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The Shuddering City
Author: Sharon Shinn

 

 

Chapter One:

Pietro

 

Pietro was sleeping when the world shook so hard it felt like it was coming apart. He tumbled awake and tried to roll upright, but the ground was bucking so violently that he kept being tossed back to his unyielding bed. From nearby came cries of terror and warning, and he glanced around wildly, trying to understand where he was and what was happening.

Outdoors. Apparently camping without a tent on some flat place of dancing rocks and gesticulating trees. The sky was a shredded black beginning to fray to dawn. In the faint light, Pietro could see dozens of other travelers trying to rise from their own temporary beds, shouting in confusion and alarm. As he stared, still trying to orient himself, a large tree ripped from the ground with a mighty crack and slammed onto a scrabbling mound of colorful blankets. Fresh shrieks filled the air with piercing urgency.

Someone was hurt. Maybe several someones. Have to help, Pietro thought, and tried again to push himself to his feet. But another tremor rolled beneath him, and he fell back to his blankets with so much force that he briefly could not think or feel. All around him were more shouts, sounds of rock hitting rock, another great crack! and agonizing thump as an even taller tree came down.

“The bridge!” someone was shouting, and then dozens of people were shouting. “The bridge! The bridge! It’s breaking!”

Pietro shut his eyes tight as his memory returned in one breathless swirl. The bridge. He was at the edge of Corcannon, having made the foolhardy decision to try to seek some peace for his soul back in the very city he had abandoned because it had destroyed his peace to begin with. He had arrived last evening at dusk, just as the gatekeepers were shutting down the bridge that connected Corcannon to the rest of the continent. No one was allowed to make the journey across that canyon without full benefit of the sun. Not since a whole caravan had driven off the side fifteen years ago, plunging so far and so fast that no one on either bank had been able to hear their screams. Four bridges served the city at widely spaced intervals, and all of them closed at sunset.

A horrible metallic screeching rose above the renewed wailing of the crowd, and Pietro’s eyes snapped open. The bridge was really collapsing, then, its spare, graceful lines of cable and iron wrenching themselves from their stone foundations. He wasn’t sure how many other travelers had been marooned on the western bank when darkness arrived last night, but he guessed that close to two hundred souls had bedded down on this side of the gorge.

There’s nowhere to go, he realized. He and his fellow travelers were camped at the northernmost bridge, which was separated from the two middle crossings by a long fissure almost as deep as the one that edged the city. It was as if a thin rocky finger reached out from the mountainous regions of Chibain to almost, but not quite, touch the city border. To make it to the nearest alternate crossing, travelers would lose at least a day in backtracking and another day heading to the closest bridge in Marata.

If it was still standing. If any of the bridges were still standing.

The ground seemed to have stopped moving, and Pietro cautiously pushed himself up on one elbow. All around him, he could see people on their feet, gathered in small agitated knots, hunkered down around injured companions, or working together to lift downed trees. The noise of the crowd had changed in pitch, from cries of confusion to shouts of purpose. A woman nearby was still sobbing in a low, heartbroken way, and Pietro knew a moment’s cowardice. He wanted to sink into his tangled bedroll, cover his ears, wait until rescue arrived or the campers organized themselves into efficient units of aid and repair.

I’m old, he thought, dropping back to the ground. I’ve put in my time succoring the sick and leading the lost. I’m old and I’m tired and I’m lost myself. Someone should stop by and look after me.

He remained there a moment, feeling his whole body tense with the effort to lie still, and then he sighed and shoved himself upright again. When the ground stayed quiescent beneath him, he pushed himself all the way to his feet and hunted up his shoes. Then he grabbed his smaller bag, the one that held the things he couldn’t afford to lose to looters, and wound his way through the debris to find the crying woman.

She looked up when he dropped to his knees beside her. He judged her to be in her middle forties, with the deep brown skin and silky black hair of someone who was purebred Cordelano. Her face was scratched and bleeding from shallow cuts, but she seemed more concerned about her left arm, which she was cradling to her chest. He automatically glanced at her bracelets to learn whatever part of her story they would tell. He couldn’t get a good view of her left wrist, but her right arm was heavy with gold and silver bangles signifying her status as a married woman with many children.

“I think I broke my arm. Are you a doctor?” she asked hopefully, her eyes going to Pietro’s left hand. Disappointment clouded her face as she saw only the slim ambiguous rope of twisted silver that was the least useful of all the career designations. Sojourner, it meant. Seeker. The only way to provide less information was to not bother wearing a bracelet at all.

He smiled at her reassuringly. He had never lost his ability to comfort the most distraught mourner, calm the most tortured soul. “I’m not,” he said. “But I have spent much time working in infirmaries, and I can set a bone.”

She held her arm out, and he began working it over carefully, cleaning one long gash before improvising a splint. He had a numbing salve that he had bought almost as a joke—wouldn’t it be marvelous if this could soothe a broken heart?—but he spread that liberally over her arm before setting the splint in place, and she sighed in relief.

“Thank you,” she said. “That’s so much better.”

“You might have someone check it for you as soon as you get to the city.”

She glanced hopelessly toward the chasm. “I heard someone say the bridge collapsed,” she said. “How will we get home?”

“I imagine that’s a question that is vexing everyone this morning.”

She covered her eyes with her free hand. “This one was worse, wasn’t it? Worse than all the other tremors.”

He was tying the last bit of ripped fabric around his makeshift splint, but now his hands stilled and he stared at her. “There have been other tremors?” he said. At her look of incredulity, he added hastily, “I haven’t been in the city for ten years.”

“Mostly small ones,” she said. “But they’ve been happening for the past year or so.”

Pietro tried not to show how shocked he was by the terrible news. “Well,” he said, rising to his feet. “The quakes have stopped for now. Maybe they won’t start up again for a good long time.”

Although he knew that wasn’t true.

 

Stepping away from the Cordelano woman, Pietro strolled through the rest of the camp, trying to get a sense of what was happening. Groups of travelers gathered together, debating their options. Wait here and hope bridge repairs would be quick and reliable? Head back over toward Marata and aim for one of the middle crossings? But what if the other bridges have also come down? he heard someone ask. What then?

But suddenly the idea of traveling to Marata became a less viable option, as a few adventuresome souls returned with fresh bad news. The road behind them had cracked open during the tremor, leaving it unstable and impassable. The whole lot of them were trapped here until they could make a crossing to safer ground.

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