Title: The Train: Chapter Two, Part Two
The dining car was an elegantly appointed room, with tables covered by white linen cloths lining the edges of the space, and red leather chairs taking up the center, which was mostly occupied at this point. Electric lights lit the arched ceiling, and the wainscoting beneath the windows was dark and sumptuous. A silent porter offered Anton a glass of champagne, which he took just as silently before settling himself into a back corner of the room. He didn’t wish to move forward and claim one of the remaining chairs and draw attention to himself. Not that he had much to worry about there; the room was filled with the lesser passengers on this illustrious trip, none of the nobility but every advisor and personal servant to the viscount and his coterie.
At the front of the room stood a tall man in a dark blue uniform, a flat trainmaster’s cap perched on his high forehead. He wore a thick, sandy handlebar moustache with panache, the one point of physical vanity on an otherwise unremarkable appearance. Of pride, however, his posture spoke volumes.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said once the flow of traffic had ceased and people were engaged more in drinking than talking. His voice was official without being officious, stentorian without being deafening; it was an easy voice to listen to. He’d likely practiced finding that fine line many, many times. “My name is Victor Cassan, your trainmaster for the duration of our three day voyage to Lucerne. Welcome aboard the Emperor’s Standard, the only train of its kind on the whole of the continent. Our luxury Pullman cars were shipped directly from America and modified by some of the most innovative thaumaturges in service to His Majesty.” That got Anton’s attention, and he straightened his back, ignoring the twinge in his ribcage as he focused on the trainmaster’s speech.
“Every car of this train is equipped with a tank beneath the floor, heated by the same coal that provides our comfortable speed of fifteen kilometers per hour. Hot water circulates constantly through the radiators in each of your sleeping cars, adjustable for your comforts, of course. Your sink is equipped with a spell that sterilizes the water as it flows through the pipes, providing only the cleanest product to bathe and shave with. Our laundry service is continually at your disposal; simply press the button beside the door of your car, and a porter will be with you presently.”
Silver mesh, Anton thought absently to himself, still listening with one ear. Powered by the coal; a simple enough spell of attraction to set in a device, fire signifying cleansing, silver immunity to poison and disease…they must have to be cleaned with terrible frequency, though.
Cassan continued blithely. “Meals will be served at eight, noon, and seven precisely. Each of our tables offers a privacy candelabrum for sensitive topics of discussion. You are welcome at any time to avail yourself of the smoking car, the lounge car, or the library car. The only exception to that freedom rests with Viscount Bonaparte, whose uses naturally take precedence. I understand that the viscount wishes to host all of you for an informal meeting after dinner tonight in the lounge car, so please be prepared to accommodate.
“Feel free to enjoy your drinks here, and don’t hesitate to ask for anything else that our barman might reasonably procure for you. Once again, welcome aboard the Emperor’s Standard.” Cassan inclined his head, and just like that, the brief bubble of silence broke and people were speaking to each other again, the servants clustering around the trainmaster and asking more questions about amenities, and the black coats…
They were speaking to each other, and unfortunately, one of them had spotted Anton. He was already on his way over, and there was no ready escape or excuse. Anton steeled himself and plastered on a ready expression.
“Willem Hasler, I presume?” the man asked as soon as he was within striking distance. Anton let a small sigh escape him; they had never met before. “I would know that insignia anywhere.” He had to be referring to the small red and blue flag beneath the imperial sigil on Anton’s jacket. “Well met, sir!” the man continued, his florid face beaming as he held out a hand. Anton smiled back and shook it. “You’re rather younger than I expected,” the nameless bureaucrat continued. “Looking at you, I’d scarcely believe you were old enough to see action during the Troubles.”
The Troubles, as those within the French empire referred to them, were a series of minor wars that had erupted across the continent a decade earlier. The timing and instigation of them was still something of a mystery, but the uprising had found a voice in the discontent of many of the native populations of Napoleon the Second’s latter conquests. The collectivist theories of Marx and Bakunin rose in esteem, leading to revolutionary ideas of equality between the classes. Former aristocrats and disenfranchised tradesmen alike had fought back against the Frenchmen installed in positions of authority in their cantons, leading to some very humiliating press for the emperor.
Napoleon III’s response had been swift and brutal. He’d sent troops into the capitol of each former nation and principality, their commanders given a mandate to utterly destroy all opposition. They had taken their savage responsibility seriously, and at the end of seven months, over half a million fighters, suspected fighters, outspoken politicians and their families and been put to death. Liechtenstein’s capitol of Vaduz, Anton remembered vaguely, had been one of the cities brought most thoroughly to bloody heel.
“It isn’t the sort of thing one lies about, sir,” he said, hoping his silence on the other man’s name wouldn’t go noticed.
