The gate was locked, she knew that. But this fact still didn’t ease her anxiety. Instead, her hand tightened on the jeweled hilt of her sword and she forced herself to take in a long, deep breath.
The night air was not cold and yet Tarley’s skin felt like it was covered in a sheet of ice that would never thaw. Even under the layers of her uniform her body seemed unable to retain warmth and her free hand was starting to twitch with nervousness.
She glanced at Macklyn, standing tall in his uniform as if nothing could scare him, and wished she knew what he was thinking. She wanted to know what all of the guards were thinking as they stood in front of their gates, waiting either for something to happen or nothing at all. She was certain that they all feared one as much as the other.
“I didn’t used to mind working nights,” said Macklyn, smirking.
“Me neither,” said Tarley.
“At least it’s not raining,” said Macklyn.
Tarley smirked and turned her attention back to the forecourt; it was just as quiet as it had been two minutes ago.
Ainsley, the commander that Tarley and Macklyn had been assigned to that night, had gone to the toilet fifteen minutes ago and had still not returned. Tarley would have usually called him a lazy arse but not anymore. If a guard was away from his or her post for longer than five minutes everyone started to worry, whether they said it or not.
Another commander had gone missing the night before, which only caused more people to give weight to the current theory that a senior guard was looking for promotion. But she knew that couldn’t be true. Despite the fact that just as many guards as commanders had gone missing, everyone who worked for The Arben Bridge understood the value of their oaths and the hard work it would take to go from a junior guard to a senior commander. Tarley very much doubted that
anyone would go to such extremes just to secure a promotion, simply the idea of taking such a lazy route sickened her.
Nevertheless, there had been a clear shift in the way the commanders were talking to the guards since the disappearances began. Tarley had always admired the stern yet polite manner in which the guards and commanders had always conducted themselves. They all knew who ranked higher and yet there was never animosity, everyone seemed determined to do their job and keep Miraylia safe.
She would often think back to when her father used to take her and her brothers on visits to the bridge. The guards had so much respect for Commander Hillis that chatting to his children seemed like no problem at all.
Tarley and Macklyn quickly became enamored with the bridge and would spend years training and studying in the desperate hope that they would be accepted in to the academy.
Despite her love for the bridge, it had always been a mixture of beauty and eeriness for Tarley. The five gates that allowed entrance to the mile-long bridge were all magnificent in their own right; each one completely different in design and demanding to tell their own story.
Tarley’s favourite was The Queen’s Gate because it was the most ornate and intricate design that the bridge had to offer. She would always allow herself a small smile when she was assigned to guard it.
The gate was made of black wrought iron that had been twisted in to so many different shapes that it was impossible to follow the lines that had been created. At its centre was the face of a woman with such delicate features that Tarley often wondered how the sculptor could capture such beauty in simple pieces of metal. But it wasn’t her face that amazed Tarley the most; it was her hair. Jewels of every kind exploded from The Queen’s head to create a dazzling mane that flowed down to her waist and, even after hundreds of years, still left plenty of tourists trying to break on to the bridge to get a real life glimpse at her.
Macklyn spotted Tarley gazing up at The Queen and shook his head.
“Someone could attack the bridge right now and you would be of no help in defending it,” he said.
“You underestimate my response times,” said Tarley before casting another glance over the forecourt.
“How’s your head? Have you been to the doctor’s yet?”
“Fine and no,” said Tarley, “Stop fretting.”
Even though she had chastised Macklyn, Tarley secretly appreciated the thought; she had always been grateful for having two older brothers who cared so much about her but she would never tell them that. She hated being the baby of the family even as an adult.
Macklyn looked down at his watch and sighed. “It’s one minute to ten,” he said, “Ainsley should be back by now.”
Tarley desperately wanted to say that he would and that Macklyn had nothing to worry about but the words refused to form on her lips. She briefly contemplated searching for him but Darvin had always instilled in them that the bridge’s protection came first. Everyone took their oaths knowing that although every guard would aim to protect their comrades, if it was at the detriment of the bridge then they were bound to not help them.
Tarley could see beads of sweat forming just above Macklyn’s brow, even though the rest of his face appeared calm and unperturbed. She wondered if anyone else would be able to tell how uneasy he felt or if she instinctively knew what signs to look for.
She had always had a different kind of connection with Macklyn than she had with Baodor because of their determination to join the bridge. Her brothers had been inseparable growing up but one of the only ways in which they differed was what career paths they chose. Having grown up in a family that had guarded the bridge for decades, they all felt a strong tie to it but Baodor was never one to play fight and when their father placed a sword in his hand he would stare at it like it was a dead animal that he didn’t know how to dispose of.
