A line of wooded hills separated Bridgeport from the rest of southern Angelshire. On the far side of them, the trees had been cleared, stone walls erected, farmhouses built. The fields were empty, except for scraps from the last harvest.
I walked behind Aidan’s horse, sweating like a pig. Eris had my oilcloth somewhere in her pack, back where we’d left her up the road, and in exchange she’d given me a ratty wool waistcoat that was too loose in the belly and too tight in my shoulders.
I miss her. Didn’t think I would.
“You’re nervous,” Grannine said. I felt her hands on my wrists, massaging beneath the chafe marks from my tether. It eased the ache a bit.
Waste of time, lass. It’ll be much worse before it gets better.
“Aye, I’m nervous,” I tripped on a rock, kept my footing by doing a quick hopskip-shuffle. Realized I’d spoken out loud. “Lad, you do realize there are fair even odds we’re walking to our deaths?”
He sounded confident, which was nice for him. I spat on the ground.
“See, if we’re not ahead of the messengers–”
“If one got past us on the Highroad…”
“Then there’s not much to be done for it.” Aidan did not turn, only rode on.
“I want to see the city again.” The Lass put her hands on my shoulders, while still rubbing at my wrists. “Could we?”
I rolled my eyes, walked out to one side behind the Templar’s horse.
The bridge was ahead of us. The Angel’s Span. A bridge of white stone that curved up from the banks in an arc, spread across the River Runing like a great wing, buttresses slashing through the current. Its spire rose from the southeastern corner at an angle, and long white pillars shaped like twisted cable stretched down from the spire at intervals, connected to the stretch of Highroad underneath. A fortress with seven sides sat almost three-quarters of the way across the bridge, fused to the stone like it was all one piece. Red banners and pennants flew from its sides, bearing the silver star.
Buildings hung off the sides of the bridge like saddlebags. Weights and levers and braces held the whole city in place, precariously seated on the work of long-dead masons. A haphazard forest of lumber, swarming with humanity, living to either side of a bridge where no chisel or nail could make a mark.
I don’t know why you like to look at it, lass. It’s a mess.
“It’s beautiful. Look at the silver, the stone.”
You must see something I can’t.
“Then let me show you.”
I rolled my eyes again, stumbling along behind the Templar’s horse, and took another look at the city.
It was beautiful.
Flawless. The white of bone and the silver of sunlit ice, sweeping over the river. Sharp-edged buttresses dropped away from the Highroad, down out of sight to the water, where they’d split the river currents with hardly a ripple. Inhuman grace in the joining of bridge and fortress. Where before the placement had seemed ungainly, off-kilter, now I realized that it was a perfect balance—not on the bridge itself, but at the midpoint of the spire.
It was the spire, in fact, which supported the entire weight of the bridge, driven down through the southern shore like a mooring stake, anchored to the Highroad.
A chill went down my spine. I dropped my head.
“I can’t remember the last time I looked at Bridgeport and thought it was beautiful,” I told Her, in a low voice. “All I see is the banners.”
“I used to think it was beautiful,” Aidan said.
I looked up at his back, unmoving, unmoved.
“Being is so much better than not being,” The lass remarked. “There are so many things to see.”
“I suppose you’re right.” For a shocking moment I thought Aidan was answering Her. He sounded wistful. “I can’t see the beauty any more. Now it’s just the prison that holds my sister.”
“Make sure to look back at it when we’re leaving.”
“Ha.” Aidan’s single laugh was cold. “We’re nearly to the gate.”
I spat at him, missed his horse by a fair margin.
“Why what?” My hair fell into my eyes, obscured my vision for a moment. Her hand brushed the hair from my face, and I looked up to see Her sitting on the rear of Aidan’s horse, facing me, crouching on the animal’s rump like a falcon. Behind her, the Angel’s Span, luminous in the morning sunlight, jutting over her shoulder like a wing–
Don’t show me that.
“But it’s…beautiful.” She looked back over Her shoulder, and I did not look past Her to the bridge. I looked at Her, at the lines of Her neck, and–
I don’t need beautiful things, lass. I closed my eyes. I still saw Her sitting there in front of me, even when twisted my head away. Haven’t got this far with beautiful things. Can’t lose focus.
“Why?” Another fucking question, in Her gentle voice, straight into my ear. I shook my head, trying to shake Her out.
Even odds we die today. Worse odds we die tomorrow.
“You mean, better odds.”
Fuck off, lass. Please.
“I will not.” She was close, now, in my other ear. The stink of sulfur clung to me. “I know what it is to be alone, my Dermot. I will not leave you. Never, never.”
See, how the fuck do you know what it means to be alone? You said you didn’t remember a thing.
The hill down to the southern gate of Bridgeport was gradual. The ground fell away on either side of the Highroad, as if time had even shifted the height of the world. I wondered if that was it; if the whole world was sinking, year after year, until one day in the distant future when the sun was cold, the Highroad would come free and fall into the depths. I wondered how long it would take.
There were a few merchant wagons lined up outside the southern gate. The gate was big, wood, ugly, painted with the Church’s star and scarlet. I wondered if it was beautiful, too.
Wondered why I couldn’t see it. How much have I been missing? What haven’t I seen?
