S1E7 So Close, So Far

With 60% of the votes, the story continues on the second path. The group get closer to their goal as they drive to the Malahen where the archives are and discuss how best to access the records they are looking for.

By the end of the episode, three choices will be presented to you. Vote on twitter or on theheartpyre.com for whichever path you want the story to continue on.

Intro music: Lonely Dusty Trail by Jon Presstone

Logo Design: Mars Lauderbaugh

S1E7 Transcript

Sayaf had relented and finally written the letter, explaining where they could find his contact in the plains while writing it. Rena thanked Sayaf profusely and said they would repay him when they got back, but he simply waved her off, saying that writing down a few words could hardly be considered work. Asha pocketed the letter and so Rena had somehow gained another companion on her journey. She thought that at least she wasn’t alone, that having company would make the passage of time bearable, that if the grief got too difficult to deal with again at least this time she would have someone to talk to. Although her new companion didn’t seem that keen on talking. As they headed out of Sayaf’s tent, Asha let Rodrick and Rena take the lead on where to go and silently followed them once they had decided to retrace their steps. 

Rena didn’t want to stay in the camp any longer than necessary, but she also didn’t quite know whether they needed to go look for Logan or whether to wait for him somewhere. Who even knew how long it would take him to talk to this Cass person. 

They somehow managed to find Logan’s tent again. Rena looked around and up into the trees to see if they were being observed, whether Kalani was keeping an eye on them or not, but besides a group of kids’ playing down the road, there was no one around.

“Do we wait here or go back to the caravan?” she asked Rodrick, peaking past the tent into the forest to see if she could recognise the way they had come from. “Do you think we could even find our way back?”

“The sun is still out. It might take us a while but I don’t think we would get completely lost. As long as we can find the road, we will find the spot where we left the caravan.”

“Hmmm.” Rena looked back down both sides of the road, unsure about Rodrick’s statement that they wouldn’t get lost. He wasn’t from around here, even if she didn’t know where he had grown up, she doubted it had been anywhere rural, so what did he know about getting lost in a forest. You could walk for hours or even days before stumbling upon a road if you went in the wrong direction, and if you weren’t careful you could end up walking in circles and never find your way out at all.

A figure appeared to their right, coming straight at them with determination. Rena tensed up before she recognised that it was Logan, but the speed with which he approached them and the expression on his face only heightened her discomfort.

“Aah, there he is,” Rodrick said with a smile when he noticed Logan, although his chipper expression quickly vanished.

“Let’s go,” Logan said when he came up to them, walking right past them and disappearing between two tents to their left.

Rena’s eyes met Rodrick’s. She raised an eyebrow in concern but didn’t say anything. Her eyes quickly darted to the end of the road where Logan had come from to see if anyone was following him but no one was there. She didn’t have much time to wonder what was going on, as Asha slipped past Rodrick and her to follow Logan as if nothing was wrong or even out of the ordinary, and so they had to hurry to keep up with the other two, slipping in between the two tents to see that Logan wasn’t waiting for them and had already headed into the forest. 

It took them half the time to get back to the caravan than it had taken them to get to the camp. Rena had wanted to catch up to Logan to ask him what was going on but he was walking with such a speed that she periodically had to start jogging to just keep up with her group, and so she only caught up to him when they reached the caravan. She had to lean against the wagon and take in deep breaths before she managed to talk. 

“What’s going on?” she finally managed to wheeze out.

“We shouldn’t stay here for too long,” Logan replied, shuffling around nervously, his gaze fixed on the spot where they had just emerged from.

Vincent jumped down from the driver’s seat and walked up to them, going from one person to the next to sniff at them. Rena pushed herself away from the caravan again and crouched down to greet the dog, thankful that no one had discovered the caravan’s hiding spot and hurt him. 

“What did you do this time?” Asha asked, her eyes fixed on Logan.

“Nothing,” Logan blurted out, throwing his arms out to the side. “None of your business. It’s a private affair. Why are you here anyway?”

“I wasn’t going to let Sayaf go to the plains with some strangers. Why did you send them to him, you know he’s out of the business.”

“I was meant to come with them, ok, but then Kalani found us so I sent them off without me. Can we open the caravan now? We should really be on our way. And I know that Sayaf’s out of business, but he still knows people so I wanted to get some information out of him, and since you’re here I assume they managed to get that info without me.”

