By the next afternoon, they had hatched out a plan, gotten their decrees and were on their way to the archives. Sayaf’s contact had lived up to their hopes and, with the appropriate payment, given them what they needed. Logan had insisted that they come up with a backstory for the people they were pretending to be and why they were visiting the archives, saying that if they didn’t get used to their new identities in advance they would stumble and falter if they were to be questioned on their mission. They had all gathered in Rena and Asha’s room, spending the evening designing the characters they were going to inhabit, what they were looking for and what their connections to each other were. As Logan and Rena came up with more and more extravagant and unlikely details, Asha had to reign them back in, reminding them that they couldn’t both be disenfranchised royals from far away lands who were on the path of revenge against their evil sibling who had stolen the throne away from them, but by the end of the night even Asha had a faint smile on her lips from Logan and Rena’s antics. And so, over night, they had become a scribe and his assistant examining the accuracy of historical maps, a merchant trying to get the upper hand on his competition, and an envoy from the Paelidian island to their East trying to corroborate some rumours they had heard about the grey isles. They raided Rodrick’s caravan for clothing and accessories that best fit their new background, making it a game to see who could find the best disguise. To no one’s surprise, Logan won their competition. He had managed to not only make Rodrick’s old, baggy clothes look good and natural on him, he had also managed to give off a completely different aura through a change in body language and speech pattern. Rena had never seen anything like it before, as if an entirely different person was standing in front of her, someone she had never met before, even though she still recognised Logan’s face. It fascinated her to see this change, to see how one person could become someone completely new with so little effort.
A few hours later, they were travelling up the main road that led through the plains towards the archives, past the houses that became bigger, sturdier and more opulent as they approached the fortress. They had decided to drive the caravan up to the archives and leave it in their stables, partly because Rodrick trusted it to be safer there than out in the open next to the inn, and partly because Logan said it would help their illusion of being reputable members of society if they arrived at the archives with a strange contraption no crook could afford instead of just walking up to the fortress. Rena thought that maybe it would seem disrespectful or unprofessional if they didn’t arrive by carriage, but as they approached the giant building she saw more people walking up the road from the village to the fortress than those sitting in wagons. But of course, there was also the fact that Vincent would have to stay somewhere, and he would be safest in the caravan as close to them as possible, where, if they had to leave in a hurry, they could get to him quickly.
The road to the archive’s entrance was divided into two lanes, one for carriages to the left and one for those on foot to the right. To each side of the road four tall poles with milky white bulbs containing lamps at the top guided the way. The lights inside the bulbs were still on, colouring the milky glass in a dim orange hue, even though it was the middle of the day and the sun was out. Rodrick slowed the caravan down, trying to leave enough room between them and the carriage in front of them. They were coming up to the entrance of the fortress, the giant metal gates having been opened towards the outside so that Rena could see their inside faces and the tableau of scholars and record keepers that was depicted on them. Rena craned her neck to look at what was going on in front of them but all she could see was that there were three carriages ahead of them and the first one was stopped at the gate. The lane next to theirs also seemed to slow down the closer it got to the gate, although it never quite seemed to stop like theirs did.
[Rena] “Do they already check the papers here? I thought you could get to the entrance hall without any decree?”
[Rodrick] “When we arrived by foot yesterday they asked us what we were here for and then instructed us on which direction to go to. I think they are trying to keep everyone from going to the entrance hall at the same time. There might be other entrances for those who already have a decree or for those who have an audience with the administrator. They might ask to see inside the caravan too, I know they ask for that in other institutions like this one. To make sure no one is bringing anything in that could harm the records.”
Rena turned to look at Rodrick and frowned.
[Rena] “Will we be ok? Should we have cleaned up inside your wagon before coming here?”
Rodrick dismissed her with a wave.
[Rodrick] “Mostly they are looking for large weapons or explosives, I don’t have either of those in the caravan. They don’t care much for the oddities I collect. They don’t even care much if people bring in swords and daggers since there are guards everywhere throughout the building. They will probably still ask us to leave all of our weapons in the caravan anyway and lock it up, just to minimize the risk of harm. As long as Logan and Asha didn’t bring anything more frightful than a blade with them we should be fine.”
True to his word, they were granted access without major problems. It took some convincing to get Asha to leave all of her blades in the caravan but, by the end, all of their weapons were safely locked up and the caravan was in turn safely stowed away between a smaller, elegant, black and red open wagon and a much larger, worn out, closed carriage on which the yellow paint had mostly flaked off, revealing the original light brown colour of the wood underneath.
