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The frosted, half-frozen bleakness of Lagnin drifted away beneath the airship, the glacier and mountains to the south-west diminishing as Tranton and his companions flew over the forest on the village's outskirts, now regaining its vibrancy in the spring months, the landscape shifting gradually towards marshy floodplain, the trees thinning to patchy thickets, isolated on slender stretches of sandbank. The glacial meltwater had turned this area into weaving, intersecting breadth of streams and small rivers. After a few hours flight the various waterways began to merge into a single, dominant channel, while the banks formed up and farms began to take over.

It was late afternoon as Tranton stood on the deck, watching over the railing at the scenery scudding along below.The elevation afforded by the airship gave him a perspective on the valley he'd only glimpsed at from the precipice of the glacier. It was a clear day, free of haze, and he could see the shape of the valley in any direction he cared to look. The wind flowed across his skin, no longer the harsh, biting, freezing threat of the mountains but instead a cool, refreshing, anticipatory embrace. His newly cut hair, shorn almost to the scalp, and his re-tamed beard left his face free of distraction for the first time in months. He felt scrubbed clean, the tensions of his mountain journey lifted from his shoulders. Not to say that there weren't troubles ahead, especially given that any complications from hereon would be caused directly by humans rather than the interaction of the elements.

The airship itself was a marvel of ingenuity and technology, unlike anything he'd encountered outside of the mountain ring. The cabin and deck, shaped like the hull of a sailboat, were slung beneath an enormous, bulbous balloon of stretched, canvas-like material, the whole thing held together by an elaborate metal exoskeleton to which were attached numerous pivoting propellers capable of pushing the ship in almost any direction. The vessel had remarkable manoeuvrability and speed, seemingly regardless of the direction or strength of the wind. There had been some land-based steam experiments on the Headland which had resulted in embarrassingly few practical applications, but the Lagonians had seemingly mastered their engines, achieving an efficiency Tranton couldn't possibly understand. He imagined the Red Sails equipped with such power, racing across the waves between Cretagin and Hollanhead. They could have shaved at least a third from their trade times.

And yet, for all their technological wonders, the airships were unable to ascend above a particular altitude. They had tried, according to the captain of this particular vessel, pushing the limits of the ships for decades, but had always been thwarted by unpredictable and extreme air currents which swirled in the upper regions, preventing them from flying over the mountain peaks. It appeared to Tranton that the Lagonians were not only walled in: their cage also had a ceiling.

The sun was low, its rays streaking across the deck, sliced into slender beams by the ship's taut rigging. Moving back from the rail, Tranton walked the wooden deck, worn and scuffed from extensive use but still well cared for, observing the crew as they went about their business. It was a relatively skeletal affair, with less activity even than an ocean-going ship, the vessel seemingly only needing a helmsman and a couple of engineers to monitor the integrity of the balloon. The engine was hidden away below decks, from where heat was presumably vented into the balloon to control its lift, but they had thus far kept him away, seemingly still suspecting him of some kind of subterfuge. Stryke had been unable to explain how he was expected to return word to his supposed superiors back in Hollanhead.

Venturing into the cabin, Tranton passed through the outer door and down a short flight of stairs, finding himself in the mess, currently occupied by Roldan Stryke and the ship's captain, a woman by the name of Valera.

"Tranton," Stryke said warmly, and perhaps even sincerely, "come join us. We were discussing our imminent arrival at Treydolain."

The captain nodded, pulling back a seat and offering it to Tranton. "We'll be there within the hour, by our normal schedule," she said, clearly proud of the crew's punctuality. "After docking we'll offload cargo, as would be expected."

Smiling, Tranton sat and poured himself a drink. "Am I cargo?"

Stryke shook his head. "We'll need you to stay on board until after dark. Then we can get you into the palace unseen."

"Don't trust your own people?"

"It's not that," Stryke said, raising his glass as if to make a toast. "The mesa dock is the busiest port in the valley. It's not just our people; it's full of ships and crew and dignitaries from all around Lagonia." He shifted in his seat, leaning forward on the table, next to where he'd removed his heavy, leather gloves. "My people I trust," he said, glancing over at Velera, "it's everyone else I have a problem with."

"And what about you, Captain?" Tranton asked, crossing one leg across his knee. "You able to keep me a secret?"

Velera looked at him with amusement, as if weighing up a potential purchase in a butcher's shop. "Officially I run cargo, but there's a reason Roldan rides with us and the other ships in the network."

"All on the payroll, huh?" The drink was strong and sour to Tranton's taste. All the food and drink since he'd arrived had been a little off, as if two steps removed from his understanding.

"The airships are the best way for me and others like me to keep tabs on what's happening around the valley," Stryke said. "Simple as that." He stood and stretched, then pulled his gloves back on. "Come up top, you don't want to miss the approach."

Nodding, Tranton downed his drink, instantly regretted it, then stood groggily to accompany the other man. "You not joining us?" he asked of Valera.

"I've seen it before," she said, smiling thinly.

The sky was a sweeping rich ochre down in the west, while the peaks of the mountains in the far distance to the east were still aglow with the evening's last light. Visible before the ship, raised up from the horizon and situated in the centre of the valley, were two towers of rock, atop which Tranton could begin to make out human structures.

"The city of Treydolain," Stryke announced. "Or, at least, its highest points. Most of the city is at ground level, clustered around the lake. You'll have to let me know how it compares to your Hollanhead."

"I'm sure it'll hold its own."

Tranton moved up to the prow and watched as the city slid into view, sprawling out for miles around the feet of the mesas. A lake sat beyond, dark in the evening's shadow but dotted with lights. The entire city was lighting up in a cascade of lanterns and yellow windows, as if in a concerted effort to ward off night. The illumination seemed more constant and liberally applied than he was used to seeing in even the most advanced cities to the south. There was something more than mere candlelight at work.

Closer now, and he could make out the plateaus atop the mesas, as the airship approached almost level with them. He could see the palace at the far end of one of the mesas, with the complex, wooden lattice of the docks at the other. The adjacent mesa was covered with a more diverse range of structures, seemingly a mixture of residential and what might have been military barracks or a prison. An irrationally tall and solid-looking stone bridge spanned the mesas, stretching impossibly across the gap in a remarkable feat of engineering - not least because it also looked as if it had been standing for centuries.

"We'll be approaching for a mooring in a few minutes," Stryke said. "Time to get below."

Taking in a deep breath, Tranton clenched his jaw and flexed his fists. The missing finger ached, its phantom remnant making itself known again. This wasn't the time to object, he knew, and so he obliged.

As he descended the steps into the interior of the ship, he vowed it was the last time he'd let anyone in this strange place tell him what to do.

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