A Place in the Country: Part Three
"I can assure you, there isn't a way out," Celeriac insisted as Jennings pressed on into the endless dark of the cellar. "This entire building is designed to be resistant to attack."
Jennings paused in his progress. "It is working remarkably well then."
"Oh, this hardly counts!" she protested.
"Never the less, there was a draft coming from down here, which means an exit," Jennings told her. "Is this place built on any cave networks?"
"No," Celeriac answered flatly. "Lowchester has soft rock foundations, it would be impossible."
"Aha!" Jennings said, coming to a stop.
He held the burning torch up to the ceiling. There was a trap door there, hanging open.
"It looks newer than the surrounding masonry," Jennings pointed out as he grabbed a barrel and climbed up.
He offered a hand down to Celeriac, who took it willingly.
The pair found themselves in a small room, the walls lined with tools.
"Neville's shed!" Celeriac gasped.
"My gardener," Celeriac answered. "This is his shed; we must be in the grounds. The rascal!"
"He's built himself a trap door into the cellar so he can help himself to the kitchens when everyone is asleep!" she guessed. "When he gets back to work, there shall be questions to be answered!"
"Indeed," Jennings said, taking a rake from the wall and testing it for weight. "But right now, we have more pressing matters, such as the thieves currently ransacking your home."
Celeriac's eyes narrowed through the window towards her house, and she took a pair of shears from the rack. "Let's go."
"Boss! Boss! I found it!" a Gnorbu came rushing into the ballroom.
He presented a gleaming diamond to the Yurble.
"Excellent, boys!" Bane smiled. "That's our cue to leave. Round up the others, it's time to go."
The Gnorbu ran off out of the ballroom.
Out in the corridor, he called out to his friends, "Barry! Fox! Time to go!"
No response came, "Barry? Fox?"
The Gnorbu climbed the stairs towards where he had last seen his fellow thieves. He readied his knife, just in case.
"You guys there?" he ventured.
The Gnorbu shuffled forwards a little bit more, whilst behind him Jennings emerged from an alcove. Using the rake, he swept the Gnorbu off his feet and sent him toppling down the staircase. He reached the bottom and sprawled unconscious on the floor.
"That makes three," Jennings whispered to Celeriac as she emerged from a nearby alcove. "One more."
"Bane is mine," she hissed in response.
Bane heard the doors to the ballroom click open, but the absence of the telltale scurrying of his minions alerted him to something being wrong. He spun, drawing and firing his crossbow in one clean movement.
The arrow sailed straight into a panel of fencing taken from the garden, with Mr. Jennings peeking out from behind. Celeriac meanwhile was standing next to him, and before Bane could reload, she threw a trowel directly at his head. It impacted with a somewhat satisfying dull thump, and Bane collapsed to the floor.
The gathered crowd of terrified guests abruptly burst into applause.
It was time for Jennings to leave. Mr. Black was already packing the luggage onto the carriage as Jennings watched on. Lady Celeriac soon joined him on the steps, a pristine new dress on display for all to see.
"I have an update from Meridell Castle," she announced. "It seems Bane managed to escape on route, though his underlings are still in custody. He apparently still has the diamond with him."
"You seem curiously calm," Jennings observed. "Considering that he has just stolen a very valuable diamond from you."
"A diamond I never possessed in the first place," Celeriac corrected him, but eyed Jennings's cane suspiciously.
"Regardless, a happy Year Fourteen to you, Horatio," she added. "Or, what is it in Shenkuu? I am always so confused by your calendar."
"Certainly not my calendar," he was quick to correct her. "I haven't ever lived in Shenkuu, you know that. But you are right, it is very confusing. The second Emperor, he commanded the scholars in the Lunar Temple create a calendar with a different name for each year – sufficed to say, they ran out of ideas quite fast. That is why we have just left the Year of the Slightly Off-White Cloud and have just entered the Year of the Strained Metaphor."
"Well, a very happy Year of the Strained Metaphor to you, then," Celeriac said, a smile on her face.
