Dec 04 2017

The Hornet’s Nest: Part 4

The Hornet's Nest: Part 3
The Hornet's Nest: Part 5

In all her years as a spy, Caolinn had never been caught. It wasn’t just that the targets Darr sent her after were frequently inept – she was too careful to ever let herself get into a compromising position in the first place. Something about this mission within the Chantry of Secrets had thrown her off-balance, though. Something about Torwen – and perhaps about Nairne.

Caolinn was on her feet by the time the Lightbringer entered the room. Nairne froze in the doorway, eyes taking in the immaculate office, apparently just as she’d left it – and Caolinn, lounging in the corner.

“The door was open,” Caolinn said casually.

Nairne stared at her a moment, then carefully closed the door behind her. “No, it wasn’t.” She didn’t say any more than that. Perhaps, in the Chantry, being infiltrated by your own students was par for the course.

Caolinn managed a small smile and hoped it didn’t look too forced. “No, perhaps it wasn’t. I thought I’d wait inside anyway.”

“Find anything interesting?” Nairne made a casual gesture towards the table. “Your name’s in several of those files, you know.”

Inwardly, Caolinn cursed, wishing she’d paid more attention to the documents, out of self-preservation if nothing more. “Not really,” she replied. “Anyone would think you’ve only just moved in.”

“I have,” Nairne said. She placed her bag on the table, but her gaze slid sideways – towards the stool, tucked neatly back under the desk, just as Caolinn had found it. “I was transferred from a posting in Orr when I became a Lightbringer. The Chantry is as new to me as it is to you.”

Caolinn’s breath caught. What had Torwen said about the Inquest infiltrators not having been inside the Order long? Nairne might have the perfect cover story, but given the circumstances, it was just a little too convenient.

Nairne folded her arms; it was clear her irritation was growing. “What are you doing here, Initiate? If you have questions about your missions, you’re supposed to go through Mala.”

“Mala isn’t here,” Caolinn replied, praying that was still the case. “But it’s not my mission I’m concerned with. I wanted to talk to you.”

“About what, precisely?”

“About why you hate Darr so much.”

For the first time, Nairne looked genuinely uncomfortable. It had been nothing but instinct that had made Caolinn bring up Darr’s name, but she could see she’d guessed well. This was exactly the sort of subject that warranted privacy, too, even if breaking into a Lightbringer’s office to get it was drastic, to say the least.

“You called him a traitor,” Caolinn added, “but he never said anything about that to me.”

“I daresay he wouldn’t.”

“But he left the Order voluntarily?”

Nairne sucked in a deep breath. “In the end, yes. It was either that or face a disciplinary hearing, and he was never the type to submit to authority. Too much pride.”

Caolinn tried not to laugh. Serious as the situation was, Nairne had described Darr all too well.

“Darr sabotaged one of my missions,” Nairne went on, taking a step towards Caolinn. “I’d been promoted ahead of him, and he was jealous. He set me up to fail, deliberately, because he couldn’t bear to see me succeed – and he cost the lives of three of our fellow Agents in the process.”

Caolinn tried not to flinch. That… also sounded alarmingly like Darr. She couldn’t imagine he would ever have sacrificed Order lives on purpose – he was ruthless, but he wasn’t cruel. Accidentally, though, in an attempt to make sure someone else didn’t succeed in his place? Perhaps.

“What do you want from me, then?” she said, eyeing Nairne warily. “Am I to atone for his sins?”

“Perhaps. In the meantime, I suggest you get out of my office.”

Caolinn was all too glad to comply. Nairne had taken the bait, truly believing she’d come here to talk about Darr – though now that she’d learnt the truth about him, Caolinn was starting to wish she’d come up with another excuse.

She was already at the door when Nairne stopped her.

“A word of advice for you, Initiate.” The Lightbringer’s voice was soft. “Should you need to talk to me again, try contacting me by more conventional means. The next time I find you skulking somewhere you shouldn’t be, I’ll have your head.”

Caolinn swallowed dryly and left the office without looking back. From any other Lightbringer, she would have taken that warning as hyperbole. From Nairne, it sounded like fact.

