On the thirty-fourth day after leaving Henka behind, Xavier finally entered the Confederate States. The journey had gone by in a seemingly never-ending stint of tiny desert bakuhito towns separated by one or more days' worth of travel through the desert. Occasionally, the distance between towns was even greater and they had to stop to replenish their water supply at small oases. Xavier doubted he or anyone in his original party would have been able to find their way so relatively quickly, but fortunately for them all, Orion was more than happy to barter away artifacts in exchange for local guides whenever they entered a new town. The man had a seemingly endless supply of the things squirreled about his person.
It was also thanks to Orion that Xavier finally gained a bit more grounding in the world at large.
«Alright, boy,» said Orion from where he sat across from Xavier. The group had just emerged from a scraggly excuse for a forest that bordered the edge of the Tachigare and were currently riding a train into what Orion referred to as "civilized parts". Xavier wasn't sure how the thing operated—the whole thing looked a lot like an old-timey steam engine, except without a coal car, and no apparent smoke—and he wished he could be off exploring it with one of the bakuhito rather than getting grilled once again by Orion. «We're almost back to civilization, so let's make sure you aren't going to out yourself as a total yokel right off the bat. What are the Confederate States?»
Yeesh, they were starting really basic, then. Orion must be bored; he hadn't quizzed Xavier on this stuff since he'd first explained it way back on their second day of travel together.
«The Confederate States are a group of loosely affiliated states running primarily to the west and south of the Tachigare Desert, and are one of the two main political powers on the continent. They were formed around 150 years ago in response to a period of aggressive expansionism on the part of the Sundlin Empire, and although the original driving force was military in nature, the Confederacy has evolved into a legal bureaucracy that mediates between individual states, controls minting and distributing money, and oversees shared infrastructure.»
«Good,» grunted Orion. «Better retention than I'd expected, since I explained all that a month ago. Alright, what about the Society for Progress?»
«The Society is an organization not directly affiliated with any particular state or political power that is focused primarily on nima research. It's mercenary in nature, and obtains funding through research grants from various other individuals and institutions. Because the Society legally retains all rights to discoveries made on behalf of its clients barring a period of exclusivity, it is one of the most technologically advanced organizations on the continent and boasts political and military power to rival some states.»
«Good enough.» Orion shrugged, and seemed to lose interest. «You've got a decent memory, so go ahead and get back to your nima training or whatever.»
Xavier had been spending quite a bit of the trip training with Princess in order to enhance his awareness of nima and ability to manipulate it, but at the moment he was much more interested in staring out of the window as Sumiko and Yukio had been doing since they first boarded.
The town where they had embarked hadn't been all that much different from any of the bakuhito towns they had traveled through. A little larger, a little more organized, and with a few more plants growing here and there, but by and large the only difference was that the population was almost entirely human. They'd been lucky enough to arrive only a day in advance of the train coming through, and at this point in its route the few passenger cars were almost entirely empty.
As they traveled west, however, both the land and the architecture in the towns they passed drastically changed. At this point, although the climate was still warm, he would never have guessed that they were a mere few hundred miles away from an incredibly harsh desert. Cultivated fields and orchards extended miles beyond every town they passed, with scrub-land and occasional woods interspersed between.
«The Confederacy is amazing,» said Sumiko softly. She was sitting next to Xavier, and looking out the same window where another large cultivated field was passing by. «So much water. I knew they were rich here, but I guess I never really understood how rich.»
«Rich? These provincials?» Orion snorted. «We've got a few hundred miles to go before we properly get out of the boonies.»
Sumiko ignored him, which Xavier had observed was her default approach when it came to Orion.
«What are your plans, now that you're here?» Xavier asked. He'd been wondering for some time what the bakuhito were planning to do now that they were out of the desert, but hadn't found a good opportunity beforehand to ask.
«I will see what this Society has to offer. But if that doesn't work out, I may make my way back this way.»
«What would you do in this area?» asked Xavier in surprise. «It seems pretty heavily agricultural.»
«Haven't you noticed? There are bakuhito working many of these fields. I do not think this area of the Confederacy is quite so segregated as Orion-san has made it seem, and even if bakuhito are rare…well, I am skilled at running a hostel, and I imagine a large enough town should have an inn or similar where a bakuhito hostess would increase their custom.»
«That certainly sounds like an achievable goal. Though I admit, I'm hoping the Society is interested in hiring you. I would love to have some friendly faces beyond Kahina-san and Orion-san.» Xavier looked down the car where Yukio and Kahina were seated near the entrance. They had learned early on that leaving Orion and Yukio in close proximity was a recipe for disaster. «I wonder what Yukio-san's plans are.»
«Yukio?» Sumiko laughed quietly. «He's probably asking Kahina where the best fighting rings are.»
«Fighting rings,» muttered Orion. «Barbarian animals.»
Xavier just smiled. «That sounds about right.»
Outside, the train banked into a turn and the fields opened up to reveal a large township rushing their way.
Orion stared out the window glumly. «I swear this train ride was faster when I was going the other direction.»
«Speaking of Yukio-san, I think I'll go see how he and Kahina-san are doing,» said Xavier. Orion had certainly been a fount of information, and had made their trip immeasurably simpler thanks to the power of money…but he drove Xavier nuts.