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    She stood back to let the passengers disembark, most of them looking as stiff and disoriented as she had after her previous Rail ride, then moved quickly to claim her seat in the frontmost car, just behind the enchanter's post. Nobody complained or tried to slip in ahead of her. Trissiny supposed it was all right to benefit from a healthy respect for paladins, as long as she wasn't intimidating people on purpose. If folks thought the Hand of Avei might smite them for pushing in line ahead of her, well, there wasn't much she could do about that, aside from proving them wrong.

    She stowed her trunk under the seat as she'd been shown on the last caravan, strapping it in tightly with the frayed arrangement of leather thongs and buckles provided, then unslung her shield and laid it on the bench beside her, before taking her seat. This car might have been a duplicate of the other, except that she had it to herself. The padded benches were wide enough to seat three without much discomfort; she took the one facing the front, reasoning that it would diminish the dizzying terror of the Rail ride not to have to do it backward. It was like being in a little glass bubble, and she enjoyed the solitude after the crowded platform.

    People weren't hurrying to join her, but that would probably only last until someone came along who hadn't seen the paladin duck in here. She enjoyed the breather while it lasted, literally. Proper breathing was essential to both combat form and meditation, and Trissiny had been storing her gathering tension in her chest. The caravan was parked for several long minutes, presumably while the large cargo cars in the rear were loaded and/or unloaded, and she took full advantage of the time to breathe slowly and evenly, without slipping into full meditation.

    Thus, she was calm enough not to be overly perturbed when a man entered her car.

    "Good day!" he said cheerily, straightening. He was an older gentleman, well-dressed and very round about the middle, with a jowly face accentuated by bushy, steel-colored sideburns. "Ah, a Sister! Excellent, I was just wondering why a pretty girl was sitting alone in a car. Usually the lads would be all over you. Don't mind if I share, do you? It's filling up back there, and a man of my great physical fitness is less welcome where the seats must be squeezed into." He chortled, patting his plump belly.

    "The caravan is open to all," she said politely, forcing a smile. "Please, be welcome." It was so formal as to be stilted, but she couldn't just up and say she didn't mind his company. Avei frowned upon lies, even little social ones.

    "Many thanks, my dear, many thanks." He grunted as he lowered himself onto the bench opposite her, sliding over so as to grip the handhold bolted to the wall of the caravan. "Whoof! As often as I ride these things, you'd think I'd grow accustomed to the acrobatics it takes getting in and out of them. Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor." He extended a hand to her. "I'm the Emperor's eyes on the frontier! Of course, the Emperor has more eyes than a nest of spiders, and do please remind me of that if I start to sound like I think I'm important." His pale eyes twinkled with good humor.

    "Trissiny Avelea," she replied, shaking his hand. His eyes flicked over her and she tensed, but it was nothing like the gaze Jebediah Jenkins had dragged across her. In fact, Mr. Paxton seemed to be looking at her armor, not her body; his eyes darted from bracers to boots to divided leather skirt, without lingering on her breastplate the way too many men did. She saw the moment when he absorbed the fact that her Avenic armor was silver rather than bronze.

    "Omnu's breath," he exclaimed, settling back in his own seat and regarding her wide-eyed. "Forgive if I'm impertinent, Ms. Avelea, but...would you be a paladin?"

    "I am." She forced a small smile. At least he knew the proper way to address a Sister of Avei. He was the first man she'd met on her journey who did.

    "Bless my old soul!" he enthused. "I'd heard that Avei had called a new paladin, but... Well, this is a rare privilege, ma'am! An honor, it truly is. Wait'll I tell the grandchildren I rode the Rail with a paladin!" He laughed aloud. "Now, you be sure to tell me if I'm bothering you, Ms. Avelea. I do tend to let the old mouth run away with me sometimes."

    "I don't mind," she replied, and found that she meant it. Trissiny was not used to men; obviously, she'd been around them before, as the Sisters of Avei were not a cloistered order. But briefly or at a distance, usually; those men who weren't shy about being around Sisters had been strongly encouraged to keep away from the novices. Still, Heywood Paxton was one of the least menacing individuals she'd ever met.

    "And would you be on quest, then?" he asked enthusiastically. "Not that you need pay any mind to old me, of course! I shall gladly shove off if told to. But I'm heading out to Sarasio on the Emperor's business, and I should be glad of the company, I don't mind telling you. If there's any place that could benefit from a taste of Avei's fist, that's it for sure."

    "No," she said with some hesitation, and a small twinge of guilt. "Actually, I'm going to college. At least for now; that was the goddess's command. I'm sure she has good reason." Why did she feel the need to explain herself to this stranger? It wasn't his business; it wasn't even hers. If Avei chose to send her paladin to university rather than to the battlefield, well, she was entitled. No matter how Trissiny chafed at what felt like a waste of her calling.

    "Goodness me, to college? This line is heading straight out of the civilized territories! Nothing but the Golden Sea, tribes of wild elves and a few frontier towns where we're...ohhh." His expression cleared and he nodded sagely. "Last Rock, then?"

    "Yes, to Professor Tellwyrn's University. You've heard of it?"

    "Indeed I have, Ms. Avelea, indeed I have. You don't last long in my line of work without knowing who all the players in the Great Game are. Omnu's breath, I should've put that together the moment I noticed you in that armor. My brains are getting as droopy as my jowls, I declare." He grinned at her with such genuine good humor that she had to smile back.

    A sharp retort like the crack of a whip resonanted through their little chamber, and the caravan lurched. Then it began smoothly moving forward; Trissiny found herself pressed back into her seat, while Mr. Paxton had to cling to the handbar and surreptitiously brace his leg against the bench beside her to keep from being poured out of his.

    "My goodness, they don't give us much time to get settled, do they?" He grinned cheerily. "I can't imagine how ticket holders ever manage to get into their cars on time."

    "Ticket holders?"

    "Oh, yes," he explained, "most people must purchase a ticket to ride the Rail; it's good for only one specific trip, and then you have to buy another to ride again. Laying these Rails isn't cheap; the Empire has to fund it all somehow!"

    "Nobody told me about tickets," she said in some alarm. They had left the station behind in seconds, and just now were racing past the borders for Calderaas, fast enough that she could barely make out the difference between city and country scenery; it evolved from a grayish blur to a greenish one. And the caravan still accelerated. Paxton's face was beginning to bead with sweat, from the effort of holding himself in his seat.

    "Not to worry, my dear, the Rails are free to Imperial agents and officials of the Church. Which, clearly, includes you!"

    "Oh. But...I didn't even see anyone collecting...that is, none of the guards asked me about..."

    "Well, obviously, Station officials know a bit more about the world than the average run of hayseeds who might be riding the Rails. One look at that armor and they'd let you hop into whatever caravan you pleased without so much as a word."

    "Oh," she said again, now feeling rather guilty. "Oh...I hope I didn't cheat somebody out of a seat."

    "Nonsense, they never sell enough tickets to fill out a caravan. It leaves some seats open for the likes of us, and if none such come along, well, these things run faster the less weighted down they are. Everybody wins!"
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