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The Man Who Bridged the Mist By Kij Johnson

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The Man Who Bridged the Mist

By Kij Johnson

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 in 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 curvetted 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. “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 on this side, 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 Hart. But you wouldn’t like The Hart, sir,” she added. “It’s not nearly as nice as The Fish here. Are you looking for a room?”

“I hope 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 she feels it’s right, if you follow me. But you can ask, I suppose.”

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

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 Hart 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 and clamped it in place. 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. He shook his head. “No, not today, I don’t think.”

“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 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 that your deliveries would be here ‘til the iron rusted away.”

Valo frowned. “Jenner Ellar’s not taking over?”

“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 problems with 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 though deciding whether to be annoyed.

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

“Of course,” he said.

“But not the river,” she said.

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

“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 garden’s patrons. She slapped hands with one, 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? Which department had overseen it, or had it been the locals? The levee was treeless. The only feature was a slender wood tower hung with flags on the ridge, 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. 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 mist reflecting the morning sun.

Kit had never seen the mist river itself, though he bridged mist before this, two simple post-and-beam structures over narrow gorges closer to the capital. From his work in Atyar, he knew what was to be known. It was not water nor anything like. It formed somehow in the deep gorge of the great riverbed before him. It found its way some hundreds of miles north, upstream 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 a thousand miles south, to form 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 downstream, 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 fishskin. 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.”

Channeled by the levees, a steady light breeze eased down from the north. 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 this 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 and translucent in others. The boundary 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 I feel it. 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. That’s 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 and the mud had dried to cracked dust. The air smelled like old rags left too long in a pail. 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 coracles fashioned of leather stretched on frames, all 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. He could see the dock’s pilings clearly. They were not vertical but had been set at an angle to make 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’s 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 fishskin. 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 Hart.”

By the next morning, when Kit came downstairs to break his fast on flatbread and pepper-rubbed water-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 smaller 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 ropemakers, and performed tests on their fishskin ropes and cables, which turned out even stronger than he had hoped, with excellent resistance to rot and to 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 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. The river generally dropped in its bed each day under the sun and rose after dark, though it wasn’t consistent.

The winds were more predictable. Hedged between the levees, they streamed southward each morning and northward 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. 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 here in untidy heaps. Huge dismantled sheerlegs 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 eyed him incuriously, Kit found himself bowing. “Forgive the intrusion,” he said and laughed: too old to be talking to sheep.

The test pit was still open, with a ladder on the ground nearby. Weeds clung when he moved the ladder as though 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. Some twenty feet down, the pit’s bottom looked like the walls, but when he crouched 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.

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