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Heptaver 7, 1535

The shouts of the markets had subsided, but Mardia was never silent. The mechanisms of the city, the tireless works of Progress, clattered on into the night, inhaling the stench of fish and coal and breathing back fire and steam. Torches fluttered along the narrow streets below. Laborers and merchants wound their way wearily home, or to taverns serving watery beer and blinding spirits, or to men and women who loitered beneath street lamps, masking the scent of desperation with cheap perfumes.

The last crimson moments of the day had not yet settled on the hill. Curtains of shadow unrolled from the half-built walls. Evening sea-winds, cool and nearly-fresh, sent fine stone dust swirling across the unfinished floor.

Petrus blew the dust of his work away and laid his cheek on the night-cooled marble, squinting down the line of an etching. "Hm," he said, mostly satisfied, and pushed himself up from the ground.

He leaned back, shifted his numbed legs, and tried to make the pillows strapped to his knees more comfortable. It didn't work. With groan, almost certain he could hear his old bones creaking like oak in strong wind, he rolled to place his back against a stone and stretch out his legs. Every part of him ached. He wiped sweat-stringy hair back off his brow. The string he'd tied it back with was no longer working; it was everywhere except where he wanted it. He imagined he must look like Eidolus' wife.

The worst bit was the inlay on the floor. At 1/10th scale, it required careful, delicate work. He'd spent the last week with his face inches above the marble, tapping out the intricate paths with a jewelers' chisel and hammer. He couldn't trust it to any of his assistants or the hired laborers. If a mistake was made, best it be on his own hands. A decade previous, he'd watched a month of work destroyed by an apprentice's stray hammer-fall, and had nearly throttled the man to death.

At least the heat had finally broken. Of course, it had been broken by close-ordered ranks of tremendous thunderstorms from the sea. Progress halted while they marched implacably over the prostrate city for three days, flooding the roads and flushing the garbage and rot of the alleys into homes and shops.

Not his home, of course. He could afford to build his tower on the slope of one of the hills. While his hands were occupied with the work, his idle, wandering mind had concluded it was an apt metaphor that drenching the city hadn't left it clean, but spread its filth around.

It was remarkable how much time one had to think while engaged in repetitive labor. The poor, who had fewer thoughts, were surely better-suited for this sort of thing. After a few days he'd tasked Varde to accompany him to the site every day, to take down any ideas he might dictate.

"Might I get you something to drink, Maestre?" Varde asked. He'd fetched wine - one of the rare, expensive carafes he'd Shaped with patterns of chilling vitality. The bottle was bearded with frost.

"Nn-aht!" He coughed, cleared his dry throat and tried again. "No. Thank you, boy. Can't afford even a touch of intoxication now." He waved his arm wearily at the arcs and zig-zags that stretched away across the floor. "Not this close to the end."

"Sir," the boy said awkwardly, rocking his weight back and forth, one foot to the other. "You've been working since dawn."

Petrus raised his bushy brows. "We're behind schedule, Varde."

"So is Maestre Eidolus. Um, sir," he hastily added.

"Eidolus has the advantage." Petrus stretched out his right arm, pulling the knots out of tired, cramped flesh. "Do you know how he was discovered, Varde? How he got his start as a Shaper?"

"No, sir. I suppose I never thought about it."

"Mm. Understand what made a man, and you can predict his future decisions. Sometimes, anyway. Remember that."

"I'll make every effort to, sir."

"Eidolus," Petrus said, looking out across the construction site, "is a commoner. Was a commoner."

Around the site, torches and lanterns were sparking and sputtering to life. They would work into the night, of course. His labors weren't yet ended, so the men and women in his employ labored on as well, casting constant glances in his direction and muttering among themselves. But they would not dare lay their tools down before he did. The clink and scamper of chiseled stone echoed through the build site.

He rubbed his burning eyes to clear away the illusory silver drops swimming along the edges of his vision. "Eidolus had no training, just instinct. With no guidance but his own heart and hands, he Shaped a shrine to the Spirit of Progress. One fine enough that the Spirit descended to the slum he lived in."

Varde nearly tripped over himself. "Ah, to the slum, sir? A Spirit would..?" He looked scandalized.

Petrus chuckled, and looked at the backs of his hands. Every time he did these days, the flesh seemed baggier, the veins bluer. "The Spirits don't care about the things mortals use to measure themselves against one another. Wealth, influence, heritage? Possessions or... ah, the ability to produce heirs? Meaningless. To them, a mortal is a mortal."

