Chapter 18

In the Dungeon

"How could she have fallen for another guy in such a short time?" Ice turned to Dinn as he recalled his dim-witted version of story on how Rio got lost. "Now, I remember!" he snapped his fingers in thrill. "I thought Rio was so crazily and obsessively in love with you."

"I should've known." Echo sighed as he looked at Dinn. "You just made it all up, didn't you?"

"I never believed him, anyway." Bry shrugged.

"Come on, guys." Mav muttered in chuckle as he patted Dinn on the back. "Can we help it if our friend here has got one hell of an imagination?"

"Yeah, some great fantasy you've got there." Ice said dully.

Dinn was on the verge of exploding. He could feel his face heating up in embarrassment. They would not simply let him get away with this.

"Maybe it was really you who had always dreamed of kissing her." Ice accused, still pointing at Dinn.

"Shut up." Dinn glared at him. "Lying about something doesn't mean the truth is always the other way around."

"All right, we forgive you." Ice yawned in boredom and hunger.

"Just tell us the real story later." Echo added. "Or we might as well ask Rio about it."

"What is she thinking?" Dinn suddenly asked in disbelief. His thought was still on Rio's engagement. Somehow, he could not accept the fact that Rio was actually getting married. Maybe it was because of the timing. Or maybe it was the groom. Or it might actually be something else…

"Hey, Dinn. Just look at it this way." Ice tried to cheer him up. "If she gets married, you'll finally be able to get rid of her."

"That's not it, you idiot." Dinn scowled.

"Then, what?" Ice asked. Then, he eyed Dinn thoughtfully. "Don't tell me you're jealous."

But Dinn did not reply. Instead, he shot him a fierce look again. I'm not jealous. I just don't see anything good about this stupid engagement.

"Do you think the emperor would actually allow us to see her?" Ice asked doubtfully.

"I don't even think those soldiers really went to tell him about us." Mav replied.

"Excuse me. Do you still need water?" Mildred cut in.

"Please, if you don't mind." Mav said to her politely.

But as soon as Mildred got inside, a troop of soldiers came approaching. In a flash, they had surrounded Dinn's company.

"Arrest these men!" the captain commanded at his troop as he pointed at Dinn and the others.

"Wait! What the hell is happening here?" Dinn protested. Quickly, two soldiers stormed towards him.

"The emperor ordered us to lock you up in the dungeons." The leader told them.

"You've got it all wrong." Echo struggled as a couple of soldiers grabbed him by the arm. "We came here to see our friend."

"And she's marrying your stupid emperor!" Ice spat at his captors. "Is this the way you treat your honored guests?"

"What are you talking about?" the captain smirked. "The lady didn't even mention a single thing about you."

"I think Rio doesn't even know we're here." Mav, who had been chained in the wrists, said to his friends. Just then, Mildred came out with five mugs of water.

"What's happening here?' she demanded as she saw the fuss in front of her house.

"These men wanted to kill the lady you welcomed this afternoon." One soldier replied.

"You mean Rio?" Mildred glanced at Dinn in disbelief. "Is that why she looked exhausted when she arrived?"

"I don't care how she looked but we're not here to kill her! Don't you understand, you pea-brained idiots?" Dinn yelled at the soldiers in anger. "How many times do we have to say that?"

"You may repeat that as many times as you like until we reach the dungeons." The captain said as he signaled his troop to get going.

As they were being dragged away by the soldiers, Dinn glanced back at Mildred.

"When you see her again, please tell her about us!" Dinn yelled one last time before disappearing into the dark.

As she sat alone in the dining hall, she pondered on how she would be able to make Venric talk about the Manual of the Pearls. She could not simply blurt the subject out because it would surely give her a hard time explaining everything to him. She then realized the disadvantage of her lack of companions. No one would be there to back her up.

But telling Venric about her true intentions might break his heart. And she did not want to do that. He had been very kind to her in every way and it would be so ungrateful of her if she refused to grant his wish to marry her. But it was not just any wish. It involved a decision that would be really tough if ever she made it.

The tunnel leading to the dungeons felt damp, with soiled flooring and mossed stonewalls. Only a few torches lighted their way, as it seemed to be a never-ending path. The surrounding air smelled foul, making them lose their appetite despite of their hunger.

"This is hell in disguise." Dinn groaned.

"Are there snakes in here?" Ice asked.

"Keep quiet, you fool!" the soldier beside him scolded.

"Don't yell in my ear!" Ice shouted louder, ignoring the warning.

"Tell your conceited emperor that we're not yet through." Dinn called to the captain, who was leading the way. He was doing his best to control his temper and so far he had been successful in doing so.

And as soon as he said this, they turned left and a dead end came into view. A man stood in the middle of the blind alley, waiting for them. He was attired in a dark velvet cloak with a thick belt buckled on his waists that held his sheathed sword. His long wavy hair was slackly tied up in a low ponytail, revealing his beautiful face. When Venric saw them coming, he took a few steps forward and greeted them in a not-so-polite manner.

"So, I'm conceited, huh?" Venric sneered at them.

