we all build

“Tell me the good news, Abi.” 
      A lanky man braced himself. “Here is the topography report, ser,” Abi said. 
      Rishad Bachan did not take the folder of documents. Instead, he stared out a dusty, muntinned window at a derelict quarry. A carving of the Bachan family crest hung on the wall—a pickaxe and a canary wreathed in precious gems. “Well?” 
      Abi nodded, said, “The escarpment that stands in our way is two-hundred thousand cubic meters of limestone. It will take the crew six months to excavate a meaningful amount of it.”
      “Six months?” 
      Abi swallowed. “At a thousand cubic meters per day.” 
      “That’s not soon enough.” 
      “This is the best we can do with the current staff.” 
      “Find more Builders,” Rishad said with finality. 
      “Ser,” Abi began. He took a breath. “Do you think that is possible with how we have been hemorrhaging laborers?” 
      “No-Beasts can carry rocks, can’t they?” 
      “No-Beasts, ser?” 
      Rishad pounded a fist into his hand. “We’ve done more than a thousand cubic meters in a day. I know we have. I want it done in three months.” 
      “I am sure you would, it’s just…Look.” Abi opened the folder and laid the documents out for his boss to see. Rishad did not turn to acknowledge them. The report didn’t matter. He knew what needed to be done and when it needed to be done by. The documents would be specs and diagrams of the land in question, interesting in an academic sense, but if history repeated itself, his subordinates would only use the data to justify their imminent failure. Such was the tragic pitfall of a family business. He could not surround himself with capability. He was stuck with the most spineless and gutless. The Bachan name used to mean something, but he supposed it was true what they say: Good times create weak men. 
      Outside, Rishad’s Calling took notice of Abi’s. Rishad’s beast was a Builder, through and through; it was built like a stone pier, limbs like flying buttresses. Wherever it stood, it stood immovably. Abi’s, on the other hand, had always been a sensitive spot for the man. It had a spiny integument and big, hooked horns. It was a strong but immature Defender. Until Rishad’s beast, Favi, had taken an interest, Ganta had been lounging lazily near the quarry. Now, indoors as much as by the cliffside, a confrontation was unfolding. 
      “Boss, would you take a look at these?” 
      “Three months, Abi,” was all Rishad said. 
      “Yes, no, but Rishad, it is not as simple as just…you can’t just…” Abi rubbed his neck. “It’s just…” 
      Favi lumbered into position. Ganta was caught between the massive beast and the cliff. Inch by inch, Rishad’s Calling closed the distance. Ganta was much faster than Favi, but the spiny beast hesitated. Favi had it right where he wanted it, in a slowly shrinking corner, in doubt of its intentions. 
“You don’t have the mind of a Builder,” Rishad shook his head disappointingly. “So what if we lose workers? The god will make more. Everyday more Builders are coming into maturity. You stall over the concerns of lesser men.”
      “That is not how I see it.” 
      “Of course not. You have that worthless beast who hasn’t made a thing for us. That you wear the Bachan name is a stain on your uncle. On me. You are the lesser man, which is why your father put me in charge instead of you. Please, if our ancestors could hear you now, giving excuses…” 
      “It is not ethical to drive your laborers to the brink of death, cousin. It is not admirable to squeeze every last bit out of them.” 
      “These ideas are dirt on your grave, cousin.” 
      “Is that a threat?” 
      “No, no, no,” Rishad assured him. “That’s not my style.” 
      A measure of ease washed over Abi. 
      Rishad smiled at his cousin. “I make promises. I am a man of action.”
      Outside, Favi moved in one rapid flourish. The beast spun its mass in a circle, striking Ganta with its hindquarters and pitching it over the edge of the cliff. A nest of thorns impaled into Favi’s side, mere flesh wounds that would heal before anyone thought to ask questions. A few pinpricks would pale in comparison to the effect of a two hundred foot fall. 
      “Ganta will survive,” Rishad said with mild annoyance. 
      “You can’t know that.” 
      Rishad inspected his cousin with mild interest. Any moment, Ganta would strike the quarry floor. In real time, he wanted to observe how the beast’s fall would affect his cousin. It was unlikely that the distance would kill Ganta. But it would severely damage the Calling and disadvantage the man. Rishad didn’t care. It would not be the first time an injury ruptured the connection between man and Calling, and it wouldn’t be the last. The sanity of one, even dozens, is a small price to pay to manifest destiny. One should know better than to stand in the way of a Bachan. If Rishad was honest with himself, and he always tried to be, uncle and father would have done the same thing. 
      Ganta struck. 
      The fear in his cousin’s eyes faded. Confusion blossomed. Abi looked around, as though taking in his surroundings for the first time. When he could not make sense of things, sincere desperation followed. The first place Abi looked for help orienting was his cousin. 
      Rishad was there to console him. “There, there, cousin. It is me, Rishad. You’re okay. Sit down. There, there. Are you seeing me?” 
      Abi struggled to focus, but he soon found Rishad’s eyes. He nodded.
      “Cousin, there has been an accident.” 

“Is Reyna here?” Reese asked. As he entered without knocking, he looked around the large office hopefully. 
       “Do you always have to greet my Calling first?” she asked seriously. 
       “...I don’t see the difference,” the man said, flashing her a smile. 
      Berta Villanueva shook her head. “Renya is at home with Pascal.” 
      Reese feigned great disappointment, and then shimmied over to hug his sister. He said, “I liked you better when Reyna couldn’t leave your side.” 
      “I get that all the time,” she said with a knowing grin. 
      He changed the subject. “I checked out the site. It’s perfect.” 
      “I knew it!” Berta said with sudden excitement. “I am so glad. When can I see it?” She hovered over a map of Main City and the surrounding areas. Her finger traced a dozen tributaries to a place along the Vedazon River northeast of their present location. She noted the location marked with a penned star. “The future site of Metropolia.”          She beamed.  
      “And you can make it all the way out there without Reyna?” 
      Berta gave her brother the stink-eye. “Yes, Reese.” 
      “Okay, Apex Magnus,” Reese teased, using his esteemed sister’s honorific title. “Metropolia. It is a good name. You have done well.” His voice was thick with mock reverence. 
      Berta scowled at her older brother. 
      He held up his hands disarmingly, wearing his customary smirk. 
      “It gets the point across,” Berta said, grinning. 
      “Why don’t you name it after yourself? After us?” Reese suggested. 
      “Call it Villanueva? New Village?” 
      “It fits.” Her Explorer brother shrugged, flashed her a charming smile. 
      Berta could not disagree with that. “There is some destiny in names, isn’t there? Me, of all people, talking about forming a new village. But no, Metropolia will be the city for the people. The naming conventions of the past will not suit it. It cannot be mine. It is for the people, hence a name that speaks of a bright future.” 
      Her Explorer brother nodded. He rolled up his map and tucked it back in his messenger bag. “The valley is on my postal route, more or less. My schedule takes me south today but when I am back in a hand of days, I can take you,” he said. 
      “That’s good,” she said. She opened one of her desk drawers. “Where to the south?” 
      “The villages in the plains.” 
      She rifled through a selection of envelopes. “Can I ask for another small favor, Reese?” 
      Her brother was quick to accept. 
      “Will you bring this to the Eldwiser at the water temple?” 
      Reese’s jaw dropped. “You’re penpals with an Eldwiser?” 
      Berta smiled sweetly. She nodded to a drawing pinned to her corkboard. “He rarely writes back, but he did draw me that.” The drawing was no better than a child’s sketch. It looked a bit like a windmill, but instead of wind turning its blades, the Eldwiser had drawn a woman with blue hair whose locks flowed in and around the contraption. 
      The thought of her own hair tangled in a fan initially made her cringe. Why would the Eldwiser draw this? Was Berta meddling with forces better left alone? Was it a warning? She hung it up anyway. In the subsequent days, she had remembered something he had said in their one meeting. He had said, “You can splash water onto her shore and a flower might grow, but you are not the one who animates the seed.” Her shore. If the Eldwiser had intended the woman with the blue hair to represent one of Bastunia’s rivers, the crude drawing took on a different meaning. 
      Berta told Reese, “I want to thank him for the idea his drawing gave me.” 
      Reese looked amused. He took the letters from her destined for the southern plains, and then snatched the one for the Eldwiser from her hand. “Only you, sis,” he said. 

