Today was her third real assignment, and the first with real danger. Elizabeth – “Scuff”, now, to anyone that mattered – made her way to the rendezvous with String and James (an odd one, who disdained a codename). The palms of her hands sweated slightly, both because of the assignment, and because of who they had been assigned to. For their group of three was to do this mission with an agent. And not just any agent, but agent Orange.
Agent Orange. Like most senior agents, no-one knew where the truth ended and the stories began. A nonhuman, certainly. They said that he was 9 feet tall, that he moved like smoke, that he killed by simply terrifying grown men to death, leaving not a mark on their bodies. Not likely to be true. They also said that he was one of the best daggers in the lanterns. That may have been true. After all: someone had to be.
And they said that he had killed an apprentice on a mission, and saved the life of the Queen and the heir by doing it. And that no-one knew it – not even His Majesty – outside the lanterns. That – well, it didn’t matter if it was true or not. The mere fact that people repeated it was terrifying enough. This Agent Orange would not brook incompetence, but then: that’s the way it had to be.
They reached the rendezvous. One knock. “They’re here with the pizza!” came the countersign from inside. She recognised Stick’s (their trainer) voice. They entered. Stick asked simply “Are you ready to be briefed?”. “Yes sir!”, they replied, and the enormous shape in the shadows said “Orl right. Scuff, String, and James, isit? Let’s ave a butcher’s.”
Elizabeth, well, didn’t nearly faint from shock, but she could not hide her reaction. Agent Orange – Korgul – continued: “Right. I is Agent Orange. The O is for ‘Orc’, wot used to be my name, but it wos a bit of a giveaway, so now you know. Nah we ave a bit of tricky business tonight, but not so tricky we can’t ‘ave youse along. This is not a trainin exercise, and if yer stupid or careless yer may wind up dead fer real. Which would be an expensive shame. And yer not along ter observe, eiver, mainly cos it’s stupid bringin’ more bodies than yer need on a job. We needs four people, and us four are them. Nah, Stick will brief String and James fer a mo’ while I ave a chat ter Scuff ‘ere.”
He motioned Elizabeth over. “Unc…” she began, but was cut off. “That’s Agent Orange ter you, or just Orange. ‘Senior Agent Orange’ if we is being formal. Naah, I suppose yer have a couple of very predictable questions. Yer may as well ask ’em”.
“Orl your life girl, and a bit before. Dahn’t look so surprised – ‘oo d’yer fink sponsored yer?”
“We is orl sponsored girl. First lanterns wos relatives of the king. Blokes ‘e knew ‘e could trust. Family. Friends. It’s grown a bit since then, but it’s still orl strictly personal recommendation. Ow else is yer goin ter do it, eh? Put a poster up “Wanted Royal Secret Agents” in the square?”
“Naaah. Jace is a good kid, but never ‘ad the temperament fer this job. Remember the stories? Jace was orlways interested in loot an adventure. Sailin’. You, on the other ‘and, was orlways interested in fightin’, and particularly about rightin’ wrongs, fer want of a better way of puttin’ it. So, I fort pretty early on that you might be able ter be – well – if yer were given the chance ter come ‘ere, yer’d take it. Dahn’t look so ‘urt. Your story is not that uncommon ’round ere. There’s a few like you, got picked out early on. Second an third sons, mostly. Doesn’t make yer that special.”
Elizabeth thought through the questions she might ask next. All of them, on reflection, predictable and obvious. Then she said: “I got some good advice in an alley, once.”
“Oh. That. Well, bendin’ the rules a little. More skirting arahnd ’em really. We don’t expect people ter not be ‘uman – it’s natchural yer’d want yer sponsord friend or relative ter do ok. Nah bullshit fanatical loyalty ter the king before anyfink – pointless ter expect it. But if yer got a bit of a conflict of interest, yer manage it an dahn’t try ter hide it. The main thing wiv sponsorin’ is not ter cheat ter get someone froo trainin’ and examination that they would ‘ave failed otherwise. It’s dangerous fer everyone. But I dan’t fink I did that. Bit of a judgment call, I suppose. Anyfink else?”
Elizabeth thought for a second, and replied “No. Not that I can think of right now. I should get to the briefing.” “Dahn’t worry too much abaht that for a mo,” said Korgul. “Stick’s just answerin’ their questions abaht me. They want ter know if the stories are true.” “And are they?”, she asked. “Some is, some isn’t.”, Korgul replied. “Does it matter which?”. The question hung in the air for a moment.
“No.”, she answered, “we’ll just do the job.” “Attagirl. Orlways fort yer’d do orlright. We’ll find out if I was right.”
The walked over to the group. “Orlright”, Korgul – Orange – announced. I have not got maps for yer, because yer should know this area of the city well enough not ter need ’em. …”
And so it began. Or perhaps, continued.