Bridge of Dreams
The first volume of Selling Water by the River
For a thousand years, the great city of Sund stood impregnable while its enemy, Maras, remained outside the walls. Then the Marasi harnessed the powers of magic. Erecting an otherworldly bridge whose foundations were rooted in sorcery, the Marasi overran the walls of Sund, and threw them down.
In the city of Maras-Sund, magic has been outlawed. Yet there are children being born with raw magical talent-and there are those who would rally behind them to rebel against their hated overlords. Issel, a young water-seller from the poorest part of the city, possesses the gift for magic. And when he is recognized for his talents, recruited, and trained in the arts, his abilities may hold the key to his people's salvation.
Bridge of Dreams was published in 2006 by Ace, (hardback ISBN: 978-0-441-01324-1, paperback ISBN-13: 978-0-441-01408-8).
It is now available as an audio download from Audible.com.
An extract to read online
Once it had been the fountains themselves that had babbled in their gardens. So he'd been told, at least, by men who had been old in his trade before ever the bridge had come and the Marasi over it. Old themselves now, bent and toothless, strong; they held their place with sticks and curses and with guile. And talked, of course, as old men will, how good things were before: how green the gardens and how sweet the water, how it leaped in jets as high as the city wall, no, higher, and fell again to flow like living crystal in streams and falls from the central basin to every corner of this broad parade. Paths and lawns surrounded it, trees overhung it; bridges spanned it, cut from the same veined marble as the channels where the water ran, but it was always the water that held the eye and the heart. It seemed to be veined itself, shot through with gold and silver; it gleamed even once it = was drawn into urn or jug or bucket, it shimmered even in the tin cups of the sakalar. So they said, at least, the old men who had drawn it, borne it, sold it.
No longer. There was no power now, to make water leap and sing; the Marasi had forbidden it. The jets were stopped with leaden plugs, the bridges were broken, the channels blocked by rubble, clogged with the slime of years. The trees had been felled, and the lawns were reckless with weeds and wild grasses. This was a place of fear, a display of raw power, Marasi might triumphant over defiant, defeated Sund.
The public gardens where the fountains played, here had been the living heart of the city; here was the gleam, gold in the water, the affirmation of Sundain strength and soul; here was - of course! - where the Marasi had brought their bridge to ground.
It looked like a bridge in mist, or in the soft monochrome shadows of first dawn, when there would be light but no sun yet. It steamed, or smoked perhaps, lending an acrid tang to the air. It seemed to be no work of man, no honest build. It lacked a parapet; it had no piers, no trusses to support it. It might have been poured of molten stone, if stone could melt like glass and be cooled like glass and look so insubstantial. It defeated the mind and the imagination; it defeated the eye altogether, rising through its own fog to overleap where the walls had stood, rising higher and stretching further, overleaping all the width of the river beyond, the great and unbridgeable river of the world.
It looked like a legend, a picture from some ancient tale; it should have been a legend and nothing more, a thing impossible. The wrath of Maras had fallen upon Sund in a single night, half the population of the city swore it, all those who had lived through and survived that night and the morning, the many mornings, the days and months and years that followed. They had gone to bed secure, because Sund ruled the river and so the Sultan could never come at them; they had woken to find the river bridged and the armies of Maras already within their walls.
The armies of Maras were with them still. There was always a squad on guard at the foot of the bridge; there were always troops coming and going across it, during the hours of daylight. Never at night. Even the Marasi would not treat their own men that unkindly. At night it gleamed like a rainbow sickly twisted out of true. Its light fell through the mists of its own making, brighter than moonlight beneath its arch, seeming to make the air itself glow. That was the Shine, which cut a swathe of terror nightly from the dead gardens here to the strand below. After twenty years, the Sundain were still learning how slow its poison was, how deep it ran. Only fools disregarded the dangers of the Shine. Fools and boys, and Issel was both; fools and boys and watersellers, seemingly, after last night, and Issel was all three. Small wonder that he worried about his teeth.
IsseI had heard how strange it was to cross the bridge, that strangest of bridges, from people who could not possibly know. What he'd seen for himself was Marasi troops fresh off the bridge and staggering, sweating, dizzy, confused. Some sank to the ground despite their sergeants' screaming, others pushed straight through to the fountains and drank, or dipped their heads in the water and came up gasping. Some vomited, before or after; some were crude enough, debased enough to vomit into the water. Deliberately, sometimes. There were Marasi who could never taint enough of Sundain water; they must piss or spit into every pool, every basin, every wellhead.
The great central basin was all that was left whole among the fountains. Hot lead had destroyed the jets, but not choked off the water; it came bubbling up still, clean and pure. Half the city fetched its water from here, now that every source below the bridge was tainted.
Once, long ago the watersellers had filled their urns at spouts, a line of gushing lion-masks set in a wall of marble at the gardens' eastern gate. Now that wall was gone and the gate too, the pipes that took the water there were shattered and dry; the watersellers must jostle and queue with the women and slaves at the basin's rim, and give swift way to any Marasi trooper.
Elbows and knees and a sharp chin, a hard head for butting: all were useful and he used them all this morning, squeezing through a pack of bodies, blessing those men who would let themselves be bullied out of their place and cursing those who would not. The women were easier to offend, swifter to retaliate; he offered them honeyed words in whispers, eyes and smiles, and still yelped at their pinching fingers as he slithered past.
He carried the bulky, awkward urn like a child in his arms, the stopper already between his teeth, so that when he reached the basin's rim, he could thrust it immediately hard under the water's surface. Best not to linger, not to anticipate...
A slow tingle in his fingers, in his arms, starting where they were under the water but rising higher, running all through his body, fizzing in his spine. It was always like this, building to a cold clean ache like a blade in his bones, in every one of his bones. He'd been a dirty child, because washing frightened him; he'd never learned to swim.
Bubbles rose as the urn filled. As they burst, he felt the same thing happening inside, all his fear and confusion squeezed out of him by the rising touch of water, the deep possessive feel of it that was so nearly pain, so nearly pleasure and yet neither one of those. This was why he sold water, why he lingered near water, why he had slept on the strand. Even the slimy rankness of the boat's bilge had offered him this, last night in his terror.
This morning as every morning he was overcome, stilled and chilled by the wonder and insignificance of himself against this simple potency. He stood and felt nothing of the world around him, felt everything inside his skin, the pulse and flow of everything that was wet and living and bound by his own name.
The urn was full, he was full and overflowing, shivering, fit to scream. He didn't scream; he hoisted the urn out of the basin, knocked in the stopper, thrust his arms through the straps, let the weight of it swing him around —
— and found himself alone, all that press of people gone from behind him. They might have touched him as they went, tugged at him, whispered or shouted or shrieked; he had not noticed.
So they had left him, and here came a booted Marasi sergeant with a swaying, muttering troop of men behind, fresh off the bridge and craving water, and he was standing in their way.
Men had died for less. Too late to dive aside; the sergeant's hand was on his sword-hilt, and IsseI couldn't move fast with all this water on his back.
All he could do was stumble forward, towards the soldiers, already reaching to his hip for cup and spigot: "Sir, sir, I have drawn you water, sir, to save you having to stoop and drink like animals, like we do from our hands, sir, you can drink from my cup; save you getting mud on your boots, sir, and your men slipping in the wet of it..."