“I don’t see a door,” whined Mary.
Aunt Mariqah muttered something under her breath. Amaal had insisted that she come, along with Mary. According to Amaal, Mariqah was supposed to be a litte more “responsible” for her adoptive niece. Mariqah wrinkled her nose at the word. She always did. She hated being responsible for anything.
Mary, along the whole journey, went through phases of excitement, then boredom which then soon developed into irritating complacency until her voice throbbed with a insistent “Are we there yet?”.
Mariqah had never met a person more annoying.
Clearly, she’d taught her niece well.
“She takes after you, you know,” Amaal said aside to Mariqah.
“Of course she does,” Mariqah replied, “I’m highly contagious.”
“You know that just makes you sound gross.”
Mariqah gave the messenger a look, “I’m a mercenary, Amaal,” she said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, “Being gross is something people expect of me.”
“Where’s the d-oo-r!” Mary warbled, “This is just a big joke isn’t it? Ha-ha. You had me. Can we go home now?”
“Now that part,” Mariqah said to Amaal, “is clearly inherited from her father. I knew him. That’s all he used to do. Yak, yak, yak. Complain, complain, complain. Ungrateful, ungrateful, ungrateful.”
Mary fumed, “I heard that, Aunt Mariqah!”
“Oh,” said Mariqah, walking off, “and here I was, thinking I’d baffled you with cunningly masked implications and my awfully soft voice.”
Mary glowered at her aunt and stomped her way to the messenger and the mercenary.
They were standing in the clearing of a large forest. It looked like a fairly large meadow dotted with colourful, sweet-scented flowers, surrounded by towering trees. The grass seemed natural, yet surreptitiously maintained. In places there were patches that were longer, but there was never a place that was too over-grown or too untamed. If it wasn’t in the middle of nowhere, this patch of land could make a very nice public park.
Mary pouted, “Well?”
Mariqah muttered something and Amaal just shook her head at the muted remark.
“The door is here, Mary,” said Amaal, placing her hand on the space of air in front of her, “But there are restrictions. One cannot lets oneself in. It opens from the inside.”
“Then why don’t you knock?” said Mary.
Amaal gave her a look, “I don’t need to. They know we are here.”
“Then why haven’t they opened up?”
“They’re terrified of you,” said Mariqah.
“That was mean and unnecessary.”
Mariqah gave a side-glance at Mary, “As your aunt, I’m required to be condescending. I thought you knew that.”
“Yes, well… it wouldn’t hurt you to be nice.”
“I am nice.”
“No. You’re mean.”
“I’m selectively nice.”
“Selectively nice isn’t particularly nice.”
“We don’t live in particularly nice times, Mary.”
“So, you’d be doing the world a favour by, I don’t know, cutting down on grumbling so much.”
“Firstly, I don’t owe the world anything. And secondly, if I cut down on grumbling, those lovely young men back at the Norman fortress would be trampling all over what I’ve worked for.”
“The making of mean, old brutes?”
Mariqah ignored her, “Discipline,” she said, then looked at Mary, “And you realise that you’re one of them too, right?”
“I’m a girl.”
Mary glared at her aunt, “I have more grace.”
“Just because you were born with ovaries, does not make you have more grace,” Mariqah turned gracefully aside as Mary’s glare turned into a glower.
Amaal banged her head against the invisible door in irritation, “Please, open up. Or, at least, shoot me,” she muttered.
Amaal almost fell in as a rectangle section of reality opened and a man stood in the doorway.
“Interesting conversation,” he scoffed.
Mary looked at the man wide-eyed. He was big. Not fat, and not exceptionally tall either – just big. He was bald, and had a dark-green tattoo of a dragon on the side of his face. He wore a plain black t-shirt and faded jeans. But none of that startled Mary the most. It was the pointed ears that startled her.
“You’re real,” mumbled Mary, her eyes growing wider and wider.
