I can't believe I managed to post two updates in two days... FYI, this won't be happening again anytime soon.
Chapter 3: And so They Met
On that clear spring day, a small commotion was unfolding on the platform of Norn Station.
There was no roof over the platform. The sun shone from the top of the sky as the businessman, the middle-aged woman who boarded at Karen East, the soldier, and other passengers crowded around the conductor and the station employees.
“Then when will you get the train moving?” Asked a suit-clad man in his thirties.
“You have to do something soon.”
The other passengers complained as well. The conductor, whose nametag identified him as ‘Bettner’, desperately explained the situation.
“I’m afraid the engine’s died on us. We only just managed to get the train to the station. It seems like there’s a problem with the fueling system or the engine itself, which isn’t an easy fix. I’m terribly sorry to say that this train will be stopping here.”
The passengers hounded him for answers.
Lillia watched it all from the platform.
“I can’t believe we actually have engine trouble. …Come to think of it, something like this happened at the end of last year, huh. Although that ended up turning into an accident.”
“Even I can’t do a thing about this one.”
They were sitting side-by-side on a bench on the platform.
Most of the passengers had come out to the platform to join the angry mob, or to watch. The commotion happened to be taking place in front of the second class car, so even people like the couple in their thirties or the man with the broken leg watched through the window.
“What do you think’s going to happen?” The man asked the couple.
“Hm… who knows?” The husband said brusquely.
“What are you going to do now?”
Bettner continued to reiterate that there was nothing he could do now. The passengers angrily asked him why they would leave the passengers in such an out-of-the-way station. The conversation went nowhere. Then—
“Can’t we just take the next train?”
Speaking up was a suit-clad man in his late twenties. All eyes turned to him. The man shrank for a moment, clearly not expecting the attention, but quickly cleared his throat.
“Well, er… isn’t there another train headed north? I remember checking the timetables and wondering if I should take this train or the next one. As I recall, there’s only a half-hour difference between the trains. Couldn’t we simply take the next train when it comes?”
Everyone seemed to agree with the suggestion, but Bettner shook his head.
“Naturally, that was the first thing I’d considered. But—”
“I’m afraid the next train’s been booked completely…”
“Every seat? But it’s not even the holidays. Even second class?” Asked the man who had made the suggestion.
“I’m afraid so. The entire train was booked the moment reservations were opened. Even second class.”
“I don’t believe this… this train has less than twenty passengers. And somehow the next one is full?”
“I believe it might be a group reservation. So they won’t be able to accommodate any more passengers. We can’t exactly have first class passengers standing in the halls all the way to Lor.”
Everyone was disheartened.
“Ugh! Why now?!” The middle-aged woman complained, but no one answered her.
“Hey, I’ve got it! Why don’t we have the next train tow our cars behind it? Problem solved!” The soldier proposed confidently.
All eyes were on Bettner again. He explained that the idea went against regulations, that even if they received permission none of the stations ahead of them had enough platforms to accommodate a train of such length, and that even if the platforms were long enough there would be such a strain on the locomotive that the train would move at a snail’s pace.
“All trains after that are local trains; none of them are bound for Lor. Everyone will have to stay the night here today. So I’d like to ask everyone to remain in the cars until a replacement locomotive arrives.”
Naturally, the passengers asked how long that would take.
“At this point, we have no way of knowing. In the worst-case scenario we’ll have to use the next train that departs from Elitesa tonight.”
Bettner was honest almost to the point of idiocy.
The passengers were furious. For some time they nodded at one another’s plights and cursed the railroad company, loudly proclaiming that they would travel by bus or aeroplane next time.
Meanwhile, Lillia and Allison remained the very picture of calm.
“This is getting crazy.”
“One night’s delay isn’t so bad—we’re not in any rush, anyway.”
“I guess. …Say, aren’t there any Air Force bases around here, Mom? We could borrow a plane and take off…”
“We can’t do that, honey. There are a few bases in the area, but I don’t have any excuse to borrow a plane.”
