It was almost time.
“We’re there, right?” Aya asked, deftly dodging a swat from Jesay.
They river way in the cave was dark and dangerous, however, for those who knew the way, it was safe enough. Dangerous as it was, it was the dark that was far more oppressive. But the worst part was how long it was. For the past week and a half they had been traveling the remainder of the river, but the past half a week had been spent in the dark of the mountains’ caverns.
Aya couldn’t imagine how one dealt with transporting goods through the Lost Way. At times the river was so weak that one had to traverse on foot. There were other times when the rapids were too rough and one had to pick up the boat and traverse along beside the river until it became safe again.
The boats were equipped with wheels for when one needed to walk, but if they were laden with supplies, it definitely took three or more people to carry them. As it was, with the three of them, they were always exhausted at the end of the day.
However, as exhausted as they were, Jesay insisted on two-person watches. That meant only one person could sleep at a time, and only for a few hours.
It was a grueling part of the trip made all the worse by the fact that with little game in the tunnels, they weren’t able to hunt to supplement their food stores. The result was limited rations to go with their bone-numbing exhaustion.
“Depends on how slow you want to go with the boat.” Jesay whipped back.
Aya picked up her pace as much as she could, but she knew it was more a come back than a request. Carrying the boat as a three person process was painfully slow. The lead person had to pick their steps carefully, then they had to warn the other two people if there were any problems. The boat itself had to navigate narrow corridors in the cavern that often were so narrow that the boat barely fit. If it was handled poorly, the caves would take a chunk out of it and there were parts of the river where there was only river–no walkway.
For all of that, they were almost done. Currently they were navigating the Fell Stair, a narrow corridor that twisted and turned. It was steep, and slick, because the Fellfalls roared their way down the center. The mists from the water had soaked through their clothing. Without wood, it would be a miserable night. Jesay said they would be free of the caves before then, and but a short trek from there to Talvale.
It turned out that short was relative though. A couple of hours later they were finally in the boat once more, for another fours. By the time they emerged from the tunnels they were out under the starry night sky. The city itself was revealed high above them, a thousand feet up from where the river let out into the small cove that itself opened out into the larger bay.
Fortunately, there was a small cave just beside the opening where the river let out and as they exited their boat and tied it to a piling, a man walked out.
“Oy there.” He said with a grin, “name’s Rold. I s’ppose these be from me sister, Bash.”
Kriofft nodded and gestured to the boat. The man named Rold walked up to it, looked it over for a good minute, then nodded and handed a couple of silver into Kriofft’s waiting hand.
“What’s he paying you for?” Aya asked.
“Deposit,” Kriofft replied with a grin. “We’d have owed him if it had been sufficiently damaged. I’d say most as use them come out and collect a little bit back. But there’s plenty who come out and owe something. Those that try and steal the boats don’t generally make it very far. And those that don’t make it back out…” he shrugged, “well, some losses are expected in business.”
Kriofft gave Rold a grin and a firm handshake. “Pleasure.”
Rold chortled and went back inside the cave he’d emerged from. Aya glanced inside, his dwelling was cramped but perhaps a bit tidier than his sister’s.
Aya was just happy to be out of the tunnel. Until Jesay pointed to a stair that was virtually invisible to anyone not looking for it. The stair wound its way back and forth up to the lowest plateau that Talvale rested on. Rising so high, it was clearly at least an hour’s journey in a hard climb.
Two hours later they finally came up to the lowest level of Talvale. Aya was so tired that she wanted to just collapse right there, but she managed to drag herself after Jesay until they got to the nearest inn.
The Laughing Lark wasn’t as nice as the places Aya had seen in Rathuma, but it also wasn’t as seedy as she expected. It was warm, crowded, but well-lit, and when patrons did glance over at Aya and her companions, they looked away again easily enough. Occasionally there was even a nod or, rarely, a smile.
They walked right up to the bar where Kriofft slammed some coins on the counter and waited for the bartender to come over to him. An older, balding gentleman, the barkeep was a stout man with a salt-and-pepper mustache and thick arms. He finished serving a couple of the people at the bar and then wandered over to Kriofft.
“Back again, an’ all in one piece, I see.” He said simply, then tilted his head to look at Jesay and Aya. “Brought Jess an’ a new one I see too. Needin’ rooms?”
