Fen thought that she had gotten used to waking up early. When the group awoke to resume the journey that day, Fen realized she had been wrong.
She hadn’t slept well the previous night despite how tired she had been. Something about her father’s poems bothered her and wouldn't let her sleep calmly. If only she could work out what they meant. Or at least decipher the gibberish. Had her father gone mad the last few years? They definitely looked like the ramblings of a madman but… No, that couldn’t be. She knew they had meaning. If not, then there wouldn’t be a reason he had been killed. If not, he would still be alive. Stop it Fen.
By midday, the caravan arrived at Reiss Bridge. From then on, Fen decided to walk. It was a large city, though not as big as Baysend; every building was neatly arranged within the stone city walls. As she walked, Fen counted her steps after each intersection. Each time, her steps amounted to fifty. The first two times she thought it was a coincidence. But when the following thirteen blocks all followed the same pattern, Fen decided that it was a deliberate choice by whoever planned the city. For that level of precision, the city planner must have spent quite some time designing the city’s layout. And the intersections. Every time a street crossed another, the cross was –if not flawlessly, then almost– perpendicular. From above, Reiss Bridge might form a perfect grid, a matrix of every block, if the pattern of the Main Street repeated to the rest of the roads and alleys of the city. Highly unlikely, Fen thought. That level of order must be hard to maintain. Chaos always seemed to find a way into everywhere people lived.
Fen raised her head once she realized she had been staring at her feet for a bit too long. To her surprise, the caravan was at the heart of the city. There were a multitude of people now. A multitude she hadn’t heard. Well, she had heard a crowd while enwrapped in her thoughts, but it had seemed a distant murmur, perhaps a street or two away. But definitely not around her. Some trick of the architecture maybe? Or perhaps crystals? Tehk could be used to block sounds, maybe that was the trick.
“We’ll cross to Northern,” Ledwig said, interrupting Fen’s thoughts. “There’s an inn there where we can stay the night. I have some things to tend to, but tomorrow we depart just like any other day.” He looked at El. “You can do whatever you want, kid. This is your stop.”
“I travelled by sea last time I went to Phoelles,” he said, “so I might check this inn you mentioned.”
The caravan kept north-wise through the stone streets until they arrived at the titular Reiss Bridge. Due to the upward slant of the trek, Fen couldn’t really see it, but now just a few steps away, she saw why the bridge was so important.
A rift divided the city in half.
Perhaps two hundred feet wide, and who knew how many deep, the rift cut through the middle of the city, and stretched east and west as far as the eye could see. And the bridge. A huge structure of stone, about fifty feet wide, arching towards the other side of the city. But something else caught Fen’s attention; the bridge wasn’t the only way to cross the rift. Brass and steel structures to the sides of the bridge also crossed the rift, two from each side, with brass ‘ferries’ zipping from one side of the rift to the other. ‘Ferries’ because Fen didn’t have another name for them.
“Incredible, right?” El said as they crossed the bridge.
“What are they?” Fen asked in return, eyes still fixed to the strange structures.
“They’re as much a part of the bridge as the stones beneath our feet,” said Ledwig, “though only for people. Built by akademics.”
“How do they work?” Fen began mumbling to herself. “Must be a combination of reth and keth, surely. But that can’t be all. Lis as well, for the structures to support the weight… Why did akademics do this?”
“The rift cuts from the Bay to the mountains,” Ledwig answered, “so this is the only way northwards. And well, technically, the northern side is within Phoelles sovereignty.”
Just a couple of steps, and she was inside Phoelles. Not the city, of course, but the kingdom. Yet she felt closer. Every step she took was a reminder that there was no going back. Still, she was determined. But she was still unsure of what she was looking for. And who she was up against. She shivered despite herself. The danger was closer now. No backing away.
“Are you okay Fen?” asked El. “You just shivered.”
“Oh, it’s… the wind, it’s rather cool.”
“Guess you’ve never been this north before, right? And even summer can be a bit chilly this close to the mountains.”
Fen was glad he didn’t ask anything else. The group kept their pace. Crossing the peak of the bridge’s arc, Fen looked back to where they had crossed from. The Southern side of the rift was just a couple of feet higher than the Northern side. So that’s why I couldn’t see the rift before.
“Customs up ahead,” Ledwig said. “You should hide that knife of yours if you want to keep it, El.”
“Already did,” he answered.
