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Miss the Train Before

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The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to miss the train before.
-- G.K. Chesterton

 

SAGO STREET, CHINATOWN

SINGAPORE

NOVEMBER 12th, 11:57pm

The city air was hot and mad, slapping against the skin like a damp flannel that left one feeling dirtier instead of cleaner. It was November and thirty-two degrees and in Merlin's opinion the whole experience was altogether bizarre; the only familiar thing was the steady drizzle of rain, as though someone had taken England and stretched it skywards, tossed down a handful of palm trees, and then kicked the thermostat up to tropical heights and stood back to watch everyone melt. Merlin couldn't imagine any self-respecting Brit actually enjoying life here, which led him to the conclusion that the man whose shop he was currently breaking into had as little respect for his heritage as he did for the law.

The screen above his keypad changed for the fifth time with a soft blip, and Merlin shifted his cramping shoulders against the concrete as a young couple walked by hand-in-hand, the girl's perilous heels clicking on the wet footpath. They spared him a single glance only; he knew what he looked like, which was a bored expat kid playing his DS and waiting for something interesting to happen. He blinked down at the new lines of code and numbers for only a moment before his fingers started to move, careful but accelerating, feeling his way into the core of the system.

There was no click, no light, but Merlin took one more glance at the code spread out legible and obedient on his screen and then levered himself off the wall and stepped in front of the sliding door. It hummed open. He stepped inside.

The interior of the shop was darker than the never-quite-night of Singapore's streets, and Merlin found his way over to the far corner by counting his footsteps from memory. The tiny computer went back into his pocket, from which he then pulled out an equally tiny torch. The patch of light illuminated the corner of the display frame, casting eerie cobweb shadows behind the twisted mass of ginseng root, and revealing the price tag: S$350,000. For a bloody root. For something that looked like it was grown by accident in someone's compost heap and dug up by an overenthusiastic dog.

"What rubbish," Merlin muttered to the darkness.

"Well, I will point out that nobody's forcing you to steal it," came a voice from behind him, and Merlin jumped -- both around, and about half a foot into the air -- with a noise that sounded mortifyingly like he was a five-year-old girl being poked with sticks. He was on the verge of being thankful for the fact that the darkness hid what was no doubt a half-constipated, half-terrified expression, when the shop lights flickered on. This was not Merlin's best night ever.

"How did you know I was in here?"

The white-haired man with one hand still resting on the light switch gave Merlin an impressively unimpressed look. "I hope you didn't think you were being subtle, stumbling around in my security code like that. Oh, it was entertaining to watch, certainly -- not least because someone with the ability to hack my system could probably rob half the casinos and more than a few of the banks in this city, so the fact that you went to all this trouble to steal a ginseng root suggests some new, bewildering brand of stupidity."

Merlin felt like he'd been hit in the face with a brick wrapped in cotton wool. He couldn't think of anything to say apart from, "I'm not stupid," and even that came out far more plaintively than he'd have liked.

"Obviously you possess some minor genius for decryption, or we wouldn't be standing here," the man said. "But I remain unconvinced that you're not, in addition, an idiot."

This was getting out of hand. "You're Gaius, right?" Merlin blurted. "I'm Merlin Emrys. Hunith's son."

Gaius's unimpressed look continued for a long few seconds, and then his eyebrows shot up. "You know, Merlin Emrys," he said, "normal people use telephones to get in touch with old friends of the family. And they wait until civilised hours of the day to do so."

Merlin shrugged. "I guess I wanted to show you that I'm not. Normal, I mean."

Gaius heaved a sigh. "You'd better come into the tea room. All these lights and chatter, people might get the impression that I'm actually open."

Merlin followed him through a narrow doorway into another dark room, and stood there thinking wistful thoughts about his hotel's blissfully arctic airconditioning while Gaius turned on the lights. Merlin's shirt was sticking to his back and despite how silly it looked, he envied Gaius the dressing gown of fake Chinese silk that the man was wearing. Merlin had seen similar garments for sale in the markets, dirt-cheap and gaudy, but this one was hideous even by those standards, with enormous splashes of orange and a pattern of puce-coloured cranes that might have looked graceful from a distance but up close looked as though they had been hatched in a swamp following an unfortunate nuclear accident.

"Sit down." Gaius waved him onto a tiny stool facing a table with a slotted top, upon which were arranged a series of tiny cups, a teapot that looked too small to be of any use whatsoever, and a supiciously steaming kettle.

"Were you expecting me?"

