Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thompson & Son's Salvage and Tinker

            Tartin awoke at five-thirty in the morning. He was not in the habit of waking up so early – the Underground to work took a mere fifteen minutes – so he was somewhat surprised when he looked at his clock.
            He tended to be a night owl – it was a common trait among Rookery thieves. It was best to do one’s work late at night, after all, and so the hours of the day were somewhat shifted. Typically, he considered five o’clock to be more often a bedtime than a time to wake up. So it was a curiosity indeed that he would find himself up at this time.
            His heart was beating somewhat fast. He wondered almost if he had had a nightmare, but he did not remember it. Unable to go back to sleep, he rose from bed and put on his robe. He had a fair tolerance for temperature, but the robe made him feel more decent, even if the only person likely to see him was his partner Natalie, and indeed, she was out of town on business for the next few days.
            He turned on the shower and breathed in the steam. The heat of the water contrasted sharply with the cold of the air. It reminded him of a time nearly fifteen years earlier, when they had discovered a hot spring in the forests of Hanzhou. He and his 12-person team all stripped naked and jumped in, modesty be damned. As he recalled, that was one of Emily’s earlier expeditions, and she had been the shyest of them all.
            Emily’s warning sat with him. The Rookery was a large organization, but the thought that someone Tartin might know could indeed be in league with the House was profoundly troubling.
            An Agent in the Rookery. The thought made him angry.
            The last thing he would want to do would be to start imagining his co-workers as moles, yet he would have to begin at least consider this possibility. He would even have to look at Emily with a certain degree of skepticism, even though she had been the one to bring the information to him in the first place.
            It was the common belief at the Rookery that Tartin had had a breakdown and grown soft after his episode in the desert. This was not strictly-speaking inaccurate, but he had not merely been “kicked up the stairs,” as many suspected. He tried to cultivate this image as best he could (and putting on the act was not terribly difficult, given the half-truth of the situation,) but unbeknownst to his office-mates on the eight floor, Tartin was now Deputy Director of Acquisitions.
            There were, at the moment, ten teams on high-priority expeditions, and he had coordinated each of them. He had not been surprised when Nascine informed him that she had not gone to Elderland, because Tartin’s man in Port Sang had told him as much (there were also some very troubling stories involving the undead, though for the moment he merely filed this away as atmospheric detail.)
            The mission Nascine had been on was over, which resulted in an automatic downgrade in classification. If he asked the right sort of people, Tartin suspected he could find out at least the purpose of the mission. If Yasik was truly involved, it would be something quite big.
            The question, of course, was what made Yasik suspect there was an Agent in the Rookery. For that, Tartin knew exactly who to seek out.
            The humidity had finally broken through, and Ravenfort was washed in a light, fine rain. Tartin stepped out of his flat and hailed a cab. They rode for about fifteen minutes before arriving in Elerton Square. It was still quite dark outside, and the streetlights were necessary to illuminate the city.
            Elerton Square was home to the Finger’s Market, where one could acquire some very unusual commodities indeed. Still, at this time of day only a few merchants had even arrived yet, and those that were there were still in the process of setting up their booths. Tartin was not there for the booths, though. Instead, he walked a little farther down the square to an odd little storefront, with a faded shingle that read “Thompson & Son’s Salvage and Tinker.”
            The store was closed, but not in any serious way, so Tartin was able to quickly slip inside.
            The store was dark and dusty, and its shelves were lined with a thousand odd contraptions – navigational equipment, binoculars, telescopes, typewriters, lock mechanisms, steam-cart parts, radios, computers, and many things Tartin could not identify.
            There was a chair at the workbench in the back, and Tartin sat down there.
            It took a few minutes, but soon he could hear someone coming down the stairs.
            “Hello Tom,” said Tartin.
            Tom looked utterly shocked. He was in his seventies, quite thin with an uneven white beard and deep-set, dark eyes. “Bloody hell, Gil. You gave me a fright.”
