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Asimov's Science Fiction Analog Science Fiction & Fact

THE MAN WHO BRIDGED THE MIST

Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson, who has won the World Fantasy, Nebula, and Asimov’s Readers’ Award for her short fiction, currently has a short story on the Hugo Awards’ ballot and a different one is a finalist for the Locus Award. At the moment, Kij is a graduate student at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. With her latest tale, she departs from her traditional short story length to pen a captivating novella about a dangerous alien planet and the humans who attempt to tame it.

 

 


Kit came to Nearside with two trunks and an oiled-cloth folio full of plans for the bridge across the mist. His trunks lay tumbled like stones at his feet, where the mailcoach guard had dropped them. The folio he held close, away from the drying mud of yesterday’s storm.

Nearside was small, especially to a man of the capital, where buildings towered seven and eight stories tall, a city so large that even a vigorous walker could not cross it in half a day. Here hard-packed dirt roads threaded through irregular spaces scattered with structures and fences. Even the inn was plain, two stories of golden limestone and blue slate tiles, with (he could smell) some sort of animals living behind it. On the sign overhead, a flat, pale blue fish very like a ray curveted against a black background.

A brightly dressed woman stood by the inn’s door. Her skin and eyes were pale, almost colorless. “Excuse me,” Kit said. “Where can I find the ferry to take me across the mist?” He could feel himself being weighed, but amiably: a stranger, small and very dark, in gray—a man from the east.

The woman smiled. “Well, the ferries are both at the upper dock. But I expect what you really want is someone to oar the ferry, yes? Rasali Ferry came over from Farside last night. She’s the one you’ll want to talk to. She spends a lot of time at The Deer’s Heart. But you wouldn’t like The Heart, sir,” she added. “It’s not nearly as nice as The Fish here. Are you looking for a room?”

 “I’ll be staying in Farside tonight,” Kit said apologetically. He didn’t want to seem arrogant. The invisible web of connections he would need for his work started here, with this first impression, with all the first impressions of the next few days.

 “That’s what you think,” the woman said. “I’m guessing it’ll be a day or two, or more, before Rasali goes back. Valo Ferry might, but he doesn’t cross so often.”

“I could buy out the trip’s fares, if that’s why she’s waiting.”

“It’s not that,” the woman said. “She won’t cross the mist ’til she’s ready. Until it tells her she can go, if you follow me. But you can ask, I suppose.”

Kit didn’t follow, but he nodded anyway. “Where’s The Deer’s Heart?”

She pointed. “Left, then right, then down by the little boat yard.”

“Thank you,” Kit said. “May I leave my trunks here until I work things out with her?”

“We always stow for travelers.” The woman grinned. “And cater to them, too, when they find out there’s no way across the mist today.”

The Deer’s Heart was smaller than The Fish, and livelier. At midday the oak-shaded tables in the beer garden beside the inn were clustered with light-skinned people in brilliant clothes, drinking and tossing comments over the low fence into the boat yard next door, where, half lost in steam, a youth and two women bent planks to form the hull of a small flat-bellied boat. When Kit spoke to a man carrying two mugs of something that looked like mud and smelled of yeast, the man gestured at the yard with his chin. “Ferrys are over there. Rasali’s the one in red,” he said as he walked away.

“The one in red” was tall, her skin as pale as that of the rest of the locals, with a black braid so long that she had looped it around her neck to keep it out of the way. Her shoulders flexed in the sunlight as she and the youth forced a curved plank to take the skeletal hull’s shape. The other woman, slightly shorter, with the ash-blond hair so common here, forced an augur through the plank and into a rib, then hammered a peg into the hole she’d made. After three pegs, the boatwrights straightened. The plank held. Strong, Kit thought; I wonder if I can get them for the bridge?

“Rasali!” a voice bellowed, almost in Kit’s ear. “Man here’s looking for you.” Kit turned in time to see the man with the mugs gesturing, again with his chin. He sighed and walked to the waist-high fence. The boatwrights stopped to drink from blueware bowls before the one in red and the youth came over.

“I’m Rasali Ferry of Farside,” the woman said. Her voice was softer and higher than he had expected of a woman as strong as she, with the fluid vowels of the local accent. She nodded to the boy beside her: “Valo Ferry of Farside, my brother’s eldest.” Valo was more a young man than a boy, lighter-haired than Rasali and slightly taller. They had the same heavy eyebrows and direct amber eyes.

“Kit Meinem of Atyar,” Kit said.

Valo asked, “What sort of name is Meinem? It doesn’t mean anything.”

“In the capital, we take our names differently than you.”

“Oh, like Jenner Ellar.” Valo nodded. “I guessed you were from the capital—your clothes and your skin.”

Rasali said, “What can we do for you, Kit Meinem of Atyar?”

“I need to get to Farside today,” Kit said.

Rasali shook her head. “I can’t take you. I just got here, and it’s too soon. Perhaps Valo?”

The youth tipped his head to one side, his expression suddenly abstract, as though he were listening to something too faint to hear clearly. He shook his head. “No, not today.”

“I can buy out the fares, if that helps. It’s Jenner Ellar I am here to see.”

Valo looked interested but said, “No,” to Rasali, and she added, “What’s so important that it can’t wait a few days?”

Better now than later, Kit thought. “I am replacing Teniant Planner as the lead engineer and architect for construction of the bridge over the mist. We will start work again as soon as I’ve reviewed everything. And had a chance to talk to Jenner.” He watched their faces.

Rasali said, “It’s been a year since Teniant died—I was starting to think Empire had forgotten all about us, and your deliveries would be here ’til the iron rusted away.”

“Jenner Ellar’s not taking over?” Valo asked, frowning.

“The new Department of Roads cartel is in my name,” Kit said. “but I hope Jenner will remain as my second. You can see why I would like to meet him as soon as is possible, of course. He will—”

Valo burst out, “You’re going to take over from Jenner, after he’s worked so hard on this? And what about us? What about our work?” His cheeks were flushed an angry red. How do they conceal anything with skin like that? Kit thought.

“Valo,” Rasali said, a warning tone in her voice. Flushing darker still, the youth turned and strode away. Rasali snorted but said only: “Boys. He likes Jenner, and he has issues about the bridge, anyway.”

That was worth addressing. Later. “So, what will it take to get you to carry me across the mist, Rasali Ferry of Farside? The project will pay anything reasonable.”

 “I cannot,” she said. “Not today, not tomorrow. You’ll have to wait.”

“Why?” Kit asked: reasonably enough, he thought, but she eyed him for a long moment, as if deciding whether to be annoyed.

“Have you gone across mist before?” she said at last.

“Of course.”

“Not the river,” she said.

“Not the river,” he agreed. “It’s a quarter mile across here, yes?”

“Oh, yes.” She smiled suddenly: white even teeth and warmth like sunlight in her eyes. “Let’s go down, and perhaps I can explain things better there.” She jumped the fence with a single powerful motion, landing beside him to a chorus of cheers and shouts from the inn garden’s patrons. She made an exaggerated bow, then gestured to Kit to follow her. She was well-liked, clearly. Her opinion would matter.

The boat yard was heavily shaded by low-hanging oaks and chestnuts, and bounded on the east by an open-walled shelter filled with barrels and stacks of lumber. Rasali waved at the third boat maker, who was still putting her tools away. “Tilisk Boatwright of Nearside. My brother’s wife,” she said to Kit. “She makes skiffs with us, but she won’t ferry. She’s not born to it as Valo and I are.”

“Where’s your brother?” Kit asked.

“Dead,” Rasali said, and lengthened her stride.

