by Max Barry

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by The Red Tape Singularity of Yegla Islands. . 48 reads.

Safe Arbor

Salvi, Striånd

Train Depot

1:08 PM

The five of them made for a strange sight by the tracks, standing around in the midday sun. Young and old, grey and vivid, the only thing unifying them was a vaguely-formal sense of dress; even that wasn’t quite uniform. Four men and a woman, four suits and a coat.

Rasputin was adorned with his usual attire and expression - both entirely reminiscent of chiseled, unmoving slate. The folds of his suit were crisp enough to cut oneself on. Beside him stood Eduard, his everpresent greatcoat now entirely appropriate for the chilly, almost boreal clime. Nikita and Gilderoy stood in curious contrast - both sporting flashy, eye-catching suits, and yet managing to style themselves as almost polar opposites. An impeccable, silvered combover versus a shaggy, blonde mop. A bow tie looking to have been plucked straight from a museum vitrine, in opposition to a sad, barely-knotted flap of silk. An ensemble of vibrant, patterned purples versus a pastel arrangement of salmon and gold. Finally, Xenia had donned a more mundane, entirely formal and lawyer-ey suit of her own - not exactly a typical look for her, but one she seemed to have taken to with optimism.

They’d been shown to a cordoned-off section of the yard, through a fence-line beset with suspiciously soldier-esque guards, and now onto this drab rectangle of concrete that marked a sort of would-be proto-station, a fair ways off from the main terminus with all of its bustle and comforts. Their own escorts, though few in number, had now taken up station amongst their foreign counterparts around the area, their featureless faceplates betraying not an inkling of intent. A delegate had informed them of the arrangements, amidst a tirade of profuse apologies for the lack of pomp and formality - Rasputin had dismissed them with nary a break in stride, assuring the man that everything had been satisfactory. Now that their guide had departed, the Vozhd turned to his one-eyed colleague, one eyebrow faintly raised.

“They aren’t exactly taking to the cloak and dagger, are they?”

“They handled security well enough. I suppose they’ve yet to come to terms with our refusal of a public ceremony. Or the inability to charter proper passage by air.”

“A little diplomatic discomfort is preferable to an en-route bombing.”

“Of course. The gift will help smooth things over.”

There was a gentle drawing of attention to a milled-metal briefcase, stood squarely between Nikita’s feet. Acknowledging it with a micro-nod, Rasputin sighed.

“In peace, we sit in our castles. In strife, we venture out on errands of our own making. One would think it to be more convenient the other way around.”

“Such is the way of things. But vacation or not, we may as well treat it as one. The forests here are a sight to behold.”

“I suppose we will be seeing quite a few of them.”

“Mountains too. Ah, and here comes our ride.”

The train was, at first glance, rather utilitarian. Indeed, most of it appeared to be freight cars - the oversized caboose-set near the back would only seem suspect on closer examination. The walls were somehow too chunky, the windows too heavily-inset - the longer one were to observe it, the more distinct one’s impression of a more… military school of design. It was these last few cars that came to a stop near the concrete platform - as a handful of men disembarked, the Vozhd’s entourage took the time to pick up what little baggage they’d brought along. They were quickly ushered aboard, and it wasn’t long before the train had once again started moving. Soon, it would leave municipal bounds, vanishing into the forested mass of Striånd’s hinterlands.

He’d waited patiently. For hours he’d lain, covered in leaves and suppressing the urge to shiver. The hill had been a good vantage spot, and far-removed from the eyes of the guards, but it wasn’t a position chosen for its comforts. But it had all paid off - he’d watched them come, watched them go. Seared it into his mind, making sure to jot down every perceptible detail - through the binoculars’ finely-wrought lens, via his shaking hands, and onto the dirt-stained, soggy pages of the notebook. It was done, and now he began the arduous trek back down. The brambles scratched at his hands, his face - he didn’t care. All that mattered now was getting the sodden paper, and the precious scribbles thereupon, to those who needed it. They’d know what to do, they’d told him! Ink on pulped deadwood, a lever to shift the world. Grasped firmly, by a hand of white.