            “Sorry. How have you been?”
            “Same as always.” Tom descended the stairs and leaned against the wall. “What the hell are you doing here?”
            “I need to update my kit.”
            “Right,” said Tom, though he could tell Tartin was not yet finished.
            “Also, what’s the news from Carathon?”
            Tom sunk a little. “I thought you were just running the thieving these days?”
            “We’re going to be cleaning out the cage soon, Tom. I don’t want distractions and false leads. Get me the real list by tomorrow – and don’t leave any of them out, or they’re going to be right in the line of fire.”
            Tom’s mouth wobbled somewhat, but then he said “All right. I’ll get on the tapper and get clearance.”
            Tartin smiled grimly to himself. If Tom and the rest of the University knew what they were doing – and he certainly hoped they did, or Yasik had made a grave miscalculation – he would have the names of every University spy in Retrein. That was step one.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Personal Recipe

            As Richard Airbright walked into his house, he scanned through the various bills, letters and magazines that had been stuffed in the postbox. He’d asked Isabelle to check it daily while he was away, but she had clearly neglected to do what she had been asked. He could never be sure if these oversights were merely teenage indolence or some sort of passive-aggressive retribution for some obscure perceived slight.
            It had been easy when Isabelle was younger. She had always had moments in which she felt the need to act out, but as she entered her teenage years, the moments of conflict between them grew more frequent and the pleasant times grew rarer. He hoped dearly that this was only a phase.
            Isabelle’s mother had left when she was only four years old. Georgia had been fiery and passionate, which had drawn him to her in the first place, but he discovered over the years that she had a tendency toward the melodramatic. That and a passionate, unconditional love for alcohol. They had now been separated longer than they had ever been married. It would have been a clean divorce if he were ever able to track her down and keep her in one place long enough to sign the papers.
            He had attempted to time it so that he would arrive while Isabelle was at school, but there had been an accident on the track at Shadowbury Station – some poor sod, likely a suicide – that delayed him for nearly two hours.
            Whispering Jim hovered behind him. The demon was still in a state of shock. It was to be expected. Jim was no Dark Lord, but he was not a mere imp either. He would serve as a useful familiar. The binding ritual had taken a great deal of planning, not to mention expense – the rented house, the forged family history planted in the hall of records - but it was a powerful one. For Isabelle’s sake, Richard would keep the demon inside the Vault most of the time. He doubted it was necessary, but keeping the foul creature away from her seemed the wisest course of action.
            Now, he only hoped he could make it into Vault without arousing Isabelle’s attention.
            “Hello, Dad.” Isabelle was in the kitchen, slicing a green apple. She was making him his favorite snack, green apple and sharp Chesonbury cheese with crackers. Despite his panic at being caught, he felt a certain warmth at the gesture. “What is that thing?”
            She pointed the knife at Whispering Jim. Jim swirled around in a manner analogous to turning his head. “She can see me? Why can she see me?”
            “Shit,” said Richard. He put the post on the kitchen table and rubbed his eyes. “Isabelle, this is Whispering Jim.” Isabelle put the knife down on the counter and brought the plate over to him. “Careful now! He is a demon.”
            “Really?” she said, a mischievous smile forming. “Cool!” Isabelle reached out a hand to try to touch Jim, but Richard pulled the demon back.
            “No, not cool. Very dangerous. Now, he’s going down into the vault.”
            “What kind of tricks can you do?” she asked Jim.
            Jim laughed, an evil, cackling sort of laugh. “Oh, wouldn’t you like to know, pretty little thing?”
            “Right, this is the sort of thing I’d prefer to avoid,” said Richard. He pulled Jim along with him toward a door inside the pantry. The door was coated with rime – it was made of Cold Iron – and creaked loudly as he pulled it open.