They walked a few streets over and then climbed a long, even ridge perhaps eighty feet high, too regular to be natural. A levee, Kit thought, and distracted himself from the steep path by estimating the volume of earth and the labor that had been required to build it. Decades, perhaps, but how long ago? How long was it? The levee was treeless. The only feature was a slender wood tower hung with flags. It was probably for signaling across the mist to Farside, since it appeared too fragile for anything else. They had storms out here, Kit knew; there’d been one the night before, which had left the path muddy. How often was the tower struck by lightning?

Rasali stopped. “There.”

Kit had been watching his feet. He looked up and nearly cried out as light lanced his suddenly tearing eyes. He fell back a step and shielded his face. What had blinded him was an immense band of white mist reflecting the morning sun.

Kit had never seen the mist river itself, though he’d bridged mist before this, two simple post-and-beam structures over gorges closer to the capital. From his work in Atyar, he knew what was to be known. It was not water, or anything like. It did not flow, but formed somehow in the deep gorge of the great riverbed before him. It found its way many hundreds of miles north, up through a hundred narrowing mist creeks and streams before failing at last, in shreds of drying foam that left bare patches of earth where they collected.

The mist stretched to the south as well, a deepening, thickening band that poured out at last from the river’s mouth two thousand miles south, and formed the mist ocean, which lay on the face of the salt-water ocean. Water had to follow the river’s bed to run somewhere beneath, or through, the mist, but there was no way to prove this.

There was mist nowhere but this river and its streams and sea; but the mist split Empire in half.

After a moment, the pain in Kit’s eyes grew less, and he opened them again. The river was a quarter-mile across where they stood, a great gash of light between the levees. It seemed nearly featureless, blazing under the sun like a river of cream or of bleached silk, but as his eyes accustomed themselves, he saw the surface was not smooth but heaped and hollowed, and that it shifted slowly, almost indiscernibly, as he watched.

Rasali stepped forward, and Kit started. “I’m sorry,” he said with a laugh. “How long have I been staring? It’s just—I had no idea.”

“No one does,” Rasali said. Her eyes when he met them were amused.

The east and west levees were nearly identical, each treeless and scrub-covered, with a signal tower. The levee on their side ran down to a narrow bare bank half a dozen yards wide. There was a wooden dock and a boat ramp, a rough switchback leading down to them. Two large boats had been pulled onto the bank. Another, smaller dock was visible a hundred yards upstream, attended by a clutter of boats, sheds, and indeterminate piles covered in tarps.

“Let’s go down.” Rasali led the way, her words coming back to him over her shoulder. “The little ferry is Valo’s. Pearlfinder. The Tranquil Crossing’s mine.” Her voice warmed when she said the name. “Eighteen feet long, eight wide. Mostly pine, but a purpleheart keel and pearwood headpiece. You can’t see it from here, but the hull’s sheathed in blue-dyed fish-skin. I can carry three horses or a ton and a half of cartage or fifteen passengers. Or various combinations. I once carried twenty-four hunting dogs and two handlers. Never again.”

A steady, light breeze eased down from the north, channeled by the levees. The air had a smell, not unpleasant but a little sour, wild. “How can you manage a boat like this alone? Are you that strong?”

“It’s as big as I can handle,” she said, “but Valo helps sometimes, for really unwieldy loads. You don’t paddle through mist. I mostly just coax the Crossing to where I want it to go. Anyway, the bigger the boat, the more likely that the Big Ones will notice it; though if you do run into a fish, the smaller the boat, the easier it is to swamp. Here we are.”

They stood on the bank. The mist streams he had bridged had not prepared him for anything like this. Those were tidy little flows, more like fog collecting in hollows than this. From their angle, the river no longer seemed a smooth flow of creamy whiteness, nor even gently heaped clouds. The mist forced itself into hillocks and hollows, tight slopes perhaps twenty feet high that folded into one another. It had a surface, but it was irregular, cracked in places, translucent in others. The surface didn’t seem as clearly defined as that between water and air.

“How can you move on this?” Kit said, fascinated. “Or even float?” The hillock immediately before them was flattening as he watched. Beyond it something like a vale stretched out for a few dozen yards before turning and becoming lost to his eyes.

“Well, I can’t, not today,” Rasali said. She sat on the gunwale of her boat, one leg swinging, watching him. “I can’t push the Crossing up those slopes or find a safe path, unless the mist shows me the way. If I went today, I know—I know—” she tapped her belly— “that I would find myself stranded on a pinnacle or lost in a hole. Thats why I can’t take you today, Kit Meinem of Atyar.”

* * *

When Kit was a child, he had not been good with other people. He was small and easy to tease or ignore, and then he was sick for much of his seventh year and had to leave his crèche before the usual time, to convalesce in his mother’s house. None of the children of the crèche came to visit him, but he didn’t mind that: he had books and puzzles, and whole quires of blank paper that his mother didn’t mind him defacing.

The clock in the room in which he slept didn’t work, so one day he used his penknife to take it apart. He arranged the wheels and cogs and springs in neat rows on the quilt in his room, by type and then by size; by materials; by weight; by shape. He liked holding the tiny pieces, thinking of how they might have been formed and how they worked together. The patterns they made were interesting, but he knew the best pattern would be the working one, when they were all put back into their right places and the clock performed its task again. He had to think that the clock would be happier that way, too.

He tried to rebuild the clock before his mother came upstairs from her counting house at the end of the day, but when he had reassembled things, there remained a pile of unused parts and it still didn’t work; so he shut the clock up and hoped she wouldn’t notice that it wasn’t ticking. Four days more of trying things during the day and concealing his failures at night; and on the fifth day, the clock started again. One piece hadn’t fit anywhere, a small brass cog. Kit still carried that cog in his pen case.

Late that afternoon, Kit returned to the river’s edge. It was hotter; the mud had dried to cracked dust, and the air smelled like old rags left in water too long. He saw no one at the ferry dock, but at the fisher’s dock upstream people were gathering, a score or more of men and women, with children running about.

The clutter looked even more disorganized as he approached. The fishing boats were fat little coracles of leather stretched on frames, tipped bottom up to the sun and looking like giant warts. The mist had dropped so that he could see a band of exposed rock below the bank. The dock’s pilings were clearly visible, which were not vertical but set at an angle: a cantilevered deck braced into the stone underlying the bank. The wooden pilings had been sheathed in metal.

He approached a silver-haired woman doing something with a treble hook as long as her hand. “What are you catching with that?” he said.

Her forehead was wrinkled when she looked up, but she smiled when she saw him. “Oh, you’re a stranger. From Atyar, dressed like that. Am I right? We catch fish . . . .” Still holding the hook, she extended her arms as far as they would stretch. “Bigger than that, some of them. Looks like more storms, so they’re going to be biting tonight. I’m Meg Threehooks. Of Nearside, obviously.”

“Kit Meinem of Atyar. I take it you can’t find a bottom?” He pointed to the pilings.

Jen Threehooks followed his glance. “It’s there somewhere, but it’s a long way down, and we can’t sink pilings because the mist dissolves the wood. Oh, and fish eat it. Same thing with our ropes, the boats, us—anything but metal and rock, really.” She knotted a line around the hook eye. The cord was dark and didn’t look heavy enough for anything Kit could imagine catching on hooks that size.

 “What are these made of, then?” He squatted to look at the framing under one of the coracles.

“Careful, that one’s mine,” Meg said. “The hides—well, and all the ropes—are fish-skin. Mist fish, not water fish. Tanning takes off some of the slime, so they don’t last forever either, not if they’re immersed.” She made a face. “We have a saying: foul as fish-slime. That’s pretty nasty, you’ll see.”

“I need to get to Farside,” Kit said. “Could I hire you to carry me across?”

“In my boat?” She snorted. “No, fishers stay close to shore. Go see Rasali Ferry. Or Valo.”

“I saw her,” he said ruefully.

“Thought so. You must be the new architect—city folk are always so impatient. You’re so eager to be dinner for a Big One? If Rasali doesn’t want to go, then don’t go, stands to reason.”

