“Are you sure this is going to work?”
“I’ve never had any trouble. We’ll be fine.”
Mist is rising off the river, an ethereal haze in the early morning light. In the distance, the sun has finally crested the horizon, its warming rays still feeling all too distant in chilly air Seri’s threadbare clothes are poorly suited to. Somewhere in the trees above them a cranky songbird is chirping. Feranya’s leaning on a signpost, idly smoking a cigarette. One arrow, marked with “Sudra” and “Kethrana,” points east; another points west, its jagged Seprenese characters illegible beneath several layers of tagging.
“And if we’re not fine?” Seri clutches her wrist nervously. “If they have better security here? If you made a mistake with the passbooks? There’s so much could go wrong. Maybe—” She hesitates. “Maybe we should just walk after all—”
“Seri.” Feranya takes her gently by the shoulder. “If we try to walk, even if we stay off the Highway, we’ll get swept up in Vigilant patrols. Especially after what happened last night. They have horses and thousands of men. Every town larger than a farming village for leagues in every direction will be on high alert. Two women on foot would never make it out of their net. But this? This is the last place they’ll expect fugitives to come.”
“For a good reason!” Seri glances fearfully at the depot up ahead. “The Legion’s all over.”
“Worst case, we fight our way out and run. Again.” Feranya shrugs. “They don’t know who we are or what we can do. Surprise is on our side. But really, nuele melinye, I don’t think we’re going to be in any danger.”
“…i atukita ka ta’iku nga leama, I don’t fucking like this.”
Feranya stubs out the remains of her cigarette and tosses it to the roadside. “Come on.”
The depot is nestled into a small clearing amid the trees, train tracks stretching past the bridge and into the distance. The troops on guard give them polite nods as the two pass into the departure hall. It’s nothing like the grandeur of Kethrana Central’s white-marble tiles, high ceilings, and imposing arches. It’s a simple building with few amenities, not even a firepit, clearly knocked together by a low bidder in a hurry to finish up and head out for a pint. There are a few other people here, mostly bored officials toting satchels. The stationmaster is reclining at the front of the hall, feet propped up on her kiosk, quietly snoring.
“Excuse me.” Feranya raps on the countertop and the woman sits bolt upright, looking around wildly.
“Sorry, sorry, hello, how can I help you?” she blurts, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.
Feranya holds up her passbook. “We need a seat on the next train west. Temple business.”
The stationmaster narrows her eyes as she reaches out to take the passbook. “Right. Temple business. Blow me, first drop of the day is a Legion runner scared so shitless he’s practically falling off his horse, now a— tits of the Lady, you’re an Envoy?” she blurts as she gazes at the passbook, her voice immediately dropping to a low hiss. She stares up at Feranya, eyes full of fear and awe. “Okay, I gotta ask…”
Seri’s eyes are wide with alarm. Feranya raises an eyebrow, gently squeezing Seri’s hand. “Ask what you would, citizen,” she replies evenly. “But I cannot promise we’ll be able to answer.”
The stationmaster leans forward. “So it’s like this,” she whispers. “I’m not supposed to open the letters they drop in for the trains, but that messenger, he was babbling his fool head off when he came in, saying all kinds of mad things. There was a… a demon, he said, what murdered a whole bunch of people at the inn last night. Even killed an Inquisitor, so he said!” Her voice is pleading. “And now there’s a Prophet-be-sanctified Envoy of the Elect in my station and… look, you wouldn’t happen to… to know anything about that business, would you? I wouldn’t ask, I know it ain’t none of mine, only it’s, well, I got me family up in Sudra. Not so far from Uptown.”
“Mm. Well, officially, I… can’t really say anything. But…” Feranya leans closer. “Unofficially?”
The stationmaster nods quickly. “Yes, unofficially?”
“Unofficially… someone did kill an Inquisitor at that tavern last night,” Feranya replies, narrowing her eyes and focusing on the Seprenan's emerald-green irises. “After she shot two of her own Vigilants, or so I’m told; alas I haven’t seen the crime scene for myself. There was a witness, but he’s… well. When I left he was still trying to claw his own eyes out.” She clasps her hands. “This would be bad enough on its own, but…”
“…but?” asks the stationmaster, eyes wide.
