Nascine had not been there when they took Tarson to Hexley Prison. She was fine with that. Once she and Tartin had gotten the Rookery to come and retrieve him, she was glad not to see his face again. After a long debriefing over the course of several days, Tartin informed her that the higher-ups were satisfied with her statements and would simply need her to eventually confirm them at an eventual criminal trial – something that could be years away.
The most surreal moment was when she was invited to the palace. The Royal Palace was a familiar sight – it stood across the square from the Rookery, after all – but she had never been inside before. She supposed the mystery and majesty of it ought to have faded since she met the queen in her own flat at the beginning of all of this madness, but for whatever reason, looking upon it filled her with a kind of anxiety.
This was no public ceremony, and indeed there had been some constraints placed on the press to protect Nascine’s privacy. (Retrein did not have total freedom of the press, but the government generally exercised its ability to intervene only to protect the reputations of its noble houses.) Still, the story itself could not avoid breaking out. Once the Wolfsmouth Record used the term “The House,” the existence of the organization very suddenly transformed from the scoff-worthy purview of tabloids to a topic of serious and genuine public discourse.
Nascine arrived at the palace two weeks after she had captured the House agent. She was dressed in ceremonial uniform – soft black shoes, black pants, a leather jerkin (naturally dyed black), a pair of silver daggers sheathed on her belt, a black mask covering her mouth and nose, and most ostentatiously, a cloak sewn of raven feathers. She had spent nearly half an hour staring at herself in the mirror before she entered the palace, awed by the figure she saw within it and thoroughly convinced it was someone else who was looking back at her.
Tartin was dressed similarly, though in addition to his daggers he had a golden skeleton key sewn into his chestpiece, to denote his rank.
When she approached the throne, she knelt. Queen Elona then stepped forth and bade her to rise. Here, the surreal quality of the event was compounded. Last Nascine had seen Elona, the queen was in a simple hooded sweatshirt and sneakers. She had looked young then, perhaps even younger than Nascine. Now, Elona stepped forward in her slate-grey robes and gown, a veil over her face and her iron crown – so thin that a foreigner might mistake it for a circlet, except for the subtle crenellations patterned with wolves, ravens, and trees that rose above its rim.
Nascine had felt a chill run down her spine when in the presence of the queen. The woman had been alive for thousands of years, and now, with all the symbols of her sovereignty around her, Nascine could not help but feel a sense of awe. She supposed that was the point.
And that night, she was back in her own bed, sipping a cup of tea and reading a thrilling and well-written but not terribly provocative novel. She attempted to watch television, but before she had even turned the set on, she lost interest.
The next week, she decided to move.
So, three weeks after she captured the agent they were now calling “James Tarson” for lack of a better name, Emily settled into her new flat in Hagabie Lane. It took nearly another month for her to get to a point where she could imagine the flat without any moving boxes still sitting there, unopened or only partially unpacked. She had been using one box with numerous books she doubted she would ever read as something of a nightstand, but now, in a burst of inspired productivity, she had emptied it and with a good, purposeful march, had taken the flattened cardboard out to the recycling bin that stood by the street.
Her flat was in a reasonably nice part of Ravenfort, a neighborhood called Dalton, which was down the cliffs from Exbrooke. At first that had seemed too close to the safehouse where she had caught the man they were informally calling James Tarson, but after a week she had gotten used to it. Cities were odd that way – so dense as to make two miles seem like a vast expanse of distance.
And she had been seeing someone. Actually, this was attempt number two at that whole “dating” thing. The first had been a man named Chris, a perfectly pleasant bloke whom she had met at the local pub’s weekly quiz night. She had liked him well enough, but every time she said his name it reminded her of Chris Thatch, and the paranoia crept back in.
Thievery was a strange profession. She had gone into the business for adventure, and indeed her early years largely involved delving into uninhabited ruins and meeting people across the world, but now everything had transformed into this miasma of cloaks and daggers. Every new person she met now, and frankly even the people she had already known, she now realized she would have to surreptitiously vet. Chris (not Thatch, but rather Brennings) had not tripped any alarms, but in a weaker moment she had actually walked halfway to his office to surveil him before considering that, technically, that might just be stalking.