At that moment, the railway crossing bell at the end of the platform began to chime.
The Norn Station stationmaster blew his whistle.
“The next train is arriving. Please step back, everyone.”
Far down the tracks in the distance shone a train’s headlights. The people standing on the left side of the platform watched in disgust as they stepped back.
“Hell. Who rents an entire train? I’m going to get a good look at their faces.” The soldier said, speaking for all the passengers.
With a whistle, the train slid into the station.
Naturally, no one at the station would be boarding this train. Many sets of eyes glared daggers at the new arrival. And—
“This is outrageous!”
The passengers were shocked, appalled, and furious.
“Huh? …Wait, what is this?”
Lillia also rose to her feet, joining the other passengers in their incredulity. Allison alone reacted differently.
“Shucks. So this was the one, huh.” She mumbled to herself, putting her hand to her forehead.
The train was empty.
The yellow locomotive passed by them, and the VIP car—with curtains drawn over the windows—passed as well.
Then followed the first class and second class sleeper cars, then the dining car and the second class car, but no one was onboard. There wasn’t a single passenger in sight. The station building was clearly visible past the windows.
“There’s no one here!”
“Are you playing games with us?!”
“This is fraud!”
Understandably, the people on the platform were furious. Even Bettner was flabbergasted at the sight of the empty train rolling into the station.
“Impossible… they clearly said it was full…”
“This is ridiculous!” Lillia burst out, finally reaching her limit. She stomped over to the hapless conductor.
“Mr. Conductor! Since there’s no one on that train, you should just let us ride!”
“Show him who’s boss, young lady!”
As voices of agreement filled the platform, the train came to a full stop.
“L-let me inquire about the situation first. Please wait a moment and refrain from entering the train. Please.” Bettner said nervously, turning his back on the angry passengers and taking off toward the first car.
“Let’s follow him.” Someone suggested.
The other passengers agreed. Naturally, Lillia followed as well. But she stopped partway and turned. She saw Allison standing by the bench, looking quite displeased. Lillia tilted her head.
“Ah. I’m coming, honey.”
Bettner and about twenty passengers has walked down the platform to the VIP car behind the locomotive, when the back door of the VIP car opened and the conductor stepped outside. He was a tall man in his forties, also wearing a uniform.
“Ah! Excuse me, Mr. Cohen!”
The tall conductor called Cohen turned at Bettner’s voice.
He flinched, then, as he spotted the angry passengers at Bettner’s heels. Lillia was among the passengers. Allison was a little ways away, catching up to the group.
Cohen was alone to face his colleague and the passengers. The passengers allowed Bettner to speak first.
“What’s going on here, Mr. Cohen?”
“Is something the matter?”
“Wasn’t this train supposed to be booked solid?”
“But there’s no one onboard.”
Just as Cohen began,
“We bought all the tickets.”
Another man spoke from behind him. Lillia and the passengers all turned to the VIP car door, where the voice had come from.
A suit-clad man stepped onto the platform.
Most people had no idea who he was.
Lillia, however, was picking up her jaw off the floor.
The man emerging from the car was a familiar one, though he was not in uniform this time.
He was in his mid-thirties and had black hair and glasses. There was a calm, scholarly air to him. He was Major Travas, Allison’s boyfriend and a soldier working at the Sou Be-Il embassy in the Capital District.
Lillia was standing behind the tall soldier, so she was hidden from Travas’s view. Allison had stopped approaching and looked away, which kept her from his sight as well. Major Travas explained the situation to the conductors in polite Roxchean.
“My colleagues and I bought all the tickets to this train. That is why the train is empty but booked solid.”
“Oh? And why is that?” Asked Bettner.
“We’re currently transporting some important cargo. We cannot disclose any more information.” Major Travas said emphatically.
“I don’t know the details myself.” Cohen added before anyone could ask. Major Travas looked apologetically at the passengers.
