This story, in six parts, represents the one and only time I will ever write a mystery detective story without first planning every detail. As it was, I deliberately didn't plan any of this and it just kind of tumbled out.
A courier arrived this morning with a message for me. Apparently my tickets for the Inira Express are ready for me to pick up from the station office. I asked the courier for something official to identify him with, naturally, but he checked out.
“Can I inform the Stationmaster that you will be along presently, sir?” the boy said. He looked every inch the professional in his green uniform, little flat-top hat and gold trimming dripping from him. I nodded.
“Can’t keep him waiting. I’ll take the first carriage I can find.”
The boy bowed and I closed the door on him, then walked back over to the remains of my breakfast. Like every other day, a bowl of rice, a hardboiled egg, two pieces of toast and a sausage. A neat mix of the place I’d come from and the place I’d taken as my adoptive home.
Ruminatively, I chewed on the now-cold toast, its slightly gritty texture reminding me that I needed to buy better flower. The summons from the Stationmaster I had laid on the table and I flipped it open now to find his elegant copperplate handwriting. I was cordially invited, apparently, to travel between Shinsun’s Cowl and Inira, that very day, on the evening journey. Fascinating, particularly as this was the very first I had heard about my journey. Tickets on the Inira Express were not cheap and to organise one at this late notice took considerable clout.
To be fair, it had been a while since I had taken a case. Things had been quiet after I had successfully found the lost Jewel of Rida; of course, it had been made easier by the Emperor’s cousin, Rinto, being completely unable to keep his mouth shut when he dealt with the ladies in his life. Oh, and that being ladies plural; Rinto’s wife had been less than pleased. All-in-all, it had been difficult for someone inside the system to spot the clues, but for me, coming from outside? No problem.
I threw the last of my toast down and grabbed my jacket off the back of the chair. The full-length looking-glass that stood behind the door reflected back an ageing face, but still a handsome one, I thought. A touch of grey at the temples, still distinguished, set off neatly the grey waistcoat and white shirt I wore, topped off with a black frock coat. My gold pocket watch, a present from the former head of the Science and Industry College, neatly slipped in to one waistcoat pocket and the chain, attached to the garment itself, provided a touch of colour. My cane was leaning against the wall next to me and I ran a finger over the familiar seal on the top of it, my own personal crest.
Nodding at my own reflection in satisfaction, I pulled the door open and stepped out into the crisp Shinsun morning, cane in hand.
Instantly I was surrounded by farmers, stall-owners, merchants, slaves and everything else in between. Almost as if I was expected, a man-powered cart pulled up next to me and the swarthy fellow pulling it smiled at me.
“Aye,” I replied, climbing into the back. “To the Stationmaster’s Office, if you’d be so kind.”
“Certainly, sirrah,” the big man replied and, with a jerk, we set off in the direction of the docks.
I cast my mind over what I knew about the rail. Powered by amber, it enabled fast travel between the walled cities of Koru. The technology behind it was guarded jealously by the Emperor’s household, but I knew that other countries, Zar in particular with its famed SIC, were beginning to approach the same level of usage. In Koru it was very much a case of necessity being the mother of invention as much of the surrounding countryside remained uninhabitable swampland plagued by creatures that barely deserved the likes of day.
To cap it all, the Inira Express was a speciality in its own right. Formally, the line ran from Inira to Shinsun’s Cowl, on to the capital Rida, then through to Taishio. Mostly everyone called it the Inira Express because the money to fund it, the gold and platinum, had come from the ruling shirei of Inira; he’d ensured that the livery the staff wore reflected his personal house colours and that it was by far the most luxurious of all of the operating lines.
I was so wrapped up in my analysis of the known facts that three additional facts completely passed me by. First, we should have arrived at the station by now; second, we were nowhere near the station itself, having completely departed from the route over two miles ago; third, the man pulling the cart was armed, a knife almost concealed in a sheath running down his back. Chance revealed it, as he leaned forward to climb a slight hill and revealed the hilt as his shirt rode up.
“Hey,” I said over the noise of the wheels on the cobbles. “This isn’t the way to the Stationmaster’s office.”
The man slowed down. “Oh, ya noticed,” he rumbled. He slowed to a walk, then stopped. “Well, see, I thought we might visit a friend or two first.”
