Bridging the Istandaärtha was not merely a marvel of engineering and a feat of politics. It was a financial nightmare. The Corazhas might have decreed in favour of the proposal: but Parliament and the Treasury, two tortuously intertwined bodies, had an authoritative say in the matter. The first appropriations bill to reach Maia made his eyes cross. It was eighty-seven pages long, and said Summary at the top.
"Csethiro, wert thou educated in financial matters?" It was the sixth evening after their wedding, and Parliament had been debating all day. The ink was still fresh on the document.
"Not formally," she said, jumping into bed. Her nightgown rode up to show a flash of pale, elegant leg. In the corner of the room Cala leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling.
Maia wandered over to the bed himself, frowning over opening pages. "It seems a truly vast sum," he murmured, sitting on the edge. "But I have never used money. Mayhap I have no sense of scale."
Csethiro scrambled over to him, rumpling the blankets, and perched her chin on his shoulder. "Of course it's a truly vast sum," she said, breath warm against his ear. "It's a truly vast project." One hand snaked over his shoulder and turned the page. "Also, it won't be enough."
"Of course not. Parliament has underbudgeted so they can complain when the construction inevitably goes over budget."
Maia felt distinctly peculiar as he contemplated the long number written at the bottom of the seventh page. Seeking relief, he turned to page eight. Here began the rough itemisation of costs involved in the bridge, beginning with things that would never have occurred to him. Printing and binding copies (sixty) of this document for all appropriate archives came to a total slightly greater than the money Setheris had given Kevo each quarter at Edonomee for the kitchen. And how Setheris had always complained.
“Now, I’ve a question for thee. Is finance,” asked Csethiro, kissing his neck, “really more interesting than me?”
Maia’s face went hot. Shivers ran down his back. He dropped the bill on the floor and dragged the heavy bedcurtains into place. They were both getting expert at ignoring the nohecharis in the room, and, snug in their own little world, neither of them thought any further about money that night.
Five months after their wedding, the finalised compulsory purchase bill passed through Parliament. After hearing the news, Maia went to one of the Alcethmeret’s many receiving rooms, where resided the working model of the Wisdom Bridge. It had been gifted to him by the Clocksmiths’ Guild after the Corazhas had approved the project. The tiny vegetable garden, the laundry line, the grazing cows – all captivated him just as they had the first time. But they would soon exist only in the model. The bridge would need all surrounding space for coal-stores, repair yards, supply depots, and living quarters for the stokers and supervisors.
Csethiro found him standing there, and took his hand. “Regrets?”
“Yes and no,” he said. An autumnal chill lingered in the air; he liked the way that her warmth poured into him from that simple gesture. “Csevet tells me that the compulsory purchase terms are very good, and these farmers will be bought out at the high end of market value. But I read some of the valuations and the appeals, and many properties have been in the families for hundreds of years. And,” he added, turning to take her other hand, “thou wert right.”
She flicked one ear, adorned with pink and white pearls. “I often am,” she teased. “About what in particular?”
“A new budget is to be debated in Parliament tomorrow. They’re asking for an extra million for the bridge.”
“And a half, Serenity,” said Kiru mildly from behind him. “A million and a half. Excuse the interruption.”
Csethiro shrugged, swinging their joined hands. “Small change,” she said coolly. “Shall we have a wager? By Winternight the bridge will be at twice the first projected costs.”
He looked at the model. The wonder of it rose up in his heart, as always, except this time it was nearly eclipsed by anxiety. All the passionate arguments about building the bridge had been about the probability of success and the effects on the future. Cost, financial and human, had not come into it, until the decision was made.
“By all accounts the towers are already a magnificent sight.” Csethiro looked a little wistful. “I cannot wait to see them myself, one day.”
“I wish I could see them now,” he admitted. “It would be easier to have faith in these endless bills.” He was to lead the dedication ceremony, when the bridge was complete, but that was still years away. “I’ll send the farmers gifts,” he said abruptly, the idea rising quick and unheralded as a fish in a pool. “To show my personal gratitude. Clocks, perhaps. That would be fitting.”
