Billows of white, choking steam wreathed the locomotive and streamed back, tendrils finding their way through even the most tightly shut windows. Demolin Nardins surreptitiously wiped at the filthy glass, longing to glimpse the countryside sliding past outside. Even the small wood they were passing seemed somehow more wonderful and more woody than those he knew at home.
Or would he be thought boorish and colonial by the sophisticated locals that shared the compartment? In fact, Demolin reflected, he probably had little to fear from the bad opinions of his fellow-travellers. The family sitting at the other end - a starched, middle-aged man, his grey jacket buttoned tightly to the throat, his small wife, corseted and frilly, and their sulky-looking son - were far too busy glaring and tutting at the remaining passenger, even while pretending they weren't.
She was a girl of about eighteen, Demolin judged, with a lively prettiness. Though not actually exposed, she wore clothes that looked looser and more comfortable than anything he'd seen since arriving in this formal, proper country, although she'd have looked normal enough on the farms back home in Amnien. That might have been comfortingly familiar to Demolin, if he'd been homesick. As it was, he felt disappointed. After coming all this way to get away from a land that still had one foot on the frontier, he'd expected better.
He knew, though, that the girl's casual attire wasn't the main cause of the the family's outrage. The girl appeared to be travelling alone and unchaperoned. Even in Amnien, that would have raised eyebrows.
Outside the window, countryside began to give way to suburbs, and a guard knocked on the compartment door. "Ferrid in ten minutes," he called.
No, it's Cloniathron, thought Demolin instinctively, aware that his indignation was ridiculous. It probably didn't matter to anyone here, in the country now called Terrlith, that this was the ancient royal seat of Caurien. Demolin, though, felt a keen sense of pride in the homeland from which his ancestors had fled long ago, amid war and invasion.
On the other hand, he'd been waiting for this moment since he was a child and wasn't going to let a name spoil it for him. Demolin wanted to see the whole country, but this above all: Cloniathron, the dreaming city of the north, with its serene towers and elegant palaces. According to his history teacher, there had been a city here for at least three thousand years, and maybe longer.
By the time he'd hauled his luggage down, the smoke outside was impenetrable. No matter: he had plenty of time to explore the place and soak in its atmosphere. Sitting stiffly, luggage in his lap and waiting for the train to stop, he caught the scandalous girl looking at him, though she turned away at once. Her expression seemed troubled.
She really was pretty, Demolin decided. His parents were concerned that he never courted, feeling that he should at least be engaged by twenty. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate girls, but those at home seemed coarse and provincial. Anyway, all his attention had gone into planning and saving for this trip. Still, this girl held his attention, for some reason.
He wished that he could speak to her before they left the train, before he'd never see her again, but he could think of no way that wouldn't appear tasteless and impertinent. So, when the train came to a shrieking, hissing halt, he picked up his luggage and departed with no more than a polite nod to each of his fellow-travellers. He'd spoken to none of them for the entire journey.
The main station at Ferrid was noisy and smoky, and for a moment Demolin stood irresolute, unsure of where to go. He had a short list of addresses for respectable boarding-houses, but he was feeling a little light-headed. Now he was here, he could hardly bear to look, but at last he forced himself to follow the crowds out of the station.
Even outside, a pall of smoke hung over the street, so that he couldn't tell whether towers and palaces dominated the skyline, but there were certainly none in this part of the city. On one side of the road stood an endless row of crumbling brick buildings - slums, he thought, mixed with a few mean shops and a dubious-looking tavern - and on the other was nothing but a long, blank wall. Everything was black with soot.
Demolin put his case down abruptly and sat on it, staring around. He was trying hard not to let himself cry, when a voice spoke from behind him. Turning, he saw the girl from the train.
"You look lost," she observed, looking him up and down. "Do you know anyone here?"