The rail pulls away from the Castle before dawn, an hour Clea and Ava are somewhat used to given their respective responsibilities at the Castle. The other Princesses… are not.
They share their swaying rail carriage with three others, all of them sleep-smudged and trying to outdo each other in surliness. The winner of this caffeine-deprived competition is undoubtedly Fionn, who—to be fair—looks prepared to murder a man on their best day. This morning they’re slouched in the corner of the carriage, tunic on backwards and radiating a palpable dare that anyone comment on it.
Lydia is next to them in an oversized sweater that makes her figure blend into the dark upholstery of the rail seats. Her eyes droop periodically, though it’s unclear if it’s because she’s falling asleep or slipping off into one of her visions. The mission will be covering a lot of ground today in an effort to make it to the border and back in good time. With so few breaks, Clea will be surprised if Lydia’s ever really present for the duration.
Gabrielle sits opposite Clea, resolutely chewing on a clump of her own dirty blonde hair. Her eyes are bruised with exhaustion and her usual warmth seems stretched and somehow brittle. Did she even sleep? Clea would ask except she doesn’t want to bother any of the others to translate for her — Gabrielle is one of the few at the Castle who hasn’t learned signing, despite Ava offering to teach anyone who’ll sit still long enough. But then, Gabrielle is rarely still. She’s the youngest of all the princesses, only twelve summers old, but she’s been on missions for as long as she’s been at the Castle. In a city like Pyre, a healer is in high demand.
As dire as the mood is across from them, Ava seems to be single-handedly balancing the vibe from their side of the carriage. She’s been glued to the side window of their carriage since they passed beyond the Castle walls, eyes darting back and forth as she squints through the thin slits in the carriage armour. Clea’s resigned her left arm to the task of being occasionally slapped or clawed as Ava spots something new to flail back across the seat at her about.
“Street food! There’s street food!”
“A dog, Clea! It was bigger than I am!”
“A bath house!”
“Please tell me you’re not going to do this the whole damn way,” Fionn snaps after Ava excitedly describes the third dog she’s seen.
Ava doesn’t even look away from the window, just extends her arm in Fionn’s general direction, middle finger up. The move gets a snort out of Gabrielle at least, which is probably why Fionn only rolls their eyes. They’re regular Mission partners and Fionn is particularly protective of Gabrielle.
“I’m gonna need more coffee,” Fionn says, then blinks in surprise when Clea offers her own half-full thermos.
“It’s not very hot anymore,” Clea says after they’ve taken it.
Fionn smirks and the tips of their fingers grow cherry red against the metal of the thermos. “No problem.”
“Scooch,” Lydia says suddenly. It pulls even Ava’s attention from the world outside the steadily clattering carriage.
There’s no mistaking the look on Lydia’s face, though.
“Think she’s in the past or the future?” Ava says.
There’s no way to know, of course. At least until Lydia comes back to the present long enough to report in. Clea has a hard enough time keeping things straight in one time, let alone all of them concurrently.
The rail reaches the first borough wall an hour later. She only notices it because Ava shakes her awake and insists she join her in pressing her nose up to the glass behind their seat. The slits in the metal armour encasing the carriage are barely a finger’s width wide and it takes Clea’s eyes a moment to adjust to the daylight outside. When they do, she’s glad Ava woke her.
The rail system is another element of Pyre that Clea has only a theoretical understanding of. She knows just enough of it’s function to ensure her seedlings reach their destinations whole and unharmed. To experience it first-hand is surreal to say the least.
The carriage slows to a stop against the sandstone wall dividing Dragon’s Keep from Rosewood. The front of the carriage judders, Fionn, Lydia, and Gabrielle jostled slightly with the motion. Moments later the floor beneath them shudders with four loud clunks in quick succession. And then the carriage begins to rise.
Clea knows perfectly well what’s happening. The carriage has been decoupled from its wheels and is making its way vertically up the border wall. When they near the top, the carriage will be decontaminated and then lowered into Rosewood to recouple with new wheels to continue their journey. Knowing and experiencing are two are very different things, though.
Their journey requires only a single cube carriage, enough for the princesses themselves and their supplies and the lack of other carriages means Clea and Ava have an unobstructed view as the ground falls away. It’s probably for the best that they’re seated to the rear of the carriage, because both of them are pressed bodily to the window behind their seat all the way up the border wall.
The view makes the one from Advisor Heran’s study sink into shades of grey in her memory. As the carriage rises higher, Dragon’s Keep is spread out before them, first in detail, and then a textured tapestry of yards, and then jagged wards. The Castle at its centre rises like a beacon into the clear blue sky, its myriad towers like craggy fingers trying to catch the clouds. The Dragon’s tower is the highest, of course, jutting above the rest like a spear thrust into the mountain that enfolds much of the castle. In the daylight the warm glow of the windows at the top of the tower are lost to exposure and Clea suddenly wishes she could view the Castle at night, lit up from inside like a symbol of hope to the surrounding boroughs.
