They were drunk when they stumbled out of the Point. A bad way to start an adventure, Tierce would later reflect. But on the other hand, if they’d been completely sober, there might not have been an adventure at all.
“I can’t believe you’re really going to see her again,” Barris said as the door swung shut on the noisy tavern behind them. It was a warm evening with no need for coats or coverings as the trio headed across the Bridge of Blades. The bridge was dark, but they were armed and had drunk just enough to be unconcerned about potential dangers. They moved unhurriedly, relaxed and easy in each other’s company.
“Why not?” Romeric flashed a smile at his friends. It was the same, not-quite-decent smile he’d had when he described the encounter with his “ailenia” earlier in the evening. “I think she likes me.”
“Her brother is gonna kill you when he finds out,” Tierce said. Of the three, he’d had the most to drink. Or at least, he had the least experience handling it. His words felt thick in his mouth, and he had to concentrate to make sure they came out in the right order. Talking and walking at the same time were proving to be a particular challenge, though he was sure he could compensate if he just spoke louder.
“Cael?” Romeric dismissed the notion with a snort, but the others were not convinced. Barris shot him a dour look.
“Besides Cael,” he said. “Her parents will never approve. Even if you have money, they’re never going to let her marry a foreigner.”
Romeric’s laugh was sharp and shameless. “Marry? Who said anything about marry? I just think she’s pretty.” He thumped Barris in the arm, Barris pushed him back, and then they shoved each other back and forth in a brief contest that was gloriously inconclusive.
It’s why he’d gone to the tavern in the first place, because he was so confused and frustrated by what had happened in the garden that he couldn’t even think about going home. The others had found him there later and joined him in drowning his sorrows without needing to ask what they were. Which was just as well because how could ever tell them about what had happened?
Head spinning, heart aching, Tierce swayed on his feet in middle of the Bridge of Blades, unable to stop the maelstrom of conflicting emotions that assaulted him. For the first time since he came to Corregal, he wished that he’d never met Sieur Eristan, because then he never would have met his beautiful daughter, who never would be, never could be, his. He wished he’d never come to Corregal at all.
“Tierce?” The other two had stopped their scuffling long enough to notice his apparent distress. Barris peered at him with concern. “Are you all right?”
“I think he is going to be sick,” said Romeric.
Tierce opened his mouth, but whether he was actually going to be sick, or whether he was going to disgorge some heartbroken confession to his friends, he was never sure because, at that moment, there was a sound. A great, reverberating peal that rose out of the darkness upriver and echoed off the sides of the gorge, splintering the quiet of the night.
The Gatehouse bell.
Whatever thoughts they had in their heads disappeared in an instant, and the three boys craned their heads simultaneously toward the source of the sound.
“D’you think it’s a skreik?” Tierce asked in a low, worried voice.
Romeric shook his head. “In the city? It is too well protected.”
Barris only listened, counting silently as the bell rang out twice more and then fell silent. “Three chimes,” he said as the last of the echoes died away. “It’s just a warning. Not a summons.”
“Warning for what?” It was Romeric who asked, but they were all wondering the same thing, staring upriver in the darkness to where the Gatehouse lay. Every Gatehouse ever built had a bell hung over the doorway, used to alert locals in times of crisis. Even in cities as great as Corregal, warded by means both magic and military, the sound of the bell sent a shiver through the stoutest hearts. There were plenty of ordinary dangers in the world, but when the Gatehouse bell spoke…that meant something worse.
“Come on,” Barris said, finally, gesturing them onward. “Sieur Eristan probably knows. Let’s get home.”
It was late enough at night that the streets and bridges of the city were mostly deserted. As the trio hurried toward Fleuracy House, they only passed a few people, usually in groups of three or more and usually in just as much a hurry as they were. Once, they crossed paths with a Black Shield patrol but got nothing worse than warning looks from the officers before going on their way. Bridge abutments, terraced landings, and the difficult geography of the riverside city made it impossible to take a direct route anywhere. They had to cross the river multiple times to get home, and the quickest route was via Shinetower Stair.
Shinetower was a massive spire of rock that jutted out from the cliff at the point where the Cille River met the Aris. Four bridges were anchored in the spire, each at a different height and splayed at odd angles across the rivers, and a slender watchtower perched upon its peak. Carved into the face of the rock, a stairway spiraled down the spire’s length, connecting the tower, the bridges, and an ancient boat dock at its base. Steep, uneven steps, with nothing but a rope to protect against a fall, made the twisting stair a difficult path to take on the best of days. But it was the fastest, and for the three inebriated young men in a hurry to get home, it was the best.
Tierce tried to keep up with his friends, but the higher they climbed, the dizzier he got and the slower his steps became. They didn’t notice when he fell behind or when, overcome by a wave of sudden nausea, he finally stopped. Catching his shoulder against the wall of the tower, he tried to steady himself. He knew he was going to vomit, but he refused to do it there on the stairs. He might be drunk, but he was not disgusting. He remembered passing a bridge landing just a short distance back, and quickly (as quickly as he could), he headed back down, one hand pressed against his mouth to delay the inevitable. Somehow, he managed to keep his feet under him as he went, and in a few short turns he found the wide platform that led the way onto Soz Bridge.
The breeze coming over the river was invigorating, but not enough to stop his rebellious stomach. Clutching the bridge rail, he leaned out and spewed the contents of his stomach into the river below.
When he was empty, he slid to the ground, propped listlessly against the railing as he tried to recover his breath.
That’s when he saw the cat. It was sitting on the railing on the opposite side of the bridge. It was a bit larger than most cats, but it was treating him with the same disregard with which most cats treated the world. There was nothing unusual in that. There were plenty of cats in Corregal. What was unusual was that it was glowing. Red, shimmering light dusted the creature’s black fur, and it flickered and sparked whenever it moved.
“Cats don’t glow,” Tierce mumbled in drunken confusion.
“Maybe I am not a real cat.”
Tierce blinked. The cat blinked back at him with eyes that shone with eerie reflections.
“Did you just…” He stopped himself. Shook his head to try and clear it. “I’m not having a conversation with a cat.”
“That would be ridiculous,” the cat agreed. It stood and stretched itself down to the toes, a lithe and languorous movement that ruffled its sleek fur and caused its glowing red light to shift in color, from red to blue to green and back to red again. As it settled back into place, it seemed somehow bigger in size.
“I am so drunk,” Tierce said. He wondered what had happened to his friends. Surely, they hadn’t left him to wander the city in this condition. He rubbed a hand over his eyes, hoping it would make a difference, but the cat was still sitting there when he was done. Still glowing.
“If you’re not a cat,” he asked it, “what are you?”
“I’m exactly what you wish,” the cat said with a swish of its tail. “And you are wasting time.” It took a few light-footed steps along the railing, away from the entrance to Shinetower. Then it paused to look back at Tierce. “Are you coming?”
Artwork credit: Lucy Womack (by commission)
Everything hurt, but that was all right. She’d earned it. Stretched flat on the ground in the abandoned garden, Neda couldn’t repress a ridiculous grin. Tierce probably thought she was crazy, but she didn’t care. For the first time in her life, she felt like she was doing exactly what she was meant to be doing, and it was glorious. Bruised limbs and aching muscles were a fair price to pay for fulfilling a lifelong dream.
“We should go soon.” Tierce was sitting on a half-broken bench nearby, tying up the bundle that held the wooden swords they’d been practicing with. Unfairly, he looked barely winded after their two-hour workout, and no sweatier than anyone else might in the middle of a hot summer afternoon. Neda, by contrast, felt like someone had sloshed a bucket of rancid water over her.
“I don’t think I can move just yet,” she had to admit. To forestall the inevitable apology, she quickly added, “Thank you for not going easy on me.”
