Battersea Palace was a place so spectacular; it was beyond any just description that Mary could think of. There simply wasn’t a word, in any language that she knew, to describe such a place. She gazed in wonderment at its beauty, its magnificence and was en-awed by the masterful architecture, set astoundingly its natural surroundings.
It was carved into the side of a great rocky hill; waterfalls cascaded on both its sides – white bubbles frothing where all the water crashed down. White was the predominant hue of the palace, but accents of blue and green marked windows and balconies, platforms and levels.
There were a few smiling faces that looked down from the many levels. Other faces that belonged to the blue-liveried guards were watchful and wary.
Tostig rowed their boat up to a bank by the side of the palace, and said, “Well, off you go to waste your time.”
“I really hate you, Tostig,” Mary said, her awe stolen by his dismissive comment. She scowled and said, “How do I get in?”
“There should be a narrow bridge up that way,” Tostig pointed, “Just state who you are and they’ll escort you to the Lady. From what I know, she’s busy planning a war – so there might be a delay in the audience you seek.”
“You’re not going to come?”
“I have no interest in dying any time soon, Mary, so no: I won’t come,” he shrugged and sat back in the boat, “But I’ll wait for you, right here, if that poses as any comfort.”
“It really doesn’t,” Mary muttered, climbing out of the boat and walking in the direction Tostig had shown her.
As she neared the bridge, Mary felt her aunt’s sword hang heavily at her side. She’d never considered how heavy the Damascus really was. Her aunt carried it everywhere, used it whenever she needed to – sometimes, she even preferred it to pistols and machine-guns – and it had never looked heavy in Mariqah’s hands. And, when Mary trained with her aunt, it had never hit hard on her either.
Mary touched the hilt, feeling the intricately carved grooves beneath her fingertips. This was her aunt’s first love (or so she’d once mentioned). Her first taste of reward after finishing her training as a mercenary – owing loyalties and friendships to no-one.
For her own sake and for the sake of Damascus, Mary hoped that Mariqah was alright.
Two guards stood at the bridge, one raised his hand in seeing Mary approach.
“State your name and purpose,” he said.
Mary paused, “I am Mary FeCamp, niece of Mariqah de Saint-Omer. Lady Flaed, I take it, called on her. I seek an audience.”
The guard nodded, “The messenger of the Lady’s court arrived a few days ago, and she spoke of you. You are welcome here and the Lady will grant you an audience. But at such pressing times and after some incident at the Court of Lady Mercia of Greenloch – I must insist that you disarm yourself. All of your belongings will be kept safe, until you seek to depart.”
Mary hesitated, but handed the guard all the weapons she had – two daggers, one short sword that hung from her back, and the Damascus.
“Amaal is here?” she asked.
The guard didn’t respond, he merely stood aside and let her onto the bridge.
The guard standing at the gate bowed his head and wordlessly escorted her through the Palace. Mary looked at the clean, light-blue walls and the paintings the hung on them. All the countless Lords and Ladies, hanging there – frozen timelessly in a pose – bordered by burnished frames. Aunt Mariqah had always thought photos kept for memory was pointless and a little stupid.
If a man cannot remain in memory, for his deeds in words and his feats in songs: then what use is a picture really? – that’s what she’d said.
She would have said so again at this point, Mary knew. It was strange, how much she missed it now.
The guard led her to the throne-room, and gestured for her to enter.
Mary paused a moment, looking at the emotionless face, before stepping inside. Two thrones stood proud upon a raised platform, and upon them sat two very old-looking elves. The man, Lord Baldwin, kept his head down, fussing over a long scroll he held with both hands, and muttering furiously as he read all that it detailed. He didn’t seem very happy.
Lady Flaed, however, raised her head and smiled at Mary. Her fair face was lined with wrinkles, her lips had so many creases that they refused to straighten when the woman smiled. She wore a deep-blue gown, and a simple gold circlet rested on her head of silver-blonde hair. Amaal stood by her side, raising her brows in surprise.
“Ah,” said Lady Flaed, spreading her arms and standing, “you have come at last. I was beginning to worry that you might not come.”
Mary inclined her head, just as she’d seen Mariqah do similar with Lady Mercia, “Lady Flaed.”
“You are not who I asked for.”
“Then, child, speak: who are you?”
“I am the niece of the one you called for.”
“I see,” said Lady Flaed, “and she sent you in her stead?”
“N-not quite,” said Mary, “My aunt had intention of meeting you, Lady Flaed. But her curiosity led her to see Lady Mercia first. By chance, we met Gunnhild of–”
“Ah, yes,” Lady Flaed’s smile withered slightly, “the traitor.”
Mary hesitated, “Yes. But she was poisoned in the Court of Lady Mercia, which caused a quite a scuffle, as you might understand. My aunt sent me away, and told me to wait for her return…” Mary felt something. Perhaps, it was a feeling that only came when a reality was spoken, but she felt it all the same. She began to feel scared for Mariqah, “but she didn’t come back. I’ve simply come looking for her.”
Lady Flaed paused, “And you feel that Lady Mercia might have put your aunt to a disadvantage? In chains? Or to death?”
“I have it on good authority that my aunt has been imprisoned. Before I left, the assassin that murdered Gunnhild made an appearance,” Mary paused, not wanting to put Tostig at risk or in any danger, “and I feel he came to take my aunt to the person who wanted her.”
Lady Flaed stepped down from her platform and almost glided her way to Mary.
She rested a hand on the young woman’s shoulder, gazing into her eyes intently, “Your aunt has no sworn enemies that I know of in this realm, child. And she has not come here. She has not been sighted on our roads. Indeed, we have been waiting anxiously for her.”
“Mariqah just disappeared?” asked Amaal, stepping down from the platform and hurrying, “But how?”
Lady Flaed looked slightly irritated, but didn’t say anything.
“I don’t know,” said Mary, “Aesc called on you though.”
“With all this war business, I’ve had little time to respond. I’m sorry about that. Did Mariqah want me to do something for you, or her?”
Mary paused, “No. She just wanted to check on you,” she lied.
Amaal looked at Lady Flaed, “We should send out a search party.”
Lady Flaed shook her head, frowning deeply, “I’m afraid not. If Mariqah has gone missing, she is more than capable than taking care of herself. And, if her niece is anything like the way she raised her mercenaries, Mary is more than capable of finding her aunt on her own.”
“There is war afoot, Amaal!” said Lady Flaed, turning to leave, “My decision is final.”
Amaal’s shoulders slumped, but she didn’t argue, “You can go now, Mary,” she said.
Mary grabbed Amaal’s arm as she walked away, “I didn’t know you were an elf!” Mary said.
“I’m only half,” said Amaal, he face smiling a little before becoming serious again, “But that’s not important right now. You heard the Lady – you’re on your own. And despite her faith in you and Mariqah, this place has more dangers than you could ever imagine. Look for Mariqah, and look fast.”
Mary’s face slackened, but she bowed and left the throne-room. She collected her weapons from the guard at the bridge and dragged feet along the way to meet Tostig in their boat. She found him cursing obscenities and rubbing his arm.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“Do I–?” he turned and saw her, “I’m fine,” he said, “just fine.”
Mary furrowed her brow, “Okay…” she sighed, “Lady Flaed doesn’t know anything.”
“Excellent,” said Tostig, as Mary climbed back into the boat. He took up the oars, “Now we can go to some place of use, where you can find some information.”
“A place you are going to love,” said Tostig, smiling sarcastically, “The Guild.”