Rodrick was standing next to the caravan with his hands on his hips, breathing heavily through his open mouth. When his breathing had calmed down he rummaged around in his coat and slipped out the key to the caravan. He walked over to the back door and unlocked it with a loud thunk.

“Ok great,” Logan said and bounded over to the door. “The plains, you said? That’s gonna take a while, I don’t know if we can get there before nightfall. Maybe we’ll have to take a rest somewhere. Rodrick, how far can this thing go? How does it even work? Can it just go on forever or does it need a break? I’m sure we can take a break in some village, not sure what you need to refill it though, but if it’s just coal we can find that anywhere.”

“We should be good for the duration of our journey,” Rodrick answered as he opened the door and stepped into the wagon. Logan was standing right behind him and had the doorframe been slightly wider he would have surely tried to squeeze his way past Rodrick. “I have water and coal to refill the tank on my own. We will just have to take a little break on the side of the road somewhere.”

“Why are you so nervous?” Asha asked Logan, coming to stand next to him.

Rena ruffled the dog’s head one last time before standing back up and joining the others. She tried to peer into the caravan to see what Rodrick was doing but all she could see between Logan and Asha’s shoulders was that he had crouched down in front of something that kind of looked like an oven. 

“I’m not nervous,” Logan shot out, turning around to frown at Asha. She didn’t answer, just kept staring at him until he continued talking. “I’m not nervous, I just want to get out of here. Yeah, ok, maybe things didn’t pan out the way I thought they would, and maybe the discussion got heated, and you know me, sometimes I say stuff I probably shouldn’t have, but I was in the right so I’m not going to apologise for it. And if Cass can accept that then Deacon should also be able to, but he’s stubborn and a moron so I just want to get out of here before he gets it into his head that the discussion isn’t over.”

“So we are running away because one of your deals blew up? Why am I not surprised?”

“Will you be ok?” Rena asked him at the same time with genuine concern.

“Yeah I’ll be fine,” Logan replied, waving Rena’s concerns away. “And the deal didn’t blow up because of me. I told Deacon it was unlikely to go the way he wanted it to, and lo and behold, his plan didn’t work out, and now he’s blaming me for selling him false hope, but I literally warned him, so absolutely none of this is my fault.”

“Excuse me,” Rodrick muttered as he slid past them, finally clearing the way into the wagon for Logan, who didn’t miss the opportunity to slip away for the discussion.

Asha eyed the wagon in distrust but slipped in behind him without any comments.

“Do you want to sit in the front with me?” Rodrick asked Rena, leaning down to pet the dog.

“Mhm.” She nodded eagerly, thinking that the long ride would be much more bearable in the front than inside the loud, stuffy wagon, even if the front seat was uncomfortable.

                                                ~~~

It hadn’t been often that Rena had travelled this far in one day. She had been at her aunt’s house three times in her life, which was beyond Mellahen, the capital of the province, so technically she had seen the capital and the accumulation of houses surrounding it which everyone called the plains before, but only in passing. People were barely allowed to get near the fortress and her father had always called the plains a lawless place filled with nothing but leeches, so there had never been a reason for her to dream of going there. She wondered what it was really like, the fortress filled with books and documents and the clerks who looked after all of it. No one besides the administrator and her family lived in the fortress, not even their servants, so everyone else had had to build their own residences outside of the castle. People from all around the province and even farther away came to the plains hoping they could get a job in Mellahen, but of course not everyone could get one. The lucky of the unlucky ones managed to find a job in the plains, because people still needed to eat and clothe themselves. The truly unlucky ones had to find other means to keep themselves alive. And according to her father, there were a lot of truly unlucky ones.

The group only stopped once on their way to the capital so Rodrick could refill the tank and they could all eat something. Thankfully Rodrick’s wagon was filled with food, probably more food than Rena’s parents had ever had in their house at any one point. With every new item he pulled out of one drawer or another, Rodrick explained to the rest of them what exactly it was and where it had come from. Rena was shocked that he wasn’t scared it would all spoil before he could eat it, but apparently he had specifically selected all the items for how long they could stay edible and had set up a whole system to remember what needed to be eaten when. In the end, she had eaten a piece of bread Rodrick had bought only a few days ago with a piece of dark sausage she could barely bite through. 

