Glad as she was to be off the caravan, Trissiny stepped into a scene of such chaos that she froze, unable to take it all in. The Rail station at Calderaas was bigger than the entire Abbey back home, but vastly open and apparently made of glass. She’d have thought the metal framework which supported it was some kind of empty cage, except that rain was pounding on it at the moment. Worse, the huge station was crammed with people; shouting, shoving people, dressed in a variety of costumes such as she had never seen. Barely a majority of them were even human.
She inhaled deeply, trying to orient herself. The Hand of Avei would not be paralyzed by indecision, nor peer about stupidly like some sort of bumpkin just in from the sticks. Truthfully, that might be a fair description and Trissiny had little in the way of personal ego, but she was terrified of being an embarrassment to her goddess. She could do this.
Behind her, someone cleared his throat loudly. Blushing, she mumbled an apology and quickly lugged herself and her trunk out of the path so everyone else could leave the caravan. Apparently the Hand of Avei could freeze like a spooked rabbit and hold up the entirety of Imperial commerce on this Rail line. Only the fear of making herself an even bigger spectacle stopped her from slapping her own face in frustration.
Judging by the level of pushing and general rudeness going on around her, that more gentle reminder had been very special treatment. Well, even if people didn’t know the significance of the silver finish of her armor, it was still recognizably the ceremonial gear of the Sisters of Avei; few would seek to irritate her. She took up a position to the side of the caravan steps, out of everyone’s way, and fished out her travel itinerary from her belt pouch to look it over again. Not that she hadn’t memorized the thing long since, and anyway it wasn’t that complicated, but it was a tiny bit of familiarity.
People back home weren’t all that homogenous, or so she’d thought. Viridill had been settled by humans from every part of the Empire, and even today was home to humans of every color, shape and description. But with the exception of the odd elven traveler and the lizardfolk up in the mountains, they were all humans, and dressed themselves mostly in the same, humble style. The people here in the station were a cross-section of the entire Empire, or so it seemed to her, and she didn’t know what to make of the variety of costumes she saw. Suits, waistcoats and coats with long tails seemed the custom for most men, often with stovepipe hats on the more elaborately dressed, or wider brimmed ten-gallon styles for those who worked for a living. Nearby, a knot of well-to-do ladies tittered amongst themselves, garbed in flowing pastel-toned gowns, a menagerie of preposterous hats and corsets. Trissiny forced herself not to gape. How could a woman even breathe in those things, much less move? Perhaps Mother Narny had been right about fashion being a weapon against all womankind.
Oddly dressed as they might be, though, humans were something Trissiny understood, and most of her attention was on the various others in the crowd. There were more elves than she’d ever imagined seeing in one place, mostly keeping to themselves and moving in small pockets in the crowd, as if their neighbors were reluctant to touch them even by accident. Dwarves she knew only by description, but the several who were presently trundling rapidly about their business on the platform were unmistakeable even so. A passing couple of very small people on a goat-pulled cart had to be gnomes of some kind. Through gaps in the crowd, Trissiny glimpsed a small family of lizardfolk seated against one wall, a battered hat set in front of them. That sight was troubling; she’d rarely dealt with the lizardfolk back home, but she thought of them as too proud to beg.
She was gathering stares of her own, as well; none hostile, but many awed and some rather fearful. Apparently quite a few people in Calderaas did know what silver armor meant. There might even be some present who could sense the aura of divine power that she had been told hovered over her. Trissiny schooled her expression, tucked away her itinerary and set off in search of Platform Ten. There hadn’t been a paladin of Avei in thirty years, and she surely hadn’t been called now to make a spectacle of herself in the Rail station.
Five minutes later she had to give up and reorient herself again. The layout of the station was confusing; platforms were interspersed with Rail lines, reached by collections of wrought-iron footbridges that arched over the Rails themselves. Her trunk had a handle and wheels, which she’d thought a great luxury when it was first given to her, but that was before she’d had to drag it up and down half a dozen sets of stairs. The platforms weren’t labeled in the most helpful manner, either. She ultimately had to stop in the middle of one of the footbridges and crane her neck around to find the signs, which revealed that she had been going in the wrong direction. With a sigh, Trissiny turned back and made her up-and-down way, gritting her teeth against the constant bumping of her trunk, to Platform Ten.