“It’s the same routine your father used to put me through when I was just starting.” He still sounded apologetic but added a word of encouragement. “You’ll get used to it.”
She laughed, remembering. “When you first came to Fleuracy House, you only left your room for lessons and meals. And you never talked. I thought there was something wrong with you.”
He ducked his head and a wavy lock of his dark brown hair flopped over his face. “I was just exhausted all the time.”
Tierce had been barely fifteen years old when he’d come to Corregal, all on his own. He’d spent two weeks haunting the Blade by day and sleeping in the alleys of Landslip before Neda’s father, Sieur Eristan Fleuracy, had found him and took him in to his household as a student. Though clearly grateful for the opportunity he’d been given, it had taken him weeks to settle comfortably into his new surroundings. Once she had gotten to know him a little better, he confided that, as the son of a traveling minstrel, he’d never lived anywhere longer than a month or two at most. It was no wonder it’d taken him time to adjust to living in an actual home.
She rolled over onto her belly and rested her chin on folded hands too look at him. “What’s it like, in Batair?”
“Colder,” he said. “And wetter.”
“That’s not what I mean. What’s it like to live where women can be warriors? Are they different?”
“I don’t know. I never really thought about it.” He seemed to consider the question for a moment and then grinned. “My first teacher was a girl. Her parents were in guard service to the earl of West Tolk, so she thought she knew a thing or two.”
“She was ten. I was twelve. I think she just liked having an excuse to boss someone around.” Neda couldn’t help laughing, and his cheeks reddened with good-humored chagrin. “I don’t think I learned much, but it was a start. I might not be here if it weren’t for her putting a sword in my hands.”
He stood and crossed the garden, bundle in hand, to where a shed slumped against the wall. The garden was oddly shaped, wedged between a rocky slope and sharply angled walls. As far as Neda could tell, it wasn’t attached to any of the surrounding properties—there wasn’t even a proper gate, just a narrow opening blocked by a few wood planks that Tierce had moved aside for them to enter. She had no idea how he’d found the place, but as hidden and forgotten as it was in the midst of the noisy smithies and workshops of the Hammeroad District, there was little chance that their training sessions would be noticed by anyone.
“We can leave these here for next time,” he said, disappearing inside the shed. He was only gone a moment before he emerged again, dusting off his hands.
“Tomorrow?” Neda smiled hopefully, but now it was his turn to laugh.
“I doubt it.” He gave her a wry, appraising look. “If you can move at all tomorrow, I’ll be impressed.”
Neda groaned as she rolled over to her back again, but even the promise of worse pain to come couldn’t dull her happiness. The blue in the sky overhead was starting to deepen in color, a sign that the afternoon was starting to wane. Even in midsummer, night fell early in Corregal, tucked as it was along the gorge of the Cille river. She’d have to get home soon if she was going to wash and change in time for dinner.
“Just tell me it’s worth it,” she said as Tierce extended a hand to help her rise. “Am I any good?”
“You’re the best student I’ve ever had.” He said it with such seriousness that it gave her a moment’s pause before she realized he was teasing her.
She aimed a kick at his shin that he easily avoided. “I’m your only student, you louse!”
He broke into another grin and pulled her to her feet. His hand was warm and strong in hers, and she could feel the rough places where he’d earned calluses from long hours wielding a sword. I’ll have those someday, too, she thought to herself.
He did not release her hand once she was standing. Instead, his face grew serious again. “Neda, I promise you I’m not going to change my mind about any of this. But I think you should tell your father what we’re doing.”
With that earnest expression on his too-handsome face, Neda almost gave in to him. Almost. She could appreciate his concern. She was uncomfortable keeping such a secret from her parents, especially when there was so much risk involved. But she wasn’t ready to give up her dream yet on the mere hope that her father might understand why she wanted it so badly.
“I’ll think about it.” She pulled her hand free from his and used it to pull the damp hair from the back of her neck. It wasn’t quite a lie—she would think about it, even if she already knew what her decision would be. But Tierce seemed satisfied.
He motioned her toward the hidden entry. “You go first. We probably shouldn’t be seen coming and going together.”
Neda nodded in agreement. It wasn’t just a matter of reputation if they were found out. There were laws in Corregal about women wielding swords. They were both taking a risk. She took a half-step toward the gate before turning back to him. “Thank you, Tierce. You can’t know how much this means to me.”
He started to smile, that sheepish little half-smile that was so adorable, and before she knew what she was doing, she leaned forward and kissed him. Not on the cheek, which might have been all right, but on the mouth. It was so fast that Tierce didn’t even have time to react before she pulled back. She caught only a glimpse of his startled expression as she turned and fled.
She was through the gate and two streets away before she slowed down enough to chide herself. Foolish, she thought. Unkind. She knew how Tierce felt about her. He’d never acted on his infatuation, but she’d felt it. It was unfair to suggest that anything but friendship was possible between them, not while he still lived in her father’s house. Even if she had spent a pleasant daydream or two entertaining the notion of just such a dalliance.
And hadn’t his lips been just as soft as she’d always imagined they would be?
She gave herself a vicious pinch to force the memory from her mind. She had to pinch herself three more times before she reached home. At least one thing was certain, she ruefully reflected as she plodded up the hill toward the House. This was one impulse she couldn’t blame on Evod.
I know, it’s been a while, right? I’m not going into the reasons for the long hiatus in the City of Bridges story (you can dig up some details on personal blog, if you’re interested, though to be honest I haven’t written very much there either). Leave it to say that some stories live in your heart, no matter how long it takes you to come back to them, and I’m finally ready to come back to Corregal, and to Neda and the boys.
It’s been a slow process, but over the past couple of months I’ve pounded out several potential next episodes–most of which you’re ever going to see. Unfortunately, after I finished writing, I realized the adventures described were just not right for this point in the tale. I wanted to do something that delved a little into the magical side of this world, while providing a bonding experience for Barris, Tierce and Romeric, but what emerged was just way too intense for them to go through just yet. Still, the exercise was useful, as it helped to stretch my too-long neglected prose writing skills and reminded me that, yeah, I actually do like this fantasy writing gig after all.
At any rate, I have an alternative episode, much more mundane, ready to post in the next day or two, and the one after that ready to fall off my fingers and onto the page. (As if it’s ever that easy!) So keep an eye out for new story content here very soon!
Also–and this is a big ALSO–for the first time in well over a decade–I’ve returned to work on the original novel for which City of Bridges was only ever meant as a prequel. If you have read the About page here, then you know that all this started as a NaNoWriMo novel way back in 2002. Even though I loved the characters and the setting, I have never been able to figure out how to fix that sad, overwrought bit of work, and it’s languished in the metaphorical trunk every since.
But in mid-April, I was struck with a sudden bolt of inspiration–I’d like to say it made everything click into place, but that isn’t true. It was just one idea that spawned an obsessive desire to make it all work. It’s taken a lot of intense work on characters, world-building and plot, but I finally have the bones of something that I think makes a good story, and I’ll begin writing it soon. My goal is to have a critique-ready draft done by the end of the year–I’m not getting any younger, folks!–so it will be taking a priority when it comes to writing time. I still hope to post here regularly, but we’ll have to see how it works out. Writing about the same characters some ten years apart may not be easy.
Finally (thanks for sticking with me!) I wanted to share some character art. This first are a couple character portraits I did way back in 2008. (I have since lost any ability to draw faces.) I had totally forgotten them until I found them a few weeks ago while digging through old project notes. Why no Barris or Neda? Who knows! But here are Romeric and Tierce:
Not quite as old are these crocheted dolls of all four I made a few years back:
I may be biased, but I think it’s impossible not to love them!
