Two slaves stood in the hidden door to the Fire Fountains, watching unseen. As the plumes of fire rose along the Avenue of Statuary, spreading from the Gate, Rikar touched Gian on the shoulder. When his son looked his hands flashed. “Will you go with the sacking army, to kill Arkans?”
Gian sighed and signed back… “No. These people… they’re not at fault.” Rikar grabbed him in a hug.
“Good for you, son. I’d better run to save those books before the libraries get burned. I’ll be careful, I promise.”
“You said you wouldn’t get in the conqueror’s way or go too deep into a library.”
“Yes, yes… I only have the one Aitzas library to visit. The Liren’s are gone out of the city. I’ll be in the one window and out just as fast with the books.”
“All right, Father.” Gian said as Rikar unlatched the door set into a wedge shaped column that looked like part of the Fire Fountain and trotted out toward the Liren’s manor. I wish he wouldn’t go out, but it's for books.
A dozen children, shepherded by a fessas man milled at one corner of the Fountain. He was weeping but still speaking through his tears. “Hanen, Shefen, please! Hang onto your charges! Oh my professional God!” He had his littlest boy in his arms and the last five clinging to his kilt and legs. A young man… a teacher. The conquering army… the wingers and the Gate crashers and the rope sliders hadn’t met up in the square yet. They were coming… from the surf-roar below the lion bridge.
Gian couldn’t let a teacher down, even an Arkan one. “Ser… you need a place to hide?”
The Arkan stared at him as if he were a monster. A slave had spoken to him equal to equal… He hesitated a moment then nodded. “Yes… ser. Our school is burning… the headmaster…” His voice choked up. “The headmaster is dead, ser.”
“I have a place you can hide.” The fog from the Fountains rose up at that moment, the water still running, already hiding them from anyone in the Presentation square or the Aitzas neighbourhood. The fires already glowed through the fog, tinting everything around them orange. Come on, dad. Come on! It wasn’t that far…
There were people out in the square now… laughing… a smashing sound… someone pleading for mercy. The boys were all crying now, all of them under first threshold. . The young man nodded and hustled his charges toward Gian, visibly hoping he wasn’t making a mistake.
Gian herded everyone into the door and down under the Fountain. “Boys, I can show you how the Fountains work, but you have to listen to your teacher and be quiet now.”
“My name is Fallon Bennaran, fessas,” The young teacher said, equal to equal, as Gian closed the door behind him, just as the Fountain ran through its cycle and shut off, the fog dissipating fast in the sun and the fire winds beginning to rage through the city. The young teacher had clearly accepted that the social order was gone. He was speaking to a slave as if he were a human being. His eyes, in the barred light and dark under the fountain were lost, even though he’d wiped his tears and his panic off his cheeks, for his charge’s sake.
An enormous bang shook the Fountains, a geyser of water rose from Elegant Repose Boulevard. It was taller than the buildings along the Boulevard… then two more thunderous noises a few streets over as the underground pipes failed, sending plumes into the air more than a dozen manheights into the air. “Oh, shit.” Gian sidled past the boys in the narrow corridor underneath the fountain, the slits in the pavement making bars of light and dark across their terrified faces. “The water pressure in the city… Someone’s opened the top valves. I have to shut off the water or we’ll be --.” He paused. ‘In trouble… or ‘flooded’ were small phrases for the amount of trouble the Fountains would be in.
“Can I help you?” Fallon offered, but had his boys clinging to him so he could hardly move.
“No, no, look after the boys… here… get them into the sleeping room. You can sit on the bed. Don’t light the lamp, just leave the door open…” Gian ran past to the Fountain room, crouched so as to not to hit his head. The tunnels under the square were not full height… one reason the tenders were always slaves.
The hidden door above clicked and Gian froze. The pattern of tapping from above signaled it was his dad coming back and he relaxed, pushed the valve-tool into place and shut off the water source, turning the flow to the emergency overflows. There were jugs of drinking water stored in the tunnels. They had gathered the jugs over weeks, preparing, thinking that the water might have to be shut off.
Rikar had his bag full of books, he also had a group of Aitzas women and little boys with him, grandmothers, mothers and girls… some with babies in their arms, some with toddlers. How had he…? Oh, he’d written to communicate with them. One of the older boys would have been able to read. The ones who didn’t have children, carried books in their hands. It was obviously a story, an adventure… I’ll have to ask him, later.
“Son. The Liren’s weren’t out of the city. I brought the women and children. They could carry more books that way.”
“Dad…” Gian shook his head. “I’m hiding some kids in the sleeping room myself.”
A crash from above made everyone crouch. “Shh!” The women threw their gloves over their mouths, eyes turned upward in panic, white all around.
From above… shadows in the square… a laughing voice said, in Enchian… “Hey, there’s glass set in the pavement!” A splintering noise. “Huh…” The warriors above went from lens to lens, smashing. Someone across the square dragged someone over. Gian found himself with his arms around an Aitzas girl and boy, staring upward. Anyone outside couldn’t see through the slits, couldn’t know there were tunnels down here. The children were both shaking. “Hey, lookit, the long hair has a good use after all!” And then choking, strangling noises. “It… gives… you… good… purchase… fikken Arkans… fikken deserve… what… they… get…. takin’ Haiu… Menshir!” The choking noises continued through the Enchian’s words, fainter and fainter.
“Hey, Rock don’t be so rough! I want my turn… oh…”
“Not a problem, plenty more where that came from! Pick a younger, stronger one next time.” The stench of the newly dead sank down around them, and Gian closed his eyes, hugged the children tight. The children. The books. Gods of my ancestors. Do they deserve this?
One of the warriors above pulled his kilt down and shat on the corpse, bulges of shit falling down the body, oozing through the stone grating to hang on the underside. One of the girls made a weeping, retching noise and and older woman pulled her against her chest and curled around her to muffle the sound.
“’dju hear sumthin’?” From above.
“Nah. I wanna see if I can knock a wing off that damned eagle, come on, guys!” Do they deserve this? These people had nothing to do with that. They’re innocent. But are they? They took dad and I as slaves… their warriors killed…
The tunnels buckled as if rocked by an earthquake, making some of the children scream, even as they tried to be quiet, as the statue of Kurkas toppled and hit the square, shattering the marble pavement. The paving slabs buckled and dirt filtered down on top of them all as they scrambled away from the body up above, deeper into the tunnels at the other end of the Fountains plaza. Thank the ancestors there’s nothing more to fall on us. Thank the ancestors…