"Hardly." Gaius took a seat on the other side of the table and began to scoop green leaves into the improbable teapot. "I thought Hunith's son was still a child, not old enough to be working, and I certainly didn't expect him to turn up on my doorstep. No, I just wanted to have a chat with the person who managed to bypass most of my alarms, whoever he or she might turn out to be." He poured steaming water into the teapot and gave it only a few thoughtful twirls before upending the pot over the cups in a rapid, careless manner more suited to a bartender than someone making tea.

"What kind of tea is it?" Merlin asked. It was somehow comforting that even in Singapore in the middle of the night, the English would offer tea to unexpected visitors. Though he'd never seen it made like this before, with the strange combination of ceremony and haphazard action.

"Oolong. Smell, pour it in here, drink," Gaius ordered, indicating a tall narrow cup and a small shallow one in turn.

Merlin did as he was told; the tea smelled like buttered cabbage and tasted quite like it as well, but it wasn't entirely unpleasant, and Gaius was sipping his own cup with evident enjoyment, so he said nothing and drained it in two small mouthfuls.

"How's your mother?"

"She's doing well." Merlin swirled the dregs. "She told me to find you because I've got a job, and she thinks you're the best person to help."

"I'm retired," Gaius said sternly. "I am living a peaceful life learning the ancient arts of Chinese herbal medicine and tea-making. I'm afraid I can't help you, Merlin. Hunith should have known better than to send you all the way to Singapore on a fool's errand."

"She said you'd say that," Merlin agreed. "She also said to remind you that you've owed her a favour since New York, and she's calling it in."

Gaius made a huffing sort of sound and poured more water into the pot. The leaves had swelled into a sluggish green clump. "Is that so."

"Afraid so, yes."

"Well, as it appears I am to have no choice in the matter, drink your tea and tell me more about your mother and what you've been doing with your life. Then go back to wherever it is you're staying. It's too late for talking business, and I know somewhere we can meet tomorrow morning." His expression as he dribbled tea into Merlin's cup this time was bordering on sullen. Merlin had rather been hoping for at least a smidgen of enthusiasm, or at least someone who didn't say the words minor genius as though they were only one step above an outright insult, but his mother had been insistent: Gaius was the best.

He drank his tea.

***

CHRISTMAS GIFT BAZAAR, NGEE ANN CITY

SINGAPORE

NOVEMBER 13th, 10:23am

"This is your idea of a good place for talking business?" Merlin hollered.

"Crowds," Gaius said, as though it were an explanation. "Hold this." He handed Merlin a plastic car the size of a shoebox and began to dig through some WALL*E merchandise.

Crowds indeed; Merlin, born and raised in middling-town England, had never seen anything like the throng of people loudly enjoying their shopping experience in the enormous mall, and this self-proclaimed Bazaar was the worst of all. The word called up images of carpets and spices, but this was a brand-name haven of, as far as Merlin could make out, complete junk. Most of it produced by some subsidiary of Disney.

"As I was saying," Merlin yelled, his concerns about privacy somewhat allayed by the fact that most of the conversations around them were being held in a) Mandarin, and b) a tone suggesting no interest whatsoever outside of the speaker’s own practically negative personal space, "I was approached directly about this job, but I don’t have any experience in running something this big, or any contacts to speak of. So my mother told me to come to you."

"Why were you approached in the first place?" Gaius, a sticker book in either hand, looked back over his shoulder. "If you are, as you say, so devoid of experience."

Merlin could already feel himself blushing; this always sounded so much more ridiculous aloud than it did when it appeared in admiring blog entries and emails. "I'm the Boy Wizard."

"You what?" Gaius seemed to be paying far more attention to a bin full of shoddy screwdriver sets than to anything Merlin was saying.

"I said, I'm the Boy Wizard," he repeated, loudly enough that a pigtailed girl, barely taller than Merlin's knee and clutching a box that was probably the same blinding shade of pink as Merlin's cheeks, turned around and shrieked "Harry Potter?!" with manic and heavily-accented enthusiasm.

"Er, no," Merlin told her. "Sorry. Merry Christmas. Enjoy your -- Miley Cyrus Barbie. Um. Lovely."

"I hope you aren't expecting that name to mean something to me," Gaius said, and then turned around and frowned. "Hold on…were you the one who pulled that stunt with the LSE's Professional Securities display screens?"

"No," said Merlin hastily. "I -- never mind. Don't bother about it." Oh, this was going fantastically. "I was offered the job because the backer had heard of my work."

"What is this job?" Three soft toys were piled on top of the car in Merlin's arms.

"Who are we shopping for?" asked Merlin, distracted. "Do you have grandchildren?"

"No." Gaius sighed. "My sister does, however. Unholy numbers of them. And as I have managed to avoid producing any descendents of my own, she likes to insist that I spoil hers."

