“The Night Was Dark…”
“We just have to let it burn off,” he sniffled. “Salvage what we can when it’s done.”
The cowpoke was playing with his bandaged hand. “When we don’t show up at Próximo station, they’ll send riders.”
The conductor shook his head. “The northbound train will arrive before riders. But, without us showing up first at the sidetrack, they’ll be on the look-out for trouble, so they won’t be running full steam.”
Watching the train burn had Jimmy Fu in standing meditation. Stepping aside from sadness and attachment. The train was but one train. The Great Sword was a mold with many blades forged from it.
“The rails are clear,” the conductor said.
The cowboy tipped his bowler and wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hurt hand. “How’d it derail? There’s no block. No rail off track.”
“I don’t know,” the conductor said, “but who knows what tricks them assassins had? Anyways, that weren’t what I meant. The rails are clear, so the northbound train will continue on after stopping. We’ll likely be offered passage back to La Torre.”
The cowboy sniffed. “Or supplies so we can wait on tomorrow’s southbound.”
The conductor nodded, looked up into the clear, dark sky. The absence of the moon was an ironic presence. “At least with this fire we won’t freeze in the desert night.” He gestured toward the crescent of flame.
One of the women slapped the dust from the front of her skirt. “We won’t need the horses then.” She nodded toward the monk.
The conductor nodded. “You want one, hobo? After all, you liberated ’em.”
Jimmy Fu shook his head. He could not own a horse. He had to find another train. He could wait for the northbound train, but the conductor would likely refuse to let him aboard. Railroad workers hated the Huobu.
“I must walk,” he said.
The conductor pursed his lips in a frown and nodded.
Once the fire had died in the rising glow of morning, the passengers began picking through the remains. There were some salvageable crates. Salted pork, timepieces, linen sheets. Jimmy begged to borrow one of the last for a tent to protect him from the sun. The conductor granted it.
He gathered up his sack and stick from the saguaro. With a glance at the fallen car where his companion lay crushed, he began walking north along the tracks.
As the sun rose on his right shoulder, Jimmy Fu watched its first light glint off the twin blades of the railroad. His thoughts drifted to the story of the Founder of the Huobu. The sad romance of Lu Long.
On the sea passage to the Flag Republic, settled over a century before by colonists from Jackland and Vexillor, Lu Long considered the Imperial tour of what he knew as the Flag Lands. He had learned in Lighchester that the term was not used for all peoples using flags rather than pennants, streamers, or the banners of Shou. The Jacklanders, Chayanos, and Vexillings flew flags, but they all understood “The Flag Lands” to refer to the Flag Republic.
Where he and the princess Shou Yan were now traveling.
The provinces of the Flag Republic were called flag states and flag territories, while they were just called states in Chayan, counties in Jackland, earldoms and principalities in Vexillor. The basis of Flag Republic currency was called flag dollars, while the other lands had Chayano dollars, Jackland pounds, dinars and marks in Vexillor. It was a confusing complication for a warrior from a unified civilization.
The only unifying factor among the peoples under the flag was the railroad. The circuit of Jackland. The Eastern Express between Douvaix and Montescano in Vexillor, reaching toward the Pennant City of Kital, where he and his lieutenants had defeated the assassins. The transcontinental project in the Flag Republic to connect the eastern coastal states of Hawthorne and Julina with the western coastal territory of Costilla.
Still, on the long and watery voyage from Lighchester in Jackland to Gorham in Hawthorne, Lu Long felt his romance for the Jackland rails waning. Their steel song fading in the sweep of wave and wind. A fading fascination with the metal train giving way to the present beauty of the princess. Her soft curves and elegant manners like the gentle touch of dew defeating the hard certain arcs of the rails and the raw force of the steam.
Even so, he could not fully forget the power of that engine, the speed of its attack across the landscape.
“We could build a train circuit in Shou,” Long suggested to Yan, under a bright moon. “As in Jackland.”
She crinkled her forehead. “So the provinces are connected around the Capital? Would that be wise?”
“The wealth it would create would feed the Imperial coffers. It would tame the channels of finance, as the wolf is tamed into the dog.”
She stared into the passing waves, considering it. “For the sake of the throne, it should be spokes without a wheel.”
Lu Long chewed on her words. Rails connecting the provinces to the capital would speed the flow of taxes. But, without the prosperous connections between the provinces, those taxes would be stagnant. It was a true dilemma.
The princess set her hand over his on the ship’s wooden rail. “Why bring this Flaglander contraption to Shou? This is their machine, they made it.”
Warmed by the touch of his bride-to-be, he was satisfied. They made it, they could keep it. He nodded and let the matter go.
When they arrived on the dark stone streets of Gorham, he accompanied the princess on her itinerary among the elite of the Flag Republic. Despite the misty gloom of the state of Hawthorne, even more oppressive than the fog and drizzle of Jackland, the pomp was grand.