After two dates, she had called it off – for his sake, she told herself.
Officially, Tartin was assisting the investigation, though he told her that what this seemed to amount to was the periodic office visit from one of the actual investigators to ask him a few yes/no questions to clarify the narrative they had been able to construct. He was spending most of his time instead doing his typical work, and was more excited about a group of new Rookery thieves preparing for an expedition into Sardok to hunt for relics like a good thief ought to. The investigation was fairly compartmentalized, and so Tartin was happy not to have to spend too much of his time reliving the events.
Nascine was practically on vacation. She only had to check in at the Rookery about once a week, and spent much of her time reading prospective reports on new acquisitions targets – none of them, thankfully, people. She felt particularly odd about her medal after what had happened with Jaroka.
She had not yet come up with a place to put it. It seemed odd to display it. Most intelligence officers did not display medals, nor were they even typically allowed to keep them. But Nascine’s position was a somewhat blurry territory, and certainly some of Retrein’s great thieves had lived lives of baroque extravagance following their famous scores, with the full encouragement of the culture as a whole.
Nascine did not feel she ranked that high. The medal was strange. Yes, she had done something unprecedented, capturing an enemy agent and exposing a major threat to the nation’s security. On paper, she could not be anything but a hero.
But Nascine felt she had simply bumbled into it. She hadn’t gone to the safehouse looking for anything other than a place to escape the House and think about her next moves. It had been luck that put them all there at the same time. If medals were awarded for luck, she didn’t know what they represented.
For now, at least until the trial, her role in the affair was over, and that was a cause for relief. Tartin didn’t seem too troubled by it either, not that they had spoken much about it.
They had not had many opportunities to speak. Adult friendships, even with co-workers, were sporadic in nature. When they did speak, Tartin affected a chipper attitude, claiming to be happy to focus on bright new thieves, though Nascine had known him long enough that she could tell he was anxious to see the investigation into the House reach some conclusions. At least they had Tarson in custody over at Hexley Prison. That meant he wasn’t going anywhere.
So Nascine attempted to just live as if things were normal. She tried to relax, and so far, there was nothing for her to complain about.
And there was the new guy. Moses Sanborn. He was Narcian, though he’d moved to Retrein when he was still a child. They had been on three dates now, and while he had been in the apartment already, she now felt like he might be able to stay for a more formal visit.
It had been warm, lately, but any real Ravenforter would know to wear a light jacket at least and bring an umbrella even when there was a clear blue sky. Like clockwork, as Nascine left her building to go to the local grocer’s, there was a pitter patter of rain – not much more than a drizzle, but it paid to be cautious.
Nascine walked three blocks to the grocer’s, passing over a small bridge under which the little stream called the Cheldley, which fed into the much larger Lockey, began to swell at the mild precipitation.
She smiled as she saw a young couple guiding their daughter along the sidewalk. The girl looked as if she had only been walking a few months, and was clearly finding it rather difficult to circumnavigate the puddles that had begun to form (or more likely were left over from the previous night’s storm.)
She wondered if House Agents had children.
She supposed some must. She wondered who “James Tarson” truly was. Surely under all of those lies and false identities there had been a boy who was born and grew through all of his adolescent years to become the adult man. The cute girl on the sidewalk was the very image of innocence, and yet twenty, thirty years from now she would be an adult, not entitled to that special adoration that strangers give freely.
This girl would become some woman. She might be nice and friendly and kind, or perhaps she would be cruel and arrogant and abusive. Every monster was once a little child.
She had liked Tarson well enough when they were working with one another. He wasn’t all that much younger than she was, but she felt as if she could have mentored him. But that person had never existed. It was dissonant – her memories of this person who could have become an old friend in a few years’ time, even a boyfriend or husband, contrasted with her new knowledge that he had been lying to her from the moment she first saw him.
When she walked into the store she realized she had not thought of what she wanted to purchase. There were her usual staples – cod for grilling, some ready-made meals for when she was feeling lazy, salad-fixings, and a bit of chocolate as a treat. Moses had told her he was going to teach her how to make Tibs, a traditional southern Narcian dish, so she was careful not to purchase too many things.
