The train pulled into the station in the western district of Takaharu, and Xavier was unable to do anything but stare. For several days, the towns had been growing larger and closer together, but this was the first place in this world that he would have categorized as a full-fledged city. Takaharu's architecture was also far different from the areas closer to the Tachigare Desert. Houses were constructed primarily of wood and bricks, and were often two or more stories high, arranged in rows with legitimate roads wending between them. There was at least one good-sized hill that Xavier could see from the tracks as the train approached the town, and it was jam-packed with residences. It was hard to tell from this distance, but there seemed to be trolleys trundling up and down the larger streets. It didn't look much like a medieval town, the way he would have expected given the level of technology he'd seen in use by the bakuhito. Rather it was more like an industrial western European city shortly after the industrial revolution, but with significantly less soot and filth.
Unfortunately, he didn't have long to gawk at the more picturesque residential areas; their train pulled aside as it approached the city proper and circled into a more industrial area near a large river. A plethora of train tracks snaked hither and yon, while hulking warehouses and other large buildings without much ornamentation going for them spread out nearby.
What was odd was that everything was so clean. Xavier hadn't spent much time in similar areas in his hometown, but Alburn did have an industrial area that he'd driven through on occasion, and he recalled it being very grungy and smoggy. However, while the buildings weren't by any definition pristine, they looked more weather-worn than dirtied by coal or oil.
He assumed everything was powered by nima, though he was intensely curious how that actually functioned. Kahina didn't care, Yukio and Sumiko were as baffled as he was, and Orion went off into technical jargon when he asked that was so dense he only understood about one word in three. There had to be a way to store and extract nima from things other than the pumice-like rocks that they'd used in the desert to create heat, but that had resulted in the rock crumbling into sand or dust. Surely there had to be some sort of byproduct from converting nima into motion for such a large and heavy train. And was there someone up there channeling nima out of rocks or something and into a machine? How did that work exactly? Thanks to Princess's insistent tutelage on their trip through the desert he was getting pretty good at sensing nima when it was being manipulated around him, and he'd never witnessed anyone transfer much more than was required to heat up a blanket from one object to another. Orion never seemed to bother channeling nima at all; he relied on his various artifacts, but whatever was going on in them was too subtle for Xavier to make out.
He'd finally tried asking Princess, but she wasn't interested and freely admitted that she'd never had any curiosity over artifacts. She'd then grumbled strenuously about him keeping her bundled up in his pack. One of the first things he was going to need to do would be to find a proper bag or backpack for Princess, since Orion has warned him to absolutely never leave any of her exposed beyond what he needed to keep in physical contact. Evidently mononoke were so rare they were little more than legends to most people, but were incredibly desired by high powered channelers and artificers, making her a tempting target for theft. Knowing that such a theft would more than likely result in a dead or rampaging thief, Xavier took the warning to heart. Princess was not amused.
In any case, how nima was used to power large machinery was a mystery, and one he had a feeling he was going to need to figure out sooner rather than later. He was certain that moving between realities required quite a chunk of energy, and given his inability to work nima himself—aside from redirecting and consuming it, that is—he was definitely going to need the help of some serious artifacts to gain the nima necessary to return home.
Before he could worry about that, however, he needed to make it through an interview with the head of the Society for Progress's Takaharu chapter house. He'd been a little nervous when he'd learned that the first thing he would be doing after arriving would be interviewing with some muckety-muck, but things got a lot worse when they disembarked the train.
«Kahina-chan, take care of the animals and Zabi-kun, would you?» shouted Orion over their heads as they stepped out on the cramped excuse for a passenger platform that existed in this train yard. It was blindingly obvious that these trains were meant almost exclusively for freight rather than passengers. «I'll go ahead to the chapter house and make sure they're ready for us.»
«Yes, sir,» Kahina rumbled.
Once everyone had sorted themselves and their baggage out, Kahina herded them all away from the platform and into the surrounding street where she grabbed Xavier's hand—about halfway through the trip through the Tachigare her discomfort the nima imbalance in her small arm finally outweighed her nervousness over Princess and she'd started getting physical with Xavier once again every chance she got—and led the group down the dirt street. Xavier really, really missed cars, but didn't get much of a chance to wonder what sort of transportation was used in Takaharu because Kahina immediately started talking.
«I think Orion-sensei mentioned this already, but you will all need to undergo an admittance interview before you will be allowed the option of joining the Society for Progress. Even if you decide against joining, as long as you s—that is to say, you will be allowed a few days of lodging either way.»
"She just stopped herself from saying 'as long as you survive', right? I'm not mishearing because you've stuffed me in a damn sack, am I?"
Princess raised a good point. «Kahina-san, is this interview dangerous?»
«You'll do fine.»
That didn't answer the question. Or, well, actually it kind of did. Sumiko was giving Kahina a flat stare, though Yukio didn't seem particularly flustered.
«What aren't you telling us, Kahina-san?» asked Sumiko.
«Just—keep your wits about you. And you might want to make sure any weapons you're carrying aren't buried in your packs. Orion-sensei and I would love to give you a day to rest up, but the chair of our chapter is a bit…idiosyncratic. New arrivals always interview first thing without exception.» She raised her full size hand palm out. «I'm really sorry, but I can't tell you any details. I'll be in a lot of trouble if they know I even told you that much, but well…» She trailed off, and gave Xavier's hand a gentle squeeze.
He concentrated, and gave a gentle tug at the nima in her arm, briefly pulling it in faster than his typical passive draw. Kahina jumped. «I'm not totally helpless, you know.»
She smiled at him, and shrugged one shoulder.
Yukio sped up until he was walking even with the two, although he was now basically in the middle of the street. «Needing to fight for your life for a place to sleep? Sounds fun! Kind of makes me nostalgic, really.»
«Nostalgic?» said Xavier.
«That's right, you haven't met any other neko bakuhito, have you, Zabi-kun?» said Sumiko.
«He's not missing anything,» said Yukio, with a dismissive wave. «I'm the best.»
«Because you're the least likely to murder him in his sleep.»
«Don't worry, Zabi-kun,» chimed in Kahina. «The Takaharu chapter chair isn't a neko.»
«You three are doing nothing to put me at ease here,» Xavier noted.
Kahina gave his hand another squeeze. «You'll do great. Guujin-sama loves a novelty, and you certainly apply.»
"I feel better already," grumbled Princess.