She was a good twenty minutes early to catch her next caravan, but made certain to consult the board posted by the stairs to verify that this would be the one going to Last Rock. With little else to do but wait, she tucked herself as out of the way as she could on the bustling platform and fell back to studying her environment.
Of the same iron construction as the footbridges, there were several small platforms extending over the Rails themselves, which were in use for a variety of purposes. Two were clearly for storage, piled high with crates and barrels. Another, otherwise empty, was being taken advantage of by several travelers as a respite from the pushing throng. On the nearest, a couple of elves had set up a tiny stand and were selling tea from beneath a hand-painted sign reading “Platform 9 ¾.” Trissiny appreciated the whimsy, but she was not tempted. Between her general nervousness, the roiling in her stomach from the Rail ride she’d just escaped and the anticipation of her next one, she couldn’t have kept a cup of tea down. Riding the Rails was one of the most romanticized experiences of the modern age; in practice, she found it rather like being sealed inside a barrel and rolled down a hill.
“Hey, Blondie! Yeah, you, girlie. I’m talkin’ to you!”
It took a couple of repetitions for Trissiny to realize she was being addressed. No one in her life had ever spoken to her that way, and since she had gained her sword and armor, most people possessed of any sense would not have dared.
Now, a man ambled up to her directly, grinning and eying her up and down as he came in a manner that nearly made her reach for her sword. He was garbed like something out of a penny novel, all dust-stained denim and flannel, with snakeskin boots and a ten-gallon hat. “Mighty pleased to meet you, missy,” he said in a prairie drawl, his grin becoming an outright leer. “If you got a bit before your car comes, mebbe we can find a shady spot to have a drink? My treat.”
Trissiny was too astonished by the sheer effrontery to react as she otherwise might. That bought her a moment to reconsider her first impulse; thrashing this fool would doubtless lead to trouble no matter how much he deserved it. At the very least, she’d miss her caravan.
“No, thank you,” she replied stiffly. A whipping with the flat of her blade would do him a world of good, but she could not go around smiting every idiot who lacked manners. She reminded herself forcefully of this as he leaned in close enough for her to smell the whiskey on his breath.
“Aw, don’t be like that, darlin’. Why, I bet you’ll find me the best company you ever—oof!”
A second cowboy, dressed similarly and strongly resembling her admirer in the face, shouldered him roughly aside, then turned to her and tugged the brim of his hat. “My apologies, ma’am. My brother ain’t been off the ranch in half a year, an’ sometimes he forgets he wasn’t raised by wolves.” He cut off the protest forming on the first man’s face by swatting him upside the back of the head, forcing him to catch his flying hat. “Won’t happen again. ‘Scuze us.”
“Turn loose a’ me, Ezekiel!” the first cowboy said furiously as his brother grabbed him by the arm and began dragging him toward the nearest set of steps. “I was just havin’ some—”
“You shut the hell up. Land’s sakes, boy, if you gotta be embarrassing, couldja at least not be suicidal? Don’t you know a paladin when you see one? You ain’t that shitheaded!”
They were halfway up the footbridge, but their loud conversation remained clearly audible on Platform Ten. “Paladin? That ain’t no paladin, dumbass. That girl ain’t more’n fifteen.”
“Jebediah Jenkins, if I weren’t such a good brother I’d send you back over there to finish what you started, an’ spare myself the trouble of whuppin’ your ass for botherin’ a girl you think is fifteen!”
Trissiny would have liked very much to sink into the platform and vanish. The brothers Jenkins were acquiring stares, which were quickly transferred to herself as people discerned the source of their quarrel. Against her will, her cheeks heated. Hopefully the onlookers would take it for righteous anger, selflessly suppressed. Yeah, and if hopes were coins, Avei would have a temple in every hamlet in the Empire.
A well-dressed man with the silver gryphon badge of an Imperial agent pinned to the breast of his coat, and another decorating his hat, shouldered quickly through the crowd, moving purposefully in the direction of the loud brothers. His wand remained holstered, though he held a hand conspicuously near it and kept his gaze fixed on the two cowboys. He paused before Trissiny to tilt his hat respectfully to her. “Blessings, ma’am.”
