One Last Quest, Part Four

The station rang with the song of the rail. The magic of the thing was so great, so powerful, that none could fail to see it, no matter how dull their sense of such things might be. No sorcerer would dare to open a third eye here, so close to one of the lines of force that sizzled across Rothganar. Even to normal vision, the rail was a rope of light thick as a man’s wrist, flickering now red, now violet. If one watched long enough, eventually he would see every color known pass through the rail, from palest peach to deepest blue.

Lachlan had parked his chair at the end of a weathered wood bench, which nonetheless glistened with polish. The work of some unfortunate Movanar, no doubt, just like the perfect, gleaming windows behind him: ten feet high if they were an inch, from the top of the wainscoting to the bottom of the eaves, all along the side of the station.

They’d been inside a while ago, he and Cathal, to buy tickets to Dreamport. Now Lachlan sat half in shadow, half in sun, watching the traffic go by and waiting for his valet to return with the baggage. At first, he’d perhaps childishly resisted the idea of Cathal’s going back alone, but Cathal had impressed on him the difficulty of taking him up the mountainside only to bear him back down again, and he’d agreed to stay here.

Cathal was taking ages, but he supposed it could have been worse. He might be staring at the walls again. The same walls he’d stared at for decades, the faded tapestries and hangings, the patchy velvet bed curtains, everything worn, slowly decaying as he watched, the depredations of time staved off by the desultory efforts of chambermaids. The Palace was behind him, behind the station, blocking the sinking sun, but here there was light and the hope for more.

Lachlan was under eyes, quick darting glances or gazes that couldn’t seem to move away from him, but he didn’t care. There were children here. He’d forgotten how much he liked them, other than Adeon. Somber or smiling or wailing, dragging their feet, skipping, running, holding their parents’ hands… Once a little girl stopped, staring out of soft brown eyes at Lachlan’s face, and she opened her mouth to say something, but her mother hurried her along with a fearful expression.

It depressed him—he would have liked to speak with her—but only for a moment. It was enough to watch. Children’s voices never rang through the halls of the Palace; they were quickly shushed and sent to the nursery. Devnet would have shushed them. As well he hadn’t married her. And he had a trove of lovely memories of human children from his few short years with his friends. Rex had had a small son. If only Lachlan had been in any shape to see how the boy fared.

He would be an old man now. What a missed opportunity! Sad and sorry, Lachlan was, a wreck of himself—but perhaps there was still a chance, perhaps he could track down Rex’s son. All he wanted was a chance.

It was full dark by the time Cathal reappeared, puffing and laden with baggage. “Did we miss it?”

“It isn’t that late yet,” Lachlan said, smiling in spite of himself. “It won’t come until midnight. Why ever did you bring so many bags?”

“You never know.” Cathal settled on the end of the bench next to Lachlan’s chair.

Hardly anyone waited for the train just now, but those who did gave Lachlan a wide berth, which he tried not to mind. “Any minute now,” he said, dropping the subject of Cathal’s overzealous packing, and didn’t mention at all the behavior of the others.

“What’s Dreamport like?” the valet asked eagerly, when “any minute” had come and gone.

“Haven’t you been there?”

Cathal’s mouth thinned. “You know nobody leaves. Especially not my kind. I’m bound to my master and to the land.”

“You haven’t been to any of the other kingdoms, then.”

“Never served anyone who’d go,” he said, almost apologetic.

“I’m sorry they foisted me on you.”

“That’s all right.” He smiled. “When I was younger, they had me with the Dowager Duchess of Morning’s Last Touch. She didn’t even go into the garden while she could—and then she couldn’t anymore. She didn’t last long though,” he added. “And then they gave me to you.”

“I suppose it could be worse.” Lachlan didn’t quite believe it. Shackling a young fellow to an ancient woman, and then to a broken wreck? It didn’t seem fair. They might have given him someone older, more settled in mind, rather than a man in the prime of life. Surely Cathal had more use elsewhere than he did to Lachlan! Another monstrous injustice of the High Ones to the Little.

“Beg your pardon, Lord, but it could be much worse, and that doesn’t bear talking about, if you don’t mind.”

