From the dead grey ashes of the fire Naya Sakura pulled a pack of cigarettes, hardly touched. They had been dropped on top, long after the flames had died and the embers cooled. Lifting the pack revealed a single smoked cigarette beneath, which she plucked with a pair of tongs that fell smoothly from one of her sleeves. Again, I’ve been sworn never to tell you which.
Examining it she saw small, grinding bite marks, like the smoker had clinched it in their jaw while they spoke. That would fit, given Naya Inari’s propensity for never shutting up. There was the issue that her sister didn’t smoke, but the practice could easily have come from a Relic. (What our heroes have been calling Changes, Naya Sakura has taken to calling Time Relics, which, you’ll find, is cooler.)
There was no use trying to match the dental impressions to her own. Sakura had learned long ago - on the Case of the Cast Out Caste and its Cast-Doubt Cast, when she was eight - that the dental castings of a set of twins - or dodecatuplets, as it had been in the case - were never identical. Instead, she rolled the cigarette through her fingers, creating a mental scan of the bite marks.
She closed her eyes and began her methodical search through the meticulous records she kept in the files of her Mind Planet, which was like a Mind Palace but better. Every memory she had was catalogued, bound in folders with coordinated tabs (grayscale, for there was no color in her Mind Planet - by choice).
Weeks passed within her Mind Planet before she found a memory that confirmed her theory. It would have been sooner, but the file had been miscatalogued. Interrogation of the cleaning staff confirmed that Tanaka san had knocked over the shelves when she was dusting and had put back the files without telling Sakura, so as not to be fired. She had three children.
Despite all the exacting standards upon herself that would never have allowed her to make such careless mistakes, Sakura understood Tanaka san’s decision. Afterall, she had concocted it on some level - this was all happening in her mind. Still, she could not have liars on her staff, and in such important positions.
Naya Sakura knew, however, what it meant to grow up without parental stability, and while that challenge had forged her own strength early and well, it had done much worse things to her sister. So for the sake of Tanaka san’s children - Shigeru, Aika, and little Ichika, with her cough - she set the older woman up with a job at a local bakery. The owner owed her a favor (also his existence).
But why go through all the trouble of populating her Mind Planet with fake people? I’m sure you’re wondering. It’s a question of empathy, really. Not lovey-dovey, hug-the-world empathy, but a hunter’s empathy. To follow a person, or an animal, or a sentient pile of moss, it was sufficient to look for the clues they’d left behind. But to predict where a target would go under given circumstances, you needed to understand them - often better than they understood themselves. Filling her false world with facsimile people was a way to practice this sort of prediction.
For all the time it took, Sakura’s bite mark analysis had confirmed that she was on her sister’s trail. Satisfied then, she reentered the real world, where about an hour had passed. Time dilation being yet another feature of her Mind Planet. It also had great bagels.
She stood, brushing the cool, dead ashes of the fire from the cigarette and pack. Sakura stuffed them both down interior pockets of her coat and smirked. The trail was warm. Soon enough she would overtake her sister, and be the end to whatever evil plan Naya Inari had wrought, as she had always been.
Once again, Sakura strolled off confidently in the right direction - knowing no amount of planning, no amount of power, no amount of genius could stop her.
“He’s a clingy horse,” Highmond said apologetically, craning his head under Giuseppe to speak to the elderly woman in the seat across from him. They had elected to find a passenger car for the remainder of their journey, thinking the horse would stay behind to stuff itself full of hay. The animal quickly made it clear however that it had no intention of leaving Highmond’s side.
So it had been that they found themselves sharing a semi-private compartment with an old woman and a horse. She hadn’t been there when they sat down, but had come back from the restroom to find they’d overtaken her once quiet domain. The elder woman had been remarkably unperturbed, begging Giuseppe’s and Edna’s pardons as she slid past them to her window seat.
“What, er, brings you here?” Highmond continued, after his apology.
“Oh deary, we don’t have to talk,” said the old woman. Then she pulled a pair of headphones over her ears, pressed play on a walkman at her hip, and began listening to the heaviest, loudest, bassiest metal any of them had ever heard.
She lifted a folding tray from the wall, setting the leg up underneath it. From her flowery, cloth bag she pulled a sack of candies, some folded tissues, and about thirty knives.
“Well,” Highmond cleared his throat, “I suppose we shan’t worry about speaking freely.” He had to raise his voice to be heard over her music.
Edna matched Highmond’s volume for the first time. “Does she look like a cow-woman to you?”
“Edna!” Highmond was appalled.
“I mean a cowboy who’s a woman. Our language is lacking.”
They agreed she did not. Even Giuseppe shook his head, though that was probably coincidence.
Edna continued, “I think we’re heading somewhere strange, even by our standards. What did he say it was called?”
“Edo,” said Iona.
“Yes,” Highmond agreed, even though Iona had said it, “which itself is strange for that’s already what it’s called.”
“What do you mean?”
“In normal times, I mean. Based on my geographical estimations, I think we should be heading straight for a city that is always called Edo,” Highmond clarified.
“Yeah,” Iona agreed, even though Highmond had said it, “it’s odder than a big rat cracking seashells on its belly, but he feels right.”
“Hmm,” Edna pondered, worried by her two companions agreement. “I think I’ll go get a look at the other weirdos on this train, then. See if I can get a sense of what time and place we’re hurtling into.”
“Count me in,” said Iona, standing up.
“And I could stomach a little constitutional as well,” added Highmond. When he stood up, the others guessed that meant he planned to join them.
“No,” they said together, which prompted a confused, hurt look to dart out of his eyes at Edna.
“The horse, Highmond,” she said, “We can’t have the horse following us around this whole train.”
“Oh. Right. Certainly,” he laughed and it sounded like a man who had never heard laughing but had read about it in an anthropological journal. “Sure thing. Of course.” He smiled and his eyes met the horse’s, who licked his face again.