“And to you, Sheriff,” she replied gratefully, inclining her head. At least someone took her seriously without having to taste her blade. She did not look fifteen!
He proceeded after his quarry, and she fixed her gaze stiffly on a point above everyone’s head. It was funny how she could tell people were whispering about her, despite the ambient noise in the station.
She was unaccustomed to the crawling pace of time in a tense situation. Trissiny’s days were always full; there was never a lack of work to be done at the Abbey, and whenever she was not pitching in her fair share, she had more training and prayer to attend to than the other novice Sisters. On the very rare occasions when she wanted time to pass by faster, she would occupy herself in meditation, or in communing with the goddess.
There was simply nothing to do on the platform. Focusing inward was not an option as she did not feel remotely safe in this crowd of pushy strangers, especially after the encounter with the Jenkinses. She had her sword in its sheath at her belt and her shield on her back, but even had there been enough space to run through a combat drill without injuring someone, the sight would have caused turmoil in the bustling station. So she stood, for fifteen interminable minutes while the caravans roared by on their Rails and people gazed curiously at her, often pausing in their own business to do so. Trissiny practiced her situational awareness, keeping her gaze rigidly fixed on empty space but trying to maintain a knowledge of her surroundings through peripheral vision. It was the only thing she could think of to do aside from weltering in her own discomfort.
She was first to move when the caravan slowed to a stop next to Platform Ten. Trissiny watched the procedure with interest; she had seen it at the much smaller Rail depot in Trasio, but it remained impressive. The Rail itself, a single raised line on spokes like a bannister that extended into the distance in both directions, began to hum and glow arcane blue with the caravan’s approach. The train that arrived to take her on to Last Rock had eight passenger cars, twice the size of the one which had brought her here. They looked the same, though, tiny bits of glass and steel looking like a single squared tube with so many in a line. This caravan also had four larger, boxy cargo wagons affixed after the passenger cars, and another angular enchanter’s post behind that to match the one at the front. She wondered if the added weight meant it needed a second enchanter to keep it going.
Trissiny edged back from the Rail along with the other passengers as lightning sparked along the rim of the platform with the energy of the caravan halting itself. The tiny hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stood upright.
She stood back to let the passengers disembark, most of them looking as stiff and disoriented as she had after her previous Rail ride, then moved quickly to claim her seat in the frontmost car, just behind the enchanter’s post. Nobody complained or tried to slip in ahead of her. Trissiny supposed it was all right to benefit from a healthy respect for paladins, as long as she wasn’t intimidating people on purpose. If folks thought the Hand of Avei might smite them for pushing in line ahead of her, well, there wasn’t much she could do about that, aside from proving them wrong.
She stowed her trunk under the seat as she’d been shown on the last caravan, strapping it in tightly with the frayed arrangement of leather thongs and buckles provided, then unslung her shield and laid it on the bench beside her, before taking her seat. This car might have been a duplicate of the other, except that she had it to herself. The padded benches were wide enough to seat three without much discomfort; she took the one facing the front, reasoning that it would diminish the dizzying terror of the Rail ride not to have to do it backward. It was like being in a little glass bubble, and she enjoyed the solitude after the crowded platform.
People weren’t hurrying to join her, but that would probably only last until someone came along who hadn’t seen the paladin duck in here. She enjoyed the breather while it lasted, literally. Proper breathing was essential to both combat form and meditation, and Trissiny had been storing her gathering tension in her chest. The caravan was parked for several long minutes, presumably while the large cargo cars in the rear were loaded and/or unloaded, and she took full advantage of the time to breathe slowly and evenly, without slipping into full meditation.
Thus, she was calm enough not to be overly perturbed when a man entered her car.
“Good day!” he said cheerily, straightening. He was an older gentleman, well-dressed and very round about the middle, with a jowly face accentuated by bushy, steel-colored sideburns. “Ah, a Sister! Excellent, I was just wondering why a pretty girl was sitting alone in a car. Usually the lads would be all over you. Don’t mind if I share, do you? It’s filling up back there, and a man of my great physical fitness is less welcome where the seats must be squeezed into.” He chortled, patting his plump belly.
