His paws were clean. The city guards searched Nadee and his whole back-alley residence three times over, but still found nothing. The men had no choice but to walk away from the young urchin, scowling over their shoulders as they sought out the next cur's place of squalor on their list.
The desert fennec waited patiently as the guards stormed off, the boy politely standing with his hands together in front of himself. It took just about every last shred of his force of will to keep from pouncing on the armored soldiers and gnawing on the backs of their necks over how they had trashed his place, tearing up every last cobblestone in search of the visiting dignitary's missing treasure. Of course the boy was the one who stole the heavy little chest, but it was hardly -his- fault the guards searching for it were too stupid to know where to look.
Night came over the desert land, the Sun's setting bringing with it the cold of the dark hours. Still there had been no sign of the looted chest. Only Nadee knew that it was no longer in the city. He had been quick to bury it far outside the city walls, its location past the winding maze of the Western Chasm where the desert proper opened up and civilization ended. Only he knew the wooden chest was precisely two feet down under the first patch of cactus on the left after leaving the high-walled labyrinth. And he wasn't talking. Not to the city guards. Not to the fat cat he had stolen it from. Not even to his young friends, the kids he shared the city streets with. This treasure, whatever was in the chest he had pilfered, was all his.
Nadee had known nothing but Cabrang's streets since he was just a little pup. He knew the ins and outs of the city better than just about anyone, save for old Tabor, who had had a paw in raising the fennec from childhood to his early teen years. Now, he thought to himself as he finished straightening out his ramshackle home and settled down on his rug for the night, might just be the break he had been waiting his whole life for. If the contents of the mystery chest held something as valuable as the frustrated guards gave clue to, then he might just be able to afford a better life for himself. Maybe...
It was with happy thoughts of reliable food and a real roof over his head, not just random fabrics hung in billowing sheets between two buildings, that Nadee took with him as he drifted into sleep that night. His last conscious thought before falling into dreams was on just where he had buried what might be his best loot yet.
Early morning brought with it another search of Nadee's home. The armored city guards didn't even bother to wake the sleeping boy before they started once again rifling through his few possessions, turning over every clay pot and checking under every scrap of rug he had gathered to cover the bare yellow stone of the ground.
'It's a good thing I didn't go out to get it last night,' the thirteen year old boy thought to himself as the adults showed less manners with his belongings than spoiled children. As he was forcibly rolled off his bed so the guards could peek underneath, Nadee croaked in a tired sounding growl "Is this the kind of respect the Empire shows to its citizens? Haven't you seen enough yesterday to know that I'm not hiding anything?"
One of the men scoffed openly, pointing to the little loincloth Nadee had worn overnight. "He's right guys. The wretch doesn't even have the clothes to have a pocket to hide something stolen in! He can barely even hide his own-"
Raucous laughter from all three of the blue-clad soldiers cut off what the one had been trying to say. Once again leaving his place as if a twister had passed through, the guards roared with barking mirth as they turned their backs on the furious and red-faced fennec.
Nadee picked himself off the ground slowly, his teeth set firmly together in his jaws. He would get his revenge someday. He would.
There was nothing more that the mostly-naked boy wanted than to run to his stash and dig it out of the sand. He wanted to take whatever treasure was inside the chest out of its hiding place and sell it to some fencing merchant in the city for whatever he could get. He wanted to have the money, something so rare to him, physically in his paws. It was so vivid in his imagination he could almost see, almost -feel- the twenty, maybe thirty gold coins rocking around over his black paw pads. That kind of coin wouldn't be enough for him to move out of his backstreet alley, but it would certainly keep the twig-thin boy and a friend or two fed for a year or more.
Nadee allowed four days to pass before he dared to venture out of the city to the west. By then the foreign whoever-he-was had gone back to his own homeland, and the guards had given up their fruitless search for the puma's stolen goods. Still, the street-boy kept a vigilant eye over his shoulder as he walked. It was hard not to be paranoid, especially now as he was going out to retrieve what he had hidden.
