The Rubble Heap
Summary: Ingea never witnessed the disaster for which she was blamed, after they disregarded her warnings. With only her wits and inventions, she has to survive a collapsing empire and supernatural incursions.
Kham Ingea never witnessed the disaster for which she'd later be singlehandedly blamed, but her description of it was unnervingly accurate. She saw all the warning signs during her trip to the Empire's ancient capital, the Highwater Citadel of Sithan. She was accompanied by her instructor and three of her student peers, all of whom were male. While she was used to being treated as a piece of meat, stared at like a butcher's prized steak, she nevertheless found the trip to be unpleasant on many levels.
Ingea stepped off the river-barge before the others, so eager for a solid foundation beneath her feet. She saw the dockworkers stare at her, perhaps trying to determine if the body of man or woman was beneath her robes. She wore the orange tunic of an engineer, but had it fitted for a body slightly bigger than hers. She took care of her grooming and hygiene with the minimal pragmatism she governed all aspects of her life with. She recalled the biting of lice and ticks, and witnessed ornate care foisted upon by hairstyles by the vain, resulting in her shaving in a depilation thorough enough to remove her eyebrows and long lashes. She wore no cosmetics, and she wore a protective helmet and vest of her own design. Having seen the injuries present in corvee workers, she saw no need to eschew the professional protection for the sake of appearance. Much to her dismay, it was insufficient to deter the most persistent threat.
"We will wait for our guide together," grumbled her instructor, Master Architect Gen. He was a spindly man with a rat-like countenance, holding his nose above his students and commoners alike. He dressed in an engineer's tunic with all the embellishments and awards he could afford. On his chest read a timetable of his most celebrated projects, from the widening of the Southron Canal to the fortress restoration along the Western Frontier. She noticed he was saving a blank spot on his chest, presumably for the award that would follow the current project's completion. She stepped to the other side of the pier from him, despite him beckoning her over.
From the docks, Ingea beheld the millennia-honed grandeur of Sithan. As it was the terminus of the Grand River's navigable portion, the city was designed to impress visitors from the docks. She had visited before as a youth, but looked again upon the city with mature eyes. Much of the craft around her were keelboats, river-barges, paddle-wheel freighters, and shallow-draft vessels, but a pair of ocean-going catamarans and a strangely small caravel also occupied berths at the dock. The docks were an assemblage of warehouses, kilns, mills, and smithies that churned unceasingly like cogs in a grand machine. The clouds of soot, clangor of metal, and clacking of distant shuttles was music to her ears.
The structures perched on the cliffs above the Eastport docks were slightly less impressive to Ingea. She found the massive, statue-lined stairwell that connected the docks to the city proper to be highly inefficient for mass movement of cargo. Her contempt vanished when looked beside it. She beheld the angled metal rails on the stone ramp beside it, which lowered a wheeled cargo lift with rattling chains. She saw frantic stevedores scurrying to move crates onto the platform once it was fully lowered. Recognizing the massive wheels that moved it to be like a ship's capstan, it was a mechanism impressive in both scope and scale.
Beyond the stairwell and elevator, Ingea behold the spires of the Cliffside District, where the nobility lived. The mansions were of at least a dozen architectural styles she recognized, resulting in a chimerical district of gaudy facades. The fortifications that surrounded the cliffs on either side of the river quickly drew her attention, as their star-shaped bodies groped across the landscape like stone octopi. Their flat, gray walls were far more fascinating to behold than the tree-lined tiered gardens of the Central Palace.
The creak of more footfalls on the dock caused her to glace and see the Master's other students disembark. She saw the spindly frame of the nebbish Erac, who scarcely stared beyond the pages of a book. She saw Tey, who still reeked of alcohol from the prior night. She heard the moaning of Purt, who'd always be complaining about something. Master Gen walked down the dock, ignoring her as a red-suited official sauntered down to meet him.
"Gentlemen, and lady," Gen said, narrowing his eyes at Ingea. "This is Emissary Ergan of the Sithan Ministry of Public Works. He will be our guide for the day."
"Thank you," Vergan said, bowing towards the students. "The city of Sithan honored to host the apprentices of Master Engineer Gen. I look forward to showing you your designs being constructed before your eyes."
The students all bowed back to the Emissary. Ingea noted his eyes lingered longer on her. They started to march up the cyclopean stairwell, which was far larger than it seemed from a distance. She remained silent as she marched behind the others, allowing Tey and Purt to directly follow behind the Master. Erac hung backwards, observing the city like a gawking visitor. She followed briskly behind them, easily keeping pace as they ascended.