Lachlan said nothing. It was only the truth. The High Ones did as they pleased with the Little Ones, for no reason discernible to him other than that they could. The Revanar had the magic; rare was the Movanar with power to challenge even a Revanar child. He hadn’t thought much of it before he’d left, but only a few months out from Green Glaciers he’d seen it with a clearer eye, and it disgusted him beyond telling. He could easily loathe his own blood—loathe himself, for though he’d never been purposefully cruel to the serfs of the People, he hadn’t been kind, either.

They didn’t speak again for above an hour. When the rail began to crackle with colorful lightnings, Cathal sat forward eagerly. “Soon,” Lachlan told him.

“Will it be?” Cathal watched, intent. The lightnings grew stronger, more spectacular, blazing with color and setting off miniature thunderclaps in the chill night air.

“It will.” Lachlan waved a hand at the rail, not that he needed to indicate the display. “They’re braking the train, on up the line. It travels very quickly, and the rail keeps drawing it on even while it’s at rest. Takes tremendous energy to stop it. Only the best sorcerers can pilot the trains—but I suppose you know all that.” He grimaced again. It was as bad as old times. Get him talking, and he’d go on for ages.

“I didn’t. They don’t teach you that at lessons—and after you’re through with lessons there’s no time.”

“Have you ridden before?”

Cathal shook his head. “When I came back from Morning’s Last Touch, they gave me a pony.”

“You’re in for a treat then.”

As if on cue, the train slithered into the station. Every train was fashioned to look like a different animal; this one was a great silvery snake, with massive peridot gems for its eyes. Each scale was a separate piece over the tubes of the carriages themselves, made by hand with utmost precision, and inlaid with sweeps of tiny runes that continued seamlessly all over the train. Cathal leapt to his feet as passengers debarked. “I’ll take the bags,” he said, “and come back for you. All right?”

Lachlan snorted and rolled himself forward. “I have wheels, remember? It wouldn’t do to leave on a quest and be carried to the train. Give me one of those bags.”

Laughing, Cathal put a small, heavy chest in Lachlan’s lap, and together they crossed the platform. Porters lifted the wheeled chair onto the train, directly into a carriage with an empty compartment. Lachlan rolled carefully down the low-lit, narrow hallway carpeted in deep green, leaving twin tracks in the plush pile.

They settled in the compartment. There were glass windows to the outside, and a glass door for access from the inside, so that Lachlan couldn’t avoid the sight of himself except by staring at a point on the wall just above Cathal’s head. Even then, his peripheral vision didn’t allow much relief.

He looked into his lap, allowing his hair to fall over his face. The train hummed beneath him, eager to be off again, if objects could be eager; the line’s power drew forward against the great charms and the power of the pilot holding the vehicle back. Cathal stood at the window, between the seats, trying to peer past his reflection into the darkness beyond.

“You’ll want to sit down,” said Lachlan.

“Why?” Cathal asked, and the next moment the train leapt forward like a racehorse. He fell heavily against the black leather seat, bounced off, and landed on the floor. “Oh, I see,” he said, and started to laugh.

Lachlan tried to suppress his own laughter, but in the face of Cathal’s, it welled out of him.

Once he’d grown accustomed to the motion of the train—in no time at all, it was so smooth—the valet rose from the soft carpet on the floor and flopped into the seat next to Lachlan. “I can’t believe we’re really going,” Cathal said. “I can’t wait to see it. Is it true there’s a huge tree in the center?”

“The City Redwood, yes. Nearly as tall as the crater’s walls. Its shadow sweeps around the city each day. A powerful shaman—a tulua—attends to its needs. When they had a human guardian, the tree began to fail, and the same thing when the guardian was male…”

Lachlan went on at length, answering the questions Cathal peppered him with, but then the valet asked him about his old life. He deflected the questions with the vaguest responses he could think of, and afterward, before Cathal could press him, feigned a huge yawn.

They fell silent, and Cathal fell asleep, but Lachlan did not. His thoughts tangled, a deep bramble undergrowth spiked with thorns: this way the Movanar, that way his past, until he was utterly lost in a terrifying place with no egress, and he succumbed again to the cold of Yehoram’s cave.

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