The scene was just as he had left it days ago. The sand at the base of the big cactus and its surrounding patch looked untouched. Of course it did, Nadee mentally chastised himself. Who would have known to dig here? No one, that's who!
Sand flew behind the boy through his legs, his claws frantically working to excavate the little box of wood. For a moment Nadee feared he would only turn up worthless sand with the occasional small rock. He worried his precious treasure had somehow been found. What if the guards were lying in wait just around a corner behind him, just biding their time until the thief would return to reclaim his stolen prize? Dread crept into the fennec's young bones, his arms racing even faster to dig, dig, dig.
He scraped wood. It was still there! Nadee brushed away the shifting sands in a hurry, hauling up the little chest and thumping it to the level ground next to him. It was heavier than he remembered. On his knees, heart pounding, the boy looked over the chest's lock for the first time with real scrutiny.
When he had first lifted the heavy little item from the puma's guarded caravan, Nadee had only given the lock holding the lid shut a cursory inspection. It was locked, sure as the Sun was bright, but that was as far as he had gotten. He was far too distracted with getting out of Cabrang and squirreling away his prize to pay any closer mind to the obstacle. But now he had time and freedom to work on it. Now he could open the lock with a skilled flick of his picks.
Nadee breathed hard, his short muzzle pointed down with his chin nestled in the sandy fluff of his chest. He was glad he was already on his knees, because what he saw in the chest surely would have made his legs buckle where he standing. The chest was packed full to the brim with gold coins, the gleaming metal discs standing at all odd angles in their jumble together. The coins shone in the Sun, yellow rays reflecting up into the young teen's face. There must be at least three hundred! There must be...
Nadee snapped closed the chest's lid, suddenly anxious to be back home with his horde of gold. His head turned this way and that, scanning every crevice of the desert and Western Chasm for any sign of life that might have seen too much. Thankfully, he appeared to be perfectly alone; only the little lizards of the orange desert sands shared the expanse with him at the moment.
Home never seemed so far away. Hiding something under his tunic and vest never seemed so bulky and visible. But he needed to keep the gold hidden in its chest. He couldn't risk moving the coins to his currently-empty purse, or they would make too much of a loud jangle with every step. His ringing pockets would give him away the first time he would come within a stone's throw of anyone with working ears.
Nadee took the hard way home once he reentered the city gates. The boy ambled easily up the side of a poorly-bricked building, using the outstanding sandstone blocks as handholds to climb to the roof. If any of the people wandering the streets had looked skywards, they would have seen the lithe fennec dextrously leaping and shimmying from roof to roof over the markets and houses.
It was only because of his taking an unusual route back to his dwelling that Nadee overheard a certain barker's call. "Last call for the auction," the withered old jackal voiced, his volume kept low enough to not attract -too- much attention to himself.
Nadee knew just what was in the building. It was the adoptable trading house. More than once the boy had narrowly avoided being sold there, one time his only saving grace being Tabor himself, the lord of all the city's parentless children.
But now was different. It felt different in all kinds of ways. Nadee looked down again at the secret chest hidden away in his clothing. An idea so foreign to his whole life had already formed in his head, and... the young fennec didn't find its taste displeasing.
Sneaking in through a vent hole in the building's wall above the door was easy. Nadee crouched low in the shadows by the ceiling, walking deftly along the thick wooden beams that made up the auction house's rafters. Just the end of the fennec's muzzle poked out into the firelight of the torches below, the rest of the interloper hidden away from all eyes.
Nadee kept low on his paws and knees, watching the milling throng below him gather around a raised dais built into the house's far wall. Maybe twenty people in all, the desert fox mentally counted, his mind always working to take stock of every situation he found himself in. Most were dressed richly in decorative robes with gemmed turbans or silken keffiyehs, but a distinct few were donned with little more than scraps of burlap covering their loins.