Rodrick hadn’t stopped at only talking about the food. During their ride he told Rena all about his journey. How he ended up in Velashta, the people he had met on the way, how he had initially set out to write down the history of agricultural practices and which tools people were using to help them in the fields. She wasn’t really able to imagine why anyone would be interested in those things, in what was such a mundane, every-day thing for her, but he spoke with such a passion about the creativity and ingenuity of people that she found herself listening with great joy to all his stories.

Night had fallen long before they reached Mellahen so when the road finally widened and they emerged from the woods onto the wide, empty expanse of the plains, the lights of the make-shift city were clearly visible ahead of them.

“Do you think we can actually find the truth here?” Rena asked, staring straight ahead at the orange dots of light that slowly came closer to them. Rodrick sighed heavily before he answered.

“The entire truth? Probably not. But I think we can at least find the beginning of it. Or a few crumbs that will lead us in the right direction.”

“I don’t even really know what we are looking for. Do you think they already have a file on Oceansthrow? Maybe they are still investigating it and haven’t found out much. Do you think we should talk to the guards about it first? Maybe they can help us out after all.”

“We could try, but as I’ve told you, they tend to be rather secretive with all their information, especially towards people they don’t deem important enough. I think they would rather err on the safe side with trusting strangers, because you never know what people’s true intentions are. But who knows, we might find someone who takes pity on us, but I’m uncertain whether it would be a good idea. They might deem you too young and just send you to a relative, and then you might never find out what the actual truth is. I would remain cautious for now until we know more. We can always go talk to them once we know whether the incidents are just horrible accidents or not.”

Rena nodded slowly and looked around, her heart heavy thinking about their journey ahead. She didn’t know what she wished for, whether it would alleviate her grief more knowing the village’s disappearance was just a cruel twist of fate or if someone was responsible for it, if someone deliberately set the fire and watched as they all died. At least then there would have been a reason behind the tragedy, something she could find out about and try to understand and someone to condemn. Even if that would mean someone this evil actually existed in this world. 

“So do we just go to the archives and search around there? Will they let us in if we don’t know what we are looking for?”

“I doubt it. If the archives operate the same here as they do in the citadel there are different levels of confidentiality, so one decree might not allow us to see all of the records. We will probably need to figure out what we are looking for and where we can find it before we head into the archives, but first we need to talk to Sayaf’s contact so we know whether we can get a decree in the first place, and which kind of decree that would be.”

Rena took in a long breath and sighed heavily.

“Don’t worry, it isn’t a hopeless endeavour, we will find a way to these records.”

Rodrick patted her on her knee to comfort her but Rena couldn’t shake the feeling of uncertainty weighing on her. The plan to just find the records and let those tell them what happened had sounded so easy and clear before they were faced with the actual reality of accessing those records, if they even existed. But she had to stay hopeful that they would find something, because the alternative was that they had come all of this way for nothing and she didn’t even know how to approach her quest from another angle. 

As they came closer to the make-shift city she started recognising buildings. Close to the road that led into the city there were larger buildings, although out here they looked fragile and decrepit, as if they had been built in less than a week without any regard for comfort or longevity. Behind these houses, speckled across the grassy field, were smaller houses, although they could barely be called houses, more like shacks that had been built in a day. No road led to these houses and no lights were on in them. Rena couldn’t even see what was beyond those buildings, but she imagined that they looked like the tents she had seen in the city of Rancor, something that could be moved at any moment, inhabited by people who didn’t have anything but who still wanted to try their luck in Mellahen.

Even though night had already fallen the streets were still alive. People were standing around talking and laughing, and she even saw a man get thrown out of a house, the assailant stomping out after the man to continue their fight. Rena’s body tensed and she quickly looked away, feeling grateful that she was in a moving vehicle and not walking past them on foot. As the caravan drove forth she could see things dart away from them in the shadows between the houses, feral dogs and rats and other rodents. On a crate between two houses she saw a fox. It didn’t scamper away like the rest of the animals. It was just sitting there, facing the street, looking right at her. Rena turned around to look at it as they drove past but it disappeared too quickly behind the corner of the house. She wasn’t used to foxes being this unbothered by human activity, but she had heard that animals behaved differently in cities, that they lost their fear of humans and that that was why cities were so dirty and smelled rancid, at least that was what her father had told her. She wondered if foxes here even let people come close to them, whether she could find one that would let her pet it. 