Tarley looked back at Macklyn, whose eyes were now darting from side to side. She, too, was worried about Ainsley, but if he had gone missing what good would it do for them to go looking for him? No one had been found, yet, and leaving the gate unguarded incurred severe consequences.
The sound of footsteps broke Tarley’s ponderings and her gaze shifted from Macklyn to the dark figure that was slowly approaching the gate.
The Cloaks had always made Tarley feel on edge. She could be feeling at her most calm and then at exactly ten o’clock, if she was guarding The Queen’s Gate, a Cloak would appear and she would want to retreat from their presence.
They all moved so steadily, as if there wasn’t an actual person beneath their black capes but a light breeze that glided across the cobbles, and their heads were always bowed so that no one ever saw their faces.
No one was supposed to discuss the Cloaks, it broke every kind of confidentiality law, but Tarley had been on the bridge long enough to hear whispers from those who dared to comment. Some thought they were from outside the city, others thought they were an elite clandestine group of guards that not even the commanders knew about. Tarley, however, tried her very best to pretend that they didn’t even exist.
Only commanders were supposed to open the gate to Cloaks but if for any reason they had to leave their post it was vital that they give their keys to the most senior guard on the gate until they returned. It was one of the many rules ingrained in to the guards’ memory during their time at the academy but lately Darvin had even began patrolling the bridge himself to ensure that everyone knew the protocol.
Macklyn took the keys from his belt and unlocked the four locks that spread across the gate. Both he and Tarley kept their heads bowed as the Cloak walked through the gate and made his or her journey to the end of the mile-long bridge.
Tarley didn’t dare to lift her head until she saw the golden trim of the Cloak’s cape disappear and Macklyn closing the gate.
A lot of the guards would sneakily watch as the Cloak walked down the bridge towards the small building at the end but not Tarley. She had no fascination with them and, in her opinion, were the only thing she disliked about her job. She’d happily fight a crazed extremist that wanted to find out what the bridge guarded but remaining in the presence of a Cloak for five minutes made her shudder.
The feeling eventually passed and she continued to guard in another half an hour of complete silence before the sound of gasping cut through the air.
Ainsley, his red face looking even more scarlet in the glows of the lamps, ran towards the gate before coming to an abrupt halt and panting like a dog.
“What’s happened? Are you okay?” Asked Tarley, grabbing his arm to help keep him upright.
“I’m…fine,” gasped Ainsley. “I only went to the toilet….and then…ended up falling asleep…for an hour!”
“You’re serious?” Said Macklyn.
Ainsley nodded as he pushed Tarley away.
Macklyn rolled his eyes. “And you’re meant to be our commander. For fuck’s sake.”
The following evening Tarley decided to play the role of the dutiful daughter and visit her parents. She regretted it as soon as her mother opened the door.
Tarley could hear the raucous laughter from the living room and it was the kind of laughter that only occurred when her father and uncle sat down with a strong beer. Or several.
Her mother and aunt would often join in but being of smaller frames they could only maintain control of their bodies for so long before they began to feel queasy and decided that it would be best to go to bed and leave the Hillis brothers to their bonding.
Tarley thought that their relationship was very special in that even after fifty-seven years neither her father nor her Uncle Emlyn had ever had a catastrophic falling out. She doubted that she had ever seen two brothers who were closer and that was including her own.
However, that evening she would have appreciated it if the alcohol currently running through their bodies had had a more calming effect. She had not got much sleep after finishing her shift the night before and had spent most of the day feeling quite ratty.
Carida tentatively led her daughter through the house and in to the living room where Gwyl and Emlyn were sitting side by side with a firm grip on their drinks whilst Tarley’s Aunt Tulis sat opposite them, half paying attention to the soap opera that was currently playing via the image crystals.
As soon as Tarley entered the room her aunt jumped to her feet and wrapped her arms around her, squeezing tightly.
“It’s so lovely to see you, Tarley!” Said Tulis. “How are you?”
“I’m good,” lied Tarley as she sat down next to her aunt.
Carida picked up the image crystals, causing the soap opera to disappear, and placed them on the shelf before offering Tarley her obligatory food and drink.
“I’m fine, thanks, Mum. I’ve already eaten,” said Tarley.
“I don’t care,” said Carida, “With everything that’s going on with that bridge you need to keep your strength up! I’ve got some left over pie that will only waste if you don’t eat it.”