Kriofft nodded, moving his hand to show the coin there. Aya felt that the two drafts might have been a bit high, but that bit made more sense when he responded.
“Two rooms, and… a bit of discretion.”
The bartender took the two coins without further comment, his face was as cool and still as if it had been carved from stone. “Last two rooms on the left. Third floor.”
He handed Kriofft two keys and Aya’s companion then handed one of them to Jesay.
“Pleasure doing business with ya, Jak.”
The bartender grunted and then walked over to one of his barmaids who had just arrived at the end of the counter with a table order.
After unpacking in their room, Jesay stretched and turned to Aya. “Don’t know abou’ you, but I sure could use a bath right about now.”
As rough and tumble as Jesay was, Aya was a bit surprised by the comment, but she was also extremely grateful for it so she smiled.
“Yes, that would… oh, that would be so nice.” Aya could already feel the thought of warm water against her skin.
However, when she looked around, she saw no basins. “I suppose we’ll need to get water from the kitchen, but where would we put it?”
Jesay chuckled, “we’ll be going to a bathhouse.”
First, they needed some clothes. With a good wash and some stitching, Aya was certain she could salvage her dress. The clothes they’d purchased for traveling had fared quite well. Jesay’s hides and other garments had weathered nicely as well, but both of their outfits had soaked through.
“Isn’t all I own,” Jesay remarked as they entered a boutique. Given that it was well past dark, Aya figured it would be closed, but the proprietor had made himself available almost as soon as they’d entered. “But I keep my stuff where I live, back out by the lake.”
A bit later, they emerged from the shop freshly attired, their traveling clothes bundled neatly. Aya managed to find a blue dress with a bit of lacework around the neckline. ‘It must be so expensive’ she had remarked to Jesay, but it turned out it wasn’t real lace and the dress was quite affordable. She paired it off with a pair of soft, gray linen breeches and a matching belt.
Jesay’s outfit was even simpler, just a white linen tunic over some brown pants. However, her pants contained a number of hidden pockets and had actually been a considerable part of their clothing budget, even more than the dress.
They returned to the inn briefly to drop off their wet belongings. As they were stowing the items away, Jesay handed Aya a knife.
“Shouldn’t need it, but i’s best for a gal to go aroun’ armed if ya take my meaning.”
Aya looked the knife over. It was simple, but well-crafted and she was certain she could use it properly if the need did arise. It occurred to her that life had taken a sharp turn into the strange. So much so that it was almost comical. Or, at least, it was easier to laugh about it when the alternative was far more tragic.
With a strip of cloth from Jesay, it was easy enough to strap the knife to her forearm and they were headed off to the bathhouse.
The city of Talvale was a marvel for Aya to wonder at. Settled on three cliff plateaus set amid the Fangs, each level was higher than the last and each plateau was half as large as the entire city of Rathuma proper. There was also a fourth level, well below the main portion of the city, constructed of docks and caves a thousand feet below against the water’s edge.
Lower Talvale, or Lowtown, as it was known, was three quarters the size of the rest of the city itself, making it by far the largest portion of the greater city.
“Tha’s the part of the city ya need to avoid.” Jesay said after showing it off by walking Aya over to the edge of the cliff.
There was a walkway that spanned the entire section of the city along its outer edge. A stone wall ensured that no one would fall over unintentionally. However, there were also holes. They were boarded up, but Jesay got down to a knee and revealed how the holes could be used in defense of the city of an invading army stormed the docks below. The hole also provided a unique view of the industrious bustle of the Lowtown below.
Interestingly, no one shooed them away from the hole as they looked through it. As Aya thought about it, she realized she’d only seen maybe one or two guards thus far. Far less than the number she was used to seeing. She brought it up with Jesay as they headed toward the mountain, where Jesay said the bathhouses were.
“Aye. Suppose you’d notice. Well, if we were to go up ta the Heights,” Jesay pointed to the third, and most distant plateau, “you’d see more of them up there. But, even then, Talvale is a city o’ people who love being free. We watch our own, aye?”
Aya nodded, but wondered if they were any guards in Lowtown. And, of course, there was still the matter of her brother. Yet they were going to the bathhouse. Aya wasn’t going to complain about a wash, especially given how dirty and cold she was.