They didn’t enter the archives through the large doors opposite the gates through which most people disappeared, but were instead led to a side entrance to the left, although these doors were just as ornate and delicately decorated as the ones that, without a doubt, led to the entrance hall. The room they entered into had a high, domed ceiling, white, blue and green patterned tiles covering the floors and the bottom parts of the walls, and delicate swirls had been carved into the white stone of the upper walls. To their right was a row of desks where clerks, wearing long, yellow and green robes, talked to visitors, while two hallways to their left and at the far end of the room lead inside the fortress. Next to each hallway a large sign had been attached to the wall that listed which departments they lead to.
[Logan] “Guess this is where we split up.”
[Rodrick] “You all have your copy of the department list, right? Rena and I will be in the department of topographical works, if you run into any troubles or can’t find where you have to go, you can come and find us there. At least for the beginning, I don’t know how long we’ll stay there yet.”
[Asha] “We’ll be fine.”
Asha side eyed him with a mix of confusion and aversion. Logan leaned forward and patted Rodrick on the arm twice, flashing him a grin.
[Logan] “Don’t worry old man, we know how to get out of tricky situations on our own.”
He leaned over to ruffle Rena’s hair and winked at her.
[Logan] “Let’s go.”
He turned around before Rena could protest his actions, her hands frantically trying to smooth her hair out again. Asha followed him without any further comments and they weaved their way through the crowd to the hallway at the end of the room. Rodrick shook his head at their retreating figures before turning to Rena and smiling at her.
[Rodrick] “Shall we?”
It took them some time to find their way to the correct room. Even though all the rooms were neatly numbered, the hallways branched out in such weird and unexpected ways that they had to backtrack a few times before finding where they were actually meant to go. Rena had expected guards to stand in front of each room to make sure people couldn’t just enter wherever they wanted, but they only saw a handful of them leisurely strolling through the hallways in groups of two, talking to each other and barely regarding the people hurrying from one place to the other. When they had first entered the archives there had been so many people in the hallways, some standing to the sides in deep conversation, some rushing past them, and they all looked different from each other. Some were wearing long, embroidered robes in a multitude of colours, some were wearing tight fitting leather pants that had to be laced at the sides, some had wide brimmed hats, some had veils covering their faces, and some even wore the clothes Rena was used to seeing in her small village. She tried not to stare at them, to look like she belonged there, but some of the clothing looked so unusual to her, so fascinating, that she had to hold on to Rodrick’s sleeve to not lose him and their way.
But now, as they came closer to their destination, they barely met anyone. They reached their target, a room labeled “R1TG3” in big letters with a barely legible subtitle reading “topographical works”, and Rodrick pushed open the simple, dark brown door. The room they entered into was dimmer than the hallways, illuminated only by the same milky white bulbs they had seen outside, fixed high on the ceiling. The floor tiles in front of them were a continuation of the intricate, symmetrical blue, white and green star pattern that had stretched out throughout the entire building. In front of them stood rows of dark brown bookcases, made of the same wood as the door and the rest of the furniture in the building. They were filled not just with books, but also with stacks of parchment rolls and boxes.
“Permit, please,” a boy not much older than her said from next to them, sitting behind a table to their right. He looked at them with the greatest disinterest, as if sitting there was the last thing he wanted to do but he had somehow still been forced into being there.
When Rodrick handed him the appropriate decree he barely looked at it before giving it back, not asking them for any verification or explanation on what they were looking for. Rodrick simply turned around and walked away as if he hadn’t expected to be questioned, but as Rena followed him she couldn’t stop herself from glancing back at the boy, making sure that he hadn’t changed his mind and was calling them back. The boy, however, had slumped back into his chair, his shoulders drooping, and was staring off into the distance in front of him.
Rena turned back to Rodrick, leaning in so that no one else would hear her.
[Rena, whispering] “Doesn’t he want to know why we’re here?”
Rodrick had stopped in front of one of the bookcases, reading the sign that was hanging on its side. He frowned at it, before looking from side to side, looking back at the sign, and only then looking over at Rena.
[Rodrick] “Hmm? Ah, eh, I don’t think these records are that important so they probably don’t care too much about who gets access to them, and I don’t think that boy cares enough about it either way.”
[Rena] “Then why not just make them completely public if they barely look at the decrees anyway?”
[Rodrick, chuckle] “Well they can’t just let anyone look at their records, now, can they? There needs to be some weeding out or who knows where we’d get. Ah, this way I believe.”