The five eyed him and quickly recognized him as the emperor. They were really surprised, as they thought all the while that Venric was already an old man. And that was one reason why Dinn was really irritated when they were told that Rio was engaged to him. But now, he knew why she agreed.

The length of the dining table stared back at Rio, still filled with every kind of food she could think of. There was no way she could finish it all up. And she knew exactly what was being done with leftovers—thrown away. But it would be a shame to dispose of all these delicious servings.

She remembered Venric telling her to do as she pleased. Then, without having any second thought, she grabbed an empty plate and got up from her seat. She studied each platter of food, some of which still remained untouched. I think Mildred will like this one. And she filled her plate with samples from everything served on the table.

When she was done, she left the dining hall right away. A while ago on her way to dinner, she had been keen to her surroundings, observing every corner that came her way and looking for signs of the Manual or anything that might help her. And likewise, on her way out, she did not fail to survey the place. She came across with a number of doors and even tried some of them, at least those that seemed to have something concealed behind them.

She could not do this sneaking a while ago because a couple of servants accompanied her. But now that she was alone, she could do anything she wanted, as Venric had told her, himself. And speaking of being alone, Rio noticed that there was not a single guard who would guard the corridors. She had not seen anyone patrolling while the servants were also nowhere in sight.

I wonder where everybody is. She thought to herself but she was sure she had not yet lost her way. And when she turned another corner, she found the front door that led outside at the end of the hallway. Carefully, she opened it and finally stepped out of the emperor's dwelling. It would be a short walk from there and back to Mildred's place.

The tension could be sensed between Venric and Dinn's company as they exchanged fierce looks. As of the moment, no one could tell what the outcome of this encounter might be.

"Bear in mind that we're not here to fight." Mav reminded his friends. "Venric is not the enemy so be very careful with your words. He's got something we need."

"Is it the lady?" Venric asked them, overhearing Mav's words.

"No, that's something we want." Dinn replied. "But there's another thing you've got that we need."

"And what is that?" Venric was suddenly curious.

"We've heard that the Manual of the Pearls is here in Hormazed." Mav began. "We need it to guide us in the restoration of the Oracle of Antasia."

"What are talking about?" Venric laughed as he found it insane.

"Don't tell me you haven't heard about it." Dinn muttered as they were taken aback by Venric's unexpected reaction.

"Actually, I have. But I've never been a believer." Venric simply replied.

"Well, it's about time that you change stance." Ice said.

"I'll never be fooled by shams like you." The emperor indignantly said.

"We've seen the oracle." Echo mentioned as proof. "You can also ask Rio about it if you want."

"Actually, it doesn't matter whether he believes us or not, as long as we get the Manual." Bry told the four, referring to Venric.

"Tell me, how are you gonna get it?" Venric asked them. "I don't even know where it is."

"What?" they cried in unison. "That's gonna help save Esplana from its doom."

"Nonsense!" Venric shouted at them. "Those childish things are nothing but myths. You can never make me believe in them."

"This is harder than I've thought." Mav said, shaking his head. This is probably what Antjé meant by inflexible and uncompromising. I wonder what Rio saw in him.

Still several paces away, Rio could already see Mildred standing by her doorstep, probably waiting for her. And when the woman saw her, she waved at her, signaling her to be quick. So Rio hurried up but was careful with her steps for she was still carrying the plate filled with food from dinner.

As soon as she reached the house, she wore a smile on her face, knowing Mildred would be glad about the food she brought home. But even before she was able to present her little piece of thoughtfulness, Mildred greeted her with the bigger news.

"Five young men came here a while ago, looking for you, my lady." Mildred began. "But then, Venric's soldiers arrested them for it turned out they were here to kill you."

"What?" Rio asked in daze as her smile slowly faded away. "Who would try to kill me?"

"I don't know, my lady." Mildred shook her head. "But these young men initially introduced themselves as your friends and even asked for water before the soldiers arrived. They seemed to have gone a long way from home."

Rio was suddenly in deep thought. She could not think of anyone who might want to kill her. But Venric probably knew about them and ordered his men to arrest them right away.

"Like you, they were also new in this place." Mildred added and that was when Rio recalled her almost-romantic dinner with the emperor, until it was interrupted by one of his soldiers who said that there had been some intruders in the fortress.

She suspected that this bunch of intruders and her so-called assassins were the same group of people. And somehow, she had a feeling that she knew who these people were. Trusting her instincts, she stated her question at once.

"Do you still remember their faces?" Rio asked Mildred.

"It was too dark, my lady. But I knew that one of them had dark hair, the one who approached me first." Mildred replied. "When they were being dragged away, he even asked me to tell you about them."

That's probably Dinn. Rio thought hopefully. But they can't be here. And besides, why would they want to kill me? Unless Venric mistook them for criminals.

"I think one of them was red-head, too." Mildred added as she tried to recall more of their features.

That's Mav. Rio went on with her conclusions. And they know that I'm here.

"It was so rude of them to claim that they knew you." Mildred continued. "Now, I couldn't even stand the idea that they were your friends."

"They are my friends." Rio muttered in conviction. "Why did Venric order them to be arrested?"

