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Chapter 3 - Representative of the Septian Church

The train barreled on, almost flying through the thick veil of fog. Droplets of water splattered against the window glass, extending out like transparent veins, and continued to wriggle back and forth under the pressure of the swiftly passing wind.

Placing the temple of my head against the glass, I stared blankly down at the tickets in my hand and rubbed the two of them together between my fingers. I would be traveling by train to the border city, far south of its imperial cousin, and then to reach the Liberl Kingdom I would have to transfer to an airship. Both of my tickets were first-class-- but not the highest-end seats available.

The passenger car was nearly at full capacity, but for some peculiar reason, nobody had seated themselves in the space next to mine. As I mused about the empty seat, it occurred to me that Micht may have purchased the spot ahead of time, leaving it vacant on purpose. There was no doubt in my mind that he was being paid handsomely to make sure this job was done and done well.

'Will you be traveling to the Liberl Kingdom, sir?'

Right around the time my trip on the rails had passed its halfway mark, I was met with this sudden question, and set up with a start. My eyes searched for the one who asked it. There, standing in the isle, was a single woman with a radiant complexion, beaming down at me. She wore a coat with overlapping buckles secured slightly above her breast and appeared to be in her mid-thirties. Gingerly bending her knees and pointing her finger at the empty seat beside me, she asked, 'Do you mind?'

With a tilt of her head, she indicated the rear of the passenger car where swirling smoke saturated the air and softly muttered, 'The smell from the tobacco smoke is just dreadful.'

Wordlessly, I nodded and dragged my bag from its place on the floor, moving it over by the window to the opposite side of my feet. The woman expressed her thanks and delicately sat herself down in the seat next to mine.

For being a perfect stranger, she talked on endlessly, and I appropriately reciprocated the conversation by saying that I was on my way to the Liberl Kingdom on business as an orbment specialist. Her story was that she was on a mission of mercy for the church and had an errand to fulfill in the border city.

'Just so you know, people sometimes refer to me as 'Sister',' she went on. 'Of course, it's just a nickname.'

She recrossed her black leather boot-clad legs and let out a sort of suppressed titter from the back of her throat as she made mention of this. Sister Carnelia was her nickname.

We continued on in this fashion, subjecting ourselves to a variety of idle banter. And as the time drew on, the sun overhead began to dip in its arc, crossing the celestial meridian and descending into the west. Each time the moving train cleared a grove of trees, the entire vehicle-- passenger cars and all-- was bathed in a warm apricot hue, flooding into the cabins, creating a majestic spectacle. I gaped at the coruscating effect, and in doing so locked eyes with Sister Carnelia right at the moment the brilliance of the sinking western light seeped into her rich brown irises, causing them to give off an exquisite rubescent sparkle. The glimpse made me wonder if the origin of her nickname was somehow related to the color of her eyes being likened unto the luster of a polished carnelian stone.

The train gradually began to decelerate, and Sister Carnelia returned to her original seat in order to collect her bags. As a matter of habit, I checked my bag and orbment and found both the junk paper-covered package and the magical device fastened into my trousers' inner pocket by a series of chain stitches-- exactly where and how I'd left it.

A woman's voice came over the intercom system announcing that the train would be arriving on schedule and that rainy weather was to be expected at our destination. At the conclusion of the announcements, a number of disappointed sighs could be heard coming from along the rows of seats. Raindrops pattered against the windows outside as the looming silhouette of the overcast city came into view. The station's signal lamp emitted an angular light which was scattered with a refractive effect by the falling droplets of water. Then came a spine-chilling metallic sound followed by the jolt of the orbal engine's reversing thrust as the locomotive at the front of the train lurched to a halt.

Over the loudspeaker came another announcement asking passengers to ensure that they did not leave their baggage behind. And with that, several people stood up and crowded into the aisle. Watching a station worker in uniform as he waved a small flag amidst the falling rain, I picked up my bag and rose to my feet. I crossed paths with Sister Carnelia as I attempted to step into the aisle, but when she tried to step aside and allow me room to pass, she suddenly tripped and fell forward. Grabbing onto my shoulder for support, she picked herself up and, with an embarrassed smile, let me by. I gave her a short bow in line with general etiquette practices, then headed for the exit ahead of her. Following my lead, Sister Carnelia shuffled along closely behind me-- so close, in fact, that it felt as if she would step on my heels.

Something about it just didn't feel right.

Instinctively sliding my right hand into my pocket, I searched for my orbment, but the brass feeling I had grown accustomed to was nowhere to be felt.

