Title: The Train, Ch. 1, Part 1.
The trouble all started at the train station. Rather, it started with the train itself.
Well, strictly speaking, that wasn’t true. And Anton Seiber, as a journeyman thaumaturge possessed of a letter of acceptance to the Masters of Thaumaturgy program at the prestigious Universität Zürich, should know better than to allow himself to indulge in generalizations. Specificity was the cornerstone of reputable, repeatable thaumaturgy, and if he was going to do anywhere near as well at his chosen profession as his father had, he was going to have to cultivate a more nuanced outlook of the world. The trouble, his trouble, had not begun with this bloody train. But staring at it now, sitting on sparkling tracks beside a secured platform that might as well be miles away from Anton rather than yards, it was difficult not to be a bit spiteful about it.
Anton had had tickets for the train from Paris to Zürich, the last train from Paris to Zürich that could get him to the university before the first day of classes. A series of mishaps on the trip over from London—Anton winced and adjusted his stance at the stab of pain in his side, hearing the broken glasswork in his holdall rustle accusatorily—had resulted in a delay, but it shouldn’t have mattered.
It shouldn’t have mattered, for Paris was never meant to be more than a waystation, a place he might wile away a day or two before he left for Zürich, but no more than that. His mother had procured him this train ticket, at great expense. Despite everything, despite the aches and pains and inconvenient blood stains and the loss of far too much of his personal laboratory equipment, he had made it. He’d made it all the way here, and now he was to be shoved aside for one of Bonaparte’s royal lackeys. Worse still, there was no way to procure a new ticket on another train, and he couldn’t afford a ride in one of those newfangled auto-carriages. Not even as far as the border of Switzerland, much less all the way to Zürich.
“Doctor Grable is a great thaumaturge,” his mother had told Anton the night before he left, “but he is a difficult man. He places enormous value on punctuality and propriety, and has dismissed students from his program before for rather innocuous offenses. You cannot afford to be late, Anton.” This was the maxim she’d been drilling into his head ever since he was accepted to the university’s alchemical thaumaturgy program. “For if he dismisses you, there are a hundred other scholarship applicants vying to take your place.”
“I won’t be late, Mother,” he’d assured her, so full of himself in his final hours at home. He had lived there almost all his life, watched it gradually fall into a slow decay after his father’s death, with no money to be spared on repairs. He had clawed and fought his way to a position in Oxford’s apprentice thaumaturge program, his place far from guaranteed despite his father’s illustrious career there. He had graduated at the top of his class, confident in his skills and his chances for a position in London, only to see them melt away into the hands of other, lesser graduates, people of smaller minds but greater status.
It had been a learning experience. A hard one, but one that had provided a fire of purpose that set his mind ablaze. He had taken a lesser position with a minor forensic researcher specializing in death miasmas. Anton had designed a spell that not only let a layperson see the aura of the previously deceased in the moment of their death, but whatever lingering auras remained of his surroundings as well. As far as practical theses went, it was impressive. Impressive enough to land him the scholarship in Zürich. But he had to get there before anything was assured.
His head ached. Anton wasn’t sure whether it was from anger or from the way the back of his skull had been knocked against the cobblestones of a dirty alley just off the Champs Elysees, but either way, it was getting worse. He’d come so close. So close, only to find that his train had been diverted for this candy apple, steam-powered monstrosity. It was a beautiful train, actually, with crystal clear windows and bright, shining red enamel stretching down the length of it. It looked like an artery, bright and healthy, ready to carry its passengers from the heart of Napoleon III’s empire out to one of it’s distant limbs. The train’s final destination was Lucerne, where a royal alliance for one of Bonaparte’s cousins waited with the recently-widowed Duchess of that selfsame canton.
The cousin in question, a viscount or some such nonsense, was in the middle of a throng of brightly-colored courtiers, the men all dandy in frock coats and top hats, the women resplendent but slow-moving in waist-defining corsets and layers of petticoats. At their edges were lines of unobtrusive servants moving baggage onto the train, and beyond them, the people who did the actual work for the lordling: his advisory staff, all wearing the royal crest somewhere on their clothes and all far more serious than the flock of fine society. Guards checked the ticket and identification of every person who approached the platform, and more than one curious onlooker was menaced with the business end of a saber for venturing too close.
Anton had been displaced for a popinjay. A royal sycophant, a—a toff toad amidst a bloody puddle of toads! This was who he was losing his livelihood, his future, for? This back end of a donkey who just happened to be related to the most powerful man on the continent? Of course it was. Of course, because there was no one to say otherwise.
