It is no surprise to anyone who traverses the cosmic sphere, that Man aspires to impress. Locked on a ball in which his is not even the dominant element, born with an inferiority gifted by evolution . . . "A dreary life," is the languid term often thrown about in the more distinguished parlors of the universe. Often, the following conversation concerns sentient prawns, and is considered far more interesting.
And yet, in a field ripe only with his own competition, Man endeavors to shine. Very often, he succeeds, if only because the bar is set at a constant low. When one has reached the limit of the times, after all, where else can they go, but up?
The First Rail of Ans clattered across the aging landscape of the night. The higher strata of society was asleep after a fine dinner of steaks and wines and pastries with exotic names, and their cars bore a different name altogether. They called it the Jamrian Express, and its letters were seared in gold.
At the other extreme was the third-class seating arrangements. An ironic term, since they had only been added on after the last of the chairs had been fitted. People there could choose to stand like herons as the moon sailed on, or else risk pitching out the loose and erratically flapping doors of the car. From his seat in the very middle of the train, Thaddeus Grey could hear the occasional scream as it drifted upstream on the wind, and it kept him awake as they tore across the miles. Across his vision, the shadows blended into an abstraction painting, and he rubbed his tired eyes.
Beside him was a bundle of heavy cloth, through which suggestive bulges could be seen. But that was the reason he was sitting in this particular section: it was implied that you had just enough money to avoid questioning, while at the same time you avoided the gossip-mongering curiosity of uppity ladies and occasional lords. If there was one thing to be grateful for -- and there were many -- it was that the skies were clear as the train barreled on. A storm would have broken his nerve completely. In his head, he saw a stream of lightning, black as the space between the stars . . .
And he jolted awake. the problem wasn't sleeping, he reasoned. You could wake yourself when you were sleeping, so long as it was a sudden transition. The problem was the transition phase, in which every part of you had entered a state of dormancy, but a fuzzy little section of your brain insisted that they hadn't, actually, and that's why you could afford to just sit back, relax, watch the darkness of your eyelids for just a minute, or two, or perhaps an hour. He scowled, and took a deep drink from a small glass bottle on his belt. The fire filled his lungs with terror and invigoration. He cheered up immediately.
No, things weren't so bad now. Nothing, not even it, could outrun the Jamrian. Earlier, there had been prying eyes and commotion in the aisles and the most uproarious conversation from every corner of the train, but now even that had faded. All he needed to do was stay awake until the engine pulled into Sterl, get the girl to the missionary, and find a room in which to crash. He reasoned that at that point, he'd finally reach the level of exhaustion at which a man loses his fear of death. Either the lightning would get him (he shuddered) or it wouldn't. In either scenario, the problem would no longer be his.
His hand touched the revolver at his belt. It was funny, he thought, as his thumb traced the hammer of the gun. He'd never been much fond of Langley. The two of them had quarreled often, and the old man had been a fanatic. Had the entire affair gone as it should've, it was just as likely that Grey would've shot the priest himself.
You never really loved a man until his blood stained the collar of your coat.
. . . Which he had taken off for the first time in what felt like a decade. He felt bare without it, but the blood was a tell that he couldn't afford to showcase. He looked longingly at the bag in the seat across from him. His hat was in there, too, for reasons that it wouldn't take a detective to guess. Something tugged at his mind.
A flinch in the area of his eyes . . .
Suddenly he sat rigid, frozen by a foreign sensation. His heart clutched at warmth, found ice, and collapsed against his spine. Grey gasped for air, feel against the door of the car, and coughed as sensation returned to his limbs. Thoughts whirled in his head like a maelstrom at its height. The liquid in the bottle . . . he pulled it out, and stared. Brandy, nothing more. He shook it. A blue dust sieved around the bottom and rose lightly out of the rim. He cursed.
"Goes to show," said a voice. "Your problem, boy, is that you never listen."
Grey looked up very, very slowly.
Into the face of Montery June.
"Faeries," he scowled.
". . . are, on record, more trustworthy than Ans merchants," said June. His look was disapproving, but mild. "One could say it was only a matter of time before the two of them got together." He smoothed down his nightgown with both hands, seemingly pleased with the shimmering softness of the velvet. "Do you remember that city? On the eastern edge of Gerromantice?"
