The platform indeed held a ruined city... but in addition to empty and half-collapsed stone buildings, it held a swarming multitude of workmen. For a moment, Harduk thought that they must have come to loot the ruins -- he had known some treasure-hunters who used crews like this, though never one so large -- but it could not be so. Everything they were doing was entirely wrong.
Here, a group of men were using a wooden frame and a complicated system of ropes and pulleys to haul a stone entablature into place atop a series of columns. There, a stonecutter was chipping one corner off a rectangular stone block. And here, a sculptor was putting the finishing touches on a series of disturbing bas-reliefs atop a doorway. To one side there were piles of cut and quarried stone, neatly stacked against their eventual use, and beyond them a small city of tents that would house the workmen when they rested. These men were not looting; they were *building*.
A pair of men stood not ten paces away, consulting over a piece of parchment. From his place just below the top of the water stair, Harduk's wilderness-keen ears could pick out bits of their argument. It seemed to center on the proper position of a certain building in relation to a central boulevard. They spoke in the tongue of hard-working Pithya, which was known for its extensive public works projects.
Harduk considered for a moment longer, then rose and approached them. None of the workers were armed. Though less soft than most city people, they were laborers and artisans; he could see no warriors among them. He had never yet found a ruin in the wilderness that was safe, but he supposed there must be a first time for everything.
"...Can't let it block the Royal Way," the shorter man was saying. "Just keep the footprint small. Make it taller, instead. If the master asks, we'll tell him it's a grain vault."
"Guess we'll have to," agreed the taller man, who was stick-thin and wore the sleeveless robe of a Pithyan scholar. "Maybe we can leave off one wall, scatter some rubble..."
His words trailed away as he caught sight of Harduk. His companion turned with him, and Harduk observed broad shoulders above a broad gut. He wore a simple tunic and leggings, which were tucked into plain boots: the sort of man who had once been a laborer, and now led teams of them. "Listen, fellow," he said evenly. "I know it's hot out, and the work is hard; but keep your pants on, or I'll have to dock your pay. The Ma--"
Harduk frowned at him, an expression that conveyed a very strong impression of a gathering storm. "What transpires here, fellows?"
The two men exchanged a quick glance. "We're constructing a set of ruins on this island," said the taller scholar. "Very picturesque, don't you think?"
"You're not one of mine, are you?" put in the work-leader. "With the sword, I thought... but never mind. What brings you here, warrior?"
Harduk stopped, close enough to converse with them but not close enough to threaten. "A serpent grew scared during last night's storm," he said, "and clung to my ship for comfort. The ship did not survive. I did, and washed up here."
"A castaway?" asked the scholar, surprise evident on his face.
"You'll be wanting for food and drink, then," said the work-leader.
Harduk waved such considerations away. "Later," he said. "Just now, I would learn more of your purpose here. You are building these ruins?"
"Just so," said the scholar. He looked around with pride. "Aren't they lovely?"
"The world," Harduk said, "is full of ruins. Why add more?" In truth, he'd spent a good deal of his own life reducing various parts of the world to ruin, usually for pay, but sometimes for fun. This, however, was different. These ruins were meant to look ancient, though they were newly built. The very idea offended his sensibilities. If he couldn't trust ancient ruins to be the last remnants of vanished civilizations, how could he trust them to be full of fabulous treasures and incalculable dangers? Half his life had been spent pursuing such things, by accident or apurpose. Constructions such as this could ruin everything.
The work-leader shrugged. "Because we're being paid."
"If you want to know what they're for," said the scholar, "you'll have to ask the master."
"And where," Harduk asked, "is your master?"
The scholar glanced at the work-leader, but the work-leader just shrugged. "As it happens, he's right there."
Harduk turned and beheld a man in dark robes, inspecting a statue from which one of the artisans had just removed one extended wing. Even at a distance, there was a certain magnetic vitality about the man. Unlike the scholar, his robes had full sleeves and his belt appeared to be woven silver.
He glanced at them, then turned and strode away.
Harduk started after him.
"Don't kill him," called the work leader. "He's the only one who can call back our boat!"
Harduk nodded, but it was acknowledgment -- not agreement. By the cold wastes of Distractia, he would have answers from this man... and put an end to the making of these false ruins.