A knock on the door woke Fen. “It’s me, El. Are you up? I’ll wait for you downstairs.”
“Mhm? Oh, yeah, I’ll be there right away.” Fen pulled her pocket watch into view. Not even five! How! How could he be up so early? Maybe she could sleep a bit longer. No. She had to go. As much as it pained her, she had to leave the bed. Ah, but she had slept so well. She couldn’t remember the last time sleep had treated her right. But right now, sleep would have to wait. And Fen would have to hope to find such a comfortable bed elsewhere.
Grudgingly, Fen left her bed and dressed, then washed her face in the basin and rubbed her teeth with some salt. She grabbed her father’s rings and tied them at her neck. Tighter than before. She was not forgetting those ever again. Once she had everything in order, with both of her travelling sacks, she descended.
Helga was up as well, ready to offer Fen some fruit before she left. El was eating some already. He had a large sack as well as his instrument within a case by his side. After thanking Helga for everything, both left for the caravan.
Outside, it was still dark except for the few embers of dawn creeping through the horizon. And everything was silent. Even the seagulls seemed to be asleep. So strange compared to the day. After the last two days, Fen would have never imagined the streets of Baysend with less than fifty people. Now, they were empty. Well, not completely empty; some dock workers were already moving about.
Fen covered her yawn as they got closer to the caravan; everyone from yesterday was already there. After greeting Ledwig and the rest of the crew, the journey throughout the Empire began.
Once they were outside the city walls, Fen climbed aboard one of the empty wagons meant for people. Well, it wasn’t really empty; every wagon was used to transport something, but this one had plenty of space for travellers. Her eyes still refused to remain open, and the wooden floor of the caravan felt strangely comfortable. Perhaps she could rest for a while, just a bit. There was a pleasant smell coming from the crates within the caravan, some aromatics perhaps, or tea leaves. And the soft twilight of the early morning… Not long after, she stopped fighting against her eyelids and let herself drift into sleep.
Her eyes eased open to the sound of music. A gentle melody, each string having its own voice, producing a soft sound that made Fen feel calm. She sat and turned to face El, who sat not far from her, playing his guitar.
“Sorry,” he said, “did I wake you?”
“No, it’s okay,” Fen replied before edging closer to the end of the wagon.
Using her left hand as shade, Fen snuck her head outside the wagon. Daylight made it hard to see at first, but once her eyes adjusted, Fen could see the area surrounding them. There were mountains in the far east, preceded by some dense forests; making an interesting mixture of colours with the green of the trees, the grey of the mountain rocks, blue of the sky, and even white from the scarce clouds and snow from the mountain tops. One of the mountains had a clear and abrupt split in between, further jagging the horizon. To the west, the land sloped slightly all the way to the sea. To the Bay.
Fen descended from the wagon.
“Stretching your legs?”
She raised her head, El had asked that from within the wagon.
“Just for a little while,” Fen answered. El smiled and nodded, then immersed himself again with his instrument.
Fen wiggled her toes inside her boots as she walked the stone-paved road. Stretching, she tried to see if anything hurt. Just some minor knots in her back, but nothing serious. She had slept rather well inside the wagon. How long did she sleep? How far had they travelled? Fen fished out her pocket watch and noticed that a bit over five hours had passed. She scanned the south-west trying to find Baysend. Perhaps it was that glimmer in the distance, but no way to say for sure.
As time passed, the road began to wind upwards, then back down again, as they journeyed further within the northern highlands of the Rendarean Empire. Grassy hills dotted the land now, with rock formations sparse around them.
The sun had passed its zenith, and the caravan continued travelling until it hid behind the horizon. By then, the group had made a camp beside the road. With the wagons in a circle, the group made a campfire in the centre. Ledwig and his wife Maere cooked dinner and food for the following day as long as the rest took care of cleaning up and loading everything back inside the wagons. After eating, El played his guitar while the rest chatted or went to sleep. Rather than sleeping herself, Fen turned to study her father’s poems. They still made little sense. One said something about circles and nothingness; others talked about nature, and how the mountains could shake trees down to their roots. One even talked about gods and religion of all things! She had never expected her father to wax poetic about religion. Still every bit confused as before reading, Fen turned over in her place and closed her eyes to sleep.
* * *
Next morning, with the sun barely sneaking above the mountains, the caravan resumed the journey. This time, Fen tried to remain awake during the beginning of the tread.
“Are we keeping a good pace, Led?” asked Able, one of the caravan drivers.
“I think we are making good time,” Ledwig answered, “With this weather, I’d estimate a week till Reiss Bridge, then perhaps five days till Phoelles. Maybe less.”
So about eleven days till Phoelles… Fen thought. Eleven days till her search finally began.
