The city on the hills

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There was a throne room in the palace, as opulent as such a space should be and always filled with courtiers, lords and ladies and their myriad entourages and, of course, the king, sat upon his gilded seat and presiding over the proceedings. Behind the throne was an enormous stained glass window, encompassing half the wall and always framing the king in a glow of light from the sky beyond. Meetings were carefully arranged based on the time of day and the height of the sun, timed such that the light would enhance his presence: the late afternoon pouring in, silhouetting the king and making his expressions unreadable; or the morning shards cutting across his jawline at a stern, oblique angle to give weight to his proclamations; or the softening, gentle warmth of an overcast day at noon for when the kingdom required a kinder king.

Positioned around the throne, which sat alone on its dais, were benches and scattered cushions for those accepted into the court. It was a broad and cavernous room, occupying most of its floor, with windows reaching to the outside on three sides. The fourth wall was defined by huge metal doors which led out to the waiting rooms, where a long line of hopeful subjects would be waiting, each anxiously preparing for their fleeting moments with a royal audience.

Past the doors and down the slabs of stone that formed the winding double-staircase were the state rooms on the floor below, while descending again would lead to the entrance hall, library, automata and games rooms. Only court officials and members of the royal family were allowed to move in the opposite direction, ascending past the guards and up the smaller stairs and into the private wings of the palace. Here were the bed chambers and reading rooms and quiet spaces, off limits to all but the most honoured of guests. To be invited into the famous dining hall on the upper floor of the palace was a sought-after statement of prestige and influence, one rarely given and much vied for by the aristocracy and those who aspired to a higher station.

The queen's aviary perched atop the palace, with the rooftop gardens extending out to each of the decorated towers on the five corners of the pentagonal palace. The aviary was small compared to the palace, a tiny bubble of glass and spindly metalwork, but still housed hundreds of birds which fluttered between the trees and leaves of the greenhouse with never a care for predators or the vagaries of the Lagonian weather.

Kirya Tellador stood in the aviary, eyes closed, breathing in the moist air and listening to the birds shrieking and whistling at each other. Clockwork contraptions delivered food to the birds, refilled water in the fountains and even periodically reconfigured the position of some of the trees and branches to provide a varied environment. Moisture was brought up from below and vented into the greenhouse as a fine mist, hissing from thin pipes running the length of the roof. Even surrounded by the racket, it was often the most serene part of her day, providing a few brief moments of solitude and affording her the chance to clear her head of her duties.

Never for long, though. The door to the outside world creaked open. "Princess Kirya," came a clipped voice through the foliage, "your father has requested your presence in court."

Sighing, Kirya opened her eyes, blinking against the late morning sun that streamed in through the aviary's ceiling.

"My sessions are not until this afternoon, Fenris."

The old man pushed his way past ferns, batting away smaller birds which buzzed about him. "I am aware of your calendar, Kirya," he said. "King Guijus perhaps feels he is of sufficient rank to supersede your published itinerary."

"Does he want me to say anything, or just sit there on display?"

Fenris' face remained entirely neutral. "That is not for me to say, my lady."

Kirya smiled. "Of course it isn't," she said, resting an affectionate hand on his chest as she passed. Leaving the aviary through its twin glass doors, she strode across the rooftop, blue dress flowing elegantly in the wind. Past the crenellations at the edge she could see the valley stretching out in all directions and the mountains in the far distance. It was a particularly crisp day, making the mountain ring pop out against the faded sky, the peaks jutting up defiantly. An airship drifted gently against the breeze, making its way to the south-west, probably to collect ice from the glaciers for the royal reserves. Though the view from the palace roof was a beautiful sight, the mountains always left her with a tight, hollow feeling of hopelessness. Knowing what or whom lay beyond them was beyond the power of kings, or the strength of the boldest soldier, or the wit of the wisest builder.

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