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The palace could still be seen from the lake, perched boldly atop the dual mesas, the enormous stone bridge connecting the two together with its supports stretching over three hundred feet all the way down to where the river cut its path through the gorge. The town wound its way down the side of the mesas, houses cut directly into the rock at the steepest inclines, often one atop another as if stacked. Other than the gardens which surrounded the palace there was almost no surface untouched by the city. Cables ran from the plateaus all the way down to the streets, fanning out in multiple directions and providing a rapid way to make deliveries in and out of the palace without needing to traverse the slopes.

Kirya stood on the water's edge, wishing she could remove her shoes and paddle. Instead, she was attending the estate as part of her endless diplomatic duties. The grounds were positioned pride of place on the lakefront, nestled among the other houses and gardens belonging to the valley's higher echelons. They enjoyed views out across the blue-grey water, which lapped gently against the short, sandy beach, all the way over to the other side and the rolling fields beyond, which gradually dropped away over the horizon. Treydolain was a sprawl of a city, focused around the raised palace on the mesas, and then spread out along the river and around the west curve of the lake. Farther along the lake to the east the shore become comparatively wilder and steeper, the forest encroaching and hiding what lay inland. The occasional jetty still emerged, revealing the presence of a house within the trees.

Today, they were close to the city at the Verase household, one of the larger, more opulent estates in the district. The grounds were dotted with trees brought in and planted from around the valley, immediately demonstrating the family's wealth, while one corner was home to a miniature vineyard of sorts and rectangular ponds and waterways gave the place a signature style, almost merging the gardens with the waters of the lake.

There was a family link centuries old between the Telladors, of which Kirya was the heir, and the Verases, dating back to before the valley was stable and prosperous, in times when the king ruled with his fist and the blade it wielded rather than through diplomacy and appeasement. Such were the days. Her great-great-grandfather had relied upon and found military support in the Verases of the day, establishing a relationship which had continued over the decades, despite nobody alive being able to remember the historical particulars. It hadn't escaped Kirya's notice that the friendship was often presented in the context of a debt by the Verase family.

Hence why she was here with her mother, the queen currently mingling with the crowds back in the courtyard, courting favour with nobility in a flow of power that felt entirely backwards. Kirya remembered her childhood, when her father was a stern but fair leader, one who commanded respect and duty from all around him and received it without question. Peace and order was assumed and felt like it would last forever. The difficult days of the past were just that and would remain there, never more than history lessons given her by Fenris. King Guijus had ruled over a valley of success, wealth and happiness. She wondered whether that had ever been the truth, or just the naive, wishful thinking of a child.

Now in her father she saw a harried man who retreated to his throne, rarely ventured out into the world and was beset on all sides by duplicitous upstarts who sensed their time was drawing near. If it wasn't the overtly aggressive and disobedient mining guilds to the north it was these simpering aristocrats who festered around the lake in Treydolain, with no cares in the world but the pursuit of their own wealth, usually at the expense of all others. Their already considerable wealth, accumulated largely through benefiting from the stability provided by her family over the last century, now gave them undue influence which they did not hesitate in wielding. With Lagonia's population ageing and signs of source veins becoming rarer, their financial contributions kept the machinery of state working like clockwork.

It was the valley's obsession with an automated life which brought everything back to source, mined from beneath their feet and the real currency of Lagonia. Brought in from the ring mines and broken down into ore before being used to power the machines which kept the city ticking, the fields watered and the airships flying, source was everything to the people of Lagonia and that addiction was crippling the state and her family. Kirya had always tried to advocate a simpler lifestyle, one which was less reliant on machined power, but once people had tasted a modern life there was no route back. And so they'd kept burning through source, until one day there would be no more, and they'd find themselves still trapped within the mountain ring with nowhere to go and no toys left to play with.

"It's a beautiful day," the voice of Tristan Verase said, approaching her from behind. He was the youngest son, in his early twenties. Handsome, for sure, and with ambition that he wore like a badge of honour. "Have you seen father's latest diorama? It is all anyone is talking about."

The senior Verase had always held a fascination with automation and frequently had new scenarios commissioned in the grounds, functioning plays which would change and adjust with their audience, entire rooms shifting and changing without human intervention. It was said that the interior of Verase's house was similarly malleable, and that he reconfigured it once a year so that potential intruders would never know what to expect. Kirya had never been past the meeting rooms at the front so did not know if the rumours were true.

"I may take it in later this afternoon, before I return to the palace."

When Tristan Verase smiled it was like watching the mouth of a snake slowly opening. His face was long and thin, cheekbones defined and sharp. "You really should. Tell your father to have one built in the palace. We could arrange that for you. It seems strange for our humble home to have such a thing but for the palace to be without, does it not?"

Kirya turned to face him. "Don't worry about the palace, Tristan. We really do have the best views. In fact, we can see your father's estate from the parapet. It looks lovely, like a little boy's toy." She smiled warmly, then made her way back through the gardens, thinking that she probably shouldn't have said that.

Ever since she was of an age to understand what was going on, the game of old men playing at politics had worn her down. She watched her father pulled this way and that by shifting, unreliable alliances, depleting resources and disloyal subjects, all as he strained to maintain peace and prosperity with barely an acknowledgement of his efforts from any of his so-called supporters. The king would be blamed for the valley's few problems, without receiving recognition for his accomplishments.

The board was already set when Guijus came to power. The valley with its incubating, isolating mountain ring confined Lagonians to an introverted existence; the muddled, half-legendary history of the valley spoke of it as an unsullied garden, a protected paradise several hundred miles across, into which only those worthy were permitted entry. A lot of people still believed that, still spouted it even as the deposits of source shrank and the population continued growing beyond the valley's capacity. It would all be fine, because they were the chosen people. The realities of the day did not match up to the ideals of the past. Kirya was acutely aware of this, for it was her future: one day she would inherit the throne, and all of her father's problems would become her own.

To Kirya, the valley and its ring of impassable mountains was no shield: it was a chain, just long enough to give people space enough to stretch, such that they couldn't sense their confinement. But there they were, all of them, unable to leave, trapped within their dwindling utopia. Like everyone else in Lagonia, she would live and die in the valley.

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