The bathhouses turned out to be located in a series of caves burrowing in the mountain. It would have been a long walk, but a rail had been set up that allowed convenient access to and from the bathhouse. A short ride later and they were soaking in individual pools separated by slatted wood which was polished by something to help protect it from the steam.
It turned out that the bathhouses consisted of a number of hot springs which were nestled deep in the caves. Aya had never before seen hot springs and, though the smell was slightly off-putting, the warmth of the water was relaxing muscles she hadn’t even realized were sore. It was more than the warmth though. The water entered the springs forcefully, creating eddies of movement and continuous bubbling.
Though the springs themselves had a slightly acrid, rotten-egg sell, the bathhouse put a lot of effort into spreading the perfume of incense so that the air was rich with the aroma. In all of it, she almost forgot about her brother’s plight. Almost
However, her brother wasn’t releasing her from the grip he had on her thoughts. Not yet. With any luck, he was still somewhere here, in Talvale. She could be near him right now, or have passed by him as they wove their way through city streets.
They spent the better part of an hour shriveling up like prunes, but it was worth it. Towels were provided and then their new clothes were put back on. They rode the cart back and as much as Aya enjoyed the springs, she was glad to be under the open sky once more. There was something about it which provided her comfort. She’d spent the last few months traversing wilderness and Aya supposed she’d grown accustomed to it.
“When will we meet my father?” Aya asked Jesay as they began the walk back to the Laughing Lark.
“Your Pa? Well, it’s a big city. But likely Kriofft has already gone off to tell your old man that we’re here and we’ll see him in the morning.”
That made sense, Aya supposed. However, she would have gone to see her father right away, she found it strange that even though she was as close as she’d ever been to him, that they had chosen to bunk the night in an inn. It wasn’t her call though and again Aya realized she was in need of her friends’ help. She didn’t even know what her father looked like. The realization was felt in her chest like an actual ache of the heart. It was an empty feeling, and one which seemed to wash away all of the happiness of the past few hours.
After several minutes of walking in silence, Jesay seemed to pick up on it. “Don’t fuss over it, lass. I promise your pa wants to see ya, ta meet ya.”
Aya nodded, but the words brought little consolation and they finished their journey and made their way to bed in silence.
The next morning they broke their fast on bread, cheese, and fresh eggs. It was the best morning that she’d had in months. Until the last legs of the journey, they hadn’t exactly been starving, but it was still leagues better to sit in a warm room, near a fire, with freshly cooked food with seasoning.
Still, as good as the breakfast was, Aya was eager to meet her father, and to rescue her brother. When she said as much over breakfast, she noticed that Kriofft looked a bit stricken.
“What’s going on?” She asked, putting down the bread she had been eating.
Kriofft finished chewing before he responded, “I put out word to your father that we arrived last night. I only just got word this morning, he’s… ” he trailed off, clearly struggling with what came next, “he’s missing.”
The words hit Aya like rocks thrown at her gut. They were too late, perhaps they had been too late all along. Kriofft confirmed her suspicions.
“He went missing about two weeks ago, same time as your brother. No one is really sure what happened. But there’s one man I can talk to, he’ll likely have more answers.”
“Who’s that?” Aya said, her meal forgotten. She gripped the table as hard as she could, as if holding onto it would keep her from falling.
“Quartermaster Shaqen.” Kriofft replied, managing a smile, “most useful man I know, aside from your father. He’s very resourceful and there’s no one your father trusts more, ‘cept your… brother… and, well, me too maybe, but sometimes it feels more like I’m your father’s errand boy.”
Despite the disdain held in the last bit of the sentence, there wasn’t any actual bitterness to it. If Kriofft minded being an errand boy, he didn’t show it.
“Your sibling is first mate.” Kriofft added with a grin that looked a bit more natural than his previous attempt at a smile. “Worked their butt off to get the role. Captain couldn’t be seen to be favoriting them.”
Again Aya was struck by the oddness of Kriofft’s use of pronouns regarding her brother, but there were more pressing matters.
“So we’re going to meet with the Quartermaster, and then what?”
Jesay coughed, but didn’t say anything. It was Kriofft who responded, “well, the plan was for me to talk to the Quartermaster-“
“I’m going too,” Aya cut him off and glanced at Jesay before looking back to him, daring one of them to object. She did need their help, but she wasn’t going to play the part of some helpless damsel. She had fought just as hard as they did in their trek through the wilderness. She’d learned to hunt, to use a bow and arrow, even a bit about fighting.