Feranya purses her lips, looking down. “This isn’t public information yet but Vigilants have been… disappearing. All over the province. Sometimes bodies turn up weeks later, covered in… strange wounds. Sometimes they just never come back in from patrol and no one ever sees them again. Augh, I wouldn’t want to speculate, but, well…”
The stationmaster swallows hard. “B-but?”
“It almost looks like someone… or… something is hunting Temple officials,” Feranya replies, glancing around as though someone might be watching. “And it’s making its way east.”
The stationmaster lets out a quiet gasp. “Hunting? You can’t be serious…”
“Deadly,” Feranya replies. “Of course… that’s just one guess. It could be anything, really. We don’t even have a suspect yet, after all.”
“Er, heh, yes. Of course.” The stationmaster nods, looking deeply unnerved. “Anything at all.” She taps Feranya’s passbook absently. “Everything looks well in order, miss. And, ah — I presume you and your… colleague here are travelling together?”
Seri nods and hands over the booklet, unable to look the stationmaster in the eye, hands shaking slightly. Feranya smiles and pats her on the back. “Don’t mind my companion, she’s still shaken up by… well. She lost a colleague last night. And it’s not often the Inquisition loses people.”
“I’m so sorry, Miss… ah… Keara?” The stationmaster gives Seri’s book a cursory inspection then hands it back. “The Valley Mist will be pulling in within the hour; is that route suitable for your purposes?”
Feranya drums her fingers. “What’s the terminus?”
“Let me see… mm… ah yes, Vin Daritha.” The stationmaster flips through a small booklet. “It’s about a… nine-hour ride, looks like.”
“That’ll have to suffice, I suppose. Daritha it is. Can we get a private cabin?”
The stationmaster blinks. “Just… one? For both of you?”
“We certainly don’t want to take up unnecessary space, do we, Keara?”
Seri shakes her head. “Yes, um. One cabin is fine. Thanks.”
“…alright then.” The stationmaster clears her throat. “Will you be paying upfront or are we billing the Temple for your fare?”
“The Temple, of course. It is a business trip, after all.”
The stationmaster jots something down in her logbook and snaps it shut. She hands back their passbooks, tickets poking out from between the pages. “Here you are. Safe voyaging to the both of you.”
“Good luck staying safe yourself, and to your family,” Feranya replies solemnly. “I pray you will not need it.”
“Eh-heh.” The stationmaster offers her a weak smile. “Right.”
“There, see, that wasn’t so bad?” Feranya nudges Seri as they walk away from the kiosk.
“How the fuck are you so calm.” Seri gives Feranya an incredulous glance. The vampire shrugs.
“Practice, I suppose.”
“You just told her about the— the— what was that for!?”
Feranya puts an arm around Seri’s shoulder. “It’s called psychological warfare, dearest. Did you notice what the stationmaster said about the deaths?”
“…what about it?”
“A ‘demon’ murdered ‘a whole bunch’ of people. Not a pair of scared refugees killing three Temple goons in self defense.” Feranya pats her on the shoulder. “It’s only been a few hours and the rumor’s already outpacing the truth. So I poured some fuel on the fire. You know what that stationmaster is going to do when she goes off shift?”
“She’s going to go right to the nearest tavern and down a pint or two and start blabbing to the locals about how some Temple bigwigs said Vigilants are being hunted. The rumor will continue to spread, inflated again and again at each telling, getting mixed up with all the other rumors and lies, a little seed of fear, uncertainty, and doubt planted right in our enemy’s midst.” She smiles brightly at Seri. “Sometimes you can wield a word with the force of a blade.”
Seri flinches and digs her nails into her palm. “Whatever.”
“…Seri?” Feranya tugs her arm. “Did I say something wrong?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Please?”
“Okay. Whatever it was, I’m sorry.”
Seri just shrugs as she flops down on a seat. She rests her head awkwardly against the sharp wooden back, closing her eyes. “I’m… tired.”
“I’ll bet you are. How much sleep did you even get last night? Four hours?”
“Dunno,” Seri mutters.
Feranya gazes at her for a moment. “That can’t possibly be comfortable.”
“Slept in worse places.”
The vampire sighs, touching Seri gently on the shoulder. “Why don’t you lie down? You can rest your head on my lap.”
Seri blinks. “I— um. Okay.” She blushes faintly. “That— thank you.”
“It’s no trouble, dear.” Feranya tousles her hair as she curls up on the seat.
“You keep being so kind to me.”
“You sound surprised. Did you forget that you’ve already saved my life once today?”