Kit was footsore and frustrated by the time he returned to The Fish. His trunks were already upstairs, in a small cheerful room overwhelmed by a table that nearly filled it, with a stiflingly hot cupboard bed. When Kit spoke to the woman he’d talked to earlier, Brana Keep, the owner of The Fish (its real name turned out to be The Big One’s Delight)—laughed. “Rasali’s as hard to shift as bedrock,” she said. “And, truly, you would not be comfortable at The Heart.”

By the next morning, when Kit came downstairs to break his fast on flatbread and pepper-rubbed fish, everyone appeared to know everything about him, especially his task. He had wondered whether there would be resistance to the project, but if there had been any, it was gone now. There were a few complaints, mostly about slow payments, a universal issue for public works; but none at all about the labor or organization. Most in the taproom seemed not to mind the bridge, and the feeling everywhere he went in town was optimistic. He’d run into more resistance elsewhere, building the small bridges.

“Well, why should we be concerned?” Brana Keep said to Kit. “You’re bringing in people to work, yes? So we’ll be selling room and board and clothes and beer to them. And you’ll be hiring some of us, and everyone will do well while you’re building this bridge of yours. I plan to be wading ankle-deep through gold by the time this is done.”

“And after,” Kit said, “when the bridge is complete—think of it, the first real link between the east and west sides of Empire. The only place for three thousand miles where people and trade can cross the mist easily, safely, whenever they wish. You’ll be the heart of Empire in ten years. Five.” He laughed a little, embarrassed by the passion that shook his voice.

“Yes, well,” Brana Keep said, in the easy way of a woman who makes her living by not antagonizing customers, “we’ll make that harness when the colt is born.”

For the next six days, Kit explored the town and surrounding countryside.

He met the masons, a brother and sister that Teniant had selected before her death to oversee the pillar and anchorage construction on Nearside. They were quiet but competent, and Kit was comfortable not replacing them.

Kit also spoke with the Nearside rope-makers, and performed tests on their fish-skin ropes and cables, which turned out even stronger than he had hoped, with excellent resistance to rot, and catastrophic and slow failure. The makers told him that the rope stretched for its first two years in use, which made it ineligible to replace the immense chains that would bear the bridge’s weight; but it could replace the thousands of vertical suspender chains that would support the roadbed, with a great saving in weight.

He spent much of his time watching the mist. It changed character unpredictably: a smooth rippled flow; hours later, a badland of shredding foam; still later, a field of steep dunes that joined and shifted as he watched. There was nothing level about the mist’s surface, but he thought that the river generally dropped in its bed each day under the sun, and rose after dark.

The winds were more predictable. Hedged between the levees, they streamed southward each morning and north each evening, growing stronger toward midday and dusk, and falling away entirely in the afternoons and at night. They did not seem to affect the mist much, though they did tear shreds off that landed on the banks as dried foam.

The winds meant that there would be more dynamic load on the bridge than Teniant Planner had predicted. Kit would never criticize her work publicly and he gladly acknowledged her brilliant interpersonal skills, which had brought the town into cheerful collaboration, but he was grateful that her bridge had not been built as designed.

He examined the mist more closely, as well, by lifting a piece from the river’s surface on the end of an oar. The mist was stiffer than it looked, and in bright light he thought he could see tiny shapes, perhaps creatures or plants or something altogether different. There were microscopes in the city, and people who studied these things; but he had never bothered to learn more, interested only in the structure that would bridge it. In any case, living things interested him less than structures.

Nights, Kit worked on the table in his room. Teniant’s plans had to be revised. He opened the folios and cases she had left behind and read everything he found there. He wrote letters, wrote lists, wrote schedules, made duplicates of everything, sent to the capital for someone to do all the subsequent copying. His new plans for the bridge began to take shape, and he started to glimpse the invisible architecture that was the management of the vast project.

He did not see Rasali Ferry, except to ask each morning whether they might travel that day. The answer was always no.

One afternoon, when the clouds were heaping into anvils filled with rain, he walked up to the building site half a mile north of Nearside. For two years, off and on, carts had tracked south on the Hoic Mine road and the West River Road, leaving limestone blocks and iron bars in untidy heaps. Huge dismantled shear-legs lay beside a caretaker’s wattle-and-daub hut. There were thousands of large rectangular blocks.

Kit examined some of the blocks. Limestone was often too chossy for large-scale construction, but this rock was sound, with no apparent flaws or fractures. There were not enough, of course, but undoubtedly more had been quarried. He had written to order resumption of deliveries, and they would start arriving soon.

Delivered years too early, the iron trusses that would eventually support the roadbed were stacked neatly, painted black to protect them from moisture, covered in oiled tarps, and raised from the ground on planks. Sheep grazed the knee-high grass that grew everywhere. When one of the sheep eyed him incuriously, Kit found himself bowing. “Forgive the intrusion, sir,” he said and laughed: too old to be talking to sheep.

The test pit was still open, a ladder on the ground nearby. Weeds clung when he moved the ladder as if reluctant to release it. He descended.

The pasture had not been noisy, but he was startled when he dropped below ground level and the insects and whispering grasses were suddenly silenced. The soil around him was striated shades of dun and dull yellow. Halfway down, he sliced a wedge free with his knife: lots of clay; good foundation soil, as he had been informed. The pit’s bottom, some twenty feet down, looked like the walls, but crouching to dig at the dirt between his feet with his knife, he hit rock almost immediately. It seemed to be shale. He wondered how far down the water table was: did the Nearsiders find it difficult to dig wells? Did the mist ever backwash into one? There were people at University in Atyar who were trying to understand mist, but there was still so much that could not be examined or quantified.

He collected a rock to look at it in better light, and climbed from the pit in time to see a teamster leading four mules, her wagon groaning under the weight of the first new blocks. A handful of Nearsider men and women followed, rolling their shoulders and popping their joints. They called out greetings, and he walked across to them.

When he got back to The Fish hours later, exhausted from helping unload the cart and soaked from the storm that had started while he did so, there was a message from Rasali. Dusk was all it said.

* * *

Kit was stiff and irritable when he left for the Tranquil Crossing. He had hired a carrier from The Fish to haul one of his trunks down to the dock, but the others remained in his room, which he would probably keep until the bridge was done. He carried his folio of plans and paperwork himself. He was leaving duplicates of everything on Nearside, but after so much work, it was hard to trust any of it to the hands of others.

The storm was over and the clouds were moving past, leaving the sky every shade between lavender and a rich purple-blue. The large moon was a crescent in the west; the smaller a half circle immediately overhead. In the fading light, the mist was a dark, smoky streak. The air smelled fresh. Kit’s mood lightened, and he half-trotted down the final path.

His fellow passengers were there before him: a prosperous-looking man with a litter of piglets in a woven wicker cage (Tengon whites, the man confided, the best bloodline in all Empire); a woman in the dark clothes fashionable in the capital, with brass-bound document cases and a folio very like Kit’s; two traders with many cartons of powdered pigment; a mail courier with locked leather satchels and two guards. Nervous about their first crossing, Uni and Tom Mason greeted Kit when he arrived.

In the gathering darkness, the mist looked like bristling, tight-folded hills and coulees. Swifts darted just above it, using the wind flowing up the valley, searching for insects, he supposed. Once a sudden black shape, too quick to see clearly, appeared from below; then it, and one of the birds, was gone.

The voices of the fishers at their dock carried to him. They launched their boats, and he watched one, and then another, and then a gaggle of the little coracles push themselves up a slope of the mist. There were no lamps.

“Ready, everyone?” Kit had not heard Rasali approach. She swung down into the ferry. “Hand me your gear.”

Stowing and embarkation were quick, though the piglets complained. Kit strained his eyes, but the coracles could no longer be seen. When he noticed Rasali waiting for him, he apologized. “I guess the fish are biting.”

