What Happened to Ella?
The self-drive car pulled to a stop outside of the cinema on Electric Avenue where two teenage boys, Bruno and Leonardo, hopped out and rushed towards the building.
"Contact me as soon as the film is done and I'll come down and meet you," a voice called to them from the car that was still waiting at the curb.
"Okay Ella," Bruno called back, turning and nodding at his older cousin. Elladora had shared one of the academy’s self-drive cabs with the boys on her way to a party at Upendo Hall where her friend and classmate Chi was hosting an end of year bash.
"We could go back to the dormitory by ourselves," the other boy, Leonardo suggested helpfully. "Incase you want to stay at the party longer."
Ella smiled and shook her head, "No, that's ok. I'm only making an appearance at the party because I was invited, I'm not really in the party mood. Besides when I come back to collect you, I'll take you to the holo-cade," she said teasingly as she watched the boys' faces light up.
"Really? Thanks cousin!" Bruno said excitedly.
"Thanks Ella," Leonardo called, equally excited.
"That's ok. Just remember to call me as soon as the film is over. It will take me about 15 minutes to get back here so wait for me at the milkshake parlour."
"Ok!" The boys said in unison. This night was getting better and better. Cool movie, the milkshakes and after that the holo-cade? They would have more fun in the next few hours than they had, had all year.
“See you later,” Ella said as the car began to drive away. She turned around and watched as the two boys hurried inside the cinema only turning around when they were out of sight.
“It seems you have a busy night ahead of you,” the car chirped conversationally as Ella settled back into her seat.
“True,” Ella agreed, she was familiar with the car having driven in him hundreds of times at least, his name was Barry and he was one of the more eccentric of the academy’s vehicles. “But it’s worth it,” she continued. “ I want Bruno to have a good time before we go back to Thoth tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I can imagine.” Barry the car replied as he merged into the motorway and headed towards the Diamond district where the palatial homes of the most wealthy Adharians were located. “Prince Bruno’s had a hard couple of years. I’m sorry about your aunt and uncle.”
“Thank you,” Ella replied, falling into an unhappy silence. Her aunt and uncle the King and Queen of Thoth had been killed two years previously in a terrible accident aboard their new spaceship. Bruno, their youngest son had been due to travel with them but at the last minute a change of plans had seen the then 10 year old prince left behind with his four older brothers. Bruno had never forgiven himself for surviving and Ella had been doing everything in her power to make her younger cousin feel normal again. She knew what it was like to be an orphan.
Ella’s reverie was interrupted by the sound of Barry the car saying, “We have arrived at Upendo Hall.” At which time the distracted marchioness noticed that they had come to a stop outside the main entrance of the palace.
“Oh sorry,” Ella laughed apologetically. “I didn’t even realise we were here.”
“That’s quite all right, my lady,” Barry replied, sliding his door open so that Ella could alight.
Ella climbed out of the car with the aid of a servant who was standing by. Checking her Com-D she noted that the time for the screening of ‘Toecreepers’, the film the boys had gone to see, had come and gone. “Meet me here in two hours,” Ella ordered, turning back to Barry, who was in the process of closing his door. Barry agreed and Ella climbed the steps and walked into the palace.
Bruno and Leonardo sat in the milkshake parlour downing their fourth milkshake apiece when a simultaneous ping told them that their nanny bots had been awakened. A second later the tiny devices they perpetually carried unfolded and two robots stood in front of them, Constantina and Fuzzipaws.
“What’s this? What’s this?” Constantina demanded, grabbing Bruno’s face and looking into his eyes. “You’ve been overdosing on milkshake?”
“No,” Bruno protested, quickly wiping his mouth with his handkerchief.
“And you Nardo? You’ve also turned into a milkshake fiend?” Fuzzipaws asked with a saddened look in her eyes
“No, I… We only had a few,” Leonardo replied looking desperately at Bruno for support.
“Ella said we could,” Bruno put in, not hesitating to drop his cousin in it. “She told us to wait here for her.”
“Really?” Constantina replied, setting her hands akimbo. “Where is she then?” the robot asked rhetorically, looking around.
“She said she would only be 15 minutes.” Bruno insisted looking down at his Com-D. “Oh.”
