Wolfsmouth was the second-largest city in all of Retrein, and its largest port. While Ravenfort had retained much of its original look, with its cast iron and elongated, gothic architecture, Wolfsmouth strove toward modernity. The downtown business district was crowded with skyscrapers clad in glass – a style inspired by the Djinni ruins in the Sarona Desert – and the entire city was criss-crossed with an elaborate subway system.
It had taken Nascine two days to get there. Normally she preferred to travel by bike, but given the weather it seemed more prudent to take the train. She was packing light, as she had been advised. Her backpack held a few days’ worth of clothes, so she would have to acquire new vestments when she arrived at her destination. There was a rigid back to the pack, and concealed within it was a gun and silencer. Nascine doubted she would find much use for it, if things went as they were supposed to, but it never hurt to be prepared.
Her work for the Rookery had always carried with it certain elements of danger, but motivations were always relatively clear. She’d always been able to use her own name. This assignment was quite different, and when the queen herself handed a job to you, there was little reason to doubt that something very serious was going on.
Her previous expeditions had always been oriented around “acquisition,” the Rookery’s preferred euphemism for theft. Retrein did not have a military, in the truest sense. Ever since Queen Elona had stolen the crown for herself, it was a point of national pride to be able to take by subtlety what others would grab with brute force. Retrons had little taste for conquest. They were an island nation, and it was far easier to defend the country if would-be invasions fell apart before they made it across the sea.
The skyport in Wolfsmouth was, from a distance, quite attractive. A dozen spires rose up above the bay, with docks stretching out to accommodate the various airships that landed there. It was not quite as baroque as the one down in Carathon, but it was newer and larger.
Inside, however, the skyport was disappointingly drab. The walls were beige, and the entire lobby was lit with harsh fluorescent lights. She handed the Narcian passport she had been issued to the security guard.
“Did you enjoy your stay in Retrein?” asked the guard.
“Yes, I had a lovely time,” Nascine answered. She had always been able to pull off a decent Narcian accent. She found that most Retrons fell into a trap of over-enunciating everything. Narcia was a big enough country, with enough subtle variation in accents that one could get away with a little of that, but she had spent enough time abroad to know what sounded fake.
Besides, she’d spent the last few days with a speech coach to ensure her accent was believable. Theoretically she had worked on an accent most similar to that of Reben, but in the last hundred years or so the Narcian accent had grown fairly uniform anyway, so Nascine was confident she wouldn’t raise any eyebrows.
It was a much smaller team this time around. The infamous Sarona expedition had over twenty people. This time, Nascine had only two subordinates. One of them was already in Omlos, across the Retron Channel.
It was a half hour before she actually got to board the airship, under the name Valerie Justinian. She sat down in a relatively cramped compartment. The Rookery tended to give you the cheap seats, though at least there would be a bit of privacy.
Sitting across from her was a tall man, somewhere around thirty, maybe a bit below. He was very lanky, and handsome in a goofy sort of way. He wore glasses and was clean-shaven.
“Ms. Justinian, I presume?” said the man.
“And you must be Mr. Tarson,” she said, and extended her hand. She’d picked out the alias herself. Tarson (whose real name was Chris Thatch, but she decided it would be best to think of him as James Tarson at least for now) was in charge of communications. This was another one of those irregularities. Most Rookery expeditions were fairly autonomous. Sometimes they didn’t even tell you what to bring back, trusting the lead to find something of value.
“Bit stuffy, isn’t it? I’ll open a window,” said Nascine. She stood up and began to search for bugs. It was almost impossible that there was anything there, but it didn’t hurt to check.
“It’s all right. I’ve already done a sweep.” Nascine kept looking, though. “Or you can do your own...”
Nascine sat down, satisfied that the compartment was free of listening devices. “You know who gave us this assignment, Tarson?”
“Queen Elona. She showed up in my flat with Minister Hodges. It was surreal, to say the least.” She picked up a newspaper that had been sitting on the bench next to her and idly flipped through it.
“So I take it that means this is an important one?”
“It would seem so.”
Tarson swept his legs up and stretched out on his bench, bunching a coat up to serve as a pillow. “They say it’ll be a six hour flight. What’s the name of our man in Omlos?”
“Her name is Kilarny. She’s making arrangements for us while we’re in Narcia. I haven’t spoken to her yet. So do you know why we need a communications man?”
Tarson seemed to take some mild offense at this question. “To communicate, what else?”
“This is your first job overseas, right?”
Tarson nodded. “Yeah, why?”
“The Queen herself is sending out an untested thief?”
“I must have impressed her. You don’t look like a grizzled veteran either. How old are you?”
“I’ve been around. That’s all you need to know.”
Tarson snorted. “Is that all? I’d think at least they’d tell me what we’re going to Narcia to steal.”
Nascine looked up from her paper. “They didn’t brief you?”
Tarson propped himself up to a sitting position. “Oh, they briefed me, if you can call it that. They never told me that though.”
“We’re here to steal a person.”
Tarson sat wordlessly for several seconds. Then, cheerfully, he said “Good, I was afraid this might be dull.”
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)