Questions of fate

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Watchers watch and wait.

That was the Watcher mantra, drilled into him from as soon as he could speak. Those words had kept the idea of Watchers alive for three centuries, as knowledge and memory was passed down through the generations, guarding it while the official histories were adjusted and brought into line with popular thinking and the whims of kings.

Fenris watched. The boy, Tarn, sat in his cell, idly pushing dirt around on the floor with the tip of one finger. It was clear now how he had escaped from the machine rooms, though it demonstrated an ingenuity and comprehension of the inner workings of the systems that no individual worker should have been able to manage. There was little chance of a repeat incident, though he would at least have useful recommendations to include in his report.

Fenris waited. The boy's visions were paramount, commanding all his attention. He claimed to learn during his sleep, waking each day anew with a better understanding of the world, or knowledge of a place never visited, or with new words to speak. All Watchers spoke of communion, referred to it as a definite thing, yet he had never known his parents to directly experience it, or any of their associates. Records were indistinct, reliant on the insistence of faith over actual accounts. Perhaps some of the first Watchers had enjoyed direct communion with Aera, but it had always eluded Fenris, to the extent that he doubted the possibility of it being anything more than superstition and hope. Serving Aera was little more than a fool's hope, after all, built upon a foundation of delusion. Faithful construct upon faithful construct, assuming truths without evidence and correlation without causation.

In his own truth, Fenris' faith had wandered in his latter years. The fervent belief of his youth, which had driven him into the role he now inhabited so convincingly, had subsided and slipped away. In a world as ordinary as the Lagonian valley, how could one maintain belief in the old gods?

And so he watched and waited.

A metal door clanged in the distance, echoing around the windowless corridors of the jail and security warren. From the distinctive crunching of footsteps and the jangling of chainmail he expected the arrival of Pienya Martoc before she turned the corner and approached.

"The boy is still here," she said, a little reproachfully.

"He is."

Pienya looked sideways at Fenris. "Why has he not been transferred back to the machine rooms, or the prison?"

Fenris drew himself up, stretching out his spine. "I have had questions for him," he admitted. "It is critical that we understand precisely how he was able to escape unaided."

"He might be too much of a risk to return to the machine rooms," Pienya said. "He's escaped once; he'll probably try to do so again."

"That concern had occurred to me also," Fenris said, nodding.

"To the prisons, then," Pienya said. "Or execution?"

Raising his eyebrows, Fenris turned away from the boy in the cell to face Pienya. "For what crime?"

"He is an escaped prisoner," Pienya stated.

"He is an escaped worker," Fenris corrected, "and is no criminal. An execution would require too much paperwork and explanation as to his background. Better that we put him in isolation."

There was the noise of scuffling and raised voices from down the hall. "The boy is not why I am here," Pienya continued, as if only then remembering. "We have a new inmate, whom you might find surprising." She gestured as Tranton Seldon was led into view, pushed along by three wary guards.

Upon seeing Fenris, the man spoke. "You really need to give me a moment to explain." His clothing was muddied.

"Lock him up," Pienya ordered, and the guards shoved Seldon into the cell adjacent to Tarn's, sliding the door across and securing it in place.

Fenris attempted to comprehend the man's arrest and promptly failed. "What's the charge?"

"Assault of Princess Kirya, sir," one of the guards said, spitting into Seldon's cell. "Should never have let a filthy outsider like him roam about. His type need to be chained up for the good of the rest of us."

"That'll be all, Frederic," Pienya snapped, indicating that the guards should depart. They did so swiftly.

Walking around past Pienya, Fenris glared into the new arrival's cell. Had he really been so pre-occupied with the machine room boy that he'd let harm befall the princess?

"Fenris," Seldon said, holding his arms out wide, "you've got to understand what happened. It wasn't my fault."

Raising a hand in front of him, Fenris wordlessly commanded Seldon to silence, then turned his attention back to Pienya. "Tell me all."

"He was found in the gardens with Princess Kirya. She was unconscious, and bloodied, her clothes dirtied and torn. The princess is in her chambers but remains unresponsive. The doctors are unable to diagnose what is wrong."

Fenris nodded, and stepped closer to the cell's bars. "I know I am an old man," he said, "but do not let my appearance deceive you. Should I wish to, I have a hundred ways to break you."

"I have no intention of fighting anyone," Seldon interjected.

"I am not referring to fighting," Fenris said. "If you are found guilty of harming the princess you will be hung from the mesa by your arms, with weights attached to your feet. Each day the weights will be increased, until your body is stretched beyond repair.

"You really think I'd attack a princess inside her own palace grounds?" Seldon looked between the both of them, his eyes darting from side to side. "Or anywhere else. That's not the kind of thing I do. But to do it here? That would be stupid. And I'm not stupid."

Seldon was right: this made no sense.

"Men do stupid things," Pienya said, "and Princess Kirya is a very beautiful woman."

"She's a girl," Seldon retorted, "and I'm old enough to be her father. And yours."

Before Pienya could respond, Fenris spoke. "Then what is your account?"

Sighing, the foreigner paced back and forth in the cell. "I was walking in the gardens, by the maze. When I stumbled across the princess, she was already on the ground, and wasn't breathing. I cleared her airway, then your idiot guards found me. If anything, I saved her life."

"Our doctors will be the judge of that," Pienya said. She glanced towards Fenris. "He had been trying to evade the palace guards."

"I don't appreciate an escort."

"Were there any witnesses to what happened?" Fenris asked.

"None," Pienya replied. "It is his word against that of our palace guards."

"When the princess wakes up she'll confirm what I'm saying," Seldon said.

Fenris had always felt oddly comfortable within the tunnels and low ceilings of the security floor, tucked away beneath the palace, but now he found its tight walls oppressively close together, as if the weight of the building above was crushing them all. Before him were two forces of change, now confined to his own jail cells.

He had waited too long. Lagonia, and Aera, demanded action.

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