A Place in the Country: Part Two
The darkness was pierced by a flaming torch being lit in the doorway. It illuminated a blue Yurble and a few other darkly clad intruders who were hastily spreading out across the ballroom.
"I said nobody move!" the Yurble repeated for the benefit of the few nobles who had attempted to move towards the back of the room.
He brandished a loaded crossbow for effect as his friends circled round the back of the guests, forcing them into a tight circle as they backed into each other.
"Found her, boss!" one of them shouted.
The Yurble marched forwards towards Lady Celeriac, forcing the torch close to her face to get a good look at her.
"Hello again, My Lady," he sneered, before drawing back.
"I'm quite sure I have no idea who you are," Celeriac said loudly and clearly, more for the benefit of the crowd than the Yurble.
"Oh really?" he replied, turning back with a smirk. "Where is it? I know you'll have it hidden somewhere near. We want it, as fair payment."
"I haven't the faintest idea what you are babbling about," Celeriac maintained.
She gave a brief glance to Mr. Jennings while the Yurble turned back to his crew. Jennings thought that she seemed to be communicating something with her eyes, as if she had a plan he was to play along with.
"Didn't think you would," the Yurble sneered. "Lads, tear the place apart. You, my lady, you can come with me."
He grabbed Celeriac roughly by the arm and dragged her away.
"Now wait just a minute!" the voice of the Marquis del Fuego called out from the crowd as he rushed forwards.
The Yurble turned and fired his crossbow in one smooth movement, hitting the Marquis in the leg and sending him falling to the floor. Screams rang out from the guests as the crowd surged forwards to tend to the fallen Lupe.
"Wait!" Celeriac shouted. "He'll tell you what you need to know!"
She pointed quite purposefully to Jennings.
"Oh he will, will he?"
"I have no idea what that woman is talking about," Jennings answered truthfully.
The Yurble glanced towards Celeriac. "Seems it's catching. But alright, you can come along as well – just in case you feel the need to be spilling answers later on."
He put away his crossbow and marched back to Jennings, grabbing him with his free hand and marching both out of the ballroom. He took them across the hallway and behind the grand staircase, heading down into the servant's quarters at the back of the house. There he located the door that led to the cellar and pulled it open, throwing the pair of them down into the darkness and closing the door straight after.
Jennings and Celeriac tumbled down a small set of stone steps, landing in a puddle at the bottom. Behind them, they heard the noise of something being moved across the doorway to block their escape.
"I'll give you two a little while to cool off, see if that makes you more talkative," the voice of the Yurble called down to them.
With some difficulty due to the size of her dress, Celeriac managed to pry herself off Jennings's back and stand up.
"Hold on a minute," she whispered. "If I remember rightly there's a pack of matches in an alcove with a torch... ah!"
A flame lit in the darkness, and was applied to a torch which gave some limited light to their surroundings.
"A drinks cellar?" Jennings questioned, taking in the rows of dusty bottles that lined the walls of the passageway.
"The most well stocked drinks cellar this side of Krawk Island," Celeriac corrected him.
Looking down at her dress she added, "Well this is simply ruined, it shall have to have it thrown away. Thankfully you wore black."
"Yes, that's something," Jennings agreed as he got to his feet.
There was silence for a moment before Celeriac said, "Well?"
"Well what?" Jennings asked.
"What are we going to do?"
Jennings paused, "I was under the impression you had a plan? The only reason I didn't do anything back in your ballroom is because I assumed you had everything under control, I could have easily dealt with them all. You looked at me to say as much."
"You looked at me to say as much," Celeriac protested. "The only reason I didn't do anything was because I assumed you had a plan. I would have been quite capable of dealing with them myself."
Jennings gave her a look that seemed to doubt this, but Celeriac glared at him.
"Quite capable, I assure you," she insisted as she tore her gown to give her more freedom of movement. "The Techo Master called me one of his finest pupils, and Galem... well, the less said about Galem the better."
"So we are trapped in your cellar for no good reason?" Jennings asked, climbing up the stone steps and unsuccessfully trying the door.
"That's about the shape of it, yes," Celeriac answered. "Well, at least we shan't dehydrate. Care for a seat?"
She pulled two barrels from the darkness and sat down on one. Jennings joined her a moment later.
"I take it you do in fact know who they were?" he asked.
"The Yurble's name is Bane, appropriately," she answered. "He is a former... associate of mine. He was employed in Moltara."
"The Obsidian Heart..." Jennings guessed, referencing the Moltaran diamond that Celeriac had stolen. "He was the one who stole it for you?"