Every Gatehouse was built with one purpose: to impose order on the wild energies that spewed through the empyreal Gate and into the world. Even amid the opulent and unconventional architecture of the Corregal Gatehouse, that sense of order was absolute, apparent in every aspect of its design. in each sharp corner, every measured archway, even the placement of the windows in the high gallery overlooking the assembly hall. For most people, the effect was as comforting as walking into a mother’s embrace.
Jaciel Oura was not one of those people. Her skin prickled whenever she came to the Gatehouse, and her teeth itched. More irritating than painful, she often likened the sensation to having fallen asleep on an anthill. Once, at the urging of a sympathetic cleric, she had tried to overcome the problem by spending more time at the Gatehouse instead of less, and volunteered for a year of service as an acolyte, hoping the constant exposure would inure her to the discomfort. But by the end of the first week, her hair was standing on end all the time, and after a month she was practically sparking whenever anyone so much as touched her. She said goodbye to the Gatehouse soon after, and made it a habit to visit as seldom as possible.
Needless to say, it was not the place she would have chosen for a meeting, but her employer had insisted. And, naturally, her employer was now late.
She took refuge in a window embrasure to wait. The assembly hall, which bridged the river itself, was crowded at this time of day, and no one paid her much attention. She watched the people coming and going, making their petitions at the three alters to the Hands of the Broken God, some silent, some singing, some smiling, some weeping, depending on the need that had brought them here. Priests and priestesses moved among them, providing guidance and support as they might. Twice, she saw them usher ill or injured individuals towards the healer’s sanctuary, when a more intensive ministration was required. Meanwhile, members of the Bell Guard patrolled the periphery, more an honor guard than from any real need to keep the peace.
The only good thing about having to be here was that her arm was already starting to feel better, as being closer to the gate’s power worked to ease the discomfort of her wound, even without a prayer or ministration. Her leather coat had taken most of the damage from the girl’s small knife, leaving only a shallow, two-inch gash in the flesh of her bicep. She had cleaned and bandaged it herself, and would not have sought healing at the Gatehouse for something so minor. But if she had to be here anyway, at least she was getting some benefit from it.
She saw Taline Sabenay long before the Maestra of Sabenay House saw her. Taline was hard to miss, sweeping up the length of the assembly hall in an ornate gown that probably dated back to the last years of the empire, with her head held high and eyes flashing when “lesser” folk were not quick enough to hurry out of her way. Sabenay was an ancient and prestigious house (if lately reduced in fortune) and Taline was not about about to let anyone forget it.
Bypassing the first of the altars – Sarrel’s was always the most crowded – Taline made her imperious way up the broad stairs to the second altar, which was dedicated to Evod. Because where else would you plan a secret meeting with your hired informer than at the feet the Grey Watcher? Jaciel wondered why the woman insisted at playing games of intrigue when she was so ill-suited for subtlety.
She waited until Taline had lit a candle on the altar, and seated herself on one of the benches surrounding it, before she emerged from her nook to join her. Dressed in a plain brown tunic with her Porter’s badge on the shoulder, she felt invisible next to the grandiosity of Maestra Taline, lost in the shadow of violet silk, rudfled lace, and embroidered trim.
“Well?” Fabric rustled as Maestra Taline moved her skirts aside to make room on the stone seat. She spared no time for civilities. “Tell me about the Jurati.”
“I had four men waylay him on Crosslight Road, just as you asked. He was able to take them down without raising a sweat.” Granted, the men she had hired had been little more than thugs, not skilled swordsmen, but the Jurati was still young, and he’d handled the ambush with remarkable aplomb. Jaciel was not afraid to let her admiration show.
Taline’s face was flushed with barely contained excitement. She had never been an attractive woman, and now, nearing the end of middle age, she eschewed the sort of quiet dignity that was normally expected of women like her. Her clothes were ostentatious, her personality more so. She said what she wanted, the way she wanted, with little regard for the conventions of polite society. There’s no time for such foolishness, she often said, in the face of all I must accomplish. It was this audacious attitude that had attracted Jaciel to her service in the first place, and kept her there despite other opportunities that now and then arose.
“Four men and you,” Taline said, the fight playing out in her imagination. “He’s better than you expected.”
“He is, Maestra. I’d say he has the potential to be one of the best swordsmen in the city.”
“Can we get him away from Fleuracy House?” She had a habit of gnawing on her thumb when thinking, and she did that now, as if worrying the problem with her teeth.
“He was sent to Sieur Eristan, by someone. I don’t know by whom, or why, but I suspect he’d need a good reason to leave.” Jaciel shrugged. “If you offered him enough money, maybe.”
A dark look crossed the Maestra’s face. “If I had that kind of money I would not be in this position in the first place. We’ll have to find some other way to persuade him.”
“But why, Maestra?” Jaciel was used to carrying out odd missions for her mistress, no questions asked. But Taline’s fixation on the Jurati was more than a little odd. “What is one swordsman going to do for you? No matter how good he is?”
“Do not question me on this, Jaciel.” Taline spoke sharply, drawing curious looks from nearby petitioners. She glared back, until the gazes, daunted by her ferocity, turned away again. When she spoke again, she kept her voice low, but it trembled with intensity. “Three days, I lit a candle to Thest and asked to be shown the path to restoring my House’s fortune. Three nights, I dreamt of a drawn sword. The very next day, you came to me with news of this Jurati wonder.” She reached out and grasped Jaciel’s hand. “Don’t you see? He is meant for me. Do not question me on this.”
There was no room in Taline Sabenay for doubt, and though Jaciel could still not see how the Jurati presented any kind of solution, she could not deny the force of her employer’s belief that he would. “No, Maestra, I will not,” she said, choosing to trust in the vision, even if were not her own.
Taline nodded once and withdrew her hand from Jaciel’s. Her attention turned again to the altar before them, with its scores of candles flickering in a subtle draft. “If he will not leave Fleuracy House on his own, we must find some way to have him removed.”
The fading ache in her arm gave Jaciel the answer right away. Leaning towards the other woman, she kept her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “He was with a girl…”
“Where is it we are going, ailenia?” Romeric asked again as he followed Calette up another row of steps. He hadn’t been paying attention. The river was behind them now, with all its cursed, confusing bridges, but the maze of terraced streets that climbed the hillside was no less a puzzle to him.
“It’s not much farther.” She tightened her grip on the fabric of his shirtsleeve. She had latched onto him like that back on Drennan Bridge – not his arm, just the sleeve – and not let go since, fingers twined in the fabric as if she was afraid he’d get away. She led him through the city this way, weaving through the crowds with unexplained urgency. Every so often she’d point to some notable landmark and name it for him, but she never told him where they were going.
The road they traveled now was more stairway than street, broken every few hundred steps by wide terraces that allowed access to side streets and rows of modest shophouses. She stopped now, several steps above him so that their heights were equal. Smitten, he thought, as she stared into his eyes again. Her own were a dusky gray, with drooping eyelids that made her look only half awake, still lost in some dream of the shifting sunlit river. He couldn’t help smiling at the attention, and mirrored her scrutiny with his own, intense and intimate. It made her blush, which made him smile more. Visibly flustered, she turned away and began to climb again.
“What does it mean?” she asked as she led him upward. “Ailenia?” Her tongue tangled on the unfamiliar word.
“It means…’ Romeric hesitated before settling on a suitable translation. “Dear.” A more accurate description would have been woman I plan on bedding very, very soon, but he wasn’t sure how she’d respond to that just yet.
“Ailenia.” She tried the word again, and got the pronunciation right this time. She glimpsed at him over her shoulder, not quite shy. “Ailenia.”