Seri shrugs. “You never would’ve got shot if it wasn’t for me and my fuckups.”
“Ser.” Feranya puts a hand on her arm. “You saved my life after I violated your mind and body for a meal.”
“Not even close to the worst thing anyone’s ever done to me.” Seri yawns. “For a vamp, you sure seem to worry a lot about hurting people.”
“…yes? Wouldn’t you?”
“Way the priests talked, it sounded like you were all… thieving, raping, murdering bloodthirsty monsters, I guess.”
“Maybe that’s what it’s like in Seprena. I don’t know.” Feranya shrugs. “Not where I’m from.”
Seri’s voice is fainter now, her words a little slurred. “What’s it like in Moravin then?”
“It’s…” Feranya gazes off into the distance. “Quiet. Beautiful and quiet. Peaceful.”
“S’it really true what they say? They don’t torture or murder people as heretics?”
The corner of Feranya’s lip curls upward. “Depends on how you define ‘torture’ and ‘heretic.’”
“That why you ran away?”
“I didn’t run away.” Feranya strokes Seri’s arm absently. “I was young and I wanted excitement. More than home could offer. So I went traveling with some friends.” She sighs heavily. “To think, how much I’d give now for that quiet old life back.”
“What about the people you came with? Why aren’t they with you?”
“Most of them were smart enough to turn tail and run for home when Kelaune started winning votes at the Curia.” Feranya looks down. “Three of us weren’t.”
Seri gazes up at her, blinking sleepily. “Are the other two okay?”
“No.” Feranya closes her eyes. “They aren’t.”
The first thing Seri hears is the thunderous blast of a locomotive’s whistle. She’s upright in an instant, heart pounding, looking wildly back and forth. No Inquisitors, no Vigilants, no torturers. Just a quiet little train station.
She exhales, closing her eyes. It was just a dream.
“Take it easy, tiani, it’s just the train.”
Seri turns and impulsively hugs Feranya, clinging to her for a long moment. “You’re— you’re alive,” she manages, her heartbeat still loud in her ears.
“Of course I’m alive, darling.” Feranya raises an eyebrow. “Why wouldn’t I be? Seri?”
Seri shakes her head blearily. “It’s— nothing, just a nightmare.”
“A nightmare?” Feranya tugs her gently to her feet, guiding her in the direction of the loading bay. “What happened?”
Seri takes a deep breath. “They killed you,” she whispers, a tear staining her cheek. “They killed you and they hurt me and they— they—” Her scars are hurting like fresh wounds all over again, all of them. She grits her teeth, doesn’t finish the sentence. “You’re safe. It’s okay. You’re fine. I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine.” Feranya steps into the quickly forming queue. Seri’s shaking, her hands balled into fists, her eyes wild. Feranya glances up at the legionaries debarking the train and taking up position by the gates, then in alarm back to the quivering wreck of a girl clinging to her.
There is no way in hell we get through with her acting like this.
“Anaruen sa rimí,” she swears under her breath. “Seri? Seri, look at me.” She tilts the girl’s chin up, gazing into her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry about this. Just forget everything else, okay?” She strokes Seri’s arm for emphasis, letting her will flow through her companion. “Everything’s gonna be okay. Okay? Just focus on me. Everything’s going to be okay. You’re Keara, remember? Keara Kehalena, spy for the Inquisition. And everything’s going to be fine. We’re gonna get through this, okay?”
The effect is almost immediate. Seri’s eyes fixate on hers, her trembling beginning to ebb, her muscles relaxing. Feranya cuts off the stream of power as soon as she dares, taking Seri by the hands. “I’m sorry,” she repeats. “I just— I had to, there wasn’t time.”
Seri shakes her head slowly. “S’okay,” she murmurs distantly. “Felt nice.”
The line advances slowly, legionaries standing at the ready as the conductor inspects tickets and passbooks. Feranya’s turn is almost up when she notices an expression on the conductor’s face that sets her heart pounding with alarm. She sees him gesture to a legionary, exchange terse words with the soldiers— and then hand him the passbook of the woman just ahead of them in line. Instantly the legionaries close in on her, and seconds later she’s pinned to a girder. Ignoring her pleas and weeping, they manacle her and haul her away through the depot.