"Certainly not," Celeriac snapped. "But if I had employed him to do it, I certainly would have paid him a lot for the trouble. And if I had done that, he may have become greedy and I may have terminated his contract."
"What a good job you didn't, then," Jennings observed. "He's here to reclaim the diamond, then?"
"He won't find it," she told him. "We just have to wait until he's finished searching. He'll come back here and we can overpower him. Quite simple, really."
"Only, he does have hostages," Jennings pointed out. "I'm sure you don't want a massacre on New Years Day. I don't suppose your staff will be any help?"
"Any help?" Celeriac laughed falsely. "My butler is an ex-knight, my cook a former member of the Thieves Guild, my maid previously had employment as an assassin, and my gardener was deemed too violent for the Defenders of Neopia at one point. Any one of them could effortlessly repel intruders – that's exactly why I sought them out. This house is a fortress. Unfortunately, I traditionally give them New Years Eve off as a mark of respect. They'll be down in the village until the early hours, and the temporary staff I have in their place frankly couldn't find a knife in an armoury."
"What a pity," Jennings said, a hint of disapproval in his voice.
"Don't take that tone of voice with me," Celeriac snapped. "Where exactly is your butler, then?"
"I gave him the night off," Jennings confessed. "Mr. Black will likely be with your employees in the village."
"Exactly," Celeriac said somewhat smugly, sitting back on her barrel.
"Under the circumstances, I think you may call me Juliet," she said.
The Gelert cleared her throat.
"It's typically good manners to supply your own first name," she added.
"Ji," he answered.
"I don't mean that," she said dismissively. "That was back when you were General Qin. I mean now."
"Mr. Jennings does not have a first name," he told her. "I've never required one."
"Well now you find yourself in a position of such requirement," Celeriac told him.
"You want me to make up a name?" he asked.
"If you must, yes," Celeriac nodded.
"Fine..." Jennings considered. "Horatio."
"Horatio?" Celeriac asked, trying hard to suppress a smirk. "All the names in the world and you decide that's the best?"
"Yes," Jennings replied bluntly. "I like it. It's got class."
"Very well," she agreed, slightly worried that she had offended him. "It's nice to finally be introduced, Horatio."
"Now you can tell me exactly how we know each other," Jennings stated.
"I suppose I must," Celeriac sighed. "I had been hoping that time may see you remember, but it appears not. When I met you, you were not Mr. Jennings, and I was not Lady Celeriac."
Jennings raised an eyebrow in genuine surprise, "This is an alias? There are official records for Lady Celeriac in the Neopian Museum's archives office; I've seen them myself."
"Certainly, I am Lady Celeriac at the moment," she confirmed. "And I was born as such, but in the intervening times... I took a variety of different names."
"I can't say I understand," Jennings confessed.
"At the age of ten, my father, the late Lord Celeriac, decided that I was to be educated in Brightvale," Celeriac explained. "It was not uncommon, many girls of my age were sent away to learn in such a place – I however, had other ideas. My father had expressed his desire that I learn about the world in Brightvale, and I did everything to grant his wishes. I ran away from my carriage when it stopped overnight, leaving a brief note telling my father that I would eventually return."
"I proceeded to travel, learning much about the world, and visiting many places that explorers from Neopia Central had yet to 'discover'. I spent a lot of time on Mystery Island, learning lessons from the Techo Master. However, realities of life began to present themselves to me, most notably those of crime and how it related to society. I decided to learn more about it – as a result I gained employment as an assassin in the wilds of Sakhmet, for a brief period was a member of Galem's Thieves Guild, and worked as a mercenary in... Shenkuu."
"Bundak," Jennings guessed.
"A small village in the eastern mountains," Celeriac nodded. "You thought they would rise up against the Empire, so you attacked it. What villagers there were left hired mercenaries to attack the fleeing Imperial Army."
"We thought they were all villagers," Jennings explained. "We didn't think they would have had the money to hire help."
"You and I, we met on that battlefield," Celeriac revealed. "The great General Qin... I was easily bested. But you didn't kill me. Me, a criminal, a traitor to your eyes, and you spared my life. That had a profound effect on me, I began to consider that perhaps some forms of crime needed to be allowed to continue. Not long after, I returned to Meridell to nurse my ailing father, and when he died I began to enact the principles I had learnt upon Meridell. Is that a good enough explanation for you, Horatio?"
Jennings, though he had been paying attention, held up a finger to silence Celeriac.
"Look at that torch," he said, gesturing to the burning torch the Gelert had lit earlier.
It was burning, but every now and then it was flickering, and flickering inwards.
"There must be a way out further down!" Jennings hissed, taking Celeriac by her arm and dragging her off down into the darkness of the cellar.
To be continued...