My name is Jessica Lelek, and I am a passenger on the Blue Train.
I wasn't always, of course. I know that some people say they've been on the Train so long that they can't even remember a time when they were Stationary, but I'm not one of them. I remember quite vividly my life as a beggar on the streets of Teoyahear, back when I thought there was nothing else in the world but the dusty streets of the sandstone city and the glares I used to get from passers-by when I solicited them for a few copper kili. But I'd rather not talk about it, if that's okay with you.
Of course, everything has a good side. Since I remember my Stationary days, I also remember the day I first got on the Blue Train. That makes a number of the old-timers quite jealous, and I have to admit that I wouldn't trade that particular memory for all the diamonds in Yodal.
It was a hot, dry day in the middle of August – one of those days when rich Teoyaheareans stay indoors and immerse themselves in ice baths, and the poor just do what they do every day and hope they don't get heat stroke doing it. Fortunately, my begging corner was in the shade of the Plaskati Tower, so I wasn't too badly off; in fact, I had actually collected more than my usual daily allotment of coins when Aldo ran past.
Aldo was another street urchin of Teoyahear, and I'd known him pretty well for a few months. He was a nervous, excitable kind of kid, always flying off the handle about something or other, but I'd never seen him as worked up as he was now. I was amazed that anyone could be so energetic in that kind of weather, and it occurred to me that I should say something to him before he overheated his brain.
"Hey, Aldo," I said. "Where's the fire?"
Aldo skidded to a stop, and turned to me with eyes wide with excitement. "Jessica!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing there? Why aren't you at Tafili Central?"
"You mean the railroad station?" I said. "Why should I be there?" It seemed like an odd thing to say; street beggars weren't generally encouraged to visit Tafili Central, and when the Duke of Teoyahear discouraged something, that was usually the end of it. His methods of enforcing his wishes weren't very pretty, but they got the job done.
Aldo, though, didn't seem to be thinking of that. "Haven't you heard?" he said. "The Blue Train's come to Teoyahear!"
"The what?" I said.
Aldo sighed. "Okay," he said. "There's this rich man who lives in a big castle up in the Sudonese Mountains, and he started this train to bring people to live up there with him. You don't need money or anything; all you do is go up to the train and say to the porter that you want to be a passenger, and he'll let you on."
I stared at him. "That's the craziest thing I've ever heard."
Aldo shrugged. "I'm just telling you what they told me," he said. "Or what the first person told me, anyway. The second person said something about the rich man's son, and how he built the track the train runs on just before he got killed. I didn't quite understand that, but I got the basic idea."
"What people are these?" I said.
"The people from the train, of course."
I blinked. "You mean the passengers on this magic train are just walking around Teoyahear right now?"
"Well, sure they are," said Aldo. "They think being on this train and going to this castle is the only thing worth living for, so whenever the train stops in a city somewhere, they all get out and tell everyone about the great thing they've got going."
"Even beggars?" I said.
"Everyone," said Aldo. "Beggars, tradesman, noblemen – I even saw one of them dropping invitations to the convicts at Calsca Prison. But the impression I got was that they actually focus on beggars most of all, since we've got less to lose. If a merchant hears about the Blue Train, a lot of the time he'll say, 'Well, that's a very nice idea, and if my business ever allows me the opportunity, I'll have to look into it someday.' That's not what they want."
"It's not?" I said.
"No. Going on the Blue Train is a permanent commitment, apparently. If you want to do something else with your time – sell radishes, or play tennis, or whatever – you have to figure out a way to do it in the little bits of time while the Train is stopped, or else you have to do it on the Train itself." He grinned. "But it's worth it, because you get to live in a castle in the Sudonese Mountains at the end of it all."
"Yeah," I murmured. "Yeah, I can see how that would be."
"'Course you do," said Aldo. "So, are you coming?"
"Um… I don't know," I said. "I'll have to think about it."
"Well, don't think too long," said Aldo. "The Train leaves in half an hour." And he started to run off down the street.
"Wait a second," I said. "If you're so hipped about going on this train, why are you going that way? Tafili Central's to the southwest."
"I know that," said Aldo, looking a little miffed. "I'm just going to get Shura."
I frowned. Shura was Aldo's sister, and she'd never struck me as the sort of person who would care about castles in the Sudonese Mountains. "What are you going to do if she doesn't want to come?" I said.
"Oh, she'll want to come," said Aldo. "I'll make sure of that."
And without another word, he turned and disappeared around the corner.
I sat back, rubbed the sweat off my forehead, and tried to think. A castle in the Sudonese Mountains… but that was crazy to start off with. I'd heard of the Sudonese Mountains; they were this huge chain near the south pole, so high and cold that it was always starlight at the top. Nobody could live there except a few savages; the idea of some rich man having a castle there was ridiculous. Besides, if I was remembering right, it was on an island; how could you take a train there?
And, even if it was true, why would this rich man want to bring a bunch of people he'd never met up there to live with him? It didn't make any sense.
Okay, the sensible part of me thought. So maybe Aldo got some of the story wrong. So why don't you go find one of the people he was talking to, and figure out what's really going on?
It was the obvious next step, but I hung back. Did I really want anything to do with this? What if this whole business about a Blue Train was just a cover dreamed up some clever flesh-peddler, so he could lure young beggars into his clutches and then sell them to Lord Hansahel or some kind of rich pervert like that? I remembered what Emma, the leader of the last gang I'd been part of, had always said: "Nobody in this world gives a rat's bladder about you as a person. What people care about is what they can get out of you, and the more they say they don't, the more they do. If you don't remember that, you're not going to last long on the streets – or anywhere else, for that matter."
Of course, the reason I wasn't part of that gang anymore was because Emma had gotten arrested by the Duke's soldiers and banished to the wilderness, so maybe she hadn't really known as much about surviving as she thought she had. Still, it made sense, didn't it?
Well, no. Not really, it didn't. After all, there were people I cared about even though they couldn't do much for me; I'd never gotten a thing out of Aldo, for instance, but I still would have been depressed to hear that he'd been killed. And Aldo himself… he gave pretty much everything he had to taking care of Shura, even though she'd been born with a twisted leg and could never pay him back. (Not that you can't beg with a twisted leg, but cripples aren't allowed out on the streets in Teoyahear. Apparently the Duke doesn't like to be reminded that there's such a thing as pain in the world, so anyone who's a living reminder of it, like Shura, has to be kept out of sight.)
Of course, that wasn't quite the same thing as what these Blue-Train people were supposedly doing. If Aldo was right, they were running around Teoyahear trying to help people they'd never even met, which was a lot weirder than trying to help your sister. But, still… if people could care about other people, as such, then maybe the people on the Blue Train were just better at it than other people. Like throwing pebbles: some people could hit a mark ten or fifteen yards away, even if I couldn't.
But still, what if it wasn't…?
But still, what if it was…?
It's amazing how long you can put off making a decision if you really work at it. I must have sat there for fifteen minutes, thinking now this, now that, and never getting an inch closer to resolving anything. I might have sat there for fifteen minutes more, and had the problem solved for me (if you call that a solution), if the clock on the Plaskati Tower hadn't suddenly struck the hour with that loud, braying toll I knew so well. It suddenly reminded me that time was an issue here; if I wanted to get on this Train, or even take a look at it, I had to get moving.
And I guess I must have wanted to, because, without another thought, I jumped to my feet, snatched up my begging bowl, and headed for the southwest.