“The caravan is open to all,” she said politely, forcing a smile. “Please, be welcome.” It was so formal as to be stilted, but she couldn’t just up and say she didn’t mind his company. Avei frowned upon lies, even little social ones.
“Many thanks, my dear, many thanks.” He grunted as he lowered himself onto the bench opposite her, sliding over so as to grip the handhold bolted to the wall of the caravan. “Whoof! As often as I ride these things, you’d think I’d grow accustomed to the acrobatics it takes getting in and out of them. Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor.” He extended a hand to her. “I’m the Emperor’s eyes on the frontier! Of course, the Emperor has more eyes than a nest of spiders, and do please remind me of that if I start to sound like I think I’m important.” His pale eyes twinkled with good humor.
“Trissiny Avelea,” she replied, shaking his hand. His eyes flicked over her and she tensed, but it was nothing like the gaze Jebediah Jenkins had dragged across her. In fact, Mr. Paxton seemed to be looking at her armor, not her body; his eyes darted from bracers to boots to divided leather skirt, without lingering on her breastplate the way too many men did. She saw the moment when he absorbed the fact that her Avenic armor was silver rather than bronze.
“Omnu’s breath,” he exclaimed, settling back in his own seat and regarding her wide-eyed. “Forgive if I’m impertinent, Ms. Avelea, but…would you be a paladin?”
“I am.” She forced a small smile. At least he knew the proper way to address a Sister of Avei. He was the first man she’d met on her journey who did.
“Bless my old soul!” he enthused. “I’d heard that Avei had called a new paladin, but… Well, this is a rare privilege, ma’am! An honor, it truly is. Wait’ll I tell the grandchildren I rode the Rail with a paladin!” He laughed aloud. “Now, you be sure to tell me if I’m bothering you, Ms. Avelea. I do tend to let the old mouth run away with me sometimes.”
“I don’t mind,” she replied, and found that she meant it. Trissiny was not used to men; obviously, she’d been around them before, as the Sisters of Avei were not a cloistered order. But briefly or at a distance, usually; those men who weren’t shy about being around Sisters had been strongly encouraged to keep away from the novices. Still, Heywood Paxton was one of the least menacing individuals she’d ever met.
“And would you be on quest, then?” he asked enthusiastically. “Not that you need pay any mind to old me, of course! I shall gladly shove off if told to. But I’m heading out to Sarasio on the Emperor’s business, and I should be glad of the company, I don’t mind telling you. If there’s any place that could benefit from a taste of Avei’s fist, that’s it for sure.”
“No,” she said with some hesitation, and a small twinge of guilt. “Actually, I’m going to college. At least for now; that was the goddess’s command. I’m sure she has good reason.” Why did she feel the need to explain herself to this stranger? It wasn’t his business; it wasn’t even hers. If Avei chose to send her paladin to university rather than to the battlefield, well, she was entitled. No matter how Trissiny chafed at what felt like a waste of her calling.
“Goodness me, to college? This line is heading straight out of the civilized territories! Nothing but the Golden Sea, tribes of wild elves and a few frontier towns where we’re…ohhh.” His expression cleared and he nodded sagely. “Last Rock, then?”
“Yes, to Professor Tellwyrn’s University. You’ve heard of it?”
“Indeed I have, Ms. Avelea, indeed I have. You don’t last long in my line of work without knowing who all the players in the Great Game are. Omnu’s breath, I should’ve put that together the moment I noticed you in that armor. My brains are getting as droopy as my jowls, I declare.” He grinned at her with such genuine good humor that she had to smile back.
A sharp retort like the crack of a whip resonanted through their little chamber, and the caravan lurched. Then it began smoothly moving forward; Trissiny found herself pressed back into her seat, while Mr. Paxton had to cling to the handbar and surreptitiously brace his leg against the bench beside her to keep from being poured out of his.
“My goodness, they don’t give us much time to get settled, do they?” He grinned cheerily. “I can’t imagine how ticket holders ever manage to get into their cars on time.”
“Oh, yes,” he explained, “most people must purchase a ticket to ride the Rail; it’s good for only one specific trip, and then you have to buy another to ride again. Laying these Rails isn’t cheap; the Empire has to fund it all somehow!”