Twelve people sat around an immense triangular table. The eight elected members of the Board of Builder’s were there, representatives from each of the eight core departments: Mining, Education, Waterworks, Forestry, Assets, Infrastructure, Benevolences, and Politics. The Defenders and Explorers had two seats a piece, and their delegates made the remaining four. The Board had been formed to discuss the foundation of a new city. 
      Berta Villanueva who was the former Mayor of Main City, the Representative of Politics, and Apex Magnus of the Board of Builders, called the meeting to order. From the top of the table, she said, “Let’s discuss Metropolia. The first order of business is the citysite.” 
      Rishad Bachan, Representative of Mining, spoke first. “After our expert topographical analysis, we believe the citysite should be moved eleven klicks southwest, here.” Mining indicated the location on the gridded map between them. “From here, we have convenient access to limestone, granite, gypsum, marble, sandstone, and slate.”                Mining looked at Assets. “We do not anticipate any deviation in the distribution of precious metals between the two proposed sites.” 
      Waterworks interjected, “There are no water sources near that location. You cannot have a city without water.” 
      “You cannot build a city without stone,” Mining said simply. 
      “Stone helps, but Metropolia will be a city of alternative building methods,” Forestry said. “The valley in question has ample forestry.” 
      “Build a city with wood?” Mining laughed. “Are you planning a bonfire?” 
      Forestry said, “No, but I should, seeing as your site is as dry as the Thornerie.” 
      “Members, we are not here to propose new sites at this time,” Apex interrupted. “We are here to query the existing location and delegate next steps.” 
      Mining was first to speak again. “If this delegation is not open to hearing alternative citysites, I propose the road between Main City and Metropolia follows this trajectory.” The man traced the map with a telescopic pointer, following a path directly through the citysite he had proposed, directly through his family’s landholdings, adjacent to his mines, and on to an inked star. It was the most direct route, but far from the least labor intensive. 
      Apex said as much, “This road cuts through treacherous elevations, Mining.”
      Infrastructure spoke against his proposal, as well. “Mining, the amount of convenience we gain in proximity to the aggregate material will be offset by the inconvenience of paving a road through mountains…ser.” 
      “What route does Infrastructure propose?” Apex asked. 
      Infrastructure leaned over the map. He pointed. “We go around the mountains, following the river as much as possible, avoiding the floodplain, a more or less direct route except for a few jogs here and there.” 
      “That route is acceptable for Forestry.” 
      “Waterworks can see no flaws in that route.” 
      Apex’s eyes lifted as a moment without disagreement passed. Infrastructure’s eyes were raised, too. It was not uncommon for the group to deliberate over menial details at length, and the matter of the route for the road was far from minute. Her eyes inspected each Board member inquisitively. Benevolences and Education were impartial. She was surprised to see Mining holding his tongue. The man ordinarily threw his weight around. She almost prompted Assets, but chose restraint. Something unprecedented was happening. She was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but when two of the most vocal members were not vying for their vision, she had to think twice. But here they were, in seeming agreement. 
      It was a Defender who broke the silence. “Can you trace that line for me once again, Infrastructure?” 
      The line was traced. 
      The Defender nodded, biting his lip. The Defender’s colleague appeared intrigued about what his peer was about to say. “This is a known exposure zone.” He pointed to a section along Infrastructure’s proposal. “A road through here will be impossible to maintain.” 
      “An exposure zone?” Mining said. “Really?” 
      “I have accepted a number of contracts in that territory. Great for a road, sure, if not for the Azighra activity there.” 
      “Are there any exposure zones in my proposed route?” Mining asked. 
      The Defender seemed to remember Mining’s route without needing to be reshown. “No, there are none.” 
      Mining was pleased with this news. 
      Infrastructure was unconvinced. He complained, “Apex, please! An exposure zone? Why is this the first mention of this? Exposure zones are not a dime a dozen. The areas with high Azighra activity are marked already.” He tapped the iconography on the map that represented several exposure zones. “Your office is nothing if not thorough, Apex. We have no reason to take this man at his word.” 
      Assets said, “We are not interested in financing a route that will not last.” 
      Infrastructure balked at them. “Before you determine such a thing, we ought to inspect the routes properly. If you could look at the topography with my experienced eyes, you would undoubtedly be reassured that no Azighra activity has occurred along the route in question.” 
      Mining came to Asset’s defense. “Infrastructure, you cannot substantiate your word with your own word. Besides, we have consultants for a reason.” 
      Just then, an extreme bout of nausea came over Berta. The tension in the room was escalating, which she was prepared for, but a dizzy spell caught her unaware. She hurried from the room. As the door closed behind her, Assets, Mining, and Infrastructure were on the verge of raising their voices. Apex hustled to the nearest basin where her stomach emptied itself. That one came out of nowhere. She cleansed her mouth with a swig of water, stood, and decided the bout had passed. Barely more than a minute had gone by when she returned to the meeting. 
      “It is our job to know the lay of the land!” 
      Infrastructure stood tall, shouted, “As it is mine!” 
      “We are all prone to mistakes from time to time,” Mining said. His eyes were down at the table, as though the comment were an innocuous fact, but Infrastructure recognized it for the barb it was. 
      “Apex?” Infrastructure deferred to Berta who had returned to her place. 
      Apex sucked in a deep breath through her nose, grinning toothlessly at the group as though they had not been arguing. “This Board certainly won’t be cornered into any hasty decisions. I am inclined to verify the Defender’s claims. The official contract ledgers should suffice. If indeed there have been several defense contracts on record, the ledgers will show and we’ll adjust accordingly. If they do not, this Board will accept Infrastructure’s proposal.”
      “They are there,” the Defender assured the group. 
      “I don’t believe it,” Infrastructure said. 
      Apex nodded reassuringly at him. 
      One by one, they discussed the issues. Throughout the rest of the meeting, Berta’s nausea threatened to resurface but she remained amiable. Mining ceded in most of the remaining debates, having the issues in Rishad’s purview—the citysite and road route—fully deliberated for the time being. Yet the meeting continued on for many hours. The matter of schooling became a major issue led by Education and Assets. Education wanted a system in place to nourish the natural proclivities of all children born within Metropolia versus Asset’s suggestion that Metropolia be a hub for Builders, requiring the children in other Paths to be educated elsewhere. The four non-Builders did not have voting rights on the Board, and in the end, it was only Apex and Benevolences in favor of Education. They were outvoted three to five. Even as Apex’s vote counted double, they were still one short. 
      Losing that debate left a pit in Apex’s stomach. She saw that the shallow mentalities that formed Main City were alive and well, despite all her rallying speeches crying out for a city of the future. Her grand vision moved the people of her Path, so much so that the Board was formed. It’s formation intended to make pioneering a new life for them all an effort of co-creation. Yet for all her wishing, for all her attempts at leading by example, she saw that old habits die hard. 
After what felt like an eternity, Apex adjourned the meeting. 
      By the time she got home, she decided that losing the education debate was a gift. Up until that point, she was willing to believe that the members of the Board shared in her vision. She knew some of them would be vying for details that benefited themselves, but when it came down to it, she believed they would understand what she was trying to build. Now she knew the truth. Her dissenters only understood greed, and try as she might, explaining herself would be like trying to describe a color they had never seen before. 

Reyna was waiting at the gate. The regal feline-beast purred loudly as she neared, drenching the lawn in a soothing resonance. She stroked the beast in its favorite place — along the scruff of its neck where the blue fur marbled into turquoise. 
      Her husband brought her tea and instructed her to sit on the couch. He pulled her feet up onto his lap and began rubbing them. A curl of steam mingled with Berta’s breath. She sipped slowly, savoring the flavor of honeysuckle and ornamint. By the time Pascal had addressed all her usual sore spots, she was feeling more talkative. 
      “I can’t make them understand,” she said. 
      “No?” Pascal said.
      Berta sighed. “Let’s just disappear to the plains, build a farm, teach our baby our values far away from this place.” 
      “The meeting went that badly?”  
      She pushed one of her feet back into Pascal’s hands. She wiggled her fingers invitingly. He took the hint and began rubbing once again. Berta said, “They only understand how to force things. They cannot understand that people have their own ideas, their own vision. In their minds, other people are potential laborers to animate to their will.”
      “What happened?”
      Her tea leeched the aches from her forehead. After a long, slurping sip she said, “What happened is I failed them. I was not able to get them to understand.” 
      “I know, I know.” 
      Pascal was looking at her as closely as he could without her feeling inspected. “What can be done about it?” 
Berta took the question and drifted off with it. After a moment she chuckled. “I was imagining walking through a field of flowers and punting off their heads. But each of the flowers had Rishad Bachan’s face. That’s terrible, isn’t it? The problem is, Rishad Bachan is a dandelion and inflicting my rage on him will only spread his ilk that much further.” Pascal hit a tender spot and she moaned. “I have an idea. I am not prepared to execute it tonight, but that’s alright, because I am home with you…and this table isn’t triangular.” 
      Pascal’s eyes snapped up at her a little too quickly. With one foot he cleared the rectangular table before them. Tenderly, he slipped off one of her socks, and then the other, before he said, “But I can still call you Apex, right?” 