He knew he was grinning ridiculously as he let her pull him along, but he couldn’t help himself. He had not had much opportunity to meet many young women in this new city. Those to whom he’d been introduced were different than girls at home, cloaked in a reserve of propriety that he hadn’t yet figured out how to penetrate. Neda was off limits, of course. Her father had made that clear from the start. If even the hint of a romantic notion came to Sieur Fleuracy’s attention, Romeric would find himself badgeless and with nowhere to go. Barris and Tierce were hampered with the same restriction – not that it had stopped either one of them from falling in love with her. It was amusing, really, watching the pair of them struggle to hide their affections. He suspected they weren’t fooling anyone but each other.
It had been Barris who sent him to the wrong bridge. Whether it was a welcome-to-the-neighborhood joke or some more malicious intent at work, Romeric didn’t know. Either way, he would have to thank him for it later. If it hadn’t been on the wrong Drennan Bridge he never would have met Calette.
From the first moment he first saw her, wedged through the bridge railing so she could stare at the water below, he had been captivated. It wasn’t the sort of thing ordinary girls did, which made her instantly interesting. And then, when he’d finally gotten her attention and she’d looked up at him with those sun-dazzled eyes and soft black hair tumbling around her face, she turned out to be quite pleasing to look at. Plump cheeks, honey-colored skin, rosy lips that kept tempting him to kiss her…
The fact that she was Cael Averre’s sister had nothing to do with his sudden affection. He dismissed that idea the moment it popped into his head. Oh, he had to admit a certain sense of satisfaction at having stuffed the blustering prick’s self-importance back down his own throat the two times they’d met – some people were just asking for it – but aside from Barris’ gloomy predictions of retribution, he’d not given Cael a second thought since the day on the river. No, there was nothing perverse in sudden desire to woo his would-be adversary’s sister. He just liked her. A lot.
Because he was busy falling in love, he wasn’t paying that much attention to where they were going. Which is why, when he stopped abruptly in the middle of the next terrace, it took him a moment to figure out what had jerked his attention away from her.
“Almost there.” Calette yanked on his sleeve. But when he didn’t move again she stopped to look at him. “What’s wrong?”
Uncertainly, he looked around, trying to discern what had made him so suddenly wary. But the terrace was quiet, with only the tinkling of the fountain to interrupt the peaceful…
“There are no people,” he realized. Though two major side streets intersected with the stair-road here, and a number of prosperous looking shops faced the square, there was not a single person in sight – not even a peddler, or a beggar, or a distant passerby. No one.
Calette frowned, looking more confused than worried. Impatient, she pulled on his arm again, but he brushed off her hold and reached for the sword at his hip.
“You should run.”
She opened her mouth to protest, even as the swordmen he was expecting stepped out of their hiding places across the square. “Run!”
This time, she listened. With a look of fear settling over her lovely features, she dashed past him, back the way they’d come.
Smart girl, he thought. At least they knew there were people back that way. He pulled his sword from its scabbard and turned to face the pair of assailants who were coming at him quickly now. He felt his heart quicken in anticipation as they showed their own weapons. But he wasn’t afraid. Not for himself, at any rate.
After all, he’d fought at Warden’s Shore.
The first one to come at him was the biggest, dressed in roughspun clothes with a scarf tied over the lower part of his face to hide his features. His sword was just as rough, big but with no finesse to it’s lines, and probably no strength in its forging. But it could kill him just as dead if given the opportunity. His attack came fast, sword heaving over the shoulder in a downward arc that Romeric flicked away with his own blade as he dodged out of reach.
Rather than follow up with an attack of his own, he let the man’s momentum carry him past, then darted around to confront the second attacker coming up behind. This one was dressed much the same as the first, but with a full mask covering his face. Romeric didn’t need to see his face to tell he was surprised to find himself embattled so quickly. His sword, prettier than the first man’s, jerked up in surprise, just as Romeric had expected. With a neat twist of his own blade, he knocked the weapon from the assailants hand and followed it up with a jab that pierced the man just below the ribcage – not deep, but enough to take him out of this particular skirmish.
Romeric slid past him as he fell, turning on the ball of his foot to face the first attacker once again, just as he heard a cry of dismay from Calette. With a glance in that direction he confirmed what he had expected – a third assailant had come up the stair behind them. Calette flailed against him, but could nothing to help her until he’d dealt with his own opponent.
The big man came at him, more cautiously this time, but with no less energy behind his blows. Romeric’s slender Arrenal blade was surprisingly resilient against the broad gash of steel that was his opponent’s sword – but that’s why you paid so much for a weapon like his. He knew he was better armed, and after the first flurry of exchanged blows, he knew he was the better swordsman. All the same, there was no playfulness in his defense this time, not like when he had dueled on the Bridge. Each time he swung his sword it was in deadly earnest. Twice, he cut the man with the edge of his blade, once on the arm, once on the face, while keeping himself clear of the reciprocating blows. The third time his sword connected with flesh, it was a deep thrust into the man’s shoulder that made him jump back with shout of pain. Romeric wrenched his sword free and swung low as the big man’s sword clanged to the ground. A slice across the hamstring sent him toppling to the ground.
Romeric did not watch him fall, but whipped around to find Calette.
There were three swordsmen blocking the way down the stairs now – no, two men, swords at the ready, and a woman who had Calette in her grasp. Calette, her dark hair in even greater disarray then it had been, looked more perturbed than dismayed.
He paused, not sure if rushing forward would endanger her more than she already was.
“Interesting,” the woman said, and gestured for the two men to move forward. “That was even better than I exp- Ah!”
With a sharp cry, the woman jerked away from Calette who – somehow, Romeric saw – had a knife in her hand. A knife she’d just plunged into the arm of her captor.
The two swordsmen paused, and in their moment of confusion Romeric charged forward. He swung his sword at the head of one, and kicked at the kneecap of the other. The sword missed, but a satisfying crunch resulted when his foot connected with the kneecap. He did not pause to gloat, just caught up Calette’s hand and ran.
They were halfway to the river before he let them slow, both of them panting as he became aware that the wary looks he and his sword were getting from the now-plentiful afternoon crowd of passersby. Huffing, he slid it back into its scabbard before anyone thought to make a scene. Calette’s knife had already disappeared. Women, he remembered, were not allowed to carry blades in Corregal.
“Are you all right?” he asked, trying to catch his breath. His heart was still racing from the brief exertion, and now that the threat was receding – there was no sign of pursuit – he allowed himself to feel the thrill of battle just past. He’d been good, and he knew it. Four against one, if you didn’t count the woman, and they hadn’t come close to touching him with their weapons. He beamed with exhilaration.
Calette raked her hands through her hair, trying to smooth it. “I’m fine,” she said, with a dissatisfied frown. “But I didn’t get my paint.”
“I was going to… Never mind.” She exhaled a lengthy sigh, and looked up into his eyes again, almost plaintive in her study of him. “You’ll just have to come to the house.”
“Ailenia, I would be happy to come and visit you whenever you ask it, but -”
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell Cael you almost got me killed.”
Startled, Romeric blinked. “They weren’t… I mean, they couldn’t have been…why do you think they were after me?”
She tapped the badge of House Averre pinned to her shoulder, which depicted a golden coin ablaze with sun-like rays. “Nobody would attack Averre House anonymously. Anyone stupid enough to come after me would want my father to know who did it. But those men didn’t have any badges at all, and it was too organized to have been a random robbery. That means they had to be after you for some reason.”
Romeric cursed himself inwardly. He had totally overlooked the missing badges in the midst of the fight. It was such a peculiar Corregal custom, this badge-wearing. He’d barely even noticed Calette’s badge (her lips were so much more worthy of his attention). Now he realized for the first time that the badge for Fleuracy House that he himself wore made him immediately identifiable to anyone who saw him. The thought was more than a little unnerving.
