I woke early on the final day of the journey, aware that I would need my wits about me not only to survive the day, but to ensure that those I was indebted to survived it as well. I dressed in my finest clothing, that which I reserved only for visits with heads of state; a long black jacket embroidered with silk, the embroidery mirroring the sort of style found in rich Koruans, over a white shirt, dark-blue waistcoat and matching trousers, all capped off with boots shines to the point that you could happily do your hair in them. I did, for want of a mirror in the small compartment, and folded the bed away before facing the day.
Breakfast was exquisite; apparently a large pig had gotten on to the tracks and become caught in the screw. Because of the unique design of the screw, not actually touching the rails, it meant that we were saved a nasty derailment that could potentially have killed us all and instead treated to fresh bacon and pork chops. The coffee was still below standard but my palate was, sadly, becoming used to such fare.
Every one of the major players joined me for breakfast, not necessarily at the breakfast table but certainly at the same time. Notary Hiri picked at his plate like a bird, pecking down and skewering some morsel with his fork before devouring it almost whole. His guards, I knew, were forced to eat their meals in a lower class of setting. On the next table over, Loelle Benjen picked at her own meal without much enthusiasm. She seemed despondent, and I wondered whether it was due to her chance meeting with me the previous night or to the end of the trip she was making in her husband’s memory. What would she live for after that?
Next came the corrections officer. He actually acknowledged me as he sat down, his breakfast arriving strangely free of meat. I noticed he’d brought a large buff file to the meal; undoubtedly reminding me that he had his eye on the Desert Wind.
Almost no-one noticed when Jef’nerin walked in to the room, so unassuming was he. He almost blended in to the scenery and not a single person other than myself watched him take a seat on the table across from me. He sat for a few long minutes, completely suspended from the rest of us, operating on some distant plane that none of us subscribed to.
I leaned across. “Coffee?”
He looked over. “Is it any good?”
“It’s… it’s coffee,” I admitted. He shrugged and I took the extra cup which had inexplicably been put on my tray and filled it with coffee. I handed it to him and he breathed in its vapours.
“It is as you say. Coffee,” he said, and took a sip. He pulled a face. “Not anything more, though.”
“The best we can manage here, I suspect,” I murmured, shielding my lips with my cup. Hiri looked up at me curiously, but went back to his breakfast.
“I regret I cannot join you for a proper breakfast on this, our final outing,” Jef’nerin said. “I find pork unpalatable. Not a religious observance or anything; merely that, were I to eat it, I would find myself occupying the conveniences for the foreseeable future.”
“Unfortunate,” I said, and went back to my own breakfast.
The entire carriage was strangely quiet; the sounds of knives and forks scraping on fine china plates remained the only real sounds and I quickly finished and excused myself as the atmosphere became oppressive.
Breakfast had allowed me to put the beginnings of a plan into my mind, though, and I ensured that I was in my compartment and waiting as I listened to the others returning to theirs.
Loelle was first; I heard her close and lock the door of her compartment, pull the shutters down and block out the world; I waited a short while and then heard the small sounds of a woman sobbing, still mourning, perhaps mourning properly for the first time.
Jef’nerin went to his compartment and there were no further sounds. I imagined him simply sat, as he apparently had been the entire journey, staring at the opposite wall. Notary Hiri was the last to arrive; he was a minute or so after the Corrections Officer, who went back to his paperwork. I could hear the occasional sound of a piece of paper being turned from each of them.
A thorny problem indeed, I mused; how best to bring an end to the business of the trip without putting myself in further risk? In the end, I decided that the most straightforward path was the best, and, with that concept in mind, I walked out of my own compartment, down the wood-panelled corridor and straight up to the Corrections Officer’s, ensuring that my footfalls were silent. Outside, I composed myself; I painted a worried expression on my face, elevated my heartbeat to ensure that the flush of my face and neck would match the impression I wished to give and chewed three of the fingernails on my left hand.
I burst in to Officer Dao Habaza’s compartment without warning, crashed into the seat opposite him and panted, looking back the way I had come. He started backwards, hand on the hilt of a sword that lay on the seat next to him, but the narrowed eyes never once left me.
