A Place in the Country: Part One
That had always been the word Mr. Jennings had associated with Meridell.
Of course in his youth he had lived in Shenkuu, which in many ways was as backwards as Meridell, but Jennings had always considered Shenkuu to be somehow more advanced. Or at least more sensible.
Meridell however was hopelessly lost in tradition and ceremony. The place seemed to breathe an almost toxic atmosphere of self-importance. Even the air reeked of it, assaulting the green Krawk's senses as his carriage rattled on through the countryside. It seemed to be taunting him, daring him to say something about how refreshing it was – how clean it was compared to the polluted air of Neopia Central. Or perhaps it was only the smell of fresh dung.
And Jennings was acutely aware of how that very same allure of a simpler life had claimed many previous residents of the big city. They positively flocked to the countryside to escape a rat race of their own creation. But Jennings would not fall victim to such a curse. Neopia Central ran through his veins, and sights and sounds of Meridell that excited most instead offended him to the very core.
Normally he wouldn't have even graced the place with his presence, but he had a pressing need to be there. Lady Celeriac, a woman who claimed to know Jennings, had invited him to a new year's ball. Whilst Jennings could easily resist the charms of the country, the red Gelert had captivated his mind in ways he thought were not possible. He had thought barely of anything else since she had left the city. She stirred such a curiosity in the man, far more so than any normal Neopian.
And perhaps that was because she was so like himself. Jennings of course was a criminal, a crook with such a big stake in Neopia Central that he effectively ran the place. And, according to what Jennings had been able to find out, Lady Celeriac fulfilled the same role in Meridell.
She kept the country ticking, the true power behind King Skarl's throne. She organised just the right amount of crime, and just the right amount of punishment, to keep the citizens in an efficient state of mind. Things that could tip this state of affairs to one side or the other were dealt with quickly, cleanly, and most importantly - silently.
And now Jennings had been invited to her lair – Lowchester Manor. It was, Jennings understood, an elegant if a little understated country house in the heart of Meridell.
That was another thing Jennings had overlooked about Meridell – the size of the place.
In the mind's eye of most city folk it was a small and largely irrelevant place, but now as he travelled through it Jennings understood the true scale of the place. Meridell Castle wasn't even on the horizon, yet Mr. Black had assured his master that they had been in the country for hours.
From the high peaks of the Cogham Steppe to the rolling fields of Meri Acres and the forests of Lightwater and Shadowglen, Meridell seemed to have quite quietly surrounded their little carriage and now there was no escape.
Jennings was quite relieved when Lowchester finally came into view. It seemed to be a quiet little farming village, with only a few dozen houses and the odd shop or tavern. The manor house was set apart from the village, in expansive gardens. It was a typically grand affair, and wouldn't have looked out of place in the lavish Hills district of Neopia Central. It easily held more than fifty bedrooms, and Jennings could see many large state rooms through the windows on the ground floor.
The carriage came to a stop outside the front door, which was surrounded by columns that supported a balcony on the first floor. The green Krawk stepped down, resting heavily on a diamond tipped cane. Mr. Black was busy unloading their luggage from the roof of the carriage, the green Grarrl easily tossing the suitcases down to the floor.
The great front doors opened and servants rushed out to help Black with the baggage. A Lenny butler approached Jennings.
"Mr. Jennings, I presume?" he asked. "I am Carson, Lady Celeriac's butler. We have been expecting you. The Lady is in the drawing room, waiting to receive you."
Jennings glanced back towards Mr. Black.
"We'll show your man to your rooms," Carson added. "Please follow me."
Jennings nodded. "Please do."
The butler led Jennings into the mansion, veering off in the main hall away from the grand staircase to one of the more immediate entertaining rooms. As it turned out, it was a sitting room – and Jennings didn't doubt that for the building, it was rather modest, but it had more gilding than most of Altador combined.
Lady Celeriac was waiting there, the red Gelert dressed in an exceedingly extravagant gown, even for her. She was busy taking tea, but consented to acknowledge Jennings after a few moments.
"Presenting Mr. Jennings, My Lady," the butler announced.
"Oh, Mr. Jennings!" she said. "I am so excessively glad you could attend!"
Jennings smiled in response; he didn't think there was a part of the room that wasn't excessive in some form.
"Did you have a pleasant journey?" Celeriac enquired.
"Reasonably enjoyable, yes," Jennings answered, in that he had enjoyed not being set upon by the bandits he thought infested the country.
"Please, sit and tell me all about it," Celeriac said, gesturing to a free chair. "Carson, more tea for Mr. Jennings."
"Of course, ma'am," Carson said, exiting the room with a bow.
"I cannot think of much to say about the journey," Jennings confessed. "It was enjoyable for its uneventfulness."
"Quite, I'm sure." Celeriac nodded. "And how is Neopia Central? Business goes well, I trust?"
"As good as can be hoped," Jennings replied.