When she reached for a little package of chocolate (the kind with orange jelly at the center) a woman bumped into her.
“I’m so sorry, I must be blind,” said the woman, who was now bending down to gather her dropped groceries. A carton of milk had burst and was now spilling out onto the floor. “Shit, sorry, watch your shoes.”
Nascine bent down, nearly bumping her head into the shelf as she did so, and began to help the woman gather her things. The woman looked Arizi, perhaps of mixed descent, and she had a rather conventional Retron accent. She seemed perhaps a little older than Nascine, though she could not tell quite how much.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” said the woman. “My fault entirely.”
“Not at all,” said Nascine, and picked up two cans of chicken broth and began to hand the cans to her when she saw the woman’s hand dart into her purse.
Nascine reeled back, rolling back across the floor and jumping up into a standing position, readying to kick at the woman’s hand before it could grab the gun in the bag.
And then the woman froze, her hand clasped around her wallet. The other shoppers receded suddenly, one of them audibly gasping. The Arizi woman slowly put her hands up, and Nascine felt every nerve in her body jangling with energy.
“Is… are you… is everything?” the woman sputtered.
Nascine looked around. No, this was not some ambush by the House in retribution for her actions. This was a random woman who probably just wanted to make sure that her wallet had not fallen out of her purse after dropping her groceries.
Nascine’s muscles had yet to relax, and she felt very much like the moment after a nightmare in which the awakened must gradually remember which elements of their dream had been real and which had been imagined.
Real: she was in a grocery store, and she had seen the woman’s hand dart into her bag.
Imagined: the deadly weapon in that bag that could have spelled sudden death.
After what felt like an hour standing perfectly still in the aisle, Nascine finally felt she could move. She walked out of the store, dimly aware of the gawking stares of the other shoppers. It would only occur to her once she had gotten home that she had left the food she had meant to purchase in her basket on the floor.
She could barely get the key into its hole when she got back to her flat. The tight lock of her muscles had given way to uncontrollable shakes. The adrenaline was draining out of her system.
So she sat in the comfortable chair in her living room and sat staring at the wall while she attempted to recover from the experience in the least productive way imaginable, namely playing it over and over in her mind, trying and failing to justify that she had acted perfectly rationally.
She knew that people could get treatment for this. Indeed, she knew that this was probably some form of post-traumatic stress condition, though that felt odd. She knew of people that had really experienced true stress – soldiers and victims of catastrophic accidents and that sort of thing. All she had been through was…
A clandestine organization with agents across the world had tried to kill her, then tried to manipulate her, then had once again tried to kill her right after she had discovered the frozen and disfigured corpse of a fellow thief.
When she thought of it this way, it did not seem so absurd to say she might benefit from some professional help.
The phone rang. Nascine considered very seriously not answering it. She eventually overcame this urge and picked up.
“Emily.” It was Tartin.
“Gil, how are you?” She wondered how well she was affecting the sort of calm nonchalance that any normal person would have after going to the grocery store.
“We’ve got a really big problem.”
She knew things had not been going smoothly, but that had to be normal when investigating the House.
“Emily, I know this is probably the last thing you want to hear right now, but I have a special order to bring you onto the Tarson investigation. You’re the one who knows him best.”
She had hoped never to see him again. It was easiest to think of him as never having existed. She felt her heart begin to race. She was sure he was a tough nut to crack, and surely the Rookery wanted every potential angle to get into his mind. She began to think of how she might approach Tarson: was she a friend? A rival? A lifeline? She was not very experienced in interrogation, but maybe she would have some luck.
It would mean cancelling with Moses.
“All right. So Hexley tomorrow morning?” Gods, what a long slog that’ll be bright and early.
“No,” said Tartin. The word felt like a brick wall she had just run into. “Not Hexley.”
“Why, where is he being held now?”
“Mm. I can’t say. On the phone.”
She heard the period in his voice. He couldn’t say. Tarson was missing.