“Once,” I began, “there was a boy. The boy’s name isn’t really important right now, but his parentage certainly was. He was the son of Ming Bao, the famous investigator.”
Hiri cocked his head to one side. “You had a son?”
“Don’t interrupt me.”
He looked a little surprised at being spoken to in such a way, but closed his flapping mouth.
“Now. This boy was quite happy in his early youth, astounded by his father’s wisdom and able to follow most of the deductive leaps he made. They worked well together, and the father loved his son very much.” I swallowed the lump in my throat, straining to ensure that my voice remained strong. “Everything was fine until the day that a quartet of junior officials in the empire of Koru decided that the Emperor himself represented the biggest losses for the banks and treasuries of the empire, and that he needed to be done away with. Simple, really.”
Hiri’s face paled a little. I narrowed my eyes. “Is any of this sounding at all familiar, Hiri?”
The notary all but inflated with righteous indignation. “I’ve… I’ve never heard of anything so preposterous, man. I should have you arrested for treasonous talk like this!”
“But you won’t,” I said, “because then this little story might come out into the open. You see, there was a problem with merely killing the Emperor. He was good friends with perhaps the finest mind that the generation had produced, the famous investigator Ming Bao. So, naturally, Ming Bao had to be removed first. Messages were passed to elite agents. He was duly invited to the palace. He brought his son with him. Unknowing, servants served tea to the pair, which was poisoned. The Captain of the Guard chose that moment to come into their presence and the famous investigator leaped immediately to his feet to greet the newcomer while his son, not as quick on the uptake, drank his tea.”
I gritted my teeth and sat back. “Oh, it burned the boy, the poison, more than enough to kill a man, more than enough to kill ten men, but for a boy?” I shook my head. “The boy rushed headlong into darkness and collapsed at the feet of the Captain and Ming Bao. There was a prolonged weeping and a wailing; his distraught father, an inconsistent drug-taker, took a lethal overdose in his despair at being left alone. For the boy, a small private funeral was had the day after this father died, and the boy was consigned to a coffin.”
I closed my eyes. “But the boy was not dead. The poison, such an overdose, had placed his mind in a sort of suspension and slowed his vital processes to the point where even the Emperor’s own chirurgeon couldn’t identify whether he was alive or not. When the boy awoke in the coffin, at first he couldn’t do anything against the panic in his mind. The absolute fear overwhelmed everything. But eventually he deduced where he was, calm logic soothing the angry waters of his mind. The coffin was cheap and he was able to pull it apart, and the soil above him, for he had already been buried, was loose.
“Can you imagine what it must have been like?” I opened my eyes. “No, I suppose you can’t. But being born again, with all faculties intact, from a grave, and to gaze upon the stone marking the spot and discovering that you share that grave with the father who raised you!”
“I fail to see what this has to do with-“ Hiri began, but I was quicker.
“It has everything to do with you, you old fool,” I hissed. “You were one of the four who consigned my father to the grave, and nearly me with him, this day so many years ago! You think that, because you got cold feet after causing the death of not just one of the Emperor’s favourites but also his son, that you are somehow absolved of your crime?”
Real pain for the first time touched Hiri’s face. “It wasn’t like that. We never meant to cause a death; we asked for the problem of Ming Bao to go away, for him to be sent somewhere, disgraced. Whoever was sent to do that escalated it into an assassination instead.” He leaned forward, hands clasped on the table as if he were making an offering at the temple. “You have to understand, we meant no harm to you or your father!”
“And yet, here we are, Notary Hiri. Here we are.” I tapped the file, still lying between us on the table. The blood, which had been glistening in a sickly fashion, was drying even as we watched. “I watched, Hiri. I waited. I developed my skills, not just as my father had taught me but in another direction altogether. Oh, it is so easy to think myself into the mind of a criminal. How do you think I caught all of those so-called masterminds? Half of them were put there by me to begin with!” I shoved the file towards Hiri and he opened it. I watched his eyes track down the page, all the while examining and re-examining the feelings whirling inside me. The deductive part of my mind, the one that was my father’s legacy to me, never slept.
“You are the Desert Wind?”
“I am.” I thought about the empty compartment in first class. The character of Jef’nerin, one I had seen in a book as a small child. The book I had been buried with after taking it to the Emperor’s Palace on that day. It had become the shell that had for so long been a part of my psyche that it was like losing a friend to say goodbye to it. The separate parts of myself were finally knitting together as I performed this last operation. I felt the parts of me that I had long ago walled off against this day finally reunite with everything my father had taught me.
“You killed the other three.” It was a statement, not a question. I nodded slowly.
“Yes. You must have realised that it was those three, the three conspirators from your past.”
He laughed bitterly. “So many people die in the Emperor’s employ every week; it was unsurprising that you were able to kill these three without much notice by anyone but the Stationmaster. I suppose you planned to be invited onto this rail?”
“Of course. It was the most sensible course of action for the beleaguered Stationmaster, to invite the great Ming Bao, whose career has spanned two lifetimes, to solve the crimes plaguing his rail.”
“And now you will kill me?” Hiri closed the file, calmer now.
“No.” I smiled. “I already have.” My grin widened. “Think, Hiri; why are you here, on the rail?”
“I am the receiving agent for Benjen’s last order of materials and clothing,” Hiri said. “Loelle Benjen sent me a communication, along with her husband’s ring, that his account was to be closed due to a buyer being found… in Inira.” His eyes widened. “You are the buyer!”
“How else was I going to ensure that you were on this rail? You had no other business in this part of the world, and it had to be… today. And you know what makes it damnably worse?” I shook my head. “You remember all of this. That’s why you tried to stop me from boarding the rail, why you assigned three men to prevent me. But it didn’t matter. Even had I never boarded the rail you would have still died at the appointed time. My involvement was not essential, just poetic.”
“You still haven’t explained how you plan to kill me.”
“It is wonderfully simple, my dear Notary Hiri. You still have the letter with you that Ms Benjen sent, confirming the end of the contract. Yes? I know you do, because the remains of the purple wax that sealed it were on your fingernails when I first met you, and the ring still had traces of it as well.”
“Wax? You plan to kill me with wax?”
How could he be so stupid, I wondered, then tempered the thought with the safe knowledge that, compared to myself, everyone seemed this stupid. “Not the wax; what is in the wax. Miss Benjen was merely the catalyst for all this; I took the liberty of swapping the wax that her husband normally would have used for some of my own devising, some with a little something extra added. Have you ever heard the warnings, Hiri, about not putting something in the amber locker?”
With a shaking hand, Hiri reached into his document case and pulled out the envelope which I knew contained Loelle’s missive to him regarding her husband’s account. He turned it over to look at the seal, which glistened oddly in the light. I noticed immediately that the structure of the seal was breaking down as it heated up, absorbing the surrounding energy from the rail, nearing critical mass.
Quick as a flash I slammed my hand flat onto the envelope and drove it out of Hiri’s hand, sticking the wax seal to the unfortunate man’s forehead. The impact gave it extra energy and the amber, so cleverly mixed in to the wax, began to ignite.
Hiri screamed. I leaned over and locked the door from the inside. The smell of burning flesh began to fill the compartment as the seal melted its way through the man’s forehead and started on the bone; his screams reached a glorious crescendo as it moved on to his brain, and died away as the substance began to eat away at the back of his skull.
Had I not done anything, the seal would eventually have exploded; passing through so much of the rail had already given it enough potential energy for that, but this way it was so much more fitting. As Hiri slumped forward he fell onto the file containing the only things linking me to the Desert Wind and I watched as a burning glob of something fell onto the paper and began to burn it.
I sat back and watched the flames dance higher.