Church soldiers checked over the contents of the wagons. Hunting for witches, no doubt. I saw a few of them pocketing trinkets, demanding bribes, watched over by stone-faced Templar of the Fourth Circle. My palms itched. If word of Aidan’s treachery got to the city before us, we’ll have a brief and messy death here at the gates, or a long and messy death in the square.
Aidan lifted a hand to the two Templar who stood before the open gate.
“Sir Valraven,” one of them said. I couldn’t see him, but I could see Aidan on his horse, the set of his shoulders. “Good to see you. We hadn’t heard you were coming.”
“Sir Alders.” Aidan tilted his head slightly. I couldn’t see his expression. “I did not expect to be back so soon.” He reached back, yanked on the rope. “I am escorting a prisoner. I expect I will ride out again presently.”
“Go with God,” the knight answered, and the two Templar in the gateway stood aside.
Aidan inclined his head, and nudged his horse on.
The wind shifted. There was smoke on the air. My stomach growled.
Must be just before noon. The morning’s pyres are smoking.
“They said they didn’t know he was coming. We’ve made it in time.”
Don’t celebrate yet, lass. There’s still time for a messenger to ride in and upset the whole fucking plan.
“Ever the optimist.” Her voice rang from the back of my neck, one hand on my shoulder.
You know me.
It’s nice to have company.
“Templar,” one of the soldiers said, as we passed through the gatehouse. “God be with you.”
“And with you,” Aidan said. “Blessed are the peacekeepers.”
The soldiers bowed their heads and, in poor unison, touched their heart, then their forehead. I didn’t have to look at Aidan to know he was doing the same.
“I’ve heard you talk about the Church many times, but I don’t know very much about it, really,” I heard Grannine say, a little more distantly. “I’m curious to see more of these people you hate so purely.”
I snorted. Take a close look.
Aidan spurred his horse forward, and I hurried to stay ahead of what little slack I had on the rope, walking through the gate and into the city.
It was a brisk midmorning, and all the grubby, malnourished citizens of Bridgeport were out and about, trading, cheating, shouting, stealing, gawking at the Templar on his steed, and paying no attention at all to the grimy, rangy, bearded fuck muttering to himself behind the mounted knight.
“If only we’d had a little more time to talk to the lad,” I said under my breath, once we’d reached the sound of the crowd. People parted before Aidan’s horse. It shied a bit, not used to the close confines of the city. “Could have asked him to expand on the teachings of his faith.”
“I wonder if he is really one of the faithful,” Grannine said contemplatively. I caught glimpses of her here and there throughout the crowd, half-seen as she flitted from place to place. “Where do all these people come from?”
“They come from here, mostly. Some might live in villages up and down the river, but Bridgeport is self-sufficient. Only Blackforge is bigger.”
“Do they all live here?”
“Live, get old, and die here.” A few jeers came my way as people began to notice that I was walking at his side. I ignored them. “If the Church doesn’t kill them first.”
Grannine paused midstep, watching a handful of children playing in the street. She turned to me, vanished when a passerby blocked her from sight, and appeared in the corner of my eye when I moved my head.
“Are they all like you? Full of thoughts and dreams and histories?”
I’d like to think not.
A rock hit my shoulder. Not even a small rock. Which begged the question of where someone even found a rock, given that the ground beneath the entire city was the same uniform, inviolable white stone of unknown age and origin. The impact left a patch of dust on my waistcoat and the beginnings of a remarkable bruise on my body. But maybe so.
“Fuck off.” I didn’t look back. A mistake, in hindsight. Might have avoided the next.
A wad of horse shit hit the side of my head. At least that didn’t present any kind of existential mystery.
“Why are they angry?”
I spat a bit of lightly worn hay out of the corner of my mouth, which had the additional effect of letting me spit at the following crowd.
“They’re just idiots who like to kick people when they’re down,” I said, and directed a sneer sort of generally outward at the mob that was threatening to form around me. “Not even brave enough to come out and hit me face to face.”
One individual emerged from the crowd, a little shorter than me and much wider, brandishing a walking stick. He raised it threateningly. I gave him my most winning smile. I had a little slack on the rope.
Unfortunate for him.
I lunged forward, tucked my chin, and hit him with my shit-covered head, which was quite possibly harder than the cudgel he was trying to land on me. He fell back limp into the crowd, and Aidan yanked hard on my rope, letting out a shout. My vision sputtered and flickered a little, but overall I could confidently say the exchange had been in my favor.
“Back!” Aidan shouted. “Stay back, good people, this man is dangerous!”
I smiled more widely at the crowd, which seemed suddenly much less hesitant to approach. “He will face his punishment at the stake tomorrow. You will all be able to watch as justice is done!”
“I wonder how the man feels,” I murmured, through my clenched teeth and smirk, “Having to lie to the people while playing the role of Templar. What’s it like inside his head?”
“Couldn’t tell you.”
“Ugh. What good are you?”
“Maybe I could tell you if you’d say my name more often.”
“I’ll need more of a guarantee than that, lass, if I’m going to gamble my sanity to a fucking demon.”
“I don’t know where you got this idea that I’d steal away your will and moral judgment. It’s not as though you were exactly a pillar of moral fortitude, now is it?”
“Lass, you are getting entirely too smart for my comfort.”
She hummed contentedly in the back of my head. Her hand was warm on my shoulder.
I hadn’t lied. It was nice to have the company. Especially for what came next.
The fortress of the Templar.