I sat down at my table in the dining cabin and tucked my napkin into my shirt. The smell of pot-roasted beef, spiced rice and some of the tiny onions so common in Koruan food, mixed with hearty baked vegetables, tantalised and tempted me. As our plates were delivered to our tables, I sat back and took a moment to observe my lunchtime companion.
Her name was Loelle, and she was the woman from the compartment next to mine. Having apparently passed a comfortable night, lulled into sleep much as I was by the shushing of the rail, she had dressed in a simple shirt and trouser ensemble with riding boots up to her thighs. Exuding from every pore the attitude of ‘competent adventurer’, she had simply come and sat down opposite me without any preamble as I sampled the Express’s excuse for a coffee.
“Is it any good?”
“I’m sorry,” I replied, “I haven’t had the pleasure, miss…?”
“Loelle Benjen.” She took my proffered hand and shook it, then pulled a small silver case out of her pocket. She opened it, pulled out a thin white cigar and then looked at me with a cocked eyebrow. “Do you mind if I…?”
“Not at all, my dear,” I said, and she quickly struck a match and lit up. As she puffed the first inhalation out, I breathed in deeply.
“So, Miss Benjen,” I began. “You’re from Zar, yes? I’m sorry to hear about your husband, but I’m sure that the successful completion of his final shipment of superior clothing products will ensure that you experience a happy and prosperous few years. Tell me, did you cross Gargor by airship or caravan?”
The silence that followed was broken only by the slight rattle underfoot as the rail thundered on to its destination. I smiled patiently.
“Ah,” she said finally. “That means that I must ask you how Shinsun’s Cowl is treating you, and whether you miss home?”
“You can, if you wish.”
“You’re Ming Bao, aren’t you? The investigator.” She took another drag on the cigar and allowed the smoke to drift in my direction. I flared my nostrils and inhaled more of its woody warmth. “Go on then,” she said, “How did you know why I’m on the rail?”
“Your hand has an uneven tan where your wedding ring used to be; you’ve spent a lot of time out in the open recently, on horseback probably, and judging by the slightly painful way you walked, you’re not used to it. The tobacco you’re smoking is from Lover’s Lake and the case has a rather unique design embossed on it, one given as gifts by the Low King to all royal suppliers and petitioners in the year that marked his fortieth on the throne and his sixtieth birthday. That would give you access to your husband’s contacts in a limited sense and perhaps afford you a single airship flight for old time’s sake.” I paused and placed a piece of sumptuously-cooked beef into my mouth. It crumbled at the merest movements and the flavours flooded me. I closed my eyes for a moment. “Have I forgotten anything?”
“The clothing.” She gave me an amused smile and blew more smoke out, this time away from me. “How did you know about that?”
I smiled. “Ah, when one is a sometime guest of Imperial Notaries, one keeps one’s eyes open. I simply read it on some of his paperwork yesterday, my dear.”
“Oh, how disappointing,” she said, and we began to eat in earnest.
Her husband, it developed, had died when the city of Fjornik had fallen - quite literally - and she had only survived by dint of visiting family in Varikause. The influx of refugees had brought with them a harrowing tale of an entire tower city falling prey to dark powers and assault by enemies, coming down on the surrounding countryside like a stack of gold coins and killing countless thousands. That, and the circumstances of her late husband’s supply runs, gave her an airtight alibi for at least two of the murders on the Inira Express in recent months. Still, her company was an interesting diversion from the journey and, I realised, actually somewhat enjoyable. In turn, I regaled her with my most last visit to Fjornik before it fell, an adventure in which I discovered the identity of the amber magnate, Kirito Swordancer who was forcing several prominent families to their knees in monopolised prices.
We parted ways after the meal, her leaving for the observation deck at the far end of the rail where she could smoke and watch the scenery go by; I headed for the First Class carriage to check on the one passenger that hadn’t shown his, or her, face yet.
It was a man, in the event; he was sat in his compartment, table folded away, sat as straight upright as it was possible to. He was a thin man, middle-aged, with a long curling moustache that fell to below his chin.