“We’ve just heard from the conductor about your train, but I’m afraid we cannot let anyone board.”
The passengers were, naturally, upset.
Ann watched the confusion through a scope.
“If you clearly spot a firearm, pull the trigger. No hesitation.” Said the man behind her.
They were at the very end of the train. The sliding door of the freight car was slightly open, with the barrel of her rifle sticking out discreetly. Because most people on the platform were crowded around the front, no one noticed the sniper.
Just behind Ann was Ozette, watching the platform through a pair of binoculars. He had a folded assault rifle slung over his shoulder.
Ann breathed, tense. The people were close enough that she could see their faces through the scope.
“I know you’ve never shot a person before, but don’t worry too much. Just pull the trigger like you always do. You’ve never missed a shot in training. Imagine the target is someone you hate and blow their head off.” Ozette said plainly—was he trying to help her relax, or keep her on her toes?
Ann saw Major Travas in the distance, explaining things to the crowd while refusing to budge. As the two conductors and the stationmaster stood between them, it did not seem like a fight would break out.
A voice came over the radio on Ozette’s belt.
<This is Yzma from the dining car. Quick look says no one on the platform is armed.>
Ozette pressed the call button on the microphone he wore on his neck.
<Roger that. Keep an eye out, and make sure the doors are securely locked. And keep the windows shut.>
<Right. But just to warn you, they could break the locks easily if they wanted to.>
<I know that. Over.>
“What is happening? I hope there aren’t any problems out there.” The blond woman said, concerned.
She was sitting on a sofa, and so was Treize. Uno and Ed were by the window, holding 9mm automatic handguns with their fingers on the safety. There were wireless earpieces in their ears.
<—they could break the locks easily if they wanted to.>
<I know that. Over.>
—that was the conversation playing over the earpieces.
Uno stuck close to the window and peered out through the curtains.
“How are things?” Treize asked in Roxchean. Uno replied in Roxchean as well.
“Not good. The passengers from the other train are demanding to board this one. It’s not going to be easy convincing them. The leader’s going to emphasize that we bought all the tickets and that they can’t board, but if the passengers decide to charge inside anyway we won’t be able to stop them.”
“Then we’re going to let them on?” Asked Treize.
“Maybe. If we let them in on the condition that they use only the cars behind the dining car, we’ll be able to keep the lady secure. The leader knows that well.”
Treize went quiet, nodding. The woman’s emerald-green eyes stared into his face, but he did not notice.
A moment later, they received another communication.
The two men asked the other party to wait, then turned to the woman.
“Miss. We have a report from the leader.”
“‘Though this is not the perfect solution, I will choose the best solution available and allow the passengers to board’, he says. He would also like to apologize.”
“I understand. I cannot impose any further on the people of the Roxcheanuk Confederation. Please inform the leader that I will trust his judgement.”
The men returned to their communications. Treize looked at the woman sitting across from him. The hint of concern in her face seemed to have disappeared.
He almost felt himself shrinking in face of her elegant smile.
“I’m all right. The leader and the team are here. And so are you.”
Treize tried to say something, but he stopped partway and ended up going silent.
On the platform, the passengers cheered.
The midday sun shone brightly upon the platform.
“Everyone! They’ll let us board the cars behind the dining car! And they’re giving us full refunds for the tickets! We’re riding for free!” Someone announced.
The passengers outside cheered. Lillia, who had hidden herself back in the car, rushed to her mother as soon as the latter came after her.
“What’s going on? What’s he doing here?”
“Well, you see… we were supposed to meet after he was done with work. But I can’t believe he was on the train right after ours…” Allison said, disconcerted.
“Give me the details later.” Lillia demanded, then smiled. “But I’m glad they’re letting us on.”
Once Ann and Ozette smuggled back their sniper rifle and assault rifle in a sack, the doors of the cars behind the dining car were opened and passengers were allowed to board.
Although the passengers would be given a free ride, there were some restrictions.