Well, no. There was Anton, damn it, and he was going to be on that train whether he had to beg, borrow or steal his way aboard. There were things in his holdall he could use if all else came to naught—things that those swaggering thugs hadn’t thought to destroy, too tough or too innocuous looking to be of any interest to them. He might have to fudge a few of the finer details, but—
God in Heaven, his head was aching now. It was never a good idea to do magic with anything other than a clear mind. Perhaps it was worth another argument at the ticket counter before resorting to fresh spellwork. Fortunately, his father’s Device was still working perfectly.
It was far from unheard of for a gentleman to carry a token of his lady’s affection on his person: a handkerchief, a twist of hair inside a silver locket or set in a ring. An earring was perhaps a bit unusual, but it was a plain thing, a simple silver clasp that fit perfectly around Anton’s left lobe. Someone looking at it might assume that the other half of the pair resided in the jewelry case of the young lady it came from.
In reality, the second half of the pair was a slender, flexible silver disc that fit over the soft palate of the mouth. The Translation Device was one of Gerhardt Seiber’s finer engineering feats, the result of long nights working out theory with his linguist wife, who spoke seven languages fluently. It used complex thaumaturgical equations to enable someone ignorant of the language at hand to hear what was being said, and perceive it as being said in their native tongue. Only in general terms, unfortunately, but it was far better than nothing. In turn, the silver receptor plate within the mouth provided a translation effect for whatever the wearer said. Speaking with it had occasionally nearly tied Anton’s tongue in a knot, but he couldn’t imagine learning French would be any easier at this point. He hadn’t the time. Literally, he hadn’t the time: the crowd was beginning to move onto the train. If he did not act quickly, he would lose his chance.
Anton narrowed his eyes and turned resolutely toward the ticket counter. By God, he would make the man see sense, or—“Oof!” He was suddenly almost knocked off his feet by a tall man in a dark brown coat, whose shoulder had very firmly found it’s way into Anton’s.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” the man said graciously. “I should have been more careful.”
Anton would have liked to absolve him, but the action had knocked his careful physical equilibrium out of place. A sharp pain lanced through his skull and somehow ended up lodged in his side, where someone’s solid boot had made itself known. “Ah—huuuh,” he gasped, nearly bent in two.
“Are you quite all right?”
“Ye—yes, quite,” Anton managed. The last thing he needed right now was pity, from anyone other than the ticket clerk at least. “Thank you.”
“Only you seem rather unwell.”
“’Tis nothing,” Anton insisted. “I just need a moment to catch my breath.”
“Then at least do so where another clumsy oaf like myself cannot knock you down.” A warm hand found it’s way to his elbow and guided him gently through the crowd to the side of the train station. Anton leaned against the smooth stone and closed his eyes as he sorted the pain away, back to where he could function.
“I would stay to ensure your comfort, but my train is about to leave.” The man had a pleasant voice, his English crisp and nearly without accent. “Again, I beg your pardon for my haste.”
“I’ll be well momentarily,” Anton assured the fellow, his eyes still shut but his posture slowly recovering. “Please, don’t let me keep you.” The man turned slowly and began to walk away. By the time Anton opened his eyes, he could no longer distinguish the cause of his little mishap. He straightened his back and began to head for the ticket counter—but no. The window was closed. All of the windows were closed, their inhabitants leaving to watch the pretty red train ride off with its pretty cargo. Anton stared at the shuttered window for a long moment, then gritted his teeth and reached for the clasp of his holdall. Right, he didn’t want to do this and his brains might be coming out his ears by the end of it, but surely he had enough energy for a minor obfuscation. All he needed was a place to work it, and the strength to push his way through the crowd to the train before it left.
A place, a quiet place—not easy to find in this crowd, but—there. The tiny little inlet beside the ticket booths, dark and uncomfortably like the last alley Anton had had such terrible luck in. It didn’t matter. He pushed the memory of his assault back and stepped as briskly as he could manage into the tight, dark space. A few yards more and he would have enough privacy for five minutes of—but wait. No, someone else was back here.
Anton stopped when he heard the sounds of a man in violent distress coming from further down the narrow corridor. Not the sound of an attack: Anton was well acquainted with those. This was a man who sounded terribly ill. As much as Anton needed to get on that train, he couldn’t stop himself from following that sound, just to ensure that the person in question wasn’t on the brink of death.
What he saw froze him in his tracks.