The messenger was nothing more than a glimmering ball of purple light, half the size of Caolinn’s fist. It would have been distinctly underwhelming, had she not known the strength it had taken to send it here, over such great distances and past the Order’s safeguards.
It cast its indigo light across the stone walls of her tiny room, Torwen’s voice whispering around her.
“–reason to believe the Inquest infiltrators haven’t been there long, but they feel themselves entirely secure. You may have difficulty detecting them at first, but once you’ve done so, their actions will become clear. Don’t let them get away.”
The mesmer’s spell disintegrated like a cloud of purple fireflies, leaving Caolinn in darkness. Torwen wasn’t the sort to offer good luck and meaningless platitudes. He’d sent Caolinn here with a job to do, and he expected her to do it.
Well, ‘sent’ was perhaps a bit strong. Caolinn had listened to Torwen’s warnings, had even agreed to work with him, but this was her own mission and hers alone. She wasn’t about to become subservient to the Nightmare Court, not under any circumstances. Torwen was almost fanatical in his hatred of asura, for one thing, and she couldn’t trust him to think clearly.
The fact remained, though, that he was right, at least in this respect. She’d followed the trail for weeks after the battle in Rata Sum and Zurra’s downfall. Somehow, the Inquest had got inside the Order of Whispers – which meant they were still here now.
She didn’t hear any approaching footsteps, only the sharp knock on the door. Mala opened it without waiting for an answer, leaning against the frame with her hands on her hips. She’d unofficially attached herself to Caolinn ever since their first meeting, and as no-one had sought to stop her, Caolinn supposed that meant she’d found a mentor.
Not that Mala was really the mentoring type. She was a skilled Agent, it was true, but she preferred a life of gossip and drinking to one of imparting moral lessons. In any other situation, the woman would likely have annoyed Caolinn no end, but for now, this suited her perfectly.
“Time for a little field trip,” Mala said, pushing away from the door-frame. “Grab your coat, if you sylvari need such a thing. It’ll be cold in the city.”
The city? Caolinn followed the Agent from the room, intrigued. So far, her assignments had all been trifling things around the Order’s headquarters. Turning away nosey visitors, dislodging pirates from a nearby camp, even hunting skale for medical ingredients. She’d used a pair of minions for that one, at least the part that involved cutting out slippery internal organs. Necromancers were no strangers to blood and death, but that didn’t mean she wanted to get her hands dirty.
The Chantry of Secrets was filled with the usual buzz of activity. Caolinn trailed Mala through its cavernous halls, then through a portal that led straight to Lion’s Arch. They were very efficient, these spies, Caolinn had discovered; if there was a way of speeding up operations, even by a fraction, you could be certain they would already have done it.
They stepped out into a city already under the first throes of winter. Lion’s Arch didn’t have the climate for the sort of snows Divinity’s Reach or Hoelbrak might experience, but there was still a chill in the air. As soon as they were on the street, Mala stopped and sniffed appreciatively.
“I never get tired of Lion’s Arch. There’s no better place in all the world.”
Caolinn shrugged. Mala would say that – the Order of Whispers had the run of the place. Yes, they had Agents everywhere, but they’d find far less influence in the Grove, or in Rata Sum.
Rata Sum. Caolinn tried not to scowl. Messengers kept reaching her from that accursed place; they’d stopped only once she’d entered the confines of the Chantry of Secrets, which only Torwen dared penetrate. Many had been from Erin, a few from Amber and Spark, and even a handful from Weir. They told her about their plans for a guild, about the reconstruction of Rata Sum, about their lives. As if she cared about any of it.
Once, yes, she might have done. Once, she’d almost considered them friends. When they were so blind to the ongoing damage caused by the Inquest, though, how could she continue to follow their lead?
They’d entered one of the city’s main plazas when Mala stopped. She had a talent for looking like a casual loiterer, even when she was paying the closest attention to her surroundings. Dressed in scruffy leathers as Mala was, Caolinn didn’t think even she would have picked this Agent out.
“Your task is very simple,” Mala said. She’d acquired a glazed cinnamon bun from somewhere – probably stolen, given that it was still steaming – and spoke around a mouthful of food. “Find your target. Follow your target. Report back to me.”
Caolinn waited. There was more to it than that, she was certain.
Abruptly, Mala grinned. “Clever one, aren’t you? Your target might try to approach an individual in the Crow’s Nest Tavern. If they do that, you’re to stop them at all costs. Got it?”
This time, Caolinn nodded. “My target?”
