There were ten members of the party that gathered in front of the office of M&S Coal, Radley Staff included. It was, he thought, small enough to be able to move quickly through the forest, and large enough to be safe from marauding dinosaurs. There were the Kanes, who were dressed alike in khaki shirt and pants, with pith helmets and frock coats. Femke Kane was attractive even without make-up and with her male hairstyle, but standing next to her husband Ivo, the two looked like a pair of peculiar twins. Beeman Glieberman had also traded his sharp suit in for khaki explorer garb with a heavy jacket, but Aakesh Mouliets wore a great coat of ferret skins over his traditional Mirsannan clothing. Miss Jindra had exchanged her very feminine gowns for black leather pants and knee high boots, but was covered with a butterfly cape coat, the lavish black hood of which made her beautiful features look dark and mysterious. Three lizardmen had been hired to carry equipment. Staff had made sure that he had learned their names—Cheebie, Sanjo, and Mimsie. Then there was the local boy that had been hired as a translator, the brother of the young waitress from the bakery café.
The boy was looking down the street. Staff followed his gaze and saw Senta standing on the corner looking back. She stood out in a beautiful new lavender dress the way the first spring flower stands out in the snow. The boy turned his back.
“Have a fight with your girlfriend?” wondered Staff.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” said the boy angrily.
“All right. Are the lizzies ready to go?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, then turned to the three reptilians and spat out a series of hisses.
The creatures each picked up a pack that would have bowed over a strong man, and tossed them onto their shoulders. The human members picked up their belongings and everyone started down the street. Each of the men had backpacks, though they were tiny compared to the burdens of the lizardmen. Staff and Kane each carried a rifle, and all of the humans except Graham and Miss Jindra had pistols on their belts. They made their way through town and past the train station, then continued due south.
There was very little snow on the ground now. Though the days had not grown much warmer than those of a month previous, the skies had been clear for weeks, and the great drifts had slowly dissolved into splotchy patches of white among the trees. Staff turned up the collar of his reefer jacket and pulled his gloves from his pocket. As he put them on, he slowed until Miss Jindra came beside him.
“Approximately,” she answered.
“That’s a long way.”
“I imagine you will have to build a railway line,” she said. “I also imagine that you could purchase the unused ties and rails left over from the track recently completed from Mallontah. I am surprised you have not already done so.”
“I have,” said Staff. “I meant it was a long way for you to walk.”
“I will manage.”
“I hear you are staying with Zurfina.”
“Zurfina the Magnificent,” corrected Miss Jindra.
“I was surprised, after seeing her remove you from the ship.”
“She’s not only very powerful, but she’s very wise. She can teach me a great deal.”
Staff couldn’t put his finger on it exactly, but there was something slightly off about Miss Jindra. Her speech and her expressions were not quite the same as the young sorceress he had met on the S.S. Arrow. He slowed and let her go ahead. When he did so, he was joined by Femke Kane.
“Your friend seems nice,” she said.
“She’s more of an acquaintance really.”
“Do you have many women acquaintances, Mr. Staff?”
“That does indeed seem to be my curse.”
“Perhaps you should get yourself one or two close friends,” she said. “Then acquaintances would become less important.”
He turned and looked at her face. He had noticed before that Mrs. Kane wore no make-up. He noticed now for the first time that she did not have the thin arched eyebrows that every other woman he knew maintained. Hers were almost as thick as his. If she hadn’t been naturally pretty, he could see how she might have been mistaken for a man.
They walked all day, stopping only briefly at lunch and teatime. Late in the afternoon, they reached the edge of a small clearing, and Staff called a halt. They quickly cleared a large space and built a fire. Pulling assorted canned goods from their packs, they opened these and then set them on flat rocks at the edge of the fire to heat. By the time the food was ready, the party was arrayed around the flames in a circle, messaging their tired feet, or making themselves comfortable for the night.
“How far did we walk today?” asked Beeman Glieberman.
“Fifteen miles,” answered Ivo Kane.
“It has to be more than that,” said Aakesh Mouliets. “I have walked this far many times back in Brechalon.”
Staff paid little attention to the conversation. He was staring at the curious sight on the other side of the campfire. All three of the lizardmen, having laid down their burdens, were lying on their stomachs with their chins pointed towards the fire and their tales pointed at the darkening forest. They were pressed right up against one another. In this position, they looked more like alligators than upright humanoids. Graham Dokkins sat beside them, using one of the creatures as a leather back support pillow.