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"Who by the gods is Tranton Seldon?"

Garrus Lief snatched the report from the messenger, disembarked from the delivery ship only ten minutes earlier. The city of Bruckin prided itself on its swift efficiency, with airships arriving and departing precisely on schedule, pausing for the briefest possible time to refuel and exchange cargo. The mailship had arrived that morning as expected, containing letters and deliveries from the capital. Freshly processed source; newly artificed machines from Treydolain's makers, keen to earn favour with the northern guilds; supplies of fruit and vegetables from the south, which remained resolutely resistant to northring soil. To the northerners, Treydolain was a useful hub through which to trade and communicate - if it was the spinning central axis on a wheel, then the north was the tyre.

The messenger quivered and stammered a nonsensical response. Garrus looked up from the letter and smiled congenially. "I do not shout at you, girl," he said, "but at the contents of this letter. Make haste with the rest of your deliveries. Go!"

Left alone in the reception room, Garrus re-read the letter, frowned, then strode from the room, out along the castle bridge connecting the tower to the adjacent one. The city undulated outwards on both sides, a criss-crossed maze of walkways and cables and winches, such that it was difficult to tell when one building ended another began. It was not easy to build on the rock of the mountain's feet, and so they had built up instead of out. Reaching the eastern tower, Garrus nodded to the operator and climbed into the car, which accelerated away, descending down its wires towards the shipyard. The cranes and scaffolds loomed all around as the cable car slid down its path, the half-complete skeleton of the Mountain Breaker filling his view to the left. It would be a magnificent beast when complete: it was a war-winner. All they needed now was a war.

Reaching its destination, the car latched into its landing position and the doors swung open. Garrus stepped out and scanned the shipyard's floor. Workers buzzed back and forth, both at ground level and up high on the scaffold and along the beams and ribs of the ship. Standing by the hull was Theodus, large ruler in one hand and an enormous hammer in the other. He was surrounded by a gaggle of eager builders, all leaning in to hear the baron's advice.

"Baron Lief," Garrus called, approaching. His older brother turned and waved a hand in greeting. Garrus held up the letter. "I have news from Treydolain."

"Excuse me, ladies and gents," Theodus said, handing the hammer and ruler back to one of the shipbuilders. "We will pick this up another time, I hope."

They walked across the yard towards the makeshift offices at the edge of the scaffold's frame. Entering the room, Theodus quickly ordered the supervisors to leave, then closed the door. The walls only slightly reduced the endless banging from the work beyond.

"Tranton Seldon," Garrus said.

Theodus grimaced. "Is that supposed to mean something to me? Is it a name?"

"It is a name," Garrus said, handing the letter over with a half-shrug. "The name of a visitor from beyond the Barrier Mountains, no less."

"What?" Theodus snatched the latter up and unfurled it, reading intently. "'Baron Theodus Lief, family and associates are cordially invited to celebrate the miraculous arrival of Explorer Tranton Seldon, brought to us by the providence of Aera and his own inimitable skill from lands far from here. As the first arrival from the Headland in over two centuries, Mr Seldon's arrival heralds a prosperous, exciting and plentiful future for all Lagonians.'" Theodus looked at his brother quizzically and let out a short, sharp laugh. "Is this a joke?"

"The messenger delivered it with some sincerity. I can confirm it is from the court."

"So who is this man? How have we not heard of him before? What vessel did he use to cross the mountains? How can a damned outsider achieve what we have not?"

Garrus nodded and combed his fingers through his beard. "All good questions, brother. Will you attend the celebrations? They are to last a week."

"A week! Preposterous." Theodus looked out of the small, square-panelled windows at the half-finished airship in its land dock. "How is this possible, Garrus?"

"I do wonder now whether Tristan Verase's information was incorrect," Garrus mused. "Perhaps the prisoner we thought the King's Eyes were hunting was in fact this man? It seems odd that they would make this announcement so soon. An escaped prisoner followed so swiftly by an arrival from the south? Both are so unlikely that it might be about the same person, the truth lost somewhere in vague whispers of intrigue."

"You know what this means, don't you?" Theodus put both fists down on a table, leaning his weight heavily such that the table's legs creaked. "It means we're sunk. Out of business."

"How so?"

"If this man has crossed the mountains, then what are we for?"

Garrus smiled. "Theodus, our airships are the veins and blood of the valley. We are about more than crossing mountains."

"Are we? That has always been our driving force. That's what we've striven towards. Without that, how do we motivate the workers out there? What's to stop them from working for lily-green usurpers like Thistle and Twine?

"We don't know if this man, Seldon, speaks the truth," Garrus soothed, always the calmer of the two. "And if he does, then we will take care of it. Perhaps we can convince him to work for us. Or if not him, some of his party."

"I must have my ship readied for the journey south," Theodus announced. "We need to have a presence at the celebrations. Make sure this Tranton Seldon knows who we are."

"I'll find out as much as I can in advance of your arrival," Garrus said. "I see this as an opportunity. Announcing this man is a far riskier move for Guijus than it is for us. It could be the destabilising factor we've been waiting for."

"Yes," Theodus said, his mood brightening, "yes, we should see to it that it is." He stood straight and inhaled deeply. "We live in fascinating times, brother. If only mother were still here to see it."

"If only she were, brother."

Outside the small work office, a team of metalworkers lifted a new panel onto the hull of the Mountain Breaker, sealing it into place with fire and nail.

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