On the northside end of the Bridge, a large stone building stood at the middle of the road, with large openings for caravans to go through. As the group got closer, Fen noticed several guards checking the different wagons and asking questions to the people going through. Once at the intersection, a guard approached them. The man wore a white cloak draped over a brass-coloured chest plate, with a blue shirt visible underneath. He had a sword strapped to his hip.
“Caravan master, good noon to you,” greeted the guard. “I will be asking some questions while I check your cargo if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all, ask away,” replied Ledwig.
The rest of the travellers descended from their wagons as the guard went around, checking the contents of some crates and barrels. “Would you mind telling me what you’re carrying?”
Ledwig began listing the various goods the caravan was transporting. Mostly foodstuffs, though some textiles from Wilberg, all the way down south. The guard nodded to himself, counting the wagons and people, as he took some notes in a wooden board.
Three other guards approached the group and began asking questions to the rest of the travellers. Fen’s palms began to sweat. What were they going to ask her? What should she answer? She took a deep breath. I have nothing to fear.
One of the guards, a woman, finally walked up to Fen and greeted her.
“Going to Phoelles?” the guard asked.
“Yes,” Fen answered.
“Reason for travelling?”
“Seeking to enrol in the Akademia.”
“Ah, that is nice to hear,” the guard said. “These days there is no such thing as too many Akademics, am I right?”
Fen mumbled something of an agreement.
“Are you carrying any weapons?”
Fen didn’t expect that question. “No,” she answered.
“Any religious symbols?”
Another strange question. “No,” Fen replied again.
“Great,” said the guard as she took some notes. “Would you mind if I take a look at your belongings for a small moment?”
Fen’s heart skipped a beat. Did she have anything suspicious? What would she say about her father’s notebook?
“Yes,” Fen mumbled. The guard raised her eyebrow. “I mean no, no problem at all,” Fen corrected herself. “Look all you want.”
Oh, shatters, Fen thought. Was she in trouble?
The guard began with Fen’s larger travel sack. After seeing that it was mostly clothes and books, she went for her side bag. Again, some clothes and some books, which the guard leafed through with some comment regarding Fen’s dedication to studying.
Please don’t check the notebook, please don’t check the notebook, please don’t check the notebook, Fen pleaded, nay, prayed in silence. The guard then lifted the all too familiar leather notebook from the bag and Fen’s heart sunk.
“What a strange book, this one,” the guard said. “What is it?”
Shivers ran through Fen’s spine, her hands felt soaked, her back drenched in sweat. Oh shatters, what do I say? What do I say?
“It’s… uhm... a book of riddles. So far I haven’t solved any of them though.” Fen tried to chuckle, failed, then cleared her throat.
“Riddles, huh? Never been good with riddles myself,” said the guard. “Anyway, that will be all, thank you, and may So-Phell grant you a safe passage to Phoelles.”
Fen mumbled some thanks as the guard went to talk with El. Somehow, El managed to go through the questions with ease, even making the guard laugh! How did he do that? Meanwhile, Ledwig was still talking with the first guard which approached the caravan.
“Only five caravan guards, correct?”
“Great. I will need their certifications as well as weapon permits if they plan to go to Phoelles.”
The caravan guards approached the man in brass and white, papers on their hands. The man took his time with each piece of paper before scribbling something on it. Once he checked on the caravan guards, he asked Ledwig “are you carrying any other weapon I should be aware of?”
“No sir,” he answered.
“Great. You can keep going then. Good day to you and yours. May So-Phell favour you in your travels.”
“Good day to you and yours too,” Ledwig answered before hurrying the rest of the group towards the other side of the intersection.
Once Fen stepped from the Bridge onto the city street, she left out a long sigh then took a deep breath. Oh shatters! She had never felt that nervous in her life. “What was that all about?” Fen exclaimed.
“Phoelles is a bit picky about its security,” answered El.
“Then why did you,” Fen lowered her voice to a whisper, “why did you hide your knife?”
“I have my reasons to distrust city guards,” El replied. “And weapon permits are hard to come by. Expensive and hard to get.”
“Only certain mercenary companies are allowed in Phoelles,” Ledwig added. “Though they still have problems getting permits. And don’t even think about bringing more than ten armed guards. Phew! I once spent over three days in Reiss Bridge waiting for paperwork to be done, all for bringing a few extra guards. Almost lost an important client.”
“But what would the guards do if you didn’t have a permit?” Fen asked
“They would confiscate whatever you had until you paid for a permit and waited for the paperwork,” El said. “It’s too much of a hassle. I already lost a knife to them last year in Phoelles.” He chuckled, looking back at the customs building. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they treated forks as weapons.”
