Sunday, August 25, 2013

Thievery These Days

            Tartin was exhausted. He had spent nearly twelve hours aboard the Desert Lotus, a large civilian airship that frequently made the journey between Ravenfort and Oakshurst, all the way down in Hesaia. The journey was over a thousand miles first crossing the Retron Channel, then miles and miles of farmland, forests, and savannahs in Narcia before touching down in the thick woodlands of Hesaia.
            Tartin, despite his fairly Hesaian-sounding name, had never quite gotten the hang of the language. He could speak about as well as a high school student who had taken a few years of classes. Still, he could usually find someone in Hesaia with whom he could converse in his native tongue; Standard was, well, Standard (officially, the language was called English, but the colloquialism had been so common that even in official settings, the term “Standard” was used. Partially this was because etymologists could not come up with a satisfactory explanation for why the language had this name. Likewise, Hesaian had a different official name, though Tartin could not, at the moment, remember what it was.)
            Tartin slung the bag over his shoulder as he stepped from the gangplank and onto the platform at the skyport. Despite the fact that Oaskhurst was the nation’s capital, its skyport was surprisingly small. Admittedly, air travel was far more popular in Retrein, given its island isolation. On the continent, trains were typically more common. Likewise, steam-cars and -trucks had been a ubiquitous form of transport across the highways, though these vehicles were quickly being replaced with electric equivalents.
            Retrein’s Air Navy had grown out of its maritime tradition. Hesaia, on the other hand, was land-locked, for all intents and purposes, so he supposed there just wasn’t much of a ship-building infrastructure to make air travel that attractive.
            Tartin was stopped at customs, but this was not unusual. Many of his fellow travelers on the Desert Lotus were being stopped as well. Tartin had been to over two dozen countries, and with the exception of Narcia and Arizradna, the locals had always regarded him with suspicion. His countrymen, with their odd accents and their reputation as thieves, were typically seen as a potentially criminal element. Some of the Redland provinces barred anyone from Retrein from entering. Which was not to say that he, as a member of the Rookery, had not.
            So Tartin endured the evil eye he was getting from the customs man who looked like he had missed his calling as an aristocrat’s butler, and when he had gotten his papers back, he left the skyport and walked out into the city.
            Oakshurst was a kind of marvelous city. While most cities had carved away a niche out of the wilderness, Oakshurst had truly been built in the forest. Its low buildings rose out of the thick forest canopy. From above, one might not realize one was passing over a major city, thanks to all the foliage.
            The roads were largely left unpaved, to allow trees to grow, making any sort of car traffic pretty much impossible. Oakshurst was the largest pedestrian city in the world, and it was one of the few places in Ganela where people rode horses for anything other than recreation.
            A traveler might have been surprised to see that the Stag’s Head was actually fairly public in Hesaia, where it was known as “Tête de Cerf.” Tartin noted some graffiti in green paint of some of the cult’s symbols along a concrete wall not far from the skyport – which was a little unnerving, given the Stag’s Head’s predilection for bombings. On the other hand, the cult’s mystique was somewhat dampened here, as the followers of Sadafeth had to compete with a thousand other gods and wild spirits. Hesaia was “pagan,” though the term rose and fell in acceptability. The god Kerahn, back in his public days, had spoken out against the term, believing it to be offensive, only for a response from Hesaia that said that the people embraced it. To be safe, it wasn’t a term that Tartin intended to use.
            Hesaians had a long and complicated history with their Narcian neighbors to the north. In fact, Hesaia and Narcia effectively came to be at the same time. The three patron gods of Narcia: Kerahn, Torem, and Miru, helped unite the human tribes against the chaotic Wild Spirits, but when the war was over, the humans who still remained faithful to the spirits asked that a part of the country be broken away, so that they might continue their worship. Narcia’s first king, Jarsa, agreed to these terms, ending the war by making his former enemies into gracious allies, and even forbade any religious missions from Narcia to try to convert the Hesaians in one of the first celebrated demonstrations of Narcian religious tolerance.
            After a forty-five minute hike through the city (which probably would have taken half as long in a normal city,) Tartin came to the address that had been provided. He was unarmed, but if he had the right place, it would not have mattered anyway.
            The building was made of stone, and a thick green moss covered it, with a rich emerald hue. There were actual trees growing out of the stonework, and a babbling brook went between it and the house to its left. An idol of Ecleris, the Wolf Goddess, stood in the front lawn, ornamented with a wreath of colorful flowers.
            He knocked on the door.
            There was the sound of movement from inside, and what sounded like a cup falling to the ground and shattering. “Attendez-vous,” yelled the voice inside. “Je viens!”
            The door opened, and a great big man appeared. He was old, perhaps in his late sixties, his hair thinned, but not bald, and his eyes seemed to bug out of his face, an effect accentuated by his glasses. He wore a knit sweater and smelled of mushrooms and cheese. “Ah,” he said, his expression taking on a guarded look. “C’est tu.” Tartin was used to the suspicion. Outside of Narcia and perhaps Arizradna, Retrons were seen as thieves, which was technically correct in this case, but the nuances of just what was considered the acceptable act of taking that which was guarded (theft) versus outright greed and selfishness (larceny) were lost on most non-Retrons.
            “Bonjour,” said Tartin. “Wendy…”
            The man pointed upstairs. “Elle est là.”
            The man retreated back and allowed Tartin to enter. He called upstairs. “Gwendoline! C’est le Retron!”
            “Dites-lui de venir ici!” called a woman down to him.
            The large man gestured for Tartin to climb the stairs. Tartin did so, eventually finding himself on the large landing that led to Wendy’s room.
            “Mr. Tartin,” said Wendy. She was actually quite young, probably twenty-five or younger. “How was your trip?” Wendy led Tartin into her bedroom, which still looked like the bedroom of a college student, but for the complicated equipment that sat on her desk. Still, there was a chair for him to sit in. Wendy herself sat cross-legged on the bed.