“Oh what? What is it?” Constantina asked angrily, stiffening up her hand and getting ready to apply some discipline. “Don’t try to trick me!”
“I’m not,” Bruno said, showing the Nannybot his Com-D. Ella said she’d only be 15 minutes but I sent her a message an hour and a half ago,” the boy explained. “I didn’t realise the time had gone.”
“Too busy slurping down milkshakes?” Fuzzipaws asked sarcastically, narrowing her eyes as she looked at Leonardo who was looking away shamefaced.
“Try your cousin again,” Constantina ordered, allowing her hand to relax a little. “It’s not like Ella to be late. She’s a good girl,” the Nanny-bot said pointedly. Ella’s a good girl, not like you naughty boys was what she meant.
Bruno clicked away at his Com-D and listened as it rang but there was no answer. “She’s not answering,” the boy explained, looking up from the device with a worried expression on his face.
“Maybe Ella’s having so much fun at the party that she forgot about us,” Leonardo suggested helpfully.
“Ella wouldn’t forget about me,” Bruno snapped. Ella was his only female cousin and had always been like an older sister to him, but since his parents had died she had become more of a mother figure, caring for and looking after him even more than his older brothers. “She wouldn’t,” he repeated in a more sedate tone.
“All right,” Constantina said, lowering her hand. “I’ll interface with Esperanza and find out what’s going on.”
Bruno, Leonardo and Fuzzipaws watched as Constantina turned away and attempted to make a connection with Ella’s nannybot, a robot called Esperanza who would be ending her service with the Marchioness in a few months when the latter turned 21.
In the Alliance every child had a personal robot that helped to care for and raise them throughout their childhood until their twenty-first birthday. Nannybots went everywhere with their charges, compacted into an almost impossibly small capsule that could be carried in a pocket or bag. Despite the Reapers Rule that granted all under twenty-ones with de facto immortality, if a nannybot sensed that her charge was in danger she would activate herself and protect the child against any threat because though children couldn’t be killed,
“That’s strange,” Constantina muttered, turning back to the others. “Esperanza isn’t acknowledging my request to interface.”
“See!” Leonardo said, punching Bruno’s arm. “I told you. Ella’s probably switched off Esperanza so that she could enjoy the party more.”
Bruno rubbed his arm, listening to what his friend was saying but just as he was becoming convinced that Leonardo was right, Bruno saw the look that passed between Constantina and Fuzzipaws. “What is it?” the boy demanded angrily looking at the two nannybots he was now convinced were keeping something from him. “I saw the way you were looking at each other. Don’t even try to lie.”
A flash of anger passed over Constantina’s robotic face but before she could say anything Fuzzipaws cut in, “Of course we’re not going to lie to you,” she said, fixing her gaze on Bruno. “It’s simply that nannybots can’t be turned off in the way that Nardo suggested and since Constantina is your android and you and Ella are cousins, Esperanza should have responded immediately to the interface request but she didn’t. So…”
“So that means something’s happened to my cousin,” Bruno said running out of the milkshake parlour before anyone could stop him.
A self-driving car pulled up in front of Upendo Hall. The palace had been richly decorated for the occasion and each window seemed to be lit up with hundreds of lights. From outside the faint din of the party within could be heard but no one was visible outside of the building. Not a family member, guest or servant.
For the second time that evening, Bruno rushed out of a vehicle and made a mad, impatient dash towards a building desperate to get inside. “Wait Bruno,” his best friend Leonardo called, “Isn’t that the car that drove Ella here?” he asked, indicating a car that was parked just in front of the vehicle that had transported them.
Bruno spun around on his heels and the shock was clear on his face when he recognised Barry, the school car that had first dropped him and Leonardo off at the cinema and then driven Ella to the end of year party at Upendo Hall. Barry was parked outside the entrance but there was no sign of Ella.
“Wait here,” Constantina ordered. “I’ll find out what’s going on.”
“No,” Bruno said, rushing past the nannybot so that he reached Barry first. “Ella’s my cousin so if anyone is going to find out what’s happened to her, it’ll be me.”