The following few days were much as the first. Awake early, travel through the hillside roads, camp for the night, then repeat. With each day, the caravan ventured further inland. The terrain turned more and more mountainous, the Great Bay no longer in view. One night they spent it in a small town along the way, where Ledwig tended to some business. However, they departed early in the morning like the previous days. Summer weather favoured them, allowing the caravan to travel without any rain that might slow them down.
While travelling, Fen would read. Sometimes she would study for what she might come across in Phoelles and the Akademia, or practice her mental arithmetics. However, most of the time, she had her nose deep inside the pages of her father’s notebook. Any new possible meaning rarely emerged, but Fen still read through the poems and cyphers.
“What are you reading?”
Fen lifted her head and shut the book. She hadn’t noticed El climbing inside the wagon she was sitting in. Her mind had completely shut out every noise from outside, from the beating of the horses’ hooves to the birds’ daylight songs. Had he caught a glimpse of the contents?
“It looked like poetry,” he said as he adjusted his guitar and fetched a book of his own. “I remember you asked me about poetry back in Baysend.”
“Oh, it’s...” what do I say? “It was a gift from my father.” Oh Da… Stop it. Change the subject. “What do you have there?”
El narrowed his eyes just an instant, but then began talking. What did he suspect?
“I’ve been writing a new song,” El said as he searched through his notebook for a specific page. Fen moved closer to look. To her, the contents of El’s notebook were as cryptic as those in her father’s; stanzas scribbled wherever they could fit inside the page or sets of lines with numbers written on top of them. “What is that?” Fen asked, pointing to the strange notation.
“It is a way to write music,” El began, “each line represents a string, and the number tells me where to put my finger. Like this.”
He gestured to a number on a line, then explained where the finger went. He then plucked the string, causing it to vibrate and produce sound.
“So that’s how you make the different sounds,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“By putting your finger in a certain place, you change the length of the string, so when you strum, it vibrates at a certain frequency.”
“Again with the akademic terms,” El chuckled. “But yeah, you are right. Each note is a frequency, as you call it. And you can play them individually,” he placed three fingers over three strings and plucked each one separately, “or together, making a chord.” He strummed the strings, making a sound that was somehow more than the individual strings being played.
“Then,” he continued, “you can play different chords to make a song.” He strummed three times, and each made a different sound that gave a sensation of rising tension, which was then released with the final strum.
“Why does that happen?” Fen asked. “The tension and release… It must have something to do with the chords.”
“Without a doubt,” El said, “but why it feels that way, no one knows.”
Fen thought for a moment. “If they are frequencies,” she began, “then they are just numbers. That means there must be a way to relate all of them together, a formula that could write music based on these relations. I mean, it’s just mathematics.”
“Perhaps you could do that,” he said, “but not everyone feels the same way about some notes.” He placed his fingers over two strings then plucked both of them together, producing an awkward, dissonant sound. “To us, that sounded completely jarring. But there are groups of people in the Andaaran Desert who think it is perfectly harmonic.”
“But… How… Hmm…” Fen crossed her arms, deep in thought. El burst out laughing.
“You were close, but music and people are still more mysterious than that,” he said after laughing. “Not everything is mathematics.”
Fen was sceptical about that. After all, people were part of nature. And if nature could be described through mathematics, then why not people? True, not everything was explained by science so far, but that didn’t mean that it could not be explained someday, right? These things made her head hurt more than after balancing. El chuckled again. Had he said anything?
“Why are you laughing?” She asked.
“When you are deep in thought you become completely unaware of your surroundings. You didn’t listen to a word I said.”
Fen felt her face warm up. “Oh, uhm, sorry.” She spun the poetry book in her hand, looking down. “What were you saying?”
He grinned and said, “since I taught you some music, you should teach me some ‘akademic science’. If you want, of course.”
Akademic science? Fen thought. What does he… Oh. Balancing.
Fen narrowed her eyes. “You didn’t teach me much music.”
“I know, I know, I’ll teach you more later,” he said. “I want to see the famous akademic science.”
“That ‘akademic science’,” she began, “is called ‘balancing’.” Fen pulled out her father’s rings and untied the cord which held them to her neck.
“What kind of crystals are those?”
“Thell and Maht,” she said. “They are special; you don’t need to say their name to activate them by touch. And, they are the key component of balancing.”
He studied each ring intently. “So, what’s balancing? How does it work?”
“Matter,” Fen explained, “is composed of very small particles that each have certain kinetic–"
“Wait, wait,” he chuckled, “I’m not an akademic. Try to keep it simple.”
Keep it simple? Fen thought. How had her father explained it to her when she was younger? After a small moment, she began again.
“So, uhm, everything, from stone to water to air, is made of really tiny things that are always moving.” El looked a bit skeptical, but Fen continued nonetheless. “The way these tiny things move is almost random, but it lies in a balance of order and chaos. Balancing allows you to Shift that balance, either by Pulling or Pushing, to make them move how you want and achieve different effects. Usually, Pushing requires adding energy, and Pulling taking it away. Sometimes, both are needed for more complex Shifts. And that is where Thell and Maht come in.” Fen held each ring in each hand. “Thell, for Pulling, and Maht, for Pushing.”
