Title: The Train, Ch. 1 Pt. 1
At the far end of the alley, where little light could penetrate the high stone walls, a man stood bent over at the waist. One pale, trembling hand was pressed to the wall, practically all that was keeping him upright, for Anton could see his knees knocking from where he stood. He was retching with a vigor that defied his body’s ability to produce relief, and seemed not to notice Anton’s hesitant appearance several yards away.
It wasn’t the man’s illness that was so arresting to Anton. While the compassionate side of him sympathized with a fellow’s plight, he had no skill with physicking. Having ascertained that the man was not dying but did need help, the next logical step would have been to direct someone with more authority to assist down the alley. But this man represented more than a chance to do some little good; he represented a chance for Anton to help himself, and in doing so commit a crime he would never have considered at any other time. For this man, this sick, pasty man who was in no way fit to be going anywhere but a bed, wore a black frock coat with the insignia of the Bonapartes on his left breast pocket: azure an imperial eagle or, the imperial eagle on a bright blue background.
He was a member of the viscount’s staff. He wore the insignia that would grant Anton the status to board the train. And as there was no way that he was going to be able to board it himself…
It wasn’t really stealing, Anton argued with himself as he gingerly made his way down the alley, avoiding the puddles of sick that his target had voided earlier in his rush for privacy. It wasn’t! It was borrowing in a permanent way, perhaps, but the overall good that would be accomplished for both of them was worth bearing the inconvenient ethical dilemma.
Bold, foolish Anton, he almost heard Caroline whisper mockingly in his ear. How comfortable you must be, to have such flexible morals. Beware that your actions don’t come back to bite you.
Nonsense. Anton gritted his teeth and pressed on. Lady Caroline’s pithy wit might occasionally haunt him at times, but she had never understood where he was coming from. She didn’t know what it was to be thrown down from a great height and trampled under the feet of those whom you had once called peers. She didn’t understand the sacrifices he and his mother had made to get him this far. He had to act.
First he had to get close enough to the man for him to take notice. “Sir?” Anton asked, carefully bending over next to the wretched fellow. The smell was almost overpowering, but he persevered.
“Geh…awauhhh…” The man could barely draw breaths between bouts of purging.
“Sir, you should sit down, you’ll strain yourself otherwise.” Anton took his arm and led the not-really-protesting man over to a wooden crate along the far wall that smelled of paper and, more faintly, rotten vegetables. “And you must be hot,” he continued, resisting the urge to bite his lip. “Let me help you take this coat off.”
“There, sir, there. Just one moment and you’ll be much more―” Anton’s voice cut off abruptly as he caught sight of the edge of a blade cutting straight up. He fell back―almost literally, his ribs paining him as he forced himself away from the man just as he lunged at Anton. It was a desperate maneuver, and one his attacker didn’t have the strength to carry off. Rather than extending his long body to reach Anton, he ended up curling over his doubtlessly aching abdomen and falling chin-first onto the cobblestones.
Honestly, was he wearing a special sigil that advertised his excellence as a target of violence? That the fellow Anton had intended to assist—and, fine, rob as well, but that was neither here nor there—had just tried to assault him was disturbing enough, but then… The blood seeping out from beneath the man’s body startled Anton into movement. He leaned down and rolled the fellow over, wincing when he saw the hilt of the man’s blade protruding from just beneath his sternum.
Oh no. No, that was just…ridiculous, was what that was. If Anton hadn’t been so desperate to breathe shallowly and avoid fainting, he would have scoffed. Disregarding the fact that he’d done nothing to warrant such an attack, the idea that the man would then fall fatally prey to his own weapon simply because of a stumble? Inconceivable. Anton reached for the man’s neck, testing for a pulse, but there was nothing. He had died within twenty second of being stabbed? Not just inconceivable: that was impossible.
