Twenty-two days after emerging from the icy wastes of the Jokalaylau into the balmier climes of the Third Dominion—days which had seen Pie and Gentle’s fortunes rise dramatically as they journeyed through the Third’s diverse territories—the wanderers were standing on a station platform outside the tiny town of Mai-ke, waiting for the train that once a week came through on its way from the city of lahmandhas, in the northeast, to L’Himby, half a day’s journey to the south.
They were eager to be departing. Of all the towns and villages they’d visited in the past three weeks, Mai-ke had been the least welcoming. It had its reasons. It was a community under siege from the Dominion’s two suns, the rains which brought the region its crops having failed to materialize for six consecutive years. Terraces and fields that should have been bright with shoots were virtually dust bowls, stocks hoarded against this eventuality critically depleted. Famine was imminent, and the village was in no mood to entertain strangers. The previous night the entire populace had been out hi the drab streets praying aloud, these imprecations led by their spiritual leaders, who had about them the air of men whose invention was nearing its end. The noise, so unmusical Gentle had observed that it would irritate the most sympathetic of deities, had gone on until first light, making sleep impossible. As a consequence, exchanges between Pie and Gentle were somewhat tense this morning.
They were not the only travelers waiting for the train. A fanner from Mai-ke” had brought a herd of sheep onto the platform, some of them so emaciated it was a wonder they could stand, and the flock had brought with them clouds of the local pest: an insect called a zarzi, that had the wing-span of a dragonfly and a body as fat and furred as a bee. It fed on sheep ticks, unless it could find something more tempting. Gentle’s blood fell into this latter category, and the lazy whine of the zarzi was never far from his ears as he waited in the midday heat. Their one informant in Mai-ke, a woman called Hairstone Banty, had predicted that the train would be on time, but it was already well overdue, which didn’t augur well for the hundred other pieces of advice she’d offered them the night before.
Swatting zarzi to left and right, Gentle emerged from the shade of the platform building to peer down the track. It ran without crook or bend to its vanishing point, empty every mile of the way. On the rails a few yards from where he stood, rats, a gangrenous variety called graveolents, toed and fro-ed, gathering dead grasses for the nests they were constructing between the rails and the gravel the rails were set upon. Their industry only served to irritate Gentle further.
“We’re stuck here forever,” he said to Pie, who was squatting on the platform making marks on the stone with a sharp pebble. “This is Hairstone’s revenge on a couple of hoopreo.”
He’d heard this term whispered in their presence countless times. It meant anything from exotic stranger to repugnant leper, depending on the facial expression of the speaker. The people of Mai-ke were keen face-pullers, and when they’d used the word in Gentle’s company there was little doubt which end of the scale of affections they had in mind.
“It’ll come,” said Pie. “We’re not the only ones waiting.”
Two more groups of travelers had appeared on the platform in the last few minutes: a family of Mai’keacs, three generations represented, who had tugged everything they owned down to the station; and three women in voluminous robes, then” heads shaved and plastered with white mud, nuns of the Goetic Kicaranki, an order as despised in Mai-k6 as any well-fed hoopreo. Gentle took some comfort from the appearance of these fellow travelers, but the track was still empty, the graveolents, who would surely be the first to sense any disturbance in the rails, going about their nest building unperturbed. He wearied of watching them very quickly and turned his attention to Pie’s scrawlings.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to work out how long we’ve been here.”