Monday, November 24, 2008


Since the abrupt disappearance of Professor Flanderdrack, our compartment has been only three-quarters full. A few people have taken a look at it, but being less inclined to stay up late than Flishel and I, none of them have stayed. One of the four seats has stayed empty. The sleeping passenger sort of spreads into it occasionally.

Today, we were joined by a fourth passenger.

The Train had stopped at Arkentram, a small town that seemed huge compared to the little villages we've been passing lately. The station was centered around a tall thing like a scrap-metal tree. The station-master explained that it was to attract sunlight. In Arkentram, he said, the sun shines even when it's raining. It certainly did while we were there.

The Train stayed for a few hours, so I went to buy some more ink in the market. I don't know when we'll find another town large enough to have ink vendors. I found the stall just as a heap of coats and scarves, presumably with someone inside them, was leaving with a gallon jug of ink. I bought one of my own and came back to the Train. The heap of coats arrived at our compartment only a minute or two after I did.

"Norrel Hepsidine," it said. "Midnight."

We introduced ourselves.

"Nigel Tangelo, two am."

"Flishel, midnight." (The only English word I've ever heard him use.)

"And, um... that?"

"Never wakes up."


That was all. Without another word, the heap put down its suitcase (her suitcase - Norrel is a girl's name) and settled in. She spent the next half-hour taking off layer after layer of coats and shawls and sweaters. Underneath, she turned out to be amphibian, with a salamander-like face and pale green skin. A fringe of vestigial gills hung down over her ears. Her face was covered with what I assumed were tattoos or paint: black spirals and leaves, like the shadow of a vine.

Her coats took up nearly every coat-hook in the compartment. Fortunately, the Train gets a lot of cold-blooded passengers, so each compartment has about forty hooks for just this reason. The air slowly filled with the smell of cinnamon. We found out why later, when she took a stick out one of the pockets - raw cinnamon, the alpine variety, still in stiff little rolls. She chewed on it absentmindedly all day.

Our compartment stays warmer than most, as a result of having three mammals in it. It would almost be stuffy without the blasts of cold air whenever the Train stops. In the end, all Miss Hepsedine kept on was a knee-length embroidered skirt, like the ones worn in the Golden Desert. (Keeping the chest covered is a purely mammalian habit; no one else has anything to cover up. Male and female amphibians look exactly the same to most people.) Her entire body was covered with the black vines. I was about to ask whether they were tattooed or painted when a leaf fell off of her arm. It dissolved into a puff of smoke before it reached the floor. That seemed to more or less answer my question.

I had only glanced at the falling leaf for a second, but that seemed to be all it took; Miss Hepsedine noticed me looking and grinned. "It's inkweed," she said eagerly. "Do you like it?"

Thus began the rest of the afternoon. Before the subject of inkweed came up, Miss Hepsedine had said all of seven words; after that, she turned out to be capable of talking steadily for hours.

Inkweed is a plant composed entirely of the color black. It's a dermatoglyph, like mobile hieroglyphics or rainbow splodge, a form of two-dimensional life that exists only as patterns on a surface. It can't exist by itself. It has color, but no thickness. A tree with an inkweed vine on it doesn't have stems and leaves stuck to its trunk; it has vine-shaped patches of wood that happen to be black. All inkweed needs is a smooth surface and a source of black, such as ink, tar, ash, or the dark mud on the bottoms of swamps. It has been known to survive on a diet of shadows, but it prefers more substantial kinds of darkness.

Miss Hepsedine, as it turns out, is something of an expert on inkweed. She makes her living off of it. Her suitcase is completely full of books, pens, and jugs of ink (I think she was wearing all the clothes she had), and all but a few of the books are copies of her guide to raising inkweed. She includes seedlings from her own plants when she sells them. The seeds look exactly like commas. They fall off of the plants when they're ripe and stick to the first surface they touch. The seed in each book is carefully planted on a sheet of black paper, which turns white as the seedling sucks the pigment out of it. Each seedling has to be added just before its book is sold; if it stays in it too long, it spreads and starts eating the words.

If it weren't for my disastrous luck with plants - every single one I've raised has died, except the ones that turned out to be weeds - I might be tempted to get an inkweed myself.

Miss Hepsedine fed the inkweed while she talked. Her hands were covered with the feathery black lines of roots. I wasn't sure why they were there, instead of on her feet, until she got out a jug of ink and started pouring it into her palm. I expected it to drip off onto the floor. Instead, it disappeared into her hand like a magician's trick, absorbed by the inkweed without spilling a drop.

She spent the evening writing; she's currently working on a book about dermatoglyph biology. When not discussing inkweed, she hardly talks at all, which is perfect - I don't either, and Flishel talks a lot but doesn't seem to care if anyone's listening. It all works out nicely. If we ended up with someone who talked all the time in a language I knew, I could never concentrate on anything.

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