At first, Fen didn’t really understand the trouble they went through. It must be troublesome to check all of the people coming and going to Phoelles. But if it did help keeping the place secure, then she saw no reason to complain. But that was not all they had checked.
“What was that about ‘religious symbols’?” she asked.
“So-Phell is God-King in Phoelles,” Ledwig said. “To acknowledge any other gods would be… Denying his godhood.”
Now that was strange. To Fen, it seemed like extra work for no real reason.
Ledwig saw the confusion written on her frown. “When you see him, you’ll understand.”
The caravan kept northward. Aside from crossing customs, there were no notable differences between this side of the city and the other. If Ledwig hadn’t told her, Fen would still believe she was within the Empire’s territory.
Not long after, the group stopped at a stable. The travellers, along with Maere, went towards an inn not too far, while Ledwig and the rest talked with the stable owner. ‘The Noble Steed’ was the name of the inn. The innkeeper greeted Maere like an old friend. Or a lucrative business partner. Much like the previous inn the caravan spent the night in, the innkeeper charged a smaller fee for their rooms, with the exception that the group would share their rooms. After paying, the group went to their rooms to unload and rest.
Fen let herself fall onto her bed. It was comfortable, but didn’t really compare to her bed at The Misplaced Poet. However, it was miles better than the caravan or the ground. She took a deep breath. Her early morning exhaustion seeped back inside her, and she felt herself begin to drift off.
A knock on the door brought her back up.
“Fen, it’s me, El. Are you still there?”
“Yes,” Fen replied, pretending to be more awake than how she felt.
“I’ll take a walk around the city, care to join me?”
She could definitely use a nap right then. The bed almost called to her. Maybe the walk could wait. “I think I’ll–"
“Maybe even cross to Southern on those brass ferries by the Bridge.”
“Just wait for me downstairs. I’ll be there in an instant.”
Fen splashed her face on the washbasin by the mirror, trying to wipe the drowse off. Maybe combing her hair would help. She still felt somewhat tired after that, but at least she would not fall asleep while walking.
Guitar case strapped to his back, El greeted Fen with a grin. “Knew that’d pique your interest.”
Fen scowled at him then shook her head. El opened the door wide, letting Fen go through first. “Anyway, why are you carrying your guitar?” she asked.
“I’ll be staying here for a while,” El began, “so I want to get a feel for the city. And I want the city to see a Helician bard has arrived. Also,” he tapped the case, lowering his voice, “I have my knife hidden here, just in case.”
Fen sighed. “Let’s just go to the Bridge.”
With her pocket watch marking half-past four, the two arrived at the Bridge. Fen hadn’t realized over three hours had passed since they arrived at the city. The two of them went to the westernmost ferry. A stone fence stood between the street and the rift, with two gates where the ferries stopped. For every gate there were two helmeted guards in a similar attire to those at the customs. Fen and El lined behind five other people waiting for one of the ferries to return. A moment later, the ferry stopped by the gate. The gate opened, and five people descended, the guards checking each of them before they left. The five people in front of Fen stepped into the ferry, the guard then signaled Fen that five was the limit. She glanced back, but El and her were the last of the line. Once the five travelers were inside, the gate was closed. One of the guards operated a lever, and the ferry began its swift journey to the other side of the rift. A while later, the ferry returned. Three people got off, and again, the guards checked on the three of them. Fen glanced behind her again. They would travel alone, it seemed.
Fen stepped into the ferry and realized her heart was beating rather fast. Crossing the rift had become quite the thrill for her. The ferry had a slight cylindrical shape and was larger than it had seemed from the outside. It seemed made of brass, with glass panels on the sides. El came in next, and the ferry’s door closed behind him. Goosebumps ran through Fen’s arms as the ferry began to move.
Fen wanted to ponder the ferry’s mechanism, but the excitement of the ride wouldn’t let her think. In an instant, they were travelling at top speed, zipping through the air, crossing over the abyss. She had never experienced speed like this before. Her thoughts were in jumbles. Until she gazed outside.
The rift extended as far as she could see. Like a gray waterfall, the stone walls fell into nothingness. The sun hit the rift at an angle, bathing it in light yet casting an array of shadows that made the rift seem to swallow the sky.
“A view worthy of a song,” El said to her side. Fen nodded in return. “Just wait until you take one of Phoelles’ Brass Rails. Now, that’s a view like no other.”