Rodrick drove them further into the city and the street started branching out to the left and right. Rena thought she could see the outline of the fortress in the dark ahead of them, or at least a pattern of lights that might indicate it. The further they drove though, the sturdier the buildings and the road got. By now, the houses facing the road were shops and other businesses, although most of them were closed at this time of day. Some of the buildings were still made of wood, but slowly more and more started to be stone houses, as if people had committed to remaining in this city. At first it looked like life had died down here, that fewer people were hanging around outside, but Rena quickly realised that people had just wandered away from the main road and were now standing around on the side roads.

Apparently Rodrick knew where he was taking them because he took a left turn and continued further down the road until they came upon another fork in the road where they turned to the right and landed on a narrower road. They didn’t stay on this road for very long, however, as Rodrick took another left which landed them in an open square between a tall building and a lower, wooden building that resembled a stable. 

“Have you been here before?” Rena asked and looked up at the high building rising up next to them. She counted four floors, maybe five seeing as the windows weren’t all in neat rows. The wall had different shades of white and beige as if the upper floors had been added over the years. 

“Just for a little while,” Rodrick answered, driving the caravan up to the other end of the square. He pulled a lever and the caravan sputtered to a stop. “But I know that they have comfortable rooms here that don’t cost too much.”

Her head whipped around, her eyes wide.

“I don’t have any money.” She hadn’t even thought about that fact before. She had never needed to have money on her. The few times where she had been out of town she had been with her parents or another relative, and they had always paid for her. 

“Don’t worry about that, I have enough for the both of us,” Rodrick answered, patting her on the knee before standing up. 

“Thank you,” Rena replied, standing up and following him down the steps. “I can pay you back. I can find a job in town here somewhere. Or I can come with you where you live afterwards so you don’t have to wait here for me to have all the money together.”

“Child, I’m an old man who spent all his years working in the citadel for the people in power, I have enough money and resources to pay for our room and board for the next few months.”

He flashed her a soft smile and Rena nodded slowly, although she didn’t exactly feel comfortable with the thought of accepting his money and never paying him back. She would just have to keep count of how much she owed him on her own and pay him back once everything was over and she could find a real job.

“Finally! Freedom!” Logan cried out as he threw the door open and burst out of the caravan. “I couldn’t even hear my own thoughts anymore with all that noise.”

He stretched his arms out towards the sky and then bent down to the ground, swinging his arms back and forth.

Asha climbed out behind him and strode right up to Rena and Rodrick, craning her neck from side to side. 

“Why does your vehicle have to be this loud?” Logan whined and joined the rest of the group. “What is wrong with the normal kind with horses? Why can’t you just have one of those? This is torture. I can’t believe that I was intrigued by it this morning. Are you so old that you don’t hear the noise anymore, is that it? And the vibration is good for your aching bones? I’m too young to get shaken around like this.”

“We need to discuss how we’ll proceed,” Asha said stone-faced, interrupting Logan’s tirade.

“Yes, of course,” Rodrick said, looking quite amused by Logan’s misery. “I suppose it is too late to go looking for your uncle’s contact at this moment. Maybe we should take the evening to decide what our next step could be.”

“The straightforward path is to visit Emmson here in the morning and see how he can help us,” Asha replied. “We can form a plan around what he can offer us afterwards.”

“But wouldn’t it be more convincing if we already knew what we were looking for?” Rena interjected. “Do any of us even know the layout of the archives?”

“Never been there,” Logan replied while the others just shook their heads.

“Then how would we know which kind of decree Emmson should give us? Maybe we need to figure that out before going to him.”

[Logan] “What if we pretend we’re some super important person and just request access to the entirety of the records? Rodrick, you’ve got the right face to be some rich merchant who demands to see some highly confidential documents to have the upper hand on a deal, we can just spin something around that.”

[Rena] “Would that work? What if they find out we’re lying?”

[Logan] “You just need to go in with enough confidence and insist that you need to enter the archives as quickly as possible because you’re too busy from being important and whatnot. Just pretend you’re really upset when they suggest they need to check out who you are before they let you in, I’ve done that a million times. You just need to be out before they figure out you’re lying.”

“It would probably take us some time to find what we are looking for so I’m not sure your plan of running in and getting out before they figure things out is going to work,” Asha objected.

[Logan] “Look, we just need to figure out a plan that holds tight for like a day or two. Use some real names and events, something that isn’t from around here so they can’t just ask around in the neighbourhood. And then if we’re arrogant enough they’ll either believe us or be too afraid to offend us and we’ll have at least a few hours to do whatever we want.”