Grey sat back with a tolerant expression. This was not, as the common people would put it, his first time in the matador's cape. Drugged alcohol was a specialty of cheap merchants who looked only to foster an addiction. Usually Grey had the wits to check. This time, he'd been rushed. "Is that the one where you lost your dog?"
"Well, one of them."
"Eaten, if I recall."
"Viciously." He smiled indulgently, and Grey, for all his resolve, felt something twang against his chest. He knew his mentor was dead. Miss him? Gods, yes. But he had to remember, this wasn't really real.
June blinked. "Quite a cliche, isn't it?" he said. "Don't bore me, boy. What does it matter, what is real? If real is the material, then humanity itself is unreal. Look at your dreams. What is belief? What is consciousness? I am only belief. Thus, I am as real as the shimmering gods."
He laughed. How couldn't he? It was just like June, he thought, to turn even the most trivial philosophy into an expression of the ego. How he'd missed the man! He had his hat, too, the one with the flamboyant feathers. They had swirls on them, and colors that the spirits of modesty would have hastened to name as a new blasphemy in the ancient texts. But as he watched June, June watched him as well.
"My word, how the world has dried you. Are those frills?"
Grey tugged at his collar with a sigh. "It's the fashion on the eastern coast, or so they tell me."
"Never believe a foreigner, boy. Trust me -- I am one, in every country I've ever been to." June looked at the girl. "I hope you know what you're doing," he said softly.
"I don't believe in it, Monty. Not with a single fiber of my being. But I do agree it must be done."
June shrugged. "Fair enough." He crossed his legs in an expectant sort of way. "What's her name?"
"Never asked." In a sleep induced by the toxins of the Southern jungles, the girl tossed fitfully in her seat, then settled down with a small whimper. Grey watched her from the corner of his eye, and June saw a curious expression flash by his face as Grey said, "Prophecy has its own way of doing things. It takes little favor to interference."
"She's just a girl," said Grey, and the spaces between his words grew longer as he thought aloud. "And the mages and the politicians . . . they're all so very old. Have you ever thought that was funny, Monty? The gods only ever want young women on their altars. I thought Fate would be different, somehow."
"But why would it?" asked June, tapping his fingers against the window. "You're still young yourself, is the trouble. Truth is what we make it. Do you honestly think the universe cares, what has happened and what has not? History is just as facsimile as law and Truth, ergo, everything that occurs, boy, everything depends on the perception and minds of man. And man is a miser. He is given life, and the longer he holds it, the more he fears its loss. Better not to lay siege on the fortress of the old. Better to use the young, who frolic the fields with rhapsodies of love and honor." His eyes, thought Grey, had always been of the most curious variety. They were tired, so very tired, and yet in the epicenter of the green irises there was a thin and flickering gleam, which in life had reflected the tallest of tall mountains, the deepest gorges of the sea, and every single atom of the world between them. "Do what you must, boy, but remember that a Man does not shape the workings of Fate. That is the work of his race. The individual has never truly mattered, unless he is one of a cause." And he moved to rise. Meanwhile, Grey felt a pounding behind the darkness of his forehead, and fell back in his seat, head reeling motes of sparkling blue.
He managed, though, to ask a question to the departing figure of June, who stood with one foot already in the aisle. "I do not think I'd like to die," he said, and in his memory the lightning leered. "Tell me," he said, and groaned at a fresh wave of nausea. "Tell me what you've seen, won't you? I am sick of the terror."
And June smiled that smile of his, the one with all the lines of his face engaged like a vast canyon of rivers, sweeping from the brow to the lips to the hooked intelligence of the nose. He said, "You don't want me to answer that question, boy." The second foot stepped out into the empty hall of the train, and the door began to slide so quietly closed. June said, softly, "The country of the dead is so rich and deep and wide, and still I am only passing through."
So he was gone. Head throbbing, alternative pain and ecstasy shooting through his intoxicated nerves, Grey forced himself to sit. Outside, the shadows played over the silhouettes of the dawn, and a storm was nowhere in sight. In her sleep, the girl from the islands dreamed and cried, and the train shot onward to the morning.