The Curious Incident of the Statue in the Night-time: Part Five
Mr. Jennings stepped off the wooden coach into the backwater town of Hermit’s End, between Brightvale and Meridell. He also stepped into a pile of dung, which wasn’t the best start to a day in one of his worst ever weeks.
Mr. Jennings or General Qin, it didn’t matter any more; the green Krawk had used many names in his years of exile from Shenkuu, and he had learnt that they meant nothing. At that time, however, a new name was needed. He decided on Jackson for the time being, a nice everyday name that didn’t provoke questions. He’d done away with the high class of Mr. Jennings as well, opting instead for a simple ragged travelling cloak. Of course he still had a blade concealed, but it would stay concealed until he was forced to use it.
Undoubtedly Shan would track him; he knew this, but he had planned for so long to fall at the final hurdle. Once the assassin recovered the seal from Sarah, everything would be back on track; he just had to make it to Meridell Castle without being caught.
The Kings Arms, local tavern, was where he started his search. He made his way across the muddy street, and into the murky darkness of the watering hole.
“Can I help you?” the bartender asked from behind a grubby bar.
“Whatever the local speciality is, quickly,” Qin replied.
He was given a drink that tasted somewhat similar to swamp water, and looked remarkably similar as well. Qin turned and leant on the bar. He couldn’t afford to stay here long. The road to Meridell lay ahead invitingly. He turned back to the barman.
“Where is the fastest coach heading to Meridell?” he asked.
“I was under the impression that Brightvale was a hub of knowledge,” Shan muttered.
“There is a difference between being intellectual and being a street ear,” the Brightvale scholar replied, before wandering off.
Shan sighed heavily; everyone they had asked in Brightvale had been far too busy contemplating philosophy to notice Qin passing through. The General could have shouted in their ears and they wouldn’t have noticed. Shan turned back to his guards.
“Meridell is our only chance; we set sail immediately,” he told them.
Sarah’s cart came to a steady halt in Hermit’s End. Sarah carefully stepped out, avoiding a nearby pile of dung that had claimed someone else’s foot recently. Taverns were always the source of knowledge in any town, so she made her way across the road to the Kings Arms. A voice stopped her half way.
“Sarah, is that you?” a timid voice asked.
Sarah turned to see a small yellow Kacheek behind a badly made stall near the tavern. Even to her surprise, she recognised him; he had helped her steal King Skarl’s crown.
“Oscar?” she questioned.
“It is you!” he replied happily, “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, just passing through,” Sarah said absent-mindedly, “You work here?”
She looked at the old stall. It looked as if it had seen better days, but those days were probably hundreds of years ago.
“Yes, I sell insurance,” Oscar told her.
Sarah looked at him sceptically.
“I thought the entire point of you coming here was to get out of the insurance business?” she commented.
“Well, yes...” Oscar admitted, “but it’s sort of in my blood, I suppose. Besides, I don’t do any dangerous insurance now; I just sell potato insurance.”
“Potato Insurance?” she asked.
“It’s about all there is to insure in these parts,” Oscar told her.
“That’s... interesting,” Sarah lied, “Listen, Oscar, have you seen any suspicious characters lately?”
“In Hermit’s End?” Oscar laughed, “Of course not. The most suspicious thing that happens here is rigging of the annual pumpkin growing contest.”
“I mean anyone keeping themselves to themselves, heading out of town quickly. Or a gang of ninjas for that matter,” she asked.
“Let me think. There was one man. Stayed for one drink in the Kings Arms and then left town quickly, heading towards Meridell,” Oscar told her.
On the roof of a nearby building, Max watched the conversation. Sarah appeared to have an accomplice. That would make things harder, two targets instead of one. He took out a small bow and took aim with an arrow.
“Say, do you want a pamphlet?” Oscar asked Sarah, back in the street.
Without waiting for an answer, he ducked under the wooden stall and rummaged around. There was a loud crashing noise, a muffled yelp from Oscar, and the stall fell forwards into Sarah. The thief toppled backwards as Max’s arrow hit the dirt where she had been standing. Sarah saw it land.
