The sound of his name disturbed the peace of the upper floor. He turned back to see Valerie emerge from the stairs. Giving a small smile and returning the greeting, he was surprised when she sat next to his spot, where he was gazing out the front windows into their forlorn neighbourhood.
They'd been a year at the poor section of Quenera, and the wizards were either unaware of, or chose to ignore their existence. It helped that their house was abandoned when they moved into it, and since it was in the poor section, no one who was anyone strolled by that area. Edmund had also taken great care to be inconspicuous in his thieving; nothing had ever been traced back to him.
Valerie was silent for a moment. Then she spoke up, "Take me with you tomorrow, Edmund."
He frowned at the insistence in her voice. "Where to, Valerie?"
"To get our food, of course." Was the matter-of-fact answer. Edmund didn't really like where the conversation was going.
"Valerie, it's late. You should be in bed-"
"I need to help, Edmund. I- I know you don't want us to end up the same way, but it's the only choice, isn't it?"
Thunderstruck, Edmund looked at her. Valerie's eyes glittered with determination and pleading. Surely not. Surely she couldn't... know.
Swallowing hard but determining not to falter like the last time, she plod on, "I- I know you've been stealing, Edmund. I'm not stupid. I used to hear you praying for forgiveness every night during the first month. But you saved us, Edmund. We - I - would have died if it were not for you. And I know I can learn. I promise I will do exactly as you say, Edmund. I just need to- I can't- can't stay here forever. I-" Valerie bit her lower lip, then confessed her greatest fear, "What if you don't come back, like Papa?"
"Oh, Valerie..." Edmund's voice was weary as he looked away while answering her. "I will always come back. But how can I teach you to be thieves when I hate myself for it every day? When I think of how disappointed my father probably is at his only son stealing for a living... To compound that evil by betraying the trust of every Vanquine parent who entrusted their children to me..."
Leaning forward, Valerie replied earnestly, "But that wasn't your fault, Edmund! We thought Quenera would help us. But they didn't. And we need to eat. We're just children." Bitterly, she continued in a voice uncharacteristically filled with hatred, "They deserve it."
"Well they do!" The words were now tumbling over each other as Valerie struggled to speak with the dark emotions roiling inside her. "They said they'd help! You said so yourself, and you don't lie, Edmund. How can they just say we can't come after they said such a thing? Why didn't they help save Vanquine if they're so powerful? It's not fair!"
Edmund had to hush Valerie before her voice awakened the rest. Blushing at her outburst, she quietened down for a moment, then looking at Edmund again, just said, "Please?"
He sighed heavily at the dilemma before him. It went against his every moral belief to expose the children to his lifestyle. And yet...
What else could they do? He was just the apprentice of a blacksmith - Valerie's father - in the last known smithy this side of the Quenera bridge, since neither Rivermore nor Quenera had blacksmiths (let alone Python Village). The other children were at an age where they play, not learn trade skills, when the war happened. What could he possibly teach them so they can survive when they grow up? It's not as if there was a school he could enrol them in eventually... All the youngsters could do was learn their letters from the elders.
What would Igor say if he was here? To see the depths we've had to sink?
Edmund hadn't even realised that he'd spoken aloud until he felt Valerie's hand on his shoulder. "Papa would understand, Edmund. I'm sure of it."
"But he won't be proud of it. Vanquine was a proud and historical city, and in one day, it was gone." More silence, as they both mourned the lost of their heritage. Then Edmund said, "Get some sleep, Valerie. I will think on it."
She nodded, then tentatively asked, "And tomorrow?"
"No. If I decide to take you out - if, mind you - I'll have to train you here beforehand. No sense throwing you into the deep end of the lake if you aren't prepared. Now to bed, Valerie."
Reluctantly she rose and headed back downstairs with a "Goodnight, Edmund", knowing that pressing further won't gain her any ground. Edmund watched her go, but he did not follow for a long time. Lying down on the floor with the window view still in sight, he closed his eyes.
Valerie... Every day he returned, she was always at the door, pleased that he's back, eager to hear his adventures, and - Lord help him - that was probably the highlight of her every day. Except for himself, all the children were shut in, to help keep Quenera's wizards from realising that the orphans did not just wandered off and died in Haven Hills or even Brackenfell. Except for keeping each other alive, they had no reason to look forward to tomorrow.
Maybe he didn't have to do everything alone anymore. Valerie would be happy to learn to assist him, as she'd wanted to.
A guild of thieves. Edmund mulled over the idea. While torn about subjecting his charges to the same life he was forced into for their sakes, it could give them purpose when they grew up. And to counter the wizards' guild who shunned and disregarded them when they'd first arrived... Perhaps this is our only way forward. But no disgrace shall be allowed to fall on Vanquine.
Vanquine is now in the past. As is Edmund Harrington. Henceforth, I shall only be known as... Fox.
- Finis -