Those who were originally in the second class seats would use the second class seats in this train as well. Everyone who used a sleeper car would go to the second class sleeper cars. However, there was still room left over even if everyone boarded, so those from the VIP car and the first class car(like Lillia and Allison) were allowed to share 4-passenger cabins between only two people.
The dining car would be open, but the first class and VIP cars beyond were strictly off-limits. There would be a guard stationed at the door at all times, and any intruders would be subdued with force.
The suit-clad man in his twenties and the soldier, who had struck up a friendship during the commotion, glanced at the original occupants of the train.
“Who d’you think they might be?”
“Private security guards, maybe. Or the mafia. Either way, I hate their guts.”
“And I sure as hell don’t want to get involved in their business.”
They muttered to each other as they helped the other passengers carry their luggage over.
The man with the broken leg thanked the two of them for bringing over his things, and went over to the second class sleeper car. A man in his thirties who was carrying over a medical bag and a large suitcase put down everything he had when he saw the scene.
“Here. Let me help.”
He went over and helped the younger man climb aboard.
“Thank you. I’m really grateful.”
“A fracture? A broken leg can be a pain.”
“Yes. It still hurts a little. Are you a physician by any chance?”
The long-haired man in his forties, who had been walking in confusion on the platform for some time, came over to the train.
“Switch? Here? Is it okay? I am not mistaken?” He asked Bettner in broken Roxchean.
The stoic old man and his secretary quietly went from the VIP car to the second class sleeper car. They were both carrying heavy-looking trunks.
As for the couple, the husband brought their luggage and the wife gently carried the basket with their baby as they headed for the second class sleeper car.
“Would you like a hand?” Asked a middle-aged woman, smiling as she stroked the face of the sleeping baby.
Lillia and Allison took their things and crossed the platform. They opened the door to an empty cabin and tossed their luggage inside.
Bettner made sure everyone was aboard, then took off his hat and nodded to Cohen.
Cohen returned the nod and blew his whistle.
The locomotive roared back to life, black smoke spewing. The energy ran down the train, slowly propelling the cars forward.
About an hour past noon, the long-distance train headed north departed Norn Station half an hour late.
Bettner watched as the freight car at the end of the train passed him by. The red taillight grew smaller and smaller. And once the light disappeared completely in the distance, where the tracks ran into the horizon—
“Phew. I’ve had enough of this.”
He scratched his head.
* * *
Once the train had started again, the blond woman sat back in her sofa.
“I’m glad there wasn’t any trouble.” She said, almost naively.
Treize, sitting opposite her—
—was completely silent, not knowing what to say.
Major Travas was outside, in the corridor.
“Do not let your guard down for even an instant. No one is permitted past the dining car. Keep an eye out on the roof as well. Ann and I will go patrol the train now. Ann, bring the 9mm. Yzma, you’re on lunch break. Everyone else, resume guard duty.”
He was giving his subordinates orders, his expression grave.
Lillia was sitting on a reddish-brown moquette seat in a second class sleeper cabin.
“Our room’s smaller now, but that’s besides the point. I want an explanation, Mom.” She demanded.
Allison sat across from her daughter.
“I was actually going to tell you once we got there, but I suppose there’s nothing I can do now.” She surrendered.
The man once called ‘Prisoner 42’ sat alone.
“Perfect. Everything is going perfectly.”
He was chuckling, praising himself.
“It’s so perfect it’s almost boring.” He muttered.
* * *
“Yes. They will have to show their faces if they want to get their tickets checked.”
As soon as the train reached a steady pace, Major Travas and Ann went to Cohen in the dining car and got to work.
“We’d like to get a good look at every face on this train. We need to go down the cars as soon as we can.” Major Travas said, looking almost threatening.
Cohen complied reluctantly and allowed Major Travas and Ann to accompany him. Behind the dining car were two second class sleeper cars, two second class cars, and two freight cars.
“Then let’s be off. But I do not want any more trouble on this trip.”
The three set off, beginning with the second class sleeper cars.