Shouts sounded from further up the road.
“Shields!” Calette murmured, then quickened her pace. “They’ll have found those men you stabbed. Best get as far away as we can.”
Hurrying to keep up with her, Romeric cast a wary glance over his shoulder. “We were attacked. They wouldn’t arrest me for defending–”
“Oh, yes they would! It’s the only way to stop the Houses from warring against one another, by arresting everyone involved in a swordfight. If you’re not on the Blade, and you injure someone with a sword, you’ll spend time in Blackbridge.”
The foot of the stair-road deposited them onto a wide thoroughfare that ran parallel to the river Aris. The road was crowded with people going in every direction, and Romeric stopped, not sure which direction to go. He turned to Calette, only to find her backing away from him. “Come to the house tomorrow,” she told him. “No! The next day. That will give me time to find the right colors.”
“Colors for what?”
A smile fluttered across Calette’s face, the first she’d actually shown him since they met, and he felt his heart lurch in response. At that moment, she could have told him to fly across the river and he would have attempted it.
“I’m going to paint you!” she laughed, her grey eyes sparkling like the river. And then she was gone, darting between one passerby and the next before he even had time to react.
He tried to follow, calling out her name, “Calette!” But he couldn’t get through the crowd quickly enough to see which way she had gone. He ignored the aggrieved looks he earned as he shoved people out of his way, and called out again. “Ailena!”
But it was useless. He couldn’t see her anywhere, and he could not begin to guess which direction. It doesn’t matter, he consoled himself. You’ll see her again soon. Two days was not so long to wait to see the woman you were in love with. Assuming he could find his way to Averre House.
And then he swore, and smacked himself in the the forehead with the heel of his hand. The bridge! She had said she would show him where the right Drennan Bridge was, so he could deliver the parcel Sieur Fleuracy had entrusted to him. But now she was gone, and he still had no idea where he was supposed to go. He wasn’t even sure he could find his way back home from here.
Grumbling at himself and at this thrice-cursed maze of a city, he straightened his tunic and adjusted the weight of his sword belt around his hips. Then, picking a direction at random, he headed off to lose himself once again in the City of Bridges.
Calette knelt at the midpoint of the bridge beside the rail, heedless of her rumpled silk skirts and the braids that had come loose from their silver pins. Twisted awkwardly, she could maneuver both head and shoulders between the carved posts. Occasional passersby cast odd looks her way, she didn’t notice. She was lost in the sun-dappled waters of the river Aris.
Long ago, the posts of the balustrade had been carved to resemble notable members of the House that had built the bridge. You could see hints of faces here and there – a sharp nose, a dimpled chin, a mouth twisted into an ingratiating smile. The rest worn into obscurity by time and weather. No one remembered who they were anymore. Calette, when she was little, had made up names for them, and tried to guess how each one was related to the next. But even those apocryphal identities were lost to them now.
She had chosen this sparsely traveled bridge for her quest because she knew there would be few travelers to disturb her. There were more convenient bridges along the Aris, and more picaresque ones too. Only those who were lost would come this way, or those on quests of their own. She would be left alone. That, and the spaces in the balustrade that were just wide enough room for a slender, sixteen-year-old girl to lean through if she sought an unimpeded view of the river below.
Illumination was the purpose of her quest.
The river was full of the light. With the sun high overhead and the summer sky nearly white with heat, the luminous current was an ever-changing panorama that Calette sought to memorize. It wasn’t, she realized, something most people paid attention to. The structure of light. The way it moved upon the water – or through the water. Transparent one moment, opaque the next. She wanted to learn it, to remember it, so she could paint it.
As she stared into the river, she kept her eyes open, not even blinking. To close her eyes even for an instant would separate her from the light she sought to know. So she let herself become mesmerized by its movement, let it fill her awareness until she forgot everything but the light. Adrift in shifting patterns of light and dark, she even forgot about her body in its awkward perch on the bridge. Dissolving, she thought. Soon, she herself would be nothing but light…
“Your pardon? This is the Drennan Bridge?”
The richly accented voice splintered Calette’s concentration. She dragged her gaze away from the water to squint at the young man crouched beside her. Sparkling.
“What?” The sparkles were disconcerting. Feeling strange and disconnected, she wondered briefly if he were real, or some dream sent to her by Thest.
“I said, ‘can you help me’.” The apparition smiled at her. Judging by bemused expression on his face, he had been there for some time, trying to get her attention. “What did you see in the river that was so fascinating?”
She pressed her fingertips against her eyelids, awareness gradually trickling back through her senses. “Nothing. Everything.” The sensation of being permeated with light dissipated. When she looked at him again, the spots of light in her vision were mostly gone. The only sparkles left were those from the gems in his ears, winking at her through the blond curls. “I know who you are,” she realized suddenly.
He seemed surprised, and something subtle in him shifted. “I did not realize I was famous already,” he said. His casual expression masked an inner tension, more felt than seen.
“On the boat,” she told him, disappointed that he wasn’t some dream or vision after all. She squirmed to free herself from between the posts. One of them grabbed at her hair with a carved elbow as she wriggled past, pulling lose the last silver pin. It dropped away, one last fluttering sparkle before it disappeared into the river. Sighing, she untangled her feet from her skirts, smoothed the subtle violet silk, stood. “When you knocked Cael into the river.”
He laughed and rose to stand beside her, wariness gone in an instant. “Oh, that! You were in the boat? I am surprised I did not notice you. I almost always notice the pretty girls. You will have to excuse me for being too distracted just then.”
She feigned a smile, but paid little heed to his unsubtle flattery. Her mind was filled with light, still, even if her eyes weren’t, and she wanted to remember it. More to the point, how could she capture the effect in paint? She could see the hues she would need in her head, but how to ask the pigment-maker for them? She was fairly certain there was no pigment named “glint” or “glimmer.”
“So…you are a friend of Cael’s?”
“Not exactly.” Perhaps she was approaching it wrong. Maybe it had more to do with the colors one left off the canvas instead of the ones you put on.She caught at one of the fallen braids, tugged at it absently.
“Good. I hope that means you and I can be friends.”
The young Jurati – she couldn’t remember if she’d ever heard his name – was not distracted now. Somehow, he had ended up closer to her, though she would swear that he hadn’t moved at all. So close she could taste the spice of his last meal on his breath. So close that she could see the each of the hairs in the golden down that lined his chin. And on his chest, too, where his open-necked shirt revealed far more than any proper Corregan would dream of. So close that when the light caught his eyes…
She caught her breath in her throat. Those eyes. Standing there on the bridge, the same light danced across his hazel eyes that had danced across the surface of the water. No one in Evreme had eyes so light, so it had never occurred to her to look in such a place for the colors she was seeking. But here it was in front of her, the very a palette she was seeking, in the eyes of a foreigner. Who was she to deny that the hands of the Broken God might sometimes reach out to those in need?
When she spoke, she had to keep her voice low to control the shaking. “What is it you want?”
“Only to spend some time in your company—”
She threw up a hand, pressed her fingers against his lips to silence him. “No, no. Why did you stop here. To speak to me now?” She lowered her hand again, but kept her eyes locked on his, light-touched, studying them with the same intensity as she had watched the water.
Somehow, he managed to look both canny and abashed at the same time when he told her. “I need of directions. This city …” He waved a hand, encompassing the entire maze of bridges and terraced streets that made up Corregal. “All these bridges. I admit I am lost. I must have crossed this bridge a twelve times before I decided I must ask for help.”