[Rodrick] “We might get a lot of attention if we pretend to be someone important. I don’t want the administrator to be aware of our presence.”

[Logan] “Alternatively, we can just pretend we’re working in the archives. Pay off some folks to get some uniforms for a day and hope no one tries to recognise us. Something low level that gets recycled often enough, like guards or runners or something like that.”

S1E6 The City Of Rancor

With 50% of the votes, the story continues yet again on the third path. The group splits as Logan goes to the Sovereign Outcast with Kalani and Rodrick and Rena go to find Logan’s contact to get a decree to enter the archives.

By the end of the episode, three choices will be presented to you. Vote on twitter or below for whichever path you want the story to continue on. You have until the 14th of March to vote.

Intro music: Lonely Dusty Trail by Jon Presstone

Logo Design: Mars Lauderbaugh

S1E6 Transcript

“Why? What does the Sovereign Outcast want from me?” Logan asked Kalani, squinting at her in distrust as he took a small step back. “I haven’t been here in forever. Whatever happened, it wasn’t me.”

Kalani had already half turned around to walk the group to their new destination but stopped in her tracks, staring at Logan with a raised eyebrow.

“They’ll tell you once you’re there.”

They stared at each other for a while, unblinking.

“The Sovereign Outcast doesn’t have to justify themselves in front of you,” Kalani said and finally broke the silence. “If they want to talk to you, you go and talk.”

“Oh yeah, since when do they act like they’re on the royal council? Are we becoming like our enemies now? Next thing you’ll do is accuse me of treason or something like that.”

“Why do you have to be so complicated?” Kalani groaned and rubbed a hand over her face. “Cass just wants to talk to you for ten minutes, it isn’t going to kill you to do one thing someone asks of you.”

“And since when is it unreasonable to ask what they want to talk about?” Logan burst out, throwing his hands out to the side. “I thought we were all equal here.”

“Oh my stars, I don’t know what they want to talk about, they didn’t give me a detailed list of everything you have ever fucked up and all the consequences that came from it. You know yourself best, pick whichever failure of yours is the most recent and most likely to inconvenience Cass.”

“Alright, alright,” Logan put his hands up in defence. “No need to get personal. I just wanted to be prepared for my big audience with their holy majesty.”

Kalani closed her eyes and took in a long breath.

“Just shut up and follow me,” she growled and turned around.

“Excuse me,” Rodrick asked and Kalani stopped instantly, slowly turning around to stare him down. “I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you further but this affair sounds like a personal matter which might take some time to resolve, and we wouldn’t want to be a hindrance to the proper advancement of this debate.”

Kalani didn’t answer, just kept staring at Rodrick, annoyance written all over her.

“And, uhm,” Rena added, desperately wanting to break the tension that was building around them. “I’m sure the Sovereign Outcast has more important things to do than to talk to us. I mean, we aren’t anyone important and if it’s just to give us an official welcome, then I think you seem like someone with a high enough position to do that, and you already did, so I don’t think it would be necessary for them to spend their valuable time on us. And you’ve seen us so you can report to them about who we are if that is what they are concerned about. And if you are looking for us afterwards, we’ll just be somewhere in town, I’m sure we stick out enough that everyone will notice where we’re going, so we won’t be too hard to find. If all that is ok with you?”

“They’ve got a point. Several even.” Logan added, pointing a finger between Rodrick and Rena.

Kalani looked at Rena for a while before blinking and raising her eyebrows in resignation, shaking her head slightly.

“Fine,” she sighed. “But if I hear about any of you doing anything even remotely weird or unusual I will find you and drag you to Cass myself. Are we understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Rena answered while Rodrick simply nodded.

“Let’s go,” she told Logan and turned around for the third time.

“Let me just hug them goodbye real quick,” he said and darted over to Rena, trapping her in a tight embrace before she even had the time to lift her arms.

From over his shoulder she could see Kalani stop and her muscles tense, but she didn’t turn around.

“Go find Sayaf, he’s an old man living in a wooden shack near the bakery. Follow the smell of bread and you’ll find him. Tell him I sent you,” Logan whispered into her ear, before patting her on the back and letting go, turning to Rodrick to hug him tight as well.

He turned away from them, jogged up to Kalani and patted her hard on the shoulder as he passed her, not waiting for her to catch up before disappearing down the road.

