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Chapter 8 - In the Bowels of the Imperial City

Moving purposefully through the crowd, we made our way between the rows of seats. Each time the swinging bag in hand struck the side of my knee, I became keenly aware of its presence. It was an unnerving feeling, quite like I had unintentionally brushed up against someone in an offensive way. Furthermore, it was nearly inconceivable to my mind that the ancient relic the jaeger corps were pursuing with such a frenzy was sitting right here inside the stitched cloth of this cheap hand bag.

What a fool Micht had been. Hadn't he known the burden this object would bring would be one far more weighty than the both of us could have ever hoped to bear?

I squeezed my eyes shut against the thoughts flying around my mind and addressed Sister Carnelia, who followed closely behind me. 'Will we be making a break for the cathedral once we get off?'

'Yes, that was the plan,' she answered, scanning the scene outside the window of the passenger car. 'I think that's the only option we've got if you want to make it through this day alive.'

The station where the train was set to arrive was unremittingly crowded with countless droves of passengers. And as usual, the sky was slightly overcast. Everyone outside on the platform stood shivering in silence with their collars drawn up to their ears, huddling close to one another for warmth, like a flock of waterfowl out on the tidelands in mid-winter.

'Don't worry, I won't be tossing you down a flight of stairs this time, Toby,' jested Sister Carnelia. 'Although, if there were two more of you at my disposal, I might have decided otherwise,' she added.

Evidently, the numbers in our welcome party this time had seen a rather dramatic increase.

'The odds don't appear to be in our favor,' she said in a low voice, her warm breath tickling the lobe of my ear. 'We won't be able to leave through the ticket gate.'

As soon as we stepped off the train, we stealthily moved to the opposite end of the platform, and after sneaking out a large door for only authorized station personnel, we jumped down onto the path of railroad ties and steel rails below. The biting cold wind of the capital swept freely across the unobstructed railroad tracks, causing me to shudder as it ruffled our coats with its chilly touch. Slipping between the couplers of a pair of freight cars, we moved cautiously along their edge, sticking close to the shadows. Over on the cargo platform, workers were busy unloading containers.

For someone who had his mind set on becoming a dealer of pilfered goods, gaining illicit entry into the station house would be one of the first of all basics. Showing my ticket I spoke politely to one of the workers. Then, with a scenario picked out in my head, I sold it to him as I played the part of a manager here on business with a celebrity of notable repute. Midway through our conversation, I introduced Sister Carnelia, who did her best to show the man a glamorous smile and feminine pose. I had possibly gone a bit overboard when I stated that she was an opera singer, because the way that she carried herself made her look more akin to a low-wage sell-song in a bar of drunkards. Yet, in spite of it all, the worker graciously let us through.

'You're so good at that it's almost scary, Toby,' Sister Carnelia said as we raced through the station's warehouse sector. 'You should seriously consider doing another job,' she went on.

'I bet you're going to tell me to join the Bracer Guild, right? Come on, those guys would turn me down in a heartbeat,' I said as I laughed off the thought. Then, throwing the idea back in her court I asked, 'So how about yourself? Why don't you join the Bracer Guild?'

Reaching the end of the warehouse sector, we came to a stop in front of a large chain-link fence. Sister Carnelia crouched down, and while sliding a drainage cover to the side, laughed at my previous question as if it were insane.

'Are you kidding?' she asked. 'They'd gun me down the second I set foot into one of their branches.'

The winding, narrow stone tunnels like the one we were in ran everywhere beneath the capital. We crawled along as the light shining down through the drainage grates on the side of the large road above us illuminated the way like a trail of flickering orbal lampposts. The feet of those walking along the avenue passed right by where we were, but not a single person noticed us scraping our way along below them. And for some strange reason or another, the world just beyond the thin flagstone-paved road appeared so dazzling in my eyes. Yet, the Jaeger Corps, loss of the artifact in hand, and a senseless, sudden death; all of which had never crossed my mind before; lay in wait for me dared I to venture into the open world above.

As we pressed on, I began to think that the small round tunnel which we were crawling through would run on forever, when finally it merged with a high-ceilinged sewer surrounded by walls of countless blocks of chiseled stone.

