It began as the sun was setting and the gulls were returning to their cliffside beds in the mesa, while fishermen pulled in their nets and market stalls closed down for the end of the day. The Jolly Fish & Crown was the first to be trod beneath the boot of the city guard, as they pushed their way into the inn and set about asking questions of those taking drinks.
The Jolly Fish was an establishment that enjoyed the regular trade of local patrons, being situated barely a line's cast from the water's edge. Those who rowed the waters in the day then lost their land legs to the warm embrace of liquor and hearth. That same reliable patronage made it a ready source of information.
The guards took up positions around the inn, barring the entrances, while Pienya Martoc conducted her rounds. Everyone in the establishment knew a King's Eye when they saw one; some even recognised her specifically as the Bloody Handmaiden, or the Queen's Right Hand, the names whispered cautiously once she was out of earshot.
Pienya had pinpointed the time of day that the boy had emerged from the sewers from Dolan Mags' report; from there an assumed route towards the lake provided a rough time frame in which the regular fishermen and other workers would have been passing by. That in turn led her to the Jolly Fish, which was the nearest drinking hole to the nets. Somebody there would have seen something.
Jed Garron sat at the bar, as was his custom, head down and shaking hands gripping a pint, trying to remain unnoticed. The day had been long, he'd been in trouble with the city guards earlier in the year, and all he wanted was a quiet evening.
"If you wish to serve your king," Pienya was saying, "or even if you merely wish to return to your homes tonight, I suggest turning your thoughts to yesterday afternoon. We are looking for information on a person of interest. A boy. You would remember him by his unkempt appearance. My men here are distributing his likeness. Tell us all that you know."
Word spread fast around the docks and even faster in the Jolly Fish. Even if Jed had kept quiet, Neal or Shay would soon have pointed nervy fingers his way. It wasn't a matter of disloyalty but one of simple self-preservation: messing with the city guard, or withholding knowledge, was the fastest way to a stay beneath the mesa, and visits to that deep prison were not often commensurate with the sentence. Everyone claimed to know at least one person who had vanished into the subterranean abyss, never to return. Apocryphal or not, it was a fate to be avoided at all costs.
So Jed Garron spoke up, told all he knew, and directed the gaze of the King's Eye towards the house of Gatley, nestled as it was on the edge of the poor district across the river. Gatley had chosen to go straight home after the day's work, eager to see his children and unwilling to delay his return for a pint of watered-down, sediment-filled ale. The children already had dinner on the table as he entered, and though it was a meagre offering they looked up at him with such pride and anticipation that to him it was nothing less than a feast. He clapped and hugged them, making a show of approvingly investigating the small hunk of meat, barely enough to feed one adult, and the accompanying grey, floury potatoes.
"You've done us proud, again, Lora," he said. "The king would eat at our table, if only he knew."
She beamed, then pointed to her brother. "Hale helped as well, dad," she said. "He boiled the potatoes."
Gatley put his arms around both of them and drew them close. "I'm the luckiest man alive," he said. Each day he repeated that line, and each day he meant it.
The door splintered, the lock cracking away from its mount. It had been flimsy and draughty to begin with and now the door hung awkwardly from its lower hinge. Standing outside, illuminated by a high street lamp, was a city guard. He stayed in position as other guards swarmed into the tiny room, followed by a short, slender young woman with unusually pale hair.
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...