There were one hundred and twenty-seven bridges, crossing the two rivers. Even Calette, having lived here her whole life, could not claim to know the city’s every turning. It did not surprise her that someone so new here would lose his way. She allowed a little sympathy to share her awe at her discovery. “Where are you supposed to be?”
“Drennan Bridge?” He pulled a small, cloth-wrapped packet from his belt, and a slip of paper that he held out to her. “Sieur Eristan asked me to deliver this.”
She glanced briefly at the writing on the paper, then back up into his remarkable hazel eyes once again. “This is Drennan Bridge,” she told him, “but it’s the wrong Drennan Bridge.”
“The wrong…” With a groan, the young foreigner slumped against the railing. “Are you telling me there are two Drennan Bridges in this thrice-cursed city?”
“Three, actually.” Calette nibbled on the end of her braid, seeing an opportunity in his consternation. “It’s a… quirk. The one you want is over the Cille.” The story of the Drennan ones was a long one, several generations in the making, but she didn’t think he was interested in the details just now. He had come a long way out of his way to reach this Drennan Bridge, coming from Sieur Eristan’s House. She wondered who had given him his directions. Or if, indeed, some otherworldy hand had reached out to lead him to her. “I can take you there…” she said, saw his expression brighten in response. “But you have to come with me somewhere first.”
His smile deepened. “You’re not going to lead me off to seduce me, are you?”
She felt herself blush. Belatedly, she realized she had given him entirely the wrong impression, gazing so intently into his eyes. He was Jurati, for goodness sake! The islanders’ worship of the heretical Fourth Hand gave dispensation for all manner of licentious behavior, her father said. This one, bold enough to wear Aratanne’s symbol on a chain around his neck, probably thought she was besotted with him.
“It’s not safe.” She blurted out the first excuse she could think of to explain herself. His eyebrow quirked a question. “Where we’re going. It’s not safe. You have a sword. For protection.”
“Ah,” he said, one hand automatically moving to the hilt at his waist. He smiled still. “So I do. And I would be happy to escort you wherever it is you need to go, ailenia. But perhaps you will do one small favor for me first?”
She hesitated. He was probably jesting about the seduction, but the truth was she was desperate for the light he carried in his eyes she wasn’t sure she wouldn’t give in to his advances, if he made any.
The Jurati chuckled then, seeing her unease. His eyes shined with good-natured charm. “Your name, ailenia. That’s all I ask. Your name.”
“Oh!” she said, feeling a surge of relief, and after that a surprising tinge of regret. All he wanted was her name. That seemed a fair trade for what she hoped to get. So she gave it to him.
To be continued…
Edited Oct 21 2012: Stylistic changes mostly. But also changed the name of the POV char.
Neda set the book on the table in front of Tierce, and was gratified to see his green eyes go wide in astonishment.
They were alone in one of the gallery rooms of Fleuracy House, sitting on either side of a long work table. Her father had been called away on council business, and Barris and Romeric were out on the lower terrace battering at each other with practice swords. As usual, Romeric was taunting Barris good-humoredly, and Barris was doing a poor job of pretending he wasn’t annoyed. Soon, he’d lose his temper and come storming inside, just like he always did.
So she didn’t have much time.
Tierce reverently touched the aged cover of the book. It was a good sized volume, with stamped leather that still showed flecks of gold leaf and filigree corner bosses that had once been gilded. In the center sat a silver medallion engraved with the image of a mounted warrior – one of the Eresti, with a pennant flapping from the tip of his lance as he cantered off to do battle with some fell beast of the Gate.
“Open it,” she urged him, and then instead of waiting she pulled open the clasps herself and laid the book open for him. Inside, an illustration of the same warrior burst from the page, brilliantly illuminated in reds, yellows and blues. Beneath the picture, in elegant calligraphy, the title read, “Delandir’s Tales of the Eresti.”
An audible sigh escaped Tierce’s lips, and his expression melted in utter delight. “Delandir! My father has looked everywhere for one of these.”
For the next few minutes, there was no sound but the rustling of parchment as he turned avidly through the book, stopping now and then to skim a bit of text, or to linger over another dazzling illustration. Neda forgot her purpose for a moment, charmed by his boyish enthusiasm. Apparently, it had been the right choice. She knew his predilection for old stories, especially those dating back to the Age of Kings, but it had cost her another candle to Evod to find her way to just the right volume to tempt him. Even then, she’d spent two days wandering through Arisholm bookshops trying to lay hands on a copy. After all that trouble, she couldn’t help but enjoy the way his wide, soft lips curled in a smile as he poured over the pages.
“This is amazing,” he said finally, dragging his attention from the book. “Sieur Eristan will love it.”
Neda shook her head, averting her gaze and hoping he hadn’t noticed her staring at him. She didn’t want him to get the wrong idea. “It’s not for him. It’s for you.”
For the second time, his eyes widened in surprise. “For me? I couldn’t … this is too much. I can’t accept such a gift.” The words were heavy with regret and longing, which she took as a good sign, even as he pushed the book reluctantly away.
“It’s not a gift, Tierce.” She pushed the book back across the table to him. “It’s a bribe. I want you to do something for me.”
Color flushed his cheeks. “Neda, you don’t have to bribe me to do anything. All you have to do is – .”
“I want you to teach me how to fight. With a sword.” His mouth dropped open, but she barrelled onward, not giving him a chance to say no. “It’s illegal, I know. But only here in Corregal. Most of the Lands don’t care. You’re not even from here. You probably grew up knowing lots of girls who learned how to use a sword.”
“Yes, but, your father…”
“What has he got to do with it? Some of the greatest warriors in history have been women.” She flipped through the Delandir book till it showed them an illustration of an armored woman battling against two fire crawlers. She tapped the picture with her finger. “Hallanan of Deros. No one ever tried to keep a sword out of her hands. Ibra Aendri led the whole Order of Erest for twenty years. Even Daena herself, before she had to go and get her stupid self killed and ruin it for the rest of us. There’s nothing wrong with a woman knowing how to use a sword, and you know it.”
She could tell from the way he was looking at the picture of Hallanan that she’d won. There was no reasonable argument he could make to counter her. What was one pesky, antique law in the face of centuries of history?
Still, he hesitated, eyebrows drawn together as he struggled with an answer.
It was the obligation he owed her father, she assumed. The oath he’d taken to Fleuracy House. If he agreed to do this and they were discovered, it would probably mean his dismissal from the House, if not worse. Though if she knew Tierce at all he was probably more worried about how badly it would reflect on her father than worrying about his personal comeuppance.
She wished she had time to explain to her reasons to him. To make him understand her need to do this. But from the terrace, she could hear Barris’ voice rising in anger. If she didn’t get Tierce to agree now, she might never have the chance again. She could see the refusal forming on his face already – if had time to think about it further, there’d be no convincing him at all.
“If you won’t teach me,” she declared, resorting to her last desperate ploy. “I’ll have to ask Romeric, I’m sure he’ll be willing to help me. Though who knows what he’ll ask for in exchange.” She lifted her chin, tried to appear wanton in the gesture she used to smooth her hair back from her face. “They worship Aratanne there, you know. It makes them very open minded in matters of….love.”
Dismay tangled Tierce’s expression as the significance of her words sank in. She’d known he’d react like this, which is why she hadn’t wanted to use this tactic if she could avoid it. She didn’t like taking advantage of him like that…especially since she wasn’t entirely sure if was a bluff or not.
A clatter downstairs and Romeric’s bright, amused laughter from the hall alerted her that practice was over and their time alone together was up. Neda caught her breath and stared hard at Tierce, willing him to give her the answer she wanted to hear.
“All rright. I’ll do it,” Tierce said finally, keeping his voice hushed and hurried. “I don’t know how or where or when, but I’ll help you.” His brow was still knotted with concern. “Not because of the book, though.”
