The sullen boy had the blue CRV ready when Neola told Erasmus about the plan of action. Emma felt as though the group was going around in circles. They had just arrived from the castle and now they were going back! Emma tried to control her crankiness by thinking about seeing Celicia once again. She couldn’t explain it. There was something about the princess which Emma just admired. Maybe it was the way she commanded respect or the way she seemed to be a natural leader. She seemed neat whereas Neola seemed sort of clumsy.
This time, Emma observed looked out the window when a more pressing thought crossed her mind. “Hey, Charlie,” she said to which Charlie grunted in reply. “Why do you get to ride shotgun?”
“Er, ’cause I was here first.”
“I’m riding shotgun on the way back.”
“What? That’s not fair!”
“Yeah? Neola, what do you think?”
“I don’t think this is an argument worth having,” replied Neola who was thinking of how the Defenders were going to protect Rhodri. She knew she could rely on Celicia to make sure that he was well guarded at all times. Emma and Charlie fell silent when they realised that Neola wasn’t actually paying any attention to them.
Emma went back to looking outside while Charlie rolled down the windows and poked his head out to better observe the trees. His attention was especially caught by a species with thick, yellow leaves and red fruits, which he couldn’t identify, growing on its branches.
Soon, the stones and rocks and wonderful trees thinned down to be replaced with the cobblestoned roads. Neola drove even faster along the road, turning left and right and left and so on until the castle was in front of them. Neola parked outside the gates like before. She didn’t even wait for Charlie and Emma to open their doors and ran straight inside. The guards were familiar with her and they let her pass. However, when the two children attempted to enter, the guards held them back.
“Neola!” called Emma. “Uh, I think you’re forgetting something.”
Neola was halfway across the courtyard when she turned and realised that the children weren’t with her. She smiled sheepishly and hurried back. Emma couldn’t help thinking that Celicia wouldn’t have rushed like that. She bit her lip and twirled a strand of her dark hair around a finger.
This time, the three made their way through the courtyard, and into the castle, through the archway. Celicia met them right in front of the grand staircase.
“Thank goodness you’re here, Neola,” said Celicia. “I thought I was going to lose it in the meeting.”
“Meeting?” asked Charlie before he could stop himself.
Celicia frowned at him but said, “Yes, a meeting with the Council of Regency.” She redirected her focus back to Neola. “I swear, the Council comprises of the biggest bunch of imbeciles you will ever encounter.”
“We heard about the prince,” said Neola. “How’s Rhodri holding up?”
“What do you think?” snapped Celicia. “Our father just passed away and his tutor was impaled in front of his eyes!” Then Celicia grimaced and gripped her hands tightly.
“I’m sorry, Neola. The Council is really getting on my nerves. Why are you here?”
“Did anyone see anything suspicious? And do you have Rhodri heavily guarded?”
“Of course,” said Celicia solemnly. “I’m not stupid, Neola. And no, the attack was completely unexpected and I’ve sent a dozen guards around the castle to look for a sign or a clue.”
“Okay, if you have everything under control…?”
“Don’t worry, Neola,” replied Celicia calmly. “You’ll be the first to know if anything happens and I know you’ll get the Defenders all riled up. Well, you and Murlyn.”
Neola smiled at that. “I’ll take my leave then.” She was about to go back through the archway when Emma cleared her throat loudly. “Right,” said Neola, smiling sheepishly at Emma. “Er, Celicia, can I leave Charlie and Emma at the castle, please?”
“Really?” snapped Celicia.
Charlie frowned. Celicia’s sudden mood changes were as turbulent as the relentless waves in the deep ocean.
“I don’t want them to interfere with our work.” Neola looked extremely uncomfortable but was still able to manage a firm tone.
“You really think they’d be safe here? With an assassin on the loose?”
“What? Seriously?” Neola blinked in surprise. “Great! I’ll just be on my way then.”
Charlie was tempted to call after Neola. He didn’t like the look in Celicia’s eyes as she had agreed. He couldn’t help thinking that she had something worse in store for him. He glanced over at Emma and was surprised to find her staring at Celicia in a sycophantic manner. He sighed miserably. It seemed as though he was the only one who didn’t trust her. But then he thought of how terrible and boring life was back home and steeled himself to face this new challenge with an open mind and a courageous heart.
“Wait, Neola.” Celicia had a huge smile plastered on her face. “We need to catch up on everything. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
Neola grinned widely. “It has, it has.”
“Come whenever you’re free, I’ll make time for you.”
“We’ll be like school girls again.” Neola’s smile suddenly dimmed. “I don’t know if I’ll ever have the time. Murlyn keeps bombarding me with assignments although there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“The only reason Murlyn keeps giving you work is because you’re the smartest out of all of those other Defenders.” Neola blushed a bright purple. “Hey, I’m the reason you even went to school so he owes me one. And, Neola, you’re staying for a snack.”
“I really mustn’t–”
“Only for a while then.”
