The words came to him from a great distance, through a gaping void of darkness. Ragnar opened his eyes slowly. Lars’ face floated oddly over his.
Why was the ceiling above him?
Ragnar sat up groggily with Lars rushing to prop him up. “What happened?” His head throbbed dully.
Lars seemed to hesitate.
“You fainted.” Gregory supplied helpfully.
“Dead away.” Virginie nodded. “Lucky Lars caught you. Unlucky you banged your head on the desk first.”
“Why you-” Ragnar began weakly. “You-”
Virginie went down on one knee beside him on the floor. “Yes? I can’t quite hear you Ragnar. You are still very weak.”
“Cheat!” His voice cracked. Ragnar cleared his throat. “Cheat! Criminal! Swine!” He turned his head to Lars with difficulty, one eye closed against the dull but persistent pain. “Apprehend this woman, Lars.”
Lars looked from his boss to Virginie. His eyes raked over her thoughtfully. There was something about her bearing, her self assured calm… He frowned. She wasn’t looking away.
“Let’s get back to the train.” His voice was calm as he helped Ragnar to his feet.
“I don’t want to get back on the train, I want this woman arrested.”
“You are making a scene.” Virginie’s cold voice chilled Ragnar to silence. “Be calm and learn your lesson, Ragnar.” She took a step towards him, and if he hadn’t come up against the human wall that was Lars he would have retreated. “Don’t…fuck…with…me.”
Rage propelled Ragnar forward but Lars’ hands, like steel bands around his upper arms, kept him from reaching for Virginie.
Virginie smiled and walked from the café, Gregory hot at her heels.
Ragnar was forced to watch them go. He yanked himself free from Lars.
“You overstep yourself, Lars.” He pulled his coat straight with a savage movement. “Never presume to restrain me again.”
Lars met Ragnar’s eyes calmly. “She had a dagger in her boot.”
“What?” Ragnar scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I think she’s military.” Lars’ face was set in deadly earnest.
Ragnar paused. “Are you certain?”
“Well, make certain, then.” Ragnar quickly paid the harassed looking staff and walked through the door Lars held open and back towards the station.
“I wouldn’t put it past that old bastard Tyrellyon to choose his champion from the military. We were set up. I’m sure this must be against the rules.” Ragnar murmured half to himself, half to Lars as they strode along. “Use the bar phone on the train to call one of your…” He paused significantly. “…friends. Find out all you can about this Virginie. In the meantime we’d better keep an eye on those two.” It suddenly occurred to him, in its full and undiluted horror, that she had already won two of the prizes running. “I need a drink.”
An hour later found him slumped in a booth in the dining carriage, happily draining a bottle of beer.
“Take it easy, Ragnar.” Ali studied the other man with a critical eye. “You look like you’re falling apart.” His elegant hand gesture took in the unbuttoned shirt, the ruffled hair.
“You take it easy, Ali.” Ragnar slurred, casting a bleary eye in the man’s direction.
“There is some cause for concern.” This from Georgis, sat beside Ragnar, or rather almost under as the man leant drunkenly into him.
“Oh.” Ragnar snickered. “Listen to this guy.” He gestured with his thumb. “There is come cause for concern.” He mimicked the other’s cultured tones.
“At least I’m not making a spectacle of myself.” Georgis smiled as Ali nodded supportively.
“You are a spectacle Georgis. You and your ancient wife.” Ragnar jeered.
“If you want to get personal, then very well.” Georgis turned fully in his seat to meet Ragnar’s eyes. “Unwanted child.”
“You bas-” Ragnar lurched forward, his mouth foaming with rage.
Kenji, having pulled up a chair beside the booth and so being the nearest to the brawling pair, leapt between them. “Gentlemen, please.” He found himself dragged into the tussle.
Hugo watched as the three men struggled. It wasn’t long before Kenji had been hurt and was transformed from peace keeper to avid participant in the battle. Beside Hugo, Ali chuckled to himself. Sipping slowly from his scotch, a small smile curing his lips, he looked as though he were taking in a play at the theatre. Dinner and a show. His face looked pleasantly surprised by that fact.
“What everybody seems to be forgetting is the matter at hand.” Hugo’s calm voice cut through the men’s clamouring. He waited until they’d settled themselves grudgingly back into their proper seats. “Virginie has won two of the prizes. That leaves eight. You understand?”
