“It was you guys who fucked up,” said Four Eyes. His heart was pounding. This was the sort of thing he imagined a lot of people got killed over. This was a major operation. Four Eyes was not stupid. He knew more than he was supposed to know because in the House, that was what kept you from getting into deep shit. He knew Jaroka knew something about the Whites. She may have even known where Mr. Sands had gotten to.
The House was supposed to be isolated – an Agent was not supposed to know anyone two links up the chain or more, but they must have figured out long ago that in Narcia or its neighbors, where the House was most vulnerable, the official rules had to be bent. Four Eyes recognized that this was not only a license, but an obligation to find out as much as he could about all the big things going down that he could.
And everyone knew that Mr. Sands had dropped off that map. As far as Four Eyes knew, even the Diplomat didn’t know where Sands had gotten, and that meant seriously bad things.
Six Coins put his hand up to quiet him. “There was a major miscalculation. You and your team will not take the blame.”
If he was telling the truth, it was a hell of a relief, but Four Eyes remained on edge.
Six Coins had come to meet him in a private room at an inn in Walderton, a small town nestled in the hills of County Corick, west of Ravenfort. He was a proper Retron gentleman, in his sixties, always dressed impeccably in a frock coat and always proudly displaying a Royal Arcane Society pendant, which depicted a key resting in the fold of an open book. He poured Four Eyes a glass of Redlander Whiskey.
“Still, it was a real shitstorm out there,” he said. “I know you’re aware that there is something of a shake-up occurring above our heads.”
“I had guessed that.”
“It’s all this bullshit about Mr. Sands. Then of course there was the incident at Castlebrook Prison and the skirmishes between the Narcians and the Wastes… In all my years I have never seen the House make so many errors. Now, you might interpret that as the cause or the result of what is happening to us. Best we just keep our heads low, do what we’re told, and hope the ones whose orders we’re following are the ones who are left in charge.”
Six Coins held his glass of whiskey in front of him, but did not seem to be drinking it. Just in case, Four Eyes followed suit.
“Well, it’s out of our hands now. Let the Carathon chains deal with it. What I want to know is what your status with Nascine is.”
“I think she trusts me. I had thought to pursue a romantic angle, but I think she would prefer someone older, so for the moment, I think I could manage a kind of apprentice, or surrogate little brother who needs protection sort of relationship. She does not seem to have any reason to doubt that I am who I say I am.”
“Disposed. No chance they’ll find him. He was a deep cover agent. Only Kilarny knew who he was. Quite a bit of luck she was killed crossing the street. Saved me a whole lot of trouble.”
Six Coins frowned like a disapproving parent. “You are an Agent of the House. You know there is no such thing as luck.”
“Oh…” said Four Eyes. So Kilarny was killed by the House. But that would mean that there were other Agents operating in Omlos at the time. It was not unheard of for Agents of completely different chains to make small contributions to a mission they were otherwise uninvolved in, but to pull off an assassination with that degree of subtlety? Four Eyes felt as if someone was watching him.
“I will not be in Retrein for long, Four Eyes,” said Six Coins. There was a hint of regret in his words. “This is a delicate time in Retrein, and frankly, we will both benefit from some distance in the coming days. You will make transmissions only out of the cabin in the Stag’s Wood. And do not go there unless it is an absolute crucial emergency. If I do not hear from you for the next year, I will consider everything to be going well.”
“And if I am captured?” asked Four Eyes.
“You’ll do your duty and keep your damned trap shut. You and I are not the only Agents in Retrein by far. And those others have not developed a sentimental attachment to you as I have.”
Four Eyes nodded. He knew the harsh words were meant to encourage him to do his best work. Still, there was a nagging voice telling him that he could walk outside to be met with a sniper bullet.
“May I ask where you’ll be going?”
“Do you know who the Illuminator is?”
Four Eyes shook his head.
“Then you do not know enough to care about where I am going. I’d suggest you look into it yourself.”
Four Eyes nodded. With Six Coins leaving, he would truly be on his own. For now, he would attempt to be the best Rookery Thief he could be. In a few years, Nascine might recommend him for a promotion. In his most ambitious fantasies, Four Eyes imagined becoming Lord Crow, the secret head of the Rookery. Still, he had only been with them for a couple months. Perhaps being one face among hundreds would serve his purpose better.
The ride was very quiet. The black car was electric, rather than steam-powered, and so other than the quiet, high-pitch squeal of the turning wheels and the occasional bump when a tire hit a pothole, there was basically no noise.
There was a royal crest on the man’s lapel, which was the only reason Nascine agreed to get inside. Still, the silence was unsettling.
“Where are we going?”
“Moorspark,” replied the man. He was bald, and well-muscled, somewhere in his forties.
They drove into the district, with its many warehouses and factories. After a few minutes, the car pulled off the road and drove directly into one of the warehouses. More frightening men stood guard outside.
When the car stopped, the man got out and opened Nascine’s door for her.
“Come with me,” he said, and led Nascine up a set of stairs to an office overlooking the building. He opened the door for her and gestured for her to go in.
“It’s all right, Emily. Please, come in,” came a voice from inside. Nascine walked in and the scary man shut the door behind her.
Queen Elona sat on a chair in the middle of the office. She looked far more youthful than she tended to on currency and postage stamps, and was dressed in a simple cotton sweatshirt – black, of course – and had her hair tied back in a very practical pony-tail.
“Your majesty, it is good to see you again, though I wonder why we could not have met somewhere more pleasant.”
Elona nodded. “It is unfortunate, but I cannot discuss this matter at the palace or the Rookery, or even your home. We are in an extremely delicate situation. There is danger, but we are also on the very edge of achieving a goal I have been working toward for a thousand years.”
“What goal is that?”
“Discovering the goals and intents of the House. I consider it my sacred duty to neutralize the House and prevent it from interfering in our affairs, or the affairs of any free people in this world. Your mission in Narcia was a greater success than you realize, Emily.”
“Really? How so?”
“Yasik, despite his double-cross, was true to his word. We have received some extremely precious information. The House is in the middle of a schism. There is a group – a kind of secret conclave near the top – that is attempting to take the reins away from the current leaders. They are known as the Whites, and I have reason to believe that their ascension would prove catastrophic. We are in an interesting position. If we play this right, we could make our former adversaries into grateful allies. But if we are to do so, first we need to eliminate any Agents – regardless of their affiliation – from the Rookery.”
“Do you pay Marker, Emily?”
Nascine shook her head. “Not often.”
“You should. It is good practice. It is very hard to bluff when your opponent can see your hand. Make no mistake, Emily. The House is better at spying than we are. Nothing in this world has come close to their ability to deceive and infiltrate. The very people I trust the most are the ones I know to be most suspicious of.”
“And you trust me?”
“Not very much,” said the queen. “Which is why I want you to be my eyes and ears in the Rookery.”
“There is at least one Agent there, but there might be more. I want you to work your way through your fellow thieves. Start with Tartin.”
“He’s better-connected than you would expect. And he trusts you. Find out what he knows and work from there. Good luck, Emily. Either way it turns out, we are on the verge of an enormous change. Let us hope that fate makes it a change for the better.”
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)