The north

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The terrain became broken and cracked as the airship drew nearer the north, the ground seeming to have been picked up and crushed by hand like so much paper and then strewn back upon the world. The mountains here loomed enormous, walling off the far end of the world, while Treydolain and the soft indulgences of the south were mercifully far behind. As the undulating hills of the plains gave way to the rocky outcrops and gullys and waterfalls, it became progressively more his world, recognisable and familiar and homely. The valley rose up to meet the mountains and Bruckin sat atop a sharp prominence, the northern-most inhabited city in Lagonia.

Baron Theodus Lief stood on the prow of the airship as the landscape rolled below. Though he had never seen ocean and only knew of its existence from tales in story books, he imagined this was how the captains of old would have felt when they'd first sighted land. After tolerating the King of the Valley in his ridiculous palace, returning to the pragmatic realities of the north was like scrubbing away the extravagances of the southern life. In the temperate climate favoured by those who lived at the central point of the valley, men became weak and tender and unsuited for a life out at the mountain ring. At the foot of the mountains the winds hardened one's skin and resolve. The dryness of the air and soil required a certain ingenuity and tenacity. The richness of the mines demanded a special strength and resolve.

And yet the southerners maintained their tenuous grip on power, keeping the valley beneath their quivering thumbs and ensuring that nothing ever changed. Being top of the pile, they were content to leave everyone else hanging on their coat-tails. Theodus was not one to think small, or to follow the lead of others. The Lief family had built its own kingdom on the edge of the valley, constructed on the bones of airship balloons and the foundations of stone temples below ground. Bruckin and its environs were a different country in all but name. Baron Lief's power was rising and King Guijus Tellador would know, too late, that he had always underestimated the northerners.

If that meant forming alliances with the likes of the Verase family, or the logging union to the south-east, then so be it. For too long the Telladors had taken compliance for granted, but there was now a spreading awareness of the valley's deterioration; a palpable sense of something having gone wrong, of an aspect of Lagonia that had been lost. Things were, as they say, not like the good old days. The valley was eager for change and Theodus was ready to deliver.

Theodus' mother, her soul departed to the peaks beyond two years hence, had always favoured an approach of soft power, insisting that exerting subtle influence and pressure was more effective than outright rebellion. She had been closer to Guijus Tellador's attitude than Theodus would like to admit: like many of their generation, she had swung towards stability at all costs, embracing the awkward balancing act performed around the valley, as if it were a plate spinning on a stick at a circus performer's show. He had obeyed, of course, towing the party line.

But now she was dead, and Theodus was ruling baron of Bruckin. It was long time for his way.

"Landing in fifteen minutes, sir," came the voice of the first mate. The towers and airdocks of Bruckin could be easily seen by the naked eye, scattered over the crooked landscape like a blanket thrown over rocks. It was a vertical city, its towers connected by complex walkways, bridges and cable cars. On its outskirts were the more primitive metal and wooden towers indicating the presence of a mineshaft, while further in the distance the old quarries could be seen carved from the mountainsides.

A dark depression caught Theodus' eye, near an old, inactive mineshaft. The mine's surrounding complex had half-fallen, half-slid into an enormous sinkhole perhaps thirty metres wide. They had been opening up with distressing frequency, sometimes reaching the surface and other times causing cave-ins and trapping miners deep underground. Bruckin itself was built on solid foundations of rock and earth but the surrounding landscape, downhill towards the valley, was turning into a pockmarked, cratered topography. They had mined too deep and for too long, and the guilds cried out for fresh territory, as yet denied to them by regulations and territory restrictions. Just one of many reasons the Telladors were nearing the end of their rule.

Airships manufactured by Lief Dockyards were the best in the valley bar none, despite the false claims of Thistle and Twine to the west. All innovation in flight and source efficiency originated in Bruckin and its surrounding towns: it is where the great industrial and mechanical minds of Lagonia had always been found. As the airship moved towards the dock, the onboard catapults ejected the guide ropes, firing them precisely into the locking mechanisms on the dockside. The ropes ratcheted in, pulling the airships gently into its berth with barely a bump or a lurch. Theodus was already descending through the cabin, thanking the captain as he disembarked, stepping effortlessly from the hull doorway onto the dock. There was no visible threshold or need to navigate steps or a ramp: the airship had become as one with the dock, as if it were a permanent structure which had always been there.

Theodus was greeted by the sight of hundreds of workers toiling away on the new fleet, scattered like ants across the skeleton hulls and surrounding scaffolds. The new design was faster, stronger, and could fly higher and for longer than anything else in the valley. He had offered them to that fool Guijus, who had turned them down in favour of the knock-offs from Thistle and Twine. That had been the final test: the king's last opportunity for rapprochement before matters were taken too far. Having missed the opportunity, the vessels would belong to Theodus Lief and he would wield them like a hundred swords, plunged into the heart of Treydolain.

He was met by Garrus Lief, his younger brother, who always provided oversight of the city in his absence. They were of a single mind, Theodus and Garrus, their mother had always said. "What news from the capital, brother?"

Theodus snorted. "Verase's men botched it," he said as they began the walk through the shipyard. "It was a disaster from the beginning. Hence my deciding to make an early return."

"Probably wise," Garrus nodded. "Can it be linked back to us?"

"Hopefully not conclusively," Theodus said. "But we should reconsider our faith in Verase. The old man is the same as the rest of them: soft, timid, unwilling to do what is needed. His son is interesting."

"Tristan?"

"He's got a stonebreaker attitude about him, despite his delicate fingers and shirts."

Sighing, Garrus led them into the main hangar. "What of the prisoner?"

"Uncertain," Theodus admitted, shrugging. "There was a lot of attention on whatever was going down in the theatre district but we were never able to confirm exactly what it was. King's Eyes locked it all down."

Garrus stroked his slender beard, then scratched the back of his head. "So we carry on as planned? But leave Verase out of it?"

"For now," Theodus confirmed. "We keep building, keep preparing, keep digging and processing. The king has never been weaker. He has no cards left to play, and we have this beauty." He gestured a hand at the partly-covered frame of the most advanced airship in the new fleet. It would be his flagship and the vessel from which he would rain fire down first upon Treydolain, and then on the rest of the world. They called it the Mountain Breaker.


Welcome back! This kicks off Arc 3, which is set to take the story in new and unexpected directions. As always, many thanks for reading. You can support the book at patreon.com/simonkjones or by voting and commenting!

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