“That looks rather simple, let me try.” He stretched towards the rings, but Fen snatched them away from his grasp.
“It actually isn’t,” she said. “To do a balance shift, you need to have a very clear understanding of what you want to do, as well as have the values of every possible variable of the system you intend to shift. From the weight to temperature to speed to anything that might affect. Which is everything. The more precise, the better. To produce the most complex Shifts, you need to know this for every particle that composes the system, but as that’s impossible, an average is enough. But that involves a whole different statistical analysis.”
El was frowning, scratching his forehead in thought. “My cousin never explained it to me, but I can see it is quite the headache. How do you manage to do anything at all then?”
He frowned. “How?”
Fen fished out a copper slab from her coin pouch and a charcoal pencil from her bag. She flipped all the way to the end of her father’s notebook where there were some blank pages. “One of the most simple Shifts is the Basic Kinetic Push,” she said. “You need to know relatively little about the system, and the formulae aren’t complicated.”
Fen wrote down the equations on a blank page. “If I wanted the coin to move, say, upwards, I would need to know some things about it. First, how much it weighs, as that determines how strongly it is pulled down, and how strongly I need to Push it. Then, either the force I want to Push it with, or how fast I want it to move, or how far up I want to move it. The more, the better.” Fen then proceeded to make the calculations in the paper, explaining each part of the process to El. Once she had the numbers she needed, it was time to demonstrate.
Fen held the golden Maht ring in one hand, and on the other lay the square coin on her palm, facing upward. With all the numbers clear in her head, Fen focused. Maht gave a scarlet glow, then the coin shot upwards, only to be stopped by the cloth tarp that covered the wagon. El gaped at the coin, at Fen, at the numbers on the notebook. “How!”
Fen laughed and said, “akademic science.”
“Let me try it!”
El grabbed the ring and coin imitating Fen, but nothing happened. He peeked back at the notebook, then tried again. And again, and again, each time taking more time studying the equations written down. He stared at the coin so hard that his eyes seemed about to pop. Fen just couldn’t contain her laughter.
“Don’t laugh!” he said. “There must be some other trick you’re not telling me!”
“It takes a lot of practice,” she said wiping a tear from her eye. “And study.”
He sighed and gave Fen back her things. “Ah, it’s too complicated,” he said. “With all that mathematics beforehand I wonder what even is the practicality of it.”
“That’s why nobody except akademics do any balancing,” she said. “Most of the time, balancing is done to test things. It’s just another tool for them.”
“But the… thugs… back in Baysend said you did magic. How?”
“I can, uhm… do some balancing completely in my head,” she said. Then added quickly, “though just a little, and only the most basic shifts.”
El grabbed the notebook and studied the equations that filled an entire page. “All this… in your head? Impossible.”
Fen grabbed the coin between her fingers. This time, she would move it towards the side of the wagon. She already knew the weight, she just had to adjust what she had done previously for it to move horizontally. Just a moment later, Maht glowed, and the coin flew to the side of the wagon. Just as it was stopped by the tarp, Fen Pushed it again but in her direction, grabbing it as it zipped back to her.
“No way,” gasped El.
Fen would’ve felt proud only if the headache that just began wasn’t there. El noticed her somewhat sour look.
“What is it?”
“Oh, nothing,” she answered. “Sometimes when I do that I get a headache from thinking so hard. It will fade in a moment.”
She was right. Not long after, the headache was gone, but now hunger took its place. She fetched a pouch of dried fruit from her bag and shared it with El, as he played the guitar. He did try to teach her some more, but Fen’s fingers couldn't quite do what they were supposed to do with the guitar.
That night the caravan camped beside a stone ridge. Everyone did as they had done all the previous nights. They ate, El played his guitar, the guards did their watch, and Fen read her father’s poems. Ledwig had said that tomorrow they would reach Reiss Bridge. How had the week gone by so fast?
She hadn’t made any progress with the cyphers –if the gibberish were in fact hidden messages– so she instead focused on the poems. Still, she was skimming them now, too tired to actually pay attention. Again, the poems were about religion. Some questioned the definition of the word ‘God’. Some spoke of Gods and nature, and how they could make the ground shake as it did long before. About a blade that could blind God’s eye. Why ‘God’s eye’? Something with the Akademia? They didn’t make much sense, and Fen couldn’t understand her father’s obsession with God. What had he believed in? Definitely not the Rendarrean Pantheon. So-Phell maybe? It is hard to believe in other things with a living god around.
Fen decided to leave it for another day. Tired as she was, nothing new would come of them that night. Shifting in her place, Fen tried to sleep.