Marine swallowed and felt the stone in her pocket increase tenfold in weight. Briar was shifting; awkwardly crouching to conform to the much shorter Aysmar’s arm around their neck. Aysmar was smiling, and unblinking. There was something chilling about the look on her face.
“Ok, ok.” Said Marine, trying to think clearly and buy some time. “Aysmar, Briar didn’t bring us here to hurt us or capture us. We’ve been treated very kindly at their camp. Where were you?” It had occurred to Marine that Aysmar didn’t know that she had been rumbled as a mole. She wondered if it just might confuse her for long enough to play as if they were still comrades.
“I don’t care about these Topsiders. I just want the stone.” Aysmar shuffled on her heels. Clearly thrown off by Marine’s unwavering loyalty to her.
“What stone?” Marine tried, but Aysmar laughed immediately at her attempts to look bemused.
“Don’t do that Marine, it’s useless. I know you took The Lost Stone from the lab and I want it. If you give it to me now then I won’t hurt anyone.” Briar was resisting Aysmar’s grip and Marine wondered how long it would be until Aysmar tired against the much stronger Tingion. Briar was bigger and musclier, but Aysmar had a knife and there was always the chance that she would just slit Briar’s throat as she tired of waiting.
“How did you know I took it?” Marine’s voice was small. She wondered if she would ever get used to the way sound vanished up into the sky on the topside. It didn’t bounce back at you and hang close to your ears the way it did underground. She searched every corner of her mind for a drawer or cabinet that might have an idea she could use. The thought of Briar getting hurt after they had saved her in the river was unthinkable.
“It doesn’t matter.” Aysmar snapped, and Marine noticed with interest how shaky she seemed. Her feet wouldn’t stay still and her eyes twitched nervously around the grass behind Marine. Marine thought this probably meant that this wasn’t a plan she had anticipated. Good. That meant there weren’t many contingency plans in place - if any. “I just know you have it, and I want it. Hand it over.”
“I don’t have it.” Marine said simply, shrugging slightly to really sell the lie.
“What?” Spat Aysmar, her eyes flicking to the nearby songbird and back to Marine. “Where is it?”
“I left it with Ezria, of course. She’s our… my captain.” Marine false corrected herself and saw the jibe land on Aysmar’s thin skin. Interesting, Marine thought, so she feels guilty about what she’s doing. She’s not completely happy. Briar’s eyes were flicking wildly from Marine to Aysmar and back and forth.
“You had possession of a Lost Stone?” They asked Marine, seemingly utterly amazed by this idea.
“Oh yes,” Marine said mildly, “I stole it from Vanweer to stop her doing whatever she was planning to do with it.”
“What was she planning to do with it?” Asked Briar.
“No idea!” Grinned Marine, “But whatever it was I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be something that benefited me so I thought the stone would be safer with us.”
“Where is Ezria?” Interrupted Aysmar.
“Back at the hedge.” Said Marine, “The hedge that Briar’s family live in.”
“Take me there.” Said Aysmar.
“No!” Shouted Briar, “No Marine, you can’t. I’d rather die here than show an enemy where my family live.” Marine felt a warm surge rush through her torso. This was quite the crush she was nurturing, what a time to fall in love.
“Marine,” Aysmar’s register had changed. Lower notes: pleading and calming. She held Marine’s gaze, “Marine, I have to have that stone. You don’t understand, Vanweer - never mind. You can’t make me go back without it. I can’t, I can’t do that.”
Marine’s thoughts raced. She knew it wasn’t above Vanweer to be holding Aysmar’s family hostage or similar. Or was Aysmar acting? Turning on the helpless damsel in distress act in order to make Marine do her bidding. Marine looked at Briar’s worried face and the blade so perilously close to their skin and decided she couldn’t take the risk.
“Ok.” She said, “Look, we’ll go together,” she saw Briar’s mouth open to interrupt and she held up a hand to silence them, “Until we get a little way away and then Briar can go and get Ezria and bring her to us. Deal?”
If only the songbird had known the tension he might have stopped singing to let the silence really sink in.
“No.” Said Aysmar, over the trilling of the little bird. “I know you have the stone in your pocket. Just give it to me now.”
“I don’t have it.” Marine tried again.
“Yes you do. Ezria wouldn’t have accepted it. She can’t hold the Stone. Marine, I will hurt them. Give me the stone.” The knife shook at Briar’s throat and Marine swallowed.
Perhaps she should give the stone to Aysmar? She didn’t even know what Vanweer wanted it for? Was it worth putting Briar’s life at risk just to hold on to an object she didn’t even fully understand.
“Ok,” she said, finally, her throat feeling dry and sandy, “Come and get it then.” She opened her pocket with a casual flick of her thumb and forefinger, indicating simply to Aysmar that the game was up and the Stone was hers.
“Bring it to me.” Said Aysmar, her eyes filling with tears. Relief? Wondered Marine.
“No,” Marine stood her ground firmly, “Let Briar go and come and get it yourself. I’m not ricking their life. I don’t trust you.” There was a moment where they both stood, staring at each other. Marine could see Aysmar assessing whether she could trust her. Evidently she decided she could and the knife dropped down but remained held out before Aysmar. She flicked it from Briar to Marine to make Briar join Marine. Briar did as they were told, gratefully stretching up now that their spine was no longer curved and bunched.
Aysmar stepped closer, keeping the knife between herself and Marine and Briar. Holding eye contact she slipped a hand into Marine’s pocket to retrieve the stone and Marine held her breath and hoped she was making the right decision. Surely, whatever Vanweer wanted with the stone wasn’t worth people dying over? Briar was alive at her side and she might be able to get the stone back somehow later.
“It’s not here.” Said Aysmar, her fumbling in Marine’s pocket getting more and more desperate. Marine tried to keep her face calm.
“No, I told you it wasn’t.” She said matter of factly, wondering where the hell the stone was.
What does Vanweer have on Aysmar?
- A family member kidnapped
- Her wife kidnapped
- Aysmar is related to Vanweer