The next day, Rishad traveled to his active mines from Main City. His connective range with Favi had grown to two hundred miles, and being that he was back and forth managing the excavation, he had taken to leaving Favi overnight at the worksite. Plus, the extra set of eyes had a motivating effect on the laborers. 
As he climbed on the back of a winged Explorer, he thought about Abi. 
      “Do you want me to stay onsite?” the Explorer asked him. 
      His cousin had become burdensome. He’d invented regulations that would limit the amount of hours that could be worked in a day, found countless ways to grind excavations to a halt, implanted ideas of empowerment in his employees’ heads, and otherwise undermined Rishad’s well oiled machine. He was like a cog that decided to counterspin against Rishad’s wishes. 
      Now the boss had to do damage control. 
      Three months, Rishad thought. In three months, they would break ground on the new city. He had to execute his plan before then. On schedule, he would look like a genius and a hero. A day late and he would be a villain. 
      There was too much to think about to engage in idle chatter. The Explorer was trying to talk to him, but he was not in the mood for simpleminded banter. Better to put up an unassailable exterior now so he got the point. 
      He did. 
      Soon the two of them were beastback and on the way. It was not a terribly long flight, but today the cold wind lashed Rishad, further inflaming his temper. His anger staved off the cold, though, and so he allowed it to slowly bottle up. He would need every precious drop of the potent substance to get his affairs back in order. Thoughts of Builders standing around not working paraded through his head until they arrived. Sure enough, while plenty of Builders and beasts were hard at work, Rishad found ample targets to unleash his fury. 
      The site included multiple mine shafts and a pair of quarries. The mines were extensions of a cave system that burrowed deep into the sandstone. Years ago, prospectors had located placer deposits of gold, diamonds, and rutile. Historically the mines were the primary source of Bachan wealth, but Rishad’s current plan needed excavators more than it needed precious gems. These men would do. 
      To keep up appearances, the sandstone aggregate from the quarries would continue. It would eventually be used in buildings for cladding and facades, and for paving the road. It was a lucrative industry, but still, Rishad contemplated ways he could borrow laborers from the quarry for his side project. He only had three months. 
      He discussed the matter with his foreman, a young Bachan by the name Khouri. “I need two hundred men.” 
      Khouri looked confused. “For what?”
      “An additional project of utmost importance.” 
      “You can have them, but that will affect our projections.” 
      Rishad shook his head. “No, everything here will remain the same.” 
      “Less two hundred men, ser?” 
      “They will work here during the day and nearby at night. Which two hundred are your strongest and most capable excavators?” Rishad asked. 
      “I can create a list for you,” Khouri said. 
      “No list. I want to meet with them in an assembly. Tonight.”
      Khouri frowned. “I don’t expect them to meet the idea of working around the clock kindly, ser.” 
      “How they react is your problem, not mine.”
      “Ser, many of them are already on the brink of leaving. We are not the only outfit in town. Times are changing, and men have begun to realize that they have power in unification. I fear forcing them will only drive them off.”  
      “Then you’d better pick your two hundred carefully.” Rishad turned on his heels. He spat into the dirt, cursing Abi’s name, as he charged toward the other quarry. 

Berta and Pascal sat at the breakfast nook, dining on fruit and sipping juice. Pascal had one hand on Berta’s stomach as he looked thoughtfully out at the horizon. Reyna was curled at their feet. Pascal’s beast, Prowler, roamed the grounds as usual. 
      “Do you like the name Willem?” he asked. 
      “Not particularly,” she answered. 
      “How about Sebastian?” 
      “Not that either. You know the name I like.” 
      “I don’t know how I feel about Pascal Jr…Isn’t naming your child after yourself a bit vain?” 
      “It wouldn’t be for you. It doesn’t matter what you do. It matters why you do it. In this case, it would be done to please your loving wife. Isn’t that honorable?” 
      Pascal laughed. He argued, “We don’t even know that it’s a boy.” 
      “We do,” Berta said, rubbing her stomach. 
      “Or…that he's healthy.” 
      Berta smiled at him then. “No matter what, he deserves a name.” 
      “Don’t you want to meet him first, spend some time with him and see him before he is given a name?” 
      “Pascal, he is inside of me.”
      “Fair point.” 
      “I love your name. My only association with it is a man who is kind and compassionate, intense yet calm. This name reminds me of an ocean: deep, peaceful, warm, safe, still.” 
      “I’ve always wondered: Can you sense his Calling, as well?” 
      “I can.” 
      “What does that feel like?”
      Berta smiled at her husband sweetly. “The baby and the Calling are not separate feelings. Between them, they feel like you. They feel like being in your arms.” 
      “A Defender then?” Pascal wondered.
      “I believe so,” Berta agreed. Then, pensively, “A Defender, just like his dad.” 

The sun was dropping beneath the wall of the quarry as Rishad concluded his speech. The darkness was a small kindness. 
      In the rehearsed version of his speech, the audience was obedient, even excitable. He started with the promise of additional pay. In his head, they were appreciative. He lauded them for being amongst the most elite in his employment. They wanted to feel special, didn’t they? Recognized? Even though Rishad couldn’t tell one from another. So he would congratulate them for their specialness. As he envisioned the ordeal in his mind, the group rallied together in favor of his intoxicating vision for the new city. He anticipated dissenters. There were always a few. They would be the vocal minority. He planned to ignore them in the moment, and then deal with them later, quietly and privately. Life would go on. 
      But Abi’s infection had spread further than he thought. Dissent was widespread. There was a rallying outcry against his plan. 
      As the sun went down, it covered many hundreds of faces in shadow. He was glad for that. There was so much hatred staring back at him. As he finished his speech, he was quivering with anger. It did not make sense. He had done everything right. He had employed every trick he had ever learned in his speech, and it had only inflamed their anger. There was a moment at the end where he contemplated calling the whole plan off, relenting to the public opinion, and reconsidering his options. He almost threw away the script. He almost gave away his power. 
      Thankfully, in the end, the setting sun forestalled his cowardice. As their faces disappeared from view, he remembered what they were. He had given them a job, which allowed them a life. And now he was offering them more work, more money, more security, more, more, more. He was always offering them more, and the more he offered, the less grateful they were. If only they could take a step into the past, before the Bachans had created order and stability, so they could see how much harder life used to be. He was offering them work, not a club to the head. 
      He stepped off a stone podium and spat. This was Abi’s doing. His own flesh and blood had sowed these seeds. But then it truly dawned on Rishad that he shared no filial bond with the man. Abi was a Defender, and he had never built anything in his life. As Rishad searched for the Explorer who would bring him back to Main City, he chastised himself for his leniency with his cousin. 
      Yet, in the days that followed, Rishad was pleasantly surprised. While the sentiment toward him was unfriendly, the excavation crew showed up. It seemed they did have some worldly sense after all. As the work commenced, the boss eyed his three month objective with hopefulness.  