Constantina’s digital eyes narrowed to slits and she mumbled something under her breath. Something along the lines of, “Just you wait until we find your cousin, I’ll teach you to back chat me,” but the nannybot didn’t say anything and allowed her charge to go on ahead.
“Barry, what are you upto? Where’s Ella?” the boy demanded angrily, pulling open one of the car doors and climbing inside.
The self-drive car’s horn sounded and his lights flickered, “Did you enjoy the part… hey wait, you’re not the marchioness!” Barry exclaimed. It was obvious that the car had been in sleep mode when Bruno had climbed inside.
“Why were you sleeping?” Bruno asked, stomping his feet inside the car. “Tell me where Ella is or I’ll report you to the headmistress.”
“I don’t know,” Barry the car moaned. “The Marchioness told me to meet her here two hours from when I dropped her off but that was…” he stopped to check his internal clock, “...two hours ago.”
“So my cousin told you to meet her two hours ago but you decided to have a nap instead?” Bruno cut in before Barry could continue. “You wicked car. Why didn’t you try phoning her, or call her nanny-bot? If anything’s happened to her, I’ll have you deported to Algol.”
“No, please!” Barry cried, flashing his lights and rocking from side to side. “Please don’t. I did call the marchioness but she didn’t reply. Then I tried her nanny-bot Esperanza but she didn’t respond either. See?” he said, displaying his call log on the windscreen.
“That’s strange,” Constantina said. Bruno’s nannybot was standing next to the car and had heard the entire conversation. “I tried to contact Esperanza as well earlier but she didn’t pick up my call either. Are you sure Ella didn’t come out?”
“Yup,” Barry the car stated, almost happily. “I only rested my lights for a few minutes but I’ve been parked out here for about an hour and forty-five minutes. If Lady Elladora had come out of the palace I would have seen her and she would have seen me.”
Constantina turned to look at Fuzzipaws and it was as if an unspoken thought passed between them. The two nanny-bots were extremely worried. It shouldn’t have been possible for a nannybot to be completely turned off but neither Constantina nor Barry had been able to get any response from Ella’s nannybot since she had attended the party. Something was going on.
“Bruno, do you know the name of anyone else who might be at the…” Constantina began, turning back to Bruno but the boy had run off with Leonardo in tow, heading towards the large and ornate doors of the palace in front of which they had been standing.
“Wait!” Constantina called as she and Fuzzipaws chased after the boys.
Bruno and Leonardo had no trouble gaining entry to the palace, they were both princes of second tier Alliance planets and were therefore well known to the staff at Upendo Hall but there was some debate as to whether they would be allowed into the party itself since they were considerably underage.
Just as the frustrated duo were being shown to a room where they could wait whilst someone went to fetch Ella, Leonardo noticed Umi, a friend of Ella and president of the university student council standing nearby chatting to his cousin Lionel. Thinking fast Leonardo called out to his cousin and Umi who hurried over to see what was going on.
“Leonardo, Bruno?” What are you doing here?” Umi asked incredulously. “You should be in bed.”
“Don’t tell me you boys tried to sneak in!” Lionel laughed, waving away the servant who had been escorting the young princes.
“No, we’re here to find Ella.” Leonardo explained quickly before the increasingly impatient Bruno could say anything. “Ella took us to the cinema earlier and she was supposed to meet us at the ice cream parlour after the film ended but she didn't turn up. We can't reach her or Esperanza."
"Are you sure she came here?' Lionel asked, speaking to Leonardo but looking at Umi. "I haven't seen her."
"I have," Umi replied, "I saw Ella earlier talking to Prune," referring to one of her best friends who was also a member of her band.
"We're not stupid," Bruno cut in, finally unable to restrain himself any longer. "Ella said she was making an appearance at the party and even the car that brought her here is still outside. You know Barry OB1M? She's here. Something must have happened to her."
The desperation was so clear on the boy's face and in his voice that Umi walked over and hugged him. "Don't worry. I'm sure nothing's happened to Ella. I'll go and see if I can find her. She might still be with Prune," Umi said reassuringly.
"Thanks," Bruno replied, forcing himself to smile. "You're probably right."
