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.”