A packet of documents waited for Berta on her desk. She knew what they were before she undid the string that tied the envelope closed.
      Sure enough, it was a stack of authenticated Defender contracts. The ledgers showed that Infrastructure’s proposed road route was peppered with Azighra attacks.                Something was drawing them in hoards to a number of sites to the northeast. It was easy to forget how sheltered they were living within Main City. She shuddered to see all those dots, understanding their meaning. The northeast was more dangerous than she knew. 
That is, if the documents were to be believed. 
      She had to admit that there was a possibility that the contracts were real. The fact that they surfaced so late in the planning was suspect. If they were real, it meant the oversight was hers, or that the documents had been suppressed until an opportune time. In either case, Berta would bear the blame.
      It was a higher likelihood in her mind that the ledgers were forged, but it was a thin confidence to pin the future of her people on. But, why would Rishad be so adamant about building his version of Metropolia in a hotbed of Azighra activity? Even if the precise location he was proposing did not have a record of Azighra, the ledgers suggested the surrounding areas were unsafe. If the ledgers were real, her adversaries would not want to build their city in any similarly dangerous location, would they? It all pointed to the magnate wanting the city moved closer to his family's land holdings. His lack of concern, in Berta’s mind, added support to her forgery suspicions. After twisting her brain in knots, Berta relented that she could not fathom the depths that her adversaries would stoop to. 
      But they underestimated her just the same. 
      Once Berta’s brother had returned from his deliveries down south, as promised, he arrived at her office to escort her north. 
      “I have some bad news,” Reese told her when was sure they were alone. He handed her an envelope. She recognized it as the letter she had intended for the Eldwiser. “I searched. I went exactly where I remember the temple being, but it was not there.” 
      Berta had a moment of panic. “Is everyone okay?”
      “No, I mean the temple has vanished.” 
      Berta frowned. “I don’t understand.” 
      “I don’t either,” Reese said. “It is like the temple and surrounding village no longer exist. All that remains is an empty field.” 
      “Then you misremembered the location…” It was almost a question. 
      Reese shook his head, a cocky quirk on his lips. “I’m a postman, little sister.” 
      Berta tucked the letter in one of her pockets. “Is it more feasible that a village vanished than you made a mistake, old man?” 
      “Of course not,” Reese said coolly. “But I would sooner forget my own reflection than the geography of Bastunia.” 
      Berta considered her brother’s claim. “And you are certain that the village was not destroyed?” She winced at the thought. Over the years, she had grown fond of the villagers of the water temple. They had a way about them that she understood, and their likemindedness had availed a fast rapport. It was one of the elders amongst the pandit family that had encouraged Berta and the young Eldwiser to become penpals. In the intervening years, much of her diplomatic skill had been learned observing the Eldwiser’s unconventional advice. 
      Reese said, “If I know anything of the sages, transporting their temples would not be above their abilities.” 
      “I admit you and Snowbank are amongst the finest navigators I know,” Berta said. A pause hung in the air ripe for a negating statement: But you will go to great lengths to avoid being wrong. She left the last bit unsaid. 
      Reese laughed, evidently aware of his sister’s thoughts. “I have seen things out there, sister.” 
      Berta yielded that her lifestyle had left much of Bastunia unknown to her. “I believe it. Which brings me to our travel plans. I want to make a few extra stops.” 
      Before Reese took Berta north, she stopped home to tell Pascal of her revised plan. Her husband pushed back against the idea of his pregnant wife being away overnight. Reese assured them both that his knowledge of the periphery of Main City was unparalleled, and he knew of several places where they could spend the night where his sister would be comfortable and well cared for. Pascal soon came around. 
      Reese played with Reyna until they had the cover of dark. 
      Rishad’s operations were a couple hours flight away. A warmth clung to the night. Flying saddled on Snowbank’s long, feathered neck had never been more pleasant. Despite her comfort, the nature of the trip prevented Berta from relaxing. She did not know what incriminating evidence to look for. She hoped that she would know it when she saw it. Suspicion was not her strong suit, however, and despite what at times was absolute certainty, she was not above moments of doubt, here and there. 
      “How close do you want to get?” Reese asked her when a pair of quarries appeared on the horizon.
      “Close enough to see what he’s doing,” Berta said. “But I am certain he’ll have Defenders keeping a close watch on his operation.”
      Reese said something that sent a chill down her spine. “Out here, they will be keeping an eye on the sky for Azighra activity. That’s where Snowbank’s black underside comes in handy. We’re set up for stealth.”
      “Have you ever seen any?”
      “Yes, they’re everywhere but they rarely give me any trouble.” 
      “They’re everywhere?” 
      Reese seemed puzzled by her surprise. “Oh, I thought you meant Defenders. I haven’t seen Azighra in a few years. Contrary to the rumors in the city, attacks are not that common. Common enough, but still rare.” 
      “I am not so sure,” Berta said nervously. 
      “C’mon, sis, who are you going to trust? The rumors? Or the guy who spends his whole life out here?” Reese said with his customary confidence. 
      They flew in a wide arc around the quarries. The holes in the ground were tremendous, stretching as far as Berta could see into the distance. She had expected a scar across the land, but this was something else. The quarries looked more like something had taken a bite out of the land. 
      As they skirted along the rim, Berta instructed Reese to give them a better view of the housing campus. Permanent barracks were assembled on the ridge of the hole, which were aglow with dozens of cook-fires. Smoke drifted lazily into the sky burping the telltale aromas of food. On the surface it resembled a village, but villages had signs of life: music, revelers, laughter, creativity, and artwork. This was something bland and utilitarian. It was a hapless gray machine kept alive against its wishes. Seeing it resolved the uneasiness she felt about Rishad. This was the type of city he would make Metropolia: something closer to death than life.
      However, there was nothing illegal about the worksite. Berta was pleased to complete their circle and leave the place behind them. The other known Bachan operations were less easy to inspect from the air. The only evidence of the extensive mines snaking beneath the ground was the occasional storehouse connected by meandering dirt roads. It was around one such storehouse where Berta caught a glimpse of Bachan’s security. She saw the hulking forms of several Defender beasts patrolling the grounds. Knowing they would need to get much closer to inspect the mines, she instructed Reese to fly northeast. Slightly disappointed but not surprised by the lack of incriminating evidence, they moved on. 
      Berta pulled out a piece of paper from her pocket. The wind tried to tear it from her fingers but she held on well enough to flatten it against Snowbank’s saddle. Between thumb and forefinger, she pinched a location amongst a nest of dots, indicating to Reese her desired destination. 
      “There?” Reese said when he got a good look. “Are you sure?” 
      A knot rose in Berta’s throat but she gulped it down. With a confidence that did not match her inner feelings, she said, “Absolutely.” 
      Ten minutes later, they sailed over the valley that was Berta’s choice for Metropolia. It was a dappled green and brown cross-section of carpet on her map, but then, seeing it kissed by moonlight gave her a new flush of excitement. One day, this would be a boundless city. Her eyes overlaid a selection of her favorite features on the land, her imagination turning inside out. Her own predilections superimposed themselves onto the landscape, but where many Builders would have ideas for the entire space, her faculties concentrated on the less tangible. For a glimmer, she heard music. She saw her own family: Pascal, their child, and many others raised in one community. She glimpsed generosity, collaboration, unity, and above all, compassion. These were the essential outcomes of building well, as opposed to the monoliths that many Builders dreamed of constructing; massive odes to self.  
      They arrived at their destination and dismounted. 
      As it happened, this was one location of the countless that were labeled as being destroyed by Azighra. In an abstract sense, she knew what they were capable of. She had read reports and given speeches, but this was the first time she truly understood. 
      It was once a canyon with a gushing creek running through it. Now the creek fell into a deep, gouging basin where it stagnated and accumulated stinking algae. The flow of water rolled over the lip and sloshed into a soupy biomass, maintaining none of the melody that usually accompanied waterfalls. The canyon walls were decimated, trees were in splinters, and great clods of soil were overturned. Rock, wood, and dirt were strewn about like so many toys after a child’s tantrum.
      It was unnerving. And it was all the confirmation she needed. 
She showed Reese the next location on the map. The route she mapped out for them zigzagged to a dozen of the Azighra sites. She had to see them for herself. Rishad was planning something. She intended to figure out what. 
      The second and third site showed destruction of the same flavor as the first. 
      As they dropped down off of Snowbank’s bank at the fourth site, Berta’s heart rose into her throat. While the first three presented like the wreckage left by a tornado, the fourth was different. Reese saw it, too. Berta double checked her map to be sure they had the right location, verifying it once again with her brother. 
      Reese said, “This wasn’t Azighra.” 
      Not wanting to agree too hastily, Berta asked, “What makes you say that?” 
      Reese bit his lower lip. “Just seems disjointed. The others had a uniformity to them, like one furious creature. This just seems staged.” 
      Berta had been thinking the same thing. Still, not one to jump to conclusions, she said, “Could it have been several smaller Azighra?” But Berta was not convinced it was true even as she asked the question. She fingered a recognizable horn-mark in the chiseled stone. It was repeated in several nearby places. She knew the common shapes of chiseling and excavating Builder-beasts. She had spent her life around them. 
      “I don’t think so.”
      “Neither do I.” 
      But Berta was hesitant. She was aware of Builder-beasts, but she was not intimately familiar with all the shapes and sizes of Azighra. What she was planning with her selected Board Members, without conclusive evidence against her rivals, was shameful at best. At worst, it was treasonous. Her own moral code, her own commitment to boundlessness, could only gray the line so far. Some measure of doubt still clouded her resolve, even now. Breaking the law, possibly betraying the trust of her people, was not something she would ever take lightly. She had to be sure. 
      Over the next couple hours, they inspected the remaining sites. By the time they left the twelfth, Berta’s doubt was extinguished. 
A full seven of the supposed Azigrha attacks were manufactured. Two showed no signs of attack at all. The actual three Azighra sites were so drastically different from the fakes that she had no trouble telling them apart. There was a subtle genius at play, Berta admitted. As soon as a handful of sites were manufactured, each lent credibility to the other forgeries by establishing a precedent. One fakery would have stood out, but seven? Seven in twelve gained trustworthiness through the existence of the others. Rishad must have presumed that something as fearsome as an Azighra attack would have kept away potential auditors. 
      It had until then. 
      But Berta had the advantage of distrusting the man. While most citizens in Main City thought he was the best thing since running water, Berta saw through his philanthropic facade to his selfish, corrupted core.  
      No doubt he was using Azighra attacks to drive down the cost of land. She could not confirm all of them, but she knew the Bachan family owned the land surrounding at least five of the fakeries. She also suspected that he must be preoccupied with another part of his plan, likely getting the citysite moved, or his crew would have had time to mangle the two untouched sites. Those locations, interestingly enough, were the two the Defenders claimed made Infrastructure’s proposed road route unsafe. 
Back in Snowbank’s saddle, Reese and Berta headed home. The now cool air soothed the twists of nausea that had been plaguing her all day long. It felt good to be up and away. She felt a morsel of power return to her knowing so much of Rishad’s plan. Not that she knew all of it. Rishad was buying up all the surrounding land, manipulating the road route, and certainly planning some subterfuge to get the city moved. How he would do it she was not aware, but the fact that he was doing it gave her a sudden clarity. She knew what she had to do. Suddenly, she felt an unexpected calm. She would never beat Rishad at his own game, but she had her own ways. 
      Once they were well and clear of the danger, she asked Reese, “What is the furthest north you have ever delivered post?” 
      Reese answered, “I’d say we are about halfway there. Another couple hours of fly time.”
      “That’s the furthest away that anyone lives?” 
      “To the north, yes,” Reese said. “Why do you ask?” 
      “I am just curious.” 
      “No, you’re asking for a reason. You’re going to move the city, aren’t you?” 
      Berta lovingly patted her brother’s back. “It is not that simple, brother.” 
      “I think it is,” Reese said with characteristic certainty. 
      Berta said, “I cannot abandon the Board.” 
      “Why not? The Board is corrupt.” 
      Berta considered her words carefully. “It is complicated. There are times to walk away, and there are times to honor your commitments. I don’t intend to lose, but I also cannot win by abandoning my responsibilities. Do you know what I mean?” 
      Reese shook his head. “We have different Ways, sis.” 
      “Yes we do, big brother. It will all work out,” she said. After a moment she continued, “But I am going to need your help.” 
      “Anything for you, sister.” 
      All at once, an entire plan dropped inside Berta’s mind, as if its source was external. She explained it to her brother then, realizing as she spoke it aloud that it was as whole as she suspected. Reese listened intently. She could not see his face from behind him, but as she spoke, she saw that his cheeks were puffed out in an amused, appreciative smile.  

