I rose with the sun. The light of a new day always brought relief, but today my feelings were more complex. Thanks to my hand, I had slept fitfully. Though the pain was centred on my injury, discomfort and wrongness suffused my body. My head felt both too big and too small, and my thoughts kept getting crowded together and lost in a void. The confusion of half-remembered dreams did not help. Or were they half-dreamed memories?
I staggered out of my bunk, narrowly avoiding being flattened by Chalice. Her bunk was above mine, and she seemed altogether too excited to start the day.
"I can barely believe it! You, receiving a boon from the Clerics! It is a boon, right? It would have to be a boon, to get healing for your hand. You really must tell me the whole story!" she said in the loudest whisper humanly possible.
"Cool it, or you are sure to blow a safety valve," I said in a whisper better suited to the early hour. "You were right about the boon though." I stopped talking so I could slip into a grey house dress.
"And?" Chalice asked, somehow already dressed for morning chores.
I shook my head, partially as a non-answer, and partially to prepare my hair for a quick brushing. Thankfully my brown hair was only a little wavy, compared to Chalice's black hair which was curly and much harder to care for. Hers was never as messy as Chynella's though. "Later," I said softly. There would be trouble if we woke anyone earlier than scheduled.
It was easy to flow through my morning routine. Everything was carefully scheduled and specified down to the last brass tack. I had enough breathing room between washing last night's dishes and dusting the ceiling fans to take a few minutes changing the bandage on my hand. This should be the last time I had to look at the pair of angry red gashes. The injury was born of my own carelessness, inflicted by a wire safety fence.
When I peeled back the cotton bandage, I saw three scratches.
The new injury was shallow, and only barely covered by the edge of the bandage.
I concluded that I must have scratched myself in my sleep.
Mechanically, I cleaned the wound, slathered it with Mother's rather pungent herbal salve, and rewrapped it with a fresh bandage.
"...but I still do not understand what happened to the train," Chalice was saying. I had been relaying the main facts of last night's story to her as we worked. She was occupied preparing a hot breakfast for Father and our older brothers, who would soon be returning from outdoor chores. This left her free to interrogate me.
I gave my answer while packing away the medical supplies. "It was being transferred between tracks, and a wagon was halfway over the crossover when the switch was pulled back to the straight position. Due to the shallow angle, the length of the crossover track between the switches is somewhat longer than a wagon, which means that as the train was pushed, the affected wagon was pushed into a much steeper sideways angle than designed and the couplings broke. The pressure lines would have been severed too, which normally would have caused the brakes to come on automatically. No one mentioned the air brakes, which seemed odd to me, but then I remembered that Mr. Friche mentioned a potentially faulty weld. The only model of lumber wagons in use in Forrester's Crossing that might have such a problem is the BLC-9 lumber wagon. I remember reading that their airbrake springs were due for replacement but due to the fall of Nearton's Bend..." I paused to take a deep breath, as if I had a lot more to say on the topic.
Chalice looked like she had attempted drinking lemon juice. "Forget I asked," she said, as I had hoped. "Why do you even know all that?"
I stood up straight with my shoulders back and recited, "The Codex of Purity, Section Ten: Maintaining Integrity of Transport. Preface: The maintenance of an orderly and safe railway network is the reponsibility of each and every Pure person. The railway is of special and particular importance to the Great Maker, and so must it be for his people, the faithful people of the sun and the day. To abandon the railway is to abandon the Great Maker. To damage the railway is to commit violence against the Great Maker and against the Sacred Family."
"Practicing lines? You know we are not in section ten for morning catechism, right?" Chastity asked. I hadn't noticed her arrival in the kitchen.
"Why are you here?" I asked pointedly.
"To do the will of the Great Maker, his clerics, my father, and my mother," she said with overstated solemnity which mocked my own. "In particular, to get some fruit puree. The baby is awake and hungry."
"Cherish," I said, because I felt like correcting Chastity.
"Does it even matter? It was Chace, now we have Cherish, soon there will be another name to remember. I am here to get baby food for the baby, regardless of what he or she is called this time."
"That is no way to speak about your own siblings," I said, trying to copy the stern tone I heard Mother use on rare occasions.
"Chastity Gertrude Wilison." That was Mother. She was using the tone.
"Yes Mother," Chastity said, but Mother was not finished.
"Chalice Aura Wilison. Charity Marion Wilison. None of you are working."