“Well, what the hell do you want us to do about it?” Piped in Ali’s crabby voice. He looked annoyed at having his night’s entertainment cut short.
“Have some vision, Ali.” Hugo’s eyes were chilling. “She is our main competitor now. None of us have a chance against her. We’ll be running around picking up her scraps.”
“A sad state of affairs. But what are we to do about it?” Georgis pipped in.
“We need to run interference.” Hugo explained as though to an idiot. “Distract her, mislead her, deceive her…use your imagination.”
Ragnar snorted into his glass. It echoed strangely for a moment, the noise distracted him briefly. “I don’t think your plan will work.” He smiled maliciously.
“Why does that make you happy?” Hugo stared, utterly baffled. “It’s to your advantage, you idiot.”
Ragnar’s smile faded. “I forgot.” He sat up suddenly. “And don’t call me an idiot, you-”
“I wouldn’t.” Hugo cautioned pleasantly, his eyes followed Ragnar as the man subsided. “Why won’t the plan work?”
“Huh? Oh yeah!” Ragnar took a series of tiny sips, before wiping his lips to continue. “Lars thinks she’s military.”
A general clamour of disbelief rose up around the table.
“He said he saw a dagger concealed in her boot.” Ragnar’s raised voice cut through the noise.
The men fell silent, each lost in his own thoughts.
“I wouldn’t put it past that old bastard Tyrellyon,” Georgis said slowly, “to pull something like this.”
“The rules-” Began Kenji.
“Say nothing against it. No one’s ever considered it before.” Ragnar interrupted him with a shake of his head. “I checked.”
“A person usually elects a family member or very close friend. To my knowledge no one’s ever hired a professional in the past.” Georgis mused.
Kenji grunted. “I’m sure there’ll be a rule against it next year. It is bad sportsmanship.” He glanced at each man in the eye. “But it won’t do us any good then. Hugo’s right. We need to do something.”
“But what, for God’s sake?”
“Shut up, Ali.” Ragnar raged. “I’m sick of your stupid face. Your stupid, whiny voice.”
“You want to throw hands, I’ll throw hands.” Ali half rose from his seat.
“What does that mean, you idiot?”
“Why don’t you gentlemen just leave the planning and execution to me.” Hugo uncurled his tall, lithe body from the booth.
He’d distracted them and regained their attention.
“Why?” Georgis’ narrowed eyes surveyed him suspiciously. “What’ve you in mind?”
“I plan to infiltrate the enemy camp.”
Ali snorted. “That sounds like your going to-” He gasped. “You are! Oh, I can’t believe it.” He chocked on his laughter and began to cough violently. His eyes teared as he struggled to speak past his clogged throat. “He’s… going… to… seduce… her.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Georgis scoffed. “I’m sure Hugo’s got more of a plan than that. This isn’t a Mills and Boon novel.” He glanced at Hugo for confirmation. His face became confused. “Please tell me you have more of a plan.” He demanded flatly.
“Good luck!” Ragnar guffawed. “With that villain, you’ll need all the luck you can get.”
“The arrogance.” Kenji breathed. “What makes you think she’ll go for you. Over the rest of us, I mean.”
“Without being rude, gentlemen, I am the most handsome man here. And the only single one.”
“Handsome? You think you’re handsome?” Ali was near sputtering in rage.
“No, no.” Ragnar interceded quickly. “I think it’s a good plan.” His face stayed remarkably straight.
“It’s a plan.” Georgis muttered.
“No, hear me out.” Ragnar gestured for silence, then drained the remainder of his glass with a flourish. “It’s the only plan we’ve got. Good luck to you, Hugo.” He eyed the younger man seriously. “And God speed.” His lip quivered for the barest of instances. “Do let us know how you get on.”
“Vaya con dios!” Kenji jeered to a chorus of stifled sniggers.
Hugo ignored the comments and stalked to the bar where he purchased a bottle of wine and gathered two glasses. He could feel the eyes of the men at the booth following him as he paid and turned to stalked out of the dining car. He ignored the laughter that erupted behind him. Crude and rudimentary as the plan was, it was based on a sound foundation of sex and lust. He was a man. She was a woman, and an attractive one at that (in looks, if not in personality). And for purely selfish reasons it was a rather pleasant plan to undertake. A little romance would hurry the long tedious train journey, a little pillow talk could hurry him to the grand prize. What a wonderful concept.
So convinced was Hugo at the soundness of his plan that he decided to go, then and there, to her compartment and test out his theory.