      Pascal handed his wife a mug of tea. “It’s a good plan,” he said after Berta had explained the whole thing. 
      Berta rubbed some grit from her eyes. The sun had just appeared over the trees on their small plot of land. Even after only a couple hours of sleep she was feeling energetic. “I will serve out my term,” she said. “Then in a few short months, it will be there waiting.”
      Pascal rested his hand on Berta’s stomach. “For the three of us.” Her husband was suddenly alert. “They’re here.” 
Pascal jerked the curtains closed. Then he walked quickly to the backdoor and let their expected guests in. A moment later, three Builders followed him into the parlor. The three of them left their Callings outside, so out of decorum, Berta sent her beast out with them. But not before the colorful feline-beast visited each of them for some meticulous affection. The benefits were mutual. It went beyond Reyna’s mere nature to improve peoples’ moods; the Calling made it law.  
      In an instant, with these particular guests, the identity Berta wore around her home was shrugged off, replaced by her professional one. 
      “Apex,” they greeted her, bowing. 
      Pascal made sure they were comfortable around the table before leaving them. On the way out, he ensured there were no cracks in the closed curtains, and shut the door behind himself. 
      “Is it just us?” Infrastructure asked. 
      Apex nodded. 
      “Am I correct to assume this conversation is off the record?” Education asked. 
      “You are,” Apex said. 
      Benevolences had the distant expression evident of scanning his Calling’s emotional state. She could tell he was nervous. None of them, including Apex, were used to duplicity.
      “I have been cautious, Benevolences,” she said when she noticed his concern. “Pascal’s Calling, Prowler, has been surveilling the estate, and a trusted source has verified that the other members of the Board are sufficiently preoccupied. They don’t suspect anything. To be frank, each of them are currently too absorbed in their own schemes to give us any consideration.” 
      “In their schemes?” Benevolences questioned, taken aback. 
      “Are you certain?” Education said. 
      The question prodded at some hidden insecurity. “As certain as we can be.” 
      “I don’t like meetings without quorum,” Benevolences said, on the verge of leaving. “I dislike where this is headed.” 
      “Wait a moment,” Apex requested. “This feeling you’re having is exactly why you are here and the others aren’t, as slimy as this feels. I do not like it either, but if we are going to build the city we have envisioned, this is absolutely necessary. It probably has not escaped your attention that Mining, Assets, and our Defender consults are in collusion?” 
      Benevolences sat back down. 
      Infrastructure leaned in, “The thought crossed my mind.” 
      “I have known Rishad for a long time. He is planning something. I fear without our intervention he will maneuver Metropolia and the road into his own designs. The Bachans own much of the land out there, and if he gets his way, there will be no stopping him from putting everything we have worked so hard for under his family’s thumb. I don’t think I have to tell you why we cannot allow that to happen.” 
      “What are you accusing him of?” Benevolences asked pointedly. 
      “Paying off the Defender consults?” Infrastructure asked. 
      Apex looked them over with stern severity. “I am afraid it goes much deeper than that.” 
      Benevolences asked, “And you have proof?” 
      Apex nodded. “I do.” 
      “What are we going to do about it?” Education asked. 
      “We are going to spring a trap,” she said. 

Later that day, the entire Board of Builders met at Main City Hall. 
      Berta’s secret alliance, which consisted of Infrastructure, Education, Benevolences and herself arrived to the meeting at different times. Their staggered arrival barely made a difference. The two Explorers were on time but the rest of the Board, the Representatives from Waterworks, Mining, Forestry, Assets, and the two Defender consultants were late. Berta could not help but imagine the six of them off somewhere, meeting in secret.
When all twelve of them were seated around the triangular table, quorum was established. From the pinnacle of the table, Berta, Representative of Politics, began the meeting. “Apex calls this meeting to order.” 
      The first order of business was the road. 
      Apex dropped the envelope that contained the ledgers on the table. She looked at Infrastructure with disappointment. “It looks like we will be going with Mining’s road proposal. The ledgers show two Azighra attacks along Infrastructure’s route. As stated before, this route does include a more technical construction, so Infrastructure, you will need to work with Mining and Assets to reevaluate your requirements. Any questions?” 
      Rishad Bachan, Representative of Mining, offered condolences, “I want you to know, Infrastructure, that you have my complete cooperation. The route is mine but the road is yours. We will provide all the stone you need.” 
      “I appreciate that,” Infrastructure said. 
      “This route is quite mountainous,” Forestry said. “Such construction will require timber.” 
      Mining asked, “The necessary timber will all be local, will it not?” 
      Forestry paused to think. He said, “The region should provide ample timber.”
      Waterworks added, “If not, we would be able to provide barges down the Vedazon. The mammoth pines out west would suffice if any bridges need to be built.” 
      Mining said, “I shouldn’t think barges would be necessary.” 
      Apex asked, “Are you intimately familiar with the region, Mining?” 
      Mining said, “I should think so. My family has owned land in the region for a century.” 
      Apex asked, “Can you tell us about the region’s logging potential?” 
      “Tons of pot-” 
      Forestry interjected, “That is my purview, Apex. I cannot speak to the exact needs of the road, but should we need tall trees, they can be harvested locally.”
      Apex thought she saw Mining relax slightly at Forestry reassurance. Curious. 
One Defender consultant saw an opening. “The construction zones themself are safe, but we will be passing through some dangerous territory. We have drawn up the necessary contracts, Apex. You can be sure that any Builder on the job will not have to worry about Azighra.”  
      “The same goes for the city itself,” the other Defender added. 
      “Yes,” the first one continued. “For the foreseeable future, a contingent of Defenders will be at your disposal. Construction will take many years but Mining Member Bachan,” the Defender nodded to Rishad, “has made a generous donation to ensure that there are no vulnerabilities throughout the construction effort.” 
Apex expressed her gratitude. Assets, too, expressed her pleasure. Mining tipped his hat. Benevolences frowned, said, “That’s kind of you Mining, but please remember that Defender contracts are my purview.” 
      Mining tipped his hat at Benevolences in acknowledgement. 
      “I am pleased to hear we are all in agreement about the citysite,” Apex said. “If not, I would hear your objections now.” 
      Benevolences took his cue. He asked, “Have we determined what it is about this region that is so alluring for Azighra? I could not help but notice that the region has experienced attacks at a statistical deviation from the norm.” 
      A silence stretched across their triangle. 
      After a moment, Benevolences asked, “Are we sure a city elsewhere would not be advisable?” 
      “What do you mean elsewhere?” Assets asked. 
      “Completely elsewhere,” Benevolences said. “Somewhere safer. It is my duty to ask, now that our proximity to so much Azighra activity has come to light.” 
      Mining scratched his head. 
      The Defender spoke up. “As I mentioned, the contracts have been secured indefinitely.” 
      Benevolences said, “Did we not intend for this to be a city for Builders? It sounds as though its existence will require as many Defenders.” 
      Assets perked up. “My office is, as we speak, working on Azighra suppression technology.” 
      Education countered. “We have been hearing about this project for years without anything to show for it.” 
      “We are getting closer,” Assets said. 
      Infrastructure wondered, “Close enough to be used in road construction, perhaps?” 
      Assets shook her head. “Not that close.” 
      Mining said, “I am happy to finance the Defender contracts as long as it takes to complete the suppression technology. Which by the sound of it will be soon. We can all agree that the contracts are temporary. This will be a city for Builders, as we all intend.” 
      “Shall we submit the city site to a vote?” Apex said as tensions began to rise. 
      One by one they all agreed to a vote. As before, the two Defender and two Explorer consultants did not get to cast a vote. Therefore, of the twelve of them, only the eight Builder votes counted, with Apex’s vote counted twice. “All in favor of maintaining the proposed city site?” she asked. 
      Assets, Mining, and Waterworks raised their hands. 
      “Apex also votes to keep the city in the same place,” Apex said. “That’s five votes out of the possible nine. Majority rules in favor of the existing proposal.” 
      The grin on Mining Representative Rishad Bachan’s face was unmissable. 
      But a saddened disquiet fell amongst the minority voters. Infrastructure, Education, and Benevolences played it up as well as they had rehearsed. She allowed them just the right amount of time to sulk. “Very well,” Apex said after a long moment. “We must discuss the allowance of stone, wood, and water for the city itself. My office will begin issuing tracts to acre lots at the event. If five hundred Builders show, will your respective departments be able to accommodate them?” 
      One by one, they assured her they would. 
      From there, the meeting ran smoothly. The deliberations were quick and civil. Members voiced their concerns, their preferences, and their vision where each was relevant. There were matters that went each of their ways, and in return they all made various concessions. Education raised the idea of schooling Defenders and Explorers again, but without any new information, Apex did not allow a vote. It was a ploy they had discussed to squash any speculation of their collusion, and to strengthen Apex’s image as an equitable moderator. It was then that she revealed to the Board that she was pregnant with a Defender boy. She implored them to imagine a life where their own otherly Pathed children were forced to be educated outside of city limits, or privately. Her plea stirred a diplomatic reaction from Mining and Assets, to which they agreed it would be worthy of a discussion at a future time with a future Board. It was the right thing to do, and it had the added benefit of further distancing her from suspicion. 
      There was nothing else that raised Apex’s alarms about Mining Representative Bachan. He was unusually agreeable, which in itself was suspicious, but he gave her nothing concrete to go on. There was only his slight reluctance at the idea of importing timber, but Apex figured that was run-of-the-mill greed. Naturally, he would want to be compensated for the trees harvested on his family’s land. As much as she could, she let it go. 
      By the end of the meeting, all the plans were laid for their glorious city. It was far from the vision she had spoken of in the past year, but she held her tongue. If any of the Board asked her why she appeared so willing to go along with that which she did not approve of, she had prepared an answer: Metropolia will be a boundless city. No single person’s wishes will define it, not even my own. 

