The train was necessitated by the fact that we didn’t have a better way to get to the Boundless Pit. There was a touchstone only about twenty minutes' walk from the Boundless Pit, but using our teleportation key to get there would have basically required us to kill a dozen guards and make ourselves conspicuous, while buying passage for five to get there would have opened us up for quite a bit of scrutiny from the aforementioned guards. The keys were very valuable, so the system had a lot of checks, balances, and overall paranoia built into it.
Trains, on the other hand, were transportation for the common people, with tickets available in exchange for a relatively small amount of cash, and documents that were simple enough for us to acquire. Fenn had been gearing up to quickly find someone to forge them for us in the morning before the train was set to depart, but I reminded her that I’d seen Forgery as a skill in her soul, and sure enough, with help from the clonal kit for supplies, she was able to make something she thought would be passably authentic, at least given the level of scrutiny we expected to face. She seemed a bit perturbed by the whole thing; I think getting better with a bow was something she saw as a boon, but having a new skill from nowhere as part of me leveling up was too much outside interference with her skillset. Unearned skill was old hat for me, but it was still new to her.
The train ride would take us two days, but we’d stop right on the doorstep of the Boundless Pit, and in theory, getting down to Kuum Doona would be the work of a day, maybe less, and the time chamber would ideally get us Solace back within the space of a day. At a projected four days, it was the fastest route to getting her back, and from there, hopefully stabilizing the locus’ domain.
(Interestingly, air travel was pretty rare on Aerb. The train lines had been built around Uther’s time, as one of the major works of the First Empire which continued until long after his disappearance and even through the collapse of the First Empire itself. Railways lubricated trade like nothing else, especially because their construction and maintenance was prioritized over the building and fixing of roads. In some sense, the railroads destroyed cultures and institutions, because they made obsolete dozens if not hundreds of different methods of transportation. A large, domesticated, flightless bird had been used as a pack animal for centuries, and was suddenly supplanted by the rails. The ley-line network of a far-north kingdom became unprofitable, and when the funds dried up, the magic did too. The tradition of river-rafting that had existed among the five kingdoms along the Lyra River collapsed within two generations, and this was in fact pointed to by historians as being a key factor in the development of a state of perpetual warfare in the region.
It wasn’t too long after the railways had finished establishing their stranglehold on transportation of goods that bulk teleportation arrived and almost completely destroyed rail. The saving grace was that living things couldn’t be teleported using that method, which meant that both a select fraction of freight and all passenger transport were still viable. Railway operators, public and private, did their best to switch over, and while some of them shuttered because the reason for their construction was virtually eliminated overnight, the Aerbian railway business as a whole was able to stay afloat, and passenger rail was the beneficiary of what had happened to freight.
There were a few reasons that air travel never really took off. The local equivalent of the Hall–Héroult process of aluminum processing came late in their technological advancement, which meant that cheap aluminum post-dated airplanes by long enough that a huge amount of infrastructure, processes, and institutions had already been built up, all to the standards of much heavier aircraft that were specialized for heavier loads over shorter distances, mostly meant for certain categories of freight that couldn’t go through bulk teleport, or for particular routes that trains weren’t good enough for. Aerb didn’t have the technological capability to build the kinds of aircraft that we had on Earth, but they did have the ability to build lighter-than-air aluminum passenger craft -- but it wasn’t at enough of an advantage to overcome the entrenched system of passenger rail, nor to compel the necessary retrofitting that the existing air systems used.
All that was without getting into the political considerations of the Draconic Confederacy. Dragons existed on Aerb, great and powerful creatures of incredible age, just the way I liked them, greedy, indulgent, obsessive, and at least a little bit smart. There were only about five hundred of them on Aerb, but they had a loose union, one which had formed in response to the foundation of the First Empire by Uther. They had relatively few common interests, but one of them was the belief that the skies of Aerb unequivocally belonged to the dragons, and everyone else flew at their pleasure. In practical terms, this meant that flights didn’t just have to go through the Aerbian equivalent of air traffic control, they also needed to be cleared with the dragons, which operated with all the efficiency you would expect of centuries-old institutions attempting to interface with each other. This wasn’t just a question of bureaucracy; some of the worst disasters in Aerbian aviation history were caused by dragons going after improperly cleared flights, which was obviously the kind of thing that had a chilling effect on passenger air travel.
(Also, there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to have to fight a dragon at some point, but that thankfully seemed like it was going to be a long time coming.))