She’s never felt the presence of the Queen as strongly as she does at this moment. It’s silly in a way; Clea’s further from her—from home—than she’s been in years. But the Queen’s reach is wide. Out of habit, Clea makes the sign of the Dragon and grins.
The carriage judders to a stop at the apex of the wall and Clea’s suddenly very aware of just how high they are, hanging by a feat of staggering engineering. She reaches out without thinking and meets Ava’s hand halfway, threading their fingers together and clutching as they hold their breath.
Clea is expecting the steam — the carriage requires decontamination and she knows this process better than most, but she still startles backward when it hits the carriage windows in one big billow. Ava falls with her, laughing and Clea can’t help but join in, giddy with the experience.
Fionn leans into her field of vision as the carriage begins to move again. “Are we gonna end up with you two in our laps on the way down? Because I’m willing to switch seats to have that not happen.”
They switch seats.
They make it all the way to Fortitude before something goes wrong. Clea and Ava are pressed up against the rear window, the act of scaling each wall yet to lose its appeal, when part-way up, the carriage shudders to a halt.
A second later, four loud clunks judder through the carriage and it’s only Clea’s extensive seedling transport projects that keeps her from panicking.
“It’s the safety coupling,” she signs to Ava, who looks like she needs it. Clea can’t imagine the kitchens get a lot of rail briefings.
It’s Fionn who groans and gets to their feet, unhooking the radio from the roof of the carriage to call up to the wall station. “This is carriage—” they stop to glance at the number engraved next to the radio, “—726, requesting assistance. We’re jammed.”
The static of the radio fills the carriage like audible snow before a familiar voice radios in. “That you, Fionn?”
It’s Linh, the only other princess to spend more time in the field than Gabrielle. The only reason Clea even knows her well enough to recognise her voice is because she spent three months helping Clea engineer the workings of her garden. The other princesses call her the gadget princess. Clea calls her a genius.
Fionn’s mouth ticks up in one of their rare smiles. “Yep yep. We’re on a mission out to Coomera. Think you can get us going again?”
Static, then: “Be there in a jiffy!”
Be there in— what?
“She’s not going to climb down is she?” Ava says, echoing Clea’s worry.
“Don’t be daft,” Fionn says. “She’ll abseil.”
Clea’s never been so grateful her gift keeps her feet on solid ground.
A scarily short time later, there’s a light clunk on the roof of their carriage and then a hatch opens up, revealing blue sky and the grinning face of Linh. Her cropped hair has gone wild in the wind, spiking up every which way like a black dandelion. Even with her engineering goggles on, she bares a remarkable resemblance to the face Clea sees in the mirror each morning. They’d once tried to figure out if they had family in common, but with Clea’s memories of her mother so vague, it was a lesson in futility.
“Scooch,” Linh says before dropping lightly into the carriage, sure-footed as one of the Castle goats. As one, everyone shoots a look at Lydia. Future then.
Linh pays them no mind, stopping only to peck Fionn lightly on the lips before turning to the end of the carriage closest to the wall and shooing everyone into the opposite seat. It’s a squeeze, Clea ends up with Ava sitting on her lap, her face going hot as she tries to concentrate on Lydia’s elbow in her side. Then Linh does something complicated to the seat that results in it folding up and away.
“Okay, let’s see,” she says, surveying the machine. Then a few seconds later. “Well good news is the safety couples are working!”
Clea’s stomach lurches as she contemplates a world where they didn’t.
Fionn rolls her eyes. “Stop scaring the new recruits.”
Linh grins over her shoulder and winks at Clea, something that does very little to settle Clea’s nerves.
“We’re all good. Just need to stop this tripping,” she says. “Fionn, you feeling particularly feminine today?”
“Why do you think I’m on mission?” Fionn says, stepping forward, fingers already tinged red at the tips.
Fionn and Linh work well together, maneuvering the cramped console with familiar ease. It’s easy to see how their relationship has survived the long stretches apart necessitated by Linh’s gift. Next to Clea, she’s one of the most important princesses in service, keeping the infrastructure of the boroughs running smoothly.
It takes fifteen minutes of tinkering for Linh to make a satisfied noise and haul the seat back into place. A second later, the safety couples clunk again and the carriage resumes its ascent.
It’s all a terribly mundane process for a terribly un-mundane system. Once the seat’s back in place, Linh sprawls back on it with Fionn next to her. “So, what news from the Castle?”
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