked the boy happily. “Thanks, Robbie…,” he looked at what article of clothing he was holding, “Robbie… Hood.”
The young man smiled, patted the boy, and then left towards the square.
He was hungry, after all.