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The Train Station

'Hello there, Toby. You've come at just the right time.'

 Greeting me with these words, Micht shuffled slightly in his seat behind the counter. The baked confection he had been eating was ever so carefully placed atop his lap to prevent it from falling onto the floor. He smacked both of his powdered sugar-covered hands together with a clap, and a cloud of white particles puffed into the air. The smell of sweet spices and baked apple pervaded the dimly lit shop.

 'We had an item dropped off no more than a few minutes ago,' he continued.

 Turning in his seat, Micht reached back and snatched up something wrapped in old magazine paper from off the shelf, tossing it to me. Knowing full well I wouldn't get any sort of answer, I asked anyway.

 'What do we have this time?'

Laying out my railway and airship tickets, Micht ignored my question and said, 'Make sure this gets to the same place as always.' In his slow drawl he added, 'It would be in your best interest to keep your involvement to a minimum by leaving the business side of things to me and focusing solely on getting the job done, Toby.'

 He leaned back in his chair and let out a deep sigh, the balls of his fingers kneading the bags under his eyes. Then, once again, his large hand extended down toward the unattended cake resting on his leg. Before the sweet treat could reach his watering mouth, I had already made my way out the door of his tiny shop.

 As I walked, the waste paper-bundled package bounced around inside the folds of my bag. By the feel of its shape and weight as it beat steadily against my side, I concluded that the object in my possession was probably just more swag. It didn't make me nervous not to know what it was that I was carrying, for I had done this type of job many times before. And no matter what kind of trouble I found myself wrapped up in, I had always somehow managed to come out unscathed.

 In truth, my experience on the job had made me tough, and I had become well-versed in the art of orbal magic. So it was that when I laid eyes on that rough-looking trio at the station, I felt no more knots of uneasiness in the pit of my stomach than was necessary for someone of my abilities.

 The platform for the train bound for Liberl was a bustle with passengers awaiting its eventual arrival. Seeing that the benches were so crammed full of people that they could have very well been a tin of packed sardines, I resigned myself to standing near the entrance as I patiently waited for the train to come in. Twisting my body in order to move the bag to my other shoulder, I noticed the figures of two men.

 Heads bent together and conversing in an inaudible tone, they stood just beyond the ticket gate, right about where the horse head of the imperial emblem lay embedded in the ground in a grand mosaic of tiles. After a short interim, another man approached and joined in the conversation.

 From my own perspective, this was one ragtag group I most certainly couldn't have given a passing grade to based on looks. All three were extremely well-built and sported the same haircut. To put it mildly, they stuck out in the crowd like a bunch of sore thumbs.

 Making sure to avoid eye-contact with them as they glanced in my direction, I slung my bag back onto my shoulder, and ever so calmly reached my hand into my pocket and ran the tips of my fingers across the surface of my orbment.

 A woman's voice reverberated within the walls of the station notifying the passengers that the train had arrived. The low rumble of an orbal engine could be felt in the distance and after a few moments, a large vehicle was seen rolling up on the shoulder.

 I muttered to myself, 'All is well,' but the sound of my voice was drowned out by the din of the massive machine. Brakes screeched, and a flash of black light reflected off the surface of the giant iron beast as it came sliding in across the rails. The immense vibration in the air emanating from the moving locomotive at its epicenter let me know that the orbal engine had been put into full-reverse in order to decelerate and bring the train to a grinding halt.

 While being shoved to and fro by the waves of impatient travellers flooding out of the waiting area, I was swept toward one door of a passenger car. As we passed by the conductor, I caught another glimpse of the ticket gate. The men who were once there were now gone and the only thing that remained was the profile of the horse made of glossy tiles, glaring back at me in a shade of deep crimson.

駆動

「よう、トビー。いい時に来たな」

 僕にそう声をかけると、ミヒュトはカウンターの中でもぞもぞと身じろぎした。食べていた焼き菓子を膝の上に置き、粉砂糖まみれの両手をぱんぱんと叩く。薄暗い店内に、甘い香料と焼きリンゴの匂いが広がっ た。

「ちょうど今、商品が届いたとこさ」

 ミヒュトは上半身をひねって、背後の戸棚から古雑誌の紙に包まれたものを取り出してよこす。

「今回はなんだい?」無駄と知りつつ僕はたずねる。

「相手先は王国のいつもの場所だ」ミヒュトは質問を無視して、鉄道と飛行船のチケットを並べる。

「余計な心配はしなくていいぞ、トビー。いつもの通り、賢いお前でいて欲しいよ」

 深いため息をつくと、ミヒュトは指の腹でぐいぐいと目の下のクマをもんだ。その手がまた焼き菓子に伸びる。やつがそれを口に運ぶ前に、もう僕は店から出ている。   バッグの中で古紙の包みがころころと弾んでいた。わき腹にその運動を感じながら、たぶんこれも盗品なのだろうと、僕は品物の正体に見当をつけていた。

別に不安はなかった。正体不明の品物を運ぶことは慣れっこだったし、これまでどんなトラブルがあってもうまく切り抜けてきた。実際、仕事での経験のかいもあって、僕の導力魔法の知識と腕前は相当なものだった。だから駅でそれらしい連中を見かけたときも、必要以上に神経質になることはなかった。

ホームは王国方面への列車を待つ乗客でごった返していた。ベンチは一杯で、仕方なく僕は入口近くに立って待つことにした。バッグを持ち換えようと体をねじったとき、2人の男の姿が目に入った。そいつらは改札の前、ちょうど床に帝国国章の馬頭をあしらったタイル細工のある辺りで、何か話し込んでいた。すぐにもう1人やってきて、話に加わる。僕の目から見ると、連中のかっこうは及第点とは言えなかった。並外れて体格が良く、同じような髪型をしたその3人は、人ごみの中にいても良く目立った。 連中から視線をそらすと、僕はバッグを抱え直し、ポケットの中の導力器へ指先を這わせた。列車の到着を知らせる女の声が辺りに流れる。低い導力機関のうなりが遠くに感じられ、やがて肩の上にのしかかってきた。

「大丈夫さ」小さく呟いたが、僕にその声は聞こえなかった。ブレーキ音をわんわんと響かせ、黒光りする 鉄のかたまりが線路に滑り込んでくる。導力機関が目一杯に逆推進をかけるのが、空気の振動で分かる。待

合室から溢れ出た人々に押されるように、僕も客車の扉へと流されていった。車掌の横を通り過ぎるとき、一瞬だけ改札の方が目に入った。さっきの男たちはもういなかった。タイルで作られた馬の横顔だけが、真っ赤になって僕をにらんでいた。

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