Rasali glanced at the river as she stowed his trunk. “Small ones. A couple of feet long only. The fishers like them bigger, five or six feet, though they don’t want them too big, either. But they’re not fish, not what you think fish are. Hand me that.”

He hesitated a moment, then gave her the folio before stepping into the ferry. The boat sidled at his weight, but sluggishly: a carthorse instead of a riding mare. His stomach lurched. “Oh!” he said.

“What?” one of the traders asked nervously. Rasali untied the rope holding them to the dock.

Kit swallowed. “I had forgotten. The motion of the boat. It’s not like water at all.”

He did not mention his fear, but there was no need. The others murmured assent. The courier, her dark face sharp-edged as a hawk, growled, “Every time I do this, it surprises me. I dislike it.”

Rasali unshipped a scull and slid the great triangular blade into the mist, which parted reluctantly. “I’ve been on mist more than water, but I remember the way water felt. Quick and jittery. This is better.”

“Only to you, Rasali Ferry,” Uni Mason said.

“Water’s safer,” the man with the piglets said.

Rasali leaned into the oar, and the boat slid away from the dock. “Anything is safe until it kills you.”

The mist absorbed the quiet sounds of shore almost immediately. One of Kit’s first projects had been a stone single-arch bridge over water, far to the north in Eskje province. He had visited before construction started. He was there for five days more than he had expected, caught by a snowstorm that left nearly two feet on the ground. This reminded him of those snowy moonless nights, the air as thick and silencing as a pillow on the ears.

Rasali did not scull so much as steer. It was hard to see far in any direction except up, but perhaps it was true that the mist spoke to her, for she seemed to know where to position the boat for the mist to carry it forward. She followed a small valley until it started to flatten and then mound up. The Tranquil Crossing tipped slightly as it slid a few feet to port. The mail carrier made a noise, and immediately stifled it.

Mist was a misnomer. It was denser than it seemed, and sometimes the boat seemed not to move through it so much as over its surface. Tonight it seemed like sea-wrack, the dirty foam that strong winds could whip from ocean waves. Kit reached a hand over the boat’s side. The mist piled against his hand, almost dry to the touch, sliding up his forearm with a sensation he could not immediately identify. When he realized it was prickling, he snatched his arm back in and rubbed it on a fold of his coat. The skin burned. Caustic, of course.

The man with the pigs whispered, “Will they come if we talk or make noise?”

“Not to talking, or pigs’ squealing,” Rasali said. “They seem to like low noises. They’ll rise to thunder sometimes.”

One of the traders said, “What are they if they’re not really fish? What do they look like?” Her voice shook. The mist was weighing on them all: all but Rasali.

“If you want to know you’ll have to see one for yourself,” Rasali said. “Or try to get a fisher to tell you. They gut and fillet them over the sides of their boats. No one else sees much but meat wrapped in paper, or rolls of black skin for the rope-makers and tanners.”

Youve seen them,” Kit said.

“They’re broad and flat. But ugly . . . ”

“And Big Ones?” Kit asked.

Her voice was harsh. “Them, we don’t talk about here.”

No one spoke for a time. Mist—foam—heaped up at the boat’s prow and parted, eased to the sides with an almost inaudible hissing. Once the mist off the port side heaved, and something dark broke the surface for a moment, followed by other dark somethings; but the somethings were not close enough to see well. One of the merchants cried without a sound or movement, the tears on his face the only evidence.

The Farside levee showed at last, a black mass that didn’t get any closer for what felt like hours. Fighting his fear, Kit leaned over the side, keeping his face away from the surface. “It can’t really be bottomless,” he said, half to himself. “What’s under it?”

“You wouldn’t hit the bottom, anyway,” Rasali said.

The Tranquil Crossing eased up a long swell of mist and into a hollow. Rasali pointed the ferry along a crease and eased it forward. And then they were suddenly a stone’s throw from the Farside dock and the light of its torches.

People on the dock moved as they approached. Just loudly enough to carry, a soft baritone voice called, “Rasali?”

She called back, “Ten this time, Pen.”

“Anyone need carriers?” A different voice. Several passengers responded.

Rasali shipped the scull while the ferry was still some feet away from the dock, and allowed it to ease forward under its own momentum. She stepped to the prow and picked up a coiled rope there, tossing one end across the narrowing distance. Someone on the dock caught it and pulled the boat in, and in a very few moments, the ferry was snug against the dock.

Disembarking and payment was quicker than embarkation had been. Kit was the last off, and after a brief discussion he hired a carrier to haul his trunk to an inn in town. He turned to say farewell to Rasali. She and the man—Pen, Kit remembered—were untying the boat. “You’re not going back already,” he said.

 “Oh, no.” Her voice sounded loose, content, relaxed. Kit hadn’t known how tense she was. “We’re just going to tow the boat over to where the Twins will pull it out.” She waved with one hand to the boat launch. A pair of white oxen gleamed in the night, at their heads a woman hardly darker.

“Wait,” Kit said to Uni Mason and handed her his folio. “Please tell the innkeeper I’ll be there soon.” He turned back to Rasali. “May I help?”

In the darkness, he felt more than saw her smile. “Always.”

The Red Lurcher, commonly called The Bitch, was a small but noisy inn five minutes’ walk from the mist, ten (he was told) from the building site. His room was larger than at The Fish, with an uncomfortable bed and a window seat crammed with quires of ancient, hand-written music. Jenner stayed here, Kit knew, but when he asked the owner (Widson Innkeep, a heavyset man with red hair turning silver), he had not seen him. “You’ll be the new one, the architect,” Widson said.

“Yes,” Kit said. “Please ask him to see me when he gets in.”

Widson wrinkled his forehead. “I don’t know, he’s been out late most days recently, since—” He cut himself off, looking guilty.

“—since the signals informed him that I was here,” Kit said. “I understand the impulse.”

The innkeeper seemed to consider something for a moment, then said slowly, “We like Jenner here.”

“Then we’ll try to keep him,” Kit said.

When the child Kit had recovered from the illness, he did not return to the crèche—which he would have been leaving in a year in any case—but went straight to his father. Davell Meinem was a slow-talking humorous man who nevertheless had a sharp tongue on the sites of his many projects. He brought Kit with him to his work places: best for the boy to get some experience in the trade.

Kit loved everything about his father’s projects: the precisely drawn plans, the orderly progression of construction, the lines and curves of brick and iron and stone rising under the endlessly random sky.

For the first year or two, Kit imitated his father and the workers, building structures of tiny beams and bricks made by the woman set to mind him, a tiler who had lost a hand some years back. Davell collected the boy at the end of the day. “I’m here to inspect the construction,” he said, and Kit demonstrated his bridge or tower, or the materials he had laid out in neat lines and stacks. Davell would discuss Kit’s work with great seriousness, until it grew too dark to see and they went back to the inn or rented rooms that passed for home near the sites.

Davell spent nights buried in the endless paperwork of his projects, and Kit found this interesting, as well. The pattern that went into building something big was not just the architectural plans, or the construction itself; it was also labor schedules and documentation and materials deliveries. He started to draw his own plans, but he also made up endless correspondences with imaginary providers.

After a while, Kit noticed that a large part of the pattern that made a bridge or a tower was built entirely out of people.

The knock on Kit’s door came very late that night, a preemptory rap. Kit put down the quill he was mending, and rolled his shoulders to loosen them. “Yes,” he said aloud as he stood.

The man who stormed through the door was as dark as Kit, though perhaps a few years younger. He wore mud-splashed riding clothes.

“I am Kit Meinem of Atyar.”

“Jenner Ellar of Atyar. Show it to me.” Silently Kit handed the cartel to Jenner, who glared at it before tossing it onto the table. “It took long enough for them to pick a replacement.”