"Are you sure, my lady?" Mildred asked in shock. "The emperor wants nothing more than your safety."

"Of course, I'm sure." Rio replied defensively. Now, she was in panic as another problem came her way. "Where did the soldiers take them?"

"In the dungeons, I think." Mildred answered.

In the dungeons? Why did they have to be taken there? I'm sure they haven't done anything wrong for them to be treated this way. Oh, poor them. She could not help but to feel sorry for them as she stared at the platter of food she held with both hands. Then, an idea came into her mind.

"Were you able to give them water before they got arrested?" she asked Mildred.

"No, my lady." She replied. "But I still have the salver prepared inside."

"Good." Rio grinned, amused by her idea. "Now, will you accompany me into the dungeons?"

Mildred could not refuse. She carried the platter that Rio had brought as a water jug clung onto her waists. Rio walked beside her, a torch in her hand. She ignored the filthiness of the place, as she was determined to see her friends. Every now and then, she would come across a rat and some other pests and she saw them, she could not help but imagine their state right at this moment.

Then, as they went deeper, she noticed an odd thing about the place.

"How come there are no guards in here?" Rio asked Mildred.

"There's no need to watch over the prisoners, my lady." she replied. "They can't get out of Hormazed, anyway."

Suddenly, amidst the silence, she heard a rhythmic tapping from afar. It sounded like someone bored out of his wits. Then, heading for the direction where the sound was coming from, she dashed her way until she had reached a cell facing a lighted torch on the opposite wall. It was a rectangular room with an arched ceiling and a small window on the wall behind. The front was entirely made of metal bars suspended from the beam above, keeping prisoners from escaping. And leaning on the bars was a man, rapping the metal with a stone.

"Ice!" Rio cried out when she recognized him.

"Rio!" Everyone exclaimed when they saw her approaching. They all rushed towards the bars and held onto them as they spoke to her. Rio could tell that they were really glad to see her.

"Shh!" she hushed them.

"How are you?" Mav asked her in a smile.

"I'm fine." Rio smiled as well.

"What are you doing here?" Dinn asked her.

"What are you doing here?" she asked back. "I thought I had left you all in Nuallan for good."

"This guy here couldn't simply live without you." Ice said to Rio in a sneer as he nudged Dinn on the side.

"Shut up." Dinn frowned at him.

"Why are you dressed like that?" Echo asked Rio, as they studied the peach dress she was wearing. Actually, it looked perfect on her.

"I'm the future queen of this empire." She replied, grinning at them as she did a curtsy.

"You're joking." They all muttered in unison.

"Of course, I'm joking." Rio laughed at them for they almost fell for it. "But I must admit that I'm really infatuated in him. He's simply gorgeous. You've met the emperor already, right?"

"Yeah." Dinn groaned as he rolled his eyes in weary. "He's dumb."

"Who knows? After this mission, I might actually reconsider his marriage proposal." Rio added.

"That's another joke, right?" Dinn suddenly woke up from his boredom and stared at Rio.

"Just suit yourself. You're free to fall for anyone you like." Ice told her. "But please, do take my advice. Never for someone like the guy I know." He added as he glanced sideways at Dinn.

"Don't worry, I've crossed him out already." Rio winked. "By the way, are you all okay?"

"We're hungry." Everyone groaned.

"Here, I brought you food and drink." She smiled as she motioned for Mildred to come closer.

"Oh, Rio. You're an angel of mercy!" Ice cheered.

"I'm sorry, it's not much." Rio took the platter from Mildred and slid it into gap between the horizontal base at the bottom of the metal bars and the floor. Then, Mildred gave them the water jug.

"Better than nothing." Ice felt hungrier than ever as he received the plate. Then, everyone started off with his meal.

"I gotta go." Rio said as she watched them eat. "I feel like I'm feeding five pitiful animals."

"You mean five pretty-ful animals." Ice muttered in mouthful.

"Where are you going?" Dinn asked her. "Aren't you gonna let us out first?"

"Well, I guess I'm the only one who could save all of you, huh?" she realized, placing her hands on her waists. "Venric asked me to come to his chambers tonight."

"What? Why?" Dinn choked out, surprised by her announcement. "What does he want?"

"I don't know." Rio shrugged.

"Then, don't go anymore. Just look for the Manual and let us out of this stinking place." Dinn added, obvious that he was completely against Venric.

"That's what I'm trying to do, you moron." She snapped at him.

"And you're actually coming?" Dinn went on. This time, he already stopped eating.

"I think I should." Rio replied thoughtfully.

"Are you nuts?" Dinn suddenly stood up from his place and faced her. Everyone watched him as he stated all the reasons he could think of just to prevent Rio from going. "How long have you known this guy? Half a day? And now he invites you to his chambers and you simply give in? Just like that?"

"I didn't know you'd care." Rio stared at him in wonder. Then, she turned to the others. "Don't worry, guys. I know what I'm doing. He won't harm me. He can't harm me." she assured them. "I'm going there just to ask him a few things and try to convince him to release you. And besides, maybe he's got the Manual that's why I couldn't find it anywhere."

And with that, she left them in complete silence as they watched her disappear behind a corner.