She was halfway back to her room by the time she stopped to compose herself. Leaning in a darkened doorway, Caolinn carefully felt the hidden pocket in her sleeve, the one she hadn’t dared check whilst still in Nairne’s presence. The stolen scroll was still there.

She was, she knew, taking a hideous risk. If Nairne started to doubt the lie about wanting to talk, she might take a second look at her office – and if she checked the hiding place in her stool, she’d immediately know both that the scroll was gone, and who’d taken it. To return it, though, was equally risky. Now that’d she’d been caught out once, Nairne would surely increase the security around her office. Replacing the scroll was going to be a feat of purest ingenuity.

If it needed to be replaced at all. Caolinn touched the scroll again, then set off towards her room. Nairne had seemed wary rather than angry at finding her sanctum invaded, which made Caolinn wonder exactly what she’d found. If the scroll was something incriminating, Nairne couldn’t start throwing accusations around, or she herself would come under scrutiny. Maybe she already knew the scroll had been taken – and she also knew she couldn’t do anything about it.

Caolinn didn’t dare try to contact Torwen, not even with such momentous news. Instead, as soon as she reached her room, she closed and barred the door, lit every lamp, and sat down at her desk. This, she had a feeling, was going to take all her care and attention.

Sure enough, the knotted string around the scroll was a fiendish puzzle all its own, one that Caolinn had to crack if she was ever to have a chance of replacing it. It took close to an hour, carefully prising apart the knots, and mentally noting how each had been constructed. That done, she unrolled the paper, pressing it down flat against her desk. At first glance, the contents were entirely benign, a list of names and nothing more. You didn’t keep unimportant documents in a hidden cavity in your furniture, though, which meant there had to be more to them.

Caolinn pulled out a scrap of her own paper, carefully transcribing the names. There were two columns, and most of them seemed to belong to either sylvari or asura. No, not just columns, she realised; the names were paired, with faint lines running between them. Every name on the left had a corresponding one on the right. Still, they all sounded like strangers to Caolinn – except one.

The first name in the rightmost column was asura: Hixx. There was an Agent Hixx working inside the Chantry, specialising in code-breaking. Caolinn knew very little about him; if he had any association with Nairne, she’d never discovered it. What was the significance of his name here, then, and of the name which seemed to be paired with it? Were they related in some way?

Related… or might they be one and the same? As she studied the names again, it became clear that every asura name was paired with another asura, and the same for sylvari. Could they refer to the same individuals, a list of real names and pseudonyms? If that was the case, the real names had surely been written on the left – which meant Agent Hixx wasn’t really Hixx at all.

Caolinn sat back in her chair, letting the scroll curl back up. Almost mechanically, she began to replace the knotted string, her fingers remembering, with perfect precision, how it had been fastened. Her mind spun in other circles. What if this was a list of Agents who needed pseudonyms because they weren’t supposed to be here? What if every one of them had been brought here by the newly arrived Nairne? Did that mean–?

A knock on the door made her jump, sending her thoughts scattering. Caolinn got slowly to her feet, making sure both scraps of paper were concealed before she opened the door. Another initiate waited there, a charr who Caolinn knew only by sight.

“Message from Lightbringer Nairne,” the charr said, with a yawn that made it clear she had better places to be. She thrust an envelope into Caolinn’s hands then stood back, her arms folded. “I’m to take your reply back with me.”

Caolinn ripped open the envelope, trying not to let her fingers shake. The note inside was brief and to the point. You have been assigned to my next mission. Our objective is to find the traitor Darr and return him to the Chantry of Secrets. Your first briefing is in an hour. I trust you’ll accept.

Caolinn glanced at the charr, who was staring off down the corridor and tapping her claws together impatiently. She couldn’t help thinking this was a test of some kind, one she wouldn’t like the outcome of – but how could she refuse? She was still a newcomer here, with no resources and no influence. She couldn’t turn down a Lightbringer’s summons, even from someone who perhaps knew she was being spied upon.

Besides, if Nairne was really working for the Inquest, Caolinn had to get as close to the woman as possible – even if it meant using Darr as bait.

“Tell the Lightbringer it sounds like an important mission,” she said to the charr. “I’ll be there in an hour.”

The Hornet's Nest: Part 3
The Hornet's Nest: Part 5
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