Rena watched them leave before turning to Rodrick.

“He told me to go look for a man named Sayaf in a shack near a bakery,” she told him.

“Ah, that makes sense of what he told me,” he replied. “He mentioned cornflower blue drapes on the shack and that if the man doesn’t believe us or doesn’t want to cooperate we should remind him of something called Nura’s pendant.

Rena nodded and looked around, but she couldn’t see anything above the tents surrounding her. She tried sniffing the air but all she could smell was the forest.

“Maybe if we start strolling through the camp we will find the bakery,” Rodrick said and looked at both ends of the road. “Let’s just start going this way,” he said and headed down the road Logan and Kalani had disappeared down, the one where Rena had seen the group of men earlier, although they must have disappeared at some point during their discussion with Kalani since the road was now completely empty.

Rena didn’t exactly feel safe walking down these streets, especially without a guide who knew the people here and who could tell them which places they needed to avoid. But for now the street was empty and maybe they would find the man they were looking for without bumping into other people. She didn’t even know what to expect from this Sayaf person they were looking for. Would someone who had connections at the provincial guard really live in a town like this? Or was he about to sell them a fake decree? He would probably not give them what they needed without asking for something in return and she didn’t know how they were supposed to negotiate with him if Logan wasn’t here. She hadn’t even thought about how far she would agree to go to get this information but it dawned on her that she would have to make a decision quickly. What could she even offer in return? She barely owned anything, and she definitely didn’t own anything of value. Maybe the man would ask them to work for him and this was how her life of crime started. She wouldn’t be allowed to refuse any jobs and would be indebted to him until he deemed their exchange equal, even if that took years.

She shuddered at the thoughts running wild in her mind, shaking her head to focus back on reality. They could just decline the offer if it didn’t seem fair to them and find another way to access the records. This was just the start of their journey, they would find other paths to take to get to the truth. There was no need to sell her future to some shady criminal.

Rena hurried to catch up with Rodrick, not wanting to be far from him. At first they didn’t meet anyone on the streets even though they could hear people going about their lives in the tents. At one point they passed a tent where the flap had been rolled up and as she glanced inside she saw four people sitting on the ground around a low table. Her gaze washed over them until her eyes locked onto the eyes of the woman sitting at the far-end of the table. Rena quickly averted her eyes, heat rushing up to her cheeks. Logan had told them not to stare at anyone. How could she have let her curiosity get the better of her? Her heart raced in her chest as she waited for the woman to climb out of the tent and yell after them, but no one came and the further away from the tent they got the more she calmed back down. 

Her heartbeat sped up again for an instant when Rodrick suddenly stopped in the middle of the road, thinking that maybe he had noticed her blunder and that he wanted to reprimand her for it.

“Do you smell that?” he asked, frowning and sniffing the air.

She was confused for a second until she remembered what they were actually looking for. She smelled the air in return. She had to close her eyes to truly pick out the sweet smell of bread in the air, but it was undeniably there.

“We’re getting closer,” she beamed at him.

He looked around, searching for the bakery, so she did the same, hoping that she would at least see some smoke over the tents, but she still couldn’t see very far because of the trees. 

“Let’s go this way,” Rodrick said and walked towards a gap between two tents even though it barely looked like a path that was meant to be taken. 

They had to clamber past trees and over some ropes that had been used to anchor the tents to the ground and Rena was horrified at the thought that she might stumble and fall onto one of the tents and break someone’s home, and what the resulting rage would mean for her. They managed to reach the next road without any slips and Rena took a deep breath when she finally had enough space to put both her feet next to each other comfortably again. This road was busier than the one they had been on before. Some of the bigger tents had tables in front of them with people standing around looking at the things that were lying on the tables and Rena realised that those must be stores. As she looked around she saw other tents with letters written on them or signs attached to a tree nearby. The tent they were standing next to proclaimed itself to be a message and package delivery service with various prices depending on which province of the kingdom had to be reached. The tent next to that was selling candles and rudimentary oil lamps.

“Isn’t this fascinating?” Rodrick exclaimed, eyes wide in wonder as he looked over the people and the tents.

“They just look like shops to me,” Rena answered, unsure what was so extraordinary about people selling goods and services. Sure, they might not be in wooden or brick houses like most villages were, but these people had to get all their stuff from somewhere she supposed. It would definitely be a hassle to have to walk out of the forest and to another town every time they needed some pots or new clothes. Especially if the guards were looking for them out there.