            “Long, but uneventful. The man downstairs…?”
            “My father.” Wendy spoke with a believable Narcian accent, which he supposed came from studying at the University of Carathon. She hardly looked like a spy, a skinny, waifish sort of girl, but of course, Tartin knew that people who least looked the part made the best spies.
            “Does he know Standard?”
            “Very little, but it doesn’t matter. I want to be as clear as possible today,” said Wendy. “Please, speak plainly. We will not be overheard.”
            That was easier said than done. Certain habits for such a job had a tendency to work their way into one’s everyday speech. “You left Retrein.” By this he meant everyone on the list he’d acquired. All the other University spies, in Retrein, apparently.
            “I got the order to go home. I suspect that was thanks to your doing.”
            “You weren’t in the Rookery.”
            “Of course not. But I had a team-member inside.”
            It was a very strange thing to discuss these matters openly, but Wendy was in her own childhood home, and Tartin had thoroughly looked into her. If she felt it was safe to talk, it was safe.
            “You know,” Tartin said, smiling. “We weren’t actually going to arrest your people. We’ve got a bigger problem to deal with, and frankly, having the University helping us would, well, help.”
            “You may have misunderstood our intentions, then,” said Wendy. “The moment the Rookery got a list of our people on the inside, we became exposed to the House.”
            “And so you pulled the plug?”
            Wendy nodded. “It was decided that the benefit of keeping tabs on the Rookery would not be worth the risk.”
            Tartin smiled. “I suppose I should have just lied about this some time in the past to get you people out.”
            Wendy was not amused. “We gave you the list because we don’t want to see you compromised either. These are complicated matters, aren’t they?” The tone with which she asked this question had a clear implication: she was telling him right now that there were other motives: ones that she had no intention of divulging.
            “What do you know of Kilarny?”
            Tartin did recognize the name, though it was not entirely uncommon in Retrein. “Sofia? The one killed in Omlos?”
            “Yes. We intercepted a communiqué she sent to her superior, Franklin Blair.”
            So they knew Frank was her superior. These Carathon spies aren’t so bad.
            “We got wind of it months ago, before Kilarny was killed, but after she had gone dark – presumably before she went to Omlos. Our decryption specialists only unlocked it two days ago.”
            Wendy smiled wryly. “We have a saying in our group: More confusing than a Rookery code. You people are gifted.”
            The flattery was just slightly off-putting. Narcia, and indeed the University of Carathon, were far from being enemies of Retrein, but in the intelligence world, “friend” was a complicated word. Tartin leaned forward, his instincts severely irked by the fact that the bedroom door was not closed all the way. Certainly, Wendy must have trusted her father, but it had been Tartin’s practice to isolate information even from those he trusted – as much for their own protection as anything. Was Wendy merely inexperienced? Tartin’s stomach grew heavy in his gut as he considered that perhaps she had left it open intentionally, and that the man downstairs was someone else entirely.
            Thievery these days. It made a man paranoid.
            These thoughts were distracting him from something important, though, so he closed his mind to them for the time being and re-focused his attention.
            “What did it say?” asked Tartin.
            “It suggested that a group – not overtly identified, but clearly hinted to be the House…”
            Tartin broke in to her sentence. “How was it hinted?”
            Wendy paused. “Punctuation, actually. A few things off. At one point in the message, there was the word “The” followed only by a comma. We’ve seen this before within the Rookery.”
            Damn, thought Tartin. Carathon must have finally decided to get around to cracking some of the really old codes. It would do little to deny it now.
            “I see, go on.”
            “It suggested that the House may have targeted a thief named Christopher Thatch for assassination.”
            Tartin perked up. Chris Thatch had been in Omlos with Emily. “Assassination?”
            Wendy held out her hand in a concessionary gesture. “We believe that the information was fed to her, putting her off-guard when the real assassin came for her.”
            “She was killed in a car accident.”
            “A very simple kind of assassination to pass off as accidental, wouldn’t you agree?”
            Tartin did agree. He was no stranger to violence, but these days it seemed that the world of thievery had grown more dangerous. Fewer and fewer missions were the kind of daring heists that even foreigners could be impressed with. Nowadays, every other mission involved violence and brutality.
            “You do not believe that Thatch is in danger?”
            Wendy shook her head. “No. The message is several months old. It must have been disinformation that Kilarny sadly took at face value.”
            Tartin nodded. “You won’t be coming back?”
            “No. I expect our field research expedition has been canceled.” “Field Research” was University euphemism for spying. In fairness, some departments of the University did, in fact, do actual academic research, but not Wendy.
            “I’ll keep an eye out for the next batch. Just, probably tell them to wait until we have this situation sorted.”
            “I’ll pass along the information,” said Wendy.
            Tartin got up to leave. He had a return flight the next day, which he dreaded. For the evening, at least, he would see what he could see in the city - perhaps case a museum or two for an old-fashioned heist.
            “Tartin,” said Wendy.
            “Yasik says hello.”
            Tartin smiled and laughed politely. “How is the old man?”
            “Pretty pissed with you,” said Wendy.
            “That’s to be expected. Tell him I say hi.”
            As Tartin left the room, he had the odd sensation that came after allowing the water to drain from one’s ears after swimming in a pool. He looked back at Wendy’s desk and watched as she deactivated the brass device there, which he now realized must have been some sort of sound-dampening field generator.
            And here I was worried about the door.
            Tartin nodded to Wendy’s father as he strode out the door.
            It would not be safe to make a phone call, or attempt any remote form of communication. He would have to deliver the information in person, lest he let the wrong people catch on.
            I must warn Chris Thatch that his life is in danger.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)