“A good notion. Mer Aisava has been looking far too underworked recently.” She winked, then sighed. “An even better notion would be for me to send the gifts.”
“Mercy and charity and displays of sentiment are the usual province of a zhasan.”
The sourness in her voice almost made him laugh, but he was full of tenderness. He reeled her in for an embrace. “We will send them jointly,” he said softly, and they stood there for a time, looking at the model, until Kiru reminded them that there was to be a meeting of the Corazhas.
A week before Winternight, Maia and Csethiro woke entwined in each other’s arms and a large number of loose sheets of paper. “It’s only to be expected,” she yawned into his ear, as she had said so many times the night before, and peeled off his arm a paper documenting how much money had been spent on a flawed cargo of iron girders from Barizhan. It was part of the Opposition’s argument against increasing the bridge’s budget, again.
Maia turned his head to the bedcurtains, eyes prickling with unexpected tears. The dream of crossing the Istandaärtha was fading, replaced by a bitter reality of displaced people and massive financial drain. He seemed to feel those girders as a palpable weight on his own soul.
“Maia, don’t weep.” Csethiro wrapped around him like she was trying to be a cloak. “Nobody’s ever done something like this before. Parliament’s first costs were willfully wrong, but they had no sound notion of what to be wrong about in the first place.”
“So thou hast said.” There was a lump in his throat.
“The bridge has taken up a fifteenth of this year’s total governmental budget, Maia. That is rather less than the military.” She curled her legs around him. He wanted to return her touch, but he had to make her understand.
“Csethiro, it’s over-budget. Hugely.”
“And it’s on time.”
“Scores of property owners were displaced.”
“And paid fair prices. And given excellent silver clocks. Art not Edrethelema III, who built this very Court on farmland without paying the owners a single coin.”
“It may not even work!” And there it was, the worst fear, unfaced till this moment. Everything was easier once he’d said it. “Oh, Csethiro, I have become so afraid that I was wrong about the bridge, after all, and they were right.”
“Oh,” she said. “Oh, dear one. No.”
And if he had been wrong about the bridge, in what else had he been mistaken? His entire reign, perhaps. Sickness spasmed in his gut.
“Tis more likely than not that it will work, Maia. But tell me this: what if it does not?”
“I don’t know,” he whispered, burying his face in her hair. “I dreamed of this bridge, but I knew nothing of making dreams real.”
“Answer me this. Where’s the money going, Maia?”
“To build the bridge. Draining the treasury. There was that flawed cargo - ”
She huffed into his ear. “In a project this size it isn’t surprising that one or two shipments will be flawed. Maia, think. Where, exactly, is the money going?”
To build the bridge, he thought.
Except bridges weren’t built out of air by sprites. His hands came up slowly to touch her waist.
“Labourers,” he said.
“Labourers, yes. Stonemasons. Metalworkers. Bargemen and bargemasters. Masons. Miners for stone and iron and coal. Cooks and sewage carters – there are two thousand labourers building the towers on each bank! And that’s just a start.” He could feel the fierceness of her breathing and her heart-beat against his chest. “The money isn’t going to nowhere, Maia. Even if the construction fails, even if thy worst fears are realised, thy bridge is giving money to thy people. What better use for it? Would’st rather it mouldered in the treasury, or sent more battalions north to die against the Nazhmorhathveras?”
In his mind there was an image of a labourer being given wages.
He swallowed, and shifted so that they lay side by side. A weight was melting from his heart, and he kissed her. He wanted to say thank you and I’m sorry, but the words didn’t seem enough. “It has ground me down,” he said instead. “The worry. If it failed ... if I failed. If I pushed too far, and hurt the country.” Except that Csethiro had turned his thoughts around. The bridge was a process as well as a goal, a part of life already for thousands of others.
“My Maia.” The words were a whispered song against his mouth. “The bridge rises, and even if its final workings fail, the idea is built into thy empire and has already given so much, and one day we can try again.”
Her words were a compass needle bringing him back into alignment with his dreams. He held her tightly and whispered soft, incoherent things to her. Inside his soul, his hope for the Wisdom Bridge burned pure again, right beside his love for her.