We got to the station and selected the Lion’s Tail in mid-afternoon, and after a somewhat tense inspection of our legitimate tickets and illegitimate papers, we found our rooms, which given how late we’d been in booking our tickets, were spread out all across the train. Grak was on his own, in what the ticket agent had called a roomette, while Fenn and I had one room together, and Amaryllis and Val had another a few cars away. The train started to move, and I was treated to a rapidly receding view of Cranberry Bay. For certain stretches of our trip, the train would be going more than a hundred miles an hour, tracing the Lion's Mane, a geographical feature that looked a little bit like a lion's head if you squinted and tilted your head a bit, water making up the face and land making up the mane, with enormous islands making up a few features of the 'face' -- eyes, nose, mouth, and archipelagos that might have been whiskers. You really had to squint though.
“What do you mean you’ve never been on a train before?” asked Fenn as we sat down in the lounge chairs in our room. My eyes kept going around the room, looking at the combination of leather and woodwork, and the thick glass in the window that I was sure would turn deadly-sharp the moment it cracked. Everything was so solid, steel-framed and padded, like whoever had built the train realized the power the soul engines were capable of and decided to go hog wild. “You said that they have trains on Earth.”
“They do,” I replied. “Passenger trains, even. But where I’m from, the rail lines are mostly used for freight, and if you need to get anywhere, you go by car. That’s not how it is all over the world though, it mostly has to do with the technology at the time the cities were being built and some structural forces, I think. It’s not really common to take a train as transport. I doubt that most of the people from my hometown have ever taken one.”
“Best way to travel,” said Fenn. “Calm, relaxing, there are always lots of people to see and annoy, you get to fall asleep to the rumble and sway -- did you know that I’ve never had sex on a train?”
“Funny coincidence,” I said with a smile. “I haven’t either.”
But before we could do anything about that, Amaryllis showed up, with Valencia in tow.
“Is our room going to be the meeting room?” asked Fenn with a frown.
“We need to discuss things in private somewhere, your room is the midpoint,” said Amaryllis. She had shelved the immobility plate for the time being, mostly because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself, and was dressed in a very conservative navy blue outfit. The collar covered her neck almost entirely, while the long sleeves covered her arms, and a patterned navy blue dress went down to just above solid-looking black boots. She’d changed her hair yet again, using Grak’s axe to grow it out, dying it a dark brown that bordered on black, and then putting it up in a bun.
Valencia was in a very similar outfit, the blues of it lighter, and the cut a little different, but with the same overall effect. We’d dyed her hair the same dark brown, and fixed her eyes with some blue contact lenses -- not the kind that you’d find on Earth, since these were made of very precisely ground glass, and the coloration was a tint that affected her vision and ended up making her irises look purple. It wasn’t quite the best that we could do as far as disguising her true nature, but it was close.
“Is there anything in particular that we need to discuss now?” asked Fenn. “Joon and I were in the middle of something. Or rather, we were about to be.”
Amaryllis pursed her lips. “We need to be on guard,” she said. “Val and I have finished our survey of the train, at least as best as we were able to. There are twenty-five cars in total, more than we could properly cover, but at least a few passengers of note, and one of which really concerns me. She’s a princess.”
“Anglecynn?” I asked, tensing. The Lost King’s Court was home to a plethora of princes and princesses, most of whom would probably be able to identify Amaryllis, maybe even through her disguise, and most of them that didn’t want her dead for their own purposes would be perfectly willing to sell her out. Amaryllis had a few allies among her kin, but none of them steadfast enough that she wanted to take the risk in going to them, especially not if we were putting off reclaiming her position within the government of Anglecynn (on an indefinite basis, which made me feel guilty, but it was what it was).
“No,” said Amaryllis. “Not that bad. She’s tuung, returning to her homeland after training at the athenaeum. She and her entourage are taking up the first three cars.”
The tuung were a frog-like people with wide mouths, enormous eyes, slick skin that was usually blue or grey, and a constant need for water that meant if you ever saw one, it was almost certain to be carrying around a tank on its back, some tubing, and mister. As far as the mortal species went, they weren’t terribly well-liked, which partly had to do with the fact that their moistness had to be accommodated (they left wet chairs and damp books in their wake), and partly had to do with a philosophy that most of them shared, which was “the supremacy of existence”, which boiled down to the idea that it was better to exist than not exist, even if existence meant pain and suffering (and yes, this included existence in the hells). Individual tuung could be members of the Empire of Common Cause, if they were citizens of a member nation, but the three largest (and loosely-aligned) tuung polities were independent, with a few points of tension between them and the Empire.
“Okay, so this train’s got two princesses on it,” said Fenn with a shrug. “Not sure how much this has to do with us.”
