“You’re sure, then,” he says, and she nods without looking up, hands steady where they’re curled around her coffee cup. Her mask, as always, is firmly in place, and he wishes he could see her face-- wishes he could be as sure as she seems to be, that this is what she wants, that he is doing the right thing by allowing it. There will be no coming back from this, if it goes badly; there may well be no coming back regardless.
If she were not wearing the mask, they would not be here at all. Nightingale had not chosen her to be his apprentice because of her talent, but because he had known that, being ruined, and clever, and strong, if she were not on his side he would end by fighting against her. If Ettersburg had taught him nothing else it had taught him desperation.
And now he is sending her to the enemy like a gift, a Trojan Horse in a pink mask, a half-trained child soldier. It is a terrible betrayal of Lesley to send her, and not telling Peter why she is going is a worse one. They are friends, and might even have been lovers if things had gone differently. They are both only children, as so many of the soldiers he fought with in the war were only children, and children die.
They are weapons, the last and best and only weapons he has in a war that he did not even know he was supposed to be fighting. And a desperate man does not let a weapon go unused. He has never balked at doing the wrong thing for the right reason, and he never will.
“You’ll take care of things with my dad, if it goes that way?”, she asks, “I wrote letters.” He takes the envelopes, trying not to notice that the one on top is addressed to Peter.
“I’ll see to it,” he promises her. She wouldn’t be the first apprentice he’d buried, though he doesn’t say that. It doesn’t matter. It never gets any easier. Sometimes he feels as if he is no older than he’d been when he first came to the Folly. Tonight he feels ruinously old, a bitter old general leading from the rear. Older, but no wiser.
Lesley chose this. It was her idea, from the very beginning; she came to him with it, she fought for it. She swore to him that she would go through with it no matter what he did or said. He would have marched to Ettersburg no matter who forbade him, once. And he had been older than Lesley when he’d faced down a Tiger tank in the mud and blood and snow. There is no justifying what he is doing, even to himself.
“Be careful,” he says, “be as safe as you can. If you should need me, call me and I will come if I can.” Her eyes are calm, quiet. She’s decided, and she isn’t the sort of woman to change her mind. “We could have used you in the war,” he says to her. “Your courage and your resolution.”
Lesley laughs at that. “From what I heard,” she says, “you won that war single-handed. I would have just gotten in the way. I’ll be in contact, I promise. I wouldn’t be much of a spy if I didn’t actually pass the information on, you know. You’re not having second thoughts about this, are you? We won’t get another chance like this, and I’m-- uniquely qualified to take it.”
He smiles at that. “You’ll find that the higher in the ranks you rise, the more second thoughts you entertain. Peace of mind is a luxury reserved for those at the very bottom, who have no choices at all to make.”
He thinks she smiles under the mask. “That’s what I call leadership-- discouraging people from seeking promotions.”
“There are times I wish I had nothing to do but follow orders,” he says, and is embarrassed to hear his voice break, a little, saying it. “I wish I could do this in your place.”
She touches his arm. “I don’t think the Faceless Man would buy that you were deserting.”
Nightingale clears his throat. “No, of course not. And you will do a better job than I, in any case. Undercover work was never one of my strengths.”
This time he can tell she smiles. “No, I can see where you might be less than convincing. Look, it will be ok. In a couple of months, we’ll laugh about this.”
“Certainly,” he says, and he wished he believed it. “Well. You have the codes. I shall await your first message.”
“Text,” Lesley says, not unkindly. “Look after Peter for me, will you? He’s not really safe to be let out by himself.”
“Oh, yes.” He drops money on the table to cover the coffee that neither of them drank, wishing for some last minute intervention, some reason to stop her, knowing already that it’s too late. She’s going with or without his permission, reckless and hard-headed and brilliant, and he’s going to give her his blessing because she is the best hope has. If she dies-- or worse-- it will be on him.
When she stands, he does, too. He takes the hand she offers. “Good luck to you,” he says, shaking it, and then on impulse bends to kiss her gently on the forehead. “May God protect you, my girl, and bring you safely home.”
He’s never seen her cry before, but her eyes are shiny with unshed tears as she presses her cheek against his for a moment, the silk of the mask cool against his skin. And then she’s making her way into the crowd, a straightbacked, slender figure, lost against the darkness of the city.
Nightingale watches her go, stands looking after her until long she’s long out of sight, before he turns away. She is a brave child, and her blood will be on his hands.