Something clangs right above my head, and I wake up with a snort.
“Passport!” the uniformed man says.
He’s very loud, very gruff, and staring down at me with the sort of flat, serious irritation only an Eastern European can muster. His accent is so thick that it takes me a moment to figure out what he’s saying, and I just stare up at him, mouth partly open.
The customs officer puts his hand on the luggage rack above my head and leans in, just a little.
“Passport,” he says, very slowly.
“Right,” I say. “Yes. Of course. Da.”
He steps back, I stand, and the papers that were on my lap slide to the floor.
“Shit,” I mutter, but everyone else in the compartment is totally silent. “Sorry. Sorry. Prosti.”
The uniformed man takes another step back, this time to the door of the train compartment, and just stares at me. Totally stone-faced. The compartment is full, but no one moves to pick anything up.
Thanks, guys, I think. I’m starting to sweat.
First things first. I need my damn passport so Mr. Ice Carving over here can move on with his rounds, then I can pick up my shit.
I grab my frame pack, sling it onto the seat, open the main compartment and slide my hand into the slim inner pocket. Then I fish around, feeling for the skinny booklet.
It’s not there. I shove my hand in further. Nothing. I push my entire arm into my backpack, my hair falling in front of my eyes, sticking in the velcro fasteners.
“Sorry,” I say. “Prosti, prosti…”
Still nothing. My heart is doing flips, and I’m frantically trying to remember the last time I saw my passport.
I had it when I got to the Ukraine four days ago, I think. I had it when I checked into the hostel in Kiev.
Jesus, did I leave it there?
Now I’m pulling dirty clothes out of my backpack and piling them onto my seat. The woman sitting next to me, who somehow still looks just as fresh and put together in hour thirteen of this train ride as she did at hour one, glares.
Everyone’s glaring, but I don’t care, because I need my passport.
Finally the bag is empty, and I peer into the entrance. My heart’s hammering, because not only is it very bad form to leave your passport god-knows-where, my mom might actually kill me if she has to bail me out of this.
She’d be justified, though.
“No passport?” the man says. His facial expression doesn’t change at all, but I smile at him desperately, my best I’m irresponsible, not a terrorist smile.
“It’s here somewhere!” I say brightly.
My fingertips brush over a small cylinder at the bottom of the bag, and my smile gets even tighter. I look in the bag, praying that it’s a cigarette that wandered in there somehow.
Nope. That’s a joint.
I guess I did lose that one in Amsterdam, I think as my fingers go cold with fear.
I have no idea what the drug laws are like in Sveloria. Lax, I hope.
The man waiting at the door shifts, crossing his arms in front of him, and I pretty much stick my entire head into my bag.
At last, I see a corner of something that looks very passport-like poking out of a hole. I jam my hand into it and pull out the little blue book, nearly collapsing to the floor with relief.
I turn around, holding it out, but the guy is crouching on the floor, looking at the papers I spilled everywhere. Very carefully, he picks up a photo of Sveloria’s royal family — king, queen, and crown prince — by the edges.
Then he picks up a stack of papers, thumbing through them slowly. Finally, he turns over the folder with the seal embossed on the front.
“What’s this?” he says without looking at me.
The train rolls from side to side just a little. I grab onto the luggage rack to keep my balance while I try to think of the simplest explanation for this very official-looking file with photos of the royal family and a surprising number of charts.
“I’m visiting Sveloria for the first time, so I was reading a brief on the country,” I say. “I like to be prepared.”
A couple people in the compartment glance at me then, and it’s dead obvious no one believes that.
The man starts gathering my documents back into the folder, and I kneel on the floor, trying to help, but he cuts me off.
“No,” he says, holding up one hand. “Put your laundry back in your bag.”
It’s not really laundry, it’s my clothes, I think, but that doesn’t seem like a good point to make right now. I stuff all my things back into my backpack and cinch it shut.
The customs officer is standing now, my briefing in his hand.
“Passport,” he says, and I finally hand it over.
He glances at it briefly, his eyes flicking from the photo to my face, and flips through the pages, looking at the stamps. Finally he closes it. I hold my hand out, but he doesn’t give it back.
“Come with me,” he says, and steps out of the train compartment.
I take a deep breath. Everyone else in here is still looking at me in total, stony silence as I hoist my backpack onto my back. For a moment I have the stupid urge to give them all a thumbs up as I leave, but instead I take a deep breath and follow the agent through the train.
Get a grip, I tell myself. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching my mom, it’s that cool, calm, and collected gets the best results.
We walk through four more cars, heading for the back. Through the windows to the left I can see the Black Sea, cliffs plunging down toward deep blue water, forested rolling hills to the right.
I definitely understand why the Svelorian royal family has their summer palace near here, because it’s gorgeous.
The officer keeps looking back at me, like he’s making sure I haven’t tried to escape or something. I want to point out that we are on a train, but I keep my mouth shut.
Once the initial panic wears off, I’m not actually all that worried. Not only am I an American citizen, my mom’s the American Ambassador to Sveloria.
So it’s not ideal that I’m about to be questioned by Svelorian customs, but I’m pretty sure it’s gonna turn out okay. As long as they don’t find the joint at the bottom of my bag.