Chance was with him, thus far at least. “No, of course not, of course,” the man agreed. “Indeed, I’ve had such assurances of your competence in all things, I would never dare underestimate you!”
Oh, good heavens. What did this man think he knew about Willem Hasler? “You’re most kind, sir.”
“There’s no need for such formality between us, Willem.” The man leaned in closer. “Especially not when we’ve already given each other such assistance, eh? I’ve upheld my part of the bargain; here you stand, despite the short notice. Now.” He rubbed his hands together. “How about your part, my lad? After all—oh, how does the saying go in your part of the country?” He smiled brightly, then said something that sounded like an incoherent string of syllables tacked together with tongue and spittle.
Oh, no. Whatever this man was speaking, it wasn’t a dialect that the Translation Device could recognize. It was…possibly based in German, with a hint of French or…Flemish? Perhaps? Whatever it was, Anton couldn’t speak it. With the Device sitting heavy against his palate, striving to understand something that had it thoroughly confounded, Anton himself couldn’t force a word from his mouth. This had only happened once before, when he and Caroline had tested the Device with Gaelic and Anton had spouted gibberish in response for a full minute. At the time, it had been amusing. Right now, it was nowhere close.
The man’s open, friendly demeanor was beginning to close off. “Consul Hasler?” he asked more formally, with a bit of frost in his one.
Anton tried to respond, but the Device hadn’t sorted out its difficulty yet, and all that came from his lips was a low hum. The other man’s frost was beginning to transition to contempt. “Sir, I must say—”
“Consul Olivier,” a fresh voice broke in, warm but slightly condescending. It sounded slightly familiar to Anton, and curiosity warred with relief as he turned to face the newcomer. “You must forgive Consul Hasler for being a bit taken aback by your…more spirited than accurate attempt at Walliser.”
Consul Olivier—it was so good to have a name for the man at last—deflated a bit. “Ah. Lord Lumière. I didn’t know you were a part of this trip.”
“I go wherever His Majesty wishes me to be.” Lord Lumière was a tall man made even taller by his silk top hat. His frock coat was a deep navy blue, his ascot and waistcoat were sapphire, and he should, by very dint of his size and handsome fashion, have stood out in the crowd. Yet somehow, even though he was standing right there, Anton felt that if he looked away he might miss him entirely.
“So you do.” The consul licked his lips nervously. “So you do. Well, sir, I…ah.” He looked back at Anton. “Forgive me any impertinence, Consul, it was entirely accidental. I was assured that I had the phrase correct.”
“It’s perfectly all right, Consul Olivier.” The words flowed easily off Anton’s tongue, and the tension in his throat melted away. “You just surprised me.”
“My apologies. But you—you did bring it, didn’t you?” He leaned in a bit closer. “You did promise that you would.”
Bring what? “Of course I did,” Anton said, utterly unsure of what he was committing himself to having but unable to see a way out of it.
“Ah!” Consul Olivier’s expression brightened again. “Wonderful! Bring it with you to dinner tonight, won’t you? I’m eager to see what kind of cock hackle could land a benthic beast like the one you described to me in your letter.”
For a moment, Anton wondered whether the Translation Device was malfunctioning again. Fortunately, Lord Lumière stepped in again. “If you don’t mind excusing us, Olivier, I have a pressing bit of business to conduct with Consul Hasler.” He turned to look at Anton, his dark eyes shining brightly beneath the brim of his hat. “Perhaps in our sleeping car.”
Anton swallowed. “You’re sharing with me?”
“I am if you’re in Sleeping Car Four, Cabin One.” Consul Olivier wandered away, leaving Anton without conversational recourse. This man had business with him? This…strange man, who seemed to have an even stranger effect on the people around him? Because Anton noticed the way that no one was quite looking at them, as though both of them had been obscured somehow. Thaumaturgy? An obfuscation device?
Whatever it was, and whatever the man needed, he obviously wanted to bring it up in private. And he had gone to the trouble of rescuing Anton from a linguistic nightmare. Perhaps it would be something simple.
Lord Lumière’s pleasant voice interrupted Anton’s rumination. “Shall we, Consul?” He indicated the path toward the door with an outstretched hand.
“Of course.” Anton set his champagne flute down on the closest polished windowsill, then led the way down the hallway back to their car. It was a much easier trip with the crowd behind him, and he breathed easier with each step, his anxiety diminishing to almost normal levels once he finally opened their cabin door and stepped inside.
That anxiety spiked dramatically when Anton felt the sharp point of a knife dig ever-so-slightly into the skin just above his kidney. “Now, sir,” Lord Lumière murmured as the door of their cabin swung shut. “You will explain to me who you truly are and what business you have on this train, or I will ensure that ‘Consul Hasler’ is never seen or heard from again.”