The times

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Animals had never been comfortable around her, always shying away, or barking, or taking to the wind. The birds in the aviary on the palace roof were no exception, fluttering away to the highest branches. To Queen Anja Tellador this was no bad thing; instead, it was a reminder that she could not presume the loyalty of all her subjects, or rest easy thinking that the valley was content and safe and amiable. Where there was deference there was also desire and greed and scheming, with hidden motivations presented as obedience and fealty.

Her life was one of being surrounded by sycophants, tiresome in their praise and eagerness, all except for those precious, honest few such as the small birds that twittered away, caught between her and the walls of their beautiful prison. Anja liked to sit on the bench at the centre of the aviary, large palms and fronds enveloping her in the dense, moist, greenhouse environment, eyeing the birds as they watched her in turn, enjoying the rays of sun filtering through the leaves and branches. The birds longed for an escape, desperately hoping for the sky to open and welcome them into a new, better world; but the way remained closed, as it always had done, as it always would do. The birds were born into their microcosmic glass enclosure and died there, buried back into the soil. Such was the way with small things.

Another approached through the greenery. Anja recognised the clipped, staccato footsteps, each impacting on the ground for only a slivered moment. "Pienya," she said, remaining seated.

The girl bowed her head. "My queen," she acknowledged.

"You are well?"

"Yes, your majesty."

"Very good." Anja knew she could rely upon Pienya Martoc like no other. She had raised her, after she was orphaned. The girl's parents had been in the queen's entourage, after all, and while she could easily have been rid of the whole affair without further ado it had pleased her to offer hope to the child. Old enough to be useful yet still young enough to mould, Pienya had proven to be a wise investment over the years as she had increased her skills and risen to a position of influence alongside Fenris Silt and his King's Guards. Pienya might be a King's Guard by title, but she belonged to her queen. "What of the prisoner?"

"I know he is in the theatre district," Pienya said with confidence, "but locating him is proving complicated. There are other factions at play - my informers think he's with one of the gangs but there was a violent incident which has got the whole of the slums on edge, making it difficult for us to find him without the lot of them going to ground. And then there's men from the north."

Anja sat upright and clasped her hands on her lap. "The north? The baron's men?"

"Probably," Pienya said with a frown. "Possibly others. I haven't confirmed those reports yet. There's more activity on the streets than I'd like. We're not the only ones hunting for the boy."

"It would seem you have a careless mouth in your house, Pienya."

"I'll find out who is leaking information and ensure it doesn't happen again."

"I'm sure you will, my dear," Anja said, smiling. "Be sure to keep the king updated on all these matters."

"I shall."

Standing and stepping away from the bench, Anja looked up again at the nervous, fidgeting birds. "This leak," she said, "do not consider it your own weakness. Men are flawed and easily manipulated; disloyalty is inevitable - it is what we do once we know that defines us as leaders. That is where your responsibility lies."

Pienya twitched and looked over her shoulder, back towards the entrance to the aviary.

"My daughter is here," Anja stated. "We will continue this discussion another time. I hear that Roldan Stryke returned last night from the ice plains - seek his aid with finding the prisoner. He's an expert tracker."

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