Tarley rolled her eyes as her mother rushed out of the room but she couldn’t help but let a small smile appear on her face. This was comforting, even if she felt like everyone around her was slightly manic.
“In all seriousness,” said Emlyn after another swig of beer, “don’t you worry that you’re going to disappear, Gwyl?”
Tarley’s stomach tightened at the words. Of course she’d thought about it, she’d thought about it more times than she would ever admit but she would never talk about her worries. Her father wasn’t like the others she kept telling herself, whatever it was that was claiming those innocent guards and commanders, Gwyl was a hundred times stronger. He could fight them off. And so could she and Macklyn.
“No,” said Gwyl, “I can’t possibly imagine why someone would want to kidnap me.”
A hum of laughter went across the room as Carida re-entered with a large helping of pork pie and a glass of cranberry juice. She placed the tray firmly on Tarley’s lap and glared at her in a way that suggested that if Tarley didn’t eat it all she would be disowned as a daughter.
“I still think The Inquiry is involved,” said Carida as she sat down in one of the low arm chairs. “Especially after those records they stole from Jobern. They’re clearly after the guards.”
“I don’t know why they don’t just round the lot of them up and-” began Gwyl before his eyes landed on Tulis.
He stopped talking and took another swig of his drink, averting his gaze to the corner of the room. Tulis turned her head away but everyone had already seen the faint tears welling in her eyes.
Tarley continued to eat; she never knew how to react in those situations and always felt like no matter what she said it was the incorrect response.
“Well, there are still many theories,” said Gwyl, “I’m confident that Darvin will get to the bottom of it.”
Emlyn guffawed, “Someone better had.”
Tarley quickly finished her food as the conversation progressed to other goings on in Liliath including the recent drug raids in Cornlake and whether Yanto’s half-sister’s cousin’s boy was still thinking of applying to the academy.
Twenty minutes later and Tarley was finally out of the door and strolling through Miraylia.
It was a fairly warm night with just enough of the sun’s glow left that people weren’t hurrying to get to the believed safety of home. Tarley could feel the infection of panic spreading across the people and the days of denying it were starting to come to an end. The people were scared and they didn’t want to pretend otherwise for any longer.
No one knew why the bridge needed guards but it had been that way for centuries and now they were disappearing from their homes or even while they were on duty without a single clue left behind.
That was what the public were told, anyway. Tarley knew of several guards who had been present during a disappearance but they were bound by the bridge’s confidentiality laws never to speak of it unless given direct orders from Darvin.
Even family members couldn’t discuss their shifts with each other, there had been so many times when Tarley had wanted to ask Gwyl about something peculiar on her shift but if he had not been there with her she would have been committing treason as soon as she uttered the words.
The bridge had always been the most secure location in all of Liliath but for centuries even the Head Commanders had allowed tourists to come up to the entrance gate to see if they could get a peek at the guards in their famous uniforms. But those times now felt like a passage in a story book.
The only people who could ever step foot on that bridge were its guards and the Cloaks. Tarley was certain that no guard of the Arben Bridge would ever commit such treason and, despite the chill that the Cloaks brought, she very much doubted that they were responsible for the disappearances.
Even so, the people of Miraylia, especially The Inquiry, wanted answers. Tarley used to wear her uniform with pride through the city but now she did her best to hide any evidence of her job and she hated herself for it.
She reached Gracefalls Park and stopped for a moment. It had long been her favourite place in the city and it saddened her that so many people were now in a rush to leave before it got dark. The crystals in the trees would soon be alight and the whole park would be bathed in a dim, golden glow that made it look like it was bursting with life, refusing to quieten even as the night drew in.
“Do not follow me, my dark mistress, for only sorrow you will bring. I am but a man, who can only fall, when you begin to sing,” a weak voice sang from behind Tarley.
She turned around to find a thin man sat on the pavement, covered in dirt and clutching his knees like a scared child. He had a threadbare blanket hanging over his limp shoulders and before him sat a tatty hat with a pitiful amount of coins laying inside.
“If you do not leave now I know that hope will never run free. And forever more, under your spell I will be.” The man looked up at Tarley and gave her a melancholic smile. “Do you like the Songs of Night, young haf?”
“Not really,” said Tarley, fearing that she had offended him. The way he had sung the start of the song had somehow saddened Tarley and she wondered if he could sense it. The weakness and fragility of his voice made her unsure if she should comfort him or run as far away as she could.
“That surprises me,” said the man but his lips did not move.