It turned out to be a human man, who went only by the name of Marq. Caolinn found him on the edge of the Canal Ward, trying to look inconspicuous with far less success than Mala had been. He was dressed simply enough, but there was a furtive air about him, as though he knew he was doing something he wasn’t supposed to be, and couldn’t quite hide it.
It wasn’t long before he set off, tracing a meandering path across the Forum and Lion’s Court, finally coming to a stop outside the Commodore’s Manor. Caolinn followed with little interest. She knew she had to prove herself to the Order if she was ever to reach their inner circles, but this was tedious in the extreme. A mere child could have followed this Marq, and probably been far less noticeable than a sylvari, even in this cosmopolitan city.
It wasn’t long, at least, before Marq turned towards the destination Mala had named. Caolinn had spent a fair amount of time in the Crow’s Nest Tavern herself, and she followed him in without hesitation. For the first time, she wondered what her target might have done. He seemed like nothing more than a petty criminal, but something had clearly brought him to the attention of the Order of Whispers.
It was quiet inside the tavern, and all too obvious that Marq was looking for someone. He took several steps, then froze, his gaze pinned to one individual in particular.
An individual who happened to be Agent Mala herself.
Caolinn almost groaned. She was here to protect Mala? ‘Stop him at all costs’, the Agent had said – and that same Agent was now propped at a table, exceedingly drunk. Why Mala would allow herself to get into such a state when someone was after her, Caolinn didn’t know; perhaps the Agent didn’t cope well with boredom, or perhaps this had been the point all along. Go out for a quiet drink, and task some unwitting recruit to keep someone away from you – an enemy, an unwanted acquaintance, even a thwarted lover. It wasn’t quite what Caolinn had expected from the Order, but she also wasn’t entirely surprised.
And Marq seemed implacable. He marched across the tavern, hands clenched into fists. Caolinn didn’t give herself time to hesitate. She’d been ordered to stop this man, and right now she simply had no choice but to follow orders.
She drew a pair of daggers, twirling them across her fingers. Within a heartbeat, she was across the room, flinging a spell to immobilise him. Marq lurched to a stop, making a strangled noise, and Caolinn leapt for him, jamming the first dagger towards a thigh, the second at the small of his back. Both bounced harmlessly off a guardian’s shield. Gritting her teeth, Caolinn went in a second time.
“Stop.” Mala’s voice rung around the room. She was on her feet, hands outstretched, blue-white light flickering at her fingertips. She was the guardian? A guardian, and not the slightest bit drunk.
Caolinn pulled back. The spell around Marq faded, allowing him to stagger forwards. He turned to Caolinn with a look of reproach, but she ignored it. Mala, after all, was grinning.
“Thank you for your services, Agent,” Mala said, with a nod to Marq. He rolled his eyes, heading for the door without a word. Caolinn watched him go, dumbfounded, only to find Mala’s hand on her arm, guiding her into a chair. Allowing herself to be led, Caolinn sheathed her daggers and sat.
And felt a flicker of anger in her chest. Suddenly, she knew what this was about. “That was all a test?”
Mala settled back into her seat. The grumbling around the room diminished, wary eyes turning back to conversations and drinks. Mala was still grinning. “And you passed.”
That didn’t make Caolinn feel better – in fact, she felt worse. She should have known from the beginning what was happening to her; neither Torwen nor Darr would have been pleased by her lapse.
Mala leaned across the table, suddenly earnest. “Look, I argued it was unnecessary, if you really want to know, but Nairne insisted. You have past loyalties, you see. You’re not the blank slate we usually recruit. We had to be certain you’d follow orders.”
“Even if that means stabbing a man to protect your drinking time?”
“Well, I could have been a bit more inventive, I suppose, but I didn’t have time to improvise. That doesn’t matter, though. You passed.”
Caolinn sat in silence, absorbing that. She’d followed a vague and possibly foolish order, but she’d followed it, thus proving her loyal to the Order of Whispers. It was what she’d always intended to do, though she supposed she would have liked a bit more warning first.
“I thought Whispers recruits were supposed to think for themselves,” she said. “No blind obedience.”
Mala tilted her head. “To a certain extent, perhaps. We certainly want people who can use their heads. You’ve only been with us a few weeks, though, and it’s like I said: past loyalties. We had to know.”
Nairne had to know, in other words. Caolinn supposed you didn’t become a Lightbringer without cultivating a certain amount of suspicion. And even if this whole affair didn’t sit well with her… She’d done it. Mala trusted her, and perhaps even Nairne would leave her alone. She’d proved herself to the Order, just as she’d set out to do.
Leaving her with nothing to do but tear it apart.