The duplicity did take its toll, however. After the meeting, Berta went directly home to Pascal. She wanted nothing more than to sip tea, be with her family, and to look beyond her current stressors. 
      “What will the property look like?” Pascal asked her. 
      She described her vision for their future estate. Pascal listened as she painted a picture with her words. Gardens, animals, pastures, mountain views, the smell of the salty sea, row upon row of grapevines…she went on and on, at one point ceasing to listen to herself. She was naming everything she knew that she loved, no longer parsing her words with her mind’s eye. They would have it all, that was what mattered. She saw beyond the Defender boy she carried to a litter of children. She saw herself in love with them all, far from the corruption of the world. She described, in so many words, a utopia. 

Rishad Bachan was going to win. 
      He had successfully passed the falsified ledgers through the Board. The road had been moved to give him the best real estate to the north of Main City. His excavation plans were running on schedule. He had even narrowly, but successfully, navigated the discussion away from importing timber to their future construction site. It would not suit his excavation plans to have barges clogging up the Vedazon River, bearing witness to the odd project he had undertaken on its shores. All it would have taken was one especially clever individual to understand what he was up to. He was so close! But he could surely rest easier now, knowing that his excavation crew would be able to work undisturbed for the next two-and-a-half months. All the hard parts were done. 
      The last difficulty left was the matter of procuring some illicit materials. 
Rishad rode inside a discrete wagon drawn by one of his personal Explorers. The chauffeur, like his personal pilot, had been on his father’s staff before his. He was one of the few men Rishad trusted with his life. 
      Still, Rishad shuddered when they rolled into the cavern. Torch lanterns flared on either side of the narrow tunnel, emitting a chemical stench that turned his nostrils. The magnate battened down the drapes to dampen the effect of heading into a burrow. It was not that they were underground that bothered him. No, one couldn’t own a handful of mines without being okay in confined spaces. It was the fact that he was on foreign territory, and that the woman he prepared to do business with was a special kind of foul. 
      Not soon enough, the wagon ground to a halt. He was apprehended by two guards and brought into the antechamber of a much larger cavern. They planted him on a wooden bench and then stood on either of his sides. Then he was made to wait. 
      “Mister Bachan,” her voice greeted. 
      He stood, rubbing the ache from his back. Then the woman materialized out of the blackness, cloaked in the same black herself. She took Rishad’s extended hand in one as rough as stone. “Tourmaline,” he said, speaking her name like a curse. 
      “Come in, come in,” she said. “Welcome to the catacombs.” She brought him through two wooden doors into a sort of underground gothic cathedral. Only a single torch was lit across the expanse, and she led him to it. 
      They entered a hallway with many smaller chambers on either side. In the dim light thrown by a distant torch, he made out the unmistakable outline of a beast cowering in a wet alcove. Seeing the beast reminded him of Favi, how he had been forced to leave it behind, and suddenly he was aware of the dangerous distance between them. He had seen the effects of men separated from their Callings. Was this normal anxiety? Or was this something much, much worse? His connective range with Favi was a couple hundred miles, but could Tourmaline have figured out some insidious way to shorten that range? A chill ran down his spine. 
Tourmaline said, “You are probably feeling a touch of paranoia. This is normal.” 
      “Where are we going?” 
      “To see Cinister, of course.” 
      She seemed disappointed in him. She clicked her tongue, said, “My beast. My sweet.” 
      Cinister was unnerving to look at. It looked much like a giant chicken if the poor creature were to be dipped in pitch. At first glance, it was structured like a typical Explorer Calling. It had immense wings as dark as the blackest ink. On second glance, its wings were oily and ill-equipped for flight. It was sitting on a nest of large branches. 
Tourmaline greeted it sweetly, lovingly; a gesture Rishad thought was impossible for something so hideous. She said to Rishad, “So, it’s explosives you want, is it?” 
      “It is.” 
      “How much?” 
      “A kiloton.” 
      She turned to face him then. “Planning something big, are you?” 
      Rishad didn’t answer her. Instead he said, “Can you make that happen?” 
      “That much is going to cost you, it will.” 
      “I expect it to. Name your price.” 
      “I will,” Tourmaline said. Then she pointed at the wall behind Rishad. The stonewall had been hollowed out into a makeshift rack from floor to ceiling. In each recess was a shimmering black egg bigger than his head, hundreds of them. Tourmaline went and plucked one down for him. “Here you go.” 
      “How many makes one kiloton?” 
      “There you go,” Tourmaline said. She pointed at the egg in his hands. 
      “One?” Rishad cradled it close to his chest, suddenly wary of dropping it. Then, fearfully, he tried to give it back. But no, he needed it. Doing his best to calm his voice, he said again, “Okay, name your price.” 
      “I will,” Tourmaline repeated. She led him back down the hallway, through the immense cathedral, and back to his wagon. Somehow his chauffeur had managed to turn the thing around. The Explorer was waiting for him, as pale as a ghost. Tourmaline helped Rishad up into his vehicle. Again, as though reading his thoughts, she said, “I know you would prefer to deal in precious minerals. I have little use of them. Once I learn more of your assets, I will have you informed of my price, Mister Bachan. For now, it was a pleasure doing business. Do avoid blowing yourself up, won’t you?” 
      All Rishad could do was nod. He hastened the egg into a secure spot within the wagon. Before he could instruct his chauffeur to move, the wagon was bustling back down the torch-lit tunnel. 

Two and a half months went by without incident. All the while, Berta kept her head down. In every Board meeting, she was sure that Rishad would maneuver something in the way of the city site, but he never did. In recent meetings he was non-combative, almost pleasant. It wracked her nerves more than ever. Whatever he was planning, he was hiding it well. 

