It was a street like any other in the district. Pienya stood beneath an arch, observing, while Dolan Mags shifted from foot to foot nervously next to her. He clearly disliked the area: found it repulsive, in fact, and couldn't wait to be done with this business so he could move his patrol somewhere more salubrious. As merchant streets went, this one wasn't any worse than the usual. The smell was predictably awful, the puddles and muddied ground mixed with blood and fish oils, while dogs roamed about looking for scraps and generally doing a better job at keeping the place tidy than any of the humans. The buildings were old and rickety, as they tended to be down by the lake, their beams bent and fractured, lending the rows of houses and workshops an almost jovial, sing-song appearance.
Pienya rather liked it.
While Mags balanced awkwardly on one of the wooden planks which criss-crossed their way between buildings, forcing anyone passing him to venture into the filth, Pienya knelt down and examined the well-trod ground. Her coat splayed out into the muck, but she had more important things on her mind than her own cleanliness.
"This is where you saw him?" she asked.
"Yes, just over there," the guard said, pointing. "He was covered, head-to-toe."
"The people with him, did you recognise any of them?" Pienya already knew the answer.
Mags shook his head. "They were all dispersing when I arrived. I didn't make the connection at first. It was a busy day, and I don't know the folk round here by sight."
"This is one of your primary circuits, is it not?" Pienya asked, not bothering to look at the man.
"That's right, ma'am. This and Hokurn, over the way." He gestured broadly. "Much nicer in Hokurn."
Pienya straightened and began crossing the narrow walkways to reach the sewer drain. "You need to know your districts like you know your own home, or the back of your hand." She glanced back at Mags. "Or any other part of you with which you're intimately familiar. You need to see, hear and know everything that happens on these streets."
"It's not quite the same down here as up in the palace gardens," Mags protested. "Hundreds of people flow through here every hour."
Coming to an abrupt halt, Pienya paused a moment, then swivelled slowly to face Mags. He was physically taller than her by a head but her presence still overwhelmed him. "I didn't ask for excuses, Mags," she said slowly, icily. "If you're not capable of carrying out your duties I can have you reassigned. Or removed."
"I didn't mean them to be excuses," he said, raising his hands defensively, "just that you might not quite appreciate the challenges of the district. If only we could all work up on the mesas with his majesty."
Taking a step closer, until she was uncomfortably close, Pienya glared up through her dark eyes, her tightly braided hair swinging gently on the breeze. "Do not take me for some soft mesa girl," she said, then pointed towards one of the workshops. "The man who owns that goes by the name Fillip Tengren. He has three children. His wife died last winter." She turned and indicated towards a group of women hauling baskets of fresh fish. "Those four work the southern end of the lake, further out than most of the fishermen, past the grand estates. They do that so that they can get a better catch, even though it means a longer walk. Their names are Greta, Heidl and Emmy."
Mags stared down at her, his mouth pinched and eyes wide.
"Do not dare to assume anything about me again," she said. "Nothing escapes my notice in this city, including your own ineptitude. Now, open the grate."
There would be nothing of use at street level; the restless footfall in this part of town would have scrubbed it clean of evidence of the boy's presence within ten minutes of him departing the area. 'Clean' being an entirely inappropriate word for the state of this particular street. Once Mags had hauled open the grating, Pienya stood at the edge of the sewer's gaping hole, watching as mud and fish guts dripped down.
"The lock hasn't been properly fixed yet," Pienya noted. The locals must have bashed it open to get the boy out after discovering him. "See to it that it is fixed before the end of the day. Stay here until I return, Mags. That's an order."
She set her jaw against the reeking smell and dropped gracefully into the hole, landing softly on the sewer walkway below. The sludge-slicked brick tunnel extended away but she instead focused her attention on her immediate surroundings. The sewers were off-limits and nobody would have been here since the boy passed through, leaving the faint possibility of finding a trail.
After scrutinising the ground, moving her eyes over every inch, she identified what could be footprints, still visible where they had pressed into the green mould and lichen. Tracing them back down the tunnel, she made turn after turn, heading deeper into the tunnels, until the tracks abruptly ceased.
Pienya stood next to a pipe, which was venting hot steam. It looked far too small even for her slight frame to fit, but she couldn't rule out the possibility. Her knowledge of the underground was limited but it wouldn't surprise her if the pipe led directly back to the processing floor. Quite how someone could navigate it without being burned to a crisp eluded her and was something she'd need to investigate further: perhaps the venting was intermittent, leaving a slim window of accessibility?
The trail having hit a dead end, she returned to street level, where Mags was waiting dutifully. He looked uncomfortable to be standing idly in the street, surrounded by the hustle of the fishing community. He wasn't the right material for the job and would probably resign from service within the next few years, if the city didn't get him first. She wondered if it had occurred to him to close the grate and seal her below, so as to escape her further wrath and disdain. She had her own key to all of the sewer entrances, of course, just as she'd researched the inhabitants of this part of town before meetings Mags, but he wouldn't have known that.
"Did you find anything?" he asked, a hint of incredulity in his voice.
"In which direction did the boy go?" she asked, ignoring his question.
Mags chewed on his upper lip, thinking, then pointed down the street, where it snaked its way through an archway towards the lake. "That way," he said. "I told him to clean himself up."
"Yet you didn't think to follow him or enquire as to his circumstances?"
Straightening up to his full height and adjusting his uniform, Mags cleared his throat. "My attention was on calming the situation on the street, ma'am."
"Yes, I'm sure it was utter chaos," Pienya said, making a show of looking at her surroundings, as the locals went about their business and studiously ignored the both of them. This district was noisy and dirty but mostly trouble-free. "I have no further use of you."
Stepping away without giving him another moment of her time, Pienya followed the mud and cobbles downhill as it wound down to the lake front, opening out onto the fisheries plaza, as it was rather grandly known. From here the boy could have gone anywhere; Treydolain was effective at disappearing people, even from the eyes of the king. He could even have found himself a boat: that would be especially troublesome.
Pienya didn't have all the details, and that bothered her. Conducting an investigation required her to have everything at her fingertips but there was a gaping hole, in that she didn't fully know the nature of the processing floor. She'd never been down there and knew only that it was situated beneath the prison, which itself was buried beneath the palace, honeycombed through the interior of the mesas. When prisoners went down to the processing floor, they didn't come back: it's where the worst of the worst were sent, where life meant life. Most of the population didn't even know the processing floor existed; they liked to think that their fellow valley dwellers were cultured and civil and like them - not that they were murderers and plotters and rapists. Details of the criminals' past lives were kept hidden even from her, even though they could help with her investigation. What she did know was that an escapee was a danger to the city and everyone in it, and that it was her duty to track him down before somebody got hurt.
The nervousness from Fenris and others in the know and their reluctance to share information made tracking this potential escapee all the harder. She didn't know his background, or age, what crimes he'd committed or how dangerous he was. Worse, she wasn't able to properly brief her officers, most of whom knew only of the main prison.
That's why she needed to pick up the trail. It had been less than a day since the boy emerged from the sewers, which meant there was still time. Her gut told her that he was still in Treydolain, which meant she would find him.
YOU ARE READING
The Mechanical CrownFantasy
An explorer, a princess, a slave and a sword. A belief that the world can be better. The Mechanical Crown is an epic adventure full of intrigue, mystery and romance. When Tranton Seldon becomes the first to cross the mountains in hundreds of years...