Emma furrowed her brows. She made a mental note to ask Neola about Celicia paying for her education later.
Back in the crypt, all was silent except for the occasional sniffle or sob. The plastic candles barely provided any light but what they did illuminate were the skulls sitting on the shelves. Jo felt as if the skulls, with unwavering, hollowed gaze, was keeping an eye on them. The skulls were tinged with yellow and looked as though they would collapse any second yet they held so much power; the power of fear.
Jo shook her head. These were dead people looking at her. No, not even dead people but objects; objects which couldn’t feel scared or empathise. She gave an involuntary shudder.
“You alright?” asked Hayden softly.
Jo jerked her head to face Hayden. She hadn’t realised he was scrutinising her this whole time. “Yeah,” she managed to say. Then added, “You?” to be polite.
“I’ve been better.” Hayden chuckled quietly. “How old are you?”
“I have a sister who’s fifteen.”
“That’s nice,” replied Jo for lack of a better reply.
“Her name’s Emma.”
“There’s a girl in my school named Emma.”
“Oh. That’s nice.”
The two abruptly turned away from each other, each enveloped in their own silent thoughts. Hayden was the first to break the silence. “Why do you think we’re here?”
Jo was nervous. This was the first time a boy was talking to her without asking for help on homework. She wished she could say something witty but ended up saying, “I don’t know.”
“We have to find a way out.”
“The only way out has been sealed.” Jo looked miserably around the crypt. The skulls’ malicious grins seemed to have widened. She clenched her hands into fists trying not to scare herself.
“Maybe there’s a way to untie these knots.” Hayden smiled. “I like knots.”
Jo looked down at her bound wrists. It was true that they were bound with rope but the knot looked like nothing she had ever seen in her life. It wasn’t one of those simple, tight loops. The Felician knot is one of the strongest knots ever to be created. It’s as hard to untie as it is to tie. The origin of this knot isn’t very clear, perhaps the first voyagers brought it over with them, but at the moment, Jo couldn’t appreciate the beauty of something as mundane as twisted string.
Jo bit her lip and looked at Hayden who shrugged. “Okay, maybe not.” He didn’t say anything more but his countenance was shrouded with rumination. Jo secretly hoped that he would continue their conversation. She couldn’t think of anything to say so she kept quiet.
Hayden was absorbed in his thoughts when he realised, a little late, that the sobs of a little boy next to him were becoming more and more intense. Hayden placed both his hands on the boy’s shoulder who flinched. “Hey, it’ll be alright,” he said and instantly regretted it. It was nice to comfort someone but mean to give false hope.
Hayden thought about what might lighten the mood, even a bit. He loved listening to stories although his mother seemed to think he had become too old for them when he begged her for one at thirteen. “Once,” he started shakily. “There was a little girl and a little boy.” He paused as he felt everyone’s eyes scour the crypt for the voice until they settled on him.
“Continue, Hayden,” whispered Jo who couldn’t help liking the honey-colour haired boy.
Hayden raised his voice a bit, just a bit, as words slipped out of his mouth and into the air. “Both had dreams of becoming knights. Both had dreams of serving their king. Both had dreams of bringing well-being and prosperity to the kingdom and its people. But this was a next-to-impossible task as their family had sunk deep into the seemingly endless chasms of poverty.
“Yet, they did not give up. They trained hard every day, from dawn till dusk, until one day, they weren’t a little girl and a little boy anymore. When the time came for them to leave home and seek their fortunes, they arrived at the king’s annual knighting contest.
“When the girl-who-wasn’t-little-anymore announced herself, she was met with jeers from the crowd and other knights watching. Even the king was trying to suppress his laughter. But she knew that she would have to–”
The trap door suddenly swung open and Hayden saw Io and Earl descend down the stairs, looking around as if they were searching for someone. The horrible realisation came to him when their eyes met his. Earl made his way around the silent children. The man was carrying a knife with him and Hayden’s eyes widened. Was this how his life was going to end? He could sense Jo tense beside him and knew she was going through the same thoughts as him.
Without thinking it through, he clutched Jo’s hand which was hard because of their bound wrists.
Jo felt her face heating up and her palms started sweating. But at the same time, it felt good to be able to provide any sort of comfort to another. It was the epitome of innocence. There were no weird, fanciful feelings or erotic connection involved. It was a gesture controlled by fear and puzzlement.
To their surprise, Earl simply cut the rope around Hayden’s ankle which connected him to all the other children and Jo. Earl shoved Hayden towards Io, causing him to nearly trip over a few bodies. Io held Hayden tightly while Earl bridged the gap where Hayden had been tied. Once Earl had finished tying the complicated knot, he grabbed Hayden once more, roughly pushing him forward.
Hayden looked back at the wide eyes staring at him from all around the crypt. Then he caught Jo’s penetrating gaze. They all had frightened expressions and Hayden knew that his countenance was a reflection of theirs. He mustered up all the courage and determination that he could and even managed a smile before he faced forward and submitted to Earl’s relentless pushing.