Again, Sally felt that crush; once more she had to deal with that feeling of intense change. Every time she thought it would be the end of her current life, it was delayed. She had that buffer between college and Oakwood and then again between the tourney and graduation. She hoped that this would be end of her torture, slightly more painful than pain tolerance class.
The car ride must’ve taken hours, but again, without explanation to their driver, they stood at the front door of the closed Royal Palace.
Tom pulled at the door just as Stein arrived with a gentle, “Hello.”
As they acknowledged him, they noticed there was no one at the door.
Stein said impatiently, “My watch just struck eight. Today’s the right day right?”
Tom pulled again, and heard a metallic click. This time, the door was unlocked, and the inviting darkness was untainted. As the three went in and closed the door, the boyish prince opened the lights to the same room as the week before.
He was more composed, carrying a truly regal look that lacked naiveté. He had his scepter, and his clothing was equally luxurious. He wore a radiant yellow blazer, but his lower body was more subtle, with grey pants. A glimpse of a bright red shirt could be seen, a mature side to his childish outfit.
“Have you made your final decisions?”
Yes, Yes, Yes, rang out in delayed symphony. Their fate was sealed long ago, and their meeting with Nicholas would be equivalent even if it was someone else. They each gained inspiration, and fear, from different sources, but reason held little significance for them.
“Okay. From now on, I require your undeniable secrecy. You will not share details of employment or missions without my permission,” He was not like a child anymore.
“You will cooperate with me and my other agents without question. Your rank and upbringing will be irrelevant and I will not use honorifics, as per policy. However this gives you the opportunity to address your prince without them as well. If in any case, your relations ask you of your job, you will reply simply saying that you’re a knight of Lodestone, and you’re required to remain on standby twenty-four hours. You will not receive titles of nobility for your service for the time being, and monetary rewards will be discussed later.”
He broke off his monotonous tone, “It’s not like you joined for those things, anyway. I believe I would’ve known.”
Nicholas signaled them to follow with a wave. At this point, everything was possible. They stopped in an empty service room and he pulled on a locked and camouflaged trapdoor on the orange tile floor. Even the keyhole was cleverly disguised with a sliding piece on top of it. The prince heard Stein, Sally, and Tom breathe as they followed down the lengthy grey stairs.
The damp, but clean and well-lighted path led to a heavy oaken wooden door. Tom definitely expected a dungeon-like environment behind it. Nick had to use all his strength to pull on the door, and as he stepped into the structure’s foyer, he waited for his comrades’ reactions.
The entirety of the walls was covered with borderless electronic panels. Instead of lighting on the ceiling, light was provided by these displays, which replayed recordings of wonderful natural scenes. The ones right now were of a desert sunset. Even if it didn’t seem realistic up close, looking at them collectively at a distance created a harmonizing effect.
Tom looked and saw that the central living room, with its common furniture, also had the panels. He also saw the corner of another room, but it seemed only the common rooms had them.
Nick noted his curiosity, as well as the others’ disbelief. Stein and Sally were fair in their judgement, none of the experiences of the last week felt real.
“These are ultra-conservative LED displays. Since we’re underground and cannot have windows, we have to match the time of day with these. Any of you know the Tinker? It’s not his design but his idea. He speaks of body rhythms and whatnot. Of course, we’ve moderated it with panels only in the foyer, the living room, and the hallway between them. Please Tom, don’t peek into other people’s rooms just because the door in open.”
“Why isn’t anything on the ceiling, or between the gaps where they can’t fit?” Sally inquired.
“One, you answered it yourself. Second, it has to feel like we’ll still inside a building. I think it’s neat. It looks like we’re underneath a tent,” He beamed. The small gaps were daintily painted with binary colors, with a woody brown in the living area and a snow white in the foyer. One could sit down and stare at the wall for hours.
Nick decided the first thing to do would be to take care of rooming. He led them down a plain hallway that had about five doors at either side. Apparently, only four doors were decorated. One was painted with grey and black horizontal stripes, one with Lodestone colors, but the other two, which were across the hall, were plainer.
One was made out of finished mahogany wood without decoration and the other had a decorative doorframe trim, but was otherwise unpainted.
After each picking their rooms, which were all empty, except for beds, desks, and dressers, they were told in a hearty voice by Nick to, “Go unpack later I want you to show you around.”
Nick assembled them in the living room, after showing them a small kitchen, and a curiously open space he called the ‘training room’.