There was a plain looking dog woman among the three who were obviously for sale that day, her eyes kept down to the floor and her arms bound together in front of her at the wrists. She was led onto stage by the old jackal in black, who started the opening bid on her at twenty gold. From there, Nadee's scan turned back to the next two adoptables in line. While the bids rolled in for the woman's purchase, the young fennec hidden above everyone's heads observed who else was for sale.
Second in line stood a black cat boy who looked not much older than Nadee himself. Possibly sold into adoption from being a street urchin like himself, even. But the older boy's grim countenance couldn't hold Nadee's attention for long. Not when he was standing next to the third and final auction piece.
The dog lady was bought for thirty-one gold, the jackal ushering her off the stage and down to her new owner. The sultan-esque tiger man who bought her took her grinningly under his arm, his large body and his spread cloak practically swallowing her much smaller form. The teenage cat was up next, but Nadee's eyes were all for the final adoptable in line. The first two before him could never hope to compare.
The lion, though bound at the wrists and ankles with thick rope, looked more majestic than any fully clothed and jeweled prospector in the auction house. Something like six and a half feet tall, the proud feline carried himself with a look as if he were really the one in the seat of power. His thick arms were held crossed across his chest (as well as his binds would allow, anyway), his muscles bulging and strong under his coat of brilliantly yellow-tan fur.
Nadee gawked freely, leaning out from his beam far enough for his whole upper body to be illuminated by the room's torches. He stared open-mouthed at the lion's burly chest, internally wondering if he could even get his arms to wrap around the man's barrel-ribs. Of course not! He might not even be able to clasp his fingers together around the back of the big cat's muscled belly!
The fennec nearly let a bead of drool fall from the corner of his lip just looking at that well-defined core, Nadee imagining himself so close to it driving him crazy. The young fox's eyes traveled slowly down the lion's form, noticing every bulge of the man's powerful thighs, down his knees, his calves, and finally his broad feet paws that were built thick and sturdy enough to support his entire incredible structure.
The jackal announced an end to the bidding for the black cat at sixty-eight gold, the boy being given into the eager arms of an especially lecherous-looking middle aged she-wolf. Nadee's heart pumped in his chest as the boy was hurried out of the room below him, the woman unable to wait a second longer before rushing her new acquisition back home.
It was time. Nadee, with shaking fingers, removed the hidden chest from under his tunic and set it on the beam in front of him. Even without direct light on the gold coins, the fox could see their glimmer when he flipped open the chest's lid. "And our last auction of the day," he heard called from below, the jackal's voice creaking but proud. "We have a native of Cyro-creno to the north. This prime specimen of his breed will be a figurehead in any man's collection! The adoptable's name is Presh, and his opening bid will start at fifty gold!"
There were calls instantly to meet the required bid. One in front called sixty while two toward the back of the crowd yelled sixty-five in chorus. Nadee's head spun to follow the auction, hands raising through the gathering one after another to outdo the last in line. Eighty gold. Ninety. A light applause sounded at a hundred even, but even that bid was quickly overshadowed by an eager man with at least one hundred and twenty gold ready to be spent.
Nadee hurriedly stacked up his stolen haul, lining the coins up between his knees and the chest. He made a column of ten coins, then made another to put alongside it. All the while the bidding skyrocketed under him, the boy's mind racing to be quick in his counting. Ten stacks of ten, while the bid below reached one fifty. Now he had twenty stacks lined up with more still in the chest, but the auction had also climbed to two hundred gold.
A murmur passed through the gathering at the high bid of two hundred, the man who issued it standing with a gleaming smile and his porcine hands in fists on his hips. Nadee's mouth went dry at the number, but his dextrous paws never quit in their mad counting. Could he really pay that much money - more than he had ever seen in person throughout his life? The boy took one more look down at the lion man standing tall center stage, his auburn brown mane flowing outward in all directions from his head to perfectly frame his rugged and stony face. The scars crossing over his nose, arms, and chest did nothing to diminish the man's natural beauty. The image of him even reminded Nadee of a favorite illustration of his that had been painted in Cabrang's underground of a fearless warrior returning from battle, standing proud with gleaming sword and shield in hand.