“Nobody told me about tickets,” she said in some alarm. They had left the station behind in seconds, and just now were racing past the borders for Calderaas, fast enough that she could barely make out the difference between city and country scenery; it evolved from a grayish blur to a greenish one. And the caravan still accelerated. Paxton’s face was beginning to bead with sweat, from the effort of holding himself in his seat.
“Not to worry, my dear, the Rails are free to Imperial agents and officials of the Church. Which, clearly, includes you!”
“Oh. But…I didn’t even see anyone collecting…that is, none of the guards asked me about…”
“Well, obviously, Station officials know a bit more about the world than the average run of hayseeds who might be riding the Rails. One look at that armor and they’d let you hop into whatever caravan you pleased without so much as a word.”
“Oh,” she said again, now feeling rather guilty. “Oh…I hope I didn’t cheat somebody out of a seat.”
“Nonsense, they never sell enough tickets to fill out a caravan. It leaves some seats open for the likes of us, and if none such come along, well, these things run faster the less weighted down they are. Everybody wins!”
“Except the people who have to pay for passage.”
“Well, I suppose not,” he conceded, his smile fading somewhat, “but then again, if they weren’t paying for tickets, the Rails couldn’t run. Then nobody would have them!”
“It just seems unfair,” she murmured.
“Very little in this world is fair, Ms. Avelea,” he replied. For the first time, the cheer had fled his face, leaving a sober and faraway expression. “May you have better luck than I’ve had finding remedies for it.”
The silence that fell in the compartment was strained and awkward. Trissiny feared little, but was unpracticed at social subtleties; she couldn’t decide whether to avoid Paxton’s eyes or meet them, whether to leave the quiet alone or try to fill it.
He took the dilemma out of her hands moments later, when their acceleration finally leveled off. The Surveyor grunted, settling himself back into his seat now that he didn’t have to brace himself into it. “Whew! Every trip an adventure. You know, the Rail cars servicing the interior provinces have buckled belts on each seat for the passengers to strap themselves in. It seems there’s no budget for upgrading old frontier equipment just yet.”
Trissiny nodded, unsure whether she would prefer that. It would be nice not to be tossed around, but she wasn’t at all certain she’d care to be strapped in, either.
“Oh, here comes the wide arc around the Mirror Lakes,” Mr. Paxton said, peering out the window. “Best brace yourself, Ms. Avelea, we’re going to—”
And then the ground whipped out from under them. The caravan curved so sharply to the right that its left wall became the new de facto floor; Paxton was tossed against it with a grunt. Only Trissiny’s trained reflexes saved her from a pummeling. Spinning on the bench, she stuck one foot against the wall and the other on the seat opposite, while grabbing her shield as it tried to fly across the car. It was made to endure much more abuse than being dropped, but it had been a gift from the Goddess herself and Trissiny hated to see it handled disrespectfully.
“Almost!” her fellow traveler cried with a grin. “More than a dozen trips on this line; one day I’ll have that timing down exactly.” She grinned back. The man’s good humor really was infectious.
The car leveled out so abruptly that they were both tossed back in the opposite direction. Paxton slid along his bench, this time very nearly tumbling to the floor; Trissiny managed to pivot in midair, never releasing her hold on her shield, again bracing herself with a foot against the opposite seat.
They blinked and stared at each other, both pale, and then at her boot, which had struck down directly between his legs on the edge of the bench. Had he slid six inches farther, he’d have come to grief on her greave.
“I’m sorry!” she blurted, quickly folding herself back into her own bench.
“Hah, no harm done,” he reassured her, pulling a handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and mopping his face. “Though that’s a nearer miss than I usually have before even getting off the caravan!”
“Are they always this bad?”
“Well, depends on the Rail you ride. They try to lay them in the straightest lines possible, but there are some things that cannot be carved through. It’s when the Rail has to dodge around obstacles that we have trouble! But that’s the price we pay for speed. You know, when I first started out in the Emperor’s service, the journey from Calderaas to Last Rock would have been weeks. Now, we should be there within another five minutes, and I’ll be safely to Sarasio not more than fifteen after that.”