Might as well deal with this right now, Kit thought. “You hoped it would be you.”

Jenner eyed Kit for a moment. “Yes. I did.”

“You think you’re the most qualified to complete the project because you’ve been here for the last—what is it? Year?”

“I know the sites,” Jenner said. “I worked with Teniant to make those plans. And then Empire sends—” He turned to face the empty hearth.

“—Empire sends someone new,” Kit said to Jenner’s back. “Someone with connections in the capital, influential friends but no experience with this site, this bridge. It should have been you, yes?”

Jenner was still.

“But it isn’t,” Kit said, and let the words hang for a moment. “I’ve built nine bridges in the past twenty years. Four suspension bridges, three major spans. Two bridges over mist. You’ve done three, and the biggest span you’ve directed was three hundred and fifty feet, six stone arches over shallow water and shifting gravel up on Mati River.”

“I know,” Jenner snapped.

“It’s a good bridge.” Kit poured two glasses of whiskey from a stoneware pitcher by the window. “I coached down to see it before I came here. It’s well made, and you were on budget and nearly on schedule in spite of the drought. Better, the locals still like you. Asked how you’re doing these days. Here.”

Jenner took the glass Kit offered. Good. Kit continued, “Meinems have built bridges—and roads and aqueducts and stadia, a hundred sorts of public structures—for Empire for a thousand years.” Jenner turned to speak, but Kit held up his hand. “This doesn’t mean we’re any better at it than Ellars. But Empire knows us—and we know Empire, how to do what we need to. If they’d given you this bridge, you’d be replaced within a year. But I can get this bridge built, and I will.” Kit sat and leaned forward, elbows on knees. “With you. You’re talented. You know the site. You know the people. Help me make this bridge.”

“It’s real to you,” Jenner said finally, and Kit knew what he meant: You care about this work. Its not just another tick on a list.

“Yes,” Kit said. “You’ll be my second for this one. I’ll show you how to deal with Atyar, and I’ll help you with contacts. And your next project will belong entirely to you. This is the first bridge, but it isn’t going to be the only one across the mist.”

Together they drank. The whiskey bit at Kit’s throat and made his eyes water. “Oh,” he said, “that’s awful.”

Jenner laughed suddenly, and met his eyes for the first time: a little wary still, but willing to be convinced. “Farside whiskey is terrible. You drink much of this, you’ll be running for Atyar in a month.”

“Maybe we’ll have something better ferried across,” Kit said.

Preparations were not so far along on this side. The heaps of blocks at the construction site were not so massive, and it was harder to find local workers. In discussions between Kit, Jenner, and the Near- and Farside masons who would oversee construction of the pillars, final plans materialized. This would be unique, the largest structure of its kind ever attempted: a single-span chain suspension bridge a quarter of a mile long. The basic plan remained unchanged: the bridge would be supported by eyebar-and-bolt chains, four on each side, allowed to play independently to compensate for the slight shifts that would be caused by traffic on the roadbed. The huge eyebars and their bolts were being fashioned five hundred miles away and far to the west, where iron was common and the smelting and ironworking were the best in Empire. Kit had just written to the foundries to start the work again.

The pillar and anchorage on Nearside would be built of gold limestone anchored with pilings into the bedrock; on Farside, they would be pink-gray granite with a funnel-shaped foundation. The towers’ heights would be nearly three hundred feet. There were taller towers back in Atyar, but none had to stand against the compression of the bridge.

The initial tests with the fish-skin rope had showed it to be nearly as strong as iron, without the weight. When Kit asked the Farside tanners and rope-makers about its durability, he was taken a day’s travel east to Meknai, to a waterwheel that used knotted belts of the material for its drive. The belts, he was told, were seventy-five years old and still sound. Fish-skin wore like maplewood, so long as it wasn’t left in mist, but it required regular maintenance.

He watched Meknai’s little river for a time. There had been rain recently in the foothills, and the water was quick and abrupt as light. Water bridges are easy, he thought a little wistfully, and then: Anyone can bridge water.

Kit revised the plans again, to use the lighter material where they could. Jenner crossed the mist to Nearside, to work with Daell and Stivvan Cabler on the expansion of their workshops and ropewalk.

Without Jenner (who was practically a local, as Kit was told again and again), Kit felt the difference in attitudes on the river’s two banks more clearly. Most Farsiders shared the Nearsiders’ attitudes: money is money and always welcome, and there was a sense of the excitement that comes of any great project; but there was more resistance here. Empire was effectively split by the river, and the lands to the east—starting with Faside—had never seen their destinies as closely linked to Atyar in the west. They were overseen by the eastern capital, Triple; their taxes went to building necessities on their own side of the mist. Empire’s grasp on the eastern lands was loose, and had never needed to be tighter.

The bridge would change things. Travel between Atyar and Triple would grow more common, and perhaps Empire would no longer hold the eastern lands so gently. Triple’s lack of enthusiasm for the project showed itself in delayed deliveries of stone and iron. Kit traveled five days along the Triple road to the district seat to present his credentials to the governor, and wrote sharp letters to the Department of Roads in Triple. Things became a little easier.

It was midwinter before the design was finished. Kit avoided crossing the mist. Rasali Ferry crossed seventeen times. He managed to see her nearly every time, at least for as long as it took to share a beer.

The second time Kit crossed, it was midmorning of an early spring day. The mist mirrored the overcast sky above: pale and flat, like a layer of fog in a dell. Rasali was loading the ferry at the upper dock when Kit arrived, and to his surprise she smiled at him, her face suddenly beautiful. Kit nodded to the stranger watching Valo toss immense cloth-wrapped bales down to Rasali, then greeted the Ferrys. Valo paused for a moment, but did not return Kit’s greeting, only bent again to his work. Valo had been avoiding him since nearly the beginning of his time there. Later. With a mental shrug, Kit turned from Valo to Rasali. She was catching and stacking the enormous bales easily.

“What’s in those? You throw them as if they were—”

“—paper,” she finished. “The very best Ibraric mulberry paper. Light as lambswool. You probably have a bunch of this stuff in that folio of yours.”

Kit thought of the vellum he used for his plans, and the paper he used for everything else: made of cotton from far to the south, its surface buffed until it felt hard and smooth as enamelwork. He said, “All the time. It’s good paper.”

Rasali piled on bales and more bales, until the ferry was stacked three and four high. He added, “Is there going to be room for me in there?”

“Pilar Runn and Valo aren’t coming with us,” she said. “You’ll have to sit on top of the bales, but there’s room as long as you sit still and don’t wobble.”

As Rasali pushed away from the dock Kit asked, “Why isn’t the trader coming with her paper?”

“Why would she? Pilar has a broker on the other side.” Her hands busy, she tipped her head to one side, in a gesture that somehow conveyed a shrug. “Mist is dangerous.”

Somewhere along the river a ferry was lost every few months: horses, people, cartage, all lost. Fishers stayed closer to shore and died less often. It was harder to calculate the impact to trade and communications of this barrier splitting Empire in half.

This journey—in daylight, alone with Rasali—was very different than Kit’s earlier crossing: less frightening but somehow wilder, stranger. The cold wind down the river was cutting and brought bits of dried foam to rest on his skin, but they blew off quickly, without pain and leaving no mark. The wind fell to a breeze and then to nothing as they navigated into the mist, as if they were buried in feathers or snow.

They moved through what looked like a layered maze of thick cirrus clouds. He watched the mist along the Crossing’s side until they passed over a small hole like a pockmark, straight down and no more than a foot across. For an instant he glimpsed open space below them; they were floating on a layer of mist above an air pocket deep enough to swallow the boat. He rolled onto his back to stare up at the sky until he stopped shaking; when he looked again, they were out of the maze, it seemed. The boat floated along a gently curving channel. He relaxed a little, and moved to watch Rasali.