"I can own him," Nadee spoke in a whisper, talking only to himself. The thought was so surreal. The boy had owned so little in his life. So few objects and items he had right to ever call 'his'. But now the opportunity to own a living, breathing person was dangling before his eyes. And it was hardly just any person. This muscled lion, this man twice Nadee's age. He could own -him-.
The pale fox's blood ran hot through him, making him and the situation feel almost unreal, like the time before when he had stolen a bottle of rum and drank more than he should have in a short time. "Twenty eight stacks of ten, plus three more coins. Two hundred eighty three. I can still have more than enough money to let me do almost anything I would want."
With his hands both raised high over his head, the jackal faced the crowd and cried "Two hundred gold, going once! Going twice!"
The pause in the air dug deep into Nadee's heart. He stared directly into the lion's golden eyes, the man on the auction block looking up at just the right time to see him in his hiding place in the rafters. Nadee's mouth opened and moved, and the fennec heard a faraway voice call out "Two ten!"
Shock and dismay filled the room below him, not the least of which belonging to the man who had set the bid at two hundred. Faces looked around in all directions as the mass tried to figure out who the new voice among them had been. What unfamiliar person had so much cash as to buy the prize out from under Shanzor's nose?
"Two hundred twenty!" the boar man roared indignantly, stomping his foot and growing red in the face like a child who lost a favorite toy.
"Two thirty!" Nadee spoke again, nearly shaking so hard as to fall off his high perch.
By now the crowd had spotted their intruder, fingers and eyes pointed upwards to where he sat above all. "Boy!" The jackal yelled, cutting off the infuriated boar. "You have no right to bid with money you do not own! Get out of my auction house at once! The bid is still at two hundr-"
Nadee scooped his gold over the edge of the beam, letting the metal cascade into the open cloth purse he held there to catch it. For a moment as the old bag filled, the boy worried if the stretching fabric would hold all the heavy metal. When every last coin was tucked into the pouch, the fennec closed the bag and slid himself down to drop to the floor. The crowd parted for him, giving him a circle of space for him to rise and walk forward to the jackal. "Two thirty." Nadee repeated boldly, holding out the bulging sack for the auction leader to inspect.
Silence boomed in Nadee's ears. Or was that his heartbeat? Not one person around him spoke, all faces looking ashenly at either the jackal, the bag of gold, or at Nadee himself. The jackal quickly grabbed up the bag hanging from Nadee's paw, nearly stuffing his face inside its cloth mouth to see the money inside for himself.
When he lifted his head and his eyes, it almost appeared as if the black canine would be ready to faint. "Two... thirty it is," he whispered into the mausoleum-stillness of the room.
Nadee gently took his gold back, his eyes lifting up high on the stage to meet the tall lion's. The man for sale looked impassive, his strong jaw set like unmoving iron. But... Nadee was almost sure he saw the man's eyes squint just a hair, as if the big cat were smiling.
Furious at being outbid by such a whelp, the boar stomped out of the crowd to the forefront and bellowed "Two for-"
"Two fifty!" Nadee cut in, spitting out the words before the hairy swine could finish.
More flabbergasted and enraged than ever, the man shouted "Two hundred and sixty gold!"
Nadee felt like was going to die on the spot. He never before depended on anyone else's help for anything, but now the boy wished for just someone to lean on. He took one last look at the purse in his paws. All gone. All for... The lion...
He had said it. He did it. Nadee shook to his core, his knees wanting nothing more than to meet the floorboards.
A voice spoke, and in the terrified back of his mind, Nadee feared it was the pig outbidding him and winning the auction. But after a hazy moment, the words cleared so that they could be comprehended. It was the jackal speaking. "Two eighty... Going once... Going twice..."