Relief flooded through her. She beamed at him as she rose to her feet. “I know it’s not because of the book, Tierce. It’s because you know it’s the right thing to do.”
He smiled at her weakly as she hastened past out, anxious to be gone before Romeric and Barris made their inevitable appearance and anything would need to be explained. She paused before departing though, a smile bright on her face as she turned back to him briefly.
“You can keep the book, though!”
A quick note about a name change:
The character previously known as Mariesa Fleuracy will hereafter be known as Nedalya Fleuracy, or Neda for short.
My reasons for this have to do with the changing nature of the story. When she first entered this story world, some 10 years ago, she was nothing more than remembered Object of Affection. “Mariesa” was a good enough name at the time, though I never really liked it. Now that the character has evolved into a more significant role and become a person in her own right, I felt she needed a name with more weight behind it. Ergo the change.
I’m really particular about names.
(I’ll be changing the past entries to reflect the name change in the very near future.)
And then there was art!
I coerced my teen daughter into drawing some character sketches for me and, with only a brief rundown of basic attributes, this is what she gave me:
I think she did a great job of capturing my four main characters, aside from the fact that they all look about five years too young. Romeric, especially, looks about 12 years old here. But
But it’s a start at getting some visual representation of these characters! But I think the personality conveyed in each expression is right on.
It had been a long afternoon, with no wind down the gorge to break the sweltering grip of the summer sun. Even down on the waterfront there was no relief. Workers on the docks had stripped their outer layers, some even bare to the waist, their only means of enduring the oppressive heat.
Not Barris. His tabard stayed on, with the Fleuracy badge pinned properly to the shoulder. Shirt sleeves fastened at the wrist, collar decorously closed around his neck. Trousers tucked into boots that had been polished with care the night before. He had tied his black hair back, to keep it out of his face, but that was the only concession he’d made in his appearance.
It was a statement.
Perhaps not the most reasonable one, he considered, as he paused at the top of the gangplank that lead onto the barge he had been instructed to load. He wiped at the sweat on his forehead, wondering if there hadn’t been some other, less uncomfortable way to make his point. How much did clothes define a man, anyway?
The barge swayed in the river’s current, and barrel he was in the midst of moving tottered. He put out a hand, but before he could steady it, it rolled out of his grasp. Lurching the rest of the way down the gangplank, it hit the deck with a thud that made the whole barge rock. Tierce and Romeric, tying down cargo, were caught unprepared and had to grab at the ropes to keep themselves from topping over the low rail into the river.
“Sorry!” he quickly called out as he chased after it, but the other two only laughed, and then resumed their pointless conversation as if he hadn’t interrupted them.
“That can’t be the last bridge,” Romeric waved a hand at the bridge that stretched across the river to the east, a fortified span crowned by three square towers. Fishing boats and tradesmen’s barges slid beneath the high stone arches, along with one sleek pleasure craft with a bright red hull, pulled against the current by a crew of hired oarsmen. He leaned over the side of the barge so he could peer downriver. “I can see at least two more beyond it.”
“It didn’t say it’s the last bridge.” Tierce grinned despite his sunburnt cheeks. When he finished the knot he was working on, he leaned against one of the crates, taking a moment to rest and mop the sweat from his brow with a shirt sleeve. He and Romeric had discarded their tabards hours ago, and rolled up their sleeves like common dockworkers, but it hadn’t kept them from suffering from the heat any. “It’s just called Last Bridge. Maybe it was the last bridge when it was built a hundred years ago, but then the woodcarvers’ guild built the Level. And past that is the Summer Bridge, built by…was it House Dunac, Barris? Or Ivrane that built the Summer Bridge?”
“It was Bonifel House.” Barris gave his barrel a shove so that it butted up against those already stacked. His back twinged as he straightened, and he suppressed a grimace of pain. His muscles ached, his head throbbed from the glare of the sun, and there wasn’t a bit of him that wasn’t soaked with sweat after hours of labor. The last thing he wanted to talk about was bridges and who had built them, especially with this presumptuous, overconfident foreigner whose accent grated on his nerves like ice limes on a sore tooth.
“That’s right. Bonifel. And then a mile or so downstream is Willow Crossing, but that’s not really part of the city proper.”
“You Evremes and your thrice-cursed bridges!” Romeric exclaimed in frustration. “Someone told me that I would see a hundred bridges in Corregal and I told him he was mad. Next time we meet, I’ll have to apologize.” He flicked a strand of blond hair from his face in annoyance. “Who needs a hundred bridges in one city?”
“One hundred and twenty-seven,” Barris corrected automatically.
“On most days,” Tierce added. It was an old joke, but it made Barris smile despite his bad mood.
Romeric threw up his hands. “Madness.” He strode up the gangplank towards the wharf. “I’ll go get the next one.”
The wide, flat-bottomed barge was tied up alongside a stone pier, one of dozens that jutted out from a wharf that had been carved out of the stones of the river bank itself. Vaulted bays covered the entrances to the cavernous warehouses built under the hill, and Romeric disappeared inside to fetch more of the cargo they had been assigned to load.
The Jurati had proved a better worker than expected, when he’d first volunteered to join Barris and Tierce on the disciplinary chore. “It was my fault that you were late,” he explained, with a contrite smile. “It’s fair I share in the punishment.” Sieur Eristan just nodded quiet in approval. Fair or not, Barris hadn’t thought Romeric would be much help–neither his rich clothes and jewels nor his casual arrogance pointed to any experience with hard labor. He reckoned the Jurati would do just enough work to get in the way…if he didn’t find some way to weasel out of it entirely.
But Romeric had bent his back to the work with good humor, never uttering even the slightest complaint about the strenuous labor, the heat of the early summer sun beating down on them, or even the stench of old fish that clung to the riverfront. In fact, it looked as if with his help they were going to get done sooner than expected.
“There’s no shame in hard work,” he’d told them, at their first grumbles about the unaccustomed labor. “After the Khar attacked Jurat, everybody worked. So many people died, there weren’t enough to bring in the crops. There was one boy, a little princeling, yes? He thought he was too good to work in the fields. His grandmother told him, if you think you’re too good to grow the food, you’re too good to eat it too. And she wouldn’t let him have any food. A few days of no eating was enough. After that he was all too willing to do his share.”
“Did you really fight at Wardens Shore?” It was Tierce who asked it, of course. He’d been dying to learn the truth of that story since the day before, on the Bridge of Blades.
The Jurati’s expression had turned grave. “I did. I wasn’t supposed to. I was with the other boys, in the back. Carrying messages, helping the wounded, whatever we could do. But there were so many Khar…when they overran the lines, if you didn’t fight, you died.” His eyes grew distant, troubled by memory. But then shook his head, and whatever dark thoughts he’d been thinking slid away in the summer brightness. “When we get done here, what say you let me buy you both a drink? You have taverns in this town, right? Not just bridges?”
He smiled companionably, and because Tierce accepted the offer, Barris did to. It didn’t mean he liked him any better, though. The Jurati was too flashy, too overconfident – even his accent grated against his nerves. At least if they went to the Point it would be noisy enough they wouldn’t have to talk.
It took Tierce and Barris both to lift the barrel into place with the rest of the cargo. They had just gotten into position and were tying it into place when a voice called out over the water towards them.
“Barris? Barris Aderen, is that you? I told you it was Barris, Rion, and you didn’t believe me. You owe me a silver sal now.”
Common sense told him he’d regret it, but Barris turned to look anyway. The red pleasure boat had come alongside the barge, its two-man crew holding it in place against the current with the oars. A half-dozen people bunched together on the middle seats — all young and well-dressed and smiling, enjoying their outing on the river. Barris knew them all. Had counted them each as friends once. Even Cael Averre, who stood in their midst, wearing a fresh, sweat-free tunic and a too-smug smile on his face.