She smelled the air again and this time she could clearly distinguish the smell of bread, even if more and more different smells mingled themselves into the scent of the forest. She looked around until she saw a column of smoke rise between two trees.

“There!” she called out, pointing towards it.

They hurried towards it and reached what could be described as a bakery. It wasn’t much more than a small, white dome-shaped oven in between two areas with tables where tarps had been fastened to poles to act as rudimentary roofs. On the tables on the left side three people, two middle aged women and a boy younger than Rena, were preparing dough, while on the other side the tables were covered in baskets filled with bread and rolls and pastries. No one was paying any attention to the few people who walked up to the table on the right and just picked items out of the baskets, as if it didn’t matter if people paid for the bread or not. 

“Blue drapes,” Rodrick muttered as he turned around on himself and slowly inspected the tents around them. Rena kept looking at the bakery, at how the women were telling the boy how to knead the dough, at the streak of white flour on the boy’s face, at the speed with which the rightmost woman kneaded and shaped the dough. The memories of her parents in their own bakery came flooding back to her and suddenly everything was too much, the smell of the bread and pastry, the motions of the baking, the people who just stole the goods out of the baskets right in front of the bakers as if they had no shame.

“There it is!” Rodrick exclaimed and hurried away from her, leaving her standing, staring at what she used to have, what she would never have again, a mother teaching their child how to perfectly shape a loaf of bread and cut flower patterns onto it.

Her mouth felt dry, her tongue heavy and swollen in her mouth, the tips of her fingers ice cold. She blinked and forced herself to turn away, to not think about it anymore, to not wish for it anymore. They had one goal and she needed to concentrate on that. On finding out the truth, and they needed a decree to get to that, and they needed to speak to Sayaf to get to that. Rodrick was standing in front of a shack, its walls made of wooden boards with holes cut out to act as windows, although they were covered with blue drapes so that people couldn’t look into the house.

“This should be it,” Rodrick murmured as she walked up to him.

She nodded slowly in response, hugging her arms tightly around herself.

“It’s going to be alright,” Rodrick told her. “Even if he can’t help us, we can find another way to get to the records. This is just our first attempt, I’m sure we can come up with different ideas to get to the truth.”

Rena nodded again, more enthusiastically this time so Rodrick wouldn’t think she was scared. She wasn’t scared, at least not anymore. She felt drained of all emotions, tired and cold, and she couldn’t get her mind to concentrate on what was right in front of them, no matter how much she tried to force herself. 

Rodrick knocked on the wall next to the entrance. At first nothing happened and then they heard shuffling and muttering from behind the drapes. An old, black man pushed the drapes aside and stared at them first in annoyance, then in confusion, then back to annoyance. His face was covered in wrinkles and he still had a full head of thick, white coils.

“Pardon our disruption, we are looking for a man named Sayaf. Might that be you?”

The man didn’t answer right away but kept looking them up and down before grunting an affirmation.

“My name is Rodrick Hal’Varika, and this is my companion Rena,” Rodrick said as he pointed at her. “I believe we have a common acquaintance who told us you might be able to help us with our current investigation. His name is Logan. I’m afraid I don’t know his family name or where he is from however.”

At the mention of the name the man’s eyes shot up to look at Rodrick with a mix of shock and apprehension.

“What kind of trouble has he gotten into this time?” Sayaf asked.

“None at all, none at all,” Rodrick reassured him, although Rena wasn’t sure if they should mention the situation with Kalani or not. “Would you allow us to enter your home so we could discuss our plan with you?”

“Why are you here?” the man asked, not budging from the entrance.

“We need a specific document to access some official records and we were told you could help us acquire such documentation,” Rodrick murmured.

“I don’t do that anymore,” Sayaf replied and stepped back, letting the drapes fall shut again. Rodrick’s hand shot out to keep the drapes from closing completely. 

“Logan told me to mention Nura’s pendant to you,” Rodrick said, pulling the drapes back open.

The man turned back around and stared at Rodrick’s hand before looking back up at the both of them.