"Uh huh." A stuffed bear began to make a stealth attempt at sliding towards the side of the slippery box; Merlin ducked sideways to save it and almost collided with a couple of elderly ladies. "Sorry! Sorry."

"The job," Gaius reminded him.

"A single object from a private collection," Merlin recited. "The mark's name is Uther Pendragon."

"Hah." Gaius's bark of laughter was loud enough that a small radius of people turned around and glanced at them. "Of course it is. For my sins, I surmise."

"You know him?"

"I know the name. Do you usually attract enormous problems for yourself with so little effort, Merlin?"

"My mother says I have a knack for it," Merlin said, grinning.

"Your mother is a smart woman." Gaius looked around. "And hopefully she trained you worth a damn. I'd like to see you lift a wallet."

"What?" Merlin's throat seized up.

Gaius gave him the look from the previous night, the one which questioned Merlin's intelligence. "We're in a crowd. The conditions are ideal. Surely Hunith taught you…" He trailed off at the look on Merlin's face. "Or not. I revise my earlier opinion; your mother is either very stupid, or even smarter than I thought."

"Hey!" said Merlin, and then, "What?" again.

"Very sneaky of her, to stick you under my nose and flaunt your lack of basic education." Gaius waggled a plastic cup at him sternly. "I most certainly did not intend to spend my retirement running a school for amateurs, but I suppose I have no choice now. Very well. Watch closely."

And Merlin was watching closely, but he still couldn't quite see what happened; one second Gaius was struggling with an armful of junk, scrabbling to keep it all together as a young couple passed by them, and the next he was dropping a purple wallet onto the ground and elbowing his way towards the tills, money in hand.

"Are you coming, Merlin?" he called.

***

NEWTON HAWKER CENTRE

SINGAPORE

NOVEMBER 13th, 7:18pm

"No, I don't -- I'm fine! We're looking! Thank you! No!"

If one more person tried to shove a menu into Merlin's hands or herd him towards a table, he was going to punch them in the face. Which would probably be embarrassing for everyone concerned and most especially him, because Gaius probably possessed the ability to kill people with his little finger or something equally freakish, whereas Merlin wasn't even sure where your thumb was supposed to go when you made a fist.

"Have you ever killed anyone?" he said before he could think it through. The girl currently approaching them with a teatowel and a hopeful expression stopped dead in her tracks; the hopeful expression turned into one that showed her opinion of them stuggling between potential customers and potential murderers. Good. Merlin would have hated to punch her in the face.

Meanwhile, Gaius was giving him a weird look. "What sort of stories has Hunith been telling about me?"

"All terrible ones. Oh, coconut juice!"

"Go and buy us drinks, then." Gaius waved him off. "I'll order the food."

When Merlin returned to the table, hands sliding on the condensation that the brimming plastic cups had erupted with in response to the evening heat, Gaius was glowering at servers from beneath one lowered eyebrow and looking satisfied beneath the other one, which Merlin was beginning to suspect he'd had surgically pinned halfway up his forehead.

"What's so bad about Uther Pendragon?" Merlin asked, sliding onto the circular seat.

Gaius made a 'humph' sound that was probably a laugh. "For one thing, he's a criminal prosecution lawyer, so if we get caught then he'll take great delight in screwing us over personally."

"Oh, brilliant." Merlin gave a rueful smile. "What else?"

"Where would you like me to start? He's smart, he's filthy rich, he's passionate about his collection, and he's as paranoid as you would be if you'd put away most of the big names in British organised crime. Which brings me to the last thing: this is almost certainly a revenge job."

"Which is -- bad?"

A pause; Gaius looked like he was weighing a thought. "Not entirely," he said eventually. "The backer at least had the sense to hire an impartial team. As long as he doesn't start micromanaging, I don't think you need worry overmuch about motives. Do what you're being paid to do. That's all. Thank you," he added; someone was sliding plates of steaming food onto the table between them, plates and more plates -- just how much had Gaius ordered? -- each one looking slightly odd but smelling divine.

Merlin's excitement was rapidly being replaced by trepidation, and he wondered if he shouldn't be learning the ropes on something less huge. Except -- "Well, it does sound tough, but you haven't told me to turn the job down."

"True." And Gaius smiled at him, an abrupt smile that was a lot kinder and more mischievous than Merlin had expected. "There must be some ego in me yet; the idea of making Uther Pendragon's life a little harder is not a completely unpleasant one. And I think I've found you a likely team."

Impartial, Merlin thought. Is that so?

But he'd seen that look in his mother's eyes when she talked about jobs: something subtle and proud. He felt a trickle of relief. "Thank you. Really."

