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Augente 2, 1535

Night winds stirred the papers on his desk. They whistled and hummed through half-completed inventions strewn about the floor, works of bronze, wax, and sailcloth. The currents were not refreshing. Like the day just ended, they were warm, soggy and stifling, smelling of rotting fish and burning oil. The lamps guttered and smoked and swung in the muggy gusts, strobing forth brightly when they slackened. His skills had brought him wealth enough to build a tower above the soot and filth, but the sea winds running through his study brought no relief. He sat in the breath of a giant.

The citizens of Maridia spent the days sweating and grumbling that it was the hottest summer in living memory. The old man in the tower knew better. When he was a boy, there had been a summer the wells had gone dry, and fish had bobbed like blue and silver driftwood on each incoming tide. Few others remembered those days. The commoners had died of overwork or disease, and the wealthy of indulgence or... diseases of a more discreet nature.

He alone abided. He allowed a moment of pride in his disdain of indulgence. Then he decided that, in itself, was indulgence. He frowned at himself and pushed it firmly out of mind. Satisfaction was the privilege of those at the peak of their craft. He blotted the sweat from his brow with a scrap of oily cloth, and picked up the quill again.

Blank, pure parchment, untainted by mortal hand. Nothing, and so... everything. Infinite possibility, until one began to chip away at the emptiness, break it into pieces, define spaces and proportions.

How presumptuous to disturb its purity.

His vague and muddled ideas, cloudy visions of buttresses and gears. Were they really so different than his previous work? Weren't they more of the same, with slightly different details? Wasn't that what they always said? That there was nothing original in his work, just adjustments to old, comfortable formulae? New combinations of others' works? Curves he'd described a decade ago, forces he'd prodded into motion a hundred times or more? Skilled, but uninspired. Workmanlike. Not at all like the Arch-Shaper, whose every design seemed to burst fully-formed from some distant land untrammeled by the feet of mortal men.

He drew a tremulous line across the infinite, dividing it in twain. He glared at it, feeling the weight of the sticky night on his stooped shoulders.

It was in the wrong place.

He slid the marred parchment aside, sketched the line on the next sheet. Differently, in another place. That would allow a solid connection to the vestibule...

Eyes unfixed, his hand worked of its own accord, finding within the infinity of the parchment soaring western domes, columns that evoked the works of the ancient east. Tabernacle reliefs sank into hypothetical walls. Windmills, waterwheels, and furnaces pulled momentum from theoretical air, water, and fire. Gears and shafts carried the motion through the very walls to a speculative central sanctuary, where they set in motion whirling constellations that mimicked the stars and clouds moving sluggishly across the sky outside.

"Maestre Petrus?" a small voice broke the humid silence.

"Mm... Mm, what?" Petrus said, blinking at the pile of papers that had grown up before him, the edifice described in ink and parchment.

"It's nearly dawn, sir."

"Oh." His eyes burned from long use. He squeezed them closed, wincing and pinching the bridge of his nose as they watered in relief. "Thank you, Varde." When he opened his weary eyes again, the boy favored him with a humble bow.

"A productive night, sir?" Varde asked, setting out a platter of bread and cheese. He produced a goblet from somewhere, and pulled the stopper from a carafe of wine. Weak wine, to be sure; Petrus' stomach could no longer tolerate the fashionable excesses of his youth. But given a choice between a sour stomach for the morning or a disease from the city’s wells, the choice was clear enough.

Petrus lifted the latest sheet up to the light and peered at it, trying to ignore the blemishes of sleeve-smudges and snapped quills. It was... satisfactory. "Productive?" he murmured as he cast his eye across the lines. "I should say. Yes, I should say."

"It's a wonder, sir," the boy breathed, peering over his shoulder with goblet in hand. "It's sure to best whatever Eidolus has come up with."

Petrus frowned and set the parchment firmly on the desk. He rose, trying not to stagger as old bones struggled to adjust to their new arrangement.

"Well," he said, gruffly, "that would be a pleasant change of pace."

* * *

Augente 5, 1535

Count Caliani pursed his lips as he compared the parchments. He glanced around at the other noblemen, who gave nigh-imperceptible nods. He set the sheets aside and folded his hands on the tabletop. "Excellent work, both of you. Everything we could have hoped for."

"Thank you, My Lords," Petrus said gravely. He found that in the long silence, his fingers had twisted into the tail of his rapidly silvering beard. He clasped both hands behind his back. It would not do to suggest lack of confidence.

"Always a pleasure, Mazio," Eidolus said, running a hand through his rumpled salt-and-pepper hair. He looked unslept, his normal good humor muted. In the shadows along the wall, his wife waited with several retainers.

Heavy curtains were drawn against the heat of the midday sun, only a thin crack of light permitted to split the marble floor. The wood-paneled room was still and sweltering. The assembled nobles were wilting in their gold and silver finery, mopping the sweat from bald heads, quivering jowls, and thick necks - except for the ascetic Duke Anzerani, who had dressed with characteristic simplicity. He had ignored the proceedings entirely, scribbling restless notes on a sheet of parchment, turning it to and fro to fit more cramped words along the margins. Retainers stood to either side of the table, pointlessly stirring the turgid air with large feather fans.