I winced upon hearing my full middle name. Just 'Mari' was fine, but I utterly despised hearing 'Marion'. 'Mari' was it's own unique word which did not sound like anything else, while 'Marion' sounded like someone had combined 'marrying' with 'carrion'. That was a strange combination. Though it was something I had thought of long after knowing that I disliked the name.
"Sorry, Mother," we all said in unison. Barely. Chastity had needed to nudge me with her foot. I hoped Mother had not noticed.
Mother settled Cherish into the high chair and fastened a bib around her neck. The bib was embroidered with a row of utterly boring pine trees. "Back to work with you. No more chatter."
We nodded together, and Chastity handed over a jar of steamed apples. I fled the scene in search of a dusting rag.
The rest of the morning was unremarkable, besides feeling interminably long. I quickly grew to miss my sisters' annoying distractions. Without their banter, I was crisply aware of every second that separated me and my healing.
Five hours later — actually, it was only two hours — I was temporarily freed from the echoing plain of mental solitude. It was replaced with the grinding drudgery of marking mathematics exercises. Problems aimed at nine and seven year olds were so easy to check that it was a struggle to pay attention to what I was doing. Once that was done, I had the marginally better task of wrangling Chester and the twins through corrections. Explaining where they had gone wrong was actually enjoyable when it succeeded, and before I knew it, it was time to prepare to go in to town.
I changed into one of my nicest dresses. It was a deep brown which actually looked good on me and was tailored specifically to fit, unlike the dull grey house dress. The rich colour was broken up by a regular pattern of small geometric shapes the colour of cream. While it was not as pretty as a flowery dress, I found the simpler pattern comforting. I spent some time ensuring my hair sat right under a bonnet chosen to complement the dress, then even longer on my makeup. It had to be absolutely perfect. Any woman with noticeable makeup was subtley — or not so subtley — shamed for attempting to exceed her natural Maker-given beauty, or worse. But any woman who failed to wear any makeup... that was even worse.
When I was sure my appearance was acceptable without actually being notable, I busied myself preparing lunch for those who would remain home. Chalice had already finished her prepartions, but her attention was fully taken by an embroidery project. A mere ten minutes before we had to be out the front door, Father, Channing, and Champion ran inside, muttering about some piece of troublesome equipment. They were somehow clean and dressed in town clothes in the space of five minutes. Then Chalice and I found ourselves being told to 'hurry up' so we could leave.
We followed a very familiar route into town. Out the front door, straight along the path, right at the railroad tracks, past various fenced-in fields, across the bridge, along the paved road, second road to the left, after the railyard.
"The rail crew has already repaired the damage from the magical attack," Father said as we passed by the place where the bridge had almost been destroyed. "Freight service to the north has already been restored. Passenger service is still pending clerical safety inspection. Passenger service to the south is unbroken, though there have been some timetable changes due to the lack of service from the north. But there will already be visitors here for the ceremony, and there will be another train in and out before noon, for those who plan to arrive before it happens. Or leave before it happens."
Our destination was a short walk downhill, on the left side of the street. The blacksmith. It was not the only one in town, but it was the largest, and the only one known as the blacksmith. Noon, the sun's zenith, was when our solar ovens and boilers were at their hottest. It was a moment of ceremonial significance. It was the moment when the interloper would be sent on, and that could only happen at the blacksmith.
I wondered whether I would see Mister Dro, or if he had already left with his repaired bike. This was not a good time for an outsider. I hoped I had not sent him into trouble.
I also hoped he was not trouble which I had sent.
There were a dozen different reasons why giving him directions may have been a terrible idea.
Not giving him directions might not have made any difference. Or it may have. In any case, I really ought to have admitted that I had done so to Father. But since I desperately needed that boon...
I only hoped that whatever had happened, Mister Dro had not mentioned my name.
"There's Ruth! And Justine's with her," Chalice said, spotting two of her friends in the gathering crowd around the blacksmith. It was a merry day, with tables of food and trinkets for sale. Everyone here was in high spirits and ready to show off their style, their status, and especially their devoutness.
Chalice barely avoided creating a wake of dust as she joined her friends. Father towed his grown sons in another direction, spotting some business partners to talk about manly things with. I was left alone and wondering where to go. For a moment, I almost wished Chastity was with us.
"Charity! It is so wonderful to see you!" said a very familiar voice from the crowd. I recognised that perfect smile, those perfectly shaped eyes, that perfectly coiffed hair resting on an amazing handmade shawl.
It was Kim, a woman just a few months older than me. My best friend. According to almost everyone.
Now I really wished Chastity was with us.