Upon reaching the summit, Ingea did her best to tune out the Emissary's blathering lecture on each of the local noble houses, and their complements about to the bridge's elegant design and construction. She noted the fawning comments lavished upon the Master's elegant design, and the way Gen pretended to be flattered. She narrowly resisted the urge to speak up, and instead focused once more on the surrounding city.
Past Cliffside, Ingea beheld the massive wall that surrounded the city on three sides. Each was a tremendous metal gate, encrusted with brandished rivets and almost looming as high as the palace. The westernmost one was ringed with stylized images of triumphant warriors, which she recalled was the Conqueror's Gate. The central one was embellished with eidolons of ancient rulers beside it, giving it the name of the Imperial Gate. The one closest to her was gilded along the edges, the widely-recognized the Merchant's Gate. Each seemed too large and impractical to her, build to impress rather than defend. As the city was unconquered by force for over a millennium, she wondered if her assessment was incorrect, or what were once serviceable defenses were similarly softened by greed.
Ingea wordlessly followed the others through Government Square. Monuments to long-dead Emperors and Empresses rose alongside august heroes of folk-legend and history. She saw the First Empress looming over the plaza with folded hands, her legendary cynicism enshrined in stone. She saw the Great Engineer facing out towards the manufactories and workshops of Eastport, where his artifice inspired the foundation of the Transcendent Order. The Wayward Admiral looked out over the Grand River, owing to the departure point for his expedition that discovered the Shatterlands six centuries prior. There was a more recent statue, carved in the Kirn style, but bearing the face of the current Governor. She did not bother to learn her name, given the apparent vanity of the project.
Ingea beheld the chasm beneath the bridge she designed with a blend of awe and horror. The cliffsides were sudden stone drops, hewn by the river over the passage of eons. The Grand River itself was a braided river, meandering across its bed based on the melting of winter snows. Its dark blue waters were different than the brownish murk it became as streams merged with it at the confluences near Eastport. On the opposite side was the greatest star-fort of the Kirn Dynasty, protecting the Southside of the city with its raised walls and ample artillery. Between the grim crenellations of the southern fortress and breathtaking cliffs was a travesty she immediately disowned.
Ingea saw the superficialities of the bridge she designed were all that remained of her initial design. The sweeping arches and thick supports were as majestic as she imagined, but the changes made were heaping injustices upon both her aesthetic and technical senses. Each of the five stone pillars between the arches, the struts holding the weight of the bridge rested upon cheap fill instead of the more solid, and expensive, stone. Stone statues added at regular intervals along the bridge added unnecessary, and unaccounted for in the design, weight to each span. Carved alcoves bearing the Imperial coat of arms were precariously positioned above each arches' keystone, compromising the most imperative part of the bridge.
Ingea remembered Master Gen's smug grin on that day, as he was undoubtedly responsible for the "improvements" in question. She wondered if the Master pocketed the money "saved" by his changes. He lapped up accolades from the Duchess herself, leering down at her with the overconfidence of having stolen her design, modified it, and received the credit. From his prancing, she surmised his scapegoat in the event of the bridge's failure. From the way he treated her, she planned accordingly for more than his scorn.
Ingea recalled the night they arrived back, how the pride-drunk Gen once more was brash and brazen enough to once more demand she sleep with him. The other students offered no support, if they were even aware of it. Erac was too timid to stand up to him. Purt was too sycophantic to complain about the one thing that mattered to her. Tey was too drunk to care. Her incredulous family would once more claim she was lying, and that she was trying to besmirch the Master's reputation, despite the tremendous chance he gave her. His actions on that day confirmed what she suspected all along.
Six months later, Ingea heard the bridge collapsed from a traveling merchant. When pressed for details, her initial thoughts were correct. The rain-swelled Grand River swept away the soft soil beneath each piling, causing the central arch to collapse. At least two dozen people vanished into the raging waters beneath, including a nobleman and two families. She could barely imagine the terror and shock on their faces the bridge betrayed them when they most needed it. She felt a nausea in her stomach for many reasons, not the least of which was the pair of constables that headed towards the Master's estate.
Ingea said a quiet word of thanks to the merchant, before heading for the edge of town. She set aside some rocks beneath a small mound of rubble, revealing the wooden chest she hidden cache she'd set aside six months prior. She slipped the traveler's robe over her protective vest, and she loaded the repeating crossbow of her own design. She knew she could never return to Master Gen's, but she did not care. She was to him as the rubble that was once the Sithan Bridge, something to be used and discarded as necessary. She could not fix the bridge, but she could fix her situation. She cursed herself for not taking this course of action earlier.