“This is the conductor. Your tickets, please.”
Once the conductor asked for the ticket, the passenger was bound to open the door without hesitation.
Standing behind Cohen, Major Travas found himself glared at by the stoic man in the first cabin, thanked by the couple in the second cabin, and given a funny look by the injured man in the third cabin. Then—
“It’s been a while. Could I ask a few questions?”
—he was greeted by Allison and Lillia in the fourth cabin.
Major Travas was stunned into silence for several seconds.
“Leader?” Ann asked, surprised by his reaction. Major Travas regained his senses and greeted Allison and Lillia.
“Er, Mr. Leader. Do you know these passengers?” Asked Cohen.
“Yes. This here is a friend of mine from work. And her daughter. What a coincidence, running into you two here.”
Lillia said nothing. Allison grinned.
“Sure is a surprise.” She replied. “And it’s nice to see you again, Miss. We met once before—last summer, right?”
Before Ann could even wonder if she should reply, Allison continued.
“I’m really sorry to say, but I just can’t seem to remember your name right now.”
Ann quickly understood Allison’s intent and smiled.
“It’s Ann. I only use my first name for business purposes.”
“Ah! Yes. It’s been a while, Ann. This here is my daughter Lillia. She’s on spring break right now so we’re off on a trip together.”
Lillia greeted Ann and lightly bowed her head. Ann returned the greeting.
Major Travas waited for Cohen to finish checking the tickets, then addressed Allison and Lillia.
“I’m afraid I can’t talk yet—I’m still on duty. I’ll come by later when I have time to answer your questions.”
Then Travas, Ann, and Cohen left the cabin.
The door closed.
“So where was I?”
“You said you were going to go on a date with Major Travas in Lor. I understand that much very well.”
“And, well, so I used all the means at my disposal to make this trip a reality.”
“So it was a purely selfish motive.”
“You caught me! Yes. I’m sorry, honey.”
“I don’t really mind… actually, I don’t mind at all. I want you to enjoy your life. Heh. What are the chances? Us running into the guy on duty on the train right after ours… I don’t know if we’re lucky or unlucky.”
“It’s more unlucky, I’d say.”
“From the looks of things he’s definitely on security detail for something—or someone. And if the conductor’s calling him ‘leader’ and not by name…”
“He’s hiding his identity. I’m so glad I didn’t end up blurting it out…”
“Yeah. Don’t use his name, okay? And on that note, we’re better off not interacting with him too much on the train.”
“Is he on a dangerous mission, do you think?”
“I don’t know that much. And I have no way of knowing. But it’s clear that we’re better off not knowing. We should just take it easy until we reach Lor tomorrow. Everything will be fine.”
“Okay. I don’t want to get caught up in another crazy mess. Last year was more than enough.”
“…I’m thirsty. I think I’ll get some tea from the dining car—do you want me to pick up something for you, Mom?”
“I’m all right, honey. You can have your tea in the dining car if you want, but make sure you don’t go any further.”
“I know. I’ll stay the heck away from the front of the train.”
Just as Lillia left her cabin, Treize broke the silence in the VIP cabin.
“…Er… h-how about some tea? I suppose we could brew some here, but the stove here isn’t great, is it. I’ll go get some from the dining car instead!”
He wanted to get away from the cabin.
The blond woman agreed with a smile. Treize practically escaped into the corridor.
“I can bring the tea. Please, enjoy yourselves.” Yzma offered, but Treize declined and headed for the dining car.
Lillia stepped into the dining car. She passed through the corridor that forked into the kitchen and opened another door, which led into a room furnished with tables covered in white tablecloths.
“Huh? This is weird.”
It was the middle of the day, but no one was around.
The waiter, a man in his mid-twenties, was lounging around the servers’ table. He looked up.
“It’s the suits, Miss. They bought boxed lunches at Norn Station and now they’re handing them out to the passengers, starting from the back of the train.”
“Who knows? Hope they’re not poisoned or anything.”
