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Murder On The Rockport Express

Chapter Text

    On the eve of the end of winter term for most schools in Calimshan, a train pulled into a station in Murann. 

It was one of the Rockport specialty sleeper-car trains from the north, and gleamed with red paint and gold accents that were as bright as if they’d been painted only minutes ago. As with the arrival of most trains, a great deal of hubbub rose up around it once it had stopped. Employees of the Rockport company swarmed up to help passengers disembark, ready with luggage trolleys and a free hand. The people of Murann were right behind them, some ready to welcome relatives and some ready to sell other people’s relatives anything from chickens to counterfeit brand-name pocket-watches. 

    There were many people getting off the train, hauling down steamer trunks and suitcases behind them, but one in particular drew attention from those who saw him through the steam leaking from the engine’s smokestack. He wore the red uniform of the train company, which was complemented by the browner shade of red of his skin. He had red hair as well, but it was dark enough that it was commonly mistaken for brown or black, and in any case it was half hidden behind the horns which started at his forehead and came to a sharp point behind his head. 

    Hudson - for that was the tiefling’s name - ignored the attention he had garnered, and instead checked his watch. He was used to attention, and confident enough that he did not feel discomfited by it. 

    His watch told him that it was noon. Hudson had almost five days before he had to be back; the train would leave then with its new load of passengers, returning to Neverwinter and stopping at a multitude of destinations along the way. But five days was an unprecedented luxury, and he intended to make the most of it.

   


 

 

    The day after the train’s arrival, in a city to the south called Zazespur, classes at the Madrasa had let out for the day and indeed for the foreseeable future, as it was the end of the week and nobody was expected back until Candlenights had passed (and then some). The halls and garden courtyards were full of laughing students making plans for their vacations, promising to meet up and bragging about where their families were taking them.

    The one exception to this, should anyone have looked closely enough to notice, was Angus McDonald.

    He was not particularly difficult to notice, even in the crowd. Though he did not immediately stand out in comparison to the other students, especially in his uniform kaftan, he was a good foot or so shorter than most of them. His glasses seemed slightly too large for his face, and his kaftan was slightly lumpy because of the multitude of pockets which he had added to his underlayers and then filled with anything he believed might come in handy that day. 

    He was also moving against the flow of the crowd, with a great deal of difficulty.

    Using his overlarge bag (also filled with potentially convenient items), Angus managed to shove past several upperclassmen and dodge the hands they reached out to laughingly pat his head. Darting down one hallway and taking a left, Angus trotted up the stairs and into the west tower of the Madrasa, where his room was on the third floor.

    It was a pretty nice room as far as dorms went, and he had it to himself. There was one bed set into the wall, with shelves inset where a headboard and baseboard would be on a Neverwinter-style one. They were crammed full of books, and so was the shelf above his desk. The window had been left open, allowing the southern sunlight and warmth to stream in. Angus kicked the door shut behind him and pulled off his shoes, dropping his bag to the floor next to them.

    Then he went to his trunk to change out of his uniform. He didn’t have a closet, but that was okay, since keeping everything neat and folded while also keeping track of what was where was good practice for managing his own life. 

Angus didn’t dislike the kaftan, but he was glad to put what he called his ‘street clothes’ back on. The Madrasa did not make uniforms with twelve-year-olds in mind, and he kept tripping over the hem at inopportune moments. Ms. Shauzia from the next block over, who he’d asked for help from in order to have his attempt at hemming fixed, had left him room to grow into it. 

    By the time Angus joined the rest of the Madrasa’s students, flowing out of the school and into the city, the streets were crowded and hot. Zazespur was a dense city even on a regular day, when people in the Madrasa’s more affluent neighborhood were mostly inside learning and working. But almost everyone was off for the Candlenights holiday, and so they were all out and about. 

