It had been two weeks since Mary had arrived at The In-Betweener. No noise of Mariqah since. Mary sat on a high stool by the counter. The loud, throbbing music pounded in her ears as she sat there, the smell of narcotics and sweat now mingled with the new smell of vomit made her sick.
She had been waiting for Amaal since she got to the nightclub.
Something had gone terribly wrong. She could just feel it.
Mary sipped at the drink that Aesc had given her. It was tart and sweet. Maybe too sweet. She frowned and pushed the tall glass away.
Aunt Mariqah didn’t like alcohol.
She never explained why, but Mary guessed it didn’t really need explaining. All the sweaty nonsense going on around her was evidence enough of why one should stay well away from alcohol. She folded her arms on the counter and tucked her chin in them, staring blankly at the multi-coloured bottles standing on the shelf.
Someone took a seat next to her. “It’s Mary, right?” he said, “Mary FeCamp?”
Mary paused. No-one here knew her first name, let alone her surname as well. She sat up and looked at the hooded man sitting next to her.
Her eyes widened, “It’s you, from…”
He nodded and pulled his hood down, “From Lady Mercia’s, yes,” he said, leaning against the counter.
“Where’s my aunt?” Mary snapped angrily.
He paused, “She told me to give you this,” he took the thick belt from his shoulder and the scabbard from his back, drawing the heavy sword and put it down on the counter. The blade glinted in the oddly-distributed light. It wasn’t lovingly polished to gleam, like it usually was. It was roughly-cleaned, matted in places with dried blood.
Mary looked at it, “My aunt’s sword…” she mumbled, before looking up at the man, her eyes becoming wet, “Is she…? Did you…?”
“Can I get you a drink?” he said, ignoring her as Aesc came out. The man nodded a greeting and ignored Aesc’s surprise as he stared at the sword lying on his counter-top.
“I already have a drink,” Mary said.
The man ordered one flagon of mead and turned back to Mary as Aesc tore his gaze from the sword and mixed the man’s drink, “You’re aunt isn’t dead, no.”
Aesc narrowed his eyes at the man, “You know Mariqah?”
The man looked from Mary to Aesc, “Am I not welcome here?”
“Well, that depends, now, doesn’t it?” said Aesc, “What happened to her?”
“I can’t disclose that information,” said the man, “And, the last time I checked, this place ws neutral ground.”
Aesc scowled and slammed the man’s drink onto the counter. The sweet liquid spilled and slithered in different directions. Aesc went red, turned and walked away.
Mary took the sword from the counter and weighed it in her hands. It was heavy. She took the scabbard from the man and sheathed it, laying it on her lap.
How her aunt had loved this sword…
“Where is she?” asked Mary in a small voice.
The man paused, “I had a… an assignment to deliver her somewhere to someone.”
“They’re not going to kill her, are they?”
“For your sake, I hope not. But I don’t like your aunt’s chances. She has a big mouth.”
Mary paused, taking a moment to try and looked offended (for Mariqah’s sake). But she couldn’t. “Yes,” she conceded, “My aunt has a huge mouth.”
“She told me to find you, give you her sword and take you to sell Gunnhild’s land.”
“Gunnhild’s land?” Mary looked sceptical. Gunnhild was the very last person on her mind, “She didn’t ask for me to go looking for her?”
“No…” he replied, “And I think it best that you don’t. You should go home. Wait for her there.”
“What if she doesn’t come?”
“Then she doesn’t come.”
“Impossible. I can’t just leave her here.”
“You’re aunt is a very capable woman.”
“I know, but… if she dies…”
“People die all the time.”
“That’s no reason to just let it happen.”
“You’ll dislike me plenty, then. I’m an assassin.”
Mary regarded the man, “When did kidnapping become part of–?”
“That’s not important,” snapped the man.
Mary couldn’t help it. She laughed, “So… Why are you listening to her?”
“Why have you come and found me? Why are you doing what she told you to do?”
“Can’t you assume that I have a conscience?”
“I don’t believe you have one.”
“Honestly? You’re aunt tricked me into taking an unbreakable oath. And she said I could get payment through you, so.”
“That sounds like her, yeah,” Mary smiled, a little sadly, “Will you… will you help me find her?”
“Help you find her? I know exactly where she is.”
“Will you take me there?”
“I’m afraid not. Business is business – and it’s nothing without confidentiality.”
Mary frowned, “But… you like my aunt.”
The man laughed, “No-one ever said that.”
“I know you like her. Everyone loves my aunt. They can’t help it.”
The man stared at her, “It’s either you’re lost in sheer awe of your guardian, or…” he turned, “you’ve assumed some form of banter to make my tongue slip.”
“Please. You don’t have to tell me where she is, just come with me. Give me the odd hint. I want to get her back.”
“I remember her giving you explicit orders to go home.”
“Well, that was when I thought she’d beat the crap out of you and come here. But it’s clear it hasn’t played out that way. She’d want me to find her.”
“I doubt that.”
“So do I,” Mary admitted, “But I have to. She’s my aunt.”
“Hmm… How much will you pay me?”
“My aunt has a fortune back home. I’m sure she’ll give you as much as you want.”
“Are you sure? Note that I will hold this against you if you succeed in freeing her.”
“Freeing her? Is she imprisoned? Or enslaved? Probably imprisoned. I can’t imagine her taking orders from anyone…”
The man’s face blanched, “And so my tongue slips…”
Mary scoffed, “I’m sure. I’ll give you anything you want. Please, just accompany me.”
“Fine, you have a deal,” the man paused, “I’m Tostig, by the way,” he put out his hand.
“Glad to have met you, Tostig,” she replied, shaking his hand, “You’re much more relaxed than I expected an assassin to be.”
“Well, I’m in a safe zone, so,” he shrugged and sipped his mead, “You might want to note, though, that you’d probably be a fugitive in Greenloch – after the… incident in the palace.”
“It’s alright. I’ll make a false identity, sell off Gunnhild’s land to some poor beggar who won’t talk too much and move on.”
“Ah, hmm,” Aesc coughed. She hadn’t even noticed he’d come back, “Mary?”
“Aesc?” she replied.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your… plans. But what about Amaal?”
Mary shrugged, “Just tell her I’ve gone home.”
Aesc furrowed his brows at her, “You can’t just–”
“I can,” said Mary, “and I will.”
“That’s exactly what you’re aunt would say when she’d go about trying to get herself killed.”
“But she always came back alive, now, didn’t she?”