The whole thing takes less than ten seconds from start to finish. Feranya barely registers what's happening until it's over, suddenly grateful for the nightmare that had required the calming touch of her soul — the poor girl would doubtless be in a state of complete panic right now otherwise.
“Do forgive us, gentlefolks,” the conductor calls quickly. “Just a minor incident, never fear; the train shan’t be delayed. Step up, now!”
Feranya hesitantly steps forward, proffering her passbook. “What just happened?” she asks, taking pains to look and sound as naive as possible.
The conductor gives her a friendly smile. “Oh, that lady tried to board with a stolen passbook, ma’am,” he replies, quickly flicking through Feranya’s stolen passbook. “Pulled it off a dead body, too. Can you imagine?”
“That’s sickening,” Feranya exclaims, mimicking shock as best she can. “What kind of person would do that?”
“Only the most low-down dirty kind of criminal, I can tell you that,” the conductor replies agreeably. “One little step above grave-robbing, it is. Wouldn’t be at all surprised if she turns out to be another witch, truth be told,” he adds more quietly. He clicks his tongue. “Degenerates sure are quick to show their true face when you put the squeeze on them, you know?”
“Another witch?” Feranya gasps, putting a hand to her heart for good measure. “You mean you’ve already run into one?”
The conductor nods gravely, taking Seri’s passbook and snapping Feranya’s shut. “One tried to board last night in Pakhera, of all places. No need to fret, though!” He offers the pair a reassuring smile. “There’s no way any degenerate could get through our security. The only train those Anur-be-accursed freaks are getting on is the express to Keloya.”
Despite the lingering effects of Feranya’s charm, Seri flinches at the name, balling her fists.
“Which is all to say, you lovely ladies are perfectly safe,” the conductor concludes. He hands back their passbooks. “You’re all set. I have you in cabin three, just a couple cars down. Welcome aboard the Valley Mist.”
“Much obliged, sir.” Feranya takes the two passbooks and slips them into her bag. She puts an arm around Seri’s shoulders and gently guides her to the train.
As soon as they step inside, warmth from the radiators hits them, granting them relief from the damp morning chill of the countryside and the unheated depot. The two make their way through a few cars. Patricians are scattered about the booths in all their finery, mostly chattering youngsters travelling for pleasure, with the occasional elder businesswoman accompanied by her personal guards and slaves here and there. One is banging away at a portable typewriter, heedless to the beautiful wilderness scenes around them. That gizmo must be worth its weight in silver, Feranya observes, briefly evaluating schemes to steal it — before pushing them aside in favor of more pressing concerns.
There are a few Temple minions as well, mostly sitting at tables together, some talking softly, some lost in meditation or prayer. Those who spot Seri call out warm welcomes in Taihera as the two pass; the girl ignores them. Finally they reach the cabins. Feranya slides their door back, pushing Seri ahead of her into the room and latching the entrance securely behind them.
The vampire busies herself stowing their luggage in the cabin compartments while Seri collapses on the little cot, staring blankly ahead.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbles.
Feranya snaps a compartment shut and sits down next to her, a gentle hand on her thigh. “Whatever for, tiani?” she asks.
“I nearly ruined it. I freaked out and I nearly got us caught. Gods, I’m fucking pathetic.”
“You didn’t ruin anything, Seri.” Feranya pets her softly. “You just got a little upset. Nothing I couldn’t have talked or charmed our way out of, even if anyone noticed. Which they didn’t.”
“No, you don’t—” Seri shakes her head wildly. “This keeps happening. I can’t control it. I can’t control myself. Goddess, why am I like this?”
For a moment, the only sound is the distant chatter of passengers and the faint hissing of steam through the radiator pipes, as Feranya caresses Seri’s back and gazes into the distance. “Why did it set you off?” she asks at length, turning an inquisitive gaze to Seri. “That thing he said about a train to Keloya?”
She grits her teeth. “Where do you think I got these scars.”
Feranya’s eyes widen. “…oh.”
“Yeah.” Seri looks down.
“Kepet’s teeth, how the fuck did you get out?” Feranya blurts. “I’ve… I’ve never heard of anyone escaping.”
Seri shrugs. “Got lucky, I guess.”
“No wonder you didn't want to get on another train.” Feranya sighs, pulling her spectacles off and laying back on the bed. “C’mere.”
Feranya pats the bedding next to her. “Let me hold you.”
As Seri curls up in her arms, the locomotive’s whistle blows again, and the train finally begins to move west.