            The Vault was a larger space than one would expect in such a modest-yet-comfortable suburban house. Tapestries and banners speckled with myriad glyphs and sigils covered every wall that did not have a bookcase. There were four different tables, each loaded with several stacks of books. A desk facing the wall was the only clear surface apart from the floor (which had its own clutter.)
            The desk had a computer, a leather writing pad, and a small alchemistry lab. This was only the first room, as corridors opened outward from three of the walls.
            “Your daughter is extremely beautiful,” said Jim. “Is she still a virgin?”
            Richard snorted. Whispering Jim was playing it by the book, it seemed, and clearly did not appreciate his own situation. “Demon, you are already defeated. Your tricks won’t work on me. I can see them for what they are.”
            Richard led the demon down an arched stone corridor to another room. There was a large cage here, and it was electrified. Jim smirked. “Putting me in the cage? I’m not just some animal, you know?”
            “I do know that, demon. And the cage is not for you. This is:” Richard picked up a small metal ball on a chain. It was only a few centimeters across, but it was clearly quite heavy. While the ball seemed to be solid, the metal appeared to swirl and flow, as if it were liquid just below the surface. The ball was attached by a fine chain to something that was little more than a handcuff. “Now, Jim, hold out your hand.”
            Jim did so involuntarily. The Cold Iron shackles seemed to be pumping some kind of energy that forced Jim to comply. Richard slapped the cuff onto Jim’s already-burdened wrist, and when he let go, the demon plummeted, arm-first to the ground.
            “What is this thing?” asked the demon. He strained to rise, but could not under the weight of the strange little ball.
            “Oh, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. A personal recipe.” Richard yawned. It had been a long day of travel, even without leaving the city. “You will remain here until I have a use for you. If you sleep, do try to get some rest.”
            Whispering Jim strained his arm once more against the weight, but it was useless. “Wait… mortal!” But Richard was already on his way out. “Hold, please…” He could hear the sound of the warlock’s footsteps fading. “Master, wait!”
            The steps stopped, and then they grew louder as Richard returned. “What is it?”
            “Are you just going to leave me here? All night?”
            Richard laughed. “Surely you cannot be afraid of the dark?”
            Whispering Jim attempted to drag himself toward the warlock, but the manacle bound him to where he had fallen. “What do you want with me? How long do you intend to keep me here?”
            “You claim to be older than the universe. Surely you can wait in here for a day or two.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Two-Step Process

            Harrick knew that he should be furious. Three officers had been forced to pull Sydow off of him when he announced that enforcement was going to cooperate with the Militia regarding what had been termed the “Sweeney Situation.” It was no secret that Sydow had been drinking non-stop these past few days, which was already enough to be mad at him, and now, with this assault…
            He’d been sent home to cool off. Harrick might have had his badge, but as of yet he had not decided to cross that threshold. He understood where Sydow stood, even if it was a hopeless cause.
            Harrick picked up the picture frame that had been smashed when Sydow knocked him into the shelf. It wasn’t his favorite picture – just some photo of him and Judy outside the old house – but it had been there for nearly fifteen years.
            The mood around the department was understandably grim. He’d given a general order for everyone to shut up about it, but he knew that he couldn’t simply ignore the problem. One of their officers had been a draugr all along.
            In all the stories, the draugar were depicted as walking corpses in full rot, not even able to speak, much less fool anyone into thinking they were one of the living. The Icelord was cruel indeed to put someone like Ana Sweeney among them. She was among the best in the department. Everyone seemed to like her. She made the perfect sleeper agent.
            Is that what you believe? That’s all Ana was?
            Hope was a dangerous thing, especially when there was such a great rumbling of danger. There were more and more reports of sightings. An enormous stitch had been destroyed in the middle of Port Sang. The undead were growing bold. The Icelord would want people like Sydow –someone who could not accept that a friend had never been a friend at all, and who would fight on behalf of his enemies.
            Which was not to say that Harrick could blame the guy. Ana had been Harrick’s favorite. If it were not for Harrick’s burden to protect Port O’James before anything else, he imagined he would have indulged in these fantasies on Ana’s innocence.
