A Fire in the Capitol | 16 January 4/685

A lone firefighter stands in a burnt-out hallway.
The Silver Hall Archives

Dearest Jowan, Cora, and patrons of the Unarkida

The penmanship and prose of our previous two subjects’ journals are not representative of your average Unaran’s efforts. Today’s source material is a more typical example, so we’ve taken the liberty to extrapolate the bare-boned outline into a complete story.

Based on an extract from the Journal of Kiri Topowan, Fire Chief, Guards Guild, Old Southey, Anara.

18 March 3/75 – Number of Callouts – 3 (Major) – 5 (Minor)

Most of today’s calls were nothing to write home about, nor journal worthy for that matter. Turning the page back, I can see that I haven’t found anything to be notable for several weeks now. This is something for which someone in my position should be grateful I suppose.

That being said, one call today stood out as something to remember.

At around 03:30 in the morning the alarm bell sounded, followed by the Capitol Guard radio. The Chief of the Guard himself put out an all-stations call.

“All stations. Report to Silver Hall. Repeat. Report to Silver Hall. All stations.”

“Acknowledged, Old Southey responding,” I answered before triggering the team alarms for all four engines.

Old Southey station is the closest to the Capitol and always the first to respond to their calls. Our engine house is built right into Old Normandien town square, and it’s been there almost as long as the square itself, which predates the city. It is a building of polished grey stone with the bright silver of the Guards liberally applied to the steel doors and gleaming engines. Every time I muster the crew standing before this station, I feel a sense of immense pride to be its Chief.

That the Capitol were calling for all stations meant something big had happened. We were on the road within five minutes, my engine leading the way. No more than five minutes after that we approached the Capitol Crossroads and parked, the first to arrive. Silver Hall is situated on the northwest corner of the intersection.

Engines one and three were pumping first and got their hoses on the fire. Not long after, just as the Flain engines were pulling up, two’s and four’s lines were flowing too.

The fire was coming from the basement of the Hall and had only just worked its way to ground level. We managed to stop it from spreading all that far above ground, but by the looks of it, the fire had already consumed the level below. My understanding is that underneath Silver Hall are mostly secure archives, prisoner lock-up and transfer space for the Capitol Guard.

While we were doing our best to arrest the fire and assess access possibilities, I tried to get details from the Capitol Guards on site. According to them, luckily, there were no prisoners currently in holding. Also, they didn’t believe any staff would have had reason to be downstairs at that time of night. They couldn’t be certain, so we’d have to get down there and do a sweep, but they seemed confident everyone had checked in.

It took another five engines and an hour of pumping to get the fire suppressed enough to consider sending anyone in. Had there been anyone down there, their odds of survival were slim. Perhaps to avoid overthinking it, I found my attention drawn to the old tree. The Red Tree stood proudly at the centre of the Crossroads, its trunk nearly as wide as one of my engines. At the moment the blossoms were all brilliant white, glowing gently.

My mind circled back to the task at hand, the need to put a search and rescue team together, when someone caught my attention. None other than the First Councillor of the Blue Guild, Trager Vartis, had arrived. I’d met him on several occasions before, and each time I had been what you might call starstruck. He was the type who seemed to know more than a little about almost everything.

Also, he always remembered my name, “Chief Topowan, I need a word,” requested the thirteenth highest-ranking Councillor in all Anara.

“Of course Councillor.”

“If safe, I need you to get inside as quickly as possible and give me your assessment of the cause of that fire. Especially where it began.”

“Am I looking for something in particular Councillor?”

“No, but I am sure you’re aware that highly sensitive materials are stored in the vaults under Silver Hall. I need you to expedite your initial investigation so that we may conduct a risk assessment.”

“Understood Councillor,” I didn’t see that I had much of a choice. He may be the thirteenth of the thirteen members of the People’s Council, but everyone knows that he is the most widely respected, and therefore most influential.

I grabbed my hat and mask, arranged the search team and followed them through an entrance that had been secured.

The damage was severe, so with the smoke clearing and water draining, we marked safe paths and rigged lighting. There were still hoses dealing with some of the more stubborn, fuel-rich areas. It was pretty tough going.

Once I could move around more freely, it didn’t take long for me to track the fire back to its source. It had burst its way through grated vents high on the walls of a hallway lined with doors. We had to pry our way through the gate that secured the area first, so I assumed these were the vaults the Councillor had mentioned.

It took us some time to smash through the high-security doors to the room itself. When we did, it was clear that the fire had burned there for the longest, and with the most intensity. Constrained by layers of security, and fuelled by the contents of what looked like filing cabinets, the fire had raged here before escaping. The cabinets now stood warped and buckled. Nothing remained of the contents, not even ash.

Now, I’ve been at this a long time, and I can tell you that even the most intelligent arsonists are prone to several common mistakes.

Firstly, almost all of the filing cabinets had been opened. Fires in rooms like this are rare because the combustible materials, the contents of the all-metal cabinets, are deliberately isolated. One must open them to ensure a fire spreads, but in so doing, you sign-post your arson.

That was enough for me, but for good measure, our arsonist made a second common mistake. We anticipate that accelerants burn away and leave no evidence, especially if they are used to ignite paper. In reality, there is almost always some indication or residue if you know what to look for. There were clear signs in a few of the cabinets.

It was hardly scientific, and my final report would require more evidence and testing, but I was confident enough to report back to the Councillor.

“You’re positive. Vault C-1?”

“That’s right Councillor,” I answered. “Does that mean something to you?”

The Councillor looked at me for some time, then spoke, “Chief, I need your discretion. Also, your trust.”

“You have it Councillor,” as I said, this man had only ever shown me respect.

“I need your official report to state that the fire was declared accidental,” that I did not expect, he went on, “but I need you to conduct your full investigation anyway and provide me as much insight into this fire as you can. When it may have started is of particular interest to me.”

“I… um, Councillor, you’re asking me to lie?” This was problematic enough for me, but for a Vartis, a Blue Councillor, to suggest dishonesty. I cannot overstate how shocking this request was.

“Chief, I don’t ask lightly, as I imagine you know. So as a gesture of trust, I’ll give you an insight into my reasoning,” he paused. “While I must not speak of its contents, do you know who has access to that room?”

“No Councillor.”

“Thirteen people Chief, only thirteen people in all of Anara have access to that room. Do you understand me?”

This story hits close to home for me, not only as Trager Vartis is an ancestor of mine, but also because of what this incident will be tied to later on.

We have finally had the pleasure to introduce you to Ankit, in Ankit and the Uncle of Refuge. Please enjoy.

Illustration by Midjourney & G.G.B.

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