Rom still couldn’t believe the luck he’d had that night. After hours and hours of searching, he’d managed to out-swindle Humphrey for what the old man thought was a tattered old hat. Rom’s finger’s lingered inside his coat pocket on the shining silver tiara he’d found hidden in the lining.
A brief pang of guilt struck him as he hurried to weave his way through the crowded market stalls. He shoved it away in the back of his mind- that old grouch had tried to fleece him more than once (and succeeded more than once). He could have flat-out stolen the tiara (instead of trading it for a button, a wild story and a handful of pecks) and he still wouldn’t have made up for what the ancient merchant had grifted him out of.
That was his story, and he was sticking to it.
Rom had just a few hours before Cecil’s birthday party. If he hurried, he still had time to get home, wrap the thing, and get started on a birthday cake.
“Oh!” someone cried out, and Rom was pulled from his distraction by a woman in a long gown in front of him, toppling through the air. Instinctively, Rom’s arms shot out and He caught the woman under her arms, the contents of a bag of groceries spilling across the cobblestone street.
“Careful, careful!” Rom instructed as the woman flailed her arms helplessly, knocking his hat from his head. He stumbled a few times as patrons of Bell Crest kept shoving past him, too caught up in their own errands to stop and take notice.
The young woman staggered a few steps, trying to regain her balance, and finally allowed all her weight to settle onto Rom. She looked up at him and tossed a thick lock of long, thin brown hair out of her eyes. Her shock was quickly replaced with an embarrassed grin.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she gasped, laughing as Rom helped her back to her feet. “These modern shoes.” She gestured to her feet, which were clad in a leather ankle-boot with an impressively thick heel on it. She had a small mouth that dimpled when she smiled. Rom smiled back as he helped right her and gather up her spilled groceries.
“Oh, no problem, these stones get slick this time of night.” He bent to pick up his hat.
Just as he did, someone bustling through the crowd bumped him again, and he fell flat on his stomach, the wind gushing from his lungs in a great gasp.
Rom coughed and weezed, trying to gather his wits and his breath back. He rolled onto his side and looked back- but the woman he’d helped had vanished into the crowd. Something else did catch his eye, though: A glint of silver vanishing into the pocket of a short man in a bowler hat.
Sudden realization washed across Rom like a cold tide, and his hand flew to his coat pocket. It was empty. The tiara was gone.
“Hey. Hey!” Rom shouted and took off at a full run, shoving through the crowd. The man in the bowler hat had a sizeable lead on him, and shoving through the crowd was like trying to swim upstream. “Stop that man! Thief! The guy in the hat!” He shouted, louder this time. It drew some attention, but not enough- the man in the hat turned and noticed Rom pursuing, and ducked deeper into the crowd. Rom lost sight of him.
Why is nobody stopping? Rom thought desperately as he shoved deeper into the crowd. Everyone seemed to be heading the same direction tonight.
He looked up, for the first time in what felt like all night. He’d been so preoccupied in searching Bell Crest for a birthday present that he hadn’t paid attention to what time it was. He’d been searching all night for the perfect present, and not it was almost dawn.
Bell Crest market only existed under the light of a full moon.
Rom put his shoulders down and shoved through the crowd, bull rushing past the stream of men and women in a hurry to get off of Bell Crest Hill. Nearer the top of the hill, the crowd began to thin out as many of the merchants were already closing up shop. There, ducking behind a canvas tent flap was the short man in the bowler hat.
The crowd was thin enough now for Rom to cut a clean path, and he ran at full speed past the now empty booths to the white tent that Bowler Hat had ducked into.
When he dove through the flap, he crashed into a refrigerator in the shape of a man in a worn-out grey suit, landing on the dirt floor on his rear. Looking down on him was the short guy in the bowler hat, the huge man he’d run into, and the women in the ruffled dress and the modern shoes.
“Why couldn’t you have just kept your mouth shut?” Bowler Hat said. “All we wanted was this little thing.” He held up the tiara. “You need to ask yourself something- is this trinket worth dying for, mack?”
Rom stuttered, then pointed at Modern Shoes. “I helped you!”
“Yeah, thanks for that,” she said, her voice carrying a completely different accent. She was looking at her nails.
“You want I should throw this guy out?” Said Refrigerator. His suit looked like it had been tailored for a man half his size- it was as tight as the money sack on his belt, which was filled to bursting with coins. His hands had been stuffed into the pockets of his jacket; when he brought his right hand out, it was holding a long, thin-bladed knife. Rom felt his stomach drop into his feet.