Aware of the foolhardiness of his situation but compelled by his own damnable curiosity, Anton crouched down next to the corpse and examined the hilt of the blade. It was black, just long enough for a man’s hand to get around. The handle wasn’t glossy like jet or obsidian; rather it seemed to absorb light into it and reflect a mere fraction back again.
Anton turned and opened his holdall, avoiding the shards of glass and pulling out a slender silver wand with an empty socket where the tip should be. Anton opened the side pocket that held his blank quartz endcaps and screwed one carefully into position. He activated it with a simple incantation to the four elements; for a greater spell he would need to utilize the elements themselves, but he had already primed his personal store of endcaps with alchemical potential. The quartz gleamed bright in the dimness for a moment, then went dull again. Perfect. Anton reached down and carefully touched the very tip of the wand to the tripartite end of the hilt.
Crack. The quartz endcap splintered into a hundred tiny pieces, falling apart at Anton’s feet. He stared at it blankly for a moment. “Thank goodness it didn’t explode,” he murmured. This knife, then, was something rather special. Something steeped in spells so dark they reflected in its very surface; a knife that had just killed its bearer, which surely hadn’t been the intent of the man impaled by it. This was not a knife that should be left lying around where anyone might find it. Anton would take it and do some tests.
The piercing whistle of the train broke through his reverie. Good God, how long had he spent in contemplation of this uncanny corpse? There was no time to waste.
Getting the coat off the man wasn’t as difficult as Anton had feared. It wasn’t exactly clean, but he would take the time to clean it once he was safely aboard. He rifled through the man’s pockets and found his passport, badge of identification, and a wallet which contained bank notes for a rather alarming number of francs. Anton grimaced, but took it all, and swore a silent prayer that he would donate the money to a shrine for St. Dunstan, patron saint of alchemists, as soon as he reached Zürich.
He also located the knife’s sheath in a hidden pocket along the top of the man’s right boot. Anton tugged it free, and then, using the fellow’s own burgundy-colored ascot to protect his hand, jerked the knife out of his body. It came without any resistance, the short blade seemingly untouched by the bloody mess it had just been removed from. Anton shuddered slightly as he resheathed the weapon and placed it within his holdall.
He stood up and put on the jacket, still warm from the man’s slowly dissipating body heat. Anton inspected himself briefly. He was wearing his second-best vest, fresh white cuffs and collar and a pair of boots that, if not exactly modern, at least shined to his satisfaction. The true giveaway was the simple bowler hat atop his head, already a bit crumpled from its earlier interaction with the ground. He needed a top hat. He did not have one. Therefore, he would bluff until he could acquire one. Anton stuffed the bowler hat in his holdall, carefully tousled his own hair to avoid the wound at the back of his head, and then headed out of the alley and into the light.
The steward was closing the doors of the train. Anton raced over to him, shouting in an effort to be heard over the piercing whistle: “Stop! Stop that at once!”
The steward turned to face him, his heavy moustache bristling indignantly. “What’s the meaning of this delay?” he demanded.
“The meaning, man, is that I should be on this train and you are in the process of thwarting me, and therefore thwarting his Lordship,” Anton said haughtily.
“You, sir?” The steward cast an assessing eye over his form and clearly found him wanting, if the condescending curl of his lip was anything to go by. “Your papers?”
Anton winnowed through the stack of papers he’d taken off his attacker until he found both the ticket and the passport. He held them out for inspection. The steward lingered for some time before he begrudgingly lifted his head. “Very well, Consul Hasler.” He reopened the red glass door. “I would show you to your car, sir, but time is of the essence,” he said pointedly. “Have a good journey.”
Anton said nothing, just nodded and stepped up into the train. The door smacked shut behind him, and only moments later the train began to move. The whistle sounded far less piercing from inside.
Well, there. He was aboard the train that would take him to Zürich. Now he simply had to figure out who he was, where he needed to go and what he needed to do in order to avoid being ejected and arrested.
The next several days would doubtless prove...challenging.