            Whisky seemed quite the attractive option at the moment.
            There was a knock at the door. Harrick groaned quietly to himself. “Who is it?”
            The cool, canned voice of the Bone King’s representative answered. “Mraxinar. May I come in?”
            “Yes.” Harrick shuddered. The skeletal construct bowed his head as he ducked under the doorframe. He was surprisingly flexible for a being made of bone, but then, Harrick reflected, the living had bones as well.
            “I know that I am the last person you want to see,” said Mraxinar.
            Yes, “Person,” thought Harrick. “What is it?”
            Mraxinar settled down into what might be called a sitting position. “I have been speaking with Mayor Harlaw. The situation regarding the… compromise within Enforcement has caused him great concern.”
            “You aren’t the first person to tell me that.”
            Mraxinar gave a half-nod in affirmation. Harrick was struck by how strange it was communicating with someone who could not make subtle facial movements. Conversations in person with these things were very much like speaking over the phone. “I understand that your department must be going through a… crisis of faith, in a sense. You do not know who to trust. It is this exact kind of situation that I believe the Bone King sent us here to resolve. We are experts in undeath, and you must now find a way to tell the difference between the undead and the living. The Mayor and I talked at great length about this, and we agreed that it will bring great peace of mind to both the department and the community as a whole if we can begin screenings.”
            Harrick considered the proposition for a moment. “These screenings, would they be…”
            “We would begin with City Enforcement, and any government employees. From there, at the discretion of the Mayor, we could begin screening the general populace.”
            Harrick rubbed his chin. “And the militia?”
            “We have not yet proposed this to Ranger-Captain Lisenrush. For the moment, we are focusing on the town itself, though I assure you, I will strongly advocate for the application of these tests to the defense force as well.”
            Harrick leaned back in his chair. “I hope you appreciate the irony here.”
            Mraxinar nodded – again, one of these quick, small nods that substituted for a smile or some such gesture. “The undead being used to sniff out the undead, yes. But you must also realize that the Bone King’s form of necromancy is quite different from that of the Icelord. We are as similar to the draugar as you are with an insect, which is to say not very much.”
            “I don’t know that the general populace will be willing to make that subtle distinction.”
            “It will not be theirs to make. The orders to begin the screening program have already been signed by Mayor Harlaw.”
            Harrick frowned. “That might have been something to let me know about earlier. I talked to Ted just yesterday, and he said nothing about this.”
            Mraxinar pulled a piece of paper from his robe and handed it to Harrick. “He signed it only this morning.” Harrick read over the document. It seemed legitimate.
            “When do you intend to begin?”
            “We will not be set up to screen the entire department for another day or two, but if you would like, we could perform yours right now.”
            Harrick stood up. “My screening? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, right?”
            Mraxinar rose slightly as well. “Detective-Inspector, please understand that this is not an accusation. We have no reason to believe that you are one of the Icelord’s agents. However, I believe that if you are the first to be tested, it will restore a great deal of confidence in your department and will help acclimatize your citizens to the tests.”
            Harrick frowned. You have nothing to fear, don’t you? “Fine. Do it.”
            Mraxinar turned back to the door. “Captain Bergen, would you please come in?” Jane Bergen quickly entered, dressed in somewhat more formal business attire than Harrick was used to seeing on her.
            “What is she doing here?” asked Harrick.
            Bergen stepped forward. “As a member of the Maritime Authority, I am here as witness to the screening, on behalf of the Mayor’s Office.” It did not surprise Harrick in the least that Bergen would want to be involved. She had been vocal about the threat the Icelord posed since the Ostrich had come into port.
            Mraxinar retrieved a set of tools from his cloak, held in a black silk bag. “We have determined that a two-step process will provide an accurate result. First, I will need to take a small blood sample.” Mraxinar retrieved a small vial connected to a tube with a syringe.