“I believe,” Trissiny said, shifting on her seat, “I like that idea of belted seats very much, the more I think about it. Why didn’t they put those into the caravans in the first place?”
“Ah! You see, the enchantments that make these beauties run are still newfangled enough that much of the older generation doesn’t trust them, my dear. When this caravan was built, there was nobody to ride it but soldiers, Imperial agents and adventurers heading to the frontier. You know, the sort of folk who aren’t apt to put up a fuss about their safety or comfort.” He edged toward the opposite wall, getting a good grip on the handlebar and bracing both legs against her bench. “Common folks riding the Rails are a pretty new event, considering, and few enough of them take these outer lines. You’ll want to brace yourself, Ms. Avelea, we’re coming up on the worst stretch of this particular journey.”
She slid her shield against the wall opposite him, sat down on it, gripped the bar and placed a foot against the far bench. Not a moment too soon; the caravan changed course with a wrench that drew a grunt from her, even as it flattened Mr. Paxton against the other wall of the car.
What followed was even worse than her first trip down from the mountainous territory of Viridill. The Rail apparently dodged back and forth through some kind of obstacle course, yanking them first one way and then the other before they had time to compensate. She couldn’t spare the attention to try to study the passing scenery, keeping her arms and legs constantly tense against the forces seeking to toss her about the car. Paxton kept his grip on his handlebar, though at one point lost his seat and was flung full-length across the bench, still clinging to the wall, and only recovered his position upon being shoved back into it. Trissiny quickly lost track of the passage of time; her arms and legs were growing sore, and even her jaw started to ache from the effort of holding it closed. Letting it bounce was a sure way to bite off a chunk of her tongue.
As suddenly as the chaos had begun, it ended. The caravan sailed along in near silence and perfect balance, its two shaken passengers blinking at each other.
“Is it over?” she asked uncertainly.
“For the moment,” he replied, heaving himself back onto the bench with grunt; he’d not managed to avoid a tumble to the floor in the last few moments. “Whew! They really should post warnings; that’s one of the worst stretches in the entire Rail network, you know. Not much else is even half so bad.” He shifted about on his seat, straightening his rumpled clothes.
“What exactly were we dodging around?” She resettled herself, surreptitiously stretching tensed muscles. Trissiny felt a moment of envy for her trunk, safely lashed in below her seat.
“Why, that’s the Green Belt, so they call it. It’s a whole network of elven forests, separated by fairly small stretches of open grassland. Different tribes of elves, you see, and they’d worked out a solution to their border conflicts by making sure they weren’t even in the same forest. All this was long before the Empire, or even any humans living in this area.” He chuckled, dabbing sweat from his face again. “So when the first Surveyors came to find a route for the Rail, they ran into ill luck. Oh, the elves were very polite, as they always are, but dead set against letting the Rail come through any of their woodland. Finally, one poor fool lost patience and told them it would have to be done whether they liked it or not.” He laughed aloud, shaking his head. “As I heard it, they politely told him to invite the Emperor to try it.”
“I’m a little surprised he didn’t,” she replied. “The Empire conquered every other human nation on the continent, after all. Aren’t elves a bit…primitive?”
“Well, yes and no!” He smiled broadly, clearly enjoying his role as storyteller. “They’re not primitive in the sense of lacking magic and sophistication of their own; they just choose to live a little closer to nature than we do. It’s been a long time since Imperial agents chose to mistake the one for the other. For all our new magics and enchantments, the elves are something the Empire is wise not to provoke. Makes for a ghastly muddle, with them living in their own enclaves all across Imperial territory. The Surveyors finally chose to mark off the elven provinces as ‘reserves,’ and leave ’em alone.”
“Hm.” Absently, she ran a hand along the edge of her shield, pondering. “I seldom met any back home, and then only one or two at a time. They seemed rather standoffish, as a rule…”
“Anybody’ll act different traveling in foreign lands than they would at home, surrounded by kinsmen.”
“Professor Tellwyrn is an elf,” Trissiny mused.
“That she is!” Paxton nodded, grinning. “An old one, and one of the most notorious people alive of any race. Not had the pleasure of meeting her myself, and for that I can’t decide if I’m grateful or disappointed. Ah, we’re coming up on the last stretch of our run, Ms. Avelea. Hold tight now!”