“How fares your bridge?” Rasali said at last, her voice muted in the muffled air. This had to be a courtesy—everyone in town seemed to know everything about the bridge’s progress—but Kit was used to answering questions to which people already knew the answers. He had found patience to be a highly effective tool.

“Farside foundations are doing well. We have maybe six more months before the anchorage is done, but pilings for the pillar’s foundation are in place and we can start building. Six weeks early,” Kit said, a little smugly, though this was a victory no one else would appreciate, and in any case the weather was as much to be credited as any action on his part. “On Nearside, we’ve run into basalt that’s too hard to drill easily, so we sent for a specialist. The signal flags say she’s arrived, and that’s why I’m crossing.”

She said nothing, seemingly intent on moving the great scull. He watched her for a time, content to see her shoulders flex, hear her breath forcing itself out in smooth waves. Over the faint yeast scent of the mist, he smelled her sweat, or thought he did. She frowned slightly, but he could not tell whether it was due to her labor, or something in the mist, or something else. Who was she, really? “May I ask a question, Rasali Ferry?”

Rasali nodded, eyes on the mist in front of the boat.

Actually, he had several things he wished to know: about her, about the river, about the people here. He picked one, almost at random. “What is bothering Valo?

“He’s transparent, isn’t he? He thinks you take something away from him,” Rasali said. “He is too young to know what you take is unimportant.”

Kit thought about it. “His work?”

“His work is unimportant?” She laughed, a sudden puff of an exhale as she pulled. “We have a lot of money, Ferrys. We own land and rent it out—the Deer’s Heart belongs to my family; do you know that? He’s young. He wants what we all want at his age. A chance to test himself against the world and see if he measures up. And because he’s a Ferry, he wants to be tested against adventures. Danger. The mist. Valo thinks you take that away from him.”

“But he’s not immortal,” Kit said. “Whatever he thinks. The river can kill him. It will, sooner or later. It—”

—will kill you. Kit caught himself, rolled onto his back again to look up at the sky.

In The Bitch’s taproom one night, a local man had told him about Rasali’s family: a history of deaths, of boats lost in a silent hissing of mist, or the rending of wood, or screams that might be human and might be a horse. “So everyone wears ash-color for a month or two, and then the next Ferry takes up the business. Rasali’s still new, two years maybe. When she goes, it’ll be Valo, then Rasali’s youngest sister, then Valo’s sister. Unless Rasali or Valo have kids by then.”

“They’re always beautiful,” the man had added after some more porter: “the Ferrys. I suppose that’s to make up for having such short lives.”

Kit looked down from the paper bales at Rasali. “But you’re different. You don’t feel you’re losing anything.”

 “You don’t know what I feel, Kit Meinem of Atyar.” Cool light moved along the muscles of her arms. Her voice came again, softer. “I am not young; I don’t need to prove myself. But I will lose this. The mist, the silence.”

Then tell me, he did not say. Show me.

She was silent for the rest of the trip. Kit thought perhaps she was angry, but when he invited her, she accompanied him to the building site.

The quiet pasture was gone. All that remained of the tall grass was struggling tufts and dirty straw. The air smelled of sweat and meat and the bitter scent of hot metal. There were more blocks here now, a lot more. The pits for the anchorage and the pillar were excavated to bedrock, overshadowed by mountains of dirt. One sheep remained, skinned and spitted, and greasy smoke rose as a girl turned it over a fire beside the temporary forge. Kit had considered the pasture a nuisance, but looking at the skewered sheep, he felt a twinge of guilt.

The rest of the flock had been replaced by sturdy-looking men and women, who were using rollers to shift stones down a dugout ramp into the hole for the anchorage foundation. Dust muted the bright colors of their short kilts and breastbands and dulled their skin, and in spite of the cold, sweat had cleared tracks along their muscles.

One of the workers waved to Rasali and she waved back. Kit recalled his name: Mik Rounder, very strong but he needed direction. Had they been lovers? Relationships out here were tangled in ways Kit didn’t understand; in the capital such things were more formal and often involved contracts.

Jenner and a small woman knelt, conferring, on the exposed stone floor of the larger pit. When Kit slid down the ladder to join them, the small woman bowed slightly. Her eyes and short hair and skin all seemed to be turning the same iron-gray. “I am Liu Breaker of Hoic. Your specialist.”

“Kit Meinem of Atyar. How shall we address this?”

 “Your Jenner says you need some of this basalt cleared away, yes?”

Kit nodded.

Liu knelt to run her hand along the pit’s floor. “See where the color and texture change along this line? Your Jenner was right: this upthrust of basalt is a problem. Here where the shale is, you can carve out most of the foundation the usual way with drills, picks. But the basalt is too hard to drill.” She straightened and brushed dust from her knees. “Have you ever seen explosives used?”

Kit shook his head. “We haven’t needed them for any of my projects. I’ve never been to the mines, either.”

“Not much good anywhere else,” Liu said, “but very useful for breaking up large amounts of rock. A lot of the blocks you have here were loosed using explosives.” She grinned. “You’ll like the noise.”

“We can’t afford to break the bedrock’s structural integrity.”

“I brought enough powder for a number of small charges. Comparatively small.”

“How—”

Liu held up a weathered hand. “I don’t need to understand bridges to walk across one. Yes?”

Kit laughed outright. “Yes.”

Liu Breaker was right; Kit liked the noise very much. Liu would not allow anyone close to the pit, but even from what she considered a safe distance, behind huge piles of dirt, the explosion was an immense shattering thing, a crack of thunder that shook the earth. There was a second of echoing silence. The workers, after a collective gasp and some scattered screams, cheered and stamped their feet. A small cloud of mingled smoke and rock-dust eased over the pit’s edge, sharp with the smell of saltpeter. The birds were not happy; with the explosion, they burst from their trees and wheeled nervously.

Grinning, Liu climbed from her bunker near the pit, her face dust-caked everywhere but around her eyes, which had been protected by the wooden slit-goggles now hanging around her neck. “So far, so good,” she shouted over the ringing in Kit’s ears. Seeing his face, she laughed. “These are nothing—gnat sneezes. You should hear when we quarry granite up at Hoic.”

Kit was going to speak more with her when he noticed Rasali striding away. He had forgotten she was there; now he followed her, half shouting to hear himself. “Some noise, yes?”

Rasali whirled. “What are you thinking?” She was shaking and her lips were white. Her voice was very loud.

Taken aback, Kit answered, “We are blowing the foundations.” Rage? Fear? He wished he could think a little more clearly, but the sound had stunned his wits.

“And making the earth shake! The Big Ones come to thunder, Kit!”

“It wasn’t thunder,” he said.

“Tell me it wasn’t worse!” Tears glittered in her eyes. Her voice was dulled by the echo in his ears. “They will come, I know it.”

He reached a hand out to her. “It’s a tall levee, Rasali. Even if they do, they’re not going to come over that.” His heart in his chest thrummed. His head was hurting. It was so hard to hear her.

No one knows what they’ll do! They used to destroy whole towns, drifting inland on foggy nights. Why do you think they built the levees, a thousand years ago? The Big Ones—”

She stopped shouting, listening. She mouthed something, but Kit could not hear her over the beating in his ears, his heart, his head. He realized suddenly that these were not the after-effects of the explosion; the air itself was beating. He was aware at the edges of his vision of the other workers, every face turned toward the mist. There was nothing to see but the overcast sky. No one moved.

But the sky was moving.

Behind the levee the river mist was rising, dirty gray-gold against the steel-gray of the clouds in a great boiling upheaval, at least a hundred feet high, to be seen over the levee. The mist was seething, breaking open in great swirls and rifts, and everything moving, changing. Kit had seen a great fire once, when a warehouse of linen had burned, and the smoke had poured upward and looked a little like this before it was torn apart by the wind.