Tarley stepped back as he smiled at her, revealing his yellowed and decaying teeth. His eyes also seemed brighter, as if a sudden flare of light had risen up behind them.
“Am I a surprise to you, haf?” His voice echoed across Tarley’s mind but, once again, he didn’t seem to be speaking.
She turned and ran, her hand flying towards where her sword usually hung. She could hear him cackling in the background as she sped along the cobbled streets and her heart continued to race along with her.
She finally slowed down as she reached Battle Close but she still glanced behind her to see if she had been followed. However, all she was met with was bemused stares from the few people that dared to be on the street at that time of night.
She took a deep breath and walked in to the pub where the sound of laughter and chatter was almost overwhelming. Tarley almost felt bewildered at the contrast between the pub and the near perfect silence of the streets.
She tried not to dwell on the homeless man as she scanned the small pub for her friends but his ominous tone and deep laugh were still repeating themselves in her mind. She tried to picture his lips moving as he spoke but the image never materialized, all she remembered was a perfectly still man taunting her with his eyes.
Small white light crystals were dotted around the dark room and gave it an almost serene radiance that went someway to pulling Tarley’s mind from her recent encounter and in to the pub. The landlady was renowned for providing a homely and comforting atmosphere that very few other pubs offered in the city. Tarley and her friends had all had their first glass of beer there and had no intentions of ever turning their backs on The Tulip.
Tarley pushed her way through the small crowd that was gathered at the bar until she was at the centre of the pub and could finally see a glimpse of spiky brown hair that belonged to Ada.
She walked towards the table, which was surrounded by her friends and a few faces that she didn’t recognise, but that didn’t bother her. She could feel her chest relax somewhat at the sight of them and unclenched the fist she had unconsciously formed.
“Hello!” Beamed Ada, pulling her friend close. “You’re just in time, it’s Mitch’s round.”
Mitch, a fairly tall man with dark stubble and thick hair, shook his head as he got to his feet. “What do you want, Tarley?” He asked.
“A white wine would be perfect, thank you,” said Tarley before turning her attention to everyone sat around the table. “So what are we talking about?”
“Just work,” said Ada. “I’ve been commissioned to redesign Visolette Park.”
“That’s fantastic!” Said Tarley and gave her friend another hug. She couldn’t remember a time when Visolette Park hadn’t been in a state of ruin, no plant attempted to grow there and it was an infamous hotspot for drug dealing. Tarley knew that if anyone could turn it in to a beautiful haven it would be Ada.
Tarley couldn’t remember a time when Ada wasn’t squinting her eyes at a part of Miraylia and saying which plants and flowers could drastically improve it. Of course, Tarley never had a clue what Ada was talking about but she smiled and nodded just the same.
“What about you? How is the bridge?” Asked Ada.
The talk around the table seemed to mellow slightly as Ada finished her question but Tarley answered with the same ‘Fine, thanks’ that she always did.
Mitch soon returned and placed a glass of white wine in front of Tarley, which she quickly took a huge sip from as Ada told her more about her commission.
However, Ada may as well not have been speaking as nothing she was saying was being absorbed by Tarley. Her mind was wandering and at the forefront was the homeless man from the street.
Some would have called him a Sovran but no one really believed in those anymore; Tarley believed the history books to be true and was confident that they had all died out centuries ago. Even so, there were definitely those who still thought that they could prey on people’s uncertainties with little tricks.
That must have been all it was, thought Tarley, a trick.
“So then I took all of my clothes off and gave Neb Figmore a lap dance,” said Ada.
“What?!” Said Tarley, finally paying attention to what Ada was saying.
“So you are listening,” said Ada with a large smirk on her face.
Ada leaned in and lowered her voice so that only Tarley could hear her speak. “Rough day?”
“Sort of. I’m just going to pop to the loo.”
Tarley swiftly left the main room of the pub and walked in to one of the empty cubicles in the women’s toilets. She locked the door behind her and leaned against the wall, closing her eyes.
Am I a surprise to you, haf?
The question was replaying in her head as if someone had pressed the repeat button on a music player. What had he meant? Why had he said it?
Maybe if she’d just tossed him a few coins and walked away he wouldn’t have tried to agitate her. She tried to imagine how she would have reacted if she was living on the street and saw hundreds of people walking past her without so much as a glance in her direction, she had no doubt that she would snap sooner or later.
But how had he done it? He must have just thrown his voice but his lips were perfectly still, a man like that could make millions. He wouldn’t be living on the streets.
“Get a grip,” Tarley said to herself and left the toilet. She washed her hands in the sink, splashed her face with the water and made her way back in to the pub.