“What is the meaning of-“
“He’s here!” I hissed, leaning forward. “I don’t know how much I can… wait!”
I leapt up, grabbed the door and pulled it closed, then fastened the shutters. I made sure to turn my back on him in this time, sure of his response; as I sat back down I saw that he was suspicious to the point of bringing the sword up onto the table, still sheathed.
“He’s there!” I stage-whispered, pointing behind Habaza. “He’s in the next carriage!”
“Who is? Explain yourself, man,” the Officer said.
“The Desert Wind,” I said. Exactly as I expected, Habaza’s whole manner changed. Sarcastic would begin to describe it; he leaned back, relaxing his grip on the sword.
“Oh, really? And I suppose he told you that himself, did he?”
I nodded vigorously. “He told me some of the crimes he has been behind, and others that I didn’t even know! I swear, Officer, it’s him. He said he was planning some sort of final operation before he emigrated to another continent.”
“Are you aware what this sounds like?” Habaza said. “I’d at least have credited you with coming up with a decent story to get yourself out of your mess, but this? There’s no-one in the compartment next door, certainly no-one who answers to the description of-“
As he spoke, Habaza slowly relaxed his grip on the sword hilt and, as he brought his hand up to cock his thumb over his shoulder at the next-door compartment, I acted. My hands, clasped on the table, were suddenly dagger-straight and aimed at the man’s beefy throat; they sank in, cutting him off mid-sentence, and I felt more than heard Habaza’s windpipe crush in on itself. His head came forward, then he was clawing at his own throat. Quick as a flash, I dug my fingers into his eye sockets, then snaked a hand around behind his head and slammed it down onto the table. Blinded, choking and voiceless, Habaza was completely unprepared for his nose being broken and, I’m sure, he considered it a mercy when I stood up, reached over and snapped his neck, ending his gurgling for good.
He slumped in his chair, bleeding all over the table. Paperwork, most of it with my name on, began the odious task of soaking up its author’s blood. Almost poetic, I thought; Habaza had literally paid in blood for those words. I pulled the file out and brushed off the worst of it.
I opened the door a chink; the sound of the rail’s progress was uninterrupted and no-one was shouting for alarm, so I quickly exited and closed the door. With the shutters down, it would most likely be several hours before anyone found him, most likely the cleaning crew at Inira, and I would be certain to be far away before anything happened.
I went straight to the Notary’s compartment next. The guards were absent, most likely due to the minor stomach problem they were both suffering from as a result of eating some bad bacon. Hiri looked up, unimpressed, then flicked his eyes to the bloodstained file in my hand.
“What the seven hells do you think you’re-“ he said, then I slapped the file down on his table.
“Why did you try to have me killed in Shinsun’s Cowl?” I demanded. He started backwards and his eyes darted away to the side. I leaned forward and dropped my voice to a growl. “No lies, Hiri. You arranged to have me killed. It was a rush job, and you paid them in gold.”
He seemed to cast about for a moment for something to say, then sat back. “Prove it,” he said.
“Your hired goons were good enough to leave evidence for you,” I said. “A ring with an L on it, specks of purple wax still in its grooves. Your fingernails, the first day we were on the rail, had purple wax remnants on them.”
“I have no ring,” he said but I shook my head.
You’re right. You don’t have a ring like that. But the young woman in the room next door does, who arranged to have Ming Bao, the famous investigator, killed. And she sent you, the Emperor’s Notary in charge of exquisite clothing, the ring as proof of her husband’s final delivery. She doesn’t need it any more, and gold is valuable in any country. She’s not as good an actor as she thinks and while she might have fooled most, she could not fool me.” I sat back. “You paid the hired men with the ring, ensuring that your anonymity was secure.”
“Very good, Mr Bao,” the Notary said, “But what do you plan to do now?” He fingered the bloodstained file between us, the stain slowly creeping on to his own paperwork. “And what is this?”
I leaned forward. “Let me tell you a story,” I began.