I walked down through the carriages towards my compartment, opening my senses to every little nuance. There, a woman going to meet her lover without her husband knowing; the tan line on her ring finger, expensive shoes but worn several times and clothing that was of a lesser quality. He’d bought her the shoes and she used them whenever she could; the ring was around her neck on a chain, though. It wouldn’t last long. I passed her by and continued on. A mother and a small boy, the former feigning sleep while the latter stared out the window at the passing landscape. A travelling bard, composing something he hoped would be the next great thing. I winced as he strummed on his lute; it was unlikely, given that one of the strings was a semitone flat. I passed by them all and a dozen others besides.
Finally I reached my own carriage and found, just as Hanaki had promised, that it was sparsely populated. He had claimed that he was unable to completely clear it apart from the target, but it was more likely to do with money. Tickets for First Class, like mine, were extremely expensive. I kept my eyes open and took a brief catalogue of who I was dealing with, slowing my pace to a casual saunter. Each compartment had a frosted green-glass window either side of a door which itself had another window in it. This latter window was clear, but could be shuttered from inside while the rail made its journey. The compartments themselves were small, enough for four people to sit and play cards around the thin table that ran up the middle, though at night two of those people would have to make their own arrangements. The seats collapsed down most ingeniously and the table turned upside down to form a double bed that was surely comfortable given the general quality of the surroundings.
A high-ranking corrections officer was sat in the first compartment with the door open; he had paperwork strewn all over the table and the gold-and-black crest of the Department of Corrections was easy to pick out, even if his small document case hadn’t had his office written in gold lettering along the side.
The next compartment had a closed door, the window shuttered but a few chinks of light escaping nevertheless from around the wood. It was darkening outside; perhaps whoever was inside was preparing for bed.
The notary was in the compartment after that. Two burly imperial guards, neither in full armour, stood outside the door, which was closed. The shutters were open, though, and I could see Lun Hiri inside, apparently asleep in his seat. He was a young man, hair prematurely receding, dressed in the uniform of the palace; a long black robe with a heavily-embroidered collar that came off separately. The detail in the embroidery told me a lot about the man; his social status, his age, some of the things he had managed to do in his life so far. That was the way of it; the Emperor ensured that, in a glance, he could take in the life story of any one of his underlings, and the position of Imperial Embroiderer was at the same time extremely sought-after and incredibly busy.
The next two compartments were both empty and the one after that had a single woman, her bed already made; she was knelt on it in just a nightdress, brushing her hair. She turned, met my eyes and then reached over to the shutters. They slid down and the view, enticing as it was, disappeared. I filed that away for later consideration; it was far too early for most to consider actually sleeping, though judging by the clothing strewn over the bed she had been travelling on foot or horseback some distance. A rarity, not just for it being a woman but for it being anyone travelling off the rail. Perhaps the rigours of travel had taken their toll, or maybe she just wanted to get the most out of her golden ticket. As the afterimage of her faded in my mind I was struck by the independence in those brown eyes, in the slightly cocked eyebrow that had almost said ‘Oh, really? You’re looking at me?’ before she had shut herself away.
The last cabin before the door into the mechanical cabin was mine; I pushed the door open with my cane and waited for just a moment. A deep and abiding silence greeted me; the curtains to the outside were closed, unusually, and the room was dark, but no poison needles sprung out at me, no thugs with knives dropped down from the ceiling. I stepped inside and lit the lanterns, leaving the door ajar. A case of clothes was on the chair by the window, hastily packed and brought over by my housemaid, and I checked it over quickly to make sure everything was in place.
From up the corridor I could still hear the minstrel practicing and I groaned inwardly. Surely First Class also meant quiet and solitude, though a part of me yearned to start a really good game of cards. I was sure that the woman in the next compartment would be an excellent player, just from what I had seen so far, and the notary would undoubtedly have a tactical mind. No-one got far in the Emperor’s Court without thinking a few steps ahead, like a game of chess, which also meant that the Court operated very efficiently. People were good at their jobs or they were not in their jobs at all.