"And you too," Jennings answered, and then added after a pause, "How is the Marquis?"
"I have heard that he will make a full recovery," Celeriac revealed. "Though I daresay he will have a limp for some time. I could not have forgiven myself if anything serious had happened to such an old friend."
There was silence for a few moments before Jennings spoke. He found the words somehow awkward to voice aloud.
"I have been thinking, I... enjoy your company. I was wondering, if you may consent to moving closer to Neopia Central."
Celeriac sighed, a sad sound that Jennings wished he had not heard.
"In a different life, I would have liked nothing better," she answered. "Do not misunderstand, I am fond of your company, but we have chosen our paths in life already. There is a place in your heart filled to the brim with Neopia Central, as there is a place for Meridell in mine. We love our cities, Horatio, and anything else in life would merely be second best. I could no more consider leaving Meridell than you could consider leaving Neopia Central."
"I merely thought..."
"I know," she nodded. "I have thought the same. But people like you and I, we have made commitments to our countries – happiness is a luxury we cannot indulge."
Jennings nodded reluctantly. "I quite understand, it was foolish of me to even suggest it."
There was silence again, a pressing silence of embarrassment that Jennings was not used to being on the receiving end of.
"However," Celeriac considered. "I should very much like to stay in contact with you. Perhaps you would consent to correspondence?"
Jennings smiled. "Yes, I would like nothing better."
He wasn't sure if she understood, but he had really meant that.
In front of them, Mr. Black had finished loading the carriage. He gave a little nod to Jennings to signify that they were ready.
"Then I suppose this is goodbye," Jennings said.
"For now, perhaps," Celeriac considered. "I'm sure we'll be seeing each other again."
"I hope so," Jennings replied, walking off towards his carriage.
Black held the door open for him, and then climbed atop to take charge of the reins – they were soon underway.
Jennings watched Lowchester disappear through his little window. It was a strange feeling, he was somehow happier for having visited. In the weeks to come it would be the happiest moment he could recall, but in that small moment, he was at once revolted.
He had let the place in, the exact thing he wasn't planning on doing. The countryside had infected his mind despite his best efforts. Jennings shook his head. It was time to dispel thoughts of rural idealism. He was returning to the city, to his city, and his chosen life.
That was when he noticed his cane. The diamond atop it glinted in a strange way, reflecting the Meridell sun in a way it hadn't done on the incoming journey. He at once grabbed it, and examined it closely. The gem atop had always been cut glass, a worthless little trinket designed to give the impression of something it was not – but now, now it almost seemed to be the real thing. Jennings noted the marks on the top of the cane, as if someone had scratched it while trying to prize the diamond from the top.
Jennings glanced back towards Lowchester in the distance.
"Clever... very clever," he mused.
Celeriac had switched diamonds, probably while he was at the party. The cut glass had been removed and replaced with the genuine article – the Obsidian Heart. Bane had stolen something inherently worthless, and Celeriac had removed the original from her home in case her former employee discovered the trickery and came looking.
She could never have sold the diamond, it was too rare – too valuable. And simply throwing away such a thing would never have sat right with her. After all, she had stolen the diamond to undermine the Moltaran government, not for the prize itself.
Jennings wondered now if the entire reason for his invitation had been for that – had Celeriac heard that Bane was back in the country? He had been played quite expertly.
Normally, of course, he would have been angry. Most of the time he would already have been plotting revenge.
But as he flicked the secret button that made the black cane slide away to reveal the blade hidden within, he couldn't help but feel a sense of admiration for the woman he had just left. She was good, very good.
He swung the sword experimentally; it still handled just the same.
Quietly, he placed it back into the cane and heard it lock with a satisfying click.
Jennings didn't know it, but there would be battles ahead. Times when he would have to fight for everything he believed in.
But that was the future, a story for another time.
For now, he merely sat back in his chair and watched the rolling hills pass by. It was, all things considered, quite quaint.