The day Rishad got to use his black egg had arrived at last. 
      A bomb technician nestled the heavy object into its designated nook. He lit a fuse, dashed for the beast, and fled. Wingbeats snapped in panicked beats, trying to use the precious seconds to flee as far away as possible. 
      A sudden, violent torrent of wind blasted against the beast’s wings. It sThe technician clung to the harness for dear life, otherwise he would have been tossed into the sky like the growing plume of debris behind him. A cloud of dust, water, pulverized wood, and rocks from granules to boulders hurdled outward from the epicenter in every direction. 
      They rode the shockwave, barely keeping ahead of it. 
      The explosion rippled through ground, water, and air. In a wide circle around the bomb, heat evaporated the Vedazon River. The pressure reversed the stream, pressing against it like an invisible dam. The heated water retreated a mile up the riverbed, gathering itself into an impossibly tall wall of roiling, murky brown. 
      Anything living in the vicinity was instantly vaporized. Those fish, birds, and other unfortunate critters who were just outside the hottest zones were relocated dramatically. In a half mile radius around the blast, every last tree was either consumed, splintered, uprooted, or singed into a blackened skeleton. The devastation was absolute. 
      Watching from a distant horizon, Rishad came out from his sheltering place behind Favi. He gulped. Was it too much? His previous efforts were done discreetly, but this was anything but discrete. The ground trembled beneath his feet. He was sure the citizens of Main City, eighty miles to the southwest, would have felt it. All he could do now was wait and see.  
      After what felt like a long breath frozen in time, the pressure diminished, the debris fell back to earth, and slowly the wind cleared away the lingering mushroom-shaped ghost of dust. Unseen to Rishad or anyone else, the brown wall of water reversed its course again, charging down the channel like a thousand wild horses. 
      The technician returned with the pilot-beast. Rishad climbed into the saddle, and a moment later he was sailing toward the epicenter, his breath held once again. 
      What he saw pleased him greatly. 
      His scrupulous excavation team had cleared out a new path for the Vedazon. In a section of river that previously bent sharply to the left, they created an easier route. The crew had left a ten thousand cubic meter curtain of rock in place to preserve the flow of the river. The explosion had reduced that curtain to nothingness, so that the wall of water could now proceed unimpeded on its altered route into the valley beyond. 
      From his vantage point beast-back, he watched the most beautiful sight. The backed-up river charged through its new channel, sweeping away the evidence of its man-made origins. Soon, the colorful valley was swallowed up by a blanket of murk. The river kept coming, the valley kept filling, until what used to be a picturesque bend on the Vedazon River—the perfect site for a futuristic city—was reduced to a muddy lake. 
      So much for Roberta Villanueva’s carefully laid plans.

Berta was relaxing on a park bench when she felt it. 
      The ground trembled. The lake before her began to agitate. 
      Nearby, a pair of women standing in front of a fruit stand screamed out in alarm. “Do you feel that?” one of them asked aloud. 
      “What do you think?” the other shouted. 
      The earth was shaking. 
      Berta glanced up but saw only clear, blue sky. The air boomed with a sound like distant thunder. Fruits bounced and shook on the shelves of the stand. A bunch of tangos rolled off the rack. One of the women yelped again, coppers chiming as they dropped from her open hand. The trees shook, dropping their goods as well: nuts, seedlings, branches, leaves, flowers. One helicoptering pod landed in Berta’s hair. 
      “Azighra!” the first woman said without looking around. 
      “In Main City?” the other one squeaked. Without bothering to pick anything up, they grabbed each other and sprinted off. 
      It was over quickly, but it left panic in the air. 
      Berta’s first thought was not of Pascal or herself. It was not even of her soon-to-be-born son. It was of Rishad Bachan. Not for a second did she believe the tremor was an Azighra attack. Whatever he was planning to do, he had done it.

It only took Berta twenty minutes to get home, but once back, Pascal welcomed her with more than his usual affection. 
      “I knew you were okay, but still I worried,” he said, kissing her. 
      “What is the official word?” she asked. News traveled faster through Defender channels than Political ones. Berta often got worldly news from him. 
      “The official word is Azigha. A Howler. A scree-and-flee.” 
      “Did anybody actually see it?” 
      “No, but most of them are scree-and-flees lately. They come down, smash things up, and are gone before we can get there.” 
      She shook her head. “It was Rishad,” she said, as confident as she had ever been. 
      “I think so, too.” 
      “I need to go check it out,” Berta said. “But I don’t know where Reese is.” 
      “Reese is here,” Reese said. 
      “Reese is here,” Pascal repeated, pointing at him standing in the doorway. 
      “I came here right away,” her brother said. “Something happened about eighty miles to the northeast. There’s a plume of dust.”  
      “Does everyone know more than me?” Berta squawked. “Aren’t I supposed to be Apex Magnus?” 
      “Word spreads fastest through Explorer channels,” Reese said, smirking.
      Her Defender husband said, “We already made a statement. There were minor injuries throughout the city from the shockwave, but nothing fatal. Apparently the attack —sorry, whatever it was—happened on a remote bend of the Vedazon River. That’s all I know.” 
      Berta’s eyes snapped to Reese. “We need to go check it out.”

After the explosion, Rishad got himself back to Main City as quickly as possible. The air traffic was too dense to go directly, and the road had not been constructed yet, so he had his pilot skirt overtop of the tree line in a parallel route several klicks to the west. 
      His alibi was neatly arranged. He made himself seen by as many people as possible. He feigned ignorance. He asked all the right questions. He heard from many that the shockwave had indeed been felt in Main City. 
      “Yes,” he explained to a frightened crowd, “I felt it! I was polishing the brass cornerstone for the school we have just finished constructing when the thing started to rattle on the table. Imagine my surprise! The Dedication is too heavy to lift, yet it slid across the table like a piece of bread at a picnic, carried away by so many ants!” 
      “Build us a wall, Bachan!” a fearful woman shouted. “We need better protection in Main City!” 
      Another person shouted, “But the Azighra come from the sky. What good is a wall?” 
      “A dome then!” 
      “What of the suppression technology?” 
      Rishad listened to the shouting, allowing them to release their pent up worries before speaking. “Worry not,” he began. “The suppression technology is nearly finished. The new city will be built with it. We will bring it to Main City. There will be no need for walls, or domes, or fear! We will be invisible to the Azighra, as safe as diamonds in a vault. That is my solemn promise!” 
      “Haven’t you heard, Bachan?” someone hollered.
      “Heard what?” he asked. 
      “Metropolia is no more. The Azighra attack has flooded the valley where it was to be built. The plan for the city is finished.” 
      A murmur passed through the crowd. 
      “Ah, but isn’t our future city in here?” He touched the side of his head. “And in here?” He touched his heart. “The city is not tied to the land. We will find a new site. The vision for the city will live on!” 
      “Is that a Bachan promise?” 
      “I will donate another site for the city!” he exclaimed. 
      The crowd cheered. 

As Reese and Berta flew back toward Main City, she clung to the image of the flooded valley. Her thoughts dwelled on the destroyed habitats of countless animals. The wind tore tears from her eyes. She cycled through every hateful thought she could muster about Rishad until Main City appeared on the horizon. Then she did her best to put on a diplomatic face. 
      Touching down at City Hall, she was quickly surrounded. She recognized many of the people in the crowd as the Builders she had spoken to over the last year, the ones who first believed in the vision for Metropolia. They moved with the loquacious eagerness of lobbyists. 
      “This ought to be interesting,” Reese whispered in her ear. 
      “Go now,” she said. “Begin delivery of the letters.” Reese hesitated but she insisted. 
      The crowd closed in. They demanded to know if the rumors were true. 
      Apex Magnus confirmed that the valley had been flooded, that they would have to select a new city site for their plans. 
      The crowd told her of Rishad Bachan’s generous donation. 
      Apex Magnus took in the news with convincing surprise. 
      “Bachan promised the groundbreaking could remain on schedule!” they told her. 
      "Rishad has made you a lot of promises!” Berta noted. “The Board will have to revisit some important details, such as how we will arrange land tracts, but if the land donation is as generous as you all seem to think it is, perhaps we can still break ground in two days’ time.”  
      Then Berta called an emergency meeting with the Board of Builders. 
      Mining was the first to arrive, behind Apex herself. He had better sense than to act like he had won. No, he didn’t gloat. He was quiet, he greeted Berta sympathetically, he chewed his lip, and he acted properly distressed like many months of hard deliberation had been wasted. Yet, he had arrived early for the first time. For a Builder like Rishad Bachan, a man with many demands on his time, his punctuality showed that there was nowhere he would rather be. Like a competitor who refused to leave the arena after being crowned champion. He wanted to look into the eyes of his fellow Board members, and he wanted to relish in everything he saw there. 
      Berta resisted a smile of her own. By all appearances, Rishad thought he had won. It was exactly how she wanted him to feel. 
      Berta assumed that Rishad expected her to fight back against his donation, so she did. With Infrastructure, Education, and Benevolences on her side, she always had control of enough votes to nearly win or nearly lose, depending on how she wanted things to look. On this particular day, she wondered if her subtleties mattered at all. Although Rishad was hiding it well, she could see he possessed a childlike giddiness. Unlike Berta, he was done playing the game, as assured of his victory as he could be. 
So she played into his hand. 
      The Board narrowly accepted his land donation as the new site. Once it was official, Mining said, “Sometimes geography is destiny.” 
Waterworks, who had previously voiced a strong opinion against his site, rallied for it now as the water situation had drastically changed. Waterworks, Assets, and Mining were the shoo in votes for Rishad’s proposal. The other five of them could easily have shut it down, but in the end they voted seven to two. 
      Apex cast the only vote against. 
      Of course, the members of her secret alliance knew they were only voting to maintain the ruse. 
      Once the land donation was confirmed as the new city site, they subdivided it into acre parcels. The initial allocation would allow for five hundred settlers, Builders only, to take up residence immediately. It was agreed upon that in two days time, the groundbreaking ceremony could move forward without delay. 
      As the meeting adjourned, Mining allowed himself a toothy grin. He dashed out of the Board room with work to do. He had left too quickly to see that Apex was wearing her own smile, arguable bigger than his own. 
      Within minutes only Apex and Benevolences remained. 
      “You know, I had my doubts,” Benevolences said. 
      “I know you did,” Apex agreed. 
      “Let’s not make a habit of this sort of thing.” 
      “I don’t plan to,” Apex said to him reassuringly. 
      Benevolences was suddenly wistful. “Have you ever heard the word ‘milieu’, Apex?” 
      “I can’t say I have. What does it mean?”
      Benevolences explained, “Our milieu is our social environment. Through this, you made me realize that different environments call for different tactics. I thought it was black and white. Always tell the truth. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to be taken for a fool by people who don’t play by your rules. I want the milieu in Metropolia to be different, Apex. I don’t want to have to resort to lying. It might be necessary here, but I still don’t want to make a habit of it.” 
      “I agree,” Apex said. 
      Benevolences nodded. On his way out, he turned, asked, “See you in six days?” 
      Roberta Villanueva nodded. “See you in six days,” she said. 
      As soon as the door closed, she collapsed into her chair. It had been a long journey to this moment, and it wasn’t over yet. 