Gaps opened in the mountain of mist and closed; and others opened, darker the deeper they were. And through those gaps, in the brown-black shadows at the heart of the mist, was movement.

The gaps closed. After an eternity, the mist slowly smoothed and then settled back, behind the levee, and could no longer be seen. He wasn’t really sure when the thrumming of the air blended back into the ringing of his ears.

“Gone,” Rasali said with a sound like a sob.

A worker made one of the vivid jokes that come after fear; the others laughed, too loud. A woman ran up the levee and shouted down, “Farside levees are fine; ours are fine.” More laughter: people jogged off to Nearside to check on their families.

The back of Kit’s hand was burning. A flake of foam had settled and left an irregular mark. “I only saw mist,” Kit said. “Was there a Big One?”

Rasali shook herself, stern now but no longer angry or afraid. Kit had learned this about the Ferrys, that their emotions coursed through them and then dissolved. “It was in there. I’ve seen the mist boil like that before, but never so big. Nothing else could heave it up like that.”

“On purpose?”

“Oh, who knows? They’re a mystery, the Big Ones.” She met his eyes. “I hope your bridge is very high, Kit Meinem of Atyar.”

Kit looked to where the mist had been, but there was only sky. “The deck will be two hundred feet above the mist. High enough. I hope.”

Liu Breaker walked up to them, rubbing her hands on her leather leggings. “So, thats not something that happens at Hoic. Very exciting. What do you call that? How do we prevent it next time?”

Rasali looked at the smaller woman for a moment. “I don’t think you can. Big Ones come when they come.”

Liu said, “They do not always come?”

Rasali shook her head.

“Well, cold comfort is better than no comfort, as my Da says.”

Kit rubbed his temples; the headache remained. “We’ll continue.”

“Then you’ll have to be careful,” Rasali said. “Or you will kill us all.”

“The bridge will save many lives,” Kit said. Yours, eventually.

Rasali turned on her heel.

Kit did not follow her, not that day. Whether it was because subsequent explosions were smaller (“As small as they can be and still break rock,” Liu said), or because they were doing other things, the Big Ones did not return, though fish were plentiful for the three months it took to plan and plant the charges, and break the bedrock.

There was also a Meinem tradition of metal-working, and Meinem reeves, and many Meinems went into fields altogether different; but Kit had known from nearly the beginning that he would be one of the building Meinems. He loved the invisible architecture of construction, looking for a compromise between the vision in his head and the sites, the materials, and the people that would make them real. The challenge was to compromise as little as possible.

Architecture was studied at University. His tutor was a materials specialist, a woman who had directed construction on an incredible twenty-three bridges. Skossa Timt was so old that her skin and hair had faded together to the white of Gani marble, and she walked with a cane she had designed herself, for efficiency. She taught him much. Materials had rules, patterns of behavior: they bent or crumbled or cracked or broke under quantifiable stresses. They strengthened or destroyed one another. Even the best materials in the most efficient combinations did not last forever—she tapped her own forehead with one gnarled finger and laughed—but if he did his work right, they could last a thousand years or more. “But not forever,” Skossa said. “Do your best, but don’t forget this.”

* * *

The anchorages and pillars grew. Workers came from towns up and down each bank; and locals, idle or inclined to make money from outside, were hired on the spot. Generally the new people were welcome: they paid for rooms and food and goods of all sorts. The taverns settled in to making double and then triple batches of everything, threw out new wings and stables. Nearside accepted the new people easily, the only fights late at night when people had been drinking and flirting more than they should. Farside had fist fights more frequently, though they decreased steadily as skeptics gave in to the money that flowed into Farside, or to the bridge itself, its pillars too solid to be denied.

Farmers and husbanders sold their fields, and new buildings sprawled out from the towns’ hearts. Some were made of wattle and daub, slapped together above stamped-earth floors that still smelled of sheep dung; others, small but permanent, went up more slowly, as the bridge builders laid fieldstones and timber in their evenings and on rest days.

The new people and locals mixed together until it was hard to tell the one from the other, though the older townfolk kept scrupulous track of who truly belonged. For those who sought lovers and friends, the new people were an opportunity to meet someone other than the men and women they had known since childhood. Many met casual lovers, and several term-partnered with new people. There was even a Nearside wedding, between Kes Tiler and a black-eyed builder from far to the south called Jolite Deveren, whatever that meant.

Kit did not have lovers. Working every night until he fell asleep over his paperwork, he didn’t miss it much, except late on certain nights when thunderstorms left him restless and unnaturally alert, as if lightning ran under his skin. Some nights he thought of Rasali, wondered whether she was sleeping with someone that night or alone, and wondered if the storm had awakened her, left her restless as well.

Kit saw a fair amount of Rasali when they were both on the same side of the mist. She was clever and calm, and the only person who did not want to talk about the bridge all the time.

Kit did not forget what Rasali said about Valo. Kit had been a young man himself not so many years before, and he remembered what young men and women felt, the hunger to prove themselves against the world. Kit didn’t need Valo to accept the bridge—he was scarcely into adulthood and his only influence over the townspeople was based on his work—but Kit liked the youth, who had Rasali’s eyes and sometimes her effortless way of moving.

Valo started asking questions, first of the other workers and then of Kit. His boat-building experience meant the questions were good ones, and he already designed boats. Kit passed on the first things he had learned as a child on his father’s sites, and showed him the manipulation of the immense blocks, and the tricky balance of material and plan; the strength of will that allows a man to direct a thousand people toward a single vision. Valo was too honest not to recognize Kit’s mastery, and too competitive not to try and meet Kit on his own ground. He came more often to visit the construction sites.

After a season, Kit took him aside. “You could be a builder, if you wished.”

Valo flushed. “Build things? You mean, bridges?”

“Or houses, or granges, or retaining walls. Or bridges. You could make people’s lives better.”

“Change people’s lives?” He frowned suddenly. “No.”

“Our lives change all the time, whether we want them to or not,” Kit said. “Valo Ferry, you are smart. You are good with people. You learn quickly. If you were interested, I could start teaching you myself, or send you to Atyar to study there.”

“Valo Builder . . . ” he said, trying it out, then: “No.” But after that, whenever he had time free from ferrying or building boats, he was always to be found on the site. Kit knew that the answer would be different the next time he asked. There was for everything a possibility, an invisible pattern that could be made manifest given work and the right materials. Kit wrote to an old friend or two, finding contacts that would help Valo when the time came.

The pillars and anchorages grew. Winter came, and summer, and a second winter. There were falls, a broken arm, two sets of cracked ribs. Someone on Farside had her toes crushed when one of the stones slipped from its rollers and she lost the foot. The bridge was on schedule, even after the delay caused by the slow rock-breaking. There were no problems with payroll or the Department of Roads or Empire, and only minor, manageable issues with the occasionally disruptive representatives from Triple or the local governors.

Kit knew he was lucky.

The first death came during one of Valo’s visits.

It was early in the second winter of the bridge, and Kit had been in Farside for three months. He had learned that winter meant gray skies and rain and sometimes snow. Soon they would have to stop the heavy work for the season. Still, it had been a good day, and the workers had lifted and placed almost a hundred stones.

Valo had returned after three weeks at Nearside, building a boat for Jenna Blue-fish. Kit found him staring up at the slim tower through a rain so faint it felt like fog. The black opening of the roadway arch looked out of place, halfway up the pillar.

Valo said, “You’re a lot farther along since I was here last. How tall now?”

Kit got this question a lot. “A hundred and five feet, more or less. A third finished.”

Valo smiled, shook his head. “Hard to believe it’ll stay up.”

“There’s a tower in Atyar, black basalt and iron, five hundred feet. Five times this tall.”