            “Right,” said Harrick, and he rolled up his sleeve. He hated needles, but given all the tests his wife Judy had been going through, he knew he should not complain.
            When the vial was mostly full, Mraxinar pulled the needle out and put a piece of gauze on the hole. “Hold that there, if you don’t mind.”
            Mraxinar put the vial in his bag and then retrieved a strange brass web-like frame. It branched out from a central hub that had a large white crystal set in the metal. “This part I should probably explain. The Icelord’s method of necromancy requires the re-binding of the spirit to the physical body. In most normal, living creatures, the spirit simply receives information – perceiving the thoughts processed by the brain. The spirit has its own senses, in a way, that can compliment the information the brain processes, but it cannot influence the body – thus behavior in living beings is purely based on neurology. However, in some instances, most notably in the case of the undead, in order to gain control over a decayed system, the spirit must be bound more… solidly to the body. The brain is no longer functional, and so the spirit provides the required functions, governing movement and even control over so-called involuntary actions such as heartbeat and digestion, though in the case of the undead, these functions are essentially performed out of habit, as the spirit can control an entirely non-functioning body with a surprising degree of agency. Even when the undead are under the control of some more powerful individual, such as the Icelord, in most cases the spirit re-bound to the body performs the mundane actions - the necromancer tells the body to walk forward, and the spirit puts one foot in front of the other.”
            Harrick tried to process Mraxinar’s unexpected lecture as the bone construct fitted the brass web around his head, adjusting it to align with his nose and temples.
            “So, the undead have free will?” he asked.
            Mraxinar shook his head. “Not with the Icelord. Even if he is not in direct control of his subjects, the spirit can still be conditioned in various ways to act against its desires, usually involving positive punishment.”
            “Positive punishment?”
            “Pain, typically.”
            Harrick tried to make eye contact with Bergen, but she did not seem as troubled by the horror Mraxinar was describing.
            She just wants to know if you’re a stiff.
            “So what is this thing on my head?”
            Mraxinar took his hand away. “Ah, yes, forgive me. The spirit is utterly undetectable by any means, but the process of re-binding the spirit to the body does cause some physical distortion in the brain tissue. This device, to put it simply, scans the brain for such signs.”
            “How long does it take?”
            Mraxinar took the device off. “It’s already done. If it had detected anything, we would have heard a sort of buzz.”
            Bergen stepped forward. “Mraxinar, may I have a word?”
            The bone construct bowed in agreement and stepped away to speak with her. Harrick’s arm was sore from the needle. He pretended not to be listening.
            “In the future, we should not set the precedent that subjects will receive their results immediately,” whispered the captain.
            “May I ask why?” asked Mraxinar.
            “If we find ourselves in a situation, gods forbid, in which we have detected another draugr agent, we do not want to arouse suspicion that he or she has been detected until we know what measures we are going to take.”
            Mraxinar nodded, though oddly, Harrick thought he looked troubled.
            Bergen approached Harrick’s desk again. “Well, that’s all taken care of. Thank you, Detective Inspector. You will receive a schedule for the department’s screenings either later today or early tomorrow.” Then she walked out the door.
            Mraxinar paused, then turned to leave as well. Harrick stopped him. “Mraxinar?” he asked.
            “Yes, Detective Inspector?”
            “You see troubled.”
            The bone construct tilted his head to one side. “I did not mean to give that impression. I expect these screenings will do a great deal of good for your town. I should be on my way, the mayor expects to hear about the test.”
            “One last thing, though, before you go, if that’s all right,” said Harrick.
            “What was the point of the blood test?”
            Mraxinar turned back. “As I’ve said before, there are many forms of necromancy. As one of the undead myself, this distinction is very important to me. The Icelord’s ‘draugar,’ as you call them, are truly dead bodies. There is no life left in them, and they are in a state of cellular decay at every level. A vial of blood with dead cells inside would not necessarily be a signature, but a vial of living blood cells would rule him out as the necromancer.”