It took Angus twice as long to make it to his favorite restaurant, but he didn’t mind. He got to say hello to Ms. Shauzia along the way, and Aatish the baker’s son waved hello frantically and then threw a bread roll at his head. Angus accepted it in good spirit - Aatish was only three, after all - and ate the roll while he attempted to navigate the dusty streets. 

    By the time the Hummingbird’s blue sign greeted him, Angus himself was pretty dusty. He stood in the arched entryway and attempted to clean himself off, while Deliwar watched in amusement from his usual spot at the counter.

    “If you wore your kaftan you wouldn’t have so much trouble getting it off your clothes,” he said when Angus finally approached. “Those northern things! One would think you like to stand out.”

    “Because of the dust, or the fashion?” Angus asked, going on tiptoe to rest his arms on the counter.

    “Both.”

    “But my only kaftan is my uniform, and I need to keep that clean.”

    “Haven’t you bought another one?” Deliwar rolled his eyes. He was eighteen, and thought he knew better than everybody. “You’ve been here for months attending classes at the Madrasa, haven’t you?”

    “Yes, but I don’t need another one, and I have to be careful with money just in case,” Angus replied. “Besides, if I go around in these clothes, people think I’m just some foreign kid and you’d be surprised what they say in front of me!”

    “Oh? That reminds me, how’s your Caliim going?”

    “It’s going okay,” Angus said. “Yesterday a man yelled at me in Caliim to get off the street and I understood him perfectly.”

    Deliwar laughed. “Very good! And before you ask, your usual table is ready.”

    “Thank you!” Angus walked inside the Hummingbird, and found that Deliwar had spoken truly. His corner table was unoccupied, with the usual little vase of drooping flowers placed at its center. He never understood why they put out flowers - the ones carved in the surface of the table were much more beautiful.

    Angus was halfway through his meal (also his usual, though occasionally Deliwar convinced the cook to switch it up because he thought Angus needed to broaden his horizons) when a voice said, “Angus? Is that you?”

    A familiar tiefling dropped into the seat opposite him. Angus beamed in pleased surprise.

    “Mr. Hudson, sir! I didn’t know you were in Zazespur!” He’d met Hudson while traveling south to reach the school in the first place. “The tracks don’t go this far, do they?”

    “Not yet,” Hudson said, also smiling. “I came down from Murann. Angus McDonald! What a coincidence! I guess you’re still in school here.”

    “Yes, it’s going really well.” Angus could have talked for hours about all he’d been learning since he came south, but he knew that would be impolite unless Hudson specifically asked. “What are you doing here, though?”

    “I had enough time to make it here for a day or so,” Hudson said. “I thought I’d enjoy myself while I’m not moving.”

    “That sounds nice. I know some places in the city-”

    “Angus!” Deliwar had to raise his voice to be heard over the chatter of other customers. “Angus! Come here!”

    “I guess I’m in demand tonight,” Angus told Hudson before slipping out of his seat. There was a stranger standing on the other side of Deliwar’s counter, who sized Angus up with the usual incredulity as he strode over.

    “You are Angus McDonald?” The stranger asked. She was dressed like she was trying too hard to fit in with the usual Zazespur crowd.

    “That’s me,” Angus replied. The woman hesitated, then took an envelope out from an inside pocket.

    “I’ve been asked to deliver this to you, but I have to make sure you’re really Angus McDonald first.”

    “Oh, well - will this do for ID?” Angus held out his makeshift pendant. The bracelet he’d been given for his aid to the Bureau of Benevolence was too big for him, and they were notoriously impossible to take off once fastened around one’s wrist, so he’d tied the thing onto a string instead. The angular double-B design flashed in the light.

    The woman nodded, and handed over the envelope. The incredulity in her expression had intensified, but had gained a helping of respect. 

    “Do I need to pay you-?”

    “No need,” said the woman, “I’m only a courier. The sender paid in advance.” And she turned and strode away.

    “That was strange,” Angus told Deliwar, who nodded in solemn agreement.

    “What was that all about?” Hudson asked when Angus returned to the table.