“It just looks so delicate,” Valo said. “I know what you said, that most of the stress on the pillar is compression, but it still looks as though it’ll snap in half.”

“After a while, you’ll have more experience with suspension bridges and it will seem less . . . unsettling. Would you like to see the progress?”

Valo’s eyes brightened. “May I? I don’t want to get in the way.”

“I haven’t been up yet today, and they’ll be finishing up soon. Scaffold or stairwell?”

Valo looked at the scaffolding against one face of the pillar, the ladders tied into place within it, and shivered. “I can’t believe people go up that. Stairs, I think.”

Kit followed Valo. The steep internal stair was three feet wide and endlessly turning, five steps up and then a platform; turn to the left, and then five more steps and turn. Eventually, the stairs would at need be lit by lanterns set into alcoves at every third turning, but today Kit and Valo felt their way up, fingers trailing along the cold, damp stone, a small lantern in Valo’s hand.

The stairwell smelled of water and earth and the thin smell of the burning lamp oil. Some of the workers hated the stairs and preferred the ladders outside, but Kit liked it. For these few moments, he was part of his bridge, a strong bone buried deep in flesh he had created.

They came out at the top and paused a moment to look around the unfinished courses, and the black silhouette of the winch against the dulling sky. The last few workers were breaking down the shear-legs, which had been used to move blocks around the pillar. A lantern hung from a pole jammed into one of the holes the laborers would fill with rods and molten iron, later in construction. Kit nodded to them as Valo went to an edge to look down.

“It is wonderful,” Valo said, smiling. “Being high like this—you can look right down into people’s kitchen yards. Look, Teli Carpenter has a pig smoking.”

“You don’t need to see it to know that,” Kit said dryly. “I’ve been smelling it for two days.”

Valo snorted. “Can you see as far as White Peak yet?”

“On a clear day, yes,” Kit said. “I was up here two—”

A heavy sliding sound and a scream; Kit whirled to see one of the workers on her back, one of the shearleg’s timbers across her chest. Loreh Tanner, a local. Kit ran the few steps to Loreh and dropped beside her. One man, the man who had been working with her, said, “It slipped—oh Loreh, please hang on,” but Kit could see it was futile. She was pinned to the pillar, chest flattened, one shoulder visibly dislocated, unconscious, her breathing labored. Black foam bloomed from her lips in the lantern’s bad light.

Kit took her cold hand. “It’s all right, Loreh. It’s all right.” It was a lie and in any case she could not hear him, but the others would. “Get Hall,” one of the workers said, and Kit nodded: Hall was a surgeon. And then, “And get Obal, someone. Where’s her husband?” Footsteps ran down the stairs and were lost into the hiss of rain just beginning and someone’s crying and Loreh’s wet breathing.

Kit glanced up. His chest heaving, Valo stood staring at the body. Kit said to him, “Help find Hall,” and when the boy did not move, he repeated it, his voice sharper. Valo said nothing, did not stop looking at Loreh until he spun and ran down the stairs. Kit heard shouting, far below, as the first messenger ran toward the town.

Loreh took a last shuddering breath and died.

Kit looked at the others around Loreh’s body. The man holding Loreh’s other hand pressed his face against it, crying helplessly. The two other workers left here knelt at her feet, a man and a woman, huddled close though they were not a couple. “Tell me,” he said.

“I tried to stop it from hitting her,” the woman said. She cradled one arm: obviously broken, though she didn’t seem to have noticed. “But it just kept falling.”

“She was tired; she must have gotten careless,” the man said, and the broken-armed woman said, “I don’t want to think about that sound.” Words fell from them like blood from a cut.

Kit listened. This was what they needed right now, to speak and to be heard. So he listened, and when the others came, Loreh’s husband white-lipped and angry-eyed, and the surgeon Obal and six other workers, Kit listened to them as well, and gradually moved them down through the pillar and back toward the warm lights and comfort of Farside.

Kit had lost people before, and it was always like this. There would be tears tonight, and anger at him and at his bridge, anger at fate for permitting this. There would be sadness, and nightmares. There would be lovemaking, and the holding close of children and friends and dogs—affirmations of life in the cold wet night.

His tutor at University had said, during one of her frequent digressions from the nature of materials and the principles of architecture, “Things will go wrong.”

It was winter, but in spite of the falling snow they walked slowly to the coffee-house, as Skossa looked for purchase for her cane. She continued, “On long projects, you’ll forget that you’re not one of them. But if there’s an accident? You’re slapped in the face with it. Whatever you’re feeling? Doesn’t matter. Guilty, grieving, alone, worried about the schedule. None of it. What matters is their feelings. So listen to them. Respect what they’re going through.”

She paused then, tapped her cane against the ground thoughtfully. “No, I lie. It does matter, but you will have to find your own strength, your own resources elsewhere.”

“Friends?” Kit said doubtfully. He knew already that he wanted a career like his father’s. He would not be in the same place for more than a few years at a time.

“Yes, friends.” Snow collected on Skossa’s hair, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Kit, I worry about you. You’re good with people, I’ve seen it. You like them. But there’s a limit for you.” He opened his mouth to protest, but she held up her hand to silence him. “I know. You do care. But inside the framework of a project. Right now it’s your studies. Later it’ll be roads and bridges. But people around you—their lives go on outside the framework. They’re not just tools to your hand, even likable tools. Your life should go on, too. You should have more than roads to live for. Because if something does go wrong, you’ll need what youre feeling to matter, to someone somewhere, anyway.”

Kit walked through Farside toward the Red Lurcher. Most people were home or at one of the taverns by now, a village turned inward; but he heard footsteps running behind him. He turned quickly—it was not unknown for people reeling from a loss to strike at whatever they blamed, and sometimes that was a person.

It was Valo. Though his fists were balled, Kit could tell immediately that he was angry but not looking for a fight. For a moment, Kit wished he didn’t need to listen, that he could just go back to his rooms and sleep for a thousand hours; but there was a stricken look in Valo’s eyes: Valo, who looked so much like Rasali. He hoped that Rasali and Loreh hadn’t been close.

Kit said gently, “Why aren’t you inside? It’s cold.” As he said it, he realized suddenly that it was cold; the rain had settled into a steady cold flow.

“I will, I was, I mean, but I came out for a second, because I thought maybe I could find you, because—”

The boy was shivering, too. “Where are your friends? Let’s get you inside. It’ll be better there.”

“No,” he said. “I have to know first. It’s like this always? If I do this, build things, it’ll happen for me? Someone will die?”

“It might. It probably will, eventually.”

Valo said an unexpected thing. “I see. It’s just that she had just gotten married.”

The blood on Loreh’s lips, the wet sound of her crushed chest as she took her last breaths—“Yes,” Kit said. “She was.”

“I just . . . I had to know if I need to be ready for this.” It seemed callous, but Ferrys were used to dying, to death. “I guess I’ll find out.”

“I hope you don’t have to.” The rain was getting heavier. “You should be inside, Valo.”

Valo nodded. “Rasali—I wish she were here. She could help maybe. You should go in, too. You’re shivering.”

Kit watched him go. Valo had not invited him to accompany him back into the light and the warmth; he knew better than to expect that, but for a moment he had permitted himself to hope otherwise.

Kit slipped through the stables and through the back door at The Bitch. Wisdon Innkeep, hands full of mugs for the taproom, saw him and nodded, face unsmiling but not hostile. That was good, Kit thought: as good as it would get, tonight.

He entered his room and shut the door, leaned his back to it as if holding the world out. Someone had already been in his room: a lamp had been lit against the darkness, a fire laid, and bread and cheese and a tankard of ale set by the window to stay cool.

He began to cry.

Copyright © 2011 Kij Johnson

 

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"THE MAN WHO BRIDGED THE MIST" by Kij Johnson copyright © 2011 with permission of the author.

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