            Harrick sat down, idly noticing a shard of glass from the fallen picture frame he had forgotten about. “How many necromancers are out there, raising the dead?”
            “You would be very surprised,” said Mraxinar.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Falling Toward the Stars

            They were called the Lost Ones. The psychological profile, as Milton read it, appeared to be all about disempowerment. The average person did not simply get the offer, go off and become one of these things. Most were traumatized in some way, often quite horrifically, and whoever made them into these things preyed on this. They had a thick file on Aragoth, he of the blue suit. He’d been born in Fealdoraga, down on the southern tip of Elderland. His parents were killed in a Red Sails raid and he was taken by the ship’s crew. It seemed the captain had held a special interest in the young boy – whose name had been Hundé. The story had a twist, though. The ship ran aground on a small island in the Selatian Sea two months after the boy was taken. Rescuers found a lot of dead bodies on that ship, all of whom had been killed with some sort of bladed weapon, and many of whom had human teeth marks on their corpses. Hundé was nowhere to be seen. Then, in 473…
            Milton looked up from the file. “Wait a minute. Aragoth is over six hundred years old?”
            Tessa nodded. “Honestly, the more I learn about the universe, the more I realize how brief our visits are. To me, the place I was born feels buried in the fog of history, yet to one of these things, I only just left.” She leaned against the window of the train compartment, wistfully watching the moon rise.
            Milton realized he had been staring at her. She was, in many ways, just as much of a mystery as this Aragoth. Tessa Olanis – a pseudonym, he was sure. Perhaps he had spent too much time out of the company of women – disregarding the Thin Woman, of course – but there was something about Tessa that made him feel far less uncomfortable than he had been in the presence of the Diplomat.
            He realized this could very well be by design. The comfort brought on its own new discomfort.
            The details on Aragoth were staggering. The House was thorough to an absurd degree. The process by which he had become what he had become, however, was somewhat hazy. It appeared that, consistent with all of the Lost Ones, he had merely disappeared and come back days later, the only noticeable differences being that he no longer had any color to him, and that he had become a monster.
            The journey, which was only about eighteen miles, was delayed by a rockslide. It seemed a boulder had fallen onto the track, and while the conductor had announced that the track was undamaged, removing the rock was proving difficult.
            Upon hearing the announcement, Tessa reached a small brass earpiece hidden underneath her hair. After receiving what appeared to be some kind of radio signal, she nodded to herself, satisfied, and went back to looking out the window.
            Milton put down the file. “What is the plan here?”
            She looked back at him. “The plan? We’re going to Towatki.”
            “I appreciate that, but what are we actually going to do once we get there? The Diplomat told me…”
            “The Diplomat?” Tessa furrowed her brow. “Who is that?”
            “I thought he was your boss. Isn’t he the one who sent you to get me?”
            Tessa shook her head. “No. I’ve never heard of the Diplomat. Probably someone low-level, on another chain.”
            “Then who is your boss?”
            Tessa smiled. “I actually cannot tell you that.”
            “You can’t?”
            “I’m under your protection. I doubt that you people think I’m a threat.”
            “No, you don’t understand. I don’t know who my boss’ boss is. My boss does not know who his boss’ boss is. That’s the way the House works.”
            “Yes. If an Agent is compromised, their superior can simply drop out. Everyone is isolated, so there’s very little risk of a major compromise.”
            Milton idly picked up the file. “That’s insane. So every order is one massive game of telephone?”
            “Orders are given in somewhat broad strokes. If one of the higher-ups needs something specific done, the orders are transmitted word-for-word.”
            “How do you even know that you’re getting orders from the actual House then?”
            Tessa shrugged. “Faith, I guess.”
            Milton shook his head. “You must be joking.”
            Tessa drew backward, sitting up a little straighter. “You’re Narcian, so you believe in Kerahn, right?”
            “I believe in the philosophy. I’ve never met the guy personally.”