Varde was looking at the ground, lips slightly parted, eyes flickering about like an animal seeking escape. "It- it never occurred to me to think such things, sir."

"You have much to consider today," Petrus said. He yawned unexpectedly, and shook his head to clear it. "My point was that Eidolus is well known to Progress. You could say that the Patron Spirit of Maridia - what we're doing all this to catch the eye of - is also his Patron Spirit."

"Progress," Varde said, as if repeating a foreign word. "When I say it, I think – I've always thought of Shapings. The bottle," he tilted the ice-rimed carafe, "or lamps that burn all night. I guess that's what my parents think too. That's what they say is progress; new things. But Eidolus is progress too. A commoner who became a Shaper."

"Well now," Petrus said. Varde winced and glanced up with frightened eyes. Petrus tried to assume a benign expression. He couldn't tell if it worked; Varde looked no less nervous. Without a mirror, he had trouble figuring out how to make his face look as he wished, as opposed to showing how he actually felt. Right now he just felt tired.

"That's the Promise of the West, yes?" Petrus said. "Here anyone with talent can reach the heights of power." He looked around the work site, at the day laborers in ratty clothes, puffing and sweating as they moved stone blocks into position. "I suppose fortune plays a bit of a role as well."

He frowned, then scowled, then scrambled to his feet. Or tried to; his sandals slid on the dust from his stone carving, and the breath escaped him in an irritated huff. "Stop!" he hollered. "What – what are you-?" The laborers, arguing in gutter-dialect over a half-raised block of granite, spared only a glance in his direction before they returned to their shouting and crude gestures.

"Sir?" Varde said, offering his hand.

"No!" He placed his feet firmly, winced at the twinge of pain in his hip, and levered himself to his feet. The walls lurched, moving a half-second behind his action. Maybe Varde was right. He should have stopped for lunch. Struggling to suppress a limp, he bustled across the work site.

"Stop! Look at what you're doing. You've got your hoist... just lower it back down," he barked. "You, you - get on that winch. You. Yes, you with the moustache. Clear a space at the base of the wall. I'll guide it."

One of the workers spat on the ground. "Who you think you are, eh? We do this ten years, old man."

Petrus dampened the urge to strike him. "I am your employer," he said, as calmly as he could. "I designed this edifice. I have been doing this for over thirty years. Any more questions? No? Good. The winch, if you please. Two of you, for safety."

The workers snapped to. Petrus stifled a yawn and steadied the swaying granite block with his fingertips. It was one of the bigger ones, several hundred pounds at least. He craned his neck, checked the clearances on both sides. It would be close. Why were they even trying to lift it through a rat's nest of ropes and scaffolding anyway? It would have been better to set it up on the far side. But that would mean disassembling and moving the winch. A solid hour of work. Longer, with these lazy, grumbling clods. They'd be work-stopped until tomorrow morning. No, better to guide it through carefully and move on. Better to take it in hand himself than watch them make a mess of it.

"We going?" Moustache yelled from the winch. Two burly fellows gripped the crank handles on either side of the rope spool.

"Slowly," he called back.

"Hup!" he heard Moustache call. The block lurched briefly downward as the safety wedges were pulled free and the men took the weight themselves. It began to ascend - slowly, as he'd asked. He kept his fingers on the twilight-cold stone, carefully spinning the block this way and that, threading it between ropes and debris.

He yawned, eyes watery with fatigue. Faintly, he heard a creak of distressed hemp. Had he missed a rope? Was the block snagged? He blinked away fatigue, peered up around the mass of stone, keeping one steadying arm on it.

He later swore he'd heard the snap of the rope after the stone lurched down onto his shoulder. Stars exploded at the end of a dark tunnel.

Clouds. Soft, folded rank on rank, glowing somberly in the sunset light from the sea. A roar of unintelligible noise. Varde's high voice skirled over the babble. He rolled his head to the right, saw the boy running over. His mouth was huge. He almost laughed. He tried to reach out to him, but only saw bright hot shards of light.

A shadow fell. Varde was eclipsed by stone, grey with black flecks.

Pain roared in, a wave of primal voices shocking the breath from his lungs, and he plunged into abyssal darkness.

Continued...

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