“Brass Rails. Machines just like this one that cross over the roofs of Phoelles. People use them to travel throughout the city, crossing from one corner to the other in mere minutes.”
Fen swallowed. Uncertainty and excitement fused whenever she thought of Phoelles. No backing away.
The ferry began to slow down, and soon after, they were on the other side.
As they descended, the guards let them through without a word. Fen noticed they were not dressed as on the other side; they wore a steel plate over red shirts.
After a few steps through the Main Street, El reached for his guitar. “Time to work.”
“What do you mean?”
“I need to get an audience if I wish to prosper here.”
El began strumming the strings. Every now and then a head swung their way then resumed their own business. With each step, El raised the complexity of what he played before stopping by a fountain in the middle of a market square. More people began looking his way. Then, slowly, a small crowd began forming around him. As more people came to see, and listen, Fen stepped a bit further away. Clearing the view for the crowd, she thought, I’m not running away from it. She wiped the sweat from her palms.
After playing for several minutes, El bowed to the cheers of his audience. He stood straight, saluted, and announced, “The Noble Steed! On Northern! I’ll wait for you there!” before bowing again.
As the people dissipated, Fen approached El while he closed his guitar case. “So this was all a publicity stunt?”
“Yeah,” El grinned, “sorry to drag you into it.”
It hadn’t bothered her but, “couldn’t you have done it by the inn?”
“I guess I could,” he answered, “but there’s something about this side. There’s more people here yet–"
“Yet you can’t really hear the crowd,” Fen interrupted, remembering her thoughts entering the city.
“Exactly. My music travels far here, and more can listen.”
They walked through the Southern Market for some time. Some people came to compliment El on his skill, or said they would love to listen to him play again. He answered by telling them to join him at The Noble Steed. One fruit seller even gifted them a pair of apples which they snacked on as they toured through the city.
Fen’s pocket watch ticked seven as they began the trek back to the inn. Unlike before, the line of people for the ferry increased. Especially the one they had used on their way here. Why was that?
“That one must give you the best view of the sunset,” El chuckled, “let’s take another one.”
A while later, they were zipping through the rift. The ride back was just as exciting as it had been before, though this time there were other people with them.
Once on the other side, the guards in brass and blue stopped them. Fen wasn’t carrying her side bag so she passed without any problem. But El had his guitar case. His knife!
El opened the case for the guards to look. They spent some time inspecting the case. However, they didn’t find anything, and let El through. Fen kept eyeing him all the way to the inn.
“It isn’t that easy to find,” he said.
“Still, you could’ve gotten into trouble.”
He smirked. “But nothing happened.”
Fen sighed and shook her head. El just laughed.
At the inn, El went to talk with the innkeeper. Something about planning for the night. Fen decided to take a bath. After her bath, she went to eat with the rest of the caravan travellers. El came and went, taking a few bites before leaving to organize his space.
With time, people began dripping into the inn. Not before long, the common room was filled to the edges with people drinking and eating. They all had their eyes on El. The lights dimmed, the talking became less than a murmur, and El, under his spotlight, began his performance.
The way he played… It was no wonder he hypnotized the crowd so. All that time he had spent practicing on the journey here showed. To Fen, however, the common room felt a bit stuffed, so as El’s performance came to an end, she stepped outside. Shutting the door to the cheers, she laid her back on the stone wall, right under a quo’s light. The silence and coolness of the night embraced her.
Tomorrow her journey would continue. But this time she would be alone again. True, she had formed a companionship with the rest of the caravan, but El was her friend. And the caravan was only until Phoelles. From then on, she would be alone. Again. What awaited her in Phoelles?
The door opened and El stepped outside, a mug of ale in hand. He stood by the window, on the other side of the door from Fen.
“When will you…” Fen cleared her throat. “How long will you be staying here?”
“About three months.” He took a sip from his mug then placed it on the windowsill. “Don’t forget about my cousin Lisandra. You’ll get along well, I think.”
“I think I’ll go to sleep,” Fen said. “You know how Ledwig is, we’ll probably be outside the city while the sun is still rising.”
Fen faced the door then stretched her hand towards the doorknob.
Her hand froze. She turned her head towards El. Back to the inn, he stared at the ground.
He hesitated. Then, “I don’t know what you’re…” He shook his head. Did he suspect something?
El sighed. “Just… Take care in Phoelles.”
Fen smiled at him. “I will. Goodbye, El.”