Bliss was pretty goddamn bored. She was pretty fucking bored. She was goddamned, fucking bored because she’d recently learned how cool it was to swear and her parents had moved the family to the Five Cities. It wasn’t just that they’d left the East, where she had perfectly good friends, but they’d moved to the stupid, shitting, Bridge, of all places.
“We’re getting in on the ground floor, ha, ha,” her dad said. And continued to say. Bliss wanted to think her mom was secretly on her side, but ever since they’d arrived she’d heard nothing but ringing praise of “how modern” and “can you believe it!” Yes, her dad seemed happier setting up shop than when he was travelling to do it. Sure, Bliss had her own room above the store, instead of sharing a caravan with her folks. But hell and damnation! The whole place was so new there was nothing to do.
Bliss flopped onto her bed, kicking over on her back to stare mournfully at the ceiling. On top of everything, the Bridge had a ‘school’. This was a thing that, from what Bliss had gathered, could not be any more boring. She could read just fine and write, even. Sitting in a room with a bunch of other kids did not seem like an improvement over sitting by the fire with her mom to read or perching on a stool next to her dad when he balanced accounts.
“Fucking stupid,” Bliss told her ceiling.
The next day she helped her mom build shelves downstairs while her dad was out talking to the Cities people and tallying his stock. They’d packed their caravan to bursting with everything from raw wool to yarn to finished pieces. Bliss wondered, while she hammered, where they’d get more wool when it ran out. She hadn’t seen a single alpaca or more than one or two sheep at a time since they’d reached the and northern arm and the buildings rose up around them.
Maybe they’d get to go back east to re-supply. Bliss hoped so. The whole place was too big and too small all at once. Her mother interrupted Bliss’ thoughts—
“Isn’t it something to have all this wood?” As she spoke, the woman hefted another board onto sawhorses and measured, her spinning-calloused fingers drawing the tailor’s tape taut. “The trees just keep getting thicker the farther west you go. The baker told me they grow right up to the ocean and you can go crabbing from the branches.”
“What’s crab?” Her mother marked the board before looking over at Bliss, laughing.
“I have no idea. But from what I gather, you can eat it.” Beginning to saw, she added, “Y’know, they’ve got a giant library here. Not on the Bridge, but down below, in the Hive.” Bliss feigned indifference.
“I don’t want you going by yourself, ‘cause you could get lost, but the baker has a son your age, maybe you can get him to take you when we’re done with these shelves.” If Bliss started hammering faster, neither she nor her mother pointed it out.
It wasn’t until a couple of days later, when empty shelves lined the shop walls, that Bliss had a chance to hunt down the baker’s son. She found him to be exactly her height, even though he tried to draw himself up taller when asking, “And what’ll you trade me for being your guide?”
Bliss eyed the boy and held out a slingshot, carefully carved to settle perfectly against the wrist. It was only her second-best, but it was still better than anything she’d seen kids playing with outside her window. The baker’s boy looked it over with a practiced air of incredulousness. Before he could start to dicker, Bliss crossed her arms and glowered.
“Don’t be such a fucking shithead, it’s a damn good trade.” The boy looked up quickly, eyes wide. He was either surprised or impressed at her words. After a moment he collected himself and pocketed the slingshot.
“Just what I was gonna say.” He trotted back inside his house and came out adjusting a bag slung over his shoulder. The boy held a small paper sack out to Bliss. “Thought I’d throw in some honey rolls for free.” Taking the bag, she peered inside, inhaling the sweet, warm scent.
“Oh awesome!” Bliss tucked the sweets into her shoulder bag and hurried to catch up to her guide.
The trip was uneventful, though Bliss nearly sprained her neck craning at the towering buildings. It looked as though nobody lived above the third floor, leaving the top halves of the buildings sitting dark, with broken and boarded windows. Pipes snaked from the roof, junctioning off at the lived-in floors before reaching the street. Bliss guessed they were from rain barrels.
There were window boxes and murals and a forced sense of cheeriness. She’d seen old buildings before, but never so many together. The windows seemed too small and the street was darker and closer for the endless parade of structures and trees. Bliss decided she was glad they’d moved to the Bridge instead of below.
The library was less intimidating, decidedly out of place in heavy carved stone. And the books, Bliss was very excited about the books. She had to register to take anything home, the baker’s boy vouching for her with a swagger.
On the way back, the two stopped at a pocket of greenspace to eat the honey rolls. Between bites, the baker’s boy lectured Bliss on the Thousand Gardens, the weather and the history of the Five Cities. Bliss wondered if he’d got all that information at school. It would be almost worth attending to be able to tell him to shut the hell up ‘cause she knew it already.
They were dusting off the crumbs when they heard the yell. Bag of books thumping against her side, Bliss raced the Baker’s boy to the foot of the Bridge. On the west side it splayed out, dropping half of itself below a flyover. Reaching the edge at the same time, the two dropped to their bellies and peered over the edge, noses in the vines that engulfed the structure.
Below, in the center of the roadway, three men struggled. She could see right away that it was no fair fight, two of the men were working together, trying to force a third against the wall. Bliss looked back over her shoulder, then up at the bridge as it curved up and away to the east. It seemed like nobody else had heard the yell, or cared to check it out. It was impossible to tell what buildings were lived in, none of the tiny, dark windows disclosed faces. Life on the Bridge huddled far away, at the center. From where she lay, Bliss could not even make out her new home from the clumps of buildings.
Something moved at the corner of her eye. The baker’s boy was aiming her second-best slingshot, drawing a bead on the larger of the two antagonists. A small pile of stones lay in front of him, probably gathered on their walk. Bliss tried to stop him, whispering curses. What the whole damned situation needed was a grownup. That fight down there had nothing to do with her or the baker’s boy. She struggled against him for a second, but even though her arms were longer he was in a better position to defend. With a shove, the boy tossed Bliss off him, rolled back into position on his stomach and fired.
The tiny missile smacked against the man’s shoulder. The aim wasn’t bad, but Bliss thought the baker’s boy wouldn’t do much better with her best slingshot. The kid had no muscle.
“You fucking idiot,” she hissed at the boy as they cowered down into the vines. Between sap-rich leaves Bliss watched the struck man examine the embankment, sweeping his eyes around while his partner kept the other man pinned. How he determined their position, Bliss didn’t know, but suddenly the baker boy’s missile came back at them, slicing through ivy at Bliss’ side. She and the boy shrunk closer to the dirt.
After a moment of contemplation, the man drew a knife from his belt. Recognising the smooth, utilitarian throwing shape, Bliss panicked. As the baker’s boy scuttled back and away, she snatched the slingshot from him, loaded it and let fly.
Second best slingshot or not, the round little stone snapped easily through the man’s eye. Arm half-raised, he stood swaying for half a minute then sank down, knees giving way. The two live men on the roadway tussled as the other fell. Bliss did not stay to watch the outcome, but ran after the baker’s boy and back to the Bridge, library books swinging heavy against her side.