Lillia laughed awkwardly, unsure if the waiter was joking or not. According to him, the cooks and the other waiters had gone out to serve tea and hand towels.
“The train carries ingredients based on the number of passengers it can carry at full load. So we’re definitely capable of serving the passengers. Wonder why the suits’re so keen on keeping them out of the dining car. Although I can’t complain, myself. I’ve been watching since last night—and dunno if they’re guarding someone or transporting something, but these people are some shady folks. You’d better stay away from them.” He whispered, and started on Lillia’s tea.
He put tea leaves into a white ceramic teapot big enough for three or four cups, then slowly poured in water that had been heated on an electric stove by the counter.
Lillia paid for the tea in change, then looked at the door. She saw a large silhouette beyond the glass.
“I’m not touching that place with a ten-foot pole.” She said, turning back to the waiter.
The door opened loudly.
Lillia flinched. And, a little upset at the noise, she turned again.
And the moment she saw the newcomer—
She cried out, loud enough to startle the waiter. Hot water sloshed out of the pot.
As Ed stood rooted in front of the door—
“It’s all right. I’m just going to get some tea.”
Treize had said, opening the door and entering the dining car.
He was more startled by the familiar cry than the waiter was. He looked at the counter.
And he cried out, loud enough to startle Ed.
When Major Travas returned to the dining car with Ann and Cohen in tow, he witnessed an outrageous scene.
“Why? How? What are you doing here? I want an explanation! Do you hear me? Say something!”
His own daughter was interrogating Prince Treize of Ikstova, grabbing him by the collar.
Lillia had crossed her hands and was holding Treize’s shirt tight enough for it to tear. His face grew pale.
Ed and the waiter stared blankly.
Major Travas watched, incredulous. Ann spoke up.
“Shall I stop her?”
Major Travas nodded, then—
“I retract my earlier orders. Take these two to first class before any other passengers come to the dining car.” He added.
Even after escaping to the privacy of the first class car, Lillia’s anger did not abate. In the narrow corridor she stood with her back to the window, glaring daggers at the babbling Treize.
“Explain! This! Now!”
“Hold on… I… I was just getting tea…” Treize stuttered in confusion.
“Tea’s over there.” Lillia pointed at Major Travas, who stood baffled in the corridor. He was carrying the pot of tea that Lillia had ordered.
Major Travas went up to Lillia.
“Please calm down, Lillianne.”
Like a hunter distracted by another prey, Lillia turned to the smiling major and glared. His smile did not falter.
“I will explain the situation. Would that satisfy you?”
“I suppose.” Lillia said with a sigh. Then she turned back to Treize.
Treize could only smile awkwardly. Ann took the moment to whisper to Major Travas.
“What will you do, sir?”
Major Travas replied under his breath.
“We’ll tell her that we’re transporting a large quantity of gold jewelry from Iks. For our purposes, His Highness will be a guide. We say nothing about the lady.”
“Understood. Situation 3.”
They quietly worked out a story.
“Actually—” Major Travas began with a lie he had prepared earlier. But—
“Oh my! Has something happened? Is everything all right, Treize? And who might this be?”
—a blond woman with a gentle countenance stepped into the corridor.
“I tried to stop her…” Yzma said apologetically from behind her.
“Who’s this?” Lillia wondered, tilting her head.
“Er… she’s… I… well…” Treize stammered, panicking.
Major Travas sighed with the teapot still in hand.
Just as things got complicated in the first class sleeper car—
The man once called ‘Prisoner 42’ grinned.
“Delicious. This is positively lovely.”
In the boxed lunch the men had handed out were sandwiches with cheese and chicken cooked to perfection, garnished with mayonnaise and mustard.
“Roxche is a wonderful place. It really is.”
He was savoring his meal.
Allison stared at the two boxed lunches in her cabin.
She mumbled to herself.
“This is too long to be just a tea break. …They couldn’t have run into one another there, could they?”
Allison’s prediction was right on the mark.