Reese delivered twelve letters. 
      The text on the letters was simple but to the point. It said: The true city of the future: NDX - CMA. The letters were the coordinates of an expanse of land twice as far to the northeast. It was situated near the coast, on a smaller river called the Armakaya. It was in a verdant valley peppered with lakes and other treasures of nature. 
Aside from the letter recipients, only six other people knew about the city: Berta, Reese, Pascal, and the three members of her secret alliance on the Board: Infrastructure, Education, and Benevolences. Eighteen people in all. By all rights, it was a secret. 
      They saw a moderate exodus over the next two days. Many Builders remained in Main City, but the ones lured by Rishad’s promises of wealth and fortune answered the call. The people who followed Rishad were not the same ones who had been intoxicated by Berta’s initial speeches. Far from it. 
      Berta counted on those people sticking around. Or, if they did leave, she thought they might return when they realized she was absent. In lieu of his great donation, Berta offered Rishad the honor of conducting the tract assignments. Naturally there would be a speech. If one was not attuned to higher ideals, they might choose to stay. If they were, Berta hoped that they would hear the whispers of the very city that had once spoken to their hearts. She prayed that the right people would tell them the coordinates. 

The day to celebrate his victory was finally upon him. 
      People arrived in droves by air and by land. Rishad beamed with pride as Builder after Builder filed into the open plain. On the first day, he handed out two hundred and seventy-seven land tracts. On the second, another one hundred and fifty-four. All in all, four hundred and thirty-one Builders and their families flocked to his city to make a new life. 
      The Bachan’s had not only provided the land, but set up a generous allotment of building materials on each tract. His family owned the land around the perimeter, land rich in other building materials, and if any family wanted more than their allotment they could purchase it from him conveniently. 
      On the third day, Rishad announced a contest. “In a hand of days, whosoever builds the tallest structure on their land will get the honor of naming this city!” The announcement was met with cheers and applause. Nobody came forward to ask what had happened to the long agreed upon name, Metropolia. Of course they didn’t. Rishad had been intent on extolling a realist’s viewpoint on his people. Only idealists named cities in pursuit of high-minded principles. Metropolia would never be the name of his city. Rishad had another name in mind. 
      Now all he had to do was win his own contest. 

The man ran his finger over a map assiduously. He whispered to himself, “NDX, CMA…” He scanned the horizon in a circle, searching for a notable landmark. 
      He found one. 
      He spotted a jagged peak to his south. The map suggested such a peculiarly shaped peak was on the northside of his desired coordinates. He climbed onto his Calling’s back, and together they began trudging speedily in the right direction. 
      He heard them before he saw them. Laughter, chatter, and music. His Calling pressed its bulky shoulders through some pine boughs, revealing a colorful paradise beyond. Only a handful of Builders were there, maybe twenty in all, assisting each other with the assembly of some important looking structure. A vibrant feline-beast roamed amongst the workers, spreading exuberant affection. The contraption in progress had a wheel and an axle. The bottom of the wheel was dipped in the fast moving river. The current filled the buckets, which in turn rotated the wheel, which at present spun freely in its housing, accomplishing nothing. The man watched the community work together for a minute, knowing he was in the right place. 
      “You made it!” one of them greeted him. He recognized her immediately. She had tanned skin, a robust belly, and one arm around a cheerful male companion. On many occasions, he had seen her move a crowd. He had once stood in a plaza within Main City and listened to her speak of her vision for a city of the future. Come to think of it, she had described precisely what he saw before him. “Welcome!” she said to him. Her name was… 
      Over by the spinning contraption, a man with a wispy beard pointed with his knobbled cane. He had not been there a moment ago. “Berta!” he exclaimed. 
The woman whipped around to face the man. “Eldwiser?” Hurriedly, Berta and Pascal dropped down to bended knees in reverence. 
      The old man seemed not to notice. “You made my water wheel!” he cheered.
      “It is almost finished! Eldwiser,” Berta said, rising. “You are here. How are you here?” 
      The Eldwiser said, “I got your message.” 
      Berta chewed her lip. “Umm, you couldn’t have. Reese said he never found the temple…” 
      The Eldwiser looked around curiously as if suddenly disoriented. “Oh, then I must not be here. Am I someplace else?” He asked it as a serious question. “This looks like Metropolia to me…” 

It was never much of a contest. 
      Rishad and Favi built the biggest structure by a large margin. The next nearest was not half as big as theirs. By the final day of the contest, his was a monolith that scraped the clouds. In victory, and to show the structure's immense strength, he climbed to the top with his beast. 
From the pinnacle, he could see endlessly in all directions. 
      To the west, he could see the sky-piercing Great Mountain. To the east he could see endless rolling hill country. To the south he could see his family’s lands, their quarries, their mines. To the north he could see the Vedazon River and its fractured tributaries. But what brought the biggest smile to his face was the view of Bastunia’s newest lake. 
      Lastly, he looked down at the people of his city. He heard their cheers. He knew they would not be able to hear him, but he shouted anyway, “I will call this city Bachan’s Promise!” The perfect name. An honor to the great Bastunians who had come before him who wore the Bachan name. You could take a Bachan promise to the lender; it was as precious as any mineral. And now the name transcended mankind to be worn by an immortal city. 
      He peered down at them.
      How strange. Their cheering had ceased, and they were scattering. The structure was not falling. What were they running from? He turned in a full circle but saw no storms, no walls of water, no dangers of any kind. What had them all so panicked? 
Something blotted out the sun. 
      Over the plain, it cast a shadow as wide as a hundred people. It was then that Rishad thought to look up. 
The Howler plummeted toward him with a gaping maw. It grew larger by the second. Its amorphous shape twisted and contorted. As it neared him, it billowed, expanding to many times its previous size. Its open mouth grew wider, revealing a throat lined with glassy baleen, an accordion of knives. 
      He had nowhere to go. 
      In one bite, the Azighra swallowed him whole. His monolith crumbled. It imploded in on itself, pressed into a fine dust by its own weight and the diving Howler. 
When the monster hit the ground, the grassy plain rippled. Every structure in the vicinity toppled. What prideful stack of rocks remained only stood for moments more. The Azighra was not finished. After thrashing whatever remained to rubble, the Howler returned to the sky. 
It left behind devastation, chaos, terror. 
      But no sign of Rishad Bachan.

Six months later, Metropolia had begun to take shape. It was a disjointed burst of expression, as though many artists shared one canvas. But it worked. Many aspects of the city existed in rebellion to their old ways, still attached to them by way of direct rejection. Plenty others were devoid of all traces of the past, completely unique, entirely original. 
      The hospice was one such building. 
      In fact, it was less of a building than a latticework of interlacing bamboo. Platforms were built in spiraling circles up, around, and between a grove of sequoias. Waterwheels tied to the Armakaya provided an ambiance of ever-trickling water, even at the highest heights. Hemp ropes and many evocative joints lashed the complex apparatus together with what the artist called virtuous integrity.  
      Berta was inclined to trust the artistic Builder. Especially as Pascal, Prowler, Reyna and she were towed by a lift into the canopy. The warm seabreeze that had become so beloved and familiar soothed her aches. 
      It was time for their baby to be born. 
      They were led to a maternity ward with a stellar view of the ocean. Between the pleasant sounds, Pascal’s hand in hers, and their attending doctor’s reassuring smile, Berta was put at ease. 
      “Welcome,” the lanky doctor said. “My name is Abignale. You are in good hands. Now are you ready to meet your baby?”
      Berta and Pascal spoke simultaneously: “Yes!” 

year 210
main city and surrounding cities