I heard a knock on the frame of the door and looked up from my reverie. A man in Inira Express uniform was stood there. So many uniforms, I thought.
“How can I help you?”
The man bowed deeply. “I am Hong Fey, captain of this rail, sir. I am given to understand that I should make myself known to you, conduct you on a tour of the mechanical cabin and then ensure that you are not bothered.”
I rose. “Stationmaster Hanaki’s orders, I assume?”
Fey nodded. “If you would like to come this way, sir,” he said, stepping back and gesturing.
The room with the machines that moved the rail was interesting but nothing I hadn’t already hypothesised. A large device filled the central area; it was a sphere studded round with amber, and around that a ring of metal orbited like a gyroscope. Lightning crackled off of it, attracted to orbs of metal spaced evenly around the room, in turn attached to a free-spinning drum that rotated at incredible speeds, turning the wheels and drawing the rail forwards, entirely independent of human contact. The captain’s role was limited to ensuring that the energy buildup didn’t become enough to overload or crack one of the ambers, and switching it off at the appropriate moment to ensure we coasted to a stop in Inira. Observers were protected by Dorthian rubber buffers underfoot and the occasional amber stuff to draw in the excess energy. Studying Fey seemed a better use of my time; he was uptight and obviously not happy to be showing one of the outsiders his personal domain. He ended the tour by showing me the amber locker. Part of the restrictions of travelling by rail meant that anything with an amber source needed to be sequestered away in the amber locker lest it build up a charge, with suitably explosive results.
He took me back to my room as quickly as he politely could and stood again by the door. He bowed.
“Will there be anything else, sir?”
“No no, not at all. Don’t let me stop you from your job.” I raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure that watching the amber is a vital task requiring all your years of expertise.”
It was a petty shot, and as I watched Fey’s lips thin down and his eyes narrow I knew that my humour had become rudeness. He was gone before I could attempt to smooth things over.
Since I was on my feet, I decided to visit my next stop: Notary Hiri. I identified myself to his guards and allowed myself to be frisked, then was allowed to pass with my cane. Hiri looked up from his work as I set myself down opposite him, allowing my eyes to pass casually over the paperwork. Even upside down I could see that it mostly consisted of treasury reports, tallies and supply orders being fulfilled or yet to be fulfilled. Notary Hiri was a banker, then.
“Ah, Ming Bao, yes? The famous investigator, late of Dorth and now of Shinsun’s Cowl?”
I bowed my head just enough to show the merest deference of station to his. “Indeed, Notary. Koru has been kind to me thus far and I am proud to take it as my adoptive nation. The weather at Shinsun’s Cowl appeals to my ageing body, as well.” I smiled self-deprecatingly.
“Yes, well,” Hiri replied, already looking back at the paperwork. “I hope you can keep me alive. I haven’t worked for all these years to stay alive in the Court just to be killed on the rail like some commoner. Do you have any ideas yet who could be the suspect?”
“Well, Notary, we don’t know for sure that you are a target. According to what we know, however, the chances are good. I am sure that, at least on the previous incident, First Class was shut off from the rest of the rail. That means we can most likely discount the people not in First Class. You trust your guards, I assume?” I cocked my head towards the door where, to give them credit, neither of them moved.
“There’s one customer I have yet to observe, but I’m sure that I’ll have plenty of chances over the next few days.”
“Do just that, Mr Bao. I am sure the Stationmaster will reward you handsomely for saving his reputation.”
I nodded and waited a moment more, allowing my eyes to rove around the chamber as the the Notary went back to his work. A jug of water and a small hip flask sat on the table along with a little porcelain cup; not standard issue, probably his. His case had a lock, the key hanging around his neck, and I wondered what else he was couriering. Evidently something of import. His fingers moved quickly, but not so quick that I couldn’t catch the faintest tinge of purple about the edges of his nails. Poor circulation, possibly. He looked up after a moment, apparently feeling my gaze.
“Was there something else I could help with?”
“Not at all,” I replied, already rising. “I have everything I need for now.”
I got up and walked slowly back to my compartment, hand in pocket, turning the heavy gold ring over and over.