“Turn around and go,” Bowler Hat said, “and we’ll let you live. Just go.”
For a moment, Rom was rooted in place. Sure, Cecil’s birthday was in a couple hours. There would never be time to find another present as great as that one (and he was out of money besides) but at least he’d be alive. Cecil’s mother and brother would be saying nasty things behind his back, and Cecil would be upset, but she’d forgive him.
Then his eyes fell onto the petite silver tiara, and the feeble lamps in the empty tent cast flickering yellow light across its delicate filigree. There was nothing in the whole world Cecil would like more, and nothing that would better show how he felt about her.
He looked into Bowler Hat’s stout, squashed face, and his lips parted as if to answer.
Instead, Rom’s leg shot out and collided violently with Refrigerator’s knee. Refrigerator howled in pain and hopped in place on one foot, dropping his knife to grasp his wounded leg. Rom snatched the weapon up off of the ground before Bowler hat or Modern Shoes could react. His hand whipped out toward Refrigerator- and slashed through the thin leather thong holding the bulging pouch onto his belt.
Dozens of golden bits and a handful of silver pecks scattered across the hard-packed dirt as the laces of the bag came undone, money rolling everywhere.
Bowler Hat shouted something like “No!” as the money scattered. Modern Shoes dove past him and began to try to scoop up handfuls of the coins.
“You put that down! We all earned that!” Bowler Hat shouted, shoving her roughly onto the ground. In the scuffle, the tiara bounced from Bowler Hat’s grip and rolled away.
Rom snatched the tiara up and was on his feet before either of the three other had noticed. Modern Shoes shouted something to him as he cleared the tent flap and pounded down the cobblestone street. A moment later, shouted voices came to him, and he glanced over his shoulder to see Bowler Hat in hot persuit, followed behind by Modern Shoes (unable to run in her stylish, thick-heeled footwear) and Refrigerator, hobbling along thanks to his sore knee.
There was another silver glint in Bowler Hat’s hand, but this time it was no tiara. He was carrying a log knife, identical to the one Refrigerator had been carrying. Which, it occurred to Rom as he ran, was still clutched in his own hand.
It had been mere minutes since his pocket had been picked, but Bell Crest Market was now entirely deserted. He could look out onto the Bell Plains from his position on the hill, his shoes slipping on the damp cobblestones as he ran at full speed down the hill. The sky on the horizon had already changed from dark blue to the robin’s-egg color of dawn. He had just moments left.
Bowler Hat shouted something from behind Rom, and he was surprised by how close the man sounded. Bowler Hat must have been a fast runner for someone so short- he’d began to close the gap at the top of the hill and from the proximity of his shouts, he’d overtake Rom shortly.
Rom leapt into the air, and from his point on the slope of the hill, his jump carried him a lot farther than he’d anticipated- he landed feet first back on the cobblestones at the edge of the hill, but his old, worn shoes slipped on the wet stone and he began to roll. Morning sky and brown, wet stone flashed in front of his face as he tumbled down the hill, finally coming to rest on his back in grass that was wet with morning dew.
Grass. He’d made it off the hill.
He looked back quickly to see his three pursuers rushing at him, their faces briefly illuminated with canary-golden morning light. As the light fell across them, their pace slowed, and then stopped altogether as they, as well as the cobblestone streets, empty vendor’s booths and tall canvas tents of Bell Crest Market began to shimmer, like heat rolling off of pavement on a summer afternoon. Bowler hat was frozen mere feet from him, his muddy brown eyes wide with rage, the knife in his hand plunging forward menacingly.
And then they, along with the rest of Bell Crest Market, were gone, leaving plain, grassy Bell Crest Hill in its place, not a blade of grass disturbed.
The other patrons of the market had not stayed around to watch the market vanish- it did this every full moon, after all, and it would be back with the next full moon, to be sure. Nobody really knew were it went in the meantime. Well, Rom conceded, he supposed that three people knew now. Whether or not he’d ever find out, he didn’t care to think about.
He looked at the long, clean knife that he’d taken from Refrigerator.
“I earned this, too,” he sighed. He carefully folded up the long knife and stuck into his right jacket pocket, depositing the tiara into the left. He’d have to hurry home if he wanted to get Cecil’s birthday cake done in time.