She swiftly followed his instruction, but it was not nearly as bad as before. The Rail curved in another long sweep to her right, but this one much more shallow. Trissiny got a good grip on her handle and had no trouble staying seated, though the centrifugal force tried to tug her back across the bench.
“If you crane your neck a bit, Ms. Avelea, you can see your destination! I recommend it, Last Rock is quite a sight from a distance.”
Indeed it was. She had to press her cheek to the glass to manage a good view, but it was worth the minor discomfort. They were long past the hilly region surrounding Calderaas and even the elven forests; here was low, rolling scrubland, fading before her eyes into the Golden Sea up ahead, the huge and very magical stretch of prairie the occupied the heart of the continent. The Empire had encircled it entirely, but the Golden Sea was much larger within than without; some theorized one could travel into it forever, and never reach the other side. It was a territory that could not truly be explored, much less conquered, but the Emperor did the best he could, establishing a perimeter of forts and settlements along its frontier. One of these was the tiny town of Last Rock.
The town itself was a small and rather sad cluster of buildings dwarfed by the mountain from which it drew its name; rising straight up from the plain with not so much as a hill within sight, the Rock itself was tall enough to be taken seriously in most mountain ranges, and seemed utterly colossal in its flat environs. Wedge-shaped, it formed a rising prow cutting into the Golden Sea itself, falling sharply in rocky cliffs from its highest edges, but sloping up gently from the other side, in an incline that was no steeper than the average staircase. It resembled a long, narrow plateau tilted up with one edge sunk into the ground.
Now, a path ran from the town of Last Rock up toward its peak, and the upper quarter of the mountain was covered with the spires and terraces of the University. Her home for the next four years.
Trissiny eased back into her seat, against the force of the curve. They had already drawn too close for her to get a solid look at anything, and she didn’t care to look like an overeager child with her face mashed against the glass.
“Not bad, is it?” her seatmate said with a grin. “Ah, the things there are to see along this Frontier. And all over the Empire, for that matter…well, no rush. I expect you of all people will become plenty acquainted with it in time.”
“I expect so,” she murmured. As the curve of the Rail leveled out, she slid along her bench away from him, gripped her shield in one hand and braced both feet against the seat opposite. As if on cue, the caravan decelerated sharply, seeking to pitch her face-first against the front wall.
Trissiny didn’t let out her breath until the caravan finally came to a full stop with a muted squeal. Paxton sighed in unison with her, again straightening his coat. “Well, I believe this is your stop, ma’am. May I just say again that it has been an honor?”
“I appreciate your company,” she replied, this time with a genuine smile. “And the information.”
“Oh, pish tosh, just an old man’s ramblings about all the things he’s seen. Trust me, you’d find it much less interesting if you had to endure it more than once.”
She bent to unfasten her trunk and pull it out from under the seat, exchanging a grin with him one more time as she slung her shield onto her back.
“Still…it was a much better journey than the last one. May I offer you a blessing Mr. Paxton?”
His grin vanished at once into a nearly awestruck expression. “Oh! Well, that is…if—if you feel it’s… I mean, I’d be honored.”
Smiling, Trissiny reached across the narrow compartment to place a hand on his brow, not minding the sweat in his hair. A soft golden glow rose about them, seemingly from the air itself; she felt her own aches washing away in proximity to the divine power, though it was merely being channeled through her, and into the man beneath her palm.
“Peace and Justice be upon you, friend,” she intoned softly, hearing the resonance in her voice of the Goddess echoing, “and Avei watch your path.”
Trissiny let her hand fall, enjoying the serenity that always came in the aftermath of calling on Avei. Heywood Paxton’s face held an expression of almost childlike wonder.
“I…I swear you took ten years off me. Ms. Avelea, I don’t know how to…”
“Just be as kind to the next person you travel with, as well,” she replied.
“Oh, that I shall. This has been a real gift, ma’am… A very rare privilege.” He trailed off, seeming at a loss for words for once.
With a final smile at him, Trissiny pushed open the compartment door and stepped out onto the platform of Last Rock.