            “But you follow his teachings because he’s your god.”
            Milton shook his head. “Not at all. I agree with the teachings because they make sense. It really just boils down to being open-minded and treating people decently. I wouldn’t care if it was a god or just some guy who said that.”
            “But that’s just it. That’s your faith. You’re so devoted that you would not even care if it were actually the words of a god. Understand this: I’ve been a part of the House for nearly my entire life. It has given me the comfort and safety that I could have never dreamed of. I have faith in the House for the same reason I have faith that I won’t fall into the sky if I look up at the stars.”
            Milton nodded. He had never considered the kind of religious devotion required of a House Agent, yet there it was. He did not know whether to find it sad or frightening.
            “I will say this,” began Milton, but then he reconsidered and stopped himself. Tessa leaned forward.
            “Tessa, do you know why I’m here?”
            “I was told you had been taken out of Narcia by Aragoth’s people.”
            “They took me, but they didn’t just let me go. They tortured me for… months, I think. I’d heard of the House before, but never good things. But it was the Diplomat who saved me. If it hadn’t been for him, I would have ended up…” Insane, he thought. But that would require too much explanation, so instead he simply said “dead.” The mere thought of his experience down in the cell was almost physically painful. “In a sense, I owe him my life. Yet… yet I still don’t trust him. I don’t trust the House.”
            “And you don’t trust me,” said Tessa, with a hidden but not unnoticed hint of anger.
            “It’s nothing personal, Tessa.”
            She leaned back against the train wall, pulling her legs up onto the seat. “So what can I do to gain your trust, Jack?”
            Milton looked down at the file in his hand. “I want to see the file you guys have on the faceless man.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Fish and Chips

            The debriefing was over. The operation had been a failure, certainly. Jaroka was somewhere in a Narcian holding facility in all likelihood, and whatever things she may have been able to reveal would only arrive at the Rookery at the discretion of Yasik or the people he worked for.
            The sky above Ravenfort was a dull grey. There had been a spot of heat, actually, as spring began. The air was thick and humid and not at all comfortable. Supposedly it had been raining heavily over in Canwick, which was a mere ten miles up the Stough River, but Ravenfort was merely sticky.
            Nascine rode the lift down to the eighth floor. Tartin was in his office, the stacks of paper piled even higher than she remembered. When he saw her come in, his eyes lit up. “Emily!” he exclaimed, rising to embrace her. He was wearing a wool sweater, which Nascine thought insane, given the weather. “My dear Emily, it is so wonderful to have you back! Please, have a seat. If you have the time, that is.”
            “Yes, I have the time, Gilbert.” She sat down and Tartin cleared a window in his papers so that he could look at her from the other side of the desk. “How have you been?” she asked.
            He shrugged. “Same as usual, I’m afraid. I worry I’m getting a reputation for being a bit of a recluse here. Still, the work gets done, and the cheques keep coming. We had a wonderful success in the Redlands just a few days ago. Hodgeson and the boys were able to secure the remains of one of the original navigator Golems from the Red Ships. Completely lifeless, sadly, but quite a piece of history. I daresay the Redlanders may be a little miffed to find the old boy missing, but if you ask me, we’ll do a better job preserving the body than they would. Oh, but that’s something you’ll hear a great deal about. You must tell me what you have been up to! Something in the North East Colony? Port Sang, was it?”
            That had been the cover. They’d told the rest of the Rookery rank and file that she and Tarson… er… Thatch. Chris Thatch was his real name – Tarson had only been a pseudonym. They’d said that she and Thatch had been in Port Sang, looking for some relic or some such thing. There was no mention of Kilarny at all. Nascine had never met her before, the mission, and was given to understand that she was not exactly one of the regulars around the office. It seemed that no one knew her to mourn her.