Gaius waved that away. "Tech first. I know a man who's been in the business for years -- very dependable -- should be able to rig anything we need for a private collection job. You'll pick him up in Prague."

"Me?"

"Yes, Merlin, you." Gaius dug an irritated fork into the nearest pile of noodles. "I have no intention of jetsetting around the globe at my age, and I'm not simply picking up the phone to ask favours on your behalf when most of my contacts don't know you from Adam. I'll hire them, but you'll pick them up yourself. It's only polite."

"Right, of course," Merlin said, or tried to say; he'd discovered how good the fish tasted when you dipped it in a kind of fantastic spicy sauce thing, and had loaded his fork with what was, in retrospect, an overoptimistic amount of food. So what came out of his mouth was in fact, "Rhhhhyg," and a small dribble of sauce.

Gaius rolled his eyes above his own mouthful of noodles, and they ate in silence for a while. What had looked like far too much food turned out to be just about perfect; it was all delicious, and Merlin inhaled two platefuls before chewing slowly and contentedly through a few more. The hawker centre was filling up, families and groups of young people pouring themselves around tables and adding to the noise. The air was thick with darkening heat, seafood, wet concrete, spices and cooked meats, and as he ate Merlin imagined himself reaching a strange kind of equilibrium with the fragrant chaos; he still didn't understand Singapore, but he was beginning to get a feel for it.

Finally, he let his fork fall onto a pile of prawn tails and smiled. "Prague," he said. "Then...?"

Gaius had stopped eating a good ten minutes ago, and there was a bemused expression on his face that bespoke a familiarity with the eating habits of young people. "Then Edinburgh," he said, running a finger around the rim of his empty cup. "The one good thing about stealing from Uther Pendragon is that I can get us an inside player, and she'll meet you there. Then Paris, and then you'll all make your way to my house."

"Back to Singapore?" Merlin frowned. "When the job's in London?"

"No, not my house here -- grow a brain, boy, I'm not training you lot out of my tea shop. Another one."

"Where is it?"

"Somewhere in Italy," Gaius said firmly. "I'll call you when you need to know more than that. But we're not working to a tight deadline, so you're not going anywhere until you're not a disgrace to your mother's name."

Merlin, bare forearms pressed against the elusive once-coolness of the table, rested his chin on the uppermost arm and thought longingly about his computer; about the effortless thrill of finding gaps in things that had been created to be watertight. About the things he just knew, the patterns that spun apart when his mind and typing fingers teased the right thread. He'd never had to work to be good at it, and nobody had ever tried to educate him outside of his own inclinations.

He spared a quick thought of mixed fondness and annoyance for his mother. Packing him off to Gaius had clearly been a characteristically double-edged blade of a suggestion. "Training?" he said, resigned.

"Training." Gaius gave the kind smile again. "Don't worry, enjoy your evening. We'll start tomorrow."

Merlin closed his eyes and let the night swallow his skin.

***

FLIGHT BA133

NOVEMBER 23rd, 10:49pm

"…keeping in mind that it may be behind you."

The flight attendents were doing the pointing-out-the-exits dance, somewhere between flagless semaphore and a seriously weird version of the breaststroke, and whoever was narrating the safety demonstration seemed to have made the terrible decision that the best way to maintain the interest of a plane full of bored passengers was to recite it in soporific dactyls. Merlin waited until the man beside him was absorbed in the way the deflated lifejacket sat perkily on the navy-clad breasts of the nearest flight attendent, and then lifted the guy's wallet as he, Merlin, leaned down to fiddle with own backpack. Which was, yes, safely stowed under the seat in front of him.

There wasn't much hope that the theft would go unnoticed throughout the eight-hour flight, but it was enough that the man hadn't noticed it initially; this wasn't a job, just an exercise, and it looked like Gaius's training was starting to pay off. Merlin straightened up, wallet in his palm, and held it out.

"Did you drop this? It was on the floor."

The man patted his pocket automatically, even though his eyes had already widened in recognition behind his glasses. "Yeah, that's mine, thanks."

"Not at all." Merlin handed it back to him and fished in his own pocket for a mint to suck on; the plane was about to take off. He was tired and didn't fancy being a jetlag zombie while trying to prove himself to more experienced professionals, so he spent takeoff wriggling himself into the most comfortable position possible -- which wasn't all that comfortable, considering his long bony limbs and the fact that his Economy-grade seat seemed to be inching closer to the one in front when it thought Merlin wasn't paying attention, but good enough -- and then plugged in his noise-cancelling headphones once the plane had levelled out.

