They say that cities always show their worst face to the railway, and I've been on the Blue Train long enough to know that it's true of most cities. It's not true of Teoyahear, though. The Duke's very proud of Tafili Central – he thinks that having a railroad station makes him look like a modern and enlightened ruler, instead of the backwater despot that he is – and he spent several thousand nyrua bringing in an architect from Corhirune to design it. It's easily the best-looking thing in the city – nothing obvious or flashy, but everything's right, if you know what I mean. It's definitely not the sort of place where a beggar-girl from the streets fits in; under ordinary circumstances, I'd have been too intimidated even to set foot in it.
At the moment, though, I had other concerns. It had taken me five minutes, running at top speed, to reach the station; that left ten minutes to find this Train of Aldo's, decide whether or not I wanted on, and figure out how to get on if I did want to. In itself, that wasn't too bad – I'd done more complicated things in less time, when I was with Emma's gang – but the problem here was, I didn't even know where to start. Like I said, street beggars weren't encouraged in Tafili Central, and I'd never set foot there in my life; basically, I had to figure out the whole working of the place in under ten minutes – without asking anybody any questions, of course, since a beggar who actually addressed the foreign passengers was just begging the Duke's soldiers to come and seize her.
That would have been bad enough, but there was another problem, too. I've mentioned that this was a mid-August day in Teoyahear, and you can't run for five minutes, at top speed, through mid-August-Teoyahear weather without feeling some of the effects. By the time I reached the station, I'd probably sweated off about two-thirds of the water that I'd had in my body; my head was swimming, my legs were shaking, and all I felt strong enough to do was collapse onto the ground and curl up like a wounded bug. I managed to remain standing by leaning against a pillar, but that was about the limit of my strength.
I'm not sure how long I stood there, panting helplessly as the world reeled around me; it couldn't have been more than ten minutes, of course, but I'm pretty sure it was at least four. (To me, of course, it felt like a lifetime.)
And then a voice I'll never forget said, "Excuse me, do you need help?"
Do you need help. It's hard to remember, after so long, just how weird it felt to hear someone say those words to me. The world I'd grown up in wasn't a world where people offered help; if you couldn't take care of yourself, that was just too bad for you. I'd never really imagined that there could be a different kind of world – and I certainly hadn't expected to find it among the bejeweled wolves at Tafili Central.
I looked up vaguely, and saw a pair of soft, blue eyes staring down at me. I couldn't make out much of the rest of the figure through my haze, but the eyes were enough; there was something about them that made me feel I could trust this person. (As a street urchin of Teoyahear, you pick up these instincts pretty fast.)
"Water," I whispered. "I need water."
The eyes seemed to hesitate, and for a second I was worried that I'd misplaced my trust. The next moment, though, the hesitancy vanished, and the person nodded. "Just a moment."
And, the moment after that, I was alone again – or, at least, I thought I was. There was no way, then, that I could have understood the truth: that, even though my benefactor might not have been physically next to me anymore, I was still less alone, at that moment, than I had ever been in my life.
About half a minute later, I felt a soft hand tilt my head upward, and an exquisite stream of cool water flowed across my parched tongue and into my throat. It lasted for about fifteen seconds, and, when it was over, I felt twenty times better. I won't say that I was ready to scale Dyhoert-myblu, but at least my body didn't feel like a broken oxcart anymore.
I opened my eyes, which were clear again, and got my first good look at my benefactor. It was a woman, about a head taller than me, with long, red hair and pale skin. I'm not much of a judge of northerners, but I'd say she was pretty enough.
She was wearing a jacket and skirt of light-blue felt, with a beret and shoes of the same color. Compared to most of the people at Tafili, it was amazingly plain, but it was like the station itself: beautiful, because it was just right. Adding lace or jewels to it would have spoiled everything.
She saw me looking up at her, and smiled. "Better?"
"Good," said the woman. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I don't mean to desert you, but my train's leaving in just a few minutes. If there's anything else…"
"There is," I said quickly. I'd almost forgotten why I was there, but what she'd said had reminded me. "Someone said there was a Blue Train around here that anybody could get on and go to the Sudonese Mountains on. You don't have to take me to it – I can find it myself – but do you know where…"
I broke off. A funny look was coming over the woman's face; it was like she was trying really hard to keep herself from laughing. "Do I know where the Blue Train is?" she said. "Is that your question?"
"Um… yeah," I said uncertainly. "Is there something wrong with that?"
The woman really did laugh this time. It was a nice enough laugh – in fact, it was one of the nicest sounds I'd ever heard – but, still, it made me uncomfortable. What was so funny about wanting to go on the Blue Train? Had Aldo been wrong about them letting beggars on? Or was the whole thing nothing more than a nasty joke after all?
"No," the woman said. "No, there's nothing wrong with it at all. Follow me."
"Follow you?" I blinked. "But I thought you had your own train to catch. Didn't you just say…"
I trailed off as the obvious hit me, and the woman burst out laughing again. Stupid, Jessica, I thought. She's dressed all in blue, she's kind to beggars, and her train's leaving in just a few minutes. You should have been able to put all those pieces together.
But I was too thrilled to be really annoyed with myself. There was a Train, after all – and this woman was a passenger on it – and I was about to see it with my own eyes. Whether I would decide to actually get on board, I still wasn't quite sure, but just to see something like that…
"Okay," I said, in a kind of excited gasp. "Follow you. Yeah, I can do that."