    “Someone had a message for me. It’s important enough to have paid a courier, apparently.” Angus carefully ripped open the top of the envelope, wishing he’d thought to put a letter-opener in his pockets that morning. Normally his pocketknife did the trick, but he didn’t like to take that out in front of adults in case they were the kind who thought young boys shouldn’t be carrying around knives. 

    “Well?” Hudson asked as Angus read over the telegram which was inside. Angus didn’t reply, instead reading it over a second and then a third time as his heart sank. 

    “They want me back in Neverwinter,” he said at length. “It says the case I was working on has gone on like I said it would, and now they want my help again.”

    “Wasn’t that-?”

    “Difficult, yes.” He’d decided to take a break from detective-ing after that case, and the Madrasa was a very good school. He thought he’d have time to give the classes it offered the attention they deserved. “There’s no way I can get to Neverwinter, solve this, and be back before Candlenights break is over.” 

    “Hard luck,” Hudson sympathized. “Is it urgent?”

    “I have to go,” Angus said regretfully. 

    “Well, I can help a little. Come on the Rockport Express. People come to Calimshan for the winter, they don’t leave it. There’s sure to be space for you.”

    “That’s very kind of you.” Angus couldn’t muster the energy to sound particularly thankful. “When does it leave?”

    “Not for a few days. I’m heading right back, but you could take a ferry to Murann tomorrow and be right on time.”

    “I guess I will,” Angus sighed. “I should go, I’ll need to talk to my professors. Good evening, Hudson; it really was nice to see you.”

 


 

    Angus’s professors were more understanding than he’d expected, but the situation was still awkward. Angus promised to do his best to return as originally planned, but all those involved knew it was unlikely considering the implied stakes of the case (they didn’t say anything, but Angus could tell). Several asked if it was the same one he’d been hired onto by the Bureau of Benevolence, which Angus declined to answer. 

Everything was sorted out quickly enough for Angus to make his train, to his regret. Angus soon found himself being aided in hauling his luggage up onto the ferry which would take him to Murann.

    “Thank you, sir,” Angus said for the third time, jamming his cap back onto his head. It had fallen off twice, once nearly into the water. 

    “It’s not a problem,” the human man assured him. “What’s a kid like you doing traveling with all this?”

    “I need it,” Angus said, put out. “I’m going to be away for a while and I’m going all the way up to Neverwinter.”

    “Neverwinter, wow. That’s pretty far.”

    “Don’t patronize me, sir.”

    The man blinked, and then laughed. The bell on the ferry rang, and Angus hastily leaped aboard next to his trunk. 

    The ferry ride itself was pleasant. Angus got to look out over the water and see the foaming wake spread out behind them as the roofs and minarets of Zazespur shrank away. A haze of yellowish green marked the coastline as they journeyed along it. Angus only stopped watching when the spray of water up into his face got irritating rather than refreshing. 

    There were several other passengers onboard, most of them the crew of the little ferry. The man who had helped Angus stayed below deck most of the time, reading. There was an elvish woman who wandered the deck the same as Angus, occasionally giving him a curious glance. When he sat down further from the railing of the ship, she came and sat next to him.

    “I can’t figure out if you’re older than you look or incredibly confident,” she said, without preamble.

    “I’m one hundred percent human,” Angus replied, aware that if she was elvish she was probably used to kids who looked twelve and were really somewhere around fifty. 

    “So the latter, then.”

    “I like to think so.”

    The lady cracked a smile. “I gotta ask - why are you dressed like a tiny professor?”

    “These are just my clothes,” Angus protested. “And I don’t look anything like my professors, just so you know.”

    “Your professors? Are you in school?”

    “I was at the Madrasa until the other day.”

    “Isn’t the Madrasa a university?”

    “So what if it is? I’m very smart for my age.”

    The woman was regarding him with interest, now. “Super duper smart if you’re studying at the Madrasa. Why head to Murann?”

