“My guardian.” I’d gone over after I’d sat for a bit, to where 2nd Amitzas sat, cross-legged, on the ground, reading the Holy Book, by the light of a pin-hole lantern. My eyes were so dark adjusted it seemed very bright to me. He pulled the ribbon from the back of the book and closed it carefully before looking up.
Even if I did not believe that Chevenga would get killed, Ailadas’s suggestion, that I find out what exactly 2nd Amitzas had in mind, was a good one. I should find out, just in case.
“Yes, Spark of the Sun’s Ray?” I found myself looking at the superficially attractive planes of his face, full of echoes of my ancestors and the classic beauty striven for and yearned for by Aitzas parents. I realized with sinking horror than, when I’d seen myself last, I looked less like my father, and more like Amitzas. “You have an inquiry of me?” I had puzzled him by approaching him.
“Yes, my guardian. I am enquiring... once our loyal Mahid have assassinated the barbarian—don’t ever let anything slip—Does the ever-faithful First-Second have a plan for me?”
“Certainly, Expression of the Divine Countenance.” He then sat still as a statue. Not going to give me anything.
“That the First Second would care to share with me?”
“Spark of the Sun’s Ray, you will be Imperator in Waiting and I shall be Regent, since your Divine Father gave you into my hands until that time.” He spoke as if to an idiot or a small child.
“Yes, I understand that, my guardian, but how is it to be accomplished? The barbarians are well established now, in the city.”
“The monster’s second in command, for their raggle-taggle army, is female and thus the Spark need not be concerned. The child son will likely be whisked off to be ruler of their benighted mountains, leaving said female in charge.”
That raggle-taggle kicked all our asses, if you recall. Of all the crack-brained plans. “And the countryside will be easy to rouse in my favour you think?”
“It is self-evident, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.” He looked at me a moment longer to see if I wished to continue questioning him before he took up the Holy Book again. “Unless the Spark has more questions?”
“No, thank you for your attention and enlightenment, my guardian.” I walked back to Gannara and Ailadas for the few moments more we would have to rest before we had to ride again. He really is as dull... as stupid as that? He really is as stupid as that.
2nd Amitzas had left one Mahid behind, with instructions on how to track us, to lead our intrepid book buyers to us, and told me he always had scouts out scouring the countryside for our next stopping place.
He was tremendously annoyed that we could not travel as fast as he thought necessary. There was always the fearful chance that we would be seen when we moved, even in such sparsely populated country.
This wilderness was harsher land on the fringes of the central Empire. People tended to settle along the sea-coast and the rivers up to and past the city itself. Here, in the hinterlands, the people were sparse and far between.
“Spark,” Ice-Eyes called me up to his stirrup. “Do you recognize this road?”
“I have never seen it in my life, my guardian.” His corrector flashed out and tapped me across the shoulder nearest him. I controlled my horse that tried to shy in the direction I flinched. “You have no call for flippancy, Spark.”
“My apologies, my guardian, I meant no impertinence.”
“The sign posts you had no time to read in the dark. Do you recognize some of the distinctive landmarks we have passed?”
“No, I have not, my guardian. I obviously should have.”
“The Split Mountain would have been one sign. Us leaving the true road to come this way, another.” I had been following along, my gaze so unfocused, fixed on the barely seen haunches and tail of the horse in front of me, that I had missed it.
“We’re going to cross First Kurkas’s Bridge?”
It was another cursed structure. On route to the Fia Negro, the tunnel where the Blind Guild lead travellers, or Cheaper pass, a summer-only way through the mountains, the old bridge was once hub of a culture hardly anyone remembers, the People of the Clouds.
2nd Amitzas called sharply and our column came to a halt. “Come and tell me what you know of it.”
He took me to the rise of the road. This track I suddenly realized was the crumbled, ancient road that First Kurkas had ridden on. The heavy, nearly impossible to scar stones still resisted the ravages of weather and time. Under the thick and scattered patches of grass and moss it coiled back through Split Mountain where before the Fire, the stories told, that people had taken the centre out of the mountain and opened its seams to the sky. Hayel’s gorge was crossed by younger bridges, above and below this spot, where the well kept roads now ran. The one we were on was a ghost of a road.
In the moonlight, below, the gorge was deep enough to be completely black. Across an impossible span, two bridges ran side by side. The one to the left was broken, shattered arches of a stone I did not know showing broken teeth to the moon’s face. Fog blew in strands and veils in and out of the darkness of the fjord.
“The Cloud People. It must be because of the fog. They lived on the bridge and my ancestor was the one to conquer them.”
“Call your tutor, Spark. The others will rest while you are instructed.”
“You are most generous, my guardian. Koren!”
“Ahem, ahem. Of course, coming, coming Spark of the Sun’s-–ahem—Ray. Oh, my. Spark, I had no idea--ahem—I thought I was imagining the Split Mountain in the dark.”