The Count glanced down at the table, as if checking an imaginary set of notes. "I am certain you both appreciate the importance we place on this project." Ah. A prepared speech. "Progress is the patron Spirit of Maridia. That the princes of Genalfi have erected a larger shrine than ours is... unacceptable."

Petrus noted the Count's telling choice of verbs and allowed a cynical half-smile.

"After reviewing your proposals, we have been unable to decide which better glorifies the Spirit. Therefore, we would like to commission 1/10th scale study models from both of you. Fully functioning, if you please. We will let the Spirit Himself decide. Whoever's design first attracts Him will be commissioned to build a full-sized version."

The Shapers exchanged frowning glances. In this, at least, they were in accord. Eidolus inclined his head slightly, deferring to the older man. Or rather, Petrus thought wryly, graciously allowing him to risk irritating the merchant princes. Petrus cleared his throat. "This is extremely irregular, My Lords." After a moment, he added, significantly, "Such has not been done in my lifetime."

The Count's cheek twitched into a weak, lopsided smile. He tugged at his sweat-damp collar. "I'm sure you can appreciate that this is an irregular project, Maestre Petrus. Our prestige - Maridia's prestige - is at stake. And rarely does a project attract proposals from two Shapers of such... formidable renown."

Petrus and Eidolus exchanged another glance. The younger man shrugged with his eyes. Petrus tugged his beard and considered. "I assume you will pay for the construction of these study models?"

Count Calliani pulled back like a cat confronted by bathwater. "Pay for..? Surely you realize the expense of - er," he fumbled, realizing the trap in his own words.

"Yes, Mazio," Duke Anzerani said dryly, "I dare say they are as aware of the potential cost as you." He did not look up from his notes. "Since this was your proposed solution, I am sure you have no objection to personally covering the Shapers' costs." After a deadly pause to dot an "i", the Duke's ice-chip eyes swiveled up to fix the Count in a glare. "Yes?"

The Count looked ill. "N-no. No objection, Your Grace." He dabbed at his forehead with a scrap of brightly-dyed silk and inclined his head towards the Shapers. "I will cover your construction costs. For... for the glory of our city. Of course."

Petrus stifled a derisive snort. Duke Anzerani did not bother to. After some closing remarks no one listened to, Count Calliani adjourned the meeting. The Duke was on his feet before the echoes faded, gathering a stack of ledgers and papers, snapping his fingers for servants to fetch what he couldn’t carry himself. He strode out quickly, boots snapping on the marble.

"The Count looks like he found half a worm in his apple," Eidolus observed, with a small, tired smile. A popular bard had sung that the Arch-Shaper had eyes the color of the future; their color impossible to pin down, shifting from green to blue to grey. Today they were overcast.

Petrus looked down at the younger man, and found himself tugging his beard again. "I would offer you good fortune, but I expect you do not need it. Also, it would not be in my best interests."

Eidolus' eyes crinkled into a more genuine smile and rubbed the faint stubble on his weathered cheeks. "I can always rely on you to speak honestly, my friend."

Petrus frowned. "I don’t believe I'd call us friends."

"Oh? I would," Eidolus shrugged. His wife and retainers approached. "Then let's say instead... that we should each try to produce our best work."

"Then you should win handily," Petrus replied, sourly.

"So they want you to do the work twice. Or once for no advantage," Eidolus' wife groused. She brushed a tangle of humidity-frizzed black hair behind her ear. He'd never met the Arch-Shaper's wife. She was much shorter than he'd expected from her reputation; wide-hipped and small-chested, her hair a waist-length cascade of tangles and half-curls that doubtless drove any maid with a brush to despair. The unornamented silver clasps at her temples seemed to contribute nothing at all to keeping it under control.

"Maestre Decamari," she greeted him, wincing through a half-curtsey.

"Petrus, please, My Lady," he sketched a bow.

"Imanna, then," she replied, but did not offer her hand according to custom. He noticed, with surprise, that she was leaning quite heavily on her parasol. She seemed pale, her movements stiff. Her breath came short and shallow. But her face betrayed nothing. She held her back ramrod-straight, and her black eyes showed only a gleam of determination.

"Your pardon, My La- Imanna, but... are you unwell?" Petrus asked.

"A bit of joint pain." She laughed gently. "I thought it was the weather, for the first few weeks."

"We don’t know- " Eidolus began.

"There is nothing wrong with my tongue, sweetheart," she said tartly, then stuck it out at her husband as proof. "Nyah."

Petrus blinked. The third daughter of a Duke just... made a face?

She continued, "We consulted apothecaries and chirurgeons. They don't recognize the symptoms. That didn't stop them from recommending expensive treatments, of course." She shook her head slightly, stiffly, the smile lines around her mouth deepening.

"Thank you," Eidolus said, suddenly and quietly. "For asking." His hands were twisting in on themselves as he watched his wife.

"Well," Petrus grumbled awkwardly. "Let's... let's each strive to produce our best work."

Continued...

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