He looked at me as I went past, and something in his face made me slow my pace and stop. Then he turned his head back to look at the seat in front of him. Not a single muscle of his body moved apart from that single head turn; his hands remained neatly folded in his lap and I felt myself drawn to enter the compartment and sit down.
He barely blinked as we regarded one another and I found myself somewhat mystified by this singular gentleman. Nothing about him hinted at his background; his skin colour was slightly dusky in the manner of Dorthian of Koruan natives; the prodigious moustache was definitely a Koruan affectation, but his dress could be from any of the areas of Lyria. I allowed my eyes to travel down to his boots and back up again, feeling rather than seeing him do the same. His belt and shoes were of fine leather, matching the rest of his clothes in quality.
“Mr Bao, I believe?” he said. His accent was thick, not something I had come across before. Intrigued, I nodded.
“I seem to consistently be in the dark about peoples’ names today,” I replied. A sudden thought struck me. “Mr L, I presume?”
“Perhaps your reputation is not deserved, then. My name is Aya Jef’nerin,” he said, his accent lending an almost musical quality to the syllables. “It is high time we spoke, Mr Bao.”
“I’m listening,” I said.
“You have been a thorn in my side several times before.”
Gargorian. His accent was Gargorian, the name confirmed it. Pieces began to fall into place in my mind. “You were the one funding Swordancer in Fjornik. He mentioned only that someone higher than him was the money behind his business, someone he referred to as The Desert Wind.”
“Just so,” Jef’nerin said, nodding his head. “I was also behind the West Foreston ‘Fruit from the One Tree’ operation and a particularly profitable venture in South Porton between myself and the Porton Pirates. To name a few.”
“And I was responsible for shutting those down.”
“Among others.” He finally moved his fingers, smoothing his moustache down, all the while studying me with his watery brown eyes. “I have been stymied by you once too often, sir.”
“Why are we having this conversation?”
“Fair warning.” He smiled slightly. “I am a businessman. You will not find me dirtying my hands with blood, or performing deeds most unsanitary in the dead of night. I deal with things very much as the man next door deals with things.” He nodded his head at the compartment with the Notary in. “He sees profit and loss. As do I. You, Mr Bao, you represent loss.”
I smiled. “What do you normally do when your projects turn to loss?”
“This is, what, farewell?” I shook my head. “Somehow I think not. We’ve barely gotten to know each other.”
“That is how I prefer it, Mr Bao. I have one final operation to perform and then I am leaving Ehrian. We are like cats, Mr Bao. We have our territories. I wish for you to understand who stood against you here and then moved on, so that you can understand that you have lost.”
“I’ve lost, against someone I never knew, because that person is leaving me alone?” I queried. I was already spinning evidence together into any sort of conclusion about what his final job could be.
“I am flexible. I can leave; crime is the same everywhere, Mr Bao. Your reputation precedes you here, to be sure. What of other continents? Other countries, cities? Would they afford you the same luxuries as this one?” He gestured around the compartment. “Do you think this came cheaply?”
“And your final operation here? What of that?”
“Already underway.” He smiled calmly. “Do you think I would have told you about it if you had any chance of changing its outcome, Mr Bao? It is inevitable.”
“Well,” I said, standing up, “This has been very mysterious and not at all revealing. I hope that our decidedly cooler weather than Gargor is agreeing with you, Mr Jef’nerin, and I wish you the best of luck in… wherever you end up.” I gave him a short nod and left him staring at the chair I had vacated.
In the corridor I almost immediately bumped into the Notary. He bounced off of me and stumbled backwards; both of his guards reached for the long curved swords they had sheathed at their belts.
I put both hands up in supplication. “No harm, gentlemen. As you were.” They both looked at the Notary, who was adjusting his jacket and dusting himself off.
“I would expect, sir, that one as observant as you are supposed to be would have better reflexes,” he said, then huffed his way past me and on to the dining cabin. I thrust my hands into my empty pockets and made my way back to my cabin.