It had a high ceiling, off-white wall without any panels, with various weights and equipment littered onthe floor. Tom swore he saw a naked sword in the mess. It was large enough for three people to use at a time, and it could host dozens if all the mess was replaced with proper furniture.
“Okay, that’s the last of it. We live rather poorly, since we don’t have much space. The others are all in their rooms. I think I heard Ella in her office. I didn’t want to disturb her,” Nick said, as if trying to hide something. He mumbled the last sentence quickly, ashamedly.
Tom wondered about how the other people he would live with were like, but his attention was diverted when Nicholas sat down in the living room, with all its chairs and couches. They could see that the sun was just setting. Digital Reds painted the walls.
He spoke distantly, “As you know, knights are divided into squads, including about two hundred that are reserved for the municipality of Lodestone’s capital city. We are the undocumented Zero Squad of this city, created and regulated directly by the throne. With our now seven members, we’re in charge of special operations regarding the presence of darklings in the streets. The reason why you were selected was because within Oakwood you seemed like irregulars, not fit for formal training or deployment as standard knights. All irregulars pass through Zero Squad for at least a few days until I decide whether you stay. If not, you will have to remain confidential and will be returned to standard service. I understand the disparity between you and the other members, who are all veterans of at least two years, so please get along.”
Sally and Tom were speechless. Stein looked displeased, like when a guilty criminal receives the verdict. He knew that being chosen out of the group was dangerous, but then he realized that he could be a more of a knight in this Zero Squad.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t say so otherwise. It wouldn’t have been right either way.”
Stein eased himself and spoke first, with a smile, “I wouldn’t have it any other way, your majes-, Nick.”
Nick found himself returning the smile; he looked around and Tom was emulating it, unknowingly.
“And you, Sally Blanc?”
She met his eyes for a moment but she also noticed another figure in the corner of her vision, concealed by the twilight, “If we’re not cut out for the job, the system would take care of it by itself.”
“Hello. I care not to interrupt,” she said, “You must be the new members. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. My name is Eleanor, and you must be Sally. I am a court mage”
Sally nodded as she noticed the indifference and condescension in her voice. Her judgmental introduction had an air of adult dignity and caution. Eleanor regurgitated it like a script.
She turned to the boys, with a frigid gaze. Stein and Tom returned with their names, unintimidated. Then, she seemed to catch herself, and her expression softened, if only for a moment.
It was the same girl Sally saw before with Nick, only that in person she seemed younger, and more stressed. She had alien eyes: her left one was plainly green like Sally’s or Tom’s, but the other displayed central heterochromia and had brown.
Immediately, she felt the others looking at her right eye and forced a nervous laugh, and then said in a sophisticated manner, “Relax. It’s genetic, not any injury. Our job is safe enough if we take caution.”
Tom thought her lie would be comical, but not the reason for it. There was nothing wrong with it, so why hide the details, if it wasn’t genetic.
She wore slim black slacks and a white dress shirt, making her look like an underage office worker.
“I take my leave, milord, “She said as she stepped through to her mahogany door. There was a quiet niceness in her voice, not like what she had said to the others.
She somehow still had the ability to properly address the prince, Tom thought. She was the Ella Nick had mentioned, who almost lived in the office.
Nick spoke up,” I apologize. She deals with so much work she’s out of it until mealtime. I think she’s overworking but she insists that I do not do any of the paperwork associated with Zero Squad. She also writes my speeches.”
Tom remembered the silly notecard he had; he thought it was an icebreaker in an otherwise serious situation.
Nick paced, “Okay, you can go now. Everyone else is in their room, and you’ll meet them soon enough. We’ll have some food in an hour. The person who usually cooks, and is the only adult here, is lying sick. You’ll see Mr. Lawrence is a good one.”
That leaves one, he thought.
Nick didn’t stop, and headed over to the room with the door trim. He inhaled for a moment and showed the three new recruits some hesitation, “Luna, Luna, the new members are here. Would you like to see them?”
A disgruntled but soft voice returned, “I’m not ready right now, lord. And I took the liberty of eating while you were out.”
“Were you planning on avoiding them?”
“Not particularly but I need to catch a rest,” She called out from the door.
Nick turned to Stein first, him being the most surprised and addressed him jokily, “Well, we conduct mostly night raids on the days we work. We have our sleep anyway we can.”
In the meantime, he didn’t notice Sally sneak away the moment this Luna said no.