“He’s found me already?” she asked no one in particular.
A second arrow impacted into the wooden stall, narrowly missing Oscar as he emerged.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Sorry about this,” she replied.
She grabbed Oscar by the collar, and dragged him across the street, throwing him into a passing cart heading for Meridell. She joined him a second later, a few arrows embedding themselves in the cart as they escaped Hermit’s End.
“I think I need to explain a few things to you,” Sarah told Oscar.
In the darkness, as is so often the case, it happened. The moon hung low in the Meridell sky, obscured only slightly by the Darigan Citadel, looming over the scene. Qin arrived first, his objective clear, his time growing short. He stood in front of the mighty drawbridge leading to the castle. It was up. In his hand, he grasped a small bag containing the items he would need for his night’s work. He still required the Emperor’s seal, but he would have it soon. Max never failed.
The drawbridge would have stopped most people, but Qin was no ordinary Neopet. He was the former commander of the Shenkuu forces, the fastest, strongest and most agile soldier the mountain city had ever produced. In a single bound, he cleared the moat and landed neatly on the side of the castle wall, his fingernails digging into the mortar. Gradually, and more important silently, he scaled the wall, and dropped over the other side, into the castle. His destination was the only thing in his mind.
The Swift Quintilc arrived second, soaring across the moon, its engines straining to their full capacity. Shan did not intend to waste time with locals. This time he would enlist the aid of the King himself. The flying ship glided smoothly over the top of the castle wall, and descended into the castle courtyard.
It was Sarah and Oscar that arrived next, just in time to see the Swift Quintilc disappear behind the castle wall.
“He’ll be in the castle; he must be,” Sarah shouted into the wind, “Do you guys mind going a bit faster?”
The two Unis that had been pulling the cart turned their heads.
“Do you have any idea how much we get paid for this job?” one of them asked gruffly.
“Peanuts?” Oscar asked lightly.
The Unis glared at him.
“If we weren’t such professionals, we’d rear up now and throw you off,” the gruff Uni said scathingly.
“Thank goodness you are professionals then. Just get us to the castle, alright?” Sarah bargained.
Beside her, Oscar handled the Jade Dandan carefully.
“I still can’t believe it, the Imperial Seal, and I’m holding it,” he said in awe.
“Well, believe it,” Sarah told him, “Any ideas how we get into the castle?”
Oscar looked up towards the drawbridge.
“Unis can fly, you know,” he said simply.
Sarah looked down at the Unis powering the cart towards the castle, and smiled.
A few minutes later, the cart sailed over the top of the castle wall, landing noisily in the courtyard near the Swift Quintilc. Several of the wheels fell off, and the reins holding the Unis broke. They galloped slowly away, up into the sky.
“So long, suckers!” the gruff Uni shouted into the wind once they were far enough away.
“That went well,” Sarah said cheerfully, dusting herself off.
“Yes...” Oscar muttered, removing a stricken cartwheel from his head.
From the hill overlooking Meridell, Max watched the proceedings. He sighed lightly as he heard the cart crash into the courtyard, but then a smile spread across his face.
“Two birds with one stone,” he said to himself.
He would be able to gain the Jade Dandan and deliver it to Mr. Jennings at the same time.
A spring in his step, he set off towards the castle. He stopped in front of the moat near the drawbridge. He checked carefully to see that he was not being watched from nearby, and then opened up his cloak. The moonlight bounced off all kinds of silver items, the veritable armoury concealed about Max’s body. He took a small grappling hook and a length of rope, and began to swing it around his arm. Once it was travelling fast enough, he let go of the hook, which travelled up to the top of the wall and clattered into place. Max pulled back, testing the strength of the rope, and then swung across the moat. Slowly, he began to climb, reaching the top and jumping down into the courtyard.
He walked across the remains of the cart. The door to the castle was ajar, and lights were beginning to appear in the towers. He would need to be stealthy in order to avoid the guards, but finding his target would be easy enough. He drew a small dagger which he held close to his side, and peered inside the castle. There was silence, though in the distance near the throne room, voices were talking hurriedly. Max set off in the opposite direction.
To be continued...