“I see,” I said, tensing. My own weapon was impractical in the tight confines of the cart and I sat back, feigning indifference. “Well, best get them here, then.”
“See, they’re already here,” the man said, grinning. He turned around, letting go of the handles and reached behind his back for the knife. Almost at the same time, two knives ripped through the canvas cover to the cart, either side of me, and hands grabbed hold of my arms.
I struggled, but they held me firm as the cart man advanced. “See,” he growled, “we got friends that ain’t here that don’t want you to go on that rail ride, mister.”
“What if I agreed not to go?” I asked, still testing the strength of the arms that held me. They were proving quite intractable.
“Well, we was thinkin’ more of a visible reminder, see, wasn’t we chaps?” the cart man said, and behind me I heard his two cronies laughing at his joke. “Maybe a nice little finger? Or something a little more precious?”
As soon as he was in range, I exploded into action. My legs, still free, knifed around; one exquisitely tailored boot went in to his groin, doubling him over; the second chopped down on his shoulder, putting him down for good. The momentum caused the cart to tip over backwards, something I was expecting but the two goons behind me weren’t. In a second I was rolling free of the wreckage and, as the cart tipped up on its end, I gave it a little extra shove. The whole thing crashed down on top of the two men, effectively pinning them.
I straightened my jacket and brushed a little dust off my trousers, then knelt to go through the pockets of the cart man. Besides the usual flotsam and jetsam of everyday life in the gutter, he had one interesting object; a ring wrapped in a handkerchief, quite above his station, heavy, gold and made for sealing letters. It had the inverse letter L on it, and traces of a purple wax still in the grooves. I slipped it into my pocket and stood up.
The two henchmen finally finished pushing the cart off of themselves and stood up. I stared at them, willing them, daring them to retaliate. They looked at each other, turned and ran.
“Cowards!” I shouted after them, but they were gone. Giving the unconscious cart man an extra kicking for good measure, I began the long walk back towards the Stationmaster’s office. If I stepped out, I could be there before the rail was due to leave.
I arrived with minutes to spare to find the Stationmaster, Ryu Hanaki, smoking some of his horrible black cigars in the shadow of the doorway. He was dressed in the green uniform of the line but, unlike most of the staff who served under him, his only barely fit around his rotund form. Judging by the discarded butts on the floor around him, he’d been there for some time. As soon as he saw me he threw down the most recent light and came to meet me.
“Ming Bao!” he said, calling me by my local name. “We are honoured by your presence. We expected you some time ago; was there a problem?”
I nodded. “Nothing I couldn’t handle. Three men sought to keep me from coming here and weren’t very good at their jobs. Here, does this mean anything to you?”
I took the ring out and showed it to Hanaki, but he shook his head. “I’m afraid not. If someone tried to prevent you from coming here, though, it can only mean that whoever is behind the murders is on to us.”
My ears pricked up at that. “Murders?”
Hanaki took me through to his office and we sat down either side of his desk. It smelled of old leather and engine oil, suitably enough.
“Three members of the Emperor’s Court have been murdered on the rail between here and Inira in the last six months. Each was found in compromising situations that required a certain amount of… discretion.” Hanaki paused to mop his brow with a handkerchief. “The Emperor has made it clear that if any other members of the Court die, we are to be shut down and… I will be executed.” He swallowed heavily. “We can’t identify any witnesses, any suspects, nothing! Each one simply gets on at one end and is dead by the time they reach the other end. Different circumstances, as well; one in a locked cabin; one while enjoying the private aft deck; the third while under heavy guard, managed to be not just killed but dismembered and arranged in a particularly shaming fashion. Each almost exactly two months apart, the last two months ago.”
I frowned. “You don’t wish to involve anyone else, but can’t risk the member of court who will be travelling today being found dead, correct?”
“Of course, yes; there is indeed a notary travelling today, by the name of Lun Hiri. He travels under guard and with as much security as we can offer, but… it may not be enough.”
“So you ask me.”
Hanaki nodded. “Your discretion is beyond question and your skills legendary. Please,” he said, getting up and coming around the desk to kneel at my feet, “please save my life and honour!”
“Oh do get up, man,” I said, half-smiling. “Of course I will help you. Besides, I’ve always wanted to travel on the famous Inira Express. I’m sure that the experience will be most enlightening!”