Celeriac was once again speaking as if they were old friends, but Jennings still had no recollection of ever meeting her before she had cropped up in the city.
"I have been meaning to ask you," Jennings said. "And please do not take offence, but how exactly do we know each other?"
Celeriac smiled. A sad little smile that said she had hoped time apart might have jogged his memory.
"It was of course foolish of me to assume that you would remember me," she explained. "I'm sure there were many such encounters for you in your days as a General, and how would I have been any different? As for me, you made an exceptional mark on my life, even if you did not intend such."
"But who actually are you?" Jennings persisted.
"Oh, there will be time for that later," Celeriac dismissed the question. "The past is entirely boring when compared with the present – and the present is of course this evening's new year's ball! I was somewhat disheartened to hear that King Skarl could not attend, but rest assured that the gentry from all across Meridell and even Brightvale shall be here. It is well known that I throw some of the best parties in the land."
She took a sip of tea and added, "I know it, of course, because I spread the rumours about them personally."
"Still," Jennings ventured. "I would like to know."
Celeriac gave him a little glare. "When I set my mind to something, Mr. Jennings, it is not normally changed."
"A situation I find myself in often," Jennings countered.
"Then it is a case of, 'what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object', yes?" Celeriac smiled.
A devious little smile. Jennings recognised it, for it so perfectly mirrored his own. It was a look of victory.
"The answer is plain," Celeriac considered. "Only one thing can happen."
"And what is that?" Jennings asked.
With a look that made it clear that the world would freeze over before she gave in, she answered, "A party."
There was indeed a party; it seemed quite inescapable.
Jennings barely had time to retire to his room and get himself looking more presentable before guests began arriving. Music began playing in the mansion's great ballroom, and the sounds of revelry began to echo down the corridors. It wasn't long before a servant came to fetch Jennings from his room – he could delay it no longer.
The ballroom was typically like most of the formal parties Jennings had attended in Neopia Central. Small groups of ladies and gentlemen stood talking and laughing in unnecessarily loud voices. The men were booming and the women were shrieking, and a steady procession made their way to the lavishly decorated buffet. Though a band was playing in the far end of the room, no one was dancing – clearly feeling that such actions might lower their perceived social class by at least two.
"At last!" the voice of Lady Celeriac called to Jennings. "I have been just dying to introduce you to someone!"
There was a strange falseness in her voice – it was one Jennings recognised instantly, but he doubted many of the others at the part had noticed. It was the voice of someone who did not particularly care for large social gatherings, but somehow needed to pretend they did – as if it was all a game she had internally decided she would not allow herself to lose.
She escorted Jennings to her target, a green Lupe wearing a finely tailored if a little garish yellow and green suit.
"Mr. Jennings, meet the Marquis del Fuego!" Celeriac presented him.
The Lupe bowed. "Rodrigo de Martinez de la Piansa, at your service."
"The Marquis del Fuego?" Jennings questioned, a hint of surprise in his voice.
"You know each other already?" Celeriac asked, almost disappointed.
"No, no," Jennings said, the mask of pleasantry quickly returning to his face. "I have of course heard of you, that is all. Part of the Brightvale gentry, are you not? I seem to recall hearing that your family owns much of the Furanga Marches, a lovely area of Brightvale so I hear."
"Rodrigo and I are old friends," Celeriac added. "He attends all my parties."
"I would not dare to miss a moment of your company, my dear," The Marquis said, kissing her hand.
"Old friends?" Jennings questioned, perhaps adding a little unintentional offence to the question. "You don't happen to be in the... same trade as the Lady and I?"
The Marquis smiled broadly, "I should hope not! I am aware of the realities of both your lives, of course, but that is not to say I approve of them. Many years ago I attempted to convince Juliet to go straight, so to speak. She took great delight in lecturing me as to the peculiar specifics she believes operate in Meridell that mean she is required to act in such a way. I've since decided that life is far too short to argue about such trivial matters."
"Brightvale largely operates under King Hagan's rule," Celeriac explained.
"How novel, a King that's actually in charge," Jennings observed.
"Indeed," Celeriac agreed, either missing or ignoring his sarcasm.
The rest of the night passed without incident. Jennings was quite adept at making conversation while having his mind elsewhere, and right then his mind was firmly on Celeriac. He had searched his mind countless times for her face, but he just couldn't recall it. He had begun to believe that it was somehow an elaborate ruse, a trick to distract him from something else... but equally, he couldn't think of anything that Celeriac could be doing secretly in the shadows.
The new year's countdown began near midnight. The crowds gathered in the centre of the ballroom to focus on a grand clock that had been installed on the wall. Celeriac seemed to appear by Jennings's side out of nowhere as the guests began to chant the numbers.
It was a matter of some surprise that when the countdown reached zero, the doors to the ballroom burst inwards, a gust from outside extinguishing the candles lighting the room.
It was a matter of further surprise when Jennings heard a sinister voice shout, "Nobody move! This is a stick up!"
To be continued...