A spear of golden light woke him some hours later. He blinked in its brilliance, lost for a few seconds before the world closed in around him once more.
“Half an hour,” an excited voice chirped.
Jordan peeled open a sleep heavy eye and glared across the carriage at the source of the voice. Melvin stood at the window with his back to him, his gaze taking in the vista that swept past. What he saw impressed him, if the occasional “ooh” and “aah” were sufficient indicators.
“Half an hour,” Melvin repeated without turning to face Jordan. He threw a quick glance at Jordan’s reflection in the window before returning to his vigil of the world outside.
Half an hour, Jordan thought. Instead of feeling Melvin’s excitement, he instead felt a hard lump gather at his throat. No matter how many times he swallowed, the lump stayed right where it was.
He peered past Melvin, out at the great city of Ma’arnar. What very little Jordan saw, obscured by the thin apprentice assassin with his designer bum fluff and pig sticker knife, did not fill him with the same sense of wonderment. There was row after row of tenement houses, all clad in the same insipid grey, and all looking as if a heavy sneeze would set them tumbling into ruins. It wasn’t exactly inspiring. The monotony was broken every so often by the sight of huge chimneys poking up into the sky, plumes of black smoke pouring from their gaping mouths. These buildings were also insipid grey, except where they were touched black and brown with soot, giving rise to a despairing sense of melancholy inside Jordan.
Such was the reality of Ma’arnar, supposedly the crown jewel of the kingdom.
Jordan rose to his feet slowly. Yet more tenement houses and another monochromatic factory passed before him, but by this time, he’d lost interest in the crown jewel of the realm. Instead, his attention was drawn to Felipe Belsair, sitting on his bunk with some papers held in his gnarled hands.
“Hope you are well rested, my friend,” he said. “For as our young novice has stated, we are but half an hour from our destination.” He ruffled the papers in his hand, not so much sorting them rather than using the gesture as a dramatic device. “I have here a telegram which arrived early this morning via sympathisers travelling in business class.” Here he dropped a wink, the corner of his mouth curling into a brief smile. The papers, he held out for Jordan, who took them slowly, his gaze darting from their crisp surface to the dark wells of Belsair’s eyes.
Curiosity ate at him. He wanted to know how, and why and where and when. But to ask would not only be impolitic, but also downright rude. He was trapped in a bubble of blind faith, a situation that was tolerable and yet, cut against years and years of meticulousness and serving the age-old adage of looking after number one. Then, seemingly in direct contradiction, was the other catchphrase: the plan first, the plan last. In this moment of time, with half an hour to the rendezvous point, Jordan was caught between the two, a fact that he didn’t like, but had to accept nonetheless.
He returned to his bunk, aware that his mouth and throat were suddenly parched and his heart was beginning to race inside his chest. Across from him, Belsair watched, his face giving away nothing. Jordan unfolded the paper, which felt coarse and cheap against the skin of his fingertips, and read the missive.
SIGHTSEEING TOUR TO PROCEED AS SCHEDULED STOP MEET YOUR GUIDE AT PLATFORM D STOP MORNING TEA AND REFRESHMENTS SUPPLIED TOUR MAPS TO BE DISTRIBUTED
“Tour guide?” Jordan asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Coded message,” Belsair explained. “Precautionary, really. We can’t have the wrong set of eyes proofing the message.”
“Fair enough,” Jordan replied, allowing a grin to touch his lips. He folded the piece of paper and passed it back to Belsair, who spirited it away within the folds of his robe. “So, we can surmise that things are on track?”
“As well as they can be,” Belsair said. “We won’t know for certain until we reach the safe house.”
“An old associate. Very trustworthy, very honest. He has as many fingers in as many pies as I do. If not more. Once this mission broke, he was the first to begin countermeasures. Let’s just say that with him watching our backs, we’re in safe hands.”
Jordan swallowed. In a voice barely above a whisper, he asked, “There will be no more leaks?”
Belsair shook his head. “As I stated earlier, the leaks have been sealed.” He paused then, and Jordan could see storm clouds chase across the contours of that man’s face. “Should any appear now, with but specks of sand remaining in our hourglass, then the effects will be catastrophic.” A smile creased his face after these words sunk into Jordan’s brain. “If you’re a praying man, then maybe you can ask God for deliverance...”
“I doubt God has time to answer the prayers of assassins, however noble their cause.”
Belsair nodded, still grinning. “Am I to assume that you are without faith?”
“You’d assume correctly. I have seen too much to believe in a God. As for forgiveness... my soul is too tarnished for such as that.”