“That boy can mention my wife’s jewellery as much as he wants, I still don’t do that work anymore,” he told them.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Rena said, rushing forward, stopping right at the threshold of the door. “I know that this might be an inconvenience to you, but it is extremely important to us that we get access to these records. I don’t know if you have heard of it, but my village burned down and I might be the only survivor. Oceansthrow. It wasn’t too far away from here. Maybe you’ve heard of it before. But it’s completely gone now and I don’t know why that happened or who is responsible, but apparently there have been other fires like that one all over the kingdom, just that no one ever hears of them or what exactly happened, and that’s why we need access to the records, because we don’t think that the guards are going to help us find out what happened, but someone has to uncover the truth. For the sake of those who died.”

He looked at her for a long while and Rena didn’t know if her speech had worked until he sighed heavily and stepped aside, waving them into his home. The room was dark and tinged in a blue light from the drapes and an orange light from a candle on the table. A woman was sitting at the table, staring at them, one leg crossed over one knee, her left arm draped over the back of the chair while the other was lying on the table holding a mug. She was older than Rena, maybe in her late twenties or early thirties. She had the same skin tone as the man, with a shaved head, and piercing brown eyes. Her ears were pierced with golden jewellery, some just dots and other dangling chains. Her clothes were tight fitting, blue, white and gold, almost too elegant to fit into such an environment. Her upper arms weren’t covered while a leather arm guard covered her lower arms. She was muscular, more muscular than most men Rena had seen in her life, like she could compete with anyone from the royal guard. 

“This is Asha, my niece,” Sayaf said, groaning as he sat down on the chair next to her, in front of the second mug that was on the table.

“Nice to meet you,” Rena mumbled, nodding slightly in her direction. The woman nodded back, not taking her eyes off of Rena, but didn’t say anything in return.

“I was serious when I said that I don’t do that kind of work anymore,” Sayaf said, taking a sip from the mug. “I wouldn’t even know which names to put on the decree to make it look official. They might have even changed the words on the decree, who knows. But I know someone in the plains who can make you one. I’ll have to bring you to him because he doesn’t just work for anyone.”

“You are not going all the way to the plains,” Asha interjected, her head whipping around to look at her uncle. “You just spent three weeks in bed with a bad lung, I’m not letting you leave this place for some random people.”

“I was sick, and now I’m better. I can take my own decisions on where I go.”

“You absolutely can not. I’m not riding all the way out to the other end of the province to drag your corpse back home.”

Sayaf clicked his tongue and waved her off.

“I’m not a fragile little bird that just hatched. I can take care of myself.”

Asha stood up and towered over Sayaf, staring down at him. 

“You will stay here. If I have to lock you up then so be it, but you are not leaving this town unless it has to move.”

The air grew heavy as they kept staring at each other, so much that Rena was about to say something, anything to alleviate the situation, until Sayaf rolled his eyes and sighed.

“Not even your mother was this stubborn,” he muttered and took another sip from his mug. “So what are we going to do about their problem?” he asked, throwing his hand out in Rena and Rodrick’s direction.

“You could just write a letter for your contact that we can deliver and hopefully that will convince them to help us,” Rena interjected, hoping that that would quell the argument.

“He’s not going to just trust some random letter,” Sayaf dismissed her. “You could have just faked it or forced me to write it.”

“I will go with them,” Asha told them.

“Why would you do that?” Sayaf asked, frowning at her. “Cass isn’t going to like you just running off with some strangers and abandoning your duties.”

“Cass doesn’t own me, I can go where I want. And if they are breaking into the archives I want in.”

Sayaf closed his eyes and ran a hand over his face, shaking his head slowly.

“There’s nothing there for you, child. They aren’t keeping records about the grey isles in the capital of Vellashta.”

“You don’t know what these people keep or where they keep it. If the takeover was a joint venture they will have records of those accords in the archives.”

Rena wasn’t exactly sure what they were talking about. She had heard about the grey isles before, the group of islands to the south of Vellashta that were usually surrounded by mist. She didn’t know much about them but she thought she might have heard something about a new commander being assigned to govern the islands. She had thought it had just been a normal change in ruling family. Sometimes that happened when the current family didn’t have any heirs interested in the role or when they wanted to sell off the lands. Sometimes the families agreed to an exchange just because both wanted a change in scenery. She hadn’t heard anything about a takeover or anything else nefarious.

“You need to let it go,” Sayaf said, eyes heavy and tired.

“I won’t,” Asha said and turned around. She walked over to a bag that was lying on the bed that was standing in the corner of the room and pulled something out before walking over to the table again. She put a rolled-up piece of parchment and a wooden box down on the table.

“Write the letter,” she told Sayaf.