With that Umi excused herself and left the room saying that she would go and look for Ella. No sooner had the door closed on Umi than Lionel turned around and smiled at the boys enigmatically. "Ok, now she's gone you can be honest. You wanted to come to the party and made up that ridiculous story to get in, didn't you?" Lionel chuckled.
“No, we didn’t!” Leonardo snapped, “Why would we want to come to this dumb party when Ella had promised to take us to the holo-cade?”
“Ooohh! The holocade!” Lionel mocked.
“It’s true,” Bruno insisted, “Tell him Constantina.”
It was at that moment that the boys realised their nanny-bots were nowhere to be seen. They looked around the room puzzled. Where had Constantina and Fuzzy-Paws gone?
Leonardo and Bruno looked at each other and then at Lionel who still had an amused glint in his eyes as he watched to see what the boys would try next.
"What the Duat is going on? Leonardo asked, turning away from his older cousin and back to his best friend Bruno.
Bruno shrugged, the anxiety clear on his face. "First Ella disappeared, now our nanny-bots, there's something going on here," he insisted heading towards the door.
"We should call the security force," Leonardo said, subconsciously following Bruno. "Roxy and Computant can solve any mystery. They'll know what to do."
"No, I'm not waiting for them to come," Bruno snapped as he ran out of the room. "I'll find out what's going on myself."
"Wait," Leonardo called as he rushed out of the room behind his friend.
In the small private reception room Lionel rolled his eyes. The amused smile finally gone from his lips. He had come to the end of year party expressly to enjoy himself, not to end up baby-sitting his annoying younger cousin Leonardo and Leonardo's even more annoying bestie but now he would have to do just that. If the boys thought they were going to get away they were sadly mistaken. Lionel put down the golden goblet he had been drinking from and ran out of the room to find Leonardo and Bruno.
It didn't take long for Lionel to find the two boys. They had gone back the way they had come, back towards the main entrance of Upendo Hall, and were standing with a small group of servants looking at something just outside of sight. Murmurs of conversation could be heard as Lionel ran up. "What's going on here?" Lionel demanded as he pushed his way through the crowd that was quickly forming. "Leonardo, what… Oh!"
Lionel stopped dead in his tracks, in front of him just outside the doors of the palace Constantina and Fuzzy-Paws were lying on the paved courtyard looking dead for all intents and purposes. "What happened to them?" Lionel asked, looking from Leonardo to Bruno and then to one of the Upendian servants who was standing by.
"Lionel? Lionel, come quickly," a voice called from somewhere behind him, before the servant had a chance to reply. Lionel spun around to see Umi beckoning to him. She was standing with her two friends Barbie and Prune on the fringes of the crowd that was quickly gathering to see what had happened outside.
Lionel pushed his way through the crowd to get to where Umi and her friends were standing. Each of the three young women had a worried expression on her face as Umi pulled Lionel to one side and whispered to him, “I’ve found out what happened to Ella.”
“What?” Bruno demanded causing the four older people to jump, they hadn’t realised that the young boy and his friend Leonardo had followed them.
“Try not to get upset,” Bambi said, patting Bruno sympathetically on the shoulder when she saw how upset the boy was. Like Umi, Barbie and Prune were friends of Ella and know all about Bruno’s tragic history so Barbie could not help feeling sympathy for the young orphan who had come looking for his beloved cousin. “Apparently Ella suddenly felt ill so she went to lie down in one of the guest rooms." Barbie explained softly.
A panicked look appeared on Bruno's face as Barbie finished what she was saying, “Don’t worry, Tsar volunteered to take Ella to one of the rooms and the palace physician was called to attend her.”
“Take me to her,” Bruno demanded. Despite the fact that he knew Tsar was a friend of Ella and the others he still wanted to get to his cousin and make sure that she was all right. The small group made their way towards the wing where the guest accommodations were located, seeming to have forgotten all about the commotion that was going on behind them because of the two deactivated nanny-bots.
Just as the group made their way towards the corridor which led to the guest rooms, the host of the party, Prince Chi of Upendo came running up, his blonde afro shaking back and forth as he ran. Beside Chi was an older Upendian man with a perplexed expression on his face.
“What’s wrong?” Lionel asked as Chi came to a halt in front of them.