A musical play featuring incompetent admirals and gleeful singing pirates. A dinner of enormous crayfish and a broad variety of sauces and condiments extracted from the milk of cattle. A glorious night learning and reveling in the bouncing dances of the Flaglanders, where the princess’s official consort whirled and side-stepped in her courteous embrace.
Then, on their third day in the Flag Republic, they visited the Gorham train depot, aptly named Great Union Station, a stark promenade sheltering the comings and goings of the steam-driven swords. The princess stood beside Lu Long between two stark columns of stone, his companion warriors from the provinces of Shou arrayed proudly behind them, as the train from Ventana pulled into the station with a whistle and a huff of steam.
When the engine car pulled to a stop, Lu Long stared into the eye of the coal-fed flame. He glanced off ahead into the distance, along the double blades of the railroad. The Great Sword that the Flaglanders had conjured from fire and stone and steel and steam.
He was thrust back to his test before the Emperor of Shou, the father of the princess. No one but Lu Long could see the truth of it. The Flaglanders had not made the train. They had found the train in the potential of the world, as Lu Long had found his sword in the materials from which he’d forged it. And the train had made the Flaglanders what they were now, as his sword had made him a warrior.
They could not see its power, its beauty, or its consequence. It had lived as an untamed potential in the wild world, and they had simply found it. They saw it only as a beast of burden. He saw it as a Great Sword, an instrument of prophecy and spirit.
The floating sparks from the engines coal were like a constellation of stars. Floating and flitting like bats in the dark oven.
Lu Long permitted his eyes one last survey of the princess’s curves and elegance. Her dark eyes were sad, sensing a shift in his loyalties. He put a hand on her elbow as he turned, stepping between his accompanying warriors and walking away from the platform with a purpose.
As he maneuvered through the foreign crowds, Lu Long drew his sword. Women paled and retreated, protected behind a wall of male arms. He set his eyes on the stone edge of Great Union Station, the cornerstone where a brass plaque memorialized the construction of the train depot.
He felt the sun-hidden stars moving through him. The Southern Star of the Imperial throne, Shou. The Northern Star of his own family, Lu. The wandering bat of the Torch Star, Fu.
He stared at the foreign script of the plaque. Nothing written there would capture the power of the Great Sword, the true sword of the railroad. Mustering his will, Lu Lung thrust his lesser sword into the cornerstone of the station, burying its folded steel to the hilt.
Lu Long stepped through the confused crowds, made his way back to his hotel room, and wrapped his barest belongings in a sack. He bought a cane with his last gold coin and slung the sack over it. When he returned to the tower of the Great Union Station, he saw the princess watching from a second floor window.
He turned his back on his Empire, his official salary, his banner, his bride to be. As the outgoing train rolled off toward Ventana and the rails beyond, toward the burgeoning transcontinental railroad, Lu Long stepped up to the edge of the platform and leaped onto a cattle car.
As he settled into his bed among the cows of the Flag Lands, he gave up his ancestral name Lu, and took on the name of the wandering bat, Fu.
Jimmy Fu followed the rails north, greeting the armadillos and coyotes and rattlesnakes along his way. Savage civilizations, confused by the noisy artifice of the train, yet living in its shadow.
The moon rose dimly in the east, chasing the sun with a half-face.
Once, in the raw heat of noontime, he thought he heard hoofsteps. But he remembered what the assassins had said about the bandits of that part of Chayan. Soe stray sound of the wastelands had played tricks on a suspicious ear.
Jimmy Fu struggled to still his mind as he walked the packed sand along the rails. The Lodge Gang, who were apparently the banditos in that stretch of desert, were gone. Lodge was not a Chayano word. Had they been raiders from the Flag Republic, from New Léxico or Costilla? Had the assassins killed them? Had the assassins come to avenge them? Why were these assassins in Chayan?
So many mysteries to puzzle out in vengeance of his fallen sword.
Jimmy Fu found humor in that. An echo of Fu Long’s transformation from Imperial escort to traveling monk. “I guess I am to leave aside the robes of the monk and take on the clothes of a detective now.”
As a young man, Jimmy Fu had left behind a life as a shop keeper to train under a Huobu master in the flag territory of South Hanson. Now, he wondered if he needed to seek out a detective to train under.
Another sound touched his suspicious ear. A familiar sound, the ring of steel on steel. The huff of steam. The sound of an approaching train.
He turned to look over his shoulder. On the horizon, beyond the twin lines of the rails, he saw the wind-blown column of smoke. The northbound train from Próximo.
He quickly hid behind some brush. Little beetles were congregating there, fighting over seeds. A black lizard turned an eye toward him and raced to shelter up a nearby bush.
He crouched as the engine rumbled by. The kitchen car, the passenger cars, the cargo boxes. The cattle cars were placed last to blast away the smell in the train’s wake.
As the scent of cows washed over him, Jimmy Fu prepared to leap from his hiding place and board his new sword. Some intuition stilled him. A whisper from the pale daylight moon.
After the train passed him, he saw two standing tombstones in the desert across the rails. Two creatures were playing between them, a coyote and a feral dog.