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    "Except the people who have to pay for passage."

    "Well, I suppose not," he conceded, his smile fading somewhat, "but then again, if they weren't paying for tickets, the Rails couldn't run. Then nobody would have them!"

    "It just seems unfair," she murmured.

    "Very little in this world is fair, Ms. Avelea," he replied. For the first time, the cheer had fled his face, leaving a sober and faraway expression. "May you have better luck than I've had finding remedies for it."

    The silence that fell in the compartment was strained and awkward. Trissiny feared little, but was unpracticed at social subtleties; she couldn't decide whether to avoid Paxton's eyes or meet them, whether to leave the quiet alone or try to fill it.

    He took the dilemma out of her hands moments later, when their acceleration finally leveled off. The Surveyor grunted, settling himself back into his seat now that he didn't have to brace himself into it. "Whew! Every trip an adventure. You know, the Rail cars servicing the interior provinces have buckled belts on each seat for the passengers to strap themselves in. It seems there's no budget for upgrading old frontier equipment just yet."

    Trissiny nodded, unsure whether she would prefer that. It would be nice not to be tossed around, but she wasn't at all certain she'd care to be strapped in, either.

    "Oh, here comes the wide arc around the Mirror Lakes," Mr. Paxton said, peering out the window. "Best brace yourself, Ms. Avelea, we're going to-"

    And then the ground whipped out from under them. The caravan curved so sharply to the right that its left wall became the new de facto floor; Paxton was tossed against it with a grunt. Only Trissiny's trained reflexes saved her from a pummeling. Spinning on the bench, she stuck one foot against the wall and the other on the seat opposite, while grabbing her shield as it tried to fly across the car. It was made to endure much more abuse than being dropped, but it had been a gift from the Goddess herself and Trissiny hated to see it handled disrespectfully.

    "Almost!" her fellow traveler cried with a grin. "More than a dozen trips on this line; one day I'll have that timing down exactly." She grinned back. The man's good humor really was infectious.

    The car leveled out so abruptly that they were both tossed back in the opposite direction. Paxton slid along his bench, this time very nearly tumbling to the floor; Trissiny managed to pivot in midair, never releasing her hold on her shield, again bracing herself with a foot against the opposite seat.

    They blinked and stared at each other, both pale, and then at her boot, which had struck down directly between his legs on the edge of the bench. Had he slid six inches farther, he'd have come to grief on her greave.

    "I'm sorry!" she blurted, quickly folding herself back into her own bench.

    "Hah, no harm done," he reassured her, pulling a handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and mopping his face. "Though that's a nearer miss than I usually have before even getting off the caravan!"

    "Are they always this bad?"

    "Well, depends on the Rail you ride. They try to lay them in the straightest lines possible, but there are some things that cannot be carved through. It's when the Rail has to dodge around obstacles that we have trouble! But that's the price we pay for speed. You know, when I first started out in the Emperor's service, the journey from Calderaas to Last Rock would have been weeks. Now, we should be there within another five minutes, and I'll be safely to Sarasio not more than fifteen after that."

    "I believe," Trissiny said, shifting on her seat, "I like that idea of belted seats very much, the more I think about it. Why didn't they put those into the caravans in the first place?"

    "Ah! You see, the enchantments that make these beauties run are still newfangled enough that much of the older generation doesn't trust them, my dear. When this caravan was built, there was nobody to ride it but soldiers, Imperial agents and adventurers heading to the frontier. You know, the sort of folk who aren't apt to put up a fuss about their safety or comfort." He edged toward the opposite wall, getting a good grip on the handlebar and bracing both legs against her bench. "Common folks riding the Rails are a pretty new event, considering, and few enough of them take these outer lines. You'll want to brace yourself, Ms. Avelea, we're coming up on the worst stretch of this particular journey."

    She slid her shield against the wall opposite him, sat down on it, gripped the bar and placed a foot against the far bench. Not a moment too soon; the caravan changed course with a wrench that drew a grunt from her, even as it flattened Mr. Paxton against the other wall of the car.

    What followed was even worse than her first trip down from the mountainous territory of Viridill. The Rail apparently dodged back and forth through some kind of obstacle course, yanking them first one way and then the other before they had time to compensate. She couldn't spare the attention to try to study the passing scenery, keeping her arms and legs constantly tense against the forces seeking to toss her about the car. Paxton kept his grip on his handlebar, though at one point lost his seat and was flung full-length across the bench, still clinging to the wall, and only recovered his position upon being shoved back into it. Trissiny quickly lost track of the passage of time; her arms and legs were growing sore, and even her jaw started to ache from the effort of holding it closed. Letting it bounce was a sure way to bite off a chunk of her tongue.

    As suddenly as the chaos had begun, it ended. The caravan sailed along in near silence and perfect balance, its two shaken passengers blinking at each other.

    "Is it over?" she asked uncertainly.

    "For the moment," he replied, heaving himself back onto the bench with grunt; he'd not managed to avoid a tumble to the floor in the last few moments. "Whew! They really should post warnings; that's one of the worst stretches in the entire Rail network, you know. Not much else is even half so bad." He shifted about on his seat, straightening his rumpled clothes.

    "What exactly were we dodging around?" She resettled herself, surreptitiously stretching tensed muscles. Trissiny felt a moment of envy for her trunk, safely lashed in below her seat.

    "Why, that's the Green Belt, so they call it. It's a whole network of elven forests, separated by fairly small stretches of open grassland. Different tribes of elves, you see, and they'd worked out a solution to their border conflicts by making sure they weren't even in the same forest. All this was long before the Empire, or even any humans living in this area." He chuckled, dabbing sweat from his face again. "So when the first Surveyors came to find a route for the Rail, they ran into ill luck. Oh, the elves were very polite, as they always are, but dead set against letting the Rail come through any of their woodland. Finally, one poor fool lost patience and told them it would have to be done whether they liked it or not." He laughed aloud, shaking his head. "As I heard it, they politely told him to invite the Emperor to try it."

    "I'm a little surprised he didn't," she replied. "The Empire conquered every other human nation on the continent, after all. Aren't elves a bit...primitive?"

    "Well, yes and no!" He smiled broadly, clearly enjoying his role as storyteller. "They're not primitive in the sense of lacking magic and sophistication of their own; they just choose to live a little closer to nature than we do. It's been a long time since Imperial agents chose to mistake the one for the other. For all our new magics and enchantments, the elves are something the Empire is wise not to provoke. Makes for a ghastly muddle, with them living in their own enclaves all across Imperial territory.
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