“I can’t find Ella,” Chi explained between gasps. Despite his powerful physique Chi had come hurtling towards them so fast that he was almost out of breath. “I’ve had the servants check every guest room. To make matters worse this is Doctor Emeka, the palace physician. He hasn’t seen Ella either.”
All eyes turned to the man who had accompanied Prince Chi. He was older than Chi and also gasping for breath after their run. “My sincerest apologies,” the doctor said, bowing slightly. “I’m afraid the first time I became aware that the Marchioness might be in need of my services was when his royal highness summoned me to inquire about the Marchioness’ condition.
“So you didn’t bother to help her before?” Bruno snapped and moved forward as if he was about to strike the man.
“Stop it Bruno,” Leonardo said, pulling his friend back. “You heard what he said, he didn’t even know Ella needed any help.”
Bruno shook off Leonardo’s hand with annoyance and turned on his friend, “I heard him all right, just as you heard Barbie say that the palace physician had been called to attend Ella. This joker is the palace physician here at Upendo Hall and he just said that he didn’t even know my cousin needed his help. Both stories can’t be true. Someone has to be lying. Either its this lazy servant or your accusing a duchess of Faunus of lying even though she has no reason to whilst some lazy old man sleeping on the job would.”
“Don’t be so rude,” Umi snapped when she could no longer stand Bruni’s impolite behaviour. “That’s not the way we speak to or about our elders in the Alliance. Even if this gentleman is a servant, he’s older than you and deserves your respect.”
Before Bruno could respond Umi’s friend Prune cut in, “Your cousin will be terribly disappointed when I tell her how you’ve been behaving,” the Bim woman said with a stern expression on her face. “Especially since it seems that you’ve misunderstood what Barbie was saying. Barbie didn’t contact the palace physician, Tsar told us that Chi had done so.”
“Me?” Chi asked, his eyes flaring open with surprise. “The first I heard of any of this was just now when Umi asked me which room Ella had been taken to. I had no idea what she was talking about but none the less I tried to find out what was going on.”
“Oh,” Bruno said shamefaced. “I thought Barbie had called the doctor herself.”
“No, I didn’t,” Barbie explained apologetically. “I’m sorry, I should have made what I was saying more clear.”
“Good, now that misunderstanding has been cleared up Bruno can apologise for the way he disrespected Doctor Emelia.”
Bruno hung his head and mumbled something incoherent. “What was that?” Prune asked, resting one of her hands on Bruno’s shoulders so that her talon-like nails were digging ever so slightly into the boy’s flesh. “I couldn’t quite make that out. Why don’t you speak as loudly now as you did when you were being rude?”
Bruno looked at Prune through the sides of his eyes, he knew that what she was saying could not possibly be true. Bims had amongst the best hearing in the Alliance, second only to Molewarpians. Prune had heard what he said, she just wanted to embarrass him further, nonetheless her vice-like grip on his shoulder told the boy that he was not getting away until he had complied with her wishes and since he wanted to get on with searching for Ella, he would just have to suck up his pride and apologise.
“I’m sorry Doctor Emerka, I spoke out of turn,” Bruno said, meeting the Upendian’s eyes.
“Not at all your highness,” Doctor Emeka replied, shaking his head. “No apology is necessary.”
“All right, enough of that!” Lionel interrupted before an awkward silence could form. “From what I understand from all the little pieces of the story I’ve heard so far, Tsar is behind this misunderstanding. Listen carefully and correct if I’m anything I’m saying is wrong. At some point Umi saw Ella talking to Prune. Afterwards Prune and Ella got separated and some time later Tsar told Barbie that he would take Ella to one of the guest rooms to lie down as she felt ill. Tsar said that the palace physician had been called to attend her, but no one saw Ella and no one knows what exactly was wrong with her?”
“Actually I do,” Barbie replied. “I saw Tsar carrying Ella’s Pthahian silk clutch bag. He was hurrying out of the ballroom with a worried expression on his face so I asked him what was going on and he said that Ella was having one of her headaches. Tsar explained that Ella had forgotten her handbag when he had helped her out of the room earlier and he was taking it to her. Tsar told me that Ella was just outside and that he would escort her to one of the guest rooms where she could lie down somewhere dark and quiet to sooth her headache. He said that Chi had already gone to call Doctor Emeka.