    “Why are you?”

    “I got a train to catch,” the woman said lightly. 

    “So do I,” Angus said. “I’ve been summoned back up to Neverwinter.”

    “Summoned,” the woman laughed. “You sound so imperious. What’s your name, kid?”

    “I’m just Angus.” Angus offered his hand. The woman shook it, with a firm grip and a surprising amount of body heat for a day that was not especially warm - by Calimshan standards, at least.

    “Well, Just Angus, I’m Lup.” 

    “Nice to meet you, Lup,” Angus said politely. “Were you in Zazespur on vacation?”

    “Yes, for the first time in years. Sometimes you just need to take a break from the stress of regular life.” 

    “Yeah,” Angus agreed quietly. “Sometimes you do.”

    Lup shot him a curious look, but Angus had looked back out over the water. There was no sign of Zazespur on the horizon any longer, except for a faint yellowish splodge that might have been a tallish cliff and might have been the city’s famous Tower Square minaret. Angus couldn’t tell; he might as well not have had his glasses on at all. 

    Angus realized with a start that he was really going to miss the Madrasa. 

    “Excuse me,” he said, and brushed past Lup to remove himself to the other side of the ship, where he could dispose of his emotions in peace. Evidently subtlety had escaped him, with the suddenness of his realization, because after about a minute Lup came to offer him a bright orange handkerchief.

    “Sorry about the color, my brother gave this to me as part of a joke,” she said, as Angus took his glasses off to wipe at his eyes. “I promise this one doesn’t have itching powder on it, though, I’ve washed them all about eight million times. You okay, kid?”

    “I’m alright,” Angus said, trying to convince his brain that the sudden itchiness in his eyes was only because Lup had mentioned itching powder, not because there was any. “I’m just sad to be leaving.” 

    “It’s not every day a twelve year old gets into university, huh?”

    “I’m thirteen,” Angus said stiffly. 

    “Oh, so it’s a slightly less impressive feat, got it.”

    Angus couldn’t help but laugh a little. Lup smiled in triumph. “I think thirteen is still younger than they usually get from their applicants,” he said. “It wasn’t hard to get in, though, once I convinced them I was serious. People think that because it’s such an old institution, it’s very stuffy and proper, but it’s not like that at all.” As he rambled on about the Madrasa’s history and Zazespur, Lup steered him towards one of the small benches near the ferry’s railing, injecting “Mmm”s and “I see”s whenever Angus paused for breath.

    Angus was explaining the political turmoil that surrounded the founding of Zazespur when he caught sight of a landlike smudge against the horizon, in the direction they were sailing. “Is that Murann?” He cried out. “You let me talk this whole time!”

    “I don’t mind,” Lup said. “I’m a good listener. Used to be a teacher, in fact.”

    “Oh! But I’ve just been rambling on about school, I’m sure you’re tired of that...”

    “Nah, I haven’t taught in a while.” Lup’s smile faded slightly. “And I used to teach magic, anyway, none of that public school stuff. The system in Neverwinter is a sight to behold, I tell you, I keep having to take vacations so I don’t murder the mayor or burn down one of his new fuckin’ charter schools. But I won’t bore you with teacher politics.”

    Angus thought teacher politics sounded quite interesting, actually, and he said as much. Lup laughed, and excused herself. Angus let her go without protest - she’d been sitting with him for long enough. And he found he did feel better about leaving Zazespur. He also found, looking down, that Lup had neglected to take her orange hanky back. 

    Angus got up, intending to return it, but Lup had strayed down to the rear of the ship, and as he approached he heard voices raised in conversation. Angus paused, but neither Lup nor her new conversational partner - the human man from before - noticed him. 

    “Not now, Barry.” Lup sounded frustrated.

    “I just wanted to-”

    “I said not now.” Lup huffed out a breath. “When this is all over,” she said, quieter, “you can worry about me to your heart’s content. But only when it’s over.”

