The train chugged steadily northward, getting closer to the Swiss border with every kilometer Liam put between himself and Rome. He felt a little shitty that being away from the tensions of the Archives felt like a relief. But on the other hand, it was.
The view out the window of the small passenger compartment grew steadily more hemmed in as the tracks threaded through the mountains, every twist and turn showing a new sliver of valley more picturesque than the last. All lost on Liam, who found his eyes drawn—as they usually were—to the deep shadows cast by the looming crags.
“Relax,” said Sal. “You look like you’re waiting to get shot.”
Liam wrenched his attention away from the view and over to Sal, who now appeared to be sitting on the seat opposite him. Well, more like hovering. Since the Ricci Circlet they’d picked up in Shanghai had been fully integrated with the Orb, Asanti and Frances had found a way to use it as a sort of virtual holographic communications system. Liam wasn’t sure how he felt about a magical device sending visual information directly to his brain, but given the way that electronics tended to go haywire around magic, it was better than being out of touch entirely. Still, it didn’t help his nerves that the image projected to his mind’s eye couldn’t quite keep up with the jouncing of the carriage, or that Sal’s butt oscillated between floating a few centimeters above the vinyl cushion and sinking past it.
For all kinds of reasons, Liam forced his eyes up to meet Sal’s face. “For all I know,” he said, “I am sitting around waiting to get shot.”
“I thought the Network was all eager to have you back when you saw them in Shanghai?”
“That was before Christina took a magical Taser to the brain.”
“Please. Like they’re going to hold a grudge against the man who was their bro-grammer in chief back in Sweden.”
Liam sighed inwardly. Sal was particularly proud of that little bit of wordplay, and he wished she would let it go already. “Next time,” he said, “you can be the bait.”
Sal rolled her eyes. “Don’t be paranoid. Grace is on the train. The tracks are being covered by Team One, and Sansone has her people keeping tabs on everyone even remotely associated with the Network. According to Asanti: ‘This is the biggest inter-team operation the Society has put on since the Crusades, and look how that turned out.’ End quote.”
“Not reassuring, Sal.”
Sal’s turn to sigh. “Sorry. My point was that the entire Society has got your back on this one.”
“Assuming everyone isn’t too busy stabbing each other?”
Sal made a “little bit” sign with her fingers.
“How pissed about this is she?” Asanti had wanted to run the op with Team Three only, as they usually did. Part of her strategy that Liam termed “Operation: Everything Is Normal, Honest.” Menchú had gone around her to Angiuli, believing that a negotiated exchange of goods and information with the Network needed to have the support of the entire Society. Especially since the team was essentially planning to try to pull a fast one and send a bug back to infiltrate the Network.
Sal’s expression spoke volumes. “She’s pretty pissed. Thinks it shows a lack of faith in her abilities.”
“Since her last plan nearly had us all marooned in the eternal present of the spotless mind, can’t say that I blame Menchú for being cautious.”
Sal shrugged. “Point is, when Christina shows up for the exchange, she’s going to have more Vatican eyes on her than if she had an audience with the Pope.”
Liam raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you mean, ‘If Christina takes the bait?’”
Sal reached out to smack him, but her hand passed harmlessly through his shoulder. Liam smirked. Sal scowled.
The train pulled to a stop at a tiny mountain station, and Sal turned to talk to someone Liam couldn’t see. With her attention elsewhere, she briefly popped out of existence. A moment later, she was back.
“Sorry about that. Menchú says that was the last stop before the rendezvous.”
“Was Christina on the platform?”
“Not a great sign.”
“She might have boarded earlier, like in Milan, where she could get lost in the crowd.” Liam knew Sal well enough to feel the tension in her voice, in spite of her effort to hide it. Or maybe he was experiencing a side effect of pseudo-telepathic communication through the Orb. Not reassuring, especially if it read both ways.
“Got a text from Grace,” Sal reported. “There’s a man she doesn’t like the look of coming toward your compartment. Showtime.” She shot Liam one last grin. “You’re going to do great. Just pretend I’m not here.”
Liam ignored her.
“See? Just like that.”
Liam didn’t say anything, but he thought shut up as loudly as he could in her direction. The Orb link left no electronic signature. The only way the Network should be able to notice something was up was if Liam did something moronic like talk to thin air.
The door to the compartment opened and a thin, stringy man with a slouch born of too many...