“Excuse me,” said a middle-aged man as Tarley walked past. “But did I hear you mention that you work on the bridge?”
“Only if you were eavesdropping,” said Tarley and the man answered her with a toothy grin. “But yes, I’m a guard.”
“And how does it make you feel knowing that one of your own has turned against you? Those poor people disappearing without a trace, it has to be an inside job.”
“I can assure you it’s not.”
“Pull the other one! Somebody is killing those guards, I’m convinced of it, and if it isn’t one of your scummy pals, then who is it?”
Tarley reacted before she gave herself a chance to think and pushed the man so hard that he fell backwards against a nearby wall. She could hear the gasps but part of her didn’t care, she knew that guards of the bridge were meant to be in control of themselves at all times but she had felt the tension building inside of her all night, waiting for a time when it could be released.
“See?! Fucking scum!” Yelled the man as he got to his feet. “You all act like you’re so much better than us but you’re not!”
Tarley lurched forward but Ada was already in front of her, blocking her path and glaring at her friend. Despite her small frame Tarley suddenly saw Ada as one of the large guards on the bridge who was always desperate for an excuse to punch someone.
“Stop it, Tarley!” She shouted. “I think maybe you should go home.”
“Why should I? He was-”
“Just go home,” Ada interrupted. “Do you really think that a volatile guard is the kind of publicity that the bridge needs right now?”
Tarley didn’t respond but marched through the pub towards her friends and grabbed her bag in one fell swoop before striding back out on to the street. She could sense everyone staring at her and as she closed the door behind her the chatter began in earnest.
Let them talk, thought Tarley. They obviously have nothing better to do.
As she walked home all she could think about were Ada’s words. She wondered if Darvin would find out, or anybody on the bridge for that matter. The number of guards on the bridge may have been dwindling but she felt she knew the commanders well enough to know that they would have little problem dismissing a junior guard for improper behaviour.
She was furious with herself. She had never behaved like that and would never dream of hurting someone unless they were attacking the bridge. A few nasty words from a drunken fool shouldn’t have affected her so much, she knew that. She was meant to be better than the average person on the street.
By the time she reached her house her mind was no less calm than it had been at The Tulip. She headed straight for the kitchen and poured herself a large wine with shaking hands.
She took a large gulp before going in to the living room and placing three image crystals in to three slots carved in to a pane of wood with a numeric keyboard at its top. She placed the controller on the floor and a slim woman in her thirties soon appeared via the hologram. She was walking through a field in Paxia explaining why it was so important for local residents to support their farmers.
Tarley couldn’t care less but she was far too content to sit with her wine than to trawl through all of the channels. Besides, there was rarely anything decent to watch at that time of night.
The front door opened and Mabli, an athletic woman with blonde, wavy hair walked in to the lounge. Tarley was a little surprised to see her as she had assumed that she was already in bed.
“You’re back early,” said Mabli.
“Yeah, no one turned up,” replied Tarley. “I thought you weren’t on a shift tonight?”
“I wasn’t, I just fancied a walk.”
Tarley nodded, she often found it hard to make conversation with Mabli, not because she outright disliked her but because she had taken a room after one of her house mates had disappeared from the bridge. Tarley didn’t understand why they couldn’t keep the room empty considering that the rent was paid for by the Bureau but Darvin had been adamant that it should be filled. There were still another two empty rooms in the house but every guard that was now left had a home.
Tarley used to relish coming home to such a full house, there would always be someone at home to talk to after a shift and, luckily, everyone got on really well but now she was growing to hate it.
Not one of the people who lived at number twenty Fray Avenue had ever thought that they would go missing. They were all young and strong; the perfect examples of Arben Bridge guards. Even the two commanders who had lived there had only left the academy five years previously. But none of it mattered. The commanders disappeared within two weeks of each other and then Brecon had gone a month later. Mabli seemed to sweep in out of nowhere with her constantly upbeat attitude and total ignorance as to how Tarley was feeling. She didn’t want a new friend, she just wanted her old ones back.
No one had prepared Tarley for the silence that came when they left. She didn’t just miss them but missed the noise that they brought the most. She no longer came home to the sound of laughter or the clatter of pans as someone experimented in the kitchen. There were no arguments or pointless drunken debates, just Mabli and Tarley plodding through the day.
“I don’t think I can be bothered with this,” Tarley finally said after a long silence. “I’m going to bed. Night.”
“Good night,” said Mabli as she watched Tarley leave the room, wishing more than anything that she could make her trust her.