    Barry sighed, and nodded. “Alright.” He lingered, laying the lightest touch of his hand on Lup’s arm. She didn’t shake him away, but Angus saw her twitch like she was keeping herself from leaning into it. 

    After a moment, Barry turned away, thankfully in a direction which prevented him from spotting Angus. Angus waited one and a half seconds, then coughed politely. Lup startled, and spun around.

    “You forgot this,” Angus said, offering up the handkerchief. Lup, still caught off guard, mustered a smile.

    “Keep it, kid. Like I said, I got plenty.” 

 


 

    Angus navigated his way into Murann once they docked, his steamer trunk weighing him down more and more with each step. He had sent ahead a telegram to secure space at a hotel for the night, since his train left tomorrow, but he hadn’t known it was so far away from where the ferry moored.

    With some luck, and helpful directions from shopkeepers and street-sweepers, Angus eventually arrived on the steps of the Golden Key. He was dusty and sweaty and got sideways looks from the bellhops, but when he displayed the double-B bracelet to confirm his identity, he was immediately caught up in a storm of obsequious attention. In a flash he was installed in a comfortable second-floor room, with his steamer trunk carried up the stairs for him and deposited gently at the end of the bed.

    There were a lot of things Angus would have liked to have done, most of them involving the very fluffy comforter and pillows on the bed, but his growling stomach demanded attention first. He rushed through a perfunctory washing-up and pattered down the broad flight of stairs. The hotel, lucky for him, had a restaurant on the first floor.

    It was late in the day, and the restaurant was bustling. A white-jacketed waiter made Angus wait for nearly fifteen minutes, then whisked him off to a side table, where Angus waited a while longer for someone to come ask him what he wanted to eat. He didn’t mind it so much, besides being hungry; a crowded restaurant meant lots of people to watch.

    An elvish couple who he guessed were upper-class folk fleeing south for the winter were drinking wine nearby. Beyond them, some soberly-dressed politicians looked like they were developing a collective headache, as a family with young children behind them (likely taking advantage of the fact that the restaurant was inside the hotel) tried to wrangle their children into staying in their seats. 

    The politicians weren’t the only ones getting upset. Near Angus, in a strategic corner table with a view of the door, two human men were dining. The older human sent dirty looks towards the family every time one of the children got a little too loud, or something fell to the floor with a loud noise. Luckily the children appeared to have been given plastic cups. The younger man didn’t seem bothered, and kept attempting to draw the first’s attention back to the papers they were going over.

    “My apologies for the wait, Mr. McDonald,” said the waiter who hurried over and broke Angus out of his thoughts. In a sudden lull of silence, his name spoken aloud seemed extraordinarily loud indeed. The man at the corner table looked over sharply; even his assistant looked up from the papers.

    “It’s not a problem,” Angus said. His stomach chose that moment to growl, particularly loudly. The waiter stifled a smile. “I’ll save you some time - I think I already know what I want...”

    The waiter took his order and promised to have it out as quickly as possible. Angus settled back into his seat, and wished he’d thought to bring a book down with him. But better to save his books for the long train ride ahead. Neverwinter was far to the north from Murann, and it would be several days at least before he arrived, a week perhaps. He couldn’t remember precisely how long the ride south had been, given that he’d been tied up for one or two days at a town they’d stopped over in, resolving the puzzle of the ticket-taker’s missing watch. 

    Again, Angus was jolted out of his thoughts by another’s approach. It was not the waiter, but the older man from the corner table.

    “He called you McDonald,” the man said. “McDonald, like the detective?”

    “That’s right,” Angus said, unsurprised. The man took a seat in the empty chair across from Angus. Up close, Angus could take him in better. He was dressed nicely, a little too nicely for a casual hotel restaurant, and had a hassled look on his face, like a man with a lot on his mind and very little time or patience for any of it. “I’d like to ask your name, if you don’t mind?”