By the thrice-cursed fiends, indeed.
“It’s a sad day,” Cael said, though there was nothing particularly compassionate about his tone of voice, “when the scion of a Great House has to work for a living. But then…that’s right. Aderen isn’t a Great House anymore. Is it.”
As if Barris needed anyone to remind him.
Eristan had warned him this would happen, that there would be those who would try to shame him for his father’s crime. He could fight them, Eristan had told him, or he could ignore them. The choice was his. Either way, only time would silence those that carried any doubt.
He turned his back on the boat and on Cael’s smug expression. It was hard, though, and his hands shook as he pretended to work with the ropes. In his stomach a bitter, persistent knot tightened uncomfortably.
Tierce leaned close and hissed, “He’s an ass. Don’t pay him any attention.” He was trying to help, of course, but he couldn’t understand. Not really, He wasn’t from Corregal. He hadn’t been here when the Sun Bridge had fallen. He didn’t know what it had done to this city, which prided itself so much for its bridges. What they meant to the people who built them. Tierce tried, but he could never know what it was like to be the son of the man who was responsible for bringing one down, for the chaos, the destruction. The death.
Cael, of course, was not in the mood to be ignored. At his imperious order, one of the hirelings traded his oar for a long hook and used it to latch onto the side of the barge and pull the red boat close-to. As the two vessels bumped together, bobbing in the current, the young bravo sprang across the gap and landed on the deck of the barge with a thud.
“What’s the matter, Barris?” he asked as he prowled down the deck, voice curling with contempt. A scabbard swung at his hip, sunlight glinting off the gold-embellished hilt of the sword it held. “Couldn’t you find a job gutting fish on Grayling Bridge?”
More laughs from the boat. Barris felt his face flush and struggled to keep his composure. Eristan had warned him, but it didn’t make the taunting any easier to endure. Shame clung thicker than sweat, and stank worse. “I do what Sieur Eristan tells me to do,” he said, and hated himself for not being able to look Cael in the eye when he said it.
The other youth threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, that makes sense! Here everyone thought he was doing you a favor when he took you in. It turns out he was just looking for cheap labor!”
“That’s it, Cael!” Tierce. Mild-mannered usually, not easy to anger, but angry now. Fists tight at his side. He stepped between them now, dark eyes fierce. “What are you trying to prove?”
Cael didn’t look at him. Didn’t even bother to get irritated at the interruption. “Stay out if it, sheep-boy. If I wanted to talk to you, I’d find a shepherd to translate for me.” He flicked his hand as if to shoo him away, all his scorn pinned on Barris. “You know I’m right, Aderen. You don’t deserve Fleuracy, not after what your father – “
“Barris isn’t responsible for what his father did!”
“I said be quiet!” This time, Cael snapped at Tierce, and his hand went for his sword. Whether he actually meant to draw it or not, no one ever knew.
The warning came just a moment too late. The barrel was already halfway down the gangplank by the time Romeric’s half-hearted, “Watch out” alerted anyone that it was careening towards them. Barris and Tierce, who were facing that direction, had just enough time to scramble clear. But Cael was closer. By the time he whipped around to see what was happening, it was already crashing into him.
The barrel bounced one way; he went the other — right over the side of the barge and into the water.
A splash. A moment’s stunned silence.
“Oops,” said Romeric, sounding entirely unapologetic.
Someone on the red boat screamed, and someone else laughed, and then there was shouting as Cael thrust his head out of the water, sputtering, flailing, and cursing. The hired oarsmen burst into action, scrambling to retrieve their customer from the water before the current carried him away.
Barris and Tierce gaped in astonishment as Romeric strolled down the gangplank to join them. Together they watched the red boat swing about, rocking dangerously when some of the passengers – Cael’s friends – tried to lean over the side to pull him out.
When it became clear that Cael’s life was not actually at risk – he could swim well enough to keep himself afloat, at least – Tierce’s shock gave way to mirth and he collapsed against the stacked barrels, holding his sides in laughter. But Barris found it hard to find any humor in the situation. He gave Romeric an incredulous look. “I can’t believe you did that.”
“Boats are dangerous places,” the foreigner said, a placid expression on his face. “He should be more careful.”
After more shouting and curses, the boatmen managed to haul Cael out of the water and into the boat. The deposited him, dripping wet, into the midst of his companions, who were clearly torn between their concern for him and their concern for their finery getting dripped on by their soggy friend. Cael struggled to his feet and turned towards the barge, face contorted with anger.
You…!” He shouted at Romeric, his face turned several shades redder than should have been possible. “You could have killed me!” He lurched forward, but the red boat had drifted too far downstream now to do anything but shout. and the boatmen clearly weren’t going to do anything to stop it.
As the boat moved away, Romeric cupped a hand to his mouth to make sure Cael heard every word “If I wanted to kill you, I would have used something a little more reliable than a barrel of dried fish.” He allowed himself a laugh then, quiet and self-satisfied. Not mocking. Tierce still cackled in amusement.
Even from this far away, Barris could see the fury in the look Cael sent their way. “He’s not going to forget this,” he murmured to the Jurati in warning. “He’ll come after you, sooner or later.”
“So let him come.” Romeric shrugged, then clapped him companionably on the shoulder. “I know you’ll have my back. Let’s get this finished so we can get that drink, yes?”
As he strode off to collect his errant barrel, Barris watched him with a divided mind. He didn’t think he liked him any better, but it wasn’t every day that a near-stranger tossed someone into the river on your behalf. Whether it was a matter of house loyalty or some other kind of madness that had prompted the barrel-rolling routine, he couldn’t be sure. But there was something reassuring about having someone willing to stand up for you like that. Yes, having that drink might not be so bad after all. At least in the tavern it would be noisy enough he wouldn’t have to listen to him talk. And, if he was lucky, he might even be able to have some fresh ice limes.
“127 bridges, on most days,” the saying goes. Here’s a few of the bridges that make that saying true.
1) Floataway Bridge
Formally known as the Fishermonger’s Bridge, Floataway is a pontoon bridge that stretches across the upper portion of the Aris. During especially heavy spring floods, it’s prone to break away from it’s moorings and drift downriver. The effort to return it to its proper place usually results in an impromptu festival, with games, food vendors and crowds of wagering spectators.
2) Little Furzon Bridge
Contructed of rope and wood, Little Furzon hangs suspended from the underside of the Great Furzon Bridge, providing quicker access between the lower levels of the city. As an unauthorized bridge, it is perodically removed by the City Watch, only to reappear again in a few weeks or months.
3) The Stepstones
The northern-most (upstream) bridge on the Aris, the Stepstones is a more elaborate construction than its name implies. The string of stepping stones, each about 2 feet in diameter, float on the surface of the water. The stones are anchored in the riverbed and to each other to ensure stability, but this bridge is only accessible when the river is running low, typically in the late summer and early autumn.
4) Bridge of Boats
Various city fesitvals ofen include a bridge of boats, wherein participants line their boats up across the river and connect them with planks. They’re usually decorated, depending on the theme of the event, and offer refreshements to partiers traveling back and forth across the “bridge.”
5) The Boys’ Bridge
Every three years, boys between 12 and 15 participate in a city-wide bridge building competition with two teams, Guilds versus Houses. The goal is to build, in one day, a temporary bridge across the river (the location changes each year) that must be sturdy enough to support the weight of someone walking across it. The bridges are removed when the event is completed. In the most memorable instance of this competition, the boys of the House team created a bridge with their own bodies, linking arms and legs with one another in the water while someone walked across their backs.