There was also the message she’d received from the Phoenix in her dreams. She might not feel it yet, but she was powerful, and her destiny was a powerful one. In fact, her destiny was so powerful that it even gave the Church pause.
Apparently gave her companions pause too, Kriofft looked at Jesay who shrugged and then sighed.
“I’m not likely to stop you, am I?” He asked.
“Right! Glad you see things my way.”
The small victory was enough to restore Aya’s appetite. She wasn’t even sure if her brother or her father was alive, but if they were, together she knew they would find them. That, at least, was a small enough comfort to set her slightly more at ease.
If Talvale had been impressive by night, it was far more impressive during the day. Though Aya could tell the rough heights of buildings because the city was so well-lit, even at night, it was only in daylight that one could truly appreciate the magnificence that was Talvale’s construction. Most of the buildings stood at least a few stories high, which wasn’t entirely different from Rathuma. However, at least half the buildings stood several stories high, and there were quite a few which seemed to reach up for the clouds, though Aya realized that was likely an exaggeration.
What was most striking, though, were the different styles and colors of the buildings. Talvale appeared like a city patched and hobbled together. It reflected the stylings of dozens of cultures. Some of the buildings reminded her of the paintings she had seen of traditional Qihoan structures found in Li’wan. Others looked as if they would fit right in with Rathuma’s more uniform sameness with its white-washed brick and white marble structures.
The architecture of Rathuma was actually modeled after Rido, the capital of the Church. Ashtung, the other major city of the Rathuma empire was also a port city, but it was thickly surrounded by trees and was often known as the Forest City because many of its buildings were actually built inside some of the largest, widest trees anywhere in Enbrev.
She didn’t seem to find much architecture matching the more tribal influences of Kiawono, Tavalis, or Breaker Cove. But there was evidence of the taller stone-worked spires of Piro, and the mud-brick desert cities of Ilytom and Meera.
Perhaps the city whose art Talvale most resembled was the mountainous fortress of Farum. It was made almost entirely from the mountains around it and had some of the most famous stoneworkers in all of Enbrev’s history. It seemed at least some of those same names had lived here, or at least helped construct Talvale as well.
While some of the buildings were perhaps more questionable in their building standards, most of them were very well constructed and Aya thought they would probably be able to stand for a thousand years or more. They passed by buildings whose stone work was so good that only the barest hints of seams could be seen in the otherwise flat, smooth stones, which were fitted so perfectly together.
“This place is unbelievable,” Aya said as they made their way north through the first level, nearing the bridge toward Midvale, the second level.
Midvale was better off than Stepping Ward, but the differences were marginal. A bit less of the ramshackle constructed buildings, a few more noticeable guards, and the streets were less crowded, though not necessarily less busy.
However, the most impressive part of Midvale was at the edge. In Stepping Ward there was a walkway at the cliff. However, Midvale was several times larger and had a full-fledged dry air dock for airships.
Aya had seen airships before. Many of the ships that made their way into Rathuma’s port could function both as airships and sea-faring ships. Though they weren’t allowed to fly over the city proper, many of them would pull out of port and then switch to air-mode.
Airships were fairly rare due to their reliance on a semi-rare gas known as Hedrazine. Hedrazine was incredibly light but also non-flammable, which was preferred given that airships often contained many fire hazards.
Hedrazine wasn’t used as a fuel, if Aya remembered her studies correctly. Instead, its levels slowly decreased over time because most airship balloons weren’t entirely able to keep it from leaking.
It was immediately clear to Aya that her initial assumptions on the rarity of airships themselves was very wrong, though.
Kriofft grinned a bit as he led Aya over to a massive stairway that went down the cliff-face, and revealed that there were not only docks at level with Midvale, but that there was a vast network of docks worked into the cliff-face like a honeycomb, and most of them had airships docked in them.
Aya felt like she was six again, when she had told her mother that she wanted to be an airship pilot. Her mother had merely smiled and shook her head. Nevertheless, the next Savior’s Day, Aya had been gifted a miniature airship.
As Aya grew older, the dream faded somewhat. There were plenty of women who worked on or piloted airships, just not in Rathuma. Being the capital of the Empire, Rathuma was meant to be a shining beacon on the “right way of living” and that manner of living frowned on women straying too far outside their roles.
