“This storm be damned,” Melvin grunted. “I can’t see a thing.”
A fork of lightning etched across the sky, and Jordan momentarily saw Melvin as nothing more than a silhouette. Seconds later, thunder rattled the windows of the carriage and the rain’s poking at the roof turned into blatant hammering.
Still Melvin squashed his face against the window, trying to probe the night. He was the personification of nervous energy, itching to do something, to move. His hands were splayed like starfish on either side of his head, which was slowly being haloed with the fog of his breath on the window.
“Sit back down, Melvin,” Jordan advised. “Get some sleep. We’ve a long few days ahead of us…”
“Not right now… I gotta know…”
“Gotta know what?”
Melvin daubed at the smear of fog on the window callously with the sleeve of his robe then returned to pressing his face against the glass to peer outside. “Gotta know… where we are…”
“Judging by the time,” Jordan said, making movements that would simulate pulling a fob watch from his pocket and checking it. He did have the watch, and even though its hands were iridescent and could be read at night, he didn’t particularly want to know exactly how much longer he had left of this hellacious journey. “Six hours… I’d say we’re near the town of Wareton.”
“How can you be sure?” Melvin wondered aloud. “I can’t see a damned thing…”
“Just going by the schedule…”
“…this unscheduled stop. Who would be getting on the train in a backwater place like Wareton?” Melvin finally plucked his face away from the window. Even in the darkness, Jordan could see the pallor of his young charge’s face. Seeing it there brought the hint of a smile to Jordan’s mouth. Melvin continued: “Is there even a train station in Wareton?”
That Jordan didn’t know. Nor did he particularly care. What he knew that his young pupil didn’t was the terrain in which they travelled. The trail from Tor to Ma’arnar wound through the Ridge Back Mountains, the very backbone of the continent. On any given jaunt, there was likely to be any number of rockslides. On a stormy night such as this, the chances increased nearly exponentially. The locomotive’s engineers would most likely have been flagged down by one of myriad checkpoint stations along the journey and acted accordingly. It was an extremely thin chance that they were anywhere near Wareton, let alone berthed at a train station. Of course, it didn’t hurt Jordan to stir the pot a little.
“Last I recalled, Wareton has no station.” Jordan paused for dramatic effect. “That would have been no more than… three… four years ago.”
Melvin hissed, jerked around to the window again. There he paused, a dark shadow allowing its imagination to slip loose of its reins. Jordan wondered briefly what expression Melvin now wore on his face. Did Melvin chew the inside of his cheek, or was he wearing the silly pout that he’d carried with him from Tor and his life as a street brat? It was a mystery that Jordan would never solve, even when the next bolt of lightning split the sky.
“Someone’s stopped the train,” Melvin said. So far, his voice remained calm. Jordan figured that if the ante was upped a wee bit, Melvin’s modulation would waver. There was a brisk rustle of material, Melvin’s cloak doing a swift spin on the spot. He was moving towards the door.
“What are you doing?” Jordan asked.
Melvin paused, one arm stretched out, the hand no doubt inches from the door handle. He waited several seconds to answer. “I’ve got to find out.”
“Find out what?”
“Find out who stopped the train.”
Jordan smirked. “Why?”
He was only a shadow between the irregular bursts of lightning. Still, Jordan could make out the shape of his form, an oily dark shape surrounded by incomplete black. What was most amazing to Jordan was the fact that Melvin hadn’t asked for the light, or better yet, shown enough initiative to light it himself. It all returned to the same simple thing: Melvin was a novice.
“It might be them.”
“You know… them.”
Jordan grinned some more. Go on, he whispered in his mind. Go on, say it. And sure enough, Melvin said it.
“The… Bounty Hunters.”
That was it. The ante had been met and Melvin’s voice wavered that slight bit. The kid was scared.
“What are you planning to do?”
“Go and see.”
“See if it is the Bounty Hunters?”
The kid nodded and then, realising that Jordan couldn’t see him, whispered, “Yes.”
But Jordan didn’t need to actually see him to know what had happened. He sensed it, the same way his senses detected that moment of hesitation just before the train was stopped. Melvin’s hand relinquished its place on the door handle, hovered ineffectively in the air for a brief moment before falling helplessly to his side.
“What would you do if indeed it was the Bounty Hunters who’ve stopped the train?”
Another pause stretched over a few long heartbeats. A flash of lightning danced across the sky, followed by a languid roll of thunder.
“What would you do?” Jordan demanded, not savagely, though. He wasn’t yet ready to browbeat the boy.
“I—I don’t know.”
“What could you do if by whatever insane chance, they saw you and recognised you for what you are? Do you know where you are?”
“We’re in… we’re near Wareton… aren’t we?”
“We are?” Jordan let the question hang heavily in the air for a few seconds.
“…I might have said… but how likely am I to be correct? I made a guess, son. Would you risk your life on a guess?”
“Sit back down.”
Jordan fetched a sigh; the sort that patient teachers would fetch when dealing with that one student who wanted to split that final hair… the one that had been split so fine that it was nearly transparent. With Melvin still rooted to the spot near the door, Jordan stood up, reached above his bench for the little nook where he’d stashed the lamp. Once alight, he hung it on the hook on the wall and sat back down. All this he did without a single glance at Melvin. That was all right, though. Melvin had his back turned to him anyway.
“Even if it is the Bounty Hunters they won’t find us,” Jordan said, keeping his voice calm.
“How can you be so sure?” Melvin replied. He turned his head slightly, talked over his right shoulder. He had had the sense to pluck the hood of his cloak over his head so if he had went outside nobody would have got a clear look at him. At least he had that much sense.
“Because… we changed our tickets.”
“We changed our tickets. We changed from Economy to Third.”
“That makes no sense,” Melvin growled. “Those tickets still had our names on them…”
Jordan had to hide a fresh grin behind his hand. In his mind, a voice tittered, stupid son of a bitch. Aloud, he said, “well… strictly speaking, they had names on them… but, uh, not our names.”
He watched Melvin flinch at the news, jerking as if stung by a bee. He turned around slowly, his pallid features now looking waxy in the yellow lantern light. His eyebrows were knitted into a frown that ever so gradually melted. Finally, Jordan thought, the illiterate boy realises… but does he understand?
“Clever,” the kid conceded, affecting nonchalance that only went as far as that one word response. He all but sighed when he returned to his bench seat and flipped the hood away from his face.
It was all bullshit, of course. What Jordan had pointed out to the street urchin as being their names was really the serial number of the ticket. There was no way of ascertaining whether certain individuals had boarded the locomotive, or in which carriage those individuals had been sequestered. The tickets were, with the exception of those given to the upper classes, sold strictly on capacity basis. In other words, all you represented to the ticket retailers was a bum on a seat, or in the case of Jordan and Melvin, heads on bunk-cabin pillows. Hell, there was room still in this carriage for another two souls: it was only luck that saw this particular carriage half booked for the novelty of the cross-continental locomotive jaunt was yet to wear off. The kid, however, would know none of this and Jordan wasn’t going to tell him.
“We’re safe, then?” Melvin said, trying his very hardest to school his features.
“Certainly,” Jordan replied, secretly chuckling to himself deep within his mind.
And with Jordan’s luck falling the right way, both men heard the lead engineer blow his whistle over the roar of the wind and the hammering of the rain. The look of relief that washed over the kid’s face was almost comical; when that look transmogrified into rapture as the locomotive took those first few stuttering pushes forward, Jordan had to almost physically bite his tongue to avoid bursting out into peals of laughter.
The kid beamed and the locomotive began to pick up to a steady pace.
Then there was a loud knock at the door.