He turned to the right and went past a dozen bookshelves, keeping track of the signs labeling the contents of the row, before abruptly turning left and hurrying down one of the rows. Rena finally realized how deep the room was. One of these bookshelves would not have fit into any of the rooms in her parents’ house, and if she counted correctly there were five of those in one row, with space for a passageway between each bookshelf. Rodrick only lead them to the second bookshelf though, to a part that seemed quite empty in comparison to the first bookshelf they had just passed. No books were present in this section, only rolls of parchment at the top and wooden boxes at the bottom. Each shelf was labeled with letters and numbers, abbreviations that Rena couldn’t decipher, and in turn each box had a longer label that seemed even a greater mystery to her. But not to Rodrick, who after only a few seconds of careful consideration reached down and pulled one of the boxes out, crouching down to put it on the ground. Without hesitation he opened the lid, revealing a stack of rolls of paper, bound shut by differently coloured ribbons.
[Rena] “How do you know it’s that one?”
Rena stared at the boxes in front of her in confusion before crouching down next to Rodrick. He turned the label towards her and pointed at its inscription.
[Rodrick] “TP means topographical, as we already saw on the door, the number is just to not have every sub-category in one place, the RW means roadworks, the S means signage or simply just signs, and then you have the abbreviation for the specific region of the province and the year the documents belong to.”
[Rena] “How do you know all that?”
[Rodrick] “The archives in Mak-Hemma use the same system so I know how to read it, the specifics I kind of had to guess at because I have never had to look up anything relating to roadbuilding before.”
He pulled out one of the rolls and turned it around in his hand before undoing the bow.
[Rodrick] “This part we’ll just have to guess at however.”
He unrolled the paper and held it out in front of them. The top of the page had specific, little boxes that had to be filled out with the location of the works, the date, who had given the orders and who was responsible for the project, making it easy for them to discard any of the reports that weren’t useful for them.
Rodrick rolled out a fifth bundle of papers and instantly the text looked different than the rolls they had looked at before. At the bottom of the first page a line had been cut out and a note had been scribbled in the margins next to it. The further they got in the report, the more pieces of the pages were missing, or had simply been crossed out to make the text impossible to read.
[Rena] “What do the margins says?”
Rena leaned in closer, trying to read the tiny font, but it looked like more of the abbreviations that didn’t make much sense to her.
Rodrick brought the paper closer to his face before reading.
[Rodrick] “R4C6E1 dash C6E1ARC”
He frowned down at the paper, pulling it away from his face again.
[Rena] “What does that mean?”
[Rodrick] “I’m not sure actually.”
He pulled out the list of departments he had stashed away in one of the front pockets of his coat and unfolded it, smoothing it out against the tiles of the floor.
[Rodrick] “The number after the first R indicates the level of restriction, meaning this section is highly restricted, the C probably refers to communications, meaning that the E refers to external. If I read this correctly, the cut out paragraph can be found in the external communications department with a high restriction, which would be … in the second basement. Or at least a mention of what was cut out can be found in the document this points to.”
He rummaged around in his coat before pulling out a little tin box, opening it and picking up a piece of charcoal. He drew a cross next to the department of external communications before picking the rapport back up and deciphering the next margin. For every annotation he made a cross next to the relevant department. By the end of it, they had quite a few crosses next to departments relating to roadworks or town management with an R2 or even R3 restriction, and next to communications departments over all types of restrictions.
They silently pondered their list for a few moments. The longer Rena stared at it, the deeper her frown got, unable to puzzle together what it all meant. She knew that the fact these reports had been cut up and the information scattered across multiple departments probably meant that something was off, that their intuition had been right, but she couldn’t figure out what it actually meant.
[Rena] “I suppose we should go to one of these other departments, right? Which one do you think we should go to? Town management appears a lot in the report. I don’t really know what there is to manage about a town but it does sound relevant to what we’re looking for. Maybe we’ll find more information there.”
[Rodrick] “Hmm, no I think we would just find more breadcrumbs there. More of these rapports where everything that’s important is mysteriously missing. No, in my opinion there’s a quicker way to get to the source, and that is going directly to the restricted communications. I think anything above R5 is only accessible to the staff of the archives, so our best bet would be the R4 one, even if I don’t think it will be easy for us to get in. The decrees we have don’t give us access to anything that restricted.”
[Rena] “But they don’t care about the decrees anyway. If we just act confident enough they probably won’t question our presence there too much.”
[Rodrick] “No, I think for those departments they are more careful about who gets access to them. Even if we had a decree for those sections, they probably would examine it very carefully.”
[Rena] “Ok, so what do we do?”
[Rodrick, sigh] “I think we should still find out where it is and see if there might be another way in. It might not be the most prudent decision but I don’t want us to waste our time with trivialities that would barely give us any information we could work with.”
[Rena] “Hmm… What do you think they’re trying to hide?”