    “J. Bryant. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

    Okay, and what’s your name that isn’t horseshit? Angus bit back the reply that leaped to his lips. If a random human wanted to go by a fake name, he could be curious about it, but he already had one big case in his lap. Maybe “J. Bryant” had a good reason for it.

    “Well, Mr. Bryant, dinner is an odd time to try and make friends with somebody,” Angus said instead. “I think I could go ahead and guess that you have a reason for coming over to my table.”

    Bryant glanced around, as if making sure nobody was listening. “I have some business I’d like to discuss with the detective,” he said. “I know you’re not here alone. If you could pass along the message for me, I’m in room 4B.”

    Angus sighed internally. It had gotten old fast, people assuming that the real detective McDonald was his father or brother or cousin. “I am here alone, actually,” he said, “and I don’t just mean at dinner. There isn’t any detective McDonald except me!”

    Bryant stared at him, then scoffed. “You must be joking.”

    “I’m not,” Angus said. “I’m afraid you’ll have to take my word for it. I’m not in the mood to go proving my identity to just any Tom, Dick, and Harry! And I think I can see my food coming, so unless your business really is urgent, we’ll have to talk later, Mr. Bryant.”

    Bryant stared at him in astonishment a moment longer, then with a huff got up and stomped back over to his own table. 

Angus forgot him promptly. He had guessed right, and the waiter had been heading towards his table. When one puts a full plate of food in front of a hungry young boy, there’s no space in his head for any thoughts except the ones reminding him to use a fork and knife instead of his hands.

 


 

    The train station in Murann was a beautiful building, repurposed from an old temple. The temple had moved to the crest of a hill, into a glimmering domed structure with minarets and stained glass; the train station had neither, but the ceilings were set with dazzling geometric mosaics that Angus craned his head back to look up at.

    After the third time he tripped over a loose tile or somebody’s luggage, he lowered his gaze, and only looked up when he could take refuge from the stream of moving people behind a pillar or stall.

    The requisite crowd of salespeople with penny-dreadful travel books, snacks, spare toothbrushes, and sundry were crowding the station alongside the sparse mess of winter travelers. There were also small cafés for those with no time to venture out into the city itself, larger restaurants for passengers too important for cafés, and a great deal of small market stalls for those who considered themselves too good to rush around after people, selling things out of a basket. 

    Steam was already leaking from the Rockport Express’s engine. Angus worried he might be cutting it a little late. But still he lingered to people-watch, because the large clock on the station’s roof told him that it was only nine-fifteen, and the Rockport Express didn’t leave until nine-forty-five. 

    And the Express itself was something to behold. The gleaming red cars had ‘Sword Coast Limited’ stenciled onto each one just under the roof, and the windows shone, concealing vague movement within. The occasional flash of red revealed the movement of the conductors in their smart uniforms, but other than that Angus could only assume passengers were already onboard.

    “Rockport Express leaving at nine-forty-five!” Called a conductor walking by, raising their voice above the ambient chatter. “Leaving Murann for Athkatla, Candlekeep, Baldur’s Gate, Rockport, Waterdeep, and Neverwinter!” They rattled off the various destinations of the train with impressive speed. 

    “Angus!” Speaking of conductors. Hudson appeared out of the steam, which was wafting with true purpose and filling the station to the roof, at least around the engine. “I’m glad you made it! I was beginning to worry.”

    “It took longer to get here than I expected,” Angus offered as an apology, kicking his steamer trunk meaningfully.

    “We can take care of that, no worries.” Hudson beckoned one of the Rockport employees and offloaded Angus’ trunk on them, sending them down towards the luggage car. “We’re carrying several cars for along-the-way destinations, like Candlekeep and Rockport itself, but you’ll want the Neverwinter car, at the front. I’m sure we’ll be able to find you a spot. Sloane!” He had spotted another one of the conductors, who was surveying the outside of the train and very visible in the red and brass uniform. “Get Mr. McDonald here a first-class cabin in the Neverwinter car.”