The man gave her an odd look, before addressing them, “Welcome to the In-Betweener. Very nice to see you lovely ladies – Mariqah, Amaal. Erm… I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can let the kid into this joint. It’s an adult night-club, after all.”
Mary’s surprise boiled into fury.
“Mary’s eighteen,” said Mariqah, before Mary could say anything spiteful.
“Ah…” said the man, smiling, “Mary, is it? Quite unoriginal, I must say.”
Mariqah smiled back at him, “The name wasn’t of my choosing.”
“No, although he wanted to change her name. This is Richard Shankar and Britney FeCamp’s daughter – and my protogee.”
“Oh, oh, I see,” the man chuckled and put out his hand. Mary ignored it, her mouth turned in a scowl. He shrugged and continued, “My name’s Aesc. Aesc of Eversby, I run the club. I’m from the other realm,” he turned back to Mariqah, “Strange though: you looking after your old enemies' daughter, eh?”
“Well, she’s a good girl. A little annoying, but I’d be a hypocrite to complain about that,” Mariqah put a hand on Mary’s shoulder, and then said, “To business, we need passage into the Grey Havens. Apparently, Lady Flaed of Battersea seeks an audience?”
He nodded solemnly, “Mm, war’s on its way. But when is it ever sated?” Aesc beckoned them in, “Can I get you ladies a drink?”
As Mary stepped into the nightclub. It was surprisingly empty and quiet but, she supposed, it wasn’t night yet.
And then she felt the world shift.
Her vision blurred – the colours and lines twisting and mingling, making her feel queasy. Her knees gave way and her limbs became leaden. She felt around heavily for a flat surface and put her head and body against it. She shut her eyes tight, not daring to make a sound for fear she might throw up.
The pressure popped in her ears.
“Mary?” the voice of her aunt echoed in her ears – the words sharp and loud, as if they were needles stabbing at her brain, “Mary, are you alright?”
Mary cracked an eye open. Mariqah’s face blurred and doubled for a moment, before it settled. Mary opened both eyes, finding she was on the floor, curled up in a foetal position. She expected her aunt to laugh, but all she found was Mariqah’s face blank with concern.
“Don’t get up too fast,” she said softly, as Mary tried to straighten, “I forgot about the first-time sensation. You’ll feel it again when we make for the Grey Havens. Brace yourself, eh?”
Mary shut her eyes again as she sat up, willing the swirling to stop, “I feel like someone’s drugged me.”
Mariqah helped her up and sat her down in a booth, “I think we might consider a drink, Aesc.”
“Or an aspirin,” scoffed Aesc, before shaking his head, “What’ll you have?”
“Just a glass of water for Mary,” said Mariqah, “a bit of juice for me–”
“For God’s sake, it’s a nightclub!” Aesc sighed, but avoided a lecturing by saying, “What kind of juice?”
“Surprise me,” said Mariqah tersely, “and a glass of Scotch for Amaal, I think.”
Aesc nodded and walked behind the counter to get their drinks ready.
“Oh,” said Amaal, sliding into the booth, “you know my favourite drink.”
“I’ve had enough with you. It’s never been fun.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your drunken temper,” said Mariqah, yawning. “We should make for the Havens soon… I’d hate to leave Khadir in-charge for too long.”
“He’s your lieutenant! He’ll do fine.”
“Ex-lieutenant. And, also, retired.”
“Will you stop with the unnecessary worry?”
Amaal sighed, “How are you feeling, Mary?”
Mary swallowed thickly, “Better.”
Aesc came up with their drinks and placed them on the table accordingly, “Should I notify Lady Flaed of your arrival, or…?”
“You should, thanks,” said Mariqah, sipping her juice lightly, “I’ll be seeing Lady Mercia of Greenloch first, though. I’d like to know her story before I hear Flaed’s. Hmm… I wonder if Mercia remembers the last time we met…”
“When you tried to kill her?” Aesc asked, rubbing his upper-lip to hide his smirk.
Mariqah smiled, “Yeah, that time. I bet she’s missed me. So much.”