“Instruct me, Koren. I would know of the Cloud People.”
“Ahem—As this one recalls, they were reputed to live upon the bridge... but there are two... ah... yes... ahem—this makes some obscure passages much clearer. As this one interprets them.” His voice, in the dark, took on almost a sing-song cadence as he remembered. “The people who lived over air and said their strength was in never setting foot upon the sinful earth. Their bridge was sacred and they charged a toll over it and purified the stones once people had crossed. The one bridge was two and the two became one. If the fires of sin threatened them the bridge would disconnect from the earth and keep them safe.”
The more broken bridge was actually a span in the middle, neither end touched the gorge on either side, but I had thought it was from the destruction Arko had wreaked on it. “It appears, Spark, that the people lived on the one and charged a toll for use of the other, perhaps throwing cross beams back and forth between the two separate bridges –ahem- one might imagine it was effective –ahem – at least until First Kurkas. Oh, ahem, this one recalls a stanza of a poem about that campaign, ahem.
“... and in fire and woe... He dragged them to earth... He flung them below... The people of mist... to Hayel were flung...for denying the fist... of their Divine Sun. –ahem.” He shifted on his horse and it sidestepped and sidestepped again. “That is all this one knows, Divine Spark.”
“Enough, tutor,” 2nd Amitzas said abruptly. “The Spark requires more facts and less doggerel.”
“As the inspired guardian commands, I obey.”
“Be extremely careful of the centre span, Spark,” 2nd Amitzas said to me, ignoring Ailadas’s acknowledgement entirely. “In fact, we shall lead the horses across on foot. The scouts report that particular span is near collapse. They will see to its destruction, once the last of our stragglers have crossed.”
We passed over that bridge, with the wind full of the fog moaning and howling through the stones, occasionally making the whole section shiver under our boots. On the centre span 2nd Amitzas changed his plan again and had someone more expendable lead my horse.
It was as though one could feel the stones crumbling underfoot, as if time had laid a load so heavy, that they were in spirit only sand in the shape of stones. 14th Joras... the youngest Joras, just barely out of his apprenticeship, on the narrowest part, mis-stepped when his horse flung its head up. He clung to the reins as edge crumbled under his feet and it half-reared and fell the other way, taking him with it.
He kept his silence all the way down. “Rest he in Selestialis,” I said into the deeper quiet afterward. “We will wait here, First Second, while his corpse is found and stripped.”
“Very correct, Spark. -- 4th Amitzas! Take 8th Mathas. Leave no sign that he was Mahid.”
I didn’t want to know how they intended to do that. I am developing a trail of ghosts behind me. I am just as glad it was only one.
We reached out new hiding place two nights later and 2nd Amitzas said we would not move again soon. His eye was on my nurse as he said this. She was almost as stoic as a Mahid at this point but had to be carried in. “My nurse is still a mainstay of my life and the proper conduct of this court, First of the Mahid.”
“Of a certainty, Spark. Now that we have safely thrown of any possible connection between our first campsite and this one... we will allow her to recover herself.” I didn’t trust him. He gave in to that too easily. He had no use for women at all, truly, his contempt as perfect as the fat guy’s. Hmmm. That meant they were wrong. I should assume the opposite, given their shining examples.
We had climbed part way up toward Cheaper and turned off into a side valley. We passed the ruins of an ancient fortress, and I was very relieved we weren’t going to try and stay in that crumbling pile. There was a grassy meadow below the castle and a rushing river that eventually joined its greater brother in Hayel gorge. I left my horse to one of the young Mahid, without looking at his face, still thinking of the silent fall of his cousin, or his brother.
We left the herd behind in the meadow and walked into such a deep darkness I wasn’t sure quite how it happened. There were two great doors in the side of the mountain that just looked like stone. They were partly jammed open; probably how the Mahid had found the entrance in the first place.
Behind that, were tunnels and caverns, holes in the rock like rooms, some filled almost completely with the dripping fangs of rock as though the mountain had eaten the space. 2nd Amitzas loaded Gannara with baggage till he almost couldn’t haul it, handed me a pack of my own and took us into a cavern room that had large enough slits in the ceiling I could see stars.
There was sand on the floor and in the distance I could hear water dripping and the rustle and shuffle of a bat colony. “Sleep here, Spark.”
“Thank you, my guardian.” There was no door but there was tumble of rock we could put our bedrolls down behind.
“I’ll light the lamp and that might take some of the chill off,” Gannara said when it was obvious Ice-Eyes was gone to his own bed.
“This is going to be terrible for Binshala, and Ailadas.”
“Yeah.” He didn’t say much. He was too quiet and I worried about him as I threw the two bedrolls down to make one bed and he shook out the feather quilt. We shucked our clothing and he folded everything fast so we could huddle together in the bed against the damp cold, even as the pale spring sun struggled up into the sky outside. The moment we warmed, we were asleep, even as the thinnest fingers of light found their way into this crack in the rock.