    “But Neverwinter’s full, sir.” 

    “Full?” Hudson repeated in astonishment. “What about second-class?”

    “It’s booked full, sir.” Sloane, a dark-haired half elf, shrugged, as if to say What can you do?

    “In the dead of winter? Do these people think Neverwinter’s name is literal?” Hudson shook his head. “Let me think - has everyone checked in?”

    “I think almost everybody, sir."

    “Almost? Who hasn’t?”

    “One second-class passenger hasn’t shown up yet - a Mr. Kessler.”

    “All passengers are required to check in half an hour beforehand! If Mr. Kessler can't be bothered to do even that, he'll have to live with the consequences. Mr. McDonald can take his berth.”

    A flicker of unhappiness passed over Sloane’s face, but she nodded. “You’ll be in number seven, then,” she told Angus. “I hope you don’t mind a roommate.”

    “I’ve traveled with strangers before, but thank you,” Angus said brightly. “And thanks for offering me first class, Hudson, but I’ll be fine.”

    “I hope so,” Hudson said. “Go on, then, I have to make sure everything’s running smoothly. It’s a long journey ahead of us, and I’d hate to run out of food or coal halfway through because of some last-minute error.” He waved goodbye and walked briskly off. Sloane pointed Angus towards the right car before continuing on her patrol.

    Angus boarded the very first car, and found himself in the restaurant car, where uniformed Rockport waiters and cooks were already busy. A delicious smell was wafting into the air, and crisp white tablecloths were being set into position, chairs lined up and lamps carefully lit.

    Squeezing around the workers and mumbling apologies, Angus hurriedly crossed into the next car, which was a much more familiar arrangement of a narrow hallway outside cramped cabins. There was a bathroom at the end Angus had entered from, but only two doors down was cabin “6-7”. Each bunk was numbered, rather than assigning two passengers the same room number. 

    Angus reached for the door handle, hesitated, and knocked instead. As usual, he had good instincts. There was a shuffle from inside, and then the door opened - revealing Bryant’s assistant from the night before!

    There was a mutual moment of astonished blinking, and then Bryant’s assistant said, “Can I help you?”

    “Oh - I’m traveling with you, apparently,” Angus said. “This is the only cabin with a free berth.”

    “Oh! Well.” Bryant’s assistant dithered for a moment, then stood back to let Angus in. “Sorry, I wasn’t expecting - it doesn’t matter. You’re Mr. McDonald, right?”

    “Just Angus is fine.” Angus set down his suitcase and held out his hand.

    “Avi Clay. But just Avi is fine.” Avi shook his hand. Up close, he made a far more favorable impression than his employer. He was handsome by anybody’s standards, on the young side for a human, and had his hair tied back in a neat ponytail. Though there were some stress lines around his eyes, they were outnumbered by the friendly beginnings of crow’s feet. 

    “I have to ask - Mr. Bryant isn’t next door, is he?”

    Avi laughed. “Oh, no. He’s old-fashioned in his thinking. The servants travel second class, and the masters in first.”

    “Oh, good,” Angus said. “No offense.”

    “No, none taken. I get okay pay being his assistant, but he’s...not the friendliest.” Avi had the tone of a man restraining himself from saying worse. “And he keeps a butler, of sorts. Who does that?”

    Angus perked up. “Is the butler onboard, too?”

    “She’s next door, with some researcher.”

    “Researcher?”

    Avi shrugged. “Something like that. I saw him lug onboard a whole messy briefcase, and a box of something marked ‘fragile’ and ‘dangerous’. Whatever it is, I just hope he doesn’t use it while the train is moving.”

    Angus resolved to introduce himself to the people in bunks 4 and 5 as soon as possible. 

 


 

    The train started out of the station at precisely nine-forty-five, with a lurch that sent Angus tumbling into the bottom bunk. The lurch settled into a steady rumble that, by the time the occupants of the Neverwinter cabin were alerted to the fact that lunch was being served, Angus had grown used to. 

