“Of course I’m not the Nightingale.” Matilda slammed her mug of watered-down hiring hall ale on the table between them and reached for a dagger.
Ellison scooted back in his chair, hands up. “Don’t kill me. I have to ask. You were looking into the Royal Season before we got the job. Are you working for the Nightingale?”
“First,” she said, “I don’t write gossip about people behind their backs under a fake name. I stab them from the front.”
Ellison opened his mouth.
“And from the side,” Matilda added before he could speak. “And, okay, from the back. I stab people from all the directions. I’m not a liar. Have I ever lied to you?”
“Probably,” said Ellison. “In general, if someone asks that question, it means that they are, in fact, a liar, and just haven’t been caught yet.”
“Well, I don’t lie. If I’m going to kill someone, I’m not going to lie and tell them I’m not going to kill them, then kill them anyway.”
“You literally did that last week. We were at the Barley Mow. There was that guy who was taking too long putting his cards down, and you told him not to be nervous, you weren’t going to kill him. Then you stabbed him and laughed and laughed and laughed.”
“Oh, yeah, that was a good one.”
“And if you’re not the Nightingale, or working for them, then why were you asking questions?”
She leaned back in her chair and started cleaning her fingernails with her dagger. “You’re not the only detective in town,” she told him, and examined her hand. “I may have had another client. A missing persons case.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so? Worried I’ll steal the client from you.”
“Hah. Like anyone would actually want to pick you over me.”
“But I have to know who it is,” Ellison said. “If they’re looking for someone connected to the Royal Season, it could be related to the kidnappings. At the very least, we have to rule them out.”
“Can’t say,” she said. “Client confidence and all that.”
“Whatever.” She put away the dagger and stood up. “I’m going to find some of the other jerks on your list.” She shook her head. “Sleeping with clients. Rookie mistake. The minute you sleep with them, that’s when they start expecting you to do the bodyguarding for free.”
He stood up and walked after her. “Hold on, we still have to talk about this.”
But two other guards walked into the hiring hall and he stopped. “I’ll catch you later,” he yelled after Matilda, then intercepted the new comers. “You’re the two guards who were at the back of the zoo, watching the tent with the animal cages, right? Griffin the Squint?” One of the guards nodded. “And Benjamin Goldberg?”
“That’s right,” said the other guard. “But if you have a job for us, you’ll have to wait.”
“Yeah, we’re not looking for work,” said the Squint. “We’re recruiting.”
“Hey, everyone!” Benjamin yelled out. The five mercenaries drinking at the back table looked up. “Time to go. We’re clearing out the rest of the cult from Sangeries Castle.”
One of the mercenaries swore and the rest shook their heads or looked away.
“Come on, it’s good money,” said the Squint. “And you’re not doing anything except sitting around, anyway. Let’s go kill some cult bangers.”
“Been there, died there twice,” said one of the mercenaries.
“They shouldn’t hold battles so close to Krim City,” said another. “It’s not right if you kill someone and they pop right back up an hour later.”
“I don’t know about you guys,” said a third, “but being killed takes an emotional toll on me. My whole life flashes in front of my eyes. Does that happen to any of you guys?” He looked around and got a couple of nods. “It’s traumatic. The reason I came to Krim was to avoid thinking about my life. All the wasted opportunities. The failed relationships.” He sniffed and looked up. “Did you know my kids haven’t spoken to me for years?” He blinked rapidly then wiped a tear from his eye. “What am I even doing? Do I matter? I could die tomorrow. For real, you know. I’m just some code on a computer chip somewhere right now. All it takes is a computer glitch and I’m gone, maybe for good. Or an asteroid hits the data center.”
“Yeah, you never know what’s going to happen,” said another mercenary. “Just the other day I was reading that if an object was moving at close to light speed then we’d have no time to react before it hit. We could all be wiped out in a blink.” He snapped his fingers. “Life is precious, man.”
The Squint groaned. “They’re sentimental drunk,” he said. “We’ll never get them out of here.”
“Maybe we can wait for them to sober up a bit,” said Benjamin.
“No, that would take too long. We need to get them drunker. Once they’re angry drunk, they’ll get mad at the cult, and come back to the battlefield.”
“You’ve got the cash,” Benjamin said and the Squint left to buy more alcohol. The Mercenary Guild made most of its money from selling ale and beer, but drinkers were expected to serve themselves.
“So you’ve got a few minutes to talk,” Ellison told him.
“Didn’t your hear us? We’re not looking for work,” said Benjamin. He looked Ellison up and down. “And frankly, I don’t think I’d hire you. We need fighters and you look like you’d just get in the way.”
“I’m working for the Royal Season,” said Ellison. “I want to ask you about the circus two days ago. When Wynefrede Aumberden and Raphe Faryndon were kidnapped.”
“Kidnapped?” Benjamin laughed. “They just wandered away to find a place to hump like camels. Like I told Clinio when he asked us. We didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything. If there was a kidnapping, it wasn’t at the circus.”
“I’m more interested in the two delivery guys,” said Ellison.
“What delivery guys?”
“The guys who brought in the sacks of grain.”
“Nope, no deliveries,” said Benjamin. “Like I said, nobody went in or out.”
“I still want to talk to them. They weren’t regulars. They just told Clinio that they were day labor, and they gave fake names.”
“So you think these two random dudes did the kidnapping? Maybe stuffed the two lovebirds in the sacks until they could get them out?” Benjamin scratched his beard. “Could be, could be. And nobody can find them, huh? Sounds like you’ve got yourself a couple of suspects.”
“But you didn’t see them go inside the tent?”
“No, I told you.”
“Clinio said that when he did one of his rounds, Griffin the Squint wasn’t there.”
“He was inside, checking on everything,” said Benjamin. “Making sure everything was square. We do that. One of us at a time, we go and inspect the perimeter. Inside the tent, outside, make sure that nobody is sneaking up or anything. It’s part of being a good guard.”
“Okay. I’ll go talk to the delivery service,” said Ellison.
“Don’t bother,” said Benjamin. “Kidnappers wouldn’t have given their real names. Or even used their regular avatars. If they got away with it, and I don’t know how, then those guys are pros. They wouldn’t have made a rookie mistake like that.”
The Squint came back in, pushing a barrel in front of him with his boot. He was followed by half a dozen more mercenaries. “Drink up, everyone,” he said. “Then we go fight!”
Benjamin leaned in towards Ellison so he could be heard over the “Hell, yeahs,” and “That’s what I’m talking abouts” of the fighters. “My guess is that they knocked out the lovebirds. Drugged them to keep them quiet. Stuffed them somewhere and snuck them out. They’re probably in some dungeon somewhere. You should check out the sex cults. Isn’t that what they’re known for? Kidnapping, sexual slavery, torture? Somebody should do something about those bastards.” He spoke those last words in a loud voice and some of the fighters cheered.
Ellison left before the mercenaries got to the stage of inebriation where they got angry and started swinging at everything. If he was looking for delivery drivers, there were a couple of places he could check.