“I’m a princess,” said Valencia. Her eyebrows were knit together and she had a studious expression.
“In what way are you possibly a princess?” asked Fenn with a laugh.
“Fallatehr was among the wahtepeh, which means that as his only daughter I would become part of the wahtepeh on my fortieth birthday,” said Valencia. She spoke carefully and clearly, as though she had memorized it. “That makes me a princess.”
“Absolutely not,” said Fenn, shaking her head. “A full quarter of the elves are wahtepeh, more if you’re a moon elf, and it’s not even really a noble class, it’s more like … landowners, I guess, at least for the wood elves, I think it’s similar for the moon elves. Sorry, but if we follow your logic, then I’m a princess.”
“Oh, you’re a princess?” I asked with a smile.
“It’s the wrong word?” asked Valencia. She glanced to Amaryllis.
“It’s a question of translation,” said Amaryllis, folding her arms across her chest. “The wahtepeh have a position of most-senior that confers certain rights, and in the early days of human-elf relations, that most-senior person, the wahtep was styled as the king by humans who didn’t really know better. Because the position moves to the most-senior member of the community, you could both become what Anglish considers to be a queen, except that you haven’t reached the age of majority. Historically, it wouldn’t have been out of the question for both of you to be styled a princess, especially if you were close to assuming the title of wahtep, but in the modern era we’d probably just use the elven word instead.”
Grak had entered the room while she was talking, let in, after a discreet knock, by Valencia. Our room had just enough space for the five of us, and only because the beds were folded up and out of the way.
“What is the relevance of this discussion?” asked Grak.
“There’s a princess aboard this train,” said Fenn. “Mary seems to think that means trouble.”
“Ah,” said Grak. “Because we are all princesses?”
“What?” I asked, staring at him.
“Prince, in my case,” said Grak with a slight nod. “Though Anglish genders are inaccurate and used as convenience.”
“Wait,” I said. “I’m sorry, but … you’re a princess?”
“Or prince,” said Grak with a nod. He looked to Amaryllis. “It is the title that would historically have been bestowed on me in Anglish.” He paused. “King, or Queen, now.”
“Is your father --” I began.
“I do not wish to speak of it,” said Grak. He breathed loudly through his wide nostrils, and from the movement of his beard, I thought he probably had his teeth clenched.
“The dwarves at Darili Irid have a system of ‘most pure’,” said Amaryllis, pivoting away from whatever it was that Grak didn’t want to say about his father. “Darili Irid was founded by a single dwarf who had six children through parthenogenesis, and over the course of a few generations and some outsiders coming in, most of them diverged away from being much like the founder, aside from a single line, which Grak is the end result of.” She turned to Grak. “Do I have that right?”
He nodded. “It is a common system among single-founder clans. There would otherwise be risk of drift.”
“So from a certain perspective, the kharass is composed almost entirely of princesses,” said Amaryllis. “And given the criteria you’ve outlined for a potential new companion, I thought that I would bring this particular princess to your attention.”
“But she’s …” I stopped, trying to gather my thoughts, which had been scattered all over the place. “She’s, ah, got an escort with her? Sorry, also, the locus isn’t a princess by any possible definition of the word, right?”
“I didn’t see her,” said Amaryllis. “I only heard about her from some of the staff aboard the train. They’re keeping her under lock and key until we reach the Boundless Pit, and from what I’ve heard, she has far more of an armed guard than this trip would appear to warrant. There was some speculation that she was either being held and transported home against her will, or that they expected some kind of trouble, though it’s unclear what form that would take.”
“Mary has been an incurable gossip,” said Valencia with a small smile. I smiled back at her, and she beamed at me.
“You think that it smells like plot,” I said. “She smells like a companion, the circumstances reek of a quest, and it’s all happening right when we’re taking a trip in the same direction, one which will involve the tuung in one way or another?”
“I know that you felt like your conversation with the Dungeon Master was a revelation,” said Amaryllis.
“We’ve dodged obvious plot points before,” I said. This was something that I had been trying to get across to her the night before; sometimes things cropped up and then just never got used, that was in the nature of a tabletop game, and once I had tried to step back and see things through that lens, it really did seem like there were a few times the seams had shown. Sure, there might be a princess on this train, and she might even be a plot thread, but that didn’t mean that we had to go chasing her down. I had twenty-three open quests at the moment, which was enough to convince me that I had at least some leeway, even if it was unplotlike.
“We’ll consider this a test case then,” said Amaryllis with a nod. “I just thought that you should know. We’ll see whether we can get through the next forty-eight hours without getting into trouble.”