I say one last prayer that Sveloria is cool about marijuana and follow the agent into the last compartment on the train. This one has a metal folding table in the middle, and two other customs officers are smoking and playing cards on it.
They both stub their cigarettes out when we come in, and the officer I’m with says something harsh-sounding to them in Russian. No one makes a facial expression, but they leave and he cracks the window, then slaps my folder onto the table.
We both sit, and he points to the folder.
“What is this?” he asks.
I take a deep breath, lick my lips, and make sure that I speak as clearly as possible.
“My mother is Ambassador Eileen Towers,” I start. “I’m visiting Sveloria because my parents invited me to spend the month with them at the royal family’s summer palace.”
No reaction, but he flips open my passport again.
“I have my father’s last name,” I explain.
“You’re Chinese?” he asks.
I’m tempted to sarcastically reply no, I’m American, just like my damn passport says, but I know better than to be a smartass to a foreign customs official. Especially when there’s a joint in my bag.
“My grandparents immigrated to the United States from South Korea,” I say, because I know the question he’s really asking.
He just grunts. I take that as an invitation to continue, so I explain that my mother might be the most thoroughly prepared person on earth, and she sent me this brief on Sveloria so I could learn something about the country before I came.
She also doesn’t believe in doing things halfway, so it’s complete with photos of the royal family, several members of the king’s small council, photos of the summer palace where I’ll be staying, and even a map of Velinsk, the nearest town. And of course it’s printed on high-quality paper, carefully organized with a table of contents, came in an official State Department folder, and was hand-delivered to my hostel in Kiev by a courier.
I finish, and he doesn’t say anything. Even though the silence makes me nervous, I force myself to sit there, poised, and wait for him to finish going through the papers. He flips past a couple of pages on proper manners, Svelorian traditions, cuisine, and traffic laws.
At the end, he gets to the photos and spreads them out on the table.
“Lots of Prince Konstantin Grigorovich,” he says.
I look down. There’s four of him, which is more than anyone else, but it’s not a lot.
Honestly, I think one of my mom’s assistants has a crush, and I do not blame her. Konstantin looks like the model for a prince in a Disney movie if Disney princes also dripped raw, rugged sex appeal. He’s got dirty blond hair and gray eyes, and in every photo he’s glaring at the camera with the hottest glare I’ve ever seen.
I don’t even like the serious, brooding type, but I didn’t mind the extra pictures of the prince. I didn’t mind them at all.
I look back at the customs officer and shrug.
“The documents were put together by a woman,” I say. I don’t know if it’s true, but the more he thinks I’m just some silly American girl, the better.
For the first time, he cracks a smile. Just barely, but he does.
“The prince is very popular with women,” he says, and I raise my eyebrows just a bit.
“I can see why,” I say, and smile back at him.
He just grunts and collects the photos back into the folder, then places my passport on top of the folder and pushes both toward me across the table. I take them, relieved.
“Apologies for the inconvenience,” he says, stone-faced again.
“It was no inconvenience,” I say, nodding my head at him.
We both stand, and he gestures at the door of the compartment.
“We will arrive in Velinsk in thirty minutes,” he says.
“Thank you,” I say.
I walk back through the train, taking deep breaths. I can’t wait to get off this thing. I’ve been riding it for thirteen hours, and I’m pretty tired of being in a metal tube.
Before I go back to my seat, I go to the tiny bathroom. I splash my face off, brush my hair, and pull it into a bun since it’s obvious I haven’t washed it in two days.
I wonder if I should change my clothes, since I’m wearing leggings, an oversize tunic, a sweatshirt, and sneakers, but everything else I have is dirty. Besides, I’m not formally meeting the royal family until my welcome dinner tonight, so I’ll have time to change, bathe, and feel human again before that.
Then I go back to my seat and study the briefing like mad. I probably look insane, muttering names and phrases over and over to myself, but the people in this compartment have already seen me at my worst, so I don’t really care.
Finally, the train pulls up to a small train station. I shoulder my enormous pack, straighten my spine, and get off the train at last.
The air is summery but slightly cool, and it smells salty and fresh. I take a deep breath, glad to be off the train full of human smells.
I start walking, and as I do, my phone goes off in my pocket.
Texts from my mom start pouring in, all time-stamped at least an hour ago. We must have been out of range, or something. I stop in my tracks and read them all quickly, my heart sinking. I start chewing on one thumbnail, something I always do when I’m stressed.
The gist of the texts is: the royal family will be meeting you at the train station, so you should look presentable.
I look around for a bathroom, where I can frantically change into dirty clothes that at least aren’t these dirty clothes. Instead, I see my parents waving their arms. I stare for a moment and then hesitantly wave back, then walk over to them.
“Welcome to Sveloria, sweetie!” my mom gushes as I hug her, then my dad.
Then she smiles her polite-but-slightly-worried smile.
“Did you get my texts?” she asks.
“They came through about twenty seconds ago,” I say. “I guess I was out of range, but I’ve got some other clothes with me. They’re kinda dirty, but I can go change right now if that’s better?”
A black limousine pulls up to the sidewalk outside the station. Two men in black suits step out, and the other travelers step out of the way. A few point and whisper.
My mom puts one hand on my arm. She doesn’t look thrilled.
“Don’t worry about it, sweetheart,” she says.