It was the dark of the morning, before true sunrise even and beads before rim dawn. The filter rincer cart creaked along in the aftermath of the rincing of this sector from drain basin to drain basin, each right by its own street light. A team of full sized donkeys waited patiently and stepped forward one step, or back one step, under their teamster's quiet voiced commands, to adjust the cart perfectly over each basin.
From hundreds of year ago, at Risae's direct command, the filters had been swapped out this way. The carter skinned under his cart and ran the hooks and chains down to the holes in the stone grating, then out and set the crank into its socket and slowly cranked the heavy stone filter up into the waiting slot in the cart above. The hooks clicked as they came loose. “Step, my lads,” he called and the cart creaked forward just a pace.
The crank was pulled out and set into the next hole and the clean filter creaked down into place. “Slip under, Melkias my lad!” he called and this time the boy went under to unhook the newly placed filter.
“Tha's the last one, da.” The teamster nodded a tired smile at his boy.
“'ah. So we're drivin' it down, 'n then. Run 'n tell yer ma we're ont' way.”
“Y'ser!” The boy trotted off down the street, able to move much more quickly than the heavy cart. It always was heavier, the filters just pulled full of Anae's anathema, rolling along in their cloud of stink. His part in keeping the city clean. The teamster pulled on his evening's last pair of clean gloves, set his knotted hands behind his back and clicked to his donkeys, strolling beside them as they plodded home, heads bobbing. Since the foreign Imperator the wheels were coated with that Niah's rubber so their passage was a lot quieter than when he'd been a boy, running with his grandda first, then his father and uncles. The filter cart, ten full slots and one always empty, was designed not to drip much. No sense in catching the dirt in the water and re-spreading it on the streets.
Being a city filter puller was a good position in the water works, as high and noble a calling as the upstream filter cleaners, even. He nodded to himself. Life was good. They'd set the cart under the crane, unhitch, and leave the mess to the raisers and rincers, washing the filters into the long flowerbeds leading to the lake. They'd head home to sleep in, in the morning, have kaf in the neighbourhood square in the bright, clean day...
That was when his boy came pelting back, out of breath, eyes wide. “Inspect'r da... 'n Himself! Him whose got Oas and Anae's ears and Herself fessas Goddess's too! Vodaid 'n all, but still! Imperator, da!”
He nearly stopped in his tracks, but his donkeys plodded on so he hurried to keep up around his final corner to the rinse tower, Melkias bouncing beside him. “Imperator? At this hour? At the Most Gracious Emulsifying Flow of Benificence Tower 5?”
“An our Assemblypeople 'n bodyguards 'n Pages writers 'n welcomists 'n secretaries 'n...”
“Calm down, m'lad. This pro'ly has tah do wi' our callin' 'n whut t' Pages say 's 'an illness'. We'm just tah do our jobs, boy. Nay tah worrit!”
“Yeah, da.” But the thrill and fear of seeing someone so high in station down at the lowest of the okas washing towers still shone in his face.
The base of their tower was full of lights, he could see all the way down the street. Hand lamps big enough to need two people with poles and hooks to carry them. Bats swooped to the bounty of insects drawn in by all the light, their silent shadows wifting over the flowerbeds and the stone of the street.
“Calmmit, calm. We vodai'd im in, boy. He's ourn. We vodai'd em all in, newminted prolly lookin' good fer tah Pages and tah see us workin' they gotta be here middle o' night.” He considered clicking up his team but didn't see any use in trying to get them to move faster, at the end of their round. Flash tired you out, his old dad used to say. Then you couldn't do your proper work. 'Leave flash for them as hafta talk tah the dirt-hating Gods.' Then the donkeys, as they usually did, stepped up faster anyway along the last block, wanting stable and home.