Brandon woke to the sound of a polite, forceful knock at the door of his compartment. The sound of muffled voices in the passage of the train car were too indistinct to make out in its entirety but he picked up the voice of the conductor saying, “very full,” “no vacancies” and “very personable.” A second voice replied but the only thing Brandon caught was “sleep.”
Brandon gently moved his sister’s head off of his shoulder, taking care not to interrupt her rest, and propped her in the corner of the compartment’s north couch then he got to his feet with equal care. After years traveling the Columbian West he was as used to standing on a flying train as stable ground. The train felt momentarily odd under his feet, not bucking and swaying, which meant they must have come to a station while he was sleeping.
The conductor greeted him with his customary attempt at a cheerful smile, the round man’s salt and pepper beard splitting into an unpleasant display of teeth and gums. “Mr. Fairchild, I hope you’re having a pleasant evening.”
“Pleasant enough, sir. May I ask where we’re grounded?”
“Sanford’s Run,” the conductor replied. “I was hoping to talk to you about your compartment.”
“You’d like us to share.” Brandon didn’t phrase it as a question. In fact it was something they’d been asked to do several times while crossing the West.
The conductor stepped to one side, revealing a shortish man in a well tailored but weathered brown suit and a battered derby hat with a set of heavy leather saddlebags slung over one shoulder. “This gentleman transferred to this line on his way to Hardwick station and asked for a private compartment, but I’m afraid they’re all occupied.”
“And we’re two in a compartment that seats four,” Brandon said.
“If you don’t want to share I can easily close my eyes in a public car,” the newcomer said. “It’s barely eight hours to Hardwick, I can find a hotel there to catch up on my sleep.”
“Not at all necessary,” Brandon said, reaching back to open the door to the compartment. “Happy to share. I’m Brandon Fairchild.”
“Roy Harper.” He followed just behind Brandon, setting his battered saddlebags on the compartment’s southern couch across from Cassandra. Harper’s glance fell on her and a glint of sharp interest appeared in his eyes. He swiveled to study Brandon, then back to Cassie. “Your sister?”
It wasn’t hard to make that connection, to be honest. They had the same round face, though she wore it better than he did, and the same straight, dirty blonde hair, and they were only three years apart in age. But Brandon let that fact pass, only saying, “So she is.”
The sharp look vanished and Harper grunted. “You don’t sound like any Columbian I’ve met,” he said as he settled onto the other couch. “You two from Avalon? Maybe somewhere on the Continent?”
“We’re Avaloni.” Brandon sat as well. “We’ve been taking the sights of your lovely country for some time now.”
Harper nodded lazily. “Then you don’t need me to tell you to watch your back. The West isn’t very hospitable to anyone, I’m afraid.”
With that Harper leaned back on the couch, pulled his hat down over his face and was asleep before the sky train lifted off ten minutes later. Brandon marveled at the accomplishment. Even after a year and a half of regular travel by sky train, falling asleep on one was a challenge for him. Harper didn’t even stir during the rough takeoff procedures.
Cassie wasn’t so lucky, starting awake as the train lurched off the ground with a deep, haunting whistle blast. She looked around, eyes bleary, but took Harper’s sudden appearance in the compartment in stride. In a soft tone she murmured, “We have a guest.”
“He came on at the last station,” Brandon said. “Seems harmless enough and he’s planning on getting off at the next station. Speaking of plans, any new insights?”
She shook her head, turning glum. “Nothing. I know we were supposed to take this train but still no idea of when we should get off.” Cassandra took a deep breath and slowly let it out, then wiped her face with her handkerchief. “Sometimes I wonder if this trip is a waste of time.”
“Well it’s only three days back to Stillwater and the Coastal Express, if we turn around at the next station,” Brandon said in a comforting tone. “Maybe you’ll catch wind of a new tune to run down.”
But his sister wasn’t having it. “Not this train. The entire trip. In two weeks I’ll be seventeen and still chasing half heard echoes through the middle of nowhere.”
Brandon shifted uncomfortably and eyed Harper on the opposite couch. The newcomer looked like he was still asleep but Brandon pitched his voice even softer still. “No one questioned your calling at the time, Cassie. Not you, not even Father. What’s changed between now and then?”
“We left home nearly two years ago. We’ve been running around Columbia for more than a year and a half and we’re still empty handed. What have we accomplished, besides nearly getting killed half a dozen times?” Under normal circumstances Cassie could have laughed that off. Under stress her shortcomings would anger her and motivate her to set them right. But today for some reason she sounded outright despondent and it worried him.
So Brandon put his arm over her shoulder and pulled her in tight. “Cassie. You know this whole thing is just a lark for me. Almost no one gets sent out a questing these days, but you got a genuine revelation and I got a chance to get out of sleepy old Avalon and see the world. Sure, I have to see it with my least favorite sister-”
“-but everything requires some sacrifice.” He could see his teasing wasn’t having the desired effect. He adjusted to a more serious tone. “You have a chance to really accomplish something here, Cassie. The search hasn’t been easy so far but I’m sure, if you stick it out, you’ll finish quite well.”
“Making myself a spinster in the process.” It was a line of thought they’d covered often in the last six months.
Unfortunately Brandon didn’t have a single sensible reply to it. So he tucked his sister in a little closer and rubbed her back in a comforting fashion. At this point there was little left to be said on the topic for either of them.
So they sat in silence and lost themselves in the rocking of the train, tuning out questions, doubts and the presence of a total stranger as they slowly drifted off to sleep.
Only to jolt awake as a scream cut through the train car. Brandon reached up and grasped the hilt of his saber, resting on the baggage shelf overhead, and looked to the door of the compartment. To his surprise he saw Roy Harper already standing there, pulling on a pair of dueling gloves. Brandon struggled to his feet and pulled his sword from under his carpet bag still sheathed. “Hear anything, Mr. Harper?”
“Nothing,” Harper replied. “Stay in here, I’ll go and take a look.”
Brandon pulled his hip satchel off the shelf and selected an eighteen inch stick of yew from inside it and tucked it into his belt of woven roots. “Stay? Why’s that?”
“What are you planning to do if you come?” Harper asked.
“Render aid. If necessary, break up a fight or do a little of it myself.” Brandon glanced at Roy’s left side meaningfully. “What exactly are you planning to do if it comes to that?”
Harper snorted, checked the fit of his gloves and twitched his suit jacket aside just long enough to draw a black dagger from a hip sheath concealed beneath. It had the look of iron, although it was hard to be sure and with the metal’s magic killing properties Brandon was in no hurry to find out. “I can take care of myself. And more importantly, I can take care of this. It’s kind of my job.”
And he pulled a circular medallion with a star made of crisscrossing railway tracks from one pocket and dropped it around his neck before stepping out into the passage way. Brandon glanced at Cassie. “A railway inspector. I was not expecting that.”
“I admit, he doesn’t exactly fit with the others we’ve met,” she said. “Are we going to wait here?”
“Have we ever?”
But Cassie was already getting to her feet and the two of them followed Harper out into the hall.