I offered to go to Ella instead but Tsar explained that since Chi was his best friend, he was more familiar with the layout of the palace and could be of more use to Ella since he could just use his Gondorian powers to float her to the room instead of her having to walk as she would if I helped her. Besides he said, Ella didn’t really want to see anyone as her headache was that powerful.
You know what Ella’s headaches are like. I thought staying away was the best thing to do.”
“But Chi didn’t contact Doctor Emeka because he didn’t know what was going on,” Umi said.
“And Ella wasn’t in any of the guest bedrooms,” Chi said.
“So where is she then?” Bruno asked, finding his voice at last.
Just then they all heard the sound of a door opening and closing at the far end of a corridor that branched off at a right angle from the corridor they were standing in.
“What was that?” Chi asked rhetorically, going to the intersection of the two corridors to see who was approaching.
The corridor was a dead end that led to the bedchamber of Chi’s mother, the former queen consort of Upendi. The room had been disused since Queen Aisha had died there, soon after the birth of her last child, Chi’s sister Nia.
Queen Aisha’s bedchamber was off limits to everyone by order of her husband King Aadan who had preserved the room in memory of his beloved wife. That was what made the sound of the forbidden door first opening and then closing all the more sinister. Why would a door that was supposed to be locked forever be opened?
“Tsar, why are you coming out of there?” Chi demanded when he laid eyes on his best friend walking nonchalantly down the corridor.
“Hey Bro!” Tsar replied, a smile breaking out on his face as he came to a halt in front Chi. “What’s up?” he asked conversationally.
“What do you mean by “What’s up?” Chi retorted his annoyance becoming obvious. “I asked what you were doing coming out of my mother’s chamber.”
“Oh” Tsar shrugged, “Sorry bro, I took Ella in these for a lie down.”
Every muscle in Chi’s body stiffened as he became angry. But there are hundreds of guest or family bedrooms you could have used instead of the one room you knew was off limits.”
Tsar eye’s opened wide as if he was shocked by what Chi had said. “That room’s off limits? I had no idea,” he replied as his face settled into a smirk.
“You’re a liar!” Chi exclaimed. “You’ve been coming here for years. You knew that my mother’s room was supposed to be preserved. Why would you bring Ella here of all places? What the Duat have you done?”
Tsar smiled enigmatically, “Why don’t you go and have a look for yourself bro?”
Chi pushed past his best friend and rushed into his late mother’s room but no sooner had he passed through the large ornate doorway than he saw something that made him let out an involuntary gasp. Chi turned as if to pursue Tsar but bumped into Umi and Barbie who had rushed into the room right behind him.
“Stop him!” Chi shouted. “Stop Tsar!”
“What’s happened?” Umi asked slightly dazed after bumping into Chi. “What’s he done to El..” Umi’s voice trailed off as she took in the scene in front of her. The room was dimly lit by the Adharian moon shining through an open window. She could just make out that the room looked like a disaster place. There were clothes, sheets and clumps of hair strewn all over the floor and on the bed in the middle of the room was Ella lying spread eagle and naked. There were bruises on every inch of her body and her scalp was visible in patches where the hair had been torn out.
“Stop Bruno and Leonardo from coming in here,” Umi screeched, pushing Chi out of the room. At the same moment Bruno slipped through the door and past Barbie who had picked up a sheet from the floor and was hurrying over to cover Ella.
“Ella?” Bruno called, his voice faltering as he came to a stop, his entire body going rigid.
Umi stepped in front of Bruno desperately trying to stop him from seeing the terrible scene on the bed but let out a shriek and took an involuntary step backwards as she looked into the boy’s face and saw the birthmarks, the symbols of his Thothian power were expanding, crawling across his face, discolouring it. His eyes, focused on the bed, were pools of inky blackness and his slightly open mouth looked like a cavernous void.
Despite her terror Umi grabbed hold of Bruno’s shoulders and tried to wake him from the seizure but no sooner had she touched the boy than pain exploded in every part of her body and the world went black.