Merlin turned the inflight radio to a comedy channel, jabbed the volume down low, and fell asleep to the sound of Monty Python informing him that watery tarts going around distributing swords was not a reasonable basis for a system of government.

Fair enough, he thought.

***

CHARLES BRIDGE

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC

NOVEMBER 25th, 7:00am

The instructions that Merlin had received from Gaius’s shadowy contact in Prague were simply: Charles, Christopher, dawn. Figuring that he was a pretty poor hacker if he could decode Sotheby’s website security system but not a three-word message, he made sense of it with the help of a hastily-purchased guidebook, and duly dragged himself out into the crystal cold darkness of the winter dawn.

The bridge was thankfully not far from his rather dodgy hotel, and it was deserted except for a couple of men his own age who appeared to be adjusting some scaffolding, and a young woman leaning against the stone and staring out over the Vltava. St Christopher, Wikipedia had assured Merlin, was the sixth statue on the south side of the bridge, not far from where the girl was standing. Merlin peered up at the shadowy saint; there was nothing distinguishing about him apart from the stone baby perched on his stone shoulder.

Gaius's contact was clearly nowhere in sight just yet, so Merlin tried to distract himself from the fact that he couldn’t feel the tip of his nose by looking at his guidebook’s pictures. In the emerging dawn light he could make out St Vitus (who had long hair which made him look rather a ponce and was, unsurprisingly, the patron saint of dancers) and St Wenceslas (who apparently had never been a king, nor done anything in his life more exciting than be killed by his brother, but who had nevertheless been enthusiastically adopted and celebrated by the Czechs ever since a random Englishman decided to write a Christmas carol about him, presumably because his name scanned nicely).

"Merlin Emrys?"

When Merlin turned, the young woman was a lot closer, and was giving him a hesitant smile.

"Yes?"

"Oh, good." She took two more steps to halt in front of him, and her smile grew wider. Three small tendrils of frizzy hair had escaped from her beanie and were brushing in front of her eyes. "I'm Guinevere Smith, but everyone calls me Gwen. I'm your contact." She gave an abortive giggle. "I've never been a contact before. It does sound very dark and mysterious, doesn't it?"

Merlin's face was doing its best to return her smile, which was infectious, but his confusion won out for a moment. "I -- yes. Sorry, I was told you'd be, you know. A man."

"I'm as good as," she said cheerfully. Then she blinked and amended, "Well, not really. The man was my dad, the man you were meant to meet with, and of course I'm not as good as him, but he couldn't make it so he sent me. I mean, that’s not to say that a woman can't do as good a job as a man! Generally speaking. Um."

"Will your father be joining us later?" Merlin intervened, taking pity.

Gwen tucked her hands under her arms and shrugged. "He's got a lot of contracts at the moment, and some of them are taking a lot longer than expected. But he put together all the tech that Gaius asked for, and I can install and run all of the components."

Merlin firmly quashed the faint dubiousness he was feeling, figuring that objecting to her age would be the silliest kind of hypocrisy, and reached out to pat her on the arm through her puffy white jacket. "Well, I'm looking forward to working with you, Gwen Smith."

"You too! This is my first real job, you know," she added, looking excited.

"Er, mine too, actually," Merlin admitted. "Not my first job. But the first time I've actually stolen a thing, or worked with other people."

Gwen nodded and leaned out over the side of the bridge again. "And is this your first visit to Prague?"

"Yes."

"I love this bridge, but you have to come early -- as soon as the sun gets up there are tourists everywhere, even in winter. I like coming here to look at the statues. Anthony of Padua’s my favourite." She indicated. Anthony of Padua’s head was adorned with what looked to be a hat made of small golden helicopter blades, atop which was huddled a chilly-looking pigeon.

"They do seem rather keen on their saints," Merlin offered.

Gwen nodded. "I like that. I like that this city remembers its dead. It doesn’t glamorise them, or dwell on them, but it remembers.”

Merlin watched the growing trickle of people passing them on the bridge and thought about what he'd read about the city and he couldn’t make the idea fit, to begin with, because everything around him was chilled and bullied into a busyness of life. But he'd been to the markets the night before, in a square where the church rose greenlit and imposing above even the highest star on the Christmas tree, and elsewhere in the city there were more statues and monuments and lists; the city had defined itself on the efforts of royalty and martyrs known not for their lives but for the manner of their deaths; in old buildings in every cobbled corner of Prague, people of every faith worshipped between walls covered with the names of the dead. And the city remembered. Yes, Merlin could feel that.

Gwen tucked her arm through his and smiled up at him, bringing him back to himself. "So, Merlin Emrys, what're we stealing?"

"Nothing huge," Merlin said. "Just some sword."