    Passengers were seated according to some incomprehensible system on the waiters’ part, on a train like the Rockport Limited; Angus expected to be doing a lot of people-watching. But to his surprise, he was installed in a seat across from an immensely familiar face.

    “Madam Director!” Angus clamped his mouth shut, then continued in a near whisper, embarrassed at having been so loud in such a fancy space. “I thought you were in Neverwinter.”

    “I could say the same to you,” said the Director. She was dressed impeccably, but not in her usual blue-and-white robes, and she lowered a pair of sunglasses to look at him directly. “I thought you were in school in Zazespur?”

    “You don’t know?”

    “Don’t know what?”

    Angus explained, very briefly considering how many people could be eavesdropping, about the telegram he’d received.

    “I think my associates may have taken my request not to be bothered a little too seriously,” the Director said when he had finished. She looked torn between amusement and consternation. “And here I was hoping that nothing had fallen apart in my absence.”

    “If you didn’t know about the case and me being summoned back,” ventured Angus, who had assumed the telegram had been from the Director, “what are you doing here?”

    “On this train, or in Calimshan? I was on vacation,” the Director said. “Evidently I had a stockpile of unused off-days that were about to expire. Brad advised me to use them - you remember Brad.”

    Angus nodded. “So you just happened to be on the same train as me when your vacation ended?”

    “I assure you, Angus,” the Director said, “I’m as surprised as you are.” 

    “Well, how was your vacation, then?”

    The Director smiled. “Quite fun. Did you know in Ioma, they give tours of the local ruins?”

    “I didn’t! Tell me all about it.”

    In the brief pauses between words, while he talked with the Director, Angus glanced around to take in the other passengers. Avi was seated across from Bryant again, just nearby. A halfling woman, freckled and sturdily built, was at the table just behind him. Across from her was a gnomish man with a well-groomed mustache - what a faux pas, sitting two people together just because they both belonged to shorter races. But maybe Angus shouldn’t have been too quick to judge, because behind the Director was a table with a greying dwarf seated opposite a human.

    Angus blinked, and looked again. The human was remarkably familiar - in fact it was Barry, the same human who had helped him on the ferry! And there, just behind his table, was Lup, seated across from a strikingly identical elf dressed absolutely nothing like her. Angus blinked again, this time to clear the spots out of his eyes from the sparkle of jeweled rings and ear piercings.

    “Is something wrong?” The Director glanced over her shoulder, following his gaze for a brief moment. “Ah, yes. Rather a star is traveling with us today.”

    “A star?” Angus blinked owlishly. 

    “The elvish wizard? He runs quite a famous cooking show.”

    “Oh.” Angus hadn’t recognized him at all, but he was wearing an astonishingly stereotypical wizard’s hat. “No, I was looking at the lady. I ran into her on the ferry over.”

    The Director looked surprised. “Really? What a coincidence.”

    “Hm.” There were beginning to be an awful lot of those, stacking up on one simple journey. Angus’ eyes strayed over the rest of the restaurant car, looking for other familiar faces. The half elf at the table behind him he vaguely recognized as an assistant of the Director’s, but the only other two people at dinner were a human couple that he’d never seen before in his life. 

    Angus’s gaze paused on the humans. They were both very well-dressed, but were not built like nobility who spent their whole lives sitting down. The woman had her hair tied back, not done up; she looked like a bodyguard poorly disguised as a girlfriend, or perhaps a wife (Angus couldn’t see her left hand to make out if there was a ring). The man was clean shaven and brooding down at his plate, brow furrowed.

    “I assume you still don’t know who you’re staring at,” the Director said, gently bringing Angus’ attention back to her. “Besides it being impolite, I think this is one man who would not appreciate staring.”

    “Why,” Angus asked, “who is he?”

    “None other,” the Director said, “than the governor of Raven’s Roost.”