'We'll go through here and make our way over to where the cathedral is located,' Sister Carnelia insisted. Raising one brow, she pointed her finger upward. 'It's a lot safer down here than it is up there.'

'That's fine and all, but what are we going to do if it gets attacked?'

Sister Carnelia grabbed my hand, and with that, stepped into the muddy darkness beyond. 'Don't worry, Toby,' she reassured me. 'Faith isn't the only thing supporting the church.'

第8回 帝都の腸

紳士たちの背に隠れるようにして、僕らは座席の間を進んだ。

膝の横に当たるたび、僕はバッグの存在を強烈に意識してしまう。まるで意図せずに誰かの体に触れてしまったような感じだった。その安っぽい布の手さげの中に、《猟兵団(イェーガー)》が血眼になって追いかける古代の遺物が入っている。愚かなミヒュト。これは僕らには過ぎた代物だ。

「降りたら教会に行くの?」1度固く目をつむると、僕は背後に立つカーネリアへ声をかけた。

「ええ、そのつもりよ」それとなく視線を車窓に走らせながら彼女は答えた。「あんたが助かるためには、それ以外の道はないの」

絶え間なく列車の到着する朝の駅は、乗降客で大変な混みようだ。空は例によって薄曇り。みな上着の襟を立て、冬の干潟で身を寄せ合う水鳥のように、ただじっとホームに立ち尽くしている。

「階段から突き飛ばすのはなしだよ」

「今回はないわよ」とシスター。「あんたがもう2人いれば考えるけど」どうやら出迎えの人数はずいぶん増えているらしい。

「分が悪いわね」耳元でシスターの声。

「改札から出るのは無理だわ」

僕らは列を離れると、ホームとは反対側の扉を押し開き、まくら木の上へと飛び降りた。さえぎる物のない線路を、帝都の冷たい風が吹き抜けていった。連結の間をすり抜け、貨車の影に僕らは張り付く。

貨物ホームでは、作業員たちがコンテナの荷降ろしの最中だった。抜け荷屋にとって、駅舎からの不正な出入りなんて初歩の初歩だ。僕は乗車券を見せつつ、作業員の1人に話しかける。有名人とそのマネージャーというお決まりの筋書き。話の途中でシスターの方を指し示す。(つや)やかな笑みを浮かべ、姿()()をつくる彼女。オペラ歌手だと言ったのに、飲み屋の歌姫みたいだ。それでも作業員は快く僕らを通してくれる。

「やっぱりあんたいい腕してるわ、トビー」倉庫街を走りながら、シスターは言った。「本気で他の仕事を考えた方がいいわよ」

「遊撃士になれって言うんだろ?」どうせ断られるさと僕は笑い飛ばし、逆に彼女に聞き返した。

「シスター、あんたこそ遊撃士になったら?」

ちょうど街区の切れ目に来て、金網の前で僕らは立ち止まる。「無茶言わないでよ」排水溝の蓋をずらしながら、僕の問いかけにシスターは笑う。

「支部に入った瞬間に、射ち殺されるわ」

曲がりくねった石のトンネルは、帝都の底にどこまでも続いていた。這い進む僕らの先を、大路の側溝から差す光が、まるで街灯のようにぽつぽつと照らしてくれた。通りを行く人々の靴が鼻先を通り過ぎるが、誰もこちらに気づきはしない。薄い敷石の向こうにある地上世界を、僕はまぶしく見つめた。《猟兵団》、《アーティファクト》、理由もなくやってくる突然の死――今まで考えもしなかったものばかりが、僕の目の前に迫っている。

永遠に続くかと思われた丸トンネルは、やがて天井の高い、石造りの下水道と合流した。

「ここを通って聖堂のそばまで行くわ」

シスター・カーネリアは片眉をゆがめ、頭上を指差した。「上を行くよりはマシなはずよ」

「教会が襲われたらどうする」僕が聞いたとき、遠くで水の跳ねる音がした。シスターは僕の手をひったくり、泥みたいに濃い闇の奥へと踏み出す。

「心配しないで、トビー」彼女は言った。

「教会を支えているのは、信仰心だけってわけじゃないのよ」

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