Aya had a lot of comments to make on that sort of philosophy, but she also wanted to be a good daughter for her mother, so she had resigned herself to doing her best to be a decent young woman rather than an outright rebel. It was, perhaps, one of the only positives to come from her mother’s passing. Alongside maybe meeting her father and her brother. Still, Aya didn’t think she could make the trade for them if given the choice.
The ache of her mother’s loss had been subsumed by the need for survival. But with Aya’s safety at least a little more secure, she realized that the wounds from her mother’s death would have time to open back up and cause her to deal with them, one way or another.
Aya could feel the tears in her eyes, but they must have been visible because Jesay whispered something to Kriofft and then came over to her.
“Ya alright, lass?” She asked, putting a hand on Aya’s shoulder.
“I’m okay…” Aya answered, wiping at her eyes, “just missing my mom is all- and now- now I’m not sure if I’ll ever meet my brother or dad.”
Jesay tried to give Aya a comforting look, “I know it’s hard, but don’t give up.”
“I’m not- I won’t…” Aya shook her head. “I’m going to do this.”
Jesay nodded and she and Kriofft began to descend the stairway. It was wide enough for ten people to walk abreast, and each step was painstakingly perfect in its carving. They descended two separate levels, each with a long walkway as wide as the stairways themselves were, passing beside a number of airships, all of which were in their docks.
It was amazing how different each ship was one from another. Occasionally there were a few that were of the same type, but, for the most part, the ships were as unique as their owners, with different stylistic elements and construction which was so incredibly varied just like the buildings in the city above.
Aya wondered what the name of her father’s ship was as they wandered down, but decided to keep the question to herself.
Eventually they came upon a dock which must have been their destination because Kriofft turned and climbed the small steps into the bay area where a medium-sized airship was stowed.
It was a sleek looking ship with twin balloons and a set of propellers both on port and starboard as well as one in the rear. At the prow there was a Phoenix with its wings outspread. Did her father know, even before she did? That seemed outlandish, yet the evidence was before her. Perhaps her father simply had a fondness for Phoenixes.
“Shaquen, you there? Shaquen?” Kriofft called out, putting his hand to his mouth as he did so, as though it may amplify his voice. Aya drew up just behind him and looked around, then back up at the ship.
The name was Funky Bird, which Aya thought was strange. Nevertheless, Kriofft called out again, then walked around to the bow of the ship. A moment later, a portly man with a ragged beard, friendly eyes, and a wide grin appeared.
“Is that you, Kriofft? Good to see ya lad. I assume ya brought…” He trailed off and his eyes switched over to Aya. “Gods above, she look just like her mother. Well, nearly anyway.”
The quartermaster walked over to her and looked her up and down again, as if he couldn’t believe what his eyes were showing him.
“Wow. Just…” He smiled affably, “I know the circumstances aren’t the best. But I’m glad to meet you, Aya. Name’s Shaquen. I’ll do whatever I can to help you find your father.”
“As to your sibling,” Shaquen continued, turning to look at Kriofft, “since that’s why you’re here, I gathered. He’s not actually missing. Hired a crew to take him if your father went missing. When he did, they pulled it off. A bit abrupt, I know, but, but they’re safe.”
Aya blinked as she heard the news. She should have felt relief, but it was still a bit hollow. Her brother was safe, maybe, but she wasn’t going to meet him any time soon. And her father was certainly missing at this point. Had been missing for… well, weeks at this point.
“I promise ya, lass.” The quartermaster continued, “we’ll do everything we can ta find him. I know it must not feel that way, but we’re tryin’.”
“So what’s next?” Aya asked. “What do you need to do? How do we look for him?”
“Well… the crew searched the city top to bottom. We’re pretty sure at this point that he’s not here. So now we have to figure out where he could be.” He sighed and shook his head. “We’re pretty sure it’s the same as you, the Church.”
“If that’s true, it could be tricky getting him back.” Kriofft said, appearing worried.
The quartermaster grimaced and looked away. “Aye, that it would be. But ya might have just brought us the key.”
Everyone looked at Aya. She blushed and glanced down, brushing at her hair. She wanted to help, but she wasn’t sure how she would be the key. There was still a lot she needed to learn about her powers before she could use them.