They sat in silence for a few seconds after that statement, each lost in their own thoughts. Questions of faith were raised often by those in the practice of assassination. Jordan himself had been proposition frequently about his own faith, or lack thereof. Most times, there was acceptance in personal difference, sometimes, disagreement; whichever the case may be, Jordan never entered into theological debate. He was a killer, after all, not a priest.
“These are Godless times,” Belsair said. “And faith only heals so much. At the end of the day, people have to help themselves.”
“That is certainly true,” Jordan replied.
Belsair smiled again, albeit grimly. Outside, the dingy grey of the industrial zone was slowly giving way to the larger buildings of the inner city. A different kind of shadow now fell over the train as it wound between these high rises. Whereas in the outskirts, it was the heavy palls of smoke that blocked out the light of the sun, here, it was man’s own living quarters, his buildings, poking towards the heavens like row after row of concrete fingers. You couldn’t help but feel humbled standing underneath these buildings, craning your head back to try to see their lofty summits. After a while, though, awe was replaced with something akin to scepticism. Jordan doubted life inside these monoliths was conducive to easy living.
“Not much longer now,” Belsair commented.
Almost as if by cue, they felt the engines beginning to wind down. Unlike the moment that brought Belsair into their lives, the process was gradual this time. Before long, they rolled slowly into the railway station itself. It was unlike anything Jordan had seen in his lifetime. There was a multitude of trains at various platforms either disgorging people in countless masses, or being boarded by yet more countless masses. It was a veritable ocean of people, moving in one mindless surging tide.
“Human cattle,” he observed dryly.
Belsair grunted in reply. Melvin said nothing, but Jordan noticed the colour draining from his face. The country bumpkin was within heartbeats of venturing out into a real city. And the thought of it was simply too much.
Jordan smirked, at least inwardly. He, too, felt uncomfortable just witnessing the mass of humanity outside of the relative safety of the carriage window. The idea of walking around out there was indeed frightening, but Jordan couldn’t afford to be anything but pragmatic. He was here for business, and should he make a clean attempt at this, he would be on another locomotive back to Tor.
All in good time, he mused.
At length, the locomotive drew level with the platform. There was a slow lurching halt, a final jerk and then, a hiss of steam. Shortly thereafter, Jordan heard a shrill whistle and a stentorian voice exclaiming, “Ma’arnar! Final stop!”
For several seconds, there was an eerie, total silence. And then, with the casualness of a regular train traveller, Belsair, complete with heavy suitcase, said, “Let’s go.”
They followed the Master of the Knife in single file towards the exit. What was already slow progress due to the Master’s bulky suitcase was made even more so when they reached the vestibule at the carriage’s end and the doorway that spilled out onto the platform. But even before he hit the crowd gathered within this tiny area and the associated noise, he was hit by a wave of heat from outside; and then, the smell.
He coughed as the scent assaulted his nostrils, a pungent, swampy smell borne on a stiff and torrid breeze. The smell was foetid, powerful. In the initial exposure, Jordan would have used the word evil to describe it, but after a few minutes exposure, it lost much of its power and intermingled with the tang of tobacco smoke and sweat. In the tiny almost airless space of the vestibule crammed wall to wall with departing passengers, the smell became a potent potion, almost a physical force cramming itself up Jordan’s nose.
When finally they stepped onto the platform, all three of them were visibly sweating. But their ordeal was far from over. No sooner had they gained the platform that they were jostled by the pedestrian traffic, heading this way and that, every soul in a hurry as if they had to reach their destination seven minutes ago.
Unperturbed, though, Belsair pushed on, the suitcase thrust before him, splitting apart the jostling crowds like a wedge through wood. In his wake, Jordan and Melvin followed, but not without their fair share of shoulder barges and agitated scowls and gesticulations.
“Get out of the way!” they were told, and often, by some surly chap or another. Others were less polite, adding expletives to their orders.
They bore this as best they could, aware of just how out of their depth they were. How they would have managed without the steady hand of Felipe Belsair was anyone’s guess. When eventually they burst free from the throngs at platform D, it was as if they had forced their way out of an impenetrable forest and into a clearing. But any respite they thought they would get was short lived.
As soon as they were free of the crowd, they were approached swiftly by a group of four men, all of whom wore dark cloaks similar to that which Belsair sported. There was no time for introductions, just a brief shaking of hands between Belsair and the man Jordan assumed would be Aldernon, and then, the group—now numbering seven, that Jordan could see—pushed once more through the throng towards the turnstiles that would take them outside and into the city proper, and from there, towards their destiny.