            “It was uneventful. And not very productive, I’m afraid.” She worried that her voice had wavered a bit. The exhaustion of the mission in Omlos had taken a great deal of energy out of her, but the revelation Yasik had granted her – that there was, even now, a House Agent here in the Rookery - sent chills down her spine. She had not told anyone except for Thiefmaster Renford Harren, the public head of the Rookery, “Lady Crow,” the actual head of the Rookery, and a woman who bore a striking resemblance to the Queen of Retrein. Even Tarson (no, Thatch, she reminded herself) was in the dark. All he knew was that Jaroka had been taken in by Yasik’s people – whoever they were.
            “Well, I’m sorry to hear that. Don’t take it so bad, though. I think maybe a third of my expeditions turned up nothing, especially early on. You’ll get the hang of it, Emily.”
            She nodded. She loved Gilbert Tartin, truly. When she had first met him, it had manifested as an actual physical attraction, but Tartin had always maintained an avuncular attitude toward the people under his command. After a year of working with him, Nascine felt devoted to him more as a family member.
            “Gilbert, what are your plans for dinner?” she asked.
            Tartin looked at his paperwork and shrugged. “I was going to order in, I think. Why?”
            “I would like very much to have dinner out with you. Nicer place to chat, perhaps. Less distraction.”
            Tartin seemed somewhat befuddled. The office was as much a nest as it was a workplace for him. “I… suppose so. These could probably wait another day. How does seven sound?”
            “I’ll be round to pick you up then,” said Nascine. She hoped she was doing the smart thing here. The last thing she would ever want to do was endanger her dearest friend.

            They walked about a mile and a half to Carantilly Row, a long road in the south of town originally made famous for the dye market there. Every shop and restaurant was decorated with bright fabric of myriad colors. The buildings here were filled with little nooks where vendors could set up their tiny stalls. The locals cultivated an air of seediness to keep the tourists and the nouveau riche away, but most people could figure out very quickly that Carantilly Row was the authentic, traditional soul of Ravenfort.
            The two of them settled down to a piping plate each of fried fish and potatoes sprinkled with malt vinegar. It was a little bit of home Nascine had missed dearly.
            “This food is going to kill me one day,” said Tartin. Despite the ominous prophecy, he shoveled a forkful of potato into his mouth.
            She smiled. The man had looked as if he was chiseled from marble and had a perpetual layer of sweat and stubble from the rough roads he traveled when she first met him, but now, he had grown quite pudgy and soft. “Tell me about Yasik,” she said.
            He blinked. “Yasik? What… why do you want to know about Yasik?”
            “You introduced me to him three years after I started going on your expeditions. Who is he, really?”
            Tartin swallowed. He suddenly seemed a great deal colder, hunching his shoulders and avoiding Nascine’s gaze. “A friend.”
            “How did you meet him?”
            Tartin put his fork down. “What is all this about Yasik?”
            “I just want to know more about him.”
            Tartin took another forkful of potato. “He saved my life one time. It was early on, before you joined up. Must have been my sixth or seventh expedition, I’d say. Down in Carathon. Just a stupid mistake – I was trying to break into the University Archives. I botched my harness, trying to go down the outside wall, and I nearly fell. Turned out he’d been following me. He caught me, gave me a very stern talking-to, and then told me to call on him if I ever needed any help.”
            “But who is he?”
            “I’m pretty sure he’s with the University. You ask me, the whole Narcian Intelligence Service is just for the mundane, day-to-day espionage. Those academics, though. They’re the real eyes and ears over there, dealing with the big things – though what those big things are, I couldn’t guess.”
            “Do you trust him?”
            Tartin put his fork down. “What is this all about, Emily? You know I haven’t talked with that man since…” he growled and covered his face with his hand.
            “Just get to the point, Emily.”
            “I wasn’t in Port Sang. I was in Narcia. Yasik told me there is an Agent of the House in the Rookery.”
            Tartin lowered his hand and looked up. Nascine stared right back at him. Tartin exhaled a long, slow breath.
            “Well, if Yasik says so, then there is.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)