In an instant, I felt my arm being twisted behind my back by someone or something with incredible strength. The sleek sound of a blade being unsheathed and then a warning prick of the tip at my back indicated the seriousness of the situation.

'I have what you're looking for, Toby,' whispered Sister Carnelia in an almost inaudible tone, her lips barely moving just behind my right ear. 'Let's not try anything either, shall we? I'd hate to see your afternoon spoiled any more than it's going to be.' And to show that she meant business, Sister Carnelia slightly altered the angle of her grip on my wrist, causing an explosion of agony that sent sparks flashing behind my eyes.

第3回 シスター

列車は霧の中を飛ぶように走っていた。窓ガラスに吹き寄せられた水滴が透明なすじになって、いつまでも同じところで身をくねらせ続けている。

車窓に額をくっつけたまま、指で2枚のチケットをこすり合わせた。帝都から鉄道ではるか南部の国境の都市へ、王国に行くにはそこから飛行船に乗り換えることになる。券はどちらも1等旅客の指定だ。客車はほぼ満席だったが、僕の隣には誰も座らなかった。もしかしたらミヒュトのやつがわざわざ空けたのかも知れない。だとすれば、今度の仕事はやつにとってもよほど割りが良いに違いない。「王国へ行かれるんですか?」

鉄路の旅も半ばを過ぎた頃、突然声をかけられて僕は顔を上げた。通路に1人のご婦人が立っていた。

3重のバックルでコートの胸元を留めたその女は、30代の半ばくらいに見えた。わずかに肩にかかるほどの薄茶色の髪に、同じく茶色の瞳。よろしいですかと膝を折って僕の隣の空席を指し、「あちらは煙草の煙がひどくて」そう呟きながら、紫色の空気が漂う後ろの方へと視線を泳がせる。

僕は黙ってうなずき、足元のバッグを窓側に引き寄せた。女は礼を言い、隣の席に腰を下ろした。

彼女はしきりに話しかけてきた。僕は導力器関係の仕事で王国に向かう途中だということにして、適当に話を合わせた。彼女の方は教会の慈善運動とかで、国境の都市に用事があるとのことだった。「一応、シスターって呼ばれているんですよ」黒い革のブーツに包まれた足を組みかえると、女は喉の奥で笑い、「あだ名ですけどね」と続けた。「シスター・カーネリア」それが彼女のあだ名だった。

そのまま僕とシスター・カーネリアはしばらく世間話を続けた。陽は西に傾き始め、木立を抜けるたび、オレンジ色の光が客席の上をなめていった。西日を浴びて彼女の茶けた瞳は赤い耀きを放ち、僕は紅耀石(カーネリア)に通じるそのあだ名の由来を想像した。

やがて列車はゆるやかに速度を落とし始め、荷物を取りに彼女は席へ戻った。僕はもう習慣になった動作でバッグと魔法(アーツ)用の導力器(オーブメント)を調べたが、()()紙の包みも、編み鎖で腰に留めてある導力器も、どっちも無事だった。

定刻通りの到着を告げる女性の声が車内に流れた。到着地の天候は雨。座席の間からいくつかのため息がもれた。ぼつぼつと窓に雨粒が弾け、青黒い町の影が見る間に迫ってくる。駅の信号灯が、水滴に散乱して角ばった光を放っていた。背筋の寒くなる金属音、そして導力機関の推力が反転する衝撃。

手荷物への注意を呼びかけるアナウンスが入って、乗客がばらばらと通路に立つ。雨の中で手旗を振る駅員の制服を見ながら、僕もバッグを抱えて立ち上がった。

通路でシスター・カーネリアと行き合った。1歩引こうとしたとき、突然彼女がつまずいたようにこちらに倒れかかってきた。僕の肩につかまって体を起こすと、彼女は照れ笑いを浮かべて道をゆずってくれた。会釈をして先に通路へ出る僕。その後からカーネリアがほとんど間を置かず、ぴったりとついてきた。嫌な感じがした。右手が勝手に導力器を求めてポケットへ滑り込む。だが、いつもの真鍮の手触りは、そこになかった。

とたんに、強烈な力が僕の手首をねじ上げた。バチンと勢い良く金属の飛び出る音。僕の背中、ちょうど腎臓のあたりに、尖ったものが押し付けられる。「探し物なら預かってるわよ、トビー」

シスター・カーネリアの唇が、僕の耳の裏側でかすかに動いた。「動いたり騒いだりしないでね、トビー。

これ以上、痛い目に遭いたくないでしょう?」

シスターは手首を押さえる角度をわずかに変化させた。僕の瞳の奥で、色のない火花が散った。

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