[Rodrick] “Well, they really aren’t giving us much information in this report. It doesn’t mention who gave the orders, why the signs were replaced or even really what exactly was replaced.”
[Rena] “Couldn’t they have just lied on the report instead of cutting it up like this? This just looks extremely suspicious.”
[Rodrick] “I think they do want to keep actual records of what happened and why it happened, and at this point these kinds of reports have just become a routine. There’s a format to them and there are habits on how to deal with confidential information and that’s just how things are done. No need to change it up if it works.”
[Rena, mumble] “Doesn’t seem very safe to me if people like us can just stumble their way onto really important information.”
[Rodrick, chuckle] “We don’t have the information yet, don’t get too hasty.”
He rolled the papers back up and tied them up with the blue ribbon before placing all of the rolls back into the box and sliding everything back onto the shelf. With a groan and a hand on his back he stood up.
[Rodrick] “Let’s go find our next clue, shall we?”
The sound of their footsteps echoed around them as they went down the spiral staircase, the smell of humidity heavy in the air. No one else was around this deep in the archives and it was quite enough that she heard the light hiss emitted from the lamps. It didn’t sound like fire, even though the light danced around like a flame. They weren’t nearly as bright as the lamps that had illuminated the hallways above them, as if it didn’t matter as much if the people down here could see where they were going. Or maybe people were supposed to bring their own lamps with them, Rena thought. Maybe outsiders didn’t come this far down usually and the people who worked here knew to bring their own lights. She nervously looked around, hoping to see if she could spot anyone else, to see how other people behaved down here, but the hallway they were in was long and empty and she only just then noticed that there weren’t even any doors or signs around them.
[Rena, whisper] “Are we going in the right direction?”
[Rodrick, whisper] “We should be. At least that’s what the signs upstairs were saying.”
They suddenly stopped when a door creaked shut and they could hear faint whispers in the distance, slowly coming closer from a bent in the hallway in front of them.
[Rena] “Quick, show me your list.”
She motioned to Rodrick to hurry up, turning him around to face the wall and huddling close to him so they could both look down at the list.
[Clerk, getting louder] “I could arrange for one of the records keepers to accompany you next time if you have more specific questions. I’m sorry I couldn’t be of much service to you, that area isn’t my expertise. I do know a lot about the inner workings of the military academy, if that is another area you would be interested in.”
[Researcher] “Not really, no.”
[Clerk] “Tragic. I find it quite fascinating. Maybe for a later book of yours. Oh, but I have heard that Aminah Burhan was appointed chief court historian in Dam’vala. Is that right?”
[Researcher] “Sadly, yes.”
[Clerk] “What a dreadful woman. The last time she was here she insisted on staying in one of the rooms for hours, completely disregarding that I still had other work to get to that day. I’ve decided that the next time I hear she’s about to arrive I’ll assign one of the younger clerks to her. I’ve earned at least that from all my years working here. You know we’ve been asking for a raise in our pay for years. All these nobles keep moving to the plains or just buying up the big houses for their summer residence and it keeps driving up the prices of everything, and yet we’re supposed to keep living here on the same amount of money we made twenty years ago? I feel like it’s time we workers set up our own city away from the plains so that we can live in peace and aren’t bothered by any of the newcomers and snakes trying to wriggle their way into the good graces of the administrator.”
When the two had past them, Rena finally dared to glance back at them. One of them was an older man who wore the same uniform the clerks had worn in the entrance hall. The other was a middle-aged woman, wearing a wide, dark-blue robe with golden inscriptions rising up from the bottom. She had braided her long, black hair into one thick braid and had slung it over her shoulders like a scarf.
Rodrick folded his list back up and slid it into his jacket.
[Rodrick, whisper] “Let’s be careful.”
The two strangers had barely noticed them and were well on their way to the staircase. Rena took her eyes off of them and turned around to face the way they had come from.
[Rena, whisper] “Wait here.”
She pulled the skirt of her dress up so it wouldn’t rustle too much and inched closer to the corner of the hallway. She dared to glance past it, keeping herself close to the wall. What she saw could barely be called a hallway, more like an alcove. Two doors stood facing each other, each flanked by two guards. They were facing ahead, unmoving, a curved sword hanging from their belts. Rena pulled back again and walked back to Rodrick.
[Rena, whisper] “We’ve finally found the rooms, but there are guards in front of each of them. What should we do? I don’t think we can just walk up to them and ask how we can access the rooms, right? That would be pretty suspicious.”
[Rodrick, whisper] “No, you’re right. We’ll need a different tactic for this, something a bit more savvy.”
[Rena, whisper] “I wish Logan was here.”