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The mechanical house of Edarde Verase was talked of throughout the valley, often cited as representing the peak of engineering, artistic and design expertise in Lagonia. It had become a symbol for progress and technology and the future.

As the son of the city's most powerful baron, Tristan Verase thought nothing of the ingenuity built into every shifting panel of the house, as he strode down the central corridor, running his hand along the illustrated wall and triggering a cascade of folding rotations, the tiles on the wall clacking into new positions at his touch, flowing out from his palm like the wake of a boat and redrawing the mural. As the powered staircase lifted him to the higher floors, before shifting back to an unclimbable incline, he paid little attention, his mind entirely elsewhere. To Tristan Verase, this was the mundanity of life; if others lived to a lesser standard, then more fool them.

The expansive courtyard in the middle of the house was host to his father's latest storytelling device: a miniature scale recreation of the fabled War of Elements. The valley rose from the courtyard's floor as he approached, triggered by hidden pressure plates by the doors, the mountains elevating into place and towns building themselves seemingly from nothing. Observers were free to watch from the sidelines or even to occupy a viewing spot within the animated diorama - though that came with a risk of being caught up in the mechanisms. Armies consisting of hundreds of tiny, intricately decorated soldiers marched their way from the mountains towards the city at the centre of the valley. Having seen it in action many times already, Tristan knew that a coil of magnesium would soon rise from between the carved city's mesas, igniting into sparks and flame to obscure the introduction of Aera, her arms outstretched as she floated above the palace, directing the course of battle. He never liked that part; too much superstition and convenience, making it both philosophically and narratively dissatisfying.

Ignoring the looping workings of the scene, he crossed the courtyard and pushed open the doors to the games room, inside of which were two men already embroiled in heated debate. Even Tristan knew when to keep his mouth shut.

"Your eternal bickering with the king does neither of you any favours," Edarde Verase said, his clipped tones sounding disapproving regardless of context. "It undermines your standing in the capital and gives him cause to dismiss your position."

Across the other side of the green, rectangular games table was Baron Hectin Lief of the northern guilds. Tristan had met him many times at official events but had never witnessed him in a private session with his father, until now.

"The so-called king deserves to have an opposition who would speak his mind," said Lief, glancing towards Tristan then striking with his cue, sending balls ricocheting around the table. "A few more like me and we wouldn't be living in a state that's decaying from the inside-out."

Edarde chuckled, moving around the table like a predator. "A few more like you and we'd descend into civil war," he said through thin lips.

"Perhaps that's what Lagonia needs."

"In any civil war you would be the loser, Baron Lief!" The outburst from Edarde was unusual and biting; though Lief wasn't one to be intimidated, Tristan noted that he softened his tone somewhat.

"None of us want open conflict," Lief continued in a more placatory tone, "but we also can't afford to wait while the outer towns fall apart and the economy stagnates. He may have the support of his people now, but it won't last forever."

Edarde raised an eyebrow. "Are you so certain? Your airships are most impressive, Baron Lief, but it is King Guijus Tellador who controls the source - without that fuel, your precious flying machines remain on the ground."

Lief threw his arms up and strode a few steps away from the table. "Source which he mines from beneath my very feet!" He turned and pointed an accusatory finger towards the older Verase. "Did you know that mad honeycomb of tunnels has spread even to the outer circumference of the valley?"

Always calm, Edarde paused in the game and took a sip from his tea. "How do you know this?"

"Sinkholes," Lief said, shrugging in annoyance. "They don't dig deep enough, and our buildings fall into the hollows."

Tristan saw an opening and took it, standing at the foot of the table. "Perhaps supplies of source are running low," he said. "It could be that the Telladors' magic dust will cease to be a factor at all - that could play well to our advantage."

Lief snorted. "They'll just dig deeper," he said. "Don't count on them exhausting their supply lines any time soon."

"Besides," Edarde said smoothly, resting a hand on his son's shoulder, "an end to source would be bad for all of us. It keeps the Baron's airships afloat and my house in motion; not to mention the trade routes flowing. I wouldn't want to see a return to horse and cart, would you?"

The tense mood had dissipated somewhat with Tristan's interjection, the older men momentarily distracted from their own disagreeable natures.

"I bring other news," Tristan announced, while he had their attention. "One of our contacts in the palace guard fed word back that they're hunting for a prison escapee."

"Indeed?" Edarde stroked his thin beard idly. "That does not happen often."

"If ever," Tristan agreed, nodding, "at least in living memory - nobody gets out of that place."

Lief sighed loudly, then lined up his next shot on the game table. "How does one prisoner escaping his cell aid us?"

"It gives us a story," Edarde said keenly, "and one which is easily understood. Nobody in this city wants escaped criminals in their midst. It makes the king seem weak if he's unable to control his own prisoners. Unable to protect his own subjects. It gives us leverage."

"It is inconsequential," cried Lief dismissively, before visibly controlling himself. "What I mean," he continued, "is that it hardly compares to the plight of workers in the north, or how your family is repeatedly shut out of key decisions, or how the king has barely been seen outside the palace for months."

"The mundane person on the street cares not for the complexities of politics or truth," Edarde assured. "They crave simple fears and hopes; this prisoner gives us the former - we can give the people the latter."

Lief composed himself and took a shot, knocking a ball across the table into a sunken pocket. He grimaced with dissatisfaction. "It seems to me to be a matter for the guards, not us."

"My dear Baron Lief," Edarde said, smiling, as he moved around the table, "though I admire your ceaseless efforts to disagree with our king and make a case for your own people, what would you rather? Rage impotently against the king's will until your dying days, when power will pass inevitably to his daughter; or choose your battles and make real, lasting change, within our lifetimes?"

"You're the politician, Versase," said Lief, "so tell me what you would do."

Edarde smiled his broad, hungry smile."Well," he said, "perhaps we would do well to find this prisoner before the royal guards. That would really be making a statement, would it not?" He looked towards his son.

Returning the smile, Tristan nodded. "I'll see to it, father," he said, bowing slightly at Lief before withdrawing from the room. Closing the thick, polished door behind him, Tristan clenched his fists in anticipation: at last he could demonstrate his qualities. Time to move out from under the shadows of the mesas and, indeed, that of his father.

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